Six hundred and eighteen

Tips on common sense cooking (lessons I learned the hard way over the past week)

Tip #1: pay attention when using sharp knives

It’s the first time I’ve used a knife since deciding it would be fun to stab myself in the hand full force, hitting the muscle, bleeding and hurting like hell.  Although I do consider myself a much-improved cook, I’ve got a long way to go.  And no, I didn’t stab myself on purpose or think it was fun.  I was trying to fit a big knife into it’s sleeve; I didn’t realize the sleeve was open on the end, the knife got stuck, I pushed harder, it slipped in through the sleeve and out the end, into my hand.  Yes, ouch!  And yes, it was very stupid!  Alas, these kinds of injuries do happen when using sharp knives.  I am recovered, although I do have a large bruise on the palm of my left hand still, one week later.  And I’m a little more tentative while cutting today.

Moral of the story: don’t have your hand behind anything you’re pushing a knife into.

Tip #2: cut onions before putting on makeup that is not waterproof

I just looked in the mirror to find black makeup running down my face, after crying from cutting onions.  Enough said.

Moral of the story: buy waterproof mascara.

Tip #3: when you’re having someone over for dinner, plan ahead, or else you’ll end up serving them almost rotten vegetables

I am absolutely THE WORST for this.  I always think I have all the ingredients in my house to make something, then find out as I’m starting to cook that the pepper I had in the fridge that I bought a couple of weeks ago is feeling pretty mushy, and I’ve run out of rice, but have some quinoa in the back of the cupboard.  I always end up making something with the all the ingredients I have, but never quite what I set out to do.  I’m getting better at this, but it’s a challenge for me.  (Don’t worry friends, I don’t ever serve you completely rotten vegetables)

Moral of the story: check the quality of veggies in the fridge before planning to use them in a meal.

Tip#4: wearing white white cooking something red is not a good idea

I’ve had to change so many times because I’ve splattered on my clothes.

Moral of the story: wear an apron – always.

Why I still keep cooking despite my silly mistakes:

I know many of these seem like common sense.  And yes, they are.  Sometimes my common sense is overshadowed by the many thoughts rolling around in my head.  Sometimes it’s hard for me to fully concentrate on one task when I’m thinking of my next blog post, or some big idea I have, or what I’m doing the following week.  I’m slowly learning that when it comes to cooking, it’s best to pay attention completely to what I’m doing. I think this might be why I’m learning to love it: it’s one place where I am forced to get out of my head and just do it.  Cooking is peaceful for me (when I’m actually focusing), and that’s why it’s worth a stab in the hand, or tomato sauce on my white blouse, or mascara running down my cheeks.

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Three hundred and forty-seven

My cooking skills

“My goal is to make it thirty days.  My dream is for this to change my habits of eating badly, not taking enough time for myself, and not cooking enough real food.” – from the beginning of my first blog, 30 Days of Home Cooking – April  1, 2010

Yesterday I wrote of reading my posts and reliving some of the events that have happened this year.  I also got to reading some of the original blog that started the idea to do a year of social experiments – “30 Days of Home Cooking“.  The pursuit of cooking skills.  The change in my eating habits to benefit not only my health, but my way of interacting with food.   It was April 2010 when I taught myself how to bake a chicken breast, cook with leeks, make pizza dough from scratch.  I spent one month eating only home-cooked food.  It’s a cringe-worthy read for me – did I really get that excited about making pasta without the jar of pre-made sauce and talk about smoked meat on bagels as home cooked?

My cooking skills have developed enormously since I didn’t know how to make a soup or pasta sauce from scratch two years ago.  I would actually call myself a cook now.  I now cook at home most of the week, eating leftovers the others nights, or sometimes eating out (but not nearly as often as I used to).  I rarely use pre-packaged items, instead opting to make whatever it is myself.  This past year in particular I’ve really learned a lot about what to do in the kitchen.  Cooking 30 Countries taught me about about international food.  Vegan month taught me how to cook healthy meals.  And Life at the Poverty Line taught me how to do it all cheaply.

