Wednesday 31 July 2013

My Great Big Melty Italian Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Some days (or weeks) are better for cooking than others, at least at my house.

Last weekend was not a good cooking weekend for me. 

I was working on two new recipes and ended up displeased with both.  One will require further tweaking.  The other was just plain bad and won't be revisited at all.

I left chicken stock in the slow cooker over night on Saturday night.  On Sunday morning I lifted the ceramic liner out of the cooker and set it out to cool.  There was a resounding CRACK! and the liner split in half, leaking hot stock all over the kitchen. 

It was that kind of weekend. 

The best I can say is that the kitchen got a thorough cleaning!

On Sunday I went to make pizza crusts and discovered that I had no garlic left in the kitchen.  I'd used it all up making pesto the previous day.  There was no dried oregano in the cupboard either.  What I did have was a big bunch of fresh chives, given me by a friend.  I made my usual foccacia dough, omitting the garlic and rosemary and adding in chopped chives instead.  I formed one pizza crust and - being out of patience - balled up the rest of the dough and baked it off as a single loaf in a 12-inch, high sided cake pan.

The finished loaf looked like this:

The bread tasted really good.  It called out for sandwich fillings, and my mood required comfort food.  I wanted grilled cheese.  

I cut two big slices from the centre of the loaf.

I looked in the fridge and found some sliced provolone cheese that I'd bought on clearance at the grocery store that morning, some Genoa salami, and the pesto I'd made on Saturday.

I also found two almost-ripe Roma tomatoes too.  They were still a little pallid, and not particularly flavourful, so I decided to roast them before using them in my sandwiches.  

I sliced the tomatoes into thick slices, brushed on some olive oil and seasoned them with some freshly ground black pepper.

I roasted the tomatoes at 400F for about 15 minutes. 

When the tomatoes were done, I assembled my sandwiches.  

I cut each loaded slice of bread in half and set one half on top of the other to make the sandwiches, then buttered the top slice of bread on each one.

I heated up a frying pan on medium heat and set the sandwiches butter side down into the pan.  I buttered the top of each sandwich, then put a lid on the pan to keep the heat and moisture in, hoping it would help melt the cheese. 

When they were browned on one side, I flipped the sandwiches over and browned the other side.

The cheese was not completely melted by the time the bread was toasty so I put the sandwiches in a 300F oven for about 5 minutes, until they were heated all the way through.

My great big melty Italian grilled cheese sandwiches were messy to eat but oh! so good! The bread was very tender with a nice, mild onion-y taste from the chives, the mild, smooth provolone made a good counterpoint to the salami, and the pesto paired beautifully with the sweetness of the roasted tomato.

It's nice that at least one thing worked out well in my kitchen this weekend. :^)  I'll make these sandwiches again. 

Monday 29 July 2013

Nature's Pantry: July 22 - 28

We've had an extraordinary stretch of bright sunny days, the likes of which we don't usually enjoy in these parts until mid-August and September.  Hikers and cyclists are out in droves, beaches are busy with sunbathers and swimmers, neighbourhoods are filled with the sounds of children at play.
All this bright weather is causing things to bloom and ripen more quickly than they normally would.  Wild foods usually enjoyed mid-August are ready for picking now. 
We've been enjoying huckleberries, thimbleberries, wild black raspberries, and trailing blackberries for a couple of weeks now and, this week, we picked the first of the Himalayan blackberries.

These berries grow wild in virtually every "waste space" here, seeming to spring up from nowhere.  They're not actually a native plant but are, rather, an invasive foreign species. Fortunately, despite their rampant growth, they fit well within our local ecosystem, providing for a great many different species and still bearing enough large berries for we humans to enjoy and put by for the winter months. We picked a couple of gallons this week and will continue to pick on our walks for at least four more weeks to come.
This week found us picking flowers and digging for roots along roadsides and trails, harvesting both Queen Anne's lace and chicory.
Queen Anne's lace grows so abundantly here that it's not unusual to find entire fields full of it.  It likes poor-ish, very well drained soil, so it frequently takes root along the edges of trails and roads.
The flowerheads of Queen Anne's lace are actually umbles; a round grouping of many small blossoms.  In the center of each umbel is a single red or purple bloom.

