Herb-Crusted Fish

Today I was lucky enough to find a copy of Essential Cooking Basics: The New Cook by Mary Berry & Marlena Spieler (1997) for $1.25 at a local charity shop. I’ve just started watching Mary Berry on YouTube, which makes it seem like I’m way behind the curve since she has written more than seventy cookbooks, but honestly she’s not as big of a name here as she is in the UK! I mean, only seven of her books are available in hard copy via Chapters, and in brick-and-mortar stores she’s even harder to spot. It’s a tragedy, actually. My introduction to Mary Berry was via old episodes of The Great British Bake Off where she was the judge.


Preparing the ingredients.

So I was thrilled to find a copy of one of her out-of-print books today. A quick perusal of the recipes within while I waited for the kids to get home made me realize that I had almost all of the ingredients for Herb-Crusted Fish (page 134). (My choice of dinner recipe had absolutely nothing to do with having pulled a muscle in my back when I shoveled the ice berm at the bottom of the driveway the day before, and hence wanting nothing to do with lifting heavy bags of flour or potatoes.) I thought that a quick trip to the grocery store would be all that I needed. Ha! Does it ever work that way? First of all, I couldn’t find bread crumbs that didn’t already have cheese or seasoning mixed in, so I had to go with Panko. Then the store was out of non-frozen haddock (what grocery store runs out of haddock?), so I substituted basa fillets. Then I went on to looks for chervil, which apparently is really hard to get around here, so I bought curly parsley instead, which an Internet search suggested as a reasonable substitution. (The other herbs, tarragon and dill, I already had in the fridge.)


Frying the fish.

I mean, none of that was the recipe’s fault. The book is really intended for a British audience, so it’s not unheard of that some of the ingredients can’t be easily found this side of the pond. I’ve run into this problem with international cookbooks before. It is a frustrating, though.


Herb-crusted basa fillet with sliced avocado and romaine lettuce with Greek dressing.

When all was said and done, I was really happy with the final product. The substitutions worked really well. I mean, I have no idea if it tasted anything like what Mary Berry intended, but it did taste good! The whole family ate theirs and asked me to make it again sometime. The recipe’s instructions were clear and easy to follow, which is exactly what I was looking for in a book with “basics” and “new cook” in the title. The step-by-step photos throughout were great as well. I hope that I’m past the “new cook” stage by now, but it never hurts to brush up. It’s also great to have an illustrated guide when the instructions are from another country, because the terminology sometimes changes. All in all, I look forward to preparing recipes from this book again. I also hope to use it to help my kids learn to cook.

Dollar Store Challenge: Tuna Noodle Casserole Recipe

One of the culinary challenges I’ve heard people talking about is to make a meal out of ingredients bought entirely from somewhere that doesn’t specialize in food. Gas stations, convenience stores, discount stores, that kind of thing. Here is the rules that I’ve seen:

1) Ingredients must all come from a single location. Exceptions can be made for water, small amounts of salt, pepper, oil, and commonly-available, inexpensive dried spices.
2) Ingredients purchased must come in under a certain budget (I chose $10.00 before tax).
3) The meal should feed at least four adults.
4) There must be some actual cooking involved. You may combine ingredients from instant meals or canned goods, but they can’t be served as-is with no changes.
5) The meal should be as healthy as possible; it should not be able to be mistaken for a dessert.

There is a lot of food available at the local Dollarama, but most of it is junk food. Chips, candy, chocolate, soft drinks, that kind of thing. There is a small section near the back of regular food, but nothing is perishable. I wanted to include some fruit and/or veggies in the meal, and preferably a bit of meat if possible, so that narrowed my choices even further. I was tempted to make spaghetti with tomato sauce (there was both pre-made spaghetti sauce and canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and Italian spice mix), or canned soup/stew with Bisquick dumplings, or pancakes with canned fruit (there was pancake mix, coconut milk to replace cow’s milk, canola oil and applesauce to replace the eggs, and a couple of kinds of canned fruit as the topping). However, I finally decided on a tuna noodle casserole.

My ingredients were:

2 x Pacific Pride Flaked Light Tuna in Water 130g @ $1.00/ea
1 x Fruitropic Coconut Milk 398mL @ $1.25/ea
2 x Aylmer Vacuum-Packed Whole-Kernel Corn 341mL @ $1.00/ea
2 x Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup 284mL @ $1.00/ea
1 x Buongusto Macaroni 900g @ $1.00/ea
1 x Old Dutch Original Potato Chips 40g @ $0.50/ea

Subtotal: $8.75 + tax
Total with tax: $8.82

(Only the chips were taxable.)

