"Bacon is the candy of meat."

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Winter White

It snowed last night in Vancouver, which caught us all by surprise. Our part of the city doesn't get much snow, and it's early in the season for what we do get. We were out last night having a drink with friends when it started coming down, and boy was that pretty. The city was frosted with it today, cold and crisp. It was a great day for soup and fresh bread.

I'm still adjusting to life as a -- dare I say it? -- housewife. Things that I love to do in smaller doses, like cook, play with children, go marketing, or putter around tidying up, get tedious or aggravating when it's day after day. All jobs are like that, I guess. Getting dinner on the table every night is becoming one of my frustrations. With a team of picky eaters, each picky in his own way (one eats three fruits but no vegetables, one eats a moderate variety of vegetables and beans but no fruit, one theoretically eats most things but will reject a piece of bread for having brown "skin" on it), I often feel like no matter what effort I put in, somebody is going to complain about it and nobody is going to be happy. Mid-afternoon rolls around, and if I haven't figured something out already, I start to panic.

Mr. Gateau and I are flirting with the notion of just making whatever we like, and essentially daring the kids to eat it or nothing. There is always a supply of decent alternatives in the house (cheese, bread, peanut butter, yogurt, mac & cheese in a box, edamame, fixings for cheese quesadillas, eggs) and kids with increasing kitchen competence to prepare it. Still, something nags at me, making me want to produce a meal that is nutritious and appealing to everyone, and frankly, the idea of an 8 year old scrambling eggs while I'm trying to get dinner on the table isn't that attractive.

Tonight, quite by accident, I managed to produce an entirely white (or beige, I guess) meal that concealed some decent nutrition and flavor. I recently got a recipe for a Thai red curry roasted cauliflower soup. It's a great recipe and right in my wheelhouse -- tons of flavor, huge amount of vegetables crammed in there, silky texture, and all made in one pot. I was planning to tell the children it was "White Mulligatawny" and thus capitalize on the fact they have tasted and found acceptable a white bean soup I make and a Mulligatawny. 

I had decided at about 2 in the afternoon to put together a batch of homemade pita. This is something I recently discovered I could easily make, and it really is a pleasure to do, well worth the little bit of time it takes.

I pureed the soup and popped the pitas in the oven, and then it happened. I tasted the soup and found that the red curry paste had packed a serious wallop and the kids would certainly not be able to eat it. I ended up rounding out the meal for them with some hummus and a batch of Annie's Mac & Cheese. To my surprise, they actually liked the soup, though they found it too hot to eat more than a spoonful. My anti-vegetable child even told me it was perfect in every other way, and I should make a mild version very soon. He has no idea he was enjoying a cauliflower soup.

I suppose there is hope.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving, Again

Thanksgiving comes but twice a year when you are an American in Canada. Actually, in our family it came thrice, because we celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving twice in October with different pieces of the family. I thought I could not tolerate another slice of turkey (or another turkey-laden dish of leftovers surprise) -- I'm not even that wild about turkey in the first place -- but as my Facebook feed lit up with cooking checklists and carving tips, travel reports and pie baking action shots -- I realized I felt like I was missing something.

Honestly, Thanksgiving has never been my favorite holiday. I feel the anxiety start to ratchet up as early as August, when my family is hanging out at the end of summer and suddenly everyone starts talking about who will host this year and what will be on the menu. I always found it stressful. I lived in our hometown, but at a distance from where the bulk of the family currently resides, and with no in-laws local (or even celebrating the same holiday, see Canadian Thanksgiving, above), we were always expected to be guests, never hosts. As someone who loves to cook and entertain, this always made me feel a bit of a fifth wheel. And with such a tradition-bound holiday, I never enjoyed the cooking that much. It left little space to try new things.

On Wednesday night all the status updates with pumpkin pie counts finally got to me. I decided we'd have our own little Thanksgiving. Mr. Gateau had a work event, but the U.S. passport-holding family members gathered around the iPad and spoke to my gathered family in upstate New York, then sat down to a mini-feast of our own.

The table was decorated with turkey cards provided by Young Master Gateau in his "personal corporate logo" colors. Yes, my kids design their own trademarks.

