Friday, July 31, 2009

How to be a permanent POS

I was a phone hog as a teenager.

I spent hours on the phone planning where we were going and what we were going to do, but mostly just idly chattering.

But idle chatter or not, the thought of someone listening in would have made me shudder. I always kept my voice low so that my incessant yattering would be inaudible to prying ears. When my parents got call waiting (mostly due to their frustration with the inability to receive their own calls), I became a master of the phone juggle.

My son reminds me of a lot of myself, especially when he is simultaneously MSNing to at least 2 dozen friends while listening to his IPod and playing a video game to which he flips back when I pass by.

"POS" is what the kids type in to tip off other IM friends that there is a "parent over shoulder" and they should watch what they zing back and forth. The few times Jordan has let me sit in on a session, I was quite shocked.

Yes, I am sometimes shocked by the crassness of what is said in the anonymity of the Internet, but I am also shocked by the spelling or lack thereof. How are any members of this instant message generation ever going to learn how to spell correctly? And do they actually know who all these people really are? Am I just sounding old?

I hope I am just sounding like a concerned parent.

A few weeks back I was introduced to a program that allows you to be a permanent "POS".
OnlineFamily.Norton monitors where you kids are going on the computer and, depending on the parameters set, will notify you with an email.

Like most parents, I am concerned and sometimes worried about what my kids are doing on the net. With Norton you can set the amount of time they spend on line each week, who they talk to, and what information they're sharing with others.

Norton, and I, don't recommend that you set these parameters in a sneaky fashion but rather talk about it before downloading the free copy.

I certainly believe that open dialogue is key and that setting house rules as a family unit is paramount. Never once over the last two months that we have been operating with the system did my kids seem to mind.

Better yet, seeing what they Googled and the sites they visited gave me insight into some of the things that they were interested in.

For instance, I had no idea my daughter loved Chow Chows so much.

Who knew?

Download your free copy of OnlineFamily.Norton and see what you find out!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The secret to a perfect pie

There are times when I am completely blown away by a product. And unexpectedly, to boot.

Yes, it is June but I am hard at work on Christmas Dinner for our dear readers at Canadian Family Magazine (yes, we do work 6 months in advance). In an attempt to keep recipes simple for during that busy time of year, I decided to pick up the Pillsbury rolled pie crusts that caught my eye as I was scooting by the refrigerator section of the grocery store. They were for a recipe that was already getting unwieldy, so I thought this would be perfect. But I had pretty low expectations.

I must explain. I come from a long line of pie bakers. Buying a pre-made crust is just not in my genetic make-up. My mom’s pie is simply revered. Whenever she is asked over to anyone’s for dinner, they sneak in a request for a pie. She blushes, usually obliges and everyone raves.

But I believe the filling is the key to my mom’s premier pies. She spends most of the summer picking berries and stuffing her freezing with them for the sole purpose of pies. But my mom is busy with friends and her 15 grandchildren, so sometimes the crust doesn’t get the attention it desires. Maybe too much water or stretching it too thin to make two pies where one would have been perfect.

Which leads me to why I am so excited about how wonderful these pie crusts are.

They are dead simple to use, even for someone who has never made a pie. It is like some pastry god has already perfectly rolled the crust up onto your rolling pin and you simply unroll it into the pie plate and press gently in, fill and then top with the second pie crust. The pie I made is savoury so it is brushed with egg wash.

The pie looked promising out of the oven and as I cut into it, I honestly couldn’t believe the amazing shatter factor. You know that ultimate flake that comes from a well made crust when shatters on contact? This crust has it in spades. So although I would like to keep this little secret to myself, I just couldn’t. It is too good not to spread the word.

Maybe a call to mom is in order. It's not like she's going to read this: although she is a good pie maker, this new fangled Internet thing is something she finds too much work to figure out. She would rather make pie.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Light my fire

Okay, now that I have you over here let me start by saying that there will be no salacious details shared with regards to DMD's martial relations and any attempts to increase the quality or quantity thereof...

