Category Archives: Sides

Adventures with FODMAPs – Polyols and Sweet Potato “Fries”

We’ve finally made it through the initial eight weeks of the FODMAP diet so we can begin trying to reintroduce different categories of FODMAPs into Little Man’s and our diets.  Whew!  It’s been a bit of a haul, and honestly it’s likely been closer to 10 weeks because we completely botched the first week or two.  After that point we got into the swing of things and started seeing really great improvements in Little Man’s health.  Now we get to start trying out foods, one category at a time, checking for reactions to each one, slowly going through multiple foods from each category before moving on.  Let the games begin…

For more specifics on the FODMAP diet and reintroducing foods, please see Sue Shepard’s Complete FODMAP Diet book.  This details the tests they ran to create the diet, the types of issues that following the diet can help, a detailed discussion of FODMAPS, foods to avoid and how to reintroduce foods for these “challenges” to see what reacts badly with an individual and what can be safely eaten.  I do not attempt to be an expert on this diet, but simply am doing my best to follow the guidelines to help my family’s health.

Shepard recommends starting the reintroductions with the Polyol FODMAP category, moving slowly through up the scale of contentious other categories, and finally ending with the one that no one can actually digest well… Galactoids (aka beans… but more on those in a few weeks).  Polyols are “sugar alcohols” and occur naturally in some foods, but are also used in processed foods as sweeteners.  For us, the high FODMAP polyols that we used as “challenges” to reintroduce to Little Man are apples, blackberries, pears, and mushrooms, as well as the moderate polyol FODMAPs of sweet potatoes and avocados.  Even though this was the least contentious of the categories to start with, it is one that I’ve been looking to forward the most because of its prevalence as a sweetener in juices, cookies, granola bars, fruit snacks, jams, and any other myriad of snack treat or food aimed towards kids.  Try finding jams, juices or fruit snacks for kids that don’t contain either high fructose corn syrup (another high FODMAP, but one that we try to eliminate anyway) or some form of apple.  Ugh…

Starting the reintroduction process has been nerve wracking.  Little Man’s tummy was looking good and it’s difficult to put that at risk, but I’m also excited to start this process so that we can (hopefully) finally know what his triggers are.  My hope is that it will be easier to only have to avoid a few triggers (please be only a few!) than the world at large.

For the reintroduction process, it’s important to not completely gorge on the food you are testing, but also to make sure that you eat a good portion. If you try too small of an amount, you may not get an accurate response.  So you should try a regular-sized portion (Shepard has suggestions), see if there is a reaction, and then try again.  If you have a regular sized proportion of a high FODMAP food and have a reaction, Shepard suggests that after your symptoms subside try the food again at a smaller amount.  It might just be that you can only tolerate a small bit.  Once you know what foods and what amounts of the foods you can (or cannot) handle, you can start to better understanding your triggers.  Shepard also suggests trying these trigger foods again at a later date.  Sometimes our systems change, and especially since Little Man is so young he may out grow (or may not) the unfortunate reactions he’s experiencing today.

It took us almost two weeks, but we just completed testing the Polyol FODMAP food group.  Luckily for us, Little Man did great with all of the polyols we tried.  He did so good, in fact, that for the first time in months I let him have one of the good fruit snack treats (sweetened with apple juice) we call fruit straws.  He was ecstatic, and so far I haven’t seen any bad reactions.  To celebrate this “challenge” Little Man and I ate our fruit snacks while going on an adventure walk in our neighbors’ Enchanted Forest.  Aside from the fruit straws, we were also treated to our first view of a native orchid species to these woods called Fairy Slippers.  The orchids are tiny, so it took us a bit of time to finally locate the amidst the larger Trilium and gorgeous yellow violets. Little Man, who is obsessed with all things Kung Fu Panda, was determined that we were having a hard time finding the Fairy Slipper orchids because a group of Croc bandits must have come through and taken them all.  Luckily we chased off the Croc bandits and found the orchids.  Whew!

Aside from apple, one of the polyol foods that I have been looking forward to “testing” are sweet potatoes.  We are still struggling with getting Little Man to eat vegetables (and fruit in any form that is not completely pulverized or turned into jam), but one that he will eat without any question is a sweet potato.  In our household we call these “french fries” even though they aren’t fried, aren’t made from regular potatoes (though you can use them if you want), nor are they in french fry shape (though you can easily cut them that way too).  Ah well.  The good news is that since Little Man has cleared this challenge, we can start enjoying sweet potatoes again at dinner time. Little Man’s favorite way to eat sweet potato “french fries” is in the form of Oven Roasted Sweet Potato Fries.  For the reintroduction celebration of sweet potatoes, I served them as Smokey Sweet Potato Bites.  I’ve included both recipes here, though the pictures are only for the Smokey Sweet Potato bites since the method is the same.  When we put these on the dinner table Little Man’s eyes lit up and he literally fell on them with both hands.  Dave and I were concerned that he was going to eat too many of them and therefore have a bad reaction, but all was well with the world and Little Man was super excited to have one of his favorite foods back.  Whew!

If you think that you don’t like sweet potatoes, maybe give them one more chance and try these out.  The cost and labor output is low, and you might be surprised by actually liking them.  I, myself, only like sweet potatoes in certain dishes.  I’m not a huge fan of baked sweet potatoes served like regular baked potatoes, nor do I like sweet potato fries especially if they are treated like a dessert and covered in cinnamon sugar.  Apologies to all of those sweet potato lovers who like those two dishes, but they simply aren’t my thing.  My classic Oven Roasted Sweet Potato “Fries” and Smokey Sweet Potato Bites, however, are totally different.  The sweetness of the sweet potato is balanced with the smokey spices, and the edges of each bite are crisped in the oven.  What’s not to like?  Here’s how they are made.

Oven Roasted Sweet Potato “Fries”
In our household, these are the classic form of “French fry” that appear on our dinner table regularly. They aren’t fried, nor are they made out of potatoes, nor are they in French fry shape (though you can easily cut them that way). What they are is delicious, and Little Man’s favorite vegetable. If you don’t think you like sweet potatoes, give these a shot. You might just change your mind.

Ingredients:
2 medium sweet potatoes
¼ cup olive oil, plus extra
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 400°. Prepare a baking sheet by drizzling a little olive oil over it, then spreading the oil around with your fingers to evenly cover the pan. Set it aside.
  2. Peel the sweet potatoes, and then cut them in half the long way. Then cut those halves in half the long way again. Line up your sweet potato quarters and slice them into ¼ inch “bites.” Try to keep the pieces close to the same thickness, otherwise the really skinny ones will burn before the thicker ones crisp. Once all of your sweet potatoes are chopped, place them in a large bowl.
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl and toss with a large spoon until the sweet potato bites are evenly coated.
  4. Pour the seasoned sweet potatoes out onto the prepared baking sheet. Be sure that your sweet potatoes are all in one layer, spreading them out if needed.
  5. Bake for 30 minutes, checking the “fries” towards the end of the cooking time to ensure that they aren’t “over caramelizing.” If they are getting too dark at the corners of your baking sheet, simply flip them around with a spatula moving the darker pieces into the center and the less done pieces to the corners.
  6. Once the fries are crispy and browned, remove the pan from the oven and move the bites with a spatula into your serving bowl. Taste for seasoning, adjusting if necessary. Enjoy!

Click here for a printable version of my Oven Roasted Sweet Potato “Fries” recipe, and keep on reading for another variation (this time with pictures!).

Smokey Sweet Potato Bites

Smokey Sweet Potato Bites
These are a smoky, spiced version of the classic Oven Roasted Sweet Potato Fries that Little Man loves. That basic recipe can be a blank canvas to season with whatever spices and herbs you are feeling inspired by. I love the smokey paprika with these fries, and they pair fantastically with roasted chicken or pork, or with any hearty vegetarian main. Like with the classic version, if you don’t think you like sweet potatoes, give these a shot.

