Two Weeks Until ComicCon

The countdown to ComicCon continues, and I am seeing some progress.

I’ve managed to get Thing 2’s bodysuit finished, which is, to me, the most difficult part. I hate sewing stretch fabric, but a bodysuit really needs to be stretchy. This is especially true for children, who will shed costume pieces if they find them too uncomfortable. These costumes have to work for ComicCon and Halloween, so I’d like them to be worn for more than five minutes at a time. Of course, when sewing this bodysuit I managed to put in one of the sleeves inside-out the first time. This seems to be an inevitable state of affairs for me whenever I make clothing.

I also painted Thing 2’s shoes for the costume, since we couldn’t find any in bright orange.

My Day 1 costume is pretty much complete, much to my great joy. I didn’t do a lot of sewing for this one (just the belt and the white part of the sleeves, actually), but there were a lot of little details that needed to be carefully painted and then dried. I probably could have sewn it in less time, but definitely not for less. The cap was $5.00 at Michaels, the shirt (which was blank and plain blue at the time) was $2.49 at Value Village, and the skirt was $3.99 at the same place. The gloves were $2.50 at the dollar store. I already owned multiple pairs of black leggings. The belt was made out of scrap fabric from my stash, and the buckle was made out of a $0.79 plywood circle from Michaels. The most expensive things were the shoes, which I paid $29 for (I think) at Payless, but they’ll get lots of use after the Con, so I don’t feel too bad about that purchase.

Shepherd’s Pie Recipe

There is a lot of contention out there as to what makes a good shepherd’s pie. I distinctly remember an episode of Kitchen Nightmares where Gordon Ramsay laid into the chef because the restaurant’s shepherd’s pie contained beef instead of lamb. I didn’t actually discover that this dish is supposed to have lamb in it until about five years ago. Apparently “cottage pie” is what you call it when it’s made with beef. The dish that we called shepherd’s pie that I grew up with was always made with beef because my mother prefers it that way. I never thought to question it.

As the vegetable part of this casserole, I use corn (sweet corn, not maize), although I understand it is more traditional to use peas. I never made this dish for my British Nan, but at one time she refused to eat corn as it was “cattle feed” and believed it to be beneath her. Now, Nan lived more of her life in Canada than she did in England, so she may have relaxed her point of view somewhat, but I’ve heard this sentiment echoed by her visiting relatives. I don’t know if this is a wide-spread belief or one restricted to my family. At any rate, corn is not traditionally part of this dish.

Lastly, I structure my dish more as a casserole and less as an actual pie. Traditionally, the “crust” of the pie is supposed to be the mashed potatoes, but a quick Googling shows me that I’m not alone in putting the potatoes on top.

When the dish is served, you should be able to see the strata of meat & gravy, veggies, potato, and cheese.

Shepherd’s Pie
Serves 6-8

Peel and cut into large chunks:
8-10 (about 1Kg (2.2lbs)) medium white-fleshed potatoes*
Place the potatoes into a large cooking pot. Fill pot with water until there is an inch covering the potatoes. Bring the pot to a boil, then turn it down to a simmer. Cook potatoes until they can easily be pierced with a fork.
While the potatoes are cooking, in a non-stick frying pan heat:
1 Tbsp olive oil
Add to the oil:
1 small yellow onion (yields about 100g (3.5oz))
2 cloves garlic**
Cook on medium heat until onions are translucent with light brown edges.
To the onion mixture, add:
700g ground lamb***
Turn up the heat to medium-high and cook the lamb until it is lightly browned, regularly draining the grease.
To the meat mixture, add:
1 can of cream of mushroom soup****
1 can of water
Stir until soup is smooth. Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer gently until soup has almost reduced back to its original canned consistency.
While the meat and gravy are simmering, drain the potatoes. To the potatoes add:
2 Tbsp butter or margarine
2 Tbsp 2% milk
Whip or mash the potatoes until smooth.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C)
Spread the meat and gravy mixture evenly on the bottom of a casserole dish. On top of this, pour evenly:
2 cups frozen corn
Spread the mashed potatoes evenly on top of the frozen corn. On top of the potatoes, sprinkle:
1 to 1 1/2 cups loosely-packed grated cheddar cheese
Bake casserole at 350°F (175°C) for 25 to 30 minutes, or until cheese is melted and sauce bubbles up around the edges of the potatoes.
Serve with a side of steamed vegetables, if desired.

