In a large saucepan, combine the prunes, sugar, butter or margarine, water and vanilla. Bring the mixture to a boil, remove the pan from the heat, and let it stand for 30 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl.
Preheat the oven to 350° F (175° C).
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and cloves (I added the tiniest pinch of salt). Stir the flour mixture into the cooled prune mixture. Add the walnuts, mixing the ingredients until they are well combined. Transfer the batter to a greased and floured 9 x 5-inch loaf pan.
Place the pan in the hot oven, and bake the bread for 1 hour 10 minutes or until a tester inserted comes out clean.
This makes a perfect muchie to go with afternoon tea, or a good hearty substitute for toast in the morning.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the world’s very best artichoke dip, courtesy of my mother.
1 can artichoke hearts, chopped
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1/2 cup mayonnaise OR sour cream
1 can chopped green chiles
Mix together and heat at 175°C (or 350°F) until bubbly and slightly brown on top (about half an hour). I like to serve it with pita bread for dipping.
Yup, it is as simple as that! Can’t believe it? Oh but you should. Trust me. It’s just that good.
A couple of weekends ago, I was invited to a soirée (yes, I go to soirées) and I made up a batch of this dip. It did not last long. If you really want to go all out you can make your own mayo, but frankly that would defeat the whole purpose of this dip.
The purpose of this artichoke dip is to impress people with your cooking skills by serving them something SO delicious it has to have taken you hours to cook. But of course, the reality is that it took you all of 5 minutes to prepare and 30 minutes to bake.
My mother also shared this recipe for a beef casserole which seems like you’ve worked your butt off on this amazing dish but really is about as easy as they come.
I’m going to stop there, though, before I give away all my amazingly delicious easy recipes! Gotta keep some for when people come over so they can still be impressed.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have just made the most divinely delicious dish.
“Surely, you exaggerate!” you say?
I do not. And don’t call me Shirley.
(I guess that joke only works when spoken. Oh well. Moving on.)
Tonight I made sofrito, a basic Spanish fry-up of onion and other veggies, including grated tomato. This base is then incorporated into all kinds of dishes. Tonight, I made it into an arroz con ternera, or rice with veal.
My Chico and I have been thoroughly enjoying José Andrés’ “Made in Spain” (pronounced “made in espain” of course). We don’t get PBS, but we have been watching his program online, here. Inspired by his show about Castilla-la Mancha, I decided to delight Chico this evening by preparing the dish José Andrés makes on this show. Here’s how I did it:
500g veal ragout (José Andrés used rabbit, but I was fresh out)
plenty of olive oil (preferably Spanish!)
1 onion, finely chopped
1 green pepper, finely chopped
1 large clove garlic (whole and still in its skin)
1 large bay leaf
saffron (if you don’t have it, as I didn’t, you can use turmeric, but use it sparingly)
2 large tomatoes, grated (don’t include the skins)
mushrooms (about 225g – you can use whatever kind you like)
4 cups water
1 cup medium-grain rice
Season the veal. Heat a large pot (preferably not non-stick, I used my largest le Creuset pot) and add a generous amount of olive oil to the pan. Make sure it’s nice and hot. Carefully add the veal ragout pieces to the pan and brown on all sides. Remove from the pan and leave all the lovely juices behind in the pot.
If necessary, add a some oil to the pan until the bottom is well coated. Let it heat up. When hot, toss in the onion, green pepper, garlic clove (smashed, but not chopped) and bay leaf. Let it cook slowly for 20-25 minutes, stirring frequently.
Meanwhile, grate the tomatoes into a bowl.
When the onion & green pepper are nice and soft, add good heaping teaspoon of paprika and a pinch of saffron or turmeric and stir it around quickly (careful: the spices can burn very quickly, so be sure to mix them in well). Then toss in the tomatoes. At this point I also added a splash of white wine for flavor, but that’s optional.
Cook until the liquid has reduced and the mixture is a nice, deep red.
Add the mushrooms and cook for about 5 minutes until they’re soft.
Add the meat back into the pot and stir it around. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes.
Add the 4 cups of water and bring the whole thing to a boil. Add salt to taste, then cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
Throw in the cup of rice and stir it in well. Keep stirring for about 5 minutes, until it simmers again. Then cover, and cook on very low heat for another 15 minutes.
Voilà! You have just made a delicious Spanish meal! If you can get your hands on saffron, it’s worth it (though it is hella expensive). If not, like I said the turmeric can work.