I mention this because it's important to note this characteristic when harvesting the plant.  Both water hemlock and poisonous hemlock - members of the same plant family - closely resemble Queen Anne's lace but their umbels do not have that single coloured blossom at the center.
I gather Queen Anne's lace flowers for pressing.  They're beautiful when mounted against a dark ground; their delicate umbels resemble snowflakes.
The grandparent of our cultivated carrot, the edible white roots of Queen Anne's lace are rich in vitamin A.  Extracts of boiled Queen Anne's lace roots have long been used in traditional medicine as a diuretic and to dissolve kidney stones.  The plant's seeds relieve flatulence.

As with any wild herb, it is important to use Queen Anne's lace with care.  Do not consume the seeds of this plant if you are pregnant.
Chicory is another wild plant that grows in abundance here and loves poor soil.  At this time of year, it adorns roadsides throughout our area, often growing right at the edge of the blacktop, where there is the most gravel and the road's banking allows for good drainage.

Chicory is related to Belgian endive and, in early spring, its leaves make an excellent salad green.
At this time of year, it's harvested for its roots, which can be dried, roasted, ground and mixed with coffee.  It was widely used as a coffee substitute during the Civil War in the U.S. and  during times of rationing during the world wars both here and in the U.S.

Chicory's pleasantly bitter taste became so popular that it has continued in use, mixed with coffee, into the present day.  

Ground chicory root is the ingredient that gives New Orleans coffee its distinctive flavour.

I've set aside a couple of chicory roots for cultivation, planting them in pots with black collars around them to exclude as much sunlight as possible.  I'll harvest the pale leaves when they are a few inches tall, allowing us to continue enjoying chicory greens until cool weather causes the plant to die back.

Do you harvest wild plants in your area?  What plants are you gathering now?

Stop by my Facebook page or Twitter feed to share news and photos of your foraging finds.  I'd love to hear from you.

Related posts:

Friday 26 July 2013

Summer Pickin's Cake: Orange and Huckleberry With Oatmeal

I'll 'fess up:  This cake started out as a muffin and became a cake because I made a mistake while measuring the ingredients.  

It's true.  

But I'm awfully fond of it anyway.  

Every summer, my fella and I forage for berries. In late July and early August we pick wild huckleberries, which grow in abundance in the sun dappled shade at the edges of our forests.  

They are tiny berries and grow spread out on each bush. Picking them is a time consuming process, but they have a wonderful flavour - both sweet and tart at the same time - that makes gathering them worth the effort.

Last weekend, my fella and I picked about a gallon of huckleberries.  That's a lot of picking! I put most of them in the freezer but kept about a cup of them out to make muffins.  

I've used the same recipe for my huckleberry muffins for years and years, but I was distracted while measuring the ingredients and added more liquid to the batter than I usually do.  It looked looser than I like my muffin batter to be, so instead of spooning it into muffin cups, I poured it into a cake pan and adjusted the baking time to compensate both for the wetter batter and the greater volume.  

When my cake had cooled, I dressed it up with Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting.

I offered my new cake to my fella with some trepidation.  It was much less sweet than a traditional cake and it had a slightly heavier texture, but I needn't have worried.  Neither of us are fans of very sweet cakes so we both enjoyed it very much.  

I think I'll make the recipe this way from now on.

To make Summer Pickin's Cake, you'll need:

  • 1 large navel orange
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup buttermilk or whey (I use whey because I often have it left over from making yogurt
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1/4 cup sunflower oil (or other neutral flavoured oil)
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup quick cooking (not instant) oatmeal
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup huckleberries (you can use blueberries too)

Using the fine side of your box grater or a microplane, grate the zest from the orange and set it aside.

Cut the orange in half and squeeze as much juice as you can from the orange into a 1-cup measure.  Add in enough whey or buttermilk to make 1 cup of liquid in total.

Combine the orange peel, orange juice mixture, egg, oil, and sugar in a large bowl and stir them until they're well mixed.
Add in the oatmeal and mix it through.  Let this mixture rest for 10 minutes.

While the oatmeal mixture is resting, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in another bowl.

Add the huckleberries to the flour mixture and use a fork to gently stir them through.

Butter and flour an 8-inch square baking pan.

