The Cooking Chronicles: Dinners by Giada

I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a Food Network baby. Not in the sense that I was raised in front of the channel, but coddled and comforted by their flashy, entertaining programming until I was ready to cook myself.

I also admit that I’m not one of those people has been experimenting in the kitchen since I was three. Save for occasional adventures in baking, my time in the kitchen up until a few years ago was spent eating my mother’s food. So for me, the easy but tasty recipes put forth by Food Network chefs provided an uncomplicated gateway to cooking.

Giada de Laurentiis was one of the first food personalities I latched on to. On Everyday Italian, her food looked beautiful, her techniques were straightforward, and her flavours were approachable (her panna cotta recipe is still my go-to dessert for potlucks). It took me a while to actually buy one of her books, as many of her recipes are online, but I eventually added Everyday Italian and Everyday Pasta to my collection.

Now, though I find her show a bit grating sometimes (the Giada drinking game would involve “peppery” arugula, and the phrase, “just like that”), I still uncover inspiration in her cookbooks. And while some of her recipes involve things that I wouldn’t normally have on hand, two recent meals were pantry approved.

Creamy Orzo

Simple and flavourful (it helps when there is a lot of cream involved), this creamy orzo recipe, featuring diced tomatoes and peas is appealing to the eye, and as comforting as macaroni and cheese. I served it with some sliced prosciutto to make it even more rich.

Creamy orzo

Tuscan White Bean and Garlic Soup

While the weather still had that pre-spring chill in the air, Giada’s Tuscan white bean and garlic soup was the perfect warming cure. Silky from the pureed white beans and some cream, a bowl made a great light meal paired with a green salad.

Tuscan white bean and garlic soup

Who’s your favourite Food Network personality?

The Cooking Chronicles: Udon with Tofu and Spinach

The second recipe I had my eye on that employed the tofu and spinach leftover from our salad the night previous can be found in the June/July issue of Food Network Magazine. Having never cooked with udon noodles before, the dish of udon with tofu and Asian greens caught my eye.

I wanted a broth more substantial than fortified cooking water, so heated up about three-quarters of a cup of chicken soup for each of us to serve as a base. Other than that, I followed the instructions fairly closely. I had forgotten how fragrant simmering sesame oil could be (as I seared the slices of tofu), and as it perfumed the kitchen, it set up a wonderful anticipation for the meal.

Udon with Tofu and Asian Greens

Mack much preferred the tofu in this dish, though as a whole, most warm meals would win his vote over cold salads any day. He especially liked the wilted spinach greens, and the spicy kick from the chili flakes. I was happy with how easy the meal was to prepare, and though we copped out with pre-cooked udon this time, I wouldn’t hesitate to take the extra effort for uncooked udon noodles next time.

This recipe is definitely a keeper in our kitchen!

The Cooking Chronicles: Spanish Paella

Or perhaps more accurate – non-paella paella. I caught an episode of Michael Smith’s Chef At Home recently where he prepared a paella recipe that even I would eat, free of many ingredients that are unappealing to me, but what I thought were central to paella as a dish. The proteins consisted of chicken, sausage and shrimp, with nary a shell in sight. Saffron, another additive frequently used, was also missing from the recipe, but I was willing to overlook that in favour of experimentation.

The best part about the dish was its one-pot nature – once we had browned the sausages and chicken, everything, from the proteins, rice, tomatoes, and chicken stock, were thrown into the saute pan to cook together. Half an hour later, we had a fragrant, hearty meal.

Spanish Paella with Chicken, Shrimp and Sausage

Tomato was the dominant flavour of the dish, and I would have preferred additional notes present. Also, the shrimp had become so waterlogged over the last half hour that the texture was closer to that of lobster. Next time, I would be sure to add them closer to the end.

Overall, I was happy with the paella, and would make it again with some adjustments. The large pot lasted us several meals (both lunches and dinners), which meant less cooking over the week – always a plus!

The Cooking Chronicles: Olive Oil Popcorn

To accompany a viewing of Slumdog Millionaire (good movie; I liked the flashback motif), Mack and I decided to make stove-top popcorn.

My coworkers had been telling me about some of the ills of microwave popcorn, and after seeing Michael Smith whip up a pan full fairly easily, it didn’t seem difficult at all. We used his recipe as a guide, lightly coating the bottom of a skillet with olive oil, and tossing the kernels on top. It turned out we should have chosen a deeper skillet, as the popped kernels quickly took up all available space underneath the lid.


We tossed the popcorn with some olive oil, salt, and chilli powder. Whether it was my heavy hand, or an extra-hot version of powder, we didn’t know, but our end product was a lot spicier than we had intended. Still, it’s something we will make again, with different seasonings.

