Some changes…

You might have noticed that I haven’t posted for awhile now. It’s not because I have lost interest in my site or my topics. In fact, I have been posting but at my new site: The Family Standard Blog. I am working hard to make it a beautiful site that you can go to whenever you need a new dinner recipe, birthday party decorating idea or just looking for something to read. Please leave me a comment, or let me know how it looks, what I should change or keep and please, please click on the bottom right of your screen where it says “follow” and continue to follow the blog!

I can’t wait to hear your feedback and thank you VERY much for your interest in my posts!

Whoopie Pies and Caramel Apples

 

For a while now, I have wanted to make some caramel apples because they just look like fall to me. I subscribe to Marta Stewart Living magazine and this month’s issue came with a caramel apple featured on the cover. It was fate, I guess. Yesterday before I went to the Halloween themed bridal shower I made these as I thought time would not favour them well. If you’ve never made caramel before there are a few things to remember:

1. it seems like it takes a long time until it starts to colour and then leaving it a few seconds too long can ruin the whole thing and 2. when you pour in the heavy cream, it bubbles like crazy and if you’re pouring too fast you will have a huge mess and potential danger, go slowly.

Two more important things to keep in mind:

a) caramel apples do not harden like candy apples do and if you place them too close to one another they will stick together and

b) the caramel will only stick to room temperature apples so if you wash and dry them the night before you will have a successful caramel-apple making experience.

To watch the Martha Stewart team make them, go here. There’s something so wonderful about taking a bite into a caramel apple – refreshing apple and creamy caramel – perfect for fall indulgence!

Last summer my parents, my children and I decided to go to my uncle’s empty house in Brooklyn to house sit and watch their dog. We decided to save lots of money and drive down. We spent most of our sight-seeing time in Manhattan as there is just too much shopping and sightseeing to do but we also decided to spend one of our days in Brooklyn. My aunt gave me a list of Brooklyn-must dos and must-sees and on the list was “visit One Girl Cookies bakery” and we did, but we almost missed it. It’s a little (tiny) bakery on a side street and even though we were about to pick up Thai food from another “must” we decided to have two whoopie pies, one pumpkin and one chocolate. We split the whoopie pies but regretted that decision immediately and wished we’d bought dozens more. They were great. When I saw their cookbook available online I pre-ordered it and I never do that.

Their whoopie pie recipes are really easy to follow and the only adaption I make are to the spices (I’m not a ginger fan so I reduce the amount) and I don’t use their filling recipes. Once I discovered Swiss meringue buttercream, I refuse to make any other type of “filling.” Click here for their Banana Whoopie Pie with Dulce de Leche filling. Give it a try and if you like it, buy their book – you will definitely not regret it!

 

Halloween!!!

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Today I went to a good friend’s bridal shower. I have known this friend for just over 12 years and in that time, I have known her to be probably the most organized person I’ve ever met (her annual christmas party has an agenda, which we tick-off with markers… I should mention she is a teacher). It’s so fun and it’s always got a great theme. Her bridal shower was no different. This was a first for me, but I must say the Halloween-themed bridal shower is a must-do if you know someone getting married and Halloween is near. The guests were asked to show up in costume and prizes were given for the best and most dedicated. The presents were even in costume. I brought some pumpkin whoopie pies and salted caramel apples – I will share the recipes for these tomorrow.

For my daughter’s class we give a treat-free treat (to avoid any problems with allergies) with a mini-play dough and an eraser for each child. It’s something little but she like to do it and I don’t mind (finding things at the Dollar store and getting deals – like $7.99 for 80 containers of play dough make this easier to justify). Two things to consider: 1. The first time I did treats for my daughter, she was in daycare and I put each child’s name on their treat. I spent about 15 minutes just putting everyone’s goody in their cubby because they all shifted in the car. Writing something like “from your friend, _____” is always an easy alternative. 2. When we get toys from birthday party pinatas (like little bouncy balls or glow bracelets or pencils, etc.) I keep them in a box and at Halloween we hand those out too because otherwise they seem to get lost in the plethora of stuff all over the playroom. I can’t imagine what a nightmare Halloween must be for a child with food allergies so having a non-food option is always a good idea.

I’d love to hear your favourite Halloween ideas. More on the blog tomorrow, Monday and Tuesday as we gear up for one of my favourite holidays of the year!

 

 

What’s for Dinner: Sweet Chilli Glazed Tofu with Baby Bok Choy

When I saw Chef Michael Smith promoting his new book, he said something that I didn’t mention in the post. He said, most chefs prepare dinner via a menu which is created by them, but not changed night to night (in most cases) while most home cooks have to prepare dinner every night and keep it interesting/healthy/delicious, etc. for their families.

