The Empty Ocean Spray Bottle

Like a good little girl who suffers from frequent UTIs, I consume some form of cranberry juice on a daily basis.  In my experience, Ocean Spray has the right amount of cranberry goodness in their juice to make me feel all right.

Ocean Spray Bottle

As a result, I end up with a lot of empty Ocean Spray bottles.

So as a result of THAT, I recycle a lot of empty Ocean Spray bottles.

But you can do more than that.  The lovely squareness of the Ocean Spray bottle makes it a good fit for many things.

Currently, there is one, filled with water, inside the tank of my toilet.  It tricks my ancient toilet into thinking that it’s fuller sooner and so I don’t waste as much water every time I flush.

Ocean Spray Bottle

You can use them as  cooling packs as well.  Fill one about 2/3 full of water (because water expands when it freezes) and chuck it in the freezer.  Not only will it help you to keep your freezer full and thus working at peak efficiency (this is not a problem I have) but it will also make a handy cooler addition for picnics and camping.  The squareness of the bottle means it will fit anywhere, and as the water melts, it will keep your food fresh and provide a nice refreshing drink at the end.

Ocean Spray Bottle

Let’s not forget that you can re-use them for their original purpose, and put more juice, like the stuff you make from powder or concentrate, back in them.  They’re also a good way to store iced tea that you’ve brewed, or to flavour water.  I like to have an extra container of filtered water in the fridge for dinner parties, because we tend to get thirsty with all that talking and eating and my Brita pitcher just can’t keep up.

Ocean Spray Bottle

The squareness, again, lends itself to storage just as nicely.  Small pastas, like macaroni, or rice or any other small nodule-like dry good (jelly beans?), will be easy to find and compactly stored in your pantry — just make sure the bottle is fully dried out before you pour in your foodstuffs.

Ocean Spray Bottle

And if you want to get really creative, you can turn the empty bottle into a bird feeder to help out your avian friends over the winter.  Make it into a giant spare change holder.  Or  drum.  Or use it as a float (filled with air) or a weight (filled with sand) for keeping track of your dock moorings at the cottage.

Cut off the bottom and use the top as a funnel for birdseed, cat litter, sand … whatever you need to funnel.  Fill it with water and bury it in your garden to keep your tomatoes watered.

Ocean Spray Bottle

Use the square bottoms as drawer organizers that you can move around at your whimsy and fill with all your odds and ends.  Decorate them and keep them on your desk, in plain sight.  Make them hold pencils or buttons.

Ocean Spray Bottle

Many years ago I had a client who was a bit of a hoarder, and he had kept all his bottles, filled with water, and lining the shelves that ran near the ceiling in every room.  He was preparing for the apocalypse, I suppose.

That’s about all I can think of.  If you have any other uses, please feel free to add them in the comments section.  I would love to have more things to do with all my empty bottles!

Wingin’ It Wednesday: Salmon with Roasted Veg and Israeli Couscous

Wingin' It Wednesday

Most of the time, I don’t photograph every step of what I am cooking.  Hard to believe.  But the majority of my days are spent in getting home a little after dark, walking the fiend, and then trying to create dinner out of what’s left in my fridge.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes if it works, I remember enough about it to recreate it another time.  Sometimes.

So I’m introducing Wingin’ It Wednesdays to you here.  These are meals that I haven’t paid enough attention to, ones I couldn’t tell you what I did to make them.  But they turned out okay, and usually they were a spur-of-the-moment concoction of the dregs of my pantry.  They might help to inspire you when you’re looking for that middle-of-the-week meal at the last minute.

This dinner was Atlantic Salmon that I pulled out of my freezer (the Pie was out).

Wingin' It Wednesday

I had picked up some Israeli couscous from Auntie Crae’s back before it shut down, and I’d never tried it, so here was a good opportunity.  After having tried it, I think I prefer regular couscous, though this would be good in a soup.

Wingin' It Wednesday

I also roasted a sweet potato and a buttercup (not butternut) squash with a little bit of olive oil.

Wingin' It Wednesday

Tasty, tasty.

What’s in your pantry/fridge/freezer that you’ve been meaning to try but haven’t?

Sweet Potato Fries

Sweet Potato Fries

In trying to adapt to a new routine (in our case, to the start of a new school semester), it’s easy to get lazy about your cooking.  Fortunately (because I’m me), when I cook I do it in large batches and I freeze what I don’t use.  So on nights when we’re feeling lazy we can simply unfreeze some pre-prepared goodness rather than buying something quick at the store.

