Category Archives: Main Dishes

More Thoughts on Hummus

Like I mentioned in my last post, hummus is one of those versatile recipes that can be used a dozen different ways.  When I made the batch for the Request for Hummus post, I wanted to use the hummus for more than just a meze (a Turkish or Greek… why does it make me nervous to type both of those names back to back… dip or snack food), but as a part of a larger meal.  What came to mind was a sandwich that I’d fiddled with before, but hadn’t yet perfected.  What it needed was a silky layer of hummus to really pull all the flavors together, and voila, the Mediterranean Tuna and Hummus Sandwich was created.  You’re really going to like this one.

Mediterranean Style Tuna and Hummus Open Face SandwichThe sandwich has three main components, the flat bread, the hummus and a Mediterranean-style Tuna Salad.  The flat bread could be bought from your local store, or substituted out for a nice crusty roll, OR you could use some of the fantastic Whole Wheat Pizza Dough that I wrote about for stocking your pantry.  As I’ll describe below (or click here for a “how to” recipe for Using Frozen Pizza Dough), you simply roll out the dough, season it with whatever dried herb mixture you prefer, and bake it until crispy.  It’s delicious!  The hummus, while you could buy it from the store, is so easy to make at home that once you get this recipe (Marie’s Hummus) down you’ll never look at the pasty stuff from the grocery store in the same way again.  The last part, the Mediterranean-style Tuna Salad, is included here.  If you’re not a big fan of the traditional mayonnaise-based tuna salad, this one is for you.

While I actually am a fan of a good, rich, mayonnaise-based tuna salad sandwich (in fact I think that’s what we’re having for dinner tonight) there are times when I want something a bit different, and that’s when I use this Mediterranean-style Tuna Salad recipe.  It has a nice, briney bite from kalamata olives, a little feta cheese gives it a creamy-richness, and there’s plenty of crunch from vegetables like onion and celery.  In fact, you’ll be surprised by how much salad one little can of tuna can create since it is well supported by a crunchy cast of characters.  The salad is a cinch to toss together, the flavors get better if they have a chance to hang out for a bit, and it’s great to serve over lettuce for a large salad, or you can serve it with crackers for a snack or appetizer, OR even better you can serve it as a part of a great, layered open face sandwich like the one shown here.

Mediterranean-Style Tuna Salad

Ingredients:
3 eggs, hard boiled and separated
1 can tuna in water, drained
2 sticks of celery, finely diced
¼ cup feta, crumbled
¼ cup kalamata olives, pitted and diced
1 cup English or hot house cucumber, diced
½ small onion, diced
¼ cup olive oil
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. herbs de Provence, or other dry herb blend
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Separate the egg whites from the yolk, and discard two yolks. That is where most of the fat and cholesterol reside. Use them if you want, the salad will be even more delicious. I discard them here to lighten the salad. Finely dice the remaining yolk and whites. Add them to a large bowl.
  2. Add the tuna, celery, feta, olives, cucumber and onions to the bowl and toss to combine.
    The salad ingredients

    The salad ingredients.

    Tossed to combine

    Tossed to combine

  3. Whisk the olive oil, lemon juice, herbs, salt and pepper in a small bowl to combine.
  4. Toss the salad with the dressing and enjoy!

Click here for a printable Mediterranean Tuna Salad recipe.

Mediterranean-Style Tuna and Hummus Sandwich

Ingredients:

One portion Whole Wheat Pizza Dough
1 cup Marie’s Hummus
1 batch Mediterranean Tuna Salad
1 tsp. Herbs de Provence blend
1 cup salad greens or arugula
Olive oil to taste

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350º.
  2. Roll out the dough into a wide oval, about ¼ inch thick. With a fork (or docking tool) poke holes all over the surface of the dough. This will keep it from bubbling up and distorting. Brush the dough lightly with about 1 tsp. of olive oil. Sprinkle a pinch of salt and the Herbs de Provence over the dough. Either slide the dough directly onto a pizza stone in your hot oven, or place it on a parchment paper lined baking sheet and then into the hot oven. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until just browned in spots. Remove the crust to your work area.
    The prepared dough for flat bread.

    The prepared dough for flat bread.

    Note that the shape of the dough changed significantly.  :)  This is what makes it "rustic"... When things don't go as planned just call them "rustic" and they'll still taste as good.

    Note that the shape of the dough changed significantly. 🙂 This is what makes it “rustic”… When things don’t go as planned just call them “rustic” and they’ll still taste as good.

  3. Spread the hummus in a thin layer over most of your crust, leaving a 1 inch border around the edges.

    Leave a thin border around the edges for a good place to hold onto your open faced sandwich.

    Leave a thin border around the edges for a good place to hold onto your open faced sandwich.

  4. Mound the Mediterranean Tuna Salad on top of the hummus, leaving a narrow border around the edges so that the hummus is visible.

    Each added "layer" should leave a little of the previous layer visible so you can see a bit of everything.

    Each added “layer” should leave a little of the previous layer visible so you can see a bit of everything.

  5. Mound your salad greens or arugula on top of the tuna salad and drizzle it lightly with olive oil.

    I used hearts of romaine here for the last layer, but my favorite is arugula.  Water cress would be great too!

    I used hearts of romaine here for the last layer, but my favorite is arugula. Water cress would be great too!

  6. Cut into “slices” and serve. Enjoy!

Click here for a printable Mediterranean Style Tuna and Hummus Sandwich recipe.

If you want to find an easy “recipe” for using your frozen from scratch pizza dough, click here: Using Frozen Pizza Dough.

 

One delicious open face sandwich.  You can make smaller sized ones for individual portions if you want to be fancy, or make one large one like this and cut it into quarters or long slices to serve family style.

One delicious open face sandwich. You can make smaller sized ones for individual portions if you want to be fancy, or make one large one like this and cut it into quarters or long slices to serve family style.

Stocking the Pantry

I am always drawn to the food television shows or magazine articles about stocking your pantry with things that you have made yourself, or how to make fast and delicious meals on the fly from whatever is in your pantry.  Yet it seems that no matter how many of these shows I watch or magazines I read, the pantry staples focused on are never the same ones that I always have stashed away.  I’ve come to the conclusion that our pantries are often as individual to us as our fingerprints are; shaped by our own backgrounds, be this cultural, economic, geographic, etc.  So I am not going to make the assumption that any of you have the same pantry staples as me.  But if I might make one suggestion… you really should have some pizza dough in your freezer at all times.  This is free advice, and therefore worth as much as you pay for it.  Do with it as you will.  In my opinion, good quality pizza dough is worth its weight in gold in terms of quick meal preparation.

You can use the pizza dough, of course, to make your own pizza, but that is just the beginning of the world of things that you can make with your own dough stashed away in the freezer.  I use it to make flat breads to serve with homemade hummus and other meze (small plate dishes from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines), a knock-off version of naan (a delicious Indian flatbread), bread sticks, garlic knots, calzone, flatbreads topped with oven roasted vegetables, and the possibilities continue.  In fact, if you have any suggestions for how to use pizza dough to create other dishes, please share!  I would love to hear your ideas and to expand my own possibilities.

If you do want to use the dough for its namesake and make your own pizza you won’t be disappointed.  It is infinitely cheaper to make your own pizza than to order out, and you would be surprised by how a little bit of food goes a long way to top your creation.  Let me warn you, however, that once you realize how few toppings your local pizza place is actually giving you compared to what they charge, you might be a bit perturbed.

The best part of all of this (except for eating your creation, of course) is that if you make a large batch of pizza dough you can freeze it in individual portions for up to a couple of months.  I like to make a large batch of dough that creates roughly six portions.  I freeze these individually in plastic bags, defrost them as needed, and when my supply gets low I whip up another batch when I can.  Then when I find that I am in need of a dinner idea but don’t have much on hand, one of my first thoughts always goes to pizza with either a white or red sauce (and yes, I have used jarred marinara here in a pinch… no haters, please), and any number of combinations of the few food items I might have on hand.  You will see some of my pizza creations appearing here over the next few months.  After all, I did just stock my freezer with some dough…  To get your feet wet, try the Harvest Moon Pizza posted recently (Pebble Beaches and Pizza).  I hope you love it as much as my family does.

Harvest Moon Pizza on my Whole Wheat Pizza Dough.

Harvest Moon Pizza on my Whole Wheat Pizza Dough.

Whole Wheat Pizza Dough

Ingredients

3 c. water

1 tbsp. honey

2 packets active dry yeast (or 4 ½ tsp.)

4 c. whole wheat flour

2 c. bread flour (preferably whole wheat)

2 c. all purpose flour

3 tsp. salt

Olive oil, for oiling the proofing bowl

Directions

Pour the water into a microwave safe measuring cup and microwave for 1 minute or until hot to the touch.  Don’t burn yourself, but the water should be very warm (around 100 degrees F or just over).  Add the honey and the yeast to the water and stir to combine.  Set the measuring cup aside for 10 minutes to let the yeast proof… aka get foamy.  If you yeast doesn’t foam up, then try reheating the whole thing for a few seconds in the microwave.  If it still doesn’t foam, then you may have had a bad batch of yeast and you’ll need to start again.

