Sunday, 17 November 2013

Thai Ginger Chicken Stir Fry Conquers 1st Snow of the Season Woes...

November 2013

SmartCooks here.  Winter arrived last weekend in time for Remembrance Day.  I raked three bags of leaves, those leafy gifts that just keep on giving from the two massive maples in our backyard.  As I pushed the last bit into bag #3, the snow began falling.  Talk about timing.

To cheer myself up, I decided on an aerobics class in Kanata.  Normally, it's a 15-minute drive door to door but, naturally, in the first snow of the season, it look almost 45 minutes of bumper-to- bumper traffic crawling along in the grey slush and gloom.

People drive (pun intended) you crazy.  Most adjust for the conditions but then there's the morons who ignore the weather and zoom in and out of traffic at 120+ kph.  I swear people take stupid pills when they get behind the wheel of a car.  They made the drive to and from the gym not fun.

OK, got that out of my system.  When I finally got home it seemed like just the kind of evening to cook and watch my latest Netflix series -- The 4400 -- a sci-fi that ran for four seasons from 2004-07.  

Ever wonder what happened to all those people who are kidnapped by UFOs?  Wonder no more.  All 4400 kidnapped over a 50-year period are returned to earth, each with special powers for good or evil.  

Anyway, I was hooked.  And, way too late I read the review and, 'NATCH, it ends on a cliffhanger.  Despite countless petitions, it never returned.  Maybe Netflix viewers can help change that.  

Thai Cooking Websites
It also seemed like an evening for a little heat so I pulled out a recipe for Thai Ginger Chicken Stir-Fry and tarted it up with mushrooms.  

Endless variations of this recipe can be found on any of the top-notch, easy-to-follow and well presented sites focussing on accessible Thai cooking.  By 'accessible' I mean easy-to-find ingredients without having to order on-line or do a full-scale forensic search of Asian cooking stores.  So, I left out the most authentic Thai cooking sites like "Thai Food Master".  (But check it out if you are up to a challenge.)

For my taste, websites such as
Appon's Thai Food, Thai Kitchen Canada,  She Simmers, Riya's Kitchen, and Enjoy Thai Food provide plenty of inspiration for a home-cooker like me.

For Thai Ginger Chicken Stir Fry, however, I chose a recipe from The Kitchn, a site I've following for quite a while now. 

The site is a mixture of home-cooking recipes, combined with collections of pinterest interests (e.g., creative pet enclosures in a family setting) and cooking tools and techniques. There's dozen of recipes, all beautifully presented, with a range of cooking styles.  I've tried a number of them, and they've never let me down.  They are all easy to adapt with whatever you have on hand.  

Some of the recipes call for oyster sauce and I always use the vegetarian (mushroom)-based version. Like most stir-fry recipes, advance preparation is key. I assemble all ingredients and then cook in a wok or other skillet or choice. 

It's also an incredibly versatile recipe, as you can see in photos below.  In one version, coriander takes centre stage, while the second photo (from the Kitchn) promotes the use of the red pepper and chilies.  It all depends on mood and taste.  

Minced Ginger-Garlic Paste Mixtures 
When I have lots of time, I love cutting up some of the garlic cloves I bought at the Carp Garlic Festival this summer.  Stored properly, they last all winter.  I've learned the trick of running my hands around the stainless steel sink after cutting garlic as it instantly cuts the smell of garlic on your hands (I kid you not!).  

Same with ginger... fresh, organic, peeled and then cut into matchsticks.  There's nothing like the fresh ginger smell in a kitchen.  

But, if I'm really pressed for time, I save those 10 minutes and haul out my trusty bottle of minced ginger and garlic (combined in one jar) that I found in an Asian food store.  Alternatively, you can buy two bottles, one of minced ginger and one of minced garlic.  But I find the combo works of me in times of need.  

Thai Ginger Chicken Stir Fry 

1 lb boneless, skinless, preferably organic, chicken breast
3 T vegetable oil (I used grapeseed oil, canola oil also works)
2 T fresh ginger
3 garlic cloves (or less depending on preference)
1/2 large white or yellow onion
1/2 cup cashew nuts
5-6 dried chilies 

4 green spring onions 
1/2 red bell pepper 
1/2 cup mushrooms (mix of cremini, shiitake, oyster or other favourites)
1.5 T fish sauce 
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken stock
1 T oyster sauce (vegetarian or regular)
1/4 tsp salt
1 red chili

1 T cornstarch (more if thicker sauce desired) 
Coriander (optional)
Jasmine rice or Green vegetables (I used kale) 

Advance Preparation:
Slice the chicken breast into small slices.
Chop and dice the garlic.
Cut the ginger into matchsticks.
Slice the half onion into shreds.
Slice the red chili into strips.

Cut the mushrooms into pieces.  
Fry the cashew nuts in a saucepan with 1 T vegetable oil on a medium heat for 5 minutes until they change to a yellow colour.
Fry the dry chili for half a minute until crispy.