“Family Restaurant” Disappointment

The third season of Food Network Canada’s Family Restaurant concluded tonight. Featuring the Quons, the family behind The Lingnan and Chicken for Lunch, the series documented the day-to-day challenges of running a restaurant, and some special milestones in the family’s life over the six month filming period.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Miles Quon back in December, prior to the debut of the show. Miles said that he wanted the show to shed some light on the chaos in the kitchen. “Customers might come in, sit down and say, ‘Why am I waiting so long for my food? What’s happening in there?’ I want them to see that side. Maybe give us a break.” Second, he thought the series was a good way to promote the restaurant – “We’ve been doing this for a long time in Edmonton. Too long to be unnoticed and under the radar. I really want to get our name out and drum up some excitement.” When asked whether or not the family changed their behaviour around the crew, he responded, “We’re just too busy [to act in front of the cameras] and we just like being ourselves.”

After watching all ten episodes, I think some of Miles’ objectives were achieved. I liked the behind-the-scenes shots of the kitchen, and seeing all of the energy and multi-tasking required. I also read in a recent issue of 24 Hours that the Lingnan was beyond busy, and that many of their regular customers were annoyed that they had to wait upwards of an hour for a table.

There were a lot of things that were less than impressive about this run of Family Restaurant, however. While I didn’t religiously tune into the previous series that centered on the Psalios family (they run the three Koutouki establishments around the city), when I did catch it on occasion, the episodes seemed to have an overarching plot that stretched over the season. The drama also seemed genuine, including the initiation of Yianni’s son-in-law into the family business, and Theo’s maturation and increasing responsibilities.

In comparison, I think my Dad said it best when he called this show “a cartoon”. Each member of the family seemed to play a role more akin to a sitcom than a documentary – Amy the overbearing matriarch; Kinman the easygoing and silent husband; Miles the bossy eldest son; Mandy the token daughter; and Marty the lazy foil to his brother. While Miles wasn’t cast as the “villain” per se, he did seem to exaggerate his actions and arguments, and a lot of his interactions didn’t appear to be genuine. Most problems that were introduced at the beginning of each episode (need for security, renovations, etc.) were resolved in the thirty minute time slot. And even the storylines that showed some promise – Mandy’s relationship with Ajit, Miles’s wedding in China – weren’t developed. Seriously – the crew travelled to China and all the audience was treated to was a brief scene in a noodle shop, a Fear Factor-esque market moment, and two quick chef trials. We also never found out when Miles’s wife Pan-Pan would be returning to Canada.

I was also hoping that Edmonton would be featured more prominently, though I understand that the primary focus was on the Quons and The Lingnan. It peeved me a little that the summer “food festival” was never once referred to by name.

In December, Miles said that the family had not yet been approached by the Network about a second season, though I assume that was because ratings would play a factor in that decision. Though I want the Family Restaurant lens to remain in Edmonton, I’m not sure another term with the Quons would be worth watching.

The Cooking Chronicles: Banana Chocolate Pancakes

I had no idea the Food Network show Diners, Drive Ins and Dives had an accompanying publication until I stumbled upon it while on Amazon one day. As Mack and I love the show (and have to make sure we’ve already had a meal prior to watching an episode), we ordered up the book right away, and were keen to see which recipes he selected to include in the book.

It arrived last week, and while I didn’t have time to sit down and read it, I was surprised to find that the book was filled with more than just recipes – two-page profiles of choice establishments provided a context for the recipe, and potentially bridge readers who may not be familiar with the show.

Flipping through, I was intrigued by a recipe for Chunky Monkey Pancakes, knowing that there were overripe bananas and a can of orphaned whipped cream begging to be used. I modified it a bit, however, as Mack doesn’t like nuts, we didn’t have chocolate chips on hand, and wrapping an entire banana with a pancake didn’t make sense to me.

Instead, I drizzled Nutella in place of chocolate chips on the dollop of batter (a great trick that I only just learned that works so well versus trying to incorporate additives at the batter stage). It burnt a little, but was manageable. Also, I sliced the bananas and heated the cinnamon-dashed fruit in a skillet of melted butter, and Clinton Street-style, sandwiched the slices in the middle. I finished the plate with a dusting of icing sugar, tower of whipped cream, and more bananas.

Banana Chocolate Pancakes

These banana chocolate pancakes were definitely too indulgent for an everyday breakfast, but were a nice weekend treat.

The Cooking Chronicles: Coconut Crusted Salmon

Salmon seems to be my default weekend meal – somewhat fancier than a stir-fry I would typically make on a weekday, but still an easy and no-fuss meal.

We decided to walk to get the needed groceries for Michael Smith’s Coconut Crusted Salmon last weekend, which meant a short trek to Safeway. We usually get our fish from Save-On Foods, but were willing to give Safeway a try. Turned out they didn’t have a great selection – their filets in the cooler were quite a bit larger than what we were used to when compared with Save-On, and were only skinned on one side. We knew we wouldn’t be back for our salmon needs, but on that occasion, swallowed our grocer choice and bought a large filet to share.

The recipe was easy to prepare- we ended up just patting three sides of the salmon with coconut instead of using a Ziploc bag as directed. While the salmon was in the oven, I prepared some vegetables and rice to serve alongside the fish.

The fish came out with a nice crust, and was perfectly cooked on the inside – flaky and tender. The nuttiness and crunch of the coconut made the main seem a bit like a dessert course, but Mack and I both thought it was missing an accompanying sauce. I think Trish Magwood’s mango salsa or a pineapple chutney would make a nice side.


