Summertime sweets

On a recent weekday morning, I awoke to the sound of an incoming Snapchat at 7 a.m. While I was still adjusting to a new day, my cousin snapped me the entire process of her preparing a berry crisp for breakfast. My mind was blown by two things:

  1. Berry crisp for breakfast!
  2. Homemade berry crisp for breakfast at 7 a.m. on a weekday?

I knew I’d never be able to achieve the second, but I set myself a goal of indulging in a crisp breakfast on an upcoming morning.

Peach crisp for breakfast

I searched the web far and wide to find the most straightforward recipe for peach crisp. Along the way, I found this wonderfully explanatory video about creating the perfect peach cobbler.

I also learned the difference between a cobbler and crisp – a cobbler is topped with a biscuit batter, whereas a crisp includes an oat mix. Who knew!

I’ll be honest – this crisp did not go as planned. I had a few days off work and was absolutely determined this would be a wonderful start to a mini-vacation.  When I awoke to prepare my crisp, I had come down with quite possibly the worst summer cold I’ve ever had. Nonetheless, I was determined and set out preparing Chowhound’s Easy Peach Crisp. Did it taste good? I can’t tell you. I couldn’t taste it at all. But boy did it look good as it sizzled coming out of the oven.

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Sometimes appearance really is all that matters.

Lessons learned

This week’s lesson is pretty straightforward: despite your cooking goals, if you wake up with a deathly cold – give yourself a break. 45 minutes preparing a homemade crisp for breakfast is wasted if you can’t taste it.

 

 

Fast food five: Daniella

Putting together this week’s fast food five was challenging for one reason and one reason only: narrowing down what to say about my featured guest, Daniella. Daniella’s been a colleague of mine for more than a few years now. Back in 2013, we bonded over shared Italian backgrounds and a love of curating the perfect meal.

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An example of Daniella’s outstanding food prep skills.

As our friendship has grown, so too has our recipe sharing – it’s not often either of us entertain or enjoy a meal out without running the item-by-item menu by
each other. She’s an amazing cook, and an amazing friend, but for the purposes of this blog, perhaps most importantly an amazing food prepper. In the three years I’ve worked with Daniella, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen her buy a lunch. When I was first designing this feature and deciding who should be included, Daniella was an obvious pick.

Daniella, colleague, friend, kitchen prep extraordinaire 

On a scale of 1 to 5, how good are you in the kitchen? Tell me more. 

I’m a 4/5. Every meal I eat comes out of my own kitchen so it’s only natural that my cooking skills have improved over the years. I grew up in a home where the kitchen was never off limits. At a very young age I was making fluffy pancakes from scratch served with a fresh pot of coffee for my parents in the morning.

Baking, cooking, or neither. Tell me why.  

Both! I put my cooking skills to work everyday but I always have a batch of home made muffins in my freezer. Why? I have a make-from-scratch mentality, if I’m going to serve something I want to have made it myself.

What’s your go-to dish to impress others? 

Hmm I don’t really have a go-to, every time I host I try something different. I would have to say that my proudest dish was the turkey dinner I prepared for Easter in 2015. I was very impressive and brought a tear to my grandmothers eye.

What are your top strategies for pulling off a dinner party?

  • Preparation: have all of the dirty work done before the guests arrive, so that any cooking that needs to be done is effortless (you need to look like an expert)
  • Have drinks and appetizers ready immediately: I always make sure my appetizers are ready and waiting to serve as soon as peckish guests arrive
  • Set the table: having a beautifully set table is always an impressive thing
  • Save the dishes for after your guests leave: nothing says party’s over like a pair of yellow rubber gloves and a sponge. Clear the table and stack the dirty dishes neatly in the kitchen but do not start your deep clean until the fun is officially over

Any tips for me as I try to improve my hosting/home cooking skills? 

Put a bit of extra planning into your weekly menu so that you don’t have to cook every night. During these summer months it’s helpful to make large quantities of food that keeps in the fridge for a while. Lately I’ve been marinating my meat before putting it in the freezer so that it’s grill ready when I get home from work!

 

 

Finding culinary inspiration

I saw a friend last night who I hadn’t seen in about a year. It was a lovely get together and at the end I promised to invite her over for dinner in the near future. “As long as you make that sweet potato risotto,” she replied. Ah, the sweet potato risotto. A staple in my entertaining handbook. Why? It’s delicious. It’s not really complicated, but it is time-consuming and feels much more impressive than it actually is.