The meal centerpiece was a roasted turkey breast, which my butcher had kindly brined for me (including a label with the time to take it out of the brine) and I'd seasoned with garlic, marjoram, and thyme. Although my meat thermometer appears to be stuck at 180F, it came out perfect -- crispy skin and juicy meat. I made a pan gravy with a touch of soy sauce.

Sides were roasted sweet potatoes with a tamarind glaze, skillet Brussels sprouts with maple, lemon, and balsamic, and fresh corn bread.  We were all so stuffed that nobody touched the maple crunch ice cream for dessert.

I think this one is a keeper, as we make our new traditions.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hopscotch 2014

Mr. Gateau's cousin, Ursula, continued my education in the ways of fine Scotch whiskey Friday night by inviting me to join her at the Hopscotch Festival featuring whiskeys, spirits, and beers from local and international vendors. To prepare myself, I carefully carbo-loaded all day, eating a blueberry muffin, a leftover twice-baked potato with cheddar and bacon, and a gingerbread cupcake.

As has happened to me several times before in my life (first sushi at the venerable Hatsuhana in New York, first taste of bison prepared at the Four Seasons restaurant), Ursula has ruined my ability to drink ordinary Scotch by training me on superior examples such as Macallan Ruby. It turns out, we have similar taste in beverages, and both prefer deep, warm notes like treacle, molasses, raisin, spice, plum, and so on in our libations. This made it easy to taste a variety of offerings, because we wanted to try the same things.

We set off with our official festival-issued shot glasses and started with some Nikka Japanese whiskeys, Pure Malt Red and Pure Malt Black,which were smooth and had interesting wood notes. They were good, but neither got us terribly excited. We decided to taste the Johnnie Walker Blue, which the gentleman behind the counter was extolling as the finest blended whiskey ever in the history of the universe. It was smooth and pleasant, but we agreed it had little character. For the price of a handful of dollar-equivalent tokens, we now would never need to be tempted to buy a full pour at some swanky bar.

Then we tracked down Ursula's white whale -- The Balvenie 21 Year Old Portwood. This was loaded with character -- smoothness, but also the warm depth of aging in port casks. It's a good thing they weren't selling bottles of it that night, because I was feeling loose enough at that point to probably drop a bundle on something so nice.

We stopped for snacks -- samosas, cheese, spring rolls, summer rolls with spicy sauce. All hit the spot.

Then we decided to try a couple of beers. I had my eye on two -- Smoke and Mirrors Imperial Smoked Ale from Coal Harbour Brewing, and Valley Trail Chestnut Ale from Whistler Brewing (if you couldn't tell, Vancouver and environs is having a big microbrew moment, and we could have done nothing but sample beers from city-based breweries all night). The Smoke and Mirrors was fantastic -- rich, smoky, but not overpowering, with gorgeous deep chocolate notes. I'm planning to include a couple of 650 ml bottles on our Christmas Eve bar, because I think it will be the perfect drink with Christmas desserts. The Chestnut Ale was a little disappointing, because it was quite flat. The scent of it was sweet and redolent of chestnuts, while the ale itself wasn't too sweet on the tongue, but that flatness made it cloying nonetheless.

There were any number of bourbons, rums, and gins I would have liked to sample, but at this point my tastebuds were feeling a little fatigued, and I wasn't there to get hammered. Also, the place was getting packed, and it wasn't worth having to press through crowds and skirt past booths selling things like caramel vodka to get to the good stuff.

We decided to cap off the night with the one absinthe on offer, Taboo Absinthe from Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery. I love absinthe -- anise anything is a favorite, and the other herbal and wood notes just make it even better (I even have a few absinthe perfumes from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab). When water was added to the green liquid and it turned that gorgeous opalescent pale gray-green, we could smell the aromatics from a few feet away. It was so aromatic and strong that it demanded to be sipped slowly, so we took our complimentary shot glasses up to a perch in the forum bleachers and contentedly looked out over the crowds until every last pale green drop was gone. I'm thinking about picking up a bottle, and maybe even some of the classic absinthe accessories. I think this would be a fun way to end a dinner party with friends.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Dinner is Served

Photo from Food & Wine, my plating isn't halfway as attractive as this.

