A week in review

Sunday, October 30, 2011

As I wondered what to write about today, I drew a blank.  Although I had a great week, nothing seemed big enough to base a blog post on.  So instead, I decided to write a quick recap of the past seven days.  It was a week full of blessings:

n     We attended the wedding of my youngest daughter’s church choir leader, a beautiful small wedding at our church.
n     With my friend Trish, I went to an International Festival of Authors event on Monday night that featured Governor-General nominees reading from their books.
n     I took my oldest daughter to a university open house, the third that we’ve visited this fall.  It’s hard to believe that in a few months she’ll be committing to one of them.
n     I watched game 7 of the World Series with my husband.  Is there anything better than Game 7 (even if Game 6 was the one no one will ever forget)?
n     And, best of all, I’m writing again!  After spending most of this fall with no ideas and little motivation, I’m finally feeling inspired. 

I’m also blessed to have discovered another Pear Crisp recipe that I love.  Those of you with long memories will remember that last fall, not only did I publish an Apple Pear Cherry Crisp recipe, I actually called it The Ultimate Fall Dessert.  But when it comes to food, I never leave perfection unchallenged.  When I tried the new recipe, I knew I’d found another winner.  The crystallized ginger gives this dessert a gentle warmth that plays beautifully against the cool pears.  Although Bon Appetit calls this dessert a crumble, to me it’s a crisp all the way.

How was your week?

Pear Crumble with Crystallized Ginger

For topping:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup old-fashioned oats (not instant)
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
dash of kosher salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

 For filling:
3 pounds firm but ripe pears, peeled, cored, cut into 1/4 inch thick slices
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup sugar
2 Tbsp minced crystallized ginger
1 1/2 Tbsp unbleached all purpose flour


Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Butter a 13” by 9” glass baking dish (mine was a bit smaller and it worked fine). 

To make the topping, mix first five ingredients in a medium bowl.  Add butter and incorporate until moist clumps form.

For the filing, combine pear slices and lemon juice in a large bowl.  Add remaining ingredients and toss to blend. 

Transfer filling to prepared dish.  Sprinkle topping on top, and bake crumble until pears are tender and topping is golden brown and crisp, about 45 minutes.  Cool at least 20 minutes.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Thursday's Child: Two dinners in San Gimignano

Thursday, October 27, 2011

I’ll finish my month of writing about special meals with two memorable dinners in San Gimignano, Italy.  When we were in Italy two summers ago, we spent a couple of nights in a lovely farmhouse in Tuscany, just outside of San Gimignano.  I’ve written about this beautiful medieval village and its stately towers here.

On our first night in town, we decided to eat at Trattoria Chiribiri.  Because it's a tiny restaurant, we’d been warned to arrive early or be prepared to wait, as hopeful diners greatly outnumber the few tables.  Fortunately, we got there before the crowds, and enjoyed one of those rare meals where everyone was thrilled with what they ordered.  From the fresh gnocchi to the wild boar, the food was uniformly delicious.

But what made the evening truly unique was our effervescent waiter.  Shortly after we arrived, he told us in confidence that he’d just proposed to the cook the previous night.  He even invited her out of the kitchen so we could congratulate her in person.  How exciting, we thought, for us to share in their happiness.

Our meal was so memorable, in fact, that we decided to return the following evening.  Our waiter greeted us with a joy reserved for long-lost friends.  We had just placed our order and were chatting amongst ourselves when we heard him talking to the diners at the next table.  “This is a very exciting time for me,” he said, “because I just proposed to the cook yesterday evening!”  He beamed as they applauded, and gave us a wink on his way back to the kitchen.

Is it any surprise that the country which inspired Romeo and Juliet could encourage our waiter to propose to his co-worker every night?
The happy couple

Chicken Casserole for the Soul

Sunday, October 23, 2011
I wasn’t feeling great yesterday.  In fact, I felt lousy from the time I dragged myself out of bed.  I spent much of the morning lying on the family room couch, and in the late morning I croaked out to the girls what they could make themselves for lunch.  I vaguely heard them bustling around in the kitchen and, the next thing I knew, the two of them were standing over me.  “We made you lunch,” they said.

