28 April 2009

Kinda Sorta Minestrone Soup

1. Kraft shredded Parmesan cheese does not melt and disperse so much as melt and congeal. I really need to stop putting it in soups when I should know that's what happens. I like cheese, but I do not like a glob of parmesan when I'm eating soup.

2. I probably deserve to have my imaginary home cooking license taking away because I made my own stock using a mixture of lamb bones and chicken bones. Thing is, I don't often eat meat (or poultry) on the bone, so if I stick either in the fridge to save until I have "enough" I might have been saving those lamb bones for 2 years before I had enough to make a meat stock. So, you know, I did them both together. I don't really think it made a very big flavour difference in the stock - it was as good as the last batch I made, which was only chicken bones.

3. When I decided to make this minestrone recipe, I reminded myself that I needed to pick up celery, a can of tomatoes, and some spinach. I forgot to get any of them. I made it anyway.

4. This is a take on a Rachael Ray recipe for Fall Minestrone from 365: No Repeats. Somehow, no matter how often I cook from that book, I always forget that her portion sizes are massive. That 4 serving recipe could feed me for six meals.

5. I may say that this is a Rachael Ray recipe (here is a link to the real thing), but I used chorizo instead of pancetta, skipped the celery, skipped the tomatoes, skipped the kale/chard (I'd have used spinach), used rehydrated "exotic" mushrooms instead of Portabella, used dried herbs rather than fresh (and added fresh parsley for colour), used kidney beans rather than cannellini, used the mushroom water instead of vegetable broth, and used about half as much pasta as recommended. It was very good anyway, but I really wish that I'd had tomatoes. It would have improved the soup by leaps and bounds.

6. The thing I hate most about making my own stock is that I can never skim off enough of the fat (for my tastes). The chorizo turned all the extra fat in this soup bright orange so it really stands out along the edge of the bowl. Ugh.

26 April 2009

Irish Stew with Herb Toast and Vegetables

I often think about cooking lamb, but it's not a very common thing to eat here. Even in a city this size, there are plenty of grocery stores that don't sell it and even those that do typically only sell particular cuts. (Lamb loin chops are the most common and usually you can find frozen ground lamb.) Because of that, and also I suppose because there aren't lamb farms around every hillside in this country, lamb is often very expensive, nearly always shipped in from New Zealand and very rarely fresh. (There are places you can buy locally grown lamb. I don't get to those places very often, though. And they're just as expensive.)

I have a terror of buying something so expensive and then ruining it because I don't know how to cook it. But I found some lamb shoulder chops in the grocery store this Saturday and they were cheaper than chicken. I immediately picked up two packages with intentions of cooking a lamb and red pepper curry recipe that I tried out once before (I used beef then), but I got distracted by the prospect of making Irish Stew instead.

Even though it's nearly May and we should have spring weather, it snowed last week and when I looked out the window a few minutes ago, it's snowing again. It's meant to snow for the next three days. This kind of weather calls for something warm and hearty and stew obviously fills that need. (So would a spicy curry, but I didn't have the right cut of meat and wasn't sure if it would wind up tough if I cooked it the way the recipe called for. And also, I didn't have the right sort of curry paste and thought I probably didn't need a third jar of curry paste in the fridge.)

The link I posted above is the recipe that I followed, though I cut down some parts of the recipe and messed up others. My gravy came out a bit wonky because there wasn't nearly enough liquid in the pan at the end and so I used water, which made it taste like a paste rather than gravy, until I added some beef bouillon and thyme and a lot of pepper.

Other than the gravy mishap, the recipe was perfect. The meat was fall-apart tender and the vegetables were all beautifully cooked. You basically steam cook the potatoes and I was concerned that they'd not cook up nicely that way, but I could eat potatoes like that every day.

