Dinner With A Couple Of Little Rats And Roosters

Dumplings and Ribs

Dumplings, Sweet and Sour Sauce, Soy Dipping Sauce and Chinese Spare Ribs Braised in Soy Sauce

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the ponytails were fired up about Chinese New Year. My oldest daughter was working on writing a short play about it and was talking non-stop about how great it was to be a rooster (her Chinese zodiac animal). Meanwhile my youngest daughter was counting down the days until the Chinese New Year parade at school.

Don’t you love the way children find such joy in learning new things?

We really want to encourage and embrace this interest the girls have in different cultures and traditions. So, I bought them each a children’s book about Chinese New Year on my way home from a business trip and decided that we would celebrate it too.

Soon after that I asked my colleague Amanda if she could recommend a few authentic Chinese dishes. But she didn’t just provide me with some ideas—she surprized me with a very large carrying case full of all the essentials for a Chinese New Year celebration: decorations, candies, sauces and noodles. I was blown away by her generosity!

Treats

Some of the treats from Amanda: crunchy peanuts, candies and Korean crackers.

However, we did encounter a set-back. At the last minute, my husband was asked to go to an important work event on Feb. 1oth. But after Amanda’s kind gesture, there was no turning back. Close friends Carolyn and Glen agreed to join the girls and I for our celebration. With two young daughters the same age as the ponytails, it would mean an evening with two little rats and two roosters (according to their Chinese zodiac animals of course)!

Armed with a great dumpling recipe from Amanda, I set out to research some other ideas for our feast. Two bloggers came to mind immediately: Norma from Garden to Wok and Sissi from With a Glass. Norma teaches cooking classes and has written two cookbooks: My Students’ Favorite Chinese Recipes and Wokking Your Way to Lowfat Cooking. An avid gardener, she also keeps her loyal readers up-to-date on the adventures in her garden with regular Harvest Monday posts. Based in Switzerland, Sissi has a flair for creating innovative recipes that are inspired by her love of a diverse range of cuisines, particularly Asian and Hungarian cuisines. I met Sissi in the early days of blogging and I’ve been a fan of her site ever since.

When I saw Sissi’s Chinese Spare Ribs Braised in Soy Sauce I knew that I had to make them. They looked sticky and fall-off-the-bone good. Well, I can tell you that they didn’t disappoint. Best. Ribs. Ever. OMG, you must make these ribs. The flavour combination of the dark soy sauce, star anise and cinnamon is really incredible. However, you MUST use the dark soy sauce (which I had never used before) because the regular soy sauce simply will not achieve the same result. The dark soy sauce is thicker and more intense in flavour than regular soy sauce.

Sissi’s Chinese Spare Ribs Braised in Soy Sauce

I also returned to Norma’s Shrimp Stir-fry recipe that I’ve made a number of times with great success, but I used snow peas in place of the asparagus this time. This dish went really well with the Chinese noodles that Amanda gave us. Best of all, it’s a low-fat recipe!

Shrimp and Snow Peas

Norma’s Shrimp and Snow Peas Stir-fry

I also found inspiration from the online version of one of my favourite magazines, House & Home. The lemon sauce for this chicken is nothing like the version that you get at a restaurant or with your favourite take-out. You’ve got to try this Lemon Chicken recipe—the flavour is just amazing.

Lemon Chicken

Almond cookies are a traditional way to end a Chinese New Year celebration and kids love them. The texture of these cookies was spot on with what I’ve had in restaurants—they had a bit of a crunch but still melted in your mouth. Next time I make them I’m going to play around with the recipe, as I prefer not to use shortening in my baking.

Almond Cookies

And what celebration would be complete without a live performance? Our two adorable roosters and rats entertained us with original songs such as: We Are the Roosters; Sweet Love and a rap song entitled Hurricane.

Two Rats Performing

Two cute “rats” ham it up.

Performance

Rockin it out with the rats and the roosters!

It was a night of great food, with great friends. In fact, we had so much fun that I think this just might become an annual celebration for us. Now I just need to find a way to repay Amanda’s generosity. Any suggestions?

Recipes from Our Chinese New Year Celebration

Sissi’s Chinese Spare Ribs Braised in Soy Sauce

Norma’s Shrimp With Snow Peas Stir-Fry

Lemon Chicken from House & Home Magazine

Sissi’s Baked Wonton Crisps and Sweet and Sour Sauce from Chow.com

Almond Cookies from Canadian Living

Pork Dumplings

Adapted from Amanda’s recipe

  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • 1 tsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp white wine
  • 2 tbsp chopped chives
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 package of dumpling wrappers

Dipping Sauce

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame oil

Mix all ingredients (except dumpling wrappers) well in a large bowl.

