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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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Marriage (or any other long-term cohabitional situation) is a wonderful thing, but it does have a way of nudging certain foods out of your life. Over time, dishes that had previously been a single person’s mainstay are shelved out of respect for the significant other’s dislikes; one day you wake up and realize these old friends have become culinary persona non grata.

For many years I lived with my beloved friend Jennifer, who is a star in the kitchen, but whose downfall was that she doesn’t like potatoes. Not that she outright won’t eat them, she just made her utter lack of enthusiasm for them very clear. So I deleted the potato from my cooking for years, even after we stopped being roommates. (I have since reclaimed the potato.)

Now, the two main things I miss and have to eat on my own are salmon and tuna. Canned tuna, especially, which Andy used to feed to his late beloved kitty, Mia. Years after Mia’s demise, he still considers canned tuna a sort of catfood and likely always will.

But see, to me canned tuna is instant dinner or lunch. It’s a pantry wonder. Cheap, tasty protein, it doesn’t need thawing or cooking or planning at all. It just sits there in your cupboard ready to be tossed into a sandwich, on top of a salad or into a pasta dish. It plays well with others, especially other things that generally live in your kitchen, like a can of tomatoes, pasta, garlic, lemon and olives. A can of tuna, to paraphrase the late Laurie Colwin, will get a hungry person out of trouble.

This dish in particular is what I eat on the rare nights I find myself alone for dinner. It’s perfect for the times when you’re desperate for a quick and easy dinner, and you’re low on groceries. It’s easy to make – the sauce is assembled while the pasta cooks. And the flavour is something much better than the sum of its parts: briny olives with fishy tuna brought together with a tomato base; lemon zest and fresh herbs give the whole thing a lift. (In a perfect world I would have had fresh herbs in this photo, but there weren’t any in my fridge. I think the food gods will forgive me.)

I’ve written the recipe for four, but a half-recipe will easily feed one person dinner and provide lunch for the next day.

Pasta with Tuna and Olives
serves 4

2 tbsp. olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
generous pinch of chili flakes
1 tbsp. lemon zest
1/4 cup chopped pitted olives
1  28-oz. can diced tomatoes
2 cans of tuna
salt and pepper to taste
optional: 1 tbsp. chopped capers
garnish: chopped parsley or basil

pasta – I’ll let you decide what kind and how much. The pasta in this photo is fettucine made with kamut flour. I also like short pasta, like fusili or penne, to go with this chunky sauce. .

1. Heat a skillet over medium heat. When the pan is hot, heat the oil until it shimmers and add the garlic and chili flakes. Cook until the garlic softens and is aromatic but not browned. Add the lemon zest and olives (and capers, if using), cook for 1 minute and then dump in the tomatoes and tuna. Let simmer for 10-15 minutes while the pasta cooks.

2. Meanwhile, cook your pasta in a large pot of salted water. Cook it just to the al dente stage.

3. Season the sauce to taste and mix in the herbs. Drain the pasta and toss with the sauce.

Leftovers taste even better the second day.

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January 2011 started off well. I attacked the first work week with fresh energy, compiling the schedules of all the nearby drop-in centres and free baby programs. I figured out how to get to a rec centre where a very nice lady will hang out with Penny while I go work out. I made a plan for changing some of my eating habits, and got said plan underway.  And then I got a cold. Happy New Year.

Winter colds, and any kind of sickness, really, are the reason why I try to keep chicken stock in my freezer at all times. Whether chicken soup holds any medicinal benefit I don’t care. All I know is that chicken soup helps me feel better when I’m under the weather, and when I feel the first signs of a bug getting into my system, I stop everything and make soup. (See also: Magical Healing Soup from last winter.)

This soup recipe has evolved from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe passed on to me from a friend years ago. CI is a remarkable source for cooks – like food p0rn for engineers – but I find their recipes overly labour-intensive.  Why should I peel and seed a fresh tomato when I can open a can and live with having tomato seeds in my soup? Why should I fire-roast a jalapeno when I can keep some canned chipotles in my fridge and use one of those instead?

The one shortcut I cannot take with this soup, however, is using stock that is not homemade. In some circumstances using broth from a can or a cube can be okay – like with a pureed soup or a heavily tomato-based soup like  minestrone. But this soup is all about savoury, spicy broth loaded up with fun garnishes.  In general, canned or bouillon cube stock is just too salty. And for this soup it simply won’t do.

