Monday, November 24, 2008

The easiest Thanksgiving dinner you'll ever make!

Call it getting by with a little help from my friends: nobody needs to know their names are Uncle Ben and Betty Crocker.

Tackle these recipes the traditional way and it’s an all day affair or sneak in a few simple fakes and presto: you have extra time to play with your children, go for a walk, visit a friend or just relax. Print out the shopping list and get ready to save time and eat well.

Wondering why a girl in Toronto would be fussing with Thanksgiving in November? We're celebrating American Thanksgiving this year because our son is going to school in Lake Placid and is home for the holiday. So we are thankful and eating turkey together with family and friends this week just like millions of other across the border. Cheers and Happy Thanksgiving!

Game Plan: Since most people have only one oven, big holiday meals can prove problematic. The key to success is balance stove top cooking with oven required items.

Oven Roasted Turkey Breast with Maple Thyme Glaze
If a big turkey is overwhelming, cook the breast only. It cooks in about an hour and there's no tricky carving. The simple glaze elevates it to something special. Time saved = 4 hours

2 1.5 to 2 lb split bone-in turkey breasts (the whole breast but cut into two parts)
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp maple syrup
1 ½ tbsp fresh thyme leaves or 1 tsp dried
1 tbsp canola oil
salt and pepper

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Combine butter and maple syrup in a microwavable bowl and micro for 90 seconds or until butter has melted and syrup has boiled and thickened. Add thyme.
3. Place turkey on a roasting pan. Brush turkey with oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Cook in preheated oven.
4. Baste turkey with maple mixture after 50 minutes. Continue to cook for an additional 15 to 20 minutes or until an internal thermometer reads 165F. The timing can vary due to the amount of time the oven door is opened and close so a thermometer is highly recommended. Remove turkey from oven then baste once more. Tent turkey with foil to rest for at least 10 minutes. Use roasting pan to make gravy.

Stove-top Cider Gravy
Traditional gravy takes at least 20 minutes, ours 3. Time saved = 17 minutes

3 cups apple cider
2 packages poultry gravy mix

1. Add cider to roasting pan to loosen any baked on bits.
2. Whisk in mix and move roasting pan to stove element set to medium high. Bring to a boil then reduce temperature to low. Add additional cider if gravy is too thick.

Sausage, Apple & Cranberry Stuffing (stove-top & oven baked)
This stuffing may come from a box, but it sure doesn’t taste like it. Sausages, tart apples and cranberries make it an instant favourite. Spend your time prepping the embellishments, not mountains of dried bread. Traditional stuffing takes up to 45 minutes to prepare, ours: 10 minutes. Time saved = 35 minutes

3/4 lb sausages (Italian or garlic and herb)
2 Granny smith apples, cored and diced but not peeled
1/4 cup butter
2 cups water
1 cup dried cranberries
2 boxes stuffing mix (120 g Uncle Ben’s Stuffing Mix)

1. Squeeze sausage from casing and cook in a large pot over medium heat. Break up sausage into small pieces while it cooks. Add apples during last few minutes of cooking.
2. Add butter and seasoning packages, if separated, and water to pot. Increase temperature to high and stir to combine. Add cranberries and dried stuffing mix. Combine then transfer to large greased baking pan or casserole container. Can be prepared in advance up to this point and refrigerated until ready to bake. Cover and bake in a preheated oven for 60 minutes.

Garlic Mashed Potato Bake (stove-top & oven baked with stuffing)
Two convenience products in one dish elevate each other to new heights. The hash browns add a chunky texture to otherwise boring mashed potatoes. Although pre-cooking the hash browns adds a step, the creamier finished product is worth it. Green or yellow onions can be used in place of leeks.

1 package frozen hash brown potatoes (680 gr)
1/4 cup butter, divided
1 cup chopped leeks
1 tbsp finely chopped garlic
1 package dried mashed potato mix (113 gr Idahoan Butter and Herb is good)
1 cup water
1 cup milk
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup goat cheese
1 cup grated Asiago cheese
pinch ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper

1. In a pot of boiling water, cook frozen hash browns 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.
2. In same pot, cook leeks and garlic in 1 tbsp butter over medium heat until softened and translucent. Add water and milk then bring to a boil. Stir in potato mix and drained hash browns. Turn off heat.
3. Mix in remaining butter, sour cream and goat cheese. If mixture looks to stiff, add more milk. Stir in nutmeg, salt and pepper.
4. Transfer to a greased glass lasagna pan (9 x 13). Bake for 60 minutes in a preheated 350 F oven or until golden brown around edges and on top. Broil for the last five minutes to brown up if needed. Leave broiler on if making brussel sprouts.

