Happy New Year!

December 31 is never a very big deal for me, as I spend so much of the rest of my year compromising my health, integrity, and reputation by over-indulging and gluttonously ravaging tables full of food. I could take this day or leave it.

Nick, on the other hand, is pretty much a sixteen-year-old girl, and every time there’s a chance to get spiffy and go to parties, he gets all aflutter and spends extra long on his hair and whines when I suggest that we’d save money by just inviting a couple of other people over to eat food and split a couple of two-sixes. Apparently I don’t know where the line is between festive and sad. So, we’re going out this year. This post could alternately be titled: “Food blogger attempts to squeeze into party dress for NYE. Tears ensue.”

In any event, I wanted to wish you a happy new year. This year has been both awesome and at times kind of a bitch, and so as much as I am a little sad at the passing of time and all of that good crap, it’s nice to start anew, however symbolically. In 2009 we ate well, we laughed, we paid down a chunk of our debt and didn’t acquire any new obligations. We made new friends, kept old ones, and fought with our relatives only the normal amount. In 2010, something amazing might happen. Who knows. And I hope something amazing happens for you.

All the best, and Happy New Year!

Winter minestrone.

In between this season’s feasts, sometimes it’s nice to have a bit of soup, crusty bread, and a night of very little thinking, and maybe a good book or some bad TV. This is an easy soup you can make with stuff you already have in your cupboards and fridge, and it’s great for weeknights when you want something hot and wholesome in a hurry.

Chickpea Minestrone

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 2 stalks of celery, halved lengthwise and chopped
  • 1 large carrot, quartered lengthwise and chopped
  • 1 leek, white and light-green part only, finely chopped
  • 1 medium sweet potato, diced (about one cup)
  • 3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 19 oz. can chickpeas
  • 1 5 1/2 oz. can tomato paste
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp. dried marjoram
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, sweat onions, celery, and carrots with olive oil, about three minutes. Stir in leeks and sweet potatoes, then pour in stock and water. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to medium and simmer for 15 minutes.

Drain and rinse chickpeas, then add to the pot as well. Stir in tomato paste, pepper, marjoram, oregano, thyme, and cumin. Simmer for an additional 10 minutes.

Taste and adjust seasonings, as needed. Before serving, stir in parsley and Parmesan. Garnish with a few drops of good olive oil, and serve with fresh bread.

Anything “gratin” is obviously going to be delicious.

There is always too much food here, even when that isn’t the plan. I made this venison roast, which if you’re feeding four people and estimating that each will eat a pound then there shouldn’t have been enough but I still have about a pound left over because holy crap delicious but filling, and I made this red cabbage, and it was amazing and simple and there was (were?) tons, and I made a gratin of sweet potato and spinach based on a similar recipe from my own personal copy of Gourmet Today, which I got for Christmas from Nick. And there was a lot of good red wine, Rioja from Paul and Zinfandel from Grace, and another round of kroketten, a smear of mustard, cartons of Whoppers, bowls of Dutch licorice, and a pie in my fridge that I never ended up reheating.

The thing I want to tell you about is the gratin, though. I was so excited about it that I was all flustered and full of joy, and my pictures turned out blurrier than usual, but it was so effing delicious that there was no way I was going to go to bed and sober up before writing to you about it. Time is of the essence, and if it’s near midnight wherever you are like it is where I am, I’ll forgive you if you want to wait until tomorrow to make this. But make it as soon as you can, because it is so homey and luscious. The smell. The smell! It reminded me of memories I don’t even have but would happily make up.

Sweet Potato and Creamed Spinach Gratin

(Adapted from Gourmet Today, page 630.)

  • 3 lbs. spinach, coarse stems discarded (or three ten-ounce packages of frozen spinach, thawed)
  • 5 tbsp. butter
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 or 3 large orange sweet potatoes (yams), about 4 lbs., peeled and thinly sliced (use a mandoline if possible)
  • 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

If you’re using frozen spinach, you don’t have to worry about this first part. Just drain it and chop it up and then put it into a large bowl. If you’re using fresh, follow me.

In a large pot, bring one to two inches of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add spinach, forcing the leaves down with a spoon and turning until wilted, three to five minutes. Strain, drain, and rinse under cold water. Wring wet spinach out in a clean, dry towel. Transfer to a cutting board and chop coarsely, before transferring to a bowl.

Melt three tablespoons of the butter in a heavy frying pan over medium-low heat. Add onions and garlic, and saute until softened and glistening, about three minutes. Remove from heat and add to spinach, along with salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cream. Stir to combine, and adjust seasonings as you like.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Line the bottom of a buttered 9″x13″ baking pan with thin slices of sweet potato. Do the math here – you’re going to need five layers of sweet potato, so divide your layers accordingly. About a fifth will do – if you can eyeball it, you’re better than me. My layers got thinner as they went.

