30 April, 2009

In Case You Didn't Know

You learn so much when you have a baby.  For example, you learn about true love, breastpumps, children's TV, and the real meaning of tired.  You also learn just how much crap comes with a kid.  And I'm not referring to the swings, baskets, tubs, soaps, carriers, diapers, and assorted paraphernalia.  No, I am referring to the blankets, stuffed animals, photo albums, and infinite teeny tiny shoes that people buy you.  Essentially, all the cute but useless stuff.

I've had no less than three friends or family members have their first babies in the last few months.  Every single one of them has phoned me and said the same thing: "I never realized how crappy the presents I gave to new parents were until now."  They fell victim to the pastel coloured treats in the department stores and gift shops.  Now, as parents, they were suffocating under the gifts people brought over. And now, as new parents, they were realizing that the best presents were the edible kind. Screw the teddy bears, give me muffins!

We too went through this realization.  After The Monster was born I started to get especially bitter at people who would come to meet the baby and maybe drop off "a little something" when that little something didn't come as food.  New parents are exhausted and overwhelmed by their new state and that little creature who has joined the family.  The last thing they need is a visitor who only wants to hold the baby while you get them tea.  

I'm not telling you to not buy the cute little somethings, but don't you dare show up to visit without a frozen meal, some fresh muffins, or even some crackers and cheese from the grocery store.  Don't you dare do it.  If you want to be truly appreciated by your friends/family then make a few meals to freeze, cut up a fruit salad, and bake some muffins.  If you can't cook, then hit a make and take meal place or somewhere with a nice ready-made meal counter.

Here are some more ideas to take to new parents:
- Fruit and Veggies  - don't give them a whole pineapple, cut it up.
- Muffins, cookies, scones, quick breads - homemade or bakery purchased these are always appreciated by the constantly hungry new mom 
- Trail mix or nuts
- Fresh bread or cinnamon buns
- Cheese
- Ready-made meals - fresh or frozen - purchased from a place like Fresh Kitchen or Mise En Place
- Dips like hummus or a white bean with pita
- Frozen meals that you make - try mac & cheese, chili, meatballs, lasagne, enchiladas, meat pies

New parents have no time to cook, a breastfeeding mom is always hungry, and quite often no one has ten minutes or two hands to eat, let alone prepare food.  Keep all this in mind when choosing your gifts.  All this applies in the first three months.  Yes, I said three months, not three weeks.

The Monster has some lucky aunties.  They've been the thankful recipients of her constant baking in the past few months.  With two new nephews we've been baking a lot in order to keep my sister and sister-in-law in muffins and cookies.  So now, when we go over to cuddle those babies and drink tea I can at least feed the mom. Oh, and pass on the drawing The Monster made, the photo album I found, and maybe the onesie I couldn't resist getting for that cute little guy.

27 April, 2009

In The Zone

This past week was the second one in the Kitchn's Kitchen Cure.  Our task this week was to organize kitchen equipment.  A rather large task in most cooks' kitchens.  For me that meant two drawers of utensils, a drawer with pots and lids, a plastic storage container drawer, my baking supplies spread round the kitchen, and one random corner cupboard filled with extra spices, a colander, our turkey frier pieces, and a bunch of other crap.

The first step was to pitch any and all duplicates.  After that I got rid of supplies I never use, like the old cookie sheets and pots that were broken or had no matching lid.  These went into the pile for Goodwill.

My second step was to take anything out of the kitchen that isn't used on a regular basis - springform pans, lobster eating utensils, and the aforementioned turkey frier accoutrements.  These all went to the cold storage section of the basement.  That has to be another organizational task before we frame the basement, but not for now.

After the purge and the subsequent clean it came time to reorganize things.  With PBS Kids on for The Monster and The Smilosaurus napping I took a step back to evaluate how I really use the kitchen.  Truly, I have zones that I work in: baking/prep, clean-up, stove, and serving.  Sure, the kitchen isn't designed this way and it takes some creative thinking, but my brain thinks it works.

The stove section includes the pots, cooking utensils, all our oils and spices on open shelves.   Clean-up includes the sink and recently installed dishwasher, with dish storage right above. The serving section is the countertop below the dish and pantry storage.  And by serving section I mean a space of uncluttered countertop closest to the table.

Finally, I created a baking station.  We bought some freestanding cabinetry a few months back. Smilosaurus started crawling and was getting into everything on our open storage units.  When the dishwasher went in we also lost some existing cabinetry.  These new units were great - large, sturdy, and full of storage potential.  But I just dumped stuff in them without really thinking about it.  This exercise forced me to take a step back and think about how to use them most effectively.  

