Sunday, October 12, 2014

Coffee, cups and funny cats jumping in boxes

I'm not a morning person but rough starts of the day can lighten up with a good coffee and a cute cup.

While I take a few minutes to focus on the moment, I often get charmed by the vignette that is presenting itself in front of me. Sometimes it's just a good day and I try to capture the vibe. Other times I just struggle but manage to see a stimulating visual that pulls me out of my rut. The feeling might leave as fast as it came or it might stick around long enough to inspire some positive and creative ideas for the day. The camera is never far when you have young kids and I've been taking pictures around the kitchen for almost 2 decades. As I was perusing through old photos from this year I saw a pattern with my morning ritual and decided to share a few.

Mother's day morning after sleeping in.

A cold spring day and my pottery.

A summer break on the deck with my little one, a book and cookies.

A late brunch with this great sandwich.

Enjoying it black for a change with our early garden tomatoes, eggs and toast.

Yesterday morning. A rough one.

Still, the coffee with frothy milk was tasty and my Maman Moomin cup always brings me comfort. Those little moments are good. They allow for positive thinking and sometimes I write some of it down. It's only a few minutes but I try not take it for granted. Depression still has a grip on me but it's mild and I can function. Sometimes I need a little extra help though. Like yesterday. It was heavy and I knew I would need to make the extra effort to stay above water. One hour at a time. Fresh air helps, little things, little moments, laughter... Yesterday a family member shared this video online. It was perfect timing and lightened things up. So here I am sharing! :)

I'm sorry to contribute to the feline invasion on the internet but it works for me and if it works, I say: Milk it! So play it, hum along to the catchy tune and move on. Like I'm doing on this thanksgiving day.

Hope you have a nice long weekend and be thankful for the little things! :)

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Mad woman at the stove with a brain on neutral and an unwanted pound of ground pork

There are times when you feel like you're all thumbs. When deep down you know that for sanity's sake it would be best if you stayed out of the kitchen and dialled a number for pizza. If frustrations build up and your mind goes in neutral, you can start feeling useless in a hurry as people around you get tired, grumpy and hungry (yourself included). My neighbour has a good word for that: "hangry". When that happens, I usually let it go and embrace grilled cheese night, eggs and toast, cream of wheat with apple sauce or buttered noodles. Even better if Marc takes over! It happens... Right? I can usually shrug it off, knowing that I will helm the kitchen when I get to be myself again.

Sometimes though, this invisible pressure keeps pushing and common sense just flies out the window. Then anxiety takes over and things get dumb real fast. Like 2 nights ago when this pic was taken by my 4 year old. I can feel the fog in this photo. I was tired and struggling a bit. Okay, a lot. Depression but nothing serious. Marc was entertaining the girls but offered to go to the store for something easy. It would have spared me a few brain cells as I was obviously struggling and cursing with one stupid move after an other but I was stubborn. Even though he offered more than once, my pride held on like a pit bull and I decided to stick to my guns. Or in this case, my pots and pans.

I grabbed what I thought was 1 pound of beef but suddenly realized it was pork. My plan was simple. Patties, simply seasoned, quickly fried in barely any fat and finished with a knob of butter under the grill. For sides, white rice and buttered carrots cooked in just enough water that would evaporate into a sweet syrupy liquid by serving time. I know this stuff by heart. There is no recipe. It's just manipulation of a few ingredients on high or low heat till you know it's just right for consumption. My brain didn't want to think but I still wanted comfort. Well, all went to hell when pork showed up as an impostor. I should have treated this meat the same way but I'm not a fan of pork patties. I can cook pork or sausage meat with confidence into a luscious sauce for pasta but we already had that 2 nights before and mac 'n' cheese not too long before that... Not an option. I was out of ingredients for that anyway. I'm also pretty good with pork chops, pork roast or tenderloin but this was ground pork. Extra lean. With ground pork, I can master a pretty decent tourtière and I like to mix it with beef and veal for some seriously tasty meatballs. All things I take pride in and love but there was no time for that. Also, I didn't care. Or maybe I cared too much and didn't want to do a half-assed job? Whatever it was, I felt stuck. Seriously I should have tossed that in the fridge and go with grilled cheese. The next option was asian flavours but I had little to nothing for that and I wanted the girls to eat, not whine. I considered greek but I was out of lemons, cucumbers, tomatoes... *Sigh*

