Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cactus Club for Lunch

With the weather hitting lovely highs here in Edmonton, I have been eating out a lot more (my excuse is that my kitchen heats my house up too much). The other day my mom and I hit up the Cactus Club Cafe over by West Edmonton Mall. I guess it was about time. I work in the west end, so inevitably the time had to come where I would wander over to the somewhat newly opened Cactus Club Cafe to check it out. I must admit, I was a bit reluctant due to the fact that even though it is a Rob Feenie created restaurant, it still feels a bit like a chain in the vein of Earl's or Joey's, but a bit higher end. At the same time though, I was curious, and it seems like all the rest of the Edmonton food blogging world had been there (many opening night), so I figured I should give it a go.

True to previous reports, the interior was all hip and glossy (including the staff, I am not sure if they are still the staff brought in from Vancouver to start things off). It reminded me a lot of Kai Restaurant on Jasper and 109th that also opened fairly recently here in Edmonton. The menu was a lot different though, and did offer up some creative and intriguing options. Pricing was, as expected, similar to Earl's, but perhaps a bit more expensive for some of the more unusual items (i.e. a duck clubhouse will run you $17 for a sandwich!).

Mom and I took some time to make our decisions. I always have a tough time when faced with a big menu full of choices that are all new to me. Oh if only all restaurants had tasting menus of their signature dishes!!! Our server made some suggestions to us right off the bat, which I found unusual. Generally servers do not suggest specific items other then the "specials" unless asked. Either way, we went out on our own with our selections.

Mom went with the raincoast greens salad (grilled chicken, avocado, tomato, feta, egg, pecans, seasonal berries, lemon-thyme vinaigrette - $16) and I went with the short rib beef dip (caramelized onions, beef jus and emmental cheese on toasted sourdough - $15). I have to say, mom's salad was beautiful. The ingredients were nicely presented to show off the avocado, chicken and berries (on the side I didn't photograph). She was very pleased with it and said it was a tasty salad. My sandwich was good, but not quite what I had expected in that it didn't come with the jus on the side for dipping. The onions were subtle to the point of almost being unnoticeable, and the same goes for the cheese. The shredded short rib beef did not disappoint, it was tender and moist as is to be expected from a short rib. The start of my plate were the yam fries. They were sea-salted, which I expected to make no difference since I frequently use sea-salt myself, but they were so salty and delicious with the little spicy dill dip on the side that I gobbled them up.

Normally I don't go for dessert at lunch time, however being pregnant and out for lunch with my mom, it seemed like the thing to do, so we split the chocolate lava cake. I think the fact that we SPLIT it shows a lot of restraint on both of our parts. No surprise that this one was a hit with the two of us. The chocolate "lava" was gooey and delicious and tasted like cake batter licked from the bowl (in a good way).

I would say that the Cactus Club will likely do some good business out here seeing as the west end is filled with business men looking to lunch, and it will just end up competing with places like Chop, Earl's and Joey's. It does offer something a little different, and is worth checking out. I'm sure I will be back again to give the duck clubhouse a go since I am a duck fan, but I don't think it will be a regular spot for me seeing as I prefer quiet little places as opposed to big, loud, slick places when it comes to restaurant patronage. Still, it is a fun place if you want to go someplace a bit sceney, and with a nice patio, I suspect it gets pretty busy on Friday and Saturday nights with the pre-club crowd heading to west end locals after for drinks and dancing.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Preserve the Bounty!

I finally have a good garden crop coming in! Not only do I have a bountiful amount of herbs, spinach and rhubarb so far, but my raspberries are finally turning red! To add to that, Brooke and I hit up a local u-pick to stock up on some fresh strawberries and saskatoons as well. What to do with all this wealth? Preserve!

I was surprised that my internet research indicated that a lot of items I was interested in could simply be preserved by freezing them. I have frozen berries this way before, and also dill, but was reluctant to do so for the rest of my produce. I remembered reading Duo Dishes blog back in December (when those Californians are still growing, but we Canadians are not) that they had done the same thing with Rosemary, so I went back and looked up their post. Armed with the confidence gleaned from knowing another blogger had done it with success, I made little frozen packs of all my herbs.

