Tuesday 30 April 2013

Triple Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Garlic Pesto, Tomato and Rocket

I worked up an appetite doing some yard work and decided on a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner.  Apparently it is National Grilled Cheese Month in the U.S. ... there's a joke in there somewhere, but I'm too tired to think of one.  No-one needs a recipe to make grilled cheese, but here are a few pics to show the delicious variation I tried tonight. 

Parmesan Butter on the Outside!

Pesto Cream Cheese Mixture
Melt on Havarti while grilling buttered side
Tomato, S&P
Pile high with Rocket (Arugula)

Monday 29 April 2013

Apple, Walnut and Blue Cheese Tart

I have been making this tart for a couple of years now from a recipe I found on the internet.  There are many sources of this recipe (and several variations), so I don't know which one to reference as the source.  The "original" uses a standard pastry crust, but I prefer puff pastry for ease, and I've changes the amounts slightly for some of the ingredients.

1 portion puff pastry (approx 200 grams)
2 large apples (I used pink lady), peeled, chopped, sprinkled with lemon juice to keep from browning
1/3 cup walnut pieces
1/3 cup blue cheese, crumbled
3/4 Tbsp fresh thyme
2 Tbsp maple syrup

Preheat oven to 450.

Roll out puff pastry to approximately 10"x10" and crimp at edges (this is mainly for looks, the ingredients are not runny at all, so shouldn't spread).  Put on a pan lined with parchment paper.

Toss all remaining ingredients together and place on top off pastry.  Bake until pastry is puffed and lightly browned - about 20 minutes.  If walnuts look like they might burn during cooking, place a small sheet of aluminum foil over the topping, but try to keep the edges visible so they can brown properly.

Sunday 28 April 2013

Hot Day for Planting Berries

Whoooeee, what a nice day (outside the greenhouse that is).  Inside the greenhouse, however, it was over 100 degrees F (so that's a crazy hot day in Celsius - I know I live in Canada, but the bigger numbers on my thermometer are Fahrenheit, and let's be honest, it sounds far more dramatic than "oh my gosh, it's 37 degrees").

I have not yet received the asparagus crowns I ordered; I thought they should have been here a week or two ago, but just as well since I have other things to deal with such as ... raspberry and blueberry canes.  I love fresh berries without a doubt, but I also like the idea that they can handle a bit of neglect.  Care and proper maintenance will support premium crops, but a bit of nothing will still get you something with these, so long as they get a good start.

I got a bit ahead of myself and purchased a number of plants before spring really took hold.  Once things settled, I realized I didn't have a lot of areas with both well-draining soil and full (or mostly full) sun.  So I'll deal with the asparagus when it arrives, but here are my berry solutions in the meantime:

Raspberries are my favourite fruit, and if only one of my berry plants is successful, I really hope it's the raspberry bushes!  I wanted them to have full sun, but was limited to some soggy areas which berries don't really like. So I created a little raised bed using some logs, added some recently acquired mushroom compost and a topsoil mix I had recently ordered (which itself consists of screened peat, topsoil, and mushroom compost).  Here I was thinking that all that compost would be great for a new planting.   But just before I popped the canes into the prepared area, I thought I'd do a quick web search on best practices.  Well ... wouldn't you know it, but mushroom compost is very alkaline, and berries (like many plants) like acidic soil.  So although I didn't have a soil test kit on hand, I thought I'd better make some adjustments and mixed in some peat moss to balance it out a bit.  And in went the canes ... I promise if they fail miserably, I will provide an update to learn from any mistakes made here!

I planted one each of Latham and Heritage types.

I learned my lesson from the raspberry incident and avoided the mushroom compost.  But I also had to contend with a different style of planting.  One of the bushes is a dwarf variety: Northsky.  It is suitable for containers, and I wanted to give this a try but the only container wide enough was also quite tall (blueberry roots apparently are shallow but with a wide spread).

