In an attempt to cook as little as possible the other night, I served the salmon on some steamed rice topped with eggs sunny-side-up and sliced avocado. Of course, the apple pie and brownies from Mom’s birthday dinner are long gone, devoured by voracious children. Okay, I might have had some too. But the kids are the main culprits, I swear.
Yesterday ended up being hot and humid, so I wanted to make a dinner that didn’t require heating up the kitchen all that much. Community Table’s recipe for Slow Cooker Chicken Tikka Masala had come across my feed recently, so I thought I’d give it a try. How does cooking something for eight hours not heat up my house? Well, I put the slow cooker out on a table in the garage.
I had high hopes for this recipe, because a) true to my heritage, I like making easy food where you just put everything in a pot and we boil it for seventeen and a half hours straight, as Denis Leary put it; and b) this dish smelled absolutely fabulous while it was cooking. My garage has never smelled better, to be honest, and sometimes I use my bread maker in there. But when I actually took a bit, the flavour just didn’t live up to the hype. It was just… Bland. There was no depth.
Now, I’m no expert when it comes to Indian cuisine, but if I ever try this recipe again I would change a few things. Instead of just throwing everything in the pot raw, I would first toast the spices, then brown the onions and the garlic in a bit of olive oil, and then brown the chicken. This would pre-cook some of the ingredients, so it probably wouldn’t be necessary to have it in the slow cooker for as long, maybe 4 hours. Instead of chicken breasts, which have a tendency to be dry (even in sauce), I’d use chicken thighs. I’d use fresh tomatoes run through a blender instead of canned tomato sauce for a fresher taste. I’d add a few more veggies chopped up bite-sized; sweet peppers and mushrooms go well in this kind of dish (cooked first on the stove as well in bit of olive oil), but I could probably throw in anything on hand. It’s not like I’m going for authenticity here.
If nothing else, this recipe is in desperate need of salt, which enhances flavour. I added salt after I served the dish and it really did help, but I think it would be so much better if it was done during the cooking process. However, I’m not sure exactly how much salt is required for the whole potful (which feeds my family twice over, by the way). Salting to taste unsafe to do when the chicken is raw, so I’d really have no choice but to pre-cook the chicken anyway, and if I’m doing that I might as well make use of all of the previously mentioned techniques as well.
We celebrated my mother’s birthday this past Saturday. At her request, I hosted dinner at my house and made her up some of my ramen — which somehow she had never tried before. The version that I chose to make was Furikake Salmon Ramen (page 82 of Simply Ramen by Amy Kimoto-Kahn (2016)); the recipe is also available online here. This recipe uses a shoyu base (page 8, or online at easypeasyjapanesey.com), which I made up in advance in my slow cooker. I remain rather enamored of this base recipe, but every time I make it I remind myself that sometime I really need to try the tonkotsu base, which is my favourite but appears much more difficult. I used soft-boiled eggs instead of marinated half-cooked eggs, mostly due to time constraints. I also used packaged noodles; one of these days I will make my own, but that really requires a pasta maker, which I don’t own. I didn’t use the kind from the instant soup packages, as I find they get soggy much too quickly, but instead a package of dried noodles on their own for which I unfortunately can’t read most of the label.
The real star of this dish is the salmon. I was lucky enough to find it on special at the grocery store, pre-portioned and ready to go. The furikake topping was delicious even though I used North American mayonnaise instead of Japanese-style. There were some leftovers and I really look forward to having them served over rice in the next few days. I think that this topping is going to become part of my regular dinner roster; it would probably be good on other pink, oily fish like sea trout.
In our family, there’s always dessert with a birthday dinner, even if you’re stuffed from the meal itself — that just means that you take a breather and have the treat later in the evening. This year I made apple pie using fruit that I’d grown on my own tree in the back yard. For the chocolate lovers, Dad made brownies with chocolate icing, which were delicious and, if you know my dad, a very special treat, since he rarely bakes. We served it all up with whipped cream and/or vanilla ice cream (and dairy-free alternatives thereto). Oh, and candles! I was thrilled to find that it’s possible to get the candles that burn with coloured flame at the dollar store these days. I used to have to go downtown to a specialty store to buy them.
So happy birthday to my mom! Love always to the woman who helped shape me into the person that I am (whether that’s a good thing or not is a matter of opinion).
In an attempt to use up the zucchini I received this weekend, I made another round of Baked Panko Zucchini Sticks for dinner last night. Enough for my entire family only uses up about a quarter of one of those giant summer squash. Of all of the recipes that I have for zucchini, this one uses the most in one go. It may end up being a contest to see which gives out first, my supply of zucchini or my kids’ ability to consume it. To be fair, the girls were really happy to see the zucchini on their plates last night, and that’s two suppers in a row where I didn’t have to fight with them to get them to eat their vegetables.
