Quick & Easy

I needed a quick and easy dinner recently, something that didn’t take a lot of prep because it was a busy weeknight and I was already running around like a chicken with my head cut off.  So I threw some sticky rice in the instant pot, steamed some spinach in the microwave, and fried up a couple of eggs per person.

I topped the steamed spinach with a sprinkle of furikake (which is one of my favourite easy ways to liven up some dull vegetables, by the way), and it was done!  It wasn’t anything fancy, but it was healthy, fast, and cheap.  I’d estimate that it was less than $2.00 per serving — and it could have been much cheaper if I’d gone with the less pricey basmati rice instead of sticky rice.  Sticky rice is probably the most expensive kind of rice available at the grocery stores around here, although I’m sure there are other, more expensive kinds available in specialty stores.

Instant Pot Ground Beef Stroganoff

I was perusing my cookbooks the other day for a quick meal that wouldn’t require a lengthy trip to a grocery store, and I decided on Ground Beef Stroganoff from The Ultimate Instant Pot Cookbook (Coco Morante, 2018). It’s very different than the stroganoff that I was taught to make way back when (I learned so long ago that I honest can’t remember), but it was still quite nice. The only alteration was that I made the dish using lactose-free sour cream instead of regular sour cream.

I really liked that this was truly a one-pot meal; the sweating of the onions and garlic, the browning of the meat, and the cooking of the noodles are all done in the Instant Pot. This is the kind of situation where the saute function really shines. And I really liked that the short pressure cooking time was just long enough to get the prep mess cleaned up and the table set. What a great meal for a busy weeknight!

Leftover Stew

Yesterday was a toss-up for reasons not to send the kids to school: on the one hand, it was a snow day, and on the other, they were both sick anyway. So I kept dinner simple and made a stew out of all of the leftover bits and pieces I had in the fridge. Honestly, a traditional stew (at least the way I learned it) is a bit of whatever you’ve got around anyway, so it seems fitting.

The stew contained beef, onions, garlic, carrots, baby potatoes, celery, homemade beef broth, store-bought beef broth, pearl barley, red wine, fresh thyme, fresh sage, a bay leaf, and salt. I whipped it up in the Instant Pot in about 45mins, including preheating/venting time. It wasn’t the best stew I have ever made, but it was tasty, hearty, warm, and went down easily for those with sore throats. I’ll consider it a win.

Hearty Hamburger Soup

The plague, aka the nasty cold with a sore throat and a cough that has been going around, hit our house hard this week. While I am desperately trying to fend it off, Thing 2 and my husband have succumbed, and Thing 1 is starting to show symptoms. It’s also been ridiculously (if seasonally) cold the last few days, averaging about -35°C (-31°F) at night with the wind chill. All of this together means that the best thing for everyone to eat is a nice, hearty soup.

So last night I made Hearty Hamburger Soup in my Instant Pot. It’s actually a stove top recipe, but it’s easy enough to adapt; I just did all the sautéing in the cooker, drained off the fat, added the rest of the ingredients and then pressure cooked for 30min. This is a dish that I’ve been meaning to make for years, and the ingredients are generally the kind of thing I have stocked in my pantry and freezer. I’m told that my aunt makes a killer version of this dish, but I haven’t been able to wheedle her recipe away from her. The Allrecipes version was quite nice, though. I made the accompanying bread earlier that day in the bread machine; it was Egg-Enriched White Loaf on page 67 of Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf by Jennie Shapter (2002).

A Taste of Lebanon

When I was a kid, my mother liked to tell me the story of how she and my father met some of their friends back in the day. You see, Mom and Dad didn’t go to university directly after finishing high school; Dad earned a college diploma first, and Mom worked for a while. This meant that they were a few years older (and hopefully more mature) than most of their classmates. Not only that, but they had gotten married before they started university as well, which was (and I think still is) extremely unusual. This combination of factors meant that they didn’t really fit in with a lot of their peers. However, there was an extremely small community of international students attending the university at the time, and a lot of them were also older, and few were even married couples. My parents naturally fell in with this group of students and they became great friends. This meant that my parents (who are both white and from not only small towns, but military small towns) learned a lot about a number of international cultures and foods when otherwise they probably wouldn’t have done so.