Growing up I had some friends whose mothers would cook the same thing each week on a schedule. This Tuesday-Pizza, Wednesday-Spaghetti way of doing dinner is a) easy to shop for, b) easy to plan (because you only have to do it once) and c) not possible in my house where we cook something we like only once in a while and, for the most part, come up with something new every night because we can’t eat the same thing week in, week out.

Growing up in my parent’s house, my mom cooked comfort food or we ate out. We ate out a lot, and I realize that is a common thing now a days because schedules are crazy, time is limited and who wants to be stuck in the kitchen when they can be eating dinner with their families and colouring on the tablecloth?

I was thinking about this while cooking dinner tonight and started doing some calculations:

There are 365 days in the year.

There are approximately 5 major holidays when you cook a dinner where the menu is probably predetermined by tradition.

You might eat out once every 3 weeks, so about 18 times per year.

You might go to a friend’s house for dinner once every 3 weeks, so about another 18 times per year.

And grandma and grandpa might help for dinner once in a while, let’s cut out another 14 times per year. (These are just estimates).

This means that the average home cook makes dinner (let’s not get into breakfast and lunch for this post) about 310 times in one year. Once I did these calculations, it wasn’t a mystery to me that I, like many people, struggle with that nagging question: “What’s for dinner?” Without even telling my son what we’re having, he says: “I no like it, it yucky.” Thank you son. I dread answering the question when it comes from my husband because it’s almost always followed by a: “argh… I just want something with flavour, and something the kids will eat.” Dinner time has become quite a struggle in our house. I think I’m starting to freak people out because no one is safe from my probing: “so… what do you guys have for dinner.” Some people love to tell me what they eat and some people look at me like I’m crazy. I think I might be.

To set the record straight, we eat dinner at our kitchen table every night and I refuse to follow a “it’s Thursday, that means we’re having tacos” kind of schedule, because even the most loved foods become old, tired and difficult to swallow after a while. I’m working on something that might make this a little easier for us all, and hope to share it with you soon. For now, please enjoy this quick and delicious (I’m not sure about healthy) vegetarian dinner!

Ingredients

  • 1 block of firm tofu, cut into 1 cm x 2 cm rectangles
  • 1/4 cup Asian Sweet Chilli sauce
  • 2 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tsp freshly grated ginger, or more if you like it
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • vegetable oil for frying
  • 3-5 baby bok choy
  • 3 garlic cloves, sliced fairly thin but not too thin (otherwise it will just burn)

Directions

  1. Cut tofu into small rectangles and place on a paper-towel lined plate. Cover the top of the tofu with more paper-towel. Let sit while you are preparing your other ingredients.
  2. Make the glaze: combine 1/4 cup Asian Sweet Chilli sauce, 2 Tbsp Soy sauce, 1 tsp freshly grated ginger and 1 tsp corn starch. Whisk together and set aside.
  3. Chop the stems of the baby bok choy and the leave the tops of the baby bok choy intact. Heat 1-2 Tbsp of the oil in a large fry pan over medium heat and cook the bok choy until softened and starting to colour, about 3-5 minutes. Then add the tops and cook until just wilted, about 1-2 minutes. Remove from the pan and let sit in a colander – water will seep out of it while it sits.
  4. Add a lot more oil (until bottom of pan is just covered), heat and then add the garlic. Fry until the garlic is just starting to colour (this will be fast so watch it and remove it promptly from the pan once it is done onto a paper-towel lined plate).
  5. In a large bowl, put the tofu, salt and pepper and cornstarch and toss to coat. Once nicely and evenly coated, add the tofu carefully to the hot oil. Fry until the tofu is golden on all sides. Remove the tofu, drain the oil and place the tofu back in the pan. Add the glaze, allowing to cook for a minute or two until the tofu is coated nicely, then add the bok choy and the garlic. Toss until everything is coated and delicious.

I made jasmine rice beside this dish and served it with sugar snap peas and cucumbers (kids love something on the plate they can eat with their hands). This dish is great because it’s done quickly, it’s really flavourful and it’s something different that the same old, same old. The odd time we order Chinese food, it sort of falls flat for us because now that we make various Asian-flavoured dishes at home that are amazing and fresh and we know everything that is in them.

