Thursday, April 29, 2010

The peas are sprouting!

First off, I cannot believe how early everything is blooming and greening up. The forsythia has been finished for a good week at least. Normally it's blooming now. Lilacs are in bloom. Those aren't usually out for another two or three weeks. The fruit trees are in their full glory. Last year we were a week past Mother's Day at least before they bloomed. And it's still only April. Remarkable.

So we've planted some things. Pak choi, radishes, rainbow chard in the garden, and a lettuce mix and some peas in pots. The garden plants may not do well. I didn't loosen the soil first. Me and my lack of patience. We've added a lot of compost to the garden, but it's still pretty heavy clay. We'll see how things do. The lettuce is coming up and just waiting for a bit more warmth. But the peas. Oh the peas! Four inch shoots, straining for the sky. I've never grown peas from seed before, so I am excited. The kids are thrilled too. They're in favour of anything that brings them "yard snacks." I'll be planting green beans for that purpose too. And cherry tomatoes. We love to just sit out in the yard and pick whatever and nibble. I like to wrap the tomatoes with a fresh leaf of Basil, or a little Oregano.

We're going to give Square Foot Gardening a try this year. We're not going to go so far as to source 5 types of compost or whatnot. But we are going to build some raised beds and structures to grow tomatoes and cucumbers on. Oh yeah, I have a cucumber sprout in my windowsill, too. I've never grown them from seed before either (I've always been more of a "buy the plant" gal). I hope this experiment works out well, because I love the idea of it. Space saving, high yield, low maintenance... And if we hook it up to the rain barrel through a drip irrigation system, it will practically take care of itself. We're looking into that.

It is very satisfying to grow some of our own veggies. But more than that, I love knowing that the kids will grow up with this being the norm. Tomatoes aren't always pale and mealy and can come in all sorts of colours. Things taste best when just picked. And I love that we can bring it inside and do things like preserve the raspberries in jam, or turn the tomatoes into sauce. As homeschoolers it's nice to have science and nutrition lessons in our back yard.

Between the garden and the local farm stands and farmers markets, we're blessed with an abundance of fresh produce throughout the growing season. I still have blueberry jam from last year, made with fresh berries from the downtown market. This year I want to do peach. I put some down in the freezer in light syrup last year. I should fish some of those out soon and make something with them. Peach ice cream, maybe?

I'm editing to add a link to a blog I've found that is really speaking to me. It's Goodlife (Eats) and it's very much where I am at (or at least getting to) with regards to kids and gardening and eating healthy foods. Teaching children where food comes from, teaching them to grow and care for it and then enjoy eating it are dear to my heart, and this blog is spot on. GrowEatCook I love it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Not the most amazing chocolate chip cookie in the world

So many blogs out there boast THE BEST chocolate chip cookie recipe. I've seen them described as everything from amazing to orgasmic (seriously? Not going there). Everywhere you look, someone has THE combination of butter, flour, sugar, eggs and chocolate that everyone has to try.

Is this recipe one of those? Nope. But I like it. It's my go to recipe for chocolate chip cookies. It belonged to a friend, and when my husband tried them he asked me to get the recipe. So I did. They are very basic, with no fancy chocolate (though I suppose you could buy some) and no prolonged preparation. Beat like mad, mix, stir, bake. Simple and good.

Simple Chocolate Chip Cookies

3/4 C room temperature butter (needn't be unsalted)
1 C dark brown sugar
1 egg
1 Tbsp corn syrup
1 tsp real vanilla extract
pinch of salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 C flour (you can use up to half whole wheat)
chocolate chips (as many as you like - I tend to use about a cup)

Beat the butter and sugar until light. Add the egg and beat like crazy (original instructions from my friend). Add the corn syrup, vanilla and salt and mix until incorporated (at this point yesterday I added a heaping tablespoon of instant coffee granules). Mix in the baking soda and flour and stir in the chocolate chips.

Drop by small spoonfuls and bake in a 350F oven for 10-12 minutes.

The corn syrup helps keep the cookies moist even if you leave them out on the counter overnight (like I did last night), but you can omit it, or use maple syrup, which I did once. I get about two dozen out of this, but it depends on the size spoon or scoop I use.

