Look Ma, I Cooked!

What with ComicCon prep taking up 99% of my time, it seems like forever since I’ve been able to spend any time in the kitchen. Well, last night I actually was able to squeeze in a quick meal: nachos.

That’s Tostitos (yes, I know, not very authentic, but this whole dish isn’t, so never mind that) topped with ground beef, green onions, homemade salsa, chopped tomatoes, cheddar cheese, with a large dollop of sour cream on the side. Of course, this being me it had to be lactose-free cheese and sour cream, but it was tasty nonetheless.

Crock Pot Sloppy Joes

I need to defrost my freezer at some point in the near future, so I’ve been trying to use up the remaining food that I stored there for winter. At the same time, I’m trying to use my slow cooker more often in order to give myself more time to work on ComicCon costumes. A quick Googling for recipes showed me that I had all of the ingredients to make Crock Pot Sloppy Barbecue Beef Sandwiches from The Spruce Eats, or, as my family has always called them, Sloppy Joes — which we’ve always served open-faced, I don’t know why.

Instead of buns, I let my trusty bread machine do most of the work and whipped up some Bread Machine Fluffy Herb Bread, this time using dried rosemary instead of fresh dill. I found that the robustness of the rosemary went really well with the vinegar tang of the Sloppy Joe sauce. If you like crusty buns for this dish, the ends of the loaf are great. Or you can always use the dough setting on your bread machine, then shape the dough into rolls, proof, and bake them in the oven instead. I went the easy route on this one.

As is my wont, I had to alter the meat sauce’s ingredients a bit. I omitted the sweet peppers because I’m not terribly fond of them, and I didn’t have any celery. However, I liked how the recipe had lots of hidden vegetables, so I upped the number of grated carrots to four. I also used about a cup of chopped frozen, thawed rainbow chard stems left over from last year’s garden crop.

Despite all of the changes, this dish turned out really well. The kids hoovered up their dinners and kept saying how much they liked it. I really think that you could add just about any vegetable to this dish if you want, so long as you cut it up small enough that it blends well with the meat and you give it the appropriate amount of time to cook. I will definitely be making this recipe again and I highly recommend it.

How to Fix Lumpy Gravy

I love gravy and I’ll eat it with just about any meat, steamed vegetable, or starch. It’s to die for on mashed potatoes and it’s fantastic over an open-faced hot turkey sandwich. However, it’s also really easy to get wrong. If it’s too thin, you can always dust in a bit more flour or simmer it for a while to reduce. But if it’s lumpy, it’s absolutely nasty. Those congealed lumps of flour and fat are just… Ew.

I’ve accidentally made lumpy gravy many times over the years — although the stuff pictured above was done on purpose to illustrate the point. I’ve tried pre-mixing the flour with water, I’ve thickened it with a roux instead, I’ve whisked until it feels like my arm is going to fall off. I’ve tried every tip and trick in my cookbooks, but sometimes the gravy still comes up lumpy, and it seems like the only way to salvage it is to strain it (which still can leave some tiny lumps).

When my mother taught me how to make gravy, she insisted that it be perfectly smooth, or it couldn’t be served. Lumps in anything make Mom gag, so potatoes were always mashed or whipped silky smooth, we never ate cream of wheat, and bubble tea was absolutely out. So if I messed up the gravy, we were out of luck even if it was intended to be a part of a major roast meal. Don’t ask me why, but this technique of fixing the problem never came up:

Just run the gravy through the blender. It comes out smooth every time. Not only that, but lumpy gravy tends to get really thick when you finally get it to an even consistency, so this is a great time to thin it out using a bit of the appropriate stock. The one in the photo above was loco moco hamburger gravy, so I thinned it with beef stock. There are probably a bunch of you who were using this technique for years and are agog that I’m thinking it’s revolutionary, but honestly it’s totally new to me. And if my crappy old two-speed General Electric machine from the 70’s with dull blades can do the trick, any blender can.

This works for all kinds of sauces, by the way. White sauce I find is also very prone to lumpiness if you’re not careful, but it does blend nicely. As with blending all hot things, do exert extra care to prevent burns!

