Birthday Dinner Woes

Yesterday was my husband’s birthday, so at his request I cooked him a special birthday dinner. I’d say that overall it was a learning experience.

The dinner itself was one of his favourites: chicken thighs marinaded in Pataks Tandoori Curry Paste and coconut milk, cooked on the smoker grill (which is finally fixed). Despite appearances, it wasn’t actually burned, although it was definitely overcooked. Now that it’s running properly, the grill heats up better and faster than before, and I failed to take that into account. As sides I toasted some garlic naan bread on the barbecue, and we also had steamed butternut squash with butter and salt. I know I’ve prepared this meal better in the past, but it was still tasty.

The difficult part — and the greatest learning experience — of my husband’s birthday dinner was actually the dessert: a frozen lemon torte. We’d had this dish at a barbecue hosted by my husband’s boss a couple of months ago, and we both really liked it. Sadly, I could only have a mouthful, as it was filled with whipping cream. As we were leaving the party I requested the recipe from my husband’s boss’ wife, and she made sure to send along a copy a few days later. Sadly, I have no idea what recipe book it comes from, since she just sent me a photocopy of the one page.

The challenge for me was making this dish without the use of cow’s milk. I was sure that I should be able to make it with coconut milk instead; internet research indicated that it is possible to make an imitation whipped cream from coconut milk. Strike 1 against me was that the milk hadn’t separated after I’d placed the can in the fridge overnight; most instructions for whipping the cream call for using only the solids from the can. I’m not sure if it’s a canning/processing technique or an added ingredient, but my coconut milk didn’t separate. Further Googling told me that I could probably make whipped cream even with non-separated coconut milk, but I would have to whip it longer (15+ minutes), use a thickening additive, and it would still only form soft peaks. Well, mine didn’t even get that thick. I whipped it with a hand mixer for almost half an hour and just got slightly fluffier milk. By this time it was almost two in the morning and I was exhausted, so I combined all of my ingredients, threw the pan in the freezer, and hoped for the best.

I was really worried about removing the springform pan after dinner, which is why I took photos in advance just in case it all fell apart without support. It wasn’t quite that bad, but it did get mushy really quickly. I’d say that the lemon layer, which was supposed to have a mousse-like texture, was a lot more like ice cream. I mean, that wasn’t bad overall, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for. Also, the lady finger bottom crust, which should have been held down by the mousse, actually floated to the top of the too-liquid lemon mix, and then froze that way. After adding the meringue on top, the cookies ended up being more of a central layer than a crust.

In the end, the torte ended up being more of an ice cream cake with a meringue topping — but at least I could eat it! I really want to have a go at this recipe again, with less of a time limit and more than one brand of coconut milk to try whipping. Actually, I noticed on a grocery store trip today that there is a brand that sells full-fat coconut cream, so that may be the next thing I try. If I ever get the non-dairy version working to my satisfaction, I will post the recipe, I promise!

Fresh Tomato Bruschetta

My garden has definitely reached the “overgrown” stage. I sent the girls in to pick some tomatoes, and, well…

I almost lost them!

Just the other day I got what I’d consider my first real harvest of tomatoes (the first three cherry tomatoes didn’t really count, volume-wise). I thought that it was high time to bushwhack into the furrows and pick all of the ripe fruit before it rotted and fell into the dirt.

With Thing 1 and Thing 2’s help, I harvested a number of cucumbers, a bowl of tomatoes of various colours, and a lone eggplant. I did, however, forget that there are thorns on the greens of some kinds of eggplants, and I almost threw it across the room when I pricked myself. Lesson learned.

For dinner that night I wasn’t terribly inspired: just a rotisserie chicken and a pre-made Ceasar salad from the grocery store. But I did make bruschetta with the freshly-picked tomatoes! It’s honestly one of the quickest dishes in my repertoire. Throw tomatoes, a clove of garlic, a dash of olive oil, basil, and some grated parmesan into the food processor. Blitz it for a few seconds until it’s chunky, spread it on some thick slices of nice French or Parisian bread, and pop it in the oven at 350°F until heated and browned. This time, I also added a slice of lactose-free Gouda to the top of each piece of bread (any hard cheese that melts well will do). It’s lovely! As a bonus, it’s a dish that can be made in a toaster oven, i.e. outside where it won’t heat up the house in the dog days of summer.

Preparing for the Storm

We’ve been getting dire warnings from the Weather Network over the past week that yesterday and today will be all about thunderbolts and lightning, and then the storm will pull in a massive heat wave behind it. I’ve been trying to plan my cooking to keep that in mind, but nothing seems to be going quite right.