Roasted Brussel Sprouts with Bacon
Pretend that you have a sous chef who has pre-trimmed and blanched your brussel sprouts when you start this recipe. At that point you are simply warming vegetables and garnishing with crisp bacon. Time saved = 20 minutes

1 kg frozen brussel sprouts, defrosted and drained
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 tbsp olive oil
8 slices pre-cooked bacon, chopped
2 tbsp cider vinegar
salt and pepper

1. In an baking pan large enough to hold sprouts in one layer, broil sprouts in chicken stock 5” from heat source until warmed through and stock has almost evaporated, about 6 minutes.
2. Add olive oil and toss. Sprinkle bacon over top and continue to broil until bacon is crisp and brussel sprouts are browned on the edges, about 8 minutes. Shake pan after 4 minutes to prevent one side from burning.
3. Carefully add vinegar (it will bubble when it hits the hot pan). Swirl around to coat sprouts and bacon. Season with salt (check first because bacon adds saltiness) and freshly ground pepper. Serve immediately.

Stove-top Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato Puree
I love butternut squash but cutting and peeling sometimes turns into a wresting match with sharp objects: case in point. A simple fake uses diced squash and canned sweet potato. The roasted red chile paste adds a smoky note to this sweet dish. Look for the small jar in the Asian food section of your grocery store. Time saved= 25 minutes

1 kg frozen, diced butternut squash
1 can sweet potato (597 ml), drained
1/4 cup butter + 1tbsp for finishing
1 tsp each: vanilla and salt
1/4 tsp ground pepper
1/2 tsp each: cinnamon and cumin
1/4 tsp roasted red chilli paste pepper
1/4 cup brown sugar, to taste

1. Cook frozen squash in steamer insert over boiling water for 5 minutes or until defrosted. Drain well and transfer to a large pot. Add sweet potatoes and mash. Over low heat, add remaining ingredients except sugar and stir well.
2. Sprinkle brown sugar and small pieces of reserved butter over top so it can melt in. Cover pot and keep warm until ready to serve. Taste and add further seasoning if needed.

Pear Upside Down Cake
For best results use two 9” diameter round cake pan. Plan to bake this cake while you are eating dinner so that you can serve it immediately. Scratch cake easily takes 25 minutes to pull together, ours only 7 minutes from start to finish. Time saved = 18 minutes

1/3 cup butter + extra for buttering pan
11/4 cups brown sugar
2 cans Bartlett pear halves or slices (398 ml/14 oz)
1 box lemon cake mix*
3 tbsp cornmeal
* ingredients plus 3 eggs, 1 to 1 1/4 cups water and 1/3 cups oil

1. Melt butter in microwave. Add brown sugar and microwave 90 seconds or until bubbly and brown sugar has dissolved.
2. Pour half of the syrup in each buttered cake pan. Tilt pan to distribute evenly. Don’t worry if it doesn’t completely cover pan bottom. Arrange fruit cut side down in a pretty pattern. Slice extra thick pieces so entire pan has fruit on it.
3. When preparing cake mix add 3 tbsp of cornmeal prior to adding wet ingredients indicated on the box.
3. Pour half of the cake mix (2 1/4 cups in each pan) over fruit.
4. Bake in a preheated 350F oven for 30 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick comes clean when inserted into the center of the cake and the cake has pulled away from the sides of the pan.
5. Immediately after removing the cake from the oven, run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen. Use a larger (10” minimum) plate held on top of the cake pan. Flip the pan over and gently remove the cake pan. Serve immediately.

