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: White Bean Dip and Pita Chips

It’s been pretty busy at work this week, but I was still really looking forward to participating in a lunch potluck with my colleagues. I didn’t have too much time to make a dish, and wanted something that could be easily transported on the bus, and served either straight from the fridge or at room temperature. Giada de Laurentiis’ white bean dip and pita chips fit the bill.

I was able to pick up all of the ingredients I needed from the Italian Centre (hurrah for one stop shopping trips), and with a food processor, it was a cinch to combine the cannellini beans, parsley, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. I liked the texture of the dip, and though I overdid it with the lemon (it was a bit too acidic for my taste), the citrus did provide a welcome freshness to a dish to be served in cold weather.

White Bean Dip and Pita Chips

I am very fortunate to work in a multicultural office, and the diversity is no more apparent than at a potluck. Today, for example, there was everything from sabaya (Somali flatbread) to burek (Bosnian meat pie made with phyllo pastry), plantain, crispy pata (Filipino fried pork dish) and well, Kraft Dinner casserole.

Potluck spread

My plate

And yes, everything was as delicious as it looks.

The Cooking Chronicles: Linguine with Turkey Meatballs and Quick Sauce

Big batches of pasta dinners seem to become particularly handy during a busy week, where leftovers are a saving grace. This Giada de Laurentiis recipe for linguine with turkey meatballs and quick sauce was one such wonder, and did not diminish in flavour too much in the fridge over a few days.

This was actually our first time making meatballs from scratch, and though I have an odd tendency to mistake naming turkey for lamb (I have no idea why), we did have ground turkey on hand to use. After I combined all of the ingredients for the meatballs, I delegated the shaping of them to Mack while I got started on the sauce.

Like most of Giada’s recipes, this one is just as straightforward, and really, is simply a more refined version of spaghetti and meatballs. The meatballs were quite good – the pancetta made them pop. And though I’m much less prone to oversaucing pasta now than I have been in the past, the sauce was still a little thin for me. Perhaps the addition of more tomatoes would have helped somewhat.

Linguine with Turkey Meatballs and Quick Sauce

In spite of the sauce, I would make this again – I’d likely double the meatball portion and freeze the other half. Like the handiness of leftovers – maximum gain for minimum effort is the name of the game sometimes.

The Cooking Chronicles: Farfalle with Spicy Sausage and Kale

Among the goods I picked up at the final City Centre Market was a beautiful bunch of curly kale from Sundog Organic Farms. I had tried kale for the first time earlier this year in a recipe that didn’t highlight the vegetable very well, and though I probably should have stuck to something simple like sautéing it with some olive oil and garlic, a Giada de Laurentiis recipe caught my eye.

Farfalle with spicy sausage and kale from Everyday Pasta, like most of Giada’s recipes, was really straightforward. The only thing I would have changed in hindsight was roughly chopping the sausage once out of the casings – breaking it up into smaller pieces with a wooden spoon didn’t work well at all. The 1/3 cup of cream went a long way to flavouring the sauce, and the parmesan finish helped bring the pasta all together.

And the kale? It didn’t taste like cabbage this time around, and had a nice mild, almost spinach-like flavour. It added some great texture to the dish.

Farfalle with Spicy Sausage and Kale

The Cooking Chronicles: Prosciutto wrapped Asparagus

Needing a last-minute starter to bring to a housewarming this weekend, I flipped through Giada de Laurentiis’ Everyday Italian for inspiration, as I knew the hosts would be serving lasagna as the main course.

The recipe for Roasted Asparagus Wrapped in Prosciutto caught my eye, as not only was it simple and elegant, but it required only two main ingredients, and could be served at room temperature.

We picked up the needed items at Sobeys Urban Fresh (convenient for us, as we had just stopped at deVine Wines for a bottle of local en Santé wine to give as a gift), and headed to Mack’s place to assemble the appetizer.