Last night was gorgeous (Hello, Toronto heat-wave) and so as I walked home from our dinner, I thought about that almost-a-year-ago dinner. I also thought about how I was considering making that same sweet potato risotto for an upcoming dinner party. And about how I had blogged earlier in the day about simply waiting the right amount of time before repeating a recipe. And then I went for a breakfast this morning and overheard the couple at the table next to me extensively planning a dinner party (“Okay, so if those are our sides – what will be our main?” “Oh no! That dish is far too vinegary to go with that main.”) It got me thinking about the amount of time and effort we put into meal planning – and the amount of inspiration it can take.

All this very wordy, very indulgent introduction is to say that today’s blog is about INSPIRATION.

Culinary inspiration

In no particular order, here are my favourite three sources of culinary inspiration.

  • PinterestDuh! I’m not even sure this one needs a description. Type in an ingredient, diet, or style of cooking and voila! A list of matching recipes appear. Not to mention that Pinterest’s pinnable nature means you can collect and easily organize recipes to search later.
  • Jamie Oliver’s Food TubeYou can definitely find some really fancy Jamie Oliver recipes, but a big part of his work seems to be about making good, healthy cooking accessible to the average amateur. His FoodTube channel features a number of chefs providing step-by-step recipe instruction. I’ve taken to scouring the channel as a little end-of-day entertainment. His How To Make a Silky Omelette video is a favourite of mine and provided a new way to make an old ingredient.
  • Yummly – Think of Yummly as a specialized Pinterest specifically for food. Rather than simply typing in keywords, you can also restrict search results. It has a bit less riff-raff than Pinterest, making your time a bit more useful.

Anything I missed? Leave your go-to culinary inspiration sources in the comments!

 

 

 

 

Manageable date night in

Is that not the most romantic headline regarding a date night in you’ve ever read? There’s a running joke in our house that I have two levels of cooking: cereal for dinner or a masterpiece. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve promised a beautiful dinner and then spent two to three hours creating a disaster in the kitchen followed by a late-night feast. Very early on in our relationship, I spent hours preparing gnocchi only to have it fall apart immediately upon entering the pot. This resulted in both a bruised ego and an inedible flour/potato stew. Since starting this blog, I’ve been working on coming up with a list of go-to recipes that don’t take four years to prepare.

Three weekday date night dinners

After months of experimentation, and a strict requirement that each of these recipes be easy, relatively quick and require minimal clean-up, here’s what I’ve got.

  • Thai Mango Cabbage Wraps with Crispy Tofu and Peanut Sauce – Obviously no list of mine would be complete without a Cookie and Kate entry. These are so easy and so good – and the recipe is wonderfully detailed in providing instructions to keep the meal moving along smoothly while you’re cooking. The crispy tofu is to die for, and an excellent way to ease into tofu if it’s not typically your jam.
  • Garlic + Basil Chickpea Veggie Burgers with Creamy Avocado Pesto – Quick and delicious. In fact, I’ve taken to making a double batch of these and eating them on salads through the week. I’ve also substituted the egg for a flax egg to keep the recipe vegan-friendly.

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    Not only delicious, but visually appealing this Vietnamese Shrimp Noodle Salad is destined to become a staple in our home.

  • Vietnamese Shrimp (Prawn) Noodle Salad – What a win. I have been talking about this salad to everyone who will listen since I made it. This was light, delicious, quick and felt fancy. Since we had this not too long ago, I’m just waiting for an appropriate amount of time to pass until I can make it again without seeming repetitive.

One of the things I loved most about each of these recipes is the ingredient lists. Other than a few things here and there, all three of these are composed of things I already had in the house. This meant that I could decide day-of to make any of the recipes above and not need to worry too much about fitting in a big trip to the grocery store.

Lessons learned

  • As always, plan ahead – but if you can’t, pick a recipe that has ingredients you’re likely to have in your kitchen.
  • Find something you love? Make a double batch. Find different ways to fit it into various meals.
  • Fancy doesn’t need to mean complicated.

Three weekday breakfast solutions for the non-early bird

I’ve never been a morning person. When I was in high school, my dad would wake me up and I would get out of bed, go to the bathroom, and go back to sleep on the mat to squeeze out 10 more minutes. As an adult I now see how gross this practice was. I’m not that bad anymore, but I have been known to hit a snooze once or twice. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more envious of people who seem to enjoy their mornings.

One of the worst parts about not being a morning person is the hit it takes on you’re a.m. food consumption. It seems easy and straightforward and a ridiculous thing to be bad at, but I’m bad at breakfast.