Getting the yeast ready to proof... aka get foamy.

Getting the yeast ready to proof… aka get foamy.

Nicely proofed yeast.  A little bit of honey or sugar goes a long way to give the yeast cells a nice snack.

Nicely proofed yeast. A little bit of honey or sugar goes a long way to give the yeast cells a nice snack.

Method 1: Electric Stand Mixer

Combine the flours and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.  Once the yeast has proofed, pour it into the bowl with the flours and the salt.  Starting at the lowest speed, combine the ingredients and then let the machine “knead” the dough at the speed recommended by the manufacturer (mine suggests not going beyond speed 2 for doughs) for 6 minutes.

The dry ingredients in the mixer bowl.  Be sure to mix the salt into the flour before adding the yeast.  Salt can slow yeast down, so I don't want the yeast to get a big mouthful of salt all on its own.

The dry ingredients in the mixer bowl. Be sure to mix the salt into the flour before adding the yeast. Salt can slow yeast down, so I don’t want the yeast to get a big mouthful of salt all on its own.

Getting everything mixed together.

Getting everything mixed together.

The dough starts to incorporate into a ball.

The dough starts to incorporate into a ball.

Oh, how I love my stand mixer...  6 minutes later and you have the perfect dough ready to rise.

Oh, how I love my stand mixer… 6 minutes later and you have the perfect dough ready to rise.

Method 2: By Hand

I have done this by hand many times, and there is something immensely satisfying about hand kneading your dough.  However, it does take a bit more time and counter space than the stand mixer method.  To do this by hand, simply combine the flours and salt in a large mixing bowl.  Once the yeast has proofed, stir it into the flours until relatively well combined.  Then turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand, adding as little flour as possible, for about 15 minutes.  The dough should be elastic and only a little tacky to the touch.

Both methods come together here…

Once the dough is kneaded, whether by hand or machine, get a large bowl to allow the dough to proof or rise.  Drizzle a little olive oil around the bowl’s walls.  Form the dough into a large ball, place it in the oiled bowl and then flip it over so that the dough is oiled on all sides.  This will keep it moist during the rising process.  Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and then cover that with a clean dish towel.  Set the bowl aside in a warm place to rise for about one hour or until doubled in size.

Getting the dough ready to proof.

Getting the dough ready to proof.

Tucking it in...  For this batch I brought the dough downstairs where our wood burning stove was cranking out some heat.  It was toasty warm down there, rather than the cool kitchen upstairs.

Tucking it in… For this batch I brought the dough downstairs where our wood burning stove was cranking out some heat. It was toasty warm down there, rather than the cool kitchen upstairs.

The plastic wrap helped keep my massive bowl of dough from completely overflowing.

The plastic wrap helped keep my massive bowl of dough from completely overflowing.

Once the dough has proofed, gently press it down to deflate or degas the dough.  Let it rest for about 5 minutes and then form it into individual portions.  This batch should make 6 regular-sized pizzas, or you can use different portion sizes to create larger or smaller pizzas.  Divide the dough up evenly, form each portion into a ball, and unless you are using the dough immediately place them into individual freezer bags.

At this point the dough can be frozen for 1-2 months and used as needed.  From frozen, simply remove one of the portions the night before you want to use it and let it thaw in the refrigerator overnight.  If like me you forget to do this step, do not fear.  Simply remove the frozen dough from its plastic bag and place it on a microwave safe plate.  Then microwave the dough for 1 minute, and let it sit in the microwave oven for 5 minutes.  Then check to see how it is doing.  If the center is still frozen, give it another 30 seconds in the microwave followed by another couple of minutes to rest.  Then use the dough as desired.

Once the dough is thawed, or if you use it right after proofing, simply place your portion on a lightly floured work surface and roll it out or hand stretch it to your desired shape and size.  Then proceed with any pizza or flat bread recipe of your choice.  Enjoy!

Click here for a printable version of the Whole Wheat Pizza Dough recipe.

The pizza as it is just slid into the oven on my pizza stone.

Pebble Beaches and Pizza

In a previous post (A Day Off in Wine Country) I wrote about how this last summer Dave surprised me with a wonderful day off (aka a Surprise Day), touring local wineries on Vancouver Island like we used to do in New York.  Then, just before the end of this last semester, I decided it was the perfect time for me to surprise him too.  So Little Man and I went to pick him up at our normal time, but we weren’t going home for a slow cooker super that evening.  Little Man “hid” behind his special teddy bear (both in the rear car seat of course) and yelled “SURPRISE!” as soon as Dave got to the car.  We then whisked him off to the shore for a walk along the pebble beach at Neck Point.

View from the trail leading to Neck Point.

View from the trail leading to Neck Point.

This Surprise Day was actually inspired by the water table at Little Man’s Strong Start program (more on that program in a future post).  For those readers who don’t have toddlers, a water table is a sensory tool where kids can explore different textures and types of things in water.  You can fill a plastic storage tub with anything you would like, then put in a couple inches of water… or sand… or whatever you would like.  The one that Little Man was playing with had a couple of inches (or a few centimeters, depending on which side of the border/metric unit you prefer) of water in which floated a scattering of plastic sea animals, as well as a number of smooth, rounded pebbles and assorted sea shells.  Little Man loved playing with the pebbles in the water and I asked the teacher where she found them.  The answer was Neck Point.

Walking along the beach in the shadow of the forest.

Walking along the beach in the shadow of the forest.

Neck Point is a popular pebble beach and walking path in Nanaimo and I had heard of it but not had a chance to check it out yet.  The directions posted on the Nanaimo Information website  are as follows: “Turn off Hammond Bay Road onto Morningside Drive, north of Pipers Lagoon. Or, you can park at the end of McGuffie Rd and follow a path.”  We followed those directions and our GPS and got there unscathed, with about an hour of light left before the sun started to go down.  A perfect amount of time for a toddler-sized walk along the beach before food/snack is required.

View from the parking lot.

View from the parking lot.

From the parking lot, you first see a beautiful pebble beach, but to get to the “neck” of Neck Point you need to walk a bit further.  We took the trail to the left of the pebble beach and headed in what we hoped was the correct direction.  The path curved around to the left, climbing slowly, and passing a couple of scenic benches and picnic tables.  Then as we turned the corner and walked into the shadow of the mountain, we saw a beautiful log-strewn pebble beach.  With the blue, blue sky and the cries of the cormorants, it was stunning.  Little Man scampered down the stairs, over the logs and had a great time threw rocks into the sea.  Dave clambered over rocks, over the logs, and out on some sea rocks looking like he was walking on water.  In the shadow of the forest with the sun lowering behind the trees it started to get a bit cold, too cold for a picnic dinner.  But once we get into springtime, we are definitely going to be giving that a try.

Stretching our legs

Stretching our legs

run

After a bit of family clambering around and pebble hunting, I realized that we hadn’t quite made it to the “neck.”  So we continued down the curving path, up a long stairway and raised wooden walkway leading over the rocks, and down again towards the “neck.”  During low tides the “neck” consists of a narrow strip of pebbly land that juts out to a “head” of rocks surrounded by sea.  We were lucky in our timing and were going out just before the tide started to come back in.  The view was gorgeous, and we all had fun climbing around… though I was wishing we had brought Little Man’s lion tether as he kept creeping closer to the edge and wasn’t feeling like holding his parents’ hands while climbing like a little mountain goat.  A few tussles later and we decided it was time to head back for dinner.

Dave walking on water.

Dave walking on water.

Timber strewn pebble beach

Timber strewn pebble beach

The walkway to the "neck" of Neck Point.

The walkway to the “neck” of Neck Point.

Neck Point at low tide reveals a narrow pebble path to the sea rocks.

Neck Point at low tide reveals a narrow pebble path to the sea rocks.

Climbing on the sea rocks.

Climbing on the sea rocks.

climb2On this particular night I was going to treat Dave to our favorite Indian place, Amrikos, for dinner.  Our plans changed when we discovered that the restaurant had suffered a horrible fire and had moved locations at least temporarily.  So our dinner was good, but a bit subdued that evening.  To make up for it, the next weekend I made a pizza inspired by one of our favorite restaurants called Farm in Bloomington, Indiana.  The food is amazing and it’s still a place that we miss even years after moving from the area.

The Harvest Moon Pizza is inspired by one of their seasonal flatbreads.  The Farm version used locally sourced kielbasa and smoked gouda, along with homemade sauerkraut and grainy mustard.  It may sound a bit odd on your pizza, but it is absolutely delicious.  My version uses more premade items, and switches up the flavors a bit, but it still comes from that homey, cold-weather type of comfort food… on a pizza crust.  Feel free to make your own pizza dough, I’ll be sharing my recipe for that in an upcoming post, or pick some up premade from your favorite store or pizzeria.  I’d suggest not buying the pre-baked variety, but go for something that is still the dough that you can shape and season to your own liking.

