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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Perfect Summer Cocktails

It’s that time of year on the West Coast, when the sun has been shining for so long that you forget what the rain feels like.  You can almost hear yourself begging for a bit of rain, to rinse off the city, and water the parched trees.  But you enjoy this time, because we West Coasters know that it will come to an end, soon.  And the with the beautiful summer sunshine, you need a worthy cocktail companion to keep you company on the patio.  Here are a few of my favourites!

Pimm’s No. 1 Cup Cocktail

Think Wimbledon and posh Brits. This cocktail is gin based, but tastes distinctly of citrus and spice.  Mix 2 parts Pimm’s, 3 parts ginger ale or citrus soda (sprite etc.), garnish with any mix of strawberries, lemon, lime, orange and definitely don’t forget the cucumber.  Stir and enjoy; it’s always Pimm’s O’Clock!

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Watermelon Margarita

Cactus Club had these on special last summer and I fell in love (who wouldn’t fall for a drink only costing $4.50 at Cactus!).  I recently discovered the secret and the result is a sweet and refreshing twist on the traditional lime marg.  Blend up some seedless watermelon and strain it to remove the small white seeds and pulp.  You will be left with watermelon juice…careful this stuff is sticky!  Mix the juice with 1-2 oz. of tequila (blanco will be your best bet) a teaspoon of simple syrup and garnish with a lime wedge.  It’s so good, you’ll forget all about the fact that you haven’t drank tequila since your university days.

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The Aperol Spritz

This has to be my all-time hot day favourite; discovered on my trip to Italy last summer. Italians drink these for aperitivo, or happy hour, usually with some light snacks, in the afternoon or before dinner.   Aperol is like Campari, but less bitter and with a lower alcohol content.  I find it difficult to order these in North America, but some bars are starting to stock Aperol.  To make yours at home, mix 2 parts Aperol with 3 parts prosecco (or other sparkling wine), a splash of soda water and garnish with an orange wedge.

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Hendricks Gin Cuke Cocktail

I’m sure this has a proper name and has been enjoyed the world over, but I like to think it’s my own creation.  I rediscovered my love for gin this past winter and went on a bit of a Bombay martini kick.  And then I wised up and switched to Hendricks, which I’ve been informed is ‘girlie’ gin. It has a hint of cucumber and rose petal and I find it mixes better with soda than tonic.  But gin and soda is boring, so I add some muddled mint, cucumber slices, and a twist of lemon.  I like to think this is what Lady Mary of Downtown Abbey sits around sipping all afternoon.

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So there you have it, four of my favourite summer sippers.  Perfect for the patio, probably pretty good on a boat, and definitely worthy of the beach with a little pre-mixing at home.

Bornholm, A Cyclist’s Paradise

So far this year I’ve done two things that have made me really happy.  First, I bought a bike, and second, I went to Denmark.  On the surface you may think these things have nothing in common, but you would be incorrect in that assumption.  I’ve traveled around most of Europe, and nowhere (even in Holland) have I seen more bikes than in Denmark. In Copenhagen I’d venture to guess they outnumber cars 3 or even 4 to 1.  Everyone rides a bike; old people, young people, fat people, fit people…everyone.  It’s pretty amazing to see the double decker bike racks, completely full at the subway stations.

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The Danes have it good when it comes to cycling.  Their climate is mild, it’s often sunny, it’s super flat, and they have dedicated bike lanes everywhere (even in small suburbs).  The cycling infrastructure is so amazing that you wouldn’t even think about needing to wear a helmet, because it’s so safe.

Copenhagen is a great city and everyone should experience the thrill of cycling past palaces, parks, hippie communes, and lakes.  But I discovered another place in Denmark that is paradise to cyclers.  The wee little island of Bornholm.  Although owned by Denmark, it sits in the Baltic Sea in between the southern coast of Sweden and northern Poland and it’s truly the Garden of Eden for anyone who loves their bike!

You actually do have to go through Sweden to get there, but the transit connections (train or bus) from Copenhagen are very straightforward.  You travel to Ystad, Sweden (which takes about 2 hours) and then you board a catamaran type ferry that whisks you to the island in just under an hour.  Note that although food is crappy and overpriced on the ferry, they do sell cheap alcohol because it’s an ‘international’ route.

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The ferry docks in Rønne, which is the largest town on Bornholm.  I suggest booking accommodation here, as there are more restaurants, a supermarket, pubs, shops etc. There are also places to rent bikes if your hotel doesn’t, which is key to enjoying your holiday time on the island.  We stayed at the Hotel Ryttergården and found it to be good value at around $150.00 CAD per night with a decent breakfast buffet included.  It took us about 30 minutes to walk there from the ferry terminal, or you could take one of the convenient, but expensive, public busses, or a taxi.