To ensure good drainage, I added some gravel to the bottom of the container, then filled the majority with hay.

I then added a potting soil well mixed with peat moss to the upper third where the root was then situated.

The second blueberry cane has not yet been planted, but the variety (Blue Ray) is a full size plant (average six feet in height) so is not suitable for a container.  However, I intend to plant it nearby the container of Northsky berries.  Although both are supposed to be self-pollinating, I have read that cross-pollination with different types can increase yield.

Mushroom Barley Risotto


The weather continues to be very wintery, and so my cravings still lean toward the comfort foods (note: no idea why, but I made a minor administrative update to this post and it changed the date - it was actually posted some time in early March, I think).  Although the barley makes this a slightly healthier dish than with the traditional arborio rice, let's have no pretense here ... there is still plenty of buttery, cheesy goodness to place this dish in the comfort food category!

I like the mushrooms to blend into the dish, so I keep them small enough to be the same size as the barley when it's all cooked, but chunky mushrooms can be nice sometimes too. I used a mix of shiitake and cremini, but anything works.  Before I went shopping for the ingredients, I originally planned on using tarragon; then decided that since I'm still purchasing herbs until the garden gets further along thyme would probably be more useful for other dishes so it doesn't go to waste.  When I got to the store, all they had was tarragon.  Hmpff ... either works well.


4 cups mushrooms, diced or chopped
1 Tbsp chopped fresh tarragon or thyme
3 large shallots, diced
3 cloves garlic, diced
3/4 cup pearl barley
1/2 cup dry white wine
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
Veggie or chicken stock (4-5 cups), warmed
Parmesan Cheese
Olive Oil / Butter / S&P

In a wide, shallow pan, heat 1 Tbsp olive oil and 1 Tbsp butter.  Saute the mushrooms until brown.  I'm a chronic pan-shaker, so I try to walk away to avoid temptation!  Toss in the tarragon and a teaspoon of salt, mix together, then transfer to a bowl.

In the same pan, add another Tbsp each of olive oil and butter.  Add the shallots and garlic, saute.  Add the barley and stir to coat.  Toast the barley for one minute.  Add the wine and lemon juice to deglaze the pan - this is a good time to scrape up any yummy bits of mushroom or onion.

Start adding the stock at about a 1/2 cup at a time.  Stir between additions just enough to incorporate the barley with the liquids.  When the barley is cooked, add another 1/2 cup of liquid to keep the overall texture creamy and loose. 

Add the mushrooms back in, then stir in 1/4 cup parmesan cheese (or to taste) and another dab of butter.  Season with salt and pepper.

Saturday 27 April 2013

Mediterranean Pasta Salad with Robin's Eggs

While playing out in the greenhouse today, I decided to clean up some of the many bird nests that gathered over the past few years as the previous owners did not make use of it.  And that's when I found this:

Oh god, I didn't know it was occupied!!  I put it back in its place, but the nest was obviously disturbed and I hope I didn't just sign their death warrant by having their mama avoid them now (because if they are going to die, I could have just poached them and be done with it - geez, I'm kidding already).

As I mentioned in my Vinaigrette post, I had been planning to make a pasta salad, and I did just that today.  It was a busy day.  My dad, visiting from BC, was put to work around the house and was able to solve my external water problem (see Post: April 8), installed a kitty door for Sugar Ray and has potentially identified a solution for the lack of electricity in the greenhouse.  Needless to say, I was so busy hanging around while he worked, I barely managed to get this salad made up.

I like this pasta salad best when served around room temperature; I don't like ANY pasta salad cold and I have never had a mayonnaise-style pasta salad that I liked!