038Harvest Moon Pizza

Ingredients

Premade whole wheat pizza dough (white flour dough can be used too)

2 Tbsp. butter

2 Tbsp. flour

1 cup milk, preferably whole milk but any grade will do

1 bay leaf

1 garlic clove, crushed

¼ tsp. grated nutmeg

1 tsp. dried mustard powder

¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (not the canned stuff)

Salt and pepper, to taste

Olive oil

1 tsp. herbs de provance (or other dried green herb like thyme, basil or oregano)

½ package kielbasa, sliced into ¼ inch rings (save the rest for another meal)

Small can of sauerkraut, drained

1 ½ cups good quality white cheddar, freshly shredded

Directions

Preheat your oven to 450 Fahrenheit.  If you have one, this is the time to put your pizza stone in your oven.  Mine stays on the lower rack all the time, so it’s always there when I want some solid, ceramic-based heat.

The Sauce

First, make your roux, or mixture of butter (or other fat) and flour.  In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium low heat.  Once the butter is melted whisk in the flour, and keep on whisking for one minute.  Watch your roux like a hawk, and do your best to not let the flour color, turning down the heat if necessary.  After a good minute, slowly pour in the milk, whisking all the while until everything is smoothly combined into a thick béchamel.  Add the bay leaf, garlic clove, nutmeg, and mustard powder to your sauce, and cook gently for about 5 minutes or until very thick, stirring often.  This is not a light béchamel for pasta, but is a thicker version for the white sauce for your pizza.  Your sauce will be more robust rather than dainty.  Once the sauce has thickened whisk in the parmesan cheese until velvety smooth.  Taste your sauce for seasoning, adding a little salt and pepper if necessary.  You should have a slight bite from the mustard, but it should not be overpowering.  Once the flavors are to your liking, take the sauce off the heat and set it aside.

The beginning of a roux, or thickener made from butter (or other fat) and flour.

The beginning of a roux, or thickener made from butter (or other fat) and flour.

Adding the flour

Adding the flour

Now whisk like you mean it

Now whisk like you mean it

Adding flavor to your bechamel, in this case from garlic, a bay leaf and mustard powder.

Adding flavor to your bechamel, in this case from garlic, a bay leaf and mustard powder.

The bechamel is thickened.

The bechamel is thickened.

Parmesan cheese rounds out this flavorful white sauce for your pizza.

Parmesan cheese rounds out this flavorful white sauce for your pizza.

The Pizza

If you have a pizza stone, it should already be heated in your oven.  If you do not have a pizza stone, place a large baking sheet upside down on your middle oven rack.  This will serve as your stone.

Heat a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, and then add your kielbasa slices to the pan.  Continue to cook and toss your kielbasa until it is golden brown in spots.  Then turn the kielbasa out of the pan onto a paper towel- lined plate and set it aside.

Adding the kielbasa to the hot pan.

Adding the kielbasa to the hot pan.

Golden brown kielbasa for the pizza.

Golden brown kielbasa for the pizza.

Using lightly floured hands and board, roll or stretch your pizza dough out into a circle.  I like whole wheat here, but if you can only find white flour dough that is good too.  The dough should be rather thin.  Pierce the dough all over with a fork (or dough docker… I love mine.  It does this task in about one second), leaving a scant inch border around the edges for the crust to rise.  These little holes will keep large bubbles from forming in the middle of your pizza dough.

Docking the dough, or piercing it all over with little holes, keeps bubbles from popping up and pushing your toppings to the side.

Docking the dough, or piercing it all over with little holes, keeps bubbles from popping up and pushing your toppings to the side.

Transfer the dough to a pizza peel, or if you don’t have one you can use a metal pizza pan or the back of another large baking sheet.  Drizzle the dough with a little bit of olive oil, and then sprinkle over the Herbs de Provence or other dried green herb mixture.  This ensures that you have great flavor in every layer of this pizza.  Slide the dough onto the pizza stone or upside down baking sheet in your oven, and bake for about 10 minutes or until starting to brown in spots.  The crust may not yet be fully cooked, but I find this step creates a crisper and less doughy crust, and it will finish cooking in the next step.

Seasoning the pizza dough with olive oil, herbs de provance and a little salt.

Seasoning the pizza dough with olive oil, herbs de provance and a little salt.

The prepared crust.

The prepared crust.

Remove the pizza crust from the oven and transfer it back to your work surface.  Now you get to put all the pieces together.  Slather the crust with your mustard cheese sauce, leaving a border around the edges for your crust.  Scatter the browned kielbasa evenly over the sauce.  Then scatter a thin layer of sauerkraut over the sauce.  You likely won’t use the whole can, but can serve the extra in a small bowl for passing at the table.  Lastly, cover the pizza generously with your shredded, white cheddar cheese.  This is where I have to fight off big boy and little boy hands from snatching the cheese right off the pizza before I can get it into the oven.  Slide it back in the oven before an all-out battle breaks out in your kitchen.

When saucing your pizza crust, be sure to leave a nice border for the crust.

When saucing your pizza crust, be sure to leave a nice border for the crust.

Kielbasa scattered over the pizza.

Kielbasa scattered over the pizza.

First give a light scattering of sauerkraut to your pizza, then cover it with a generous helping of freshly shredded white cheddar.

First give a light scattering of sauerkraut to your pizza, then cover it with a generous helping of freshly shredded white cheddar.

Bake this for about 15 minutes, or until the cheese melts and gets bubbly and brown on top.  Sometimes I switch the oven to broil, and then stand guard like a hawk until the cheese is nicely browned.  From personal experience, don’t step away from a broiling oven for a second or you might just get a bit more “carmelization” than you hoped for.  Remove the pizza from the oven, and let it sit for a moment so it isn’t “hot lava” hot.  Then slice, serve and enjoy!  We like to serve this with a harvest or Oktoberfest ale, and a green leafy salad with sliced apple and walnuts and a balsamic vinaigrette.  Delicious!

The pizza as it is just slid into the oven on my pizza stone.

The pizza as it is just slid into the oven on my pizza stone.

Golden, bubbly and delicious, dinner is ready!

Golden, bubbly and delicious, dinner is ready!

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Click here for a printable version of the Harvest Moon Pizza recipe.

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Playing in the Mud

It was hot.  So hot that if I left my trowel in the sun for even a few moments you could have fried an egg on the metal blade.  Blazing hot, but to think of it in those terms made you feel even hotter.  I was collecting yet another bag of broken pottery (officially called coarse ware or cook pot ware, affectionately called crap ware) in my first archaeological field season in Turkey.  I wasn’t exactly sure that I knew what I was doing, and I had no idea what to do with the stuff I was digging up, other than to record it properly.  I hadn’t yet learned how to take the material remains and interpret those back into the lives of ancient people.  Somewhere during the collection of that bag of boring, unpainted, undifferentiated pot sherds, I actually stopped to look at one.

At work analyzing pot sherds in Turkey.

At work analyzing pot sherds in Turkey.

It was the same earth-beige color as the rest.  Roughly the same shape as the palm of my hand, and on the outside surface was a perfectly clear finger print preserved in the clay.  The finger print of the woman or man who had actually made the pot whose surviving piece I now held.  This print was not decorative, but was simply a movement recorded in clay; and I was hooked.  For the first time, all the books on ancient history, all the poorly made films about ancient civilizations (Alexander with Colin Farrell… hours of my life I can never get back), all the museum displays, all of it finally was linked back to real people.  There were real people who made real pots that quite often weren’t pretty, but I bet could be used to put together a delicious meal.

One of thousands...

One of thousands…

Those pot sherds became the focus of my life for a good five plus years.  My dissertation was based on thousands of pot sherds, enough sherds to make your eyes cross and fingers ache just at the thought of analyzing them all.  When I was writing up my findings back in Indiana, Dave surprised me with a present of a pottery class.  It was something I’d always wanted to do, but had never made the time.  Now that I was crunching numbers and trying to interpret ancient life from thousands upon thousands of pot sherds, I was finally going to see what went into making a pot.  And I loved it!  There is something magical about pulling the pottery up from the wheel and seeing it transform before you eyes and between your hands… even if it falls.

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Pottery I made in Indiana.

When we moved from Indiana to Iowa, I lost access to that studio and then Little Man came on the scene and I hadn’t been able to get back to pottery until now.  I’d heard that through the city of Nanaimo there was access to a pottery studio where they also taught classes.  So I tracked down a copy of the Nanaimo Parks, Recreation and Culture Activity Guide and found the information on the Bowen Park pottery studio (in the senior center at 500 Bowen Road).  The best part was that they offered multiple days of open drop in time, where as long as you already know what you are doing you can come by for a small fee and use their facilities.  I was hoping that the muscle memory of throwing pottery would come back, even though I hadn’t held clay for nearly three years.  And it did… more or less.

001

With my reintroduction to the world of throwing pottery, I wanted to cook dinner in a casserole dish or pot that I’d made myself.  I wanted to use my own pottery again, to feel the accomplishment of creating something useful not just pretty.  I also wanted comfort food, which meant casserole, and the mother of all casseroles in our household is Chicken Taco Casserole.

