Wednesday 30 April 2014

Lemon Bars

I made these tangy lemon bars recently for a light dessert ... fresh, sweet and tart at the same time, very lemony!  Most recipes call for the juice of 2 lemons or something like that.  The amount of juice you get out of lemons can vary considerably so I prefer to use a more specific measure.  By leaving the amount of sugar the same, you can increase the tartness of the bars by increasing the lemon juice from a minimum of 2/3 cup up to 3/4 cup.

Once I had committed to making these, I realized I did not have enough white sugar.  I actually used some turbinado sugar in the base although I had traditionally used white (so that is what I show in the recipe below). 

As for the lemon layer, I found a jar of vanilla sugar I had made after using up a vanilla bean for another recipe - just pop the used up vanilla pod into a jar of sugar and you'll have a beautifully scented sugar for your coffee.  Or it will boost up the flavour when used in baking.

1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup white sugar
2 cups flour
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups white sugar
4 1/2 Tbsp flour (just over 1/4 cup)
2/3 - 3/4 cup lemon juice (approx. 3)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

For the base, combine the first 3 ingredients together then press into the bottom of a 9" x 13" pan.  Bake 15 to 20 minutes until base is golden and very slightly pulling away at the edges.

The final four ingredients get mixed together for the filling.  Pour over the mostly cooked crust and bake another 20 minutes.  The filling will thicken as it cools.

And some of it will have soaked into the crust to form a thin gooey middle layer.

Chill at least one hour before cutting into the bars.

For any experienced bakers out there ... any idea why the bubbles formed on top?  I haven't had that happen before.  Maybe I just needed to tap the pan a bit to let it settle before popping into the oven?  Oh well, it certainly doesn't affect the flavour.

Tuesday 29 April 2014

Return of the Perennial Veggies: Rhubarb and Asparagus!

I planted about a dozen asparagus crowns last spring and I am very happy to see some coming up.  Well, only three plants so far, but at least it is something.  Can you even see the little nubs in the pictures above or below?! These are Mary Washington's.

I planted in three different areas to reduce the risk of one site not growing well.  The raised garden, which I suspected would do the best as asparagus likes well-drained soil, has no signs yet.  But the little plot on the south end of the property has got a few popping up.  And the last "plot" consisted of one single crown near the house just to experiment with different soil and locations - nothing there yet either.

Unfortunately, I will have to refrain from picking any this year (okay, well not very many) ... asparagus should not be picked in the first couple of years after planting year-old crowns.  The fronds that it grows in the summer helps it to feed itself and, for the first couple of years, the plants need as much as they can get.  Besides, last year being their first, there were only a total of 20 spears or so from the 12 crowns.  So not exactly prime pickin' anyway.  Here is what the raised garden "fronds" looked like in September:

And right beside the south end asparagus plot is the rhubarb patch.  Again, these are new as of last spring.  A friend gave me a few of his that were well established, but I had also started two of my own from much smaller starter plants.  I thought I had seven, but I only see six coming up and can't imagine where the seventh might be.  But six is plenty!  Oh my, that will be more than enough rhubarb to enjoy and still have plenty to freeze for later!

I would love it if you would pass on your favourite rhubarb recipes in the comments section as I will definitely need some inspiration with how much I anticipate having this year!

Sunday 27 April 2014

Tomato Soup with Basil Pesto

This is a very quick and fresh tasting soup at any time of the year.  I know that a lot of recipes use roasted tomatoes which is equally delicious but after such a long winter I wanted something with a brighter flavour.  Although it looks like the soup is heavy with bits of the pesto from the pictures, it is just that the basil and garlic pieces have floated to the top ... the soup is actually clear below.

And just a handful of ingredients are needed:
  • onion
  • crushed or whole tomato
  • stock
  • prepared pesto
  • parmesan rind (optional)

Start with the tomato base. If you are using canned or homemade crushed tomatoes, you can probably halve the cooking time.  I started with thawed whole plum tomatoes that a friend gave me from last year's harvest and cooked this about two hours to break down the tomatoes.

