Chichen & Roast Vegetables Curry for Family Guests

Last night I had family guests over for dinner. I find that my guests can be divided into two basic categories: formal and family. Formal visitors are generally people I don’t know very well and with whom I am still trying to make a good impression. When they visit, I stress that my house is not neat and tidy enough, that my decor is not fancy enough, that my food is not tasty enough, and that my children are too noisy (unless they bring their own children along, which mitigates this factor). I spend hours or days making everything as perfectly prepped as possible before they come over, and I still worry that it is not enough.

Family guests include actual family and friends that I’ve known for long enough that they might as well be family. They have seen me at my best and at my worst, and they know that for the most part I am somewhere in between these two extremes. They are the people that would I welcome into my home without advance notice; in fact, I welcome them to drop by any time. So while I may not have a three course meal prepped for them and my house will be cluttered with the day-to-day mess of living, we do end up seeing much more of each other. Formal visitors can transition into family guests over time. It’s part of the process of friendship to me.

Last night’s dinner was one for family guests. The people visiting me were my parents, with whom I have a very close relationship, and a friend of the family who is an honorary aunt. She’s in no way related to me by blood or marriage, but she’s actually closer to me than a number of my actual relatives. This woman has known me since the day I was born; actually, she posed as my mother’s sister in order to visit us in the maternity ward and actually met me before my grandparents did. She changed my diapers and rocked me to sleep when I was colicky as an infant. At six years old, I was literally the only child allowed at her wedding. The idea of being formal with her is kind of absurd.

The seven of us crowded around my kitchen table (which doesn’t seem small when it’s just the four of us, but I am quickly reminded of the true size of my dining area when we have guests). I served a hearty, healthy meal based predominantly on my Thai Coconut Curry recipe, but as usual I changed things up a bit. I didn’t have any bok choy, so that got left out. I traded shrimp for chopped chicken thighs, added chopped garlic, and I served it over rice instead of noodles. Most notably for the flavour, I didn’t use curry paste, I just sprinkled in mild curry powder to taste. My parents don’t have the taste for any spice whatsoever, so the mildest way to go was the best in this situation. So I guess it wasn’t really all that similar to the original recipe, but the technique I used was the same.

I served the curry with some bread machine Whole Wheat Bread (page 15, The Complete Guide to Bread Mahcine Baking, Better Homes and Gardens (1999)). We sat around the kitchen table, stuffed our faces, caught up with the things we’d done since we’d last met, and regaled each other with stories of days gone by. It was a lovely way to spend an evening.

Canadian Thanksgiving

Although today is technically Thanksgiving here in Canada, my family celebrated yesterday. I know that a lot of other people I know hereabouts do the same. Having Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday combines the tradition of a Sunday family dinner with the practical consideration of a stat holiday on the Monday. This means that out-of-town guests can travel in on the Friday night or Saturday, then go back home on the Monday, i.e. no traveling the day of celebrations and no need for most to miss any work.

Here in Canada, Thanksgiving is mostly a secular harvest festival, although some religions do incorporate thanks for a bountiful harvest into their liturgical calendar. Unlike Americans, we don’t have a tradition of the First Thanksgiving (our history is markedly different than our southern neighbours, with our first European settlers being predominantly explorers, hunters, and trappers). We also celebrate this holiday much earlier, i.e. the second Monday in October instead of the fourth Thursday in November. We used to celebrate Thanksgiving later in the season, but the earlier date keeps it from conflicting with Remembrance Day (November 11th) and, on a practical note about climate, is also when the bulk of the harvest has been brought in this far (and farther) north. Heck, the Prairies often see snow as early as September.

I started cooking the dishes that I was going to bring to Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday. I began with pumpkin pie, which was a combination of the Purity Pastry crust from page 73 of the Purity Cookbook (Elizabeth Driver, 2001 edition) and the Pumpkin or Squash Pie filling on page 686 of the Joy of Cooking (Irma S. Rombauer & Marion Rombauer Becker & Ethan Becker, 2006 edition). The filling pulled away from the crust since I had to store the pie in the refrigerator overnight, but it still tasted just fine. Due to food sensitivities in the family, I substituted coconut milk for the heavy cream/evaporated milk specified in the filling recipe. I have done this for years now, and I find that it tastes almost identical to using cow’s milk. That being said, I’ve learned that it takes much longer for the filling to set this way. To compensate, I don’t glaze the crust, as it causes it to burn over the long cooking time. Also, I put the pie plate on a baking sheet when I put it in the oven (something I do when making any type of pie), which both helps protect the bottom crust from burning and keeps any filling overflow from burning onto the bottom of my oven.

I cooked a small pumpkin to make the pumpkin pie instead of using canned (I like the flavour better that way), and I had some leftovers squash puree that needed to be used up, so I made Pumpkin Bread (page 628, Joy of Cooking) as well. I made this quick bread loaf with coarsely chopped pecans and golden raisins, as that’s what I happened to have in the pantry. It’s a rather lovely, dense loaf, as this kind of bread tends to be, and it smells divine. Unfortunately, since there are nuts in it, I won’t be able to send it to school as part of lunch for my girls in the upcoming week.