2 cups dry penne pasta
1 large (or 2 small) red onion, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced
5-6 sundried tomatoes, chopped
8-10 black olives, pitted and chopped
1/4 cup vinaigrette
1/3 cup sheep's milk feta cheese

Cook pasta in boiling, salted water.  Ensure all other ingredients are prepped before pasta is cooked.   Place onions, pepper, sundried tomatoes and olives in a bowl.  When pasta is ready, quickly drain and add to ingredients in bowl, and give a quick toss.  The hot pasta should slightly wilt the ingredients in the bowl.  Add the vinaigrette while the pasta is still hot so that it can soak up some of the flavour.  Crumble the feta cheese over top then toss again to ensure the pasta salad is evenly mixed.

The vinaigrette is also great tossed with warm boiled potatoes (Nicoise Salad anyone?).  And the entire recipe works well with quinoa instead of the penne pasta, although the ingredient amounts might require some adjustment.  All photos courtesy of my dad, including these nifty shots while he and his wife were tootling* around Ottawa earlier this week. 

*I did not make this word up (definition courtesy of The Free Dictionary):

Thursday 25 April 2013

Vinaigrette for a Teacup Salad

I can tell I'm getting desperate for the freshness of spring - I harvested the tiniest of lettuce leaves so I could have a fresh salad!  Oh, but it was ssssssoooooooooo good!  Unfortunately, it was barely enough to fill a teacup sized bowl.  Actually, that's an exaggeration - it was basically one forkful.  But I made a homemade vinaigrette anyway, as I am planning to also use it on a pasta salad in the next day or so (I think I used about 1/4 tsp to dress the salad!).

I remember being amazed the first time I saw someone make a homemade vinaigrette, but it's the easiest thing to do once you know how.  I personally prefer a tart dressing versus oily, but it's definitely an individual preference.  It's easy enough to play with the main ingredients until you figure out what you like.

In a 250 ml mason jar, add the following:

  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 medium shallot, minced
  • 1 tsp grainy mustard

Then fill the jar, leaving a one-inch gap at the top, with a combination of olive oil and red wine vinegar, based on your taste preference.  My version is about 1/3 olive oil to 2/3 red wine vinegar.  Many vinaigrette recipes call for 3:1 oil to vinegar, but I find that very oily.  It's very much a personal preference.  If you aren't sure what you like, just add slowly and taste as you go.  Add salt and pepper to taste - it is very bland and definitely requires some salt, but start with just a pinch or two and add slowly to avoid adding too much.  Put the lid on the jar and give it a shake to blend the ingredients.

The most important step is to taste it!!  Then adjust accordingly.  Add more oil, vinegar or salt as needed.

The dressing will store for a few days in the fridge, but the oil and vinegar will quickly separate, so just shake again to mix.

The red wine vinegar can easily be replaced with lemon juice, balsamic vinegar or cider vinegar (just a few examples).  And, of course, the olive oil can be replaced with a more neutral canola oil.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Greenhouse Update - April 23

I've decided to move operations out to the greenhouse. I am leaving the onions inside under the lights, and a handful of newly planted seeds.  Otherwise, everything is going to move to the greenhouse this week.  I will be very focused on the weather forecasts for the overnights, but regardless, I plan to cover all plants and seedlings with clear plastic to be safe.

Since I now have the extra space, I've started more herbs, veg and flowers this morning, including:

Herbs: cumin, cilantro, basil, chives, more parsley
Flowers: More asters, nasturtiums and marigolds, plus snapdragons and phlox;
Veg: Bunching onions, swiss chard, more jalapenos and a few more summer squash.

The peas, beets and carrots have started to sprout over the past few days.  Unfortunately, the potatoes are being eaten - I suspect it is squirrels.  The greenhouse is not (currently) fully enclosed, too many gaps in the plastic lining.

Monday 22 April 2013


I've never been much of a flower gardener ... in my early gardening life, my tiny apartment balconies were dedicated to what little food could be grown (tomatoes, basil, sweet peppers).  When I first had a large yard with a lot of space, I was so new to gardening, I couldn't help but continue the focus on edibles.  There were a couple of recent years when I could have expanded my novice skills in flower gardening, but then someone else was there to do it for me.  So this first year at my new property, with so many other new things to deal with, I will dedicate equal time to the challenge of growing flowers!!  And it's not even all about growing.  It's also about maintaining, and let's be honest, even identifying, what flowers are already planted here.


