Bacon Goes With Everything

Last night I ransacked my freezer and pantry in order to continue the trend of preparing meals that don’t require long cooking times indoors, which would heat the house up unduly. I came up with a box of spaghettini noodles, a small container of last year’s basil pesto, a package of sole fillets, and almost a pound of reduced-salt bacon.

What that turned into was essentially a meal where there was bacon on everything. I boiled up the spaghettini, drained it, and coated it in pesto. Then I dredged the sole in flour mixed with a bit of garlic powder, salt, and pepper, and then I pan fried it. (Whenever I cook my fish like this, I can’t help but think of lightly fried fish fillets, though.) I cooked up all of the bacon in the microwave, chopped it into bits, and sprinkled it on darned near everything.

My family couldn’t have been happier.

Preparing for the Storm

We’ve been getting dire warnings from the Weather Network over the past week that yesterday and today will be all about thunderbolts and lightning, and then the storm will pull in a massive heat wave behind it. I’ve been trying to plan my cooking to keep that in mind, but nothing seems to be going quite right.

On the hottest days, I try very hard not to cook indoors or, if that can’t be arranged, at least I try not to use the oven. So I figured that on Wednesday night I’d make the last “comfort food” for a while and throw on some pork loin, mushroom gravy, Dad’s biscuits, and steamed carrots. This is a meal that I’ve made a million times, so you’d think it would be easy, no?

Well, everything going well until I tried to get the biscuits on. That’s when I realized that I’d left my bag of all-purpose flour at my in-laws’ cottage; I’d intended to bake bread on the day that was predicted to be really rainy, but the weather never got bad enough to totally pin us inside. All I had left at home were the dregs left in one storage jar. I ended up combining those dregs with some multigrain bread flour that had been languishing in my cupboard for quite some time. (I’d bought it to make a specific kind of bread, and the package contained way more than I’d needed.) The multigrain flour actually worked out okay in that the biscuits rose and baked properly, but it did mean that they had a whole different texture than I was used to. Usually these biscuits are soft and fluffy, but the multigrain flour has crunchy bits and doesn’t rise as well.

Then last night it was supposed to be hot and humid, so I wanted to cook the majority of the meal outside. (It actually didn’t end up being that bad, with the storm pushing the cold air in front of it so that it actually cooled down around dinnertime, but I didn’t know that was going to happen.) Actually, “cook” is probably stretching it a bit, more “prepare”. I had bought a rotisserie chicken at Costco earlier in the day, which I’d just planned on reheating on the wood pellet grill. So I turned on the machine, preheated it, put on the chicken, and waited… And waited… And waited… But it didn’t seem to be heating up. It turned out that wood dust had clogged the auger that feeds the fuel pellets, so no fuel was burning. My husband took the grill halfway apart to figure that out, and he was still cleaning it out when it started to rain. He threw the cover over the grill and promised to finish cleaning it at a later date.

But that still left us without dinner. And a pre-cooked chicken is supposed to be easy, right? Not so far, not this time. We also have a propane grill, which I then tried to start, but nothing happened at first. Turns out the hose had somehow become loose and the fuel wasn’t getting to the grill. (This seems to be a theme.) A quick tightening did the job on that one, and I’m happy about that because I first assumed that the tank was empty — which would have delayed the meal even further.

Finally, I was able to reheat my chicken (and crisp up the skin — throwing a rotisserie chicken on the grill or in the oven is good for that). While it warmed up, I cooked up some penne and coated the noodles with basil pesto that I’d made and frozen last summer. At least that part was easy. By the time supper was finally complete, we were easily an hour and a half past our normal dinner time, so I didn’t even get a chance to take a picture with my good camera before the food was devoured — I had to use my phone, which I almost always have on hand.

Hopefully my cooking over the next few days will go a bit more smoothly.

Spinach Stroganoff

Just a quick one today! At the suggestion of a friend of mine, I added a bag of baby spinach to my beef stroganoff, and it turned out great! If you’re not really into spinach, the sauce really covers up the bitterness. Now, I actually like the taste of spinach, but I like that it doesn’t overwhelm the flavour of the rest of the dish.

I’m always looking for ways to make my cooking healthier (as well as tastier), and one of the best way to do this is to add vegetables. I know that I definitely don’t get enough leafy greens in my diet. This is just one way to incorporate them!

Lemongrass Atsuete Chicken

Last night everyone was finally well enough to actually eat again; nobody had much of an appetite, but at least some solids were staying down. So I decided not to make anything too difficult and used a marinade I’d impulse-bought at Walmart a while back: Pulo Lemongrass Atsuete Marinade. This brand claims to be inspired by the 7000 islands of the Philippines, but since I honestly wouldn’t be able to pick Filipino food out of a lineup, I couldn’t tell you how authentic it is. But I thought I’d give it a go anyway.