It turned out they had made me chicken noodle soup.  From scratch.  Without a recipe.  Is it any wonder that within the hour I was feeling 100% better?  Chicken soup under any circumstances is completely restorative.  Chicken soup, homemade by your daughters without even asking, has miraculous healing tendencies.

I don’t have a chicken soup recipe for you today, but I do have a chicken recipe.  This Roasted Garlic and Cheddar Orzo with Chicken and Broccoli is absolutely wonderful.  I found the recipe on The Brick Kitchen blog.  Despite my sweet tooth, I really try to eat healthy food, and Tasha always has amazing recipes that make it easy to do so.  It’s the next best thing to having someone else make you chicken noodle soup.

Roasted Garlic and Cheddar Orzo with Chicken and Broccoli
Note: this recipe serves 2 – 3, and can be doubled

1 medium-sized head of garlic
1 Tbsp olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 cup uncooked orzo
1 large head of broccoli, cut into small florets, about 5 cups (I used frozen)
1 Tbsp butter
1/2 small red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 Tbsp flour
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup shredded extra sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup chopped cooked chicken

Remove the outer papery skins from the head of garlic.  Trim off a little from the top of the head, so that all of the cloves are partially exposed.  Drizzle with a little olive oil, wrap in foil and roast at 375 degrees for 45 minutes.  Remove from oven and allow to cool.  Squeeze garlic cloves from skins and mash with a fork to make garlic paste.  (This step can be done ahead.)

Cook orzo until al dente, according to package directions.  Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat oil over medium heat in a large skillet.  Saute broccoli for 10 – 12 minutes, or until tender-crisp, stirring frequently.  Using a slotted spoon, remove broccoli and set aside.

Add butter to pan.  Once melted, add garlic paste and bell pepper.  Cook for 1 minute.  Whisk in flour, stirring constantly until flour mixture turns golden brown, 1 – 2 minutes.  Pour in broth and, stirring frequently, simmer until slightly thickened, another couple of minutes.  Add cheese and stir until smooth; allow to thicken slightly. 

Mix in broccoli and chicken, and cook until just heated through.  Add cooked orzo and toss to coat. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.  Serve warm.

Thursday's Child: Lunch in St. Petersburg

Thursday, October 20, 2011

This summer, I had the joy of visiting one of the cities I’ve always dreamed of seeing – St. Petersburg, Russia.  Since I returned, everyone has asked what my favourite memory was.  The Hermitage museum, the Church on the Spilled Blood, and Peterhof were all amazing, and hopefully someday I’ll write about them all.  But without a doubt, the most special experience in St. Petersburg was our borscht lunch.

We visited St. Petersburg as part of a Baltic cruise.  In most of the ports, we toured independently.  But it’s not that easy in St. Petersburg.  Legal restrictions make it difficult to even get off the ship without having a prearranged guide who has organized a tourist visa for your stay. 

We had hired a guide and driver through SPb Tours, but I must admit I was still nervous about disembarking.  I had given my family precise and lengthy instructions about how to behave while passing through Russian customs.  (For Seinfeld fans, think of the Soup Nazi with legal control of your passport.)  Then there was the fear of what we’d do if our guide didn’t show up, since we weren’t legally permitted in the country without her.

Our lovely guide Elena, did show up, though.  Since the cost of a private tour was only incrementally more expensive than taking a group tour, we had her to ourselves.  Elena also works as an English teacher, and her facility with the English language was only surpassed by her knowledge and love of the city.  Surprisingly, our driver Max also spoke perfect English.  (We found out later that they’re a couple.)

 After a full morning of sightseeing, they took us to an out-of-the way cafĂ© for lunch.  We knew the food had to be good, based on the amount of Russian we heard spoken there.  And it was good – sandwiches and the best borscht I’ve ever eaten. (Okay, the only borscht I’ve ever eaten.  I can’t believe I’ve spent my whole life thinking I don’t like borscht.  It was fantastic!)