Ingredients:
2 medium sweet potatoes
¼ cup olive oil, plus extra
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
2 tsp. smoked paprika
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 400°. Prepare a baking sheet by drizzling a little olive oil over it, then spreading the oil around with your fingers to evenly cover the pan. Set it aside.
  2. Peel the sweet potatoes, and then cut them in half the long way. Then cut those halves in half the long way again. Line up your sweet potato quarters and slice them into ¼ inch “bites.” Try to keep the pieces close to the same thickness, otherwise the really skinny ones will burn before the thicker ones crisp. Once all of your sweet potatoes are chopped, place them in a large bowl.
    I included this picture to let you know the approximate size that I tend to buy of sweet potatoes.  I generally avoid the ones that are closer to small comet size.

    I included this picture to let you know the approximate size that I tend to buy of sweet potatoes. I generally avoid the ones that are closer to small comet size.

    The look after being peeled...

    The look after being peeled…

    Halving them lengthwise...

    Halving them lengthwise…

    Then halve them lengthwise again, and slice into little arcs.  These are perfect bite size (or for little fists...) bites.

    Then halve them lengthwise again, and slice into little arcs. These are perfect bite size (or for little fists…) bites.

  3. Add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl and toss with a large spoon until the sweet potato bites are evenly coated with the oil and spices.
    Adding the spices to the bowl.  I love smoked paprika.  Look at that color!

    Adding the spices to the bowl. I love smoked paprika. Look at that color!

    Evenly tossed raw sweet potato bites with spices and olive oil.

    Evenly tossed raw sweet potato bites with spices and olive oil.

  4. Pour the seasoned sweet potatoes out onto the prepared baking sheet. Be sure that your sweet potatoes are all in one layer, spreading them out if needed.
    Pouring the bites onto a prepared baking sheet.

    Pouring the bites onto a prepared baking sheet.

    Smooth out the pile so that each bite can get nice and crispy in the oven.

    Smooth out the pile so that each bite can get nice and crispy in the oven.

  5. Bake for 30 minutes, checking the sweet potato bites towards the end of the cooking time to ensure that they aren’t “over caramelizing.” If they are getting too dark at the corners of your baking sheet, simply flip them around with a spatula moving the more done pieces into the center and the less done pieces to the corners.
    These are about halfway done.  Flip them here so that both sides get golden brown, and if any on the edges are browning too quickly you can move them to the center.

    These are about halfway done. Flip them here so that both sides get golden brown, and if any on the edges are browning too quickly you can move them to the center.

    Here they are almost perfect.  You can taste them now to adjust for seasoning.

    Here they are almost perfect. You can taste them now to adjust for seasoning.

  6. Once the sweet potato bites are crispy and browned, remove the pan from the oven and move the bites with a spatula into your serving bowl. Taste for seasoning, adjusting if necessary. Enjoy!

    Smokey Sweet Potato Bites!

    Smokey Sweet Potato Bites!

Click here for a printable version of my Oven Roasted Sweet Potato “Fries” recipe or my Smokey Sweet Potato Bites recipe.

The Reckless Abandon of Sunshine on Easter

Growing up in Southern California, our Easter egg hunts were always outside in the gloriously warm sunshine.  In fact, there was often a bit of hurriedness to our egg collecting fueled by concern over finding all of the chocolate eggs before they melted in the sun.  Here on Vancouver Island we’ve learned that early Spring time might be cool and sunny, or it might be dreary and wet, or it could be any number of different temperatures and dampness factors changing every quarter hour or so.  It’s best to be prepared for anything, and simply to enjoy whatever weather comes your way.

While Easter dawned sunny, it was still quite frosty in the shade and a good jacket was required.

While Easter dawned sunny, it was still quite frosty in the shade and a good jacket was required.

We all enjoyed bunny bum pancakes.  The tail is made from a dollop of butter topped with shredded coconut.

We all enjoyed bunny bum pancakes. The tail is made from a dollop of butter topped with shredded coconut.

Little Man decided that his bunny heeded eyes and a nose as well.  I think he was just lobbying for more chocolate chips, but it worked.

Little Man decided that his bunny needed eyes and a nose as well. I think he was just lobbying for more chocolate chips.

We were mentally prepared for just about any kind of weather for this Easter, while having all fingers and toes crossed for sunshine since we were having five families over for a lunchtime potluck and egg hunt.  We knew that we could all crush into the house and have the egg hunt downstairs if need be, but it would be so much nicer outside! In the end, we were blessed with one of the most beautiful Easter afternoons that we’ve had in years.  While it wasn’t So Cal warm, we could be outside without jackets, sunglasses were needed to not be squinting into the dazzling light, and the grass was dry enough for the kiddos to roll around with reckless abandon.  It was fantastic, and we hadn’t even gotten to the food yet.

The kiddos are diving into their Easter potluck feast.  Ears and sunglasses abound.

The kiddos are diving into their Easter potluck feast. Bunny ears and sunglasses abound.

After the kiddos got to run around a bit, we gathered them together on the back deck to get them started eating and then the adults joined in.  Our table was overflowing with food.  We provided pulled pork sandwiches, a green tea punch, and a chocolate cake for dessert.  Our friends also contributed a seven layer dip with chips (they did it as a five plus two layer dip, thoughtfully leaving the two dairy items on the side for those with dairy intolerances), a sun dried tomato pasta salad, Easter Bunny white chocolate bark, stuffed potato skins with cheese and bacon (some graciously set aside for vegan cheese), black bean dip with veges, a Thai peanut broccoli salad, and other Easter treats.  To say the least, no one left hungry and even the adults looked like we could all use an Easter nap.

Our amazing Easter spread!  Pulled Pork sandwiches, coleslaw, dips, chips, salads, Easter treats, it was a wonderful lunch.  See below for recipes for the things that we brought to the table.

Our amazing Easter spread! Pulled Pork sandwiches, coleslaw, dips, chips, salads, Easter treats, it was a wonderful lunch. See below for recipes for the things that we brought to the table.

Please ignore the messy kitchen, and focus instead on the handsome pastry chef and the amazing cake he is decorating.

Please ignore the messy kitchen, and focus instead on the handsome pastry chef and the amazing cake he is decorating.

Yes, indeed...  A chocolate cake layered with homemade chocolate rice crispies and topped with a chocolate coconut frosting that tastes better than chocolate mousse.  Life is tough.

Yes, indeed… A chocolate cake layered with homemade chocolate rice crispies and topped with a chocolate coconut frosting that tastes better than chocolate mousse. Life is tough.

Before we could get to napping, however, we had the Easter egg hunt.  After the adults finished eating, we sequestered the kiddos in our living room with the curtains drawn while half of the adults went outside to the front yard to hide the loot.  Each family brought filled eggs to share, so the front yard glittering with plastic eggs.  Then we released the hounds… I mean the kids… to fill their baskets.  Since some of the kiddos were older and faster than the others, we had a parent-led redistribution after the egg hunt to be sure that everyone had a good collection of booty.

Release the hounds... I mean the kids!

IMG_3736

Then the kiddos and adults got to play in the sunshine or wander over to meet the pigs, sheep and chickens at our landlords’ farm.  The trees were blossoming, the kids were laughing, the sheep were bleating, and it was one of the best Easter moments I’ve had in a long time.

If you want to share in some of the food we had for Easter, here are recipes for those items that we brought to the party.  The recipes for this post are a bit different since I was “in the party prep zone” when cooking and completely forgot to take any pictures while I was making the food.  Doh!  If there are any steps in the recipes that are hard to follow since there aren’t any pictures, or you simply aren’t sure about something, please send me a comment at the end of this post and I’ll get back to you asap.  Have fun!

Slow Cooker Pulled Pork

Fluffy Whole Wheat Rolls

Gluten Free Rolls – this recipe is not my own.  I followed the directions for soft rolls made with a Challah dough from the Gluten-Free Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day book by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois.  If you are getting into gluten-free baking, I highly recommend this book.  It makes the best tasting gluten-free bread that I’ve found to date.  Their bread has great texture and mouth feel without being grainy, and without using an obscene amount of corn starch.  Love it!  Click here for a link to recipes for rolls from their book.

Carolina Style Coleslaw

Chocolate Celebration Cake – This recipe is also not my own, but came from Jamie Oliver’s excellent Comfort Food cookbook.  The main differences for what I did was that I used spelt flour instead of all purpose, and I used an organic, puffed brown rice for the home made chocolate crispies.  I also used the same Chocolate Coconut frosting that I wrote about with Little Man’s birthday cupcakes from school.  Next time I think I’ll triple the frosting batch so that I can have some between the layers as well.