I really liked the method for cooking this stew and I think I'll even use it in the future for making beef stew (though I'll add more liquid next time, so that I can actually make a proper gravy). Usually I make stew in a slow-cooker, but the meat never comes out half so tender as it did here and I preferred adding my own seasonings, rather than using the packet mix my sister and I usually buy. I think the seasonings used here would work equally well with beef, and there's no reason I couldn't stir in some peas at the end along with the gravy.

Definitely a hit.

24 April 2009

Linguine with Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Sauce

I have a tendency to buy a lot of food related things and then never finish them. I have couscous, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, several varieties of rice, flax seeds, every sort of nut under the sun, jars of two sorts of pesto, two sorts of curry paste (maybe three... hm, I can't remember if I have a Thai green curry paste or not), Alfredo sauce, tomato sauce, a squeeze tube of tomato paste, a squeeze tube of aioli, bottles of four or five sorts of vinegar, bottles of fish sauce, oyster sauce, chili sauce, sweet chili sauce, sriracha, and sambal oeleck. Of which I've used... one (a mild curry sauce) in the last two or three weeks. And that's just the short list of infrequently used things I've bought.

So sometimes I'll go on a kick of finding recipes to use up some of those ingredients. (Or else I'll try to freeze it. All the nuts and some of the grains are in the freezer.) Today was "Finish the jar of roasted red peppers" day.

The easiest recipe to hand (besides just eating them straight from the jar) was another Cat Cora recipe, this one for roasted tomato and red pepper sauce. The general gist of the recipe is to cook and blend together roasted red peppers with roasted cherry tomatoes, some garlic, chicken stock, salt and pepper. You can finish it with cream, but we had no cream in the fridge and the only dairy I had (skim milk) was expired, so I gave that bit a miss.

I think this is the most disappointing of the Cora recipes that I've tried, but that's mainly because my sauce wasn't quite as saucy as I'd have liked. That's probably because I didn't have enough red peppers but didn't add more tomatoes or use less broth to compensate. It was tasty, but I wasn't so in love with it that I've got plans to make it again or even vague inklings of making it again. It was easy and flavourful enough, but I'd have been as happy eating a sauce from a jar. (Not that I need another one in the fridge.)

20 April 2009

Roasted Curried Chickpeas with Pilau and Sautéed Vegetables

I think I'm going to be full for days after this dinner, and I didn't even eat all of it. (There's a lot of food in that bowl. There's a lot more in the fridge. I'm usually pretty good about not cooking more than one day worth of leftovers, but forgot to cut down the pilau recipe.) When I was planning what to cook for the week, I had some vague idea about making ginger pork, stir-fried vegetables and some rice noodles I've got in the cupboard, but I kept wibbling about it and going back and forth between that idea and the idea of making Kickpleat's Brown Rice Bowl with Vegetables and Roasted Chickpeas, which she'd posted a while back at Everybody Likes Sandwiches. Then the brand of chickpeas I like - Eden Organics - went on sale at my work, so decision made.

I started out more or less following her recipes, the chickpeas are pretty much exactly the same, as are the sautéed vegetables, though I used what was in my fridge - carrots, zucchini, mushroom, onion and snap peas. Then I suddenly found myself making pilau rather than the plain rice I'd meant to make. (I've got bags of rice languishing in my cupboards because I always seem to fall back on my very favourite: basmati. White basmati, brown basmati, doesn't matter. I love it so much more than any of my brown rice blends or wild rice blends or plain white or plain brown rice.)

The pilau is a version of the pilau recipe you can find at videojug. I vary my method depending what I want to eat it with and depending what I've got, but this is one of my favourite ways to eat it. (I should have skipped the turmeric though. I think I've had that turmeric since I lived in BC - moved away in 2002 - and it doesn't make for very yellow food any more.) Here's what I did today:

1 cup basmati rice, rinsed
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 handful cashews
1 cinnamon stick
4 cloves
2 cardamom pods
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 small onion, diced
1 tsp turmeric
2 cups water
1 handful green peas

First, heat the oil in a pan. Add the cashews and all the spices except the turmeric. Cook until the cashews start to brown and the spices become fragrant, just a couple minutes. Add the onion and continue cooking, stirring to coat with the spices. After 2-3 minutes, stir in the turmeric and some salt. Now add the rice, stirring to coat, then pour in the water. Bring to the boil, cover, reduce the heat and let cook for about 15 minutes or until the water is absorbed and the rice is cooked. Stir in the peas at the end. (Or you could probably add them with the rice, if they're frozen, but I wonder if they'd get mushy.)