Chico gave it rave reviews and even made a face like the one José Andrés makes. It was awesome.
Starting a new job is exhausting. I should know, I’m doing just that!
There is so much to learn when you start a new job: where is the coffee machine? How long am I allowed for lunch breaks? Will I get in trouble if I’m on Gchat and Facebook at work?
Okay, just kidding, those aren’t the important things. What you really want to learn is who is who (Mark in the corner office does what again?), the scope of your responsibilities, and what your deliverables and objectives are. If you’re taking over a position from someone else, you also have that person’s shoes to fill (be they big or small).
In my case, the shoes I have to fill are ENORMOUS (and they’re stilettos!). I am honored and humbled to be replacing a lady who kicks derrière at what she does. I’ve been working for a week and two days (only three days of which I have spent in the office), and the enormity of what I still need to learn is beginning to dawn on me.
But you know what? I. Am. So. Thrilled. I have a lot to learn in this new job, but I know already that it is stuff that I desperately want to know. I feel like an academic who has just discovered her research passion, or a future tennis star who just picked up a racket for the first time. This is work that I am meant to be doing. This is the work that will challenge, delight, stress, frustrate and ultimately reward me.
It’s intimidating, but not daunting. I know perfectly well that I am capable of learning all that I need to (and then some!) and I know I will do it because I’ve already caught the fever of asking questions, looking things up and informing myself. I’m also thrilled because I can tell that I will never know *everything* about this job. It will always change and grow, and force me to remain creative and flexible. What more could anyone ask from a job??
Of course, all this learning and growing means I am exhausted by the time I get home from the sheer effort of concentration required all day. Thankfully, I have discovered the CrockPot (or slow cooker), a genius invention by some wonderful person who understood people in my very position. Tonight, Chico and I will taste our first CrockPot recipe and here’s hoping the veggies aren’t too soggy.
When all your brainpower is used up by the time you get home, it is vital to eat a tasty, healthy meal, relax with your Chico (or Chica, whatever), unwind and recharge your batteries for tomorrow.
Tonight, when you get home, do something to help unwind. Paint your nails. Write in your journal. Watch a silly video online.
But most importantly of all, give yourself a pat on the back for the hard work you’ve done today. And keep in mind all that you’ve learned, and all that you still have to learn. And be happy.
(And if you’re in a professional rut–get out of it!)
In my first post, Lessons from my Kitchen, I mentioned a spectacular near-disaster on Thanksgiving 2012, and promised to write about it at a later date. That date has come, my friends. I am now here to tell you about the The Turkey That Almost Wasn’t of Thanksgiving 2012.
It was my first Thanksgiving meal. Not the first one I’d eaten, mind you, but the first one I was hosting and cooking myself. And boy, was I organized. Thanksgiving in Canada is celebrated on the first Monday in October, and on the Tuesday before, I called up my local supermarket to order a small fresh turkey to be picked up on Monday morning. “Oui madame!” No problem. The following day, I called back to confirm the order and to make sure they had specified “fresh” not “frozen.” “Mais oui, oui madame, aucun problème.” Brilliant! And so I set to cooking.
Over the next few days I made applesauce, cranberry sauce, pumpkin muffins, prepared stuffing, and a lentil and sweet potato casserole for my one vegetarian guest. It was a frenzied few days of cooking, and on Sunday evening I picked up the phone to call the supermarket and ask what time the turkey would be ready for pick up. “Oh, around 9:00am, madame.” Perfect.
Monday morning, Thanksgiving day. My guests are coming at 1:00pm. It’s ten minutes past nine and I’m at the butcher counter of my local IGA.
IGA butcher: “Mais madame, nous n’avons pas de dindes fraîches!” (“But madam, we don’t have any fresh turkeys!”) “In fact, we’re not getting any deliveries today! The only turkeys we have are these frozen ones over here.”
Let us pause for a moment and picture a look of horror, mixed with rage and incredulity. Got it? Good. Moving on.
Me: “WHATDOYOUMEANYOUDON’THAVEMYTURKEYIORDEREDITLASTWEEKIWANTTOSPEAKWITHTHEMANAGER!!!” and so on. While waiting for the manager to find a solution, I have located a butcher shop not too far from my home and have managed to secure a 6kg (13lbs) turkey–the smallest available.
Manager: “Madame, we will have someone go fetch your turkey and bring it special delivery. It should be here by 11:00.” Fine. I cancel the 6kg turkey with the other butcher shop, go home, put my apple crisp in the oven, call my friends and reschedule for later in the day. They’re very understanding.