Make a slurry of the chicken stock and cornstarch in a small bowl.

Add 2 T oil to medium wok or hot frying pan.
Add the garlic and ginger and fry until you can smell the garlic. 

Add the onion and stir fry for another minute or so. 
Add the chicken and stir fry 4-5 minutes until the chicken changes colour.
Add in mushrooms, cashew nuts, crispy chili, spring onion, and stir fry for 1 minute.
Add fish and oyster sauces, salt and red chilli and stir for one minute. 

Add the slurry of chicken stock/cornstarch and stir for a couple of minutes to thicken sauce.  
To serve, sprinkle with coriander (optional) 
Can be served alone or with jasmine rice or Thai greens (The Kitchn has a great recipe for stir fry greens).

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Lecsó Hungarian-inspired Tomato-Peppers Stew

September 2013

SmartCooks here.  Tomato season is definitely over, for me at least.  I picked them all from my little vegetable plot.  I also got some from the neighbours who were overrun by produce from a half-acre plot they planted for the first time, courtesy of one of their parents.  

It also inspired me to try a Hungarian tomato and peppers dish, called Lecsó for the first time.  Details below.  

It was a perfect weekend for something warm and cozy. It is crazy, weather-wise.  I've alternated from running the air conditioner then switching it to the furnace, all in the space of hours, and from pouring rain to sunshine (the getting off the Queensway because I can't see a thing kindof rain).  

A grumble ... Driving in Ottawa is a full-on series of obstacle courses.  Between the weather, all minor and major road construction (like the Light Rail Transport) and, to add to it, the road closures this weekend for the annual 5 km and half-marathon Army Runs... not fun. 

Himself has to navigate this hellish version of the city every day! (e.g., look at Slater Street from my office building).  Lucky for Himself he's headed for the UK to visit his daughter, Ilya who is there for a year's sabbatical at the London School of Economics. For himself, it's a first sampling of life across the ocean.  About time!  I promised him snow upon his return ... kidding ... I hope.  

Driving rain and hard driving conditions didn't deter my determination to do a rocking Saturday afternoon BodyAttack class in deepest darkest west end Kanata.  I made it to a crowded class, where the instructor commented he had been seeing me in a lot of classes these days.  Given that I can barely move from stiffness today, he must be seeing my double as I'm a weekend warrior at best in this life, much to my eternal chagrin.  

Lecho (Lecsó)

I had enough energy to take on a recipe called 'Lecho', or Lecsó, (pronounced 'LETCH-oh'). It's originally an Hungarian thick vegetable dish, featuring tomatoes, peppers, onion, lard, sugar, salt, and ground paprika as a base recipe. The onions and peppers are supposed to be sauteed in lard or bacon fat but I changed this to sunflower oil. I also omitted the sugar and used mustard instead.  Some recipes call for sausage, like Hungarian or Polish; others add tomatoes and eggs.  One recipe even suggested adding peeled eggplant,  which I will try next time.  

Lecho is considered a traditional food in Hungarian, Czeck, Slovak, and Polish cuisine.  It is also very common in Austria and Israel.   It is not well known in North America at least in circles I've ever been in but a surplus of tomatoes and the purchase of two or three types of Hungarian paprika made it the perfect dish for me.

First, the tomato sauce ...

I followed the super simple version of tomato sauce on the Smitten Kitchen website entitled "Naked tomato sauce. To play around as little as possible". 

First, I scored an 'x' in the bottom of the tomatoes as per the picture at top, then blanched and cooled them quickly to remove the skins.  

After that, I cut the tomatoes in half, scooped out the seeds over a bowl to capture the liquid and cooked the tomatoes on medium low for 30-45 minutes, adding some of the reserved juice when it got a little dry looking.

After it cooled, I froze the cooked sauce in freezer bags for the winter months and can jazz it up at that point.  The sauce (already done in my case) was the starting point for the dish. 

Lesco Ingredients:

1 lb of various peppers (yellow, green, red peppers; if, more heat is desired, mix in jalapenos or other chilies
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 red onions
3 green or yellow zucchini,   quartered
2 cups tomato sauce (or more depending on thickness of sauce)
3T Worcestershire sauce
4T Hungarian or sweet paprika 
1/3 cup Dutch or German mustard 
Pepper and Kosher salt 
Sunflower oil


Put sunflower oil in a large skillet or heavy pan to cover the bottom generously.  Add onion and cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add sausage (if using), garlic and peppers and cook another 5-7 minutes, until fragrant. 

Add tomato sauce, rest of ingredients and mix to combine.  Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 15 minutes.  Remove lid and cook another 5-10 minutes to thicken the sauce, if needed.


Monday, 2 September 2013

Whole Food, Whole Wheat Zucchini Muffins

September 1, 2013

SmartCooks here.

Last of the zucchini recipes for the season. Honestly.  