Place a level tablespoon of filling in the centre of each dumpling wrapper. Moisten edges with water. Fold in half and pinch together to create a pouch that seals in the mixture. Alternatively, you could use a dumpling or ravioli maker as I did that automatically seals each dumpling. I did need to double check each dumpling and pinch any spots where it wasn’t completely sealed by the ravioli maker. Repeat with remaining wrappers and filling.

Steam the dumplings for 10 to 12 minutes. (Use a pan/wok of boiling water and bamboo baskets for steaming.) Alternatively you can boil them in water for 5 to 6 minutes. They can also be fried afterwards (but I didn’t do this).

For the dipping sauce, mix the soy sauce and sesame oil in a small bowl. Serve with the dumplings.

Prep work

Thanks to Sissi’s suggestion, I used my ravioli maker to make the dumplings.

Tips/Notes:

  • I followed a tip from Sissi and used a ravioli maker to make the dumplings. It worked really well. You could also use a dumpling sealer, but I didn’t have one.
  • I used 2 kg of pork ribs, so I tripled Sissi’s recipe for Chinese Spare Ribs Braised in Soy Sauce. Be sure to cut the ribs into individual portions as this is key to the success of the recipe. However, I didn’t cut the ribs in half vertically as Sissi did and I was still happy with the results.

Lessons From A Puerto Rican Kitchen

Parenthood certainly has its ups and its downs. I would say that the ups far outweight the downs  . . . well, most days anyway. One of the unexpected ups has been all of the wonderful friendships that we’ve formed with the parents of our ponytails’ close friends. With no family here in Toronto, this amazing group of parents has become part of our “village” as we raise our girls.

There’s one member of our village who has taught us many things: how nothing helps you win an argument like speaking Spanish; how to style long hair into the perfect bun for a ballet performance; and the secret to light and fluffy rice. I’m talking about the one and only Mercedes, our friend from Puerto Rico.

Mercedes holding a Puerto Rican caldero, with her daughter

Mercedes is known for cooking a range of authentic Puerto Rican dishes when she holds a dinner party. Apparently though, in the early days of marriage, her husband affectionately nicknamed her Adobo the Alcoholic Chef because of her tendency to add adobo spice to everything she prepared, while sipping on a glass of white wine. She’s obviously diversified her cooking skills since then, but she’s still known to enjoy a good glass of wine now and then.

According to Mercedes, adobo is one of three main ingredients that are part of quintessential Puerto Rican cooking: adobo, sofrito and achiote. Anxious to learn more about the dishes that we’ve come to enjoy at her place, I asked Mercedes to teach me how to make Arroz con Pollo and Stewed Red Beans a few months ago. Her mom also showed me how to make Tostones while visiting Toronto a few years back.

It was finally time to put all of these lessons to the test. This weekend I would try my hand at making a few traditional Puerto Rican dishes (Arroz con Pollo, Stewed Red Beans and Tostone) and then have Mercedes and her family join us for dinner. Fortunately, I was also armed with a popular cookbook authored by an award-winning Puerto Rican chef that Mercedes gave me as a gift, which helped to fill in the gaps where my memory failed me:

Puerto Rico True Flavors by Wilo Benet
Thanks for this excellent cookbook Mercedes!

It is always nerve-wracking to prepare an authentic dish for an expert, so I was pretty nervous. After tasting one bite of my Arroz con Pollo, Mercedes shook my hand and said “now I’m going to call you Sofrito, My Puerto Rican Sister”. Whew. My rice wasn’t cooked quite perfectly, but the right flavours seemed to be there. Cooking rice perfectly really is an art form – one that Mercedes has definitely mastered! Fortunately, despite this, it  wasn’t difficult to get the kids to eat their dinner.

Miss M, my oldest ponytail (right) and her longtime pal Miss G (Mercedes’ daughter).

I’ve included all of the recipes required to make this Puerto Rican meal in this post. I recommend making the sofrito, the dry adobo spice and achiote oil a few days in advance – it’ll allow you to focus on preparing the Arroz con Pollo perfectly.

This meal may seem daunting because of all of the steps involved — hopefully not, but if so, then I encourage you to at least try the dry adobo rub. You can use it as a seasoning for so many things (meats, fish and beans) and it works well as a seasoning for beef tacos as well — just add some paprika, dried cilantro and chili powder to the meat along with the adobo. Judy at Petit4chocolatier used adobo recently as part of a coating for tilapia that I can’t wait to try.

