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Pumpkin muffins

We’re almost in what my sister likes to call Pumpkin Time. Yes, I know Thanksgiving and Hallowe’en are over, and we’re all pretty much over celebrating the harvest. She means Pumpkin Time in the Cinderella sense, as in turning into one — the year’s fun has peaked; it’s done. Pumpkin Time is where Autumn turns to Almost Winter.

November and I have an uneasy relationship. My birthday’s this month, and when I was a kid I usually had snow for my birthday, though not enough for a fun outdoor party. (I really feel that my spiritual birthday is in April, but never mind.) As an adult, this month is when I really start to feel the descent into cold and dark. My brain starts to really miss the sunlight.

In fact, the descent usually starts this weekend, when we turn the clocks back and trade a brighter morning for a darker evening. I hate that we mess with time like this; it’s one of the few reasons why I would ever want to live in Saskatchewan. I’ve done better in recent years in managing my seasonal affective disorder, but even so, to me November is the Month of Dread.

BUT! This week the weather has granted me a bit of reprieve. Sure, there’s more of a chill on the air, but the past few days here have been so sunny and golden. The leaves have turned but the trees are still half-full. I want these days encased in amber.

For now, Pumpkin Time isn’t so bad.

These muffins are a recent happy discovery. Lately I’ve been working on introducing Penny to new tastes, and it turns out freshly-baked tiny muffins are the perfect vehicle for new tastes. Warm? Check! Starchy? Check! Slightly sweet? Check!

To up the nutritional factor I used whole-wheat flour along with white, and applesauce so that I could get away with adding a bit less sugar. The molasses and spices give it a touch of pumpkin pie flavour. It’s a big hit with the kid.

Pumpkin muffins
makes 1 dozen muffins or 2 dozen mini-muffins

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground clove

1 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 cup applesauce
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup  brown sugar
2 tbsp. canola oil
1 tbsp. molasses
1 1/2 tsp. freshly-grated ginger root
2 eggs, lightly beaten

Optional: 1/2 cup of toasted pepitas or pecans, plus more for sprinkling on top

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and prepare a muffin tin; either with paper liners or lightly grease each well with butter or cooking spray.

Sift together all of the dry ingredients into a large bowl. (Or if you’re lazy, like me, you can measure all the dry ingredients into the bowl and then whisk to combine.)

In a smaller bowl, mix together the pumpkin, applesauce, yogurt and brown sugar; whisk together until the sugar is well incorporated. Add the oil, molasses and grated ginger and mix to combine. Last of all, add the eggs one at a time and mix just until combined. If you’re adding pepitas or pecans, mix them in now. Spoon the batter into each muffin well and top with extra pepitas or nuts.

Bake for approximately 25 to 30 minutes (about 15 for mini-muffins) and let cool for five minutes before removing the muffins from the tin.

Serve warm. These are delicious with maple butter, apple butter, almond butter or just plain butter.

Do-ahead: If you want to make these for breakfast, mix up the batter the night before and keep in a covered container in the fridge. As a bonus, I’ve noticed that the flavour of ths spices is more developed if you do this.

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If harvest season were a novel, this would be the denouement.

For the past few months we’ve had farm-fresh produce delivered right to our door through a CSA with our neighbour’s family farm, and it’s been a fantastic experience. Unpacking the box every Saturday afternoon felt a bit like Christmas: what do we get this week? Raspberries! Baby kale! Golden beets! I’m sure it was just a few weeks ago that the volume and variety of veg in the box reached a fever pitch, but now it’s tapering off, and this week we’ll see our last box.

One thing I have especially enjoyed about the CSA is how seamlessly the season unfolded. First, shoots and greens, then ripe juicy veg, then the hardened and sturdier roots and gourds. Of course, the progression isn’t neat and tidy; along with the last of something you get the first of something else. Like the last of the tomatoes, and the first autumm squash.  This first squash was funny, though – pale, tender flesh like zucchini, skin as tough as an autumn squash. Not quite summer squash, not quite autumn squash.

What to do? Turn on the oven, I thought.

A long slow bake does wonders for both squash and tomatoes, after all. Toss in some leeks, fresh herbs and a generous sprinkle of parmesan cheese, and you’ve got yourself a delightful side dish. Or, with a fried egg and some crusty bread, a divine brunch.