This was my lesson in cooking seasonally, as while the Peru-grown asparagus seemed all right at the store (and would have been fine for most uses), by the time I had finished roasting them, the spears looked downright sad. The recipe in the book had also directed us to use a teaspoon of salt and pepper each – way too much seasoning – something my brain should have overridden. Paired with the savoury prosciutto, however, the salt content was normalized a bit, and I’m happy to say the dish was a hit.

Prosciutto wrapped Asparagus

My plate of lasagna, caesar salad and garlic toast.

Yi-Li’s triumphant Hazelnut Torte

Thanks to Warren and Leslie for hosting a great party!

The Cooking Chronicles: Mushroom Soup and Little Stars with Butter and Parmesan

Comfort food was the name of the game on a cool Sunday, and I had two recipes on the backburner I’d been wanting to try for some time.

The first was a Ruth Reichl recipe for Mushroom Soup that I found in Comfort Me with Apples. It seemed easy enough on paper, with just a few more steps than it would take to simply open up a can of Campbells to heat, and I was glad to find out that it was fairly simple in practice.

We ended up not having any nutmeg on hand, so the flavour was perhaps not as rich as it could have been, but the half pound of cremini mushrooms resulted in a soup chock full of mushroom-y goodness. Mack also enjoyed the onions, as canned mushroom soup typically doesn’t include other vegetable varieties.

Mushroom Soup

As the soup probably wouldn’t have been filling enough, I opted to make an accompanying pasta dish, a four-ingredient gem by Giada de Laurentiis.  I was able to whip up her recipe for Little Stars with Butter and Parmesan while the soup was simmering. The only downside was the purchase of pre-shredded parmesan that had been grated too large to be easily melted into the hot pasta. While simple (Laurentiis described it as an “Italian mac and cheese”), it was satisfying, and would be a great dish for children.

Little Stars with Butter and Parmesan

The Cooking Chronicles: Autumn Housewarming

While I love hosting parties, they seem to take a lot out of me. Mack (and Kim’s) housewarming party is a good example.

They moved into their new apartment in May. I offered to help Mack with the housewarming preparations (mainly around menu planning), and started thinking about summer-appropriate foods to serve. June soon gave way to July, then August, and finally September, when Mack at last chose a date for the belated celebration.

To befit the cooler weather and seasonal produce, I felt a menu overhaul was in order. As well, I wanted to incorporate dishes that Mack himself would serve, namely, share plates and comfort food. And for my twist (something wholly unnecessary, but really a pleasure for me to work out) – the inclusion of at least one ingredient obtained from a local producer or manufacturer in each dish.

With those parameters in place, the following menu was born:

Housewarming menu (“lamb” should read “turkey” – I had lamb on the brain for some reason)

Every dish could be made or assembled in advance to be heated up just prior to guests arriving. The only tricky item was the turkey sliders, which would be formed that afternoon, but pan-fried while guests were snacking on other things – an entertaining faux-pas, I’m sure, but we were pretty attached to serving the mini burgers.

We spent most of Friday evening (after the debate, of course) in the kitchen, baking up cupcakes, cookies, and pita chips.

The idea for Chocolate Chai Spice Cupcakes were inspired by a similar flavour offered at Whimsical Cupcakes to celebrate the season. I found a recipe online that appealed to me even with the added step of grinding the spice mixture myself. It was a pretty fragrant mix that I wasn’t sure would work with the chocolate, but it turned out to be an interesting combination, great paired with a cup of coffee. The tops of the ‘cakes ended up being much too dry and crumbly, but that could have been a result of leaving them in the oven a few minutes too long. This was also the only item on my menu that lacked a local component, though I was so tempted to head to Kerstin’s to pick up some dark chocolate.