So, now that that is out of the way...remember that little trip to Las Vegas that Rob and I took over the Easter weekend?

Well, the thing is, we needed that trip.

It wasn't perfect timing, falling as it did, just four weeks after the death of his mom and smack dab in the middle of trying to sell our house.

But after the difficulties of the last year or two, we needed an opportunity to reconnect and try and restart some of the passion and excitement that marked our earlier years together. Because while passion and excitement obviously waxes and wanes over the years, I think it's also what gets you through the rough spots.

So, when Eden Fantasys offered me an opportunity to test drive one of its adults-only Romantic Gift Sets I jumped at the chance to take one along to Vegas in hopes that it would be a fun way to re-light our...ahem...spark.

And it was.

But not so much because of the actual contents of the kit. Most of what it contained isn't exactly stuff I would want to spend money on: the candles were meh, the rose petals were hokey, the champagne glasses (one had broken in transit) were plastic and cheap and the massage oil was, well, typical massage oil - kinda fun but also kinda smelly and really messy.

But using the kit was fun because it made us laugh a little and it made us make an effort and really - no matter what kind of sundry devices and toys you manage to whip out - most of the time a few laughs and a bit of effort are all an otherwise loving couple really needs to reconnect.

Though a hot heart doesn't hurt!

What's a hot heart, you ask?

This, my friends, is a hot heart.

While I know that picture doesn't exactly inspire lustful thoughts, the hot heart was included in our package and it was really cool and I actually, kinda, sorta, fell a little bit in love with it!

It is a soft, plastic heart-shaped massager filled with gooey stuff that heats up in a most delightful fashion when you rub it on the body.

The hot heart, my friends, is hawt.

And also apparently reusable. Although we have yet to break it out again since our return from Vegas, just the prospect of one day getting another massage from the hawt, hot heart has a tendency to make this diva feel a whole lot more loving in general.

And that's all I'm gonna say about that.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Taste of Thailand pad Thai

Pad Thai is my ultimate fast, (mostly) pantry food. Rice noodles, fish sauce, lime and ketchup. Yep, I like my pad Thai with ketchup.

Over at Canadian Family we were sent a Red Velvet Cake from Heinz to try out. Verdict: Delicious. Believe me, there is no shame in ketchup. You can also link through to other recipes in which I have unabashedly used ketchup with great results.

Although some pad Thai experts like Pim decry the use of ketchup here, I stand firm. And even though I met Pim at the IACP conference last year in New Orleans and loved her, I also firmly believe that if you are going to get others to cook along with you, one unique ingredient per recipe should be it. In pad Thai’s case, this would be the fish sauce.

Fish sauce is a popular Southeast Asian ingredient made from salted and fermented fish or anchovies. If you are not familiar with this ingredient you are probably having a little bit of a gag reaction at the thought. Do not let that stop you from actually buying some and making this recipe. It is essential.

Fish sauce is usually found along with the soy sauce in what some mainstream grocery stores ubiquitously call the International Aisle. The problem is they may only carry one particular brand. I suggest that you try to hit an Asian grocery store that will have some variety.

My favourite brand is Three Crabs that is made from anchovies (no crabs here although there are three on the label). Being Vietnamese, it is called nuoc mam, whereas fish sauce from Thailand is nam pla. My main advice is this: buy the more expensive brand because it is worth it. I pay about $5 for a large bottle, steering clear of the $1.99 specials. You can taste the difference.

The rest of the ingredients can be found in most grocery stores. The thin rice stick noodles are the noodles used in pad Thai. They come in 500-gram packages. I prefer them to the thicker noodle, but it is up to you. A full package will feed about 8 people. Soak the noodles you need in warm water for about a half hour before using.