I was very happy with the end result, which I based on the Campbell’s® Tuna Noodle Casserole from Allrecipes.com. Of course, I had to make changes for the available ingredients, but I had to start somewhere. For example, I replaced milk with coconut milk, frozen peas with canned corn, egg noodles with macaroni, and the dry bread crumb and butter topping with plain crushed potato chips. Even so, it worked really well! I think that I will probably make this recipe again, but not in challenge-mode, so that I can use frozen corn instead of canned since I greatly prefer the taste of frozen.

As a bonus, it’s a great meal for camping (cooked in a pot instead of baked), cottaging, or when trying to clean out the pantry, since all of the ingredients are non-perishable. And at $2.21 a head (assuming it serves the minimum four people), it’s pretty darned affordable. Out of challenge mode, with a bit of bargain shopping at the supermarket, it could be made even cheaper. Around here, I know that cans of cream of mushroom soup often go on sale for $0.50 each, coconut milk is about $0.98, a big bag of frozen corn often costs about $2.00, and dried noodles sometimes go on sale for less than $1.00 a bag. This is all assuming you don’t buy the big name-brand version stuff, of course.

So here’s the recipe:

Dollar Store Tuna Noodle Casserole
Serves 4-6 adults

Fill a medium-sized pot three-quarters of the way with water. Add:
a pinch of salt
Bring the water to the boil on the stove on high heat. Add:
2 1/4 cups dried macaroni
Turn the burner down to medium-high. Cook the pasta until it is al dente. Drain the pasta and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 400°F (205°C).
In a casserole dish that holds at least 2 quarts (1.9L), add:
2 cans condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 cup canned coconut milk*
2 x 341mL cans of whole-kernel corn, drained and rinsed OR 2 cups frozen corn
2 x 130g cans of tuna packed in water, drained and broken up with a fork
Mix well. Add the drained pasta to the sauce mixture, stirring well to evenly distribute the ingredients. Put casserole into the oven uncovered. Bake for 30 minutes or until warmed through**.
Remove casserole from the oven. Open and crush in the bag:
1 40g bag of plain potato chips
Stir the casserole. Sprinkle the crushed chips onto the top of the casserole and bake for an additional 5 minutes. Remove from oven and serve.

*Canned coconut milk tends to separate, so stir it well before measuring.
**If you are cooking this on the stove, heat mixture gently in a pot until it is warmed through and sauce is slightly thickened. Skip the next baking step, and instead garnish each individual serving with a sprinkling of crushed potato chips.

Christmas Prep

We’re right smack dab in the middle of Christmas prep around here, dashing from hither to yon to prep for school spirit days, family events, and hosting over the holidays. Of necessity, suppers have been quick and easy; I think tomorrow I will be breaking out the slow cooker just to make dinner that much easier.

Last night, though, I rummaged through the freezer and turned up with some rather nice basa fillets. I dredged them in flour, sprinkled them with a bit of garlic powder and salt, and lightly fried them in a glug of olive oil in a non-stick pan. (As an aside, when making this kind of dish, does anyone else think about that lightly fried fish fillets meme?) I topped the fried fish with crumbled bacon and served it alongside boiled baby potatoes and steamed carrots.

I still wasn’t feeling spectacularly well last night, so I didn’t get as much prep work done as I wanted to, but the hectic pace around the holidays is one of the reasons I start canning way back in the summer. As planned, I plunged into my shelves of homemade preserves to get gifts together for my kids’ teachers.

As with Guiders, I consider teachers to be especially important to my children and, as such, they are deserving of some nice things around Christmas to show my appreciation. Teachers put in long hours in a job that I, to be completely frank, am vastly temperamentally unsuited to do. Before my children were born, I seriously considered home-schooling, but as time went on I realized that teaching is definitely not one of my gifts. I have the utmost appreciation for those people who can do so, especially while both funding and support are slowly withdrawn from the public school system over the years.

This year, my kids’ teachers are getting amaretto cherries, spiced pear jam with pineapple, handmade cloths, and a box of Girl Guide cookies. (I considered giving the cookies to the Guiders too, but I thought they could probably use a break from this fundraiser by this point.) I hope that the teachers will be able to enjoy these foods over the winter break — or any time after, really, as they’ll last about a year unopened.

Low-Prep Suppers

I kind of have my kitchen back again… Okay, not the whole thing, but the counters and table are clear again, so I can cook properly. I made shepherd’s pie for dinner (but without the cheese topping, to reduce the amount of dairy and make it better for my gut). However, the meal was running late and we dug into it much too fast for me to take pictures. Instead, I have photos of the bread that was cooking while we were eating dinner:

That’s Beer Bacon Bread found on page 44 of Betty Crocker’s Best Bread Machine Cookbook (Betty Crocker, 1999). I used a flat Guinness beer, a package of crumbled circular bacon, and chives from my window garden instead of green onion because that’s what I had on hand. It’s only the second time that I tried out any recipes for this book, and so far so good! There’s a Cottage Dill Loaf on page 152 and Brandied Pumpkin Bread on page 104 that I can’t wait to try.

