Not Charcoal Briquettes

Last night for dinner I wanted something quick and easy, as well as something that could preferably be cooked on the barbecue. I just wanted to spend time on that lovely new deck! There are lots of options along those lines, but unfortunately not a lot of them could be made without having to make a run to the grocery store this time. Honestly, I have run out of rice, potatoes, and carrots, which are three of my main staples. I really must go do a large grocery run. But I still needed to cook a family dinner with what I had at hand.

So I went with what I’ve been resorting to all too often of late: eggs and toast. The toast was day-old Fluffy Dill Bread. (I’d run the bread machine in the garage since it was so hot and humid the day before, and I didn’t want to heat up the house.) Eggs are always quick and simple, so I made both over-easy and scrambled, to peoples’ preferences. But then there was the sausages to go with the dinner, which are not, as one might think, charcoal briquettes.

Something about the kind of wood pellet we’re using at the moment in the smoker grill turns everything cooked in there black on the outside. I think it’s just a high-ash mixture. You can see it to a certain degree on the burgers, but the buns hide the worst of it. But with the sausages, it just looks horrible. It’s funny, though, because the meat tastes absolutely fabulous. It’s juicy and tender and not at all overdone. And, of course, there’s a lovely smokey flavour and scent that comes through with anything on a wood pellet grill. We’re just going to have to invest in some nicer pellets next time we run out. The ones we’re using came with the grill when we got it last fall second-hand from my in-laws, and I have no idea what kind they are. After all, not every dish needs to look as if it’s been blackened.

Teapot Herbs

A couple of months ago I was in the middle of selling a lovely Sadler “Brown Betty” teapot to a customer. I had already made the sale, had cash in hand, and was just wrapping it up in paper for safe transit. We were chatting while I packaged, and she said, “Oh, I have a teapot just like this at home, but I dropped the lid and smashed it. I just had to get a replacement.” To which I replied, “Oh yes, it’s always the lids that go first.”

And then I dropped the lid.

Of course, it fell straight down onto the concrete floor and smashed into tiny little pieces. The customer and I stared at each other mutely for a moment, and then I asked her, “So… Do you want the brown and green one instead?”

So I returned home that day with a pretty little teapot with lots of life left in it, but that is unsalable because of a lack of lid. “What am I going to do with this?” I thought. But then it occurred to me that Mother’s Day was coming up, and that my mother loves tea, so maybe I could make her something? I ended up using the teapot as a little herb planter. I planted basil inside, two different varieties.

Mom liked the gift so much that I’ve started hunting down lidless teapots to use as planters for different herbs. So far I’ve found her a metal one that obviously used to be used on an open fire, and one of those vibrantly-painted ones that’s a tea-for-one set with a pot on the top and a matching cup on the bottom. I think that after a while we’ll have a full-fledged herb garden, possibly even branching out to flowers or seasonal arrangements after a while. It really pleases me that we now have a use for these otherwise-unusable items — and now the hunt is on for more teapots to rescue. This should be fun!

Useful Weeds

Last year my mom planted dill in her garden (mammoth dill, I believe). She’d hoped for a reasonable yield, but the plants grew up tall and spindly and woody, and they dried out rather early in the season, much to her disappointment. This was especially surprising because last year was a really wet year, so it’s nigh on impossible that they weren’t watered enough. At the end of autumn, she ripped the desiccated stalks out of her garden and thought nothing more of it until this spring.

It appears that the dill self-seeded. Apparently, although it didn’t like the nicely fertilized and weeded soil of her garden, it really likes the cracks between her paving stone and between said stones and her garden border. Go figure. Dill is growing there, well, like a weed.

This seems to be a trend at Mom and Dad’s house. Ten years ago or so, a clump of chives started growing between the paving stones near the back yard — but never in the actual garden. This was especially surprising because Mom never planted any chives at all. Who knows where the seeds came from; dropped by a bird, perhaps? At first, Mom pulled the chives out like she would any other weed, but they always came back. She mowed them regularly when she did her lawn, but that didn’t cause much of a dent in their growth. Yet the chives didn’t spread to her garden or her lawn. They have self-propagated a bit along the paving stones closer to the fence, though, as you can see in the above photo. Eventually, Mom just gave up and started harvesting the chives for her own cooking; it’s a free crop that she doesn’t have to plant every year. Thing 1 and Thing 2 love those chives and grab a handful whenever we visit in the summer, leading to many car rides where the whole car reeks of onions.

I have a feeling this is what’s going to happen with the dill. This weed is a bit more aggressive than the chives, so Mom will weed it out of the garden so it doesn’t choke out her tomatoes (which she plans to plant next week). But the dill growing in the cracks can stay and supply her — and me — with all the dill we could possibly use over the summer. I actually harvested a few handfuls yesterday to make into bread machine dill bread. I needed to test out my new-to-me bread machine at any rate. The machine is smaller than my previous one, making 2lb loaves instead of 3lb, but it works a treat so I can’t exactly complain, seeing as it was free.

I think I need to make some kind of salmon dish with a creamy dill sauce, to take advantage of the herb being so nice and young and tender. Maybe next week.

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.