I'm going to do a massive post at some point about all the joys and frustrations I'm experiencing in cooking dinner more or less daily for a family of five, including three young gentlemen who are, shall we say, not all that diplomatic about expressing their point of view about the offered fare, but I figure if I wait to get it all written, another month will have gone by before I get it all assembled and then I'll have to catch up all over again.

So here is a report on last night's meal, and I hope to update daily-ish. It might get really boring for everyone involved, so I might just start posting highlights and lowlights, but we'll see as it unfolds.

I really wasn't sure what I wanted to make. Some days I feel inspired or have a craving, so those are easy. Some days I am super incredibly uninspired, so we have a Tea Dinner or I fall back on the oh-so-reliant Mother's Little Helper of Annie's Mac & Cheese, some frozen edamame, and some sauteed chunks of boneless chicken breast (a/k/a Daddy Chicken). Or we get pizza.

I knew I wanted to make something but was just out of ideas. I checked out some of the Buzzfeed Food lists, and found some attractive options at a page called "51 Healthy Weeknight Dinners That'll Make You Feel Great." Sold!

I went with a nice simple recipe from Food & Wine for Curried Chicken & Vegetable Pan Roast. It's boneless chicken thighs in a quick curried yogurt marinade (just yogurt, curry powder, garlic, ginger, salt and pepper) roasted over a bed of cubed butternut squash, halved Brussels sprouts, and red onion wedges that have been tossed in canola oil and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. As suggested, I served it with a little extra yogurt and naan, plus some leftover basmati rice.

I love a one-pan dish, and extra points for the two-stage prep taking place in the same bowl, so fewer dishes to wash.The most time-consuming task was breaking down the squash into cubes, which wasn't really that terrible. If you have access to the precut squash, this is a good use for it, and will help get dinner on the table even faster. Stated cooking time was 60 minutes, and I think I could cut that down, because everything looked good after 40. The extra 15 I gave it made the squash softer than it probably had to be.

Verdict: Mr. Gateau ate two servings of vegetables, which isn't a given, older boys pretty much cleaned their plates without nagging, younger boy ate only starch, which seems to be how things are going lately, and I felt very satisfied with just the chicken and vegetables. I expect this dish (and pan-roast variations) will be in heavy rotation going forward.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like, Oh Forget It

We've had ten straight clear (and some quite cold) days in Vancouver, which upholds my husband's two favorite adages about Vancouver weather, the first being "You can expect any type of weather at any time of year here" and the second being "If you don't like the weather, wait ten minutes." But as of today the rain has returned, and it's expected to hang around at least through the weekend.

While I like to get outdoors in the nice weather as much as the next gal, my personality fits in exceptionally well with the gray days. I am the kind of person who likes nothing better than to be stuck in the house with a book or a knitting project (or both -- I've finally trained myself to knit and read at the same time). And cooking. Cooking is a great thing to do on a dreary day. I've even gotten used to traipsing around the neighborhood in the rain collecting ingredients (proving yet another husbandly adage having to do with what you can accomplish as long as you are possessed of adequate rain gear).

So with the drizzle coming down and an online conversation about gingerbread pinging around in my head, it suddenly occurred to me that I needed to make gingerbread cupcakes. I happened to have a container of leftover cream cheese frosting in the fridge from Young Master Gateau's most recent effort at red velvet cupcakes, so we couldn't let that go to waste.

We're getting flyers home from school about the upcoming Holiday Fair with wreath-ordering instructions, Solly's has Hanukkah candles in the window, and Starbucks has been handing out red cups, but what tipped me over the edge into full-fledged holiday season anticipation is the smell of gingerbread in the oven wafting through the house.

Please remind me of all this goodwill a few weeks from now, when I've lost the Little Drummer Boy Challenge, I'm frantic that we won't have enough chairs to host Christmas Eve dinner, my fingers are riddled with paper cuts from present wrapping for the annual Orgy of Gift Giving (we celebrate Hanukkah, Yule, Christmas, and two birthdays before January 5th), and I'm considering sucking candy canes until their sharp points can be used as weapons.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Just Like Mama Used to Make

My kitchen mentors, my mother, Amy, and my grandmother, Mary. They're probably two seconds from telling me to get the hair out of my face when this picture was taken.

