Lazy Summer

I’ve been known to be lazy in the summer. And a byproduct of this malaise is that I cook less…a lot less.  I can’t bring myself to prepare anything more than a salad or a frozen veggie burger on a day that’s hotter than 25 degrees.  Mostly this is because I want to be outside, enjoying the sun and doing fun things.  It may be as simple as having a glass of wine (or two) on my patio with a book, meeting a friend for a walk, or going for a bike ride, but the end result is always the same on these long summer days.  Food is not cooked.

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I go through phases based on the seasons, and in the summer, as soon as the days get longer and the air gets warmer, the social butterfly in me comes out.  Beach after work? Beer on a patio? Dinner with friends? I just can’t say no in the summer.  It’s like I stop thinking about how much sleep I want, or how much money I’m spending, or the fact that if I go out I will inevitably have to buy lunch the next day.  I just say yes!  A friend of mine told me about her ‘summer of yes’  a few years ago and I quite like the idea of having a couple of months a year where you just do what feels right!

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But, lately, as the summer days are starting to get shorter (it’s dark now at 9pm, le sigh) and the air is a little cooler I’ve been incredibly inspired in the kitchen.  It’s like I’m a lost little puppy who found its way home! In the past couple of weeks I’ve been cooking, and baking (which is rare for me) up a storm.  My fridge is always full and I haven’t had an excuse to go for lunch in a while.  My husband is in heaven!

Now don’t worry, I’m not going to use the f word just yet, because we still have 4 more weeks of summer to go, but I will say that the days of just salad satisfying me for dinner have officially passed.  So in case you’re wondering, here’s what’s been going on in my kitchen.

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I made a split pea soup for my husband to have as an afternoon snack at work (yeah maybe it’s weird, but he likes it).  Just a little something simple I threw together the other day.  2 cups of dried split peas, 4 cups of veggie stock, diced carrot and onion (which I sauteed a bit), a couple pinches of herbs de Provence and I let it simmer for about an hour before I pureed it with my immersion blender.  Easy peasy (literally)!

I also made an awesome grilled vegetable ratatouille the other night.  I grilled up zucchini, these funny looking round light green squash (not sure what they are called), a couple peppers, eggplant and tomatoes and once everything was cooked to my liking, I sliced it up and threw in some crushed garlic, olive oil, red wine vinegar, herbs de Provence (yes, this is a theme), and seasoned it with some salt and pepper.  It was even better cold the next day!

Since I clearly have France on my mind, I also made my own version of a French potato salad.  I used mixed white and red nugget potatoes, thinly sliced fennel and green beans. My vinaigrette was simple too, grainy dijon, champagne vinegar (vive la France!), and olive oil of course.  That with a glass of rose and a Peter Mayle book and you might as well be spending a year in Provence!

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I’ve also rekindled my love for Deb Perleman’s blog (Smitten Kitchen).  I’ve made her barley, corn and haricot vert salad, as well as her chickpea and roasted pepper salad. Both were hits with friends at BBQ’s.  And as we speak, I’m waiting for her herbed potato and summer squash torte to come out of my oven.  I had fun making it so even if it’s terrible it’s not a loss!  Getting a little more comfortable with my mandoline over here…no big deal!  Let’s hope I still have all my fingers at Christmas though!

And on to the piece de resistance. The baking. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s usually pretty good…and not too sweet.  I hate overly sweet, sugary things.  I see kids at sporting events with cotton candy stuck all over their hands and faces and I have to look away, like I’ve seen a snake or something.

Every August with zucchini is in abundance I make this chocolate olive oil zucchini bread. Who are we kidding, it’s a cake, but it’s a healthy cake!.  Simply amazing!  I also adapted a recipe from my new Turkish cookbook for a fig and walnut cake.  Here’s my version:

  • 8-10 fresh figs, quartered
  • 2 T semolina or corn meal
  • 1 1/2 C sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 T orange juice, or zest of an orange
  • 1/2 C olive oil
  • 1/2 C buttermilk
  • 1 cup yogurt (I used goats yogurt as it’s more Turkish)
  • 2 C flour
  • 1 T vanilla
  • 1 T baking powder
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 1/4 t salt
  • 1 cup walnuts chopped

Preheat the oven to 350. Butter and flour an 11″ spring form pan and set it aside. Mix the figs together with the semolina and 2 T sugar in a small bowl. Beat the remaining sugar with the eggs until smooth.  Add orange juice, olive oil, buttermilk, vanilla and yogurt.  Mix until smooth and then add the walnuts, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt and stir until incorporated.

Spoon half the batter into the pan, then sprinkle the figs on top.  Top with the rest of the batter and bake for 40-45 min. depending on your oven.

So there you have it, I’m back in the saddle after some summer shenanigans. I’m feeling inspired and happy back in my kitchen where I belong.  Soon enough there will be posts about football and stew and red wine, but for now, I’m enjoying this beautiful lazy summer here in Vancouver!

