Friday, July 26, 2013

Double Post Day!

Okay you lucky people! (All 4 of you followers...) You get 2 posts tonight!
My last one was more of a rant than anything (we can call it musings if you prefer.), so I figured I'd best leave you all with a bit of inspiration.

First, of the culinary sort.

I had a Summer Tea Tasting Party this week and was eager to showcase as much tea as possible - in as many ways as possible. This included cocktails (Mojitos made with mojito tea + white rum, and Earl Grey Martinis), virgin cocktails (fruit tea + club soda + lime syrup), typical iced tea (Coconut tea + vanilla syrup), Two-Bite Brownies with Matcha Mousse and a classic fruit tart with tea-infused pastry cream. Yum!
I've got a couple more summer tea parties yet this season, so we'll see how many more treats I can put tea in! (Tea pots de crème?)

Tonight for supper I pulled out some pork dumplings I'd frozen a while back, and was going to make coconut rice but opted instead for saffron. The Indian inspiration soon beat out the Chinese inspiration when I opted to make a tamarind sauce and garam masala peas and carrots. And after a full week of struggling every night to get my pre-schooler to eat his supper (no spaghetti, no shepherd's pie - not even grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch!) he inhaled his whole supper. The peas and carrots were the surprise hit! I sautéed the carrots first with a bit of oil, then added the peas and the garam masala near the end. It was so simple, and the boys loved it, so I think that's going to be a staple in our home now! And saffron rice is always delicious, and the extra step of toasting your rice and adding sautéed onions really goes a long way.

Next: craftiness.

I have been successfully crocheting for about 2 weeks now. In that time I've mastered the brimmed toque, learned how to read the stitches far better than I ever could with knitting, can now make the daintiest butterflies you ever saw, and am determined to make a Twi'lek hat for myself, and Ewok hoods for my boys. I've also started making a stacking ring toy which was actually one of my initial attractors to crocheting; at a baby shower the mom-to-be was presented with the most adorable crocheted stacking toy and we were all amazed to hear that the girl who had gifted it had also been the one who made it. I want to give wicked awesome gifts like that, too. And so now I crochet.

Last: Gardening.

This is my first year of having a real vegetable garden, and thus far it is surviving. You may think I'm being over-dramatic with my word choice, but if you'd seen the hail storm we got last weekend, you'd be grateful for anything of yours that survived! Fortunately the trees in my yard shielded the garden from the hail. ...UNFORTUNATELY, the branches that blew off the trees landed on my peas. So we'll see what happens with those.
I've had to come to terms with the fact that everything in my yard takes at least a month longer than the exact same plants 5 blocks away, at my parents' house. And really, at everyone else's house in town. The west-facing yard really takes a toll on my growing times. My delphiniums have not bloomed yet, my tiger lily just opened, my peony hasn't even produced a bud yet and my rose bush is growing well, but not looking like it will flower at all this season. My strawberries refuse to fruit too. But really, this is the best my yard has ever looked in the 4 summers we've been here, so I can't complain too much I suppose.
As far as good news, my carrots and beets are coming along nicely, my beans are starting to produce, and I even might have a tiny pumpkin by the end of the weekend!


Go be inspired now.

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

I want, I want, I want

Have you ever gone through those seasons of your life when you just feel like you have everything you need, and you can't think of much more that you even want?
I was going through one of those recently. My wish list was reduced to a new Dust Buster to help make cleaning my upholstery easier, and an early edition copy of Pride and Prejudice, which I know I'll never actually get. Sure, I also wanted things like a new tattoo, or a new piercing, and even to attend a show or two, but as far as material possessions went - I felt like I had it all.

Notice how that was past tense?

Seriously, no idea where it came from, but suddenly my wish list is a mile long! I suddenly feel like my kitchen is incomplete without a mortar and pestle, I feel like I'm seriously deprived because I don't have a great salt/pepper grinder set, Target has a sale on dresses this weekend that I'm excited to go check out, and between jewelry I want to get, makeup I need to restock on, and things to help me expand my cooking skills, it's going to be a long time before I acquire everything on my wish list, which, if I may remind you, was nearly empty last month.

Seriously - what's up with that???