Few better ways to say goodbye to summer’s last veg.

 

Tomato and Squash Gratin
serves 4 as a side dish

1 tbsp. olive oil
2 small leeks, sliced

1 pound summer squash, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 pound ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 tbsp. chopped fresh thyme
1 tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1 1/4 cups grated parmesan
salt and pepper
2 tbsp. olive oil

Heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cook the leeks: In a medium-sized skillet over medium heat, saute the leeks until soft and lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Spread the leeks evenly in the botton of an oiled square baking dish, and let them cool.

To assemble the gratin, start with sprinkling some of the chopped herbs over the cooked leeks. Starting at one of the baking dish, lay down a row of slightly overlapping tomato slices,propped up slightly at an angle, and sprinkle them with herbs, salt and pepper. Cover the tomatoes with parmesan. Next, arrange a layer of squash slices over the tomatoes and repeat with the seasonings. Repeat with alternating layers of tomatoes and squash, seasoning and covering with cheese, until the pan is full. Sprinkle the whole thing with a healthy pinch of salt and pepper, the remaining herbs and cheese, and drizzle the whole thing with olive oil.

Bake for at least an hour, during which time the juices will bubble and reduce significantly, and the top will be well browned.

Can be made in advance and reheated before serving. This gives the flavours even more chance to get acquainted.

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I have a love/hate relationship with pancakes.

I love to make them and I love to eat them, but I hate they way they leave me hungry an hour after breakfast is over. They’re like the Vietnamese vermicelli of breakfast. As a person with hypoglycemic tendencies who has recently changed my ways in the white flour and sugar department, I’ll treat myself on occasion but I swear I can feel my blood sugar get out of whack. (I’m sure this is just me being paranoid, but there you are.)

But here’s the thing. I have a husband who likes pancakes, and a baby who will happily eat anything starchy. How could I deprive my loved ones of pancakes? To make us all happy, I just need a pancake recipe that includes grains and less white flour, and then I need the will power not to drown my portion in syrup. But first things first: the tinkering.

Smitten Kitchen (a website I love) has a recipe for oatmeal pancakes that I tried once, and turned out fine, but it calls for a cup of cooked oatmeal. Now I can be organized, but not always so organized that I would think to cook extra oatmeal the day before. (Besides, how would I know that I’ll want pancakes the day before I want them? But I digress.) Now the advantage of using cooked oats is so that you get the heft of the oats, all that fibre-y goodness, without the chewy bits of dry/raw oats in the batter. As a compromise, I used both quick-cook oats and oat flour – rolled oats finely ground in the food processor – which both add weight but soften quickly in the batter.

A note on flour. The theory goes that using all whole wheat flour isn’t the best idea in a quick bread, since the bran tends to weigh a batter down. Despite that fact that I would rather leave out the white flour as much as possible, I do use a bit because I still can’t shake the notion that a quick bread recipe needs a bit of flour that is unencumbered by bran, for the sake of its structural integrity.  That said, I’m sure that you could substitute whole wheat flour for white in this recipe and it would likely turn out fine.

Come to think of it, you could probably get a fluffier pancake if you sub the yogurt for buttermilk. I just don’t like to use too much buttermilk in pancakes because then they turn out too tangy for my liking.

Anyway, these pancakes, they made me happy. I even made them into blueberry pancakes to celebrate the joyous height of fruit season.  Blueberries in the pancakes and on the side, plus some ripe perfect peaches on top. And a bit of lightly sweetened ricotta to add a tiny bit more protein. Oh yay.

The family approved.

And you know what? That breakfast kept me going straight through till lunch.

Blueberry oatmeal pancakes
makes about 16 four-inch pancakes

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup quick-cook oats
1/2 cup oat flour or finely ground oats
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup yogurt
1 1/2 cup milk
2 tbsp. honey
3 tbsp. melted butter
2 eggs

approximately 1/2 cup of blueberries
extra melted butter for the pan

Combine the dry ingredients: in a bowl, whisk together the white, whole wheat and oat flours, quick-cook oats, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the yogurt, milk, honey and melted butter. Add the eggs last, one at a time, taking care not to overmix. Add the wet mixture to the dry ingredients, folding the batter gently. Mix just to combine. A slightly lumpy batter is okay.

