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Archive for October, 2010

Greek Yogurt: Our New Secret Weapon

Z eats yogurtI remember reading in a women’s magazine several years ago that plain yogurt was a good alternative to sour cream, but when I tried it, I found the yogurt was too runny to be used the way that one would use sour cream. I just wrote it off as one of those substitutions that fails to live up to its promises–the sort of thing that makes people give up on diets.

But recently, when we got into clean eating and started reading Clean Eating Magazine, I realized my mistake. There is a yogurt out there that is as thick as sour cream with all the tangy flavour, but has a fraction of the fat: Greek yogurt. It’s not super easy to find, which might explain why I didn’t know it existed when I was younger. But as people are increasingly interested in eating healthier, more and more stores are carrying it.

Since we started using it as a substitute for sour cream we’ve also discovered a myriad of other uses for it, and all of them make for healthier dishes and healthier families. Obviously, it’s yogurt, so you can just eat it straight up with your breakfast. The vanilla or honey flavoured varieties make tasty desserts (especially if you add some fresh berries or melon) and make great substitutes for whipping cream on waffles, pancakes, pies, etc. But plain is the most versatile. We use it wherever we would normally use sour cream or mayo. Plain Greek yogurt goes great with Mexican-style dishes in lieu of sour cream and makes excellent chicken, tuna or egg salad sandwiches. Use it as the base for a dip at your next party and serve with chips or fresh veggies–we promise that no one will notice the difference. And because it’s thick and rich, Greek yogurt is a better choice than regular yogurt when you’re using it as a substitute to reduce fat in your baking. There is only one place where it doesn’t work as well as regular yogurt: salad dressing. If you want a creamy, yogurt-based dressing, it’s best to go with the runnier version.

Try it; you will be pleasantly surprised by how little you miss your old sour cream and mayo.

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The Joys of New Appliances

New stove

Putting the roast into oven #1.

When we first moved into our condo, I loved everything about it except the crappy dishwasher. It was a builder’s quality Frigidaire, so it wasn’t exactly a high-end model that was built to last, and it had been abused by the previous owners. They owned square bowls that didn’t fit between the tines of the racks, so instead of opting to handwash them, they had just crammed them in–bending all the tines and cracking the vinyl covering in the process. Thanks to the bent tines, our dishes had a tendency to fall over onto each other and not come entirely clean. Thanks to the cracks in the finish, we got rust stains on our dishes. On top of that, the dishwasher was stained on the interior and had a funky smell. So from day one, I dreamed of replacing it with something shiny and new.

Then I started to hate the stove. The previous owners obviously didn’t bake because a few months in we were halfway through cooking a nice dinner when we realized we only had one oven rack, and therefore, not enough space for the two dishes we planned to bake. Suddenly it donned on us that the grate they had used to protect their fish pond from the neighbourhood cats–the one rusted from the rain and no longer food safe–was actually the second oven rack. The electric coils on the stove top didn’t lay flat either, so we always had oil, sauce, etc. pooling on one side of our pans and trouble with hot spots whenever we cooked. When the track for the pot drawer broke, that was the nail in the coffin of our cheap builder’s appliances.

We figured if we were going to replace two of the three appliances we might as well replace the fridge too. It wasn’t exactly the most energy efficient thing going, and I coveted a bottom drawer freezer.

New oven

The yams can bake in oven #2.

So off we went to Colony, the best kept secret on the North Shore if you are looking for appliances. They are family-run and not on commission, so their staff is helpful, knowledgeable and low-pressure. Thanks to their help, we really felt like we knew the differences between each brand and model, which helped us confidently select the appliances that were right for us. A couple of good deals made the decision even easier: our GE Profile range was on sale, and we got a discount on our Kitchen Aid fridge and dishwasher because we bought more than one Kitchen Aid appliance. Add the BC Hydro rebates for buying energy-efficient models, and we really managed to save.

Now life in our kitchen is sweeter than before. Our dishes come clean in our dishwasher! The stainless steel interior means no more yucky stains or icky smells, and it is so quiet when it’s running that we hardly notice it at all.

The deep drawer of our new freezer is great. There is a lot more room than before–perfect for stocking up on extra portions of baby food. We did sacrifice a little fridge space for that freezer drawer, but we are learning to work with the new layout. For one thing, a fuller fridge is more energy efficient because all the food helps keep things cooler. And we’re better about using things before they go bad–there’s no more room for leftovers that sit in Tupperware for so long that you can’t remember what’s in them anymore.