Turkish-Inspired Red Lentil Soup

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Red lentils are huge on middle eastern tables – they show up in a lot of different dishes. But here in North America, red lentils are only starting to get into people’s grocery carts and mouths. They are inexpensive and these lentils (like most) are truly amazing because they cook really fast and they are so delicious and healthy. As weekday vegetarians, we need to diversify what we eat so that it’s not homemade pizza or pasta every night. That would make my little ones happy and would make things easier on me, but my husband and I would probably start sneaking take-out before we got home just to taste something different… SO, to avoid that from happening, I like making things that I know the kids will eat, are simple and delicious and things that don’t have me in front of the stove for hours on end. Red lentil soup is exactly that: hearty, creamy, delicious and perfect on a rainy fall day.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup red lentils, picked over
  • 1-2 onions, chopped
  • 2-3 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 6 1/2 cups no-salt added vegetarian broth
  • 2 Tbsp flour
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 cup milk
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • yogurt, to serve

Directions

  1. Immerse lentils in water and let sit while preparing step 2.
  2. Saute the onions in the butter in a large soup pot over medium heat until golden.
  3. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Drain the lentils then add to the pot, cover, reduce heat to a simmer and let cook for 20-25 minutes. The lentils will be very soft.
  4. Using an immersion blender, blend the soup until it is completely smooth. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk and the milk. Add a ladle of soup to the milk/egg mixture, stir and then add to the soup, while stirring. Heat through and serve, the mixture you add at the end will thicken the soup and add a slight creaminess to it. 
  5. Serve with a nice crusty bread and plain, organic yogurt (either on the side or mixed into the soup).

In about 45 minutes, you’ll be eating soup that will make any canned variety squirm.

Afiyet olsun!

Date Night

 

My husband and I have been married for almost seven years. It has been a typical marriage with ups and downs, but mostly ups. We have two beautiful children and have travelled a lot. We love each other and we respect each other and like any couple, we often don’t see eye to eye but we always manage to come to a resolution.

We don’t often make time for one another – especially with dance on this day or gymnastics on that day, school council meetings and book club… it’s the easiest thing to put our relationship to the side because at the end of the day, there just isn’t any energy left. And although it may be the easiest thing to do, it is definitely not a smart thing to do. For the past three months, my husband and I haven’t had an opportunity to get out together because my Mom was told she had to get a pacemaker put in (she did and she is fine) and my mother-in-law broke her knee while we were in Turkey. My primary babysitters needed us more than we needed them, and of course, we did what we could to help them.

But after a particularly difficult week, mothers and mother-in-laws on the mend, my husband asked my parents to stay with the kids so that we could have a much needed night out. When they said okay, all of a sudden, we didn’t know what we wanted to do. We had all this time to think of fun, exciting things to do together and when the time came, we couldn’t think of anything.

My husband suggested we go to a restaurant near us that serves great food and has an amazing atmosphere. We are past the days of staying out late, starting dinner at 9 PM and, quite frankly, feeling hip – this restaurant takes care of that for us, simply being there and eating makes us feel a little more in-touch with the youngsters. Let me start by saying we paid for our dinner and were not in any way solicited to visit this restaurant, so this is my true opinion of the place. We visited A1 Autostrada for dinner. We arrived at about 7 PM and even though the restaurant was still very quiet, the hostess told us she had to figure out where to put us because there were so many reservations. We only waited about 30 seconds though. If you are planning on visiting, I highly recommend making reservations, particularly if you aren’t going too early. Some reviews on urbanspoon were downright awful, but, frankly, I don’t agree with them. We had amazing service and delicious food. The portions are huge and I challenge anyone to finish an appetizer, meal and dessert by themselves. However, these big portions allow for sharing and bringing back some of that cutsie-dating behaviour that can feel oh so lost. We shared a Caprese Inverno Salad ($15) alongside the in-house baked bread and bean dip that comes to every table. I ordered the A1 Autostrada burger: “Alberta Angus Burger, caramelized onions, sautéed mixed mushrooms, and pancetta” which was served with sweet potato fries… it is a 10 oz burger which I had “cooked through” and it was still so moist and delicious. I ate about 1/4 of the meat and left SO full – my husband finally asked for my plate to be taken so he would stop eating the fries which are crispy and sweet and surprisingly light. My husband ordered the veal chop (their online menu is a bit different from the menu you get in-house) and it came with roasted vegetables and potatoes and his plate was practically licked clean. I got a cappuccino and my husband got a tea, which were complimentary, and for dessert he had their crème brûlée and I had the tiramisu, also made in-house. I would have eaten the whole thing if I didn’t feel like I had to be rolled out of there. All said and done our bill (without alcohol which we don’t drink) with two bottles of sparkling water came to just over $100. We left with our meat-cravings satisfied and feeling very connected to one another.