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Chicken Taco Casserole is not a light meal, and frankly I don’t recommend trying to lighten it.  I’ve tried it with baked tortilla chips, and they just dissolved in an unappetizing mush.  I’ve tried it with reduced fat canned soup (yes, you heard me right, this recipe calls for canned soup.  Embrace the retro ingredient) and that was a mistake; total lack of flavor and an off putting texture.  This is one of those go big or go home casseroles that we don’t make often, but we savor every delicious bite, scraping our plates (and the casserole dish) clean.  And while you certainly don’t have to bake this in a ceramic casserole made by yourself or a local artisan, I have to tell you that it’s really great if you can.  I don’t know why, but it just seems like things taste better when served in your own pottery, pottery made for you, or pottery made by a local artisan.  It’s similar to how things you grow in your own garden taste better than those things you buy in a store.  It’s powerful when you know the hands that made something, not just an extruder or mold press half way across the world.  So if you get a chance, support your local potter.  You’d be amazed at the craft and artistry that goes into what seems like a simple bowl or mug.

My first casserole dish, made in Indiana.

My first casserole dish, made in Indiana.

Chicken Taco Casserole

As you can see, one chip has already been stolen by someone with fast hands while I was reaching for the camera.

This casserole is the definition of family comfort food for me.  It’s a family recipe that we’ve tweaked over the years and my parents make it differently than I do, and my brother has his own spin on it too.  The ingredients below give a nicely spicy version, but in terms of full disclosure, I haven’t been able to make it with any spice since Little Man came along.  We’re hoping to get him there some day, but for now I omit the chili flakes all together (unless I’m feeling risky and just give a sprinkle to the sauteing chicken), and instead of a half can of jalapenos, I use a full can of mild green chilies.  The taste is still great, but I can’t wait for Little Man’s palate to develop to spicy foods…  Mama misses her chilies.

And a quick warning…  The first time my dad and I tried this casserole with the added chips and cheese on top… the topping never made it to the table.  We pulled the delicious casserole out of the oven, called the rest of the family to dinner, and stood there in the kitchen eating the chips and cheese off of the top.  By the time the rest of the family got there we’d smoothed out the top of the casserole and no one was the wiser… until now.

Ingredients

3 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless

Salt and Pepper

½ tsp. chili flakes

2 cans cream of mushroom soup

2 cans cream of chicken soup

½ small can of diced green chilies

½ small can of diced jalapenos

2 cups grated cheddar cheese

1 large bag of good quality tortilla chips

Directions

1.  Preheat the oven to 350º Fahrenheit and prepare your favorite casserole dish by giving it a generous spray of cooking oil.

2.  Heat a large, nonstick skillet over medium high heat and add a little oil.  Sprinkle the chicken breasts with salt, pepper and half the chili flakes.  Put the breasts into the hot pan spice side down.  Then sprinkle the exposed side with salt, pepper and the remaining chili flakes.  Cook until golden, then flip and sear again.  Saute until the chicken is cooked through, about 10-12 minutes total.

These chicken breasts were large, so I only used two rather than the three suggested in the recipe.  Taster's preference.

These chicken breasts were large, so I only used two rather than the three suggested in the recipe. Taster’s preference.

The beauty of browned food...

The beauty of browned food…

3.  In the meantime, in a large mixing bowl combine the soups, the chilies and a good sized cup of grated cheddar.  Mix this all together and set it aside.

The casserole base with the green chilies, but alas no jalapenos.

The casserole base with the green chilies, but alas no jalapenos.

The casserole base with cheddar cheese.

The casserole base with cheddar cheese.

4.  Once the chicken is cooked through, remove it to a plate and shred it into large strips.  Once shredded add the chicken to the rest of the casserole mixture and stir to combine.

The combined mixture... the start of a beautiful thing.

The combined mixture… the start of a beautiful thing.

5.  Now comes the fun part, layering.  Grab a good sized handful of your chips and crush them into the bottom of your casserole.  This should more or less just flatten them out a bit to make a good base.  Then layer in approximately 1/3 of your casserole mixture, and smooth it out.  Top this with another good handful of chips, and repeat the layers until you cap off the casserole with the last of the mixture.  Be sure to reserve a good handful of chips and about 1/2 cup of grated cheddar for the topping later.

Starting the layering with some crushed chips at the bottom of a casserole dish.

Starting the layering with some crushed chips at the bottom of a casserole dish.

The last layer of chips.

The last layer of chips.

The top layer of the casserole mixture caps off the chips, protecting them from burning.

The top layer of the casserole mixture caps off the chips, protecting them from burning.

Ready for the oven.

Ready for the oven.

6.  Put the casserole on a baking sheet (in case of boil overs) and slide the whole thing into your hot oven.  Bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbly and hot.  Pull the casserole out of the oven, top it with your reserved chips and cheese, and return it to the oven to just melt the cheese.  Watch it like a hawk here in case the chips start to burn.  Once the cheese is melted and the chips brown up on the tips, remove the casserole, let it sit for about 10 minutes (if you can hold off the savage hordes long enough) and then enjoy.

Deliciously browned.

Deliciously browned.

Click here for a printable version of the Chicken Taco Casserole recipe.

As you can see, one chip has already been stolen by someone with fast hands while I was reaching for the camera.

As you can see, one chip has already been stolen by someone with fast hands while I was reaching for the camera.

Splitting Wood

Let me begin with a brief thanks to whoever it was that created the electric wood splitter.  This is a brilliant, if improbably heavy, machine.  I love it!

Dave splitting wood at the farm.

Dave splitting wood at the farm.

"Coco Smash!"

“Coco Smash!”

With the first trip for wood, Dave started doing some log splitting to transform the log sections into actual fire wood.  Using a maul (doesn’t sound promising…), he started muscling through the pile.  I watched his technique and figured that it would take me only moments to lose a toe (we all know the luck I have with foot injuries… see “Family Dinner” post) and/or tweak my back beyond redemption.  So when Farmer-Landlord said (only partially joking) that the Men get the wood and the Women do the splitting (more hunter-gatherer references here), I knew I was in trouble.  Then Farmer-Landlord introduced me to Betsy… the name that I’ve given to his beloved electric wood splitter.

Me and Betsy posing.

Me and Betsy posing.

Betsy is worth her considerable weight in gold.  To help us out the first time, Farmer-Landlord backed his pickup to the wood pile, plunked Betsy down on to the open tail gate, and showed me how to use her.  The splitter looks more or less like a narrow chute with an ax bit at one end.  You plop the log onto the track, make sure one end of it is snuggly abutted to ax bit (aka the sharp end), and then in Betsy’s case you hold a button down while simultaneously pulling a lever (safety first) and a moving panel forces the log down onto the bit, splitting the wood.  For larger logs you can do multiple splits.  Easy Peasy.

Dendrochronology pop quiz...

Dendrochronology pop quiz…

In no time I had split my way, pink gloves and all, through about half of the pile of dumped wood.  There was still the large trailer full and the person-sized logs that still needed portioning, but all in all not a bad start.  At around the same time that my hands and arms started to complain loudly, Little Man woke from his nap complaining loudly too.  His poor little face was swollen from the yellow jacket sting from earlier that day, and the copious calamine lotion didn’t help the look.

The next day I went out again to the pile to split wood; good little wood chuck that I am.  The pickup was still parked next to it, the tailgate down at the perfect height for Betsy.  I just needed to go get her from the work shed.  Dave was off playing soccer, Little man was sleeping, and I was going to play Lumberjane.

wood 3

I knew where Betsy was in the shed, gave her a quick spritz of oil along the track, tipped her up and started to wheel her out to the pile.  Or I should say, uphill to the pile.  I wheeled her over to the low rise that we had to clime together and dragged her like a dead body up the hill, finally getting to the pickup.  I could hear the steady plunk, plunk, plunk of Farmer-Landlord “harvesting” rocks from the sheep pasture.  Apparently they were messing with the idyllic scene, so one by one, plunk, plunk, plunk, then went into the maw of the tractor.  Luckily the “rock garden” was around the corner from where I was attempting to work, so no one (I hope!) witnessed that pathetic struggle between myself, Betsy and gravity.

Now that I had gotten Betsy to the pickup, I needed to get her up onto the tail gate.  Oy.  I knelt down, grasped Betsy at both ends and made to lift her properly with knees bent, etc.  Nothing moved.  Betsy is a sturdy piece of work.  So I tried again, and she just wiggled a bit.  Now I was getting nervous that I would have to ask Farmer-Landlord for help, but I didn’t want to interrupt his chore to help with mine.  So one last harrumph and I got Betsy most of the way to the tailgate.  A lovely double-bruise on my upper thigh marked where I gave her a little extra boost up.  I would forget about that bruise until I took Little Man to the pool a couple of days later.  In my swim suit I looked battered, and got quickly into the water that miraculously hides a number of evils.  Once I had Betsy on the tail gate, we were off to the races.

A winter's worth of wood to be split.

A winter’s worth of wood to be split.