Granted, I've been cooking more lately, and watching more cooking shows thanks to a 3-month free trial for cable (which we won't keep, but I do love me some Chef Michael's Kitchen). As I see new techniques, or even flavor combinations, I feel like I need more things in my kitchen to help me create some of these things.
Currently lacking from my kitchen are:
Jelly Roll pans - 3 of them, actually. I feel like it would be wise to have these in case I ever need to make petit fours for a large crowd (which isn't a totally outrageous thing to expect of me...)
A mortar and pestle - the ultimate of all I-got-this-because-it's-pretty kitchen tools, but something I feel like I'd actually use. I currently have my coriander seeds in a mini pepper grinder, I'm sick of crushing up candy canes with a rolling pin and having the shards poke through the plastic bag they're in, and tonight I had to crush saffron threads between two spoons. Sure, it worked, but it would have been a quicker and neater job if I had the right tool.
And while I'm on the topic of grinders (kinda), I've been wanting a really good salt/pepper grinder set for a while (I'm picky about my salt, preferring only freshly cracked sea salt in most dishes, and I might as well have a matching set) but I can't find anything I really like! Which means it will likely be more expensive when I do get something.
A fine mesh sieve - I have one... that has little bars running under the bottom. It's great for draining quinoa, and a pain for straining pastry cream or tamarind sauce. I need one that allows for an uninterrupted flow of liquid down into a bowl.
Molecular Gastronomy tools - I'm determined to make caviars, foams, emulsifications, powders and all of those other fantastic things I've been reading about lately (nutella powder dusted over affogato caviar anyone???) but I need some tools, and ingredients first. Luckily I've got some inside information that this will be my birthday present from my husband (...since I had to buy it online myself since he wasn't sure where to get it!)

This is just the list of thing I have plans to get within the next few months! This doesn't include my desire to expand my Sophie Conran for Portmeirion collection, or to try out her covered black casserole dish, or any of the far-fetched scheming things I'd love for my kitchen (commercial manual espresso machine with a direct water line, please!)

Gah - maybe I'm just being greedy, but I'm not convinced enough of that to refrain from spending my birthday money on the first pepper mill that strikes my fancy...

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

Thursday, July 18, 2013


I finally have managed to tackle a real crocheting project!

I've been a knitter for years, and while I never bothered to try making garments or anything overly complex, I felt happy with my ability to knit, purl, work in the round, and cable. But what frustrated me was all the super cute things I'd see on Pinterest that had obviously been done by crocheting. I wanted to learn to crochet to open more doors for my crafting. But I was having troubles learning.

I had assumed that crocheting would be simpler if you started with a larger needle. But turns out, I was pretty wrong on that. I fund this fat thing from Value Village that had a totally rounded top on the hook, meaning that I had to use my fingers to get it into any stitch. So I definitely didn't learn any proper technique at the time. And my stitches were so loose that sometimes it was hard for me to spot the tell-tale "v" - so I wasn't learning to read stitches very well either. And when I finally felt sure enough to try working in the round, the first pattern went something like this: "Ch 2, 11 hdc into 2nd chain from hook." For those of you who don't crochet, that means to put 11 stitches into the exact same hole. Turns out, with such a big hook, after 5 stitches I couldn't even fit it through the hole anymore. It was ridiculous.

So I waited a couple of weeks, until I bought new hooks, to reattempt it. In the meantime, I filled my 'project time' with writing books, composing a song, gourmet cooking, reading a novel and planning to launch a webpage. (Hubby's been working a lot lately...)

Anyway, I now have the new hooks, and my next attempts were much more successful! The very first thing I did was set out making a hat for my little boy!

Okay, so maybe besides having the proper hook, learning to count is an important part of successfully crocheting... I accidentally added in a whole extra row of increasing on every stitch, which made what ought to have been a newborn hat, and hat that would fit an adult. No worries though - I've got a cute hat now!
And in two hours, I whipped up a proper sized hat for my boy! (I reversed the colors of the one I made for myself, so now we'll be all matchy-matchy!)

I must confess, I never had that degree of success with my first time knitting a hat. Crocheting is a lot simpler to read the stitches in my opinion, which has the big advantage of being more 'fixable'; if I can look at what I've done, and decode it, I can see if I've made a mistake and know how to fix it. Something I never learned with knitting.