Ice Day

Yesterday was what we generally call a “snow day” around here, as in the winter weather was so terrible that school buses were cancelled and the kids stayed home from school. But it was really more of an “ice day”, since it had snowed the day before and then the temperature jumped up so we could have freezing rain coating that layer of snow, and then just plain old rain creating puddles on top of it all. It was a mess. It was definitely an ice storm, if not the ice storm.

With the kids home from school and it being too dangerous to really get out of the house (that being the whole reason for the bus cancellations in the first place), I found myself trying to wrangle two active children with increasingly high levels of cabin fever. The day was taken up with playing, crafting, snacking, NERF target practice, and video games. When the weather cleared up a bit, the girls went outside with their father to clear the driveway while I cooked supper (no mean feat after the plough had been by, leaving a burm of ice and slush between our house and the road).

On days like this, you really have to cook with whatever happens to be in the house. My pantry and freezer are well-stocked, and although it would likely take us weeks to even feel hungry feeding on those items alone, I was craving something a bit fresher. I Googled to find some recipes for pasta sauce that I could make without hitting the grocery store, and I found PureWow’s Spaghetti with Avocado Pasta Sauce. I thought that it would be ideal because it is a sauce with a creamy texture (which I adore), but without any actual dairy products.

I served the sauce over cooked spaghetti squash, with baked chicken legs (sprinkled with my usual garlic powder, sage, rosemary, thyme, summer savoury, and sea salt). I only realized after I took the picture exactly how unappetizing the sauce ended up looking, especially since I couldn’t toss it in the “noodles” without them falling apart. Ignoring the other gross things it could look like, the shine on the sauce makes it look like icing or a glaze, which it did not taste like at all. Flavour-wise, it was like eating guacamole, without the heat of peppers. Honestly, it was a little bit bland. I’d like to try this recipe again, but on actual pasta, with some fresh herbs thrown in (Googling has suggested basil and cilantro), and possibly some sliced cherry tomatoes.

At least dessert was a success! I heated a frozen apple pie from Mom’s birthday dinner (I always make two pies when I bake, one for the event and another to throw in the freezer for future use). When reheated from fully frozen, it usually takes about an hour in an oven at 350°F. I served the pie with a scoop of non-dairy vanilla “ice cream” for me and whipped cream for everyone else. There were no complaints on that score!

Winter is Coming

Although I am much better, my kids are still fighting their colds. Last night I decided to go the more traditional route, dinner-wise, in an attempt to help them get well. I don’t know that it actually helped, but it didn’t hurt at any rate, and it was pretty tasty.

I made up a batch of chicken noodle soup based roughly on the recipe on page 125 of the Joy of Cooking (2006 edition, Rombauer & Becker). I added carrots and rosemary mostly because it’s what I happened to have around the house. I served the soup alongside fresh-baked Poppy Seed Loaf (page 138, Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf (Jennie Shapter, 2002)) with avocado slices on top. Unlike me, the rest of the family ate their bread with butter and scooped the avocado out of the skins directly with a little bit of salad dressing on top.

Last night ended up involving a lot more food prep than just supper, though. The forecast called for the temperature to drop precipitously overnight to a low of -10°C (14°F) with a windchill of -20°C (-4°F). I had left a few frost-hardy plants in the garden after the main harvest, but I knew that cold this intense would kill them. So I had to bring in two good-sized bunches of celery, which I washed and trimmed the leaves off of, then put in a jug of water in the fridge for use over the next week or so.

I had a whole mess of Swiss chard to bring in — believe it or not, this was all from only two bunches!

I washed it all, then chopped the stems into bite-sized pieces, which I bagged to freeze in single-use packages over the winter in soups, stews, stir-fries and casseroles. The leaves don’t freeze nearly so well, so they’re still drying off in my sink while I figure out what to do with that much chard. A friend suggested a soup, but I don’t have a recipe yet.

My uncarved Halloween pumpkins had to come inside; freezing isn’t terribly hard on them as a general rule, especially if you’re just going to cook them, but a frozen-solid gourd is really difficult to prepare. Heck, it would take an axe or a sledgehammer just to get through it!

I also brought in the last of my summer herbs so they didn’t get frostbitten (along with half a case of Coke that I’d been cooling outdoors since the Halloween party; cool fall temperatures mean that the outdoors makes a great refrigerator for non-perishables). There are two pots of lavender, one of mint, one of rosemary, and one of parsley. Some of them I will eventually dry, others I will preserve (I have an interesting recipe for parsley jelly I want to try). They’d survive just fine in the house all winter, but the pots are quite large and take up my whole patio window. I think I will just plant new herbs in the spring and not deal with the hassle.

Overgrown?

My garden isn’t just growing, it may be overgrowing. When I plant my garden in the spring, it always looks like I’m leaving too much space between the rows. Then I go out into the garden on days like today, and there’s very little room to walk. I have to gently push plants aside to get at the tomatoes and potatoes.


My garden, with me for scale

I have to be careful with the tomato plants nearest the wall of the house, as they can get caught in the track when I open and close the window to let in fresh air. On the other hand, the plants that are supposed to be there are actually crowding out potential weeds, for the most part. The only exceptions are near the celery and the onions, which I planted late and hence aren’t growing as fast.

And the tomatoes are growing quite large, considering they’re supposed to be cherry tomatoes! I wonder if some of them were cross-pollinated, or probably mis-labelled at the garden center. It has happened before. Or maybe it’s my awesome gardening skills producing abnormally healthy and large fruit? If only.