Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Fall Colours

The fall colours have peaked and the wind and rain will soon leave the trees bare and skeletal, but I did manage to capture some of the beauty of the autumnal splendour.

Front garden - Sedum, Black-eyed Susans, Asters
Red Sumac, Yellow Redbud leaves
View out front
View out back
Potting Shed - Lime-green Geraniums, red Virginia Creeper
A pair of dazzlers

STOP, and admire the leaves
I pray for a mild winter


A few weeks ago, CC and I ventured out to one of our favourite spots to harvest Bittersweet for dried flower arrangements and we were not disappointed!  We got there early enough to beat the old ladies, who, like us, think it's ridiculous to pay a florist $20 a branch for something that grows wild.  There are two species of the vine in the genus Celastrus - American bittersweet (C. scandens) and Oriental bittersweet (C. orbiculatus).  The former has larger, orange berries, and the latter has smaller, yellowish berries and is considered invasive.

American bittersweet
Oriental bittersweet
10 minutes work = $300 worth of bittersweet!
Once we got it home, we brought all the branches into the back yard and proceeded to remove all of the leaves, untwine the branches, prune off any unwanted bits and organize the branches into the two types.

CC then arranged the various branches in different pots and urns.  No water is required, and the arranging needs to be done before the berries open up, which is triggered by heat and dryness.

Table centrepiece
Large arrangement
Small arrangement with Honesty and Lavender
Open berries
Open berries

Food, glorious Food!

It's cool and damp out there at this time of year, so it's perfect weather for having the oven on. Thanksgiving has come and gone (can you believe it?!), so it's time to get a little more creative in the kitchen.  Below are some examples of things I have made or tasted recently.

1) Pumpernickel Bread - this is something I have been making since I was a teenager, and I'm now 50, so you do the math!  The recipe came from a bread book that was part of a series of cookbooks, that have long since been lost to me.  Fortunately, I copied this recipe out.

>>>In a large mixing bowl, combine 2 cups of all-purpose flour, 3 packages of active dry yeast and 1-2 tablespoons caraway seeds.  Mix 1 1/2 cups warm water (115-120'), 1/2 cup molasses and 2 tablespoons cooking oil, then add to the flour mixture. Beat with a wooden spoon until well mixed. Stir in 2 cups rye flour and another cup or so all-purpose flour. Knead, shape into a ball, place in a lightly greased bowl, turning once, then cover and let rise in a warm place for 1 1/2 hours.  Punch down the dough, divide in two, cover and let rest a further 10 minutes.  Shape into two loaves, place on a greased baking sheet and flatten to a 6-7 inches diameter.  Cover and let rise for 30-45 minutes. Bake in a 350' oven for 40 minutes until well browned. As you can see above, I also tried making one loaf in an oiled cast-iron skillet, to a crispier crust on the bottom.

2) Squash - Acorn, Spaghetti, Butternut (pictured above), etc. Who doesn't love the smell and taste of these babies? They are colourful, versatile and delicious. I even love the look of them sitting on the counter.  My favourite way to prepare them is to cut one in half, remove the seeds and bake at 350' for an hour. Once it has cooled, the flesh comes out very easily with a large, metal spoon.

Then, let your imagination run wild.  If you don't have time, just cover and refrigerate until you're ready. It's great in soup or risotto, but recently, I added it to mac and cheese, which turned out wonderfully!

3) Puff Pastry - I'm no Martha Stewart, so I would never try to make my own, unless I was a kept man, or had time to kill.  Sadly, neither applies to me at this point. However, puff pastry is now sold in packages of two frozen, pre-rolled sheets.  I used to buy the frozen blocks of puff pastry which never rolled into straight-edged pastry, so there was always lots of waste.  Now I just thaw the package in the fridge overnight, unroll the sheets and get creative.

A few weekends ago, I had some vegetarian friends over for lunch and wanted to make something a little special, so I surfed the net, and quickly discovered some recipes for Mushroom Wellington.

>>>Basically, you sauté a bunch of mushrooms with a scallion until all the liquid evaporates, add a splash of brandy or port and season with salt and pepper. Once it has cooled, mix it with bread crumbs and chopped Brie (I used a goat's cheese Brie) or any other cheese you'd care to try. Cut a good inch from the long side of the thawed, unrolled puff pastry sheets and brush the edges of one sheet with egg wash (one egg mixed with a tablespoon of water). Arrange the strips of cut puff pastry along the edges to create a border, and brush these with more egg wash. Place your mushroom mixture in the centre of the pastry, patting it down firmly, and carefully place the other puff pastry sheet on top. Score the edges if you like and brush the entire surface with egg wash.  You can add some decorative bits with leftover pastry but be sure to brush these with egg wash as well.  Use scissors to cut some air vents all along the surface, bake at 400'F for 10 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 375'F and continue baking for another 35-40 minutes until the pastry is golden brown.  Let cool for 10 minutes, then cut into slices and serve.  Recently, I made this as a side dish and used baked squash mixed with some parmesan and a little egg on the bottom layer with the sautéed mushrooms on top. Instead off Brie, I added some grated smoked Gruyere to the mushroom mixture.