A number of their friends were from Lebanon, and one of them (or possible a few of them, I may be misremembering) wanted to help publish a Lebanese cookbook to be sold in Canada. It was to include a lot of dishes that were common knowledge in Lebanon, but were considered “unusual” and “exotic” at the time throughout most of Canada. My parents got to be the testers for a lot of these dishes, since the authors were trying to tailor the recipes to a wider audience. Always enthusiastic about trying new foods, my parents were very happy guinea pigs.

Now, I think that A Taste of Lebanon: Cooking Today the Lebanese Way (Mary Salloum, 1983) is the book that this eventually became. My father bought my mother a copy for Christmas the year it first came out. My parents used that book regularly until it was passed down to me a few years ago when I started to show a greater interest in cooking.

Imagine my surprise, then, to stumble upon a brand new copy of this book at the Mid-East Food Centre; I didn’t realize that it was still in print! Not bad, considering it’s been more than 35 years. A quick search online revealed that it’s also available online as well. I would definitely highly recommend getting a copy of this book if you’re interested in Lebanese cooking even a little bit. As a bonus, it is a Canadian publication, so it focuses on ingredients that are actually available here.

Finding this book still for sale prompted me to go back to my own copy and make one of the easiest of the recipes therein: hommous bi tahini, i.e. chick pea dip with sesame seed paste. You can buy a large variety of types of hummus in just about every chain grocery store these days, since it’s considered healthy and trendy now. But when I was a kid my parents had to make it for us. Actually, since it’s a no-cook recipe (all you need is a blender), it makes a lot of sense to make your own hummus if you can.

I based the prices here on the everyday listings found on the Superstore website; you could probably find a lot of these ingredients even cheaper if you shop the sales.

Suraj chick peas @ $0.88 for a 540mL can = $0.88
Alkanater tahina @ $8.58 for 907ml, 60ml used = $0.57
Rooster Garlic @ $0.58 for 3 bulbs with 10 cloves each, 1 clove used = $0.02
Windsor iodized table salt @ $1.28 for 1kg, 2.84g used = $0.004
No Name lemon juice @ $2.48 for 946ml, 60ml used = $0.16

Total cost for 1 batch = $1.634

Now compare that to the pre-made prices, which start at $3.47 for a comparable amount, and go up to about $5.00 for the fancier stuff. That’s a pretty big saving if you make it yourself, and it’ll add up if you’re the kind of person who eats it regularly!

Now, my favourite way to eat hummus is on fresh pita bread — and one of the next recipes on my list is pita bread itself, which is also in this cookbook. But I know a lot of health-conscious people prefer it as a veggie dip, as it’s great with sliced sweet peppers, carrots, or celery. (Of course, it’s vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free too — not that these dietary trends were even on the radar of this classic food.) A Taste of Lebanon recommends that hummus and pita be served with any fish recipe, baked kibbi, tabouli, barbequed chicken, or shish kabob. It is truly one of the most versatile dishes I have ever made.

Green Tea Salmon with Coconut Rice & Miso Greens

When I bought the salmon for yesterday’s dinner, I had the option of buying just enough for one meal at a rather high price, or picking up a club pack that would make two meals for only a dollar or two more. Bulk discounts are a really big thing here and, if you can work with it, can save you an awful lot of money. Owning a deep freeze is a great way to buy in bulk without having to eat the same thing for a week. However, most ocean fish that gets to us here is frozen, since we’re about 1,100km away from the Atlantic coast in our country, and 500km away if we drive south to the States. I didn’t want to re-freeze the extra salmon, so we ended up eating it two days in a row. I’d been itching to try out some of the recipes from my new-to-me copy of Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals (Jamie Oliver, 2012), and the green tea salmon with coconut rice & miso greens on page 138 looked like it was packed with flavour.

