First Barbecue of 2019

It’s a big deal in our household every year when we get to use the barbecue for the first time. This spring it was a little later than usual because of snow accumulation that stubbornly refuses to melt. To access the grills I had to shovel about two feet of snow and ice off of the deck, and then wait another few days for the last of the ice to melt. There are still a few patches in the shade that I chipped away at today to free the tarps and covers.

As you can see, the snow level is still pretty darned high in the yard, higher than our raised deck in a number of places (although the deck is only raised at max two feet off of the ground). It’s all compressed ice and granular snow now, none of the fluffy, powdery snow that makes winter so much fun.

I was kind of hoping to get the wood pellet barbecue out and running yesterday, as it’s definitely the nicer of the two barbecues, but although it has been freed of the ice, its fuel is stored in the shed which is still behind a pretty significant drift. (I’m really looking forward to that area melting because it would also mean regaining access to our bikes.) So I had to use the gas barbecue, although I wasn’t sure how much fuel was left in the tank. Not much, as it turned out, but just enough to cook up a few hot dogs.

Nothing fancy about these hot dogs; they’re just Kirkland weiners on Old Mill buns. On my bun there’s also a squirt of Culinary Treasures Jalapeño Lime Aioli, which I think is the best hot dog and burger topping since ketchup.

Honestly, it was a lot more work to obtain access to the barbecue and test it out than it was to actually cook today’s supper. (Although the kids couldn’t have been happier.) But I don’t mind because hopefully this will lead to a whole lot of other meals cooked outdoors during the warmer months. I’m looking forward to barbecuing pork belly that doesn’t end up like charcoal. But I probably won’t be trying today, though, because it’s supposed to rain all day. Or possibly snow. Or both. Thus is spring.

Beet Pesto Pasta & Scallops & Bacon

Thing 1 had been pestering me to make scallops again, but I can really only afford to buy them on sale. Luckily there was a good deal at a local supermarket recently, albeit on the teeny tiny ones. Even so, I think I was able to put together a pretty tasty meal.

I boiled up some store-bought penne rigate, drained it, and added a jar of the beet pesto that I’d frozen in the fall. I still find the colour that it turns the noodles completely fabulous! (Although I think I needed a higher pesto to pasta ratio in this particular case for the best results; I’d forgotten that beet greens have a much more subtle flavour than basil.) I cooked up some bacon in the microwave and chopped it into bite-sized pieces. While that was cooking I lightly fried the scallops in a dollop of butter and a sprinkle of salt. Then I served the pasta with the scallops and bacon on top. Thing 1 couldn’t have been happier!

However, I think next time I’d fry the bacon on the stove and cook the scallops in a bit of the grease for added flavour. I guess I just wanted to cook with a low-spatter method, but nothing beats the sheer level of taste of cooking in bacon grease. Back when I was a kid, Mom and Dad (I think mostly Dad in this case) would fry up bacon, cook the eggs in some of the grease, and then use the remaining grease to make fried bread. It was so bad for you (and these days my stomach probably would rebel), but it was so incredibly good… The grease-fest that I loved so much is probably way more than I need at this stage of my life, but perhaps I can apply a bit of the technique to obtain better overall results in my cooking.

Instant Pot Pork Chops & Mushroom Gravy

It’s been chilly for spring lately, even here; over the weekend we got what will hopefully be the season’s last bout of snow and freezing rain. To me, cold weather makes me crave solid, hearty meals — although I have to admit they’re not always the prettiest.

Covered in gravy like that it doesn’t look all that appetizing, I know, but it really hit the spot.

I actually cooked these pork chops & mushroom gravy in the Instant Pot, although with having to boil down the gravy to a decent consistency afterwards I don’t think it actually saved me any time. The flavour itself was pretty much identical, too. Although there was nothing actually wrong with cooking them in the pressure cooker, I don’t think I’ll be making them this way again, since it was neither easier nor quicker. Well, unless my stove goes on the fritz or something, or it’s a really hot day and I want to cook outside (although by then I’d hope that I’d have the barbecue up and running).

I made the mashed (well, technically whipped, I find them smoother that way) potatoes the traditional way, on the stove. Perhaps if I wanted to switch the roles around I could do the potatoes in the Instant Pot and the pork chops on the stove. It really makes cooking them a breeze, and that way I don’t have to worry about the pot on the stove boiling over — again. And I could possibly cook the potatoes and the carrots at the same time, like I did with the pot roast. That might be worth trying.

Instant Pot Pot Roast

If it seems like I’m relying on my Instant Pot a lot lately, well, it’s because I am. I really like the convenience of being able to whip up what is essentially a weekend meal on a week night. It also lets me turn cheap cuts of meat tasty and tender, and I’m all for both saving money and using all of the animal.

This recipe, however, was not all about a cheap cut of meat, although it wasn’t a particularly expensive one either. Pot roasts are traditionally a great way to slow-cook a lean cut of beef and turn it melt-in-your-mouth tender (which is something that you’d otherwise need some fat marbling to do). I remember reading up on some of the cooking in Europe and that their beef is much less fatty than that in North America, so pot roasts in one form or another are very popular there. Now, I read that so long ago that I can’t cite a source, but if true, it makes a lot of sense.