Arroz con Pollo, Stewed Red Beans and Tostones

Arroz con Pollo [Rice with Chicken]

Recipe created using tips from Mercedes and Wilo Benet’s Puerto Rico True Flavors

  • 1 ½ lbs skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into pieces
  • 1 batch of wet adobe paste, optional [see recipe below]
  • 3 tbsp achiote oil [see recipe below]
  • ½ onion, diced
  • ½ red bell pepper, seeds and inner white ribbings removed, diced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, pounded to a paste
  • 1/3 cup sofrito [see recipe below]
  • 3 tbsp tomato sauce
  • ½ cup small green olives stuffed with pimientos, sliced in half
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 3 cups long-grain rice
  • 4 ½ cups chicken stock
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup shelled green peas

Instructions

  1. Rub the wet adobe paste [see recipe below] on the chicken pieces and refrigerate covered for 2-3 hours, or overnight.
  2. In a caldero or dutch oven, warm the achiote oil [see recipe below] over high heat. Add the onion, red pepper, garlic and sofrito [see recipe below] and cook until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and olives, and cook for another 3 minutes, stirring so that the sauce doesn’t stick to the bottom.
  3. Add the chicken and cook for 6 to 8 minutes. Deglaze with the wine and cook until it evaporates, about 4 minutes. Add the rice and stir well to coat with the rest of the ingredients. Pour in the chicken stock, season with the salt and stir. Bring to a full boil and cook until the water evaporates and the surface of the rice is visible with some bubbling in between the grains, about 8 minutes.
  4. Lower the heat and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Cook until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice grains are loose and fluffy, about 15-20 minutes (check after 10 minutes just in case). Add the peas, cover and cook for another 3 minutes.

Sofrito [SOH-FREE-to]

From Wilo Benet’s Puerto Rico True Flavors

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
  • 12 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 cubanelle peppers, seeds and inner white ribbings removed, roughly chopped
  • 10 ajies dulces seeds removed and roughly chopped
  • 1 bunch cilantro (leaves and tender stems only)
  • 30 leaves culantro (if not available, increase add extra bunch of cilantro)
  • ½ cup fresh oregano (leaves only), loosely packed

Instructions

  1. In a blender or food processor, combine the olive oil with the vegetable oils. Add the onion and garlic and process for about 30 seconds to obtain a pungent white puree.
  2. Add the cubanelle peppers and the ajies dulces, and blend for another 30 seconds to obtain a light-green puree. Add the cilantro, culantro (if using) and oregano. Pulse and then scrape the sides of the blender/food processor with a rubber spatula. Process for another 30 seconds to obtain an herbed-speckled light-green puree with a piquant taste and pungent aroma.

Can be sealed in a jar or a bag and stored in the freezer for up to one month. Because sofrito serves as a base for numerous recipes, no salt should be added to the mixture.

I didn’t make this as Mercedes gave me a bag of frozen sofrito that she brought back from Puerto Rico. It was made with culantro, so it was very authentic!

Annato seeds and achiote oil, which has been prepared from the annato seeds.

Achiote Oil [ah-chee-O-tay oil]

  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2.5 tablespoons annato seeds

In a saucepan over medium-high heat, heat to achiote seeds and oil for 10 minutes without boiling until the oil has been coloured with the achiote. Remove heat, and steep for another 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and discard the achiote seeds. Allow the annato oil to cool then poor into a container with a tight fitting lid. (No refrigeration is necessary).

Making a wet version of adobo paste for the chicken.

Wet Adobo Paste [ah-Do-bo]

(This is an optional step when preparing this rice dish and it is my own take on the recipe. It adds another layer of flavour to the rice.)

  • 2 tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp black pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 tsp oregano
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice

Smash the garlic with the salt until it forms a paste. Add the pepper, oregano, olive oil and lemon juice and combine well.

Dry Adobo Rub

Dry Adobo Rub [ah-Do-bo]

Adapted from Wilo Benet’s Puerto Rico True Flavors

  • 3 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp oregano
  • 2 to 3 tsp tumeric, according to taste
  • ½ tsp ground white pepper
  • 2 tbsp onion powder

Combine all ingredients in bowl and mix well. Store in a tightly sealed jar or bag.

