Easter weekend

Saturday, March 30, 2013

It's Easter weekend and the house is full of family.  My oldest daughter is home from university and my mom drove in this morning.  Tomorrow, my sister and her family will be helping us celebrate.  We'll have an egg hunt, just as we have every year since the girls were born.  My youngest daughter was about eight months old the first year she participated.  She wasn't sure what those colourful objects were, but she sure loved putting them in her mouth to check them out!  And I'll never forget the year my oldest daughter dressed as the Easter Bunny to meet my mother when she arrived.  She lovingly crafted ears, feet and a tail out of construction paper and hopped to the front door when the doorbell rang.  She was pleased that her grandmother loved the costume, but a little surprised that she didn't mistake her for the actual Easter Bunny.

Many of us will be eating a big Easter meal this weekend, so let me present a lighter alternative in case you're feeling full.  I fell in love with this recipe the minute I saw it posted on Joanne's marvellously entertaining blog, Eats Well With Others.  Once the peppers are roasted it's ready in no time - a perfect meal to serve when your whole family is home.

Pizza Rustica Pasta
(adapted from Eats Well With Others

2 medium red bell peppers
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 lb swiss chard, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 tsp minced garlic
12 ounces mushrooms, chopped
8 ounces part-skim ricotta cheese
2 ounces gruyere, shredded
1 ounce parmesan cheese, grated
1 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme
1/2 tsp kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
10 ounces whole wheat fettuccine or spaghetti

Cut the bell peppers in half lengthwise and discard the seeds and membranes.  Place pepper halves skin-side up on a foil-lined baking sheet and flatten with your hands.  Broil until charred and black on the outsides.  Place into a closed container for 5 minutes.  Peel skin off and discard.  Coarsely chop pepper flesh.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat.  Add 1 Tbsp oil and swirl to coat the pan.  Add chard to the pan and cook for 1 minute or until wilted.  Place chard and bell peppers in a large bowl.  Add the remaining tablespoon oil, then add the garlic and cook for 1 minute.  Add mushrooms and cook for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until cooked through and soft.  Add to the vegetable mixture along with the ricotta, gruyere, parmesan, thyme, salt and pepper.  Stir to combine.

Cook pasta to desired consistency according to package directions, reserving 1 cup pasta water.  Drain pasta and toss with vegetable/cheese mixture, adding half of the reserved water.  Stir to combine and add more water as needed to create desired sauce consistency.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Brown Butter blondies with Skor Bar chunks

Sunday, March 24, 2013

I was planning to make these wonderful blondies sometime this weekend anyhow.  But my youngest daughter and her best friend came over after school on Friday dying to do some baking, so they made them instead. 

I fell in love with this recipe the first time I tried it.  The brown butter, the chocolate and the toffee flavor combined to make them really special.  Liz’s original recipe, on the wonderful blog That Skinny Chick Can Bake, called for Heath bars.  Since we can’t get those in Canada, I substituted Skor bars.  Either way, they’re fantastic – one of the best new recipes I’ve tried recently.

Maybe you’ve noticed that I haven’t been posting as many recipes for sweets lately.  There are a few reasons for that, but one is that my husband is trying to stay away from desserts, and I’m attempting to make that easier by not baking too often.  But he’s out of town this weekend and we took full advantage by making these blondies.  Andrew, if you’re reading this from Florida, I promise these will be gone by the time you get back home.

Brown Butter Blondies with Skor Bar chunks


1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup Skor (or Heath) bar chunks – two bars cut up
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line 8 x 8” pan with foil or parchment paper.

To brown the butter, melt it in saucepan over medium heat and continue cooking, swirling pan occasionally, till it just turns brown and smells nutty.

Combine brown butter and brown sugar.  Beat for a couple of minutes until well combined, then add egg and beat until batter is smooth.  Mix in vanilla.  Mix in flour, salt and baking soda and stir until just combined.  Fold in Skor bar chunks and chocolate chips.  Bake for 20 – 25 minutes.  Cool, then cut into bars to serve.

Thursday's Child: Alcatraz, San Francisco

Thursday, March 21, 2013
There aren't many places in the world where you'd want to go on holidays and see a prison while you're there.  The one exception is Alcatraz, the famous jail located on an island a short ferry ride from San Francisco.

What could possibly make a visit to a former prison enjoyable?  Knowing a bit about the brutal history of the institution, I had my doubts.  But they were put to rest when we received our audio tour headsets and started to listen to some of the stories told by former inmates, guards, and families of staff who lived on the island.  I'm always intrigued by a good story, and their tales, from attempted escapes to depictions of everyday life, were told with a sense of drama.

Originally built as a military prison, Alcatraz came to prominence in 1934 when it was adapted for use as a location to house the "worst of the worst" criminals - those who committed the most dangerous crimes, or were too difficult for other facilities to manage.  Some of these criminals were well-known; who hasn't heard of Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, or the Birdman of Alcatraz?

The relatively short distance back to the city must have made it all the more difficult for inmates who knew escape was virtually impossible.  Some of the stories were chilling, others were more light-hearted, and overall it gave us an overview of what life was like at this most notorious of penitentiaries.

Back to normal

Sunday, March 17, 2013
After a few days out of town with my mother and youngest daughter, it's good to be home again.  As much as I enjoy eating out, I always like being in my own kitchen and making the simple foods that we all like best.

This black bean and sweet potato quesadilla fit the bill perfectly.  It isn't too big, but it's filling and full of great flavours.  Best of all, it's really simple; it's easy to make the filling in advance, then assemble the quesadillas right at mealtime.

It's good to be home again, especially when mealtime is this easy and this good!