I'm still swimming in zucchini and having a great time cooking it all up.  I'm coping with my little 1m x 2m vegetable plot but I wouldn't want to be working and have it any larger.  At least not while I'm working at the kinds of jobs I'm doing.  

Yesterday, the next door neighbour called me over.  She, husband and 2 kids had just arrived home from their 'small' 1/2 acre of vegetables.  For the second weekend in a row, they are drowning in fresh produce.  

She took a week off work last week (lucky!) to do a LOT of cooking and canning from last weekend's offering.  But she is going back to work Tuesday and is still faced with a new mountain of fresh produce as the picture (right) shows. The kids want to set up tables at the end of the driveway and give it to passersby.  

I offered to help with the tomatoes and cook them some fresh tomato sauce to freeze.  More on that next post.  


Since the Wheatberry store on Main Street closed about a year ago, I've been lost in terms of what kind of flour to buy, and where to find it.  

My pick at Wheatberry was always Red Fifte Wheat, an Ontario, locally grown, organic whole-grain flour.  I had ditched the 'bleached' flours of my childhood for these more traditional and wholesome products. And the baked goods were delicious.  

I haven't had time to do a lot of searching for another Red Fife outlet.  In the U.S., bloggers rave about King Arthur Flour for cooking breads and the like, but it is not to be found in Canada.  So I'm making do with whatever until I find an accessible spot (just try driving anywhere in this city these days .... the construction is ridiculous!), with a flour I want to try.  Till then, it's supermarket unbleached stuff.  

Whole Wheat Zucchini Muffins

Today's recipe is Whole Wheat Zucchini Muffins, compliments of Whole Foods Market.  I adapted the recipe with various substitutes I had on hand, e.g., half coconut oil and half unsweetened applesauce.  

They can be frozen and thawed overnight before eating.  Enjoy! 

Whole Food, Whole-Wheat Zucchini Muffins


3 cups whole-wheat flour
1 T cinnamon
1.5 tsp baking soda
¼ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
3 eggs
3/4 cup oil (or half coconut oil, half unsweetened applesauce)
1/2 cup honey
1 tsp vanilla
3 cups grated zucchini
1 cup chopped nuts (i used walnuts but almonds, pecans or even pistachios would be great)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F for muffins tins or 325 degrees F for large loaf pan.  Blend the dry ingredients.

Make a well (or hole) in the center and pour in the eggs, oil, honey and vanilla. Stir just until mixed – do not overmix.

Fold in the grated zucchini and chopped nuts, if using.

Pour batter into greased loaf pan(s) or muffin holders and bake until a toothpick comes clean in the top/center of the loaf or muffin tins.

Muffins take about 15-20 minutes.  If using smaller pans bake for 30-40 minutes.  For larger loaf pan bake for 50-60 minutes.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Zucchini Egg Muffin Breakfasts

August 2013

SmartCooks here.  

It's the end of August here in Ottawa, with an abundance of zucchini and tomatoes in the garden. All is well (look at the lovely flowers at right given to me by one of our next door neighbours!).  

But I'm soooo busy work-wise.  I've been on my own this month with a new Minister and Minister's Office.  They made the obligatory trek to Charlottetown HQ, so I was the ring master of policy briefings, videoconference addresses to 1,000 staff, demos of new technologies to speed up decisions for veterans and follow-ups galore.

The Clerk also visited Charlottetown HQ doing consultations on the future shape of the public service so another videoconference hook up across the country.  I'm not complaining but it a myth that summer months are quiet -- in all my years of public service I've never found that.  August in particular is just plain nuts.

All to say that I'm keeping up with the Ottawa garden bounty, but just barely.  I tell myself that I chose to do this knowing what life would likely throw at me but I am still determined to try and achieve some minimal balance between work and not-work. The garden, cooking, researching, and blogging helps me keep a grip on life as I hope to know it someday post public service. 

This week it's zucchini cornucopia in my house.  Seriously who would thought a small 1m x 2m piece of land could give 30 plus massive zucchinis and still some are flowering.  Thanks to the recipe ideas I received from FB friends, I've experimented with zucchini muffins galore (do NOT use cake and pastry flour... it did NOT work on one batch), cute zucchini loafs made with this little loaf pan I found at Home Hardware (see left), zucchini fritters (the same recipe I used from Smitten Kitchen two years ago watching Jack Layton's funeral ... see blog entry), zucchini pasta and on and on and on...

My favourite breakfast fare right now is zucchini and egg white muffins.

I had trouble finding the exact recipe as I wanted the perfect combo of zucchini, vegeys and egg whites. 

The closest recipe I found was from Oxygen magazine, and it was picked up and copied on many food blogs such as Eat Yourself Skinny

The Oxygen version includes carrot, and I didn't have any on hand, so I used more zucchini and threw in some leftover asparagus spears (not pictured). It was all good, basically you need a mix of vegeys to fill the muffin tins 3/4s full.  So experiment with your favourites.   

