An Inspiring Wine Country Mini-break

Parmesan, Mushroom and Bacon Tagliatelle

On the same weekend every year, we hop into the car giddy as school children, wave goodbye to the ponytails on grandma’s balcony and head for wine country as fast as we can.

Can you think of a better way to celebrate our anniversary than with 24-hours of freedom? We got married in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, so we love to return whenever we can–especially on our annivesary weekend.

The Niagara region has been gaining a lot of attention for its award-winning wines in recent years. There are more than 70 wineries in the area and lucky for us it is less than two hours from Toronto. Would you believe that Southern Ontario is the same lattitude as Provence in Southern France? It’s true!

Ridge Road Winery, Vinemount

Our first stop on our getaway was Ridge Road Winery. It’s a boutique winery known for its hand-crafted, award winning wines. But I like this winery for more than its wines. Owners Jayne and Sean have been friends for many years–in fact, my first visit to this property was to visit Jayne’s grandmother when we were in high school. They’ve worked very hard over the past 15 or so years to make this dream a reality and now it’s a thriving business with quite a loyal following of Ridge Road wine lovers.

Sharon (the Sommelier), Jayne and my husband Kevin

Fortunately, Jayne was working that afternoon and so we were able to spend a couple of hours catching up and sampling their excellent selection of wines. (Sean is the winemaker.)  It was easy to settle in and relax in their cozy tasting area overlooking the vineyard. (Jayne designed the tasting room.)

View of the vineyard from the tasting area at Ridge Road Winery

Sharon, a sommelier who works there, helped us to map out our route for the rest of our trip by recommending some terrific new wineries that we should visit.

One of them was Colaneri in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This winery makes you feel like you have just walked into a quaint Tuscan village. Colaneri is known for its appassimento style wines, which are made from grapes that have been dried first to concentrate their flavour. You may be familiar with the well-known Italian amarone wines, which are made using the same process.

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We were running out of daylight, so we headed straight for our favourite place to stay in NOTL, The Charles Inn. The historic inn was built shortly after the War of 1812.

Our tradition on these min-breaks is to have some “house wine” in our room before dinner. We had a bottle of 1999 Brunello di Montalcino that we bought in Tuscany on our honeymoon. My husband still complains that his shoulder has never been the same since he carried all of the wine, honey, pesto, and olive oil that I insisted were essential souvenirs.

The restaurant at the Charles Inn is not to be missed. It is one of my all-time favourite restaurants and the food never disappoints. We enjoyed the tasting menu with wine pairings, which I highly recommend. The appetizer was our favourite: Mushroom and Parmesan Tagliatelle (the inspiration for the recipe in this post).

En route to pick up the girls the next day, we stopped in a couple more wineries recommended by Sharon. One of my favourites was the The Good Earth Winery and Cooking School.

Photos at The Good Earth Winery and Cooking School.
Wouldn’t you love to sit down to a meal at that table?

I was delighted to find this charming self-serve pantry at The Good Earth and couldn’t resist buying some (frozen) double smoked bacon. You just leave a note and drop your money in the ceramic canister inside. How cool is that?

The self-serve pantry at The Good Earth Cooking School where you’ll find flavoured butters, preserves/jams and double-smoked bacon.

Our 24-hours of freedom always comes to an end far too quickly–just like a good bottle of wine! So, I set out to make something with the ingredients that I had picked up along our wine tour: the double smoked bacon and some verjus from Ridge Road Winery.

Double smoked bacon and verjus

In case you’re not familiar with it, verjus is made by pressing unripened grapes and is a wine-friendly alternative to vinegar in salad dressings. It is also a great way to add flavour to sauces. Because it is not fermented, it is not alcoholic, so it is also kid-friendly!

Parmesan, Mushroom and Bacon Tagliatelle

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 3 cups of a medley of mushrooms, chopped (I used oyster and cemini)
  • 4-5 slices of bacon, cooked and crumbled (I used diced double smoked bacon)
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme, stems removed
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1-1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup grated parmesan
  • 1-2 tbsp verjus (I used 2 tbsp/see notes)
  • 1 lb dried tagliatelle pasta

Cook pasta according to package directions.