Again I made pretty quick work of almost all of the loose pile of wood, making quite an impressive (if not properly stacked) wood pile.  But I have to come back to that “almost all” from the previous sentence.  About five or six of the larger, more recently harvested logs were a bit wetter than the others.  A few of the dry logs sounded like a gun shot when the log finally split under the pressure.  The more recently cut logs sometimes fought a bit and would split, but not completely.  They hold themselves together in remembrance of what it was to be complete with fibrous fingers.  I “split” these larger logs four or five times and for my troubles ended up with my own wooden rose sculptures.  Do you know those pictures in Thai restaurants of the fancily carved fruit?  The watermelons carved into intricate flower baskets, the mango carved into a swan, etc.?  This is my own, much less appealing, version.  These wooden roses have been set aside in a pile for the stubborn, to be resplit by Dave.

My wood pile.

My wood pile.

In the meantime, Little Man managed to sleep through the wood splitting for a second day in a row, and was just waking up when I was finishing the pile and Dave was just getting home from soccer.  All three of us were a bit dazed afterwards, and while Betsy had done all the hard work for the splitting, I started to feel the exhaustion of lifting and hurling all the wood.  Now it was time to make dinner.  We wanted something hearty befitting our efforts, but not enough to induce a food coma.  And it needed to be quick.  As luck would have it, I had recently stumbled across (literally, one was on the floor of the grocery store aisle) prepared polenta in a local store.  Angels were singing when I found this tube and quickly plunked a couple down in my cart.  Little Man used one as a microphone for a bit.  This would be the basis for a super quick oven roasted polenta with marinara and oozy cheese.

This recipe is about as no-fuss as it gets.  The polenta is already prepared and in handy tubular form for slicing.  You slice, bake and crisp.  Then top with a heated from-the-jar good quality marinara sauce, top with some freshly grated cheese, broil, and done.  At least it is normally easy…  I didn’t fully realize how tired my upper body was until I was putting a full tray of food into the oven and my hands simply gave out.  The tray tipped forward and as I tried to compensate so as to not lose our dinner to the floor, I tagged my hand on the preheated oven rack.  Then I tagged the same hand again on the other side while I tried to compensate again.  So now I had two spectacular burns on my hands to compliment my lower body bruising.  Let’s just say that I was a vision of loveliness at the pool a few days later, bandages and bruises, and runny mascara (I’d forgotten to leave that off that morning on the way to the pool).  The glamour continues…

plating (2)

Oven Baked Polenta

Serves two with leftovers.  Easily up the quantity by just doubling (or more) the ingredients.  The method stays the same.

Ingredients

1 tube of prepared polenta

1 jar of good quality marinara sauce

1 cup grated mozzarella

½ cup grated parmesan cheese

Olive oil, to drizzle

Salt and Pepper

Directions:

1.  Preheat the oven to 425º Fahrenheit.  Prepare a baking sheet by drizzling about one table spoon olive oil over its base.  Too much oil and the polenta will be greasy, too little and it sticks.

2.  Slice the polenta into ½ inch thick coins.  Sprinkle salt and pepper over both sides.  Place the polenta coins on the baking sheet, and drizzle the tops with a little olive oil.

Sliced polenta coins.

Sliced polenta coins.

3.  Bake the polenta coins for about 25 minutes, or until crispy and golden on both sides.  Meanwhile heat the sauce, either in a pan on the stove or a bowl in the microwave.

4.  Once the polenta is golden, pull the pan out of the oven and sprinkle the grated mozzarella and parmesan evenly over the polenta coins.  Crank the oven up to broil, put the pan back into the oven, and watch it like a hawk.  Don’t answer the phone, don’t refill any juice cups, just monitor the melting cheese.  You want golden, not volcanic ash.

Golden brown polenta coins topped with chesse and ready for the broiler.

Golden brown polenta coins topped with chesse and ready for the broiler.

5.  Resist the temptation to simply top the polenta with the sauce in a nice large casserole.  You went to a lot of trouble to crisp up that polenta.  If you top the crisp food with the wet sauce, you will get soggy polenta.  Instead, be a little bit fussy (you can afford to be fussy here since the dinner took next to no prep) and pour a bit of sauce onto each plate.  Top the sauce with a couple cheesy polenta coins, and enjoy!  We served this with a great, simple fresh lettuce salad from the garden.

plating 3

Click here for a printable version of theOven Roasted Polenta recipe.

Pink gloves and all.

Pink gloves and all.

Floating Like a Mer-Baby

Up to now Dave and I have done a pretty job of ensuring that Little Man is afraid of water.  He is more like his mother who likes warm, tropical waters, than his father who must be part polar bear. When Little Man was 6 months old we dipped his little baby feet into the subarctic waters of Barrier Lake where Dave’s family has a cabin.  Little Man responded as any 6 month old should, pulled his feet up to his ears and wailed his protest.  About a year later we repeated this process at Laguna Beach, California.  Now admittedly the ocean water was a little bit warmer… a little bit… but it was still January temperatures for California and Little Man’s response was the same as his lake water experience.

Most recently, while living on Vancouver Island, we found a lovely area of the Nanaimo River where it is very calm and still.  Winnie the Pooh would describe this part of the river as an area where the river itself was calm and sure about where it was headed, and therefore not in any particular rush to reach its destination.  If there was a little bridge this would be the perfect place for a game of Pooh Sticks.  The river is also, fed by numerous mountain streams coming from heights where even in the warmth of July snow still blanketed the peaks.  While calm, these were not tropical waters.  On this particularly hot day I was able to wade in just past my knees before refusing to go much deeper, while my polar bear husband was splashing and swimming with reckless abandon.  Our cautious two year old dipped his toes in the water, intuited what his sneaky parents had in mind, and did his best to turn tail immediately and head for the hills… literally.  We, on the other hand, thought that we would help him over his fear of the water and brought him in deeper, with Little Man clinging to his daddy like the best koala bear imaginable.  A little bit later with chattering teeth and blue lips we all got out of the water and went home for some well-deserved grilled cheese sandwiches and a warm bath.

Amongst these arctic water experiences we had a couple of pool excursions that were fine, but Little Man was by no means excited about the idea of playing in water.  At this point I was starting to get a little nervous that my own reticence towards water was rubbing off on my son.  I am the first to admit that I am not the strongest of swimmers, but Dave’s family just might be part mer-people.  They all love the water, doesn’t matter how warm or frigid it might be.  My parents also love taking the grandkids to special pools through a time-share that they are a part of, though most of this has been done with my brother’s fantastic children and not with Little Man since we’ve lived so far away.  My biggest concern was that I don’t want Little Man to miss out on special family aquatic adventures just because his mom is more of a land lover and his well-intentioned parents keep dipping him in arctic waters.

Around the same time that I was mulling over this “dilemma” I heard about the Nanaimo Aquatic Center.  I filed the name away, associating it with the sad, little indoor pools that I remember as a child; the fumes of chlorine wafting heavy above the water.  My memories are further soured by a couple of teenage swimming instructors that were too young to understand how to work with a child who was afraid (or at least strongly concerned) about the water.  In my mind, therefore, the Aquatic Center was something that we might try in the dead of winter when no other outside activities were at all possible.  That would have been a horrible mistake.

The Nanaimo Aquatic Center is one of the coolest public access indoor pools that I’ve seen.  It contains multiple pools, some for laps, some for aquatic aerobic and other exercise classes, some for great heated soaking, and a large one for kids.  The “kiddie pool” is the first thing you see when you leave the changing areas, and you come face to face with what appears to be the better half of a schooner suspended over ankle-deep warm waters.  The ship has stairs leading up to its cockpit and a small slide splashing down into shallow waters.  When Little Man first tried this slide he ended up ankles in the air with a stunned fish-like expression.  The shallow waters lead to a small, secluded pool where the water is half a meter deep and protected from the splashing of the other areas, perfect for tired parents or nervous kids.  Both of these areas lead to the larger Wave Pool.

I have not yet seen the actual waves in the Wave Pool, since the machine is turned on later in the afternoon after we’ve had our morning swim.  The pool itself, however, is pretty cool.  On one end you can walk in from a shallow slope until on the far end it reaches a depth of 1.5 meters.  The pool is ringed by a series of low walls designed to look like the craggy rocks lining the shore, with a diorama in the deep end of a few pine trees complete with seagulls.  The ceiling over the pool is festooned with colorful banners depicting artists’ views of the ocean.  My favorite is the one of a person and a dog swimming in the ocean, but the view is from underneath the water looking up like from a fish’s point of view.  The other end of the pool has a small lazy river, or Magic Waters in Little Man’s parlance, and a heated bubbling cauldron of a jacuzzi at its center.  In short, Little Man loves this pool and all of its waters.  So do his parents.