The steps are simple and work for herbs and berries alike:
1. Pick everything as fresh and close to peak seasonality as possible.
2. Some people say not to wash, but I like washing my pickings, even though they are grown organically, just to be safe about getting the bugs out. Just lay them out on a kitchen towel or paper towel and allow them to dry before freezing.
3. Lay everything in a flat layer on top of wax paper or parchment paper on a cookie sheet (this prevents everything from freezing together in a giant lump).
4. Freeze overnight.
5. Transfer frozen stuff into freezer bags or tupperware and label what they are and the picking season they are from (you should use them in the course of six months to a year or suffer the wrath of freezer burn).

I am hoping for a nice full freezer by the end of August that should take me well into the winter eating food with actual flavour as opposed to grocery store purchased herbs and berries, which are ridiculously expensive and sub-par in flavour. Seriously, how can someone charge $3 for a little pack of herbs when half of them are basically weeds they are so easy to grow (i.e. chives and dill). I have now tried and tested freezing: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, saskatoons, mango (got a box for mega cheap last year at Superstore and it kept all through the winter), chives - chopped, oregano, parsley, basil, thyme and rosemary (leaves pulled off the branch), and dill this way with good results. The only major difference is that the colour is a bit off, so they don't make good garnishes anymore, but most can come straight out of the freezer, be chopped and thrown into your meal as it is almost done cooking.

I also preserved some spinach this past weekend, but that I flash boil for one minute, drain and then pack in plastic bags. I am not sure freezing would work quite as well on it, and with the amount of space you save by flash boiling it (it shrinks to about 1/10th the size) it is worth doing it this way. Can't wait to use it all this fall making homemade spanikopita!


Friday, July 24, 2009

Culina Highlands for Fork Fest

I don't know which is more exciting for me: summer or Original Fare's Fork Fest. I can safely say that when both occur at the same time, that is the best. I am going to a couple of other places next week, but wanted to get this review and these pics up ASAP so that those of you making decisions for next week will have the info. Wed evening Brooke and I headed out to the Highlands area (and we rarely go much east of downtown) to seek out Culina Highlands. It's a tiny little place clustered in with a couple of other stores and restaurants along 112 Avenue. With it being pretty hot out that night, I wish we had arrived a little earlier and got a spot on the tiny patio out back, but instead we were inside, and the venue is cute and cozy and manages to feel both homey and contemporary at the same time.

Online the appetizer was listed as Chorizo sausage with cornmeal and chickpea pakoras and roasted tomato sauce, which I was looking quite forward to. When we arrived however, the appetizer ended up being a spinach salad with cherry tomatoes, croutons and "beet chips" (not really chip like at all, more like shavings) with a creamy dill dressing. I would say that the dill was certainly the dominant flavor in the salad, to the point where if you weren't all that keen on dill, you would certainly find it a bit overwhelming. Luckily, I like dill quite a lot, still, I was disappointed in missing out on the pakoras.

The main was Braised Alberta bison short ribs with a molasses compound butter served with baby red potatoes and squash. The squash were also baby, so it all looked very cute and round together on the plate. I thought the molasses compound butter was a nice finish to the short ribs - something a little different as molasses is something we often think of as a cookie ingredient. I know some people are probably getting tired of the short rib trend at restaurants these days, but I am a fan. I like the meatiness of them, and how when slow cooked the meat just falls right off the bone. This was no exception.

For dessert, we were served a sweet crepe with cinnamon sugar, honey and fresh berries. It was a smallish portion, but given the heat of the day and that it was our third course, it was nice to have a light dessert. The crepe had a creamy lemon topping as well that was very nice. The lemon flavour was subtle, as was the flavour of the honey, so the dessert tasted nice and delicate overall. I also liked having the edible flower on top, seeing as I clearly have been using my violets as edible dessert decorations lately as well.