Meanwhile, saute onions in olive oil for 2 to 3 minutes, until softened. Add mushrooms, thyme, salt and pepper, and cook for another 4-5 minutes. Add cream and cook for about 5 minutes until it starts to thicken slightly. Add grated parmesan and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Add 1 to 2 tbsp of verjus (according to taste). Add pasta and stir well. Sprinkle with bacon before serving.

If you prefer a creamier sauce, you can add a few splashes of cream to the pasta. Alternatively, you can reduce the amount of pasta that you make to 3/4 lb.

NOTES:

  • You can substitute lemon juice for the verjus. However, it is important that you use heavy cream, otherwise the cream will curdle/split. I used half and half cream, which worked well because I was using verjus.

Batch # 8 and counting . . .

Pumpkin & Raisin Mini Muffins

Our dishwasher has been broken for two weeks now, and so I get a “look” from my husband whenever I start baking. He likes to point out that cooking is my hobby, but doing dishes is not his. Although, he looks super cute with a towel over his shoulders at the sink, doesn’t he?

And, for the record, I help with the dishes too! Anyway, I know that by now you must think I have a bad case of muffin fever, since it seems like only yesterday that I posted my Apple and Dried Cherry Mini Muffins. But I really just had to share. The double-batch of these charming little pumpkin lovlies that I made this weekened is almost all gone . . . and that now makes for eight batches (and counting) in less than a month.

I love the fact that these are “skinny” muffins. Made with only two tablespoons of canola oil and just the egg whites, these muffins are sooooooo moist. Of course, I made them mini and nut-free so they are lunch-box friendly.

If you have a few pumpkins that you’d like to use up, see the directions for making pumpkin puree from Sawsan at Chef in Disguise here.

For the pumpkin muffin recipe, go to SkinnyTaste.com

But first, promise me that you won’t go and buy pumpkin pie spice! It is so easy to make and you likely have all the ingredients in your cupboard.

Pumpkin Pie Spice Recipe

  • 4 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon all spice
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves

Mix all of the spices together in a bowl until well combined and there are no lumps; store in a spice jar. You can double or triple the recipe according to your baking needs.

Yield: The recipe above makes just under 3 tablespoons.

NOTES:

  • I replaced the pecans with raisins in the SkinnyTaste.com recipe and topped them with a sprinkling of raw pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds). I also used regular white sugar, rather than raw sugar.
  • I made mini muffins rather than regular size and baked them for 15 minutes at 350°; yield approx. 30 muffins.
  • In Canada, the pure pumpkin comes in a 796 ml size. It makes two batches perfectly, so a double-batch is a good way to make sure that you don’t throw the other half of puree out, isn’t it?

The ponytails and good friend Miss K (right) making short work of eating up batch #8 . . .


Cheater Lasagna and Other Weeknight Survival Tips

Cheater Lasagna

Sometimes the weekend feels like a break from a busy week. Sometimes work feels like a break from the weekend. One thing is constant though  . . .  weeknight dinners are ALWAYS a challenge–especially on those nights where one of the girls has an after-school activity. I know that I’ve talked about this before, and I know that I’m not alone in struggling to get dinner on the table during weeknights. I think it can be a daunting task, whether you have kids or not.

I thought I’d share a few of the tips that have been helping me cope over the past few weeks, along with a few of my current favourite recipes that help keep me sane. (Okay, I guess this is a matter of opinion.)