When the oatmeal mixture has rested for 10 minutes, add in the flour mixture and stir just until the two are combined.  The ingredients should be moistened but the batter still lumpy.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan.  

Place the cake pan on the center rack of a 350F oven.

Bake the cake for about 50 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned and the top springs back when lightly touched at the center.  A skewer inserted into the cake should come out clean.

 Allow the cake to cool completely in the pan before turning it out and frosting it.  

Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting

My FB friend JC Griffiths wrote to me last week requesting a vanilla frosting recipe.  Excellent timing, since I'm working on a cake recipe this week and was in need of some frosting anyway.  :^)

It used to be that when I needed vanilla frosting, I just softened some butter in a bowl and added icing sugar (confectioners sugar) and milk until I got the sweetness and consistency I preferred, then added some vanilla extract for flavouring.  It was quick and easy to make and pretty versatile too.  I still use it if I need something quick.

Some years ago, though, I decided that I wanted to learn some basic cake decorating skills so I bought a book called "Pretty Cakes."  

The book contained a number of different frosting recipes, including one for Swiss Meringue Buttercream which was recommended for filling and frosting cakes, and for piping.  I used it for one of my first cake decorating attempts and liked it so much that I've used it ever since. 

Swiss meringue buttercream has a lot to recommend it: I always have the ingredients on hand. The texture is light and smooth, and the flavour not nearly so sweet as a butter and icing sugar frosting.  It's a neutral base to which a great many different flavours can be added, making it very versatile.  It pipes beautifully.

The recipe I'm sharing here is pretty much the same as in the book.  I've never amended it because it works perfectly just as it is.

To make Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting, you'll need:

  • 1/2 cup egg whites
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1-1/4 cups cold (but not hard) butter, cut into small pieces, about 1 Tablespoon each
Although you will be adding butter to your frosting, it begins with a meringue.  In order for the meringue to be at its best you need to work in a very clean bowl, without a trace of oil residue.  It's best to use either a glass or a metal bowl for mixing your frosting, and to give it a good wash and rinse before beginning work.

Combine the egg whites and sugar in your mixing bowl and set the bowl over a pan about 1/3 full of simmering water.  The bowl must not touch the water.  You want to heat the mixture, but not cook it.

Whisk the egg whites and sugar together until the sugar is partially dissolved and the mixture is warm to the touch.  The egg whites will begin to foam up as you do this.

Once the egg white mixture is warmed through, move the bowl to your mixer and whip the meringue at high speed until it forms stiff peaks.

Reduce the mixer speed to medium and continue beating until the meringue cools to room temperature.

Once the meringue has cooled, continue beating at medium heat, adding in the butter a piece at a time.

Stop the machine from time to time and give the sides and bottom of the bowl a good scrape with a rubber spatula. 

The frosting may break when the butter is mixed in.  The texture can range from granular looking to very curdled.  Don't worry. 

The mixture will come together and smooth out.  Just continue beating the frosting at high speed until the buttercream is smooth and light in texture.

Add your flavourings at this point.  Mix in liquids slowly, with the mixer at medium speed.  Dry flavourings should be added all at once. 

After the flavourings have been added, scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl well with a rubber spatula and then beat the frosting briefly at high speed.

Here are some flavouring suggestions:
  • Amaretto - Add 1/4 cup Amaretto liqueur and 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
  • Cassis - Add 1/2 cup currant jelly and 2 tablespoons Creme de Cassis
  • Chocolate - Add 8 ounces of semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled
  • Coconut - Add 1/4 cup cream of coconut
  • Coffee - Add 3 Tablespoons instant espresso or other coffee, dissolved in 1 Tablespoon hot water and cooled to room temperature
  • Lemon - Add the finely grated juice and zest of three lemons
  • Liquer-flavoured - Add 3 to 4 Tablespoons of spirits such as cognac, rum, kirsh, framboise, or Grand Marnier, to taste
  • Orange - Add the juice of one orange and the finely grated zest of two oranges
  • Praline - Add 3/4 cup ground praline
  • Vanilla - Add 1 Tablespoon of good quality vanilla extract
  • White chocolate - Add 8 ounces of white chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
Recipe source: "Pretty Cakes; the Art of Cake Decorating" but Mary Goodbody with Jane Stacey, Pub. Harper and Row, New York, 1986

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Necklace Tutorial?