Chocolate Chai Spice Cupcakes

The unusual Coffee Shortbread recipe came to me by way of Flickr, which I followed to a blog. A modified Martha Stewart recipe, we used freshly-ground Transcend-roasted coffee in our cookies. The only instruction we neglected was “properly” chilling the shortbread before baking. I found the shortbread a little on the bland side, unfortunately, though Mack disagreed with me and gobbled up the leftovers once the guests departed.

Coffee Shortbread

We were up early on Saturday morning to head to the City Centre Market and ensure we had the pick of produce and meat. It was a lovely way to start a fall day, as though it was cool enough to remind us that cooler weather was ahead, the sun was bright and full of optimism for the weekend.

Back at the apartment, while Mack cleaned and tidied up, I continued with the food prep. Giada de Laurentiis’ Baked Penne with Roasted Vegetables was the easiest to start with. I wasn’t sure the bowl we had on hand was big enough to combine everything, but it turned out all right. Once this dish was assembled, I put it in the fridge, and would start heating it only after the nachos were out of the oven. I think this would be a great recipe to pull out for an autumn potluck – great texture, color, and a cinch to make. Leftovers also heat well in the microwave for a nice lunch the next day.

Colorful vegetables (Kuhmann’s squash made up the local ingredient)

Baked Penne with Roasted Vegetables

By the time I was done with the pasta, the ground bison meat we had picked up from Medicine Man Bison that morning had defrosted. The chili recipe I chose was something between the Medicine Man’s and another I had seen in Food for Thought magazine, primarily because I could not find the “Louisiana dip mix” called for in the former recipe. I had never made chili before, but after this experience, I will definitely make it again – the result was a delicious payoff for something so easy. The ground bison was notable – virtually no fat appeared when I browned it in the skillet, and at $12.50 for 2lbs, it was a decent price to pay for good quality meat. After I incorporated all the ingredients, we transferred the chili into my Mum’s borrowed slow cooker and let it simmer until the party started. It was a great dish to have on hand, as for those dropping by later in the evening, we could guarantee them something hot to eat. 

Hearty Bison Chili

Next were Rachel Ray’s Apple-Cheddar Turkey Burgers, something Mack and I had experimented with two weeks before. This time however, mini versions were on tap, built with Italian Bakery baby buns we picked up at the Italian Centre, and Greenvalley lettuce we bought at the Market. Though the turkey itself turned out to be resilient to over-cooking, done again, I’m not sure I would make them again for a large, informal group gathering. Trying to balance conversation/hosting duties while cooking the slider patties was too difficult a task.

Getting the buns ready (yes, I realized the burgers were missing apple slices…after Mack pointed it out)

Apple-Cheddar Turkey Sliders

Last but not least was assembling Mack’s Slammin’ Cheese Nachos – an item Mack would probably make and serve if he were to host the party on his own. We layered Don Antonio’s tortilla chips with mozzarella and cheddar cheese with diced olives, jalapenos, and roma tomatoes from Gull Valley Greenhouses. Kim suggested that we use glass pie dishes for the nachos which was a great idea – it meant we could bake and serve the nachos in the same container.

Mack’s Slammin’ Cheese Nachos

Once everything was in the fridge and ready to go, we were able to start setting up the table and the apartment itself.


Drink bucket (the only true “relic” from my summer party plans, and one I wasn’t willing to give up)

Though there seemed to be some issues with the door buzzer (and people not being able to find the apartment just behind the fire doors), everyone made it all right. We had suggested that guests eat something prior to arriving, as I didn’t think we would be able to make enough to feed fifteen hungry mouths, but perhaps it was the wrong strategy to take, as many of our friends arrived with full stomachs.

Between nibbling, chatting, fun with fortune cookies and Transformers, it was a good night overall. And with the house broken in, it’s only a matter of time before the apartment will play host to another gathering of friends.

In the living room

Thanks to everyone for coming (and to my Mum for helping us out)! Mack’s photo set is here.

EDIT: I neglected to thank Jane in my post for bringing the hummus to go with the pita chips. Thanks again, Jane!

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: 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

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