If you don’t feel like cooking….

For the June/July issue of Ottawa Parenting Times, we decided to feature some salads (because who likes to cook and eat hot food in the summer?)  My crowning achievement this month was a “slaw” made with blueberries.  Even the Picky Eater loved it.  Find the recipes on the magazine’s website.

Ruby Slaw.jpg

As a side note, the pickled beets in that recipe lasted hardly any time at all.  They are good in everything: sandwiches, salads, eggs…

An Easy Weeknight Dinner Party

Justin and I were invited to contribute recipes to the April/May issue of Ottawa Parenting Times, so it was back to the drawing board.  This time I devised an easy-prep “dinner party” menu that you can even manage after work: Greek Chicken and Rice with Chocolate Cherry Bread Pudding for dessert.  See the recipes here.

Greek Chicken and Rice.jpg

Strawberry Shortcake

Remember those strawberries we picked last summer? While we used most of them making jam or just ate them with whipped cream, we squirreled some away in the freezer until just the right moment. Turns out the right moment was me declaring “Tonight I’m making strawberry shortcake.” In the middle of winter, because craving knows no season.

Now I’ve never made shortcake before; I’ve only had the grocery store spongecake variety. If you’re anything like me in that regard (and chances are good), try making your own some day. It’s well worth the small amount of effort. For that matter, make your own whipped cream, too. It’s cheaper and far tastier.

Recipes for shortbread abound, though most use shortening which I didn’t have on hand. Fortunately I found this recipe that uses only butter. Turns out real shortbread is a lot like biscuits, which I bake all the time thanks to my Southern blood. A good tip for this kind of thing: when it comes time to cut the butter into the flour mixture, grate your butter into the flour instead and mix it in by hand. We’ve got one of those rotary cheese graters that are ubiquitous in Italian restaurants, and it makes the task a lot easier.

Strawberry Shortcake

Strawberry shortcake may be a traditionally Summer desert, and sure it’s better with fresh strawberries, but there’s nothing wrong with having it when there’s snow outside. Besides, in the frozen months, we could sure use a taste of the sun.

With a Little Help from My Friends: Carrot Cake

It was Justin’s birthday, and I wanted to make him a cake.

There is a reason why he is the baker, and I am more of a cook.  Cooking is improvisational.  You can measure things by flavor and scent.  You can stir it and try it and season it and try it again.  Baking is quite a bit more precise.  I’m not super good at measuring.  Ok, I will come clean.  I don’t measure anything.  Justin is much more careful in the kitchen.

I was confident going into the carrot cake project that I could pull it off.  I would just discipline myself to measure carefully.  I learned to do it once.

I can bake things; I am capable.  I make really good scones.

I have baked things.  I have made cake and bread and pizza dough and cookies.

I set out to make a two-layer carrot cake with a recipe from What to Bake and How to Bake It, our favorite baking book at home.  I opted to (wimp out) use store-bought frosting, so I wouldn’t be as overwhelmed by steps.

Right off the hop, I had a problem.  The recipe offers the option of toasting the pecans before adding them, and I thought, “I can toast pecans,” and dutifully put them on a tray in the oven.  Well, they burned.

Burned Pecans

These were pecans once.

Fine, I thought.  I’ll leave the pecans out.  No big deal.  I mixed the dry ingredients, and then went to work with the wet ingredients.

We had no eggs.  Since I am a good and kind wife, I woke early on Justin’s birthday and made him breakfast.  And I used up the eggs needed for the cake.  It needs 3 eggs.

Without a car available to run to the store and with my nerves beginning to frazzle, I decided it twas time for reinforcements.  When Mel, who is a much better baker and much calmer, offered to help, I naturally said yes.

We went to the store and bought eggs and more pecans, which Mel expertly toasted.  The cake was baked without incident, and I even managed to frost it so it looked pretty.  Eventually, we even got to eat it.  Delicious.

So tasty! Those toasted nuts were the best.

So tasty! Those toasted nuts were the best.

I remember now why I don’t bake, but maybe if I keep trying I’ll get better…

Review: Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix

I ordered Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix right after it was published as a “Happy Birthday to Me” present.  We own three Bittman books, and reference How to Cook Everything on a weekly basis, if not more.  Early reviews of Kitchen Matrix suggested it would be an improviser’s go-to, and the Amazon preview showed me a ton of glossy photos.  I’m a sucker for glossy photos in cookbooks.

First of all, this is a gorgeous book.  The photography is so appealing you’ll try to eat right off the page, and if you don’t want to rush to the store with a list after reading one or two of these, I’d be shocked. There are 2-page spreads on things like beets or cabbages that are as drool-worthy as anything I’ve seen.  This is a cookbook that makes celery look sumptuous.

The basic format is this: Bittman presents a common ingredient, like bell peppers or brown rice, or a dish like paella or ceviche.  Within a couple of pages, he tweaks that ingredient or dish to wind up with a variety of recipes, sometimes as many as 16.  Many of these are beautifully photographed; all are explained step-by-step with Bittman’s candor and encyclopedic knowledge.

The book is broken into sections: Appetizers; Soups and Sandwiches; Vegetables; Pasta, Grains, and Beans; Fish and Seafood; Poultry and Eggs; Meat; Condiments and Seasonings; Fruit; Desserts and Baking.  The emphasis is less on categorizing by ingredient or course and more on creating a quick-reference guide for home cooking.  Bittman maintains in his introduction that an improvisational style to home cooking will expand your repertoire and improve the variety of dishes you are serving; he strives in this book to provide home cooks with a tool that will promote experimentation and creativity.  The book is also designed to serve well for building weeknight meals; its off-the-cuff, use what you have style and quick-reference ingredient index make it a useful tool for making magic with the pantry staples.

Mark Bittman is a big proponent of eating fresh, and cooking fast and at home.  He creates recipes designed to use practical ingredients that are not usually too hard to find and that will maximize flavor while cutting down on prep time.  Whenever you’re cooking at home, there’s some prep work, but I feel like Bittman understands that just because you want to eat well doesn’t mean you want to spend your life in the kitchen.  Also, he gives a lot of options for getting more exotic flavors into your meals without having a huge pantry or spending a lot of money.  I think if you were to make everything in Kitchen Matrix it would be a lot of ingredients, but I feel the point is more to find the flavors you like best and use those ones in a lot of different ways than to buy and use every different flavor.

In the Counter kitchen, we are already fairly improvisational.  Our meal planning often includes the words, “What if we…”  Kitchen Matrix is already inspiring us, however.  The Slow Cooker Beans Recipe Generator is a marvel of possibilities; we’ve already devoured a pot.  We’ve been poring over this book to find the next wonderful idea and improvising more in the kitchen since it found its way in the house.  I know it’s going to be a new reference for us whenever we’re trying to find ideas, inspiration, and something to spice up our everyday (without spending all day in the kitchen).  I highly recommend this book to active at home cooks trying to prepare meals 5-7 days weekly, as it will give you lots of food for thought.