Lame? Yes. I was simply at the end of my wits and supplies. The fridge was close to empty. Same for the pantry. It was pretty much meat and potatoes without the potatoes. I had rice, onions, celery and carrots. Usually I thrive on that. Stretching the last goods for a small feast. A great base for risotto, soup, sauce, stews... Anything! Not this time. I just wanted 'simple' and to move on but that pork threw me off!! My pride was hurt. I was annoyed. The more I looked at links or books for ideas the worse I felt. After a while I shut all my books, my laptop, grabbed a glass of water and just closed my eyes for 5 minutes.

Pork patties (a lengthy description of an improvised recipe from a frazzled mind)

I started. Thawed the meat that was still frozen. In the microwave. Oh how I loath the microwave. Bad start. I got distracted somehow (kid or cat) and some parts of the meat got cooked through. I cursed. Marc heard me and felt brave enough to say "I guess we're having pizza". I said nothing, which was pretty much a silent "NO!" I gave a piece of cooked meat to the cat and moved on. I dumped the meat with all it's liquid in a bowl and stepped outside for a second breather. Smart move. It was pleasant and balmy. I went to check on my herbs in the garden to inspire me and fair enough touching the sage made me think of garlic, pork, apples and potatoes. I had no apples or 'taters but close enough! I grabbed a few leaves of fresh sage. Washed them, patted them dry and chopped. Tossed that in my big granite mortar with 2 big cloves of garlic, the last spoonful of my olive oil and 2 generous pinches of salt. Crushing that to a paste with the heavy pestle was very satisfying and the smells were just enough to help me stick around to see what was going to happen next. I scooped that fragrant paste and transferred it in the bowl with the meat.

I took an onion next, chopped it up and threw it in a pan with a pat of butter on medium heat till soft and coloured. While they were cooking, I took 2 slices of whole wheat bread and turned them into crumbs in the food processor. Before adding the crumbs to the meat, I tossed them in the big mortar to soak up the last micro bits of sage and garlic goodies that were left behind. With a rubber spatula, I scraped it around to get it all fragrant and into the bowl of pork it went. That moment felt so good. I still wasn't sure what I was doing. To that, I added the onions and the leftover fat which wasn't much. I also added some buttermilk just because I happened to have some (about 3 tbsp). I broke an egg in there and whipped it a bit then mixed everything gently.

My pan was still hot on medium heat. I needed more fat though. I didn't want to use my butter or some precious artisan olive oil from friends of the family in Portugal so I decided to be bad and used bacon fat! :) I smiled with defiance. The fat came from some seriously good local bacon Marc had purchased the day before. It was a tablespoon or less. We'll just say it was less and move along. I let that heat up and quickly scooped some of that pork mixture with my hand. The amount was filling my palm nicely. It was really soft and fragile so I moved quickly and gently flattened it in my hand with the tip of my fingers then flipped that in the pan. It was the perfect size. Thickness of my fingers, size of my palm but in an oval sort of shape. I did 4 like that and fried them fast without touching till a crust was set. That made them easier to flip over. Then I seared the other side quickly. I suddenly decided I was going to finish them in the oven and cranked the oven to 375˚f. I transferred the 4 patties in a small square metal pan I usually use for brownies and cooked 2 more. 6 in all.