Those with large appetites may find this trio not quite filling enough (types like those should head over to Red Ox - always generous portions), but for me it was plenty to be full. It was a good experience, and having perused the regular menu while we were there, I would definitely be interested in trying it again.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rhubarb Ginger Crumble

Over the weekend we finally chopped down all of Court's rhubarb, and ended up with a harvest of just over 2 kilos. Result! This is one of my favourite recipes; it has been adapted from Delia Smith's Rhubarb and Almond Crumble - I have changed it to Rhubarb Ginger Crumble as the major change is that I've tripled the amount of ginger from the original recipe. So tasty that even Court said she may not hate rhubarb as much as she thought.

Rhubarb Ginger Crumble:
1 kg rhubarb
125 g sugar
1 rounded tbsp fresh grated ginger

125 g almonds (whole or chopped)
80 g chilled butter, cubed
180g self raising flour
2 tsp cinnamon
1-2 tsp ground ginger
125 g dark brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Chop the rhubarb into 1 inch (2.5cm) lengths. Mix with the sugar and fresh ginger and set aside. In a food processor, add the almonds, butter, flour, cinnamon, ginger, and brown sugar and process until the almonds are mostly finely chopped.

In an 8"x11" baking dish, press the rhubarb mixture firmly in so it is spread evenly. Sprinkle the crumble mixture all over the rhubarb and press it down firmly all over; the more tightly it is packed together the crisper it will be. Finally, lightly run a fork all over the surface. Bake the crumble in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes. Leave it to rest for 10 minutes and then serve.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

PB Chicken Marinade

The rest of this week looks like it is going to be great weather for BBQing, so today I am posting my peanut butter chicken marinade recipe. It would be a bit blasphemous to call this a Thai peanut sauce, although that is what the recipe did evolve from. It's one of those things where there are a number of people in my life that are intimidated by "foreign" food, but if I westernize things enough and then just rename them something safe like peanut butter chicken, then they are a go.

I make this recipe different ways depending on the season. In winter, it becomes a frying pan meal, where I increase the amount of sauce and onions, and then serve it over rice. I can't even begin to describe how filling and satisfying it is in the winter to eat a meal that is so filled with carbs (rice) and protein (chicken AND peanut butter). Once I started making it this way I noticed that when the weather got very cold, my body actually craved it as a bulk up strategy.

Anyway, back to the summer preparation, using it as a marinade for chicken kabobs. I'm sure many of you will echo the sentiment that BBQ chicken runs a high risk of either being under cooked (pink and scary!) or so dried out that it becomes unappealing. I find these kabobs to be the solution to both issues. It is hard to undercook the chicken when it is cubed and kabobbed because unlike breasts, they are a uniform thickness, and have a nice hot metal skewer running through the middle. Drying them out also becomes less of an issue because the peanut butter marinate is nice and oily, and prevents the chicken from drying out.

PB Chicken Marinade (for two breasts worth, but can be adjusted up or down depending on how much flavouring you like - I also will cook some extra for dipping if people are into it):
1/4 onion, diced fine
1/2 cup crunchy peanut butter
2 tbsp ketchup
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp milk (can use coconut milk)
1/2 tsp hot sauce (adjust to taste)

Cut your chicken into nice even sized cubes. Combine marinade ingredients in a tupperware container, and throw the chicken cubes in. Use your hands to rub the marinade all over the chicken (it still has close to peanut butter consistency, so really, it is just smeared on). Sit it in the fridge for a few hours or however long you have. Skewer the chicken cubes and smear any extra marinate all over the kabobs (or increase the liquid components and cook it on a side burner as a dipping sauce, but make sure it gets good and hot for a while since it has been in contact with raw chicken).

Cook the skewers on the BBQ at about 400 degrees for about 5 minutes a side. To be safe, cut into one of the cubes to verify that it is not longer pink in the middle. You will know a side is cooked when it gets easy to pull it off of the grill because cooked meat covered in peanut oils will come off easily, whereas raw meat will still stick.