It’s difficult to scoop portions that don’t fall apart if you bake this dish in a round casserole. If you want perfectly rectangular servings, bake it in a rectangular dish and serve in slices.

*This dish works really well with leftover mashed potatoes, so if you have enough left over from a previous meal, skip the potato preparation steps. If the potatoes are cold, a slightly longer cooking time may be in order.
**1 tsp garlic powder may be substituted for garlic cloves; however, the powder should be sprinkled over the ground meat instead of cooked with the onions.
***Meat may instead be 50%/50% ground lamb/ground beef, ground lamb/ground chicken, ground lamb/ground turkey, or any one of these meats by itself. Keep in mind that without any lamb, the flavour will not be nearly as strong.
****I like Campbell’s Cream of Cremini & Shiitake Mushroom, but any cream of mushroom soup will do. If you are averse to the texture of mushrooms in your food, run the cream of mushroom soup and water through a blender until smooth before adding them to the meat.

Simple Suppers

With ComicCon deadlines looming, I’ve been spending every spare moment working on costumes. That means that I have been making meals that can be thrown together out of what is in my fridge, freezer, and pantry. There just isn’t time to run back and forth to different grocery stores and specialty shops! I’ve also been picking meals with a short prep/cook time.

Thing 1 and Thing 2 showing off the mini loaves that they helped me make.

On Saturday I ran out of bread, so I had to make more. Now that I have the hang of the basics, I don’t find that baking bread takes much time at all. I mean, it takes time to proof, but that’s time I can spend on other things. This bread was supposed to be loaves of Nan’s pan rolls, but after I started mixing I discovered that I was at the very end of my all-purpose white flour. No problem, I’ll use half whole wheat, I thought! No luck, I was down to the last dregs of that as well. So I just combined what I had left of both of those flours with some multigrain flour, and promised myself that I’d make a grocery run soon.

I’m happy to say that they bread turned out quite nicely despite my improvisations; it was nice and fluffy, but also quite healthy due to being predominantly whole wheat and multigrain flour. The kids were very pleased with the mini loaves that they shaped in tiny pans that I found at the dollar store. Of course, those were the first bits of bread from this batch that were eaten.

Saturday dinner incorporated that fresh-made bread into a breakfast for dinner kind of meal. Eggs over hard (they were supposed to be over easy, but the cook usually ends up eating the mistakes), pork breakfast sausages, navel orange pieces, and a strawberry banana smoothie.

Last night’s dinner also used the bread, which by this time was a couple of days old, but still toasted up well. I made plain grilled cheese and served it with some quickly-thrown-together soup of turkey broth, carrots, and rice, all served with a side of (slightly-massacred) orange.

Looking back at these dishes, I realize that I need to find an additional go-to fruit or veggie to pair with quick dinners, or my family will soon become heartily sick of oranges.

Loco Moco Redux

Yesterday I spent the day with my friends working on costumes; long crafting sessions are much much more fun with company. We took a pause around dinner time to feed the ravening hordes before we went out to hit a few shops for more supplies. For the second time ever, I whipped up some Loco Moco.

The first time I made Loco Moco using Guy Fieri’s recipe, I followed it to the letter. This time I altered it a bit to accommodate the tastes of the people I was feeding. First of all, I reduced the portion size. The recipe calls for two cups of cooked rice, two quarter-pound hamburgers, and two fried eggs per person, and I think that is just way too much food. Secondly, instead of forming hamburgers, I kept the ground beef loose, which I find much easier to eat on top of rice. Thirdly, because one of my guests does not like the texture of mushrooms (but has no problem with the flavour), I ran the gravy through the blender before serving. All in all, the changes I made affected the flavour a little, but I think they made it a more appropriately-sized and easy-to-eat meal for my family. I know that may not be true loco moco for the purists, but you can’t please everyone. At least this pleased my family and guests.