Any of these items (or all of them) would make for a fantastic outdoor picnic.  In fact, we will likely do a smoked version of a pulled pork sandwich for an outdoor party later this August.  I’m also toying with making cupcake versions of the chocolate celebration cake…  Stay tuned.  I hope you all are enjoying sunshine!  Our sunshine just went away for a couple of days, but I’m already plotting more outdoor fun as soon as the sun is back.  Or we’ll likely go outside to play in the wet anyway.  We’ve been cooped up inside for too long as it is.

IMG_3729

cake 4

Grilled Salmon, Fresh Off the Line

Until just a couple of days ago, the best salmon I have ever had was grilled up by Dave’s dad, Joe, at their cabin.  I should say that pretty much whenever Joe is grilling salmon, that’s my favorite.  It’s amazing.  That was the truth until a couple days ago when Dave grilled up some Lemon Garlic Salmon. This fish was incredibly tender, almost creamy in texture, but not mushy.  There wasn’t a hint of fishiness anywhere, and if you associate salmon with a fishy taste that probably means that you’ve been eating farm raised salmon.  Yuck.  Wild caught salmon from the Pacific Northwest has a fresh taste that has absolutely nothing in comparison to the muddy, fishy flavor of farm raised salmon.

The Lemon Garlic Salmon that Dave grilled up wasn’t just wild caught, it was caught by a cousin who just happened to be coming to our home for Dave’s graduation party (recipes from that party will be appearing next week).  This wonderful cousin, of whom poets should sing, showed up at the party with a large, red cooler.  He plunked it down in our kitchen and called Dave over.  As he lifted the white plastic lid I think I heard angels singing, because inside were two enormous sides of the most beautiful pink salmon I’ve ever seen. I had learned early in our relationship that one of the benefits of marrying a west coast Canadian boy was that this got me into closer proximity to some of the best salmon in the world.  I had no idea that this would also grant me family who showed up bearing gifts of fresh caught salmon.

We tightly wrapped and froze much of the salmon, but Dave saved out a large portion for the grill.  Then he went into research mode, trying to figure out the flavor profile he wanted.  In the end he chose a beautifully simple combination of lemon and garlic with just enough seasoning to highlight the amazing flavor of the salmon.  Dave adapted this recipe from an Essence of Emeril recipe tweaking it a bit here and there.  You could also use another firm fleshed fish like halibut or cod, but just be careful with the cooking time if you go for a smaller fish size.  The perfect accompaniments for the Lemon Salmon are the Cabin Grilled Potatoes and a fresh green salad…  especially if it is served with a glass of wine.  In true style of not wanting to let anything go to waste, we toasted the salmon with glasses of sparkling wine leftover from the graduation party that had gone slightly flat.  As luck would have it, the sparkling wine was so good that even the slightly flat version was still crisp with a slight effervescence that was amazing with the salmon.  It was a perfect meal on the deck with my two amazing boys.

Note: When Garlic Turns Blue…

The salmon smelled fantastic.  We brought the packet to the table and Dave did the big reveal, peeling the foil back, the delicious steam poured out revealing the perfectly cooked salmon layered with the beautiful golden lemons and studded with…  cyanide blue garlic?  What on earth had happened?  Was the salmon safe to eat?  And why on earth had turned the garlic turquoise blue?  A bit of quick internet research later and I learned that it is an interesting, but non-toxic, effect that sometimes happens with young garlic, especially when it comes in contact with other acids like lemon, onion or wine, and low heat.  So please enjoy the lovely turquoise hue of the garlic in our pictures and know that it tasted delicious.  If you are curious about the glories of blue-green garlic, here’s a NY Times article on the subject.

Lemon Garlic SalmonLemon Garlic Salmon
Ingredients
:
1 side of salmon, skin on
2 tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. white pepper
2 tsp. fresh rosemary, coarsely chopped
1 lemon, thinly sliced
1 small onion, halved and thinly sliced
8 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup olive oil, divided

Directions:

  1. Preheat your grill or oven to 450 degrees.
  2. Rinse the salmon under cold running water and then pat dry.
  3. Lay a long piece of foil down on the work surface. The foil should be twice the length of your salmon, or use two pieces to be sure to cover your salmon completely.
  4. Butter the foil, leaving a couple inch border around the edges for sealing later on. Drizzle a little olive oil over the foil, and then lay the salmon onto the foil skin side down. Sprinkle with the salt and white pepper.
  5. In a small bowl mix the minced garlic with a little olive oil and salt, smashing the garlic against the side of the bowl with a spoon to make it a loose paste. Smear the garlic paste all over the salmon, and sprinkle the fresh rosemary over top.
  6. Layer the lemon slices over the salmon, covering as much of the surface as you can. Then sprinkle the onions over the lemon slices, and drizzle the entire packet with the remaining olive oil.
  7. Fold the foil edges up to seal the salmon tightly on all sides in the packet. Place the foil packet on the grill and monitor it closely. The salmon should steam inside the packet, retaining all the amazing moisture and flavor of the lemon, garlic and onions.
  8. Cook the salmon packet for 15-20 minutes, or until just cooked through but still moist. The cooking time will vary based on the thickness of your salmon, thinner pieces cooking faster than thicker ones.
  9. Remove the packet to a serving plate and bring it to the table to serve from the foil. If your salmon had pin bones be careful to remove them carefully as you go, warning all diners that there could be pin bones in their portion. Enjoy!

Lemon Garlic SalmonClick here for a printable version of the Lemon Garlic Salmon recipe.

Cabin Grilled PotatoesCabin Grilled Potatoes
Ingredients
:
6 medium red skinned potatoes
1 medium onion, halved
6 tbsp. butter
Salt and pepper

Directions:

  1. Preheat your grill or oven to 450 degrees.
  2. Thinly slice your potatoes and set them aside. Thinly slice your onions and set them aside.
  3. Place a baking sheet on your work station and cover it with a sheet of aluminum foil that overlaps each side by an inch or two. Generously butter the foil, leaving a couple inches of border all around for when you close the packets.
  4. Layer half of the potatoes across the foil, overlapping them slightly and leaving enough foil around the edges that the packet can be sealed for the grill or oven. Dot the potatoes with thin slices of half of the butter.
  5. Layer half of the onions over top of the potatoes, and sprinkle the entire packet with salt and pepper.
  6. Layer the remaining potatoes over the onions, and dot the potatoes with thin slices of the remaining butter.
  7. Layer the remaining onions on top of the potatoes, and sprinkle the entire packet with salt and pepper.
  8. Place a second piece of foil over top of the potatoes and onions, and fold the edges up to seal the packet on all sides.
  9. Place the packet into your grill and cook for approximately 20 minutes. Monitor the heat during the cooking, adjusting as necessary. The sealed packet will steam the potatoes, but the heat should also create a golden crust on the bottom. Be careful that the bottom layer doesn’t “over caramelize” (aka burn).
  10. Remove the packet to a serving plate and bring it to the table. Rip open the foil to let the aroma of browned buttery potatoes and onions float across the table. Serve family style. Enjoy!

Click here for a printable version of the Cabin Grilled Potatoes recipe.

Cabin Grilled Potatoes

The Long May Weekend – A Year Later

To be honest, I don’t know a lot about Queen Victoria whom the long May weekend commemorates. We still feel repercussions from the Victorian era, such as white wedding gowns and a penchant for prudery. The Queen also plays a memorable role in “The Pirates! Band Of Misfits” in which she wields a mean scimitar. I hadn’t even been aware that she had her own day in Canada until last year when I flew out to Vancouver Island on the long weekend to look for a place for our family.  I had only this one weekend and some substantial internet house browsing in which to find the home we would move to in a few short months.

Such began an epic weekend of rental house hunting with my mother-in-law, Ruth, and my sister-in-law, Erin. We would learn quickly that house hunting online is much like online dating…  Everyone lies.  The pictures are all glamor shots from years if not decades earlier, the houses all looked much cleaner online, and in the case of a couple of our visits the picture can’t quite convey the… shall we say scent… of the actual building.