Over dinner we did decided that we would take turns deciding what we wanted to do for our date night, which we have resolved to do once a month – just the two of us. It’s very tempting to invite friends out because how often do you have babysitters and a night off? But, we have decided that just-the-two-of-us-time is important too, and not just when we’re sitting in front of the TV after a long day, but getting ready, feeling good about ourselves and going out to spend quality time together.

If you’re like us and time has taken off on you and instead of going on date nights you have simply dreamed of them, I have put together a PDF available for download (this might take some figuring out on my part, so I think you for your patience) to help you keep track of those brilliant date-night-ideas. Once you commit to doing them, and you’ve arranged babysitters and taken care of the details (made reservations or bought tickets, etc.), all you’ll have to do is referenceyour date night calendar to make sure those brilliant ideas don’t just turn to another night in front of the TV. Although, dinner in a quality restaurant is always a good, simple choice or even a coffee out at your favourite local coffee shop; however you connect, just make sure you take the time for each other once in a while. Click here for the 2013 date night scheduler: DateNight2013 (this one has the line for babysitters) DateNight2013-2 (this one does not have a line for babysitters).

Quick Idea: Card Pocket

Never one to shy away from quick, good ideas, I saw this on pinterest and thought it was good enough to try on my next wrapping job. I cut a little more than what I would normally have needed and folded a piece of it to make a pocket for the card. Next time I need to wrap a book, I’m going to put a book mark and book plates in the pocket along with the card. Give it a try!

Tomorrow I’ll be blogging about a date night I shared with my husband!

 

Leek, Mushroom and Lemon Risotto

On my last visit to the Woodbridge Farmer’s Market, I picked up some leeks. We are a leek loving family. I wanted to make something that featured the leeks because their flavour, unless you use a lot of them, can get lost in other, more pungent, flavours. The leeks sat in my fridge leaving a little trail of dirt for a few weeks until I figured out what I was going to make: Leek, Mushroom and Lemon Risotto. I find risotto a bit intimidating and it can easily fail if you don’t make it properly or if you don’t flavour it well. We have had the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to risotto and most of them were my own doing. I don’t know why I get so nervous when I’m making it, but I do. And, without fail, about half way through the cooking process, I try a piece of rice and it’s still very al dente and I panic. I try to tell myself that it will all work out, and it does, but I still get nervous.

This risotto, like any other, is a bit labour intensive. It involves pre-cooking the leeks and mushrooms so all you have to do is add them to the finished risotto. Now, maybe there is about to be an outcry from thousands of Nonas in Italy when I say that I don’t stir constantly from beginning to end, but, frankly, I’ve done it where I’ve stirred and stirred and stirred and I’ve done it where I stir only very often and the results end up the same. If you have a tried and true method for making your risotto, stick to it and use this recipe only as a guide for what else you can add to your already awesome risotto. If you are like me, and you love to eat risotto but get a little afraid every time you try to make it, give this recipe a whirl and lose the fear!

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 small, or 2 medium leeks, chopped in large chunks and cleaned very well
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped mushrooms
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 4 Tbsp butter, divided
  • 1 onion, chopped fairly fine
  • 1 2/3 Arborio Rice
  • 5 1/2 cups no-salt vegetable stock
  • 1 tsp of grated lemon zest
  • 3 Tbsp of lemon juice
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2/3 cup finely grated parmesan

Directions

  1. In a large pot, start heating your stock until it is hot and simmering.
  2. In a large saucepan, on medium-high heat, heat your olive oil and start browning the garlic. Once fragrant, add the leeks and mushrooms and cook until golden. Season with salt and pepper to your taste. Remove from the pan. 
  3. In the same large saucepan, over medium heat add 2 Tbsp butter and start cooking the onion for about 5 minutes. Cook until the onion is starting to get golden. Add the rice and fry until the grains of rice start to get translucent and evenly coated with the butter.
  4. Turn the heat to medium-low, or low depending on your stovetop, for a gentle slow cook. Add a ladle of stock to the rice and stir until the liquid is absorbed. Continue adding stock in this manner, a ladleful at a time until it is absorbed, for approximately 25-30 minutes, stirring until all your stock is used and the rice is tender, and creamy. 
  5. Add the prepared leeks and mushrooms, remaining 2 Tbsp of butter, the lemon rind and juice and half of the parmesan. Stir until the ingredients are mixed through and the butter and cheese are melted. Adjust seasoning. When serving, sprinkle with the remaining parmesan, and additional lemon wedges. Fresh chopped parsley in the risotto or sprinkled on top would compliment this dish well, as I mentioned before, my son has a green aversion so I didn’t put it in but I would have liked to!