So, now that I know that I can fire off a baby hat in two hours (and that time will likely go down as I get more comfortable), I'm on the hunt for other fun projects! And I must confess, I see Yarn Bombing in my future...

As a slight aside, I did a bit of inventory today of my craft supplies while I was reorganizing my craft storage. I have shoebox-sized containers of supplies for jewelry making, candle making, knitting, sewing, stamping and paper crafting, painting, Christmas crafting and misc. crafting (glitter, magnets, clothespins, etc). That doesn't include my stash of fabrics and yarns, or my kids' crafting supplies! Me-thinks I have a touch of ADD... Shiny things, anyone?

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Culinary Aspirations

Well, it looks like last week was the week of crafting, and this week has been the week of writing.
I had lots of writing projects at the beginning of the week, which left me mentally drained by the end of each day. As a result, I've been a lazy blogger.
The last couple days however I've taken a break from all of my writing projects (not because they're done or anything - just because I can only think that hard for a few days before I need a break!). For two days now I've been focusing more on cooking.

Cooking truly is a joy to me. When I was in high school, I fully anticipated entering the culinary field as my life-long career. For an honor roll student this was apparently odd, and when some teachers heard I wanted to go to cooking school they tried to dissuade me from it, arguing that chemistry or English would be a much more 'deserving' job; if I didn't have to have a job cooking, then why would I settle for one?

Clearly those teachers didn't cook, themselves.

I moved away in anticipation of enrolling in a culinary program... just in time for them to cancel all correspondence and evening courses for that term. The reality was, I couldn't afford to live away from home and attend school full-time (any scholarships I had been eligible for wouldn't cover culinary training), so I had planned on working a 9-5 and taking classes in the evening. I had the job lined up, but no school. Time passed and I opted to move back home after a year and do business school instead. That was 7 years ago that I made that decision, and now with 3 kids, I can't foresee a point in the next 10 years at least that I'll be able to attend a culinary institution.

But that doesn't mean I can't learn more about cooking.

The internet is filled with tutorials, videos and articles aimed at technical instruction. What's the proper way to hold a chef's knife? How do you bone a duck? What's the ideal process for preparing sushi rice? I've never been to cooking school, but I've learned a thing or two about those subjects thanks to living in the 'information age'. A desire to learn need not go unquenched thanks to all of the resources available to us in this day and age.

I first started making a conscious effort to expand my skills and knowledge in middle school; I made bagels and caramels in my downtime, just to see how it worked. In high school I found employment in a café where I was the morning baker, the weekend kitchen manager and eventually the recipe tester and perfecter. I made batches of bread, muffins, scones and cookies every day, created paninis and salads for the lunch menu and learned to make a bounty of soups from scratch. I didn't play too much with cooking in my spare time at this point in my life - goodness knows I spent enough time in the kitchen working split-shifts and going to high school.
Through college I had more of a break from cooking, except when I could work it into some form of a school project, but when I got married the year I graduated from the business program, it was full speed ahead when it came to my kitchen experimentation.

For that first year of marriage I relied almost entirely on the internet for my recipes and inspiration, but when our first son was born I discovered the joy that is The Food Network. Watching Chef Michael Smith explain the simple framework of a recipe, and leave the doors open for any changes you could imagine... I was truly inspired. I perfected a few of my staple recipes like roast pork or chicken, and duck served in every way I could think of. To this day, I still find Chef Michael's Kitchen to be one of my favorite, most helpful resources. I like to buy exotic ingredients and figure out how to prepare them best. I dare myself to try new things - basically anything I can get my hands on in Hick-town, Alberta. This summer I'm looking forward to trying mussels, lobster, and squid, and today I bought a coconut and made fresh coconut milk and toasted coconut chips!

I've also worked hard over the last few years on expanding my knowledge of other regional cuisines; I've dabbled in Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French and Vietnamese food to the point where I'm comfortable with the flavors and techniques involved. Pho is a regular menu item in our house, and it's not crazy for us to break out the escargot from time to time. Butter Chicken is a breeze now and sushi is easy enough for a weeknight meal.