It's no secret that I love to bake, as does The Monster.  So I took one unit, filled it with all the baking utensils and pantry ingredients, and parked the little chair she stands on next to it.  Now everything is in one spot.  We have a large countertop space, only interrupted with the knife block, cutting board, and the Kitchen Aid.  It is still my prep station, after all.  But we can mix, roll, cut, and generally making a mess and it all stays confined.  Hubby can be at the sink, Smilosaurus can crawl around, and none of us are falling on top of each other.

One of the changes I made was taking my baking pans from the tall cabinet by the sink.  It always made sense to have them there, standing up.  There was, however, this stupid hook thing hanging from under the counter.  Pans were constantly getting caught on it.  Yes, I could have taken it out, but that wasn't the only problem with the cupboard.  There was just too much stuff it and it wasn't easy for The Monster to get things from there.  Considering that our baking generally revolves around cookies and muffins, I needed a better option.

With the focused baking center I got that.  I took one drawer and put in all the well-used baking supplies.  And yes, the largest item - the cookie sheets are on top.  Who wants to pull out all the pie plates, measuring cups, loaf pans, and spoons to get to the cookies sheets?  So much easier now.  Of course, after all this I need to giving Hubby an orientation.

Well, PBS Kids is nearly over and its time to bake.  I think we are going to try oatmeal cookies with cranberries and the white chocolate chips I found while cleaning.

23 April, 2009

Unmitigated Kitchen Disaster

I'm sparing your the disgustingness of what this photo could be.  Just look at my overcooked, but nicely crimped crust.  You've got to find something nice about it.  Please?

It snowed again this week.  Rain would have been welcome, but snow that we actually had to shovel?  So not welcome at the end of April.  In an attempt to remind myself of what indeed will return - summer - I pulled out one of the pies I made with the last of last summer's peaches.  The promise of sunshine for breakfast was enough to get me through the snow.  I should have stayed in bed, covers over my head, babies calling to me, and no tea in the pot.

The pie was horrible.  Although I faithfully researched different ways to freeze pies before I even attempted things last August, this was an utter failure.  A lot of information simply said to make the pie as you would, but not to cook it.  A little extra flour or starch in the filling would capture the extra juices you would get when you bake it.  So make your pie, freeze it, then bake it straight from the freezer.  Let me now tell you that this was bad advice, very bad advice. There was so much liquid from the fruit that the top crust effectively poached.  This is not an attractive way to cook a crust.  I even drained out some of the liquid, to no avail.  So my filling was nice, but the pie was both overcooked and undercooked.

I still managed to salvage some semblance of my summer dreams by scooping out the pie filling and eating it with yoghurt, but it wasn't the same.  I guess I'll just have to wait until August.

22 April, 2009

In Honour of Poo

Gee, you would think I'm trying to get caught in some interesting searches.

It's Earth Day today.  There are a million and one posts out there about eating organic, the 100-mile diet, plant based eating and so much more.  For a dedicated foodie, reader, and magazine slut (yes, I am one of those too) none of it is particularly eye-opening for me.  Interesting, but not mind-blowing. Lately, the people I've met are the ones that blow my mind, not what I read. I probably won't blow your mind here, but maybe a simple poem can.  And when you take me out for beers I promise to blow you away, or at least get you drunk.

19 April, 2009

Confessions of a Condiment Slut

What does a tray of homemade gnocchi have to do with my confession as a condiment slut?  It makes perfect sense to me, so let me try to explain.

Far more than spring cleaning, I am trying to get the house in order.  Living on just one floor for the last 6 months has forced us to really evaluate what we need to live and what is the best way for 4 people and two dogs to live in 1000 square feet.  In the winter.  As my return to work looms I thought it was time to tackle a few things like the closets and the kitchen.  Enter The Kitchn Cure.  Fantastic, a very public way to force me to actually do the work.  And to ensure I really stick to it I am promising to report it all here, once a week for the next 6 weeks.

Pantry before

It actually hasn't been that long since I cleaned out the fridge and the pantry - this week's assignment.  When I am upset about something I clean.  I think Hubby and I had a major domestic fueled my pregnancy hormones, or maybe it was nesting?  So it's been a year... not too long.  But this time I took a closer look at what was actually in there and filled a garbage can, the recycling bin, and a bag for the Foodbank.