I could eat nothing but this rice, never mind the rest of the food, for days. Every bite is delicious and satisfying and good. I don't very often make this with cashews because what they do is make me want to stuff myself full of cashew-laden rice and never eat another food again.

Despite my deep and abiding love of rice with cashews, I really enjoyed the rest of the meal as well. The vegetables were perfect, even though they didn't quite belong with the other two thirds of the meal. (I mean, it was a 2/3 Indian-inspired meal. The vegetables sort of broke rank, but that's okay.) In the summer I like to make mushrooms and zucchini with herbs like this to eat with barbecued anything, but I think I liked them even better with ginger and garlic.

I could take or leave the chickpeas - I think I was wishing for something more soft and saucy by the time I sat down to eat - but they are delicious, especially mixed with a bit of rice. What I didn't finish of my dinner was mostly chickpeas though because the rice and the vegetables were both so good I couldn't leave room in my stomach for anything else.

19 April 2009

Review: god is not Great by Christopher Hitchens

When I first started up this blog this year I knew that there would be certain books I'd find hard to write about, and I hoped that I'd just be able to get on with it anyway. This book - god is not Great by Christopher Hitchens – is not one of those hard-to-write-about books, but the six that I read between this book and the last one I wrote about… those ones were. With any luck I'll manage to write about them soon. But perhaps not.

In any case, this is the second book I've recently read about atheism and why it would be better for the world if religion was not a part of it. I'm not really sure what's lead me to reading about the subject because generally I don't think much about religion one way or another. I suppose in both cases, the titles just grabbed me: Dawkin's The God Delusion and now Hitchens' god is not Great.

Opening paragraph:
If the intended reader of this book should want to go beyond disagreement with its author and try to identify the sins and deformities that animated him to write it (and I have certainly noticed that those who publicly affirm charity and compassion and forgiveness are often inclined to take this course), then he or she will not just be quarreling with the unknowable and ineffable creator who – presumably – opted to make me this way. They will be defiling the memory of a good, sincere, simple woman, of stable and decent faith, named Mrs Jean Watts.

It was Mrs. Watt's task, when I was a boy of about nine and attending a school on the edge of Dartmoor, in southwestern England, to instruct me in lessons about nature, and also about scripture…
The subtitle of Hitchens' book is "How Religion Poisons Everything, which is a rather massive blanket statement, but also a very succinct introduction to just what this book is about: some of the many ways that religion has hurt the world. (A quick note: he doesn't talk only about Christianity, but about all the major world religions.) A slightly less scathing explanation would be this one: "There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking" (4). The book goes on to discuss these and several other ways that religion has and continues to poison the world.

I think Hitchens found a pretty good balance between talking about the more general harms it's done – setting back science and thus progress, for instance – and the more specific harms. I think it would be too easy to fall entire on the specific examples, which are more immediate (for example, the rampant abuse of children by ministers in Catholic churches) and so more horrifying and easy to understand.

I would have liked if Hitchens had spent more time talking about the ways that deists refute these arguments. (The classic examples, I suppose, are that Hitler, Mao Zedong and Stalin were atheists and look what harm they did. I do know that some people argue that none of those three were actually atheists.) He did talk about it to some extent, but maybe not quite in those terms. (Or maybe I should read that chapter again.)