Anyway, here's my version.  At 50-60 calories each, it's a delicious, healthy breakfast.  I made many, all now nicely frozen in my freezer.  I take out two at night to defrost in the frig or, yes, zap 'em on reheat in the a.m. and they're ready to go.  


Breakfast Zucchini Egg Muffins 


14 egg whites 
4 whole eggs
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 red pepper, minced
1 cup zucchini, shredded
Other veyegs, like asparagus, spinach or carrot (optional) 
1/2 tsp basil
1/4 tsp oregano
Sea salt and pepper 


Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.  Coat muffin loaf pan or tin with spray.  

Combine veggies in a large bowl and fill each muffin tin about 2/3 full.  

Whisk eggs and seasonings and then use a measuring cup or large spoon to fill each muffin loaf or tin to the top.

Bake muffins for 30 minutes until they've risen and are slightly browned (this depends on type of muffin pan being used so watch closely).

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Blackfriars Buildings and Bridges

July 2013

I was back in my hometown -- London, Ontario -- this week for a couple of days. I'd rented a car and had an hour to spare so I decided to drive back to the neighbourhood of my youth.  Cliche, I know.  But I did it, thinking it would be the same sleepy, quiet hollow it was for the decade or more that I lived there.  But instead i ran into community concern over buildings and bridges .... Read on.

Living near the Core of London, Ontario

My early years were spent living near the core of London, Ontario, first on one side of the Thames River high on a hill overlooking the river in a post WW-II era apartment complex with tons of kids.  

When I was six, we moved to Moir Street on the other side of the Thames River, living first in one one house (left picture).  It was a rough personal transition crossing the river ... a six-year-old yanked from a living situation with dozens of kids (and even kid 'gangs') ... to just me, sitting forlornly on the steps of a new house, the only six-year old on a street of older, retired folks who rocked on their front porches every evening and worried about the lively family of 5, then 6, who moved in and took over the little street.  Apparently I went into such a black funk that my mother brought some of my playmates from the apartment complex to visit and to help me adapt.  Poor me.

A few years later, we moved next door to a larger house on Moir Street (pictured, right side of photo below).  It was larger to accommodate a larger family, had a garage and even an apple tree in the backyard. 

Once acclimated, I thrived on Moir Street, making new friends and exploring the neighbourhood.  It didn't have a formal name then but, to me, it had defined boundaries that formed a square -- busy streets that I couldn't cross on three sides of the square (Wharncliffe, Dundas and Oxford) and the river and Blackfriars Bridge bridge on the fourth side. 

The warren of tiny streets and narrow alleys was my safety zone, a playground where I walked, biked, skipped and roller skated.  The houses ranged from rundown, deserted wrecks (we were convinced some were 'haunted') to Victorian relics from the early days of Ontario history to well-manicured boxy bungalows and two-storied homes.

The neighbourhood is also shaped like a bowl.  We lived at the bottom of the bowl in what were once the flood plains for the Thames River. In fact, the area had been flooded twice in the past century before the Springbank Dam was built and a breakwater constructed along the sides of the river (in picture, left).

By the time we moved in, the area was flood-free, and I used the breakwater walls for climbing practice in the summer months.  

Blackfriars/Petersville Community

As I drove up and down the little streets last week, I was struck by signs dotting nearly every lawn:  "We love Blackfriars!  Build homes, not boxes".   Hmmm... what's going on I wondered? 

A bit of research turned up facts I hadn't known:  the area of my youth was known as 'Petersville', named after one of the original London families. In recent years, it has become known as Blackfriars Community, to honour the century-old Blackfriars bridge spanning the river.  

The signs were there to protest development plans for three houses (like the one pictured left) to tear down the single-family homes and erect 10-bedroom rental duplexes designed for students.  Rumour is that the area would go from a family to a student community.  

Organizing and lobbying by community residents have halted those development plans (at least for now).  Letters to the editor and petitions to City Council urge the City to maintain the density ratios and historic character of the area.  So far, City Council has agreed with them, and, in fact, has fast-tracked an application to make the area -- now formally known as Blackfriars -- a 'heritage conservation district' which would in effect provide the sought-after protection.

Blackfriars Bridge 

I kept going, hoping to drive over the old Blackfriars Bridge that I remembered as the fourth side of my 'square' world.  Blackfriars Bridge is located, wait for it, at 0 Blackfriars Lane.  

In my early years, the bridge both fascinated me as an idyllic wonder (like the painting, right) over the river and scared me with the clackety-clack of vehicles on the wooden boards.

Alas, there was no nostalgic trip over it this time.  The road was barricaded with signs announcing it was 'closed due to construction'.  Not even foot traffic.  

Back to a little more digging.  I was surprised to learn that it was built in 1875 and is now 138 years old, if my math is correct.  It is one of only 19 wrought-iron bridges remaining in North America and one of the few still permitting vehicular traffic.  No wonder it now recognized as a London landmark, with a heritage designation!