It is no secret that I have a tendency to hoard condiments.  Fancy mustards, barbecue sauce, fruity vinegars, jams, honey, hot sauce, and even salad dressings all have a special place in my heart, fridge, and pantry.  When I travel my souvenirs are either cookbooks or food.  As a thirtysomething married chick I don't bring home tropical diseases or naughty memories of strangers, I bring home Texas 1015 Onion Dressing and Jerk Sauce.  And all that baggage was sitting in my house.  Seriously, I had salad dressing in the fridge from a trip to Texas 9 years ago and I've moved it three times.  I was carrying it around like an STD.

Pantry after

While I'm not sure I will cure myself of my condiment obsession, I was rather ruthless in culling the scores of sauces taking up space and not inspiring anything tasty.  Just like the women's mags will tell you when cleaning your closet - if you haven't used it the last 6 months it's time for it to go.  That seemed generous even, so I applied a two month rule.  Surprisingly, I haven't used a lot of stuff in the last two months.

Gone was the hoisin sauce (I never know what to do with it), jerk sauce, three open bottles of three different barbecue sauces, about 4 bottles of salad dressing with just an inch left inside, cream of wheat, expired cans of sweetened condensed milk, and even a can of alligator meat I bought at my brother's wedding in New Orleans.  His wedding was 9 years ago.

Fridge before

Our fridge is only 3 years old and Hubby has been complaining that it is too small.  It is not a small fridge, it was just filled with condiments.  I knew it was bad, but the pile of crap on the counter was ridiculous.  Did I really need ten bottle of salad dressing when we Hubby only ever wants Golden Italian?  Why do I have all that barbecue sauce when CattleBoyz is the best stuff on earth?

There was never any room for leftovers.  And when they did make it in the fridge they always got lost and I would end up throwing out a bunch of food.  Oh yeah, I forgot that cheese sauce was there. Damn, I could have made mac and cheese for dinner last night.  Crap, I could have had that for lunch the other day.  What a bloody waste.

Fridge After

Now there is a dedicated shelf for leftovers.  And another one for all the blessed cottage cheese we go through (over 2 litres a week).  Our three different kinds of milk actually can fit.  Oh, and the fridge will close without any extra hip action.  Most importantly, Hubby might actually be able to find something if he opens the fridge door.  I think he fantasizes about a fridge that is about 6 inches deep and the length of the wall - that way everything is in the front row.

So this condiment slut decided to actually make use of her leftovers when culling the condiments.  Easter dinner's mashed potatoes became gnocchi for dinner.  And I pulled out some braised short ribs from the freezer to serve as the sauce. It's almost worth making extra potatoes just to make these.  Light, little dumplings that Smilosaurus devoured and The Monster spat out.  She's always hated potatoes.  At least I know where the leftovers will be.

Leftover Potatoes Gnocchi
(serves 4)

3 cups mashed potatoes (already loaded with cream, butter, and seasoned)
1 beaten egg
3/4 - 1 cup flour
1-2 ounces grated parmesan

1.  Mix all ingredients together to make a soft dough.
2.  Roll dough into a long rope, about an inch thick.  Cut off one inch pieces.  You can roll them over a fork for the traditional look or just leave them.
3.  Refrigerate or freeze on a floured tray.  Cook in a pot of boiling water until the float to the surface.

Wonderful served with a nice meat sauce, braised short ribs, brown butter, cream sauce with lobster, and so much more.

16 April, 2009

Is It Over Yet?

Yes, Easter is over.  Passover too.  And soon enough the week will be done.  Stick a fork in me, because I am definitely done.

We always try to get through the beginning of April/Easter without any major calamities. We've had babies born at our wedding, our baby nearly arriving 9 weeks early, that baby then being hospitalized, asthma attacks, and various minor things like cars lighting on fire at this time of year.  A few minor hiccups last week, but we were doing great and no hospital visits in sight.  Then, on Monday morning I walked into a door.  And broke my nose.

Thankfully it is no big deal and other than some swelling I don't look too beat up.  There was no emergency room visit, so that's progress.  

By the time 5 o'clock rolls around my face is throbbing and I just can't deal with making dinner. Today I attempted to deal with my overflowing fridge and get something together.  The most I could muster was dealing with the leftover dyed eggs.  Most of them were cracked from the manhandling The Monster gave them.  And there were a lot!  We could have been eating egg salad sandwiches all week.  Instead I thought we could indulge on one of Hubby's favourites: deviled eggs.