Anyway, I found this a very readable book on the subject. (Much more so than Dawkins' The God Delusion, which was somewhat hit and miss in the readability department and which I also found a bit… smug in an irritating way.) I both enjoyed it and fully recommend it, to the religious, the secular and those who fall somewhere in between.

Christopher Hitchens is the author of several books including The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practise and Thomas Jefferson: Author of America and the editor of The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer. He has written for Vanity Fair, The Atlantic,and Slate amongst others. I didn't find an official website, but Hitchens Web has links to several of his articles. He does have a blog on politics, war and religion.

Hitchens, Christopher. god is not Great. Toronto: Emblem, 2008.
Finished: 12 April 2009
Rating: 5 of 5 intelligent designs
This was my 2nd book in April and my 14th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

18 April 2009

Chicken Noodle Soup with Grilled Ham and Cheese

My boss was on vacation this past week and whenever he's away, I always have these stretches of cooking nothing. I always manage to finish the work even when he's not there, but somehow I stress myself out about it enough that I can't bear the thought of coming home to do anything so complicated as cooking.

I did, a few days ago, make something I was going to post about - this sort of steak pinwheel with ricotta cheese in it - but when I cooked it, it looked like some sort of nasty flavourless meatloaf. And that's actually sort of what it tasted like, so I didn't bother. It wasn't really something that I'd made, anyway, the meat I got from the meat department at my work - whoever does the full-service meat case makes them - and I was serving it with a home-meal-replacement package of linguine. No effort required.

This is another no effort required meal and hopefully tomorrow or Monday I'll get back to making and eating proper food again because eating pizza pops and fast food and soup from a box is really not that healthy.

This dinner was kind of a mixed bag on the healthy scale, since I did have fresh (delicious) vegetables in the form of raw snap peas and the most luscious, sweetest grape tomatoes imaginable. And the sandwich wasn't bad at all - light rye bread, low-fat cheese (a blend of cheddar, mozzarella, and Monterey Jack), and extra lean Capicollo ham. But the soup... from a box.

It's Lipton's Chicken Noodle Supreme and does have a tiny speck of fibre and, as advertised, has no trans fat and is low in fat. But it's packed full of MSG and has far too much sodium in general. (One serving is 28% of the day recommended amount.) Even though you don't taste it, I'm bothered by the fact that one of the listed ingredients is chicken fat. I'm also a little annoyed that its tiny bit of protein (2 grams, I think, per serving) is buoyed up by "textured soy protein". (I find it a little creepy that so many processed foods have soy and corn in them.) I don't like that I can't tell when I eat it if the bits of chicken are actually chicken or if they're just textured soy protein.

Still, it tastes pretty decent, even though it could be improved by more and tastier vegetables. (The dried carrot bits never seem to quite rehydrate.) I'm not sure if it tastes okay to me because it actually does taste decent or if it's just that I remember being given Lipton's Chicken Noodle soup when I was a kid and the sense memory is as much or more enjoyable than the actual experience.

12 April 2009

Easter Dinner

Even though we don't celebrate Easter and Christmas as the days are actually intended, we do usually cook a family dinner on those sorts of holidays anyway. Easter kind of crept up on us this year and suddenly on Friday I remembered to see if my sister wanted to do something or not. We talked about buying a small chicken, but I had a pork tenderloin in the freezer, so I decided to make that instead.

The pork is my usual recipe: rubbed with a little olive oil, crushed garlic, salt and pepper, rosemary, thyme and parsley. Then I roasted it and a dish full of rosemary potatoes (potatoes, olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary). When they were nearly done, I lightly steamed my green beans, then put on the water/butter to boil for the boxed stuffing. Once the meat was out of the oven and resting, I sautéed the green beans with some red pepper flakes.

Delicious in every way. Yum. I really should do something completely different sometime, though. The biggest change from the usual dinner routine is that we didn't have a tomato/cucumber salad and we had roasted rather than mashed potatoes. I don't know, though. I suppose there's something nice about tradition when you're doing family meals.