We called ourselves Little Man’s Angels, an all woman team who were finally answerable to my toddler son.  Even though he was back in the States during our adventure, Little Man became our litmus test for whether or not a property was even worth considering.  Unfortunately most of the places that we visited were not viable. In fact, right after visiting one more decrepit, dirty property in a long line of decrepit, dirty properties with questionable potential for child safety I was starting to wonder if I was being too picky. I must have mumbled something positive about the house when Ruth looked me in the eye and stated that while Dave and I were welcome to live in that house, her grandson would certainly not. I almost cried from relief.

The houses we toured in the greater Nanaimo area over the course of the weekend were memorable. One was so small that it should have housed dolls, not real people. Another reeked of stale tobacco and we later learned a man had been violently killed on a nearby street a few months earlier. Another had a blind driveway that led onto a busy street, not to mention a pile of human feces on the back porch. Another had strange fabric draped from the ceiling, holes punched in the walls, and boasted that it came with an outdoor plastic play house… mind you the playhouse had been used as a chicken coop for three years, but that’s nothing that a little spray bleach can’t take care of right? Right…  The one thing that all of the properties shared was that online they looked and sounded amazing.  I started to panic about our prospects.

Then we saw the property on the farm and I think I heard angels sing as a single ray of sun broke through the clouds and lit the house.  The building itself is nice, but the biggest draw was the farm itself and the surrounding landscape.  The idea of Little Man’s first long term memories being shaped here feeding chickens, petting horses, being chased by sheep…  The three of us looked at each other and had to resist the urge to rush into a jumping group hug.

Later we would begin the pattern that would haunt us for the rest of the move.  Just as things would start to look up, something would come crashing down.  No sooner had we called to secure our rental of the farm house then the great situation fell apart almost instantly.  We almost lost the house when its occupants at the time lost the home they were bidding on, and in fact it was only a few weeks before the actual move to Canada that we learned we’d be able to move in.  Other things would happen as well, but for the purposes of this post, it wasn’t until when Dave and his dad pulled up to the house with the moving van filled with all of our belongings and pulling our car with the cats that I truly let myself believe that things would work out.

The farm house is not perfect, but it has turned out to be a great decision. Almost a year later Little Man still asks to go back to our blue house in Iowa, but I don’t think he misses the house as much as he does the proximity to his favorite zoo and his child care provider.  We’re making friends, we live in a beautiful place, and are finding favorite places that we like to go back to over and over again.

Now that we are at this Long May Weekend one year later the main thing that keeps coming to mind is gratitude.  I’m grateful for the hilarious memories from our house hunt. Grateful that Ruth and Erin were able to take the time (and insanity) of that visit with me. Grateful that we live on such a beautiful island; in such a great home; close to the sheep, pigs, Little Man’s Ladies (aka the chickens), and horses; in a place full of potential for more fantastic adventures and memories.

With the thought of gratitude in mind, I planned a simple meal for the barbeque.  My goal was for something that wouldn’t take much time, leaving more time to be with Dave and LIttle Man, but also something full of flavor that Little Man would devour without us having to focus on getting him to eat his dinner.  Thankfully I was successful.  Little Man gobbled everything up and we were all able to have a nice family dinner full of laughs and stories. It was a perfect commemoration of the House Hunt Long Weekend. I hope that one or more of these recipes can give you a similar experience with your family or friends.

Menu: Mumbai Grilled Drumsticks, Mustard Seed Rice, Simple Grilled Zucchini and Mushrooms, and Mango Lassi.

Mumbai Grilled Drumsticks

Mumbai Grilled Drumsticks
Ingredients
:
2 tbsp. Tandoori paste
¼ cup plain, fat free yogurt
3-4 garlic cloves, finely grated
2 inch fresh ginger, finely grated
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 tbsp. canola oil
10 chicken drumsticks

Directions:

  1. Combine all of the ingredients except for the chicken in a large bowl.
    The marinade ingredients.

    The marinade ingredients.

    253

    The marinade ingredients combined.

    The marinade ingredients combined.

  2. Add the drumsticks to the bowl and toss until they are evenly coated. Use your hands here to really spread the marinade over the chicken.  Cover and refrigerate the chicken for at least 30 minutes or overnight.

    Tossing the chicken in the marinade is best done with your hands.  It's a bit messy, but roll up your sleeves and dive on in.

    Tossing the chicken in the marinade is best done with your hands. It’s a bit messy, but roll up your sleeves and dive on in.

  3. Preheat your grill or grill pan over medium/medium high heat. The marinade is predominately yogurt based, so you may need to grease your grill to make sure the chicken doesn’t stick. Grill the chicken over medium heat for approximately 45 minutes or until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Serve and enjoy!

Click here for a printable version of the recipe for Mumbai Grilled Drumsticks.

 

Mustard Seed Rice

Mustard Seed Rice
Ingredients
:
1 tbsp. brown mustard seeds
1 tbsp. canola oil
1 ½ cups white basmati rice
3 cups hot water
Salt and pepper

Directions:

  1. Gently heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat and add the mustard seeds. Cover the pan when the seeds start to pop, and shake it periodically to keep the seeds moving. Be careful not to burn them. When the seeds stop popping, about 30 seconds, add the rice and stir to combine. Stir the rice every now and then to let it just start to brown. This should take just a couple of minutes.
    Sizzling the mustard seeds in the oil.  When they start popping, cover the pan to prevent a mess on your stove.

    Sizzling the mustard seeds in the oil. When they start popping, cover the pan to prevent a mess on your stove.

    Popping mustard seeds.

    Popping mustard seeds.

    Sauteing the basmati rice with the mustard seeds and oil.

    Sauteing the basmati rice with the mustard seeds and oil.

    Browning the rice.

    Browning the rice.

  2. Carefully add the hot water to the pan. The pan is already hot so it will sputter and steam when you add the water.
  3. Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer and cover the pan. Simmer the rice for 15 minutes, and then remove it from the heat. Let the rice sit with the lid on for 5 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff the rice with a fork. Spoon the rice into a serving bowl and enjoy.

Click here for a printable version of the recipe for Mustard Seed Rice.

 

276Simple Grilled Zucchini and Mushrooms
Ingredients
:
1 medium zucchini, cut into 1 ½ inch thick half moons
5 cremini mushrooms, cut into pieces roughly the same size as the zucchini
1-2 tbsp. olive oil
3-4 garlic cloves
Salt and Pepper
Directions:

  1. This recipe is more a method than anything else. Use whatever vegetables that you have at hand. I chose zucchini and mushroom because they taste great with a bit of the grill’s smokiness.
  2. Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl and toss until the vegetables are evenly coated.
  3. Skewer all of the zucchini on one or two metal skewers, leaving a little bit of room between the pieces so they can cook evenly. Set these aside on a baking sheet. Do the same with the mushrooms. Set them aside with the zucchini and drizzle any remaining marinade over them all. Let them sit for 15-20 minutes.
  4. Grill over medium to medium high heat until the vegetables start to char and are cooked through.
  5. Remove the vegetables from the skewers, being careful of the hot metal. Toss the vegetables together in a bowl and serve. Enjoy!

Click here for a printable version of the recipe for Simple Grilled Vegetables.

 

271Mango Lassi
Ingredients
:
2 cups plain, fat free yogurt
2 cups frozen mango pieces
1 cup milk
1 tbsp. honey

Directions:

  1. Combine all ingredients in a blender and process until smooth.
  2. Taste to see if it needs more mango or honey. Adjust seasoning, blend again, and serve. Enjoy!

Click to get a printable recipe for Mango Lassi.

Our Victoria Day bbq dinner: Mumbai Grilled Drumsticks, Mustard Seed Rice and Simple Grilled Zucchini and Mushrooms.  Little Man already made off with his Mango Lassi, so it wasn't available for a glamor shot.

Our Victoria Day bbq dinner: Mumbai Grilled Drumsticks, Mustard Seed Rice and Simple Grilled Zucchini and Mushrooms. Little Man already made off with his Mango Lassi, so it wasn’t available for a glamor shot.

A Spring Feast: Dessert

I thought I knew a lot about food when I moved from California to New York for graduate school.  I’d lived in So Cal all of my life, regularly ate food from various cultures and thought I was pretty adventuresome.  Isn’t there something about pride going before a fall?  In this case, my “fall” was going to be in falling in love with food and cooking in a way that I’d never experienced before.