Our first visit there showed me just how well we had trained Little Man to fear the water.  He cried at the shower where everyone starts out rinsing off before hitting the pool itself.  Then when we cleared the changing rooms and he saw the  expanse of water that we were carrying him to his experience told him that this could only end one way; with him being dunked into ice cold water.  His feet zipped up to his ears, his cries echoed off the far walls, and his koala-bear hold on his Daddy near choked Dave out.  It took us a good 30 to 45 minutes of warm, shallow water with him sitting in our laps or clinging like a koala before he was ready to stand on his own.  That first day we considered it a success when he let us hold him and just move around the pool.  The second visit I took him by myself since Dave was working.  That visit went better than the first and Little Man was more comfortable in the water.  He let me pull him through the deeper parts of the pool, ran around splashing in the shallows, and the only tears shed were those of a tired toddler who didn’t want to leave the fun when it was time to go home for lunch and a nap.  Since then, each time we’ve gone back he’s gotten a bit braver and a bit more adventurous, until now he asks to go to the pool.  Dave and I have to use code words like “Warehouse 13” (aka place of wonder) when we talk about the pool at home.  If we forget to use code Little Man will head straight to the closet where we store his swim vest and declare he’s ready to go “float like a mer-baby.”

That term comes from when giving Little Man a bath I wanted to rinse out his curly locks, but he didn’t want to get his head wet.  So when I laid him back to rinse out his hair, I would say that he was “floating like a turtle” referring to one of his favorite bath toys.  Then one bath time he corrected me saying that he wasn’t a turtle, he was a mermaid.  I didn’t want to debate the gender differences here, so instead we used the term mer-baby and it stuck.  From that moment on, floating on his back, letting his curly locks flow in the water, has been called floating like a mer-baby.  Now that’s one of his favorite things to do at the pool, float on his back, with his curls rippling in the water, gazing up at the beautiful banners hanging from the ceiling, and singing softly to himself.  This has become one of my favorite memories of our first few months in Nanaimo.

Since first discovering the Aquatic Center I’ve found numerous other pools like this across the region.  Beban Pool has a similar, if older, version to what we have at the Aquatic Center.  Down in Victoria there are six different pool centers like this, the one described by my friends as the best is the Crystal Pool.  Unfortunately it was closed for maintenance the last time we were in Victoria, but I can’t wait to check it out the next time we get to visit.

When we got home from that first successful day at the Aquatic Center I wanted a simple, but celebratory lunch.  My goal was to continue the great feelings from the pool with something special at home too; linking memories of water to fun comforting times with family.  What popped immediately to mind was a Bacon and Tomato sandwich.  The best Bacon and Tomato sandwiches are made by Dave’s dad, Joe.  In fact, one of Little Man’s favorite books is Up, Down, and Around by Katherine Ayres, this book was first had read to him by Miss Katie, the excellent Children’s Librarian at the Pella Public Library in Iowa, and describes how different plants grow in a garden.  At the end of the story the little boy sits down with his dad, a friend and some animals to feast on the bounty of the garden.  Little Man likes to point out all the different foods being eaten.  The dad in the picture is biting into a sandwich, and when we ask Little Man what it is that the dad is eating he replies “Bacon and Tomato Sandwich.”  Then when we ask him who likes that kind of sandwich, he says “Papa Hopwood.”  So from the mouths of babes, this sandwich is elevated by Joe.  The best one I’ve ever had was up at the cabin this summer.  It’s a simple creation of lightly toasted wheat bread (the whole wheat can be accredited to Ruth’s influences) with a generous slather of mayonnaise, lots of great summer ripe tomatoes and of course the bacon.  The pictures here are of that delicious sandwich that Little Man devoured, and would have licked the plate clean if I’d let him.

Joe's Bacon and Tomato Sandwich

Joe’s Bacon and Tomato Sandwich

For my version of the sandwich I’ve made a few tweaks, all of which Dave objects to since the original is already perfection.  I can’t disagree with that, but I wanted to make this more of my own so I had to mess with it… just a little.  I like to add peppery greens to the sandwich to cut through the richness of the bacon, and arugula or watercress as my two favorites.  I also like to mix a little Dijon mustard into the mayonnaise before slathering it into the bread.  I find that the mustard brightens the heaviness of the sandwich without taking away from any of its bacony awesomeness.  So while this is not, Joe’s Bacon and Tomato sandwich, it is awfully good.

Not Your Daddy’s Bacon and Tomato Sandwich

(Serves 4)

1 lb. good quality, thick cut, smoked bacon

¼ cup mayonnaise

1 tbsp. Dijon mustard

2 large ripe tomatoes

8 slices good whole wheat bread

2 cups fresh arugula, or peppery lettuce

Preheat the oven to 400º Fahrenheit.  Line a large sheet pan with paper towels, and then top the paper towels with a cooling rack.  Lay the bacon slices down without overlapping them onto the rack and roast them for 15-20 minutes.  Be sure to check the bacon periodically to be sure that it isn’t browning too quickly.  Once the bacon is done, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool.  I love cooking bacon this way, since it not only allows me to multitask other parts of the meal, but it also gets rid of the splattering mess all over my stove and therefor cuts down on clean up.  Double bonus.

While the bacon is roasting, combine the mayonnaise with the mustard in a small bowl and set aside.  Then slice the tomatoes thickly, lay them on a plate and sprinkle them lightly with salt.

About 7-10 minutes before the bacon is done, toast the bread lightly.  This should be just enough to give the bread a little bit of a crunch, but leaves the interior nice and fluffy.  Once the bacon is out of the oven, slather one side of each piece of bread with the mayonnaise/mustard mixture.  Layer the tomatoes across four of the pieces of bread.  Top the tomatoes with the bacon, dividing it up between the sandwiches.  Then top the bacon with the arugla or other greens.  Lastly, crown the sandwich with the remaining slice of bread, cut each sandwich in half (if desired) and enjoy.

Click here for a printable card of the Not Your Daddy’s Bacon and Tomato Sandwich.

Little Man, having completely devoured his own sandwich, was now working his whiles to get mine too.

Little Man, having completely devoured his own sandwich, was now working his whiles to get mine too.

Family Dinner

So I can’t say that I married Dave for his Dad’s cooking since I hadn’t had this dish until after Dave and I were engaged.  But it is possible that Joe’s Salmon sealed the deal.  When Dave and I met, dated, and got engaged we were both living far from our respective families.  This led to the interesting position of being engaged without actually having met our future in-laws more than once or twice.  When I first got the chance to meet Dave’s dad, it was for Dave’s sister Erin’s wedding.  No stress there.

In the interest of full disclosure I need to come clean and state for the record that I actually do not remember much of Erin’s wedding or the week leading up to it.  This is not due to a poor memory or excessive celebration (that was taken care of by the wedding party).  My memory loss is likely due to the fact that I just might have been crazy at the time.  So here’s the story…

 Erin and Tyler’s wedding was planned for mid-August.  For archaeologists August is often a touchy month since we may still be in the field excavating, or we will have just gotten back from the field and are not quite fit for polite company yet.  For this particular field season before the wedding… let’s just say that things went wrong… in spades.  The highlight was that I didn’t lose my foot and I mean that literally.  Dave loves to go into embarrassing detail about this not-so-fun memory, but since he’s not telling this story I can give you the abridged version.  Hard field work in far southeastern Turkey led to really bad blisters, which led to a blood infection, which led to lots of antibiotics and blood thinners, all of which eventually led to a fully healed foot with all of my toes still attached and functioning.

 All of this leads up, I promise, to a dinner of Joe’s famous salmon.  Dave’s dad, Joe, was going to make salmon for our first family dinner in Canada the day that I flew in.  With layovers included, I had been traveling by plane and car for over 30 hours, literally traveling from Asia, across Europe, across the Atlantic Ocean, and then across North America.  When I landed in Vancouver I was hopped up on Dramamine and had been mostly immobile for more than a day, confined in those too-small-for-even-tiny-people plane seats.  And then there were my ankles… 

I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I fly my ankles swell a little.  This time, I was coming from Turkey where it was so hot (over 120 degrees in the day) that we had been consuming excess salt just so that we could retain enough water to not be dangerously dehydrated.  I was also still dealing with my damaged foot and lower leg, immobility from the travel, and a cute skirt (meaning exposed lower legs) to meet Dave’s folks.  I didn’t just have cankles (the lovely situation when your ankles swell to the size of your calves); I had thankles (replace “ankles” in previous definition with “thighs”).  My lower legs were so swollen that there was not even a suggestion of where my ankles were supposed to be; in fact the swollen flesh actually lapped over the supposed ankle area.  I was greeted by Dave outside of customs with a kiss, and I asked him to please not look down at my ankles.  He did his best, but man… they were impressive.

