Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Party Menu Help!

I need help!!
We're having about 30 people over to our house this Friday for a baptism ceremony/party in our backyard! I'm really looking forward to it, but I also have a lot to do before then. I agreed to take on a bookkeeping job for the next little while which starts on Thursday, Thursday night Matt and I are going out for my birthday date which we had a heck of a time scheduling, and Friday I'm not even going to be home all day! So, in light of this, I'm having to replan my menu to include more quick and/or make-ahead ideas.
There are a couple of things I know I'm going to be serving, like mini corn muffins. Super quick, super easy, and I can make them Thursday afternoon. Done.
I also know the beverage menu: mimosas, italian sodas and pink lemonade.
That's about where my knowledge ends :)
I'd love to have input about what I should serve at the party, so I'm listing all the possible selections (already pared down from an even bigger list that included homemade pitas and caviar) and the pros/cons of that dish. Let me know what you think I should do!
Sweet Orange Marscanpone Tartlets - the phyllo shells for this I can make three days in advance and then just fill and garnish them last minute.
Individual Stacked Pies - Pie dough cut into circles with pie filling piled on top. Easy to do a lot of varieties but while I can make the dough in advance, it would be pretty time consuming even then. Cute, though.
Cake - easy to make, picky to decorate and not individual servings. Also not "wow", except if I spend alot of time on it.
Peanut Butter-Chocolate SemiFreddo - I could make tonight and it would be out of the way, but it would be messy and hectic to serve at the time, but I still like the idea of a cold treat
Mini Asian Cucumber Bites - a weird little Pampered Chef recipe featuring cucumbers, bacon and water chestnuts. Really yummy and very cute, but also a little labor intensive.
Mini Savory Waffles with Syrup-Sweetened Ketchup - Brunchish, but so are the Mimosas. Could make earlier on in the day and reheat but would still be pretty hands-on.
A savory phyllo tart - those phyllo shells would be so easy to make dozens of and then, again, I could just fill them at the last minute. I just don't know what to put in them.
Honey Garlic Marinated Chicken Wings - An old family recipe that I adore: throw together the night before, marinate overnight and bake all day. Very yummy, very messy
Beef Satay with Spicy Peanut Sauce - Slightly cheaper than the chicken wings, but more work. But also more trendy.

I'm thinking two sweet, one meat and one other savory. So....

What do I do?????