Truth be told, Hubby loves himself a boiled egg, no matter what form it comes in.  Dippy eggs with toast points.  A half dozen hard boiled eggs as a post-hockey snack - yes, I said 6 eggs as a snack.  And even the traditional potluck deviled egg with its sprinkling of unnecessary paprika. The most requested form however, is the curried deviled egg.   And yes, we could eat these for dinner.  Okay, we might make a salad to round out the meal.  Maybe.

I make these for every barbeque we have.  I made them for my brother- and sister-in-law's wedding.  And my other brother-in-law asks for these almost more than he asks for pie.

For every iteration on the deviled egg theme there will be lovers and haters.  My brother, for example, makes wasabi deviled eggs.  I'm not that much of a fan.  And I could take or leave the traditional variety too.  But add some mango chutney and curry powder and you will see me hoovering a plate faster than anyone could sprinkle paprika.  Maybe you'll hate these, but then I would think there is something wrong with you.  And if deviled eggs aren't your thing, add a touch more mayo, chop up the whites, and make an egg salad sandwich.

Curried Deviled Eggs
Makes 12 servings

6 hard boiled eggs, sliced in half lengthwise
2 TBSP mayonnaise
1 TBSP mango chutney
1 tsp curry powder
Salt and Pepper

1.  Scoop out the yolks and place in a bowl.  Set aside the whites.
2.  Mash the yolks together with the mayonnaise, chutney, and curry powder.  Season to taste.
3. Spoon the yolk mixture back into the egg whites.  Garnish with a slice of mango.

10 April, 2009

Nary an Easter Bunny In Sight

The world is overrun with chocolate this week.  Bunnies and eggs and little fake nests filled with plastic clippings.  I, myself, am a sucker for Mini-Eggs.  But I do loathe the fake chocolate that sometimes creeps its way in to our house by well-meaning family.  Today we tasted chocolate in an entirely different league than even the best locally made bunny.

I took the girls on a date this morning.  We used to call them adventures, but The Monster has been insistent about going on dates since Mama and Daddy have found a regular babysitter and a little free time. 

"I'm a big girl, I can go on dates."  It's enough to put fear in to the heart of any father of daughters.  And she isn't even three.

Alas, I digress.  So our adventure... er, date, was to Choklat, here in town.  This is historically the worst week of the year for our family (but that would be a true digression to mention why). This year was milder, but really no exception to historical rule.  I figured some emotional eating would be good for all of us.
And after eating two of these between the three of us (yup, Smilosaurus had her share), plus a brownie, we were all feeling good.  That is, until we got a flat tire and the nanny we'd hoped to hire turned us down.  That's why I'm glad that I have some fresh truffles, some ridiculously expensive dark chocolate bars, and perhaps another couple of cupcakes hiding in the kitchen.

Choklat, owned and operated by jack of all trades Brad Churchill, is one of only two chocolatiers in Canada that actually makes their own chocolate.  From the bean.  Brad imports the raw beans in giant burlap sacks.  If you peak through the doors at the back of the kitchen you can see them piled there, waiting to be roasted on site.  The smell of chocolate in multiple forms is worth the visit itself.  Then you see the menu.

Unlike any other chocolate shop, there isn't a storefront display of chocolates waiting to tempt you.  There might be some chocolate dipped strawberries, the rich cupcakes, or some other baked goods, but there are no trays of chocolates distinguished by their swirls and gold dust. Pick up the diner style menu and choose your evil.  Key lime truffle filling covered in dark chocolate and rolled in coconut?  Espresso truffles with dark chocolate and rolled in cocoa nibs (those are for my mum-in-law visiting this weekend).  Then buy a cupcake iced with whipped chocolate to watch Brad and his staff make your truffles right then and there.  The only thing missing was a glass of cold milk.

When the new girl was struggling to make the truffles I ordered look right Brad told her to start over.  Heck no, I said, I don't care what they look like!  But he wouldn't have it and said the rejects would be kept for samples.  I should have pushed for an extra sample right then and there.
One more mention has to be made of the cupcakes.  At all the fancy, trendy cupcakes shops in nearly every major North American city the vast majority of cupcakes are okay cakes designed to carry a frivolous amount of frosting.  And that frosting is almost always a buttercream piped in a pastel tower of sweetness.  When the mood hits they can be just right.  But when you want a real chocolate cupcake go to Choklat.  I must admit that the cake part isn't perfect, it is a little dry.  The frosting however is a simple whipped dark chocolate with a touch of cream and icing sugar.  Not cloying, not bitter, and just a little bit creamy.  Together with the cupcake it is perfection.  The kind of perfection that makes you want another and you know you won't get sick or need a trip to the dentist.  The kind of perfection that erases a crappy week.  The kind of perfection that caps a perfect date. 