Make the sauce in advance with the ratio of one part ketchup, one part fish sauce, one part sugar and one part lime juice. Mix together until sugar has dissolved. Add some chilli flakes or chilli oil to your taste. You need about 1/3 cup of sauce per portion of noodles so if you are making a big batch using the full package of noodles make about 2 generous cups sauce.

Mince three cloves of garlic, dice 250 grams firm tofu (1/2 pkg) whisk two eggs together, rinse 3 to 4 cups bean sprouts then chop the 4 green onions, 1/2 bunch cilantro and 1/4 cup roasted peanuts.

The key to success here is to do the pad Thai in batches. Have all your ingredients ready sitting on the counter next to you. Do one or two servings at a time. Heat a large wok with some oil. Cook a bit of garlic and tofu until fragrant and lightly coloured add a big handful of drained noodles and toss around. Add a bit of whisked egg and toss to coat the noodles. Add 1/3 cup fish sauce mix and toss around then add a handful of bean sprouts and green onion.

If your noodles are not soft enough, add a splash of water, and oil as well if stuff starts to stick. You are doing a noodle stir fry so you have to keep stuff moving or else the noodles will ball up and be awful (hence the reason to do small batches).

I like to add cilantro and peanuts right at the end. Serve with a slice of lime and pass the chilli oil for people to spice it up if they want to.

Although I could just eat pad Thai, I usually pair it with a protein and vegetables or salad. Sort of maintaining the zone philosophy of a one third each of carbs, protein and veg. I find even if you have the protein within the pad Thai, I eat way too many noodles on my way to the protein, but it is up to you. If you want to combine the noodles with shrimp or chicken, add them when you first start with the garlic and hit them with a bit of sauce.

I roasted some salmon that I doused with lime, garlic, salt and pepper. At 425F, it took about the same time as a batch of pad Thai.

Although my husband pairs mayonnaise with his salmon (and just about everything), I draw the line at additional condiments with mine, not even ketchup.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Well Hello Spring Pasta

I love this time of year.

I eagerly wait for the first fresh, seasonal food to grow. It begs creativity. I feel myself become more invigorated as the days warm and feel full of vibrant life.

Although my Diva sister-in-law is very much a city girl, her Dad taught her a few tricks growing up in a small town and one of them is foraging.

I am in awe. The last time I went foraging went something like this:

I returned from a walk in the woods around our cottage and spread the mushrooms out for final inspection. A call was placed to the Don Mills Diva's father; a forager, fisherman and all-around good guy. He advised me to stay away from mushrooms exhibiting colour and slime. He concurred I had a puffball on my hands after I sliced it in half to make sure it was solid. He was baffled by the oyster mushroom discovery, claiming he had never found any and couldn’t help.

He ended the call by saying he was really busy the following week and would not be able to fit in any funerals.

ECK! Did I dare?

I only dared once and was scared silly that I had poisoned my family for the next 48 hours: no, I am not a confident forager.

Having been trained by one of the best, the Diva hasn’t these fears. In around Kelly’s hometown there are a few spots teeming with a bounty of ramps (wild leeks) and morels (wild mushrooms) which she confidently identifies and, I assume, forces Rob to dig up. (editor's note: you assumed right, sister)

A weekend visit up to her parents' house a few weeks back yielded me the happy recipient of two unassuming grocery store bags heavy with their finds.

This recipe combines the holy trinity of spring: fiddleheads, morels and ramps. The fresh cheese I buy is found in a container and seems to tie everything together. If you are at the St Lawrence Farmers Market in Toronto, ask Monteforte’s Ruth Klassen if she has any fresh cheese. If she does buy it- it is outstanding and would be perfect here.

And hey, if you don’t have a foraging Diva in your life, you can pick up fiddleheads, ramps and morels at farmers markets as well. Just do it soon, the season is short.