Monday, July 20, 2009

In Search of Candied Violets

Candied violets seem to be impossible to find in Edmonton. My own searches came up with nothing and a post on Chowhound also came back with some good ideas but no source. Instead of buying them online, I figured it would be just as easy to make some of my own - fortunately Court offered her help (and flowers) to do this. I imagine sourcing edible, pesticide-free flowers might have be a little difficult if she didn't have an abundance in her garden.

Candied Flowers:
1 egg white
caster (berry) sugar

These were simple enough to make, though tedious. Using a small paintbrush, paint the flower with the egg/water mixture, then dip it into a bowl of superfine sugar. Move to dry on a baking sheet with wax or parchment paper. See? Simple. It did take several hours though to finish our small bowl of flowers. The end result was worth it though - these really made a plain wedding cake stand out.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Camping Dinner #2

Really, cooking on the road is a lot like cooking at home, it just takes a bit more advance planning. We decided that we wanted to take one of our favourite dinners (Apple Pork Chops), change it up a bit by breading the pork chops, serve it with a side of herb and mushroom pasta, and do it all over the campfire. No problem right? Well, for the most part no problem, you just need to work on timing everything to finish about the same time without knowing what kind of temperatures you are working with.

We figured the pork chops would take the longest to cook, so we did all our prep, put the chops on, and then worked everything else around that. Breading the pork chops in panko bread crumbs was easy, we just dipped them in an egg wash and then shook them around in the bag.

While we started the chops in the frying pan on the fire, we also started the water for the pasta going, and had a pot of mushrooms and onions sauteing. When the water was boiling, and the veggies were ready, we just moved them a bit off to the side to keep warm until it was go time. The pasta that Brooke picked up from the Italian Center was dry, but still had a cook time of only three minutes since it was extra skinny spaghetti.

Once the pork chops were finished cooking, we put them off to the side to rest, and sauteed the apples in the pan. At the same time, we popped the pasta in to cook, and threw some cream and chopped herbs from the garden in with the sauteed veggies to create a nice mushroom cream sauce.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Wild Flour (Banff)

Last year I made a trip to Banff fully intending to visit the Wild Flour Bakery Café after reading raves about it on Chowhound. I didn't manage to get there on that trip, but I am certainly glad we stopped in this year as it is something not to be missed. I'm a tough nut to crack when it comes to bakeries, and normally when people are raving I end up underwhelmed. (Yes, I mean you, Cobs.) After travelling Europe, nothing seems to live up to those standards.

Norm & Court both chose chocolate croissants and I had a cranberry white chocolate scone. Now, there's nothing I hate more than a stick of hard chocolate inside a croissant, which is why I almost never buy them in Canada. These, however, were filled with melty goodness, as was my scone. The sweet white chocolate was nicely balanced by tart fresh cranberries. These were huge too. We missed out on trying any of their breads on this trip, but they looked fabulous and I hope to try them on my next visit. Some people had mentioned that the prices were high, but I found them no higher than local overpriced (yes, I mean you again, Cobs) bakeries. When you factor in size + deliciousness, that = a good deal.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Better Camping Lunches

While camping, we made all portable lunches so that we could take them with us for the day and not have to return to the campsite and interrupt our hiking/walking day trips. This is somewhat limiting in that you need to have food that works well cold, and also doesn't bring with it the risk of melting. Brooke's trail mix made the cut, even with the risky smarties included, as did the usual assortment of raw fruit and veg. We went with sandwiches and wraps for the main portions of the meals, but shook things up a bit with our fillings.

For sandwich day, we decided to bring along some dried mango slices. Ham and/or poultry (we had some ham and some chicken) paired with the sweetness of the mangos nicely, and we kept the cheese on the subtle side - havarti - so that it didn't overwhelm the dried fruit flavour. Just to make sure things didn't get overly sweet, we had some whole grain mustard spread just lightly to give a bit of contrast. The mango really made the sandwich pop, and I looked forward to it a lot more than a plain old bag lunch.