Monday, August 29, 2011


Do you ever have those moments where you wish you were better at something, or that you could learn how to do something you've never tried before?
Well, I have a lot of those moments.
I really enjoy learning new things and I also really enjoy learning on my own. I've never been the type who enjoys classroom learning and a set pace; I've always done much better on my own, left to my own curriculum. I'd much rather take a text book home and learn how to do something that way than wait for someone to explain it to me.
From an early age my parents nurtured my desire to try new things. Even though things were tight when they were a young couple with little kids, they made the decision to enroll us in community programs like swimming, soccer and t-ball. They also encouraged us to take every opportunity we could, be it soccer camp, a weekend writing course or leadership retreats. Being a bit on the low-income side at that time, our recreational activities were also quite diverse and low-cost. This wasn't by any means a disadvantage however. I remember one winter when my parents found cross-country skis at a garage sale. They bought a pair for everyone in the family and we did a few outings that winter around town. It was a great time and I liked it so much I even joined the ski team at my school the next year. We also vacationed in the mountains every year which ultimately led to our enjoyment of fishing and hiking and my parents brought us out to a farm that some family friends owned so we could try horseback riding and get accustomed to getting our hands dirty. My dad owned an archery store so we all did that to some degree and my mom encouraged us all to join Home Ec in school so we could learn the basics of sewing and cooking.
It was a great foundation for living an interesting, resourceful life.
I soon found that I had a great interest in sports and music. I did soccer every year and took part in basketball, volleyball and badminton in school. In grade 6 I started playing guitar and eventually got into piano (rather, got back into it... my mom had tried to teach me when I was younger but it proved to be too much of a classroom setting for my liking). In high school I joined the choirs and became an official choir geek, spending 4 afternoons and 1 evening a week at choir rehearsals, not to mention all of my lunch hours as well. In grade 11 I picked up a job at a cafe and I found a new passion: coffee. I loved it. Everything about it. I loved the smell, I loved the taste, I loved the knowledge of what makes coffee good and how to make the perfect espresso shot. I became a veritable coffee snob and at one point could identify 30 different varities of coffee simply by the grinds. At that cafe job I also rekindled my love of cooking. When I was 4 or 5 my favorite TV show used to be The Urban Peasant - a cooking show featuring James Barber. I'd watch it every day. I always liked cooking but I never started experimenting until my cafe job. When I was on baking duty I'd have to have muffins, bread and scones ready before 7 a.m. and then make dozens of cookies, cakes and squares through the day. If I were on kitchen duty I'd have to make the soups from scratch, taste and tweek them, and make up specials for the day which often involved getting a little adventurous with leftovers. That was my first exposure to things like artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes, celery root, hearts of palm and any type of cheese other than cheddar.
My mom taught me how to knit at some point through high school and I dabbled in sewing here and there, too.
Now, I'm 24, married, with two kids, and I'm very appreciative for my upbringing. My love of cooking makes a daily chore enjoyable. Cooking dinner isn't a burden - it's an opportunity to try something new. Giving Christmas presents is tied into my hobbies when I make pillows or sugar syrups for people. I'm teaching my boys how to appreciate music already and the coffee... well, that little enjoyment sure helps after a few middle-of-the-night feedings :)
Lately, I've been wanting to add to my list of things that I've tried. While I do have a tendancy to "dig an inch deep and a mile wide" (an expression that a high school teacher used to describe my essay writing), I can't help but want to learn more things. Granted, there are some things that I ought to focus on learning better, like improving my guitar and piano skills and brushing up on my knitting, but it's so hard to not want to do everything.
The other day I realized that in the past year I have, for the first time, made soaps, done canning and tried quilting. The year before that I tried a few things too, like making candles and bath salts. When it comes to cooking, in the past few years I've hit a lot of milestones, like my first time cooking lamb and duck, my first time making custards, first time making sushi and even my first time roasting a chicken.
It's interesting looking at some of my inspirations for trying some of these new things. The first, and often most prominent, would have to be Martha Stewart. After the birth of my first son I subscribed to her magazine. I had bought an issue for reading when I was in the hospital with him and it was the first time I actually wanted to read every single article in a magazine. It's because of Martha Stewart Living that I tried needle felting, making bath salts, making soaps, and making teacup candles. My second biggest improver lately has been The Food Network. By some glitch with our cable internet, our TV would actually get a couple, albeit blurry, cable shows. I discovered this when Gabriel was 4 months old and teething. He was wretched some days and all I could do was sit on the couch, holding him and watching blurry TV. My favorite show to watch the The Food Network and I started to get ideas for techniques or dishes that I wanted to try. I started roasting meats after an episode of Chef at Home, and I have since implemented alot of techniques that I picked up on from watching shows like 5 Ingredient Fix, French Food at Home, Chef at Home and Ricardo and Friends. Some of my favorite foods to make, like my No-Butter Chicken and Dulce De Leche Bars are Food Network recipes.
This year, family members are getting canned condiments for Christmas and my boys are (finally) getting quilts made by Mommy. And while there are lots of nice things about all of these hobbies, like saving money on Christmas gifts and eating good dinners without having to go out, the best thing is really how enriching these things are to my life. I love having productive things that fill my time so well, and I'm going to love passing these down to the next generation. That's right, my boys will cook - and well :)

Mrs. Vander Leek ;)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Recipes and links

