Sunday, 22 July 2012

A Taste of Home Fresh Corn Salad

July 2012

SmartCooks here.

Week 1 in Charlottetown is behind me and what a week it was!  I don't think I've had so much change and so many new experiences in 30 years.  It's all good but more than a little unsettling for a old girl like me, especially given that i've never been someone to adapt easily to change.... so the challenge continues.    

It was a full week .... flying (a necessary but never favourite activity), meeting a whack of new people (that's OK), going from briefing to briefing to yet more briefings (and I have weekend homework), getting lost repeatedly in downtown Charlottetown (pix) trying to find my way from the office to the efficiency hotel where I was staying (no wi-fi was a major drag), looking at places to rent (sigh), trying to find a gym (double sigh) and avoiding seafood restaurants and failing miserably.  

Arriving back in Ottawa for the weekend was a chance to regroup.  I don't think I've ever seen anything like the heat and drought gripping Ottawa.  Husband and I checked out the Inukshuks at the Remic Rapids along the bike path on the Ottawa River and found the water level remarkably low.  Folks were wading halfway across the river and building more little monuments than ever before. 

It was also a chance to reconnect with the farmer's market, buy some fresh, local produce, cook it up and invite friends for a relaxing evening on the back deck and catch up on life's experiences.  Nice.  

Given the heat, food had to be light and refreshing.  A Taste of Home seemed like a fitting theme for the weekend and Fresh Corn Salad the perfect food experience -- a pretty dish with some tang, light, quick, and nutrition friendly.  Ingredients can be switched up easily depending on taste and availability.  


Ottawa's Fresh Corn Salad 
(8 servings)

8 ears fresh corn, husked and cleaned 
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1.5 tsp lemon juice
1/4 cup fresh parsley
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp basil
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
2 large tomatoes (or 3-4 smaller or heirloom varieties also work), seeded and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/3 cup chopped green pepper
1/3 cup chopped sweet red pepper 

Cook corn in a large saucepan in boiling water for 5-7 minutes until tender.  Drain, cool, set aside.
In a large bowl, mix oil, vinegar, lemon juice, parsley, sugar, salt, basil and cayenne pepper. Cut cooled corn off the cob (about 4 cups)
Add corn, tomatoes, onion and peppers into the oil mixture. Mix well.  Cover and chill for several hours or overnight.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Yolo. Carpe diem and Thai Jicama and Red Onion Salad

SmartCooks here.

"Yolo".  "You Only Live Once." It sums up my approach to life these days.  I used to say "carpe diem" but apparently now I have it on good authority from a hip, young, very fit folk that is all the rage to tweet and tell each other:  "Yolo."  "Carpe diem," I replied. 

Like most urban slang, the origins of "Yolo" are unknown but the dictionary attributes it to the lyrics from R&B hip hop singer Drake from his 2011 hit, "The Motto" (edited version included here).  The Urban Dictionary defines it as an acronym used to persuade people to take risks to do something they normally wouldn't do.  

So Yolo.  I'm off to new adventures starting Monday.  New job, more responsibility, fascinating public policy issues and lots of travel back and forth between Ottawa and Charlottetown.  It's a risky change of life for me, a switch from working at central agencies and economic departments in Ottawa to double managing out of HQ in Charlottetown and Ministers/staff here in Ottawa. I've spent the weekend reading briefing binders, looking at Google maps of condos for rent and gyms.  On the latter... hmm.. not what I'm used to at all.  No Goodlife with aerobics/pump/flow etc, No Greco's circuit training.  Oh well, I will take a risk and try something new.  Yolo.  

It's been so hot and dry it's difficult to even think about cooking food.  Ottawa is heading for a Level 3 drought to be declared likely by Friday of this week.  Unbelievable.  It's never happened.  Officials will start deciding which taps stay on and which get shut off.  We've only had 1 measly mm of rain so far in July (usually 90 mm by now); since the beginning of June only about 20 mm of rain have been recorded, which is wayyy down.  

Like many folks, I've shunned hot, heavy cooking and looked for inspiration in salads with herbs and spices. Thai Jicama and Red Onion Salad fit the bill nicely.  

It has all the ingredients I crave these days -- raw, crunchy, Thai flavours and punchy spices.  All good nutritious vegetables, low calorie and yummy.  It's very fast to assemble and, bonus, no stove, gas cooking top or BBQ necessary! 

A whole medium-sized jicama made into a salad lasted three days' worth of lunches -- jicama keeps its crunch for up to a week apparently.  By Day 4, I'd had enough for a bit and didn't eat what was left.  