Spread one quarter of the spinach mixture on top of your first layer of sweet potato slices. Repeat three more times, until there are five layers of sweet potato and four layers of spinach.

Drizzle any remaining liquid over the top layer of sweet potatoes. Sprinkle the top evenly with Parmesan, and then dot with remaining two tablespoons of butter. Cover top with a sheet of parchment paper, and bake until sweet potatoes are tender and the whole thing is bubbling, about 45 minutes. Remove paper and bake until crisp and browned on top, another 10 to 15 minutes.

I'm sorry. This is where I got excited and everything went blurry.

I wish I had read about this before Christmas, because I would have made it for dinner and perhaps seemed less like the freeloader I pretty much am, and people would have loved it. It’s showing up at next year’s feast, for sure. And at feasts in between, for certain.

Kroketten: Make your holiday leftovers into delicious fried snack food.

Nick is all about croquettes. He demanded them for his birthday, and he gets very excited whenever the possibility of croquettes arises, which for him isn’t often. Croquettes, or kroketten, are a Dutch thing, and given Nick’s Vander-leaning heritage, he gets a little nostalgic over them, a little obsessive even, possibly the same way I do for good fish and chips. You can buy them at the Dutch store, but that’s an hour’s drive away, and you can get them at the little Dutch pancake restaurant in town here, but they close early and we sleep late.

This year though, we ended up with enough leftover meat to make a couple of batches. So, inspired in part by this recipe, in part by a recipe from my in-laws, Mark and Jess, and by the taste of the things, which is always fairly consistent, I made my first Dutch croquettes. They’re basically deep-fried soft meatballs, so by their very nature they’re delicious.

They seem like more trouble than they are. They weren’t all that time-consuming, because the majority of the work was not intensive and I could leave them in stages and do other things. So if you’ve got a lot of extra turkey, chicken, or roast beef, or even pork, and you’re tired of soup and sandwiches already, why not try kroketten? One batch makes about two dozen, and they freeze well, so you can enjoy your holiday leftovers as a snack anytime.

The recipe below is for a beef version, but I’ll include the variation I used for the turkey ones as well.

Kroketten

  • 1 tbsp. plus 1/4 cup butter, 1/4 cup reserved
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 large carrot, chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1.5 lbs. cooked beef, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 lemon, zest and juice
  • 2 cups beef stock or reduced-sodium beef broth
  • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp. dried rosemary
  • 3/4 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups dry breadcrumbs
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 eggs, beaten

(Variation: For turkey kroketten, use chicken stock instead of beef stock, and use dried sage instead of rosemary. You could throw in a handful of raisins or dried cranberries here, and it would be lovely.)

Melt butter and sweat onion, carrot, and celery, and garlic cloves. Add the meat, lemon zest and juice, and stock. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes.

Strain meat mixture, reserving stock. Transfer meat mixture to a food processor*.

Add parsley, dry mustard, pepper, rosemary, thyme, and nutmeg, and pulse until well-combined and mostly puréed. You want some texture, but not too much, as these aren’t really “chewing” snacks. They should be very soft.

*Alternately, if you don’t have a food processor, separate the meat and the veggies. Mash the veggies, and pull the meat apart with a fork, and then chop very finely. Mix meat and veggies together, and then proceed as below.

In a pot over medium-high heat, melt the reserved butter, and stir in the flour. Pour in your reserved stock and stir frequently until the mixture comes to a gentle boil and thickens. Add your meat mixture to this, and stir to combine. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Transfer to a 9″x13″ pan, cover, and refrigerate for up to three hours.

Go out, do other things.

When you come back, set a workstation up for yourself with one parchment-lined baking sheet, one bowl of the beaten eggs, a plate with the flour, and a pie-plate containing your breadcrumbs. Form into logs, about 3/4-inch thick and 2 1/2-inches long. Alternately, you can roll them into balls about the size of golf-balls. If you’re making two different kinds, it helps to make both so that you can tell them apart later when you want to eat them.

Dip first into flour (coat all sides), then into egg, and then drop into breadcrumbs, rolling each piece in your hands to thoroughly coat. Place on cookie sheet. You should end up with about two dozen. Make sure that the coating is thick and even, or else the meat will burst out of the croquette’s more delicate places when frying.

At this point, you can either freeze them or fry them. If you are going to freeze them, cover them (on their cookie sheet) with plastic and place in the freezer until frozen solid. Remove them to a large, sealed container, where you can store them in the freezer for up to six weeks. If you are going to fry them, return them first to the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.

