Make, Jane, make!: February 2011


Small Share

Friday, February 25, 2011

Quick Saag Paneer

We love food at our house. Before the kids came along, dabbling in different cuisines and cooking techniques was a favourite past time. However, living in a city where fairly authentic restaurants can be found serving food of all cultures and nationalities, makes for a very lazy home cook. Want Thai? Let's zip up the street. Craving shawarma? Head to a local Persian place. Fresh naan? Let's choose an Indian joint. So, although I could cook many of my craving foods at home, I would only do so when the fancy hit me. And usually the fancy would hit so close to dinner time that we would often end up eating out.

Strangely enough, it was becoming a mom and having my kids suck all the energy and time out of my life, that helped me find the time and energy to cook more of my favourite meals at home. Maybe it's because we don't eat out as often anymore ($$$), so I need to recreate those dishes at home. Maybe it's because I appreciate more the value of eating organic home cooked meals when we can. Or maybe it's because young taste buds don't always appreciate the restaurant chef's seasonings. In the case of one of our most cuisines, Indian, it's probably all of the above.

I have a beloved Indian cookbook, 1000 Indian Recipes, which is a great starting point for anyone trying to learn about authentic Indian cooking. Over the years, I've tried many recipes from the book and all have been big hits with my diners. I've learned a lot about common Indian kitchen ingredients and have begun to better understand the roles that all those exotic spices play in a dish. But up until recently, I had never strayed from the book... if I wanted to taste the glory of tamarind chicken, I would just follow the tried and true recipe.

Following recipes in a cookbook nowadays though seems a lot more difficult... especially when I'm working with toddler/baby barely at bay and whatever is in the fridge. So recently, I've been finding myself winging it more and more often.


Quick Saag Paneer (makes enough for dinner for four, or dinner for two+kiddies and leftovers)

A dish usually made from pureed spinach and paneer (Indian yogurt cheese). In my version, I've had to eliminate any heat (for my picky three year old) and I use a combination of spinach and chard, which gives the final dish a little more body than the usual over-pureed spinach dish that you sometimes find at Indian take out places.
(p.s. If anyone is actually reading this and wants me to post this in proper recipe format, just let me know!)

Very coarsely minced garlic and ginger. Don't worry, everything is getting pureed.

Mince a 1-inch long piece of ginger and a slightly larger amount of garlic (today this was about 4 large cloves of garlic). I like my saag a little more garlicky than gingery... so I usually have about a 60/40 split between my garlic and ginger.

Remove the ribs and coarsely chop up 1 bunch of chard. I like to cut the ribs out by folding the leaves in half lengthwise, like a book, and cutting the "spine" off the chard.

You will also need to prepare about 10 ounces of spinach the same way. If you're like me and buy these ubiquitous boxes of organic baby spinach then you won't need to chop at all.

Cut a block of paneer* into small cubes. Smaller cubes are nice so that everyone gets some cheese in every bite, but not too small or else you'll lose the pleasure of biting into a soft, toothy morsel of cheese. Dredge them very lightly in flour (to keep it from sticking to the pan during the frying).

Get your other spices ready. 
  • minced ginger and garlic
  • 1/2 - 1 teaspoonful garam masala**, 1/2 teaspoonful cinnamon, 1 teaspoonful ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoonfuls ground coriander

Heat up some peanut or safflower oil and give the paneer a nice fry until they are warmed and golden. Take the paneer out of the pan and set aside.

Drizzle a little more oil in and fry your dry spices a minute until they are fragrant. Next toss in your garlic, ginger and chard. Sprinkle on a bit of salt. Saute until the chard is beginning to soften, then add your spinach. If you've used a large pan you may be able to add all the spinach in at once. If not, then just add it in little by little as it wilts. Sprinkle on a little more salt. Just a touch though, spinach tends to get salty very quickly. Once the greens are all in you can add a little water or stock if it's getting dry and cover the pan. Cook for a few more minutes until the spinach is nice and soft and the flavours are starting to permeate everywhere!