In this particular situation we hauled out some beef burgers I’d frozen the week before.  But what to go on the side?  How about some sweet potato fries?  That sounds like a good plan.  Baked instead of fried, of course, but you get the idea.

Preheat your oven to 425°F.

Peel yourself some sweet potatoes (we used 4, but it depends on the size of the potato and the amount of fries you want).  These are also known as yams in some parts of the United States, but it gets a little confusing

Sweet Potato Fries

Chop the potatoes up into thin sticks (y’know, French fry-shaped pieces), and pop them in boiling water for 5-6 minutes to par-boil.  If you like your fries a little crispier, I wouldn’t bother to par-boil them.

Sweet Potato Fries

Drain them and toss them in a greased roasting pan or baking sheet.  Sprinkle evenly with salt and pepper and a little bit of cajun seasoning.

Sweet Potato Fries

Bake for 20-25 minutes, flipping with a spatula halfway through.  The “fries” should be crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.  Enjoy!

Sweet Potato Fries

Tofu Feature Month: Corn and Tofu au Gratin

Spicy Corn & Tofu Gratin

This quick and warm meal comes just in time for the start of school and our rainy season here in Newfoundland.  So while the wind howls outside our windows, averaging 75km/h (on a relatively calm day), and the rain patters through the holes in our leaky roof, we can curl up after a long day at school with this comforting little casserole.   I pulled it from Metro’s recipe site, and modified it a bit because I can’t find chipotle purée anywhere (hint, hint: stocking stuffers, people).

Preheat your oven to 350°F.

Chop up about 1/2 a small onion.

Spicy Corn & Tofu Gratin

In a large skillet, heat about 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat.  Chuck in your chopped onion and 2 teaspoons minced garlic and sweat that stuff for a minute or so.

Spicy Corn & Tofu Gratin

Next, crumble up 1 (1lb) package firm tofu and dump that into the pan.

Spicy Corn & Tofu Gratin

Add in 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 2 teaspoons chipotle seasoning (chipotle purée if you can get it), 1 teaspoon dried oregano, and the leaves from 4 sprigs of fresh thyme.

Spicy Corn & Tofu Gratin

Also add 1 12oz can of corn, drained (you could probably use thawed frozen corn, too). This is the world’s best can opener, by the way. We got it at Lee Valley. You should get one.

Spicy Corn & Tofu Gratin

Then add 1 cup vegetable broth.

Spicy Corn & Tofu Gratin

Stir that around and reduce for 5-10 minutes, or until all the liquid has been absorbed or evaporated.

Spicy Corn & Tofu Gratin

Transfer the whole shebang to a baking dish and top with 7oz crumbled chèvre (goat’s cheese).

Spicy Corn & Tofu Gratin

Bake until the cheese is melty (chèvre doesn’t get all runny, so you have to keep an eye on it), about 10 minutes, and serve right away.  Fantastic reheated the next day as well.

Spicy Corn & Tofu Gratin

The Perfect Pop

The Perfect Pop

One of my research participants told me about this method of popping corn.  It was a cold night in January and we would both rather be elsewhere — in this particular situation, we would both rather be home in front of the fire, digging into a book we’d both started reading at the same time, and stuffing our faces with popcorn.  She told me about this new/old method she’d re-discovered: the art of cooking popcorn on the stove top.

We’d had an air-popper growing up, which was fun to watch, but noisy, and when you poured the melted butter over the popcorn you often ended up with soggy popcorn in some places and no butter at all in others.  The flavour-distribution method needed work.

Then of course there are the microwave popcorns, which always seem to leave a weird film on my teeth and which all taste (to me) faintly of chemicals.  I’m also not a huge fan of using the microwave, unless it’s to melt butter for baking or heat up my tea.

Everyone has their own method for making popcorn on the stove, and I tried a bunch of them (including the method prescribed by my research participant).  The best and simplest method I came up with was a combination of her recipe, this one, and this one.  You should definitely test out different approaches to see which works best for you, your stove, and your pots and pans.

So.  Take yourself a large saucepan with a lid (the amounts below will give you about 12 cups of popcorn).

Add 1/4 cup vegetable oil to the bottom (anything with a high smoke point will do, like canola, sunflower, peanut, or grapeseed.  I like to use peanut oil because I think it tastes better on the popcorn).  Place over medium heat and let it get nice and toasty.

The Perfect Pop

Plop 3 or 4 kernels of popping corn (my research participant tells me that No-Name brand kernels are terrible for popping this way, so use another brand if you can) into the pan and cover with a lid.  When you hear the kernels pop (you use more than one in case that one is a dud), you know the oil is hot enough for popping.