  1. Cheat as often as you can . . . in the kitchen of course. Look for recipes that are an easier and faster version of your favourite time-consuming dishes. My cheater lasagna is a family favourite, so I’m sharing it with you below. To make it more weeknight-friendly, you can make the meat sauce in advance and use store-bought preshredded cheese. Another option is to follow tip #2, and make a double-batch of the meat sauce in advance and freeze them so that you have a key ingredient for this recipe on stand-by in case of emergency.
  2. Go big as often as you can.Cook large batches so that you can freeze the left-overs for the next week or later in the month. I find that it takes just as much effort to make a large portion of many dishes, as it does to make a small one. Here are a few of my favourite high-volume recipes:
  3. Use a crock pot for some of your old stand-bys. Have you tried making your favourite soup in a crock-pot? I’ve found that you can easily make your favourite soup recipe in the crock-pot without altering the recipe. The key to making it work on a weekday is to do the chopping the night before and then throw everything into the pot in the morning. Set your crock pot for low and slow, and away you go. Dinner will be waiting for you at the end of the day. Here are the soups I’ve tried in the crock pot so far:
    • Fassolada
    • Tortilla Soup from Ali at A Few Stories — I made this last week and we loved it. I just didn’t add any chilis so that it wouldn’t be too spicy for the ponytails.
    • My long-time favourite Split-pea Soup from Epicurious. Just made a double-batch in the crock pot without the bacon with our left-over ham from Thanksgiving; it worked beautifully — it took about 8 hours on high.
  4. Keep it simple. Make dishes that can be put together quickly on a week-night. Here are a few of my current favourites.
    1. Sloppy Joes from Betsy at bits and breadcrumbs— Actually I haven’t made this yet…but I’m planning to try it later in the week since sloppy joe’s are a regular weeknight meal for us. 
    2. Peanut Noodles
    3. Shrimp and asparagus stir fry from Norma at Garden to Wok   — I’ve also substituted snow peas or broccoli for the asparagus because the ponytails like these veggies better.
  5. Plan for your left-overs. Make something like a roast chicken on the weekend, while planning for a second meal with the left-overs. See my recent Lemon & Herb Spatchocked Chicken post for more details on this idea.
  6. Take at least one night off every week. Order in . . .  or, if you’re on a budget, throw a frozen pizza in the oven. The thin crust pizzas are ready in 12 minutes or so . . . and they’ve saved me many times when I’ve realized that something I thought I had in the cupboard or fridge wasn’t there!
  7. Share your tips with friends! Please leave me a comment with one of your weeknight survival tips and I’ll continue to update this post with your ideas below, so that we can all learn from one another!

Cheater Lasagna

Adapted from Sandi Richard, Fixing Dinner

  • 500 grams mild Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 1 tin 680 ml + 1/2 tin of 398 tomato sauce (plain)
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1 tsp dried parsley
  • 1 tsp each garlic and onion powder
  • 1 340 oz bag broad egg noodles
  • 2 cans reduced fat cream of mushroom soup (or reduced fat cream of broccoli)
  • 1 can soup filled with 1% milk
  • ¾ cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • ¾ cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400°.
  2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add pasta. Cook for 4 minutes, then drain and rinse with water to remove starch. Set aside.
  3. Brown sausage until browned, then add tomato sauce and spices (oregano, basil, parsley, garlic and onion powder).
  4. Whisk together soup and milk in a medium-sized bowl.
  5. In large lasagna pan, layer ½ soup mixture, 1/3 cooked noodles, ½ meat sauce, cheddar cheese, 1/3 cooked noodles, remaining soup mixture, remaining noodles, remaining meat sauce, then finally mozzarella cheese.
  6. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until nicely browned.

On Friendship, Babies and Macarons . . .

Coconut Lime Macarons

There’s nothing like a new little bundle to turn your world upside down and make the simplest of tasks—like having a shower—seem as challenging as climbing Mount Kilamanjaro.

So of course I was more than happy to pitch in for Charles at Five Euro Food with a guest post after the arrival of his adorable son William—although it did take me a little while to get my act together. However, I must say that Charles seems to be coping much better than I did after the birth of my first ponytail, for he has written a couple of posts, continued with his walking adventures in and around Paris, and hosted a dinner party—all within a few short weeks of becoming a new dad. I, on the other hand, had difficulty stringing a sentence together, let alone photographing and writing about the things I was cooking in those early days of motherhood.