Pour the whole panful into a food processor and pulse away. (Don't put the pan in the sink yet!) You may not want to add all the liquid from the pan at the start - the last thing you want is Indian spinach soup. You can always add the liquid back in later to get the saag to the perfect dipping/scooping consistency. The nice thing about using chard and spinach together is that the spinach tends to puree into a fine paste while the chard maintains some form and texture.

You could also leave it in the pan and use a stick blender but it won't get a smooth and it gets really splatter-y :)

When your saag is looking just right, pour it back into the pan with the paneer, toss it lightly and warm it slightly to get all the greens and flavours to coat the cheese. You could also just the pureed spinach/chard and cheese together, but I find it's so much nicer to warm the cheese up again and get it nice and creamy.

And voila! Impress your diners with this and some store bought chapatis or naan. Or simply spoon it over rice for a really greens-filled comfort bowl. Like many spice-laden dishes, this gets better the second day as the flavours meld and bloom even more... if it lasts that long :) Hope you enjoy!

Please excuse the bad photo. Our cheap point and shoot camera doesn't take good pics to begin with.  And trying to photog a dish that's billowing steam doesn't help.

*I've found paneer in the cheese section of the some grocery stores (sold in three to four ounce blocks) and also in the international canned food section of other stores. Fresh paneer can be frozen and thawed in the fridge really easily (which I discovered through necessity, since I stockpile paneer whenever I'm lucky enough to find it in my local supermarkets). You could also make it at home - lots of recipes to be found on the net, like this one here. I've done it before and the taste is unrivalled, but I find I don't have the time when I'm looking for a quick curry fix. You could also probably substitute any other cheese/firm tofu that would keep its shape during frying.

**I used a garam masala recipe from my beloved 1000 Indian Recipes book, but you could easily buy garam masala from many grocery stores in the spice or international food section. Not sure what garam masala is? Here's a quick look. The measurements given are purely to my taste, definitely feel free to add more or less of whatever you like. Take a whiff of the spices and you'll have a pretty good idea of what kind of taste they impart. I freshly grind my spices before use as well, so you may need more or less depending on the freshness of your spices and the fineness of the grind.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Grilled Cheese When You Don't Have Butter

Have you ever wanted one of these and not had any softened butter? (And no, we have no reason to keep margarine or the like in the house... bleh!)

I guess you could always soften some butter, use margarine or some kind of oil instead... but what if just wanted to get your grilled cheese on the road already and find a substitute for butter that would give you pretty similar results?

Mayonnaise as your grilled bread spread? At first glance, I thought this kind of strange - but upon further consideration, it's basically egg butter, right? I have to credit my university roommate for this easy solution. I would never have taken any of the  liberties that she took with personal hygiene, but this grilled cheese shortcut was worth (almost) all the housekeeping digressions.

The beauty is that it always at spreading consistency, can be spread thinly on soft breads without much tearing of the bread, and is fairly neutral in taste. Of course, it doesn't have the great taste of butter but you could always add more flavour with different cheeses or...

... with a layer of bacon jam (recipe from Everyday Food magazine or via Martha Stewart). Yes, it really is a jam made of bacon. Super flavourful, seems to go well with almost everything... well I could wax philosophical for hours but maybe I'll save our discovery of bacon jam and our subsequent experimentation with it for another post.

So there you go. Grilled cheese done, throw it on a pan and grill away. The brown colour is definitely different than the beautiful golden brown you achieve with butter... but if you should ever have children screaming for grilled cheese and no time for mistakes then give mayo a try!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Orchid Anomaly

I remember reading somewhere that the orchids you commonly see being sold in supermarkets and department stores nowadays are only meant for one flowering. That is, they are bred or cloned or whatever it is to mature very quickly and bloom just once for immediate sale in the checkout aisle. Which would totally explain why orchids were once very expensive houseplants and now are quite affordable.

I've had my share of orchids in the house. Most had bountiful, long-lived first blooms. None ever bloomed again. One even suffered some crown rot when I overwatered and did not take care to dry it out. So I am not the best orchid keeper... That is, until this orchid came into my life:

We received this orchid as a belated housewarming gift from my hubby's uncle upon his first visit to our home. At the time, it was a run of the mill, Costco phalaenopsis. That was early 2008 - before we discovered that this orchid is a freak of nature, super orchid.