The Perfect Pop

Pour in 1/2 cup popping corn.  For a sweet treat, add 1/4 cup sugar as well (if you use white sugar it tastes like candy corn, and if you use brown sugar, it’s like caramel corn).  For a salty taste, add in 2 tablespoons salt instead.

The Perfect Pop

Stir it all really well, cover, and remove it from the heat.  Wait for 30 seconds.  This brings all the kernels up to the same, almost-popping temperature.

The Perfect Pop

Put the pan back on the heat.  Very shortly thereafter the corn should start popping like crazy, and all at once.  Keep the pan covered but leave the lid slightly ajar to let the steam escape, and every few seconds, give the pan a shake back and forth on the burner to keep the popped kernels from burning.  When you get to the point where there are about 2-3 seconds between pops, it’s time to take the pan off the heat.

The Perfect Pop

Pour the popped corn into a large bowl.  If you used sugar, allow the corn to cool slightly (so you don’t burn your tongue), and break up the large clumps with a spoon.   Then feel free to gorge yourself silly.  I did find that the sugar version has a slightly smaller yield, and I think that has something to do with the stickiness of the sugar tamping down the explosive properties of the corn.

The Perfect Pop

Some of the kernels got caramelized before they’d reached their full potential.  But perhaps I just didn’t stir it well enough.

The Perfect Pop

Tofu Feature Month: Dark Chocolate Mousse

Tofu Chocolate Mousse

Who says that tofu only belongs on the savoury side of life?

This chocolate dessert is quick and easier than doing it the hard way.

The original recipe I had called for carob powder, but I didn’t have any, so I chopped up dark chocolate and melted it instead.  I figured it would make a smoother treat that way.

Tofu Chocolate Mousse

In a blender, combine 1 package soft silken tofu, 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, 1/2 melted dark chocolate, and 1/2 cup soy milk.  Add between 2 and 6 tablespoons of sugar (I did 2, the recipe I had called for 6, and that seemed like a lot).  Blend that until it’s smooth.  It might take some stirring to dislodge pockets of cocoa powder.

Tofu Chocolate Mousse

Pour into parfait cups or layer in a tall glass.  I tried to layer with marshmallows, but of course they floated when I tried to pour more chocolate on top. Yes, I am an idiot.

Tofu Chocolate Mousse

And the fresh raspberries I put on top sank.

Tofu Chocolate Mousse

Chill until firm(er) and serve.

To be honest, I was not a fan of this dessert.  Firstly, it was most decidedly not a mousse — that frothy, floating concoction that I know and love.  This was more like a heavy pudding.  And the smoothness of the tofu did nothing to hide the chalky feeling of undissolved cocoa powder sliding down my gullet.  It tasted fine, but the texture was all wrong.  In this case, I would stick with real dairy and straight chocolate.

Tofu Chocolate Mousse

Tofu Feature Month: Roasted Vegetable Lasagna

Tofu Lasagna

Today we are going to use tofu to replace ricotta cheese in a healthy and hearty lasagna.  This recipe makes for 2 dishes of pasta, so you can freeze one and then thaw it for cooking at a later date.

Start with your roasting vegetables.  Preheat your oven to 450°F.

Slice up 2 Italian eggplants (or one small regular one), 1 zucchini, and 2 red peppers.

Tofu Lasagna

Make the pieces relatively small so you don’t have to cut them up too much when you eat them.

Tofu Lasagna

Plop those in a roasting pan and drizzle lightly with olive oil.  Toss thoroughly and roast for about 20-30 minutes, stirring about halfway through, until everything is tender and fragrant.  Reduce the heat of the oven to 350°F if you are planning on cooking your lasagna right away.

Tofu Lasagna

Next, chop up about half a large yellow onion, and about a dozen mushrooms.  Sauté those suckers in a large saucepan with a wee bit of olive oil until they are tender as well.

Tofu Lasagna

Add the roasted vegetables and stir them around.

Tofu Lasagna

Pour in 2 jars tomato-based pasta sauce and mix that around to warm everything up.  I only used one jar of sauce in this recipe and didn’t have quite enough sauce to cover everything, so I definitely recommend two jars.  Add in a bit of fresh basil, too,  if you’ve got it.

Tofu Lasagna

Thaw 1 500g package of frozen spinach.

Tofu Lasagna

Add to that 2 packages soft tofu (or firm silken tofu) and squish it around.