 Dave then drove me from the airport to his parents’ home.  It would be another hour or so before I realized that I had left the airport with someone else’s luggage, and therefore had left my own bag complete with dress for Erin’s wedding at the airport.  So we went back to the airport, dealt with snarky customs people, returned to the house, and somehow I was still standing and able to speak relatively coherently.  Ruth and Joe usherd Dave and I out to the deck for drinks, snacks and a chance to get to know each other.  It was only then that they actually had a chance to check me out.  From the knees up I was feeling pretty good.  I’d been working hard at the excavation, had shed my winter weight, and was as tanned as I ever get (which isn’t much, but it was something).  It is also quite possible that I was drooling a bit from the aforementioned plethora of Dramamine I’d taken to survive the flight(s).  Ruth and Joe made me feel welcome and at home, assuring me that I wasn’t drooling or slurring too much (sweet, but not true).  At some point in the small talk Ruth happened to glance down at where my feet were supposed to be.  I think she might have shrieked, but there was definitely a gasp, popping eyes and a gaping mouth.  Like I said, the thankles were impressive.  She then pushed me (kindly) down into my seat, put my thankles up onto their own chair (I’m surprised that I didn’t need a separate chair for each leg), and got me a couple of cool compresses.  And that’s how I ate my first meal with the Hopwoods.  A lovely outside dinner of amazing salmon, just the four of us, and my thankles occupying the fifth chair.

 From that meal on I only have snippets of memory of the festivities for Erin’s wedding.  There was a painful, but effective Thai massage that allowed my destroyed feet to be presentable.  I wore my cute, strappy shoes without the appearance of my feet trying to burst out of the straps, and any stumbling was from my inherent grace not from injury.  I remember bits of the ceremony; as well as bits and pieces of the reception.  Amazing lasagna.  Great wedding speeches.  A memorable Macarena.  Feeling overwhelmed with the number of cousins in existence.  And that’s about it.  After the wedding I think that I slept for about a week solid.

 Which brings me back to the salmon…  With all of my crazy, and let’s be honest that was a lot of crazy, the Hopwoods made me feel welcome in the middle of their own crazy whirlwind of the wedding.  And that is what this salmon dish makes me think of every time I’m lucky enough to have it.  For me, this is love on a plate.  Family.  It is one of those untranslatable feelings “to be safe and at home amongst people who love you.”  We had this meal recently up at the Hopwood cabin as a belated celebration of Dave’s birthday, and that is where these pictures come from.  May you have many “safe and at home amongst people who love you” meals in your future.

portion

 Joe’s Salmon

Serves 6-8

Joe is likely going to chuckle when he sees quantities listed here for the ingredients.  Both Dave and Joe are the kind of gifted cooks who can look at a pantry of food and instinctively combine ingredients into tasty and inventive meals.  I am not that type of cook.  When Joe makes this salmon, or most any other dish, he does everything by “eye ball” measurement.  You just add enough of everything until it looks right.  This recipe is an attempt to recreate Joe’s Salmon, and he kindly allowed me to play journalist/paparazzi at the cabin, photographing every move.  Any discrepancy or difference in taste from Joe’s dish to this one is from my quantities being not quite what he would have done.  But I consider that simply a challenge to keep fiddling until it’s just rightent.  Challenge accepted!

 Ingredients

¼ c. olive oil

¼ c. teriyaki sauce

1 tbsp. soy sauce

1 tbsp. garlic powder

1 tbsp. Montreal steak seasoning (see recipe at end of post)

1 tbsp. Oregano

2 sides of salmon, skin on (weight varies)

 Mix all of the ingredients except for the salmon in a small bowl.  Set this aside for 15-20 minutes to let the flavors meld and the marinade thicken.

Mixing the marinade for the salmon.

Mixing the marinade for the salmon.

There was a suggestion that I needed to add an ingredient to the official recipe; a drink for the cook.  This is Joe's preferred grilling beverage, but you can choose your own.  I just suggest something cold and refreshing as a reward for you "not so hard" work at the grill.

There was a suggestion that I needed to add an ingredient to the official recipe; a drink for the cook. This is Joe’s preferred grilling beverage, but you can choose your own. I just suggest something cold and refreshing as a reward for your “not so hard” work at the grill.

 Meanwhile heat the grill and check the salmon to ensure that all pin bones have been removed.

 Once the marinade has rested and the grill is hot, put the fillets skin side down on the grate.  Close the cover of the grill and let the salmon cook for 2-3 minutes.

Two beautiful salmon fillets.

Two beautiful salmon fillets.

 Open the cover of the grill and brush the marinade over the salmon.  Close the cover again and grill the fish for 8-10 minutes more, depending on your desired level of doneness.  Since salmon is a delicate protein, you should remove it from the grill when it is just underdone to your liking.  It will continue cooking a little (carry over cooking) after you remove it from the grill.

Brushing the marinade/sauce over the salmon.

Brushing the marinade/sauce over the salmon.

The "sauced" salmon ready for final cooking.

The “sauced” salmon ready for final cooking.

 Once the salmon is done, use a sharp metal spatula and score the flesh vertically to portion it into appropriate sizes (see pictures below).  Then slide the spatula between the skin and the flesh of the fillet, lifting the salmon off of the skin and placing the individual servings on a platter.  You are also welcome to remove the entire fillet (skin and all) to a platter and serve it tableside, but for our family this is what we prefer.

With a sharp metal spatula you want to score the salmon vertically without cutting through the skin.

With a sharp metal spatula you want to score the salmon vertically without cutting through the skin.

Then lift individual portions off of the skin and place them on a serving platter.

Then lift individual portions off of the skin and place them on a serving platter.

present

present2

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Click here for a printable recipe card for Joe’s Salmon.

Montreal Steak Seasoning Recipe

While there are a variety of grocery store brands of this spice blend, it is also super easy to whip up your own.  If you have these spices at home already then it is cheaper to mix your own, and you can swap out or in any spices to your preference.

Ingredients:

2 tbsp. black pepper, coarsely ground

1 tbsp. salt

2 tbsp. smoked paprika

1 tbsp. garlic powder

1 tbsp. onion powder

1 tbsp. coriander, ground

1 tbsp. chili flakes

1 tbsp. fennel seeds

Instructions:

  1. Mix all spices together in a small bowl.
  2. Pour them into a spice jar or small container (glass or metal is best), and store in a cool dark place.
  3. Use the spice blend in your favorite recipes for a little extra heat and peppery flavor.

Click here for a printable recipe card for Montreal Steak Seasoning.

Ladies and Gentle-Chickens!

OK, I’ll admit it…  I’m totally turning into a farm-geek.  Harvesting and gathering your own food is just plain fun (particularly since we were not involved in the hard work of prepping the garden or planting anything… just reaping the benefits).  It’s like Easter egg hunting.  Digging through the potato hill, not sure if there is anything left until your hands start raking in the ruby red tubers.  Little Man loves pulling up root vegetables, especially beets.  He grabs the leafy greens and then leans back with all of his might until either the root gives way or the greens do.  I have had to start restraining myself at the farm garden, always reason to come back tomorrow.  We have free reign in the garden, but it is not our’s and I don’t want to abuse our privileges there.  Even so I often find myself making excuses to go back to the garden or asking Little Man if he wants to go say “hi” to the chickens just so that I can say “hi” too.

After "shopping" in the garden

After “shopping” in the garden

 My favorite thing to do is gather eggs.  There is something about walking into the chicken coup, the scent of sweet hay and a little bit of chicken funk, but it just makes me smile.  Novella Carpenter in her hilarious discussion of urban farming in an Oakland ghetto (Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer) describes chickens as the gateway animal to urban farming.  After a couple of weeks living on the farm I can totally see her point.  We plan on staying here for quite some time, but when we do eventually leave… don’t tell Dave, but I would really like to be somewhere that we could have chickens. 

Dinner

 

 Speaking of Dave, a couple of days ago he came home from working at the university to be greeted by a happy toddler who invited him to go say “hi” to the chickens.  We went to take the short cut to the chicken coup through the back yard, which Little Man calls the “hair cut.”  He heard us call the short path to the garden behind our house as the “short cut,” but didn’t know the word so now it is “hair cut.”  Usually when Little Man greets the chickens he says “Helloooo Laadiessss.”  Today was different.  He walked up to the coup, threw his arms wide and yelled “hello ladies and gentle-gnomes!”  Dave and I smiled at each other and in unison said “good evening ladies and gentle-chickens!”

 We went into the coup and were greeted by Little Man’s “ladies.”  Our plan for the eggs was built on yesterday’s botched brunch.  Little Man, while trying to hold it together in a marathon grocery shopping expedition said that he would like pancakes for brunch.  I made a rookie mistake and promised my beautiful, curly-haired boy that he would have pancakes… and then we got to the restaurant 30 minutes after they stopped doing breakfast.  Oh bother!  So to atone for my error, dinner that night was a pancake breakfast.  Specifically we had pancakes made from a Bauder Camp recipe (I miss those cocktail cruises!), homemade turkey sausage patties and oven-roasted home potatoes.  I’ll share those recipes at another time.  For our purposes in this post I am going to share the recipe that came the day after our pancake breakfast for dinner.  We ended up having a good amount of sausage and potatoes left over, and in our house that can only mean one thing… frittata.

 A frittata is like a large omelet, but it’s even better since you don’t have to flip or fold it.  That means it can be easily turned into a fast, delicious dinner.  I have included a link to the frittata recipe below, and it is based off of the left overs that we had in our house that evening.  You don’t have to make a pancake breakfast for dinner in order to prep for this meal the next night… but it’s a great excuse to do so.

