30 January, 2009

Friday Favourite - Salt

Hubby is addicted to salt.  Seriously.  Almost nothing is salted enough for him, he loves salt and vinegar chips, and actually licks his finger and dips it in the salt pig.  One Christmas I nearly bought him a salt lick as a joke, until I realized that I would be the one stuck finding a real home for it.  In true fatherly generosity he passed this love on to The Monster.

Daddy salts his food, she wants salt on her food.  Mama seasons the sauce, she has to season the sauce.  We've developed the fine art of faking it for her.  She is a wickedly smart girl, but somehow the motion of salting her food satisfies her, even if she doesn't see any salt crystals falling from our fingers.  We're either that tricky or she's only two.
With the past few weeks filled with a lot of sick days we've turned to baking as a way to keep her engaged and away from Yo Gabba Gabba (she is a child obsessed).  When she asked to bake cookies this week I inquired as to what kind.  


Yup, salt cookies.  In a freaky twist of fate, I had pulled out my Cook's Country cookbook and had it open to the cookie table of contents.  Wouldn't you know, they have a recipe for salty thin and crisp oatmeal cookies?  Considering it was a real recipe and all, I figured we had a better chance than last week, when she requested salt muffins.  In case you didn't know, salt as a crunchy topping on a banana muffin is okay, but not something I have a desire to repeat.  Salted oatmeal cookies are another matter entirely.

Crispy, thin, and with just a touch of salty crunch.  These are good cookies for people who don't like sweets.  Such a change from dense and chewy oatmeal cookies.  Equally delicious, and I'm not a big fan of salt.

Salted Oatmeal Cookies
(adapted from Cook's Country)
Makes 2.5-3 dozen cookies

1 cup flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp table or kosher salt
14 tbsp unsalted butter (2 tablespoons less than a cup)
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla
2 1/2 cups rolled oats (not quick or instant)
fleur de sel or Maldon salt

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2.  In a medium bowl whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and 1/4 tsp salt.  Set aside.
3.  Beat together the butter and sugars  until fluffy.  Scrape down the bowl.  Add the egg and vanilla and beat until fully incorporated.  Slowly add the flour mixture until just blended, then stir in the oats until well mixed.
4.  Roll cookie dough into balls about 1.5 - 2 inches around.  Place them 8 to a cookie sheet and press down with your palm.  Cookies should be about 3/4 inch in thickness.
5.  Sprinkle with fleur de sel or Maldon salt, a generous pinch per cookie.
6.  Bake for 10-12 minutes until the cookies are spread out and lightly golden.  Let them cool completely on the cookie sheet.

27 January, 2009

Taste Adventure - Haggis

We've all had those moments in our jobs where we want to run screaming from the building, hands pulling out hair, and screaming obscenities.  Okay, maybe I'm the only one.  Last week was one of those weeks.  Drowning in dishes, snotty noses, laundry, and baby food I very nearly did run from the house.  Lucky for my kids, I know I'm better than child services, even in my frazzled state.  Two things kept me going - the new laptop Hubby bought me and the promise of a date night for Robbie Burns Day.

Months ago I'd signed us up for a scotch tasting event for Robbie Burns Day.  Technically there is some Scottish in Hubby, although you wouldn't know it.  He isn't a crazy Scot, just a little wonky.  Last week I was the crazy one and a lot of Scotch was going to help me get over it.  This was not a night for the girls.

The event was hosted by J. Webb Wine Merchants.  Conveniently we live only a few blocks from their flagship store so we are familiar with Lee and the folks who run the joint.  Their first Burns Night saw them bring in a number of scotches all made by independent bottlers.  These are scotches distilled by certain owners who then sell their casks, in all or in part, to bottlers.  Having generally stuck to certain distilleries in our scotch adventures in the past it was a somewhat welcome change.  Only somewhat because most of the scotches on hand were milder than what we generally like.  It was an interesting comparison nonetheless.