Once again the kids (and husband) are happy. There are chocolate chip cookies in the house and all is right with the world. These might not be worth a million dollars, or bring one to the peak of sexual pleasure (again, seriously?), but they are an honest, straightforward cookie and we like them.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Learned a new trick

As I mentioned on Facebook and Twitter, I've learned a new trick with steak that produces remarkable results with almost zero effort. I've done it twice, and both times the steaks have been wonderfully tender and flavourful. Moreso than if I had done what I usually do.

What did I learn and where did I learn it? I'll address part two first. I stumbled upon a web blog called Steamy Kitchen a while back. In particular I came across this page. "How to turn cheap "Choice" steak into Gucci "Prime" steak." I absolutely love a good steak, so it sounded interesting and I read on. What I read was so crazy simple it seemed a little exaggerated. In a nutshell you take your steak, cover it in Kosher or non-iodized sea salt, let it sit for a while, rinse it off (yep, run it under water), dry it and cook it. That's it. Easy peasy cool and breezy. I was skeptical. But wait, there was science content.

It turns out that salt relaxes the protein strands, allowing them to trap the juices when heated instead of tightening up and squeezing them out. That's not to say that there is no moisture loss. Just salting the meat draws out some moisture. But, like a good dry-aged steak, this method allows for the partial breakdown of the protein, which creates a juicy and tender end result.

We tried it a little while ago with a couple of rib eye steaks, finishing them with some garlic butter. Very nice. But last night was the true test. We had 3 New York strip steaks. I salted two of them and left the third plain (I even forgot to salt it before it hit the grill, which is what I always used to do). I cooked all three for about the same length of time (the unsalted one got a bit less because I nearly forgot to get it on the grill). Oddly, when I did the "finger test" to check for doneness the two salted steaks were much more yielding than the unsalted one. But off the grill and after they'd rested, the unsalted one was slightly rarer, but also tougher. And when we tasted them, there was no question. The texture of the salted steaks was far superior. Soft, buttery, juicy. The other one was familiar, in that it was what we've always been used to in a New York strip. But it was a far cry from the other two. It was merely sufficient, while the salted steaks were wonderful.

In reading, it looks like it's possible to add some flavour during the salting phase, like fresh garlic. I'm going to experiment. But to really try this salt method out I am going to have to try it on a couple of top round steaks, or some other such tougher cut. I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be a beautiful summer.

*ETA - You can find this post linked on Around My Family Table's Thursday Tip Day

Monday, April 12, 2010

Gourmet again tonight

Oh boy! It's gourmet night. I've been feeling a little off all day, but tonight's menu is still enticing me. I don't know a lot about it, save for our hostess claiming that it will be "lighter food." That sounds perfect today.

My course is one of the sides. I've done dessert, I've done the main and I did the side the last time (we have two sides). Some may remember that last time I made zucchini boats. Guess what I'm making tonight? Yep, zucchini boats. LOL But the last time they were Lebanese and filled with meat, and this time they will be filled with an herbed ricotta "mousse." Here is the recipe...

6 small zucchini (about 1 1/2 pounds)
Cooking spray
1 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
1 cup (8 ounces) Ricotta Cheese
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
1/4 cup (1 ounce) grated fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons hot water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Parsley sprigs (optional)

Preheat oven to 450°.

Cut each zucchini in half lengthwise; scoop out pulp, leaving a 1/4-inch-thick shell. Reserve pulp for another use. Arrange zucchini shells in a single layer in a 13 x 9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray.

Combine basil and next 7 ingredients (through pepper), stirring well with a whisk. Divide mixture evenly among shells, pressing gently. Bake at 450° for 20 minutes or until zucchini is tender. Garnish with parsley, if desired.

Looking at it, I think it needs garlic, or at least chives. But the rules of the evening are that we each make the recipe exactly as it is given to us. So that is what I shall do. It still sounds like a wonderfully light side dish for a Spring evening.

Next day edit/addition - It was quite a nice evening. The appetizer was a carrot and ginger puree with curry on a base of what I called chickpea polenta. I guess chickpea flour was boiled with a little salt for 20 minutes and then spread in a pan and cut into squares when firm. It had the texture of tofu, so I found that off putting. But the flavour was nice. There was a very nice salad with crisp greens, mandarin oranges and bacon. The soup was a creamy cauliflower with Stilton. I'm not a fan of blue cheese at all, but the small bit of soup that I did have was okay. Very flavourful. The focaccia stuffed with roasted garlic and peppers would make a nice picnic sandwich.