Eleven o’clock has me back at the supermarket, all anticipation.
IGA butcher: “Voici votre dinde, madame!” Here is your turkey. And he hands me a frozen turkey.
Let’s pull up that face again, shall we? Good.
Me: “Qu’est-ce que vous voulez que je fasse avec ceci, monsieur? J’ai des invités CET APRES-MIDI!!” What do you want me to do with this, sir? I have guests THIS AFTERNOON!!!
IGA idiot–ah, I mean butcher: “Ah well, you should have ordered it ahead of time, madame!” This is where I practically lost it.
Me: “I DID order my turkey last week. I called once to order and the next day to confirm. Go. Find. My. Order. Sheet.”
While he’s in the back, I manage to contact that other butcher shop again. “Sure, we still have the turkey. Of course we can hold it for you. But for no more than half an hour, ma’am.” The disgraced IGA butcher comes out from the back looking horribly sheepish, holding a sheet of paper in his hand.
Him: “I found your order, madame. It got lost under some papers and was never filled. I am terribly sorry.”
It is at this point that my rage becomes too much for me, and instead of yelling, I look at him with huge eyes which well up with tears, which then start streaming down my face. He sees this, wrings his hands and says, “Shit.” That’s right, buddy. You made me cry.
Quickly wiping away my tears, I race back up the hill, toting my grocery cart behind me. Huffing and puffing, I realize by the time I get 1/4 of the way to the other shop that I will never make it in time. Thinking quickly, I hop on a public bicycle, throw my ungainly cart over the handle bars and go peddling across the Plateau like a madwoman, my cart teetering and my jacket flapping open behind me in the wind.
Several illegal traffic maneuvers later, I’m at the Portuguese butcher shop.
Me: “I’m here for the 6kg turkey.”
Butcher: “Six kilos? Ma’am, this bird is at least eight!”
My jaw hits the counter.
Me: “Eight kilos??? (That’s 17.5lbs) What am I going to do with all this turkey??”
Butcher: “How many guests are you having?”
Uproarious laughter from the butcher and the man behind me in line.
Me: “And one’s a vegetarian.”
I thought I had nearly killed them, they were laughing so hard.
When he recovered, the butcher very kindly cleaned and emptied the bird, and gave me a quick lesson on trussing it. The man behind me in line said, “Don’t stuff it. It’ll take too long to cook. Put your stuffing in a casserole dish and warm it for the last 30 minutes.” What a kind, kind man.
I wish for the sake of a good visual I could say that I threw the bird back on the handlebars of the bike and biked home, but it was just too heavy and my cart was too awkward. But I did rush home with an ENORMOUS bird in my grocery cart. (Did I mention that the oven was preheating back at the house this whole time? Yeah, there’s that.)
I got home, trussed it up, seasoned it, brushed it with my mother’s marinade and threw it into the oven. That’s when I called my mom on Skype and emptied my tear ducts out of sheer frustration. But now that the damn thing was in the oven, the humor of the situation was already dawning on me. My mom was kind enough to restrain herself from completely guffawing, but she couldn’t help let a few giggles escape. By the time she finished giving me her last advice, we were both giggling.
At 5:00pm the turkey came out of the oven, and after having to practically rip apart the aluminum roasting pan it was in (and nearly giving myself a hernia in the process), it was ready to present to my guests in all its glory.
The turkey and all the side dishes were absolutely scrumptious. As were the leftovers Chico and I ate for the next three months.
Are you at a loss for something to make for a Sunday afternoon tea? Fear not!! I have the perfect recipe! This comes from one of Jane Brody’s many good food cookbooks and it has been a favorite in our family for years. I think it was one of the only ways our mother could get us to eat a vegetable…
Don’t be put off by the idea of zucchini (or courgette) in a muffin. It works even better than carrots, as the water content of the zucchini makes the muffins nice and moist. So without further ado, here is the recipe:
1 cup unprocessed bran
2/3 cup stone-ground, whole wheat flour
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup corn oil (or canola or sunflower)
1/3 cup firmly packed, dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons grated orange rind (a pain in the butt, but worth it!!)
1 cup 1% low-fat milk
2/3 cup grated unpeeled zucchini (roughly one large zucchini)
½ cup raisins
Heat oven to 400ºF (205°C). Line a 12-cup muffin pan with 2 ½ inch foil cups (don’t use paper, they’ll stick!!).
