The Cooking Chronicles: Banana Muffins

Though I rarely eat raw bananas, the fruit, unlike others, are useful even when overripe and nearly black. To use up the four remaining bananas in Mack’s fruit bowl, I hunted for a recipe that required oil and not softened butter (as I didn’t have time to wait for the butter to cool to room temperature), and Giada de Laurentiis’s Banana Muffins (minus the marscapone cream frosting) were perfect, even in the quantity of bananas it needed.

My only substitution was extra cinnamon in place of nutmeg that we didn’t have, but other than that, I followed the instructions to a T. Happily, the muffins turned out great! Aromatic (Mack was loving the smell as they baked up in the kitchen), subtly sweet, and lovingly mingling banana and cinnamon flavours, they made a nice treat after dinner.

A basket of these banana muffins would make a great housewarming gift, or afternoon tea addition.

Banana Muffins

The Cooking Chronicles: Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate chip cookie recipes never seem to jive with me – I usually have issues with the cookies spreading too much, or not rising enough. As such, I was hoping an Anna Olson recipe for Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies would end up okay. The recipe called for an unusual ingredient not usually seen – cornstarch. Apparently, it is what gives the cookies their chewy consistency. Strange, but it worked!

Very straightforward and quick, the only issue I had was keeping Mack from eating all of the cookie dough.


Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies

Definitely give these a try – and see if you can prevent yourself from eating them all straight out of the oven!

The Cooking Chronicles: Cinnamon Pancetta Carbonara

To break in Mack (and Kimmi)’s new kitchen, we decided to make Giada’s Cinnamon Pancetta Carbonara. I’d been meaning to duplicate a carbonara dish since returning from Europe last year, but didn’t get around to it until tonight.

We picked up most of the ingredients this afternoon (being within walking distance of both a Save On and Safeway helps in that regard), and began our cooking trial. Not having a large enough pan meant a little juggling and transferring into smaller pots, but it worked out okay. Mack and I both agreed that the cinnamon quotient could have been increased even more (I probably added about a teaspoon more than recommended, and it still wasn’t a discernable flavour).

This is definitely not a dish for dieters, as mentioned on another food blog, but simple, filling, and different than your run-of-the-mill marinara and spaghetti, it’s worth a try on a pressed weeknight.

Cinnamon Pancetta Carbonara

As Seen on TV: Koutouki Taverna

Ever since The Family Restaurant aired on Food Network Canada, my Mum and I have been itching to visit Koutouki – not for the food necessarily, but in order to see the venue of a television production in person. As I had heard dinners at Koutouki was quite pricey, we decided to swing by for lunch instead.

Our schedules finally aligned, and with a day off on Friday, I made a reservations for my parents and I at the southside Taverna (10310 45 Avenue). Stepping into the low-ceilinged building, I found the space cramped, but in a comfortable, “get to know your neighbour” kind of way, similar to TZiN. I loved the overhanging ivy-like plants, with twinkle lights looped in-between pots – they would, as my Mum commented, be a nightmare to water, but really elicited feelings of romanticism and escapist possibilities. Even more than Blue Willow, pictures of the family behind Koutouki lined every wall (including patriarch Yianni Psalios with Kevin Lowe, and even Muhammad Ali!) and served their function of making diners feel like a part of the establishment’s growing history.

While I can’t claim to be a huge fan of Greek cuisine, I probably haven’t sampled enough of it to really make a fair judgment. It turns out Koutouki doesn’t offer a separate lunch and dinner menu, so my delay was for naught. The waitress spoke of two specials, one of which sounded good to me – a pork donair-esque dish ($15.95) that I can’t remember by name. My parents opted for the second special, a rack of lamb, also priced at $15.95.

While waiting for our entrees, we were offered bread and Greek salad (feta, tomatoes, red onion, cucumbers, olives) lightly tossed in olive oil. It was a light, refreshing way to start out our meal, and I didn’t even mind the feta in the dish.

We did get to see Yianni and his wife Kally – Yianni stepped out to survey the dining room at one point, and Kally was busy refilling coffee and water throughout our time there. Everything seemed so normal and commonplace that it was strange to think a full television crew was once stationed here.

Our entrees arrived and I immediately knew I wouldn’t be able to finish the large portion, especially given that this was my first meal of the day. The cubes of pork within my donair tasted tough and overcooked, but I was willing to overlook that if not for the overpowering lemon used in both the sauce and the potato side dish. The citrus was so pervasive that everything actually tasted sour. And though I’m not averse to parsley, overuse of the fresh herb was too much for me in this case. My parents thought the lamb was all right, though they would have happily accepted steak knives instead of the butter knives provided at the tables.