Chop 1 medium yellow onion and saute in a small amount of butter.  Add 5 cups of tomatoes and 4 cups of stock (chicken or vegetable).  Cook 1-2 hours.

Pass through a sieve and press down with the back of a wooden spoon to extract as much liquid as possible.  I ended up with about 5 cups of the smooth tomato soup (and I was not very patient - I probably could have gotten another cup or so if I took more time).

Return to the pot and add two Tbsp of prepared pesto - here is how I make it.  I had some frozen in bags from last fall.

I do not usually add parmesan when I freeze pesto (I wait and add it in when being used).  So for the soup, I also added the rind end of a parmesan wedge - a great way to use that last hard bit as the cheese will melt off in the soup.

Heat through.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add more pesto if needed.

And who doesn't love a grilled cheese with tomato soup?  I made mine with aged cheddar, a wee bit of crumbled feta and added just a few leaves of arugula and baby kale for some texture (and a teeny bit of nutrition).

I love grilled cheese and I'm always looking to add new twists.  If you have any interesting combinations you've tried, I'd love to hear about them in the comments section.  Here are a few of my other grilled cheese sandwiches:

Grilled Cheese with Tomato Jam

Grilled Sourdough with Balsamic-Strawberries, Chocolate and Oka Cheese

Triple Grilled Cheese with Garlic Pesto, Tomato and Rocket

Grilled Cheddar, Apple and Raspberry

Saturday 26 April 2014

Flower Seedling Update

I have never been much into growing flowers until the last year or two when I have realized the importance in planting certain types (nasturtiums, marigolds, sunflowers) among vegetables.  Some flowers can deter pests or attract them away from vegetable plants to keep the veggies healthy and pest-free.  I'm still learning about how all this works, but in the meantime, here is an update on the flowers I have on the go right now ...

Marigolds planted April 6th so three weeks long - in a flat alongside cosmos and still under fluorescent lighting.

Nasturtiums planted April 6th - also three weeks old.  About 9-10 inches tall and kept in natural light in the solarium.  Seeded in a flat alongside Kong Sunflower.


And here are the Kong Sunflower seeded with the nasties - about a foot tall already.  I may need to transplant as it is far too early to get them into the ground??

I have also newly planted in the past few days another batch of Kong sunflowers (I'm very excited about these super tall ones), some African Tall Marigold (equally excited) and more nasturtiums.

And I have a few that are just for looks including cosmos, delphinium, asters and hollyhock.

Cosmos: planted in same tray as marigolds above so 3 weeks along and still under fluorescent lighting.

Asters - whew, these are tough to germinate but I have more than a handful underway - these are a month old.


I tried to grow hollyhock's straight from seed into the ground last year with no luck.  But I've had no problems germinating these for the past month.


And I wish I had known delphinium took up to 30 days to germinate or I might have started them sooner.  As it is, they are the only and last batch on the heat mat (I also have a small batch of lettuce - no idea why I tried that) and I would love to shut that down soon.  These are mostly germinated now and today is day 16 but they are pretty tiny still.

And although Borage is classified as a herb, I'm mainly growing it as a flower to attract bees to the garden. 

I think if you see this through facebook, the profile shot is this borage plant (I don't check that facebook page much) from a few years back ...

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Pumpkin Gnocchi

 After making these pumpkin and zucchini biscuits, there was so much pumpkin leftover from the massive Lumina pumpkin I had harvested last fall that I froze several pounds.  I now need to start making room in the freezer for new goodies - although by the looks of it outside, I suspect the asparagus and rhubarb will be a long time coming. 

I call these gnocchi because, well, so does everyone else.  But I have never gotten the handle of shaping them properly or making those little marks in the dough to make them really seem like gnocchi.  And I use considerably less flour so they are more like super light “dumplings” (which also makes it challenging to make fork imprints since the dough is softer than most gnocchi).  

Although there are many recipes for this type of thing, I was really inspired by the lightest-ever gnocchi’s I had at a Bloor Street West (Toronto) restaurant years ago.   The only way I have been able to recreate the airy texture was to make them with no flour – just ricotta and parmesan cheese.  Delicious, but too rich for more than a small appetizer serving.  Especially when accompanied by the most traditional sauce of Sage Butter – literally sage-flavoured butter.

