Secret Recipes

A few days ago, my son (11) said he wanted to make dinner for us. Not just help—he wanted to do it all.

We’ve sent him to cooking classes, so it’s not odd that he wanted to be in the kitchen. And we know he’s capable of some pretty good things, at least when under the supervision of someone much more qualified. He’s helped many times and even led the way on a few occasions.

This time, though, he wanted to do it all.

“I can do it.” He repeated with as much pride as frustration with our constant questions—”What are you making? How can we help? What do you need…?”

He promised a secret recipe; something he’s found and determined to twist-up and call his own. He did not disappoint.

Baked Fish Tacos with Mango Pineapple Salsa.

Baked Fish Tacos with Mango Pineapple Salsa

Baked Fish Tacos with Mango Pineapple Salsa

I can’t share the recipe with you. He hasn’t shared it with me. He’s determined that he’s going to have a few dishes that are his signature—something only he can bring to the party—and he won’t share.

I can tell you it was delicious. I could have eaten 10 more of them without even thinking about it. The crispy baked fish, the sweet and tangy salsa—the whole thing just a fresh explosion of goodness.

And before you go thinking he was lucky, he started the meal with shrimp bruschetta and ended with chocolate pate. He shared those recipes, though, and one day I will share them here.

 

Open. Bake. Eat.

If there are any rules in the kitchen, the first one is ‘Always use fresh ingredients’. No question—fresh is best. Fresh sauces; fresh herbs & spices; fresh pastas; fresh vegetables—you can never go wrong when you start with fresh ingredients. Celebrate the simple flavours or bring out the complexity without any influence from processed or manufactured tastes.

We’ve made homemade cinnamon rolls without too much trouble. Make a nice sweet dough; let it rise and roll it out; dust it with cinnamon and roll it back up; cut into discs and bake. 90 minutes, tops. A little more creativity and we could have a pretty special glaze. We would have fun baking together in the kitchen and enjoy our time as a family. And I don’t doubt that the flavour would be exponentially better.

Rules, though—especially kitchen rules—are really just guidelines. ‘Fresh is best’ doesn’t mean that comfort food can’t come from a package. Let’s be honest—there is something really comforting about a recipe that reads: turn on oven; bake for 13 minutes while you goof around with your kids; remove and eat. Eat lots.

Sometimes mindlessly simple is part of the treat.

Photo: Just 20 minutes from idea to nibble, some cinnamon buns from English Bay Batter company, with a little caramel glaze. Pop the tin, bake, enjoy.

Always Experiment.

Today was National Pasta Day. Having recently discovered a whole list of national food holidays, I thought I had marked all the days that were of interest. I missed Pasta Day—a day any comfort food enthusiast would celebrate—so I was a little surprise and unprepared.

Not to worry. Pantry + Fridge + Creativity = an exciting dinner.

Cooking at home takes practice. The more time I’ve spent in the kitchen throwing things together and tasting the results, the more confident I’ve become at planning, shopping, and even the act of cooking itself. Of course, a bit of courage is also helpful; creativity doesn’t always work in my favour. But sometimes it does. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that experimenting—being comfortable with trying something new—makes a big difference.

Being unprepared for a food holiday doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t celebrate. It just means creativity—a little culinary experimentation—is going to be the first ingredient.

Photo: Started with chicken. Saute it, deglaze with white wine, add onions, garlic, Kalamata olives, chicken broth and cream. Season. Toss with spaghetti and a large handful of shredded parmesan. A perfectly delicious experiment.

The ultimate comfort food.

Pasta is the ultimate comfort food. A little oil and fresh vegetables in the summer time or a hearty rich sauce in the winter, and pretty much anything in between. It’s an easy dinner that can be ready quickly with just a few simple ingredients. In true comfort food style, though, you can also take your time and build a sauce that is complex, rich and deep.

In our house, one of our easy go-to meals is this Italian Sausage Rotini. The recipe that follows is the basic version—it’s a delicious and hearty dinner that can be ready in 30 minutes, give or take a few, which makes it perfect for busy week nights. Adjust the spices and change the flavour. Change the wine and change the flavour. Use sauteed vegetables instead of the meat and it’s a whole different experience. What we love about this dish is the flexibility in the ingredients (and the option for less than exact measuring). It’s not a meal we are going to get tired of anytime soon.

Make not mistake though. It’s always comfort food, regardless of how we make it.