But by far the best part of having new appliances is our new range. We have a ceramic cook top,so the entire cooking surface is flat. No more pooling oil and no more hot spots! It requires some special cleaning, but it’s worth it. There is a bridge element that allows us to turn two elements into one for use with a griddle or when making gravy in the roasting pan. We have a warming zone to keep melted butter or sauce at the right temperature. There is also a “Tri-Ring” element that allows us to adjust the size of the  element to the size of the pot for more efficient heating. But my absolute favourite part is the two ovens (one with a built in meat thermometer); we can bake or roast dishes at two different temperatures. Perfect for a big family dinner, but also handy on weeknights when we don’t have time to bake things separately. I’m not totally sold on convection baking, but we do have that option as well with the larger of the two ovens.

These new appliances have helped me to love our home again. Before we made the investment, I couldn’t wait for the time where we would sell our place and move on to greener pastures, but now I think it will be much harder to leave when that time comes. Updated, more efficient and functional appliances are definitely worth the investment.

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The Best of Chef At Home: Cookbook Review

CookbookWe get our recipes from a variety of sources: friends, family, our favourite websites, magazines and cookbooks. In fact, we have an entire shelf full of cookbooks, but for the most part we will keep a cookbook around because it has one or two good recipes in it. Half of the time we buy a cookbook to look at the pretty pictures, salivate and then never get around to trying half of the recipes. That’s not the case with Chef Michael Smith’s The Best of Chef at Home.

I love Michael Smith. He’s the host of two of my favourite Food Network shows. He’s got a great, laid back cooking philosophy and a TV pantry to die for. On top of all that he’s a super tall, curly-haired, charming, Canadian cutie…okay, I’d better stop before Justin gets jealous. But even if he was an ugly, wart-faced troll, he’d still be my favourite chef because his recipes are so consistently good.

We have made and reviewed multiple recipes from this book if you want to try out a few before adding it to your own library:

Blue Cheese-Crusted Filet Mignon

Apple Roast Chicken

Orange Mustard Grilled Pork Tenderloin

Pan-Roasted Pork Chops with Rosemary Applesauce

Brown Rice and Lentils

Sweet Potato Chickpea Curry

And these are just the ones that we have photographed and put on our blog. We have made more recipes from The Best of Chef at Home than from most of our other cookbooks combined, and we haven’t made a single one that we wouldn’t make again. In fact, most of them are newfound favourites that we have made several times since receiving the book as a gift. The recipes are easy to follow, so this is a perfect choice for cooking novices, but the high calibre of the recipes also makes this book a great choice for more seasoned home chefs. For those looking to get a little more adventurous in the kitchen, but not quite ready to become an Iron Chef, there are handy “Freestyle variation” tips. But for those who are already freestyling with abandon, Michael Smith encourages you to see his recipes as a mere guide or a launching pad for your own creative additions, ideas and culinary adventures. With this book on your shelf, those adventures are sure to be delicious.

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Apple Roast Chicken with Maple-Glazed Yams and Green Beans

Roast chickenTHE VERDICT:

This was the first meal we prepared that utilized some of the cool features of our new range, namely the two ovens and the built in meat thermometer. The apples and yams make this a great seasonal meal that will usher in the fall with all of its best flavours.

The combination of apples and cider in the roasting pan make for a moist, flavour-rich chicken that is hard to top. Once again the Best of Chef at Home has delivered a recipe that didn’t disappoint. While many people are intimidated by the idea of roasting a whole chicken, the instructions in this recipe are easy to follow and you will soon find that the task is much easier than you expected. The leftover carcass would be perfect for making your own Chicken Noodle Soup or you could make the simple chicken stock suggested by Michael Smith in the recipe below.

Chicken dinnerThe yams were a simple, but delightful side dish. The subtle sweetness of the yams combined perfectly with the maple syrup glaze. Along with the simple and savoury steamed green beans, this sweeter side dish was a fantastic accompaniment for the sweet-tart apple chicken.

This combination of recipes makes for a nice family meal on a Sunday evening. It is easy to throw together, but does take a while to cook. The good news is that once it’s in the oven, all you have to do is set the time and forget about it. The yams and apples are soft enough for even young children to enjoy and the chicken is moist and easy to chew if cut into small pieces. Everyone can enjoy it with ease.

If you want to try it yourself. . .