Coconut Crusted Salmon

Comparing recipes, I liked the Roasted Salmon recipe I made a month ago better, but I’m sure our experimentation with salmon varieties will continue!

The Cooking Chronicles: Coffee Creme Brulee

There are some kitchen gadgets, that while extraneous to day-to-day cooking, are justifiable. A food processor, for example, has so many uses that the expense incurred (and precious cupboard/counter space needed) could be rationalized – sauces, dips, bread crumbs, dough…the list goes on. Others, such as a mini kitchen blowtorch, are less reasonable. Though being able to make my own crème brulee was always an interesting idea, practicality got in the way of the purchase.

Fortunately, I had thoughtful friends who bought one for me for my birthday, and six months after the fact, I finally used it. Using Bob Blumer’s recipe, which seemed less taxing than many I came across (it removed a stovetop folding step), I made six Coffee Crème Brulees. While I had to be careful while pouring the water bath that surrounded the ramekins, the directions to bake it until the mixtures just slightly “jiggled” were spot on.

I took them out to cool, then, excited to finally use the torch, spread the necessary sugar on top of the custard. I took the torch out of the box, and then…couldn’t use it because I hadn’t thought to fill it with butane first. At this point, I wanted to eat one, so used Blumer’s suggestion of putting it under the broiler for a few minutes. The combination of too much sugar and not watching the dessert resulted in an overly-burnt crust. I was hoping the torch would allow for better control.

The next evening, I went to Burlington Tobacconists on Whyte to pick up some butane. For whatever reason I thought the gas would come in a disposable canister, to be inserted into the torch, used, then replaced. Instead, the butane came in an aerosol can. The staff person showed me how to fuel the torch (three second intervals is best, he said), and played around with the flame controls. I was set.

Back at home, I put Mack (and his pyrotechnic tendencies) in charge of the torch. He pulled the switch down and pushed the button (similar to how a butane lighter works), releasing an uncontrollable ten inch flame. It took us a while to finally realize we needed to tip the torch at an angle to make it release a small blue flame that we could utilize. A few minutes of concentrated effort later, we had a bubbling, golden brown crust.

The torch at work

Mack was surprised that the crust was solid all the way through, and like at an expert restaurant, required a quick wrist tap to break through to the custard below. He didn’t like all of the sugar, but I loved all of sweet crunchy bits. The custard was flavoured with instant coffee (and minus the stovetop step), was actually thicker than I wanted, and slightly more overpowering than I am used to. Vanilla bean, plain and simple, is my favourite, so I likely will have to try out an alternative recipe to see if I can achieve a lighter consistency.

Coffee Creme Brulee

It was fun being able to make one of my favourite dining out desserts at home. Thanks Annie and Janice!

The Cooking Chronicles: Roasted Salmon with Roasted Tomatoes

I had my eye on Dave Lieberman’s recipe for Roasted Salmon with Roasted Tomatoes for some time, but forgot about it after a bout with a bad cold. I was finally organized enough to buy the ingredients needed earlier this week, and pulled it together in no time at all.

The salmon was flavoured with nothing more than salt, pepper, fresh dill, and a squeeze of lemon, and the roasted tomatoes with olive oil, dried oregano (instead of fresh thyme) and salt and pepper to taste.

For such a simple recipe, the fish tasted great – perfectly cooked, and complemented the sweet roma tomatoes well. I served the fish with some creamy rice to round out a weekday meal, but the recipe would translate well for entertaining as well, jazzed up with some risotto. It’s definitely a keeper!

Roasted Salmon with Roasted Tomatoes

The Cooking Chronicles: Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie

On Doug’s request (I’m always up for a “secret ingredient” challenge!), I looked for an interesting recipe that contained peanut butter. While a stew thickened with peanut butter qualified as the most intriguing, Miss Hilda’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie caught my immediate attention as something I actually wanted to eat (I’ve been wanting to give it a name worthy of Waitress, but nothing can beat her signature “Bad Baby Pie”, so I won’t even try).

I made the crust and toasted the peanuts on Sunday night to reduce the prep time on Monday, and to give it extra time to cool in the freezer. I resorted to using an aluminium cake pan instead of our only glass pie plate to lighten the load I would have to cart on public transportation, but with the help of the rounded side of a measuring cup, was able to form an edge fairly easily.

The filling was a cinch to whip up, and smelled irresistibly like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup when I was done. I let it set overnight, and even after being beaten around a bus, it wasn’t too worse for wear.

As for the taste – the crust needed at least double the amount of melted butter to set correctly – as it stood, crumbly was its unfortunate state. The filling, after having more than enough (or too much?)time to harden, ended up a little too densely sweet for my liking; I would have preferred the mousse-like consistency it had just after being freshly beaten with the electric mixer.

The best thing about the pie, of course, wasn’t the pie itself, but being able to share it with friends. Thanks again for letting us crash at your place, Anna!

Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie

The (what else) potluck spread

Violet and Judith help themselves

Violet and Doug

Anna and Judith

All smiles!