Heat a pot of oil, about four inches, to 350°F. Drop kroketten in, four or five at a time, and cook each batch for three to five minutes, or until golden brown. Remove to a paper-towel lined plate, sprinkle with Kosher salt, and serve piping hot, with a big bowl of yellow American mustard.

If you’re not super comfortable with deep-frying, you can fry them in a regular frying pan, in about an inch of oil. Just give them a bit longer, and make sure you brown them on all sides.

At this point, your version of Nick, whether Dutch-inclined or not, will be all kinds of grateful, and will likely even volunteer to do things for you, such as washing the dishes and/or keeping your hand filled with cans of ice-cold beer for the remainder of the evening. Your version of Nick will also be hugely complimentary and will let you go to bed early and not get mad at you for not dealing with the last of the laundry or “forgetting” to put the sheets and duvet cover back where they should be.

The moral of the story is that there is something pleasant you can do with leftovers that doesn’t only involve turning them into soup or sandwiches. If you freeze them, these little croquettes will make a nice make-ahead treat for your guests on New Years Eve. Happy leftoversing!

Bribe Santa and warm your little bones with Mexican hot chocolate.

There was fog this morning, and I almost thought it was snowing. It was dense in parts, but clear in others, and maybe it wasn’t fog as much as it was the fluff of a low-slung cloud, but for the whole rest of the day I felt a chill in my bones. Especially the little ones in my feet, to where the heat of the office never seems to creep.

Tonight was the first night in a long stretch of nights where there wasn’t talk of holiday logistics, empty bank accounts, frustrating jobs, or family pressure. No leaving the apartment, nothing frantic. This evening, with a stack of toys and two rolls of paper to bring together, I ate this for dinner, and there was frothy chocolate and I felt warmth and cheer, as far down as the tiniest bones in the tips of my toes.

Please make this right now.

Mexican hot chocolate

For each big mug of hot chocolate, you will need:

  • 2 oz. dark chocolate (70% cocoa), chopped
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. Mexican chili powder (or to taste)
  • 1.5 oz. Kahlua (or coffee liqueur)

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt dark chocolate into the milk, whisking as you do so that the chocolate doesn’t burn on the bottom of the pan. Once the chocolate is melted, stir in the vanilla, cinnamon, and chile powder, then whisk continuously until the mixture comes to just a boil. It’s got to be frothy, with a dense layer of bubbles on top.

Measure Kahlua into your mug, and then pour the hot chocolate mixture in. Stir to combine, and then drink right away. You can top it with whipped cream or marshmallows if you like, or on its own, with a side of sugar cookies for dunking.

This is rich stuff, and can work all on its own as dessert. It’s sweet, but not too sweet, and layered with spicy, robust flavours – dark chocolate, coffee, vanilla, and spice. It’s robust. It’s infinitely better than any seasonal hot chocolate that you’ll find at Starbucks or its ilk. And it goes well with the smell of wrapping paper, cookies, and tree.

Three more sleeps (that’s it!) and Santa’ll be here! I’ll bet if you leave a mug of this out for him, he’ll leave you something equally special. It’s caffeinated, so if you make yourself a mug too, maybe you’ll even stay up late enough to greet him?

Happy holidays!

Gingerbread? Don’t mind if I do.

Oh! Hello. It’s been ages and ages. Actual time, one week. With the arrival of the Shaw Cable guy this morning, we have now clawed our way back into the 21st century, and these feelings of connectedness and calm are very reassuring.

Today marks the beginning of the week before Christmas, that frantic time of shopping and trying to remember who you have to buy for, who you haven’t bought for, and which bills should be paid right now lest you find yourself without heat, hot water, or car insurance. I don’t know about you, but I don’t handle stress very well. Fortunately, the one thing you can control, the one thing that can bring you inner peace like nothing else, even if you have forty-thousand relatives to visit in not nearly as many hours, is your kitchen, and you can whip it into submission and fill your home with wondrous holiday smells and end up with a cake that goes very well with rye and ginger ale. Which you probably also need right about now. Yes?

This is a strong-tasting sucker, crammed full of molasses and maple syrup and raw ginger. It’s grown-up gingerbread, and you can serve it with ice cream if you want to but I like it straight out of the pan, plonked onto a plate with a little icing sugar and a cold beer. It’s also packed full of good stuff, so you can even take this with you as an on-the-go breakfast, since you’re going to need to leave early to avoid traffic hell.

Grown-up Gingerbread

  • 1/2 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1 tbsp. grated fresh ginger, packed
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup fancy molasses
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
  • 1 tsp. dried ginger
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. salt

Preheat your oven to 350°F.

