Blueberry Banana Bread

I’ve heard of adding chocolate chips or nuts to banana bread… but blueberries? I had two mushy bananas sitting on my counter and decided I had to do something with them. Since I happened to have a bag of blueberries in my freezer, I threw them in on a whim.

The verdict: I’d definitely make this again. The blueberries add sweetness and moisture to the bread, which smells heavenly while it’s baking. Blueberries, bananas, vanilla, and nutmeg all have pleasing aromas on their own; put them together, and you have a delightful combination.

If your home is air-conditioned and you are able to turn on the oven during the summer, this bread would be a great way to use freshly picked blueberries. Otherwise, you can use frozen blueberries any time of year.

Blueberry Banana Bread

1/2 cup butter or margarine
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 cup mashed ripe bananas (about 2 or 3)
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries

Cream butter and sugar together. Beat in eggs one at a time, beating until smooth. Add banana and vanilla; mix well.

In a separate bowl, stir together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg. Add to banana mixture, stirring just to moisten. Fold in blueberries.

Transfer to a greased loaf pan. Bake at 350 F for 1 hour or until toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean. Let stand 10 mins. before removing from pan to cool.

Mandarin Orange Salad

I like this summery salad for several reasons: the crunchy toasted almonds, the juicy sweet mandarin orange segments, the colourful appearance of all the ingredients tossed together. I also love the fact that since it’s so easy to make, it allows me to spend more time relaxing on the deck with the people I care about. It’s the perfect accompaniment to any summer BBQ menu.

Mandarin orange saladMandarin Orange Salad

3/4 cup slivered almonds
1 package romaine hearts
1 can mandarin oranges, drained
1 bottle Kraft mandarin orange with sesame dressing

Preheat oven to 350 F. Spread almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for 5-6 minutes, stirring halfway through baking time. Allow toasted almonds to cool to room temperature.

Wash and dry the romaine; tear into bite-sized pieces. Place in a large serving bowl and top with oranges and toasted almonds. Serve immediately with orange sesame dressing.

Strawberry Mango Smoothies

Perfect for a rainy Saturday morning! I intend to make some as soon as I’m finished writing this.

Strawberry Mango Smoothies

5 large fresh or individually frozen strawberries, not thawed (approx. 1 cup)
1 cup fresh or frozen mango chunks, not thawed
1/4 cup plain yogurt (I like to use Astro Balkan Style)
3-4 tbsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract (optional)
Milk

Place first 5 ingredients in a blender. Add milk to the 0.5-litre line. Process on the smoothie setting (high), adding more milk if necessary, to desired consistency. Pour into 2 tall glasses and serve.

He was a real nice Martian, Mister King.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

No, this is not a sci-fi novel. And you will have to read the book to find out which character said those words and in what context. (It has nothing to do with aliens.) It happens to be one of my favourite parts of the story, involving one of my favourite characters—a very courageous and intelligent woman. There are, in fact, several courageous, intelligent women in this novel. I think that’s what makes it such a compelling read.

The women in The Help are actually writing a book, a collection of their own personal stories about what it’s like being a southern black woman working for white people in the 1960’s. You’re a free woman, not a slave, but certainly not treated as an equal by your white employers and their friends. You can’t even use the same bathroom as white people.

I was surprised by how much I could identify with the black maids in this story. Like Minny, I take great pleasure in expressing myself through the art of cooking. (After reading about Minny’s famous caramel cake, I was thrilled to find the recipe for her special icing on the author’s website.) Like Aibileen, I love taking care of other people’s children and finding creative ways to teach them. I even used to write my prayers down on paper like she does. (When I read that, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start doing it again.) They tell their stories with humour and wisdom, and I loved how their voices, with their Mississippi accents, can be heard loud and clear. Aibileen’s voice drew me in from the very first chapter.

I could also identify with some of the white female characters: Miss Skeeter, the writer, and Miss Celia, the… um, young naïve housewife? Let’s be honest—she’s a floozy. But oh Miss Celia, my heart breaks for you! You’ve faced one of the hardest, saddest things a woman could ever face, I think. (Again, you’ll have to read the book to find out what happened to poor Miss Celia.)

This wasn’t one of those books that I left sitting in the pile on my nightstand. No, I lugged this heavy hardcover around with me, reading a few paragraphs, pages, or chapters every chance I got—while waiting in the car for my husband to leave work at the end of the day, while waiting for the teakettle to boil, while eating my soup. And yes, of course, I read some more before falling asleep.

Now that I’m done reading The Help, I miss the voices of those characters. I wonder if the upcoming movie will do them justice. I’m also eager to see whether Stockett will write a second novel (this was her first). It was one of those books that I was almost sorry to finish. But I’m glad I read it.