Shopping List
2 x 1 1/2lb bone in turkey breasts (called split breasts)
maple syrup
fresh thyme
apple cider
2 package poultry gravy mix
1 lb Italian sausages
3 granny smith apples
2 boxes stuffing mix (120 gram is usual size)
1 cup dried cranberries
1 package frozen hash brown potatoes (680 gr)
2 leeks
minced garlic
1 package mashed potato mix (4 serving size)
sour cream
goat cheese
Asiago cheese
1 kg frozen diced butternut squash
1 can sweet potato (597 ml), often incorrectly referred to as yams
brown sugar
toasted walnuts
1 kg frozen Brussels sprouts
chicken stock
1 package precooked bacon
cider vinegar
2 cans Bartlett pear halves
1 box lemon cake mix

Friday, November 21, 2008

Four ingredient squash soup

I have been on a soup kick lately, probably due to the cold weather, being able to see my breath when I run in the morning and gasp, snow! Soup on the brain led me to plan a soup party for our skiing friends a few weeks back.

Six soups simmered on the stove for guests to help themselves. Some just wanted to try one or two; a few wanted a “flight of soups” and tried all six! It was such a relaxed and fun party with everyone jammed into our kitchen sipping soup. One of the soups simmering was squash soup. Bright orange and studded with bacon, it was a big hit.

I picked up a very green turban squash at the local farmers market a week or so beforehand. It was really interesting looking- the most pronounced turban shape I had ever seen. Turban (or buttercup squash) is extremely flavourful and sweet-much more pronounced than butternut squash. Look for it in the fall when squash varieties are abundant. Turban is one of my favourites for cooking and roasting the squash before adding to the soup intensifies the flavour even more.

The most difficult part of this soup was trying to cut the hard shelled squash in half so I could scoop out the seeds and roast it. Although I managed without cutting off my left hand, be very careful when attacking the turban squash.

1 large squash, cut in half and seeded (about 3 lbs)
4 slices of bacon
1 large onion, chopped
4 cups chicken stock

1 Preheat oven to 375 F.
2 Lightly oil sheet pan. Place squash cut side down and bake for 45 minutes or until squash is tender.
3 While the squash is baking, cook bacon until crisp in a large pot. Crumble and set aside.
4 In same pot over medium heat, sauté onion in bacon fat until translucent.
5 When squash is cool enough to handle, scrape flesh from skin and mash then add to pot.
6 Add chicken stock and bring to a boil, stirring to combine.
7 Reduce heat to simmer. Use an immersion blender to puree until desired smoothness.
8 Add crumbled bacon. You also can thin out with more stock or milk if needed but I find it is usually just perfect.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Putting a postive spin on the holidays

I don't think there will ever be another Doctor Seuss.

He is the unchallenged master of rhythm - all types of rhythm - and when another author attempts to write in a similar fashion, it's natural, if admittedly unfair, to draw comparisons. It's not easy to make words trickle off the tongue in a manner that will enthrall young readers and unfortunately that was abundantly clear when I settled in to read three books the Parent Bloggers Network recently provided for me.

All Hallows Eve, Winter's Eve and Christmas Eve, from Positive Spin Press, are illustrated and written by husband and wife team Lisa Sterlazza Johnson and Tucker Johnson. They are holiday-themed books which introduce children to the myths and stories behind Halloween, Christmas and a number of other holidays around the world by way of a charming little fairy named Eve.

It's an absolutely wonderful concept, the illustations are beautiful and there are certainly times when the rhythms, written in the anapaest style a la The Night Before Christmas - are lovely. But there are also times, quite a few times, when the rhyming is so forced it difficult to read the stories in the lyrical style in which they are intended to be read.

The books are recommended for children aged four and up or children from 2.5 years of age who are used to being read to. Graham has just turned three and he is a voracious reader but as valiantly as I tried I couldn't seem to hold his interest with the stories.

Perhaps he will enjoy them more when he is a little older, but I do think the awkward phrasing and some of the convoluted stories - particularly in the Winter's Eve book - were definitely a factor in his disinterest.

I have never made a conscious effort to seek out books that tackle explanations of holidays and traditions for children and I have heard from people with older children that appropriate stories of this nature are few and fair between. If that's the case, these tales from Positive Spin Press may well be excellent alternatives to what's currently available.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Insider's Report marks 25 years of revolutionary food

Two very important events in my life occurred in 1983: I got my driver’s license and the first President's Choice Insider’s Report was published. Both were revolutionary.

My driver’s license gave me my personal freedom, but the Insider’s Report rocked the world of the staid (or quite frankly boring) grocery industry with much greater impact. Marketing genius Dave Nichol turned “no name” private label products into innovative, must-try grocery items. He and his team travelled the world to find new tastes and sold them to Canadians by telling stories about their travels and explaining why they were must-try products.

