Cooking for the Family

I do most of the family cooking, which probably comes as no surprise to anyone. I used to have a weeknight repertoire of about ten dishes, but a while back I got tired of making the same old, same old all the time, and I decided to branch out. I think it has changed our diets for the better, at the very least cutting down on how much red meat we eat and increasing our consumption of fruits and vegetables. From a health perspective, that has to be a good thing. From taste and presentation perspectives, well, there have been some bumps in the road of learning, but we’ve come through mostly unscathed. Here are a few of the family meals I’ve cooked lately:

I decided to take my own advice and whipped up some garlic scape pesto, which I then spread on top of trout fillets and baked. I served the pesto trout alongside mashed potatoes and asparagus. It was a super-easy dinner.

I blame the fact that I broke the over-easy eggs for this breakfast on the fact that I’d been up since 5:00am in order to drive my mother to the airport. The statement, “I am not a morning person” does not even begin to touch how muzzy and uncoordinated I am when it’s early. Even so, I was back in time to see the kids off to school, and to make them up a hot breakfast of fresh-baked Dad’s biscuits, eggs, and fruit salad (bananas, strawberries, apples, and navel oranges). I can count on one hand how often I’ve been up early enough to cook breakfast before I send the kids off to school, and I honestly wish it was zero. They are old enough now to make their own cold cereal, microwave oatmeal, or toast — and I could not be happier.

For last night’s dinner I rifled through my pantry and pulled out some sauces I’d purchased ages ago, but hadn’t yet tried. I marinated the steak for about eight hours in Sempio Kalbi Marinade, then I threw it on the grill. It was delicious! It has an flavour that I recognize from the Asian fusion buffets around here. It also made the beef nice and tender. The mixed vegetables (carrots, sweet potato, snap peas, and garlic scapes) were steamed first, then lightly coated in Heinz Sweet Teriyaki & Ginger Vegetable Sauce, which I have never seen before and can’t even seem to find online. It was fairly good, although I don’t know if I’d go out of my way to buy it again. The kids really liked it, but they are big fans of anything teriyaki anyway.

I think that I need to continue to clean out my pantry and use up all of the “oh, that looks interesting” food purchases that I made and then promptly forgot about. If I’m lucky, all of those meals will be received as well as these three were.

Dairy-Free Pumpkin Spice Cashew Spread Recipe

I’m still working through a batch of pumpkin puree that I thawed and then didn’t end up needing. One of my favourite pumpkin-based recipes is Pumpkin Spice Cream Cheese Spread by Pinch My Salt. The original recipe is simple — no cooking required, it’s as easy as throwing everything in a blender and pushing a button. Sadly, since I now have to avoid dairy products, any recipe based on cream cheese is out. So I made my own slightly-more-labour-intensive dairy-free version, and I think it tastes just like pumpkin pie.

My first version of this recipe was made with tofu, but that was a wash — despite the spices, it still mostly tasted like beans. My successful version is made with cashews as the base, which means it definitely contains nuts and is not school-safe. That’s okay, my kids can have dairy, I can send them to school with the cream-cheese-based version. My version also doesn’t use premixed pumpkin spice, but instead all of the individual spices that are usually found therein, allowing for a bit more customization. The recipe is vegetarian, and could be made vegan if you source your ingredients right (many brands of sugar, including brown sugar, use bone char as part of the filter process).

I like both versions of the spread as a dip for a freshly-cut-up cold, crisp apple. It also works well as a spread for bagels, toast, or a topping/core for muffins or cupcakes.


Pumpkin spice cashew spread with sliced gala apples

Dairy-Free Pumpkin Spice Cashew Spread
Yields about 1 1/2 cups

Pour into a heat-safe container:
1 cup roasted unsalted cashews
Cover the cashews with boiling water and leave them to sit for a minimum of 1 hour, up to 4 hours. Cashews should be plump and soft after soaking.
Drain water and place cashews in a blender.
Add to the blender:
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp corn starch
3 Tbsp nutritional yeast
6 Tbsp brown sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/8 tsp cloves
1/8 tsp allspice
1/2 cup water
Blend mixture until smooth.
Pour mixture into a cooking pot. Stirring constantly, cook until the mixture just begins to simmer. This recipe will burn to the bottom of the pot very quickly, so stirring constantly is essential. Once the mixture has reached a simmer, remove it from the heat. Scrape the mixture into a container with a lid that seals, then refrigerate until cooled through. Serve.

