Monday, March 30, 2009

Roast Chicken

I went with roast chicken for Sunday dinner this week. I wanted to try the Roasted Vegetable Salad from CI but wasn't organized enough to get this off the ground. Instead I went with mashed potatoes and green beans for sides. A little predictable but Sunday dinner is all about comfort food around our house. It was a fairly pleasant weather weekend but Sunday was coolish (and by Monday morning we would have snow, but lets not go there, shall we?) so roast chicken did wonders making the house feel cozy.

Roast chicken is actually a pretty mindless thing to make: I cleaned and patted dry my bird, put half a lemon, half a chopped onion and two sprigs of thyme inside, rubbed with skin with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, threw the works in a 400 degree oven and waited for my meat thermometer to beep at me, which it did about an hour and half later. Here are the results:

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Something simple

I'm thinking of roast chicken for Sunday dinner this week, along with a roasted vegetable salad from a recent Cook's Illustrated (Spring Entertaining) that I couldn't resist picking up at the grocery store a few weeks ago. As for dessert, I thought I would go simple and make something ahead of time. I settled on Sweet Maries, which I always make using a recipe from a community cookbook my mom gave me a copy of years ago. You know the type of cookbook I mean - this one was produced by the local Optimist club sometime in the late seventies. Definitely produced using a typewriter, and includes recipes for things like Frozen Cherry Salad Loaf, Chipit Crunchies, Saucy Beef Roles and (a personal fav around our house) Seven Layer Dinner. All kidding aside, some of the recipes in this collection are keepers, the Sweet Maries being one example. So if you're looking for a super simple Spring treat give these a try:

Sweet Maries
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup corn syrup
1 cup brown sugar
4-5 cups of rice krispies

Heat first three ingredients on top of stove until blended. Quickly add 4-5 cups of rice krispies and pack in 9x9 pan. Add chocolate icing to top when cooled.

Personally, I find the chocolate icing to be a must for this recipe. My husband would gladly eat them without. My favourite chocolate icing for Sweet Maries comes from Rose Murray, specifically a book called Hungry for Comfort which I highly recommend. You can't get any easier, or any tastier than this icing:

Easy Chocolate Icing
2 cups real chocolate chips
1/2 cup milk
1/3 cup butter in bits

In small saucepan heat chocolate chips with milk over low heat until melted and smooth. Remove from heat; stir in butter a little at time until smooth. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate until firm enough to spread, about two hours.

I usually halve this recipe for the above Sweet Maries, but if you make a full batch never fear - you'll find something to do with it. Chocolate soup, anyone?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


We're all getting a bit tired of roasts and stews around our house, the traditional fare of cold Canadian winters. Spring sprung as of last Friday and while the snow disappeared from our yard a couple of weeks ago (good riddance) the chill in the air still speaks of 'stick to your ribs' food. I decided lasagna could be a compromise dish - hearty enough for Winter but with a promise of Spring.

I've tried lots of lasagna recipes over the years. Some were simple but most were complicated. Ironically, the best lasagna I ever made was one I put together with leftovers found in the fridge. Ever since my 'discovery' it's the only lasagna I make. It uses ingredients that are typically available where I live year round and this Sunday when I served it, my older son actually tried and liked it. So it is definitely a keeper.

1 onion, chopped
1 zucchini, diced
1 red pepper, diced
handful of button mushrooms, sliced
1 package tofu, crumbled
2 jars spaghetti sauce (I usually use a basic sauce)
1 large block of mozzarella cheese
1 box of precooked lasagna noodles

Heat some oil in a skillet. Add the onion with some minced garlic (if you have on hand) and saute until softened. Add the diced zucchini and red pepper. Saute for another couple of minutes, then add the mushrooms. Once the mushrooms soften (another minute or two) add the tofu and spaghetti sauce. Saute until heated through.