On day two, wrap day, we decided to make use of some of our dinner leftovers. Herb spiced lamb from the lamb burgers got paired with sautéed mushrooms from evening two's pasta side dish, and were then topped up with spinach to fill out the wrap. Using up leftovers also helped us in that we packed a bit less, but used what we brought, even if it hadn't been packaged to the size we needed just for dinner. The only thing that might have made the wrap a bit better in my opinion would be some feta or goat cheese. Yum!


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Happy Trails

Trail mix is so awesome that I could eat an entire bowl of it. And we did this past weekend; so tasty, but possibly not the greatest idea to eat that much of it at once. This was the first time I'd made it myself, so it was a lot cheaper than store bought and had some more interesting ingredients. I bought the nuts in bulk at Superstore and then added whatever I found in my cupboards. We had a mix of salted and unsalted nuts, and then dried blueberries (because Court is weird and doesn't like raisins), pears, and chocolate for sweetness. The perfect (trail) mix.

Trail Mix:
1c raw peanuts, skin on, unsalted
1c sea salt almonds, skin on
1c salted cashews
1/2 cup smarties
1/2 cup dried blueberries
1/2 cup sunflower seeds, unsalted
1/4 cup dried pears


Monday, July 13, 2009

Cooking on the Road

Brooke and I did our version of Chef at Large this weekend and packed up our kitchens for the great outdoors. Prior to leaving we planned out some meals we wanted to make, groceries were purchased, and we were very excited about the challenge this would be for us. Little did we know how much challenge though.... My husband volunteered to be in charge of packing for the trip, since it was his idea and Brooke and I had book club the night before leaving. Thinking that my husband is perfectly capable of ensuring everything on the list (yes, we even made him a LIST!) made it to Banff, I happily agreed.

Upon arriving in Banff, the discovery was made that all the non perishables and freezer ingredients had come with us, but that everything from the fridge had stayed in Edmonton - d'oh! To add to that, the additional realization was made that the connection from the camping stove to the mini propane tanks didn't match up, so we were going to have to cook 100% over the fire with zero temperature control. Needless to say, Brooke and I were annoyed after all of our planning, and my husband, in an effort to try and make it seem like a good thing said "it's like Iron Chef, but with the secret ingredient being fire! Oh, and missing a bunch of the ingredients you thought you had." Dinner on evening #1 was our first meal, and we made herbed lamb burgers (no cheese as planned), and sautéed potatoes (no roast veggies).

Ages ago we purchased a full lamb, and with it came a few pounds of ground lamb. We had been saving it for BBQ season, and there hasn't been a lot of that happening this year to date. It went into the cooler frozen, and didn't take that long to thaw once we arrived. I had brought rosemary, oregano and thyme from the garden and we chopped it up and combined the lamb with bread crumbs, an egg and the herbs and formed patties. We "fried" the patties until they were cooked through, and reserved some of the fat to use for later.

At the same time, we had chopped up some potatoes nice and thin so that we could boil them while the burgers were cooking. Once the burgers were done, we threw some garlic and the potatoes into the pan with the lamb fat, to give them some additional flavour and crisp up the outsides a bit.

Not bad considering what we had to work with!


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Gardening Update

Well, it has been raining here on and off for three days, so I thought I would post some pictures I took this past weekend to show what the gardens are looking like. Of course, since we have been in the middle of a "drought" and now we are getting load of rain, everything will probably twice the size by the end of this weekend if we get a little help from the sun. Above are my wild raspberries, that are well on their way to becoming jam (our first try will be documented!)

Spinach is already up as can be evidenced by the fact that Brooke and I have posted no less than three spinach salads in the past month. After taking the picture I pulled out all the mature stuff and got my third round of planting seeded. My family gets bags of spinach given to them fresh all summer!

I have a good bounty of herbs finally. The chives have been up since before the snow was even done, the oregano I bought at Superstore rather than growing it from seeds, both the basil and the parsley had bits come up from the first round of seeds, but I supplemented the planting a couple of weeks ago when I realized that a few really cold nights through the last month had killed off some of the first round. The rosemary was bought already started since our season isn't long enough for it to get like this, and the thyme was the same as the rest - needed some additional seeding. The dill grew like crazy (no surprise given that it is a "weed").