4) Cranberry Blue Cheese Tart with a Walnut Crust - my sister-in-law, who is a fabulous cook, made this as an appetizer for Thanksgiving, and although I don't have the recipe, I wanted to share what it looked like, because it was absolutely delicious!  I'm going to try and find the recipe online and make it myself some time, although I'm not a great pastry maker (my hands are too hot, and I don't have the delicate touch needed for pastry-making).
See my friend's pastry recipe here for help: http://danibp.blogspot.ca

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Some Recent Favourites

Here are some jdpegs I've taken in the past week or so…

1) Sunrise over Toronto
1) This was taken one morning from the 19th floor of the PGRLC at Sick Kids, where I work.  I get in quite early and now that the days are getting shorter, I'm treated to a sunrise every morning! The view is looking south-east with Lake Ontario in the distance.

2) Sunrise from the bus.
2) On this particular morning, on the way to work, there was a brilliant, fiery sunrise over Toronto, which lit up the Cn Tower, in the distance. I liked the juxtaposition of the sunrise and the reflections of the interior of the bus on the window.

3) Guelph Pedestrian bridge.
3) I like how this shot captured the silhouette of the lamp post along the Speed River trail along with the pedestrian bridge and the crosses of St George's Church.  Serendipitously, the lamp on the bridge was lit up by the sun., and a seagull was flying overhead. Not that I'm terribly religious or anything, but there are a lot of metaphors for god and religion in this picture.

4) Pedestrian bridge reflection.
4) I love when blue sky reflects onto water, and especially when I can capture the iconic pedestrian bridge's reflection.

5) Sunshine through Redbud.
5) We have a mature Redbud tree in our back yard which is full of seedpods this year - predictions of a harsh winter perhaps? The leaves provided a nice contrast with the clear, blue sky and the sun shining through with the light reflections on the lens added to an overall warmth in this image.

6) Storm clouds overhead.
6) This was taken in the front yard as heavy, dark storm clouds moved in.  They looked like something out of a movie.  A disaster movie! Fortunately, they just brought a lot of rain.

7) Guelph City Hall fountain.
7) These fountains turn off and on and I wanted to capture the arc of the water going over top of the distant light post. The metal water spouts are patterned and capture light beautifully.

8) Goldie Mill chimney.
8) This chimney, which is no longer in use, is now home to birds called Chimney Swifts.  I liked how the clouds look like smoke emanating from the chimney top.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Organized Culinary Divo (OCD)

Yesterday was a cold, damp and grey day, which was perfect weather for having the oven on.  I was going to a dance party and there was a request for some baked goods, so I decided to make a couple of old standbys - Turtle Bars and Banana Bread.

Turtle Bars (adapted from Bon Apetit)

2 cups all purpose flour
1 3/4 cups packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups butter, room temperature
3 tbsp whipping cream
1 cup toasted pecan halves
1 cup dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 F. Mix flour, 1 cup brown sugar and 3/4 cup butter in a food processor and blend until crumbly.  Don't worry if it doesn't all come together, just tip out into an ungreased 9x13x2-inch metal baking dish and gently mix together.

Press evenly into the pan and bake for 15 minutes until the crust is golden.  While the crust is baking, bring the remaining 3/4 cup brown sugar, 3/4 cup butter and cream to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves.

Continue boiling for a minute then remove from the heat.

Remove crust from oven and sprinkle pecan halves on top - I always add a lot as I LOVE pecans! Pour the caramel over the pecans and bake for another twenty minutes.

Remove from the oven and sprinkle with chocolate chips, let stand for 5 minutes so the chocolate melts, then use a spatula to spread the chocolate evenly over the top.

Let set in a cool place, then cut into squares or bars.  Just try and have one!

1) I usually put parchment paper down in the pan, which makes removing the bars much easier later on.
2) Please be careful with the hot caramel as it can cause nasty burns!
3) I toast the pecan halves in a cast iron skillet, but be careful not to burn them.

4) More chocolate chips can be used for a chocolatier taste, and milk chocolate chips would be okay, but I find the dark chocolate chips help balance the sweetness of the caramel.

Banana Bread (adapted from Martha Stewart)

1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 mashed very ripe bananas
1/2 cup plain yoghurt
1 tsp vanilla extract
freshly-grated lemon zest
1 cup toasted walnut pieces

Preheat oven to 350 F and butter a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan.  Cream the butter, sugar and lemon zest together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy.

Add the eggs and beat well.

Sift the dry ingredients together, combine with the egg mixture and blend with a wooden spoon.

Don't over mix! Add banana, yoghurt, vanilla and lemon zest mixture and stir well.

