Some Help…PLEASE!

Posted on Oct 8, 2009

Lately life has been completely out of control. Hectic… busy… frantic… frenzied… chaotic. S, as you may already know, moved to Ottawa to go to school while Leith and I stayed behind in Toronto to duke it out on our own for a while. Needless to say, we’ve been keeping ourselves pretty busy (getting a three year-old to and from school on a daily basis shouldn’t be this much work!) and haven’t had time to make much of anything other than toast in the mornings and a quick pasta or rice dish in the evenings. Yesterday I actually asked my kitchen for help. While it didn’t respond, my brain finally did.

There is nothing wrong with "help" in the kitchen. There is absolutely nothing wicked about buying (if you eat it) ketchup, or (if you like it) Cheese Whiz. If you prefer canned soup, then you are not going to die a slow and painful death. If you love your microwave and use it on a daily basis, you can still continue to call yourself a cook, if what you make with it pleases you and/or your family. If you take a few shortcuts to make a delicious meal it doesn’t mean that you can’t cook or that you care about cooking any less than someone who makes their own pasta, pastry or soup stock.

I know that time is precious – I am re-learning this on a daily basis. Every hour is filled with something that needs to be done and cooking is generally the first thing to take a back seat to more important things. Why spend hours making soup when you can grab a can and heat it on the stove in under five minutes (and the noodles might even be shaped like fishies)? I think this way sometimes and I don’t hold it against myself for wanting to spend less time doing anything that might take time away from teaching Leith how to ride a bike or taking him shopping for new winter boots. I understand that part of taking care of children is feeding them something other than McDonalds and Kraft Dinner…but there are times when cooking simply has to come second.

Yes, there are times when even The Domestic Goddess in me needs a vacation. There are times when I want something but just can’t find the time to make it entirely from scratch and I will, I admit, take a shortcut that I think is forgivable. I have in the past made my own puff pastry and will only do so again if l lose a bet or have a few days alone and need to kill some time. I have never made my own phyllo dough, and don’t actually know anyone who has to be honest. To me, buying phyllo is a shortcut worth taking, especially when what you put into it is the real act of cooking.

Sometimes these shortcuts keep us cooking – so for that we should be thankful. As long as the results are what you want to eat then you are your very own genius in the kitchen. That’s why a new Pillsbury competition caught my eye and I am encouraging you to enter it. The rules are pretty simple, they want you to create your own unique recipe using one of their handy ready-made products. They have some great examples on their site (from which I have chosen a few favourites) to give you some inspiration and get you cooking, even when you don’t think you have the time.

So enter, vote and enjoy – and stay tuned because shortly, I will be announcing my own little contest you can enter to win a fantastic prize basket from Pillsbury!

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An Old/New Friend

Posted on Sep 4, 2009

It was like meeting an old friend. Not old in the “aged” sense mind you,…”old” in the I-feel-like-I-have-known-her-forever sense. I recognized her immediately, though now I’m not exactly sure how. I guess I’ve seen photos of her before, but I don’t think I ever really committed her features to memory. She recognized me right away too – though I don’t know if it was the red bag I was carrying (I had emailed her letting her know what I was wearing) that gave me away.

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Boxes, Boxes

Posted on Aug 25, 2009

I’m not a "hater"…at least I don’t think I am, anyway. I don’t hate most things that most people I know happen to hate. I don’t mind traffic or waiting in line in the bank. I am perfectly fine with Brussels’ sprouts, snails and yes, even hospital food. Hatred is something I reserve for precious few things in life and honestly, I can only think of one thing that falls into that category right now.

I don’t think there is anything I loathe more than living out of boxes. Perhaps I dislike the packing of said boxes…or maybe I hate the act of having to purge prior to packing those boxes. It’s difficult to decide; thankfully I get to do all three things simultaneously these days.

Everything suffers when you live out of boxes.

Wardrobe: I wear basically two or three "outfits" because everything else is packed. I have limited things to wear to work and try to pretend they are different by wearing my hair differently each day so no one will clue in (right…).

Entertainment: the television and all of its accoutrements are packed. Enough said. Even Leith’s books are packed, forcing me to read "Guess How Much I Love You" every. night. like. clockwork.

Diet: my cookbooks are out of commission (see above). My kitchen is also packed, save for a few cracked plates and cups and old cutlery. Even my beloved KitchenAid is packed up in its box, waiting by the kitchen table, to travel to its new home. I swear if I never see another take-away menu or box of frozen hamburgers again it will be too soon.

It’s times like these that I am happy and just a little bit proud of something I did way back in December, not thinking at the time that it might just be a decadent life-saver come August. You might recall my recipe for Chili Pepper Jam. I gave jars, along with jars of Cranberry Chutney to some very lucky people. I kept a few to myself, hoarding them for use on special occasions; a dinner party here, a cheese tasting there, a quiet, candlelit meal for the two of us once.

As I was packing the kitchen pantry the other day I came across one last jar of the Chutney. I had been thinking of ordering pizza for dinner but spotting that ruby-red jar spelled out an amazing dinner instead. As we munched on our left over roast chicken sandwiches with chutney and goats cheese on rosemary buns from the local bakery, I smiled. I was thinking about how I’d found the jar and how I might not have noticed it if I hadn’t had to pack that day.

