Wednesday, October 31, 2012

favourites: october 2012

The first snow came last week and with it, comes the muddy season. The autumn colours have been embraced and now comes the season of mud; brown colour and bare trees. As the darkness settles in, it is the time to start embracing whatever comfort we have - candles burning in the dark, family nights, movies watched and books read under a blanket, smiles and hugs shared with our loved ones.

  • Cold days call for comfort dishes like this Beef Ragu. Because what could be more comforting than a mouthwatering bowl of pasta with meat sauce.
  • As it is also the season of cranberries, this cranberry snacking cake is a great way to use up some cranberries, besides the standard cranberry sauce.
  • I am absolutely obsessed with Downton Abbey, and I really, really want to travel to the Downton Abbey / Highclere Castle. On that note, and because of the post, I'd also love to travel to London once again.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

quick weeknight pasta sauce with mushrooms

As a kid, I didn't like pasta nor tomato-based sauces. I'm still not exactly sure why. I guess pasta was boring and tomato-based sauces - or sauces in general - just weren't my cup of tea. So, instead of eating pasta with sauce like all the other children would do, I usually ate pasta with plain ground beef. (Seriously. Pasta and seasoned, browned ground beef. Not even ketchup on top. So weird.) The best part is, my sister used to be the same. So we never ate pasta with any kind of sauce.

Then, some years ago, we had one of those relaxed dinners at a friend's house. The dad made spaghetti bolognese but added cream to the sauce and let it simmer for an hour or so. And I? I started eating pasta with sauce, any sort.

This recipe is for those weeknights when dinner needs to be on the table, like, now. Easy to make, quick to cook and from toddlers to grannies, it is a crowd-pleaser. This pasta sauce relies heavily on the pantry but does not taste like it. It is hearty, comforting, and seriously good for a sauce (and dinner) that comes together in about 30 minutes.

Quick Weeknight Pasta Sauce with Mushrooms
serves 4 to 6

* I always try to use the best quality canned tomatoes I can find but even so, there is sometimes that acidic taste that comes from using canned tomatoes. If that is the case, add a scant tablespoon of honey to the sauce. This won't sweeten the sauce but helps to mellow out the acidity.

200g white button mushrooms

1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion
2 garlic cloves
400g ground beef

1 (400g) can diced tomatoes with the juice
1/2 can water
2 to 3 tbsp tomato paste (optional)
1 beef bouillon cube
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp dried basil
1/2 tsp dried thyme
* honey (optional)

Wash well and slice the mushrooms. Place them into a skillet over medium heat and sauté until they are done sweating, about 3 or 4 minutes. Set aside on a plate or in a bowl.

While the mushrooms are sweating, peel the onion and garlic cloves. Dice the onion and mince the garlic. Add the oil to the now empty skillet and sauté the onion until softened and translucent. Add the minced garlic and sauté for a minute or so. Add the ground beef and brown until cooked through.

Add the diced tomatoes, then fill the empty can halfway through with water and pour it into the skillet. Add the mushrooms, tomato paste, bouillon and spices; heat until bubbling. Lower the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring a few times. (Ideally, this is the point where you want to boil the pasta and when the pasta is ready, so is the sauce.) Season to taste with salt and ground black pepper.

Monday, October 22, 2012

chai concentrate

Yellow trees. Brown trees. Bare trees. Rainy days and rain boots. Wet, muddy ground. Crunching leaves from the neighbour's maple tree. Cups and cups of tea; herbal when you start feeling jittery. Knit tops and boots, scarves and woollen socks. Blankets and books. Fire burning in the fireplace. A few red apples still in the tree; many fallen on the ground. Apples, in pies and crisps and crumbles. Bared emotions. Hot chocolate and walks in the woods. Silence.

The crisp, cold mornings call for wrapping the biggest scarf you can find around yourself. Shoving your hands deep into the pockets when you realize you forgot your mittens. Woollen socks are becoming a necessity. A pot of soup is cooking on the stove at least once a week. Reading books while wrapped in a blanket is starting to sound like the perfect evening pastime. Stillness is starting to settle into the hearts; the stillness of the winter closing in.

This is what October looks like right now.

While late autumn and winter are not my favourite (I much prefer summer and early autumn), I still love to make the most of every season. Which, to me, means pulling on my orange rain boots and going for a walk in the muddy woods. It means making a big pot of soup to warm up the evenings. It means putting on a pair of woollen socks and wearing layers when going outside. It means curling up in a chair and reading a book.

And it means indulging in chai lattes to endure those rainy days. Lattes, in general, are a favourite of mine. With the warming spices and creaminess, chai lattes are made for crisp or rainy autumn days. On those days when something extra is needed, add a shot of espresso to make a dirty chai latte. Dirty chai latte is the perfect combination, in my opinion, of spices, tea and coffee, mixed together into creamy goodness.

Chai Concentrate
adapted from a wooden nest
makes about 4 cups

4 1/2 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
1 (1.5-inch) piece ginger
1/2 tsp cardamom seeds
2 star anise pods
10 whole cloves
1 tsp orange zest
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
11 bags of black tea

scant 1/2 cup brown sugar *
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp pure vanilla extract

Measure and prepare the spices and tea bags. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan; add the spices and tea. Turn off the heat and let steep for 15 minutes. Strain the mixture into a 4-cup measuring bowl or cup. Whisk in the brown sugar, honey, and vanilla extract; stir until the sugar has dissolved. Pour into a bottle or a jar, and store in the refrigerator.

