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Overdosing on self-improvement

For someone who doesn’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, I seem to have a lot of self-improvement efforts going on.

I actually did make a New Year’s resolution once, which I did keep that entire year and beyond: To practice the piano at least once a week. The “piano” in question at that time was my Yamaha digital keyboard, a lovely Christmas present, and a very nice-sounding instrument. But as I practiced, and improved (though never to anything terribly impressive), its limitations became clearer: Not being a full keyboard, meaning I couldn’t play all the notes of certain songs. Not having touch sensitivity, meaning that every note of the entire song had to be at the same volume (unless I borrowed one hand to actually turn down the volume button). Not having a sustain pedal, meaning that I could either set to have every note to sustain in equal amounts, or none of them to.

Well, now all of that is solved with my beautiful new Roland digital grand piano.

But with the cost of that thing (though we did get a nice discount on it), I’d better darn well get back to that weekly (minimum) piano playing.

But, I’m going to have to fit that in with my current efforts to try to get my house in better order. What suddenly motivated me to start sorting through the piles of paper, magazines, newspapers, catalogs, etc. in various parts of my house I have no idea, but there it is. Not that you’d notice anything dramatic yet. But the pile of reading material beside my bed looks semi-reasonable now, and you can actually see much of the top of the coffee table downstairs. And I seem to feel compelled to keep making the piles smaller, or at least more organized.

That somehow recently extended to the DVDs and CDs scattered across the TV cabinet and computer, now all put away—somewhere. Admittedly some are just in Lee Valley Tool boxes on the floor, but that still looks a little tidier. And it led to a discussion of how I really need more open cabinets, because I need to see my CDs and DVDs. Which gradually extended to a discussion redoing the entire downstairs, with me actually participating meaningfully in the discussion. This is unusual for me. I’m not a normal girl, and I don’t generally like thinking about renovating and recorating. But now, in the interest of eventually having more cabinets, plus a more integrated fitness room, plus a big-ass TV, I’m invested. At least theoretically. We now have a plan for designing the downstairs.

OK, so I’m practicing the piano, cleaning up my piles of paper, and planning renovations.

But that all has to fit in with my new fitness plan. Mind you, I was working out before, but what’s new now is exercising with the hubby. About a month ago I became convinced that hubby really  needed to exercise more frequently. But after attempts to convince him of this with nothing but intense looks and thoughts proved completely ineffective, I tried a radical approach. I used my words.

To my surprise, he actually agreed. Of course, there were some conditions. No girly activities like yoga, pilates, and dance aerobics. Only manly things like weightlifting, boxing, walking, canoeing, and ballroom dancing. (No sneering. Ballroom dancing is very macho. The man always leads the lady. And she has to wear high heels.)

I was expecting this to be a case of me dragging along reluctant hubby, but he’s turned out to be quite the slave driver himself. Let’s walk longer! No, I don’t need a day off! Heavier weights! Jeez.

Plus, the ballroom dance lessons themselves are somewhat self-improvement-y in another way, in relearning all those dance steps we’ve forgotten. (At least, I sure hope we’ll relearn them.)

OK, so piano practice, dance practice, daily fitness, cleaning up, planning renovations… Might as well eat better too, right? How else will I keep up with all this? So currently, our fruit basket runneth over. Literally.

The most annoying thing is all this happening in January, which culture tells us is supposed to be the month for self-improvement. Which I just hate buying into, because that would make me just like everybody else.

So, these aren’t new year’s resolutions. They are just a bunch of projects and activities that happened to all start around January. I’m in no way trying to become a better, healthier person or anything. Really.

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Dining in the new year

Since we were once again at Verses on New Year’s Eve, this year’s gourmet dinner we cook ourselves occurred on January 2. (January 1, believe it or not, Jean went canoeing.)


We began with a glass of Ice Cuvée from Peller Estates. This is a Champagne-style sparkling wine (mix of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) that is accented with a bit of Vidal ice wine. The Champagne taste definitely predominates; this is not a sweet drink. But the ice wine does add a nice sweet edge to it. It’s a good starter.

Mushroom bruschetta and Pinot Noir

Our first course highlighted wild mushroms. First up was buffalo mozarella with bruschetta of wild mushrooms. This was a recipe by Lucy Waverman, based on an item from Vancouver’s Cibo Trattoria. The bread used was sourdough, a fair amount of fresh garlic was involved, olive oil and balsamic vinegar participated, and the whole thing was topped with pecorino cheese. The result was a lot of flavor, but it all seemed to play nicely together. Though if we tried it again, we might try grating rather than shaving the pecorino.