Tofu Lasagna

I puréed about half of it in a blender for a creamier texture.

Tofu Lasagna

Season with salt and pepper. Shoulda used a bigger bowl …

Tofu Lasagna

Now, line the bottom of your oblong casserole dishes with noodles.  I use the no-cook lasagna because it’s less of a pain in the butt, and with the size of my dishes, each casserole will take 9 noodles.  Spread on a generous layer of the roasted vegetables in tomato sauce (I had to be sparing, because I only used the one jar of sauce).

Tofu Lasagna

Add another layer of noodles, then a heaping of the tofu/spinach mixture. Use half the stuff for each casserole.

Tofu Lasagna

More noodles.  The rest of your tomato sauce.  Try to cover all the noodles so they don’t dry out while baking.  Obviously, that’s not what happened here.  But what can you do?  I learned from my mistakes.

Tofu Lasagna

For a little extra flavour, feel free to top the lasagna with a handful of crumbled feta cheese.

Tofu Lasagna

Bake at 350°F for about 30-40 minutes, or until the top of the lasagna is all nice and bubbly.  Some lasagna advocates recommend covering the casserole and then uncovering it in the last ten minutes to crispen it up, but I’ve found that’s only helpful if you are working from a frozen casserole.  If you plan to freeze this lasagna and eat it later, I suggest you let it thaw completely before cooking.

Tofu Lasagna

Now you can eat it.  Comfort food that won’t kill you.  Genius. Though it probably would have been a better choice NOT to eat it with garlic bread.

Tofu Lasagna

Pork-Stuffed Belgian Sandwiches

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

I originally had the title written as “pork-stuffed Belgians” but that didn’t seem right somehow.  I had a vision of a bunch of people walking around in Bruges with sausages coming out of all their pockets.

For the record, the Belgian is the name of the loaf I picked up from the Georgestown Bakery the other day.  Not to be confused with the sweetened tea bread served in Belgium, this is more of a sourdough French bread baked in a shape not unlike a gridiron football.  The thing is, I picked up two, because they were hot from the oven and the guy at the counter was very persuasive.  The other thing is, they’re not so good the next day — a little stale.  We consumed one for lunch that day, and then I had to think up what to do with the second one for dinner.  That’s a lotta bread.  So I kind of made this up on the fly.  I’m sure there are other variations out there, and if there’s one with a nifty name, please let me know.  Also it could use some tweaking so I welcome suggestions.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

Preheat your oven to 450°F and spray a baking dish.  Peel the membrane off one small tenderloin (enough meat for three people), just like we learned.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

I lightly basted the tenderloin with a few drops of Lee & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, malt vinegar, and hoisin sauce.  Pop that sucker in the oven for about 25 minutes, or until the meat reaches an internal temperature of at least 135°F (for rare).

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

Meanwhile, use a mandolin to thinly slice about four small new potatoes.  I sliced them into a bowl of water, to rinse the starch off.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

Drain the water and pat the potatoes dry.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

Thinly slice as well three small carrots.  We’re working with small today.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

Chop a few broccoli florets up and steam them.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

Toss the potatoes and carrots into a large frying pan with a bit of olive oil and sauté on medium-high heat for a few minutes.  Add in some sea salt to taste.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

Add in about three tablespoons malt vinegar and three tablespoons water and reduce the heat to medium-low until the vegetables are tender.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

Plop in your steamed broccoli bits.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

Plop in a few spoonfuls of plum sauce and teriyaki sauce.  Don’t forget another splash of the wooster sauce as well.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

Now cut your loaf (I used a Belgian, but you might want to try something with a little less bread in it) in half vertically. Slice a hole in each half, being careful not to puncture the sides of the loaf.  We want a little pocket.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

Butter that pocket.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

I thought we needed a bit more sweet in this salty meal so I spread the inside of the pocket with some lovely mango chutney as well.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

At this point your tenderloin should be cooked.  Plop it on a board and cut it up without allowing the meat to rest.  We want the juices to run so they run straight into the bread.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

Stuff pieces of the tenderloin into the pocket.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

Stuff your warm vegetables in as well.

Pork-Stuffed Belgian

I had plenty of vegetables left over, and some meat, and that made a good lunch the next day.  I never want to see bread again.