From what I can tell, the flowers are generally limited to three small bordered garden areas at the front of the house.  I have performed (very) limited maintenance at this point, simply because I'm not sure what plants should be cut back or left as is.


Actually, other than the 3 main bordered gardens, there are some flowers scattered elsehwere, including these daffodils, and these "I-have-no-ideas":


In the meantime, I have plans for many more flowers. There are SO many options:  perennials vs. annuals, tall vs. short, hanging pots, containers, ground cover ... and the colours!  Variations are endless.  Although I haven't finalized all of my ideas, here are a few things on the go (plans and comments are mainly based on internet searches and information on the flower packs: please tell me if I'm out of my mind).

Already on the way:

  • Nasturtiums (annual): Edible flowers (high in vitamin C)!  They can grow tall, but I purchased a "dwarf" variety, so should only get to a foot or so.  They can be grown in the ground or in hanging planters and also deter some veggie pests, so I'll mix it up between planters and around plants;
  • Marigolds (annual): Awesome for deterring pests around many vegetable plants, so I'll be using these as a standard border plant;
  • Cosmos (annual):Cosmos grow to 3-4 feet; these might work well near west wall of the garage, which is too wet in early spring for any perennials;
  • Mammoth Russian sunflowers: they get HUGE!  I'm going to grow them near a patch of pumpkins/squash, as they seem to be good companion plants;
  • Asters - again, container most likely;

Clockwise: Marigolds, Nasties, Mammoth Russian Sunflower, Cosmos

 So those have been seeded so far!

I had also ordered a ridiculous amount of other seeds (annual, unless otherwise noted), most of which I have not yet planted:
  • Ballerina Mix Poppies - probably destined for a container;
  • Sunflower mix - shorter variety, container or border plant;
  • Geraniums - I started these from seed in early winter; they are now 4 inches high; container for sure, would be great if I could overwinter them, but not sure if all varieties work that way;
  • Hollyhock (perennial): I plan to put these along the back (west) wall of the house;
  • Lupins (perennial): I'm just going to dig a new plot somewhere in the middle of the backyard;

And very recent purchases at the local store when I decided to go crazy with more container plants:
  • Snapdragon (mini mix - technically a perennial, but not in northern climates);
  • Zinnia Pumila Mixture (great for cut flowers, container style);
  • Morning Glory (vining plant, I need to find something for it grow against!);
  • Sweet Pea (same as Morning Glory, need something to help it grow upwards);
  • Phlox (another dwarf mix for containers);
  • Nemophilla (sounds dirty, doesn't it?  These "penny black" variety are black with a white edge; again, containers).

So lots of planting left to do and I'll see how my gardening ability extends to flowers this year.  I'll happily (well, maybe unhappily) point out any failures in the hopes of learning from the experience.


Sunday 21 April 2013

Grilled Pound Cake and Pineapple

 Windy, cloudy days are made for baking!  I have been planning to make pound cake and today was a good opportunity.  My main intent is to freeze it for use in a trifle this summer.  But it's hard not to have a nibble while it's fresh!  I was first introduced to this particular grilled combination a few years back at a friend's cottage.

When ready to serve, just grill the pineapple spears and slices of pound cake in a grill pan or, even better, on the BBQ.  I brushed the grill with butter first.

Since I don't make this cake often, I needed a recipe.  I turned to my old standby, Julia Child, from Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Le Quatre Quarts or "4 quarters", based on the tradition of making the cake with equal proportions of each ingredient, more specifically, 1 pound of each ingredient).  Modern versions have been modified.