Heat your favourite skillet over medium heat until a couple of drops of water sizzle in the pan. (You can speed up the process by using two skillets at a time.) Brush the pan with melted butter and working quickly, use a quarter-cup measure to drop the batter in the pan, two or three at a time.  When bubbles form on the surface, drop a few blueberries onto the top sides of the pancakes. A pancake is ready to flip when bubbles are evenly distributed throughout the surface and the edges are slightly dry. Flip and cook another minute or two, and keep warm in the oven until all the pancakes are ready.

Serve warm with maple syrup and more blueberries. I also highly recommend some lightly sweetened ricotta.

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Earlier this year when I made a whole bunch of changes to my diet, we instituted Tofu Tuesday at my house. I was working on healthier eating, getting more vegetarian protein sources, and eating more grains. In my experience when you’re trying to reinvent how you eat, you need a few standbys to turn to on the nights when you just want something easy, something you can just make without thinking too much about it. Since my husband and I both love tofu, inventing Tofu Tuesday seemed a good place to start.

Tofu Tuesday has a few incarnations, but what you see above is the most common one and we eat it at least once a month.  It’s just brown rice with steamed greens, marinated tofu and peanut sauce, but the sum is so much greater than its parts. It’s hearty, savoury and filling, and as long as you don’t drown it with too much sauce, it feels pretty virtuous.  It’s also a tip of the hat to my favourite dish at Fresh, where I used to eat often way back when it was still called Juice for Life, in its original location in the Annex. That place introduced me to the concept of rice bowls, and for this I am forever grateful.

This peanut sauce is very easy to make, and versatile too. I use it as a dip for fresh spring rolls or as a dressing for cold noodle salads in the summer. It’s also a great go-to for weekday lunches, since it’s usually pretty easy to pack some cooked grains and some vegetables to steam in the microwave at work. Drizzle some of this sauce on it, and suddenly it’s a substantial lunch that won’t have you ransacking your desk for a granola bar an hour later.

Peanut Sauce
Makes about 1 cup

1/3 cup natural peanut butter (smooth or chunky, doesn’t matter)
2 tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 tbsp. minced garlic
1 tbsp. grated ginger root
1 tbsp. tamari soy sauce
1 tsp. honey
1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
hot sauce to taste (I use sriracha)
1/4 cup boiling hot water

In a tall liquid measuring cup, combine all ingredients using an immersion blender. Add the hot water last and blend until the sauce has a nice smooth consistency, adding more water if necessary.

Keeps well for three to five days in the fridge.

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Holy cow! In the time that my baby has been sleeping, I have had time to clean up the kitchen, make this salad, photograph it, eat it AND write (however briefly) about it. A victory for mothers of active babies everywhere.

So what is it? A slight variation on my current favourite salad combo of greens, beets, goat cheese, apples and nuts. In a nod to Spring I’ve switched it up a bit with spinach as the foundation, golden beets, which are sweeter and sunnier than their dark red counterparts, toasted almonds and sliced strawberries.

Beets and strawberries? I know. But it works. Tossed with some balsamic vinegar, olive oil, a pinch of salt and a healthy grind of black pepper, it turns out that they all play together very nicely. And look how pretty.

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Early Spring field notes

Spring, it seems, is my walking season. Since the weather has taken a turn for the bright and sunny, most days I plunk Kiddo in the stroller and spend a good chunk of the day outside. Sure, it may not be warm yet, but it isn’t cold. Trees aren’t quite budding yet, but they will soon.

All of this to say that my time in the kitchen lately has been more transactional, less meandering. So in lieu of a fuller post, here’s a quick roundup of what I’ve been cooking.

1. Leeks vinaigrette, courtesy of Orangette. It’s my new favourite thing to do with leeks; tender and green and reminiscent of marinated artichoke hearts. I suspect that leeks will become as much of a grocery list staple as apples and carrots, which at our house we go through at a prodigious rate.

2. Mark Bittman’s pan-cooked vegetables with crunchy fish. While technically this is Springtime, it takes a while for the new fresh stuff to make it onto our plates so we still have to make do with winter veg. But grating a variety of sweet root veg and giving it a quick saute, with some very light seasoning, seems a light and refreshing thing to do with yet more parsnips and sweet potatoes.

3. This morning’s breakfast was a Springtime-y omelette with parsley, green onion, asparagus and feta. Made with eggs from our neighbour’s family farm.