Well Hello Spring Pasta
with Fiddleheads, Morels, Ramps, Tomatoes and Fresh Cheese

1. Clean fiddleheads and ramps. Chop ramps in half then roughly chop stem ends. Cut the leaves in thin slices. Sauté in butter a handful of cleaned, chopped morels, fiddleheads and chopped ramps ends.
2. Add 8 oz of spaghetti to a large saucepan of salted boiling water. Cook for 8 minutes or until al dente. Drain reserving ¼ cup of pasta water.
3. Toss pasta with 8 oz fresh cheese cut or torn into bite sized chunks, 2 pints (about 2 1/2 cups) roughly chopped assorted tomatoes* and cut ramp leaves. Toss in sautéed stuff.
4. Drizzle is 1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil and reserved water if needed. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
5. Serve immediately with a simple tossed salad on the side.
Makes 6 servings.

Cook's Tips

*Having a variety of tomatoes in this pasta adds extra visual interest. A combination of yellow, red and orange cherry tomatoes cut in quarters is a favourite. Tear drop and heirloom tomatoes are worth the work to find when they are in season.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Green Eggs for Dinner

Just when I thought I was at wit's end making dinner at the end of the day...Voila!

I came up with what I think is a brilliant idea.

Okay, so I am not the first in the world to make a frittata, but I thought I would share this. Sorry about the bad picture, but it is really so yummy. It is also dead simple and quantities can be adjusted to suit the number of eaters.

And the best thing? Most ingredients are ones you have on hand, or at least will once you make this killer Chimichurri sauce that I first made for this May’s Canadian Family issue. Check it out at This recipe combines Argentinean style sauce with a Spanish tapas favourite which is why this recipe is called…..

Spanentinean Frittata For Two

1 medium sized peeled Yukon gold potato
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 eggs
2 tbsp chimichurri sauce
salt & pepper
olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 400F.
2. Slice potato thinly. Transfer to bowl; cover with plastic wrap and microwave 3 to 5 minutes or until tender.
3. Uncover potatoes and whisk in onion, eggs and chimichurri sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Heat a splash of olive oil 8-inch over proof fry pan over medium high heat. Pour in egg mixture.
5. Transfer to oven and bake 15 minute or until eggs are set in middle. For easy clean up, serve right from the pan.

If you have more eaters, double recipe and increase pan size to 12 inches and baking time to 20 minutes.

Enjoy frittata with a salad and feel really healthy eating your greens.

My favourite Green Sauce otherwise known as Chimichurri

2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 medium shallot, peeled
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 cup parsley leaves, packed
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, packed
1/4 cup mint leaves, packed
1-2 tbsp chicken stock, water or olive oil, if needed to thin

1. Combine oil, vinegar, juice, garlic, salt and pepper in blender; blend until almost smooth.
2. Divide the herbs into thirds; blend one third until incorporated. Add remaining herbs in 2 more additions, pureeing until almost smooth after each addition. Thin out if needed with chicken stock or water. Chimichurri can be made 3 hours ahead. Cover and chill.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Salt snob

I admit it: I’m a salt snob.

I look with disdain at the ordinary salt shaker gracing most restaurant tables. It may as well be road salt given its full-on assault on the senses.

I checked my cupboard recently and counted eight different types of salt. Here is the low down on each of them.

Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt.
This is our everyday salt. Its lovely pinchable flakes and subtle flavour makes it a hands-down winner. At about $5 for a large box, it's also a bargain! Check out my Canadian Family recipe for chicken baked in a salt crust and give it a try because the chicken is so moist and tender.

Fleur de Sel
Fleur De Sel de Guérande is known as “the caviar of salts” and is acclaimed by many chefs as the best of all sea salts. The delicate flavour and moist texture make this the ideal finishing salt.

Salish Himalayan de Guérande
Himalayan Pink Salt is harvested from ancient sea salt deposits deep in the Himalayan Mountains. Gives lasting minerally (in a good way) flavour. We love it on popcorn!

Salish Sea Salt
Salish Sea salt is cold-smoked over red alderwood for 24 hours. Salish gives food a delicious essence of smoke flavour. Try on salmon, red meat or baked potatoes.