Spoon a layer of sauce in the bottom of a 9x12 glass baking dish. Top with lasagna noodles. Put another layer of sauce over the noodles. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese. Add more noodles and a last layer of sauce. Sprinkle with more mozzarella cheese and a bit of fresh grated Parmesan cheese (if you have on hand). Bake for 40 minutes at 350 degrees. Let sit for a few minutes before serving.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

St. Patrick's Day Dinner

We had our St. Patrick's (inspired) dinner the Sunday before the 17th, since my husband's work schedule makes week night dining a challenge. I settled on a menu of lamb chops, boiled potatoes and steamed carrots, with a Guinness cake for dessert. After buying all of the necessary provisions I realized there was one small hitch with Sunday Dinner this week - I wouldn't be home to cook it. Months ago I had snapped up tickets to see The Drowsy Chaperone at a Sunday matinee. I could easily make the Guinness cake ahead of time and throw together the main meal after the show, but my husband stepped up and offered to do the mains for me. Which was awfully decent of him considering his specialties are grilled cheese and...well, grilled cheese.

When I arrived home from Drowsy the husband had dinner under control. In fact, he had dinner well in command. I had left him with a simple recipe found on Epicurious for Lemon-Garlic Lamb Chops and despite his inexperience with pan-frying he pulled off the perfect chop. I often find I don't do pan-fried well. I either get the pan too hot and burn the meat from the get go or I start off at too low a heat, get impatient, jack up the heat and burn the meat gradually. Our chops this night were perfectly done, right down to the lovely lemon-garlic sauce drizzled haphazardly around the plate. Which reveals the hidden dangers of offering to help cook dinner. From now on, the husband is in charge of pan-frying.

As for the Guinness cake, also an Epicurious find (Guinness Stout Ginger Cake), it was good although it had its shortcomings. I was trying to recreate a similar cake I experienced at JK Wine Bar when in Toronto this past January. (Yes, I experienced the cake. It was that good.) It came at the end of a truly outstanding dinner, my second at the restaurant in as many days. So when thinking Sunday dinner for St. Patrick's, I immediately thought of the JK cake. My version tasted good (great ginger flavour, nice and moist) but presentation wise, it was a bit disappointing. I had to dig my cake out of the bundt pan I baked it in, despite having greased the living daylights out of every nook and cranny.

I managed to put it back together but in the end my cake looked like it was wearing a bad toupee. Still, it ate fine. All of my boys liked it, the husband with coffee, the kids with a generous dollop of Cool Whip.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Falling down

I was all prepared to share my latest Sunday dinner triumph featuring scalloped potatoes, but skating lessons tonight changed my mind. Some context...

My older son has always been incredibly cautious. He does not dive into life, he moves forward tentatively with a certainty that eventually, he will be proved 'not good enough'. My husband and I have gone to great lengths to teach our (six year old!) son that the glass is half full and his best effort is always good enough but his brain is wired au contraire. Take skating lessons. This is our first Winter of skating lessons and after some initial hesitancy, things have been going very well. Last week we (meaning he) discovered gliding and it was smiles all around. Tonight, however, it was apparent from where I was sitting (in the heated viewing gallery, thank you very much) that we (again, he) were not impressed. After he stepped off the ice I inquired as to what the problem was. Evidentally, the teacher was asking the students to pick up the pace now that everyone is fairly stable on their skates. "She wants us to go faster." He said. "She's gone too far!" I had noticed my son lagging behind at the back of the group and asked him why he didn't try to go faster. Were his skates too tight? Too loose? Were his feet cold? Was he tired? "Because I'll fall." he said, looking at me like I was an idiot. He's figured it out, see - you go fast, you fall. You don't go fast, you stay on your feet. So why bother with fast? You might fall down.