The bridge was closed to vehicles earlier this year for maintenance, apparently just one of a string of ongoing repairs to maintain the structure.

Ominously, the City is also considering its future and an expensive structural inspection will likely determine its fate. Community residents are watching closely for the options that Council may recommend, ranging from a pedestrian-only to more hardier repairs to support traffic. 

Hopefully, there won't be a dumb decision to have it look like its namesake in London, UK that also crosses the Thames River.  Personally, I find the UK version of Blackfriars Bridge pictured right to be pretty ugly.  Give me iron quaintness anytime! 

Monday, 15 July 2013

Japchae: Korean National Party Dish

July 2013

SmartCooks here.

Vacation, bliss.  At long last.  Time to relax, get back to the blog, learn more about international food dishes.  

A Korean dish, Japchae, is my latest find.  It means literally a 'mixture of vegetables' and is made with cellophane noodles made from sweet potato starch.  The vegetables are cooked in sesame oil and low-sodiumsoy sauce.  I would characterize it as a summer food i.e., serve it cold or warmed.  

Origins of Japchae

Japchae (also spelled 'chap chae') originated in the early 17th century, when the Joseon Dynasty was reigning in the Korean peninsula. As legend goes, when King Gwanghaegun hosted a big party at his palace, one of his lieges, Yi Chung, created a dish of vegetables to please the king’s palate. The king liked this dish so much that he rewarded his liege by promoting him to the position of hojo panseo (equivalent to the Secretary of the Treasury).  Foodie indeed.

Sweet Potato noodles were not part of the original dish but made their debut in the early 20th century.  The long noodle (called 'danymyeon) symbolize long life/long happiness so purists do not cut them.

Today, Japchae is usually served at parties and special occasions like weddings and landmark birthdays. It's also popular street cart food.  At Korean restaurants, it is often served as a side dish or "banchan".  It can be made with beef/chicken/tofu or just with vegetables.  

'Doing the Carb Count":  Sweet Potato Cellophane noodles

Ever curious about 'better carbs', I googled 'sweet potato' vs 'pasta' noodles with some surprising results.  The good news is that the noodles are gluten-free, low sodium and contain no fat, a big plus for many.   But, not surprisingly, they have about the same calorie/carb count as whole wheat pasta, meaning about 170 calories in a portion of noodles and 43 grams of carbs.  Nonetheless... for a treat... 

Cooking the Dish

The vegetarian version from Savoury and Sweet Life was straightforward (the author was a guest blogger at Herbivoracious, photo at left).  There are a few guidelines for preparing the dish i.e., 

Noodles:  They should look translucent but still be pliable.  Don't overcook them.  

Vegetables:  The most common (so ones I tried) are shiitake and oyster mushrooms, onion, spinach (Korean or North American variety), carrots, bell peppers, green onions and garlic. 

Preparation:  Everything should be thinly sliced, either with a knife or julienned with a mandoline. 

Must-have's:  Everything is mixed with some soy sauce (less sodium), sugar, sesame oil, pepper, and sesame seeds.

If using beef or chicken, the best recipe was from a blogger called Beyond Kimchee, which follows the same guidelines as above but includes instructions for cutting meat into small 2 inch long by 1/4 inch thick pieces, marinading it and then adding it to the noodles.  Recipes for the vegetarian and meat versions of Japchae are given below.  

It's too hot and humid here in Ottawa (42 degree C and rising) to even consider cooking or eating anything today but there's always tomorrow!  And judging from the political events playing out today, I've cancelled holidays in C'Town this week and am back to the A/C at work for briefings.  Enjoy!  

Japchae Recipe
(Inspired by Sweet and Savoury Life, Herbivoracious and Beyond Kimchee blogs) 
Serves 2-3 as a main dish


1 bundle of potato starch cellophane noodles (packages contain 2-3 bundles)
2 cups of fresh spinach
1/2 medium yellow onion, julienned
1 carrot, peeled and cut into match sticks
1/2 red bell pepper, julienned
8-10 fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced
2 stalks green onions, sliced in 1.5” slices (green parts only)
½ block of firm tofu, cut into small rectangle pieces (approx. 1.5”x1”x1/4”)
2 cloves garlic, minced
Olive or Canola oil
LIght soy sauce (amounts will vary, see directions)
Sesame oil (vary amounts in directions)
Salt and pepper
2 T sugar
3 T toasted sesame seeds


Noodles:  Boil one bundle of noodles for 5 minutes until softened and al dente in texture. Drain the noodles and do not rinse. Add noodles to a large bowl and cut them three times with kitchen shears (or not).  Add 2 T (each) of low-sodium soy sauce and sesame seed oil. Toss noodles until sauce is evenly distributed.  Set aside. 