The wine was going to be a Rodney Strong Pinot Noir, but at the last minute I substituted this John Tyler Pinot Noir that we’d also purchased in California. This is a very small winery, so their wines are unlikely to ever show up in the LCBO. It’s a really nice Pinot. Not quite the wow factors of the Rodney Strong Estate Pinot, but still very smooth, and very good with food.

We also had—unpictured because soup just looks like soup—a wild rice and mushroom soup, recipe courtesy of Alive magazine. This was mostly wild mushrooms with a bit of carrot, onion, celery (I used celery root), with wild rice, cooked in vegetable broth with a bit of red wine. It turned out very nice as well, once seasoned with a bit of salt and pepper.

And both recipes were actually pretty quick and easy to make. Because of the wild rice, though, the soup requires an hour’s cooking time.


Pan-seared trout with olives and potatoes

Next up was Pan-Seared Arctic Char with Olives and Potatoes, courtesy of Fine Cooking magazine. Only we couldn’t find arctic char, so we substituted a nice-looking rainbow trout from TJ’s Seafood. This was really a plain simple recipe, where the fish is just salted and peppered and fried in a bit of olive oil, while the potatoes and sliced and boiled for a short time, then also fried, along with Kalamata olives and fresh rosemary. Then it’s all seasoned with balsamic vinegar and lemon juice. Proves you don’t need complicated techniques to make great food, because it was delicious.

With this, we served a white Chateauneuf-du-pape that we had brought back from Provence. While I don’t remember being that blown away by this type of wine on that trip, did it ever taste wonderful last night. Very complex, very delicious. Possibly the best of the night.

Duck ravioli with sweet and sour squash

The one item I’d decided in advance I wanted to attempt this year was duck ravioli. I found the recipe we used just via Google; it was called Duck confit and mashed potato ravioli with white truffle sauce. It wasn’t particularly difficult, but it was time-consuming. You had to make the mashed potatoes, skin the duck confit and chop up the duck meat, crisp up the skin, then warm up the meat and combine it with the potatoes, and stuff everything into won ton wrappers. (And I’m not sure what this was about, but we have a ton of stuffing left!)

The way we manage this meal overall, by the way, is to do as much in advance as possible in the afternoon, then just do the final cooking of each course as we go through the evening. The final touches for duck ravioli are just to boil the raviolis, and make the truffle sauce. Which is just unsalted butter browned and then combined with truffle oil and truffle paste. And you top the raviolis with the previously crisped skin.

As a side dish (we need our veg), we made Jamie Oliver’s sweet and sour squash recipe. This would be from his Cook with Jamie cookbook. It involves chopping the squash into “finger”-sized pieces (not sure food should be compared to body parts), and basically steaming, then frying it with red onion, garlic, thyme, raisins, pine nuts (we had to use almonds), and lots of parsley. The sweet and sour is created with balsamic and white wine vinegar, and sugar.

That was a slightly weird food combo, so we settled on a blended red wine: the 2005 Stratus Red. It’s a pleasant yet complex wine, and probably suited the food as well as anything could.


Almond-scented cannoli and truffles

We were pretty proud of ourselves for managing our portions throughout such that there was still room for a modest serving of dessert. (Also, we now have a lot of leftovers—today will be the best leftover day ever!) For this we made Almond-scented chocolate cannoli, using an old recipe from Shape magazine. So it’s a light-ish dessert, with light ricotta and light Cool Whip combined with a bit of almond extract and a few mini chocolates chips and stuffed into a cannoli shell (that we bought; didn’t make).

And on the side, we made Chili Chocolate Truffles, using a recipe from LCBO magazine (Winter 2006). So it’s whipped cream, butter, and bittersweet chocolate flavored with ancho chili power and honey, chilled and rolled in either grated white chocolate or cocoa powder.

These were served with a 2000 Vintage port from Quinta de la Rosa, a lovely smooth drink. The cannolis had a nice cheesy, chocolate, almond taste (as one might expect, I suppose) and the chili in the truffles was very subtle, just giving a slight bite to the sweetness.


