Quick Dinners

With ComicCon prep taking over my life, I have been resorting to quick, improvised dinners to feed my family lately. Here are a few of them:

A quick trip to the grocery store yielded a refrigerated rotisserie chicken and cheese-and-spinach-stuffed pasta, both at 50% off. I reheated the chicken in the oven; boiled & drained the pasta and added some cream cheese, sour cream, and cooked spinach; and peeled & chopped a few carrots which I boiled in the microwave. Prep time for this meal was twenty minutes at most, leaving me more time to work on my costumes.


Leftover soup with bok choy and rice.

One of my favourite things to do lately is throw leftover vegetables and/or meat into some home-made broth (of which I have copious amounts in the freezer), add a bit of leftover rice or small pasta, and then boil it all together for a few minutes. With a bit of salt and pepper, this becomes a healthy soup that takes only about ten minutes to prepare.

At the kids’ request, I did make up rice bowls this week, but of a simplified kind. While the rice was cooking, I peeled and nuked the carrots, chopped and microwaved the bok choy, and cooked up some frozen corn. I also grilled the shrimp — I love shrimp when I am short of time because it takes so little time to cook — and scooped out some avocado. No special shopping or all of the burners used this time for a rice bowl meal! I just used whatever I had in the fridge, freezer or pantry. It took about 35 minutes to make this meal, including prep work. Not bad for something so fresh and tasty.

Noodle Soup

I’ve been to Japan twice so far: once in high school on an exchange program, and once in my twenties to tour with a friend. I returned from my trips with an absolute love of Japanese food. Tea ceremonies, sushi, sukiyaki, fast food, vending-machine treats: I tried everything that was put in front of me. Sure, I didn’t like 100% of it, but it was a near thing. I would eat a heck of a lot more Japanese food back here in Canada if it weren’t so expensive — and if a greater variety of dishes would cross the Pacific.


Lunch at a restaurant in Kyoto, Japan: torikatsu (breaded & deep-fried chicken cutlet) or tonkatsu (the same thing, but made with pork cutlet instead) on egg and rice; a bowl of udon soup with seaweed, green onions and kamaboko (fish cake); and two types of pickles.

One of my favourite things about eating in Japan was all of the different types of noodle dishes. My horizons really expanded from the macaroni, spaghetti, and lasagna were more that I was familiar with. In Japan, they fried their noodles, they put them in hot and cold soup, they served them with every kind of topping they could think of. Of course, now there is a lot more variety in how people use noodles in Canada; there’s a Vietnamese pho restaurant in every neighborhood, ramen is making inroads into the culinary scene, and udon is on the menu at most Asian fusion restaurants. Not to mention that you can finally get Asian noodles that aren’t instant ramen at most grocery stores. But before I went to Japan the first time, pasta that wasn’t wheat-based and served Italian- or Italian-American style was rare around here.


Hakata tonkotsu ramen (pork belly, shiitake mushroom, bamboo shoot, scallion, nori, soft-boiled egg, pork broth, ramen noodles) from Ottawa restaurant Ginza. Seriously the best ramen I have had outside of Japan.

Now I make my own noodle soup. It’s Japanese-inspired, but it’s definitely not authentic. I mean, I sometimes use turkey broth, and turkey is a meat that just isn’t used in Japan. I use locally-grown produce and meat when I can, but I also include imported spices, sauces, and canned/preserved goods when I have the opportunity. Asian fusion is the best description I can come up with, although it sounds kind of pretentious for my style of cooking. Hodgepodge, perhaps?


Prepping for noodle soup at my house. Items include frozen udon noodles, dried shrimp, sushi nori, enoki mushrooms, parboiled lotus root, thinly-sliced beef (pour boiling broth on this to cook), soft-boiled eggs, shrimp, beef balls, and baby bok choy. All ingredients have been precooked as necessary.

I don’t so much have a recipe as I have a process. First, I make the broth. Sure, I could use commercially-made broth, but I like to make my own from the bones saved from meat I’ve previously prepared. I store bones in the freezer until I have enough, then I put them (and sometimes cloves of garlic and/or dried mushrooms) in the crock pot. I fill the pot the rest of the way with water, and then I let it simmer for two days, replenishing the water as it goes down. Then I strain out all the solids, then refrigerate the broth so I can skim the fat off of the top. Of course, this makes much more broth than I can use at one sitting, but it freezes well, which means I don’t have to make the broth from scratch every time. Immediately before using the broth, I will season it with a dash of soy sauce and a tiny bit of instant dashi, although since that stuff goes really far, I don’t need much! I can use the unseasoned broth for a greater variety of dishes, so I only season as much broth as I plan to use that day.