Shortly after I started blogging, my “real life” and blogging friend Eva from KitchenInspirations kindly wrote a post that introduced my blog to her network of blogging friends. Thanks to Eva, Charles was one of the first people that I met and in no time at all I felt like I’d known him forever . . . largely because of his thoughtful comments and blog posts that draw you in and make you feel like you’re right there in the kitchen with him, having a good ole chat and a cuppa. How many times I’ve wished that I was there so that I could sample one of his famous Swedish kaka’s (cakes) or cinnamon buns? (Trust me, too many to count.) If you are not familiar with his blog, I encourage you to check it out.

I set out to make macarons for this post, and I must admit that I came very close to losing my nerve the more I read about making this infamous French confectionery. To find out more about my macaron adventure . . . and the latest trend in fashion for babies on the streets of Paris, please pop over to Five Euro Food.


Cinnamon Crumble Apple Pie

If apple pie is comfort food, then cinnamon crumble apple pie—served warm with ice cream and caramel sauce—is the equivalent of wearing your favourite warm cozy sweater, while having a foot massage and being served a martini. Well, I think so anyway.

I wish that I could take credit for it . . . that the recipe was an old family secret or my own creation. But I can’t. I found the recipe in Bon Appetite magazine in 2003 and I’ve been making it ever since.

This pie was the “jumping off point” (as the designers from all of those HGTV shows I’m addicted to always like to say), for a dinner party I hosted on Saturday. I started with the pie and built the menu around it, with other dishes that felt appropriate for fall.

However, the pie was the only “tried and true” recipe on the menu. I also made a pork loin stuffed with baby spinach, prosciutto, and dried apricots—but I had never made it before. I know that is breaking the rule of make what you know when having company for dinner. I was hoping that if didn’t turn out, I could divert the attention away from my failure by serving lots of wine and finishing off with this apple pie. I think everything turned out okay though . . . hopefully my guests didn’t have to stop at McDonalds on the way home???

We enjoyed a lovely evening with my work colleagues and their families. (I’m fortunate to work with a group of people who I really like!) The ponytails did an amazing job of taking our charming three-year old guest, Miss A, under their wings. In fact, I think it was one of the smoothest dinner parties we’ve ever had, as there was quite a long stretch at the “adult table” where I forgot the kids were even there! (You’ve gotta like that.) The only thing missing was the other members of our team who live and work in Ottawa.

How about you? Do you ever try new recipes when you’re having company?

Cinnamon Crumble Apple Pie

Recipe from Bon Appetit

CRUST

  • 1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup frozen solid vegetable shortening, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 3 tablespoons (or more) ice water
  • 1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

FILLING

  • 3 1/4 pounds Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

TOPPING

  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

TO SERVE

  • Vanilla ice cream
  • Caramel sauce

Directions

CRUST

  • Mix flour, salt, and sugar in large bowl. Add butter and shortening; rub in with fingertips until coarse meal forms. Mix 3 tablespoons ice water and vinegar in small bowl to blend. Drizzle over flour mixture; stir with fork until moist clumps form, adding more water by teaspoonfuls if dough is dry. Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap in plastic; refrigerate 30 minutes.
  • Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 400°F. Roll out dough on lightly floured surface to 12-inch round. Transfer to 9-inch-diameter glass pie dish. Trim overhang to 1/2 inch; turn edge under and crimp decoratively. Refrigerate while preparing filling and topping.

FILLING

  • Mix all ingredients in large bowl to coat apples.

TOPPING

Blend first 5 ingredients in processor. Add chilled butter cubes; using on/off turns, cut in until mixture resembles wet sand.

  • Toss filling to redistribute juices; transfer to crust, mounding in center. Pack topping over and around apples.

Bake pie on baking sheet until topping is golden, about 40 minutes (cover top with foil if browning too quickly). NOTE: I covered the top with foil after about 25 minutes because the pie was browning too quickly.

Reduce oven temperature to 350°F. Bake until apples in center are tender when pierced and filling is bubbling thickly at edges, about 45 minutes longer. Cool until warm, about 1 hour.

Serve with ice cream and caramel sauce.