You could walk into my house today and instantly detect that A Jewish Mother Lives Here. Rafe woke up feeling sick and had to stay home from school, so I knew that homemade chicken soup was called for. I headed to our good local butcher, West Broadway Meat Co., who carries only gorgeous organic and free-range products, and paid a small ransom for a chicken, and picked up the necessary vegetables from Young's up the street, which has amazingly plentiful and inexpensive produce.

While that was bubbling away, I was hit with an urge to really go all the way and make a batch of my grandmother's rightfully celebrated Mandelbrot. I'd published the recipe here right after she died, because it was a signature of hers, and I am often asked by friends and relatives for the recipe. Well, folks, never mind that nobody else seemed to have the genius and foresight to collect it from her, you can get it any time you want.

Here is a confession: I'd never actually made it myself before. It was, as she'd always insisted, supremely easy to do, and now I have a good four dozen delicious cookies on hand. She always told me they freeze well so it's easy to have a cookie on hand when someone shows up for a cup of tea.

With the house redolent with both garlicky chicken soup and cinnamon-dusted cookies, I feel like I did my part today to make something nourishing, warm, and homey.

Tomorrow I'll probably order in.

Tea Time

My husband's parents were both born in England, and this has led our household to indulge in several British treats, among them strong tea (regardless of age), Christmas crackers (with silly crowns worn for entire holiday meal), and Marmite. Probably the most rewarding Britishism, though, has been the concept of high tea, or as it has come to be known in our household, the Tea Dinner.

My mother-in-law, particularly when my kids were very young, would invite friends around to see her grandkids when we were in town to visit, and would often serve what she termed High Tea. I know that definitions of High Tea vary widely, probably based on region, era, and class, but in this case it involves a late afternoon meal including a big pot of tea and plenty of little dishes, both sweet and savory, such as cold chicken, cheese sandwiches, cookies, and fruit. The children found it magical, and always ate well. They've also become fans of very fancy hotel teas, the kind with the cucumber sandwiches and tiered cake racks and Devon cream. To which I say: What's not to like?

One typically flustered evening, we discovered that if you put food on the table, even leftovers, along with a pot of tea and a plate of scones or cookies, and called it Tea, the children would eat with gusto. Thus began the Tea Dinner tradition. Now we have Tea Dinner about once a week, usually when (a) the refrigerator is piled high with little containers of odds and ends and (b) the parents of the household are about to pass out from exhaustion and/or frustration. We brew up a pot of tea, we put the odds and ends on little plates, and if I'm really feeling ambitious, I'll mix up a batch of scones or muffins.

This week, for example, we did it up right. I served:
  • three medium-size servings of leftover Moroccan Harira soup
  • a platter of sliced cold roast chicken and four slices of steak
  • a bowl of Spaghetti Bolognese
  • baby kale-swiss chard salad (about half a prewashed bag worth) with vinaigrette and shaved Parmesan
  • two and a half leftover twice-baked potatoes with bacon and cheddar
  • one slice of plain pizza, cut in 8 little pieces (the kids all laid claim to the slice)
  • a dish of spicy green olives
  • steamed carrots with butter and salt
  • half a cheddar and apple sandwich
  • fresh baked blueberry muffins
  • pot of Earl Grey
And now my refrigerator is magically cleared out!

Monday, November 17, 2014

On the Town

Before I launch into what I expect is going to be the main course here (ha ha), that being all the stuff I am cooking at home, I figured I should tell you about the eating out we've done. One reason we moved to Vancouver was to enable us to spend more time together as a family, and that has mandated (and made possible) much more eating at home, rather than the couple-few times a week out that was our old pattern (not to mention five lunches per week picked up at work). But Vancouver is a foodie mecca for very good reason, and we've enjoyed occasional forays out into the restaurant scene.

Plus, you know, we need to find decent pizza and bagels.