Once they were in my square dish (4 at the bottom with 2 on top), I threw a generous spoonful of flour in the frying pan and tossed that around for 2 minutes. Once cooked, brown and stuck to the bottom of the pan, I gradually added a cup of chicken broth that had to go. It could have been water, apple juice, port, milk or cooking liquids from the carrots. I stirred that flour with a wooden spoon to loosen it and turned it into a paste over medium heat as I kept adding broth in a thin stream. Each time I kept adding, the paste loosened into something promising. I kept stretching that till the broth was gone. It made a nice thin gravy that would thicken just a tad more in the oven. I seasoned with salt, pepper and tasted... Yup, good. Light at the end of the tunnel! I poured that sauce over the patties and in the hot oven it went. I had no aluminum foil and worried that the patties on top, would dry up so I simply laid a cookie sheet on top as an improvised lid. Cooked that for 10-12 minutes... Relief.

There it was, a pleasant meal. VICTORY! As I called the family to come to the table, I took a pic in case it was a stroke of genius. It wasn't but it sure was tasty and comforting! The vibe at the table was good. There was no struggle with the girls who were chirping away. All ate happily (myself included). Marc who helped, thanked me for the efforts that my frazzled brain barely managed. A glass of port was serenely enjoyed as a reward. A silent toast to a good ending.

I feel like myself again and ready to helm the kitchen. Well, at least until Thanksgiving.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Lazy weekend

2 weekends ago, we had a great time. The weather was so hot and sunny I had to crank a few fans. I enjoyed going overboard with my new soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy on vinyl and Marc and the girls biked to the salt water pool for a few hours. We later had good friends over to dine on some scrumptious cheese fondue, more music, good conversations and at least 3 bottles of wine. It was great! The next day Marc and the girls spent most of the day playing video games while I puttered on my blog. We later biked to the beach with a good picnic and stayed long enough to watch the sunset. Busy but simple and memorable. I have a post for that day, sitting here as a draft among many.

This weekend was the opposite. There wasn't much activity going on. It was chilly and wet but the sleeping in and cozy atmosphere was what I needed. When it got sunny we went out for a long walk along the main street and to the waterfront. We watched the seagulls gliding in the strong winds but didn't stick around too long. It was too cold! Instead we grabbed a few things on the way home to make mini pizzas. The girls made their own and ate them while watching a few episodes of Young Justice (with Marc who brainwashed them well). Us grown ups enjoyed our fancier version later with a movie: Watchmen. It was low-key and necessary.

Our table is like a family station for coffee, cookbooks, drawings, colouring and shows on the iPad. It always gets cleared for dinner (thank you Marc), and after the meal I clean it up as if nothing happened. It's often the only clean spot in the house! Lots gets done here.

The cat joined us for caresses and a bit of buttermilk.

I enjoyed watching them between my reads on Italian pasta, antipasto and English custards.

What is better than breakfast? One that you didn't have to cook! Especially when you realize your guy went the extra block to get quality bacon from a local shop and fresh country bread from the baker. He knows this charms me more than flowers! ;)

And fresh croissants! On sale for $1.00 because they were a bit over baked? Ok! Café au lait (to dunk it in), took care of that in a wink. This was a Sunday morning highlight!

Those 2 that are signalling me, often make me smile on tougher mornings.

2nd breakfast gone. Could do that all day.

An other moment when little Évangéline and I marvelled over some grapes. We often take them for granted. So pretty. She would eat the whole thing if I let her. 

She made me take a pic of this old add that she keeps with her drawings. She especially likes the little red cat by the lamp.

Eventually we did go out. Came back hungry for this. The girls had mini english muffin versions that they like to make themselves. Marc and I had this tasty display. I used to make fun of pizza on pita bread but this was so good. If done right, you forget what was used for the base. We only wished I made more. Next time!

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Laughing is good

Had a few rough days (mainly in the head) and it slowly starts to show with the messy house. It's a vicious circle because a messy house gets me down when I already feel vulnerable. See where it's going?