 One “trick” I use for frittatas is something that I learned from the Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites: Flavorful Recipes for Healthful Meals cookbook.  To make a frittata that provides four servings (the leftovers are great the next day!), I start with eight eggs.  If the eggs are small I might add another to round it out.  The trick is to only use four whole eggs and four egg whites, ditching four of the yolks.  My brother is moaning right now, but by getting rid of those yolks I can decrease the amount of fat and bad cholesterol in the dish.  Dave and I are both a bit rounder than we would like, and lowering overall bad cholesterol in our diets is another goal.  So there you go.  You can keep or ditch those four yolks as you see fit.  I haven’t found any loss of flavor, richness or overall awesomeness in my frittatas since I started doing this.

 One last frittata trick…  Many of the recipes that I’ve read and seen demonstrated on TV require that you get out an extra plate, flip the darn thing when it’s mostly cooked onto the plate, and then invert it again into the skillet to finish cooking.  It looks simple on TV.  I’m sure my issues with this have been a result of a lack of patience or my overall clumsiness, but I have burned my hands and splattered my stove (and countertops… and cupboards…) enough that I gave that technique up.  Instead, I cover the frittata pan with a lid immediately after I add the eggs.  This lets the top set up through the steam released from its cooking.  Once the eggs are set up nicely I remove the lid, sprinkle on a bit of grated cheese and pop the thing under the broiler for a minute or too to brown it up.  That way you get the crispy browning of the top that you would otherwise miss from not flipping it.  No more burned fingers (or at least less), no more messy stove and surrounding area (or at least less), and the resulting frittata is stunning in its caramelized cheesy glory.

Sausage and Potato Frittata

Left over roasted potatoes and sausage patties for the frittata

Left over roasted potatoes and sausage patties for the frittata

The frittata flavor base of onions, roasted potatoes and sausage

The frittata flavor base of onions, roasted potatoes and sausage

The flavor base after adding the smoked paprika, my favorite spice

The flavor base after adding the smoked paprika, my favorite spice

After adding in the egg mixture

After adding the egg mixture put a lid on the pan to help cook the top

Once the top is almost set, you can add the cheese

Once the top is almost set, you can add the cheese

The top is almost set and I had run out of cheese to grate.  Luckily I did have slices of Colby.

The top is almost set and I had run out of cheese to grate. Luckily I did have slices of Colby.

The finished product.  Be careful with broiling your frittata.  I have been known to walk away from the oven and "caramelize" my frittatas more than intended.

The finished product. Be careful with broiling your frittata. I have been known to walk away from the oven and “caramelize” my frittatas more than intended.

Best kitchen helper ever!

Best kitchen helper ever!

Are These Even Edible?

 Sorry for the delay in posts.  We just got back from a week’s vacation/family reunion with Dave’s family.  I’ll write more about that later.  For now, let’s get caught back up…

View of the pasture and surrounding forest

View of the pasture and surrounding forest

So not only are we living on a farm, but all of Vancouver Island is a massive gorgeous forest.  We have seen a number of eagles, an otter crossing the street, and a seal hanging out at the crabbing dock looking for a handout.  But mostly there are plants, plants, plants everywhere.  And my son is afraid of every single one.  He throws his bouncy ball into the grass that has tall dandelions, and he squeals if his hand has to get too close to one.  We were on Vancouver Island University campus today, walking on some of the trails through the trees while Dave unloaded boxes into his new office.  As Little Man and I were “trail blazing” he would squeal if a branch had the audacity to cross the trail.  If he had to maneuver too close to a dangling flower, he squealed.  If his mommy took a leaf and tickled him behind the ear while he walked, he squealed.  Hence the rub, by being so cute when he squeals at the greenery I’m inspired to cause more squeals.

Little Man surrounded by plants.  The background is part of a neighbor's garden.

Little Man surrounded by plants. The background is part of a neighbor’s garden.

  Little Man also must contend with various gardens up and down our street.  At the end of the street live two dogs that he loves to visit, and they have a lovely garden that I like to visit.  The next house over has a prolific garden whose owner consistently presses bulging shopping bags full of English cucumbers and zucchini at us.  Needless to say I walk past that house as often as possible.  There is also our house, which does not have its own garden yet, but we do have the farm garden more or less in our backyard and we have been granted free access for whenever we want.  All of these visits cause more squealing from the short member of our family, and chuckles from us.  Poor boy…

Little Man and myself walking to the "store" aka farm garden.

Little Man and myself walking to the “store” aka farm garden.

One of the first times we went “shopping” in the farm garden behind our house also happened to be a weekend when Dave’s parents were visiting.  On this particular occasion, Dave, his mom, Little Man and I were in the garden, harvesting a head of cauliflower that was almost overblown.  While we were out there and Little Man was squealing at the pepper plants, Dave’s mom commented that the cauliflower leaves looked incredibly similar, almost identical in fact, to collards.  I took a second look as well, and the huge leaves fanning out from around the cauliflower stalk do look just like collards.  Now mind you I have no experience with collards “in the wild,” but if these cauliflower leaves were off the plant, tied together with a rubber band and put in a bin at the grocery store, they would look just like collard greens.  This led to her next question; are cauliflower leaves edible?

Cauliflower is in the foreground with brocolli just behind.

Cauliflower is in the foreground with brocolli just behind.

A little internet research later, and yes, cauliflower leaves are in fact edible.  Even more impressive than the fact that they are edible is that they are delicious.  I have found that cauliflower leaves are more bitter than collards, which I don’t mind, but if you are not fond of that particular flavor you can just cook the leaves for a longer period of time like in traditional southern recipes for collards.

Brocolli from the garden.  The leaves are just as delicious as the head itself.

Brocolli from the garden. The leaves are just as delicious as the head itself.

The overall internet opinion about harvesting cauliflower leaves is that you likely want to wait on harvesting the leaves until the cauliflower head itself is harvested, or at least leave some leaves on the plant that can protect the head.  Before the cauliflower head is harvested the leaves can be tied up around it for protection from the sun and insects.  Once the head is harvested, the leaves are fair game.  This also allows you to eat more from the entire cauliflower plant, rather than simply harvesting the head and then composting everything else.

 Another little beauty whose leaves you can eat is broccoli.  This should not have been too surprising to me, but I am still learning my way around the relationships of the plant world.  Apparently collards, cauliflower, broccoli and kale are all related.  Who knew?

 The one bummer side to this information is that if you do not grow these plants in your own garden or do not have access to them through a farmers market, you will likely have a hard time finding access to the leaves.  While I have not yet grown them myself, it sounds like cauliflower and broccoli are relatively easy plants to grow.  Or at least so say my gardener friends on the street.  If you have space for a planter on your deck or front step, you likely have enough space to grow a couple of these for yourself.  We got to the island a bit late in the planting season for me to have started some of my own cauliflower this year, but I am going to get some lettuces and kale going in containers later this week.

Harvesting potatoes... Little Man's favorite vegetable to pick.

Harvesting potatoes… Little Man’s favorite vegetable to pick.

But first, back to the cauliflower leaves.  Once we learned that they were edible, I started plotting ways that they could be used.  Our cauliflower leaf harvest coincided with the gathering of a batch of potatoes and peas from the garden as well.  Then I came across a Pintrest picture of a gorgeous potato and pea curry.  I thought that the julienned cauliflower leaves would be an amazing addition to this curry, so I tried the link… and I’m still not sure what language that is.  Perhaps something Eastern European?  I have a little bit of experience with a number of languages (not enough to be fluent in anything but English), but for this recipe I could not even recognize the word for onion.  So I gave that recipe up for lost and instead used the picture itself as inspiration.  After combing through a number of different recipes on the internet and my own cookbook collection I came up with this Curried Potatoes and Peas with Cauliflower Leaves recipe.  When I came up with and tested this recipe I was not yet blogging so I don’t have lovely pictures of the process yet.  I promise to get back to that and will load those once I have them.

Picture of the curry that inspired my Curried Potatoes with Peas and Cauliflower Greens recipe

Picture of the curry that inspired my Curried Potatoes with Peas and Cauliflower Greens recipe

Curried Potato, Peas and Cauliflower Leaves

This recipe was inspired by the gorgeous produce I found in the farm garden, and given shape by an online picture of a gorgeous curry.  This has some hints of Indian influences through the spices, but is more reliant on preblended curry powders that you would not find in “authentic” Indian food.  If you cannot find cauliflower leaves, please feel free to substitute them with collard greens or another sturdy green of your preference.  The recipe also calls for peas.  When I first made this I used fresh peas from the garden.  Frozen peas work well too, but you do lose some of the sweetness and texture of the fresh produce.  Lastly, a delicious way to boost the protein in this vegetarian dish is to add quartered boiled eggs at the end with the peas.  This is done in some traditional Indian curries, and works wonderfully with this recipe.  In fact, that is exactly what I did the first time I made this dish and Little Man gobbled them up.  Serve this over basmati rice or with flat bread to soak up all the rich, spicy broth.

 Curried Potatoes with Peas and Cauliflower Leaves Recipe