However, the real star of dinner wasn’t the zucchini sticks, although my kids may argue otherwise. The best part to me was the pork chops that I baked as the entree. I found these 1″ thick slabs of pork on sale for less than the cheap cuts, so I stocked up and planned on a few for dinner. I greased a broiler pan, lay the chops flat on top, and then covered them with a thick coating of dry onion soup mix. Then I baked them at 275°F (135°C) for about two hours. They were a very fatty cut, but the low, slow bake made them moist, tender, and not too greasy. Honestly, they couldn’t have been much easier. Now, if only I’d planned a meal cooked entirely in the oven for a day that wasn’t 30°C (86°F).
I was inspired to cook the meat this way after reading The I Hate To Cook Book (Peg Bracken, 1960). On page 12, the author writes about Sweep Steak, which is “[s]o-called because a couple of seasons ago this recipe swept the country“. Basically, it’s beef coated with dry onion soup mix and roasted in the oven.
Now, this cookbook predates me, but I distinctly remember dry onion soup mix being a staple of the kitchen when I was growing up. It was used to coat steak, to bread pork chops and chicken, and to season meatloaf. In our house, it was most commonly mixed with sour cream to become chip dip — which is referred to as Classic California Dip on page 84 of The I Hate To Cook Book, so I guess this combination predates me as well. I remember doing groceries with my parents and there was a whole assortment of dried soups along an aisle. But when I went to pick up some mix for this dish, the dried soups took up only part of one tiny shelf, most of which was taken up by Cup-A-Soup. There are probably a hundred or more types of canned and tetra-packed soup, not to mention the refrigerated stuff in the deli section, but apparently the dried kind is no longer popular. I guess that’s to be expected with the popularity of fresh ingredients being back on the rise. I certainly hadn’t bought any dried soup mix in years. Still, it came as quite a surprise to me to see the selection so limited.
Keeping with this week’s rather unintentional theme of preparing dishes from old cookbooks, last night I tried a dish from 100 Tempting Fish Recipes. This book (well, at 56 pages, it’s more of a pamphlet) was issued by the Department of Fisheries (Ottawa, Canada) in 1939, although I have a 1949 reprint. It’s well out of print now and I haven’t found any copies for sale on the Web, but a digital copy is available online at Early Canadiana Online if you have a membership (which I do not). The site does have a free 18-page preview.
You can get a general idea of the age of this book just by the typography. Another dead giveaway of its age are the sometimes-vague cooking directions. For example, the recipe that I used was the Salmon Puff on page 23, and the baking directions were “Place in a buttered casserole, dot with butter and bake in a moderate oven until brown.” The term “moderate oven” is used a lot in this book and could, I think, denote a number of temperature settings. The timing is also vague; these days, you’d get an instruction along the lines of “Bake in an oven preheated to 350° until brown, about 20 to 30 minutes.” Not that older recipes can’t be precise, but newer ones generally give much more detail. I think that part of this is because the authors expected the reader to have a background of knowledge that would make what the author meant obvious. It’s probably also due to the fact that publication costs went down over time, so it was possible to be wordier (and include photographs of the final product) when every word didn’t carry as much financial weight at printing time. Heck, even between in my 1949 copy 100 Tempting Fish Recipes and the 1960 The I Hate To Cook Book by Peg Bracken (which is still in print), there’s a notable shift toward more precise instructions. The author actually bemoans this in the introduction:
…[T]hey’re always telling you what any chucklehead would know. “Place dough in pan to rise and cover with a clean cloth,” they say. What did they think you’d cover it with?
This terrible explicitness also leads them to say, “Pour mixture into 2 1/2 qt. saucepan.” Well, when you hate to cook, you’ve no idea what size your saucepans are, except big, middle-sized, and little. Indeed, the less attention called to your cooking equipment the better. You buy the minimum, grudgingly, and you use it till it falls apart.