But the next major step for me will be in the direction of molecular gastronomy. I recently came across the technique called 'spherification' by which you form tiny caviar-like beads by dripping liquid mixed with sodium alginate into a solution of water and calcium lactate (typically - you can use other agents, but the presence of calcium and acid are the essential components). So, you mean I can make Coconut Caviar? Oh my...
Another modern technique is foaming - which is all it sounds like: you turn things into foam. But it's the range of foods that people are turning into foam that's truly exciting: bacon foam, beetroot foam, fennel foam and lemongrass foam... I have lots of ideas for this. Picture a triple-layered 'cappuccino' dessert with a bottom layer of mocha pot de crème, a middle layer of almond milk custard and topped with a coffee and cream foam... preferably served in a sliced white chocolate "mug" so the layers are all visible. Oh my... I could have lots of fun with this.

In any event, my birthday wish list includes Sodium Alginate and Calcium Lactate, along with books on molecular gastronomy, and perhaps some textbooks from a culinary institution.

And who knows - maybe some day I'll finally get to cooking school, but I would hope by the time I get there, that I at least know the proper way to hold the knives.

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

Friday, July 5, 2013

Crafty projects

Over the last few years I have acquired ample amounts of fabric. I have silk, cottons, wools, linens, felts and everything in between. The reason for having so much material? An over-zealous creative streak, that rears its ugly head, spurs my on to start some amazing project, but then dies down before much can be accomplished. The fabric store is a dangerous place for me to go, since I will leave with something, often developing my schemes of grandeur while digging through a remnant bin.
My number of completed projects pales compare to my number of projects I intended to undertake. So that means that most of my fabric sits largely untouched.

Well, I found myself with a couple extra days with not much on my schedule, so I set out to rectify the situation a bit.

First up, I attempted to sew a stuffed whale out of old jeans. I had a link on one of my Pinterest boards that I never got around to trying, but I hadn't realized that there was no patterns to go along with the picture tutorial. So I drew a template free-hand. Let's just say that drawing is not a strength of mine, but I did manage to make the pieces that would assemble the whole. Except, just like the lady did in the tutorial, I made the stomach-section of the whale too large. (In my defense, I was following her lead!) As a result, what should have been a humpback whale turned out to be a lumpy blue whale! Whoops! But my boys still enjoyed it, and they could even tell it was a whale!

Next, I dug into my pile of pretty fabrics! I had attended a fabric sale fundraiser a couple months ago, where everything was $1/yard. I had found some beautiful fabrics, some of which I had no idea what to do with them! First up was this beautiful linen-type fabric that actually more closely resembles cheesecloth with a painted design! I had more than a few fears about using this stuff! The very open weave would likely snag in my machine, but I hate hand stitching unless absolutely necessary. The solution? Paper. I readjusted the length of my stitches to be a bit wider to accommodate for the open weave, and pinned a sheet of paper under my hem. Once I was done, I tore the paper off (very gradually and carefully might I add). Project #2 was a pair of pretty little scarves for my mom and I (don't tell her though - it'll be a Christmas present!)

The next fabric I put a priority on was some beautiful 'postal' printed cotton. I had seen pictures on Pinterest of pillows made in a similar fabric, so I scooped up the two yards I saw of this at the fabric sale. The issue being that pillows made of this wouldn't actually 'go' in any room in my house, so they'd likely be gifted, but I really wanted to make something with it first that I could keep for myself. Fortunately, you can never have too many fabric bags! I whipped one up sans pattern (sometimes the easiest way to make something is to draft it yourself - some people tend to overcomplicate the pattern process) and my last bobbin of dark blue thread lasted me all the way to the end!

I whipped up three bean bags for the boys (I had made some earlier in the year, but my sister stole them because they were too cute!) and then I set out planning an upcoming quilt I'll be making. I may have mentioned before, but I'm going to make a quilt for Matt now too. The idea struck me when he planned to get rid of a bunch of shirts he really liked, because they had holes in them. And while I was proud of him for having the desire to clear unnecessary things out of our house, I got sentimental on his behalf and decided to make a t-shirt quilt for him. I cut out the designs from the shirts and laid them out in a small rectangle.