This recipe is extremely versatile. If you want a  vegetarian soup, a flavourful veg stock will work just fine.  I use this soup as an excuse to use up stale tortillas, but if you don’t want to make the chips yourself, storebought will work as long as you cut back on salt in the soup. As for garnishes, the sky’s the limit! I have included a pretty long list below, but my mainstays are as follows:

 But of course the best part of the soup is to serve it with all the garnishes on the side, so each person can tailor it to their own taste, like a soup version of tacos. Cause really, we all just want to play with our food.

Chicken Tortilla Soup
serves 4 to 6

1/2 of a 28-oz. can of diced tomatoes
1 small onion
1 clove of garlic
1 fresh jalapeno, diced OR 1 canned chipotle (with or without seeds, depending on your spice tolerance)
1 or 2 sprigs of fresh cilantro
1 tbsp. olive or veg oil
6 to 8 cups homemade chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups cooked, shredded chicken
salt and pepper to taste



For the chips:
approximately 10, 6-inch corn tortillas
1 tbsp. olive oil
pinch salt

Potential garnishes: grated cheddar, sour cream, fresh cilantro, green onion, diced avocado, diced red peppers, corn, black beans, chopped spinach or swiss chard

1. In a food processor, combine the tomatoes, onion, garlic, jalapeno or chipotle and cilantro and blitz it into a thick puree, adding water as needed.

2. On the stove, heat a heavy-bottomed stock pot over high heat. When the pot is hot, add the oil and tomato mixture; it should bubble and steam, so stir it well until it calms down. After a minute or two, turn down the heat to medium and let it simmer for five minutes. Add the chicken stock and shredded chicken. Bring to a boil again, then reduce heat and simmer for about twenty minutes, while you make the chips and assemble your garnishes.

3. To make the chips, preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut the tortillas into 1″ wide strips and toss with the olive oil and salt until they are all evenly coated. Distribute over two baking sheets (parchment-lined, if you wish) and bake for 10 minutes. Remove them from the oven to turn the chips over for even browning and bake for another 5 to 7 minutes, until they are all golden brown.

4. To assemble the soup, place the tortilla chips into the serving bowls and ladle the broth and chicken on top, then top with garnishes.  

To store leftovers, it’s best to keep the broth separate from all the garnishes. The soup will keep in the fridge for at least three days.

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Since we’ve moved farther away from our favourite butcher and grocery store where we can buy meat that we feel better about eating (hormone free, free run, etc), I’m thinking about eating less meat. It’s better for us, after all. Health-wise, planet-wise, money-wise, what’s not to like? 

While I’m not a vegetarian, I spent much of my twenties living and sharing food with vegetarians, which meant that I ate veg at home, and meat when I was at work. And while we eat a fair bit of meat here at Last Muffin Standing, I tend to have much more fun cooking vegetables or veg-oriented dishes. Meat is meat any day of the year, but changing your cooking with the seasons is much more interesting. It keeps me in tune with the passage of time. It helps me celebrate the colder weather when I would much rather have the days be longer and brighter.

This recipe came from a desire to eat less meat, but also a craving for something that had the earthy fall flavours of leeks and mushrooms. Also, the combination of creamy pasta, mushrooms and cheese is infinitely appealing as the days get colder and darker. Comfort food, as it were.

America’s Test Kitchen had sent a mushroom lasagna recipe in a recent newsletter, but I found it finicky. I wanted something relatively simple but with a few refined touches. So the bechamel sauce became a white-wine-leek sauce. Next time I make this I might switch up the parmesan for asiago or add some tarragon to the sauce, but this dish is already pretty fabulous on its own. You could halve this recipe to make one small lasagna, but really, why make one when you can make two and freeze one for later? Alternatively, if feeding a crowd, you can make it all in one large baking dish.

Mushroom and leek lasagna
makes 2 8×8 lasagnas*; each serves 4 generously and 6 more virtuously
* I use tin foil pans for for these.