Ingredients

  • 20 oz (3+ large links) mild Italian sausage, cut into 1/2 inch chunks (essentially little meatballs)
  • 1 red onion, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, diced
  • 1 tbs butter
  • 2/3 cup white wine
  • 14 oz tomato sauce
  • 1/3 cup whipping cream
  • 375 g rotini pasta (or similar)
  • 1/2 tbs dried basil
  • 1 tbs dried oregano
  • salt and pepper, olive oil
  • grated parmesan

Directions

  • Get pot of water boiling and ready for pasta.
  • Heat pan to med-high, add 1/2 tbs of butter and dash of oil, saute Italian sausage chunks until brown on all sides and cooked through. Dust with basil. Remove from heat and set aside.
  • Deglaze pan with white wine and let simmer until reduced by half. Red wine or cooking sherry work, too. Use your favourite. Start the pasta cooking now and it all should be ready at the same time.
  • Add 1/2 tbs butter and dash of oil to the pan. Saute red onion for 2-3 minutes. Add garlic and saute for 1 minute more.
  • Reduce heat to med-low. Add tomato sauce and whipping cream. Add oregano, salt and pepper.
  • Let sauce simmer for 4 -5 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Add cooked sausage, and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally until pasta is ready, about 5 – 7 minutes.
  • Drain pasta, return to pot and add sauce/sausage mixture. Stir until coated.
  • Serve with grated parmesan.

This will make enough for 4 hungry people, plus leftovers. Because leftovers are awesome.

It’s a pretty easy recipe, and anyone with moderate kitchen skills can pull this off easily. That means kids can do it, as long as you help them drain the boiling water and remove the sausage from the pan.

Photo: This is the basic recipe as I dished up dinner for the family.

Thankful.

This is Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada. We have many things for which we are thankful—we are fortunate and we are comfortable.

Today is the day that many of us sit down to a feast that is as familiar as it is abundant. We hold on to some old traditions—turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy—and explore new ideas with each new year—bourbon maple baked squash, onion bacon brussel sprouts, grilled apple cranberry sauce. We will eat a little too much, talking and laughing with people we love.

It’s also a day to celebrate the simple things that make life better everyday; good friends and simple foods. We are thankful for many things today, but mostly because we have friends who like to share.

Photo: Fresh made biscuits with homemade rhubarb jam. The delicious jam was a gift from a friend.

Awesome Apple Cobbler.

Without a doubt, Apple Cobbler is my most favourite dessert. Warm, sweet, and sticky goodness—it’s the tender fresh apples and a crumbly top paired with the creamy cool ice cream that makes it perfect for autumn. There are plenty of easy recipes worthy of making, but I was looking for something special before posting it to this blog. Inspired by a version from Big Bears Wife, I took the task seriously. I will warn you now, this one became a lot of work as I’ve made it into a two part recipe.

The original recipe called for cans of pie filling (which I am sure would work just fine). But we spent the day in the orchard and needed to turn at least a few pounds of our haul into something awesome. We used a mix of Gravenstein (80%) and Granny Smith (20%). More Grannies would be more tart—your choice.

Ingredients:

  • 18 cups thinly sliced apples
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • 3 1/2 cups white sugar
  • 1 cup cornstarch
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 7 cups water

Directions:

  • In a large bowl, toss sliced apples with lemon juice and set aside.
  • Pour water into a Dutch oven over medium heat. All together, add sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg to water, stir well, and bring to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
  • Add apples and return to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until apples are tender, about 10-12 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and cool for 30 minutes.

This will make enough for 3 versions of the Cobbler recipe. Ladle into freezable containers, cool at room temperature for 90 minutes, and then freeze two thirds of the filling. Can be stored for up to 12 months. You can probably use it for pies, too, with sea salt caramel ice cream, …but I digress. Use the remaining third for the recipe.

Now it’s time to make the Awesome Apple Cobbler.

Ingredients:

  • 6 1/2 cups of your apple filling
  • 2 eggs
  • 10 oz  sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup All Purpose Flour
  • 1/2 cup cold butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 cup chopped nuts (pecans, walnuts, …feel free to experiment)

Directions:

  • Pre-heat oven to 375F.
  • Lightly butter a deep 9-inch square baking dish. (Or use a shallow 8 x 14.)
  • Pour apple filling into baking dish to an even layer.
  • In a bowl, beat eggs, condensed milk, melted butter, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour mixture over apple filling.
  • In a separate bowl, combine brown sugar and flour. Mix in the cubed cold butter and crumble with your fingers. Add nuts and mix together. Sprinkle evenly over the top of the cobbler.
  • Bake 45 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.
  • Serve in bowls with a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream.