How so you ask? Since that time, super orchid has either been in bloom (with full luscious large flowers) or been preparing to bloom again. It has never been dormant, blooms for months and months at a time and, other than the original store-bought single stalk of blooms, it has always had two stalk-fuls of flowers.

I can't find a 2009 picture but here it is in 2010 (please excuse the poor photo quality, I blew it up from the background of another photo):

And here it is, today... We're on (at least) its third bloom cycle now.

Everyone always asks me what I do to keep it blooming and, honestly, I don't know. It's the same routine as with every orchid in the past... only instead of dying, this orchid just keeps blooming. I water and fertilize it according to the plant food instructions. When the blooms have dropped, I cut the stalk one node below the faded blooms. Sometimes I forget to water and it doesn't have the best light exposure. So far, it's always sprouted more blooms from the first stalk and grown a second stalk as well. I haven't transplanted this one to an orchid pot either. It's still in its original cheap-o Costco clear plastic tub!

So the only conclusion I can come to is that this orchid is a genetic super mutant. In any case, I try to take good care of it. Partly, to preserve this amazing run and partly because I fear one day it will evolve enough to take control of the other plants in my house and eventually hold me hostage by controlling my oxygen supply. Ah! such is the circle of life :)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Mid-Winter Melt

It happens every year. It's beautiful and snowy and white and fluffy, and suddenly Mother Nature decides to gift us with a few days of unseasonably warm weather. While I love not having to completely bundle the kids up for the smallest of errands, I wish that spring weather was just in the spring and winter weather was just in the winter. Premature melts always make for wet and slushy walks during the warm-up and super icy sidewalks when the temperature (inevitably) drops again.

This year the sudden melt was especially sad since we had such a beautiful white winter happening and my dear hubby poured his first backyard rink.

The patio set looking like the fluffiest vanilla frosting cupcakes after an early heavy snow in December.
A cold January sun rising over the mini ice rink.
My darling boy admiring his first snowman... built in at least two feet of snow. (What you can't see: the snowman also has some feathery branches as a tail because it is an "Ostrich Snowman".)

The last two winter wonderland pictures were only taken a few weeks ago. This was the sad scene two days ago:
Snow banks for the rink are essentially gone and a pool of water slowly takes over the icy surface
Yesterday, it was so warm that we could actually see patches of earth popping out here and there. And of course, today it's cold again. Cold enough for a centimetre or two of snow to have fallen already and cold enough for the next little while for there to be five to ten more centimetres of snow predicted.

So my question, Mother Nature, is why? Is it because, for all our arctic bravado, many Canadians wish for shorter winters and longer summers? I'll admit that I love the freedom of a pair of flip flops. I'll admit that I miss my garden. And I'll admit that I used to be a winter hater and I would take whatever warm weather was given to me. But that was before this:

Learning a winter sport with friends

And this:
Welcoming both by boys on gorgeous winter days

And definitely before this:

Seeing both your kids on the ice for the first time.
So I guess what I'm trying to say is "Mother Nature, please let me enjoy the winter as much as possible since I've never had more reason to appreciate it than now".

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Felt Dress-Up Kitty

What little girl doesn't love playing dress-up? It could be themselves, dolls, little brothers/sisters... but for some little girls, nothing is better than dressing up a certain famous feline...

For a sweet little friend's birthday, I thought I would make her a Hello Kitty felt stuffie. On a recent visit to our house, she showed off her "favourite socks!" with Hello Kitty on them. In actuality they were My Melody, but I think I made that error too when I was young. (My gosh this cat has been around a long time!)

The design was simple enough. Just traced a picture of kitty onto felt, added on small seam allowance all the way around, and cut out two identical pieces. Then glued on eyes and a nose, with a tight zig zag stitch around the eyes and nose for stability, and hand stitched some whiskers on with black yarn. Finally, sewed the two pieces together with right sides facing, leaving the top of the head open for turning out and stuffing. Clipped all my curves, turned her inside out, filled her up with craft batting and hand stitched the hole shut.

I found from experience that stuffing something is easiest if all you have to do is jam the batting in along a straight line. In other words, it may have hidden my poorly done hand stitched seam a lot better if I had left the stuffie open between the legs or under the arm for stuffing, but then you would have to push batting up and around into the legs or the arms/head. Which would probably mean that you would never get those appendages as full of batting as if you were simply pushing batting down into them from the top of the head.