Right before eating home-made udon. Thing 1 just couldn’t wait to sit down and dig in. The bowls on the left are smaller for the kids, and a lower noodle to broth ratio.

Then I prepare all of my toppings. I will throw almost anything into a bowl of noodle soup, so long as it’s the kind of thing that stands up well to being boiled. Most vegetables go well, as do most meats. Fruits and squash are generally too fragile. Cleaning out the fridge of leftovers is perfectly fine, since the toppings have to be precooked anyway, and will be warmed up by pouring broth over them.

Once I have all of my toppings cooked (I do a lot of it in the microwave, but in warmer seasons using the barbecue adds a lovely flavour), I bring my broth back up to a boil and separately I cook up the noodles accoring to package directions. I prefer frozen udon, but it can be any kind of long Asian noodle, really. Ramen or vermicelli are great too. Then into each bowl I put a base layer of noodles, then the toppings, and then I pour the broth over top. Last but not least I like to add a square of sushi nori when I have it — this has to be done last minute because it wilts so fast.

Here are some examples of noodle soups that I have cooked over the years. If this inspires you to try to make a noodle soup yourself, do let me know — and show me a photo! I love seeing what other people do with my recipes and tutorials.


Udon soup with beef broth, nori, soft-boiled eggs, green onions, rare beef, enoki mushrooms, lotus root, shiitake mushrooms, and baby bok choy.


Udon soup with chicken broth, nori, shrimp, dried shrimp, soft-boiled eggs, enoki mushrooms and baby bok choy.


Udon soup with chicken broth, nori, soft-boiled eggs, lotus root, enoki mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, chicken, and baby bok choy.


Udon soup with beef broth, hard boiled eggs, dried shrimp, enoki mushrooms, chicken, and baby bok choy.


Udon soup with pork broth, nori, rare beef, soft-boiled eggs and furikake.


Late-night-snack udon soup with chicken broth, nori, soft-boiled eggs, lotus root, and green onions.


Udon soup with turkey broth, nori, baby bok choy, shrimp, dried shrimp, soft-boiled eggs, and medium-rare beef.


Udon soup with pork broth, soft-boiled eggs, lotus root, green onions, enoki mushrooms, shrimp, celery, and chicken balls.


Udon soup with pork broth, baby bok choy, shrimp, dried shrimp, well-done beef, enoki mushrooms and soft-boiled eggs.


Udon soup with turkey broth, nori, rare beef, soft-boiled eggs, dried shrimp, turkey, enoki mushrooms, and baby bok choy.


Udon soup with turkey broth, barbecued tiger shrimp, baby bok choy, hard boiled eggs, masago (seasoned capelin caviar), dried shrimp, pea shoots, enoki mushrooms, and barbecued beef steak.

Simple Suppers

With ComicCon deadlines looming, I’ve been spending every spare moment working on costumes. That means that I have been making meals that can be thrown together out of what is in my fridge, freezer, and pantry. There just isn’t time to run back and forth to different grocery stores and specialty shops! I’ve also been picking meals with a short prep/cook time.


Thing 1 and Thing 2 showing off the mini loaves that they helped me make.

On Saturday I ran out of bread, so I had to make more. Now that I have the hang of the basics, I don’t find that baking bread takes much time at all. I mean, it takes time to proof, but that’s time I can spend on other things. This bread was supposed to be loaves of Nan’s pan rolls, but after I started mixing I discovered that I was at the very end of my all-purpose white flour. No problem, I’ll use half whole wheat, I thought! No luck, I was down to the last dregs of that as well. So I just combined what I had left of both of those flours with some multigrain flour, and promised myself that I’d make a grocery run soon.

I’m happy to say that they bread turned out quite nicely despite my improvisations; it was nice and fluffy, but also quite healthy due to being predominantly whole wheat and multigrain flour. The kids were very pleased with the mini loaves that they shaped in tiny pans that I found at the dollar store. Of course, those were the first bits of bread from this batch that were eaten.

Saturday dinner incorporated that fresh-made bread into a breakfast for dinner kind of meal. Eggs over hard (they were supposed to be over easy, but the cook usually ends up eating the mistakes), pork breakfast sausages, navel orange pieces, and a strawberry banana smoothie.