I have a great fondness for necklaces that are long, simple strands of bead or chain.  They can be looped to make multiple strands, long or short, and their very simplicity makes them versatile enough to wear with many different things.

This is just such a necklace.  I made it this weekend because I needed something to wear with one of my favourite summer skirts.   

The necklace is almond coloured glass "pearls" and silver spacers.  It's about 9 feet long so I can loop it into four strands.  I set aside a couple of beads so that I could make matching earrings too.

The set cost me a little less than $14.00 to make.  I couldn't find anything really comparable in the store (not surprising since I tend to go my own way rather than following trends), but four single strand necklaces plus a pair of earrings would cost between $60 and $75 even in WalMart.

Would any of you be interested in a tutorial for a necklace and earring set in this style?  Or is it too simple a project?

Please let me know by leaving a comment on my Facebook page or in my Twitter feed


Monday 22 July 2013

Nature's Pantry; July 21

I headed back to Botanical Beach again yesterday, and foraged along the road as I made the trip there and back.  I gathered a lot of stuff.  It's a great time of year to gather wild foods and medicinal herbs.  There's just so much out there!

Yesterday's haul included huckleberries, fireweed, and pearly everlasting (you can read about them in last week's post), and I added some new finds to the list as well.

It's early in the season for berries, but they are beginning to ripen and I did pick some.  I found:

I grew up calling these berries salmonberries but apparently that's wrong.  Island Nature identifies them as thimbleberries and says that they are drier in texture and have a different shape and colour than salmonberries. 
Whatever they are, they grow in abundance here, and I've been gathering them every summer for as long as I can remember. 
These berries dry very well and were collected by our first nations long before European contact, for use both as a foodstuff and a trade good.
Although they are drier in texture than many other berries with druplets (fleshy fruit wrapped around a seed, like raspberries) the berries I picked yesterday were juicy enough to stain my fingers bright red. 

Also known as trailing blackberries, these plants are native to our area.  The fruit are tiny - rarely more than 1/2 inch long - but very flavourful and sweet.  The brambles mostly spread across the ground, often in rocky areas, and because of the reflected heat from the rocks, they tend to ripen before other blackberries in our area. 
Despite their small size, I was able to gather nearly a half gallon of these little fellows yesterday.

Mystery berries:
That's not really their name, I'm sure, but I don't know what these berries are. (Some naturalist I am!  ;^)

I found them growing near the ground like brambleberries, often near the thimbleberry bushes.  They look like boysenberries to me (but smaller) and have similar leaves, but I've never known boysenberries to grow wild in this area.
These ones are resting in my fridge while I test them for safety following the method given here.  If you know what they are, please do drop me a note, as it will save me some time and trouble.  I can tell you, though, that the few I've eaten so far taste very good and I've not experienced any adverse reaction to them.

Author's note:
I've since found out, thanks to the Mill Bay Garden Club, that these are wild black raspberries.  They can be distinguished by their dusty appearance.  Like other raspberries, when picked, the center core of the berry remains on the plant, leaving each picked berry hollow inside. 

Red clover:
Red clover is a really useful plant to know. A member of the pea family, it grows in abundance in fields and uncultivated meadows here.  Bees love it and so do deer, cattle, and horses. 
Red clover is considered a weed by road builders, railway maintenance crews, and landscapers so do exercise caution when gathering it.  Be sure that the plants you forage are not growing in an area where herbicides may be used.
Red clover leaves are edible and are best when gathered in early spring.  The blooms (which I was gathering yesterday) can be used as a tisane (herbal tea).  Traditional medicine recommends the use of this tea for the treatment of sore throats and colds.

Do you forage for wild foods or medicinal herbs?  What are you gathering right now? 

Please stop by my Facebook page or Twitter feed to share your finds. 

Friday 19 July 2013

Re-Vision: Thrift Store Sweater to Tea Cozy

Okay.  I'll admit it:  There are times when I buy stuff at the thrift shop just because I like the colours.  I have no idea about what I'm going to do with it.  I just have to have it. 

This project comes from one of those purchases:  A Jones of New York ribbed cotton sweater that was too small ever to fit me.  I just couldn't resist the colourful stripes.