Cream together the butter, ginger, and sugar. Once smooth and creamy, beat in the molasses, maple syrup, sour cream, and eggs.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, dried ginger, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Stir into liquid mixture. Inhale. Sigh.

Pour into a greased 8″x8″ pan. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out relatively clean. This is a moist cake, so you may notice moist crumbs. That’s okay. Desirable, even.

The cake’s pretty good hot out of the oven, but believe you me, you’ll like it much better after it’s sat for awhile. There’s a lot of stuff in here to keep it moist, so if you want to bake it the night before, let it sit, then grab it and go in the morning, it would likely be at it’s flavour-zenith then. I’m not sure that phrase worked. Oh well.

You can frost it if you want, but I wouldn’t.

Now, you relax. And maybe buy yourself something nice, wrap it up, and put it under the tree, “From: Santa.” I won’t tell.

Red velvet cupcakes: Handfuls of holiday spirit.

I am still having problems here with photos: Something about an IO Error, and now I can’t upload photos anywhere and my computer caught the herp and I don’t know where it got it but I am displeased. If I ever get it to work again, I’ll show you my pretty cupcakes. Soon, I hope!

You know that scene in A Christmas Story where Ralphie snaps and finally beats the crap out of that ugly ginger kid, buckets of delicious obscenity spewing from his mouth as he pummels the bigger kid’s writhing face? That’s how I feel this week, except I don’t have anything to take it out on. Butter, I guess. I could take it out on butter and maybe make some shortbread this weekend. But it isn’t the same, and besides, if I punched anything in real life it wouldn’t even notice. I have abnormally small fists. Also, the effect of me spewing obscenity would be lost because I killed the novelty of that when I was somewhere around Ralphie’s age.

I’ve been mulling over a post for red velvet cupcakes all week, because I made them on Monday for Tuesday and they were festive, even if my mood hasn’t been. Unfortunately, I ran out of red food colouring, so they were less red-velvet and more “red-violet,” like that Crayola crayon you always thought would be red but always turned out to be a funny sort of pink instead. That’s okay though. People got the gist. I made them for a work thing, even though nobody’s all that excited about work or work things these days – the stress in the office is palpable, and my boss is distracted almost all the time. Someone cried the other day. I don’t know why.

Around here, we’re in need of a serious dose of Christmas spirit.

I thought red cupcakes with white frosting, the occasional one topped with green or red sprinkles, would help. When have cupcakes not helped? Never, that’s when. It’s impossible to feel Grinchy when you’re eating a cupcake, and that’s a fact I’m pretty sure even science can prove. So here. Cupcakes, adapted from Joy of Baking.

Red Velvet Cupcakes, adapted from Joy of Baking

(Makes 14 to 16 cupcakes.)

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tbsp. cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 tbsp. liquid red food coloring
  • 2 tbsp. raspberry jam
  • 1 tsp. white vinegar

Frosting:

  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 1 vanilla bean, scraped
  • 3 cups confectioner’s sugar

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line muffin tins with cupcake wrappers.

Whisk together flour, salt, cocoa, and baking soda. In a separate bowl, cream butter and sugar until smooth, then beat in eggs and vanilla. Combine with flour mixture, adding buttermilk, food colouring, raspberry jam, and vinegar. Mix well.

Pour batter into lined muffin tins. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until cake springs back when pressed gently with a pointer finger.

Cool on wire racks, and then frost, using recipe above (mix stuff together … when it resembles frosting, use it; adjust consistency with confectioner’s sugar or cold milk as needed).

Purists will be all, “jam in red velvet? Regular old icing? The hell?” But that’s okay. Real red velvet cake would be frosted with cream cheese icing. But I didn’t have cream cheese, and this ended up working well enough that I am not going to steer you in a different direction just for tradition’s sake, though you’re welcome to go there if you’d like. Also, pretty as it is, I am just too hippified to dye something red without it tasting like red also … so I added the jam. You don’t have to. But make these cupcakes. They are light and sweet and unusual, with cocoa used more as a spice than as something to turn something else into chocolate. They’re perfect treats that fit into eager little hands, and they’re pretty and will certainly stand out on a dessert table.

Well, there you have it. I am now going to make a large pot of tea and consider my holiday moves. Should I wander down Granville Street, looking into the sparkly windows? Wrap presents and listen to Christmas music until I puke? Or bake something? Maybe I will write my Santa letter, in the hopes that he brings something fantastic, like another year’s worth of vanilla beans, or a high-paying career in food writing. In France. The elves can do anything, you know. Happy holidays!