Is there something wrong about naked kitty? Or maybe she's just missing her bow?
Next was the ubiquitous red bow, I've never seen kitty without it. I was thinking of stuffing the bow too, but after considering how puffy and awkward a pouffy bow on top of a pouffy cat would be - especially for a three year old girl to handle and dress - I decided that a unstuffed, but still double-layered for stiffness, bow would be best. Anyway the reason for this digression into my subconscious mind is to explain why my bow fashioning is so much more tedious than just sewing a double thickness of felt together.

Took a rectangle of felt and round the corners. Folded it in half and sewed a short seam to give the bow a pleat. As seen in the next picture.

Bow with a pleat

Glued on a circle of felt to represent the knot. (The glue wasn't that stable, but not to worry, it was only acting as a temporary holder until after I sewed the backing on).

Traced and cut a rough copy of my bow. Sewed them together with right sides facing, leaving a small hole for turning it inside out.  Could have stuffed it, but didn't.
Voila! Slightly 3D red bow ready to be hand stitched onto kitty.
Still something awkward about a naked Hello Kitty even with the bow on. Kinda like: "Why is she wearing a bow but no clothes?!?"
Of course I had to include some clothes for kitty. Btw, I thought I would enjoy making small clothes. Since the clothes would be finished rather quickly, wouldn't this mean almost instant gratification? I didn't account for the fact that I hate sewing anything super small.... super thin bias tape, impossibly tiny sleeve holes, barely there hems... ugh! On the plus side, stuffie clothes can help you use up scraps of material, are basically two dimensional (i.e. easy to make by simply tracing a flat design around your stuffie, no need for sleeve caps!) and are pretty artistically free-reign.

Anyway, here are the clothes with their not so professional finishings.

All clothes closed with velcro at the back. Figured that would be easiest for dressing and undressing without enlisting mommy's help each time. Will have to see in a few weeks how the felt itself is holding up with velcro being so close to it. May regret this choice and use snaps next time.

Some other items to round out the Hello Kitty themed birthday gift: Hello Kitty bag from Michaels, Hello Kitty light wand from ??? in Taiwan, Hello Kitty underwear from Walmart.

The birthday girl seemed to enjoy her gift and I was informed by mom that Hello Kitty accompanied her to her first dental check up. So I guess even if kitty doesn't survive the ages, at least she has already earned her keep.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Felt Ornaments: Take-home craft for a Christmas baby's birthday

For my son's third birthday party, we made felt Christmas ornaments as a take-home craft. I pre-cut all the shapes (stars, trees, snowmen, reindeers, kugels, etc) and laid out felt shapes, sequins, ribbon, batting, popsicle sticks and glue on a disposable table cloth lined counter and let the kids at it.

Put the glue in these great paint cups that I got for under $6 at the local educational warehouse sale (even at their regular price of about $10, they are still a great deal for home crafts... anything to minimize the mess!) The kids had a lot of fun designing their own special Christmas keepsake. Lots of kids slopping glue all over their felt pieces and revelling in their independence.

I was really surprised at the ornament my son created because it was the first time I'd seen him create something that actually resembled the intended subject in both form and colour. It was also really cute because the reindeer specifically had to have a red nose. He also crafted the star which has kind of a retro, sixties feel to it.

I did make the mistake of not stuffing the ornaments beforehand. Silly me thought it would be easier for the kids to decorate flat ornaments as opposed to puffy pre-stuffed ornaments. Unfortunately, I completely forgot the short and often non-existent patience of small children. As soon as they put the final sticky, still-wet, gluey touch to their masterpieces, they wanted them stuffed and sewn shut for immediate play. So there was a little bit of bribery needed to get all the children to leave their creations with me to dry while they were sent off to clean up and play for a bit. Next time, the kids will definitely be decorating ready-to-go pieces. Or maybe I'll even run the felt through my sticker maker to make the craft glue-less?

Anyway, lots of fun was had by all.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Happy Chinese New Year!

