Comfort Food for a Sick Family

The cold/flu that flattened our family for a good three weeks seemed to have gone away, but over the last few days it reared its nasty head again, albeit in a more subdued form. Thing 1 ended up home with a fever, while at the same time Thing 2 has a nasty, chesty cough. I am not immune, and still have sinus congestion and pressure issues. This means that, on our least-energetic days, we all want comfort food, and I haven’t felt up to cooking anything complicated.

This is where chicken noodle soup came in the other day. I didn’t even have to go out to get the ingredients! I had homemade broth in the freezer (I try to always keep it stocked), along with some chicken thighs that I baked. Then I boiled up some ditali noodles, threw them in a pot with half of the broth and half of the chicken, and there was chicken noodle soup for the family. Earlier in the day I also managed to throw on a loaf of herb-free Bread Machine Fluffy Herb Bread (it’s become my go-to loaf for a nice, light white bread), so we had fresh bread to go with the soup.

Now, you may have noticed that I only used half of the broth and chicken, and that was so that I would have leftovers. Chicken noodle soup doesn’t generally refrigerate well because the noodles swell up and absorb most/all of the liquid over time. Instead, I refrigerated the ingredients separately, and last night I threw them all in a pot with a half of a cup of rice and simmered it all together until the rice was cooked (about 20 minutes).

It’s nothing fancy, but culturally our first go-to around here is chicken noodle soup when we’re not feeling well. If chicken noodle soup isn’t available, something bland, nutritious, and warm is the next option on the list. It seems to have worked this time, because the girls are already getting their energy back. I hope this means we’ve managed to kick this thing for good — knock on wood!

Pulled Pork

Last night we had my brother-in-law over for dinner again, so I had to make a meal that was filling enough for a family of four and a grown man who is seriously into Muay Thai. I settled on pulled pork, using my trusty formula (not really a recipe per se).

This time I served it with mashed potatoes and steamed asparagus, although it would have been a perfect day to run the oven and make some fresh bread. I don’t think it went above 15°C (59°F) and it rained most of the day, so it was pretty damp as well. That’s not horrible weather for spring, but by the time we hit June around here we expect it to be a bit warmer. I have been kind of hoping to start working on my garden this week, but the weather just hasn’t been cooperating. At this point I’m just growing a fantastic crop of weeds, and that’s just sad. I can do better than this.

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.

Chicken Katsudon

Thirteen years ago, I went to Japan for a month-long visit. For most of that time, I was with my friend Michelle, who is a childhood friend from Canada who was teaching there. Together we traveled by train from Saga in the southwest along the coast to Tokyo over the course of three weeks, stopping many times along the way. One of our stops was to visit a young woman named Ayako Koyama and her family. Ayako had stayed with me back in high school as part of an exchange program; she’d also come to visit me as an adult about a year before. On this trip, I had the opportunity to meet her family and to get to know the home and the region where she had grown up.


Ayako, Mrs. Koyama, Mr. Koyama, Ayako’s grandfather, Ayako’s grandmother, and Michelle. Ayako’s brother must have been at work that night.

One evening, Ayako’s mother brought Michelle and I into her kitchen to teach us how to make katsu for dinner. I honestly can’t remember if it was chicken (torikatsu) or pork (tonkatsu) that we breaded and deep-fried, but I do remember the process! I was rummaging through my old photos yesterday and realized that I actually had a photo of us all eating the dinner we’d made (above). It was a lot of fun, although it’s always awkward to cook in someone else’s kitchen — even when there isn’t a language barrier! It remains one of my fondest memories of visiting with Ayako and her family. My one regret is that I wasn’t really into cooking at the time, so I didn’t take the opportunity to learn more from a Japanese home cook firsthand. Such a valuable resource wasted! I guess I’ll just have to go back to Japan someday and learn more.

These memories resurfaced recently when I saw a show on the Food Network that had a segment on some restaurant that makes a chicken katsu burger. I really had developed a liking for it in Japan (you can see one of the commercial meals that I had that included it in my Noodle Soup entry). It’s a real comfort food. Suddenly, I was craving chicken katsudon again. Although I’d made the meat part before and could pretty much remember how to do it without help, I had to Google for how to make the eggs correctly, since they’re not simply scrambled eggs. I used the Chicken Katsudon recipe from Just One Cookbook, and in an attempt to make it a little bit healthier I made Baked Katsudon instead of fried. I was pretty happy with how it turned out, although I know where I made some mistakes. I was running out of time at the end (I had to get the kids fed and out the door to Guiding), so I skipped cooking the chicken in the egg mixture and instead just put it on top, which made it a little bit dry. I think I cooked the egg a bit too long; when I had it in Japan it was just a little bit runny, more like a sauce than a scrambled egg. I also didn’t have any parsley, which would really have made it pop a bit more visually. Also, although I did manage to make up some miso soup, I ran out of time to make a salad, and a meal like this really needs some kind of veggie, even if it’s just a quick pickle. But given that it’s been thirteen years since I’ve attempted this dish, I don’t think it turned out too badly. It did get positive reviews from the family just how it was, so I am encouraged enough to try it again.