Too often I’ve settle for coffee, or a baked good, or cheese and crackers. Breakfast seems straightforward, but the truth is I’ve never felt satiated with cereal or toast, and so over the past year I’ve made it my mission to sort out a few easy but filling breakfast solutions.

While breakfast before work isn’t exactly about hosting, it is about food and it is about eating at home, so with this in mind, here are my three best breakfast solutions.

Egg white banana oat pancake

Passed on from a colleague at work, this is by far the most balanced and filling breakfast on the list:

  • 1/3 cup egg white
  • 1/3 cup oatmeal
  • mashed banana

Mix it up and pan-fry it. You’re good to go. Make 100 in advance and freeze them. Now you’re good to go for 100 days. (Okay maybe 100 is a bit much).

Steel cut oats

This one is so easy. Just make a big ol’ batch of steel cut oats. Pack some the night before. Mix in some peanut butter if it’s too plain for you. Now you’re good to go.

Smoothie goodness

This is probably one of the things I’m most proud of for my breakfasts. I hate yogurt. I hate it so much. But I know it’s “good for you” and so I’ve tried to work against this. In fact, I have been working for years perfecting the balance of yogurt to fruit to water consistency so that a smoothie is both palatable and filling. Here it is:

  • 1 cup yogurt
  • 1 cup frozen fruit (if you use strawberries and bananas, you can even pretend it’s a strawberry milkshake)
  • 1 ice cube
  • whatever room is left in the magic bullet amount of water

Mix it all up and you’re good to go.

Lessons learned

While not a traditional entertaining/hosting blog post, here’s what I’ve learned through my breakfast trials:

  • Aim low – don’t plan to do too much in the morning. Maybe you’ll make that omelette on Monday and Tuesday, but Wednesday’s a lost cause.
  • Prepare ahead – can you make a big batch on Sunday? Can you put your yogurt in the magic bullet the night before?
  • Not everyone is going to be an enjoy-the-morning-read-a-paper person. Accept it and work with what you’ve got – even if all you’ve got is 10 minutes.

Fast food five family take two: My big brother Seb

One time, in high school, all I wanted was an ice cream maker. My parents lovingly got me one for a birthday and I set out to make my absolute favourite flavour – mint chocolate chip. My brother, resident chef-in-training at our home, passed through the kitchen and provided his recommendation, “You’re going to want to amend that recipe and chop that mint if you really want the flavour to come out.” I did as I was told. Two hours later, we had mint chocolate ice cream that tasted more like pinecone chocolate chip. The flavour was so strong, it was inedible.

I share this story because it feels like the most appropriate way for a little sister to introduce what follows. There’s not much else to say, except that when you read through this week’s Fast Food Five with my brother Seb, I trust you’ll understand where my lofty goals and inadequate feelings about food prep come from. I know, I know – cry me a river.

Sebastian, professional craft brewer, blogger’s brother

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Um, could I have found a better photo for this blog post? Here is Seb, in our parent’s kitchen, preparing Christmas Eve dinner this past year.

On a scale of 1 to 5, how good are you in the kitchen? Tell me more. 

3.5 – I think I’m fairly competent in the kitchen, but I know that is limited to a home venue. I don’t have any training and I’m not extremely comfortable with all of the various techniques, particularly sauce making in the French tradition. If I added a bit more technical expertise I might bump myself up to a 4.

Baking, cooking, or neither. Tell me why.  

Cooking. While I grew up both cooking and baking, primarily with my mother and I can trace my love of being in the kitchen to time spent with her, it was the fire, heat, and seemingly off the cuff  panache of early Food Network™ chefs such as Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse that really caught my attention. I like being able to scour through my fridge, cupboards and spice rack and come up with a relatively interesting and tasty dish. Baking can be fun, but is much more of a planned event.

What’s your go-to dish to impress others?

I think I’ve got a few, and like to cycle through them depending on the season and occasion.

Summertime, as long as the guests are a bit adventurous and enjoy seafood I really like to do a bright, citrusy ceviche.

Fall can be the perfect time for a risotto, with late harvest vegetables or mushrooms.

Winter I prefer something a bit richer, possibly a braised pork belly, along with root vegetables.

Spring calls for a return to lighter fare, such as baked salmon or roast chicken with lemon and thyme.

What are your top strategies for pulling off a dinner party?