I suppose I don’t hate packing after all.

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What’s for Dinner?

Posted on Jul 4, 2009

What’s for Dinner?

I ask myself that every day. I ask my husband that almost every day. I ask my three year-old son that on a disturbingly regular basis. I constantly query friends, co-workers, people I run into in the elevator, on the street, on the streetcar, at the grocery store.

I am flustered and tired and uninspired and not in the mood to cook. It’s too hot, work has been too difficult, we have no food, we have too much food, there is no mood music, the lighting is all wrong in the kitchen (and so are the floors and the walls and the cupboards and the counters). I have lists of excuses on my Ipod that I use as reasons to order take-away or cook painless dinners for my boys on a regular basis. I talk myself into meals that require very few ingredients and very little effort; I have mastered the art of toasted cheese sandwiches and my sister even presented my son with a dinosaur sandwich cutter so at least he has “fun” shaped sandwiches in the midst of my recent culinary crisis.

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Love is in the Air

Posted on May 25, 2009

There are things you say and do when a close friend or family member gets married. Congratulations are expressed, love is extolled and hopes for their future life together are articulated. There are dresses to be picked out, flowers to be chosen and food (oh, so much food) to be decided upon, taste-tested and decided upon again. A lot of hard work and planning goes into a wedding (trust me, I know) and by the time the day arrives most couples are exhausted and left wondering why they didn’t just spend the money on a trip or a house or a new car.

Somehow I doubt my sister-in-law and her soon-to-be betrothed will end up feeling that way. Their wedding (coming up in July of this year) has been planned within an inch of its life. Gorgeous invitations have been delivered, delicious food has been ordered, beautiful dresses are bought and waiting (except mine of course!), the perfect hairstyles have been rehearsed and even the wedding cake itself has gone through its very own "dry run". S.’s youngest sister A. has been planning this wedding for as long as she can remember and I know it is going to go down in history as one of the most fantastic days of her life.

Recently a shower was thrown in her honour and I offered to bring a little something sweet for the party. I thought about it for a long time, trying to decide just what would work best. I knew she was making a cake (the aforementioned "dry run") and I certainly didn’t want even attempt to compete with that, so anything chocolate was certainly out of the question. I thought about ice-cream sandwiches and about flower-shaped cookies decorated in petal-pink icing. I considered mini-cheesecakes and tiny vanilla cupcakes. Nothing seemed like the right thing for a spring-themed, pink-hued shower.

Then I remembered a scone I had eaten last spring from Starbucks – a tiny, buttery, vanilla scone with a sweet milky glaze. Yes, that was it. I set to work early that morning and made a large batch of the cutest, tiniest, heart-shaped scones. Piling the dainties on a platter with a bowl of strawberry butter alongside was the perfect addition to a very girly, very sweet shower.

Congratulations to A. and O. I know your marriage will be just like these scones; sugary-light and happy inside with a dollop of buttery tartness to keep you guessing.

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Posted on May 8, 2009

Recently I was lucky enough to be the recipient of a "care package" of Grand Prix cheese from the Dairy Farmers of Canada. With this offering in hand I hastily organized a modest cheese tasting at my house with S., my sister, her boyfriend, Randy, Leith and myself in attendance. While Leith offered little more to the situation than a few mmms, ahhs and more, pleases, I don’t think it is ever too early to nourish an appreciation for cheese.

The beautiful, warm spring day was coming to a close with a flash thunderstorm as our guests arrived. We gave them the official tour of our house (Randy had never been to our place before), as Leith ran circles around everyone offering toys and potties and cookies whenever a break in conversation allowed. After the niceties we adjourned to the living room and settled into some serious cheese tasting.

The rather generous sampling included 5 selections:
1. Kenogami from Fromagerie Lehmann in Quebec (the 2009 Grand Champion and winner in the washed-rind cheese category).
2. Le Ciel de Charlevois from La Maison D’affinage Maurice Dufour Inc. in Quebec (winner in the blue cheese category).
3. Cows Extra Old Cheddar from Cows Inc. in Prince Edward Island (winner in the Old, Extra Old Cheddar category).
4. Evanturel from Thornloe Cheese in Ontario (one of the finalists in the soft cheese with bloomy rind category).
5. Island Bries from Little Qualicum Cheeseworks Ltd. in British Columbia (one of the finalists in the soft cheese with bloomy rind category).

I have to be perfectly honest here: I adore cheese. I could probably live off it if it wouldn’t kill me to do so. I like soft cheeses and hard ones, mild cheeses and moldy, stinky ones. Every time I walk into a cheese shop it takes me a very long time to make a choice and I will often have to take a small sampling of at least five or six before narrowing the list down to a scant two or three. Cheese goes with everything and does truly make just about anything taste better.

My name is Jennifer and I am a Cheese-aholic.

So what did we think of these three award winning and two finalist cheeses? To put it in a nutshell (mmmm, nuts go well with cheese) we liked them all. They were all delicious and well rounded in their flavours. It was a fantastic selection. If you want a few more detailed comments, I am, of course, happy to oblige.