Poutine & Cupcakes

Continuing this week’s pre-Canada-150 lead-up, I’d like to start with some iconic Canadian music: The Log Driver’s Waltz. The song became an integral part of art culture in Canada in 1979, when an became the soundtrack of arguably the most popular animated short in the Canada Vignettes series released by the National Film Board. The short, along with the other Vignettes, was aired on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) between programs as filler, so it was very possible to catch this song multiple times a day throughout the 1980’s. There is also a French-language version entitled La valse du maître draveur. The chorus of the English version is as follows:

For he goes birling down and down white water
That’s where the log driver learns to step lightly
Yes, birling down and down white water
The log driver’s waltz pleases girls completely

Birling, by the way, isn’t a word in common parlance even in Canada (at least not anymore), but it according to the the Free Dictionary, it is “a game of skill, especially among lumberjacks, in which two competitors try to balance on a floating log while spinning it with their feet. Also called logrolling.”

The timber trade in general is a huge part of the history of Canada as a whole, and the Ottawa area in particular. The trade blossomed in the early 1800’s, with log rafts and booms being a common sight on the Ottawa River for over a hundred years. Related trades played a large part in the development of the city, with a large number of local trades becoming part of the cultural landscape in the sawmills and their later cousins the pulp and paper mills.


Homemade poutine

The timber industry was dominated by backbreaking labour, what would now be called blue-collar work, and in a similar vein, the famous French-Canadian dish of poutine is considered a very blue-collar dish (although honestly everyone eats it, no matter their level of wealth). Poutine would probably have been appreciated by log drivers, but it didn’t come into being until the 1950’s, when the local trade was on its last legs. Poutine is a mouth-wateringly delicious pub grub combination of french fries, cheese curds, and gravy. The one that I made yesterday, pictured above, also had chunks of the ground beef that I used to make the gravy from scratch. I made the fries using the Baked French Fries I recipe on Allrecipies — although I set the oven to 400°F (205°C) instead of the higher temperature in the directions, as per suggestions in the comments. Poutine may look like a hot mess, but it tastes fantastic, and it’s particularly good while/after a few drinks.


Strawberry cupcake with buttercream icing & a maple-leaf-shaped strawberry gummy

Of course, you have to follow a meal of meat and carbs with dessert, right? My family ate these strawberry cupcakes with buttercream frosting following the poutine (I don’t know how they had any room left). The cupcakes were Sprinkles’ Strawberry Cupcakes from Martha Stewart. They came out looking great, but I was a little disappointed in the flavour; I’d hoped they would taste more like the strawberry puree that was in the batter, but mostly what I could taste was vanilla. Originally I had planned to make a maple buttercream frosting, but I don’t know what I did wrong and the frosting separated as soon as I stopped mixing. I was so disappointed! I ended up using store-bought Duncan Hines buttercream frosting (which contains neither butter nor cream), which was a blow to my pride, but at least my friends with milk allergies could eat it. And hey, the cupcakes looked red and white for Canada Day!

Mom’s Homemade Macaroni & Cheese Recipe

One of my daughters was having a friend over for dinner tonight, so I made up my mom’s famous homemade macaroni and cheese. This dish is pretty much a guaranteed crowd-pleaser with the under-10 set, who are often more difficult to please and are less willing to try something new. It’s exponentially better than instant pasta and powdered cheese. In my opinion, my mother makes the best macaroni and cheese in the world; it was such a favorite of mine that I requested it for my birthday dinner for at least twenty years in a row. It made me very sad when I realized that my dairy intolerance means that I’d have to give up eating mom’s mac & cheese.

Mom’s recipe originally came from the back of a box of dried macaroni noodles, but over the years she tweaked and perfected it until it bears little resemblance to the original. This recipe makes a lovely creamy cheese sauce for the pasta and creates a crispy crunch on the top of the casserole. The crispy top is generally everyone’s favorite part and is fought over in my house.