Since I had the time (which I never seem to when I’m carving Jack-o-lanterns for Halloween), I saved the pumpkin seeds and roasted them in the oven with a bit of olive oil and salt. These are one of my favourite fall snacks, and the smell of them cooking takes me right back to my childhood.

OF course, no family dinner around here would be complete without a batch of Nan’s Pan Rolls. It’s especially fitting this time of year, since Nan passed away four years ago this weekend. Making one of her signature dishes is a fitting way to remember her, I think.

This was Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ place (bottom to top): Yorkshire pudding, squash & pear casserole, roast turkey, gravy, bread stuffing, pan rolls, Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, and steamed asparagus. This may seems like a huge spread, with all of that food for only six of us. However, traditionally you only have a little of each dish at the actual dinner, which is more than enough to feed you to bursting, and then you eat leftovers for the following week. Generally it’s an informal recreation of the dinner on day 2, then (depending on the size of the bird) some kind of casserole on day 3, then hot turkey sandwiches on day 4, then turkey soup or stew on day 5, and so on.

So happy Thanksgiving to all Canadians, and a happy Thanksgiving in advance to our American neighbours!

Last of the Zucchini

One of the biggest challenges about this time of year, at least to me, is to either eat or preserve all of the fresh produce that comes my way before it goes bad. It seems to me like the utmost example of taking what you have for granted to let food — especially fresh, homegrown, delicious food — go bad. Practically speaking, this does mean freezing, drying, or canning a lot of it to eat over the coming winter. But it also means a lot of meals made with just-picked ingredients.

Over the last few days I’ve finally managed to cook my way through all of the zucchini from my friends’ gardens (although I may end up with more in the next little while, not that I’m complaining). Last night for dinner we dug into another loaf of Harvest Garden Bread (which contains zucchini), Baked Panko Zucchini Sticks, and haddock baked under a generous coating of Blender Salsa (page 92 of Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces (Marisa McClellan, 2014)), which was made almost entirely from produce grown in my garden.

Then it was Double Chocolate Zucchini Muffins for dessert. I had never tried this recipe before, but it was highly recommended to me by a friend, and now I realize why. These muffins are moist, dark, rich, and chocolatey. They also aren’t as unhealthy as other muffins with similar flavour. I mean, it would be a stretch to actually call them health, what with the chocolate chips and the oil in there, but there is more zucchini in the recipe by volume than flour, and that has to count for something, right? 10/10, will definitely bake this one again.

Dad’s Birthday Dinner

This past weekend began with my dad’s birthday on Friday. September is a busy birthday month in my family, with my brother’s birthday near the start of the month, and then my mom’s just over a week later, and then my dad’s about a week after that. Before she passed away, we celebrated my Nan’s birthday right at the end of the month as well. This meant a lot of birthday parties and dinners, although as we got older, more of the latter than the former.

Dad’s request for his birthday dinner was much more traditional for my family than my mom’s, given both the region in which we live and our cultural heritage. Dad requested baked beans and biscuits, followed by butter tarts for dessert. Baked beans are generally considered to be a Québec specialty, but they are extremely popular in Ontario and New Brunswick as well (both provinces have a proportionately large French-Canadian population, especially where they share a border with Québec). My father fondly remembers my grandfather making baked beans for the family; it was probably one of the recipes he learned while working as a lumberjack. The baking soda biscuits are definitely Granddad’s recipe, passed down to me by my father. And butter tarts are a quintessentially English Canadian dish, although it’s not one passed down to me by my grandparents; so far as I know, Granddad wasn’t much for fancy baking, and Nan never mastered the art of pie crusts.

All that being said, I’d never made baked beans by myself before — that had always been Mom’s job! So I needed to look up a recipe. The Maple baked Beans With Apples on page 151 of The Canadian Living Cookbook (Carol Ferguson, 1987). I adapted the recipe to cook predominantly in the crock pot, since I didn’t want to run the oven for hours and hours on such a hot day. I basically tossed all of the ingredients that would have been baked in the first stage in the crock pot for about 16 hours. Then I ladled it all into a Dutch oven, topped with sliced Granny Smith apples, brown sugar, and butter, and baked it all together uncovered for an hour. It turned out absolutely fabulous, enough so that my parents asked me for the recipe!

The biscuits, of course, were Dad’s Biscuits. I rolled out the dough and cut it with a cookie cutter instead of going with the easier drop-off-a-spoon version, since formed biscuits hold up better to dunking or spreading with baked beans. I asked Dad if it was weird to have his own recipe made for him, and although he agreed that it was an odd feeling, he wasn’t complaining.

Served last were the raisin butter tarts. I used the same recipe as I did for the potluck dinner a month ago: page 234 of The Canadian Living Cookbook. However, I substituted an equal volume of golden raisins for the walnuts that the recipe called for, which tasted delicious. I kind of overfilled the tarts though, so they boiled over when they baked and hence look a mess. They tasted good anyway, although the stickiness of the overflowed filling meant that they were a pain to remove from the pans.