And yes, there was haggis and the requisite crusty Scotsman in a kilt reciting Robbie Burns.  We loaded up our plates with a good portion of haggis, some oatcakes, gravlax, and a wonderful strong cheddar.  Being the adventurous eaters we are, there was no hesitation in tasting the haggis.  It smelled like a combo of meatloaf and pate, and tasted as such.  Considering what it looks like - cooked in a pig's stomach and all - I chose not to photograph it for here.  No great complaints, but I wouldn't gush about it.  I'd rather have a Valbella pate.

All was going well until one of the presenters suggested that it was very Scottish to pour scotch on your hagggis.  Let me tell, that was a bad idea.  It took a beer from the Wild Rose Brewery to take that nasty taste combination out of my mouth.  Leave good scotch alone and we'll all be happier.  As was I at the end of the night.

20 January, 2009

On Apple Cake and Race

"What colour this, Mama?"
So asks The Monster on a regular occassion. She might be asking about the colour of a toy, a bird, a carrot, or a person. In all but the last case we hapily give her the answer in detail - aqua not blue, chartreuse not green (I am a quilter, after all). But when she asks about people I struggle to answer. I feel the weight of race relations on me. I feel like that moment will define how she approaches people who look different than her.

Yup, I know I'm over-thinking it. But on today, of all days, it's at the forefront of my thoughts. We watched a bit of my show - the inauguration - before she left for the day, after I convinced her to turn off Sesame Street, of course. Hubby and I tried to explain to her what was going on, but I think the significance was lost on a two and a half year old. But tonight we'll be reading stories and she'll ask me what colour Dick and Jane are and then what colour are Pam and Penny.

Hubby is straightforward about things, but I'm not comfortable with that. He and I debate over the best approach. We were both raised without much of an issue over race. Here in Western Canada we just don't have the race issues of the US, at least as we see it. It is a product of our own suburban upbringings and the exposure to so many cultures along the way. I prefer to focus on exploring cultural differences, rather than race. But that still doesn't answer the Monster's questions.

And when I cook her coconut curry or spaghetti and meatballs or pierogies or suya she will learn about the world in a way that our travel budget just doesn't allow. Will that teach her about race and different cultures? Perhaps. But in the coming eight years both our girls will grow up with the memory of their first US President and not even understand what the big deal is.

To change the topic slightly, I've been thinking about what it would be like to live in the White House as a young family. What if Michelle and Barack want to make pancakes for breakfast? What if Malia and Sasha want to bake cookies? Is there a special family kitchen in the White House? There must be, otherwise it would feel like living in a hotel. That's got to wear on anyone.
I'm hoping to keep tabs on things by faithfully reading Obama Foodorama. And today, in honour of the inauguration I'm baking this apple cake. It isn't the recipe from the luncheon, but it looks beautiful and honours the food of the day.

16 January, 2009

Can I Take a Sick Day?

Just like Christmas parties, moms don't get sick days either.

All four of us have been fighting colds for the past week. I am totally blaming Hubby because he had it first. And, of course, when he was sick I was the happy housewife - keeping the kids quiet in the evenings and making him chicken noodle soup - from scratch. Yeah, and this week we've eaten crap from a package (fish sticks anyone?) or pre-made food because I am too exhausted to cook and Hubby isn't volunteering to cook. Not good fodder for a food blog either.
So today I am resting, sipping some wonderful tea from Murchies and nibbling on a new addiction - freeze dried raspberries dipped in dark chocolate from Dufflet. Oh, and I still don't have my new camera. Hopefully the pics I took on our last sick day before Christmas when the Norwalk virus hit us will tide you over for a few more days.