Mercedes always uses Goya’s prepared Adobo all purpose seasoning; I’ve included this recipe since Goya’s version isn’t readily available internationally.

Stewed Red Beans

Recipe based on instructions from Mercedes

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ onion, diced
  • 1 tbsp sofrito
  • 1 tsp adobo dry spice mix
  • 1 tsp salt
  • One 398 ml tin of tomato sauce
  • 2, 19 ounce cans of Mexican small red beans (or red kidney beans)
  • ¼ cup chicken stock
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 tbsp cooked bacon, crumbled (or ¼ cup cooked ham, diced)

In medium-sized heavy bottom pot, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, sofrito, adobo spice and bacon/ham and cook for about 3 minutes until the onion is translucent. Stir in the tomato sauce and cook for 2 minutes. Add the beans, chicken stock and water and stir well. Lower heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.

Mercedes fixed my version (pictured with the rice and tostones) by adding the water and chicken stock to make it more of a sauce. The recipe above incorporates this. She also typically uses Goya’s ham flavouring, so we developed the recipe with bacon or ham as a substitute.

The bottom of my small cast iron pan worked like a charm for smashing the fried plantain pieces.

Tostones [tos-TOH-nays]

Based on instructions from Mercedes; Makes about 32

  • 4 green plantains
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Salt water or garlic salt in a bowl of water; salt for sprinkling

Instructions

  1. Peel the plantains: cut off ½ inch from both ends of the plantains. Using a sharp knife, score the skin lengthwise in three different sections Slide the tip of your knife or finger under the skin and begin to pull it away, going from top to bottom.
  2. In a frying pan, heat about 2 inches of vegetable oil until sizzling hot. Cut plantain into 1-inch pieces and add to the hot oil. Fry for about 6 minutes until they start to turn golden and are tender inside. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. Using the bottom of a frying pan (or tin can bottom/mallet), smash the plantains into thick tostones. If they stick to the pounding device, release them by quickly sliding a sharp knife under the tostones.
  3. Quickly dip the tostones into a bowl of salted water (but not too long otherwise they will turn soggy). Shake excess water off and carefully return to the hot oil (careful the oil will splatter). Refry for another 5 minutes until they begin to turn golden. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and serve immediately.

Mercedes’ mom likes to use garlic salt in place of regular salt in the salted water for dipping the tostones before frying.

Ingredients and Tools In the Puerto Rican Kitchen

Adobo [ah-DO-bo] is a widely-used all-purpose seasoning that is used to flavor and/or marinate meat, chicken, or fish. The key ingredients are garlic, oregano and black pepper. Other spices are commonly added based on regional preference. It can be made as a dry spice mix or wet rub paste. Adobo is used in Latin America, the Caribbean and Spain.

Aji dulce [ah-HEE-DUL-say] – This small pudgy pepper has a similar shape to the Scotch Bonnet, but it is sweet. It is usually green, but can range in colour from green to orange or red. It is an important ingredient in sofrito.

Annato seeds are a deep orange in colour and have a nutty flavour. They are used to make achiote oil, which gives Puerto Rican rice dishes their colour, in the same way that saffron gives colour to the Spanish dish paella.

Caldero (cal-DAY-ro] – A caldero (aluminum pot with lid) is a mainstay in the Puerto Rican kitchen. I bought this 24 centimeter caldero from Amazon.com and it works really well.

Culantro [coo-LAHN-tro] — Culantro is cilantro’s lesser known cousin and is very hard to find outside of the Carribean/Puerto Rico. It has long serated leaves and is also known as long leaf cilantro.

Plantain [plan-tane] – This tropical banana is used for cooking and is larger than an eating banana.

Sofrito [soh-free-to] – An important ingredient in Puerto Rican cooking that includes onion, garlic, peppers and culantro.

Tostonera — A tostonera is  wooden tool commonly used in Puerto Rico to flatten/smash the fried plantain pieces when making tostones, although I found that my small cast iron pan worked like a charm.