This is a sweet, rich, creamy dessert with a hint of tartness from the fresh apples. Without a doubt, it’s the best version I’ve ever had. Using fresh apples, they still have a little bit of firmness, and the toasted crumble is buttery and rich. Warm, with the right ice cream, and you will eat way more than you should.

Photos: There is nothing like the smell of apples and cinnamon bubbling on the stove. This filling is deliciously rich. And then there’s the finished Awesome Apple Cobbler, in a bowl, with ice cream. Perfection.

Update: (October 1, 2012) Don’t worry about making too much. I know for a fact that leftover Awesome Apple Cobbler is almost as good as the first day. And it’s already made!

Epic Roasted Cauliflower.

This is one of those recipes that comes from a restaurant experience, and then a lot of experimenting at home. Though I started with the full intention of recreating the dish exactly as served, I quickly went down my own path—this is best described as a recipe mash up.

Roasted Cauliflower is common in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, so there are a few good recipes for inspiration. My first tries were a complicated mix of spices and steps, and in the end I’ve discovered that patient roasting brings out an amazing nutty flavour in cauliflower. As usual, simple is best.

Ingredients:

  • 1 head of cauliflower, cut into florets
  • 1 sm red onion, sliced and separated
  • 1 tbs cumin
  • salt, olive oil
  • juice of one lemon

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 425.
  • In a bowl with 2 tbs olive oil, toss florets and onion to mix.
  • Arrange florets and onions on a baking sheet. Avoid overcrowding the florets, and keep it one layer. You want to toast them, not steam them.
  • Drizzle lemon juice, sprinkle a little salt and a light dusting of cumin.
  • Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, sprinkle with a little more salt and breathe in the aroma. It’s awesome. Repeat this step 2 more times, or until the cauliflower is nicely toasted (45 – 60 minutes total time).

Serve immediately, because the cauliflower doesn’t retain the heat; it’s better when warm and crispy. If you want, drizzle fresh squeezed lemon juice before the last blast in the oven. It adds a bright fresh flavour, but takes a bit of the crispiness away. It’s your choice.

Large florets are yummy and crunchy. Small florets suck up the spice & oil and burst with flavour. Some people use it as the vegetable part of the meal, but some (including the restaurant where I discovered it) use it as the main course of the meal. The nuttiness of the roasted cauliflower makes it sweet, and kids will love it before they know it’s a vegetable.

It’s “epic”, in the words of my son.

Some people add coriander and/or garam masala to the spice mix. Some people ignore the spices all together. Experiment to your heart’s content. I haven’t yet made a version that I wouldn’t eat over and over—I just keep making it better.

Photo: Right out of the oven, Roasted Cauliflower is crunchy and bursting with sweet and spicy flavours.

Okonomiyaki. Try something new.

Even though we have always been adventurous cooks, we are not immune from the emotional roller-coaster when getting kids to try new foods.

“Hey, try this.”
“No thanks.”
“No—I just want you to taste it.”
“I don’t want to”
“TRY IT!”
“NO!”

It escalates quickly.

One of the best ways to experience new food is to let someone who really knows how to cook prepare it for you. With kids, sometimes the passion from someone other than mom or dad is enough to break down barriers.

We’ve sent our son to a summer cooking camp twice. Both times he comes home with recipes, techniques and a taste for awesome new things. He’s learned to love foods that we struggled to get him to eat—or things we’ve never imagined—simply because the instructor chef was able to present it in a way that made it exciting.

Better still, he also comes home with an appreciation for food we have yet to discover, and he gets to show off a little. The same kid who squirmed when served a blueberry pancake at home beamed with pride when he prepared Okonomiyaki, a Japanese Pancake topped with Bonito flakes (little fish flakes that wiggle with the heat of your food).

Give it a try.