In the meantime, I thought I would share with you a few new (at least to me) local places for foodies in Calgary. My mother-in-law was in town so we convinced the Monster that an adventure was a good idea. And adventure it was. I really forget how big the city is getting.
We made the trek to Blush Lane's new retail operation - way, way West in the city. It was a nice store with an easy layout. As far as grocery items go there was little difference between them and the Planet Organic that I can walk to. But they do carry far more in the way of dairy and meat (Sunworks Farm) than my local place. And, they have a wonderful cheese selection with reasonable prices. My mother-in-law and I were ecstatic to see products from Gort's Gouda cheese farm, one of our favourite products and places to visit in Salmon Arm, British Columbia.
I won't be making the trek out to Blush Lane Organic Market too often. We go to the Calgary Farmers' Market every weekend and they are a regular stop for us. Besides, I'm not sure how good it is to drive halfway across the city for products I can get closer to home. Cheese, however, will be the exception. When I have a craving for that salty and nutty Maasdammer I will brave Calgary traffic and drive to Blush Lane. It beats the seven hours to Salmon Arm!
On our way we stopped at another new foodie jewel - Fresh Kitchen. There isn't much in the way of grocery items at Fresh Kitchen, but there is some very yummy food. They carry serrano ham - something I now like better than proscuitto parma - along with a decent selection of meats and cheeses. What I was really impressed with was the fresh meals-to-go options. From salad dressings to fish, from soups to muffins, they had it all. Curry was obviously on the menu that night and the place smelled wonderful. Fresh Kitchen is owned by a very friendly man, Paul Morrissette, who had no problem with the Monster running around and grabbing things just to show me. He seemed generous of spirit and taste. Because I knew Hubby wouldn't be making me soup I did grab some forest mushroom and truffle soup. Soup with serrano ham and maasdammer on the side? It was enough to make a sick girl swoon. Or maybe that was the fever?

11 January, 2009

Baja Adventures - Mexican Sushi

“Which one is my fish?”

So rang the constant tune of my nephew for three days in Baja. This is what happens when you take a 6 year old deep sea fishing and he actually catches something. As long as we were eating fresh the rest of us didn’t care whose was whose, but this was vitally important information for a 6 year old boy. Puts a whole new meaning to the adage that if your kids help you cook they will be more likely to eat what comes to the table.

It’s not surprising that we ate a whole lot of fish in Baja. If Hubby or my dad had their way it would have been every single day that we ate seafood. Between meals out and our own fishing adventures we captured almost half the days.

There were the shrimp tacos at beachfront palapas restaurants that were so sweet you thought it was miniature lobsters inside the tortilla. When you risk your rental car and the wrath of a two year old who is sick of bumpy roads to check out the next beach and see the shrimp boats right there you have full confidence in the freshness of that shrimp.

There was the grilled sierra mackerel, dorado, and tuna that you caught that day. Okay, so the boat broke down and Hubby had to drive the boat by literally holding the motor in a straight position. At least you had your fish. Although, that was iffy when the boat and the truck brought down to haul it got stuck in the sand once you finally made it back to the launch beach – and the fish was still on board. The antics of many locals and one wiry American with a winch on his truck just for this purpose finally got things sorted out and we were on our way home with our fish. After a quick blitz of garlic, lime, and tequila we grilled filets of all three. My brother made a fantastic salsa with sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, corn, cilantro, lime, garlic, and tequila. Halfway through dinner we had to throw more fish on the grill because between 11 people the fish was quickly disappearing. That’s okay, it meant I had leftovers to make an improvised fish taco for breakfast the next day. Can I just say that sierra mackerel is my new favourite fish? Light but full-flavoured, oily but just a bit fishy to allow you taste the ocean in every bite.

Oh, and there was the fish that Hubby caught on his two day adventure to spear fish in the rocks right in front of our place. It wasn’t the big one that almost got away, but was grabbed by a moray eel before Hubby could spear it again. Yes, I said moray eel. He was spear fishing and I was snorkeling, I saw it all. We let the eel have it. Instead, we had to settle for the 8 inch grunt that he first caught. My dad set to cleaning it for him and we grilled it whole. Tasty, but barely enough for more than a bite by the adults in our group. Not bad for two whole mornings spent with the spear... We won't discuss the attempts at surf-casting.