11 April 2009

Lettuce Gyros with Spicy Halibut

Hey look! It's another Cat Cora meal!

Once again, it was really delicious and surprisingly simple. As Cora says in the blurb before the recipe, this is a sort of California version of gyros, with fish rather than lamb and lettuce cups to replace the carb-heavy pitas that are usually wrapped around the filling.

Although Cora recommends using a double layer of lettuce cup - radicchio and butter lettuce - I used only radicchio because I was too cheap to buy both. (I'm unlikely to use butter lettuce for anything else, as I'm not a particularly big fan of the stuff.) I found the radicchio a bit too bitter, so it would probably have been smart to use the second lettuce leaf to help balance it.

In any case, my lettuce cups have a light layer of shredded leaf lettuce in the bottom (I had some in the fridge), then chunks of baked spicy halibut, a spoonful of fresh tomato salsa, and a dollop of tzatziki.

The halibut was marinated briefly in an olive oil, lime juice, chili powder, cumin and cayenne concoction, which was pleasantly spicy and well suited to the cooling tomato salsa (tomato, red onion, cilantro, lime juice, and olive oil - I skipped oregano as I had none) and tzatziki, which I crapped out on a bought pre-made.

In any case: delicious. I could see myself eating this in proper pita wraps, in the North American version of pita bread (the drier, harder type you typically find), or just on a bed of lettuce, though I'm unlikely to try it again with these more dramatically interesting radicchio cups.

Thai Citrus Chicken with Rice Noodles

I've been sitting on this photo for a few days, trying to decide what to say. This was a pretty tasty dinner - chicken and baby bok choy cooked in a peanut and citrus sauce served over a mound of rice noodles.

For a while I had been making a lot of recipes from a cookbook by Sandi Richard called The Dinner Fix and on the whole I'd liked most of what I'd tried, so I picked up another of her books called Dinner Survival and I don't think I had quite so much luck with that book. In any case, I decided to go back and try some of the things that had interested me before, but that I hadn't got around to. This is one of those recipes, though Richard cooks it with shrimp in place of the chicken.

I wound up changing, as always, quite a few little things - I didn't have fish sauce (and didn't want to buy it) so I whisked some oyster sauce into some soy sauce instead. I used fresh (blood) orange juice and slices of blood orange in place of canned mandarin oranges/juice. I used rice noodles rather than egg noodles. I used no-sugar/no-salt peanut butter instead of regular. And of course, since I don't eat seafood, I used chicken rather than shrimp.

On the whole, it was pretty good, though I was a little disappointed that the peanut taste so much overwhelmed the citrus taste. It reheated surprisingly well the next day, and even though I stunk up the breakroom, everyone thought it was Duk, who claims to eat cat, and so I didn't feel too guilty.

08 April 2009

Steak and Eggs with Fresh Salsa

This is one of my old stand-by dinners for when I want something fast and easy and lazy. I often talk about how the foods I cook are quick and easy, but this is probably quicker and easier than anything I make (with the exception, of course, of freezer food like pizza pops or leftover chili). I would guess this is a 15 minute meal, perhaps 20 minutes if I decide to make potatoes as well (as I did in this version of the same dinner - this is a prettier picture, though, so I'm reposting).

Eggs, like pasta, are always good when you're pressed for time. Better, probably, because they do cook even faster, though they aren't quite the same sort of filling/comfort food that pasta can be.

In any case, to make this all you need is two eggs, a small fast-fry steak, 1 small tomato, a garlic clove, lemon juice, hot sauce, salt, pepper and oregano. (Cilantro optional.)

Make the salsa first by dicing your tomato and crushing your garlic. Stir together in a bowl with a dash of hot sauce, a splash of lemon juice, some oregano, salt and chopped up cilantro if you've got it. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Next, heat two frying pans. In one, cook your fast-fry steak. If you want, you can slice it into strips first (or buy stir-fry beef instead). I usually by it sliced because it's easier (faster... lazier...) to eat and make that way - you don't have to get out a knife or anything (and thus don't have to wash one, either). In the other, scramble your eggs (season them first...). (I often do this by cracking the eggs in the pan and then stirring them around a lot, rather than dirtying another dish first to whisk the eggs together.)

