Birthday Dinner Woes

Yesterday was my husband’s birthday, so at his request I cooked him a special birthday dinner. I’d say that overall it was a learning experience.

The dinner itself was one of his favourites: chicken thighs marinaded in Pataks Tandoori Curry Paste and coconut milk, cooked on the smoker grill (which is finally fixed). Despite appearances, it wasn’t actually burned, although it was definitely overcooked. Now that it’s running properly, the grill heats up better and faster than before, and I failed to take that into account. As sides I toasted some garlic naan bread on the barbecue, and we also had steamed butternut squash with butter and salt. I know I’ve prepared this meal better in the past, but it was still tasty.

The difficult part — and the greatest learning experience — of my husband’s birthday dinner was actually the dessert: a frozen lemon torte. We’d had this dish at a barbecue hosted by my husband’s boss a couple of months ago, and we both really liked it. Sadly, I could only have a mouthful, as it was filled with whipping cream. As we were leaving the party I requested the recipe from my husband’s boss’ wife, and she made sure to send along a copy a few days later. Sadly, I have no idea what recipe book it comes from, since she just sent me a photocopy of the one page.

The challenge for me was making this dish without the use of cow’s milk. I was sure that I should be able to make it with coconut milk instead; internet research indicated that it is possible to make an imitation whipped cream from coconut milk. Strike 1 against me was that the milk hadn’t separated after I’d placed the can in the fridge overnight; most instructions for whipping the cream call for using only the solids from the can. I’m not sure if it’s a canning/processing technique or an added ingredient, but my coconut milk didn’t separate. Further Googling told me that I could probably make whipped cream even with non-separated coconut milk, but I would have to whip it longer (15+ minutes), use a thickening additive, and it would still only form soft peaks. Well, mine didn’t even get that thick. I whipped it with a hand mixer for almost half an hour and just got slightly fluffier milk. By this time it was almost two in the morning and I was exhausted, so I combined all of my ingredients, threw the pan in the freezer, and hoped for the best.

I was really worried about removing the springform pan after dinner, which is why I took photos in advance just in case it all fell apart without support. It wasn’t quite that bad, but it did get mushy really quickly. I’d say that the lemon layer, which was supposed to have a mousse-like texture, was a lot more like ice cream. I mean, that wasn’t bad overall, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for. Also, the lady finger bottom crust, which should have been held down by the mousse, actually floated to the top of the too-liquid lemon mix, and then froze that way. After adding the meringue on top, the cookies ended up being more of a central layer than a crust.

In the end, the torte ended up being more of an ice cream cake with a meringue topping — but at least I could eat it! I really want to have a go at this recipe again, with less of a time limit and more than one brand of coconut milk to try whipping. Actually, I noticed on a grocery store trip today that there is a brand that sells full-fat coconut cream, so that may be the next thing I try. If I ever get the non-dairy version working to my satisfaction, I will post the recipe, I promise!

Slow Cooker Caribbean Lobster Bisque Recipe

About four years ago I had the opportunity to try PC Jammin’ Jamaican Lobster Bisque, which is a frozen entree that was created by Winslow Taylor of Mississauga, Ontario for the PC Recipe to Riches contest. I loved it! It was creamy and filling with just the right amount of bite. Sadly, this frozen dinner didn’t stay on the shelves long, and it has been years since it’s been in production, I think. So a I did some research and some testing, and I came up with what I consider to be a really nice non-dairy Caribbean-style lobster bisque that you can make in a slow cooker. I originally posted this recipe in my old blog a few years back, but I’ve had the chance to refine it somewhat since then. Enjoy!

Slow Cooker Caribbean Lobster Bisque

In a frying pan, gently heat:
1 Tbsp olive oil
To the oil, add:
1 white onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
Saute until the onions are clear. Stir often so that they do not brown. Put sauteed items in slow cooker.
Add to slow cooker:
4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
3 cups pumpkin* puree**
6 Roma tomatoes, peeled, de-seeded & chopped
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt***
1 tsp paprika****
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 tsp Scotch Bonnet hot pepper sauce*****
With a large sharp knife, cut off the fan part at the bottom of:
4 lobster tails****** (totaling 400g or more)
Reserve the remaining meaty parts of the lobster tails for later.
Add the fan part of the lobster tails to the crock pot. Stir. Cover and cook in the slow cooker for 6 hours on low.
Remove and discard lobster tail ends & thyme. Using a blender or food processor, puree the soup until it has an even, creamy consistency. Put the soup back in the slow cooker, and add the reserved meaty parts of the lobster tail. Stir, cover, and cook for about 45min to 1hr, or until lobster shells are pink and meat is cooked through. Remove remaining lobster from the slow cooker and let it cool until it is comfortable to handle.
While the lobster is cooling, stir into the slow cooker:
1 can (400mL) coconut milk
Remove lobster flesh from the shells. Discard shells. Chop lobster flesh into small bite-sized pieces and add to the slow cooker. Stir.
Optionally, garnish each serving with:
a sprinkle of fresh cilantro or parsley, chopped

This bisque is delicious as an appetizer or as a lunch. It freezes well; I like to freeze it in single-sized portions so that I can take it along with me for work lunches. It goes well with crusty bread and strong cheese.