I grew up loving to cook with my family; my mom and Grammie are two of the major cooking influences in my life.  Then in New York, living alone and thousands of miles away from any friends and family, I found myself turning on the TV just to have some background noise in my cramped, but empty apartment.  More often than not the channel I left it on was food TV.  This is where I started to truly learn to cook, and thankfully I also made some of the best friends of my life in New York and they also love food.

I met my best friend, my brain twin, in graduate school within the same week that I met Dave.  And have mercy on anyone in our path; we did our best to get them caught up in our own version of crazy.  Jen and I started having dinner parties on our super tight grad school budgets, trying out recipes from Bon Appetite and (the late) Gourmet magazines that we read like novels.  Soon Jen started bringing me (later Dave too) home with her for holidays to her parents’ place in upstate.  Dave and I fell in love, with each other, but also with Jen’s family.  We claimed them for our own and they’ve been stuck with us ever since.

It was at their home where I learned about true hospitality, gained an appreciation for a good Dark and Stormy, and learned (or tried) to hold my ground under severe peer pressure for one more trip back to the food line in the kitchen.  Even if you’d already been 2-3 times before, if you were lax enough to leave an empty plate in your vicinity for a moment to lean back and groan you were charged with “what, you don’t like my wife’s cooking?”  And back in line you’d go, unbuttoning the top button of your pants as you went.  We learned that the secret was to take small portions on the first round, then it wasn’t quite so painful to go back for thirds in true Hobbit fashion.

There are many recipes (or versions of them) that I learned from this household, and the one I’m sharing here today is by far the simplest but it is one that I must have every Easter (now to be joined with Aureuil’s Ham).  It is a deceptively simple, retro-style jello salad, but one that in our household now takes the place of dessert; Deb’s Jello Salad.  In fact, when I first sat down to write this post, I did so with a bowl of the leftover jello at my side.  This too, is one of those dishes that I look forward to making because I’ll have the leftovers to look forward to as well.  My only regret is that I don’t have a nice crystal bowl to showcase it in.  I can guarantee that soon I’ll be making a trip to the local thrift store to remedy that.  Then I’ll have to make this jello salad again, just to make sure that the bowl shows it off nicely, of course.

Deb’s Jello Salad
Ingredients:
2 boxes raspberry (or other flavor) jello
2 14 oz. cans of pineapple chunks,
1 cup frozen black berries or strawberries
2 bananas, sliced
1 pt. sour cream

Directions:

  1. Drain the pineapple, reserving the juice. Set aside.
  2. Mix the jello following the package directions, but substituting the reserved pineapple juice for some of the cool water.
    An inglorious beginning...

    An inglorious beginning…

  3. Put the jello in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.
  4. Add the pineapple, frozen berries and bananas to the jello. Divide the jello in half, putting half into a serving bowl and then into the refrigerator. Leave the other half on the counter so that it doesn’t set up as fast.
    The drained pineapple, frozen blackberries and sliced bananas.

    The drained pineapple, frozen blackberries and sliced bananas.

    Everyone into the pool...

    Everyone into the pool…

  5. When the refrigerated jello is set (start checking after 15 minutes or so), carefully spread the sour cream over that first layer.

    When I first tasted this jello salad, I assumed that the middle layer was sweetened cream, but no it's unsweetened sour cream.  It doesn't need any sugar since the surrounding jello and fruit takes care of that nicely.

    When I first tasted this jello salad, I assumed that the middle layer was sweetened cream, but no it’s unsweetened sour cream. It doesn’t need any sugar since the surrounding jello and fruit takes care of that nicely.

  6. Gently spoon the remaining jello on top of the sour cream layer and refrigerate until set. Enjoy!
    The fruit jewels suspended in delicious jello.

    The fruit jewels suspended in delicious jello.

    This is not the correct dish for the jello salad, but it's the best that I have on hand at the moment.  Just use your imagination for how stunning it is in a clear, cut crystal bowl.

    This is not the correct dish for the jello salad, but it’s the best that I have on hand at the moment. Just use your imagination for how stunning it is in a clear, cut crystal bowl.

Click here for a printable version of Deb’s Jello Salad.

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.

Birthday Party Food for Kiddos… and Their Very Patient Parents

We are still relative newbies to the world of children’s birthday parties, and the terror that can be instilled in the heart of a parent when s/he sees a precious child return from a friend’s party with a goodie bag so chock full of candy that it rivals Halloween.  I cannot speak to how other people’s children act (well… actually I could, but that isn’t polite) when hopped up on that level of sugar and pizza-party junk food, but I can attest to how my lovely, precocious little boy turns into a whirlwind of high pitched cackles and rule breaking that I can only describe as temporary insanity for all involved.  As fellow parents, shouldn’t we want to set our own children, as well as their friends and parents, up for success?

I’m not suggesting that all birthday party food must be reduced to carrots and hummus (although that would be tasty!), but we can create amazing birthdays while still feeding people well… and inexpensively.  The food that I include here isn’t necessarily healthy.  This is celebration food, not something that you would include in your diet or eat on a daily basis.  Nor is it filled with preservatives or the nearly obscene amounts of sugar found in processed foods.  These are all dishes that can be made a couple days (or more) in advance so that the day of the party can be spent enjoying the birthday boy or girl, not panicking over the stove (I’ve been there too).  So let’s have a party, and not feel sick to our stomachs by the end of the feast.

The foods and drink that I am posting here are actually the same recipes that we’ve used for all of Little Man’s birthday parties so far and many of the recipes are not my own.  For those dishes I’ve included the links to the original sites, so all you have to do is click on the dish’s highlighted name and a window will open with that recipe from its original site.  It’s unlike me to recycle exact menus like this for recurring celebrations, but we’re still finding our way in how to throw great kid parties.  I wanted recipes that I knew would turn out great, that could be done in advance, and that wouldn’t break our bank account or my spirit to prepare.  I might break out and try something different next year, but then again if it isn’t broken…

So here’s the menu:

  • Rainbow Fruit Platter
  • Jungle Juice Punch
  • Amazing Mac n Cheese
  • Zebra Cake
  • Snacks and Goodie Bags

Rainbow Fruit Platter

Rainbow Fruit Platter served on a rectangular bamboo cutting board.

Rainbow Fruit Platter served on a rectangular bamboo cutting board.

One of the most commonly re-pinned items from my Pintrest boards is this Rainbow Fruit Platter.  The original site I pinned it from does not exist any more, but similar images have popped up across the internet.  I don’t know what it is about this simple dish (maybe the avoidance of the tasteless cantaloupe and honeydew melon that so often “graces” fruit plates), but every time I serve this at a child’s party it gets eaten up faster than anything else.  For best results, use fresh fruit.  It seems silly to state this for a fruit platter, but having lived in places where during the winter months you sit back and watch the price of fresh produce skyrocket it can be tempting to go for frozen.  To put it mildly, the texture would be a bummer.  It doesn’t matter what shape platter you use for this, I’ve used both rectangular (above) and circular (below).  Just be sure to give enough room for each color arc to be well represented.

Rainbow Fruit Platter (and Pooh Bear) at the party in 2012.

Rainbow Fruit Platter (and Pooh Bear) served on a circular metal platter.

You can use any combination of your favorite fruits, but here are the ones that I keep coming back to both for their great colors and taste.

Rainbow Fruit Platter

Ingredients

Red: Sliced Strawberries and fresh Raspberries

Orange: Mandarin Oranges, peeled and divided into segments

Yellow: Pineapple, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces

Green: Green Grapes, halved

Blue/Indigo: Blueberries and/or Blackberries

Directions:

  1. Find a large serving platter and set it near your work station.  Depending on the platter’s material, you may want to cover it with plastic wrap before putting the fruit down.
  2. Prepare the different fruits and set them aside in individual bowls.
  3. Begin with the red (and largest) arc of your rainbow, and arrange the strawberries on the platter.
  4. Then fill in each succeeding arc with your chosen fruit.  You may need to adjust the size of your arcs as you go.
  5. Add the most delicate fruits, like the raspberries and blackberries (if using) last.
  6. Once the platter is complete, roll up a small paper towel and place it in the void between the blueberries or blackberries to preserve the arc’s shape.
  7. Cover the platter loosely with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator until the party.  You can do this the night before, but I don’t suggest doing this too early since the texture of the cut fruit can get mushy.