Stir in nuts and pour into prepared pan.

Bake for 1 hour. Turn out onto a rack to cool.

N. B.
1) This is a great way to use up old bananas. When they get brown, smelly and disgusting (ech!), just store them in the freezer until you're ready to use them.  Let them thaw slightly and you'll find the peels and strings (double ech!) come away easily.  Mash the banana goo with the yoghurt (I like to use Astro Balkan style, full fat of course!), vanilla and lemon zest and allow the flavours to combine while the mixture comes to room temperature.

2) I usually add about half a lemon's worth of zest because the smell and taste are wonderful. Adding it to the butter allows the essential oils to flavour the butter.
3) Use as many nuts as you like, but do make sure you toast them first (see N.B. 3 above). Pecans would also work well, and I have even added dried cranberries.

Remember, recipes are just a starting point, so feel free to play around with them a bit to make them your own.  Baking is more of a science than cooking, so certain, fundamental principles need to be followed, so change things gradually until you're more comfortable.

The above is not representative of how I do things.  I am a multi-tasker extraordinaire, so I did not prepare one recipe then move onto the next.  I did them both concurrently and used any free time to clean, dry and put away.  CC is always amazed when I cook because it looks like no one has been in the kitchen. Here then is an account of how yesterday really panned out...

Awake to miserable weather and after shopping at the farmer's market, return to a freezing cold kitchen, so I decide the oven needs to be on to help keep my extremities viable.  Hmm, how about Turtle Bars? Hey, if I'm going to make them, I better take some butter out of the freezer (we buy bulk when butter is on sale and store it in the freezer). Well lookee there, we have some frozen bananas in there too, so I might as well make Banana Bread as well.  That requires eggs, so I'll bring them out of the fridge so they can come to room temperature, which at this point, isn't much different from the fridge! Okee-dokey, better figure out what ingredients I need to go out and get to make these recipes - chocolate chips, pecan halves, dark brown sugar and whipping cream.  While I'm out I may as well pick up some milk as we're out, so I think I'll walk to the grocery store.  Look outside at the hideous weather. F--K that! I'll go to the local, downtown, much closer bulk food store and get milk at a variety store. <Time passes> Well, that was easy, now I'm ready to begin.  Oh, the butter is still a block of ice. So, I'll have to resort to some creativity.  First, I'll cut (saw?) the needed amounts of butter for each recipe, then cube  each into oven-proof bowls and pop them into a warmed oven.  Now I'll measure out all the needed ingredients for both recipes and place them in separate stainless steel bowls - can't have too many of those folks - next to the recipes themselves, so I don't mix things up (I never do). Eew, the bananas are thawing - thank god I put them on the stainless steel daring board next to the sink. Well they thawed a little too much so the skins are (gag) coming off in (gag) pieces.  Let's just put those in a bowl with the yoghurt and vanilla extract.  Hey there's a lemon, so I'll add some zest while I'm at it.  Better mash that together now and let the flavours combine. Oh yeah, the nuts need to be toasted - I'll do pecans for the Turtle bars and Walnuts for the Banana Bread. Okay, the caramel requires butter, so I'll just add that to a pot with the brown sugar and cream and melt it on the stove. Hmm, the butter's not rock hard but it's not exactly softened either, so I'll increase it's exposed surface area by mashing it with a fork.  May as well add the sugar while I'm at it, and, hey, lemon zest!  Can't have too much lemon zest. Now, where was I?  Oh yeah, Turtle Bars. Butter's okay for combining with the sugar and flour in the Cuisinart. Better cut some parchment for the pan as the caramel can make it hard to get them out later on. Dumping the crust ingredients into the pan.  Damn! It didn't mix thoroughly.  No worries, I'll just add that to what's already in the pan and mix it together.  There. Perfect. Now while that's cooking, I'll prepare the caramel and clean the dishes I've used so far. Caramel's done. May as well dry these babies and put them away. Ooh, crust is done - isn't it pretty? Pecans, meet crust.  Caramel, meet crust and pecans.  Back into the oven with you.  May as well mix the butter, sugar and zest for the Banana Bread and sieve the dry ingredients together. Wow, look how warm and bubbly the Turtle Bars are.  I'll just add these chocolate chips, hmm, maybe some more, hell, I'll add them all. <5 minutes later> That chocolate spreads so easily and smells so heavenly! Better lick the remaining chocolate off that spatula - waste not, want not. Now I'll just move that downstairs where it will cool and carry on with the Banana Bread. Well that didn't take long - into the oven with you my pretty. Might as well do these dishes while I'm waiting. May as well dry them and put them away too. Done! Mmm, smells so yummy. Now that it's flipped out onto the rack to cool, I better cut those Turtle bars into pieces.  <Time passes> Ah the Banana Bread has cooled, so I'll cut that into slices then strips and set up some plates of both to take with me later on. And that folks, is how I multi-task.