NOTES:

  • Mercedes says that the key to preparing fluffy rice is to ensure that you bring the rice and liquid to a full boil and cook (over low heat) until the water evaporates and the surface of the rice is visible with a bit of bubbling, then close the lid to finish cooking the rice for the last few minutes (also over low heat). This process helps to ensure lots of pegao — crusty rice at the bottom of the pan — which she and her family members always fight over.
  • Mercedes’ rule of thumb is 1 cup of water or chicken stock for ever 1 cup medium grain rice and 1.5 cups of water or chicken stock for every 1 cup of long grain rice. I used long grain rice for the Arroz con Pollo recipe because I couldn’t find any medium grain rice.
  • It is important to use green plantains when making the tostones. I bought my plantains at Phil’s Place at St. Lawrence Market (lower level) in Toronto.
  • I found annato seeds in the spice shop (lower level) at St. Lawrence Market, although I didn’t need to buy any as Mercedes was kind enough to give me a few packages from Puerto Rico.
  • I adapted many of these recipes from Mercedes because she likes to use a variety of Goya spices and products, such as Goya Adobo, which are readily available in Puerto Rico. Unfortuntely they are not as easy to come by internationally.
  • Another great resource for Puerto Rican cooking is an old favourite cookbook Puerto Rican Cookery. I have a copy that was kindly given to me by Mercedes’ mom several years ago (thanks again!).

A Toad or a Frog By Any Other Name

The British Classic Toad in the Hole

After several posts filled with practical dinner ideas, it felt like I should be bringing you a decadent dessert this week, but I’m afraid there’s something very large standing in the way of baking right now.

This is one of those giant salad bowls that comes with its own stand.

A very large bowl of leftover Halloween treats that keeps calling my name. I’m not sure how I ended up on a first-name basis with these little troublemakers, but I’m thinking of changing my name.  How about Helga? Yes, I think that might work . . .

Which brings me back to the practical dinner ideas, as the last thing that I need right now is more calorie-laden desserts.

In my recent blog travels, I stumbled upon this intriguing dish called Toad in the Hole, made my British mate Emma over at her blog Food, Fork & Good. (She has a lovely blog, which I highly recommend you check out.) In North America and Australia (thanks Ali!) , Toad in the Hole (aka Frog in the Hole) is something completely different —  it is bread with an egg in the centre cooked in butter or oil (also called Egg in the Basket).  

However, across the pond (pun intended!), it is a traditional dish that combines two British favourites: sausages and yorkshire pudding. The sausages are cooked in a yorkshire pudding batter that puffs up around the sausages. I understand that it is usually served with onion gravy, veggies and mash.

So, while this isn’t exactly a low-calorie dish, I did lighten it up by using half-the-fat pork sausages and one percent milk. I modified the original recipe by keeping the onions on the side, as this ensures that the dish will appeal to the under five foot crowd.

As I’ve never made or eaten this before, I’m not sure if it turned out perfectly, but the yorkshire did puff up and it was very tasty. It was in fact a hit with the entire family, including my youngest ponytail’s buddy and my mom who joined us for dinner.

Toad in the Hole

Serves 4.

Recipe from Emma at Food, Fork & Good

  • 4-6 good quality sausages (English-style bangers or mild italian sausages)
  • 2 tbsp grapeseed oil or olive oil
  • 1 cup flour (125 grams)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • Just under 1-1/4 cup milk + 2 tbsp water (just under 1/2 a UK pint)
  • 1 egg + 1 egg white
  • 1 tsp dried sage
  • 1/2 onion + 1/2 red onion, sliced
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

Directions

  • Cook your sausages and set aside.
  • Preheat oven to 425°
  • Prepare carmelized onions: add onions, honey and balsamic vinegar to a pan that has your slightly heated olive oil. Saute for 10 to 15 minutes until nicely carmelized. Set aside.
  • Sift flour, salt and sage together in a medium bowl. Make a well in the flour and add the eggs to it.
  • Add 1/4 of the milk mixture and mix well. Gradually add the remaining milk mixture and whisk until smooth (I used my magic whisk).  Let the mixture stand for at least 15 minutes before using.
  • While the mixture is standing, add grapeseed oil or olive oil to a 10″ skillet or 9″ x 11″ glass dish and pop into the oven for 10-12 minutes until oil is hot (or olive oil is smoking).
  • Carefully add sausage to the hot skillet/baking dish (the hot oil will likely spit, so be careful), then pour the flour mixture over the sausages.
  • Place into the oven for 25-30 minutes until the pudding has risen and is nicely browned. DO NOT OPEN DOOR!

