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.

Give Peas A Chance

I am very pleased to be able to say that my pea vines are starting to produce pods! My rhubarb is usually the first plant to produce edible parts come spring, with my peas are coming in a close second. Unlike the rhubarb, though, if they’re given proper TLC, these plants will give me veggies for the entire summer. Now, I don’t grow enough of them for peas to become a major part of the diet in our house, but my kids love picking them straight off the vine and will snack on them until the vines die off.

I can’t help it though, whenever I work on my pea plants, I can’t help but start humming the protest song parody by the Arrogant Worms called Carrot Juice is Murder. This was the height of humour for me as a teen, and I still know all of the words. I’m pretty sure my dad could still sing along too.

I really hope that I’m not the only one whose mental soundtrack while gardening is this song. But I’ve been told I’m weird my entire life, why should it stop now?


It’s rhubarb season, and I only just discovered that rhubarb is one of my husband’s favourite “fruits” (I know it’s a petiole (stalk) and not a fruit, but it is cooked like one, so I think of it as being in the same category). We’ve only been married for ten years at this point, and have known each other for more than twenty, you’d think it would have come up in conversation before now. In any case, I do have a rhubarb plant in my old garden, which is an area of the yard where I used to grow things but have had to stop because the fence there desperately needs repair. We’re supposed to get a new fence this summer, so hopefully I’ll be able to plant a secondary garden against the fence next spring. All that being said, my rhubarb plant is under-performing, to say the least.

This plant is three years old and honestly looks like I just planted it this year. The stalks are losing a size competition to the grass. The plant has never been big, so I doubt that it needs to be split. I think it’s probably due to poor soil quality; I mean, I have never fertilized that garden, I just used the soil that was there when we moved in. Next year I’ll be sure to add compost and extra soil and see if that helps at all. With the new fence going in, there’s no point in trying anything before then… My plant may not survive the ordeal anyway.

So that was my total rhubarb harvest: one handful of spindly little stems. Luckily, some friends of mine out in Russell have a plant that is trying its hardest to take over part of their back yard, and they let me harvest more than half of it in exchange for some homemade pickles. I could not have been more thrilled (or thankful)! So I got to cooking.

The first thing I tried, at my husband’s request, was strawberry rhubarb pie. I used the pie recipe from page 680 of the Joy of Cooking (2006 edition), but I used the Purity Pastry crust from page 73 of the Purity Cookbook (2001 edition), which is my preferred basic pie crust recipe. This was my very first attempt at a rhubarb pie of any kind, and also my first shot at a lattice crust, which I discovered isn’t terribly difficult, although it’s time-consuming.

The top of the pie came out a little bit darker than I’d have liked, although it didn’t taste burnt. I kept my eye on the baking process, constantly monitoring the oven temperature, and it happened anyway. I am really starting to need a new oven. I can’t keep a bulb lit in there because it burns out within days, the temperature control isn’t accurate (which is why I have a secondary thermometer in there), and it’s so small that I can only cook one thing at once. Ah well, it’ll happen eventually.

Thing 1 holding the pie over my head so I could lay on the floor and get a shot at the bottom.

What surprises me the most is that the pie wasn’t overcooked anywhere else. I would think that the bottom would be the most likely spot, given that I was using a baking setting where only the bottom burner was used. I know that the pie plate protected the bottom of the pie somewhat, but even so… Well, at least it tasted good.

As an aside, you might notice that the rhubarb in my dishes doesn’t look particularly red; that’s because the cultivar that my friends grow is ripe when the stalks are green, although sometimes they do have a slightly red tinge. It tastes just as good, even if the colour of the dishes isn’t nearly as spectacular.

I’ve also been baking up loads of Rhubarb Orange Bread from page 22 of 125 Best Quick Bread Recipes by Donna Washburn & Heather Butt (2002). This book was a thrift store find that I definitely don’t regret! I made a few loaves of the rhubarb orange bread that were devoured by my family before I had a chance to photograph them, then a pile of mini-loaves for the freezer, and then a couple dozen nut-free muffins for the kids to take to school (the original recipe has walnuts). I prefer the taste and texture of the version with nuts, but I understand why it’s something that can’t be brought to school.