What I find the most enlightening, however, of all that I’ve learned about preparing food is not to forget the simple things.  I was so excited during 30 Days of Home Cooking when I was hungry at work and my co-worker taught me about avocado on toast.  Why I had never tried that before is beyond me.  And my raw vegan foods post in October really hit home all the nutrients in simple, fresh foods.

I do love to cook a good curry now, or throw together a delicious soup from leftovers in the fridge.  But I also recognize the value in a simple snack of avocado, lemon juice, and a little salt and pepper.  My dream two years ago was to change my eating habits, take time to cook, and eat more real food.  I’ve definitely accomplished this, and I couldn’t have done it without all the research and experimentation I did this year.

“Avocado”

“Peeling Potatoes” (an oldie, from 30 Days of Home Cooking)

One hundred and twenty-three

India

Before writing a recap of my month of Cooking 30 Countries, I have to share my friend Trason‘s mom’s butter chicken recipe.  It is absolutely amazing and really not that hard to make.

Lorna and Trason’s Butter Chicken

PREP

Clean about 1lb of chicken and cut into cubes a third the size of your palm.

Your Marinade in a BIG BOWL:

Tandoori Masala – 2 table spoons
Yogurt Plain – 2 table spoons
ginger paste – 2 tea spoons
garlic paste – 2 tea spoons
Lemon – Half (take seeds out)
Pinch of Salt

Drop Chicken in and mix well – DONT TOUCH YOUR EYES :)– and cover it securely with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge either over night or you can do this 2 hours before.

Once marinated, line a baking dish with aluminum foil and spread the chicken and sauce evenly.  Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes (check that chicken is cooked by slicing open the middle of the bigger chunks).

SAUCE

1/4 block of butter
2 tbsp Almond Powder or crushed almonds
I can of Tomato PASTE (Unico 156ml small tin)
1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp chilli powder
Half and Half Cream (10%) Small carton
1% milk small carton as well or medium size

Heat butter in a large saucepan until melted.  Add crushed almonds or powder and blend together.  Add tomato paste, mix well and simmer for 5 minutes, or until it solidifies enough that it leaves the sides of the pan.  Add sugar, salt and chilli powder.  Once mixed, add cooked chicken and the remainer of the marinade from the pan.  Poor in small carton of half and half cream.  Stir well.  Add small amounts of milk if it looks too thick.

PULAO RICE

1 cup of basmati rice
1 onion
1 chicken soup cube
3 cinnamon sticks broken in half

Sauté onion in a little olive oil until slightly translucent.  Add cinnamon sticks and stir for one minute.  Add chicken stock cube and break apart to cover onions and cinnamon evenly.  Add rice and mix together for one minute.  Add two cups of water and bring to a boil.  Cover and let simmer until rice is cooked.

RAITA (yoghurt dish to cut the spice of the curry)

Combine plain yoghurt with diced tomatoes, cucumbers and onions.  Top with black pepper.

Amazing!!!!  Thank you Trason and his mom for allowing me to share this recipe.

Making it through Cooking 30 Countries

I made it through Cooking 30 Countries and I’m so happy I included this month in my year.  Even though my readers dwindled considerably from date month to this month, I feel more centered than ever and ready to take on the challenges the rest of this project will face.  With a full belly and a strong group of friends and family to help me along the way, I am ready to start getting more publicity, writing, researching and diving even more into this project head and heart first.

I also needed this break of cooking and eating while recovering from date month!