I like how this book gives very specific directions for how to prepare these dishes in the least amount of time. That being said, this dish definitely took more than 15 minutes, mostly because of the rice. The instructions call for basmati rice to cook in light coconut milk for only 10 minutes — but I have never managed to make decent basmati on the stove in less than 25, and I cook it a lot. I tried to shave off a little time by cooking it in the Instant Pot (which didn’t exist when this book was written), but with the preheating, a 12-minute automatic cook time, and 10 minutes of releasing pressure naturally, it was still closer to a 25-minute cooking time. So I had to time my other preparation around the rice so that all of the elements finished at the same time. That actually made things much easier for me, since I’m definitely slower at my knife-work than Jamie.

My other issue with this recipe, and it’s become a big of a pet peeveas I’ve written before, is that the ingredients aren’t measured by something objective like volume or weight. Rather, they were given such measurements as “bunches” or “thumb-sized”. It’s fine to be able to throw in a pinch of this and a dash of that once I know a recipe well, but when I’m trying it for the first time I want it to be as much like the original as possible. Also, a “bunch” can change size from store to store and season to season — and I’m pretty sure that we use slightly different varieties of veggies than over in the UK, so their sizes can vary considerably. This can throw off proportions and potentially ruin a recipe. In this recipe, I threw in a whole bunch of cilantro instead of half a bunch, because the bunches where I was shopping seemed really small. Also, I had to use broccoli instead of broccolini, since my local grocery store didn’t carry the latter at all; luckily that particular bunch also had an approximate weight measurement as well.

Despite my pickiness about the recipe, I was very happy with the final dishes. The salmon with its green tea coating was surprisingly delicious, the coconut rice was lovely (and so easy!), and the veggies were crisp and fresh-tasting. I think the dressing would have been better with a little olive oil added to thin it out, since it had such a strong flavour that you really didn’t need much. The oil probably would have made my poor old blender deal with the whole thing better too, since it didn’t like working with such small quantities or low levels of liquid (my blender is older than I am). I think that making this sauce into a salad dressing for fresh greens would be absolutely lovely — unless I’m making it for someone who finds that cilantro tastes like soap. Luckily, I’m not one of them!

Yuan-Style Salmon & Spinach with Bonito Flakes

After all of the work (and many hours of ingredient hunting) over the weekend for Sunday’s dinner, I thought I’d keep things a bit more simple on Monday night. I’d been meaning to try out some of the recipes from Ten-Minute Bento (Megumi Fuji, 2007), since they all looked delicious and relatively simple. I went through my cupboards to determine what I already had, prepped my shopping list, and then went out for the day. Easy peasy, right? Except that halfway through the day my eldest called from school to tell me she was feeling sick, and could I come and pick her up. So much for picking up the missing ingredients with the girls after school, then. Instead of the leisurely dinner prep I had been hoping for, I chucked the rice in the Instant Pot right before my husband came home, made a mad dash for the grocery store once he arrived, and returned home as quickly as possible. I know, I could have changed my dinner plans entirely, but at this point it would probably have taken longer to find another recipe, scrounge the house for ingredients, and likely defrost something from the freezer.

Luckily the recipes in this book are as simple as described, if not necessarily as quick. (It’s not a ten-minute bento if you have to cook the rice, marinade the fish for ten minutes, and then grill each side of the fish for 4 minutes per side. Just saying.) I upped the portions to make the bento on page 21 for four people, and we all greatly enjoyed our yuan-style salmon & spinach with bonito flakes. I would definitely make this recipe again. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for circumstances delaying me from getting the ingredients earlier, it would have been a snap! As a bonus, making the sticky rice in the Instant Pot was super easy and came out perfectly.