NOTES:

  • I got my conversions wrong, in that I did the 1/2 pint coversion for the US pint (16 fl. oz) and not the UK pint (20 fl oz) when I made mine. I’ve corrected this in the recipe above. Perhaps my yorkshire would have puffed up a bit more with the correct amount of milk (1-1/4 cups milk rather than the 1 cup milk that I used).
  • I’ve added an extra egg white to the recipe, as one of Emma’s tips is that extra egg whites add height to the yorkshire.
  • I used 1 tsp rather than 1 tbsp of sage, to appeal to a younger crowd.
  • I’ve added balsamic vinegar to the onions to take the flavour up a notch.
  • I used grapeseed oil for the yorkshire pudding because it has a higher heat threashold.
  • Apparently if you open the oven door, your yorkshire will deflate!
  • For more tips on making Yorkshire Pudding, please see Emma’s post.
  • I used this chart for the flour conversion. Let me know if I’ve got this wrong …since I’m always nervous with the conversions!

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.

Lemon and Herbes de Provence Spatchcocked Chicken + Leftover Soup

How do you put together a meal, sign school forms and change the channel all at the same time? The answer is simple: heat up leftovers + get someone else to manage the TV remote (what are the odds I’d get control of it anyway?).

With three crazy nights of the week where we need to arrive home from school/work, eat and be out the door in less than 30 minutes, leftovers have become my best friend.

Now that September is in full swing, you’ll find me cooking in bulk on the weekends and freezing the leftovers for one of these crazy nights, or making a Sunday night dinner that will provide the key ingredients for a second meal. I’ve been doing this for ages, but I recently discovered a great blog written by Saskia called 1=2. Saskia’s site is brilliant, with every post delivering on this life-saving concept of making a meal and planning for leftovers to prepare a second meal. (Be sure to check out Saskia’s site for some great 1=2 ideas.)

A roasted chicken is the perfect start to a two-for-one meal, as there are just so many meals that you can make with leftover chicken. One of my favourite ways to roast or grill a chicken is to spatchcock it. Before you get any ideas, you should know that this simply means to butterfly a chicken, or to take out the backbone and flatten it. The key benefit is that the chicken cooks faster and more evenly than when it is left in tact. Apparently, spatchcock is the traditional word for the French term “poussin”, which means a young chicken. Years ago, these little chickens were frequently  butterflied for faster cooking, and eventually flattened chickens were called spatchcocks.

Often I’ll make a simple chicken pot pie with leftover chicken, or a chicken and brocolli quiche. Sometimes I just add barbeque sauce and serve the tangy leftover chicken with mashed potatoes (preferably leftovers also) and vegetables. I recently used my leftover chicken and corn (from a Sunday night dinner) to make Avocado-Corn Chowder with Grilled Chicken, which comes together in about 10 minutes using leftovers.

If you have some good recipes on how to use leftover chicken, please be sure to share as I see many more crazy nights in my future! How about you?

Lemon and Herbes de Provence Spatchcocked Chicken

  • 4 lb chicken, spatchcocked
  • 2 lemons: zest one and slice the other
  • 2 to 3 tsp herbs de provence
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

For instructions on how to spatchcock a chicken, you can watch this video (stop before cutting the flattened chicken in half) or follow the step-by-step photos here.

Rinse and thoroughly dry the chicken.

Breast side up, carefully separate the skin from the bird, taking care not to rip the skin. Insert two slices of lemon between the skin and the flesh on each half of the bird.

Using a pastry brush, coat the outside skin of the bird with the olive oil. Sprinkle the coated chicken with herbes de provence, lemon zest and salt & pepper to taste.

To Grill: Cook on a preheated barbeque for 45 to 50 minutes until internal termperature reads 180°.

To Roast in the Oven: Preheat oven to 425°. Place prepared chicken (spatchcocked, seasoned and stuffed with lemon as above) breast side up in a greased baking dish. Roast for 45 to 55 minutes, until internal temperature reads 180°. NOTE: When roasting, I like to use butter rather than oil to coat the chicken. I also like to mix a couple of teaspoons of butter with some fresh chopped parsley, thyme and rosemary and slip this between the skin and the flesh of the bird. This doesn’t work well when barbequing, as the butter drips on to the grill and catches fire.

Avocado-Corn Chowder with Grilled Chicken

For the orignial recipe, click here.

My modifications:

  • I reduced the water to 1 cup, as I find 1½ cups too watery and I reduced the orange juice to 1/3 cup rather than ½ cup.
  • Using left-over grilled chicken eliminates the need to follow the directions for cooking the chicken.
  • I used a couple pinches of crushed red pepper rather than ¼ tsp of ground red pepper.
  • I also omitted the chopped red pepper.

Salmon That’s Like Candy

When I lived in British Columbia, one of my favourite things to do was have a picnic lunch with a variety of breads, cheeses, pâté and some incomparable Indian Candy Salmon. If you’ve never tried Indian Candy Salmon, you really must, if you get the chance. It is brined salmon that has been cold-smoked for up to two weeks and the end result is a type of sweet, salmon jerky.