Recap of the month

Here are the recipes I made (or other people made) and where they are from: Ethiopian at Lalibela Restaurant, Pabellon Criollo and Torta de Jojoto from Venezuela, Mexican at Milagro Cantina Mexicana, Scottish Shortbread, Hungarian omelette, Indonesian Prawn Nasi Goreng, Tabbouleh from Lebanon, South African Bobotie, Swedish Bärkräm, Ecuadorian Locro de Papa, Brazilian Biscoitos de Maizena, Aruban Banana na Binja, Japanese at Nami, Caribbean at Island Foods, German Oktoberfest sausage and weisse beer, Thai at The Thai, Southern American Jambalaya, Greek salad, Russian Apple Pie, Imam Bayildi from Turkey, French Chicken Supreme with Gratin Dauphinoise and asparagus topped with Hollandaise Sauce, Italian Spaghetti Carbonara and Gelato, English Scones,  řízek from the Czech Republic, Portuguese Pasteis de Nata, Australian Kangaroo and Tim Tams, Perogi from Poland or the Ukraine, Chinese stir-fried noodles and General Tsao,s Chicken with steamed boychoy, Canadian at August Restaurant, Indian Butter Chicken (see above).

I was going to write about which were my favourite and least favourite dishes, but as I look back on them, they all had their good and bad points.  Most of the bad points being the fat content and most of the good being the taste!  The only dishes that I really didn’t enjoy was the South African Bobotie, but a lot of other people loved it (it might be the fact that I had it for three meals in a row and got sick of it) and the Pabellon Criollo, but I think that was because of a bad recipe.

My absolute favourite part of the month, though, was being able to share many of those meals with my friends and family.

What did I learn?

  • Planning ahead: I once again am having problems with planning ahead, but I seem to have learned my lesson half way through the month when I embarrassingly invited a friend over for dinner, then had nothing prepared and we ended up having to go out for food.  I was much better at planning meals a few days ahead of time during the last few weeks, than I was during the first (a lesson that will come in handy for Only Online Shopping month).
  • Scheduling: I also had a hard time scheduling my time to cook and write between working hours, but I do feel like I’m finally learning to set aside time for it.  A friend of mine lent me Stephen King’s On Writing, and although I’m only part way through, I’ve learned a lot about the job of writing so far.  King is a huge advocate of setting aside time to write in a private environment with no distractions.  This will help me be more productive while I am writing.
  • Sources used:  I need to make sure my sources are valuable when using them to create content for my blog.  Some of the recipes I used were neither easy to follow or tasted that great because of the place I found them (I originally thought they were good sources, but on further research realized they weren’t the best).  The best sources for these kinds of experiments tend to be word of mouth or websites that have comments sections on them.
  • Advice: Speaking of sources, the best places I found advice about specific recipes (besides verbal advice) were on the comments sections of sites like allrecipes.com.  People have made these recipes before and suggest how to make them better.
  • The right tools: It was hard to cook without the right tools.  A dull knife, no spatula, the wrong pan.  All of these things made the experience harder than it needed to be and hurt the end product.  Each month I need to plan what tools I will need to best accomplish my goals and work hard to have those in place before I start out on each journey.
  • The recipes: Learning to cook better, one day at a time.

Where do I go from here with International Cooking?

I will definitely be trying more new recipes.  Especially because of Online Shopping month starting today, I’m going to be cooking at home more than ever.  I will also be trying to perfect some of the ones that didn’t work as well as they could have but I still enjoyed and know can be even better.

A new challenge:

There were a lot of countries I didn’t get to, but there is one in particular that I’m a little upset I didn’t get to try.  A friend of mine sent me to youcook.ca and got me in contact with the chefs there.  The You Cook team started the blog in November of 2009 to learn about cooking restaurant-quality food at home.  Recently editor Thu Nguyen went to Vietnam on a quest to find the tastiest Banh Mi (Vietnamese baguette sandwich).  I’m disappointed that I didn’t get a chance to make Banh Mi, so I’m setting myself a challenge for next month: I will attempt to make Banh Mi by purchasing all of the ingredients online and making it at home.

Starting today everything I spend money on for the month of July will be bought online.  My credit card is sure to get a work-out!

One hundred and twenty-two

Oh Canada!

Poutine? Montreal-style bagels? Caribou? Tourtiere? Peameal bacon? Butter tarts? Maple syrup?  Tim Horton’s? Beer?  What would be the best choice of a meal to represent Canada in my month of cooking 30 countries?  For me, what best describes Canadian cuisine is how eclectic it is.  Indian and Thai food are mixed with Italian to create an interesting new dish.  Restaurants have items inspired from an assortment of different countries on their menus.