As I write this, I am in the middle of making up some slow-cooker strawberry-rhubarb butter. If it turns out, I hope to share the recipe. The one thing that I meant to make that I forgot about was a rhubarb crisp, for which there is a recipe on page 692 of my Joy of Cooking. If none of my other friends have excess rhubarb for which they’re willing to trade, I may have to buy a bundle at a farmers’ market this weekend just so I can make this dish. It’s been many years since I had one, but I remember it being delicious!

Garlic Scapes

Garlic scapes are in season! It has been especially wet this year, causing a delay in planting crops, and some planted fields being flooded out. So I was a little bit worried that I wasn’t going to be able to get one of my favourite local spring crops — one that generally only shows up at farmers’ markets in the first place, and rarely in stores. However, even fiddleheads are starting to be available in the fresh fruit & vegetable aisles, so maybe garlic scapes are not far behind. I spotted the scapes first this year at the booth in front of Orleans Fruit Farm, which means they’ll probably be available at the farmers’ markets this coming weekend.

Although they may look like the tentacles of Cthulhu, garlic scapes aren’t a plant in their own right, unlike, say, garlic chives, which are a variety of chives that have a garlicky flavour. Preserving by Pat Crocker (2011) has a pretty comprehensive write-up about them starting on page 243. Their description is as follows:

Not long ago, scapes were fairly rare in North America. Now, with more market gardeners growing garlic, we are seeing more of the fresh green flower stalks showing up around the end of June or beginning of July. Scapes are tender and very tasty stems that are cut from the garlic in order to allow the plant to put all of its energy in to growing the bulbs that will be harvested in the fall. These lightly garlic-scented vegetables can be grilled, steamed or poached. Treat them as you would asparagus or green beans, and use them in casseroles, soups and stews.

Preserving goes on to explain the best ways to preserve scapes (freezing being preferred), and has recipes for garlic scape relish, garlic scape pesto, and garlic scape pesto potatoes. Now, I bought this cookbook years after I developed an appreciation for scapes, so when I make garlic scape pesto I use the recipe that Roadapple Ranch would tuck into each bag of scapes that they sold at market; they have also made their simple and delicious garlic scape pesto recipe available online.

Pesto is a quick, simple green sauce served over fresh-cooked pasta, but it’s also great:

– drizzled on top of fried eggs or mixed into scrambled eggs
– spread on bread as a sandwich spread or burger topping
– baked on top of bruscetta, garlic bread, or crostini
– diluted with oil and vinegar to become a salad dressing
– mixed with cream cheese, yogurt, mayo, or sour cream as part of a dip (or mix pesto with your non-dairy version of these products — those averse to dairy will want to make a cheese-free version of the pesto)
– on top of baked or mashed potatoes
– as a marinade or sauce for chicken, lamb, pork chops, shrimp, and some kinds of fish (salmon is the first one that comes to mind)
– used as a replacement for traditional tomato pizza sauce (especially useful for people like a friend of mine who is allergic to nightshade plants, i.e. potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant)

Me, I am dying to try garlic scape pesto in the Marbled Pesto Bread on page 142 of Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf by Jennie Shapter (2001) or the Pesto Sourdough Loaf on page 91 of The Complete Guide to Bread Machine Baking from Better Homes and Gardens (1999). But given how much I like garlic scapes, there’s a good chance mine will be grilled or steamed for dinner before I have a chance to incorporate them into bread. Not that I’m too worried; I still have a number of jars of homemade pesto in the freezer from last year, simply because I made so much. I guess I’d better get cracking on eating those up!

Spring Edition Rice Krispies Squares

My family has come down with the dreaded annual spring cold. All four of us stayed home yesterday with fevers, sore throats, headaches, and stuffy, runny noses. So I have more-or-less been subsisting on:

Smoothies. Specifically, banana-strawberry smoothies. I know serving rustic drinks in mason jars is trendy at the moment, but that’s not why I do it: this kind of lid is also infinitely practical. We’ve suspended the “no drinks outside of the kitchen” rule while everybody is sick, since I’m happy when I can get any calories into the kids at all. I can give drink containers like these to them without worrying as much that they’ll spill sticky beverages everywhere. As a bonus, I bought the lids on clearance back when Target was going out of business in Canada, so they were quite cheap. I always have jars around anyway, since I do a fair amount of canning come the end of summer. Win/win, really.