THE RECIPES:

Apple Roast Chicken (source: The Best of Chef at Home by Chef Michael Smith)

4 local apples, quartered and cored

2 onions, peeled and cut into large chunks

1 whole head of garlic cloves, peeled

1 or 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary

a sprinkle or two of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup of apple cider

one 4lb. roasting chicken

2 green onions, thinly sliced

  • Preheat your oven to 350°F.
  • Toss the apples, onions, garlic and rosemary together in a roasting pan large enough to hold the chicken.
  • Season chicken well with salt and pepper and rest it on top of the apple mixture. Pour in the cider. Roast chicken until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of one of the thighs reads 180°F, about 20 minutes per pound.
  • As soon as the chicken is cool enough to handle, and without removing it from the pan, slice and pull the meat from the carcass and toss with the apple pan stew. Remove the carcass. Sprinkle with sliced green onion and serve directly out of pan.
  • Freestyle variation: Any choice of apple will work well. For an upscale presentation, you may also slice the chicken and arrange it on a serving platter with the apple pan sauce served on the side. For an easy chicken broth, the chicken carcass can be tossed in a small stock pot with an onion, celery, carrot and bay leaf, covered with water and simmered for 1-2 hours.

Makes 4-6 servings.


Maple-Glazed Yams (source: Epicurious; original recipe)

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Orange Mustard Grilled Pork Tenderloin with steamed veggies

Pork TenderloinTHE VERDICT:

We have now made this dish twice: once on the barbecue and once in the oven. Both times it turned out quite well. It is a simple yet elegant dish that pairs well with most side dishes. Definitely an excellent choice if you are having company over for dinner. Even when we purchase only one pork tenderloin, there are always plenty of leftovers, so the 4 servings this dish supposedly makes must be for one carnivorous group of diners.

If you follow Michael Smith’s instructions, you will end up with a tenderloin that is still pink in the middle. If serving the pork to young children, we recommend cooking it longer so that it is cooked all the way through. Cut into small pieces, this pork was a much enjoyed finger food for Zayden.

If you want to try it yourself. . .

THE RECIPE:

Orange Mustard Grilled Pork Tenderloin (source: The Best of Chef at Home by Chef Michael Smith)

2 pork tenderloins

1/2 cup frozen orange juice concentrate

1/2 cup grainy mustard

a sprinkle or two of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • Whisk the orange juice concentrate and mustard together. Season the pork tenderloins with salt and pepper, pour the marinade over them and marinate for a  few hours, or even overnight.
  • Preheat your barbecue to its highest setting.
  • Grill the tenderloins for 10 minutes or so on each side, until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part reads 155°F (68°C). Let rest for 5 or 10 minutes before slicing.
  • Freestyle variation: You can add some personalized flavour to the marinade with the spice of your choice. Ground cumin, coriander, ginger, chili powder and curry powder are all excellent choices. Instead of grilling, feel free to roast this pork loin in a 400°F oven for 20 minutes.

Makes 4 servings.


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Sweet Potato Chickpea Curry

CurryTHE VERDICT:

Not the most authentic curry out there, but a warm and tasty meal nonetheless. It was fairly easy to throw together and the only time-consuming part was waiting the 30 minutes for the potatoes to cook. On a weeknight, you could easily leave this to simmer on the stove while you take care of other chores–a plus for any busy household.

There is lots of potential for easy experimentation here as well. Michael Smith suggests trying other nut butters, using squash instead of sweet potato or varying the spice with different curry pastes, but I think mixing up the citrus juice (lime or lemon instead of orange) would really brighten up the flavours of this dish. I think experimenting with different kinds of veggie combinations could also lead to some tasty results.

The use of peanut butter (or in our case, imitation peanut butter) really thickens up the sauce in this dish. If you prefer a saucier curry, you may want to skip the nut butter altogether.

If you shred the spinach into small pieces and make sure they are soft and wilted before removing the pan from the heat, this dish can be served as is to a child who is experienced with eating solid food (about 9 months and older).

If you want to try it yourself. . .

THE RECIPE:

Sweet Potato Chickpea Curry (source: The Best of Chef at Home by Chef Michael Smith)

a splash of vegetable oil

1 large onion, diced

3 or 4 cloves of garlic, chopped

a small knob of frozen ginger

1 tsp. of Thai curry paste

2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed

one 19 oz. can of chickpeas

one 14 oz. can of coconut milk

1 cup of orange juice

1/2 cup of peanut butter or any other nut butter (we used imitation peanut butter and it worked out fine)

a sprinkle or two of sea salt

1 cup or so of frozen peas

several handfuls of spinach

a bunch of chopped cilantro (if you like that sort of thing)