And then there was the Mexican sushi. Hubby and I went out for dinner by ourselves one night and decided to go to the palapas that had sushi. A risky venture, no doubt. There was no Japanese master behind the cooler of fresh fish, but there was wasabi. The rolls were on par with cheap ones we can get at home – fine, but not great. The sashimi of snapper, tuna, and dorado (all local) was fantastic. The fusion of the fresh fish, decently cut, with a cilantro sauce was spicy, clean, and new. With some of our remaining catch I tried to recreate the dish back at the beach house. I didn’t quite capture it, but my brother said my version was even better.
Serve this sauce with a fresh, sushi quality fish. Preferably you will cut it with a proper knife and not some crappy serrated blade that is all you can find in the rental house. Do not, however, let the fish sit in the sauce for long. There is a lot of lime in it and this will effectively cook the fish like a ceviche. We were also going to try it on some grilled fish, but it didn’t last through the raw stuff. Even my nephew was eating it. Of course, his reaction was only meh after he found out it wasn’t with the fish he caught.

Cilantro Sauce for Fish

1 bunch fresh cilantro
1 garlic clove
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
½ jalapeno pepper, seeded and ribbed

1. Blitz the ingredients together in a blender.
2. Pour on to a platter, lay freshly sliced sushi quality fish on top, and serve.

06 January, 2009

Baja Adventures - Road Food

If Jane and Michael Stern ever went down to Baja they would look for the place advertising local cheese and selling their homemade sweets, then stop at every place within walking distance to check them out as well. We found El Oasis in our guide book, but could have happliy eaten at the Tienda across the street or the other two restaurants down the road.

El Oasis is a fitting name for its location. Up in the Sierra la Laguna moutains the town of San Bartolo is a respite from the sandy haze of the Baja desert and the ocean winds. Lush and filled with wildly blooming flowers, citrus, and appropriately for the season, pointsettas San Bartolo promised a view and some tasty road food. Oh how it lived up to its promises.

We were travelling with some slightly less adventurous eaters; adventurous in tastes, not necessarily in locale. I think my family was nervous at first, stopping at essentially a diner in the middle of Mexico. Inside it was filled with dulces, empanadas, and the cleanest kitchen serving tamales, tacos, and fiery salsa. All fears were allayed with the hairnets. And tastebuds were alive with the olfactory tease of broiling pepppers.

We ate the best tamales any of us have ever had - and my mom used to live along the Texas/Mexico border, accompanied by the purest salsa ever. Broiled jalapenos and tomatoes, put through a grinder. That's it. Nothing else. Heat, sweetness, and the taste of the mountain sun.

Fortified for the day we drank our cervesas and iced teas in the mountain breezes while the neighbourhood chickens serenaded us. Onward for a drive. Not without a dozen tamales wrapped in a plastic bag and some salsa for snacks upon the return to the beach house.

One of our other Baja road trips took us to the Sierra la Laguna Biosphere Reserve. We drove through Santiago, decorated for Christmas with a more than life size nativity scene in the town square and out of place snowmen lights. Beyond the fields of palms and down more sandy roads we paid our entrance fee to the reserve. A small parking lot with a surprisingly stylish looking outhouse marked the entrance to the trail down to a freshwater oasis.

When the guidebook said a short ten minute hike it neglected to mention that it was narrow, phenomenally rocky, and not suited to fancy jogging strollers,people with bad knees, or hot toddlers. With the stroller parked and the kids and Baba assisted we arrived at the waterfall.

It wasn't a palm tree and pond in the middle of the dessert, it was better. A 30 foot waterfall plunging into a dark pool of freshwater, surrounded by granite, grass, and cool air. Impatiently we got the kids and ourselves into bathing suits (this isn't a place for modesty). Only my brother and Hubby were brave enough to climb the rocks to the top of the waterfall and jump. It proved to be a dangerous mistake for my brother after he slipped on the wet granite. Thankfully it ended well, albeit in a badly bruised back. For the rest of us we savoured the fresh water and dust-free hours.