08 April, 2009

Taste Adventure - Lulo

This has been a long winter for everyone.  No matter how committed I am to eating local as much as possible I've been caving lately.  I Just. Can't. Eat. Another. Apple.  Not one.  And heck, those aren't even really local to Calgary.  But I've run out of frozen berries and peaches, there are no more saskatoons or rhubarb for baking, and I need the tang and heat that comes with something grown in the sun, relatively recently.

I'll admit to buying imported blueberries and watching out for the California spring fruits that actually look good - I draw the line at strawberries that look white inside.  But my true weakness are the tropical fruit I find at More Than Mangos.  I know, I've mentioned them before.  It goes against the true nature of our local farmers' market to have them on location, but I'm happy he's there.

Last weekend I picked up this pretty, round fruit.  Mostly orange with some deep green it actually reminded me of my childhood bedroom.  I was given free reign to pick my colours when I was about 7 or 8 and I chose peach and dark green.  But the taste of the Lulo was anything but childish.

Tart, but sweet.  Almost like a lime curd, but a lot tangier.  The pulp, scooped out, had the texture of a soft jelly.  In truth, the whole thing reminded me of eating those sour lemon candies - the fruit jellies covered in sugar.  I ate the flesh atop a bowl of my favourite vanilla yoghurt.  It was just what I needed on a not quite spring day.

And the girls?  The Monster gamely took a bit and refused any more.   Smilosaurus would eat it with enough yoghurt on the spoon, but that's it.  It may have reminded me of childhood and candy, but my daughters apparently have different tastes.

06 April, 2009

Silly Monday

Have you noticed a trend?  My Monday posts for the past few weeks have included the ridiculous and the humourous.  After the night/weekend we had with tummy troubles there is need to continue.  Besides, it is our anniversary and for the last 3 years we've spent either our anniversary or Easter (or both) at the hospital.  Today might just continue that trend.  Hubby can't get out of bed and a trip to the hospital for fluids may be required if he doesn't get better. Happy Anniversary!

This picture does make me smile though.  I snapped it last week.  Again, I need to keep that girl attached to me when I move dinner making to the stove.  I've mentioned the 'no hands on the cutting board' rule.  And she knows not to touch Mama's knives.  I guess I need to extend that to the knife block too.  But don't the plastic knives from her play kitchen brighten things up a little?

02 April, 2009

Easy Meatballs

For gawd's sake, winter just won't go away.  There was more snow yesterday.  Dreams of rhubarb, strawberries, and asparagus are futile, being months away from the reality.  Might as well hunker down and cook up some more rib sticking meals.

Meatballs are a family favourite here.  Smilosaurus is extending her meat love and will gladly devour at least 4 meatballs at a meal, in favour of the pasta.  And surprisingly, The Monster has never been much of a fan of pasta, but will also pop meatballs into her mouth like they are candy.  We are rather traditional, preferring our meatballs over spaghetti (or tagliatelle when there is no spaghetti) and doused with a thick tomato sauce.  The odd time we will go for that odd standby, Waikiki Meatballs.

Over time I've tried numerous methods and recipes for making meatballs.  Always time consuming and either greasy or burnt I struggled to get the technique right.  Over time I gave up browning them on the stove.  I always ended up with unevenly cooked meatsquares, not meatballs.  Baking them in the oven without browning seemed obvious.  But I hated that they would cook in their own grease.  I highly doubt I am original in my idea, but all my friends seem suitably impressed.  Now I cook them on a cooling rack set atop a cookie sheet.  The grease drips down and I'm left with brown, yet tender meatballs.

Make sure you cover your cookie sheet with foil - it really saves on clean-up.  And spray your cooling rack with cooking spray or brush with a bit of olive oil so the meatballs don't stick. Bake at high heat (400 degrees Celcius).  The final size of your meatball will determine your cooking time.  I usually make mine about an inch diameter and they cook in a little over 10 minutes.

When it comes to recipes, I'm afraid I don't have one of my own to share.  This is the kind of thing that is a little of this and a little of that.  Sometimes I use breadcrumbs, sometimes I use milk soaked bread cubes.  Maybe I'll throw in a splash of balsamic, or some parmesan.  One day I'll use bison, the next turkey.  And when I'm feeling lazy I simply take half beef and half italian sausage.  No other seasonings, but they are moist and tasty.  Use your favourite, or check out some of these.