Click here for a printable version of the Rainbow Fruit Platter recipe.

Jungle Juice Punch

Finding a drink that is both suitable for kids and enjoyed by adults can be tricky at parties.  For my part, I don’t allow Little Man to drink pop (or soda for those south of the border) or any of those popular punches made out of flavor packets that are little more than sugar and food coloring.  Instead I use one of the iced tea and fruit juice-based punches published by Giada De Laurentis on the Food Network website.  For kid-based parties my favorite is Giada’s Apple Mint Punch, which I call “Jungle Juice” for the parties because of its golden green color.  I make a double or triple batch and serve it in a large bee-hive shaped glass beverage carafe.  In Giada’s recipe she makes simple syrup with fresh mint as the sweetener.  It pains me to pay for fresh mint in the store (especially in winter), so I often use dried mint.  If you use dried herbs, just use half the quantity that the recipe specifies.  Dried herbs are much stronger than the fresh, so you don’t need quite as much.  If you are making this when your garden or local farmers market is full of fresh herbs, use whatever mixture of herbs you like best.  My favorite version of this was actually from last summer when my mint had been severely hacked back in a fit of mojito making, so instead I used fresh basil and tarragon.  The punch was delicious!

Amazing Mac n Cheese

Since Little Man still takes naps, I like to have his parties in the morning so that things are breaking up right around the time for him (and his friends) to settle down for nap time.  That means that I want the kiddos and their parents to have something good for lunch, so that they have energy to play, none of us are feeling sick from too much junk food, and the kids can leave feeling happy not completely pooped and grouchy from sugar crash.  My favorite dish for this is an amazing Mac n Cheese from the Pioneer Woman (aka Ree Drummond) also on Food Network.  I make a double batch of this in the morning, pile it into my largest lasagna pan and set it aside until I’m just about ready to serve lunch.  Then I top it liberally with grated, sharp cheddar cheese and broil the top until its melted and golden brown.  I’ve also made this the night before and reheated it for a party the next day.  Just be sure to give yourself ample time to rewarm the casserole in the oven, and hold off on adding the cheesy topping until you are just about ready to serve.  Every time I serve this I have parents’ asking me for the recipe.  Now you have it!

Zebra Cake

065Of course I forgot to take a picture of the inside of the cake, but if you want to see the cool, zebra-print pattern check out the link that follows with the cake’s name.  The first time I can across Zebra Cake was from the DIY Queen website.  The original post consists just of cool pictures of the process, but I found a number of other sites where the process is described in greater detail.  Check out Fae’s Twist & Tango for a great example with detailed explanation of the steps and sample cake recipes.  It’s astoundingly simple, and gravity does much of the work for you.  Simply choose your favorite white cake and chocolate cake recipes (or box mixes) and prepare the batters.  The batters need to be of pourable consistency, so if they are too thick you might need to thin them out a little.  Then you start by pouring a small scoop (about 1/3 of a cup) of the white batter in the middle of your prepared (butter and parchment paper) cake pan.  Then add a similarly sized scoop of the chocolate batter, and repeat.  Try to save the last scoop for the chocolate batter.  With each scoop, gravity will slowly push the other rings out towards the edges of the pan.  Then bake, cool and decorate as you would like.  Little Man’s party was animal-themed (hence the cake I chose), so we used a delicious chocolate frosting, simple candles, and a ring of non-toxic plastic animals for decoration.  Once the candles were blown out each child (birthday boy first) got to choose an animal to add to their goodie bag.

068Snacks and Goodie Bags

Beyond the Rainbow Fruit Platter and the Mac n Cheese, I like to keep the rest of the offerings simple.  For this birthday, Little Man’s sole request for food at his party was for Cheezies, a Canadian cheese-puff that is similar to the American Cheetos.  One word of advice, don’t start a discussion with a Canadian about which brand is better.  They are very passionate about their Cheezies…  So to honor Little Man’s one birthday request, and to celebrate our new Canadian home, a good sized bowl of Cheezies appeared next to the Mac n Cheese casserole at his party.

Little Man's sole request for food at his party was Cheezies.

Little Man’s sole request for food at his party was Cheezies.

The Goodie Bags for Little Man’s party were relatively simple in that there wasn’t a ton of stuff, and we tried to keep sugar to a minimum.  Each child got a small bag (gotta love the dollar stores) with their name in puffy paint.  Inside each bag was an animal foam magnate kit to do at home another time.  Then we’d also gotten animal-themed stickers and handed those out after the kids did a great dance party.  Each child also got a handmade animal mask (see next week’s post for more information on those), and two stacks of miniature homemade cookies (Chocolate Chip and Oatmeal Raisin).  We wanted the bags to be fun and special, but not filled with candy or expensive to make/buy.  They were also fun for me to work on over the week prior to Little Man’s Party.

A tray filled with the Goodie Bags and things to go in them.

A tray filled with the Goodie Bags and things to go in them.

On the whole, I think the party was a success.  For the next week Little Man kept asking to have his friends over for another dance party.  The streamers finally came down, and now we’re settling in to these new adventures with a little boy who is one more year older.  It’s fun to day dream about the new adventures we’ll have together over this next year… and what he’ll want for his next birthday party.

024

Thanksgiving in a Foreign Land

This is Thanksgiving week… American Thanksgiving, I should say.  This is, however, not just any Thanksgiving, but my first Thanksgiving out of the country and the 150th anniversary of when President Lincoln established it as the third national holiday (along with Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday).  The holiday takes on a different feeling when you think of the timing; the end of the Civil War, the government trying to hold the increasingly fragmented nation together.  How do you forge a lasting union for a nation of people with loyalties, cultures and traditions that span the globe?  Part of the answer, apparently, was to give them a common tradition tying together families across the country in thanksgiving.

Two cousins in a crib.  The "pricelessness" of family at Thanksgiving.

Two cousins in a crib. The “pricelessness” of family at Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday of the year.  The focus on food and family has become increasingly important to me, first when I moved across the States for graduate school, then trying to create new homes with Dave as we progressed through our impromptu academic tour of the Midwest, and now with Little Man in Canada.  So here we are, looking for ways to create our own new identities, to create new family traditions, and to create a dual nationality identity for our son.

play time

Thanksgiving, however, is anything but a simple holiday.  The children’s stories of pilgrims and Indians sitting down to a nice turkey dinner are just that… stories.  But the creation of Thanksgiving, the annual retelling of this fictitious meal uniting disparate peoples, is still a powerful tool today.  For a fascinating study of the history (and fiction) of Thanksgiving, please check out Janet Siskind’s The Invention of Thanksgiving (click on the link to download a pdf of the article).  You’ll never think of American Thanksgiving in the same way again… but in a good way.  It’s powerful, and so is the resulting holiday.

lake 2

For my personal purposes, not so differently from Lincoln’s, Thanksgiving has long been about creating a sense of home when “home” is not necessarily apparent.  A sense of family when family is far away.  A sense of belonging in a place that is still a bit foreign.

kingdom

When living in upstate New York, this meant celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with Dave.  Until we met I had no idea that Canada had a Thanksgiving; assuming that it was a uniquely American holiday.  It is and it isn’t.

cousin love 2

Thanksgiving in Canada is celebrated on the 2nd Monday of October, not the 4th Thursday of November.  It is a harvest celebration, without any stories of Pilgrims and Indians.  The meal is mostly the same with turkey, stuffing and the sides.  However, Canadians tend to avoid the dodgy green bean casseroles, with most Canadians I know being horrified by the dish.  In Canada, Thanksgiving is a relatively minor holiday and is quickly eclipsed by Halloween.  I didn’t quite understand this until moving to Canada this year.  For all of my adult life, even when moving often, the idea of a Thanksgiving alone or uncelebrated was tragic.

lake

One Thanksgiving when we were first dating, Dave was not going to be able to join anyone’s family dinner since he needed to stay in town to finish writing his Master’s Thesis.  This seemed an abomination to me that someone would be home, alone, on Thanksgiving, with only the hope of an at best mediocre TV dinner to look forward to.  So even though I was definitely going out of town to be with my adopted New York family for Thanksgiving, I devised a nice, stay at home version for Dave.  All he would have to do was put things in the preheated oven at a certain time, take them out, reheat a couple of things, and he’d have his own pint-sized Thanksgiving meal.  I think I even wrote out the instructions for him, down to the unwrapping of the carton of crescent rolls and how to form/bake them.  After all, this Canadian obviously did not understand the importance of the holiday since he was willing to sacrifice it.  Who knew how far his ignorance of the proper foods went?  In theory, this should have been fantastic, or at least sweet.  In reality, it has lived in our combined memory as well intentioned, but horrific.  I mean absolutely disgusting and barely edible.  He’s lucky that it was partially edible, since even the local pizza places weren’t delivering that evening.