So I'll ignore all that and go clear my mind in the warm indian summer sun and join my husband who is gone to pick up our girl from school with the little one. It's a short walk that will do me good. The weather is cool but the sun is so bright. The trees are rustling their leaves in the breeze, the sound is soothing and pleasantly punctuated with the voices and laughter of excited children in the distance. Marc and the girls will stop by a local café for something hot to sip while sitting on the front terrace. The girls might play and fight about the new set of swings that the owner installed there. I think my best bet is to join them for a few minutes.

In the meantime, this below, is my medicine. It's been going around on Facebook and twitter for ever and there are many compilations online but this one is my favourite. I can cry laughing. It's that good. Or my kind of humour? Anyways, whenever I share this with Marc he isn't convinced but he likes to see me laugh and laughing is good. 

So here I am sharing. Make sure you crank the volume and if I builded this up too much for you, well at least expect to smile. A lot! :D

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Lindsey Bareham's roasted tomatoes

I LOVE pasta but never took macaroni and cheese seriously or cared enough to make one until I discovered a cool little cookbook titled: Supper Won't Take Long: Favourite Recipes from the "Evening Standard".

17 years ago, I randomly picked this paperback at the bookstore. I was just really drawn by the cover. I mean look at it! Juicy roasted tomatoes, all glistening red and nestled on top of a generous pesto layer on *gasp* ... is that puff pastry!? YES PLEASE! A few quick reads of the recipes and ingredients was all I needed to buy this book in a flash. It was 1997. Jamie Oliver as The Naked Chef wasn't even a sensation yet. Same for Nigella Lawson. The only British cooks I knew of were an odd duo called The Two Fat Ladies (which were awesome by the way and a real torture to watch on an empty stomach). Needless to say, I had never heard of Lindsey Bareham. I wasn't familiar with British food writing and it's quirky, charming terms. In fact, silly French me assumed she was American. I even thought that maybe The evening Standard was from New York! :)

The more I read though, the more I noticed the subtle differences that clearly made this "European fare". It reminded me of French food, the way my mother cooks and that brought me comfort. I fell in love with the vocabulary, her enthusiasm and seductive descriptions in each intro for each recipe. Her love for seasonal food is very clear in her stories and the recipes are simple enough. I carried that book around everywhere. On road trips, to work and even kept it by my bedside. It's in pieces now but I still love it and use it often. I guess I should get some tape to fix it before I lose a precious page. I tried so many recipes and I can't remember being disappointed. It's easy comfort food without being ordinary and makes pleasing meals for 2 or a family of 4. Lindsey is so casual in her approach that you can't help but feel relax before starting. A bit like when you indulge in a glass of wine just as you start on supper. So yeah, I recommend the book. It cost me $16.99 at the time. Worth every penny I spontaneously spent on it! Including the scotch tape I'm going to buy to repair it.

One of the first recipes I tried is: Onion Macaroni Cheese with Roast Tomatoes.

Great for a picnic. Breadcrumbs were added to this version for contrast.

Now this particular recipe might not sound very European but it still felt delightfully different. Her
description: "...Any fat tubular lengths of pasta will do, or you could use large shells or circular noodles. The cheese sauce is perked up with masses of chives and English mustard, then mixed with buttery strands of soft onion and just-tender chunks of leek. When everything is cooked and mixed together it's eaten as it is, risotto-style, dusted with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and a sharply dressed tomato salad on the side. However, it's more Monday nightish poured into a shallow baking dish, topped with grated Parmesan and popped into a hot oven until the top turns brown and crusty..."

Is it weird to be charmed by this? Because I really am! Her intro sold me and I made the dish with the side of roasted tomatoes that she later explains in her recipe. It stayed with me and it's on rotation in our house (especially when it gets colder). Great as a picnic too as you can see below.