I have finally picked up a new kitchen scale, so I've used the weight measurements rather than those for volume in the recipe where indicated. Surprisingly, she isn't consistent in this recipe, and in some cases, only a volume was identified.  The only modification I made was to double the recipe (knowing Julia's penchant for perfecting amounts and techniques, this is probably not something she would approve of).

12 ounces unsalted butter
6 large eggs (1 1/3 cup)
2 cups sugar
Grated rind of 2 lemons
12 ounces cake flour (2 1/2 cups), sifted*

*Oops, I lied, there was one other modification.  Since I didn't have cake flour, I did the following: before weighing, I added 4 Tbsp cornstarch to the container, then added all-purpose flour to the weight required.  I sifted the flour several times to accommodate for the texture difference.

Preheat oven to 350.

Whip the butter until it is a "mayonnaise-like cream" - this is meant to create enough body so that "it remains in suspension throughout the mixture rather than sinking to the bottom of the plan like melted butter".

In a separate bowl, blend eggs, sugar and lemon zest for a minute at low speed, then increase to high speed and beat for 4-5 minutes, or until mixture is pale and fluffy, and has doubled in volume.  Reduce back to low, and immediately begin to add the flour - this should be done fairly quickly.

And finally, remove the butter from its bowl and incorporate into this egg mixture; again, she suggests this should be done quickly - no more than 15-20 seconds.

Spread batter into 2 small, loaf pans that have been buttered and floured.  Any style pan will work; the recipe indicates a round 4-cup cake pan for the original amounts (so 2 in this case).

Bake at 350 for about 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.  Let cool before removing from pan.

Friday 19 April 2013

Mushroom and Boursin Cheese Puffs

Mmm, appetizers!  When I found myself with some mushrooms in need of use in the fridge, I took appropriate action - I pulled out a package of puff pastry from the freezer. 

If you make your own puff pastry, kudos to you!  I wish I had the patience.  But packaged puff pastry is used by many restaurant chefs, so don't hesitate to take the simple route. I try to find "all-butter" puff pastry, as there can be quite a range of quality at any store.

This recipe makes 12-16 appetizer-size puffs.

2 large shallots, finely diced
1 cup mushrooms, finely diced - any kind (I've used a mix of crimini and shiitake)
"Pepper" Boursin Cheese 
1 Tbsp, finely chopped fresh parsley
1/2 package puff pastry, thawed following package directions

A small dice is best for the shallots and mushrooms so they'll blend evenly with the cheese for the filling.

Heat a shallow pan, add some olive oil.  Add the diced mushrooms and cook at med-high heat until browned on one side.  Stir or toss, then add in the shallots and 1/2 tsp salt.  Cook until shallots are soft, and mushrooms are browned and fairly dry. Let cool, than mix in approximately 75 grams pepper Boursin.  Season with salt and pepper, to taste.  You can also use peppered goat cheese, or plain Boursin/goat cheese - just add extra pepper when seasoning.  Probably even cream cheese.

Adjust your ingredients to your preference, but remember that it is meant to be a mushroom mix with a bit of cheese, and not cheese with a bit of mushroom (that's just gross).

Roll out half of a package of puff pastry (200 grams) on a floured surface.  I roll it out quite thin, but not so thin that it will tear.  Cut into rounds, spoon on some filling, and roll as desired - the shapes are up to you - some of my standards are shown below.

Just make sure they are properly sealed at the edges.  Or you'll have the odd one that splits open, as you'll see in the photos - sometimes it looks OK!

Place on an ungreased baking tray.  (Note: this is the opportunity to freeze some for a later date - lay them out on a tray and only put in a freezer bag or container when they are individually fully frozen; otherwise, they will stick together).

Put the tray into freezer for about 10-15 minutes, while preheating the oven to 400 degrees - I like to let the butter in the pastry firm back up before baking. 

Puff pastry bakes best at high temperatures for a short period.   So at 400 degrees, they should be ready in about 15-20 minutes.  Keep an eye on them, they are ready when well-browned and puffy (puffy, geez, what a surprise!).