After all the apprehension of making a taro cake, it turned out great! Actually a lot easier to make than lo bak cake since it involved no grating (I hate grating stuff). The taro cooked up really easily - just enough pieces of taro stayed whole and just enough got mushy and starchy. Of course, I forgot to take a picture of it before we cut it to give a part to my parents, but maybe a cross-sectional shot makes for better viewing.

This cake was humungous because I didn't want to separate it into two pans and then need to steam twice. Can't wait until tonight when we can feast on lo bak and taro cakes, leftover steamed fish and some traditional long noodles, prepared an untraditional way (chap jae style!)

Dessert will be the neen gow (New Year's cake). With my husband staying home for the snow day yesterday, we fried up some of the cake for breakfast. I realized that I didn't wrap it tightly enough  because it had started to dry out a little bit, but it was still delicious and soft after frying. I used a egg dip to fry them because I had such fond memories of egg dipped fried cake... somehow it wasn't as good as I remember. The egg made for a really nice crisp crust but because the egg shielded the cake from directly touching the pan, there wasn't as much burnt sugar taste (which is what I truly love). So maybe no more egg dipping. I think it may have just been the nostalgia of my now-deceased uncle frying them this way during my childhood visits to Taiwan that made them seem so much better in my memory.

On an unrelated note, I went a little baking crazy before going to my playdate/potluck lunch a few days ago and decided to also bake some matcha (green tea) cupcakes (in addition to my gruyere/asparagus tart and dim sum custard tarts). I think the little red cranberry on top makes them festive enough for CNY or Christmas :)

Yes, I suck at taking pictures and our new camera with poor light control doesn't make it any better!

Happy year of the Rabbit, everyone! 恭喜發財!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Chinese New Year Cooking

The house is a flurry of cooking right now as I get some traditional and non-traditional dishes ready for the Year of the Rabbit. And yes, I do live in a major city with lots of Asian food stores, but being allergic to shellfish and sensitive to MSG makes buying ready-made food a little challenging.

So firstly, one of my favs, Lo Bak cake. I made two of them this year because I just can't get enough of this thing. My version uses only lo bak, Chinese sausage and Chinese mushrooms - no dried shrimp for me or my kids. (Actually hubby is not too fond of them either, so it works for all of us!)

Recipe adapted from epicurious

Can't wait to slice into this baby on Wednesday night with my family. Love it, all fried and crisp with some sweet soy dipping sauce.... mum mum.

Then, of course, you can't forget the New Year's cake (neen gow). No red dates on mine - I know the colour is symbolic and all, but I don't like eating them and it seems a waste to put them on merely for decoration. Also, I used organic cane sugar instead of rock suga, so the colour of the cake is more tan than caramel brown.

Recipe from epicurious

I already sliced into this one just to taste it to give some to my big boy who loves both the sweet and savoury kinds of neen gow. It was perfect sweetened this year and delicious right off the slab. OOooh, it'll be so good fried up in some beaten egg... nice and crispy on the outside with the taste of caramelized sugar and soft and gooey on the inside.

Also, had to post a picture of these custard tarts I just made. Not really a food specific to Chinese New Year, they were just coincidentally made for a playdate/potluck lunch tomorrow. Before I post my picture, you'll need to look at these pictures to understand what made me laugh out loud in my kitchen tonight.

Goo Goo Goliath

Baby Barney

Okay, so keep the mental image of a cute baby being grotesquely large... And keep in mind that there is always leftover tart dough and filling whenever you make anything of that sort....

Recipe from here (subbed butter for lard)

lol... look at that monstrosity! I didn't want to break out another muffin tin just to make two or three more tarts, so I figured I would just make one large tart in a mini souffle dish. No worries though, someone in the house will "take one for the team" and eat it.

Bought a taro root today because they were on sale. Going to make a taro root cake next. Although the method is the same as for lo bak cake, I've never actually made taro root cake. Partly because I'm notoriously bad at picking taros and also because I'm afraid the taro will be all mush instead of nice soft pieces.

I'm still worried that I'll break the taro into mashed potatoes while trying to mix the batter, but at least the taro looks good... the supermarket had them cut open and on sale which definitely increased my confidence in trying to buy one again. Tomorrow night's project. Yum.