Our first dinner out with friends was at The Oakwood Canadian Bistro, which we're very lucky to have in walking distance. While it manages to hit any number of hipster foodie restaurant cliches (Edison bulbs, buy beer for the kitchen item on menu, staff with long beards and/or visible tattoos, kale and Brussels sprouts in a single dish), the quality of the cooking elevates it. The atmosphere is friendly and cozy, while elegant in a rustic way, which is aided by the small-plates-to-share menu. We're thinking about going for New Year's Eve. Favorite items include that kale-roasted cauliflower-Brussels sprouts salad, a halibut with lardons and lentils (with pescatarian friends, the kitchen put the lardons on the side for me), fancified, but not too, poutine, and a killer cocktail made with smoked rum and ginger beer that arrives actually smoking, on a little wooden plank.

We've hit our favorite (I should probably start spelling that "favourite") dim sum place a couple of times -- Sun Sui Wah, which specializes in seafood. We've sampled a good Thai place around the corner, a couple of Greek pizza places, a ramen place, and some pubs with grub (the lemon-thyme duck wings at Elwood's were bone-sucking awesome).

We had a wildly successful Korean brunch with friends at Sura, where for $15 per person the table is covered with amazingly delicious dishes, way more than we could eat. Even the children loved it.

For brunch, which we typically go out for on those weekends we are able to pawn off allow the children to enjoy a sleepover with their grandmother, we've stuffed ourselves with organic eggs at Aphrodite's, which has the added attraction of being two blocks from our house. We also wildly enjoyed Latin-inflected dishes at El Caminos. I had a pulled pork and pickled jalapeno Eggs Benedict with smoked paprika hollandaise that I could happily eat every day.

On the pizza front, we've settled on Nat's New York Pizza, which is about as close as I think we're going to get. It's a far cry from our beloved Salvatore's in Port Washington, but let's face it, most pizza is.

It wouldn't be life in Vancouver without at least an occasional family dinner at White Spot, a Western Canada family restaurant chain that uses good ingredients and cooks them well in a not-too-frenetic atmosphere. They are famous for the kids meal "Pirate Packs" that come in a cardboard pirate ship and are much loved by my boys. I had a quinoa and tandoori cauliflower salad there with salmon on top that really was delicious.

Bagels present another whole set of issues. First of all, even the best bagels here are Montreal style, which will never fully please a born New Yorker. They're always going to taste too under-salted and too over-sweetened. The lox, while made of spectacular Sockeye salmon, is too crumbly compared to lush Nova. But I recently found a bagel I think I can live with at Rosemary Rocksalt. The signature bagel contains rosemary in the dough and is sprinkled with rocksalt. While I'm usually pretty much a bagel traditionalist in terms of flavorings, these strike me as in the correct spirit -- rosemary turns out to go wonderfully with salmon and cream cheese -- and the rocksalt adds that saltiness I was missing. The plain and other flavors are also good, and the texture is on target. Plus, they're constantly coming out of the wood-fired oven piping hot, and they have a very good rugalach. I plan to sample their bagel with Montreal smoked meat and mustard, at which point I'll probably have my U.S. passport revoked.

Vancouver is a city that lacks the kind of lunch places I'm used to -- delis that will make you any kind of sandwich, and salad places (and often these are one and the same). However, we are hugely blessed with excellent quality sushi at extremely reasonable prices. I've checked out several of the best looking ones in walking distance, and have enjoyed them all. Yuji's is probably the special place in the bunch, a tiny place less than two blocks from our house with top-notch sushi and some very interesting takes on Japanese "tapas." There was a curry squid to die for. Across the street is Irori, which has a very tranquil atmosphere and some very nice quality sushi. I had a special roll that combines pretty much all my favorite things -- uni and spicy chopped scallops, very lightly fried, with cilantro. I might be craving it right now.

Green Leaf (pictured) has great lunch specials and enormous portions in a nice sunny location, and it's becoming a favorite of the kids when they have earned a special lunch out with Mom. I liked the tempura pepper ring and asparagus that came with the chicken teriyaki. Hitoe Sushi has a very funky and authentic atmosphere, also with great lunch. They give you a packet of Pocky with your bill, so what's not to love?