Ingredients:

  • 150g all purpose flour
  • 150ml water
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 green onions, sliced
  • 150g White Cabbage, julienned
  • 100g baby shrimp
  • 1 cup Bonito Flakes
  • Garnish with any combination, including: scallops, prawns, beef, pork, chicken, asparagus tips, Nori (dried seaweed), Bonito Flakes.
  • Sauce options include: Tonkatsu sauce, Japanese Mayo, Katsuo Bushi

Directions:

  • Whisk eggs, dashi and flour in a bowl until you have a smooth batter. Season with salt and pepper.
  • Carefully fold in green onions and 1/3 of cabbage with spatula. Repeat until all cabbage is mixed in and evenly coated with batter.
  • Heat oil in a skillet at medium heat. Add batter, making circles 2cm thick and 10cm wide.
  • Garnish uncooked side with select toppings: raw prawns or scallops; asparagus tips; thinly sliced beef, pork or chicken.
  • Turn each pancake over when bottom edge is cooked (brown). Press down to spread evenly, so pancake is about 1cm thick. Remove from heat when bottom is cooked (brown).
  • Serve warm. Garnish with Bonito Flakes, sliced Nori, Japanese Mayo, and Tonkatsu Sauce. We also added extra grilled chicken and prawns.
  • Serves two. It’s easy to multiply the recipe, and let people create their own topping mix.

These dense, delicious pancakes make a great meal. They are lots of fun for kids (especially the wiggly Bonito flakes), and a great way to experiment with lots of different toppings. You may need to try a few specialty stores to find everything you need.

Photo: These are the ones my son made for us. It has the seafood inside, with a grilled chicken and shrimp topping, Nori, and Bonito Flakes.

Yes, a PB&J burger.

I admit, this burger piqued my interest because it was just too weird. Burgers are one of the top tiers of comfort food for me, and I love a little creativity. I actually started to crave this one after I heard about it, and went out of my way to get one for lunch.

Start with a great, classic burger. Then add peanut butter (P), bacon (B) and jalapeno (J). Yes, you read that correctly—peanut butter. For a burger, the bacon is pretty much expected and the jalapeno kicks it up, but it’s the peanut butter that twists your taste buds. And while I fully expected the flavour to be odd—possibly in a good way—it actually tasted perfectly right. It’s as if the smooth nuttiness has always been a burger condiment right beside ketchup and mustard. Creamy without being sloppy; a zingy, deep flavour without smothering the burger. Simply put, it’s delicious.

There is no shortage of great burgers in town, but Triple O’s, a burger joint spin off of a popular local family restaurant, has elevated the burger bar with this one. I love the creativity from the chef, and I love the courage to share it with customers. I really hope they keep this one on the regular menu. As my mom like’s to say, “It’s a keeper.”

Photo: This is my PB&J burger, as enjoyed on the patio on a warm summer day. Now, if they could serve a cold beer with it, ….

Spaghetti Tacos.

The first time I heard about Spaghetti Tacos I figured it was just something obscure that Disney’s show iCarly created to be fun and quirky. While the show seems to play up the idea of Italian style spaghetti and meatballs inside crunchy taco shells—and the mess that goes along with it—pasta inside corn tortillas isn’t as uncommon as I thought. Essentially, we’re making Sopa de Fideos Seco, and it’s pretty easy to see why kids would like it.

This is a comfort food challenge I accept. I found a number of recipe options online, the most interesting coming from GirliChef. The oddest part of this recipe was cooking the noodles; I’ve never dry cooked noodles before in a skillet, so I had to trust the process. Here’s what I made. I thought it was just okay, but my family loved it, so I am going to experiment this recipe into perfection.

Ingredients:

  • 3 medium-large ripe tomatoes, quartered
  • 1 large shallot, rough chop
  • 2 large cloves garlic, rough chopped
  • water
  • olive oil
  • 10 oz. fideos (or angel hair pasta, cut into 2 – 3 inch lengths)
  • salt & freshly ground black pepper
  • 16 corn tortillas
  • Mexican Crema (or sour cream thinned with a little heavy cream), as needed
  • Queso Fresco or Feta

Directions:

  • Puree tomatoes, shallot, and garlic in a blender until smooth. Add about 1 teaspoon of salt and some fresh ground pepper.
  • Heat olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat and saute the fideos/pasta, stirring regularly for 6 – 8 minutes, until the noodles turn shades of golden brown. (The noodles were constantly leaping from the pan while stirring. I tried to save some, but its a messy, crunchy process.)
  • Add the tomato mixture to the skillet. Rinse the blender with 1 cup of water and add it to the mixture, too. (The noodles don’t suck up the moisture very quickly. Be patient.)
  • Once the mixture begins the bubble, turn the heat down to low, and simmer stirring everything around from time to time, until the pasta is just tender,  5-7 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, as necessary.
  • Mixture should be moist, but not soupy. Add more water if the mixture feels dry.
  • Heat up your tortillas. Scoop the fideos into the hot tortillas. Drizzle with crema and crumble some queso fresco over the top. Enjoy!

Photo: This is my first try making them, and they are pretty flimsy. Prepare to be messy.