  • Add a splash of two of vegetable oil to a stockpot over medium-high heat. Toss in the onion and garlic and saute them until they’re lightly browned, about 5 minutes or so.
  • Grate the frozen ginger into the pan with a Microplane grater or standard box grater and add the Thai curry paste. Continue cooking until the spices are heated through and fragrant, another few minutes.
  • Add the sweet potatoes, chickpeas, coconut milk, orange juice, peanut butter and salt. Bring to a simmer, lower the heat and continue simmering until the sweet potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in the peas and spinach and cilantro.
  • Serve over rice.
  • Freestyle variation: There are three basic types of Thai curry paste, each with its own distinctive flavour. You may choose one based on your tolerance for spicy heat: yellow is the mildest, red is a bit spicier and green is the spiciest. This dish cooks very well in your slow cooker. You may use any type of hard winter squash instead of sweet potatoes; butternut and acorn work well.

Makes 6-8 servings.


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Barley & Vegetable Soup with Cheddar & Herb Biscuits

Soup & biscuitTHE VERDICT:
So last night you made yourself a delicious ham, green beans and scalloped potatoes dinner and now you’re stuck with a bunch of leftover ham. What are you gonna do? Make this soup!

I love it when you can turn last night’s leftovers into a truly tasty meal, and this hearty soup definitely tastes great. It’s easy to make as long as you have the time to pre-soak and boil the barley. The potatoes from the previous evening’s dinner take a while to cook, so I sped up the process further by pre-dicing all the veggies while I waited for them to come out of the oven, which left me with very little prep the next day.

The biscuits are easy to make as well and make an excellent side dish for most soups. They’re also a nice dish to bring to a potluck–who doesn’t like warm biscuits, after all? Save yourself a little time by patting the dough into a large circle and cutting it into wedges rather that rolling it out and cutting out shapes with a cookie cutter.

Thickened with a little rice cereal, the soup got a rave review from our little man. He also enjoyed a few small pieces of biscuit torn off of the ones we were eating.

Leftovers of this soup reheat and/or freeze well.

If you want to try it yourself…

THE RECIPES:

Barley and Vegetable Soup (source: The Ultimate Italian Cookbook by Carla Capalbo)

1 cup pearl barley

9 cups meat broth

3 Tbsp. olive oil

2 large carrots, finely chopped

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 sticks celery, finely chopped

1 leek, thinly sliced

1 large potato, finely chopped

1/2 cup diced ham

1 bay leaf

3 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

1 small sprig fresh rosemary

salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • Pick over the barley, and discard any stones or other particles. Wash it in cold water. Put the barley to soak in cold water for at least 3 hours.
  • Drain the barley and place in a large saucepan with the broth. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 1 hour. Skim off any scum.
  • Stir in the oil, all the vegetables and the ham. Add the herbs. If necessary add more water. The ingredients should be covered by at least 1 inch of liquid. Simmer for 1-1 1/2 hours or until the vegetables and barley are very tender.
  • Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as necessary. Serve hot with grated parmesan if desired.

Makes 6-8 servings.

Cheddar and Herb Biscuits (source: some women’s magazine a long time ago)

2 cups flour (white or whole wheat both work)

1 cup shredded cheddar

2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley (experiment with other herbs if you are so inclined)

1 Tbsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. black pepper

1/4 cup butter or margarine

3/4 cup milk

  • Preheat oven to 400°F.
  • In bowl: combine flour, cheese, parsley, baking powder, salt and pepper.
  • With pastry blender, or two knives, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
  • Stir in milk. Quickly mix until mixture forms a soft dough.
  • Transfer dough to lightly floured surface. Knead slightly to combine thoroughly.
  • Roll out or pat dough until 1/2″ thick.
  • Cut out biscuits with floured cutter.
  • Re-roll scraps if necessary.
  • Place biscuits on ungreased cookie sheet 1″ apart.
  • Bake 12-15 minutes until golden brown.

Work time: 10 minutes   Bake time: 15 minutes   Ready to serve: 25 minutes

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Ham, Green Beans and Cleaner Scalloped Potatoes

Ham DinnerTHE VERDICT:

We don’t really have a recipe for the ham or the green beans to pass along. We just steamed the green beans until tender and cooked the ham in the oven until it was heated through. The real recipe involved was for the potatoes.

I saw a recipe for a “cleaner” version of scalloped potatoes (a favourite of mine) and was curious to find out if they would actually taste any good. I must say I was quite impressed. Clean Eating magazine is now two for two in our books when it comes to creating healthier versions of classic, but fatty fare. We had similar success when we tried their version of Buffalo wings. Even without a ton of cheese and cream, these potatoes were packed with all the flavour you’d expect from scalloped potatoes and made an excellent addition to our Sunday dinner.