Facts About Jicama 

I knew almost nothing about jicama so in my usual way took the opportunity to look it up.  

I passed by jicama for years, turned off by the knobby, irregular shaped blobs that weigh anywhere from half a pound to monsters of 5-6 lbs.  Peeling it, however, unveils its wonders (not that peeling is alll that easy but persist. ...)  Once peeled, there's a crispy white flesh underneath that is sweet and crunchy.  

I love the C-r-u-n-c-h plus that it is very low in sodium, is a good source of potassium and vitamin C and has only 50 calories in a cup.  It's native to Mexico (called a Mexican potato or turnip) and is widely used in Malayasian cuisine.  

Cookin Canuck

I found the recipe on a foodie blog with an intriguing name, Cookin Canuck.  The author is Dara, a Canadian by birth (spent most of her childhood and early 20s in Vancouver) "but has lived happily in the US for the past 15 years, and in Utah for the past 10 years."  Her blog started as a place to file recipes but blossomed to the point where she now works as a recipe developer and food writer.  Good for her!  

So try it.  Yolo.  Enjoy! 

Thai Jicama and Red Onion Salad
(Enough for 4 servings)


1/2 jicama, peeled
1/2 small red onion, peeled
1 1/2 T fish sauce (can substitute low-sodium soy sauce if you're horrified by the sodium content of fish sauce)
1 1/2 T unseasoned rice vinegar
2 tsp agave nectar (can substitute sugar)
1 red chili, minced or 1/2 tsp red chile flakes
1/4 cup chopped cilantro


Cut the jicama in quarter wedges, then thinly slice. Thinly slice the red onion into half-moon pieces.
In a small bowl, whisk together the fish sauce (or soy sauce), rice vinegar and agave nectar until the agave nectar dissolves. Add red chile flakes and whisk again.
Place the jicama and onion slices into a medium-sized bowl. Toss with the rice vinegar dressing.
Add the cilantro and toss again. Serve.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Zucchini 'Pasta' with Asparagus and Lemon-Pepper Tofu

SmartCooks here.  

I promised lighter fare, both in terms of calories and in volume of food and Zucchini 'Pasta' with Asparagus and Lemon-Pepper Tofu fits the bill.  It's part of the hot, hot, hot summer regime and a focus on healthier, nutritionally balanced choices.  Frankly, it's also just a matter of taste preference.  

It may come as a surprise to many of you that I read (and have for some time) a magazine (on-line version) called Oxygen, Women's Fitness magazine.  It's an odd little magazine -- a mix of sound nutritional advice, training tips, clean eating demos and fat-loss advice mixed with the irritating and alienating ads for nutritional supplements that guarantee ripped  muscles and a bodybuilding physique (not).  

Nonetheless, it has some intriguing,  innovative and 'clean living' recipes.  They do a lot of 'slimmed down' popular recipes.  When you eat one, you feel full but not overly so.  The not too full feeling comes from pasta made from strands of zucchini, and mixed with lemons, ginger and tofu.  It's a low-cal, clean eating, nutritious way of doing a pasta-not-from pasta dish and I tend to make versions of it a lot.  

Peeling zucchini or carrots is so much simpler with a good vegetable peeler.  I bought one from a university kid selling Cutco door to door about 10 years ago.  It sees heavy duty service, almost daily, has never been sharpened but it has never let me down.  

This recipe is really lemon-y (which is great for me) but if too much for you cut out one lemon.  Tempeh could be substituted for tofu.  Other vegetables (like peppers and carrots) could be added to give it even more good flavour.  I adapted the Oxygen recipe to add a few more flavours, like asparagus, without adding empty calories.  Vegan Recipe Review posted the picture.  

Zucchini Pasta with Asparagus and Lemon-Pepper Tofu
(Serves 1 or 2) 

3 lemons
3 oz extra-firm tofu
Freshly cracked black pepper
2 zucchinis, green or yellow 
4 spears of fresh asparagus, trimmed, cut into 2 inch pieces
1 T canola oil
8 mint leaves


Zest one lemon; set aside. Cut and squeeze the juice out of the other two lemons into a bowl.

Drain excess water from tofu. Cut into four thick pieces. Place on a plate and pour half of the lemon juice to marinate. Sprinkle with black pepper.asparagus

Peel zucchini with a veggie peeler until you get to the seeds. 

Add half of the oil into a pan and cook tofu steaks for 3 minutes per side. Remove tofu. 

Add oil, zucchini and to pan; cook for one minute. Add lemon juice; cover pan to steam for two minutes. Add mint and zest. 

Transfer to a plate and enjoy! 

Light, Fast Cooking Quinoa Lunch Recipes

SmartCooks here.