Notes:
* Equal quantities of winter squash puree such as butternut, calabaza, or Hubbard squash may be substituted.
** When I can my own squash, it comes out much more watery than the commercial canned versions. If you are using a thicker canned squash, add enough water to the mixture in the slow cooker so that it has the consistency of a thinner cream soup. This amount will vary depending on the consistency of the puree.
*** If you use regular chicken broth instead of the reduced-sodium version called for in this recipe, omit the salt. If you use homemade chicken broth with no salt at all, add an extra 1 tsp salt.
**** If you can get it, smoked paprika adds an extra layer of flavour to this recipe. Otherwise, regular paprika will do.
***** I used the Scotch Bonnet hot pepper sauce made by Grace (which is available at most grocery stores around here), but you can use the one of your choice. My original recipe called for 4 tsp of this sauce, but it ended up too hot for anyone in my family except me. If you like your food spicy, add a little more than 2 tsp. If you aren’t that fond of spice, cut it down to 1 tsp for a tiny bit of a bite. If you don’t like spice at all, you can omit the sauce altogether for a mild bisque redolent with coconut – although if you do this, I’d recommend adding more thyme.
****** I have used lobster tails to make this soup, I have also done it with satisfactory results with other (cheaper) parts of the crustacean, like the claws. Just set aside the bigger, meatier parts for the last step of cooking, and use the smaller, mostly-shell parts for the slow-cooking stage to add flavour. Remember to take any parts with shell out before you blend!

First Harvest of the Year

I’m happy to report that there are finally fruits and veggies in my garden that are ready to harvest! It’s been a very dry summer for the most part, and although I’ve been watering my garden religiously, I think it’s having an effect on the garden. However, over the last week or so we have had a storm almost every day, alternating with sunshine, and my plants have loved it.

My tiny cucumbers and zucchini have swelled up remarkably in the last week and a half! The largest of the cucumbers is about 7″ long (18cm) and is so thick that I can’t wrap my fingers entirely around it. The three cherry tomatoes (and now I’m sure that the self-seeded tomatoes were the little ones since they’re ripening at such a small size) were sweet and delicious straight off of the plant. I know the zucchini would have grown larger, but they’re more tender at a smaller size. Some of the absolutely enormous zucchini gifted by friends last year had a really tough skin that had to be peeled before it could be eaten. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still ate every last squash, but the bigger they are, the harder the skin. (Also, the really big ones you have to scoop out in the middle like you would a pumpkin, because the seeds are quite tough too.) Also, I’ll admit that I wanted to get to the zucchini before the animals or bugs did. I know that it’s supposed to be one of the easiest things in the world to grow, but between insects and squirrels/chipmunks and just plain bad luck, I’ve only ever managed to grow a single zucchini before, and it was a tiny one barely worth harvesting.

I would be writing about the size of this first zucchini right now except for the fact that we ate it almost as soon as it was off of the vine. My husband fired up the barbecue yesterday and we had chicken thighs with the skin on, topped with a sprinkle of herbs (my usual sage, thyme, garlic powder, summer savoury, and sea salt; there would have been rosemary too, but I had run out). As a side dish, I sliced the yellow zucchini and threw it in our non-stick grilling bowl with a sprinkle of salt and a drizzle of olive oil. As it couldn’t possibly have been fresher, it was oh-so-tender and light-tasting. I didn’t even have to fight with the kids to get them to eat their vegetables, which is quite the feat at dinner time around here these days.

On the Vine

The garden is still growing strong! We haven’t had much rain lately (we keep watching the storm clouds frustratingly veer north of us), so I’ve had to do a lot of supplemental watering. This compared to last year, where it was so wet that I only watered the garden once all season — and even then it rained unexpectedly within 24 hours. But things are still growing well.

The main garden is still growing strong, although there aren’t any new fruits or veggies to report. The green tomatoes haven’t ripened up; I figure they’re still getting bigger before they change colour. The radish, potatoes, and eggplant are all flowering alongside the tomatoes, though, which bodes well.

The vines in the secondary garden are making a bid for freedom as they do every summer, though. The part of my yard that gets the most sun is right in the middle of the lawn, and the vines keep trying to take it over. While I encourage such enthusiastic growth, it does make it a bit difficult to mow, especially since a lot of the vines are hollow and easily snapped if you try to pick them up to mow underneath.

I am thrilled to see that my tiny cucumbers are growing strong! A lot of them are almost two inches long — which is almost big enough for pickling, right?

My squash is still tiny, but at least it’s recognizably squash-like.

And much to my delight, I appear to have the beginnings of some yellow zucchini!

No pumpkins yet, though, not that I’ve been able to spot. I may be outta luck this year on that score.