Happy husband 

Since then I've simplified by skipping the onions and the leeks. They are seriously awesome in there but not always in harmony with children. In the photo above, the mac 'n' cheese is a different one that had to suit that particular day but the one thing I never changed is the roasted tomatoes from her recipe. That addition which is actually a side dish, always, ALWAYS comes with our macaroni and cheese regardless of the version I chose to cook. Our girls don't care for the tomato part yet but Marc and I just can't get enough of that jammy, tangy, red goodness that we get to squish on top of our noodles each time. It's a great contrast to the rich, creamy cheesy sauce and adds extra moisture if on that day, the casserole turned a little dry *ahem* like above. It's a winner! The only other things that could accompany a dish like that is red wine (obviously), a nice green salad and maybe crusty bread to mop the sauces in your plate. :)

Easy to carry in a brownie pan with saran wrap for a picnic take out. 

I'm really here for the roasted tomatoes that come along with her recipe. They rock. Without them, I wouldn't bother posting about this. If they're in season, it will be amazing. If they're not in season (think Canadian grocery stores in winter), this will bring them back to life big time! If they're canned, well, you'll still come up with a decent version. It's the way they melt and jam with the heat, the salt, pepper, sugar and olive oil. Everything just intensifies. Then those juices mingle with the mac 'n' cheese sauce... The tangy with the creamy. A real pleasure. It's a party in your plate really. Sometimes I like to have a simple green salad at the same time so that the dressing gets to mingle too. That's when your bread is a serious tool to mop up all the juices. Not too much though. Just enough to clean the plate. I feel my waistband expanding just writing this! I often simplify and leave out the salad and the bread for mopping but I can't bother to make macaroni and cheese if I don't have those tomatoes to party with. It's that simple and it's been like this for 17 years.

On a side note, those tomatoes are also great with eggs and sausages. Think Hobbit! Also great with crusty bread and butter and a piece of cheese... I bet a roasted chicken wouldn't say no to them either. Anyways! I could go on! Someone shut me up. Try them! Hope you like them.

Roasted tomatoes (to go with any macaroni and cheese)

Adapted from Lindsey Bareham's Supper Won't Take Long: Favourite Recipes from the Evening Standard

4 tomatoes or more
A few pinches of sugar
4 tsp olive oil (I'm guessing here, I figure about 1/2 tsp for each half)
salt and freshly ground black pepper (a generous dose on tomatoes is good here)

dried oregano (if you feel like it)
garlic powder (if you wish)
red pepper flakes (if you dare)

Turn the oven to 400˚f. Wash and cut your tomatoes in half across their circumference. Take the cores out if you wish. Rub top and bottom with olive oil or just drizzle oil over them and rub the excess on their bottom. Do what you feel like, just know that a little extra olive oil is a good thing here! As you do this place them, cut side up, in a tray or pan that can go in a hot oven. I often use a square brownie pan that seems to fit just right. I even used cheap aluminum plates (careful though, juices burn fast in that so a splash of water might be required). Season with salt and pepper. We enjoy a generous dose of freshly ground pepper on tomatoes, it really works. Add a small pinch of sugar on each half. Now don't go crazy and sugar them up like cookies! This is a light gesture. You just want a little to brighten them up with the hot temperature. Raise your arm and hand as you do this. Your sprinkling will be more even.

Additions: I often add a sprinkle of garlic powder and dried oregano. It really adds an other layer of flavours that seeps into the tomatoes but it doesn't dominate. Now you can go fresh obviously but it becomes something else. Try it one way or the other. Just remember that the focus is on the tomatoes! Same with the red pepper flakes. I don't add this often, just when I want to kick it up a notch. If I do, I go easy on the freshly ground pepper. It's all about balance and what you're in the mood for.

Pop in the oven for about 35 minutes or till it looks good. Serves 4 people with 2 halves each.

Tip: You can place them at the top and switch them to the low shelf once the macaroni and cheese is ready to go in. If your pan gets a bit too hot and dry and the running juices burn down, add a splash of water. If you're running out of time but want colour and a few crispy edges switch to the broiler for a few minutes. This recipe is easy to double, triple... We never seem to make enough.