On the hottest days, I try very hard not to cook indoors or, if that can’t be arranged, at least I try not to use the oven. So I figured that on Wednesday night I’d make the last “comfort food” for a while and throw on some pork loin, mushroom gravy, Dad’s biscuits, and steamed carrots. This is a meal that I’ve made a million times, so you’d think it would be easy, no?

Well, everything going well until I tried to get the biscuits on. That’s when I realized that I’d left my bag of all-purpose flour at my in-laws’ cottage; I’d intended to bake bread on the day that was predicted to be really rainy, but the weather never got bad enough to totally pin us inside. All I had left at home were the dregs left in one storage jar. I ended up combining those dregs with some multigrain bread flour that had been languishing in my cupboard for quite some time. (I’d bought it to make a specific kind of bread, and the package contained way more than I’d needed.) The multigrain flour actually worked out okay in that the biscuits rose and baked properly, but it did mean that they had a whole different texture than I was used to. Usually these biscuits are soft and fluffy, but the multigrain flour has crunchy bits and doesn’t rise as well.

Then last night it was supposed to be hot and humid, so I wanted to cook the majority of the meal outside. (It actually didn’t end up being that bad, with the storm pushing the cold air in front of it so that it actually cooled down around dinnertime, but I didn’t know that was going to happen.) Actually, “cook” is probably stretching it a bit, more “prepare”. I had bought a rotisserie chicken at Costco earlier in the day, which I’d just planned on reheating on the wood pellet grill. So I turned on the machine, preheated it, put on the chicken, and waited… And waited… And waited… But it didn’t seem to be heating up. It turned out that wood dust had clogged the auger that feeds the fuel pellets, so no fuel was burning. My husband took the grill halfway apart to figure that out, and he was still cleaning it out when it started to rain. He threw the cover over the grill and promised to finish cleaning it at a later date.

But that still left us without dinner. And a pre-cooked chicken is supposed to be easy, right? Not so far, not this time. We also have a propane grill, which I then tried to start, but nothing happened at first. Turns out the hose had somehow become loose and the fuel wasn’t getting to the grill. (This seems to be a theme.) A quick tightening did the job on that one, and I’m happy about that because I first assumed that the tank was empty — which would have delayed the meal even further.

Finally, I was able to reheat my chicken (and crisp up the skin — throwing a rotisserie chicken on the grill or in the oven is good for that). While it warmed up, I cooked up some penne and coated the noodles with basil pesto that I’d made and frozen last summer. At least that part was easy. By the time supper was finally complete, we were easily an hour and a half past our normal dinner time, so I didn’t even get a chance to take a picture with my good camera before the food was devoured — I had to use my phone, which I almost always have on hand.

Hopefully my cooking over the next few days will go a bit more smoothly.

Spelunking

We started Sunday with a hearty brunch eaten out on the porch at my in-laws’ cottage. I had bacon, eggs over easy, an everything bagel, apple slices, and a banana.

With this fuel under our belts, we made the drive out to the Bonnechere Caves, which are caves carved by the Bonnechere River into limestone deep underground. I’d been there once as a child, and again as an adult bringing my eldest along, but this was the first time that both kids had been old enough to partake in the tour. I think that it was an experience that they won’t soon forget!

The tour started outside along the Bonnechere River (you can actually see the natural entrance to the caves on the left).

Then you take a man-made staircase down into the bowels of the caves as part of a guided tour. We’d been to the Lusk Caves a few years ago, where the caves are left au naturel (although there is a trail leading to them) and there is no guide, so this was a very different experience. There is a boardwalk over the naturally jagged stone floors, and the caves are lit.

Despite the somewhat staged air that the man-made additions add, they did allow me to get a much clearer look at the rock formations.

For the last section of the tour, the path runs under the water table, so concrete barriers and pumps are put to use to make the area dry enough to walk through. This lets you see exactly how deep these caverns really go. Although if you’re claustrophobic, I can see how the idea of all of that ground above your head would be difficult to deal with. One lady kept making comparisons to The Cave…

It was a very neat experience. Maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to take yet another generation of children to explore this enthralling natural formation.

Of course, after all of our spelunking we were ravenous, so we headed back to the cottage for dinner. We chowed down on grilled chicken legs with hot sauce, roasted fingerling potatoes, and a salad of mixed greens, red grapes, and ground cherries. What a great way to round out the day!

Sun Noodle Brand Instant Shoyu Ramen

My trip to T&T last week resulted in me bringing home a whole load of new things I wanted to try, of course. The first one that I broke out was Sun Noodle Brand Instant Shoyu Ramen. It’s about $6.50 per frozen package, but each one serves two, so even though it’s not as cheap as the dried, instant stuff, it’s still a pretty darned affordable meal.

