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How I Learned to Love the Garden

27 Aug

I have always appreciated food though, admittedly, I have learned to appreciate it on new levels in the last ten years. I’ve certainly always enjoyed eating and reaping the rewards of others’ hard work; now, I understand just how much work goes into getting that food to my hungry mouth.  It’s not like I wasn’t exposed to food production as a child: my dad maintained a wonderful garden in our backyard that had carrots, beets, tomatoes, peas, beans, chives, rhubarb, cucumber and whatever else he felt like planting (like the year he tried corn. I kept hoping for ghost baseball players to appear. Sadly, neither the corn nor the ghosts deigned to show). We also had cherry, pear and apricot trees along with a raspberry bush and grapevines. Homegrown fruits and veggies we did not lack. We also had a walnut tree but in the 20+ years we lived in our house, no one ate a single, solitary walnut. We’d find them on the ground with six tiny, squirrel bites taken out of them. Tree rats are the worst. What I lacked was the interest in cultivating them. My parents would send me into the yard to pick whatever was ripe at the time and I’d inevitably come back with about 50% of what needed to be picked. What can I say? I was more interested in something SUPER IMPORTANT like whether or not Zack and Kelly‘s eternal love would be torn asunder by the evil Jeff.

Fast forward to 2007. I am now living in an apartment with J and ruing the lack of outdoor space to grow my own food. We would buy basil plants that would, inevitably, wither and die in record time. We did see some success planting mint in my dad’s garden. So much success, in fact, that the mint spread over the next few months and by the following summer, was rather intrusively making its way into the rest of the garden. That was bolstering, though. “I can actually grow things,” I remarked as my dad looked on, happy I’d taken an interest in gardening but dismayed by the herb that was now embedded in the chives and beans and peas and…

Jump to 2012. J and I are house hunting. We come across a house with a slightly wild but charming front yard and an absolutely lovely backyard with lush, red cherry tomatoes. “This has potential,” I think to myself excitedly. The sight of those gorgeous tomatoes has stirred something inside me and I can imagine spending quiet afternoons planting and weeding and watering and enjoying the fruits of my labour. The day we took possession of the house, I went straight to the yard and plucked one of the tomatoes from the vine and popped it in my mouth. “That’s it. I’m growing everything I can back here.”

Next spring, my dad arrived at the house with tomato seed packets and a container with soil pods to get them started. I took a surprising amount of delight planting the little seeds and watching them grow into full blown…seedlings. My dad planted them in one of the gardens and I tended to those things like I tended to foodNURDling. By August we had fresh, plump cherry, Early Girl and beefsteak tomatoes.

Wee tomatoes.

Wee tomatoes.


Emboldened by my success, I started to hatch plans for summer 2014. I planted beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, green, red and jalapeno peppers, basil, lemon thyme, rosemary and mint. When each ripened, I happily picked ALL of the fruits and vegetables and gave each to the foodNURDling. As he happily gobbled down cucumber and tomato slices, I called my mom:

“Mom! A thing I grew is eating a thing I grew!” I almost wanted to cry.

It was A Moment for me. Growing food for me and my family. This is how I learned to love my garden.


Chef Butler

7 Feb

I love throwing dinner parties, big or small. Feeding family and friends is one of my great joys in life. Sometimes I stick to the well-worn (good) advice and make what I know; sometimes I opt to cook a brand new dish or two. Something outside my comfort zone but that I still feel confident I can pull off. Either way, there is grocery shopping involved and sometimes I end up with a whole bag of spice or a package of herbs that I’m not likely to use again any time soon. Enter: Chef Butler, a neat start up company that offers themed, monthly dry ingredient boxes that. Every month showcases three courses from different cuisine: Thai, Indian, Jamaican…it goes on. Each box contains pre-portioned spices and sauces that you might not have in your cupboard as well as three detailed recipe cards with instructions. Enclosed in the Thai box with which I cooked were recipes for a spicy cucumber salad, classic Pad Thai and fried bananas. While it’s true I had things like soya sauce and chili powder in the house, I definitely didn’t have tamarind or just the right size of noodle.

While three courses for a regular weeknight dinner might be a bit much and the dishes are a bit labour intensive, Chef Butler does take out some of the prep work with the portioned out sauce ingredients. Just cut open the packages and mix! The dishes – especially the Pad Thai – were a hit and, in fact, the Pad Thai was so good I made it again a couple of days later using the recipe provided.

So if you’re looking for a service to take some work out of your next dinner party or just want to try something new while cooking with friends, head on over to Chef Butler and see what they have in store! They ship anywhere in Canada and while they are based in Toronto, do not charge shipping fees. They are always testing out new recipes, looking to expand their horizons and yours!

Chef Butler

Recipe Recount

14 Oct

I came across a list of “food resolutions” while flipping through a notebook during a meeting (don’t judge – I was mostly paying attention). I had a look at the list and, amazingly, I’ve actually checked off a lot of them!