What about the locavore movement – eating locally produced food?  Where my parents live in southern Ontario you can stop at stands by the road and take local produce from farmers, leaving your money in a tin.  Being so close to farms and having farmers markets located throughout the cities (see Farmers’ Markets Ontario website to find one near you), it’s not hard to eat food grown by your Ontario neighbours.

In honour of both of these ideas – the eclectic nature and the local food – my parents and I went for Spanish-style tapas and local wine at August Restaurant in Beamsville (I didn’t get a chance to make Spanish food this month, so this is also a tribute to Spain).  August Restaurant is a “partnership between a chef and a gardener”,  using almost all local ingredients and growing most of their own vegetables.  All soups, sauces and breads are made in-house.  The tapas menu (they also have lunch, brunch and dinner menus) has a wide variety of dishes, including Herb and Brie Pierogis with Double Smoked Bacon and Onions, Wee Little Lobster Mac ‘N’ Cheese (obviously not all ingredients are sourced locally, unless there are lobsters in Lake Ontario that I don’t know about), Sweet Potato Empanadas (which tasted a lot like pumpkin pie), Curried Lamb Meat Balls with a Sour Cream Dip and Crab Cake Po’ Boy with House Made Tartar Sauce.  You can look at the full tapas menu here.   Everything was delicious and reasonable priced.  And the mini ice cream cake for dessert was divine!

Tonight

For my final night of international cooking, my Indian friend’s mom’s butter chicken recipe.

One hundred and twenty-one

China

These are all the dishes I used while trying to cook three Chinese food dishes:

The dishes after a cooking frenzy! You should have seen the kitchen before I cleaned it!

Timing has always been an issue for me.  How do you get three dishes to cook perfectly and finish at the same time?  I’m slowly getting better at it, however one of the dishes always tends to suffer a little.  In this case, it was slightly over-steamed bok choy.  Cooking for just me and sometimes one other person, I also find it hard to make a small amount of a recipe.  Usually the amount you are supposed to make is for 4-6 people.  Normally leftovers would be great, but as it’s international cooking month and I cook every day, there is no need for leftovers.  The chicken dish I made ended up with a little too much sauce for the amount of chicken I used.

General Tsao's Chicken, steamed bok choy, and Chinese stir-fried noodles

On the menu was: General Tsao’s Chicken, steamed bok choy, and Chinese stir-fried noodles.  My brother joined me for lunch yesterday and said the stir-fried noodles tasted exactly like at any Chinese food restaurant he’d been to.  He wasn’t as keen on the chicken because of the extra breading (mess up in scaling back ingredients sizes).  Below is the recipe for the stir-fried noodles inspired by a post on good-chinese-food.com.  For the recipes for the General Tsao’s Chicken click here and for the bok choy, click here.

Chinese Stir-Fried Noodles

Ingredients:

Chinese noodles – I used thin yellow noodles
Carrotts, cut in thin strips
Mushrooms, sliced
Green onions, sliced
1 tbsp minced garlic
Soy sauce
Chinese barbeque sauce
Oyster sauce
Sesame Oil

Boil noodles until al dente (the yellow noodles I used took only 1 minute to cook).  Drain and set aside.

Add a small amount of vegetable oil to a frying pan or wok and heat to medium-high.  Fry garlic and carrots for approximately 20 seconds, then add the mushrooms and green onions and stir-fry for 3 minutes.  Add a little soy sauce at the end.  Set aside.

Heat about 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon oyster sauce and 1 tablespoon Chinese BBQ sauce in the frying pan or wok. Heat this mixture very briefly before adding veggies and noodles. Toss well to coat and turn off the heat. Add 1 tbsp of sesame oil and toss again.

I used approximates of ingredients until it tasted the way I wanted it to.  All in all a successful meal that was very tasty, despite the giant mess of the kitchen I made!

Tonight

Visit to my parents in the Ontario farmlands and dinner at a restaurant that only serves local food.  Oh Canada!