Spinach:  Using the same pot as the noodles, add enough water to boil spinach for 1 minute. Remove spinach from water and allow to cool just enough to squeeze as much water out as possible. Cut spinach in thirds, and massage it while seasoning with 1 tsp of sesame oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Add spinach to the noodles.

Vegetables:  Heat a wok or large frying pan on high. Add 1 tsp of olive or canola oil and cook and stir sliced onions for 2 minutes. Season with 1/2 tsp of sesame oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Add onions to the large bowl of noodles. Repeat the same process as the onions except reduce cooking times to 30 seconds for the carrots, 2 minutes for the bell red pepper, 1 minute for the shiitake mushrooms, and 10 seconds for the green onions.

Tofu:  Fry tofu squares for 1 minute per side – but do not add to the bowl of noodles. 

Assembly:  Add 2 T of low-sodium soy sauce, 1 T of sesame oil, 2 T of sugar, and ½ tsp of pepper to the noodles and toss everything until well mixed.  Add 1 T of olive or canola oil to the hot wok and add minced garlic. Allow garlic to cook for a few seconds and add the entire bowl of mix noodles and vegetables to the wok/pan. Stir-fry everything for 2-3 minutes and turn off heat. Gently add tofu and transfer noodles to a large serving platter. Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on top. Serve warm or cold.

Meat versions:  Cut beef or chicken into strips of 2 inches long x 1/4 inch thick.  Marinade meat in 1 T low-sodium soy sauce, 1/2 T sugar, 1 T rice wine, 1 tsp chopped garlic, 1 tsp sesame oil, and 1/4 tsp pepper.  Saute in hot wok a few minutes, then remove.  Keep sauce in pan and add noodles and vegetables to it and stir fry.  

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Picnic-Pick Pickled Vegetable Slaw with Mustard Seeds

July 2013

SmartCooks here.

I overbought at the Farmer's Market last weekend.  No surprise there.

It meant of course that before setting off for another week in Charlottetown, I was faced with the choice of either 
a) bringing a plastic bag of fresh vegetables and a freezer pack in my carry-on luggage; or 
b) making pickled vegetables that last up to a month in the refrigerator.

I chose b) and made 3 batches of vegey slaw earlier in the week.  

Smart choice.  

Upon my return from C'Town Friday night, delightfully crunchy fresh pickled vegetables awaited me, making it super simple to pull together a light dinner of zesty lime chicken sliders (with a dash of vegetable slaw) and a watermelon and cumber salad.  Excellent... fast... low fat.

What inspired me was a Smitten Kitchen posting where Deb vows that doing this was fast, easy, and crunchy without the mess and bother of canning and sterilizing.  Sold.

Plus, you could use any combo of vegetable on hand to make the slaw.  Particularly crunchy are radishes, bell peppers (of any colour), carrots, sugar snap peas, kirby cucumbers, cabbage, parsnips, zucchini, red onion.  she warns against adding red radish because the red colour bleeds into the other vegetables. I ignored this advice and went with red radishes and so far, all is good.

The only potential hassle with this recipe is cutting up all the vegetables.  I saved time and used a mandoline with a julienne blade.  I have a julienne peeler but in the interest of time went with the fast route.  A knife works just as well. Just get 'em all into skinny matchstick size. 

The vegetables will be lightly pickled within an hour, and done in a day. They will last for weeks in the refrigerator as long as they stay immersed in the brine.  

The slaw is coming with me this weekend as we head out into the (finally!) July type weather for a bike ride/picnic/farmer's market visit.  Definitely my pick for fav picnic-friendly fare!   Enjoy! 

Picnic-Pick Pickled Vegetable Slaw with Mustard Seeds
(Inspired by Smitten Kitchen) 

Pickling mixture1 cup distilled white vinegar

4 T sugar
2 T Kosher salt
2 T yellow mustard seeds
1 cup cold water
Vegetable Slaw mixture
4-5 cups mixed julienned firm, raw vegetables (from list above)
Jalapeno or Bird's eye chili slivers (optional)

Bring vinegar, sugar, salt and mustard seeds to a simmer in a small pot over medium heat, stirring only until sugar and salt dissolve. 

Stir in water and let cool to lukewarm.  Divide vegetables between jars. (I used 3 jars).  Pour vinegar mixture over vegetables and refrigerate. 

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Vietnamese Cabbage, Tofu and Herb Salad (Herbivoracious inspired)

June 2013

SmartCooks here.  

Vietnamese Cabbage, Tofu and Herb Salad or Gói Bắp Cải Dậu Phụ started out as a May Day dish from one of my favourite websites Herbivoracious and ended up as a staple for the month of May.  Various combos of meat, herbs, and vegetables ... tofu, chicken, crispy fried shallots or not, roasted peanuts, roasted sunflower seeds, mint, cilantro ... whatever I had on hand.  All of them simple, one bowl meals

The reason for the variations on a food theme? 

Easy.  May went by in a blur. 

