Grilled Duck Breasts & Strawberry Shortcake

Yesterday I decided to cook something I’d never cooked before: duck. I’d eaten it before, generally in Asian fusion food, but I’d never cooked it. It’s different than most of the poultry I’m used to working with (i.e. chicken and turkey) in that it’s a red meat. It’s honestly more like ostrich. Somehow I’d managed to cook up ostrich long before I’d ever worked with duck, which is a little odd seeing as duck is domestic and ostrich is most definitely not. But I digress.

I found the duck breasts in the frozen section of T&T Supermarket a while back, and I bought them because they looked interesting and they were on special (my favourite combination). I’m not sure if this is usually the case, as I have no baseline, but that day they were significantly cheaper than beef. The breasts weren’t whole; they were already cut up into what I think of as tiny little steaks.

I used the marinade from a Grilled Wild Duck Breast Recipe that I’d Googled, knowing full well that since I liked all of the ingredients separately I’d probably like them together. I only did a quick marinade of about half an hour, since I wanted to taste the meat and not just the sauce. Then I threw the steaks on a preheated gas grill. The real challenge here was not to overcook them. I didn’t want them to be rare in the center, but they were so small that I really worried that I’d accidentally turn them into shoe leather. I settled on about five minutes per side, and that ended up being perfect. There was just a bit of char on the outside, but the middle was tender and soft.

I served the duck breasts on a bed of basmati rice, alongside some green zucchini that I’d sliced and grilled at the same time as the duck breast. Timing is always an issue with this kind of meal, so I cooked the rice first, then put the duck on, and then the zucchini, since it was sliced fairly thinly. It all came to the table piping hot and delicious.

For dessert we piled into the car and drove over to my parents’ house for strawberry shortcake. This time my mother made it, but she basically followed my Nan’s recipe. It was an assemble-it-yourself kind of affair (which the kids love), so if mine ended up being sloppy and leaning, that’s nobody’s fault but my own. Part of the problem with structural integrity is that I had to use a non-dairy whipped topping, which never beats as stiff as true whipping cream. Also, we upped the sweets game by drizzling dark maple syrup over the top, further compromising the tower’s support but definitely enhancing the taste.

Dessert finished and hands (and tables, and place mats) cleaned of sticky syrup residue, we headed back home to put the children to bed and to spend some quiet time digesting.

Maple Walnut Pouding Chômeur

Last night I had an urge to make pouding chômeur (“poor man’s pudding”), which is a kind of upside-down maple syrup cake that is baked with its own sauce. I wanted to use some of the lovely dark maple syrup that I picked up from McCannell Craftwork at Russell Flea over the weekend. Sadly, a copy of Anita Stewart’s Canada (2008) wasn’t immediately available at the library, and I haven’t yet bought a copy (although it’s down to $15.00 online so I really should), so I didn’t have access to the first recipe that I used and liked so much. Instead, I grabbed a few cookbooks with their own versions of a pouding chômeur recipe from the library, and then I went home to pick my favourite.

I thought that I had all of the ingredients at home, but it turns out that some of them had spoiled, so I had to improvise a little bit. I ended up combining the recipes from two different books. The final cake ended up being a little bit drier and with a sauce that wasn’t quite as runny as I’d been hoping. It was pretty darned good anyway.

Unfortunately, I found that the walnuts really overpowered the maple flavour, much to my dismay. Although it was a tasty dish all in all, I was really looking forward to that creamy maple syrup sauce dominating. I think I’ll stick to a more simple pouding chômeur recipe next time, whether it be from Anita Stewart’s Canada or another source.

First Barbecue of the Year

Around the start of March, the weather begins to get warmer, but it’s still below freezing most nights and we’ll likely get a few more good snowfalls in. The weather has been quite mild recently, and is predicted to remain so for a while. We’ve managed to avoid Winter Storm Riley, which is hitting south and east of here. Canadian winters being what they are, we’d be prepared for the kind of snow that Europe is getting right now, but that weather system is much too far away. Instead, what we’re getting right now is the first hint of spring.

The photo above is a really old one of Thing 1 at the start of March, playing in the back yard while we cooked dinner on the barbecue. I love it because it shows the weird accommodations we have to make for the weather this time of year. (I also love it because I think Thing 1 is adorable, but I am somewhat biased.) It takes quite a while of above-zero temperatures for all of the snow to melt, and after that for the ground to thaw enough so that the water doesn’t just sit on the surface in a coating of mud and puddles. But it’s warm enough out that anything with good sun — or that sticks out of the snow covering — gets well dried out, and for the most part we get away with lighter clothing because it seems so much warmer than the frigid winter was. If you have kids in school, you send them in all bundled up for the morning temperatures (which are often below freezing), and they come home in the afternoon with 99% of their outerwear in hand or in their backpacks because it’s just much too warm. I’m pretty sure that this time of year is when the most stuff gets turned in to the school lost-and-found, to be honest.