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Christmas Treats: Tarts & Sticky Toffee Pudding

I’m not that into baking, it requires too much precision and the results are usually not in the healthy category.  But we all need to live a little, or a lot, as most of us tend to do in December.  So I decided to share two holiday treat recipes that have recently won over crowds.  The first is an oldie from my mom, for cherry cheesecake tarts; something I remember her making every year at Christmas for as long as I can remember (she was making them this morning when I called!). Hers are still better than mine, even though we follow the same recipe.

And the second is a new recipe I acquired a couple years ago at The Dirty Apron Cooking School here in Vancouver.  I’ve adapted their recipe to make it my own, for individual sticky toffee puddings with Bailey’s caramel sauce.

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Mini Cherry Cheesecake Tarts (makes approx 24)

  • 2 packages Philadelphia cream cheese (at room temperature)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1T vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1T fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 can cherry pie filling
  • 24 Nilla wafers

Preheat your oven to 375.  Line 2 muffin trays with paper cups and place one Nilla wafer in the bottom of each (this will be your crust).  Mix the cream cheese, sugar, eggs, vanilla and lemon juice until smooth and slightly fluffy.  Fill the muffin cups 3/4 full and bake for 15-20 min. until slightly puffed on top.  Let the tarts cool and spoon the cherry pie filling over top. If you’re feeling ambitious go ahead and make your own topping.  I’ve done these with fresh raspberry coulis in the summer and they are always amazing. But Christmas is about tradition, and this is the way my mom does it.

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Sticky Toffee Pudding with Bailey’s Caramel Sauce (makes 12 cakes)

For the cakes:

  • 1 cup plus 2 extra T flour
  • 1/4 c sugar
  • 1/2 T baking soda
  • 1/2 T baking powder
  • 3 T butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 tsp instant coffee
  • 1 cup chopped pitted dates
  • t tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp cinnamon (more if you want)
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg (again, go nuts if you like nutmeg)

For the caramel sauce:

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup whipping cream
  • 3 tbsp Bailey’s or other Irish cream (or Kahlua, frangellico etc.)

Butter a muffin tray and set it aside. Preheat the oven to 325.  You will also need a large roasting pan or something to make a water bath in.  Have your tea kettle ready with boiling water when it’s time to put these in the oven.  You can make the batter ahead of time, and then pop them into the oven right after dinner is done.  These need to be served warm.

Mix the dates with the baking soda and instant coffee and pour 1/2 a cup of boiling water over top.  Set it aside.  Mix the flour and baking powder in the small bowl.  In another bowl, mix the butter, eggs, sugar, and vanilla.  Add the dry ingredients slowly to the wet, and add the spices.  Then stir in the dates.  Spoon into the muffin cups to fill about 3/4 full.  Place the muffin tin into the water bath and bake for 20-25 min, or until a cake tester comes out mostly clean.  Be careful not to over cook these!

While the cakes bake, make the caramel sauce.  Melt the butter and brown sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a bubbling boil, stir at medium heat for 2-3 min.  Add in the cream and Bailey’s and leave at a low simmer for another couple of minutes.  I don’t like my sauce too thick so I added a little extra Bailey’s.  Spoon the sauce over the cakes and serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

You can’t go wrong with either of these, but the tarts will travel better if you’re not entertaining at home and they are seriously the easiest thing to make, but have major wow factor.

From my kitchen to yours Happy holidays everyone, and may the new year be filled with wonderful culinary delights and new experiences!

Italy Inspired Chocolate Zucchini Bread

I’m going a little bit crazy at the moment with excitement for my upcoming trip to Italy.  I’m trying not to burn myself out on Italian food in advance because I want to experience the real deal when I’m on the ground.  So with pasta, polenta and pizza on the shelf I thought I should do some baking.

Zucchini bread was the first thing that came to mind as I have fond memories of making it with my mom around this time of year.  So when my friend posted a photo of some chocolate zucchini muffins she’d made on her blog the other day I knew it had to happen. Her recipe was inspired by one from Seven Spoons for Chocolate Olive Oil Zucchini Bread.  Since I’m on my whole Italy kick, this sounded perfect.

I’ve only baked with olive oil one other time, using a recipe for pound cake from the Dirty Apron Cooking School here in Vancouver and it was really good.  I naturally crave more savoury, earthy flavours so it’s a great butter replacement if you’re inclined to try it.  It’s also arguably a healthier fat.

So I pretty much followed the Seven Spoons recipe, except I used a little bit less chocolate (because I ran out), a little less sugar because I don’t like overly sweet things, and I omitted the walnuts because they make my tongue itchy.  I briefly considered adding raisins, but got vetoed by my husband.  I did as the recipe suggests and grated the zucchini in my food processor and then laid it out between two tea towels to squeeze out some excess moisture.  I now have two bright green tea towels, but it’s all part of the process!

I just peeked in the oven to rotate my loaves and it smells truly amazing.  I’m not even going to wait to post this until I’ve tried it because I know it will be a winner.  I also probably won’t be able to wait until it’s cool to eat the first piece.  Patience is a virtue I just don’t seem to have.