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.

Avocado Pasta Sauce: Second Try

Yesterday was another busy day, followed by a trip to Costco as soon as the girls got home. The trip took over two hours; I can never get out of that place in a reasonable amount of time! Luckily, Thing 1 and Thing 2 were very patient, which couldn’t possibly have anything whatsoever to do with the plethora of food samples that they were able to try. By the time I finished at the store and drove home, I had eaten significantly into the time that I usually use to prepare dinner. Something quick and easy was in order.

I have to say that the Avocado Pasta Sauce that I wrote about earlier this week is definitely a quick and easy dish. In the time that it takes to boil up the pasta (assuming you’re using dried — fresh stuff only takes a couple of minutes), the sauce is done. Since the sauce only requires prepping a few veggies and running them through a blender, it’s also very simple. This time I took my own advice and added a generous handful of fresh basil and cilantro to the mix, along with a bit more pasta water to thin it all out. I was much happier with the flavour this way — it wasn’t so plain! I sliced a few cherry tomatoes and tossed them in with the pasta and sauce as well for a bit of an acid zing. I also discovered that a generous shake of Parmesan cheese tops this dish nicely. (I’d suggest using a bit more salt and pepper if you’re going to forego the dairy.)

I served the avocado sauce on penne basically because it was the only wheat-based pasta that we had in the house (I didn’t think it would go terribly well on vermicelli or soba noodles). For the meat, I just carved up a rotisserie chicken that I’d picked up at Costco while I was there. It was a tasty and satisfying meal that was whipped up in the amount of time that it takes to boil some pasta. Not bad!

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!

Spectacularly Ugly Gnocchi

I’ve been getting a lot of my kitchen inspiration from Tasty lately, probably because they’re constantly showing up on my Facebook dash. In an effort to widen my online cooking exposure, I subscribed to a few other feeds today; if anybody has any in particular that they’d recommend, do drop me a line!

Anyway, the one that I tried over the weekend was Easy Homemade Gnocci. I have to say, this dish was anything but easy. It was disaster after disaster, really. I don’t know how much of that was the fault of the recipe and how much of it was my own, but nothing seemed to go right.

First of all, I prepared the potatoes exactly the same way as the video showed, but my mashed potatoes ended up being a gluey mess. They were either too moist to start or I should have prepared them differently; they definitely weren’t overcooked, since the center of the larger ones were still a little raw (I discarded those pieces). After perusing the video comments, I learned that some people bake their potatoes instead of boiling them to prevent excess moisture. Also, many people recommend a potato ricer instead of a masher, as it keeps the potatoes from turning gluey. As a bonus, if you cut the unpeeled potato in half and press it through the ricer, you don’t even have to peel anything — it kind of works like a giant garlic press or a modified of food mill.


My homemade gnocci served with baked herbed chicken thighs and corn.

I’m pretty sure that the potatoes were too moist, but I think they were also too large. The recipe calls for 3 to 4 small or medium russet potatoes, but that’s very subjective. Since vegetables can come in all different sizes, I much prefer a measurement by weight or at least by volume, as I’ve talked about before. Due to the moisture, I had to use twice as much flour as the recipe calls for just to get the dough even close to firm enough — and I think I really could have used more. I’d read online that too much flour can make the gnocci heavy and stodgy, and I was trying to avoid that… I don’t think I succeeded. The gnocci that I made did not hold their shape for long after forming and were much too floppy for the fork method to work at all. I made the mistake of letting the noodles touch before boiling them and they just congealed back into a large mass of dough, so I had to form them again. The dough was so stretchy that they didn’t keep their shape in the water.

In the end, I liked the flavour of the gnocci fried up in butter and sage, even if the pasta was misshapen and stodgy. I think I’d like to try this recipe again with modifications until I get it right. For that reason, I don’t think that this recipe is an easy beginner dish — I think that the original article misrepresented it as such. But it could eventually be quite nice, with practice. Perhaps I can find an Italian nonna who is willing to teach me the finer points of this dish, if only to keep me from massacring a tradition so badly next time.

Pumpkin & Sage Pasta Recipe

I did manage to finish Thing 2’s skirt last night, as well as doing a bit of Christmas shopping. That being said, Candy Cane reminded me today of another task that I really have to complete.

It says something about your ability to procrastinate when your Christmas elf can sit on your Halloween pumpkins. The squash are still in good shape because they haven’t been cut, and they have been set on holders off of the ground so that air flow underneath keeps them from rotting. They’re actually more likely to dry out than decompose at this point. I started by cooking the first of the first of my four pumpkins today. I used the same technique described on Elana’s Pantry, but the pumpkin was so large that each half took about an hour and a half to cook. Then I scooped out the roasted pumpkin flesh and blended it smooth it in the food processor. These pumpkins are going to yield a lot of pumpkin puree, but that’s fine by me! It freezes well, and I still have two cookbooks worth of pumpkin recipes to try.

Having all that pumpkin puree on hand meant that I really wanted to incorporate it into dinner. I went with my tried-and-true Pumpkin and Sage Pasta Sauce, which I have modified many times over the years to accommodate both food preferences and allergies/sensitivities. I’m very happy with the latest iteration, as is my family. The sauce tastes more of sage, garlic, and onion than it does of pumpkin (which itself has a rather mild flavour). Instead, the pumpkin is what creates the creamy texture without using any actual cream. These days I make a non-dairy version, but if you prefer it can be made with milk and topped off with a bit of sour cream. Also, if fresh pumpkin puree isn’t available, canned is perfectly fine.

Pumpkin & Sage Pasta
Serves 4 adults

Into a deep saucepan or heavy-bottomed pot, pour:
2 Tbsp olive oil
Preheat the oil, then add:
1 medium white onion (100g peeled), diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
On medium heat, sweat the onions and garlic in the olive oil, being careful not to let them brown.
Turn up the heat to medium-high and add:
200g ground pork
200g lean ground beef
Fry the meat until it is browned, breaking it up as it cooks so that there are no large lumps. Drain the excess fat/oil.
Add:
2 cups pumpkin puree
250mL chicken broth
60mL 2% milk, almond milk, or soy milk
1 tsp ground sage or 3 tsp fresh sage, chopped fine
1/4 tsp nutmeg
3 Tbsp fresh parley, minced
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
Stir together and simmer gently to reduce slightly for about 10min. While the sauce is simmering, cook as per package instructions:
400g fettuccine*
Drain the pasta, then return it to its cooking pot. ** Pour the sauce over the noodles and stir to mix. Serve, optionally sprinkled with:
grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, to taste

*I’ve found that an equal amount of penne works as well.
**If you want to add sour cream to the sauce, stir it in at this point. You will need anywhere from 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup, depending on your personal taste. I recommending starting with 1/4 cup and seeing how you like it, then adding more if necessary.