What's most exciting is that nearly all the places I've described are within walking distance of our house, and barely scratch the surface of the available offerings in the neighborhood, much less the city.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Cakening

When I say I'm not much of a baker, I'm not being falsely modest. I can read a recipe as well as the next gal, but I just feel like I lack the touch for baking that I have for making other things, like really tasty soups and stews. I never feel like I can judge how things are going with baking, and I'm not particularly good at cooking that requires precision or deft handling of ingredients.

But dammit, I really would like to be able to bake an attractive cake. And along came the Halloween Howl Cake Walk.

A Cake Walk, it turns out, is a sort of musical chairs game whereby contestants walk around a line on which there are numbered spots. When the music stops, if the number you're standing on is called, you win a cake.

My children's elementary school was holding a Halloween party including a Cake Walk. I figured volunteering to help out was a great way to get to know other parents and to practice baking. I starting having cake ideas -- something with red velvet seemed apt for the holiday, and I thought it would be fun to ice it to look like a graveyard or decorate it with skeletons, but after that I was fairly clueless. I got a little frightened when one of the mothers at the planning meeting said she was going to have her cake professionally decorated, the kind of thing I'd thought I'd left behind in New York. But other parents assured me that a home-baked item was perfectly normal.

Luckily, I made a new friend, Kim, at exactly the right moment. Kim assigned me to bake my layers the day before she came over, bag of tools in hand. She assured me that though my layers had come out rather flat (more on this later), buttercream covers a lot of sins. Under her tutelage, I learned the tricks of the trade -- put on a thin primer layer of frosting and chill, work on a lazy susan, dip your spatula in hot water for smooth spreading -- and at the end of the day, we had a smoothly frosted layer cake ready to decorate.

This was where things got fun. She suggested I make a cherry compote to use as fake blood in the design, and I ended up dripping and spattering the cake with it, then topping with a skeleton. I was terrified the gory cake was going to get me blackballed from all future school activities, but it seemed to go over very well in a community where virtually every parent showed up at the school party in costume.

Heady with success, I offered to bake another cake. This time, it was my son Lucas who was the client. He'd just read Harriet the Spy for the first time and was deeply envious of the fact that Harriet gets cake and milk served by the family cook every day after school. Well, I couldn't provide a cook, but I could bake a cake, and if he'd promise to down a glass of milk with it, that was a win-win. So while he was in school, I got out the baking pans again and decided to make a simple yellow vanilla cake, promised by the Gourmet cookbook to be almost as quick and easy as making a mix.

And again, total pancake layers. This time it couldn't be a fluke of the recipe, it had to be that I was doing something wrong, but what? I texted Miss Cake, who is a much more talented and experienced baker than I am, and she immediately diagnosed the problem -- was the riser I was using very old. I got out the canister of baking powder and OOPS, three years out of date.

That left me with two skinny, dense cake layers, a bowl of buttercream, and an expectant kid due home from school shortly. I frosted the cake, using the good tips I'd learned from Kim, dotted it with pastel sprinkles, and put it on a cake stand (see above). It passed. The flavor was good, despite the obvious texture problems. I'm looking forward to trying it again with new baking powder.

Sadly the deal is off, though. Lucas refused to drink his milk.

The Cookiestuffs Revival

Greetings earthlings!

Since last we posted, there have been many changes in the Gateau Family. We left Long Island and decamped for Vancouver, British Columbia in August. Now, instead of practicing law, I am a stay-at-home mother, with plans to resume work as a director and teacher of theater sometime down the road.

What this means in terms that might interest a reader of Cookiestuffs is that I am cooking CONSTANTLY. With three hungry (yet picky) sons and a more limited budget for eating out, we are eating most of our meals at home, and having more dinner parties with family and friends. With that comes a lot of fun and experimentation, but also a lot of daily grind and frustration.

My friend kayo from The Well (and founder and host of the fabulous chow.ind conference there) encouraged me to blog about my eating and cooking experiences, so here I am, again. I'll try to keep up this time, and also catch up a bit on what we've been eating and cooking since August.