I wanted to learn to make mussels – I made two kinds! There was definitely some trepidation on my part as it had been ingrained inot me that it is not hard to poison someone accidentally by serving them bad shellfish. So I made sure that I tossed any mussels I thought might, maybe, potentially be open. I scrubbed them til they shone, then inspected every cooked mussel to ensure they had opened fully after cooking. I had been reassured by a friend who’d made them many times that making mussels was easy and inexpensive (not to mention the delicious results) and she was 100% right.

So, mussels: check. Next up: a new fish dish each month. I haven’t been keeping close track of this, but I did learn a cod dish and several new tilapia and salmon dishes.  Of all of these, I think the salmon baked in foil with a tomato and shallot dressing was my favourite. It had a slew of bright flavours that complimented the rich salmon – and it was absurdly easy to make.  Great for a dinner party and would be especially good for impressing the in-laws.

Getting off the seafood track, I wanted to learn to make quinoa. I had tried before and it came out….crunchy and kind off-tasting. Then along came a girlfriend who made this  fabulous quinoa dish. One bite and I was hooked, knowing I’d have to make it myself. And I did. Two days later. I’m still tooling around with other recipes as this grain needs more spicing and flavouring than something like rice. If you use a teaspoon of salt for rice, you’d probably want about twice that for quinoa.

Last on this resolution list is barbeque sauce. I made one that I loved about a month ago and will undoubtedly take another few runs at it to perfect it. I saw one posted yesterday, however, that looks so good it’s been bumped to the top of my list. Peach jalapeno barbeque sauce? Ummm, yes please.

I’m also baking more than I have before, as evidenced by the cookie and whoopie pie recipes that have shown up here lately…and by the tightening of my pants.  I’ve still got to tackle lamb (figuratively, of course…) and am always looking for great vegetarian recipes. I spent a lovely afternoon with an even lovelier friend drinking wine and ransacking her vegetarian cookbook collection. I found all sorts of goodies that the hubby and I will test out on our Meatless Mondays.

So what remains on this list? For one, brisket. I love using my slow cooker and brisket would cook beautifully in it. Anyone out there have a great brisket recipe that I need to try?

I’m also interested in family recipes. I’ve got my mom’s famous dessert in my little blue book ready to make (though I’m sure I’ll never be able to make it exactly like she does)  and my mother-in-law’s chocolate chip cookie recipe.  What I’m most excited about, though, is a good friend’s offer to show me how to make his Serbian mother and grandmother’s recipes for chicken paprikash and perogies. Drool.

If you’ve got anything you think I should make, please let me know! I’ll add it to the ever-expanding list!

Inspiration: My Husband

29 Sep

In honour of our second wedding anniversary that’s just around the corner, this post is dedicated to J, the best husband I could possibly ask for.

There are a number of reasons that I got into the kitchen, but chiefly among them is J. He is most definitely the catalyst. What started as an, “Ohmigod. What can I make for this guy that’s not Chunky Soup?” has morphed into a consuming passion. For that, I have my husband to thank.

J can cook anything. Of this, I am entirely convinced. He has a way around the kitchen that is at ease. He is a master at looking in the fridge, assessing what he has and creating something totally delicious. He’s also a very patient teacher: it took at least six months to convince me to use something larger than a steak knife to do the prep work for dinner, but he never pushed me or made fun of me. He knew I’d come into it on my own and hey, in the meantime, we were having a hell of a good time cookin’ up whatever came to mind.  So not only can he cook anything, he gives you the confidence and the tools (sometimes literally) to do the same.

We made a lot of pasta in those early days, but entrees were not the only thing in J’s repertoire. For years, I heard about his cheesecake-making abilities. See, I love cheesecake. Way more than I should. And when said cheesecake was delivered I…well…I ate more than my fair share. He was not exaggerating: that cheesecake was freaking great. In addition to the so-good-oh-my-god-you-need-to-make-that-weekly desserts, he has also mastered omelets (tricky, since I’m really picky about my eggs), tortillas from scratch, powder buns (they’re like Belizean scones with nutmeg & raisins), any pasta dish you can throw at him and anything for the barbecue. Or perhaps you’d like chicken en papillote? Perfectly grilled steak? Juicy, roasted halibut? Done, done and done.

Then there’s the cornbread. It is THE best cornbread I’ve ever had, bar none. It’s got that beautiful, crispy crust on the outside from the hot, buttered cast iron pan. It’s best screamingly hot out of the oven, filled with cheese, green onion, creamed corn and a few other things that make it in there. We have been known to devour half a pan in one sitting. This stuff is evil and may actually be better than his cheesecake. Maybe. I’ll have to keep sampling both – for years and years – to come to a definitive conclusion.

The best part of all this is sharing and enjoying his enthusiasm for food. It’s infectious. He’s up for trying just about anything and will encourage you to do the same. This is a big reason why I’ve gone from chicken or pasta dishes only when dining out to the occasional veal cheeks, alligator and oysters.