Oak Smoked Fleur de Sel
Oak smoked fleur de Sel is cold-smoked over oak wine barrels that have been used for years to age fine Chardonnay wine. Use as a finishing salt on salads, veggies, meat...almost any dish on which you want a smoky kicker.

Hawaiian Sea Salt
Hawaiian Sea Salt is the traditional salt used in Hawaii to season and preserve. It contains purified Alae clay which is high in minerals and gives the salt a mild taste. Try mixing the coarse salt with herbs and use as a spice rub; it seals in the natural moisture of meats.

Cyprus Mediterranean Salt
Cyprus Mediterranean Flake Salt is a unique pyramid shaped crystal. The texture and mild taste make this a versatile salt for use in cooking, baking and garnishing.

New Zealand Organic Sea Salt
New Zealand Organic Sea Salt is harvested from the deep, clear waters of New Zealand's North and South Islands. Our second choice for everyday salt.

Salt is the single most effective way to enhance the flavour of virtually everything you eat. Sprinkle one of the finishing salts on a favourite dish and it should add some new flavour or texture. Think of it as inexpensive indulgence to spice up your life.

Go ahead, toss the traditional salt shaker and be a salt snob.

Monday, April 20, 2009

What's missing in Cuba

We just got back from a week of basking in Cuban sun.

I went to Cuba once before with my good friend Andrea for spring break my last year of high school only a few short years ago (I wish) and I swore I would never go back.

It wasn’t a political statement and it wasn't because of the company or the lack of great beaches.

It was the food.

Even with my unsophisticated teen-aged palate, I had never tasted such bland food. I think Andrea and I pretty much survived on plantain chips at the bar and cashews we brought from home. Even the food on the plane trip home tasted like a gourmet feast.

This time around our family was in search of an inexpensive beach holiday on which we could re-connect and relax together. Cuba seemed to match all of our criteria, but could we survive a week on chips and nuts?

It turns out that not only was the beach was glorious and the company wonderful; some of the meals were downright spectacular.

Aboard a catamaran on a snorkeling trip to Playa Bonita, we had one of the best lunches of the week. Fresh fish, seafood and this killer paella was spread out before us in a rustic, open air building in the middle of an uninhabited beach.

My lack of Spanish prevented me from getting the actual recipe from the lone gentleman who whipped up the feast, but this easy version I made once we were home, was very close.

Playa Bonita Paella

1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 lb chorizo sausage, cut into small slices
1 large onion, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1 green pepper, diced
5 garlic cloves, minced
3 cups chicken broth
1 can diced tomatoes (28 oz size)
2 cups short grain rice
1 lb small clams in their shell
1/2 lb squid cut into thin slices
1 pound medium raw shrimp, peeled and de-veined
1 cup frozen green peas
1/4 cup minced parsley leaves

1. Heat olive oil in a very large saucepan. Sauté the chorizo sausage. Remove from pan and reserve.
2. Add onions, peppers and garlic to pan and sauté until soft.
3. Pour in stock and tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add the rice and reduce temperature to medium low. Stir in chorizo and simmer on the stove for 20 minutes.
4. Add clams, squid, shrimp and peas. Cover and cook another 10 minutes or until clams have opened and squid and shrimp are cooked.
5. Stir in parsley, taste and season with salt and pepper before serving.

Now if only I could find a way to recreate this at home...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Opa makes dinner

One of my kids' favourite meals that Oma used to make was chicken goulash. It was made in a typical European way, except Henny made it with a far greater portion of sauce than I think was usual. She did this so the kids could mix the whole thing into the mashed potatoes that she always served with the goulash. They loved it.

Karl surprised us last night when he came over for dinner. He brought with him a somewhat streamlined version of Oma’s goulash and...Opa had one more surprise: spatzle. I love spatzle and think it is perfect with goulash so I offered up my spatzle maker...