Black Bean and Sweet Potato Quesadillas
(adapted from Pepper Lynn)


1 1/2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 finely chopped onion
kosher salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tin canned black beans, drained and rinsed (about 1 cup of beans)
1 cup mashed, cooked sweet potato (I roasted mine)
1 tsp cumin powder
pinch crushed red pepper flakes
6 - 8" whole wheat tortillas
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese
sour cream


Swirl the olive oil in a skillet that has been heated over medium heat.  Add the onions and a pinch of salt, and saute 3 - 4 minutes until the onions start to soften.  Add the minced garlic and cook about 5 minutes more until the onion just starts to brown.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the sauteed onion and garlic with the black beans, mashed sweet potato, cumin and crushed red pepper flakes.  Stir until well-combined, then add additional salt and crushed red pepper flakes to taste.

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat.  Scoop about 1/3 cup of the black bean and sweet potato mixture and spread it evenly on half of a tortilla.  Sprinkle 1/4 cup shredded cheese over the filling and fold the tortilla in half.  Repeat with remaining filling and tortillas.  Cook for about 3 minutes per side until nicely browned.  Serve with sour cream and salsa.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

According to the calendar it isn't spring yet.  According to the calendar, it's still a week and a half away.

But really?  It's spring.

We're going outside without jackets, the snow is melting, and we're remembering that there is indeed grass under all that snow.  We're starting to see our neighbours again after staying inside through the winter.  It's sunny, it's windy, and the air smells fresh and young.  What other season could it be?

I'm finding myself cooking with ingredients like green onions and lemons, too.  I didn't deliberately choose this recipe because of the spring connection, but it sounded so fresh and delicious that I couldn't pass it up.  It was a huge hit, and I'll definitely make it again soon.  Perhaps to commemorate the day that the calendar tells me it's officially spring.

In honour of my favourite season, I present this poem, and this recipe:


If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary's cage
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

- Billy Collins

Quinoa Cakes with Lemon Yogurt Sauce
(adapted from Canadian Living)


1 1/2 cups uncooked quinoa
1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
1 1/2 cups water
1 Tbsp olive oil (first amount)
1/2 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups trimmed fresh spinach
3 eggs
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp grated lemon rind
2 Tbsp olive oil (second amount)
1 – 2 Tbsp olive oil (third amount)
1 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds (optional)

In fine sieve, rinse quinoa under cold water; drain.  In saucepan, bring quinoa, broth and water to boil.  Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.  Drain in five sieve and let cool completely.

Meanwhile, in skillet, heat 1 Tbsp oil over medium heat; fry onion, garlic and salt, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened, about 4 minutes.  Add spinach, cook, stirring until wilted and no liquid remains, about 3 minutes.  Let cool and coarsely chop.

In large bowl, whisk together eggs, Parmesan cheese, flour, baking powder and lemon rind.  Fold in quinoa and spinach mixture.  With wet hands, form into 16 cakes; transfer to waxed paper-lined tray.  Refrigerate for 1 hour.

In nonstick skillet, heat 2 Tbsp oil over medium heat.  Fry half the cakes until golden (about 4-6 minutes per side).  Use two spatulas to flip them if you’re concerned about them falling apart.  Keep the first set warm on baking sheet in 200 degree oven while the second set is cooking. (You may need an extra 1 to 2 Tbsp of olive oil for this batch.)  Serve drizzled with Lemon Yogurt Sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Lemon Yogurt Sauce:


1 1/2 cups plain yogurt or Greek yogurt
1/3 cup thinly sliced green onions
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 pinch salt

Stir together yogurt, onions, lemon juice and salt.  Set aside in refrigerator until ready to serve.  

Thursday's Child: The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Thursday, March 7, 2013

I've been wanting to write about St. Petersburg's wonderful Hermitage museum for a while, but it was hard to know where to start.  Should I focus on its incredible history or the fabulous architecture? (I could probably write a post on the ceilings alone.)  Or should I simply focus on the art?

I've decided to include a little of everything in today's post.  The Hermitage museum is simply one of the most outstanding museums in the world.  Only a small percentage of its actual collection is on display because of the enormity of it.  Catherine the Great started the art collection that became the basis for the Hermitage, personally collecting thousands of works of art in her lifetime.

The buildings that house the Hermitage are impressive in their own right.  The Winter Palace is the best-known, as it was a former residence of the Russian tsars.  The walls and ceilings are, in various places, painted, covered in tiles, or gilded.  The Hermitage is the only museum I remember visiting where we actually took photos of the floors (beautifully tiled or parqueted).
Parquet flooring
And the artwork is unbelievable.  The Hermitage holds more French artwork than any museum outside of France.  The lineup of artists includes da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, el Greco, Titian, Rubens, Michelangelo, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse ... and these are just a few of the artists who make up the European painting collection.
"The Holy Family" by Raphael
I loved everything about the Hermitage museum, but perhaps most of all I loved hearing about how the people of Russia did everything they could to protect the collection in the second world war. The Germans were advancing in 1941, and a group of dedicated artists and volunteers offered their assistance to the professionals at the Hermitage, to evacuate and/or hide as much of the artwork as possible before the siege on the city.

I'll let the artist Liudmila Ronchevskaya finish the story in her own words:

"We had to hurry.  The enemy was approaching the city.  The restorers gave permission to cut paintings from their stretchers.  That was quicker.  But what does it mean - to cut a picture? The artists wouldn't do it.  They cut down on their rest time and sleep."

(From Hermitage museum website)
"Portrait of the Poet Jeremias de Decker" - Rembrandt