I can only assume in the early days there were a few dissenters from corporate accounting, making snide remarks about Nichol and his band of foodies as they racked up Air Miles at their expense. Maybe they didn’t believe that good stories sell product. Nobody doubts now the power of the much-copied Insider’s Report.

The 25th Anniversary Insider’s Report was launched November 11th in Toronto. Martin Jamieson, Executive Vice President, Loblaws Brands, introduced the Report and 145 products were showcased.

We sampled the delectable wild Pacific salmon wellingtons made with Alaskan Pacific salmon certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. The salmon was tasty but the proportion of salmon to flaky pastry was a little off in my opinion.

The Insider's Report has introduced 18 lasagnas over the years but now they think they have perfected the dish with the PC Our Best Ever Meat Lasagna. Chock-a-block with a combination of beef and spicy sausage, a béchamel and then a garlic rapini layer I thought it sounded pretty standard, except for the unusual rapini. But the thing that brought it up to amazing, was the super thin sheets of pasta.

I don't have an aversion to carbs, but in some of the past President's Choice (and other) lasagnas, the sheets of pasta were so thick you needed a steak knife to cut them. With this one, that was not the case. And when product developer Sita Kacker waxed poetically about her lasagna, I was convinced it must contain an entire day’s worth of calories, but not so. At 440 calories, it is not outrageous and worth it.

If you are a fan of the PC Dulce de Leche in the jar, you're in luck: just for the holidays you can get it on top of a cheesecake. PC took their creamy New York-style cheesecake topped it off with tantalizing Dulce de Leche caramel crème sauce. I love the Dulce de Leche on other things but cheesecake just isn’t my bag. It was good and everyone was raving so if you like cheesecake, stock up before it is gone.

We also tasted the Veneto Pumpkin Triangoli that was served with brown butter and sage on a stick for easy eating. The sweet pumpkin filling is combined with crushed ameretti cookies which really cranks up the sweetness but when combined with a savoury sauce they are a knock out. Buy and try, your guests will love them.

And finally, if you take one thing from this years Insider’s Report and run with it, hands down, it has to be the Dark Chocolate Covered Caramels with Sea Salt.

They have Dave Nichol’s stamp all over them. Here's the Insider story: “We happened into a sweet shop or confetteria last December (ok, so I am so there already with them…) and we were surprised to find salted chocolates were the “in” gift.”

And now they will be your “in” gift one year later thanks to the Insider’s Report - that is, if you can stop yourself from eating these dangerously delicious caramels yourself. I am warning you, they are that good and at $5.99, a small indulgence that you can only get at stores that carry President’s Choice products.

Chalk up one more revolutionary year for the Insider's Report. As for me? I still have my driver's license, but 25 years later I've got wrinkles to boot!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Eebee's Adventures Winner

Elmo says Ellyn!

Shoot me an e-mail with your address Ellyn and I'll get the folks at eebee to send out your books. Thanks to everyone who entered!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Amazing baby

Forget about how cute your kid is.

The next time your little one struggles to master a milestone, look past the adorableness of their efforts and really consider the finer details of the science behind how the mind and body are developing.

Amazing, isn't it?

I have written before about how I am spellbound by the technical perfection I see evidenced in my son's growth. I find the complex systems that come together with such precision to allow him to master speech and movement and a million other things both incredibly moving and endlessly enthralling.

And I think that's why I have been similarly enthralled by Amazing Baby by Desmond Morris, a new book that explains the scientific side of a baby's development and illustrates its explanations with more than 250 photos of such heartbreaking beauty, I was left fully convinced of the miraculous nature of life.

Dr. Desmond Morris is an internationally acclaimed zoologist who published The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal in 1967. In Amazing Baby he explains how biology, physics, genes and other factors come together to produce a baby and then goes on to chronicle each stage of its development from in the womb to the first two years of life.

Amazing Baby is an extraordinary book, so rich and full and satisfying you could lose yourself in it for hours. I was desperately torn on whether to keep my copy or give it away to a friend who is about to have her first child.

In the end, I decided I'll have to share it - I can't think of a better way to introduce to my friend the way in which science and nature are about to work in perfect harmony to produce pure magic in her life.

* This review of Amazing Baby was done for the Parent Bloggers Network*