The loco moco turned out great, by the way, even if I didn’t have any parsley or tomatoes for garnish. I find that it pairs rather nicely with steamed spinach, since you can combine it with the gravy and meat for a wonderful, rich flavour.

It Was Supposed to Be a Barbecue

Last night I had planned on barbecuing. It’s not really BBQ* season yet, but the snow has melted from around our barbecues (although without any grass growing yet, the ground around/under them is a morass of clay mud). The grills not being buried or frozen closed is pretty much all a Canadian needs to get started cooking in the back yard.

That being said, the temperature plummeted last night. Heck, it snowed off and on since Tuesday night, but it had hovered around freezing for most of that time. But once yesterday afternoon came around, the wind picked up and it started getting cold fast. By midnight it was -7° (-16° with the wind chill), and by morning it was -11°C and felt like -20°C. As winter temperatures around here go, that’s not too bad, but that’s really cold for April. Not only that, but the wind reached 90Km/hr gusts — you know it’s windy when you’re driving and debris is passing your car. With that wind, the cold just cut right through you… So yeah, I didn’t want to stand outside and cook. Not only that, but winds like that make it very difficult to get an even temperature on the grill!

So dinner wasn’t barbecued steak, it was pan-fried. It was very tasty pan-fried steak, though, cooked medium and tender. I served it up with a heaping side salad, which kind of felt summery if you didn’t look out the window…

* Yes, I am fully aware that what we call “barbecue” around here is what people in the southern USA would call “grilling”. We don’t really have a low-and-slow BBQ tradition around here, although those few times I have had it, it has been mouthwateringly delicious.

First Barbecue of the Year

Around the start of March, the weather begins to get warmer, but it’s still below freezing most nights and we’ll likely get a few more good snowfalls in. The weather has been quite mild recently, and is predicted to remain so for a while. We’ve managed to avoid Winter Storm Riley, which is hitting south and east of here. Canadian winters being what they are, we’d be prepared for the kind of snow that Europe is getting right now, but that weather system is much too far away. Instead, what we’re getting right now is the first hint of spring.

The photo above is a really old one of Thing 1 at the start of March, playing in the back yard while we cooked dinner on the barbecue. I love it because it shows the weird accommodations we have to make for the weather this time of year. (I also love it because I think Thing 1 is adorable, but I am somewhat biased.) It takes quite a while of above-zero temperatures for all of the snow to melt, and after that for the ground to thaw enough so that the water doesn’t just sit on the surface in a coating of mud and puddles. But it’s warm enough out that anything with good sun — or that sticks out of the snow covering — gets well dried out, and for the most part we get away with lighter clothing because it seems so much warmer than the frigid winter was. If you have kids in school, you send them in all bundled up for the morning temperatures (which are often below freezing), and they come home in the afternoon with 99% of their outerwear in hand or in their backpacks because it’s just much too warm. I’m pretty sure that this time of year is when the most stuff gets turned in to the school lost-and-found, to be honest.

One of the perks of this time of year is that our barbecues can be started up again, since they stick out of the ground a fair way and aren’t in areas prone to drifts. Technically, they can be used year-round, but we would have to dig them out after every snowfall, and missing just a bit of ice means that the covers end up frozen to the ground until the next big thaw. Actually, the gas barbecue’s cover is still quite encased in ice, but the cover for the Black Olive (an insulated wood pellet grill) is shorter and hence could be freed sooner. This device was handed down to us at the end of last fall, so we never really got the chance to test it out. Yesterday, my husband fired it up for the first time this year and we had our first hamburgers of the season — a sure sign that spring will soon be here. I had my burger with lactose-free cheese, mayonnaise, mustard, avocado, and lettuce. And dill pickles, of course.

Beef Stroganoff Recipe

I’ve been making beef stroganoff for fifteen years or so, but I hadn’t had any since a consultation with a dietician who suggested that I may be lactose intolerant. It’s been about a year since I started avoiding lactose, and my gut is much happier for it. I’m not touting this as something that everyone should try, since I know that there are a whole lot of people that tolerate lactose just fine — but sadly, I’m no longer one of them.