My never-ending quest for healthy, easy lunches scored a winner -- lunches that use quinoa as the base ingredient and add vegetables and herbs.  And, bonus, each one is about 250 calories.  All good!  Given that life as I know it now is about to change dramatically (more on that later), I am stockpiling all the easy and best lunch recipes I can find.  

One of the best magazines, and now websites/apps/twitter feeds is called Cooking Light.  The website is chic-a-block full of easy, fast, light, vegetarian-friendly suggestions for eating smart and living healthy.  With the hot, summer weather upon most of us, ideas are timely and delicious.  

Quinoa Lunch Ideas 

I've featured quinoa before, a fast-cooking, tasty grain, ready in about 20 minutes, with 150 calories in 2/3 cup... plenty for lunch-time salads.  Quinoa comes in a variety of colours and I like to mix 'em up... white, red, black or whatever's on hand.  It's a nutritional powerhouse food that is becoming more and more popular.   

And, fyi, brown rice has 144 calories for the same 2/3 cup amount; farro, 133; barley, 129; and bulgur 101.  So all good variations, although quinoa remains the top nutritional grain of choice. 

250-calorie Lunch Salads 

The basic idea is to prepare a bunch of quinoa on a Sunday night. It keeps well in the fridge for a couple days.  I tend to make more Wednesday evening.  Each day, add a variety of foods to the quinoa to complete a lunch. 

Cooking Light examples of seven days of lunches:

Heirloom tomatoes, avocado, cilantro

1) Heirlooms & Avocados  
2/3 cup quinoa
1/2 cup heirloom cherry tomatoes (red and yellow)
1/4 cup sliced avocado
3 T fresh cilantro
3/4 tsp olive oi

2) Nuts and Chickpeas 
2/3 cup quinoa
3 T cooked chickpeas
1/4 cup grated fresh carrot
2 tsp toasted pine nuts
2 T chopped fresh parsley

Mint, corn, ricotta, zucchin
3) Summer Mint
2/3 cup quinoa
1/3 cup corn (ideally fresh) 
1/2 ounce ricotta cheese
2 T fresh mint
1/4 cup grated yellow zucchini (also called squash)

Snow peas, radish, lime, goat chees
4) Radish and Vegeys
2/3 cup quinoa
1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh radishes (any type)
2 T thinly sliced snow peas
1 ounce crumbled goat cheese
1 T fresh lime juice

Strawberries, goat cheese, hazelnuts, arugul
5) Strawberry Fields
2/3 cup quinoa
1/3 cup fresh strawberries
1 T toasted hazelnuts, chopped
1/4 cup baby arugula
1/2 ounce crumbled goat cheese

Spinach, sweet potato, green onions, pecans

6) Roots and Greens
2/3 cup quinoa
1/4 cup roasted sweet potato cubes
1/2 cup baby spinach
1 T chopped toasted pecans 
1 T thinly sliced green onions

Lemon, dill, currants, sesame seeds, zucchini

7) Dill Freshness
2/3 cup quinoa
1 T fresh lemon juice
2 T dried currants
1 T chopped fresh dill
1/4 cup yellow/green zucchini ribbons (also called squash)
1 T toasted sesame seeds

Canada Day Weekend and General Tso Chicken

SmartCooks here.

I had this entry -- with a recipe for  General Tso's Chicken -- all ready to post right after the Canada Day Weekend but some technology gremlin zapped the entire thing just as I finished the last keystroke.  Like Grrrrrr.  I spent the rest of the week trying to retrieve it, to no avail.  So... here's the reconstructed version before we get to another fantastic (but HOT) weekend and focus on a few simple dishes that match the HOT weather.  

Ottawa's Canada Day Weekend

Canada Day weekend in the Nation's Capital was glorious.  Husband and friends are always bemused at my exuberance for celebrations. I get into them big-time. I don't do the crowds on the Hill or try roaming the streets popping off firecrackers (rhetorical question: so why do *they* do this with kids in strollers nearby?).  No, I go for the individual 'wow' moments... and there were a few over the weekend.

The weekend featured a couple of fabulous BBQs at friends' places -- one at a beautiful waterfront chalet about an hour from Ottawa with its unbelievable views of Ottawa forestry; the other was at the house of good friends with its fabulous gardens full of plants and flowers in full, cheerful bloom.

Both events meant a bike ride to the Ottawa Farmer's Market near Carleton University to buy produce to prepare for the BBQs.  The early spring, hot weather has led to an abundance of produce brimming over the market stalls -- so I had my pick of onions, carrots, zucchini, asparagus and strawberries. Good thing my bike has limited capacity for transport; it helps curb the enthusiasm for buying everything on offer.  