Working on the Yard

I spent the majority of the last two days working on my back yard. First I put in the garden along the fence I’d been wanting for the last few years:

I’d had one there before, and I’m pretty sure the previous owners of the house had one too, since the soil was black and rich instead of being just clay, at least for the first few inches. I hadn’t done anything with that garden since the old fence started to fall down, but this year we have the new one up, so I don’t have to worry about either a pile of wood or contractors squashing my plants. I planted Jerusalem artichokes, pumpkins, Hubbard squash, butternut squash, cucumbers, zucchini, and asparagus, alongside the rather tiny rhubarb plant I planted years ago. I tried putting down landscaping fabric to prohibit the weed growth, but we’ll see how that goes.

I cut back the apple tree, although it’s still pretty huge, all in all. There were a bunch of dead limbs and I ended up losing almost a whole one of the major subsections closest to the house. I really hope that whatever killed those branches doesn’t spread to the rest of the tree, though. One of the reasons I got a deck (instead of a patio like originally planned) is to accommodate the apple tree’s roots. It would really suck if the tree then ended up dying. Also, I just plain old love that tree, especially every second year when it blooms.

In my main veggie garden, I’m happy to report that the potatoes are starting to sprout — alongside a bunch of tiny weeds. I only just weeded that bed, I’m a little annoyed that the weeds are already returning. Hopefully the plants I actually want will grow tall soon and start choking out the plants I don’t.

A friend of mine gave me a black tomato plant to add to my cherry tomatoes, and I’m curious to see how the fruit turns out.

My pear tree is flourishing, despite still being shorter than me. I might get twice last year’s harvest, so… Ten fruits, maybe? I always like how pears grow up while they’re tiny, but then the weight of them drags them down to hang how you’d normally expect over time.

I also had to mow the grass, at which point I discovered that apparently I have wild strawberries growing in my front lawn, which surprised the heck out of me. I don’t care much about my lawn so long as it is green — grass, clover, strawberries, it’s all okay by me, so long as it’s not thistles, which are painful to step on. After a quick Google, I discovered that wild strawberries are perfectly safe to eat, especially if you know that the ground they grow on is pesticide- and herbicide-free, which mine definitely is. They’re not really big enough to make much of a crop, but they are definitely more flavorful than the commercially-grown variety.

I finished the day with a barbecue dinner for my family, my parents, my brother, and his friend. I made salmon on the smoker barbecue — not burned, just a little ashy — with a glaze of maple syrup and a sprinkle of salt. My mom brought over her famous potato salad with bacon, and I grilled up some zucchini and steamed asparagus. I also made some rice to serve on the side, at my kids’ request. All in all, it was a lovely meal, and I’d eat it again in a heartbeat.

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!

Squash & Pear Casserole Recipe

For Thanksgiving dinner, my mom made a lovely squash casserole as part of the main meal. (You can see it on the bottom right hand side of the table in the last picture in the post linked above.) It was so good that I asked her to share the recipe with me.


My stab at this delicious casserole.

Mom sent me the link to The Spruce’s Butternut Squash and Apple Casserole With Crumb Topping recipe, but then she sent me a list of the changes she’d made that turned it into a significantly different dish.

Last night I tried Mom’s version, which has pears instead of apples (’cause that was what she had on hand), and includes walnuts for crunch (the best part of the dish in my opinion). The topping stays pretty much the same, but it really wasn’t very crumby. The photo in the Spruce recipe was obviously taken before the dish was baked. Rather, as the butter melts it carries the spices and sugar to ingredients at the bottom of the casserole. This doesn’t make it any less tasty (I’d venture to say that it actually enhances the flavour), but I’d hesitate to call it a “crumb”.


Squash & Pear Casserole served with pork chops with an onion soup mix glaze.

Squash & Pear Casserole
Serves 4-6

Preheat the oven to 350°F (177°C).
Peel, remove guts and seeds, and cut into bite-sized pieces:
2 1/2 lbs butternut squash (approx. 1 medium)*
Core and cut into bite-sized pieces:
3 green pears
Place squash and pear pieces in a casserole dish that fits these ingredients with a bit of room to spare. Stir to mix.
Sprinkle over the mixture:
1/2 cup chopped walnuts**
In a separate bowl, mix together:
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
To the sugar and spice mixture add:
1/4 cup chilled butter***
Using two knives or a pastry knife, cut the butter into the sugar and spice mixture until the pieces of butter are a roughly even size, about the size of a pea.
Sprinkle butter and spice mixture over the contents of the casserole dish.
Bake, covered, for 50 to 60 minutes****, or until the squash is easily pierced with a fork.
Serve using a slotted spoon so that the cooking juices are left behind in the casserole dish.

*This casserole would work equally well with squash of a similar texture such as acorn squash or pumpkin.
**Chopped pecans may be substituted for chopped walnuts.
***Margarine may be substituted to make this dish vegan/vegetarian. However, the margarine has to be the kind that is hard when cold, or it will not cut into the sugar & spice mixture properly.
****This dish may be prepped ahead of time, refrigerated overnight, and then baked just prior to serving. If the dish is still cold from the refrigerator, allow for an additional 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time.