2 pounds cremini mushrooms, sliced
olive oil for sauteeing
salt and pepper to taste
approximately 12 oven-ready dried lasagna noodles [these may look too small to adequately fill the pan, but they will expand as they cook.]
1/4 cup butter
2 medium-sized leeks, washed thoroughly and sliced thin
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup white wine
6 cups whole milk
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
salt to taste
1 cup freshly grated parmesan

1. Working in batches, saute the mushrooms in a large skillet until golden brown and season with salt and pepper as you go. Set the cooked mushrooms aside in a bowl as you get the other ingredients ready. [Tip: if the mushrooms let off moisture as they cool, add those juices into the leek sauce for extra mushroomy flavour. ]

2. In a large saucepan or heavy-bottomed stockpot, melt the butter over medium heat. Saute the leeks until softened, then sprinkle the flour over and mix well to incorporate. Cook the floured leeks a minute or two, then add the white wine. Stirring with a whisk to get rid of any lumps, add the milk and turn down the heat to low. Cook the sauce, whisking occasionally, until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add the minced garlic, nutmeg, white pepper and salt.

3. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

4. To assemble the lasagnas, ladle about 1 cup of sauce into the bottom of each baking pan. Set down one layer of noodles and one layer of mushrooms (about 1/4 of the sauteed mushrooms for each pan) and cover with sauce. Repeat with another layer of noodles, the remaining mushrooms, and sauce. Finally, top with one more layer of noodles and sauce to cover, then sprinkle the grated parmesan on top.

5. Bake the lasagnas uncovered for 45 minutes, or until the pasta is cooked through in the centre and the cheese is golden brown on the top. Before serving, let it rest at room temperature for at least 15 minutes. If you want to freeze them, let them cool completely and then wrap in a couple of layers of plastic wrap. To reheat, let it thaw completely and warm it in a low oven (about 325 degrees Fahrenheit) for at least 40 minutes.

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Spice-crusted rack of lamb

Let’s face it: I am a cooking addict. One of my favourite ways to spend a Sunday afternoon is in the kitchen tending several pots that will not only make dinner and a few weekday lunches, but a pot of stock or a hearty soup that can live in my freezer and serve as an emergency weeknight supper. But since I got pregnant (and made it through the first trimester), my addiction has gotten a little out of control.

Behold,  the freezer of a mad pregnant lady:

Which brings me to Valentine’s Day, when I feel called upon to make something especially tasty for my lovely husband. Enter, the rack of lamb bought on sale at Loblaws just before Christmas. We bought tons of it at the time, planning to have it as an unorthodox Christmas dinner, and even then we had some left over. Now I’m all for using less expensive cuts of meat as a rule, but as a quick-cooking, delicate, delicious dish, something that’s sophisticated and elegant and downright special, you simply cannot beat a rack of lamb.

And although one might feel some pressure not to mess up an expensive ingredient, the method for cooking it is easy. Put a tasty coating on it, sear it, then finish cooking it in the oven at high heat.

In this case, the coating is an unorthodox mix of cumin, coffee and cocoa. I worried at first about how these might taste together, especially when I first caught the combined aroma. But the application of heat works wonders, and the result is a gentle, rich and dark flavour that doesn’t overwhelm the taste of lamb.

This is adapted from a recipe at Epicurious.com.

Spice-crusted rack of lamb

Serves two

1 Frenched rack of lamb

pinch kosher salt and black pepper

1/2 tbsp. each: cumin seeds, coffee and cocoa powder 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a coffee grinder, grind the cumin seeds and coffee together until very fine. Mix in the cocoa, and spread the mixture onto a plate.  On the stovetop, heat a cast-iron frying pan until smoking hot. This will take a while to heat, so let it sit on the stove while you get the meat ready.

To get the meat ready, wrap the bones in a piece of tin foil to prevent burning. Sprinkle the meat with a pinch of salt and a grind or two of black pepper. Then, coat the meat in the spice mixture – I like to do this by picking it up by the bones and rolling it around in the mix. 

When the pan is smoking hot, sear the rack meat side down, moving occasionally it to prevent sticking, until the crust is a deep brown –  about 2 minutes. Flip to sear underside in the same way, about 2 minutes more.

 Transfer the meat to a small roasting pan, then stick it in the oven and roast approximately 20 minutes, until a meat thermometer registers about 130F for medium-rare. Remove it from the oven, and let it rest about 15 minutes before slicing.

The end result, accompanied by some mashed sweet potato and a simple spinach and orange salad:

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