Back to yesterday’s recipe. It’s what I would consider to be a “pantry casserole”, i.e. a dinner that, with a reasonably-stocked Canadian pantry and fridge, one is likely to have all of the ingredients already at home. The salmon, which would normally be the ingredient most easily spoiled, is canned. You’d think that with a pound of salmon in there, the dish would at least have a bit of a pink tinge, but potatoes make up the bulk and leach it of all colour. I think that this is a good metaphor for the dish overall, actually. It’s just very… Beige. Not great, not bad; edible, but uninspired. Even a sprinkling of paprika as garnish would liven it up a little. Peg Bracken has great things to say about garnish on page 15 of The I Hate to Cook Book:
The reason for these little garnishes is that even though you hate to cook, you don’t always want this fact to show, as it so often does with a plateful of nude food. So you put light things on dark things (like Parmesan on spinach) and dark things on light things (like parsley on sole) and sprinkle paprika on practically everything within reach. Sometimes you end up with a dinner in which everything seems to be sprinkled with something, which gives a certain earnest look to the whole performance, but it still shows you’re trying.
(Seriously, though, I highly recommend this book, even if you hate to cook. Especially if you hate to cook. It’s a fun read.)
The salmon puff would have benefited greatly from a side of steamed vegetables or a salad, both to enhance the presentation and the nutritional values. Surprisingly, I think I may use this recipe again in the future specifically because it is an easy pantry casserole. Heaven knows some winter days I just don’t want to brave the roads for more exciting ingredients. Also, it would be a great way to use up leftover mashed potatoes. I mean, everyone in my family ate their dinner, nobody complained, and some even had seconds. Nobody had anything great to say about the dish, but when it comes to feeding kids, a lack of complaints is pretty high praise.
Sometimes the food that I make can take hours, even days, to prepare. Other times I have to make a rushed meal between activities. This dinner was definitely one of the latter.
I made the Honey Curry Chicken from page 126 of The United Churches in Canada: Let’s Break Bread Together (September 1988 edition). The flavour of the final dish reminded me of nothing so much as dipping McDonald’s chicken nuggets into honey, which is incredibly low-brow but recalls happy childhood memories. At least this is nominally healthier, since the chicken isn’t breaded and there are actually vegetables!
The honey curry sauce is very quick to make and can be as mild or as spicy as suits your tastes, depending on the kind of curry powder that you choose to use. I used Irresistibles Mild Curry powder which adds flavour but absolutely no heat, which is exactly what I’m looking for when cooking for my children or my parents. (My husband and I prefer more spice.) Instead of baking the chicken in the oven, as the recipe called for, I went the quicker route of chopping it small and frying it in its own juices on the stove top. I didn’t use raisins in the sauce (they were optional anyway and didn’t really seem to go). As the recipe dictated, I served it over fluffy rice (Suraj Basmati). I served it with peas as we didn’t have any beans, and no toasted slivered almonds as a topping since we didn’t have any of those either. Despite all of the changes, it turned out absolutely lovely and I will definitely make this dish again.
As I have said before, I am a huge fan of ramen. Not the instant stuff (although in a pinch, that stuff’s not half bad), but the fresh kind with real toppings. I fell in love with it in Japan, and I get out to Ginza Ramen whenever I can. But ever since my husband’s birthday dinner, now that I’ve learned how to make the good stuff at home, I probably eat it way more than I should. Not that my family minds, they’re just as big into it as I am.
I started off by using up the Shoyu base (page 8 of Simply Ramen by Amy Kimoto-Kahn (2016)). The recipe is also available for free on the author’s website at easypeasyjapanesey.com. I have since made a couple of batches of this broth and I still love how easy it is to make and how packed with flavour the broth turns out. If you’re like me and you like making things that you can just throw in the slow cooker for eleven hours, then you’ll love this recipe. I also like that this recipe makes up enough broth for eight or so servings, so I can freeze the excess for an easy meal later on.
As with many of my noodle soups, the toppings were less a pre-planned dish and more whatever we had in the fridge/freezer at the time. I included soft-boiled eggs, garlic shrimp, masago (capelin roe), and mussels cooked in white wine and garlic butter. The mussels were the kind that come in a vacuum-pack with the sauce and are meant to be cooked in the microwave or by dumping the whole pack in a pot of boiling water. I’m fully aware that this isn’t terribly classy, but it was delicious.
My second shoyu ramen was topped with soft-boiled eggs and garlic shrimp; these two ingredients are pretty common in the food I prepare because there are almost always eggs in the fridge and shrimp in the freezer. This time I also included baby bok choy and squares of nori (dried seaweed sheets).
I topped my third ramen with soft-boiled eggs, carrots, bok choy, and teriyaki chicken breast. I had never thought to combine teriyaki and ramen until I went to Umi Sushi Express in the food court of Rideau Center a while back, and I was pleasantly surprised when I ordered this dish. I mean, Umi Sushi is still fast food, and it’s nothing compared to the fantastic variety of ramen available in Japan, but it’s probably the best thing in the food court. Now if I can only find out what kind of hot sauce they used.