One of the perks of this time of year is that our barbecues can be started up again, since they stick out of the ground a fair way and aren’t in areas prone to drifts. Technically, they can be used year-round, but we would have to dig them out after every snowfall, and missing just a bit of ice means that the covers end up frozen to the ground until the next big thaw. Actually, the gas barbecue’s cover is still quite encased in ice, but the cover for the Black Olive (an insulated wood pellet grill) is shorter and hence could be freed sooner. This device was handed down to us at the end of last fall, so we never really got the chance to test it out. Yesterday, my husband fired it up for the first time this year and we had our first hamburgers of the season — a sure sign that spring will soon be here. I had my burger with lactose-free cheese, mayonnaise, mustard, avocado, and lettuce. And dill pickles, of course.

Cat-Proof Tree

A friend of mine, who owns three very mischievous cats, posted a link to a Facebook post about Genius People Who Found A Way To Protect Their Christmas Trees From Asshole Cats And Dogs back in November, and it gave me some ideas. Specifically, the picture of the little tree in the gigantic lantern.

You see, I’d salvaged this 3.5-foot-or-so decorative lantern a while back and, although I’d filled it with orange lights as a Halloween decoration, I didn’t have any real idea what I wanted to do with it once the holiday was over. I’d thought I might spray paint silhouettes on the inside and turn it into a permanent addition to my Halloween decoration collection, but I didn’t have any concrete plans. However, I thought that my friends might like a tree that their cats couldn’t destroy, so I started working on the lantern.

The lantern had been discarded for a reason; it needed repair. It required a good cleaning, some glue in spots and a couple of coats of paint, not to mention some new hardware. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find matching replacement hardware, so the rusty stuff was just going to have to do. I also had to find a short enough tree and some small embellishments (which I kept to a neutral white and silver motif to hopefully go with the decor on any floor of their house, and any decorations they would want to add).

I was quite happy with the final product, which looked nice in a lit room…

…but really was at its best in low to no light.


Photo by Karen Turnbull.

My friends seem to be quite happy with their Christmas gift. Although the cats were quite interested at first, the fact that they couldn’t reach the branches, lights, or ornaments meant that they lost interest pretty quickly — which was perfect. The tree in the lantern is pretty heavy, so the cats can’t knock it over. And as a bonus, the tree doesn’t even have to be taken down after the Christmas season is over unless my friends want to use the lantern for something else. A plastic garbage bag over the top would keep the whole thing dust-free in storage until they want to use it next year.

I really liked how my Christmas tree in a lantern turned out. A bit of Googling has made me realize that lanterns are great for protecting all kinds of decorations from pets and young children. I’ve seen them filled with glass balls, tiny dioramas, seasonal knickknacks, paper or painted silhouettes (usually with frosted glass), greenery arrangements, and live plants. I have so many ideas now that I think I’ll be keeping my eye out for more lanterns to salvage and decorate.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like…

I finally started to get into the Christmas spirit a little bit this weekend, probably because on Friday afternoon my yard looked like this:

And by Sunday it looked like this:

Many of my friends and family bemoaned the precipitation and freezing temperatures, but I always like a bit of snow before Christmas. A green Christmas just isn’t very Christmas-y to me. That being said, it’s supposed to go up to 9°C (48.2°F) on Tuesday, so it’s not like this is going to last.

It really put me in the mood for Christmas shopping, though. Unlike in the States, where the holiday buying season appears to officially start as soon as the clocks strike midnight the day after American Thanksgiving, we don’t really have a traditional time to begin. Some people shop all year ’round. Some companies put out their Christmas merchandise at the same time as they’re building their Halloween displays (which is a little early to me, but oh well). For me, all of the Halloween debris has to be cleared away and there has to be some snow on the ground for me to feel like shopping for gifts — although I have been known to pick things up six months in advance if the opportunity arises at a great price.

I went with my mother, Thing 1, and Thing 2 to a number of craft fairs on Saturday, but one of my perennial favourites was the one held at Cairine Wilson High School. It’s a huge fair; it packs full the big gym, the little gym, the hallways, and the cafeteria. Given the number of booths, I’m bound to find something that I know someone will like.

But even if I don’t find the perfect gift for someone, it’s a lot of fun to check out the wares of local craftspeople. This is one of the few times of year that a lot of these people make their work available to the public; many craftspeople work all year by themselves to make enough stock for one or two holiday shows.