So happy birthday to my dad! Love always to the man who taught me through his automatic acceptance that people can do whatever they put their mind to, no matter what traditional gender roles in our society may dictate.

Birthday Leftovers

I am happy to report that the Furikake Salmon Ramen (page 82 of Simply Ramen by Amy Kimoto-Kahn (2016), or online here) is nearly as delicious as a leftover as it was freshly made for dinner.

In an attempt to cook as little as possible the other night, I served the salmon on some steamed rice topped with eggs sunny-side-up and sliced avocado. Of course, the apple pie and brownies from Mom’s birthday dinner are long gone, devoured by voracious children. Okay, I might have had some too. But the kids are the main culprits, I swear.

Slow Cooker Chicken Tikka Masala

Yesterday ended up being hot and humid, so I wanted to make a dinner that didn’t require heating up the kitchen all that much. Community Table’s recipe for Slow Cooker Chicken Tikka Masala had come across my feed recently, so I thought I’d give it a try. How does cooking something for eight hours not heat up my house? Well, I put the slow cooker out on a table in the garage.


I wish I owned the pretty dishes that they use to serve it in the video.

I had high hopes for this recipe, because a) true to my heritage, I like making easy food where you just put everything in a pot and we boil it for seventeen and a half hours straight, as Denis Leary put it; and b) this dish smelled absolutely fabulous while it was cooking. My garage has never smelled better, to be honest, and sometimes I use my bread maker in there. But when I actually took a bit, the flavour just didn’t live up to the hype. It was just… Bland. There was no depth.

Now, I’m no expert when it comes to Indian cuisine, but if I ever try this recipe again I would change a few things. Instead of just throwing everything in the pot raw, I would first toast the spices, then brown the onions and the garlic in a bit of olive oil, and then brown the chicken. This would pre-cook some of the ingredients, so it probably wouldn’t be necessary to have it in the slow cooker for as long, maybe 4 hours. Instead of chicken breasts, which have a tendency to be dry (even in sauce), I’d use chicken thighs. I’d use fresh tomatoes run through a blender instead of canned tomato sauce for a fresher taste. I’d add a few more veggies chopped up bite-sized; sweet peppers and mushrooms go well in this kind of dish (cooked first on the stove as well in bit of olive oil), but I could probably throw in anything on hand. It’s not like I’m going for authenticity here.

If nothing else, this recipe is in desperate need of salt, which enhances flavour. I added salt after I served the dish and it really did help, but I think it would be so much better if it was done during the cooking process. However, I’m not sure exactly how much salt is required for the whole potful (which feeds my family twice over, by the way). Salting to taste unsafe to do when the chicken is raw, so I’d really have no choice but to pre-cook the chicken anyway, and if I’m doing that I might as well make use of all of the previously mentioned techniques as well.

Mom’s Birthday Dinner

We celebrated my mother’s birthday this past Saturday. At her request, I hosted dinner at my house and made her up some of my ramen — which somehow she had never tried before. The version that I chose to make was Furikake Salmon Ramen (page 82 of Simply Ramen by Amy Kimoto-Kahn (2016)); the recipe is also available online here. This recipe uses a shoyu base (page 8, or online at easypeasyjapanesey.com), which I made up in advance in my slow cooker. I remain rather enamored of this base recipe, but every time I make it I remind myself that sometime I really need to try the tonkotsu base, which is my favourite but appears much more difficult. I used soft-boiled eggs instead of marinated half-cooked eggs, mostly due to time constraints. I also used packaged noodles; one of these days I will make my own, but that really requires a pasta maker, which I don’t own. I didn’t use the kind from the instant soup packages, as I find they get soggy much too quickly, but instead a package of dried noodles on their own for which I unfortunately can’t read most of the label.

The real star of this dish is the salmon. I was lucky enough to find it on special at the grocery store, pre-portioned and ready to go. The furikake topping was delicious even though I used North American mayonnaise instead of Japanese-style. There were some leftovers and I really look forward to having them served over rice in the next few days. I think that this topping is going to become part of my regular dinner roster; it would probably be good on other pink, oily fish like sea trout.

In our family, there’s always dessert with a birthday dinner, even if you’re stuffed from the meal itself — that just means that you take a breather and have the treat later in the evening. This year I made apple pie using fruit that I’d grown on my own tree in the back yard. For the chocolate lovers, Dad made brownies with chocolate icing, which were delicious and, if you know my dad, a very special treat, since he rarely bakes. We served it all up with whipped cream and/or vanilla ice cream (and dairy-free alternatives thereto). Oh, and candles! I was thrilled to find that it’s possible to get the candles that burn with coloured flame at the dollar store these days. I used to have to go downtown to a specialty store to buy them.

So happy birthday to my mom! Love always to the woman who helped shape me into the person that I am (whether that’s a good thing or not is a matter of opinion).