It was noon as I was riding back from the Market on Sunday and I just happened to stop at the juncture of Colonel By and Echo Drives and look upward toward Parliament Hill.  My timing was perfect.  Coming at me over the horizon was a fleet of Snowbirds, all in perfect formation.  As they neared me, they broke apart and dipped their wings, first  on one side, then the other.  I figured they were waving at me!  I was so taken with the sight I forgot to snap a picture so this one is courtesy of the Ottawa Citizen.

Later that night, I went back to the same spot for front-row viewing of the Canada Day fireworks.  They were good but not as spectacular as the past few years when the Royals were in town and Ottawa was putting on the 'glitz and 'ritz.  

The lack of Royals also meant that the  crowds streaming off the Hill toward cars and their homes were much more subdued than in previous years.  This was a huge relief as we sat outside with neighbours guarding our properties, especially in our case our new pondless waterfall recently installed in the back garden.  It adds a nice, quiet Zen touch to the back deck atmosphere.  

Appetite for China 

Along the way, I continued my e-tour of chicken recipes from around the world and chanced upon one I have wanted to try for quite some time -- General Tso's Chicken (there's a number of variations on the spelling of the name of course).  It comes via one of the best cooking websites that I've found -- Appetite for China -- written by an almost 30s young woman who clearly loves to research the history of various Chinese dishes.
General Tso's Chicken may or may not have been named after a Chinese general and may or not have started off as a Hunan dish.  That part of the history seems a little murky.  But what is known is that it became popular in the Western world via Taiwanese chefs who opened Hunan restaurants in the US beginning in the 1970s. 

Hunan cuisine traditionally did not include sweet flavours but as it adapted to Western culture the dish became a mixture of spicy flavours, smoky chilies, crispy crunchy coatings and sweet sauces.  I've included a New York Times article on the history of the dish and here's the link, which also contains the more traditional recipe.  

Appetite for China gives a recipe for the more Westernized version, but it tastes unlike anything you would find on a Chinese take-out menu.  And if you don't have or don't want to buy all the ingredients, In an innovative twist, they have teamed up with a new company -- Grub Kit -- to offer everything needed to cook classic dishes like this one (as well as Pad Thai and Kung Pao chicken).  They will soon be able to ship to Canada, according to their website.  It's an option for $20!  Enjoy! 

(Serves 3-4 people)

Ingredients for Marinade:

1 T low-sodium soy sauce
1 T Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
2 egg whites
Ingredients for Sauce:

1/4 cup chicken stock, or substitute water
1 1/2 T tomato paste (I used it from a tube rather than open a small can)
1 T low-sodium soy sauce
1 T unseasoned rice vinegar
1 tsp hoisin sauce
1 tsp chili paste
1 tsp sesame oil
1 T sugar
1 tsp cornstarch
Other Ingredients:

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts sliced into 1-inch cubes, organic if possible
1 1/2 cups cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3 cups peanut or vegetable oil for frying, plus 1 T for stir-frying
8 dried whole red chilis, or substitute 1/4 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp white sesame seeds, for garnish
Scallions, green parts thinly sliced, for garnish

Prepare Marinade:
In a large bowl, combine the low-sodium soy sauce, rice wine, and egg whites. Coat the chicken to the marinade mixture and let sit for 10 minutes.

Prepare Sauce: 
In a small bowl, combine the chicken stock (or water), tomato paste, sugar, low-sodium soy sauce, unseasoned rice vinegar, hoisin sauce, chili paste, sesame oil, sugar, and the 1 tsp of cornstarch. Stir until the sugar and cornstarch are dissolved. Set the sauce aside.

Prepare Dish:
In a large bowl, toss 1 1/2 cups cornstarch with the salt and pepper. Coat the marinated chicken in the cornstarch and shake off any excess before frying.

Heat 3 cups of peanut or vegetable oil in wok or deep skillet until it registers 350°F (I used my meat thermometer). Working in 2 or 3 batches, add the first batch of chicken cubes and fry until golden brown on the outside and cooked through, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the rest of the chicken.

Drain the oil and wipe the wok with a paper towel to remove any brown bits. Reheat the wok or skillet over medium-high heat. Add another 1 T of oil and swirl to coat the base and sides. Add the dried chilis and garlic to the wok and stir-fry until just fragrant, about 20 seconds. Pour in the sauce mixture and stir until thickened, about 1-2 minutes.

Return the chicken to the wok and stir well to coat with sauce. Transfer the chicken to a serving dish. Garnish with white sesame seeds and scallions.