But the hard part is that I’ve never found it outside B.C. and I don’t have the patience (or equipment) to make this myself by smoking the salmon. However, the good news is that the salmon recipe I’m going to share with you today is the closest thing I’ve found, in flavour, to Indian Candy Salmon—although it is not a precise match because it is no where near Indian Candy in terms of the “jerky” texture.

I’ve made this a number of times for guests over the past two years and it is always met with rave reviews from adults and kids alike. In fact, seven year-old Robert, a friend of the family, started calling me “Salmon Barb” after I made this on New Year’s Eve a couple years ago. I now make it for him most times we stay with his family at their cottage in Wasaga Beach because he likes it so much.

You can buy planks at gourmet food and kitchen shops, supermarkets and home improvement centres. I buy my cedar planks in packages of six at Costco, which is where I also buy my salmon. The planks are approximately 7″ x 16″ (you will need one at least this size for a 4-5 lb salmon.) There are also quite a wide range of cedar planks available on amazon.com. The label on the planks should say untreated and “food grade.”

Worst case scenario, you can wrap the salmon in foil and cook it on the barbeque. I do this with the small pieces that I cut off (so that the salmon fits on the plank) and they still taste great.

The K.C. Baron’s Cedar-Planked Salmon With Brown-Sugar Cure

Adapted slightly from Rockin’ Ronnie Shewchuck’s Barbeque Secrets Deluxe!

  • 1 large cedar plan, soaked in water for at least one hour (the original recipe calls for hickory planks)
  • 4 to 5 lb (2.2 kg) fillet of salmon (with or without skin), pin bones removed

Rub

  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp Old Bay seasoning or Seafood Seasoning (recipe below)
  • 2 tbsp kosher salt
  • 2 tsp coursely ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp granulated garlic

½ cup Dijon mustard

1 cup dark brown sugar

Directions

  1. Mix rub ingredients well in a medium-sized bowl.
  2. Place the salmon on a baking pan or in large casserole dish. Sprinkle both sides of the fillet with half of the rub. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge. Let it marinate or cure for 2 hours.
  3. When ready to cook salmon, remove it from the fridge.
  4. Using a pastry brush (or spoon), paint the top side of the fillet with mustard and then sprinkle on the brown sugar to coat.
  5. Preheat grill on medium-high for 5 to 10 minutes. Rinse the soaked plank and place it on the cooking grate. Cover the grill and heat the plank for 5 minutes (or until it starts to throw off a bit of smoke and crackles lightly). This step is optional – I often omit it although die-hard plankers would probably cringe at my technique.
  6. Place the salmon on the plank and cook on preheated gas grill for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the fish has an internal temperature of 135° (57°C).

Seafood Seasoning (if required)

  • 1 tbsp ground bay leaves
  • 2-½ celery salt
  • 1-½ tsp dry mustard
  • 1-½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • ¾ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ½ tsp ground cloves
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp paprika
  • ½ tsp cayenne

Mix all ingredients in a medium bowl and store in an airtight container.

TIPS/NOTES:

  • I buy the salmon for this from Costco because it is great quality at a good price. It comes without the skin and still works well, although the original recipe calls a salmon fillet with skin. If your fillet does have skin, you can apply the rub to the skin in step 2 above.
  • To make a portion of this “kid-friendly” I omit the dijon mustard on a small section of the salmon and either replace it with yellow mustard or omit the mustard completely and just sprinkle on the sugar. Some kids find the dijon a bit spicy. I also reduce the black pepper in the rub to 1 tsp when serving to kids.
  • The original recipe calls for Morton Tender, which I’ve never been able to find. If available, you could replace the 2 tbsp salt with 1 tbsp Morton Tender and 2 tsp kosher salt.
  • I highly recommend Ron’s book Barbeque Secrets Deluxe! It is chock-full of tasty barbeque recipes, and Ron provides thorough details on how to barbeque like a pro.

Greek Lasagna (a.k.a. “More Please Mom”)

As much as I love to cook, a bit of the joy slips away when my ponytails look at a dish and start to groan like their arms are being slowly torn from their socket, or make faces that imply a sock that has been worn for several months is dangling precariously close to their cute little nostrils. Naturally, I’m more drawn to recipes that I know are going to be guaranteed hits with everyone who eats at my table. Call me crazy, but their little smiles and nods of approval make the mountain of dishes that I always leave behind in the kitchen somewhat more bearable.