In a large bowl, combine the bran, whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, oil, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and orange rind until evenly blended. Whisk in the milk. Add the milk mixture and zucchini to the bran mixture, and stir together just until the dry ingredients are moistened. Do not overmix. Stir in the raisins.
Divide the batter evenly into the muffin cups. (The cups will be quite full.) Bake about 20 to 25 minutes, or until a tester inserted in one of the muffins comes out clean.
They’re quick and easy to make, especially if you have a food processor in which to grate the zucchini. Give them a try and I promise you will like them!
This is a recipe for something which I call ratatouille but which probably has nothing to do with real ratatouille. I’m sure real ratatouille is far more complicated than this, but I like to keep things simple (and tasty). So here goes:
2 large sausages of your choice (optional)
1 large Onion, diced
1 Eggplant (or aubergine for you UK folks), diced, salted and left to sit for a while then rinsed.
2 medium Zucchinis (that’s courgettes for the UK), sliced however you like
2 bell Peppers (I like to use orange and yellow to add color), sliced however you like
3 large Tomatoes, chopped
2 large cloves of Garlic, smooshed (hee!)
1 vegetable bouillon cube
Salt, pepper & other seasoning you might like (I use oregano)
Gnocchi (to serve)
Here’s how you do it:
Slice open the skin of the sausage, squeeze out the meat and in a large pan, cook it until browned on medium heat. Remove from the pan and set aside. (I like to leave the grease from the sausage in the pan for extra flavor.)
Add some olive oil to the pan and warm it up on medium heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent (they say about 5 minutes).
One by one, add the eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes and garlic. Let each cook a little before adding the next. (Note: some people like to cook the garlic with the onion at the beginning, but by adding it towards the end with the tomato, you make the flavor more intense. Just sayin’.)
Chop up the veggie bouillon cube and mix it in well. (I recommend using the cube and not broth because the veggies will produce a lot of juices and you don’t want it to be too wet.)
Add the sausage back in, get it nice and bubbly. Then lower the heat, cover and let it bubble away (stirring occasionally) for 15 to 20 minutes. Once done, season to taste.
In the meantime, boil some water and salt it generously. Throw in the gnocchi to cook until they pop up and float in the water (about a minute or two). Drain and serve with your delicious ratatouille-type dish!
As I said, it might not really be ratatouille, but it’s delicious in any case! Thanks to my friend Maura for teaching me this recipe oh so many years ago now.
Bon appétit! (Yes, I did just say that in a Julia Child voice in my head).
Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter Sunday. Traditionally, it is a time of fasting, penitence, self-examination and anticipation of the celebration of Easter. (Fun fact: Carnival and Mardi Gras – French for “fat Tuesday” – were traditionally celebrations of excess the day before Lent began and all fun was banned. That’s why we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday!)
One popular lenten activity is self-denial of some kind. Every year I hear people talking about what they’re giving up for Lent. Usually it has something to do with food: alcohol, chocolate, sweets, soft drinks, what have you. It’s usually something that is considered a minor vice, something unhealthy or slightly naughty. It’s also usually given up with a bit of an ulterior motive: if we give up an unhealthy food that we like, then perhaps we’ll feel good about showing self-control, and lose a few pounds while we’re at it.
One Sunday before Lent a few years ago, the priest at my church back home preached about the practice of giving things up for Lent and how he had observed that it has become more of a popular thing to do rather than any kind of spiritual sacrifice. So he suggested the idea of adding something for Lent! Why not add something to our lives that we have heretofore not done? Something that adds value not only to our lives, but to others’. Perhaps we could volunteer, do a chore that a brother, sister, spouse or parent hates, or even write to someone we haven’t been in touch with for a while and ask how they’re doing.
That idea really struck me as lovely, and that year I started to write letters with a few friends with whom I had lost touch. My letters were answered and have led to some wonderful correspondences. Since then, seeing how such a small effort on my part brought a little sunshine to someone’s life, I have tried to add something like this to my routine each Lent.
I’m not particularly spiritual, and I don’t know if doing this is making me a better person or anything. But it certainly makes me feel better. It feels like a step towards being slightly less selfish, less self-centered. In doing something, no matter how small, for someone else, I try in a tiny way to imitate the vast compassion and love of Christ. But even if a person doesn’t believe in Christ and religion isn’t his or her thing, I think anyone can agree that doing something for someone else feels good and IS good!