After hitting a few craft fairs, we rushed home so that the kids could get changed into their uniforms and we could drive out to Epiphany Anglican Church where the Girl Guides’ Holiday Tea is held every year. Since I’d gone to all of the effort of baking brownies for the tea, I pretty much had to attend. It’s always a lovely time, with such cheerful little servers and so many delicious treats on which to nosh.

I may have kind of taken a picture of some of the sweets for our table after I’d already nabbed the chocolate ones. Just maybe. I think that the next to go was that shortbread on the bottom right, since I’m a sucker for those too.

Halloween Party Food

I hosted our family’s annual Halloween party this past Saturday, and of course that meant lots of food. I put out bowls of chips, Cheetos (the “Bag of Bones” kind that are shaped like dismembered skeletons), pretzels, cheese & crackers, a shrimp ring, a meat tray, a veggie tray, and fruit. And then I added the food that I’d actually cooked.

Salsa and guacamole served with black corn chips are a perennial favourite, but I had fun with the presentation this year. I got the idea to use the “puking” pumpkin from a BuzzFeed 7 Terrifying Halloween Food Ideas video. The guacamole was store-bought, but the salsa was the Blender Salsa (page 92, Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces (Marisa McClellan, 2014)) that I’d canned earlier this season. I did want to try the “Rotten Deviled Eggs” from the same BuzzFeed video, but I ran out of time and just ended up making normal deviled eggs instead. They went over well anyway, and disappeared quickly.

I did a huge amount (at least for me) of baking in the days leading up to the party so that I could serve a wide variety of sweets. I made Applesauce Cake (page 720, Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer et al, 2006 edition) into cupcakes, which I iced with Quick Brown Butter Icing (page 794, Joy of Cooking). When I was preparing the batter for the cupcakes, I put the margarine (which I had substituted for butter) in the microwave to soften it… And then I forgot about it. I didn’t realize I’d left it out of the batter until the cupcakes were already baking in the oven. They turned out okay anyway, but they were a little drier than I’d have liked.

I made pumpkin pie tarts using the Purity Pastry crust (page 73, The All New Purity Cook Book (Elizabeth Driver, 2001)) and Pumpkin or Squash Pie filling (page 686, Joy of Cooking). To make the pie dairy-free, I used canned coconut milk instead of heavy cream or evaporated milk. I wasn’t the only person who was going to be at the party who has issues with dairy, so I tried to avoid it whenever possible when cooking this time.

I forgot to include this find when I wrote about thrifting a while back, but I did find a cookie press for about $4.00. I’ve always loved spritz cookies; they were a favourite when I went to bake sales and bazaars, but I couldn’t make them at home since I didn’t have the appropriate tools.

I guess most people would associate this kind of cookie with Christmas rather than Halloween, but there’s nothing saying they can’t be eaten any time, really. I used the Spritz Cookies recipe from page 248 of The Canadian Living Cookbook (Carol Ferguson, 1987), which calls for butter, but I substituted margarine. Not surprisingly, the cookies weren’t as buttery as they could have been, but they were still pretty darned good.

Some time ago I asked one of my friends for her all-time favourite cookie recipe, and she said it was Elevator Lady Spice Cookies on page 99 of The I hate to Cook Book (1966 edition). I’d been looking for an excuse to try them out. Given the powdered cloves and ginger in the recipe, these cookies remind me a bit of a ginger snap in flavour, but with a less brittle texture. As a bonus, this recipe doesn’t contain any dairy in the first place, so I didn’t have to make any substitutions (like many older recipes it uses lard instead of butter as the fat, since it is cheaper).

Pumpkin Cookies//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

I made these soft, moist cookies using the Pumpkin Cookies recipe from the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum. To make them dairy-free, I substituted margarine for butter and almond milk for cow’s milk. These were a big hit and a number of my friends asked if they could take a few home with them!

I splurged at the dollar store and bought some mini muffin tins so that I could make some miniature Double Chocolate Zucchini Muffins. Since there is milk in the chocolate chips and these wouldn’t be the same without them, I didn’t even try to make this recipe dairy-free. They’re still a fan favourite; out of three dozen mini muffins, I only had three left over after the party, which all mysteriously disappeared first thing the next morning.

At my friends’ request, I made up another loaf of Voodoo Bread. I learned from my mistakes and used gloves when I kneaded the bread this time. I still didn’t get the well-defined swirl that I was looking for, but it was still a really cool-looking bread.