Perfect Playdate: PB & J Muffins!

I visit our local dollar store about once a week. It’s hard for me, because I love to support Canadian made things, and more importantly, local, artisans who make beautiful things, but most times (living on one income), we have to save where we can. Sometimes, when I am in the dollar store (I consider this an “outing”… sad, I know), I take my time and browse through the books to see if there is something interesting for the kids and once in a while, I’ll find a gem. I got Baking Kids Love for $3 and when I realized how good it was, I went back to get a copy for everyone I knew. I think I must have gotten the only one, because when I went back, they were gone. I bought it based on the cover some of the recipes I saw inside (with beautiful colour photographs). Once I see more than one thing I want to make in a cookbook, (and if it’s reasonable) I will get it or borrow it from the library. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized that this is a Sur la Table cookbook which was why the quality was so high. And the recipes are a) kid friendly for eating and b) kid friendly for making. I give this book a high standard rating because you can’t beat the price (if you can find it in your dollar store too) for the quality you are getting: tested recipes with high-colour pictures for almost each recipe.

If you are hosting a playdate anytime soon and need a quick-to-bake snack for the little ones (and parents too!) try these muffins. They were simple to make and chances are you already have most of the ingredients in your cupboard. I used natural peanut butter which has a lot of natural oil in it so I think my muffins were probably a bit denser (but still moist and tasty) than the regular peanut butter would yield. With these muffins and a glass of milk, playdate snack stress is off (just make sure children do not have nut-allergies).

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Step-by-Step, PB & J Muffins

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups unbleached organic all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter (smooth or chunky), room temperature
  • 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg, room temperature
  • 12 tsp of your favourite jam (I used homemade strawberry)

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1. Line a muffin tin with liners. This recipe will make 12 muffins. Preheat your oven to 375F and ensure that the rack is in the centre.

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2. Sift together your flour and baking powder in a medium bowl and whisk until combined, set aside.

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3. In a medium pot over medium heat, put butter, milk and brown sugar together and heat until the butter is melted and it is hot and steamy, mixing regularly.
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4.  Turn off the heat and add the peanut butter and vanilla and whisk until smooth. Add the egg and whisk until combined. 20121017-120125.jpg

5. Add the peanut butter mixture to the flour mixture and, using a spatula, mix gently until all of the ingredients are combined. 20121017-120137.jpg

6. Fill each muffin cup with one scoop of batter (about 1/3 of the way up). 20121017-120151.jpg

7. Top with 1 tsp of jam. 20121017-120201.jpg8. Then top the muffins with more batter, trying to cover the jam as much as possible. My jam was very runny so this was almost impossible. Bake at 375F for about 18-20 minutes until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Let sit in the pan for another 10 minutes then transfer to a rack. These are delicious fresh out of the oven or warmed up the next day with a big glass of milk.

Homemade crayons

If you have a child in your house, chances are you have some broken crayons. After a while, those broken pieces don’t get used anymore and usually end up in the garbage. Don’t throw out your broken pieces of crayons, they have life in them yet as new crayons in unique shapes. Homemade crayons are not difficult to make and they can be customized to any thing you like (putting crayon letters on a gift would make a great name-tag alternative; Christmas molds for stocking stuffers or, like I did, crayons for loot bags in the theme of our party!). You can also customize the colours to your theme or gifts or make fun rainbow crayons!

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What you need:

  1. silicone or plastic molds, or a cupcake tin (I don’t recommend using them for food after you use it for crayons)
  2. broken crayons, peeled

How you make them:

  1. Peel your crayons so they are free of paper.
  2. If using a mix of thick and thin crayons, make sure the thick ones are broken into small pieces so that they melt evenly.
  3. Preheat your oven to 275F. Get a baking sheet and cover with aluminum foil (this will protect your cookie sheet and oven).
  4. Fill your molds full to slightly over-filled with crayon pieces.
  5. Bake for 10-12 minutes until the wax is completely liquid. Carefully remove the molds from the oven, and allow to cool on counter until set. For me, this took about 20 minutes for my blue mold and about 40 minutes for my yellow, bigger mold. The more you let it set, (and if you put it in the fridge), the better and your chances of breaking the crayons will be less.

If you are using plastic chocolate molds, I am not sure if it is safe to put them in the oven without having them melt. The alternative way to do this is to get an empty can, and fill it about 1/4 to 1/3 full with similar colour crayons. Place the can in a pot and fill about 1/2 way up the can with water and bring to a boil. Once the wax is melted, carefully pour the hot wax into the molds and allow to set as above. 

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 My finished crayons!20121016-213750.jpg