Tofu Feature Month: Mapo Tofu

Mapo Tofu

I FINALLY found silken tofu in St. John’s.  I’ve been looking for it for what feels like forever.  In celebration of my recent discovery, and the Pie’s insistence that he needs to slim down in time for Kristopf’s wedding next July, I have decided to honour the long-standing request of my friend Danger K and start finding new ways to cook with tofu.  You might know Danger K: she recently got married (on our wedding anniversary, no less), and she and her husband planned a big fancy wedding by begging, bartering, and borrowing everything they could.  Their expenses out of pocket?  About two hundred bucks.  You can read about the process on their blog, Project Priceless.  So they’re a little bit famous back in Ottawa.  And I can say that I knew her when.  We went to high school together.  In fact, she had a huge crush on one of my brothers (DON’T DENY IT DANGER K I HAVE PROOF).  Not that I’m going to hold that against her or anything.

Mapo Tofu

So.  Cooking with tofu.

My previous experiences cooking with tofu (not in eating it, just cooking it) focused mainly on tossing cubes of it into Broccofu, Peanut Butter Spaghetti, or the occasional stir-fry.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but’s not using tofu in all its myriad manifestations.  This fall, the Pie and I aim to change our ways, and this recipe is the beginning.  September will be a sort of Tofu Feature Month.

Mapo doufu (mapo tofu) is a traditional spicy dish from the Sichuan province of China and involves sautéing tofu pieces in a suspension of a paste made of beans and chilis.  What I found particularly interesting about this dish is that I normally think of tofu as a protein-replacement for meat, but this recipe calls for a combination of tofu AND beef or pork.  Very unique (for me, at least).

Mapo Tofu

A note on substitutions:  this recipe calls for chili bean paste, a spicy gooey mixture of fermented soy beans and chilis (I’m thinking like a super-hot miso).  I didn’t have such a thing, so I used black bean paste instead with the chilis, which is why my sauce isn’t that signature reddish colour.  The recipe also requires the use of rice wine, which, not being a wine-drinker, I also don’t have, so we used rice wine vinegar instead.  Finally, the recipe I used made little sense and required some serious moderation, so I haven’t linked you to it.   I wasn’t a huge fan.

Start by making up enough rice for two people.

Mapo Tofu

Drain and pat dry one block soft tofu (I used extra-firm silken tofu because I wanted to see what it was like).  Cut it into 1″ cubes.

Mapo Tofu

Slice up 4-5 green onions and save about 1/4 of the green tips (sliced) for garnish.

Mapo Tofu

In a skillet or wok over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and sauté 4oz ground beef or pork until cooked.  Drain and set aside.

In the same pan, heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil.  Add 1 teaspoon minced ginger, the green onion that isn’t what you saved for garnish, 2 whole dried chilis, and 1 teaspoon ground peppercorns (Sichuan if you’ve got ’em).  Cook that for about a minute.

Mapo Tofu

Add the ground meat back in, as well as 3 tablespoons chili bean paste, 2 teaspoons minced garlic, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 tablespoon rice wine, and 2 teaspoons brown sugar.  Cook that for another minute or so, just so everything can get acquainted.

Mapo Tofu

Add in the cubed tofu as well as 1/4 cup vegetable stock (or beef, or pork) and let that simmer for 15 minutes.   Stir occasionally, but don’t let the tofu fall apart.

Mapo Tofu

When it’s nearing done, dissolve 1 tablespoon corn starch in a little bit of water and pour that in as well.  Stir gently until it thickens.

Mapo Tofu

Serve over rice and garnish with the remaining green onions.  SPICY!

Mapo Tofu

Most Meta Milkshake

Most Meta Milkshake
I had a meta moment the other day.  Hear me out.

So there are these Oreo cookies, limited edition.  Cookies and cream.   In a cookie.  With cream.
Most Meta Milkshake

Cookies and cream is, on its own, a popular ice cream flavour, and by extension, a good milkshake.  Because it’s cookies.  In cream.  In fact, as you can see, the picture on the front of the Oreo package is of a cookies and cream cookie in a cookies and cream milkshake.  My mind was slightly blown.

So we of course made milkshakes with our cookies and cream cookies.  We would have used cookies and cream ice cream as well but we thought that might be pushing it.

Basic formula: take about 4 cookies per milkshake and crush them up in a food processor.
Most Meta Milkshake

Crush them into crumbs.
Most Meta Milkshake
Plop as much ice cream as will fit into the cup into which you will be putting your finished product.
Most Meta Milkshake
Fill the rest up with milk.
Most Meta Milkshake
Pour that stuff into a blender, together with your crumbs.
Most Meta Milkshake
Blend and pour.
Most Meta Milkshake
Enjoy your cookies and cream cookies with cream in a meta manner.