New Noodles

I love my noodle dishes, so I’ve been trying to expand my horizons by trying out some of the more interesting types of noodles that I can find. The most recent ones that caught my attention were the King Soba noodles that I stumbled upon at my local Bulk Barn. King Soba specializes in wheat- and gluten-free products, which is luckily not a major concern in our house as none of us have a wheat allergy or celiac disease, but I know that this is of a great deal of concern to some. My greatest concern when it comes to noodles are: a) do they cook up well, and b) do they taste good?


Sesame chicken with soft-boiled eggs and black rice noodles


Sesame chicken with soft-boiled eggs and black rice noodles

The first kind I tried was Organic Black Rice Noodles ($4.29CAD/250g). They weren’t really a true black, but actually a really dark purple, much to my (and my kids’) delight. I followed the package directions, and the noodles cooked up perfectly. They were tasty too, with a slightly nutty flavour. I served them with my take on sesame chicken — basically chopped chicken thighs fried up with a couple of diced cloves of garlic, a drizzle of sesame oil, and a generous sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds. Of course, I also included some soft-boiled eggs, which are a staple in our household.


Beef and vegetable soup with soft-boiled eggs and brown rice & wakame noodles


Beef and vegetable soup with soft-boiled eggs and brown rice & wakame noodles

The second type I tried was Organic Brown Rice & Wakame Noodles ($3.99CAD/250g). Despite being a darker colour in the package, they cooked up to a very light green. After the fabulous colour of the black rice noodles, the intensity was slightly disappointing. However, they tasted just fine, although the subtlety of the wakame flavour was lost on me. These noodles got a thumbs-up from me and the family anyway. I served them in a beef broth soup flavoured with a dash of Memmi, with a whole bunch of chopped vegetables (carrots, asparagus, bok choy, celery, enoki mushrooms) and a bit of beef thrown in. Oh, and some more soft-boiled eggs, of course.

I think that my only complaint about both of the types of King Soba noodles that I tried was that they really, really wanted to stick together. While this didn’t affect the flavour at all, this made them very difficult to eat, especially for my children, who are not terribly adept with chopsticks yet. Should I buy them again (and I probably will), I will add a drizzle of oil to the cooking water and see if it solves the problem.

Ottawa Farmers’ Market

I had my first chance to check out this year’s Ottawa Farmers’ Market at Lansdowne Park this past Sunday. This being Canada (first outdoor plantings generally happen during the Victoria Day weekend at the end of May) and especially with the flooding we’ve had this spring, there wasn’t a lot of fresh produce out yet. We probably have at least a couple of weeks before garlic scapes (one of my all-time favourite ingredients) start coming into season. However, there were lots of baked goods, preserves, freshly-cooked food, and locally-grown plants. It was a rainy, chilly day, but we still had a lovely time. First came the exploring:


The Ottawa Farmers’ Market at Lansdowne Park, with the Aberdeen Pavilion (also known as the “Cattle Castle”) on the left.


Potted herbs for sale.


Maple Country Sugar Bush


Acorn Creek Garden Farm


DiversiTea


Asparagus


The Right Bite

Then of course we had to stop for lunch:


The Hot Potato Company


My baked potato wedge poutine from The Hot Potato Company


Raon Kitchen


Thing 1’s chicken bimbap from Raon Kitchen

Then of course we had to get dessert; this week it was tarts from Savoury Pursuits Fine Foods:


Savoury Pursuits Fine Foods

And then back to exploring!