1. The "Kenogami" has a mild aroma filled with herbs and flowers. It has a mild buttery flavour and a soft, supple texture. It was the "Grand Champion" in the Cheese Grand Prix and I believe it held up to this title in my own cheese tasting. We all really enjoyed it and thought it was definitely a cheese we would want to try again and would likely recommend it to friends in the future. I think it would be delicious melted on a roast beef sandwich and did in fact manage to save a few small bits to melt on a hamburger the next day, which was amazing.

2. The "Le Ciel de Charlevois", a fairly mild blue, was creamy and had a lovely and not over-powering bite. My sister loves blue cheese and this one certainly did not disappoint. It would be the perfect cheese to use in an onion tart or in blue cheese biscuits where the flavour would not be too overwhelmed.

3. The "Cows Extra Old Cheddar" was the only disappointment in the group. I am a HUGE fan of old cheddar, and I was expecting more from this award-winning sample. It was milder than expected and simply did nothing for us on any level. I did melt it on some crusty foccacia a day later and though it looked deliciously brown and melty (is that even a word?) it still just didn’t measure up in terms of flavour.

4. The "Evanturel" was an interesting brie-style cheese with a line of edible vegetable ash running through its centre. It had an aroma of mushrooms and earthiness and an especially smooth texture. I did a little research and Brian O’Connor, the executive director of Thornloe Cheese, is quoted as saying, "We think the ash makes the cheese a bit creamier – that it has a hygroscopic effect and draws moisture into the cheese itself." Whatever it does, this cheese was creamy, delicious and definitely something I would want to eat again, and again, and again.

5. The "Island Bries", with its quirky name, was quite possibly the creamiest brie I have ever tasted. Brie is hardly an exciting cheese next to the alternatives; it has been around forever and hasn’t really changed much. As Randy said, we’ve been eating brie since it was "cool" in the 80’s – what more can they possibly do with it?! We all ate our words once we tasted this creamy, buttery cheese with a velvety white rind. It is officially my new favourite brie.

It was a great evening and we all really enjoyed the selection of cheeses we tasted. I’d love to do it again – but I don’t think that comes as a surprise, considering my addiction admission from earlier. A big thank-you to the Dairy Farmers and their honorable judges for shedding some light on the fantastic cheeses available across Canada.

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…And the Living is Easy…???

Posted on Mar 27, 2009

As a moderately busy family with a small child, we tend to have a difficult time getting everyone together without someone throwing a temper tantrum (and by "someone" I mean any of the three of us). Between all of our work, school and social commitments, often the only time S. and I are able to share quality time with Leith is during dinner.

Anyone who has a toddler or preschooler will understand when I say that dinner is not our finest hour. Leith is acting persnickety, I am flustered and tired from a long day at work and if S. is not actually in class, he is studying, working on a paper or grading tests and papers. Lately, it has been more than tempting to simply throw the meal on the table and allow everyone to just zone out in front of the television. I hate to admit it, but we actually do that sometimes. I am aware that this doesn’t qualify as quality time spent with my family and recently have been trying to think of new ways to optimize our "witching hour" to get the whole family together, on gracious terms.

When it comes time to prepare dinner, Leith is always buzzing around the kitchen looking for something to play with or snack on. I have started trying to involve him in the cooking process – either by helping out in the kitchen or just simply allowing him to pretend cook on the kitchen floor. He loves to get ingredients out of the fridge and can be trusted to cart items to the counter and back (he’s even managed to lug eggs from the fridge to the counter without dropping them!) while I am cooking. He has also recently graduated to tasks such as cracking an egg, mixing ingredients by hand, adding various ingredients to the mixer, separating onion slices and piling on pizza toppings. There is nothing wrong with a boy who likes to cook.

Depending on how busy a given week is, I do still see the importance of organizing at least one night when we can all enjoy each other’s company for more than a few fleeting moments. I urge S. to abandon his text books and computer, and we all sit at the table, with the television off and talk about the food, or what we did that day, or our plans for the upcoming weekend. Sometimes we even try to have some fun with this "special" night by having a themed dinner like homemade pizza night or cooking Leith’s favorite breakfast food ("Bacon and eggs! Bacon and eggs!" he chants) for dinner. This is a great way to bond and cook up a creative and tasty dish that all of us enjoy. Family time shouldn’t be limited to eating whatever happens to be on the table – it should also include the fun and creativity put into the meal so that everyone feels included and excited for the delicious dishes ahead.

Along with having the right cookware sets, I have a few stand-by recipes that are good for these sorts of evenings – I hope you will try them with your family and let me know what secrets you have come up with for dealing with the dinner-time disaster hour.

(1) Brie and Asparagus Tart
(2) Creamed Corn Cakes
(3) Spinach Pesto Pasta with Chicken
(4) (Dino) Chicken Fingers
(5) Eggplant Parmesan Panini
(6) Pizza
(7) Stromboli
(8) Mom’s Cream of Broccoli Soup
(9) Simple Samosas

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