Dave’s Thanksgiving meal was to be an oven-roasted Cornish game hen, mashed potatoes (oy!), gravy, sweet potato praline, balsamic vinegared brussel sprouts (double oy!), canned crescent rolls (hence the instructions) and I think a mini-pumpkin pie for dessert… but that might also have been burned in the oven.  Of all this, the Cornish game hen was good, the crescent rolls were passable, and the sweet potato praline saved the day.  The mashed potatoes, on the other hand, were raw.  The brussel sprouts were disgusting.  The pie, if it ever existed, has not survived in memory.  It would take me a good 8 years to make passable mashed potatoes.  After this (and other experiences) I was forbidden by friends and family alike to attempt mashed potatoes.  In fact, just a week ago I made pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy, and both Dave and I commented on the fact that I just might have learned how to actually cook them properly.  I have no idea how a person who even then was a pretty good cook could not make mashed potatoes.

And while the brussel sprouts (yes, I can cook these well now too) were so bad that they don’t even deserve discussion here, I will share with you the one glowing beacon of the day; Praline Sweet Potatoes.  These are now the one thing, no matter whose Thanksgiving I am going to, that I always bring with me.  They are almost sweet enough to be a dessert, but have just a hint of a savory edge that pairs excellently with turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce and the rest.

Dave's Mom's gorgeous table setting with fresh persimmon candle holders.

Dave’s Mom’s gorgeous table setting with fresh persimmon candle holders.

The pictures in this post are from my first Canadian Thanksgiving.  They look the part and embody that sense of Thanksgiving that I think will likely be missing from our American Thanksgiving this year.  We’re still fiddling with tradition, and straddling the line between nations.  Say “Happy Thanksgiving” to a Canadian this time of year, and you get some very confused looks since for them Thanksgiving was over a month ago.  There will be new photos of new traditions coming soon.  In the meantime, no matter what we are doing I plan on keeping family close and tradition a bit loose.

I don't have step-by-step pictures here, but the recipe is easy and the results are worth trying for even without a safety net of photo documentation.

I don’t have step-by-step pictures here, but the recipe is easy and the results are worth trying for even without a safety net of photo documentation.

Praline Sweet Potato

2 lbs. whole sweet potatoes (not from a can)

¼ cup milk

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 tsp. salt

Pepper to taste

½ cup brown sugar, packed

¼ cup butter, melted

¼ cup dark corn syrup

1 heaping cup of pecans, chopped

1.  Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  Pierce the raw sweet potatoes all over with a sharp knife and place them on an aluminum foil lined baking sheet.  Roast the sweet potatoes in the oven until soft and easily pierced with a fork, about 45 minutes to an hour.  In the meantime, butter a 2-3 quart shallow casserole dish and set it aside.  Once the sweet potatoes are cooked through, allow them to cool until they are easy to handle with your hands.  Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

2.  Tear the skins from the sweet potatoes and put the orange flesh into a large mixing bowl.  Mash the sweet potatoes until they are creamy.  Add the milk, egg, salt and pepper and stir to combine.  Spoon the sweet potato mixture into the buttered casserole dish.

3.  In a small bowl combine the brown sugar, butter and corn syrup.  Pour this over the sweet potato casserole and spread it around so that all of the sweet potato is covered.  Sprinkle the pecans evenly over top.

4.  Bake the casserole uncovered for 45 minutes, or until it is set.  The topping will still be slightly soft at this point, but it will harden as the dish cools.  Watch the pecans towards the end of the cooking time.  If they start to brown too much or burn, drape a piece of aluminum foil over top to slow the browning.

Click here for a printable version the Praline Sweet Potatoes recipe.

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Taking One For The Team

In a previous post (sometimes it feels like a previous life), I mentioned that I am an archaeologist and that I have worked in Turkey.  It is amazing work; literally digging up the past and holding it in your hands.  I love it, but it is always hard to be away from my friends, family, boyfriend (at the time, husband of course now) and cats.  I can’t even imagine what it would be like if I had to be away from Little Man for that period of time.  Some day… but not today…  For my first couple of field seasons in Turkey as a graduate student we only had access to internet once a week when we went into town for our day off.  The connections were slow, power often shut off randomly and we had to deal with the extra vowels of the Turkish keyboard.  In order to feel connected to my distant loved ones I would jot down stories in my notebook of things that were happening over the course of the week.  Then on our day off we would all head to an internet café and from there I would email my latest story en masse to friends and family.  In a strange way this let me feel connected through the shared experience of reading and writing about events, even when the events weren’t being experienced together.  It feels remarkably similar to what I am doing now with this blog.

 In the move to Canada I came across a folder of printed out emails that I call my Turkey Tales.  I boxed them up (they are around here somewhere…) with the thought that they would be fun to read later on (like years from now).  When I started this blog Dave suggested that I should see if any of the Turkey Tales would work as posts.  It was a good idea, but I’d have to find that blasted box first.  Then on a recent visit from Dave’s Mom she mentioned a particular story that I had emailed during the field season just before Dave and I married.  It turned out that Ruth kept this particular story in one of her email folders and opens it up from time to time when she wants/needs a good laugh.  I asked if she could forward it to me and she did.  As I re-read this “post” I started smiling and chuckling as remembered it through the written version. 

Me and fellow archaeologist/soccer star "Cat."

Me and fellow archaeologist/soccer star “Cat.”

The story itself deals with a soccer match between we archaeologists and our Kurdish workers from a local village near the excavation site.  The match took place during the summer field season directly before my wedding to Dave.  I had forgotten some of the details, but especially now as Dave and I celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary it seems apropos (that’s for you Dave) to share the story here.

 The summer before our wedding Dave and I were apart for about three months.  I was in Turkey excavating for nine weeks and got home one day after he had left for a six week field season in the Republic of Georgia.  He would come back from that field season with a mere two weeks left until the wedding.  When he left for his fieldwork he’d left me two letters; one was the perfect love letter (a note on the outside instructed that I was to read this one first) and the second was a list of things for the wedding that he was supposed to take care of… but didn’t.  Doh!  Around the time he was writing his second letter, I was preparing for this soccer match.

 The Saga of the Soccer Match

Here is the saga of the soccer match…  Last year the dig team played a soccer game against their excavation hands from a local village.  Everyone had such a blast they decided to make it an annual event; the yubangi (foreigners) against the locals.  This year the excavation season has been difficult.  We had all the problems with the workers’ strike, and the village that we had to cut off relations with was the one from the soccer saga last year.  Even though we could not work together at the excavation anymore the team still wanted to have a game, and it was decided that the archaeologists would make up one team, and any of our workers regardless of which village they hailed from could make up the other team.  This decision was extremely naïve on our part, as the different villages and lineages did not necessarily get along and there was a definite internal pecking order that we were oblivious to.

 I was asked to play but was afraid of making a fool of myself so decided to embrace my chicken-ness and play spectator instead.  Another female excavator felt the same way and we plotted to be cheerleaders and not allow ourselves to get dragged into the actual event.

 Game day.  After a full day of excavation we left for the match.  We piled into the van, all of us in various forms of excavation clothes including worn and dusty khakis, torn runners and t-shirts, the women with our Kurdish headscarves firmly in place.  In short, we were unimpressive.  We got to the soccer pitch a little early so our team would have time to warm up, play around with a ball and hopefully not embarrass ourselves too much.  As we pulled into the parking area we saw that the other team was already there, and our jaws dropped.  Not only was the other “team” there but they were all wearing professional uniforms; matching jerseys with numbers and names, striped socks, boots, the entire kit.  Apparently the team of Kurdish villagers we thought we were going to play were actually a regional semi-pro team.  To make it worse they also were only from the one village and had told all of our other workers from the remaining four villages that they couldn’t play.  For a moment our team considered calling the match off, but the strike had left all of us a bit nervy and the chance to run around playing soccer, not doing anything academic, was too good to pass up.  The game would go on.