New year, new gourmet dinner

Some years ago, DH and I started cooking a gourmet dinner on New Year’s Eve — yes, just for the two of us. (Everyone seems to find that odd, but believe me, when your friends all start having babies… You start doing a lot of things just the two of you!)

Last year, that dinner didn’t quite land on New Year’s Eve itself, and this year it was even later. DH had call duty over New Year’s weekend, so we picked the weekend after for our dinner. That way, there could be wine.

First course: Mushroom and cappuccino velouté

Source: The ever-cheery sounding Cooking with Foods That Fight Cancer

Wine: Stoneleigh 2006 Pinot Noir (New Zealand)

Certainly the healthiest item of the meal, the soup was also very easy to make: Sauté mushrooms, garlic, and shallots in olive oil, add good-quality chicken stock and let simmer, add fresh basil and blend, season with sesame, then froth milk and put on top. We don’t have a proper “milk frother”, though, so that wasn’t as foamy as it might have been.

But since shitake mushrooms are delicious, the soup was delicious. The wine was also very nice, living up to its reputation as a really good Pinot Noir for less than $20 a bottle. Fruity but subtle, complementing the earthiness of the mushrooms nicely.

Second course: Squash Ravioli with Sage Butter Sauce

Source: LCBO — Squash ravioli, Sage butter sauce

Wine: Chateau des Charmes St. David’s Bench Chardonnay (Ontario)

I’d been wanting to try making ravioli for a while, and found these two LCBO recipes on hand. What we made was a bit of a combination of both.

I had my doubt about the thing when the roasted squash ended up a bit overcooked, with burnt edges; was the whole thing going to end up tasting charcoal-y? Plus, one squash didn’t seem to provide quite enough material, so we supplemented with can pumpkin.

Actually stuffing the things, which I had been dreading, was actually much easier than expected. And amazingly (to me), almost none came apart in cooking, and the won tons, which seems so doughy when raw, turned very light after cooking.

The butter sauce was also cause for some concern enroute. (And can I say, that was a shocking amount of butter! Not how I usually cook!) It was supposed to get light brown; it kind of went beyond that, to a darker colour. Was it going to taste all charcoal-y?

But everything was delicious. No charcoal accents at all. And the detail of crisping the sage leaves in olive oil added a really cool texture to the whole thing.

The wine, recommended by LCBO, did match the food very nicely. It took on a completely different, fuller character, compared with drinking it alone.

Main course: Macademia-Crusted Lamb with Celery Root-Fennel Mash and Coconut Mango Chutney

Source: LCBO again, their Holiday 2004 issue. (Oddly, none of these recipes seem to be on the website.)

Wine: Clos des Brusquières 2003 Chateauneuf du Pape (France)

This recipe was a last-minute substitution when we weren’t able to get our hands on sushi-grade tuna. The idea was accompanying honey-encrusted French-cut lamb chops with a fairly subtle-flavored mash and a very strongly flavored chutney.

None of this was hard to make, but it did take a while. DH handled the mash, which involved a couple of vegetables we don’t cook with very often: the ugly celery root and a fennel bulb (with some other flavorings, like garlic and sea salt). The result was very pleasant-tasting.

The chutney was all strong flavors: sugar, vinegar, chili, ginger, mango, cinnamon, coconut, mint, raisins, lime. It seemed like such a hodge-podge, and the color ended up so odd (brownish), that I was actually surprised how good it tasted!

The main event lamb, by comparison, was a master of simplicity. And it all worked together with the wine, which was very nice, as those tend to be. (And yes, we were feeling a little tipsy at this point, though by no means getting close to finishing any of the bottles!)

Dessert: Pumpkin-Wild Blueberry Pie

Source: Michael Stadtlander’s The Heaven on Earth Project

Wine: Cave Spring’s 2006 Late Harvest Riesling (Ontario)

Michael Stadtlander is considered one of the best chefs in the world. He runs a restaurant out of his own home. It’s extremely difficult to get reservations there now, but many years, we were able to. (We just had to book four months in advance. Seriously.) And it was, indeed, a sublime experience.

We bought his book a few months ago and — guess what? — a lot of the recipes are really hard to make. But this pie was approachable, and this seemed a good time to try.

I didn’t compromise on it too much. I used can pumpkin instead of cooking my own, and the blueberry glaze seemed to require the sacrifice of too many delicious wild blueberries to too little input on the pie. But I did follow pastry recipe, and was pleased how easy it was to mix. Rolling got a bit sticky (the crust had sugar and vanilla in it), but adding flour made that work. No amounts were given for the various spices in the pumpkin pie, so I just threw in what seemed like a reasonable amount of each.