While we were treated to attentive service during our time at Koutouki, I can’t say I’ll be back. The food really played second-string to “celebrity-sighting” this afternoon.

Restaurant interior

Menu

The Psalios family

Yianni with Muhammad Ali

Certificate from Premier Ralph Klein, congratulating Yianni and Kally on their grand Cyprus wedding for daughter Dina

Greek salad

Donair

Rack of lamb

The Cooking Chronicles: Chocolate Amaretti Cake

After being repeatedly exposed to photos of Giada’s Chocolate Amaretti Cake, I decided I had to try out the recipe.

Being without a large food processor, I wasn’t able to follow the instructions to a T. After grinding the sliced almonds and amaretti cookies separately, I incorporated the morsels into the butter mixture by hand. I also ended up baking the cake for longer than the proposed time, and wasn’t able to remove the finished product from the springfoam pan until much later, resulting in a slightly piecemeal presentation.

Not being a huge fan of almonds to begin with probably should have clued me into not making an amaretti-based cake, but somehow I didn’t expect the entire cake to taste and smell like it had been dosed with artificial almond extract. My Mum claimed the texture to be like that of a brownie, but I think it was spongier than that, and not as rich or tasty.

Perhaps I messed up the measurements, but I likely will not be making this cake again. Anyone interested in half a box of amaretti cookies?

Chocolate Amaretti Cake

The Cooking Chronicles: An Evening of Food and Wine

Since beginning this (food) blog last year, my interest in the culinary arts has not been contained to cooking and eating out alone. Due to repetitive exposure to Giada de Laurentiis and Ina Garten’s entertaining strategies, I had embraced the notion of hosting my own dinner party for some time. I had purchased paper invitations on sale at the end of last year, but didn’t yet have a large enough repetoire of recipes under my belt to really build a menu from. Over the last six months, however, I’ve experimented with enough dishes to put together a coherent meal, from appetizer to dessert. And though I knew June would be a busy month, I also acknowledged that if I didn’t throw the party before I left for Europe, it would likely not happen at all, at least not in the immediate future.

So the planning began about three weeks earlier, with “save the date” e-mails to four of my friends (plus Mack, who had agreed to host the party at his house). A week after that, I mailed out the invitations, following rather formal conventions gleaned from the web, including, for example, in place of the standard “RSVP,” the phrase “Favour of reply is requested.” As well, to mark this as a special occasion, I specified a semiformal dress code (in my post-party research, I stumbled upon a great website that offers free, printable invitation templates, most with a whimsical theme – worth checking out if you’re in a creative pinch).

As for the menu, as I am of the belief that I was Italian in a previous life, planned to cook several of Giada’s recipes. I was really interested in making individual servings of dishes wherever possible, not only to make the food easier to serve, but for presentation purposes. And with the dessert, for example, its ‘make-in-advance’ nature is perfect for such an occasion.

Panna Cotta with Fresh Bertries

So on Sunday, at Mack’s house, with the vinaigrette and panna cotta made the day before, we got to work cleaning, decorating, and preparing the majority of the food. With careful planning and a well-stocked fridge, it wasn’t as taxing as I had anticipated.

Table set-up

Toasting the almonds for the salad was a straightforward procedure, and really brought out the flavour of the nuts. Also, I cheated this time around in using canned orange pieces, but I promise to learn how to segment an orange next time. We did have a bit of trouble with moulding the parmesan frico cups at first, but with Mack’s “ingenious” idea of using a plastic water bottle in place of a glass, we were able to move on to the tomatoes.

Mixed Greens with a Citrus Vinaigrette served in a Parmesan Frico Cup

The inclusion of a splash of tomato juice and decrease in the amount of breadcrumbs (as observed on my first try) made a noticeable difference to the spinach-stuffed tomatoes – the side as a whole was more moist and tasted better.

Spinach Stuffed Tomatoes (before baking)

Individual gratin dishes (from Dollarama!) made the penne with four cheeses easy to serve, and though we didn’t miss the gorgonzola we left out, it probably would have thickened the sauce just that little bit. I did, however, like the hint of tomato mixed in with the cream (and yes, Mack even offered each of the guests “fresh ground pepper” to go with their pasta).

Penne with Four Cheeses

As for the “fire-raising” moment of the night – in hindsight, I should have warmed the focaccia round with the tomatoes in the 375 degree oven and not alongside the pasta in the 500 degree oven. My apologies to my friends who were too polite to not consume burnt bread…

Overall, the timing of the dishes worked out quite well. A wonder what planning ahead can do when setting up a multiple-course meal. Also, Mack’s wine picks did much to set a more mature tone to the evening – a Naked Grape Chardonnay and a bottle of White Zinfandel. I didn’t get to try the Zinfandel myself, but from what I heard, it accompanied our pasta nicely. Lastly, though the table was a bit small for six people, meaning that we had to serve each person individually instead of utilizing a shared platter, it may have been better as each of the guests then felt taken care of.