To make chai lattes, use 1 part concentrate and 1 part milk. Heat up or pour over ice to make an iced chai latte.

* While this makes a sweet chai latte, I don't like my chai lattes overly sweet and found this was the perfect amount of sugar for me. If you like yours sweet, add more brown sugar.

Dirty Chai Latte
makes 1 serving

1/2 cup chai spice concentrate
1/2 cup milk
a shot of espresso (or 1/4 cup strong coffee)

Combine the chai concentrate and milk; heat until warm. Make the espresso (or coffee) and pour it into the chai latte. Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

wednesday writings: on prayer

Prayer has been on my mind a lot lately. I know I am not alone; God seems to be stirring up prayer and the desire to pray in our church. And, I hope, in all the other churches around the world as well.

Prayer is not always the first thing in our lives. It is not our first choice. It might not even be the second choice. More often than not, I don't feel like praying. Sometimes I don't even think prayer is really that necessary. God knows everything in my heart so He knows those prayers already, right?
"Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." - Psalm 139:23-24
It is in neglecting to pray that temptation and sin enter. That anxiety comes. When we choose to not pray, we choose to not spend time with God. Understandably, prayerlessness makes us much weaker when tempted, as Christ is the one who gives us strength to resist the temptations. When we neglect to pray, we are, in essence, rejecting spending time in the presence of God.
"Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." - Mark 14:38
So I have been reminded that prayer is important. Prayer is crucial. It is prayer that makes this all a relationship with God. Prayer is where I get to pour out my heart, to talk to God. It is also where God gets to pour out His heart, where He talks to me. As the saying goes, you become like the 5 people you spend the most time with. When you spend time with God, in His presence, you will become like Him. Your heart will be changed. Your thoughts will be changed, to being more God-centered. You will be changed; transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.
"But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord." - 2 Corinthians 3:18
That, right there. That is a beautiful image.

Monday, October 8, 2012

pear & coconut spice muffins

In addition to a sweet 3-year-old, I take care of a temperamental toddler with quick feet. From the moment she wakes up until the end of my work day, she keeps me busy running after her and trying to keep her safe.

She is a bundle of energy, if anything. She likes to test and try everything possible. She is tall enough to reach and climb things, and that's exactly what she does. She will throw a fit if she doesn't get what she wants. When she is hungry and/or tired, she gets cranky and with her, cranky means trying to do everything she has been told not to. In other words, she keeps me on my toes all day long.

She is also absolutely and totally adorable, and always makes my day. She loves music, and we sing and dance together every day. At the age of 1 year 9 months, she is fast learning to talk and amazes me every day with her expanding vocabulary and the 2-word sentences she's already managing very well. She loves to read books together, and if I'm out of her sight for more than 10 minutes, she will come running and asks to be held. She often makes herself laugh, and it is the funniest thing ever.

All this is to say, oftentimes a moment of silence and stillness is highly appreciated around here. A moment to sit down, to collect my thoughts. To breathe in and calm down. Which leads me to my new favourite: getting home early in the afternoon to take the moment and delight in the silence, to brew myself a cup of coffee and enjoy it with something sweet. That is what these muffins were baked for. Having a few early mornings this week thankfully also means getting home earlier and enjoying a moment or two of silence.

In these muffins, warming spices combine with pears to make a delicious, seasonal treat. The addition of coconut, which happens to be one of my favourites, makes them a touch more indulgent, as does the browned butter. Even so, these are a healthy enough treat to have with a cup of coffee or tea without any need to feel guilty. I mean, they are packed with fruit and fruit is healthy, right? Moreover, these are perfectly spiced in the comforting way to make the best of that quiet moment or two you might find.

I had some firm but sweet pears that I shredded, and I loved the moist, somewhat crumbly muffin that resulted from the shredded pears. In case the only pears you can get your hands on are those juicy, soft pears, finely dice them as shredding them would not work. I didn't have any ground ginger this time but next time I am going to add a pinch of ground ginger to the mix as well.

Pear & Coconut Spice Muffins
adapted from The Flourishing Foodie
makes 12 muffins

60g (4 tbsp) butter

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
heaping 1/2 tsp cinnamon
a good pinch of nutmeg

1/2 cup full-fat coconut milk
1 large egg
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups peeled and shredded or finely diced pears (about 3 or 4 medium pears)
1/2 cup dried shredded coconut

4 tbsp dried shredded coconut
4 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
15g (1 tbsp) cold salted butter, cubed
a pinch of cinnamon

Preheat oven to 190C. Line a muffin tin with 12 baking cups.

Place the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, and let it melt. Watch the butter as foam starts to form and when the butter starts to bubble, stir it with a spatula. When the foam starts to subside, watch for small brown flecks in the bottom of the saucepan. When you see the brown flecks, take the butter off the heat and set aside to cool. The butter should be light brown in colour.

In a bowl, combine the flours, sugar, baking powder, salt, and spices. Make sure that there are no lumps of brown sugar anywhere. In another bowl, lightly whisk together coconut milk, egg, and vanilla. Stir the pears into the mixture.

Add the dry ingredients, shredded coconut, and browned butter to the wet ingredients. Mix until just combined. Spoon the mixture evenly to the prepared muffin tin.

In a small bowl, rub together the topping ingredients with your fingers. Sprinkle on top of the muffins. Place the muffins into the oven and bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the muffins cool for at least an hour before eating.