Once you settle into your digs, grab the nearest bicycle and make your way down to the beach with a bottle of wine.  The sand is wonderfully soft and white and you can bask in the sun (Bornholm is widely known as the sunniest place in Denmark) and take it all in.  But don’t get too comfy, or tipsy, because there is so much to see right at your fingertips on this lovely little island.

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Our first evening, we cycled back into Rønne for dinner and ended up at Cafe Gustav. They serve traditional Scandinavian fare at reasonable prices.  Think of it as the Ikea cafeteria, with really good food.  After dinner we were back on the bikes, and did a lap around town; down cobblestone lanes with colourful half timbered houses, past old churches, and along the water.  We didn’t get to see the sun set, because that doesn’t happen until 11pm in June.

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IMG_3752The next day we hit it early, our destination, Hammershus, Northern Europe’s largest medieval fortress built in the 13th century, a mere 25km north near the town of Alinge.  I’d never gone for a 50 km round trip ride on my hybrid bike, let alone on a comfy high riding city bike, but I figured since we didn’t have anything else to do, the reward would be worth it.

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Cycling on Bornholm is very well organized, with over 200km of trails.  Look for the green cykelvej signs to point you in the right direction.  It’s nice because they tell you how far you are from various places.  Stop at the Netto (supermarket) on your way out of town and get provisions for a picnic, and don’t forget to stop at one of the bakeries in the square to get your Danish for the day!

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Once we were all loaded up, we headed north toward the town of Hasle, stopping along the way at a deserted little beach to enjoy a snack.  In Hasle you go past a bunch of old white buildings that are still used to smoke fish.  The smoky fish smell combined with the salty sea air and lilac flowers is enough to make you feel like this is as good at it gets. Continue on through town and eventually you’ll find that the cykelvej takes you down a steep hill, and along the seashore.  This part, between Hasle and Vang, will be the most amazing and breathtaking 4km bike ride of your life.  We found a little dock with two purple deck chairs on it, just begging us to sit down and spend the rest of our lives there.

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But eventually you get to the end of the ‘fun’ part of the ride, and then the pain comes. You have to haul your bike up a set of about 50 wide steps to the top of the hill to get into Vang. Even my husband wasn’t able to ride up.  Then at the top, the path continues on, and winds through meadows, down country lanes, and up country lanes, and through a thick forest. You eventually make it to Hammerhus, and man is it worth it!

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The fortress is well preserved, free to enter, and has washroom facilities on-site.  You have free run of the place and if you sit down and close your eyes, you feel as though you’re one of the Starks of Winterfell.  Eat your lunch, breathe in the salty air, listen to the sheep baaaaaaa down below, and linger, enjoying this place for what it is.  Most of the other tourists you’ll encounter will be Danish, many of them school children on field trips from elsewhere in Denmark.  It’s nice to not be surrounded by North Americans for once, who typically favour the Rick Steves approved island of Aero when searching for city retreat in Denmark.

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I was stressing about getting back, because I did struggle a little with the last part of the ride, but I realized it was because I was ‘hangry’.  Properly feed and hydrate yourself and if you’re reasonably fit you’ll be fine.  The way home is actually easier because although there are some hills (just push your bike up the short 14% grade ones), it’s mostly downhill or flat, and so pretty that you forget your legs are burning.  Round trip, with stops the journey took us 5 hours.

When you get back to your hotel you’ll feel an amazing sense of accomplishment because you went for a 50km bike ride on a beautiful Danish island and saw a 1,000 year old castle to boot!  Grab a cold bottle of whatever makes you happy and spend the rest of the evening on the beach, basking in the stunning, simple beauty of Bornholm.  I promise you’ll want to go back!

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Quick Compote

When I was a kid my mom used to make jam every summer.  She didn’t cook a lot, but her jam was second to none.  Perfectly sweet, not too chunky and we’d end up with a freezer full of it.  Strawberry and raspberry were her go to’s with I think an occasional blackberry in the mix.  She stopped when we got older and she got busier, and I started my search for the perfect store bought jam. Smuckers did it for a while, then I discovered Bonne Maman which I still buy (hipster tip: their jars can be recycled into to totally cool drinking glasses!), and most recently I discovered Crofters Organic, which I think is my favourite.

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I don’t like jams that are too sweet, and won’t touch anything with aspartame, sucralose or other artificial sweeteners.  And after a good friend of mine gave away homemade blackberry jam as her wedding favour last summer, saying how easy it was, I thought “there’s no way I’d ever be able to make jam”.