Last night’s dinner also used the bread, which by this time was a couple of days old, but still toasted up well. I made plain grilled cheese and served it with some quickly-thrown-together soup of turkey broth, carrots, and rice, all served with a side of (slightly-massacred) orange.

Looking back at these dishes, I realize that I need to find an additional go-to fruit or veggie to pair with quick dinners, or my family will soon become heartily sick of oranges.

Cream of Carrot Soup Recipe

I took a cooking class back in high school. It wasn’t Home Economics or Family Studies; it was a week-long course at the local college that was meant to teach us the most basic techniques of the professional chef. It was most likely offered in the hopes that the course would catch the attention of at least a few of us, and that we would return after graduation for the culinary program. We learned how to make fresh pasta, French vanilla ice cream, chocolate truffles… I have very fond memories of that class, and not just because I got to spend a week away from home.

One of the things the chef was insistent about was that we learn how to use knives properly. Well, one knife. The chef worked almost exclusively with what seemed to me to be an intimidatingly huge chef’s knife. He insisted that we learn the proper techniques of handling this knife (which I totally approve of), and then we spent the rest of one day of a five-day program chopping different kinds of vegetables. I know how important knife work is to a chef, but when the majority of a group of sixteen-year-olds aren’t likely to ever step into another professional kitchen, chopping veggies all day may not be the best way to hold their attention. However, by the end of the course I did learn to be slightly less afraid of the large knife. (Until then, I usually used a paring knife at home.)

At the end of the knife-work day, the dish that we were expected to prepare the chef’s version of cream of carrot soup. I really love the recipe, so I kept my copy and have been tweaking it ever since. So long as you skip the optional ingredients, my version is dairy-free, tree-nut and peanut free, gluten-free, and can be made vegetarian/vegan if vegetable stock is used instead of chicken stock. It’s also extremely healthy! It’s also slightly sweet, and not from adding sugar but from sweating the vegetables before boiling them — perfect for serving to picky eaters.

I make my cream of carrot soup in large quantities because it freezes really well, but if you prefer your soup fresh, I’d recommend halving or quartering the recipe. As written, it can be made using a 2.27kg (5lb) bag of carrots, which results in about 1.5kg after peeling and slicing. I like using Naturally Imperfect carrots, which are cheaper because they’re not visually perfect, but they taste just as good. Honestly, it’s all going through the blender anyway.

Cream of Carrot Soup
Yields about 7 litres
All weights indicated are measured after peeling and chopping.

Peel and dice (or slice in a food processor):
1.5kg carrots
Peel and dice:
350g yellow onions
Into a deep, heavy-bottomed stock pot pour:
1 cup olive oil
Heat the oil slowly on medium-low heat. Add the carrots and onions to the oil. Sweat the vegetables until the onions are translucent and the carrots are about half-cooked. Stir often. Do not let the vegetables brown.
Peel and dice:
600g potatoes (white- or yellow-fleshed)
Add the potatoes to the pot, and then add:
4.5L reduced-sodium chicken broth*
Bring contents of pot to a boil. Simmer until all vegetables are tender.
Puree the soup in batches using a blender or food processor. Exercise extra caution when pureeing as the soup will be hot! Fill the jar/bowl at most 2/3 full, as the soup will fly up and may dislodge the lid of the blender/food processor. As an extra precaution, you may drape a dish towel over the top of the machine and hold the lid down gently with one hand. (Do not press down too forcefully or the center section of a blender may fall into the jar — especially if the blender has a flexible lid.)
Once all of the soup has been pureed, return it to the stock pot. Gently bring the soup back to a simmer.
Season to taste with:
salt
white pepper
Serve in a bowl or soup dish.
Optionally, at serving time finish each bowl with:
2 Tbsp hot cream or 1 Tbsp cold sour cream
Garnish each bowl with:
1 sprig of parsley or 1 small basil leaf

*Chicken broth may be replaced an equal amount of vegetable broth, or homemade chicken broth, or a mix of 2.25L water and 2.25L stock made from chicken bouillon.

Saint Patrick’s Day Dinner

This past Friday was Saint Patrick‚Äôs Day, and although I baked Guinness Yeast Bread to celebrate, I also needed to plan something for dinner. I thought a hearty Irish stew might be nice. I went through my cookbooks for something appropriate, but I didn’t find anything quite right. I searched the Internet and found a great recipe: Beef and Guinness Stew by Chef John at Allrecipes.com.