Welcome to My Craft Room

For many, many years I didn’t have a craft room. I worked wherever I could find the space: in my bedroom, my living room, all over the dining room table. Then the kids came along, and I found it increasingly more difficult to work on large projects because I had to have every last piece tidied up at the end of each crafting session. I couldn’t leave painted pieces out to dry, or pinned items ready for sewing, or even a simple needle and thread where the kids could get at it. Which is why I couldn’t have been more overjoyed when we moved to our current house and I could wall off a section of the basement as my own — separated from the rest of the house by sturdy baby gates.

I finally painted this space and really made it my own last summer. As you can see, it’s just a long stretch along one wall of my basement, “walled” off on one side by copious second-hand bookshelves. There are more shelves on the other side in the kids’ play room, and they’re all screwed together, making a solid-but-temporary barrier.

The kids aren’t babies or toddlers any more, so I can do without the baby gate and trust, for the most part, that they will leave my things alone. It’s a good thing, too, or they’d never get their costumes for ComicCon or Halloween in time, let alone all the little constant repairs that I have to make on their things.

Those first two photos were taken immediately after the renovations were complete and before I’d had a chance to get into any major projects. Right now… Well, it’s less than three weeks until ComicCon, and every surface is covered with costume pieces in the works. I’ll mostly be living in this room until then.

When I’m making costumes, especially when I need five on a short time limit, I have to multitask. Today I’m working on a ball cap, a T-shirt, a skirt, a pair of sneakers, and a head. That last “head” one is my most ambitious project this year, and I hope like heck that I manage to get it done in time.

If you already recognize what the costumes are going to be, well, you’re as big of a geek as I am. Congratulations! I’ll probably see you in a few weeks at ComicCon. Don’t hesitate to say hi!

Three Weeks Until ComicCon

There are three weeks exactly until Ottawa ComicCon, and I am starting to panic. I am a cosplayer, and the costumes I’m hoping to complete have barely been started. The next twenty one days are going to be crammed with sewing and building, in addition to the usual cooking.

To give you an idea of the kind of costumes that I make, I have put together photographs of what I consider to be my best Con costume work. I have been attending since the first Ottawa con in 2012, and I generally wear a different costume every day. Not only that, but when I bring the kids, I make costumes for them as well. So that’s five costumes I have to have ready in three weeks. I have nobody to blame for this tight deadline except myself… And that dratted cold that ate up pretty much all of last week.

The photos start with the most recent, and progress to the oldest. All costumes made by me unless otherwise specified.

Clawhauser (me), Judy Hopps (Thing 2), Gazelle (Thing 1) and Bellwether (Mom, who made her own costume) from Zootopia.
Photo by Richard Dufault Photography

Thing 2 as Judy Hopps from Zootopia.
Photo by Richard Dufault Photography

Thing 1 as Gazelle from Zootopia.
Photo by Richard Dufault Photography

Me as Edna Mode from The Incredibles.
Photo by Richard Dufault Photography

Me as April O’Neil from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Photo by Richard Dufault Photography

Astrid (Thing 1) and Stormfly (me) from How To Train Your Dragon.
Photo by Richard Dufault Photography

Ruffnut (Kelsey Joustra), Tuffnut (Adam Joustra), and Stormfly (me) from How To Train Your Dragon. Kelsey and Adam made their own costumes.
Photo by Richard Dufault Photography

Thing 1 as Astrid from How To Train Your Dragon.

Thing 2 as Hiccup from How To Train Your Dragon.

Me as Pyro from Team Fortress 2.
Photo by Richard Dufault Photography

Pyro (me), Heavy (Ian Walton), and Sniper (Karen Turnbull) from Team Fortress 2. Ian and Karen made their own costumes.
Photo by Richard Dufault Photography

Gru (me) and a Minion (Thing 1) from Despicable Me.
Photo by Richard Dufault Photography

Thor (Thing 1) and Frigga (me) from Thor. The Thor costume is store bought.

Me as The Penguin from Batman.
Photo by Karen Turnbull.

Thing 2 as Harley Quinn from Batman.

Wild Boar Medallions

Looking to expand my culinary horizons, I picked up a few packages of frozen boar meat from the grocery store a while back. The fact that it was on clearance might have dictated my choice somewhat; most wild meat is, well, wildly out of my budget. The best special was on wild boar medallions wrapped in pork bacon from Natural Frontier Foods. I had seen something similar before done with chicken (M&M Meats does a decent one), but I’d never tried boar before.