But compote isn’t jam.  No no, it’s entirely different and very easy to make.  It also can be stored for a long time without the use of pectin (a natural thickening agent), and requires much less sugar, making it a delicious healthy alternative to jam.  Compote, as I recently learned is just cut fruit, a little bit of sugar and some water if needed for consistency.  15 minutes is all you really need and you can use whatever fruits you like or that are in season.

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I recently made my first compote, a strawberry rhubarb one, adapted from Martha Stewart, in lieu of the pie I was craving.  It’s perfect as a topping for my weekend waffles (with whipped cream of course!), it’s fantastic on plain yogurt, and I’m pretty sure it would be amazing on vanilla ice cream.  The only problem is I wish I’d made way more.

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Here’s what I used:

  • 6 stalks of rhubarb, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 2 1/2 cups of fresh strawberries, cut into fourths (small ones in half and large ones in eights)
  • 2 inch piece of ginger, juiced (I used my garlic press, but I’m open to other ideas since I am sans juicer)
  • 1/2 cup of sugar

Here’s what I did:

  • Combine the fruit in a large mixing bowl and stir in the sugar
  • Let the fruit sit on the counter for about 10 minutes, until the juices start to come out
  • Put the fruit in a saucepan over medium heat and bring it to a simmer (add a little water if you need to)
  • Let the fruit simmer at medium to low for about 6 minutes, until most of the fruit pieces have broken down, but some remain (be careful because this happens fast if you’re not paying attention)
  • Take it off the heat, stir in the ginger juice and let it rest until cool enough to put in the fridge

With the ingredients I used I got about 4 cups of compote.  You’ll use more compote than jam , because it’s less sweet, so it’s a totally manageable amount for two people to consume in a week’s time.

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Next round I’m thinking of a blueberry rhubarb combo, with fresh thyme and lemon instead of ginger.  I’m pretty sure all the berries will turn out a nice compote with the above recipe. Will definitely try an apple variety at some point, and can see this new found love for jammy type things inspiring me to try making my own pumpkin butter in the fall, so stay tuned!  But in the meantime, if you need something to do with your summer fruit, or you just don’t feel like making a pie, try a compote!

My “Let’s Pretend it’s Summer” Dinner

If you live on the left coast like I do then your summer is probably off to a pretty crappy start, or you might even be thinking “what’s this thing called summer you speak of?”.  With the prospect of another cool, rainy night ahead of me I decided to give summer the middle finger and pretend I’m in Greece.  A co-worker of mine just got back from there and I was reminded of a recipe for shrimp saganaki that came to me from a friend who has also traveled in Greece a few years ago.  So unfortunately I can’t take the credit for this, but it’s too good not to share.

To me this dish is perfectly balanced.  Mind you I have no formal culinary training, and I spent the better part of my childhood eating McNuggets, but it has all the right components to transport me to a far away place in the sun.  In my mind it looks like this:

The shrimp saganaki is great as a main course, but I’ve also served it as an appetizer at a dinner party.  The most important element of this dish in my mind is the feta.  You have to splurge and use the good stuff because it’s the star of the show.  I use Shepherd Gourmet Dairy Greek Style Feta because I like the amount of salt and it’s a firmer feta so it holds up better when baked.  The other important element of this dish to me is making sure that you use Ocean Wise or other responsibly caught prawns.  Because I don’t live near a good fish monger I buy frozen prawns.

So here’s the recipe, take it, make it, love it and make it your own.

Shrimp Saganaki

  • Juice of one lemon
  • 2 large shallots, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 bunch green onions, chopped
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 2 T chopped Italian parsley
  • 1 large can diced tomatoes, with juices
  • 2 T capers
  • 1/4 cup kalamata or other olives, halved
  • 1/2 T pepper flakes (omit if you don’t like heat)
  • 1 t oregano
  • Prawns (30-40)
  • 1 small container Greek feta, cubed

Method: Toss the prawns with the lemon juice and set aside.  In a large dutch oven saute shallots and garlic in olive oil until shallots are soft, about 5 min.  Add tomatoes, white wine, green onions, parsley, capers, olives, pepper flakes and oregano.  Season with salt and pepper, but be careful on the salt…capers, olives and feta all have a lot of natural salt so you probably don’t need to add much at all.  Simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Preheat broiler.  Once you have developed the level of flavour you want (or have time for) pour 1 cup of the tomato mixture in the bottom of a broiler proof casserole dish.  Arrange the prawns on top in one layer.  Top with the rest of the tomato mixture. Then, top with the feta cubes, pressing down to immerse them almost all the way in the sauce.

Broil on medium for about 10 minutes, until the prawns are cooked through and feta is bubbling.  Serve with crusty bread, and a green salad on the side.  I promise once you’re done with this beauty you’ll be saying opa and longing for a shot of ouzo!