Mom’s Homemade Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 4

According to the directions on the package, cook:
2 cups uncooked dried macaroni
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a medium-sized saucepan or in the microwave in an oven- and microwave-safe casserole dish, melt:
3 Tbsp butter
Whisk into the butter:
3 Tbsp all-purpose white flour
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp black pepper
Stir in:
3 cups 2% milk
Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly (with a whisk works best) until thickened to the consistency of a white sauce. Alternately, cook in the microwave, stirring every 3 minutes to remove lumps, until the desired consistency is achieved.
Add:
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped or grated
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp table mustard
2 cups coarsely grated old cheddar cheese
Optionally, you may add:
(1 medium onion, finely chopped)
Stir mixture until cheese is fully melted and ingredients are evenly mixed. Add the previously-cooked macaroni and stir well. Fill a 2.5-quart (2.3L) oven-safe casserole dish with this mixture. If sauce was prepared in the microwave, simply add the noodles to the mixture already in the casserole dish.
With a rolling pin, crush:
8 salted soda crackers* (about 25g (0.9oz))
Mix crushed crackers with:
1/4 cup grated old cheddar cheese
Sprinkle this mixture evenly on top of the contents of the casserole dish.
Bake uncovered for 20-30 minutes.
Generously serves four adults.

*I prefer Premium Plus or Premium Plus Whole Wheat crackers, but there’s no reason that other kinds of crackers can’t be used. I have made this recipe so many times — and relied on whatever I had in my pantry at the time — that I have probably used everything going. The crushed crackers used in the photos were actually Original Baked Naan Crisps by Sarah’s Fine Foods.

This recipe is very flexible. Here are some variations that I have tried:

– This dish freezes very well. When preparing portions for the freezer, skip the baking step when preparing. Instead re-heat the entire casserole in the oven at 350°F (175°C), which will re-melt the cheese and crisp up the topping. Bake until cheese starts to bubble and the center of the casserole is warm, which generally takes between 30min and 1 hour, depending on how large the portions are that you have frozen. You can reheat frozen portions in the microwave, but the topping won’t get crispy.

– This dish also travels and reheats well, so it’s perfect to bring to potluck meals.

– Use a different kind of pasta. Most smaller pastas, such as penne, rotini, rigatoni, shells, or wagon wheels, work just as well as macaroni. Penne rigate is a favorite of mine and is probably used more often than macaroni in our household. Whatever you choose, you’ll need about two cups of dried pasta.


This dish, to me, is the only truly proper one for making Mom’s homemade macaroni and cheese (although in reality any appropriately-sized casserole dish works equally well). It’s just that this is what my mom used for the entirety of my childhood: a Pyrex casserole dish from the late 1970’s/early 1980’s with flowers on the side.

– Use fresh pasta instead of dried. The yield for fresh pasta is different than dried, but in the end you’ll need about five cups of cooked pasta.

– For a healthier dish, use whole-wheat pasta.

– If you’re cooking without a stove, prepare the sauce in a microwave and bake the final casserole in a toaster oven. You can even “bake” the casserole in the microwave, but the top won’t get crispy (as I learned the hard way when my oven broke when cooking dinner for my in-laws for the first time).

– Change up the cheese; use a blend of cheddar and mozzarella/Gouda/etc., or switch up the cheese entirely. Sharp cheeses work best.

– To make baby food for an older baby, use whole-wheat noodles that are made without eggs and whole-fat milk. Skip the onions and the crispy top. Run the macaroni and cheese through a blender/food mill/food processor to make it smooth, adding whole milk gradually until the desired consistency is reached. This works best while the mixture is still warm, as it does congeal when it cools. My daughters loved their macaroni and cheese baby food — and now they’re huge fans of the regular kind.

Pumpkin Pancakes

I have a tendency to clip interesting recipes out of magazines, file them away in a recipe box, and then forget that they are there. Yet somehow recently when I thawed some homemade pumpkin puree for a pie that I didn’t end up making, I actually remembered that I had a recipe in my stash that might be useful. I thought I’d taken this recipe from an old Food & Drink, but a quick Google showed that it was actually from the October 2004 edition of Martha Stewart Living. The recipe was for Pumpkin Pancakes, and although heaven knows it probably wasn’t also available online back when it was first published, it is there now.

My pancakes weren’t Martha Stewart perfect, of course, but they did taste awfully good. They were light and fluffy and delicious, and the pumpkin and spice flavours were subtle enough that they went well with most sweet toppings. The pancakes were simple enough to make, with just a few additional ingredients added to a basic recipe. I’ll definitely be making this dish again — and perhaps with practice my pancakes will be a bit more symmetrical.