I brought the sweater home and looked at it for a while and then decided it needed to be a tea cozy. 

Here's my inspiration piece. 

It's a cotton tea cozy with a removable quilted liner.  I've had it for years.

Here are my raw materials. 

The black stuff is a piece of cotton twill I found in the remnant bin at FabricLand for $3.60.  The silvery stuff is quilt batting with a heat reflective layer fused to one side.  I have an on-going love affair with this batting and buy it in quantity when it's on sale.  I've used it for many projects.

I began by making a pattern by tracing around 1/2 of the cozy's outer cover.  Then I marked two seam allowances: one at 5/8 inch and one at 3/8 inch.  I reasoned I'd need to cut the lining slightly smaller.

I started with the outer cover for the cozy. 

I folded the sweater so that the side seams met at the center of the piece and there was a vertical fold down the middle of both front and back. 

I cut two pattern pieces, laying the pattern against the fold and cutting around the outer edge. 

The second picture below shows what the sweater looked like after I cut the tea cozy pieces and then flattened it out again.

My sewing machine is elderly and cranky. It tends to stretch knits out of shape so I sewed a straight seam then zigzag stitch beside it.  I trimmed the seam down as close as possible to the zigzag edge.

Turned right side out, the tea cozy cover looked like this:

It was kind of wiggly around the edges but I hoped the quilted liner would fill it out enough to solve the problem.

To  make the liner pieces from the black twill, I folded the twill in half lengthwise, then folded it over again, perpendicular to the first fold, making four thicknesses of fabric.  I placed my pattern against the long fold, and cut it out twice using the smaller seam allowance marked on the pattern. 

I folded the quilt batting just once, then cut two pattern pieces from it. 

I ended up with four black twill pieces and two quilt batting pieces.

I pinned two of the black pieces right side to right side, sewed a straight seam, then a zigzag beside it, and trimmed as close as possible to the zigzag.

Next, I laid the next two black twill pieces right side to right side with quilt batting on the outside and sewed them together just as I had the first piece.

With the two pieces of the lining assembled, I turned the first black twill piece right side out and tucked it inside the lining piece with the quilt batting attached. 

I pinned them together at the bottom edge and sewed around it, attaching the two together but leaving a space of about two inches unsewn. 

Pulling the fabric through the unsewn space in the bottom seam, I turned the quilted  tea cozy lining right-side out. 

I pinned the unsewn portion of the seam closed and hand stitched it shut. 

As you can see from the photo above, the bulk of the seam at the bottom of the quilted tea cozy lining caused it to shift.  It wouldn't lie flat. 

I pinned the seam into place all the way around and top stitched all around the bottom edge of the lining, about a quarter inch from the bottom seam.  It worked.  With the top stitching the two pieces no longer shifted.

I tucked the completed tea cozy liner into the outer cozy cover  thinking "job done," but the edges of the cozy looked wobbledy-worbelly (an important technical term ;^). 

I wasn't happy with the way it looked so I decided to strengthen the edges of the cozy cover with some seam binding.

The pins wouldn't easily go through all the layers of fabric and seam binding, so I pinned the binding into place on both sides of the cozy cover and then top stitched near the edge of the seam binding to hold it in place. 

The seam binding did the job.  It's still not perfect but I can live with it.  I actually think it's kind of cute.

Stuff I bought:
  • The sweater was one of eight garments purchased for $5.00 at a thrift shop bag sale.  It cost $0.63
  • The lining was part of a large piece I purchased at $6.00/metre.  I used a little less than 1/2 meter so we'll say the price was $3.00.
  • The black fabric cost $3.60.
  • The seam binding cost $2.80 and I used less than half of it so I'll price that at $1.40
  • The thread was left over from another project.
  • Total cost: $8.63
There are still some materials left from this project so I may yet get make another item from the things I have on hand.
Stuff I learned:
  • Even working with a straight seam as I was, my machine didn't like that ribbed knit.  Next time I'll choose something a little less stretchy.
  • I don't need a cozy as large as this one.  Next time I'll scale back to about 3/4 the size.
  • The thickness of the quilt batting prevents the liner from flattening out as much as the thinner outer cozy cover.  There's no need to cut the lining smaller.  If you cut them both the same size, you'll end up with a better fit.