It didn’t have nearly as much broth as the stews I’m used to; it was really more like meat and gravy than a stew. That being said, it was absolutely delicious, and went well served atop mashed potatoes. Everyone in my house finished theirs down to the last drop, which is quite the compliment. (Trying to find something that everyone in this house likes is quite challenging.) I mean, it starts with bacon, and the next step is to fry the beef in the bacon fat. There’s your flavour right there. I would definitely make this stew again, probably next time beef roasts go on sale.

I also figured that a special occasion dinner required dessert. I made the cinnamon roll variation of my Dad’s Biscuits recipe. They’re not really Irish, I guess (from what I’ve read, cinnamon rolls were invented in Sweden), but at least the base of the recipe is baking soda biscuits, which is kind of like soda bread… Right? Ah well, there’s no rule that says I have to stick to a theme. Because of the extra sugar in the cinnamon rolls, they brown up very quickly, so don’t expect them to be as light-coloured as the original biscuits. They’re delicious warm from the oven, spread with a dollop of butter or margarine. If you can’t get them fresh, zap them in the microwave for 15 seconds or so to warm them, then butter.

Chicken Noodle Soup

Back in high school, before the Internet was really a thing and email had only just caught on, I had a pen pal from Japan. I would spend hours composing letters to her, trying desperately to form coherent sentences with an extraordinarily limited grasp of the Japanese language. Her letters, written for the most part in English, showed her struggle with a new language as well. Even so, we communicated fairly well without being able to rely on body language, tone of voice, or facial expression (if at a fairly low grade level). That is, until I mentioned chicken noodle soup.

My pen-pal wrote that she had been suffering through a cold, and I made an offhand comment in my reply along the lines of, “Make sure you have your chicken noodle soup!” Her reply was sheer confusion. These days she would have Googled it on her smartphone, but that wasn’t an option back then. What was so special about chicken noodle soup?


Chicken noodle soup made with ditalini noodles, with a bacon and avocado sandwich on homemade German Beer Bread (World Breads: From Pain de Campagne to Paratha, page 19).

To be honest, the chicken noodle soup that I had when I was growing up wasn’t special at all. It came from a can if I was lucky; it would be plopped as a gelatinous tube of goo into a pot with a couple of cans of water, then stirred until smooth and heated until warmed through. If I was unlucky, or if we were camping, we had the dried soup mix instead. I have to admit that I didn’t really like either of these options, and it’s not because I don’t like instant soups. I use cream of mushroom soup in a number of recipes, and dried onion soup mix is a key ingredient in a great chip dip. I thought that I just didn’t like chicken noodle soup. (This didn’t stop me from having it when I was sick, though. Also being pampered by my mom, drinking flat ginger ale, burrowing under a pile of blankets on the couch to watch bad daytime TV, and draping my head with a towel then holding it over a bowl of hot water to let the steam clear my sinuses.)


Chicken noodle soup made with ditalini noodles and a few more spices, with a chicken salad, cheddar cheese, and spinach sandwiches on homemade Nan’s Pan Rolls, and navel orange slices on the side.

Then, last week I had a crock pot full of chicken bones simmering away for broth, and I thought to myself, “Why not?” I had never made chicken noodle soup from scratch before. I knew that if I didn’t end up liking it, the rest of the family likes the canned version, so it probably wouldn’t go to waste. I followed the Chicken Noodle Soup recipe on page 125 of the Joy of Cooking (2006 edition). And you know what? I actually quite liked it. Homemade doesn’t taste much like the canned stuff at all.

I was happy enough with the recipe that I made soup and sandwiches again yesterday after having to pick my daughter up sick from school. The jury’s out on whether this soup has any true health benefits, but it’s warm and comforting and easy on the stomach, so it’s good to eat when you’re not feeling well. It’s not much more difficult to turn into a meal than the canned stuff, either — so long as you have some broth in the freezer (which I almost always do).

Did I ever properly explain the chicken noodle soup tradition to my Japanese pen pal? Knowing my grasp of the language, probably not. I did try. I even sent her a package of the dried stuff and gave my best shot at translating the directions. Should she ever come to Canada, I think I’d like her to try my homemade version. Then she might understand why, to many Canadians, chicken noodle soup is a true comfort food.