Opa was not impressed: he scoffed and said something that indicated he believed my spatzle maker to be a pile of *#%@ and proceeded to make us hand-thrown spatzle. He used a soup spoon, dipped it in cold water to prevent the spatzle from sticking to it, scooped up some dough and dropped the balls into the boiling water.

After dinner I asked him for the recipe. He again scoffed and said it was simple. When I pressed for measurements, he was even more vague. I figure he is either plagued by bad memory or is keeping his spatzle recipe a closely-guarded secret. So here is my version of Opa's spatzle.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
3/4 cup milk

Stir together the flour and salt. Combine eggs and milk; stir into the flour mixture. Pour the batter into the spatzle maker and slide the cutting tool back and forth over a large pot (with a diameter of at least 20 cm or 8 inches) of boiling, salted water.

Take care to let the extruded pieces of dough fall into the slightly bubbling water and let them cook for approximately 2-3 minutes. Generally, spatzle swimming on the surface are sufficiently cooked and may be gathered with a large slotted spoon, drained and placed into a serving dish. Karl’s larger spatzle took about 8 minutes to cook.

Oma’s Chicken Goulash

1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs
2 tbsp oil
2 tbsp minced garlic
2 tbsp paprika
1/2 tsp each salt and pepper
3 tbsp flour (she used potato flour to make this gluten free)
1 1/3 cups chicken stock or more if needed
1/4 cup tomato paste

Cut chicken into 3/4-inch chunks. In Dutch oven, heat half of the oil over medium-high heat; fry chicken, in batches, until browned outside and no longer pink inside, about 4 minutes. Remove to bowl.

Add remaining oil to pan. Add onion, garlic, paprika, salt and pepper; cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Add flour; cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in stock and tomato paste; cook, stirring often, until thickened enough to coat back of spoon, about 5 minutes. Return chicken and any accumulated juices to pan. Stir until heated through.

Serve with mashed potatoes or spatzle.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Miss Congeniality Cabbage Soup

There is a slight problem with the recipe that I am about to share: it is not good looking.

Being part of a very visual profession, I know that the quickest way to get a recipe killed is for it to look bad. A few years ago we were doing slow cooker food for a story for Wish Magazine. The chicken tagine tasted fabulous, was easy to prepare and featured ingredients most people have on hand. In other words, a perfect recipe for busy Wish readers. Its fatal flaw was that it wasn’t fashion-model-fabulous looking.

Chicken tagine never graced the pages of the magazine.

So with that in mind, I beg you to make this recipe. It has all the hallmarks of a recipe to suit 2009; it is cheap, easy and good for you. It is dead simple to make and I really must give credit to Grant Van Gameren, chef/co-owner at The Black Hoof. This is a man with a real affection for turning nothing into something really quite fabulous. He serves cabbage soup with bone marrow which is really fabulous.

He also writes a blog called Charcuterie Sundays that you should check out if you want insight into how an innovative chef thinks. He has a general description of how to make cabbage soup and I mostly followed it, but then couldn’t resist cooking up some bacon, chopping it fine and adding it at the end. A few crisp, crumbled bacon pieces would have been a nice garnish but my daughter ate them before I could stop her. I sprinkled nutmeg on it instead which is exactly what Grant does.

1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium head of green cabbage, cored and finely sliced
1 onion, peeled and chopped
10 whole cloves of garlic
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
2 cups white wine
4 slices cooked crisp bacon

1. Sauté cabbage, onion, garlic, salt and sugar over medium low heat until cabbage is limp and translucent, about 15 minutes. Reduce temperature if it starts to brown.
2. Increase temperature and deglaze with wine. Add enough water to cover cabbage. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce temperature to maintain a good simmer.
3. Continue to simmer at least four hours. Yes: this is slow cooking stove-top style.
4. Add 3 pieces of chopped bacon. Puree soup with immersion blender. Add a few tablespoons of butter to ramp up silkiness.
5. Serve top a few crumbled pieces of bacon and a sprinkle of nutmeg