Work, flying back and forth between Ottawa and Charlottetown in very small prop-plane aircraft (inside a 'Flying Coffin', pix at left), moving to another rental apartment in Charlottetown, home stuff, community vegetable garden venture, friends celebrating milestone birthdays and retiring from the public service, not to mention kids of friends having baby showers and weddings. (Yeah to all of them!)  Pix below and on Facebook chart the May mayhem.  

All to say it's now June in Ottawa (and elsewhere) and NO spring.  Crummy weather is the norm.  One nice day like yesterday morning early in PEI from my balcony (pix right) and then back to dreary, dark, rainy days.  I've got a few more weeks of work frenzy and then hopefully holidays and a bit of a respite. 

Given all the activity in my life, I've been looking for simple, nutritious and interesting foods to prepare.  A Vietnamese dish with cabbage, tofu, herbs and shallots fits the bill.  Besides, it gave me something to research while sitting in airport lounges with all my technology plugged in around me.

Thankfully, I've earned enough brownie points from Air Canada to get some perks without having to pay more than economy (austerity and all) i.e., access to the lounges where I can huddle and write in a corner. 

Or it may be because some Air Canada security video caught me on tape a few months back where I was delayed for hours at a departure gate in Toronto.  It led to the rather sad/funny sorry sight of a middle-aged plus woman (aka me) scrabbling about on the floor to surreptitiously reach behind a security barrier and plug in a dying cell phone to deal with whatever work mini-crise was happening at work.  Soon someone will invent a way to recharge all these devices wirelessly without any cords.  

Vietnamese herbs 

Vietnamese cooking uses herbs in abundance.  

The term for herbs is 'rau thom' meaning 'fragrant leaves'.  Every Vietnamese recipe I've found so far calls for a variety of herbs such as:

-- Cilantro-like herbs (rau rum) and mint (hung coy) are spicier and stronger than those found in North America.  

-- Common Viet herbs also include Tiao to (red perilla), rau thom (sorrel), balm and thi la (dill).  

-- Some frequently used herbs are green on top with purpose underneath and offer a hint of cinnamon, mint and lemon.

If I lived in Orange Country, California, I could zip down to the Saigon market (below) where vendors sell the full range of herbs.  However, living in Canada means substituting so cilantro, mint and dill are usually my staples for these dishes.  

Vietnamese Cabbage, Tofu and Herb Salad
(Herbivoracious inspired)

5 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
Vegetable oil for frying
3 ounces extra-firm tofu, 1/4" dice (or chicken or pork)
Kosher salt
1/2 small head green cabbage, cored, thinly shredded and refrigerated
2 big, packed handfuls mixed Vietnamese herbs - rau ram, mint, cilantro
2 T lime juice or rice vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1 T soy sauce
1 tsp minced fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup peanuts, toasted and lightly crushed
Bring a small pot with oil (I use either grapeseed or peanut oil) to completely cover the shallots up to a low frying temperature, about 260 F / 126 C. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally until deeply golden brown. This can take a very long time - around 45 minutes. I've been known to up the temperature and cook the shallots faster as long as you watch them carefully. 

When the shallots are done, drain them but reserve the oil. Spread the shallots out on paper towels. As they cool, they become very crispy.
Pan-fry the tofu in a small amount of oil until nicely browned. Transfer to paper towels and season. (If using meat, do the same).
In a small bowl, stir together the lime juice, sugar, 1/4 tsp salt, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic. Whisk in 1/4 cup of the reserved shallot oil. 

Put the cabbage in a mixing bowl. Add half of the shallots, the tofu (or meat), and all of the herbs, tearing them. Add the dressing a little at a time and toss with tongs, until the cabbage is well dressed but not drenched. Taste and adjust seasoning - it may need more salt. 

(If adding in extra vegetables, like asparagus or zucchini or even leeks, I cook or blanch them and add them to the salad at this point.)
To serve, transfer the salad to platter. Garnish with the remaining fried shallots and peanuts. 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Preserving Lovely Easter Dinner Memories

April 2013

SmartCooks here.  

I wanted to preserve the Easter dinner menu for posterity and thanks to photographers Jane and Michael.  If I don't write it up now, I'll never remember what I did next year.  What I won't forget though is the fun of having good friends and family for dinner.  

Easter 2013 menu


Just two of them, each one quite different and meant to appeal to the range of appetites ... vegetarian or not.  

Bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with blue cheese

Variations on this recipe are endless.  They can be made ahead of time and cooked at the last minute -- 20 minutes in the oven or under the broiler.  

The only ingredients are Medjool dates (ideally), pitted, stuffed with crumbled blue cheese (or something else of your choice if blue cheese is not your thing), and wrapped in half a slice of bacon.  The morsel is then secured with a wooden toothpick (guess who tried multi-coloured toothpicks and then remembered, at the last minute, that plastic is not oven-friendly.... sigh) and then cooked in the oven.  This is Husband's favourite appetizer, along with BBQ chips.  sigh.  