Earlier in the week I had to make a few easy and quick meals that required little in the way of prep space, so I whipped up a loaf of Sally Lunn bread (page 25, also from Betty Crocker’s Best Bread Machine Cookbook), which I think called for an unreasonable amount of butter in the dough (6 Tbsp!), but I have to admit tasted quite nice. I used it to make grilled cheese sandwiches for the girls, with sides of sliced apples.

Of course I have issues with dairy (and at any rate I’d run out of cheddar), so I fried up a couple of eggs each for my hubby and I, and served it with the Sally Lunn, sliced apples, and mandarin oranges.

Earlier this week I went with a less bread-based meal and baked up some trout with in teriyaki sauce, which I served over rice with a side of asparagus.

I’m really looking forward to having this mini-reno complete so that I can try some new recipes! This hasn’t been nearly as time-consuming an affair as a full gutting of the kitchen (much as I’d love to be able to afford a 100% fresh new kitchen), but it’s still rather disruptive. At least it’s cheap!

Salmon Puff

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.

Fish Sandwich & Side Salad

Dinner last night was a fresh and summery breaded cod sandwich served with a spinach and goat cheese salad. I’d love to say that this was due to a fantastic advanced planning, but it was mostly because I had picked up both the fish and the salad ingredients at 50% off because they needed to be eaten soon. Also, I’d been feeling like a fast food fish burger, but I thought I could manage something better at home.

The cod was dipped in egg, then in a combination of dried dill and panko (Japanese bread crumbs), then lightly fried in a bit of olive oil. The bread was the lightly toasted basic white bread on page 14 of The Complete Guide to Bread Machine Baking from Better Homes and Gardens (1999). For a bit of additional flavour, I spread President’s Choice tartar lightly on one half of the bread, and for crunch I added some chopped romaine lettuce. This made for a lovely light sandwich that nonetheless was quite filling.

The salad is based on one that I love to buy pre-made at the grocery store (when it’s on sale, of course), which is really easy to make at home. The base is baby spinach, which it topped with quartered strawberries, drained canned mandarin slices (the kind in pear juice, not syrup), sliced cucumbers, and blanched, sliced almonds. My favourite cheese for this salad is Woolwich Dairy Soft Unripened Goat Cheese Crumbles, which are much milder and creamier than most other goat cheeses I’ve tried. As a bonus, goat cheese doesn’t seem to upset my stomach, so yay for dairy I can actually eat!

Lazy Days at the Lake

My daughters and I were able to spend some more time at the cottage that my parents rented for the summer, and we’re just loving it there. Well, okay, we could do without the occasional bold-as-brass mouse, and the scourges of mosquitoes that try to take over every day at dusk, but all that’s really to be expected when you’re out in the country. I count myself lucky that the black flies haven’t been swarming where we have been.


Thing 2 and Thing 1 fishing off of a friend’s dock further down the lake.

The girls have really developed a passion for fishing this summer, much to their grandfather’s delight. Not only that, but Thing 1 at least has caught a few pan fish, mostly sunfish, which has spurred her interest. Thing 2 hasn’t been so lucky, but I think some of that is just because she doesn’t have the patience of her older sister — and fishing is really an exercise in patience.


Gramps fishing off the same dock.

Gramps, of course, will keep fishing long after the girls have run off to explore. Accordingly, he has reeled in quite a few more fish, but we remain lucky that we don’t have to rely on any of us to fish for our dinners. Like Thing 1, his catches have mostly been small pan fish.


Thing 1, Thing 2, and Nana walking DeeDee and Cici.

I think that the highlight of the latest trip for the girls was getting to walk a friend’s dogs while the friends were out of town for the day. Deedee, an elderly black lab, and Cici, a very friendly white terrier, both really like my kids and are just very friendly animals in general. (I may have spelled their names wrong, I’ve never seen them written down.) The girls were also happy that the friend’s two cats were back in residence at their cottage; George was clamoring for attention, and Olivia, who is generally very timid, even conceded to be petted very gently and slowly for a minute or two.


Thing 1 jumping into the lake while Thing 2 looks on.

It wasn’t nearly as hot this trip, so we only went for two quick dips in the lake. While the kids had fun jumping off the dock over and over again, they didn’t last much more than fifteen minutes for each swim before their lips turned blue.


Thing 2 climbing out of the lake for another jump, while Nana treads water in the background.

We owe our ability to jump off the dock directly to our friend Randy, who is owed a huge thank-you for fixing the dock after a few close calls with rotten boards meant that we worried about stepping right through. Randy even managed to go knee-deep through the worst part of the dock during his repairs, but luckily didn’t injure himself. Not only that, he scrounged an old wooden ladder that he screwed directly to the dock, replacing the aluminum one that we had tied on previously. I’m so much happier to take the kids out swimming or canoeing when I don’t have to worry about the boards snapping underfoot!