So, when I stumbled upon a recipe for Pastitsio (pronounced pah-stee-tsee-oh) last weekend, I headed straight to the kitchen to start the meat sauce. A rich creamy sauce over a meat-pasta combo—how could I go wrong? I actually set out to make Aubergine Lasagna, after reading a recent post by Charles over at Five Euro Foods – but I didn’t buy enough eggplant on shopping day. Mind you, pastitsio is actually very similar to Charles’ dish—both recipes include delicious béchamel and meat sauces.

The morning after I made this dish, I proudly consulted with Miss Kerassia, my authority on all things Greek. Miss Kerassia is a wonderful home cook who moved to Toronto from Greece some time ago. She works at my daughter’s daycare, and I look forward to her warm, welcoming greeting every morning. She tells me that Pastichio (as it is also known) is the equivalent of lasagne for Greeks, and it is a favourite go-to meal for her and many of her friends.

Kerassia educated me on how this dish has been influenced by Italy and Turkey, two neighbouring countries to Greece. Pastitsio takes its name from the Italian pasticcio, which means baked savory pies with meat, fish, or pasta. She talked about how the unique spice combination in this dish (cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice) is in fact reflective of Turkish origins. While I only sprinkled a pinch of cinnamon on top of the béchamel sauce before baking, Kerassia likes to add a cinnamon stick to the meat sauce while it is cooking—so I’ve added that optional step to the recipe below. However I should point out that the version that I made did not include any allspice.

If you’re looking for a smile or two next time you spend time in the kitchen, then I highly recommend this recipe.

Pastitsio (Pah-stee-tsee-oh) [Baked Penne with Béchamel Sauce]

Adapted from Three Sisters Around the Greek Table

Meat Sauce

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 lb (500g) extra lean ground beef
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 28 oz tin crushed tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1tsp thyme
  • 1 cup red wine
  • Pepper to taste
  • Cinnamon stick (optional)

Sauté onions with olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat until soft (about 5 minutes). Add ground beef and cook until brown, adding salt to the beef as it cooks. Break up the beef as it cooks. Add the wine and cook until the wine is reduced by half. Add the tomato paste, crushed tomato sauce, oregano, thyme, cinnamon stick (if usin) and pepper. Bring sauce to a boil, lower the heat and simmer until the sauce has thickened, about 30 minutes. If the sauce is too thick, add some water. Remove cinnamon stick (if using) and remove from heat.

Bechamel Sauce

  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 1 ¼ cup of milk
  • 2 tbsp grated romano cheese

Melt the butter in a sauce pan over medium heat. Add the flour and mix with a spoon until the flour and butter are combined. Gradually add milk and whisk (using magic whisk) continuously to avoid any lumps from forming. Simmer until sauce is thick and creamy, about 10 minutes. Remove sauce from heat before it reaches boiling point. Add the cheese and set aside until ready to use.

  • 5 cups penne pasta, dried
  • ¼ cup grated romano cheese (or pecorino/mizithra)
  • 2 tbsp grated romano cheese (or pecorino/mizithra)
  • 6 slivers of butter
  • Pinch cinnamon
  • Pinch nutmeg

Prepare meat sauce and set aside.

Preheat oven to 400°.

Bring large pot of salted water to boil and cook pasta until al dente (or as you like it).

Place the cooked penne in an 11” x 14” in baking dish (rectangular or oval) and sprinkle with the cheese.

Pour the meat sauce on top of the penne and mix together until the penne is evenly coated with sauce.

Prepare the béchamel sauce and spread evenly on top of the pasta with meat sauce.

Top the béchamel sauce with cheese and slivers of butter. Sprinkle on cinnamon and nutmeg. Place in a preheated oven for 25 to 35 minutes, or until lightly browned.

Let the dish sit for 10 minutes before cutting and serving.

TIPS/NOTES

  • I actually used my own white sauce recipe for the Béchamel and added some grated romano cheese, as the original recipe suggested. (I add a cup or so of grated cheddar cheese to the sauce when making Mac & Cheese.) My version makes less than half of the original recipe, but it is enough to cover the entire pasta dish (I was trying to minimize the number of rich calories). You could easily double the sauce recipe when you feel like splurging (I intend to at least one time in the future).
  • I really recommend using the magic whisk when making a Bechamel or white sauce. It works wonders at getting out any lumps in the sauce. I bought mine at the kitchen shop in St. Lawrence Market.