New Books, New Recipes!

I love my job!! Yesterday while I was unpacking some boxes of new books for the library, I came across three shiny new recipe books. Talk about perfect timing: they were all slow cooker recipe books! Must be a trend. Anyway, I couldn’t wait to bring them home and devour them.

Slow Cooker Revolution

by the Editors at America’s Test Kitchen

“One test kitchen. 30 slow cookers. 200 amazing recipes.”

That lasagna on the cover sure looks tempting. There are some intriguing recipes inside too, like Loaded Baked Potato Soup, Lamb Vindaloo for you Indian food lovers like me, and even some jam and marmalade recipes. Not to mention some yummy desserts and fondues.

 

Slow-Cooker Quick Fixes

by the Editors of Southern Living Magazine

“15 minutes, ready to cook”—so the cover of this colourful, eye-appealing volume claims. I love the Slow-Cooker Secrets that are sprinkled throughout the pages—handy little tips like: don’t add dairy products till near the end of the cooking time, or else they will curdle. And did you know that browning ribs in the oven first will help make your sauce thicker? That’s news to me! I’ll have to keep that in mind the next time I make ribs in the slow cooker.

More Make It Fast, Cook It Slow

by Stephanie O’Dea

I enjoyed Stephanie O’Dea’s first slow cooker recipe book, Make It Fast, Cook It Slow. I loved the conversational way she described her recipes and her family’s reactions to them. At work, we have little coloured stickers for the staff to stick on our favourite books, so library patrons will know what we’ve enjoyed reading. Mine are purple and say, “Leanne’s Picks.” Well, let’s just say that Make It Fast, Cook It Slow got a purple sticker on its cover! I’m sure this second volume will deserve one too.

Slow Cooker Favourites: Part 1

Planning your Easter menu? If you want to serve the traditional ham and scalloped potatoes (I shared my recipe in a previous post), here’s a simple and delicious version. It gets its great flavour from the juicy sweet pineapple chunks and Dijon mustard glaze. Enjoy some quality time with your family while it simmers on your countertop. And feel free to serve it any time of year, not just on Easter.

Slow Cooked Ham With Pineapple

1 ham (approx. 1 kg / 2 lbs.)
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 tbsp. honey
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 can pineapple chunks with juice

Grease the inside of the crockpot or spray with nonstick cooking spray. Place ham inside.

Combine brown sugar, honey, and mustard in a small bowl; spread over ham. Add pineapple with juice. Cover and cook on low for 5 to 6 hours. (Ham is done when its internal temperature reaches at least 160 F.) Slice the ham and serve hot with the pineapple and the liquid from the slow cooker as a sauce.

Serves 4.

My Crockpot, My Friend

Whoever invented the slow cooker, I would like to shake your hand. Being able to cook delicious meals without physically being in the kitchen, or even in my house for that matter, is truly marvellous, especially when I’m at work all day. In April, I’ll share a few of my favourite slow cooker recipes. For now, here is a great book to whet your appetite!

Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Recipes for Two

by Beth Hensperger

I found this unique cookbook at the library. It has some delicious-sounding ideas, like salsa chicken, ginger-plum pork, and chicken mole (which I’ve never tried before, but which my sister-in-law informs me is an amazing Mexican dish). You can even make overnight oatmeal for breakfast. (Now that sounds a lot better than my usual bowl of cold cereal!)

The cauliflower soup with leeks in it sounds tempting. Hopefully it’s as good as the leek and potato soup my grandma used to make. Honey barbeque ribs — my husband will definitely love those. And watermelon salsa served alongside pork tenderloin — I’ll have to try that one this summer.

Now excuse me while I go copy some of these recipes and add them to my can’t-wait-to-try pile!

Books About TV Cooks

I used to love watching cooking shows on TV. Rachael Ray, Yan Can Cook, and Emeril Live, they all fascinated and inspired me with their magical kitchen talents. If, like me, you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes (who pre-measures those ingredients, or cooks the picture-perfect roast that’s ready to pull out of one oven seconds after the demo roast is put into another oven?) then here are two books I recommend. One is fiction, and one non-fiction.

Comfort Food by Kate Jacobs

This book is a breezy, fun read if you’re in the mood for something not too heavy. It depicts the behind-the-scenes drama of the fictional TV show, Cooking With Gusto! (a phenomenal name for a cooking show in my opinion). The main character, Gus, who hosts the show, is a Martha-Stewart-like figure. Despite her flawless cooking skills, life is not so perfect for her outside the kitchen. Gus must deal with the loss of her husband, rocky relationships with her two grown daughters, and a younger, more attractive cohost who ruffles her feathers.