Ready for dessert!

I had planned for an early 5:30pm start to accommodate one of the guests, so the sun was still quite bright when we began to eat. As the night progressed, however, there was a moment while we were having dessert, close to dusk, candles flickering, with jazz playing softly in the background that I really appreciated the moment and the small accomplishment that (Mack and) I had completed.

Mini Linzer Cookies with Organic Strawberry Jam

But to give credit where credit’s due – I could not have pulled this off without Mack’s help – not only gracious enough to lend me his home, but a hand in everything from music selection to table setting to food to clean up.

Whew!

I found that cooking for six was manageable, with perhaps eight being the upper limit to maintain sanity. I would do it again, but in a different form – backyard BBQ bash, dessert night, wine and cheese evening – but likely not for a while. I’m happy to check off “throw a dinner party” off my list of 43 Things.

Group shot

The Cooking Chronicles: Spinach Stuffed Tomatoes

As a practice run before my (fingers crossed) dinner party this month, I decided to make Giada’s Herb Stuffed Tomatoes for my Mum’s birthday potluck this weekend.

Guided by many user comments that indicated that parsely was too strong, I substituted the recommended spinach instead. But who knew spinach was so hard to wash? Besides that challenge, I found the task of hollowing out the tomatoes more time-consuming than anticipated, and likely ended up with less pulp simply due to my ill-experience.
The final product was all right – the dish was presentable, but I received mixed reviews on the amount of provolone I included. As well, the breadcrumbs made the filling a tad dry, so I’d be sure to pour in some of the excess tomato juice (seeds strained out, of course) next time.

Not a bad vegetable side dish, but one I’ll have to play around with a few more times to get right.

Spinach Stuffed Tomatoes

The Cooking Chronicles: Panna Cotta with Fresh Berries

Hands down my favorite back pocket, make-in-advance dessert, Giada De Laurentiis’ Panna Cotta with Fresh Berries is a saving grace when striving for easy elegance. I started experimenting with it last summer, and have been cooking up batches ever since.

Needing a red-and-white themed dish for a potluck at work in celebration of Anna’s new status as a Canadian citizen, I thought individual servings of panna cotta served with raspberries would be perfect. Using disposable plastic wine glasses purchased at a dollar store, I allowed the mixture to cool overnight in the fridge. Though transporting the glasses to work on the bus was a bit of a challenge, they remained thankfully in tact come lunch time.
Great with raspberries, blueberries, and even sliced strawberries or kiwi, this is a no-fail recipe that I will be making for years to come.
Panna Cotta with Raspberries

The Cooking Chronicles: Pizzagna

Trying to make the most of leftover dried pasta and asiago cheese left over from our mac & cheese and focaccia pizza creations, respectively, I found a fairly simple recipe in Rachel Ray’s Pizzagna. Sounding appealing enough, it combined elements of pizza and lasagna in an easy assemble-and-bake style dish.

Though we omitted the onions (more because I forgot to get them at the supermarket than anything else), red pepper flakes, and parsley, and substituted asiago for parmesan, and button for crimini mushrooms, we followed the rest of the directions fairly closely. I’m finding I really like baked pastas and casseroles, as they do have a make-ahead option available.

The final product was delicious – the ricotta and pepperoni really made the dish unique. Next time, I’d probably try to include more vegetables – zucchini and tomatoes would complement the sauce nicely.

Pizzagna: definitely a keeper!

Pizzagna

The Cooking Chronicles: Frittata with Fontina, Green Pepper, Mushroom, Tomato, and Sausage

To befit the end of Gilmore Girls, I planned on making a diner-style dinner to precede the viewing of the finale. My original intention was to recreate Ina Garten’s Turkey Meatloaf, but after being confronted with the very uneconomical pricing of ground turkey breast, I decided on the more wallet-friendly Frittata.

Dickson and I decided to substitute and add several ingredients to the recipe – green peppers for asparagus, and for a more hearty base, mushrooms and cooked sausage. The instructions really aren’t that difficult, except perhaps making sure there is enough oil and butter present to prevent the egg from sticking to the skillet (we initially had excess grease from the fried sausage, so discarded some, but likely should have kept more in the pan). After dotting the diced fontina on top, then broiling the frittata for a few minutes, the dish was done.
Served with a salad, the frittata was not only satisfying, but made for a wonderfully plated meal(the green peppers and cherry tomatoes peeking out provided fabulous color). Super-easy, fast, and delicious, this versatile recipe would work for a filling brunch, lunch, or dinner course.
In the frying pan
Plated