When it was time to return we stopped in Santiago. No restaurants around the plaza, but a few tiendas to choose from. We'd hoped to luck into some ice cream for the kids. Note to self, be cautious when opening unmarked freezers in small Mexican towns. Ice cream? No. Freshly butchered meat, unwrapped and still smelling bloody? Yes. All was made better when we found what we thought was fresh yoghurt in a front cooler. Marked with Christmas colours and covered tightly with foil we grabbed a few for the kids and headed to the plaza to munch. Okay, so it was probably packaged Jello with some milk, but it was fantastic to us and the Monster.

There were more good meals to be found along the road. Small beachfront palapas with amazingly sweet shrimp tacos and cold beer, gas stations with fiery burritos and soft sandwiches, and even a bakery making tender gingerbread cookies.

Some people told us to be afraid of the road food - will it be clean? what about the water? We had no fear and were rewarded greatly. Indeed, I would say it was some of the best food we ate there. I can still taste the salsa and Hubby wants more of those burittos. Next time, in the Airstream for sure.

01 January, 2009

Baja Adventures -Limons

We’ve returned from our two weeks in Baja. The East Cape area is not Cabo – thankfully. It’s not really a place for tourists, either. Rather, it is home to a few small towns and farms hanging on the edge of the Sierra de la Laguna mountains and desert, desert, desert leading straight into the ocean surf. Other than the locals it is filled with sportfishers, rich Americans, and a few divers. Along with my entire family we rented the home of one of the Americans. This meant we could cook on our own instead of relying on taquerias and the few restaurants around (but those were good too). It also meant I could make many, many lime pies.

Aside from a lot of time spent walking the beach looking for shells and sea glass or swimming there wasn’t much to do. We drove around on the rally certified sand roads and sketchy Highway 1, visiting nearby towns and the hidden gems we could hike to. Mostly we played with all the kids (5 kids under the age of six), tried to read, and ate and drank - a lot. We took turns cooking and making the margaritas. There is actually quite a bit about our trip that I want to share. Today I will focus on the limes.

Limons: tiny green orbs of tart, sweet sunshine. In Baja they called them limons; they looked like key limes to us. Fantastic in a margarita, but irresistible in a lime pie. We saw the limes in the supermercado and bought a dozen every day or two.

So began the hunt for the rest of the ingredients for the pie. Generally this involved trying to pretend to read Spanish labels and hoping someone had heavy cream or graham crackers. Eggs, no problema. Zuca (sugar) no problema, Leche Light (condensed milk) no problema. Graham crackers were a challenge. I had settled on using some other random cookie to make crumbs when my mom hit another mercado and found some graham crackers. Heavy cream was never found, delivery of dairy products random in that area.

We were lucky that the kitchen in our house was relatively well-stocked. After the first pie I found the citrus juicer. Phew, that saved my fingers and a fork a long time spent juicing those teeny limes. And while there was no fancy microplane rasp, I did have a choice of zesters. I am pretty sure that it wouldn’t take as long to make the pie here, with access to pre-made crumbs or at least a food processor that works.

We did miss the whipped cream accompaniment, but we survived. Yeah, it was pretty rough. In total I think I made 4 pies. I think the recipe may have come from Martha, but I've made it for so long that I can't remember. Each one gave us the emotional equivalent of a sigh after the kids were all in bed. And for myself and my sister-in-law, it also gave us breakfast a few times, strength to fortify us for the swimming, tantrums, and innumerable sandwiches we tackled every day with the kids.
Now that we are home I intend to make this again this weekend. We are having the neighbours over for a thank-you dinner. They did shovel the walks and bring in the mail, after all. The least I can do is feed them pie, with whipped cream.

Key Lime Pie
(serves 8)
1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
4 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons melted butter
½ cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1 tbsp fresh lime zest
4 egg yolks
14 ounces sweetensed condensed milk

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine crumbs with 2 tablespoons sugar. Stir in melted butter until well combined. Press into 8 inch pie plate. Bake 12 minutes. Remove oven and set aside to cool.

2. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Combine remaining 2 tablespoons sugar with lime juice, zest, egg yolks, and condensed milk. Mix until well-combined. Pour into cooled crust. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until just set.
3. Cool completely and serve with whipped cream.