Which brings me to Sunday dinner. I have been lusting over lemon pie for a couple of weeks and when I opened up Chatelaine for March, which arrived in the mail Friday, low and behold, lemon meringue pie, page 36. So I set to work making what I was certain would be the best lemon meringue pie ever. Except it wasn't. At one point I added too much water to the lemon filling. Then the filling wouldn't thicken, despite me keeping it on the heat for at least twice as long as was indicated in the recipe. And don't get me started on my pathetic meringue. It wasn't peaked nor was it perky. It was lifeless and rather lackluster. Still, the pie looked okay when I finally pulled it out of the oven. But as soon as I attempted to cut the first piece I knew all bets were off. It was an oozy, goopey mess. It looked like runny scrambled eggs with melted marshmallow on top. The crust variously dissolved under the wet filling or stuck fast to the bottom of the pie plate. I should have served it in bowls and called it lemon pudding (glass half full) but instead I served it to my family and sulked all the way through dessert. All through clean-up I bemoaned the crap lemon meringue pie, despite all of the adoring praise my husband heaped on the rest of the meal, and my cooking in general. In my head I was decided. I would never, ever attempt lemon meringue pie again. In fact, I might just swear off pie in general. I was obviously not made to bake pie. I'm no good at pie. I'll stick to cake, thank you very much.

And then tonight, I found myself trying to explain to my dear son that it's okay to fall down. Falling down is part of learning, particularly when you're learning to skate. And I realized that despite me thinking I'm glass half full, I sometimes wallow in half empty. I need to embrace falling down more often. I need to share falling down with my kids so they can see that everyone falls down. So here, for the record is my lemon meringue pie. As advertised it is not my best effort. Next time I'll read through the recipe before I begin, double check my measurements and cooking temperature and work a bit more slowly. I fell down, but I can get back up and try again.

Friday, March 6, 2009


I've noticed that a lot of my recipes tend to come from online sources these days. I do, however, have a fairly small but well thumbed recipe book collection. I find myself reaching for a handful of the dozen or so cookbooks that I own whenever I find myself needing to answer the age old question, "What's for dinner?".

One of the most reliable cookbooks in my collection is The New Canadian Basics Cookbook. This is a great book. I received it as a gift many years ago and it shows signs of frequent use. Some pages are stained (I'm not a neat cook) and some are falling out; many are dog-eared. I've written notes in the margins of some recipes: cut carrots smaller, better w orange zest v. lemon, or, my husbands favourite of my recipe short-hand: v. good. Occasionally, if I'm feeling generous, v.v. good. Crack that code, it you can.

If you ever get your hands on a copy of New Canadian Basics here are some recipes you can rely on:

Hot Artichoke Dip
Turkey Parmigiana Panini
Leek and Potato Soup
Layered Taco Dip
Make-Ahead Coleslaw
Herb-Roasted Chicken Breasts with Garlic, Potatoes and Carrots
Banana Bread
Chocolate Snacking Cake
Double Ginger Crackle Cookies
Four Fruit Punch

Obviously don't attempt or serve all of these in one sitting - not a menu, just a road map. I'm still struggling with my copyright issues or I'd reprint some of the above recipes in their entirety for you here.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

It's all gravy....

One of the things that inspired me to start my sunday dinners is the ritual of making Christmas dinner. So many people I talk to during the holidays dread having to be in charge of Christmas dinner. I adore it. Mostly because I like to cook but also because I have some control issues, no doubt. I've made Christmas dinner for a crowd a few times now and while I do tend to try new dishes every year (much to the annoyance of the traditionalists in the crowd - you know who you are) I have stumbled upon a few keeper recipes that are now a must for us at the holidays. One of these is a gravy recipe from Cook's Illustrated.

For the uninitiated, Cook's Illustrated takes a pretty serious approach to food. The magazine and cookbooks produced by CI contain recipes, obviously, but each one provides context for the ingredients chosen and methods used to produce the final product. When they make gravy, (or fudge, or chili, or whatever) they make dozens of batches to figure out how to produce the best [whatever] possible.

I first made the gravy (at our house we call it the gravy, for we know of which gravy I speak when I say 'I'm making the gravy') December 24th 2005. The date is pretty much seared into my brain because I remember my husband being a bit incredulous when I announced I was going to make gravy at 10 p.m. Christmas Eve. Actually he thought I was nuts. I was leafing through a Cook's Illustrated I had received for my birthday a couple of weeks earlier and the idea of gravy - really, really good gravy, appealled to me. But good gravy, it turns out, is not for wimps. Good gravy takes two days to prepare. And a willingness to be intimately acquainted with poultry in a way I had never been before. So there I was, December 24th, hacking up onions and trying to identify the internal organs of my turkey for fear of accidentally using the liver, which to my untrained eye looked a lot like a gizzard, in my gravy. (The liver, it turns out, can impart a strong flavour to the gravy considered undesirable by most gravy aficionados.)