Happy Spring.

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Can we just take a moment and acknowledge that despite its many virtues, meatloaf is not very photogenic?

How about if I strategically place it on a nest of *Confetti Kale?  

 

Yeah, still not that great. So let me say that despite its humble appearance, this meatloaf is pretty spectacular.

I’m a big fan of meatloaf. I have never understood why it has a reputation for being dull and loathsome. Probably TV, wherein broccoli and brussels sprouts are also reviled, is to blame. But seriously, what could be wrong with a dish that’s economical and receptive to so many different types of seasoning? I love the traditional beef-and-pork meatloaf with the sweet ketchupy glaze, but there’s so much room to play. Moroccan lamb. Tex-Mex chipotle. And in this case, made with lean ground turkey, spiked with fennel and topped with bacon to make it seem decadent.

And let’s face it, this time of year, we still need a bit of decadence. Here in Central Canada we still have a bit of winter left to go. While you, my west coast friends, can go enjoy your asparagus and fiddleheads, we still need some comfort food to give us the strength to carry on.

I’m a bit surprised that I haven’t written much (if anything) about fennel here yet. Fennel is one of my favourite winter flavours. I eat it sliced very thinly in salads at least once a week these days, and when I cook with it, I usually try to bump up its presence in the dish with ground fennel seeds, but in this recipe I go one step further and add ouzo to deglaze the pan when you saute the onion. A quarter-cup sounds like a lot, but it mellows in the cooking. You could ease off and just use white wine or even stock, but it’s worth the use of an unconventional cooking ingredient.  

Despite its down-home virtues I don’t really think of meatloaf as a weeknight dinner unless I’ve done most of the work in advance.  There’s a fair amount of chopping, plus the baking time is a bit long. To get a better return for your time investment, you can mix up a double batch and freeze one batch for later. Or, if you are a two-eater household like mine, (well technically three, but she’s not really into meatloaf yet), you can split the recipe below into two smaller meatloaves. One half-recipe will yield two dinner servings plus two brown-bag lunches.

*At my house, Confetti Kale is what we call a simple saute of diced red pepper and carrot, corn and kale. Onion or garlic if we feel like it. Nothing fancy, just tasty and colourful.

Turkey Fennel Meatloaf
serves 8

Do-ahead: Take the recipe through to the end of step 4 and cover the meat mixture in plastic wrap. It will keep a day or two in the fridge before baking.

2 tsp. olive or veg oil
1 medium-sized onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup finely diced fennel (about 1 cup)
generous pinch chili flakes
2 tsp. fennel seeds, lightly ground
1/4 cup ouzo or white wine
4 thick slices of bread, crusts removed
3/4 cup milk
2 lbs ground turkey
4 slices of bacon, finely chopped
1 tbsp. worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten

Optional: about 8-10 slices of bacon
Or: 2 tbsp. honey mustard as a glaze

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and position a rack in the centre of the oven.

2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook the onion, garlic and fennel until softened and just beginning to brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the chili flakes and fennel seeds, and cook one minute more. Add the ouzo or wine to deglaze the pan and cook 2 to 3 minutes to reduce the liquid, until the mixture is almost dry. Remove from the pan and set aside in a large mixing bowl.

3. In a shallow dish, soak the bread in the milk for about 5 to 10 minutes, mixing once or twice so that the bread is evenly soggy but not falling apart. Lightly squeeze the bread one handful at a time to get rid of some of the milk, and finely chop it. Add the chopped bread to the cooked onion-fennel mixture.

4. To the large mixing bowl, add the ground turkey, chopped bacon, worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper and egg. Mix just until combined – overmixing will make the meat loaf tough.

5. Do a taste test. Heat a teaspoon of oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Shape about a tablespoon’s worth of mixture into a patty and fry it on both sides until cooked through. Taste it and adjust the seasonings as needed.

6. To bake the meatloaf, line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Transfer the meat mixture to the baking sheet and shape it into a rectangular block about 10″x4″. It will become more loaf-shaped as it cooks. If you’re using an optional topping, now is the time to drape it seductively with bacon or brush the top with honey mustard. Bake the meatloaf for approximately 45 to 50 minutes (35 to 40 if you’re baking a half-batch), until the middle registers at 165 F on a meat thermometer. Allow it to rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.

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