On a plate or in a bowl, pile the salsa on top of the steak on top of the eggs. Eat and enjoy.

(If you do want potatoes with your lazy dinner, the recipe I usually use can be found here.)

LJ Birthday Blocks - Feb 10

I had plans to get more than this done today, but I didn't really feel like doing laundry, and so I didn't get washed the fabric that I needed. Actually, no, it wasn't that I didn't want to do laundry, it was that I didn't want to IRON all the fabric that I needed. I watched old episodes of House instead and cut out everything I could in the colours that I did get washed. Fortunately those blocks don't need to be finished until May, so they can wait until a day when I'm feeling less lazy. (It won't be next week, though, as I haven't got a day off next week; my boss is on holidays.)

In any case, I did get this one block done, which is a replacement block for one that I sent out a month or two ago for my Livejournal birthday blocks exchange. One of the two blocks that I made for this particular person really didn't come together that well, so much so that I hated to send it out and then afterwards kept imagining that probably she hadn't said anything about it arriving because she hated it and didn't want to have to say anything about it at all. (Melodramatic, I know. I worry too much about stupid things.) But I felt that I had to send it out when I did because it was already late, and so I sent it away with a vague plan in the back of my head about making an extra block at some point in the future.

I definitely prefer this block to that previous one (it's the second block here) and I feel a lot better about putting this one in the mail.

05 April 2009

Cheese and Spinach Stuffed Chicken with Orzo and Broccoli

It's been a bit of a busy weekend, so this photo is a couple days old now. It was a sort of impromptu thing I made last Thursday and only moderately successful.

The chicken is stuffed with spinach, onion, and some Havarti cheese, but I really didn't like the taste of the stuffing at all. The cheese was entirely useless since I couldn't taste it and the spinach had a sort of... muddy taste. I'm not sure if that's the right way to describe it, but it was just... off tasting. It didn't seem so bad if I picked out the spinach and ate it with bits of orzo rather than just the chicken, so maybe something was off with the seasoning.

The orzo was nice, though very plain. I'd put in some Parmesan cheese, but it didn't get melty and nice, instead all the cheese seemed to melt and then join together as a glob in the middle of the pan, so I picked that out and threw it away. It was nice with just some salt and pepper and whatever bits of cheese lingered.

I took the leftovers of this - there was a lot since this was pretty much the hugest chicken breast ever - to work the next day and had the same problem with the spinach, but the rest of it was pretty good as leftovers, even the broccoli which I wasn't really sure about.

01 April 2009

LJ Birthday Blocks - April 6

Another two blocks for my Birthday Blocks group. These blocks came with the request for purple and green. Also for bright, which I'm not quite sure I managed (dunno). In any case, I wound up buying a fair bit of pretty cool fabric for these blocks and then promptly used almost none of it. Ah well, into the stash it goes.

This block is somehow one of my favourite simple, old-school blocks to make. The Churn Dash isn't terribly exciting and I can't say I'd like a whole quilt of it, but as a one-off block in a sampler quilt, I like it.

I don't think they show very well in this photo, but I really love the fabrics in this block.

This block is proof that I've got scraps of at least 16 different purples floating near the top of my scrap basket. Crazy. I feel like I've been doing nothing but purple lately. (That's not true, obviously, since my most recent posts have included oranges and blues as well, but it feels that way anyway.)

I've made this block A LOT for exchanges. It's such a striking block that I find myself turning to it quite often, even though it's a hellacious amount of work. I think I prefer the way it looks when I use the same four prints in each quarter of the block, but the scrappy look is also interesting.

The colours don't show well in this photo either; the green looks almost muddy, which it isn't at all.