Wild boar medallions with bacon, mashed sweet potatoes, and mashed potatoes.

The original plan was to barbecue, but it pissed down rain all day, and even if I did juggle the food and an umbrella, I didn’t want to deal with the mud in the back yard. Instead, I put the meat on a broiler pan and baked it in the oven, then served it with mashed sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes. Granted, it wasn’t the prettiest meal, but I enjoyed it.

My first impression of boar meat is that it’s really not much like domesticated pig at all. The bacon wrapping did confuse the issue a bit, but I found the meat denser, leaner, and redder — much more like steak in texture. The flavour was a bit gamy, but nowhere near as much as venison or even lamb. It was also an extremely rich dish; it didn’t take much for me to fill up. Would I eat it again? Most definitely. However, I think I’m the only one in my house who would. My husband thought it was too gamy, and my children just ate the bacon and left most of the boar behind. I ended up with almost half of the meat packaged up in the fridge as leftovers. Perhaps I will slice it thin and make myself wild boar sandwiches for lunch for the next few days. It definitely won’t go to waste!

Teddy Bear Birthday Cake

When I was eight years old, my mother threw me a teddy bear birthday party. I hadn’t thought about it in years, but it suddenly came to mind when I was perusing the used book sale at the public library. There, on the shelf, was a discontinued copy of A Piece of Cake: Fun and Easy Theme Parties for Children (Gwenn Boechler, 1987), which pretty much had my birthday party pictured on the front.

We decorated those headbands (which the book calls party hats). We made teddy bear paper-bag puppets. We ate that cake.

I love it when I find books like this! Books that contain patterns or recipes for things I remember doing or gifts I remember receiving as a child. It doesn’t happen often, but I think that’s why I treasure it so much when I am lucky enough to stumble upon them.

The highlight of the birthday party was, I think, the teddy bear cake. I know my mother baked me a cake for every birthday until I was a teen (at which point she either made me a blueberry cream cheese flan, or I baked my own cake), sometimes two if my actual birthday and my birthday party ended up being too far apart. Although I do have vague recollections of rainbow sprinkles, I honestly couldn’t tell you anything specific about the cakes Mom baked, except on this year. I remember looking at the instructions for how to put it together. I remember icing the cake. I remember that the candies we used for the claws had black licorice centers, like a Good & Plenty. I remember that the nose and tongue were Smarties.

On the whole, what I remember the most is being so proud of this awesome cake — which is funny, because my mom, unbeknownst to me, thought that it was a terrible failure. No part of it turned out the way she wanted it to. According to her, making this cake was what convinced her that she had no talent whatsoever at cooking. But to me, it was a triumph.

(I heartily disagree with the idea that Mom can’t cook, by the way. Who do you think is responsible for all of those lovely Sunday dinners?)

I guess it just goes to show you that children perceive the world completely differently than adults do. We can all be so critical of ourselves and our work. But a child doesn’t notice if a cake slumps to one side, or if it’s store-bought cake mix, or if the decorations don’t turn out quite as intended. What they remember — especially if you cook together — is the pride of accomplishment. Maybe us adults could use a hit of that in our day-to-day life. There’s nothing wrong with striving to do better, but there’s also nothing wrong with being proud of your work. If it makes someone happy, that’s perfection enough.

Cream of Carrot Soup Recipe

I took a cooking class back in high school. It wasn’t Home Economics or Family Studies; it was a week-long course at the local college that was meant to teach us the most basic techniques of the professional chef. It was most likely offered in the hopes that the course would catch the attention of at least a few of us, and that we would return after graduation for the culinary program. We learned how to make fresh pasta, French vanilla ice cream, chocolate truffles… I have very fond memories of that class, and not just because I got to spend a week away from home.

One of the things the chef was insistent about was that we learn how to use knives properly. Well, one knife. The chef worked almost exclusively with what seemed to me to be an intimidatingly huge chef’s knife. He insisted that we learn the proper techniques of handling this knife (which I totally approve of), and then we spent the rest of one day of a five-day program chopping different kinds of vegetables. I know how important knife work is to a chef, but when the majority of a group of sixteen-year-olds aren’t likely to ever step into another professional kitchen, chopping veggies all day may not be the best way to hold their attention. However, by the end of the course I did learn to be slightly less afraid of the large knife. (Until then, I usually used a paring knife at home.)