 Not only was the opposing team different from what we expected, but so was the pitch.  It was carpeted and smaller than a normal soccer field, which was great since if we’d had to run on a normal sized field I think we would have expired.  The sun was going down, as was the temperature, but it was still well over 100 degrees F in the shade.  While we had been doing hard physical labor for weeks, excavation is not largely cardiovascular and every one of the archaeologists was winded within minutes.  The Turkish game was also played differently.  You could play the ball off of the chain link fences surrounding the pitch and the goals were very shallow.

 The fan base was unique as well.  In rural Turkey it is unseemly for women sit with men whom they are not related to, so there were no female fans on their side.  There certainly were no female players; and therefore no Kurdish women making spectacles of themselves.  The same cannot be said for the American side.  The bleachers were filled with the other team’s kinsmen and a handful of excavation workers that had not been “called up” to the team.  And then there was Jenny and myself; hooting and hollering, jumping up and down, and all around acting remarkably unladylike in the Turkish/Kurdish sense.  We apparently scandalized the neighborhood as we would learn the next day.  Good Kurdish women do not cheer or raise their voices like we did.  Nor did they heckle the opposing team with comparisons to various parts of a sheep’s anatomy.  We were obviously not good Kurdish women.

Me in Urfa looking over the Balikligol (Fish Pond) and wearing the same headscarf from soccer fame.

Me in Urfa looking over the Balikligol (Fish Pond) and wearing the same headscarf from soccer fame.

Needless to say, we started playing and pretty quickly the slaughter began.  Our Kurdish cook and driver had agreed to play for us and they were both surprisingly good; much better than any of us.  I’m not sure why we were surprised by this, but we were obviously pretty slow at that point.  They are the only two who kept the “match” from being a wholesale blowout.

 In the last ten minutes of the game our cook was in goal and called for me to come and take his place.  He wanted to go forward in order to try to score a couple goals so we won’t lose so pathetically.  We had stopped counting at this point, but I think the score was something along the lines of 2 to 10.  The ringers had been taking it easy on us at the end.

 Not wanting to disappoint our cook who had miraculously made coming home from the excavation to his meals something to look forward to… I agreed to go in.  You learn early on that to keep an excavation team functioning, you’ve got to keep them happy.  The best way to do that is to keep them well fed.  We don’t have many bells and whistles in the field, but good food goes a long way.  In a future post I’ll share the story of the “hairy red sauce” of the previous field season and you’ll see how important this can be.  Ugh!

 So the cook wanted me to take his place.  We were already short handed on the field, and in order to save my supper (literally) I was going into goal.  There was no way this could end well.

 My “uniform” consisted of a clean (relatively) white t-shirt, loose green palazzo pants, an embroidered headscarf and sandals.  I was hardly something to strike fear into the hearts of those wanting to slam the ball into the net as hard as they could.  May I also add that I have never been in the goal?  Ever.  And that the Turkish ball was different from standard soccer balls, being a little larger and really heavy.  All I could think about was that this ball would leave a mark.

 The sun had gone down and the field’s lights weren’t good.  I was sure that I would be the biggest embarrassment of a goalie ever, but at least my ego would have taken one for the team.  Small enough encouragement.

 I got in the goal and quickly took off my flimsy sandals before I twisted an ankle.  I did not want to repeat an injury to my feet like I shared in the Family Dinner post (posted on 9-12-13.  The soccer match took place one year after the salmon dinner).  A ball was quickly, but softly, kicked at the goal and I ran after it like I was chasing my cat, bent at the waste, bum in the air, arms outstretched.  I had just as much success blocking the ball as I’ve had catching Zadi when she zooms through the room.  I was undeterred, however.

 When the next shot came, I pushed a player from other team out of the way and somehow ended up sprawled across the goal with the ball outside of the net.  Not my most graceful maneuver, but an effective one.  All I could think of was Dave saying “that’s my girl.”  Then a third shot came and I was able to block it pretty easily. I promise you I was not getting cocky, just lucky.  I was sure that any second a ball was going to come with my name on it and I would be nursing a broken nose for the wedding.

Me in Istanbul posing before Dave and I went out for a dinner to celebrate the end of a successful field season.  All 10 toes accountd for.

Me in Istanbul posing before Dave and I went out for a dinner to celebrate the end of a successful field season. All 10 toes accountd for.

 And then it came.  I still don’t remember it coming; never saw who took the shot.  All I remember is a stinging fire in my middle thigh region across both legs.  Everyone gasped as the resounding slap echoed off the concrete walls.  Players froze not sure what I would do.  My girl friends on the team said that if they hadn’t loved me before, that sacrifice would have bought their hearts.

 And the ball was just sitting there right in front of the goal…

 And my brain finally realized that I should probably pick it up…

 So I did and then dramatically collapsed in a heap on the floor hamming it up.  Everyone started laughing again and I was a hero, though we still lost 5 to 10.  At least I only let in one.

 And now each thigh has a nicely yellowing half moon bruise that when I stand with my legs together share a remarkable resemblance to a Turkish soccer ball.  I never thought that taking one for the team would smart quite so much.  After the match the winning team served us hot tea, and we eventually went home to nurse our wounds.  I needed an ice pack.

 I’ve since tried to figure out which of the workers took that shot.  My current workmen seem to have developed a convenient case of amnesia and no one is willing to fess up.  One did bring me a nicely woven head scarf beaded by his mother.  I wonder which one of his cousins is the guilty party…

 —

Today –

It’s been just over eight years since that story took place.  What a remarkable ride.  Happy anniversary, Dave!

Dave and I after our first field season together as a married couple having cocktails at the Pera Palace, one of the grand hotels in Istanbul designed in the Orient Express era.

Dave and I after our first field season together as a married couple having cocktails at the Pera Palace, one of the grand hotels in Istanbul designed in the Orient Express era.

These are the buttons you see above Dave's head in the previous picture.  High tech at the time, you could push to call a waiter for food, your barman or your groom for your "ride home."

These are the buttons you see above Dave’s head in the previous picture. High tech at the time, you could push to call a waiter for food, your barman or your groom for your “ride home.”

The biggest smiles and relaxed poses always show the end of a field season.

The biggest smiles and relaxed poses always show the end of a field season.

 Cacık (Chilled Yogurt and Cucumber Soup)

Thinking about Turkey made me nostalgic and when that happens I often have to make a Turkish dinner.  Cacık (pronounced zhazhik) is a chilled yogurt and cucumber soup that is fantastic on a hot summer or fall day.  In Turkey this is what I always want at the opening of my meal.  It is refreshing, cooling, and also stimulates the appetite for whatever delicious offering is coming next.  I recently made cacık as part of the meal to welcome Dave’s Mom back to our place after a ferry from the mainland.  Another plus for this soup is that it takes minutes to prepare and can be held in the refrigerator for hours before being served.  If that isn’t enough incentive to try cacık, it’s also a great way to use up any late summer cucumbers that your gardener friends “gift” you with.

 Ingredients

1 tsp. salt

Pinch of sugar

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tsp. dried mint (or 1 tbsp. fresh)

1 ¾ c. plain yogurt (fat free is fine, just use a good quality yogurt)

1 large cucumber

2 tbsp. cold water

 In a medium-sized nonreactive bowl mix the first five ingredients well.  Set aside.

 Peel the cucumber and slice it in half lengthwise.  With a small spoon remove and discard the seeds.  Then finely dice the cucumber and add it to the yogurt mixture.

 Add the cold water to the yogurt-cucumber mixture and stir.  The consistency should be thin, but not watery.  Depending on the type of yogurt you used you might need to add a little more water to thin it out.  Cover the soup and place it in the refrigerator for 20 minutes or up to a couple of hours to keep it chilled until ready to serve.

 Note: On an exceptionally hot day add less water to the soup and instead float a couple of ice cubes in each bowl.  As the ice melts it will dilute the soup and keep everything refreshingly cold.  Afiyet olsun (bon appetite in Turkish)!

 Click here for a printable recipe card for Cacik.

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