Vegey trap with dip 

There are so many great designs for vegey trays.  I went geometric this time and copied the design onto a tray and made a low-cal dip.  It was fun and easy to make and a delight to show.  

Main Event:  Ham with Pineapple and Cloves

I pre-ordered a bone-in ham from Glebe Meat Market and specified enough for 7-8 people, with no leftovers.  I must remember next year to say 'leftovers' as it was one of the best hams I've ever cooked.

For some reason, I'd never cooked ham with pineapple and clover before (not sure why) so I patiently watched the videos showing me how to do a diamond pattern across the ham and where to place the cloves (at the apex of a diamond).  

The video chefs made it look incredibly easy.  Me... well, I obviously need a boot camp at Greco's or better knives.  It was a frigging nightmare sawing away on the ham to get the diamond pattern right.  One slip and I knew my finger (and dinner) would be toast.  

The ingredients were standard (pineapple, brown sugar, cloves) but with one weird item -- a lemon-lime flavoured carbonated beverage.  Nonetheless, it worked like a charm. Husband did the basting every half hour or so but It then cooked far faster than the published time.  End result was simply superb.  Pineapple, both cooked and on the side, was a welcome addition.  Allrecipes was ace.  

Scalloped Potatoes

Two versions of this scalloped potatoes were prepared by Chef Fred -- one with cheese and the other without.  Both were hits... they disappeared pronto.  Will ask him for the recipe for next time.

Salad:  Mixed Baby Greens with Mandarin Oranges

Photographer Michael captured this gem of a dish on a plate that was a present from the friends-next door neighbours.  It certainly shows off the mixed baby greens and mandarin oranges to advantage.  It appealed to those who aren't big fans of vegetables (and you know who you are....)

Food Network (Rachael Ray) prepared a version of this dish which I adapted.  Greens, cucumber, oranges, rice wine vinegar, toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds all put together at the last minute to keep it super fresh and perky.  

A keeper for sure...

Sides:  Asparagus with Balsamic Tomatoes 

Cooking Light featured this dish in a special on low-fat Easter dishes.  It rocked the table, with lightly blanched asparagus drizzled with balsamic vinegar.  Grape tomatoes provided great colour contrast and the final touch -- dots of crumbled goat cheese -- completed the picture.  

There are intriguing variations for future experimentation -- e.g., raisins and pine nuts, sesame-ginger glaze or lemon-tarragon dressing.  

Green and Yellow Beans with Red Peppers 

Kalyn's Kitchen inspired a version of green and yellow beans, laced with red peppers, and spiced with ginger.  

It was the perfect green for the anti-asparagus crowd at the table. 

Cumin-Orange Root Vegetable Slaw 

If it were just me cooking and eating dinner, my preference would be ham, pineapple and a root vegetable slaw.  The Kitchn showed me a version I couldn't resist -- beets, celery root, carrot tossed in a vinaigrette of cumin, orange and sherry vinegar.  

It was a lot of chopping, done ahead of time, but the end result was pleasing to both eye and palate.  


Irish Soda Bread it was.  Recipe posted previously. 

Dessert:  Hazelnut Torte Bomb (without the e) 

I saved the worst for last. I experimented.  I goofed.  It reinforced my antipathy to making desserts which I was determined to conquer. I failed.  I will rise again.  Oh well, the home-made ice cream on the side made up for it.  

Smitten Kitchen raved about this torte, saying it was the best thing ever to come out of her kitchen.  I read the recipe many times. Seemed straightforward.  

First, I ran out of hazelnuts.... Easter morning there's not much open and Husband's expedition trip turned up nada.  Undeterred by this ominous sign, I googled 'substitutes' and found some tepid suggestions to use almonds.  So the last third of the required amount was almonds.  I don't think they added to the taste.  

Then, I laid out the hazelnut/almond layers, spread a layer of chocolate, cooled them outside for 20 minutes, brought them back in and stacked them up one atop the other.  Hmmmm.... by layer three I knew something was amiss.  The cake looked nothing like the picture ... flat and lopsided.  Hmmm.... I re-read the instructions.  Yup, I missed a crucial step of putting white whipping cream on top of the chocolate BEFORE adding the next layer.  sigh..

I managed to peel away two of the three layers and start again but one layer just wouldn't cooperate.  After a few 'darns', I stuck it all together as best I could and smushed the rest of the topping around the cake covering over the boo-boo areas.  I then shaved chocolate on the top and stood back to take stock. 

End result:  lopsided, with a few dents in various spots, not as high as adverted in the photo, and generally a little sad and droopy.  The taste was OK but with a sharp taste of hazelnuts which I think was caused by the almond mixture.  

Verdict.  Guests were kind.  They ate and poured another glass of wine or water.  

Next time.

Despite the dessert bomb, all in all.... Fabulous evening.