At the end of the knife-work day, the dish that we were expected to prepare the chef’s version of cream of carrot soup. I really love the recipe, so I kept my copy and have been tweaking it ever since. So long as you skip the optional ingredients, my version is dairy-free, tree-nut and peanut free, gluten-free, and can be made vegetarian/vegan if vegetable stock is used instead of chicken stock. It’s also extremely healthy! It’s also slightly sweet, and not from adding sugar but from sweating the vegetables before boiling them — perfect for serving to picky eaters.

I make my cream of carrot soup in large quantities because it freezes really well, but if you prefer your soup fresh, I’d recommend halving or quartering the recipe. As written, it can be made using a 2.27kg (5lb) bag of carrots, which results in about 1.5kg after peeling and slicing. I like using Naturally Imperfect carrots, which are cheaper because they’re not visually perfect, but they taste just as good. Honestly, it’s all going through the blender anyway.

Cream of Carrot Soup
Yields about 7 litres
All weights indicated are measured after peeling and chopping.

Peel and dice (or slice in a food processor):
1.5kg carrots
Peel and dice:
350g yellow onions
Into a deep, heavy-bottomed stock pot pour:
1 cup olive oil
Heat the oil slowly on medium-low heat. Add the carrots and onions to the oil. Sweat the vegetables until the onions are translucent and the carrots are about half-cooked. Stir often. Do not let the vegetables brown.
Peel and dice:
600g potatoes (white- or yellow-fleshed)
Add the potatoes to the pot, and then add:
4.5L reduced-sodium chicken broth*
Bring contents of pot to a boil. Simmer until all vegetables are tender.
Puree the soup in batches using a blender or food processor. Exercise extra caution when pureeing as the soup will be hot! Fill the jar/bowl at most 2/3 full, as the soup will fly up and may dislodge the lid of the blender/food processor. As an extra precaution, you may drape a dish towel over the top of the machine and hold the lid down gently with one hand. (Do not press down too forcefully or the center section of a blender may fall into the jar — especially if the blender has a flexible lid.)
Once all of the soup has been pureed, return it to the stock pot. Gently bring the soup back to a simmer.
Season to taste with:
white pepper
Serve in a bowl or soup dish.
Optionally, at serving time finish each bowl with:
2 Tbsp hot cream or 1 Tbsp cold sour cream
Garnish each bowl with:
1 sprig of parsley or 1 small basil leaf

*Chicken broth may be replaced an equal amount of vegetable broth, or homemade chicken broth, or a mix of 2.25L water and 2.25L stock made from chicken bouillon.

Easter Dinner

There was a plan for Easter dinner. The plan was to make super-healthy cream-of-carrot soup for my family, served with whole-wheat Nan’s Pan Rolls. I thought that would be the perfect meal for a house full of people recovering from colds. I made the rolls a day ahead and was sure they turned out well, since I brought half of them to the family celebration at my parents’ place. I bought the ingredients ahead of time, and I checked again on Saturday to make sure I wasn’t missing anything before the stores closed. I was prepared, right?


Above you’ll see what we actually had for Easter dinner: teriyaki salmon, rice with furikake seasoning, spiralized zucchini, and baby Shanghai bok choy. Not a bad dinner by any means, but not what I was planning. It was basically made up of what I could scrounge out of the fridge and freezer. Why? Because my whole 5lb bag of carrots had gone fuzzily, nastily moldy. And yes, I did store them in a cool, dry place with good air circulation. They were still inedible. The best laid plans…

Well, at least there were whole wheat Nan’s Pan Rolls to eat, pictured above at my parents’ place at dinner on Saturday. They generally last a few days without going stale or moldy (although with my luck lately, I don’t want to push it). Not pictured: the pumpkin pie that I brought as dessert, because I just couldn’t bring myself to photograph it. I tasted just fine, but the crust was almost burned because I had to leave it in the oven almost double the recommended time so that it would set — and even then, the filling had a slightly-runny, pudding-like consistency. It was a great weekend for culinary failures, let me tell you. I’m hoping that I do better once I begin to get over this cold, which is unfortunately still going strong.

So happy Easter to all who celebrate it! I hope your long weekend was filled with fabulous food, friends, and family.