We moved on to the main course. Along with my dish, which I have to say I wasn't much of a fan of (I think it was the texture) we had herb roasted chicken, which was really nice. There were mushrooms in truffle oil (which I passed on - not a mushroom fan) and polenta with Asiago, which was kind of gummy and funky tasting. Oh, and herb roasted red skinned potatoes. Dessert was a low fat chocolate cheesecake that was interesting. Tasty, but with the texture of firm pudding rather than cheesecake.

I would make the salad again. I'll add the recipe. If anyone wants any of the others, I'll gladly share them.

Mandarn Almond Salad with Bacon

1/2 pound bacon
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon dry hot mustard
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
1/2 teaspoon ground paprika
1/4 cup olive oil (not necessarily extra virgin)
1 head red leaf lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
1 (15 ounce) can mandarin oranges, drained
1 bunch green onion, thinly sliced
3/4 cup slivered almonds

In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, cook bacon until evenly brown. Drain, cool, and crumble.

To make the dressing, thoroughly blend the vinegar, honey, dry mustard, celery salt, paprika, and olive oil.

Place lettuce, oranges, green onion, bacon, and almonds in a serving bowl. Toss with dressing and serve.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Where is Spring?

Oh, there it is. I was wondering and a little worried. After the warmest Easter weekend I can remember (nearly 30C), I was concerned that this would be another one of those Winter into Summer years. I hate it when that happens. I'm not much of a fan of Summer to begin with, but more than that, I like Spring. I like wearing jackets. I like the slightly cool breezes. I like the bit of damp in the air and the ground as we start waking our gardens up. Instead we were out this weekend in t-shirts and shorts, and the garden had begun to wake up without us. Heck, we had the window open all night twice over the weekend. In early April!

With regards to the garden, most of the straw mulch is off the veg bed now. The garlic is looking good, the strawberries have survived quite nicely, and the parsley and chives are greening up. Still waiting to see if the mint seeded itself last year or not. I hope so. The raspberries had buds on the stems on Friday. By Sunday they had full leaves. We cut them back and will do some weeding and mulching to encourage the runners to grow strong. I even planted some radishes, pak choi and peas. I still need to sow some lettuce seeds.

I don't think I mentioned the latest chapter in trying to buy quality meat. We began going to a local butcher. One that has been around for a long time and seems to have a respectable name. Got some lunch meat and such and it all seemed okay. Then I got some kielbossa one day. A few days later it smelled a bit off. So I tossed it. Last week we went in, having decided to get all of our meat from a proper butcher rather than the grocery store (I was getting tired of buying rancid meat - ironic as you'll see in a moment). We bought a bunch of meat and ordered our Easter ham. In particular I bought a $20 free range organic chicken. It was a splurge, but it was also huge and would feed us several meals. That was late Monday. On Wednesday afternoon I opened the bag and was greeted by a wall of stink that nearly knocked me over. There was no guessing as to whether or not the chicken was a little off. It was full on rotten, complete with the stench of ammonia wafting out of the packaging along with the stink of the rotting carcass. The meat was slimy and it was disgusting. Less than 2 days (in a cold fridge) after purchase. I was quite disappointed. We called the store and they agreed to refund our money. If it hadn't been so close to Easter I may have canceled our ham.

I kind of wish I had. I ordered a 5lb bone in ham. I got (after they finally found it), a 5lb bone in ham steak. Um, how on earth do I glaze that? I gave it back and bought a boneless Black Forest ham from the case. And wouldn't you know it, it was slimy when I opened it. It didn't smell off, but let me just say that if it weren't for the fact that it was Easter Sunday we would have been eating out.

Needless to say we are not going back to that butcher. It should not be this hard to buy quality fresh meat.

I did try a new glaze this weekend, though (what, you thought I was going to talk food and NOT talk about a recipe?) I reduced some Coke with some Dijon mustard and a little allspice and lemon zest. I basted the ham as it cooked and finished it with a sprinkle of dark brown sugar. It had a very nice crust when it came out of the oven. It would have been really good on a decent ham.