So I set out to make a pumpkin version of those ever-so-airy dumplings.  And I wanted to come up with a different sauce than the usual as well.  So below the recipe for the gnocchi, I have suggested two different ways of serving these up (in the main picture above, they were cooked perogie-style - boiled, then fried with green onions and lots of cracked black pepper.  Bacon would have been awesome if I had any in the house).

Pumpkin Gnocchi - Makes about 130 teeny dumplings

1 cup pumpkin puree 
3/4 cup ricotta 
1 egg
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
Up to 1 cup flour*

* Because I was using frozen pumpkin, it was quite moist (pumpkin is also moister than butternut squash in case you choose to use squash).  Try to use less than this amount of flour to keep them light.

Mix together the pumpkin, ricotta, egg (lightly beaten), salt and parmesan.  Add in about a 1/2 cup of flour and lightly mix with your hands.  Add additional flour as needed.  Note that some flour will be added during the next stage.

To cut the dumplings, first split the mix into 4 portions.  Flour your working surface then roll out one of the portions into a long thin log shape.

Using a fork, cut off small pieces of dough, rolling in a bit more flour as each gets cut off. 

My first pieces were too big for what I wanted so I cut them in half again.

Freeze individually on a parchment paper lined tray before bagging up.  

To cook, simply place in a pot of salted boiling water and cook just a minute or two.  When they rise to the surface, they are ready.  Toss with your favourite sauce ... I've noted two suggested below.

Sauce Options

Gnocchi with Gorgonzola Sauce, Baby Kale and Walnuts

OK, well this first one is almost as rich as the sage butter concept, but I couldn’t help myself.  The thought of having these tossed with a gorgonzola sauce was too much to resist.  But rather than a b├ęchamel base, I made it more like a veloute – basically I just started the sauce with a roux of flour and butter as you would for b├ęchamel, but I added chicken stock instead of cream for a lighter version.  Then toss in some blue cheese.  When the sauce is ready and the gnocchi are cooked, toss it altogether with a few handfuls of baby kale.  The kale should wilt in the heat of the sauce.  Garnish with chopped walnuts or other nuts.

Gnocchi with Pancetta, Radicchio, Baby Kale and Shrimp

This was inspired by a dinner made by a friend recently which itself was based on this recipe from epicurious: Penne with Radicchio, Spinach and Bacon.  The recipe also uses a head of roasted garlic - so good!

I used pancetta instead of bacon and added shrimp just as my friend had done.  But rather than the penne, I’ve substituted the gnocchi and used baby kale instead of the spinach as that is what I had on hand (Yes, I had gnocchi twice in two nights to try different sauces – I still had baby kale from the first variation above).

Monday 21 April 2014

Tomatoes in "Greenhouse" Garden (and General Tomato/Pepper Update)

Since the greenhouse will be torn down and replaced in the coming months, I know that I will have to take apart the raised garden that I built last year.  So as not to waste the dirt, I've moved it into pots and now have the first batch of tomatoes planted "outside".  Technically they are inside the greenhouse but most of the greenhouse area is now exposed to the elements after the collapse.

This first batch of tomatoes is about a foot tall and already flowering; these include both Black Krim and Red Brandywine that I germinated from seeds I saved last year.

The next batch of tomatoes (Black Krim, Brandywine as well as San Marzano) are well on their way and mostly in the natural light of the solarium.

The tomatillos were planted too early and are far too tall for the space I have:

The earliest batch of red peppers could probably be moved into pots in the greenhouse soon:

And the remaining peppers (2 types of jalapenos, ancho and several other sweet red varieties) are in natural light for the ones planted earlier and some are still under the fluorescent lighting:

Saturday 19 April 2014

Happy National Garlic Day

Happy National Garlic Day to the UK and I think the US (and everyone else celebrating!). Here are some of my favourite ways to enjoy garlic this Easter weekend (click on the title for the recipe):

Garlic Scape Hummus

Pickled Garlic

Garlic Scape Pesto

Classic Caesar Salad Dressing

Garlic and Rosemary Roasted Leg of Lamb