But what made this the highlight of our time in St. Petersburg was the chance to sit down and talk to two locals.  The six of us crowded around a table meant for four, and we listened as they painted a picture of life in Russia today.  I didn’t know, for example, that if you smile a lot, the Russians will think you’re an idiot.  (I later realized that as I flitted around the city, beaming my perma travel-grin, I was probably close to being hospitalized.)  

As a driver, Max had driven a number of Russian hockey players who previously or currently played in the NHL.  This was big currency with Andrew, who knows every player who’s ever played professional hockey and most of their statistics.

We talked about ladas, and the health care system, and the arts.  We listened quietly as Elena told us about her father’s failing health.  The borscht was great, but it was the company that made our lunch in St. Petersburg unforgettable.
Elena and Max


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Here’s a formula for perfect cookies: take a Dorie Greenspan recipe for cookies based on the ingredients in carrot cake, and top it with a luscious cream cheese frosting.  Who in the world could possibly resist such perfect cookies?

For starters, both of my daughters.

I love raisins, both on their own and in nearly any kind of cake, muffin or cookie.  I don’t know how it’s possible for me to have raised two children who don’t care for raisins in baked goods.  And, in this case, “don’t care for” is a euphemism for “loathe”.  I’ve seen them pick raisins out of hot cross buns, cinnamon rolls and oatmeal cookies.  Not to mention carrot cake.

So I save this recipe – and others like it – for times when I’m baking for someone else.  This week, I volunteered to take baked goods to my writers’ association meeting.  Only after checking the fine print did I realize that would entail about ten dozen cookies.  So among other treats, I whipped up a batch of these wonderful cookies, iced them and saved a few for Andrew and me.  (Yes, he likes raisins too.  How can this odd recessive gene have been passed on to both of our kids?)

I will say this.  My oldest daughter may leave her hot-cross buns looking like a moth-eaten blanket, but she decorated some of the cookies with little icing carrots before photographing them for me.

In the end, I guess we can’t easily influence the taste buds of our loved ones.  I’m just grateful that we passed on our dominant genes for loving chocolate chip cookies.

Gingered Carrot Cookies
(adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking From My Home to Yours)

For cookies:

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup shredded carrots (about 3, peeled and trimmed)
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1 cup raisins

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Whisk together the flours, baking powder, salt and ginger.  

Beat the butter on medium speed until smooth.  Add white and brown sugar and beat for 2 minutes or so, then add the egg and vanilla and beat for another minute.

Add the dry ingredients and stir until mixed.  (Dough will be thick.)  Mix in the carrots, coconuts and raisins.

Spoon the dough onto the baking sheets in heaping tablespoonfuls leaving an inch between them.  Bake for 16 to 18 minutes.  Carefully transfer the cookies to racks to cool to room temperature.

For frosting:

8 ounces cream cheese
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 1/2 to 4 cups icing sugar
1/2 cup shredded coconut

Beat the cream cheese and butter together until creamy.  Gradually add icing sugar and continue to beat until smooth.  Spread on cookies and sprinkle the coconut on top.

Thursday's Child: Dinner at Taverna San Trovaso

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  It's one of the most visually stunning, and romantic, places on earth.

Also, in the middle of August, it is one of the hottest.

We visited Venice two years ago in a summertime heat wave.  Generally on holidays, I carry on despite the weather.  If it’s raining or snowing, if it’s hot or cold, I know I’m still unbelievably blessed to be travelling.  I’m not interested in hearing complaints from myself or from others about the weather. 

But this was the kind of day that could make you forget that notion.  The heat was overbearing, and we had spent a long time that afternoon shopping at the Rialto Bridge.  My oldest daughter wanted to buy a mask, and the final decision was a while in coming.  The Patient Mother in me battled it out with the Prickly Non-Shopper, and barely held on to win.  By the time the purchase was finally made and we were plodding back to the hotel, both sides were soundly defeated by the Sweltering Globetrotter.  The heat of the sun struck like a hammer and every step I took seemed like a scientific experiment in inertia. 