Linda’s Garden

The weather is promising to be much nicer this coming weekend — actually summery weather in June, who’d’ve thunk it? Here are some of the local markets that are running this (and every) weekend until fall:

Ottawa Farmers’ Market: Orleans
Thursdays, 12:00pm – 7:00pm
Ray Friel Center, 1585 Tenth Line

Cumberland Farmers’ Market
Saturdays, 8:00am – 1:00pm
R.J. Kennedy Community Centre / Cumberland Arena, 1115 Dunning Road

Ottawa Farmers’ Market: Byron Park – Westboro
Saturdays, 9:30am – 3:00pm
Byron Park, 432-454 Richmond Road

Ottawa Farmers’ Market – Lansdowne Park
Sundays, 9:00am – 3:00pm
Aberdeen Square, Lansdowne Park, 450 Queen Elizabeth Drive

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.

Vegan Cheese

My friends know that I’ve been looking for dairy alternatives lately because, as I have mentioned before, I love dairy, but it doesn’t love me back. One of my friends send me a link to the Vegan Cheese recipe and tutorial video by The Buddhist Chef. The video makes it look really simple, so I thought hey, why not give it a shot?


Vegan cheese molded in a bowl instead of a ramekin, hence the dome shape.

My first hurdle was sourcing the ingredients (although I had many of the basics at home). My local Bulk Barn carries roasted, unsalted cashews, and nutritional yeast. The agar agar powder, on the other hand, was difficult to find. Bulk barn didn’t carry it, and most of the health stores I tried normally carried it, but were experiencing supply issues. I finally found the powder at Kardish, at about $12 for 57g (smallest package size available), so about $21.05 per 100g. For comparison, 28g of Knox unflavoured gelatin (the animal product that agar powder is supposed to replace) is $3.29 for 28g, or $11.75 per 100g. Since I’m not a vegan, I may try this recipe with gelatin instead of agar agar powder if I make it again, just to save some money.

The recipe did come together as promised by the recipe; it was actually fairly easy to make, once I had the ingredients. Flavour-wise, I unfortunately can’t say that this dish tastes much like cheese. However, it is a tasty spread in its own right. I would put it on a bagel or a pita bread, or serve it with crackers at a party. But it can’t really be mistaken for dairy cheese. Darn it.

Also, when made in a bowl instead of a flat-bottomed ramekin, this vegan cheese visually reminds me of “chicken cutlet” silicone breast enhancers that are inserted into a bra. Possibly not the best choice on my part, aesthetic-wise, but it did make me laugh.

Super Rapid Italian Herb Bread

I have been testing out the recipes for my breadmaker recently, because I want to move on from recipes in the instruction manual to the cookbook Canada’s Best Bread Machine Baking Recipes (Donna Washburn & Heather Butt, 1999) that I picked up for a song second-hand. I have a Black & Decker All-In-One Deluxe Horizontal Breadmaker, and I feel it needs to be put through its paces before I start experimenting. To that end, I tried out the recipe for Super-Rapid Basic White bread that can be found on page 21 of the manual.

Physically, it turned out well; it was shaped properly, and it smelled great. However, I wasn’t terribly satisfied with the texture. I found this bread to be very dense, with few pockets created by air bubbles. I think that this is because of the super rapid bake function, which makes a loaf of bread in just over an hour (the regular loaves take about four hours). It just didn’t give the bread the chance to rise and get fluffy like a longer rising period will do. I will have to make a few more of the super rapid bake recipes to see if my theory is correct.

That being said, the bread was definitely edible. It reminded me of the cheap white bread loaves that are available at the grocery store, albeit with more flavour from the herbs. It toasted up nicely and went well in sandwiches and alongside sunny-side-up eggs.

I discovered that the denseness of the bread made for particularly good French toast. It soaked in the eggs without falling apart, which made it much easier to cook up than a lighter loaf. The herbs in the bread also went surprisingly well with butter and syrup, probably because it was only lightly flavoured. I think I would make this recipe again, but only if I had an end dish in mind in which to use the bread, not to eat it on its own. I have a feeling it would also make a lovely grilled cheese.