I only made one change when following the recipe. I opted to use red-skinned potatoes and chose not to peel them to add some extra vitamins and a little colour to the dish. The good scrubbing it took to get all the dirt off the potatoes was a lot less time consuming than peeling them would have been, so the decision also reduced the amount of prep time I had to put in.

For Z, we simply cut everything up into bite-sized pieces and he was able to feed this meal to himself (except for the potatoes, which he was spoonfed as the sauce made them too messy for finger feeding), something he heartily enjoyed doing.

If you want to try it yourself…

THE RECIPE:

Cleaner Scalloped Potatoes (source: Clean Eating magazine)

Olive oil cooking spray

2 tsp. olive oil

1 medium onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced (dice the onion if planning to serve this dish to young kids)

1/2 tsp. sea salt, divided

Fresh ground black pepper, to taste

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3/4 tsp. dried thyme

1 1/2 Tbsp. whole wheat flour

2 cups low fat milk

3 oz. low fat Monterey Jack or white cheddar cheese, grated

2 1/2 lbs. Russet potatoes, peeled and sliced as thin as possibly (1/8″ or less)

2 oz. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

2 Tbsp. whole wheat panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs)

  • Preheat oven to 350F. Coat a 2 quart baking dish with cooking spray.
  • Heal oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, 1/4 tsp. salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Reduce heat to low and add garlic, thyme and flour. Cook, stirring constantly, for 1-2 minutes or until onions are coated with flour. Add milk and increase heat to medium-high. When liquid begins to simmer, reduce heat to low and cook until mixture thickens slightly, about 4 minutes. Add three-quarters of Monterey Jack and remaining salt, and stir until melted, about 1 minute. Remove from heat.
  • Arrange half of potatoes in an even layer in prepared baking dish. Cover with half of onion mixture. Repeat with remaining potatoes and remaining onion mixture.
  • In a small bowl, combine remaining Monterey Jack, Parmigiano-Reggiano and panko; cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
  • Bake potatoes in centre of oven for 70-85 minutes or until potatoes in center of dish feel tender when pierced with a fork. When finished baking, remove potatoes from oven and sprinkle evenly with cheese-panko mixture. Preheat broiler to high and return baking dish to oven and broil until cheese is melted, about 2 minutes. Let cool for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Makes 8 servings.

Hands on time: 45 minutes. Total time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Nutrients per serving (1 cup): 201 calories, 4 g fat, 33 g carbs, 9 g protein, 248 mg sodium, 9 mg cholesterol

Nutritional Bonus: This version has 285 fewer calories than traditional scalloped potatoes.

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Cheddar Chowder

Cheddar ChowderTHE VERDICT:

This is my all-time favourite soup recipe. On a cool fall evening there is nothing better than a big warm bowl of cheesy soupy goodness. The leftovers are  so amazing that I don’t mind eating the same thing two days in a row. In fact, I love this soup so much that I sometimes double the recipe and eat it for three or four days in a row.

I recommend that you use aged cheddar so that you get a full cheddar flavour from just 2 1/2 cups of cheese. Using medium or mild cheddar is okay if that’s what you have on hand, but cheese lovers will probably find themselves add extra cheese (and extra fat and calories) in order to really taste the cheddar. Though the recipe doesn’t call for it, I like to add some fresh ground black pepper and the occasional drop of worcestershire sauce.

There are two options if you want to feed this to a wee one: 1) puree it–it makes an excellent pureed soup, which is appropriate for a  baby just getting comfortable with solids. 2) cut the potatoes and other veg into smaller pieces so that everyone eats the same thing, which is more appropriate for an older child.

If you want to try it yourself…

THE RECIPES:

Cheddar Chowder (source: I’ve been using this one for so long I no longer remember where it came from)

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1/2 cup celery (though I usually like to add a bit extra)

1 1/2 cups chicken broth (low sodium if you can find it)

1 tsp. thyme

2 cups cubed potatoes

3 Tbsp. flour

2 cups milk

1 can corn, drained

1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper (more if you like a little kick in your soup)

2 1/2 cups shredded cheddar (aged cheddar works best)

  • In a large sauce pan, heat oil over medium heat. Saute onion and celery for 2-3 minutes.
  • Add chicken broth and thyme; bring to a boil. Add potatoes. Cover and simmer 10 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
  • Dissolve flour in milk. Stir into sauce pan with corn and cayenne.
  • Cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened and bubbly.
  • Remove from heat. Gradually stir in cheese until melted and smooth.

Makes 6 (1 cup) servings.

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