By the time we reached our hotel, I never wanted to leave again.  But, as usual, the rest of my family was hungry.  I knew that the Taverna San Trovaso was a half-minute walk from our hotel, and had been well-reviewed.  Frankly, I’d have eaten in a silo if it was a half-minute walk from the hotel, so we decided to give it a try.

I was so hot that I literally didn’t care what I ate.  (Note: That hardly ever happens.)  I asked the waiter what he recommended, and he urged me to try the beef with arugula and parmesan.  Roast beef when my overheated body could barely sit up at the table?  It didn’t sound promising, but I didn’t see an alternative that interested me.  Roast beef it was.

I nearly wept with joy when he brought me a plate with a cool roast beef salad, served in the way that only the Italians could.  Three simple ingredients of the highest quality made this salad perfectly refreshing.  Suddenly I could eat again.  In fact, I was so restored that I had a bite of the meringue my youngest daughter later ordered, and actually considered ordering a second one for myself.

We returned to Taverna San Trovaso three times on that trip, and I ordered the same meal every time.  I’ve tried to duplicate this salad at home and, although I’ve had great results, nothing has ever been as perfect as the roast beef salad served in a Venetian tavern in a heat wave.

Canadian Thanksgiving

Sunday, October 9, 2011

We’re enjoying a picture-perfect long weekend in southwestern Ontario.  I know my American friends celebrate Thanksgiving in late November, but our early-October celebration allows us to enjoy harvest weather and the beauty of leaves as they change colour.

It’s hard to believe that just last weekend I posted a recipe for hot chocolate cookies because the weather was so cold.  Yesterday, Andrew and the girls had a spirited game of football.  (I'm not sure how three people play football, although I'm told that my oldest daughter quarterbacked both teams.)  Today it was warm enough to sit out on my mom’s back deck in our short sleeves.  My sister and her family visited too, and we all enjoyed a fabulous meal of turkey and the trimmings.  I’m pretty sure we won’t need to eat again until Tuesday. 

At least, all of us except my youngest. After our enormous noon meal and a few hours of chatting, my mother specially prepared her some leftovers before we drove home.  On the way back, my daughter asked what we were going to have for dinner.  When I said that none of us really needed more food, she asked in alarm, “You’re going to send me to bed without dinner?”  For the record, I made my famished 14-year-old a bacon and cheese sandwich when we got back.  I trust that will tide her over until breakfast.

So, among many other things, I’m thankful for the love of good food.  I’m also thankful that my husband was able to photograph my butternut squash salad while I was helping my mom put a turkey dinner on the table. 

Warm Butternut and Chickpea Salad with Tahini Dressing

For salad:
1 medium butternut squash (about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds), peeled, seeded and cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces
1 medium garlic clove, minced
1/2 tsp ground allspice
2 Tbsp olive oil
one 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (1 1/2 cups)
1/4 of a medium red onion, finely chopped

For tahini dressing:
1 medium garlic clove, finely minced with a pinch of salt
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 – 4 Tbsp well-stirred tahini
2 Tbsp water
2 Tbsp olive oil

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  In a large bowl, combine the butternut squash, garlic, allspice, olive oil and a few pinches of salt.  Toss until squash pieces are evenly coated.  Roast them on a baking sheet for 25 minues, or until soft.  Remove from the oven and cool slightly.

Meanwhile, make the tahini dressing.  In a small bowl, whisk together the garlic and lemon juice.  Add the tahini and whisk to blend.  Add the water and olive oil, whisk well and taste for seasoning.  The sauce should have plenty of nutty tahini flavour,  but also a little kick of lemon.  Add more tahini to taste, or more water to thin out.

To assemble the salad, combine the squash, chickpeas and onion in a mixing bowl.  Either add the tahini dressing to taste and toss carefully, or you could serve the salad with the dressing on the side.  (Note:  I used the dressing sparingly and had quite a lot left over.  Next time I’d either cut the dressing recipe in half or save the remainder for another salad!)

I prepared everything ahead, because I knew the turkey would be dominating my mom’s oven this morning.  I simply reheated the squash mixture for 15-20 minutes at 325 degrees right before the meal, added the dressing and served.