  1. Be prepared. While everyone likes to hang out with the cook in the kitchen, share some wine and  see the final meal prep, nobody wants to see you chopping onions and commiserate over the tears they induce.
  1. Keep it simple. There are a ton of great dishes that will impress your guests that don’t require an advanced gastronomic skills. Source good ingredients and let them shine, your guests will be even more amazed at the thoughtful preparation and depth of flavour.
  1. Pick a theme. This can be as broad or specific as you like, but there should be some rhyme and reason to the dishes you decide to serve together.
  1. Pay attention to timing, and plan accordingly. The roast can come out of the oven and rest while you finish up a vegetable dish, but don’t be caught chopping salad ingredients before you’ve popped the meat in the oven.

Editors note: This list was painful to read. I’ve literally done all of these things wrong in the past month. 

Any tips for me as I try to improve my hosting/home cooking skills? 

Be confident that you can cook most dishes with some preparation, but be aware of what you are about to attempt. Weeknight Beef Wellington from scratch is almost certainly setting oneself up for failure, and future discouragement.

Remember that simple is often best, and what’s in season will showcase naturally in simple preparation. At times cooking is a relaxing way to unwind, other times it is simply about getting the right nutrients we need to continue with our day.

When it comes to hosting, be aware of social food. Tapas became a craze because they’re not only delicious, but because of the style of dining. Food can be part of the topic of conversation, it can be fun, but it certainly doesn’t have to be difficult.

Last but not least, enjoy the journey of improving in the kitchen, and be excited to share it with others.

Collaborative cooking versus have-everything-good-to-go-when-your-guests-arrive

I’m a fan of collaborative cooking – partly because I love alliterations and partly because it takes the pressure off. What I mean by this is that my preferred way to host is to invite a friend over and figure out how to make something new together. What’s an even bigger challenge for me (and if I’m being honest, what I almost never even try) is the have-everything-good-to-go-when-your-guests-arrive style of hosting.

A few weeks ago, we had some friends over. These pals had hosted us about a year ago, and so I was already feeling bad about the delay in returning the favour – I couldn’t risk a delay in serving food now that they would finally be in my home. I planned early and thoroughly:

The menu

As learned last week, I picked a straight-forward menu that could mostly be prepared before hand from Cookie and Kate recipes Roasted Butternut Squash Tacos and Herb Red Potato Salad. My friend volunteered to bring a green salad, so I was off the hook for that. I had never made either of these recipes before, but picked them because except for the roasted butternut squash in the tacos, each element could be served room temperature, maximizing my prep time and minimizing my mealtime work.

(A quick side note about this potato salad – it is amazing. I ended up making it again two days later to bring to a pot luck BBQ. A summer staple for sure. )

While these main seemed manageable, I still needed a backup plan in the form of appetizers. Should dinner take longer than planned, I could at least keep my pals satiated. I picked out some appetizers the only way I know how – googling “easy appetizers”. I settled on Garlic-Herb Pinwheels and Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta.

How it turned out

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Butternut squash taco leftovers. I’ll be the first to admit that if I plan to keep up this food blog I’m going to need to improve my food photography.

If you’re judging based on the have-everything-good-to-go-when-your-guests-arrive style of hosting, this evening was a major success. I was just plating the final bruschetta as I noticed my friends walking down my lane-way. The potato salad and black bean coleslaw for the tacos was prepped and the butternut squash was in the oven. Hell, I’d even started clean-up.

What I didn’t think about, until it was in front of my face, was how every single menu item was carb-based. Sure there were vegetables, but do butternut squash tacos really need a side of potato salad? And should that meal be prefaced with puff pastry and thick bread? My obsession with making sure everything was ready on time drove me to create an easy and straightforward meal while ignoring how it’d all come together.

Lessons learned

  • Plan ahead and pick things that don’t need to be serving piping hot.
  • Never listen to Martha Stewart when she recommends you tear bread for bruschetta – it will not look nice.
  • Be mindful of how the overall meal will come together to ensure balance.

Introducing: Fast food five

Thinking of food as a connector is not an original idea, but nonetheless, it is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I grew up in a household where food was core to how we celebrated. Sometimes it was mundane (salmon with hoison sauce was the Thursday special for most of my teenage years), and sometimes it was spectacular. In both situations, it was always delicious, high-quality and never processed. More importantly, it was a vehicle to bring our family and loved ones together.

To explore this idea of food as a vehicle and to selfishly improve my own hosting/cooking game, I’ve decided to ask some of my favourite people who I love sharing meals with about their relationship to food in a new series, Fast Food Five.