Not pictured because I forgot, I also had three bread machines going at the same time and made three different kinds of bread, all from Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf (Jennie Shapter, 2002):

– Egg-Enriched White Loaf (page 67), where I substituted equal amounts of olive oil for the butter in the original recipe.
– Light Rye and Caraway Bread (page 75), where I substituted canola oil for sunflower oil (I have a friend who is violently allergic to sunflowers), and I omitted skimmed milk powder, simply adding 1 Tbsp water.
– Golden Pumpkin Bread (page 167), where I made a lot of changes because I was missing a bunch of the ingredients called for in the recipe. I substituted whole wheat flour for cornmeal, maple syrup for golden syrup, almond milk for buttermilk, and I omitted the pumpkin seeds. Despite all of the changes, it still turned out great!

Last but not least, I made up a batch of Cookie Monster’s Famous Cookie Dough, which is a favourite recipe of mine since my childhood. I used margarine instead of butter, but the recipe calls for either, so it still tastes nigh on identical to what I remember. With my parents’ help, my kids rolled out the dough, cut it out, and then painted it with a glaze made of egg whites/yolks (depending on the colour) mixed with food colouring. Even with all of the different dishes that I put out for this party, the Cookie Monster Cookies were my favourite. All of the other food was good, but you can’t beat nostalgia.

Another dish I would like to try, but I ran out of time, was Tasty’s Peek-A-Boo Pound Cake. Perhaps I could make something similar for Christmas with a different shape inside?

Salsa & Cherries

Canning season is in full swing, with my garden producing enough ripe tomatoes for a good-sized batch of something every couple of days, and fruits and vegetables at the cheapest they’ve been all year at the farmer’s market and supermarket. Although most days are still quite warm, it cools down quite a bit after dark, so I’ve been taking advantage of the lowered temperatures to get some canning done in the evenings after the kids go to bed. Sometimes this doesn’t work out so well when a recipe unexpectedly refuses to thicken up and I end up getting to bed around two o’clock in the morning, but I’d take a late night over canning in the heat any day.


Mild tomato salsa, all ingredients from my garden except the onions.

In addition to trying to preserve family recipes, another reason I started this blog was to keep track of recipes I’d tried, which ones I liked, and any changes I’d make in the future. Last year I didn’t write any of this stuff down, and when it came to canning season again I had the hardest time remembering what recipes I used. Sure, some of them are quite distinct, but did I get them online? Did I find them in any of my copious number of cookbooks?

The salsa above is a case in point. I mean, salsa is extremely popular and easy to make. Every canning book has at least one salsa recipe. So I figured that this year what I’d do is make a small batch from each of the recipes that interested me, and pick the one I liked best for next year. The photo above is Smoky Tomato Salsa, from page 255 of Put ‘Em Up! Fruit (Sherri Brooks Vinton, 2013). This was a pretty decent salsa, although it didn’t turn out as smoky as the writeup suggested. Perhaps I will try chipotle powder instead of smoked Spanish paprika next time. Additionally, the recipe was really, really watery, and I had to boil it down for quite some time to get my preferred consistency. This was totally my fault because I used whole cherry tomatoes instead of peeled, seeded and diced tomatoes as specified in the recipe. Last year I peeled all of those tiny tomatoes and it was so tedious that I decided never again. Because I had to boil it down, this concentrated the vinegar and the sugar a little too much for my liking. I think that next time if I use cherry tomatoes I will just elimiate the sugar altogether (cherry tomatoes are much sweeter than regular-sized ones anyway). I would also cut down the vinegar to half a cup (8 Tbsp). The yield of this recipe was three to four 500mL jars of salsa, which should still make the mixture acidic enough to be safe for hot-water canning. (Lemon juice and vinegar have a similar PH, and Pat Crocker’s Preserving recommends adding 1 Tbsp bottled lemon juice to a 500mL jar, and even halving the vinegar makes it 2+ Tbsp per jar.)


Amaretto cherries.

Another recipe that I tried this year is Amaretto Black Cherries from page 126 of Preserving: The Canning and Freezing Guide for All Seasons (Pat Crocker, 2011). I overfilled a few of the jars and had to remove some of the syrup-coated cherries before sealing, and I was very impressed by the flavour. I can only imagine what they’ll taste like after soaking in the syrup for a couple of months. They’re like a tipsy maraschino cherry. When I was a kid and we bought cheap fruit salad preserved in syrup, I would always save the cherries for last because they were my favourite part. In addition to eating these cherries straight out of the jar or as a dessert topping, Preserving also includes a recipe for Amaretto Clafoutis with burnt Almonds on page 128. I will definitely have to try making this dish once the cold weather hits.