Since my luck with roasts has been pretty bad in the past (I don’t know how, but my track record with completely tasteless roasts is way too high), I decided to follow a tried and tested recipe exactly. I went with the Rosemary-Dijon Pot Roast on page 224 of The Ultimate Instant Pot Cookbook (Coco Morante, 2018). I’m happy to report that this roast was definitely a success! It was succulent and flavourful despite being extremely lean. I really liked that this pot roast also cooked the potatoes and carrots in the pot roast juices, much like my family did when I was a kid. With the oven pot roast the potatoes and carrots would have gone right in with the meat, but in this recipe I removed the meat to rest and then quickly pressure-cooked the veggies in the juices — it was perfect! This way all the side dishes were taken care of.

There was a bit of leftover beef after dinner, which I sliced thinly to make sandwiches on fresh bread with a bit of mayo and mustard. Even the leftovers were fantastic.

Instant Pot Pulled Pork

My pulled pork method (so simple it’s not even really a recipe) is a personal favourite, but it’s also a slow cooker meal, which means that if you’ve not planned it in advance, you’re not eating it for dinner. I had a kilo of boneless bargain pork chops to use up and no plans for the evening meal, so I thought I’d give it a shot in the Instant Pot. My online research puts pork at about 40min per kilo to pressure cook, so that’s the timing I used. I just dumped the pork chops, barbecue sauce, and 1/4 cup water in the pot, stirred it, and set it to pressure cook on normal (medium) pressure. I let the pot stay on “Keep Warm” for an additional 10 minutes, then released the pressure and removed the lid. I set the pot to sauté and pulled apart the pork with forks in the pot while I let the sauce reduce for about ten minutes, bringing it down from watery to thick and sticky.

All told, the process took me about an hour, which is a far cry from the four plus hours it would have taken in a slow cooker. And honestly, the final result tasted nigh on identical. Now, if I wanted to set up a dish to cook at lunch and and then not worry about it until dinner, I would use the slow cooker method. But the pressure cooker was perfect when I hadn’t thought that far ahead.

As a bonus, the kids and I had fun with the vegetables with this dinner. I’d picked up a carrot curler (essentially a carrot sharpener) in a grab-bag of second-hand kitchen stuff a while back, and I thought it might be fun to use with the last carrots in the fridge. I just piled my shavings haphazardly on my plate, but Thing 1 arranged hers into a rather beautiful carrot flower, much like in the device’s promo photos (although she hadn’t seen them). I think she’s inherently better at food presentation than I am, taking after her paternal grandfather as she does. Perhaps in time I should get her to arrange all of my dishes.

Lactose-Free Grilled Cheese

I’ve felt 1000% better since cutting lactose out of my diet, but cheese is the thing that I miss the most. I can do with vegan milk substitutes most of the time, and there are a number of recipes where dairy really isn’t necessary at all, but cheese is one place that I haven’t found a good substitute. To that end, I’ve been experimenting with all kinds of lactose-free versions, and surprisingly the store and bargain brands seem to be catering most to my needs, which I didn’t expect because they’re also some of the cheapest.

Since the lactose-free pizza turned out so well, I thought that I should try another dish with the new-to-me PC Lactose Free cheese. This time I chose the Lactose-Free Triple Cheddar Shredded Cheese Blend, which I figured would be tangier than the mozzarella. And I have to say that it turned out perfectly. I don’t know what this brand is doing differently than the other lactose-free cheeses I have tried, but this cheese melts well and stays properly gooey as it cools (I find a lot of them end up with a plastic-like consistency unless they’ve melted just moments before). It was a real pleasure to eat and I know I’ll be back for more. And now I really want to try the triple cheddar in Mom’s Homemade Macaroni & Cheese — also using lactose-free milk and margarine instead of butter, of course.

Of course, a good grilled cheese isn’t all about the cheese, although I’d say that it’s more than 50% of the quality of the final product. This grilled cheese was also made on fresh homemade bread — well, bread machine bread, but that still counts! Thing 1 made us some white bread (page 66, Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf (Jennie Shapter (2002)). We’ve really had to keep close tabs on the bread machine lately because the cold, dry weather has meant that we generally need up to a quarter cup more liquid per loaf. Basically, when the machine sounds like it’s struggling to knead, it’s time to add more liquid! This has meant that we’ve had to pay attention (and not go out) instead of the usual set-it-and-forget-it, but it’s worth it for easy, fresh bread.

Instant Pot Duck à l’Orange

A few weeks ago I purchased some duck at the grocery store, since it was actually cheaper than chicken for a change. (That doesn’t happen very often around here.) I hadn’t cooked duck before, and I’d only eaten it a few times before, mostly in a very thick, sweet orange sauce at a Chinese buffet. I had been warned that it was both gamy and greasy, though, so I though it would be a good idea to cook it in some kind of sauce instead of doing a basic oven roast. I settled on the Easy Duck à l’Orange from the Instant Pot Holiday Cookbook.

The whole process was made more difficult right away because I had a whole bird, not just four duck thigh quarters. I’ve only taken a bird apart a few times before, so it was very awkward and slow going, even after looking up tutorials online. I think it’s just something for which practice makes perfect. But one way or another the duck had to be broken down into smaller pieces, since otherwise it wouldn’t fit in the Instant Pot.

As for the final result, I was quite satisfied with the recipe, which cooked the duck thoroughly and with a lovely sauce. However, I think that when it comes to personal preference, I’m just not a duck gal. It was just too greasy for me. I think I might like it better on a rotisserie or in a dish that calls for no skin, though, since that would make the final dish less fatty.

As a bonus, I roasted the bones in the oven and made bone broth in the slow cooker, which I cooled and skimmed the fat off of before I froze it. I look forward to some duck broth soup in the future.