Because I’ve had so much fun learning to cook over the last year, I’d like to add a volunteering activity in a soup kitchen to my lenten routine. The idea is that hopefully the habit will stick, and continue to provide fulfilling and enriching experiences long after Lent 2013 is over. Who knows? Maybe I’ll make a new friend, hear a cool story or have my heart touched by some small but beautiful gesture.
Today’s raclette lunch with our dear friends Rafa and Esther was nearly a miss. For the simple reason that my raclette machine, being from Switzerland, is built for 240 volts, whereas the voltage here in Canada is only 110… Our cheese melted veeeeeeeeeeery sloooooooooowly… Soooooo slowly that we pretty much polished off the potatoes, viande séchée, broccoli and pickles before even the first tray was ready.
Eventually, though, the cheese melted just enough for us to be able to spread it over our potatoes (no pouring action involved, we were too impatient to let it get that liquid). The result was a fine raclette. Chico and I had bought two types of cheese: one imported Swiss raclette cheese which had the wonderful tang that we associate with the dish. The other was a locally made cheese from Oka which was much greasier (the grease dripped off the trays as we poured it) and sweeter. While nice, it didn’t have the same zip to it as our beloved Swiss raclette.
Obviously, that didn’t stop us from devouring it all. Now it’s time for a cheese coma. Zzzzzzz…
In the past year, I have discovered cooking. I have learned so much about this fabulous art, for instance: everything tastes better with onions and garlic. Salt should be used sparingly. Recipes do not have to be followed to the letter. Baking powder and baking soda are NOT the same thing. A turkey continues to cook when it is taken out of the oven. These are just a few of the valuable lessons I have learned.
Another is this: Having fancy cooking tools does NOT make me a good cook.
Don’t get me wrong, I have had more successes than failures (and I think my Chico would agree). However, there have indeed been a few flops. But before talking about those, I’ll tell you about a few successes (just to make myself feel good).
First, there were my stuffed peppers. They were so moist and delicious, stuffed with a very simple risotto (you can find the recipe here – I substituted peppers for tomatoes), and they were a big hit at the dinner table. Then, there was my tortilla de patata (Spanish omelette) which received rave reviews from my Chico (and he should know, considering he’s a native!). I fried the potatoes perfectly and (miraculously) succeeded in flipping the tortilla without (much) incident. And my go-to recipe and crowd pleaser is this pesto-crusted fish dish that never fails to have guests ooing and ahhing over my mad cooking skills.
I have been blessed with many gifts of good kitchen equipment from family members. A recent wedding gift from my aunt consisted of a fabulous set of Le Creuset pots (merci, tante! I promise to send the thank-you notes soon!). A housewarming gift from my parents was an excellent set of knives and non-stick pots and pans. These tools never fail to slice, dice and cook evenly. The question is, can I keep up??
Sadly, the answer is sometimes, “No.” For instance, an attempt at a roast sirloin tip last Friday was so fraught with miscalculations that instead of eating at 9:00pm as planned, we had dinner at 10:15pm (thank goodness there were no guests!). The Le Creuset casserole and the oven cannot be blamed, for they are brand-spanking new! Then, there was the time we had 8 dinner guests and I thought that doubling this recipe would be a piece of cake (hahahaa, cake is food–get it??). Sadly, great quality as my pot was, it wasn’t large enough to accommodate twice the amounts, AND it turns out that you have to be careful when doubling spice quantities. Heh, who knew? Thankfully, the dish only turned out bland, which could have been worse.
The most spectacular near-disaster, however, wasn’t so much a question of equipment but more an issue of planning. Trust me, folks, you should never EVER plan to pick up your turkey on Thanksgiving day. Always get it the day before. Especially when you’re dealing with a butcher who apparently can’t tell the difference between “fresh” and “frozen.” But that’s another story for another time. (Perhaps on Thanksgiving day 2013, when, after a successful meal, I will reminisce about the hilarious near-disaster of Thanksgiving 2012.)
For now, I suppose I will just need to keep cooking. There’s nothing like trial and error, and I’ve got to get up the courage to try those failed dishes again. The next sirloin tip roast I do will be glorious, I tell you! Thank goodness for the internet and a mother readily available on Skype. (If anyone has any Sunday roast suggestions, your feedback is very, very welcome…) If anything, I know that thanks to my fabulous pots and pans, the presentation will always be flawless. Here’s hoping the taste eventually catches up.