I enjoyed listening to this story as an audiobook while I did some painting in our living room last summer. It was amusing enough, and the cooking show aspect appealed to me since I love to cook so much. I could have done without the lame love interest, but I suppose romance is a must-have ingredient for this type of women’s fiction. In terms of my reading diet, you might say this book was more of a quick snack than a nutritious meal, but hey, if you’re not overly hungry, sometimes that’s all you need.

Being Martha by Lloyd Allen

What better companion to a story about a fictional character resembling Martha Stewart than a real-life account of the domestic maven herself? Written by a long-time neighbour and friend, this non-fiction narrative portrays the “real” Martha as she is seen, not through a TV camera lens, but through the eyes of those who know and love her.

I was truly inspired by this book (once again, downloaded as audio so I could listen to it on my iPhone). It made me want to be a little Martha Stewart in my own home: cooking delicious meals, keeping things spotless and well-organized, and making my plants and loved ones around me flourish. I suppose I identify with Martha not only because of my love for cooking, gardening, and crafts, but also because I tend to be a driven perfectionist too (although I’m learning to accept that life cannot and does not always have to be perfect).

Even Martha Stewart has made some mistakes in life. The book also talks about the time she spent behind bars following the infamous insider trading scandal. But even in prison, she was making crafts and crab-apple jelly.

I love the way Martha’s daughter Alexis defended her mom:

“No matter what they say about my mom, all she ever does is teach the world good things that will help them in life. So what if she shows you the perfect way to do it? Would you want your professor at school to do anything less in any other subject?”

 

Who Loves the Little Lamb?

Who Loves the Little Lamb?I thought it would be fitting, in honour of Valentine’s Day, to feature a book about love. If you’re a mom with young children, then this book seriously needs to be on your bookshelf! I think it would also make a lovely baby shower gift for any mother-to-be.

Listen to how it starts out: “Who loves the fussy lamb?” Picture a bawling little lamb (aw, poor thing!). Then picture the loving mama sheep (just as she appears on the cover) giving a reassuring hug while she croons, “No more crying, here I am. Mama loves her little lamb.”

The book continues like this, with page after page of different animals in different scenarios showing each mother’s unconditional love for her little one. With David McPhail’s charming illustrations and Lezlie Evans’ tender-hearted rhymes, it’s a perfect read-aloud for bedtime—or anytime, for that matter.

So cuddle up with your own little lambs and take a quiet moment to enjoy this book together. It will remind them (and you) just how much you love them.

Asian Meets German Cooking

Eager to try the Thai seasoning I bought at an Epicure party recently, I went to their website for inspiration and found a delectable-looking pineapple glazed pork chop recipe. It called for their Cuban seasoning, but I thought, why not try it with Thai instead? A spicy-sweet blend of ginger, lemongrass, and chili flakes would go well with pineapple, would it not? The answer is yes, yes it does.

You can find the original recipe here. Below is my tweaked version, which I served with creamy scalloped potatoes like Grandma used to make (that recipe also follows). The flavours complemented each other surprisingly well for being from such dissimilar cultural backgrounds.

Of course, you could serve these pork chops with rice instead. I just happened to be in the mood for some comfort food, and what could be more comforting than scalloped potatoes on a cold winter night? Besides, this way your taste buds get to take a little trip around the world, all in one plate!

Pineapple Thai Pork Chops

4 bone-in pork chops
1 can (19 oz.) pineapple rings
1 1/2 tsp. Epicure’s Thai seasoning (see note below)
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
Coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Drain pineapple, reserving juice. Mix Thai seasoning with 1/4 cup of the pineapple juice. Pour over pork chops and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. Cut pineapple rings into large chunks. Set aside with remaining juice.

In a large nonstick skillet, brown pork chops in oil on one side. Turn and add the remaining pineapple juice and pineapple chunks. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer until pork is fully cooked, about 10 minutes. Serves 4.

NOTE: You could also try another spicy-sweet gingery seasoning blend, such as Club House’s Thai One-Step Blend. You’ll find this in the spice aisle at the grocery store. The results may be slightly different, but feel free to experiment as I did!

Creamy Scalloped Potatoes

4 tbsp. butter or margarine
4 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. pepper
2 rounded teaspoons chicken bouillon granules
2 cups milk
6 medium potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large onion, chopped
Paprika

In a medium saucepan, melt butter. Stir in flour, pepper, and chicken bouillon. Add milk. Stir constantly until boiling. Remove from heat.

Layer half the potatoes and onions in a 2.5 quart casserole dish. Pour half the sauce over. Layer the rest of the potatoes and onions on top. Cover with the rest of the sauce. Sprinkle with paprika. Bake covered at 350 F for 50 minutes. Uncover and bake 15 minutes more or until potatoes are tender. Serves 6.