So if not entire Statlander-esque in the end, it still turned out very good. Pumpkin and wild blueberry (frozen after we bought them up North this summer) is a good combination. And the Riesling had about the right amount of sweetness to match.

Pie was even better the next day when it had had a chance to chill longer.

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New Year’s Eve Eve dinner

For the past few years, our New Year’s Eve activity has been to prepare a gourmet dinner for two. This year, however, Jean was interested in going to Verses for their New Year’s Eve dinner. So, we decided to do our gourmet dinner the day before—on New Year’s Eve Eve. Time will tell how wise it was to plan on two multi-course meals in a row.

In the meantime, this year we remembered the request to post descriptions and pictures of what we made for dinner. 

Appetizer: Dried Cranberry Scones with Stilton

Source: LCBO Food and Drink Magazine, Holiday 2005

Matching “wine”: Fonseca vintage 1988 port

Dried Cranberry Scones with Stilton

Description: Baked scones with dried cranberries, cut in half and filled with cranberry-orange marmalade, topped with Stilton cheese, more dried cranberries, and chives.

Assessment: The Stilton really “pops”, but is nicely contrasted with the cranberry and the touch of chives. The scones turned out really well—fluffy and tasty. Both scones and marmalade were made the day before, which meant only assembly was required.

The port was amazing—complex flavours, smooth going down but a little bite afterward. And a good match for the cheese.

Salad: Apple and oyster mushroom salad

Source: Cooking with Foods That Fight Cancer (cheery, huh)

Matching wine: NZ Kim Crawford Pinot Noir (Vintages)

Apple and oyster mushroom salad with Pinot Noir

Description: Apples and oyster mushrooms cooked in a little butter and placed over arugula coated with olive oil and cider vinegar. Topped with walnuts.

Assessment: The mushrooms, in particular, tasted quite nice, and went well with the apples, arugula, and walnuts. The Pinot Noir smoke was a good match for the mushrooms, as hoped.

Fish course: Lemon-Shallot Scallops with Sugar Snap Peas

Source: Cooking Light Magazine, June 2002

Matching Wine: NZ Whitecliff Sauvignon Blanc

Scallops, snow peas, Sauvignon Blanc

Description: Scallops are first pan-seared in a little olive oil, then shallots and garlic are cooked in a little butter, and simmered in white wine. Scallops are then tossed with the sauce and topped with fresh parsley.

Sugar snap peas are simply steamed.

Assessment: Simple but effective. The key is to not overcook anything. The Sauvignon Blanc is a typical NZ type, with a nice bite to it.

Meat course: Loin of lamb with fresh herbs, served with oven fries and cinnamon sweet potatoes

Source: A Taste of Quebec Cookbook (lamb), The Best Light Recipe Cookbook (oven fries), LCBO Food and Drink Magazine, Holiday 2002 (sweet potatoes)

Accompanying wine: Spanish Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend (not available in Canada; we brought it back from Spain)

Lamb, potatoes, sweet potatoes, red wine

Description: The boneless lamb is pan-seared, then baked at 450. Meanwhile, a red wine, beef stock, and fresh herb sauce is prepared for it. The oven fries basically involve soaking the cut potatoes, then mixing them with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, and baking them. The sweet potatoes are cut into disks and baked. They get topped with a mix of brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt for the last 10 minutes or so.

Assessment: I’d never cooked lamb before, but this turned out quite well—nice flavour, not overdone, good sauce. I had done the two potato recipes before, and they both turned out fine, even though we had to compromise on cooking times and temperatures in order to get everything done together.

The wine was really fantastic. Big and fruity but not overwhelming.

Dessert: Chocolate Torte with Dried-Cherry Port Sauce

Source: LCBO Food and Wine Magazine, Holiday 2004

Accompanying “wine”: We went back to the port!

Chocolate torte, cherries, vanilla ice cream, port

Description: A totally decadent mixture of quality chocolate, butter, and eggs, topped with a port sauce mixed with dried cherries. Not too hard to make, and all doable the day before. Served with vanilla ice cream as well.

Assessment: We had to wait a bit before digging into this, but it was certainly good. And a small piece is perfectly satisfying.

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