I didn't have enough t-shirt material to make up a whole design, but figured I'd keep the t-shirt design as an interior rectangle, then put an outer border of a dark grey material, with a black bias tape edge. For the back, I'm thinking I'll find some winter camo fleece. The biggest trick was going to be the batting. I've never worked with the loose stuff before - just the super-easy sheets that just stay in place and don't pull apart. I was hugely intimidated about using the loose stuff, but didn't think I'd be able to find a sheet in the size I wanted, for a price I'd be willing to pay. Then along came my lovely Mother! She had an old mattress pad that had torn on the fitted portion, but since the pad was in good condition still, she was having troubles accepting that she'd have to throw it away. So she gave it to me to use as the batting for my quilt! It's a queen-sized, pre-quilted chunk of batting that will work perfectly! But, this quilt is going to be a surprise (another Christmas present), so I'll have to be sneaky about hiding my project!

The other quilt I'll be working on is Gabe's. We had planned to pick up the primary fabric for his in Canmore while we were on vacation, but thanks to some good old-fashioned flooding, we were unable to do so. So his is still up in the air. However, my mother also gifted me with some sheet batting that will be the right size for his project! Major expense out the way? Thank you very kindly!

You may have noticed that some of my Christmas presents this year will be sewn projects. I plan on making a couple more of those 'blue jean whales' (modified to look accurate this time) for my nieces, I've got some Hawaiian patterned cotton-blend that I'm going to make a folding beach mat for my sister, and depending on whose name I draw for Christmas on hubby's side, someone may get those 'postal patterned' pillows!

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Happy Canada Day, eh?

This past weekend was filled with lots of great, summery enjoyment! On Saturday it was just the boys and I since hubby was off helping a friend do some roofing. I didn't want it to simply be just any other day, so we partook in some garage saleing! Our searching landed us in Sylvan Lake, and after a hot morning driving around in the car, I figured it would be cruel to not let the boys out at the beach for a bit. We took a walk down to the water, dipped our toes in, popped in at a few shops and headed home before things got too busy! That evening we had dinner with my parents before a nice overnight storm rolled in to cool things down.
Sunday was mostly an indoors day since everyone was super tired. We managed to get a lot done though, and after church that evening we ended up back over at my parents' house for a campfire to roast some marshmallows.
Monday was Canada Day. Traditionally we will go with Matt's family to some local Canada Day celebrations, where we indulge in some international cuisine: pancit and Filipino pork satay, perogies, bratwurst...
But this year, thanks to the recent flooding, the events were relocated to a field fairly close to our house. The upside: it was walking distance. The downside: there would be no shade. No shade, hot sun, big crowd... Ugh. And, Matt's parents were unable to attend this year, so it'd be tougher to keep the kids in line on our own.
So instead of braving the heat and the crowds, we opted to make it all ourselves!

A couple of months ago I gave pancit a try in my kitchen and was thoroughly pleased with the results. I knew I had that recipe down, and this time I'd make the only adjustment I would need: making it ahead so it has a chance to sit in the flavor more. Cold pancit is just as good as hot pancit!
The pork satay is everyone's favorite dish at the Canada Day festivities, but it costs about $5 for 3 skewers. I knew that the pressure was on to present a great flavor-match, but I thought I knew how to, and for considerably cheaper, too! Enter a recipe that I use for Pho. I found this wonderful little tidbit through Pinterest a couple years ago, and it's become a bit of a traditional meal for us on family vacation. The pork marinade tastes just like restaurant quality pork. But it also tastes just like those Filipino satays my family enjoys so much. I used the recipe verbatim and let it marinate for a few hours. I had bought a pork tenderloin since they were on sale, used my sharpest knife, and sliced as thinly as I could. Once it was go-time, I skewered them, leaving ample space between each coil of meat, then BBQed them on a fairly hot grill to make sure that the sugar in the marinade would caramelize a bit. And it was perfect!

I also whipped up a non-traditional dessert: Frozen Strawberry Squares. These are dreamy when they start melting just a little bit so that the cream gets a foamy texture!

Our company brought more pork skewers, some smokies, drinks, and a watermelon and we had a great feast that evening!

It was so fun, we may opt to do it this way again next year!

Hope you had a Happy Canada Day!

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)