Lately I’ve been quite happy to discover that, in addition to the vegetarian/vegan options to milk that are out there, a few dairy companies have started to sell lactose-free versions of their products. I’ve found PC lactose-free old and marble cheddars in my local grocery store, and, for the first time just this week, Gay Lea’s lactose-free sour cream. As soon as I saw the sour cream on the shelf, I knew that I had to make some stroganoff this week.

Now, I’m not vouching for the authenticity of my stroganoff or anything. I can’t even remember where I first learned how to make it; it certainly wasn’t from someone who taught me in person. My version is the combination of a number of recipes over the years that have created what I’d consider to be a good meal for when you have a little bit of time to cook, but you still have other plans for the evening. It’s full of mushrooms and onions, but I recommend serving it with steamed veggies or a side salad to round it out. At the very least, this will add a splash of colour, since stroganoff is such a beige dish!

Beef Stroganoff
Serves 4-6 adults

In a large, deep frying pan, heat at medium-high:
2 Tbsp canola or sunflower oil
Into the heated oil, place:
1 yellow onion, chopped (about 120g before peeling & chopping)
Cook the onion gently until slightly browned, then add:
1 package of cremini mushrooms (227g)*
Cook until mushrooms begin to soften, then add:
450g steak or chopped roast chopped into bite-sized pieces with the fat trimmed off
Stir it all together, then sprinkle over the mixture:
1 tsp garlic powder
1 1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
Cook until the meat is browned on the outside and medium (pink, but not bloody) in the middle. While the meat is cooking, cook according to package directions:
2 cups of dried pasta
Traditionally stroganoff is made with broad egg noodles, but in our house we usually use penne. Rotini, fusilli, farfalle, and even elbow macaroni (pictured) also work well. Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and set it aside.
Once the meat is cooked, add to the pan:
1 cup sour cream (14% or greater) (regular or lactose-free)
Optionally, you can add:
1/4 cup cream cheese (optional)**
Stir the sour cream and cheese in until they are evenly distributed and have created a sauce; the sauce will have picked up some of the browning and spice and will have turned a nice light brown.
Add the drained pasta to the pan, and stir it all together until coated. Serve!

*You can add more mushrooms (up to double as much if you like), but this is the amount that my family prefers.
**I used to make my stroganoff with cream cheese every time, since I find it’s much creamier this way, but I have yet to find a lactose-free version. So for now I make it without.

Bulgogi Beef Bowl

Yesterday Thing 2 was home from school with a cold, and Thing 1 returned from school at the end of the day complaining of a sore throat. Since my day was primarily taken up with caring for the both of them, I needed to make an easy dinner, one that didn’t take a lot of supervision. I also needed to make dinner from what I had in the house, because if taking the kids to the store can be a chore, it’s a thousand times worse when they’re sick. And let’s be honest, nobody else at the store appreciates me bringing my little disease vectors along.

I rooted through my pantry and found a bottle of Sempio Bulgogi Marinade, which to be honest I had completely forgotten about. I’d tried their Kalbi sauce a while back and really liked it, so I had high hopes for this marinade. It was a bit more liquid than I’d expected, but otherwise it was lovely. I half-thawed some beef from the freezer, sliced it thin, then marinaded it (and thawed it the rest of the way) over the course of an hour. Then I boiled up a pot of rice (basmati, which I know is more of an Indian thing than Korean, but it’s what I had on hand), steamed bok choy in the microwave, and then layered them in a bowl with the beef on top. If I’d thought about it I would have topped it with toasted sesame seeds, which I do have in my spice cupboard, but I forgot they were there! I had a little extra marinade at the bottom of the pan, which I poured over the bowl. This drizzled through the beef slices and onto the bok choy and rice, making both very tasty.

Things don’t bode much better for the kids being well tomorrow, so I’ll have to think of another pantry-friendly, healthy, hopefully-tasty meal for tomorrow…