Thursday's Child: Breakfast at the Fox and Anchor

Thursday, October 6, 2011
Photo used courtesy of Philip Wilkinson
One of the pleasures of travelling is enjoying the food of our destination.  Visiting France as a poor, young student,  I picnicked on bread and cheese every day.  I remember thinking I couldn't possibly be eating better, and I was right.  Regardless of my budget, I remember the meals I've eaten on trips as much as any of the sights I've seen.  This month I'm going to share some of my favourite trip memories as they relate to food.

A contender for my most memorable meal was breakfast at the Fox and Anchor pub in London, England.  We had arrived in London the night before and were predictably jet-lagged.  Andrew’s relatives graciously served us an elegant gourmet meal with a different wine at every course.  The meal went well into the night.

All of it was fine, except for this: Andrew’s cousin had made us breakfast reservations at the Fox and Anchor the next morning.  When the alarm went off at 6:30, I thought there was some kind of mistake.  Yes, judging by the glimmer I spied through the window, the sun had risen and logically it must be daytime.  Logic aside, there was no reason to believe I was even living. 

At a time like that, this is what I might enjoy for breakfast.  Two slices of toast, lightly buttered.  Half a grapefruit.  A pair of sunglasses to keep out the extra light.

Here is what I received: a generous plate of fried eggs, two slices of toast covered in baked beans.  And a side dish of black pudding.  (If you’re not sure what that is, know that it’s a near relative of the aptly-named blood pudding.  And weep.)

I am nothing but a good sport.  I scraped the baked beans off my lightly buttered toast and ate the toast as cheerfully as possibly.  This left a plate that still appeared completely full.   I remember looking at that plate, and the black pudding looking back at me.  I stared it down; I was not admitting defeat. I managed to pick away at my fried eggs and baked beans.  The black pudding remained untouched.  (My victory lay in staring it down.  You didn’t expect me to eat it, did you?)

The Fox and Anchor is one of London's iconic pubs.  It serves a range of British food from scotch eggs to game pie, from mince and tatties to goose fry chips.  I'm thrilled to have eaten there and if I ever go back to London, I'd love to visit the Fox and Anchor again.  For lunch.

Hot Chocolate

Sunday, October 2, 2011
I was all set to post a salad recipe, but that will have to wait for another week.  In Toronto today, it’s 6 degrees Celsius (that’s 42 degrees Fahrenheit for my American friends) and it’s teeming with rain.  We're all wearing our winter coats – and it’s only the second of October!  The salad will have to wait; I need to post something that makes me feel warm, just looking at it.

I need to post Hot Chocolate Cookies.

That’s not what they were originally called, but with all the important ingredients of hot chocolate (chocolate, marshmallows, best served on a miserable day), I can’t think of anything better to call them.  And they are comfort cookies at their best.  So even if you’re reading this in sunny Texas (currently 29 degrees Celsuis, 84 Fahrenheit), you’ll enjoy them as much in shorts and a T-shirt as we do in our winter coats.

Hot Chocolate cookies

For the cookies:
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup skim milk
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
About 15 marshmallows, halved crosswise

For the frosting:
3 cups confectioners’ (icing) sugar
6 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tsp cocoa powder
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp skim milk
3/4 tsp pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

To make cookies, sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt into a bowl.

Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer on medium-high speed for about 2 minutes.  Reduce speed to medium-low; mix in egg, milk and vanilla.  Mix in flour mixture, 1/2 cup at a time, until combined.

Drop dough onto baking sheets (either non-stick or lined with parchment paper), about 2 inches apart.  You should have about 30 cookies.  Bake until firm, 8 to 10 minutes.  Immediately press a marshmallow half on top of each cookie, then bake until marshmallows begin to melt, 2 minutes more.  Let cool completely.

To make frosting, put icing sugar in a medium bowl.  Melt butter with the cocoa powder in a saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally.  Add butter mixture to the icing sugar.  Whisk in milk and vanilla.

Spread about 1 Tbsp of frosting on top of each cooked cookies to cover marshmallow.  Let stand until set, about 10 minutes.