Onions grown from bulbs are all up and growing well:
I am glad I got some carrots seeded prior to the snow, they are decent sized now and should be good to eat later this summer. A second round followed, and depending on the weather, they may only get to baby carrot size before the season is done:
My zucchini is coming up gang busters! This is more than one plant. Maybe I will try doing something with the blossoms this year if I catch them in time. I find that they sneak up on you and all of a sudden you have a giant one foot long veggie!
The squash came up later than the zucchini, and aren't getting quite as much light, so they aren't getting quite as big. Their season is pretty long, so given how late they started, I may just get to enjoy their greenery as we might not make it long enough for actual squash.
Rhubarb is doing what rhubarb does: growing like mad where nothing else will. It's in a shady damp area and producing like crazy. I haven't posted any recipes with it because I don't like rhubarb, but I will push some on Brooke (yes, I am a rhubarb pusher), and she will make something one of these days.
Lettuce was really just thrown in a pot mostly as an after thought. I had some seeds from last year and an extra pot so in it went. I planted romain, and just pick it as baby greens or to throw on a sandwich when I want a break from spinach.
Here is the "big garden" at Brooke's parent's house. I have called dibs on some of the potatoes and peas, and had called beans, but surprisingly our beans didn't come up this year. Aren't they supposed to be an easy grow? Anyway, Brooke and my father in law put in lots of potatoes, radishes, peas, onions, leeks, spinach, and gave broccoli a go this year since there were some cheap seedlings at Superstore. I can see they are starting to produce a little floret, so maybe something will come of them. Also, there is what may be a cucumber or a zucchini coming up in a mound where both accidentally got planted. That will be a fun mystery surprise for later in the summer.
The first round of potatoes - looking good!!!
Peas, peas, so many peas:


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Spice Up Your Spinach Salad

My garden lettuce is still in miniature, but the spinach has been up for weeks and seems to be growing faster than I can eat it. After a weekend of overindulging I've been off desserts and dairy, so here's a rare salad that doesn't include cheese. Topping my spinach is a quick dressing of pureed mango with curry powder, fresh ginger, and a little olive oil. The remainder of the mango was sliced and added to the salad along with steamed chicken breast. For dessert, a handful of raw almonds... so healthy I'm feeling a little too angelic now.


Monday, July 6, 2009

Super Soft Chocolate Chip Cookies

All of the baking I've been doing lately is negating my healthy summer salads, I think. To stop myself from eating it all, I've been spreading the love around to my family, friends, and coworkers. These are my absolute favourite chocolate chip cookie. While I love a crisp biscuit, chocolate chip have got to be chewy. And they are so versatile as well: kid-friendly ice cream sandwiches above, or dainty afternoon-tea size below.

Chocolate Chip Cookies:
1 1/3 cups butter or block margarine
1 cup sugar
1 cup tightly packed dark brown sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3 1/2 cups flour
5-6 ounces (1 pkg) chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. In a large bowl o
r stand mixer cream together the butter and sugars, then beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in baking soda and salt, then mix in the flour until well combined. Add chocolate chips - I usually use less than the recipe calls for as I like the cookie better than the chocolate, but I seem to be in the minority. This dough will be quite stiff, so if you have a stand mixer use it! Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls about 2 inches apart onto a baking sheet. Bake for 8-9 minutes or until light brown (the centres will be soft), then remove to cool on newspaper. I like to think this soaks up anything unhealthy about these.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Ripe Strawberries

The other day Superstore had strawberries on sale, and they actually smelled like strawberries, so I got a big container of them. I have since been enjoying them cut up on cereal, in yogurt, with spinach salad, and with cream and sugar, but I wanted to try another savory option. I know that strawberries and balsamic vinegar are a good pairing, but I threw in some goat cheese as well, just to shake things up a bit. It made for a delicious flavourful little afternoon snack that I will certainly try again in the future.