I was pleasantly surprised by the marinade! It was light but flavourful; the fresh zing of the lemongrass really shone through. I used it to marinade eight chicken thighs, which was all we needed, but there was enough marinade there for twice as much. (Next time I’ll only use half a bottle.) I baked the chicken in the oven, while on the stove I cooked up some macaroni that I served with a quick cheater sauce of cream of mushroom soup, lactose-free cheddar, a sprinkle of garlic powder, and frozen corn. Since it was such a mild sauce, it went really well with the strong flavour of the chicken. I also brought out a side salad of spinach and romaine lettuce, with a choice of dressings.

Pasta Primavera

So I tried cooking a second recipe from Essential Cooking Basics: The New Cook by Mary Berry & Marlena Spieler (1997), and sadly, I wasn’t nearly as happy with the recipe as last time. I’ll say up front that I did make a few changes; instead of string beans, I used asparagus stalks cut small, and instead of dried penne I used dried linguini. But I’m pretty sure that’s not where my issues with this dish lie. At any rate, it still holds true to the dish’s basic composition of “the combination of lightly cooked vegetables and pasta”.

To be clear, it’s the dish, not the recipe, that I had problems with. The recipe was quite clear, concise, and yielded exactly the results that it promised. But I’ve had pasta primavera before, and this just didn’t live up to my (admittedly high) expectations. I’d expected the sauce to be creamy, and while it looked like it should be, it really tasted quite dry. That might have been the fault of the cheese that I chose (Chevrai Original Goat Cheese), but it was soft goat cheese as the recipe dictated. Also, the strong flavour of lemon (which my husband insists tasted more like lime, but as you can see from the above photo was definitely a lemon) was off-putting.

It’s too bad, because I like the concept behind this dish, but I don’t think that this recipe is for me. That’s all right, since a quick perusal of my bookshelves yielded three different pasta primavera recipes for me to try: on page 327 of the Joy of Cooking (Rombauer & Becker, 2006 edition), page 125 of The New Canadian Basics Cookbook (Carol Ferguson, 1999), and page 164 of Gordon Ramsay’s Healthy Appetite (Gordon Ramsay, 2008). I figure that, with a bit of experimentation, I’ll find a recipe that my husband, kids, and I like well enough for it to become a family classic.

Muffins & Schnitzel & Faux Alfredo

Yesterday was a busy day for cooking. The first thing Thing 2 did when she returned from school was to request that we make muffins together. I used up the leftover pancake mix from the Pancake Mix & Peach Muffins to whip up a second batch; it turns out that the size of box that they sell at the dollar store will make two batches with a little left over. This time we tried the recipe with the spices (which greatly enhanced the flavour), and added apricots instead of peaches as the fruit. No nuts again this time, since the kids want to take them to school. They turned out quite well!


Pancake mix & apricot muffins.

For dinner I decided to try a few things I hadn’t made before, the first of which was chicken schnitzel. Schnitzel is one of my husband’s favourite foods from his childhood (although he insists that it’s not real schnitzel unless it’s pork). I found pre-tenderized and breaded schnitzel on clearance at the grocery store yesterday, so I figured I’d give it a shot. In all honesty, I did overcook it, but my husband still ate his portion and the kids’ leftovers, so it wasn’t that bad. I think I know where I made my mistakes and I know what to change when I try this dish again in the future.


Chicken schnitzel, linguini with cauliflower Alfredo sauce, and steamed spinach.

The second new dish that I made was linguini with Cauliflower Alfredo Sauce from Just A Pinch. I’d seen this recipe referenced on a few cooking blogs and it was touted as being fantastic. I love creamy sauces, but my digestive system can’t handle much milk, so I thought that this was the perfect solution. My sauce turned out a little more brown than the recipe’s, but that’s because my homemade chicken broth turned out more brown than the commercial kind because of the way the chicken was originally prepared. Taste-wise, I don’t think that affected it much, though.

My main problem with the recipe is that after following all of the instructions to the letter, the sauce ended up being really, really watery. I mean, it was more of a soup than a sauce and would never have stuck to the noodles. I suspect that this was because my cauliflower was smaller than the one from the recipe, which affected the solid-to-liquid ratio; I find that accurately recreating a dish can be difficult if the ingredients aren’t given in a weight or volume-based measure. I also had to use almond milk instead of heavy cream, which probably didn’t help, but there’s only 1/4 cup of that in there in any case. In the end I was able to save the sauce. First I whisked about 4 Tbsp of flour with some water to make a smooth paste, which I then whisked into the sauce. I simmered it all together for a while but I found that it wasn’t thickening fast enough, so I chucked it all into a microwave-safe casserole dish and microwaved it in three-minute increments (stirring after every three minutes) until it reached the desired consistency.

So would I make this recipe again? Probably, when my desire for a creamy alfredo-like sauce resurfaces. You definitely could taste the cauliflower in there, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’d say it’s a reasonable replacement for a proper Alfredo, and it’s still a thousand times better than some of the canned versions that are available around here. Next time I’ll just adjust planned cooking times to accommodate having to thicken it.

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.