Ahhhh, sweet baking. How much I love it. ...and how much I've been doing it lately.
In light of my health issues and my inability to eat fats, I have been making my own bread in our house since many store-bought loaves have a surprisingly high fat content. Also, when you can't eat fats it's hard to feel full, so I have been baking low-fat, high-carb snacks for our house. (I'll worry about my carb intake when I can eat meat and dairy products again.) Last week I started out with baking a loaf of my Wheat and Flax bread. A few days later I made some soft pretzels. The recipe I used was the Classic Pretzel recipe on KingArthurFlour.com. That evening I also made up some muffins. This recipe was the low-fat Carrot muffin recipe from the website ILoveMuffins.ca. It's a great little website that I plan to visit regularly. We were going to a family dinner the next day so I made up some baguettes for that. The baguette recipe was from my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook and I was surprised how well they turned out. Typically, Better Homes and Gardens recipes are a little too "store-bought" for my liking, however, these were the best baguettes I've ever had. The dough is remarkably soft but it makes for super light and crusty bread. My family was surprised they weren't from the store. However, like all good bread, it was best in the first few hours. In France a baguette is considered to have a two hour life span and that's really how you should treat all artisan loaves.
Anyway, last week I definitely made a dent on my flour stock and will soon need to buy another bag of bread flour (which I used for my pretzels too, btw). I remember growing up in my parents' house and we usually only had one type of flour in the house - white. Whole wheat on rare occassions. And while I don't claim to have branched out to full flour potential, I value the traits of bread flour and rye flour and look forward to experimenting with potato, rice and corn flours.
My meal plans have been branching out a bit, too. A week ago I was watching TV at my parents' house (I was running an errand over there and a thunderstorm hit and Gabe fell asleep so I took advantage of their cable to watch the Food Network) and I caught an episode of The Spice Goddess. This episode featured her No-Butter Chicken, which substitutes plain yogurt for the traditional butter or cream. I had happened to pick up some indian spices a couple of weeks prior so it turned out the only ingredient my kitchen wasn't stocked with to make that dish was the plain yogurt. Last night I finally made it and was surprised by a couple of things: first I was surprised how easy it was. I'd never really made Indian food before and now I honestly can't tell you why. There was nothing to it. Second, I was surprised at how fast it was. I'm hesitant to cook with chopped chicken breasts because I always imagine so many complications of working with raw poultry (oddly enough, I have no qualms about working with a whole raw bird...). But really, from the time I pulled the chicken breasts out of the freezer to having the meal completely ready, it was about 35 minutes. Not to mention that was my first time making it so I'll probably take less time with my next attempt. Lastly, I was surprised at how much it smelled and tasted like Indian food. Have you ever made sweet and sour pork at home? There are a million recipes on the internet and few of them taste anything like how you think they should. This recipe tasted just like what one would get at a restaurant. A good restaurant, at that. I was impressed - and so was my husband.
Tonight I made my Goat Cheese Chicken Pizza finally. I decided to brave the obvious fat content and to try and limit the fat on my side of the pizza as much as I could. I have to confess, I used a store-bought pizza crust, which I later regretted. Not only did it have a high fat content, it was too salty, too white and too blah. Anyway, I didn't use a sauce but instead I sprayed the crust with a little olive oil, then I sprinkled on some thyme and some fresh basil and added on some crushed garlic. Next I put on the goat cheese which I crumbled and ended up using maybe 50 g. for the whole pizza. Then I layered on slices of red peppers and peaches and lastly I added the chicken cubes which I had sauteed with some red onion. My goodness it was incredible! I'd have ordered it at a restaurant and been thrilled with the result, even on the lackluster crust. Next time, however, I'm going gourmet all the way and making my own crust. (My excuse for not doing so today is that I put all of my baking efforts into making more loaves of Wheat and Flax bread today).
Over the next little while I'm going to be investing more and more into high quality ingredients. Without fat to cover up tastes, it really is more glaringly important to have wonderful flavors in each component of a recipe. Plus, if I am having a little bit of fat in my meal, I want it to taste as good as possible. Take for example, cheeses. If I am using a typical, mild, North American cheddar, I would typically use quite alot of it. It's an easy thing to eat, comparable to coolers where you can hardly taste the alcohol and can drink like Koolaide. However, too much fat and too much alcohol alike are bad things. Now, if you replace your cooler with brandy, or scotch, or rather your mild cheddar with aged cheddar, or gouda, or asiago, you don't chug, you sip. So if I'm planning on putting some grated cheese on my pasta, switching out asiago for cheddar will mean I can use less and not feel like I'm missing out on anything. And if I'm making a pizza, I can use a 1/4 c. of goat cheese, comparable to 1 1/2 - 3 c. of cheddar or mozzarella cheese that is typically used on a pizza. And maybe even for Nachos or something I could use a good, smoked cheddar and get away with eating those. If you think about it, it's actually quite ridiculous that they sell 900 g. blocks of cheese in stores and that people buy those about once a month for their households. A typical lasagne alone will take up a third to a half of that block. Ucky.
One thing I'm guilty of is buying the cheapest olive oil on the shelf. Well, I do spring for Extra-Virgin, but that's as high-minded as I get typically. My reasoning for doing this was that I don't really like olive oil anyway and only using it as an occassional substitute for canola oil anyway, so why bother spending more on it? Well, a couple days ago my dad showed me why. When I brought out the hour old baguettes for some pre-dinner munching this weekend, he brought out a bottle of olive oil that he wanted to try. A local businessman bought an olive grove in New Zealand and makes this oil and brings it over here to sell. My dad wanted to dip his bread in it and while I was lamenting the fact that we had no fresh herbs to throw in it, he dipped it in the naked oil and said it was great. I didn't really believe him, but I tried it, and he was right - it was great. The oil is called First Drop and the variety we tried had slightly grassy notes to it. And it didn't taste like stale oak, which my el cheapo brand does. So, in the future I shall invest in flavor and save money through the old quality vs quantity adage.

Mrs. Vander Leek ;)