Spring Edition green and blue Rice Krispies

So yes, about the Kellogg’s Rice Krispies squares. Tomorrow is the last day before Easter weekend, and my kids wanted to bring treats in for their classes. For Thing 2, that means cake pops to eat and recycled crayons to bring home. Thing 1 has some spring-themed erasers and pencils to give to her class, but we didn’t have enough cake pops to share. Well, I honestly didn’t feel like doing anything too complicated last night, so Rice Krispies squares it was.

I had purchased the Spring Edition green and blue Rice Krispies cereal a few weeks ago with the intention of making egg-shaped treats like I’ve seen in a number of tutorial videos. It would be fun to do with the kids! If, of course, the kids hadn’t gotten sick. So instead I waited for the munchkins to go to bed, and then made the microwave version of the recipe clipped from the inside of a Rice Krispies box. I was a little worried that they wouldn’t turn out, since I have in the past burned the marshmallows (when using the stove-top variation) and somehow made rock-hard squares that had to be binned because you could potentially chip a tooth on them. I’m happy to report that this time they turned out fine. Good thing, too, because I do not have the energy for another desperate late-night grocery run this week.

I just hope that Thing 1 and Thing 2 are well enough to go into school. I am well-prepared, so that almost guarantees that they’ll need to stay home.

Cake Pops

After the confetti cupcake disaster on Saturday night, a friend of mine suggested that I use the broken/misshapen homemade cupcakes to make cake pops. Despite my disappointment, I had saved the cupcakes — they still tasted great! So I gave it a go.

I had never made cake pops before, and honestly I had no idea how it was done. Based on the gadgets I’d seen in the stores, I thought you cooked them as little spherical cakes, kind of like a doughnut hole. After my friend’s suggestion I Googled, and what do you know? Cake pops are essentially cake meatballs.

I followed the How To Make Cake Pops Easily tutorial on Divas Can Cook, and the further into it I got, the more like meatballs they seemed. The colours of the cake I was using didn’t help; it really reminded me of ground poultry. Basically, you take a cake (your “meat” and “spices” and “filler”), crumble it (i.e. grind it up), mix it with a bit of frosting as a binding agent (the “eggs”), and shape it into balls. I’ve made enough meatballs that once I realized the similarities, muscle memory pretty much took over. Once I got to the decorating stage, though, it was new territory.

They’re definitely not perfect cake pops. They’re not spherical, the chocolate coating is sometimes lumpy, and the sprinkles aren’t artfully arranged. And forget fancy decorating; I just don’t have the skills to make them into flowers or Christmas balls or Easter eggs. But they’re a darned sight better than the cupcakes I started with. I consider this a success, especially for a first try.

To be honest, the kindergarten kids who are going to eat them are going to smear them all over their faces and clothes anyway. It doesn’t matter that the chocolate is hard, they’ll find a way.

Maple Mustard Glazed Salmon & Maple Barbecue Sauce

Because maple syrup is, well, a syrup, most people think of it first in sweet dishes like candy or fudge or cookies. However, it does add a fantastic note to savoury dishes as well.

One of the simplest recipes of which I have eaten a great deal — first prepared by my mother, later by me — is Maple Mustard Glazed Salmon from Jo Cooks. It’s basically four ingredients mixed together and poured over salmon, then baked. It’s delicious enough to serve at a dinner party, but quick enough to whip up as a busy evening meal. Maple goes well with mustard; not too surprising, really, given that honey mustard has a similar flavour profile and has been a grocery store standard for years.

Yesterday I served the salmon with one of my favourite last-minute dishes: fresh linguine (although you can use any kind of pasta, fresh or dried) with cooked spinach, cream cheese, and a little salt and pepper. I also added half an avocado on the side; my kids will eat avocado by preference over just about any other fruit or vegetable.

Maple is also great as part of a barbecue sauce. Lots of commercial sauces, such as Diana Sauce (a Kraft product) and President’s Choice, come in a maple variant. But it’s really easy to whip up one of your own! There are many recipes available online, but I am particularly fond of the no-cook Maple Barbecue Sauce on page 238 of The New Canadian Basics Cookbook (1999). It’s tangy, sweet, and just acidic enough to tenderize a tough steak if left to marinade. I wanted to fire up the grill and use this sauce yesterday, but the chilly downpours and the snow still freezing the barbecue cover to the ground made this inadvisable. I am sure that my jar of sauce will get a good workout over the coming months.