I’ve had shoyu broth, which is predominantly chicken and soy sauce flavoured, in Japan, and at Ichiko Ramen (formerly Ginza Ramen), and I’ve made it at home as well. (The fantastic — and easy! — homemade soup base recipe can be found on page 8 of Simply Ramen by Amy Kimoto-Kahn (2016) or at easypeasyjapanesey.com.) Although I’m by no means an expert, I think that I can at least tell what shoyu ramen is supposed to taste like, for the most part.

The package only contains the noodles and the broth, though; the instructions on the back of the package recommend adding your favourite toppings. I needed to make a quick meal, so I went with what we had in the fridge/freezer/pantry: soft-boiled eggs, narutomaki, enoki mushrooms, dried shrimp, and nori.

The verdict on this quick dinner was pretty positive. Sure, it’s not as good as homemade, and definitely not as good as restaurant fare. But it’s miles better than the dried instant kind. The noodles have a better consistency, which in the case of ramen means that they’re chewier (dried ones have a tendency to be soggy when cooked). The broth had more depth of flavour, although the one complaint I did get is that it was a little bit too salty. That might have been because of the dried shrimp, which are quite salty in and of themselves. Usually I add them to my homemade broths, which are very low in salt, and that works well, but they may not be a great combination with packaged stuff. It also could have been because I didn’t water down the broth enough. The instructions gave a range of the amount of water you could use, and then said “to taste”, so I guess our “to taste” is a little more watery than the official directions.

That being said, they were definitely good enough to try again! Maybe I’ll switch up the toppings next time; we could definitely have used more vegetables that night.

Leftover Chicken Salad

Last night was leftovers night, the day when I try desperately to finish off the last few odds and sods in the fridge to make space for new ingredients. For some reason, there always seems to be a bit of chicken in there when it comes time for a clean-out, either from rotisserie birds from the store or, more commonly, chicken thighs or breasts roasted at home. While chicken bacon quesadillas are generally an option preferred by my kids, I don’t always have tortillas around, so another thing I like to make is leftover chicken salad.

Honestly, it’s one of the simplest things in the world to make. I wash and cut up the lettuce (or spinach, or greens mix — whatever we’ve got), and I’ll wash, peel if necessary, and chop up whatever veggies haven’t yet turned — that means usually some carrots, cucumber, and some avocado if we’re really lucky. I’ll also chop the leftover chicken into bite-sized pieces, and add some slices of hard-boiled egg on top. If we have cheese that needs to be eaten up, we’ll often grate/crumble a bit and add that too. Then everyone adds whatever dressing they like; we usually have Greek tatziki, bacon ranch, zesty Italian, Ceasar, and a couple of homemade vinaigrettes kicking around the fridge. Of course, Thing 1 for some reason hates the texture of lettuce, and hence ends up with a plate of cut up veggies, chopped chicken, and a hard-boiled egg. It’s nothing fancy, but it is a tasty, healthy meal in a pinch!

Slow Cooker Lemon Garlic Chicken

Keeping on the theme of making easy dinners in the crock pot, friends of mine recommended the Slow Cooker Lemon Garlic Chicken recipe from AllRecipes.com. They said that they loved it, but I was less than satisfied. I followed the recipe exactly, but the chicken turned out dry and not very flavourful. There wasn’t even much sauce to pour over the meat to relieve the dryness.

I went back over the website to try and figure out where I went wrong. Well, it turns out that it’s totally possible that my friends made a completely different dish than I did! (And if so, no wonder they were raving about it, because the other version looks lovely.) If you watch the video of how to prepare the dish (which I did not), it adds a lot more ingredients that aren’t even mentioned as options in the recipe text. First of all, for spices, it adds onion powder, garlic powder, and paprika. Secondly, baby carrots, sliced mushrooms, and frozen peas are added to the crock pot before setting it up to cook. Thirdly, the 1/4 cup water and chicken bouillon is replaced with 1/2 of a cup of white wine and 2 cups of chicken broth. With all of those added flavourings and liquids, of course the dish wouldn’t end up dry and tasteless.

Personally, I think that if you’re going to make a recipe video, you should stick to the recipe that goes along with it. The easy fix to this would be to add the changes to the text of the recipe. When reading a recipe, one shouldn’t have to filter through the comment section or watch a “how to” video in order to get the correct list of ingredients — neither of which are an option in a hard-copy cookbook anyway.

Sadly, I think AllRecipes dropped the ball on this one.