Who better to kick off our new series than a woman who throws the best dinner parties I’ve ever been to – my mom.

Laura, retired teacher, dinner-party aficionado, blogger’s mom

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Me, my mom and my dad on my birthday this year. My mom didn’t make that cake, but she did make her famous potato salad for my birthday (per my request).

On a scale of 1 to 5, how good are you in the kitchen? Tell me more.

5. I enjoy cooking. People enjoy eating the food I cook. I do not find cooking a chore. I like eating real food and using seasonal ingredients. I enjoy being in my kitchen, listening to the radio and preparing food.

Baking, cooking, or neither. 

Tell me why. Cooking more than baking. Baking is so exact and success depends on so so many variables. Ingredients, measurements, and oven temperature. I’m eating less sugar so baking is totally out of the picture lately as I do not like using sweetener.

What’s your go-to dish to impress others? 

Any type of pasta. People are impressed with gnocchi or risotto. A good pork roast is always impressive, along with slow baked salmon.

The last meal my mom made me. Beautiful flank steak with a mango salsa, Ontario asparagus and a healthy side of pasta with sage butter.

What are your top strategies for pulling off a dinner party?

Come up with menu early, list the ingredients for each dish, make shopping list, set up a timeline for each dish i.e. what can be made ahead etc. Have all the groceries bought ahead. Don’t choose dishes that are too ambitious. Lately I have not served an appetizer but put a salad or soup on the menu as a first course.

Any tips for me as I try to improve my hosting/home cooking skills?

See # 4.

Editor’s note: My mom called me after this post to say she should have been warned this would be posted with no edits. Mom! I am a blogger with integrity! I can’t edit your words just because you responded to full questions from me with “See #4.”

If you can conquer pasta you can conquer anything

I have been majorly slacking on this initiative for a number of reasons – some good ones, some bad ones, but ultimately not interesting ones. So rather than writing a mea culpa about my blog negligence, I’m going to move onto bigger, better, more impressive things: I conquered homemade pasta.

Welcome to my home! Dinner will be served in approximately 4 hours.

I’ve made pasta a few times before to varying levels of success. It usually tastes good, but as with most kitchen endeavours of mine, the meal is served significantly later than planned and an egg almost makes it to the floor.

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The lighting in this photo is good because we took it at 10:30 p.m. and had to rely on candles. 

My most notable attempt was this past October when a good friend joined to make use of my recently acquired pasta machine. Together, we had picked out this amazing Winter Squash Carbonara, only with homemade noodles and added scallops. Go big or go home, as they say. We ate at 10:30 p.m.

Reflecting now, there are a lot of reasons this happened. I didn’t do any prep work (oops); I had never tried the recipe (my bad); I visited my parents out of town the night before (I’m sure I had a good reason); and I “forgot” to pick any ingredients until two hours before my friend was to arrive. In retrospect, it was a recipe for disaster – pun intended.

A goal without a plan is just a wish

Recently, having recovered from our previous attempt, this same friend and I decided it was time to give it another go.

The plan was to walk home together this past Thursday, make some mojitos, then make the noodles and enjoy the start of a long weekend. I was excited, but with this friend joining me immediately after work, I knew I couldn’t make the same mistakes again.

I picked a recipe I had tried before: Linguine with Shrimp and Lemon Oil. I had made this for dinner last summer, and knew it would be a delicious. More importantly, I knew what was involved in making it and that it would be relatively straight forward to pull off with someone in the kitchen alongside me.

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The fruits of our labour – homemade pasta with lemon infused olive oil, parsley, scallops – and a side of bread and cheese.

I swapped the shrimp for scallops, knowing that peeling shrimp would add an unnecessary step to preparing dinner with a friend over. Perhaps most importantly, I made a written down list of what needed to be done and in what order to pull this dinner together. I also popped into the Bulk Barn and picked up semolina flour – known to be perfect for making pasta and picked a recipe that had “basic” in the title.

Small changes, big impacts

These things seem small – and they are. But they truly made a difference. My friend and I enjoyed our meal by 7:30, had most of the clean-up done by 8:30 and by 9 we were on my back stoop enjoying a beautiful summer Rose and a full tummy.

More importantly, I didn’t spend my time apologizing about how late we were eating, panicking about whether the food was going to turn out, or distractedly working away while ignoring my guest. And that, my friends, is progress.

Lessons learned this week

  • Plan ahead
  • Know your recipe
  • Make the extra effort to get the perfect ingredients (shout-out to the magic of semolina flour!)