Regardless, on December 25th when I finally finished the gravy I swear I could hear the sweet sound of angels remarking on my accomplishment. The gravy looked like gravy should look - an intense, deep caramel colour. The gravy smelled like gravy should smell. But that I had the words to describe it. But most of all, the gravy tasted like gravy should taste. Which is to say folks around the table were licking their plates. Or they wanted to. I know I did. And I might just have done so when I was back in the kitchen taking care of the dishes. (Just my plate - I'm not quite that desperate. Besides - there was leftovers).

But here's the thing about the gravy recipe. It's on the Cook's Illustrated website but you can't access CI recipes online without a subscription. I could be a hero and type it out here, but by trade I'm a librarian and bound to uphold copyright. I mean, it's not like we take an oath or anything, but I'm conflicted. While I think it through, consider getting your hands on Cook's Illustrated, Number 71, November/December 2004. And admire my Christmas table, circa 2008:

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Spinach salad with maple-dijon vinaigrette

I served this salad with a stew from The New Best Recipe Cookbook on Sunday February 22nd. TNBR is a standard in my kitchen. I use it all the time and have rarely been disappointed in a dish. Despite this recommendation for TNBR you'll note that my post is about salad, a recipe which I clipped from Cooking Light, March 2008. Don't get me wrong, the stew was good. (Better the second day, but I digress.) The reason I wanted to highlight the salad is because of the conversation I had with my husband while putting it together, which went something like this:

H: What's that?

Me (Cleaning spinach): Dinner.

H: I thought we were having stew.

Me (Chopping onion): We are. This is salad. To go with the stew.

H: Looks like a lot of trouble for salad.

Me (Coring an apple): It's about enough trouble for a salad. Trust me, you'll like it.

H: Is that bacon?

Me (Frying bacon): Yes.

H: For the stew?

Me (Slicing mushrooms): No, for the salad.

H: Looks like a lot of trouble for salad.

I won't lie to you. It was a lot of trouble for salad. What with the spinning and the draining, the chopping and the mincing, the splash of this and dollop of that. But I am a sucker for bacon and maple syrup season is just around the corner in our neck of the woods, so the sweet stuff has been on my mind. The verdict?

H: Wow. This is good salad. Is there more?

Me: Thanks. Plenty.

This salad recipe can be found on courtesy of Cooking Light magazine.

Bistro Beef with sun-dried tomatoes

For the first Sunday in March I decided to keep with comfort food. I clipped this particular recipe back in March 2005 from Chatelaine. I've been avoiding it as it contains some ingredients I thought my fussy family would balk at, but now that we've instituted the Sunday dinner rule I decided to give it a try.

The Sunday dinner rule at our house is that everyone tries one bite of every dish served. During the week I tend to stick with the classics, the crowd pleasers, i.e. any dish that doesn't evoke whining and eye rolling. So Sunday is a day to go outside the comfort zone. Well, not my comfort zone since I have the most adventurous palate of the family. The Sunday dinner rule also states that we eat in the dining room. And I make a dessert. So despite the rules, everyone wins since I can't think of a dessert I've made yet that has been rejected.

Back to Bistro Beef. The sun-dried tomatoes likely attracted me to this dish initially. I make a mean chicken dish that involves sun dried tomates and I don't care if the ingredient is tired or cliched, it eats great. I've also only just recently, in the last five years or so, discovered that I do like olives. The recipe suggested serving the beef over mashed potatoes with a side of green beans. Good suggestions both.

The reaction to this dish was a surprise. My husband loved it, despite not being a fan of olives or red peppers. My youngest son discovered he enjoys green beans (a surprise for us both) and my other son requested more bread with butter, please. Oh well. You can't please everyone! I enjoyed Bistro Beef more the second day, as is the case with most stews I make. The sauce, which is mostly beef stock and balsamic vinegar, seemed richer the second go round. This recipe is available via