Needless to say, I plan to eat well for the rest of my life. Some of this food I plan to have made for me by chefs; some I will cook myself. But the meals I look forward to most are those cooked by a man who loves to cook, who puts his heart into his food and who inspires others to do the same. Lucky me!

Introducing: The Hot Biscuit!

23 Sep

The HB and I have been friends for over ten years and I have been more than happy to be her guinea pig and recipient of her extreme culinary generosity in that time. Of all the things she makes, I’d have to say her ginger cookies are my all-time fave:They are completely and utterly addictive. There is no other option but to eat however many you can get your mitts on. (And even with my tiny hands, I can grab a lot of these.) They are simple, not overly sweet and once you’ve had one, you’re going to want a lot more of them.

She also makes absurdly tasty pie. Come on: you know you want this lemon meringue pie…

And thennnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn, there’s the double  chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. Yeah, those are no good, either.

Now, the HB likes to expand her horizons. Cookies, pies…they’re awesome and believe me, no one is turning them down. But the girl ALSO makes her famous chocolate salty balls: delicious truffles that are completely irresistible. She makes lemon tarts, brownies and crisps .

And her piece de resistance? A freaking three-tier wedding cake! Below is the test run cake that a few of us were fortunate enough to get our greasy paws on. As usual, she had nothing to worry about as the cake was rich, scrumptious and definitely second-helping-worthy.

It should be noted that she *is* taking orders. If you’d like to get in contact with her, let me know and I’d be happy to pass along your info to her! Believe me, you will not be sorry. The woman cooks with love and it shows.

Why I’m Going To Miss My Parents’ Garden

13 Sep

My parents are moving from their three-bedroom, two-yard home into a condo in the coming months. (Make no mistake, though this is the home I grew up in, I’m very excited for the next chapter in their lives!) I will miss much about that house, especially the backyard with fruit trees, a raspberry bush and the garden. Every year, my dad plants all sorts of things – even corn. (Sadly, not much corn and no baseball players emerged.) A couple of years ago, J and I planted a few things including hot peppers and mint, the latter of which promptly took over the back half of the garden. Sorry, Dad.

What I will miss most, though, are the tomatoes. I always knew summer was winding down when the tomatoes came out in full force: little ones, big ones, red ones, yellow ones…all delicious in their own right, all practically falling off the vines, ready to be picked. Once you’ve had home grown fruit and vegetables, it’s hard to beat.

So, to all my dad’s hard work, I say thank you. To all the gardeners and farmers, keep up the amazing work. I, for one, appreciate it even more now that it won’t be in the back yard for us anymore.

From the market: purple peppers.

26 Aug

The St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto is one of those places that everyone should check out as often as possible. It houses every food product under the sun from bread to meat to fruit to fish to dessert to vegetables…and so on. My husband and I popped in a couple of weeks ago and found some beautiful purple peppers, which I’d never seen before. The lady selling it recommended that we eat them raw, as once they’re cooked they lose their colour.

OK: salad it is!We ended up throwing some figs in there and made a dressing with 3 parts olive oil, 1.5 parts fig-balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and lemon juice. The purple peppers were crisp and less sweet than the red, orange & yellow ones in the salad. Will definitely pick them up again next time we go!

Inspiration: Girlfriends

20 Aug

Two of my long-standing girlfriends? Oh yeah, they can cook. I have known these girls for 10+ years and, when I was in my “Cooking? Pffft.” phase, they would come over and show me that…well, I was being an idiot. There is a fairly well-worn story about how one of them came over, took one look at my fridge and forced me to sit there and help her clean out the whole thing. She was appalled and rightly so. The other wasn’t going to clean out my fridge, but she was sure going to show me that cooking could be easy and fun.

The Great Fridge Cleaner is the five-course-dinner-party-thrower, the experimenter, the “let’s-throw-stuff-together-and-I-bet-it’ll-be-delicious” cook. The Hot Biscuit can turn any ingredient into magic and loves to try out new items. But her specialty? Baking. We all look forward to our birthdays because we KNOW we’re going to get something home-baked and de-freaking-licious. (Best example: the pony-shaped cake she made for a friend’s birthday earlier this year.) Both women are confident in the kitchen and have, over the years, made some incredibly delicious food. The GFC introduced me to the simple pleasure of edamame and the less simple beef roast; the Biscuit makes the most addictive side dish on the planet: crack dip.

They have extraordinarily different personalities but they do share a love of food. The three of us in the kitchen is a pretty hilarious sight, usually getting in each others’ way (especially in my kitchen, which is annoyingly teeny). But both in their own way inspired me to get into the kitchen and just try it out. Whether it was showing me that a can of tuna could be transformed into something really tasty or how to make chocolate truffles, these ladies know how to be creative and fun in the kitchen…and isn’t that what it’s supposed to be?

Yep, that's a chocolate pony cake.

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