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Ham & Cream Cheese Pinwheels with Chives

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These past few months have been transformative for me. I’ve learned so much, experienced even more and through it all, somehow managed to keep my cool (well, most of the time).

It’s been a while since I posted to this blog, and that’s not something I take lightly. Stuck in Thyme is in many ways my sanctuary, as much so as my kitchen or my bathtub on a rainy day. It’s my ‘Gilean’ space, but a busy semester at school, a crazy couple of months wedding planning and finding a healthy balance between work and relationship time meant that something had to be cleared from my plate for a while.

That being said, I’m back, and these months away have reinvigorated my excitement for creating recipes and sharing them with you. I recently completed two intense courses at chef school, and have gained a wealth of knowledge on how to maintain balance in my life through eating certain foods — something I intend on expanding on here in months to come.

In addition to my day job, I’ve also re-joined the team at Clean Eating magazine on a freelance basis, and I’ve even started developing a couple of recipes for them. My separation from Clean Eating last summer was an emotional one, and being able to contribute to the magazine’s pages again has been incredibly fulfilling and stretched my knowledge and love of food even more.

To say all of this has been easy, though, would not be entirely truthful. There have been some bumps, some stumbles and some minor (okay, sometimes major) meltdowns along the way. But through it all, I always come back to food. Sure, sometimes that can translate into shovelling a grilled cheese sandwich into my mouth in the wee hours of the night, but most of the time, it means stopping, breathing and remembering why I’m doing all of this.

Because for me, food isn’t about something you fry in a skillet or slice with a knife. It’s love, and expression. It’s a language you speak in, an artwork you share. It’s life.

It’s easy to get carried away in a sea of assignments and deadlines, to forget about the ‘why’ behind it when your brain is buzzing with a to-do list. But it’s been food that’s taken me to this exciting period in my life, and food that will carry me to the next stage.

slice pinwheel

Ham & Cream Cheese Pinwheels with Chives
Serves 1.

This easy lunch takes less than 15 minutes to prep, and it sure beats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! Feel free to experiment with your favourite deli meats and herbs. Roast beef and chopped rosemary would be lovely!

Ingredients:
½ 250-g brick cream cheese, softened
2 tbsp minced red bell pepper
1 tbsp minced fresh chives
1 whole-wheat tortilla
3 slices deli ham
2 leafs butter lettuce

Instructions:
1. In a small bowl, mix cream cheese, bell pepper and chives.

2. Spread cream cheese mixture over entire surface of tortilla. Arrange ham and lettuce in an even layer over top. Grab end closest to you and roll tortilla up into a tight cylinder. Wrap cylinder in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 10 minutes.

3. Remove plastic wrap. With a sharp knife, slice cylinder into 1-inch rounds. (TIP: To ease slicing, mist knife with cooking spray.) Stack in a container and eat within 1 to 2 days.

Enjoy!

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Candy Cane Hot Chocolate Gift Jars

Hot CocoaWhen I was a kid, it seemed that Christmas would never come. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I started counting down till the big day at some point in October, but I would go crazy with anticipation for Christmas Eve. And I could never understand how my parents were so ambivalent toward it. While I was literally counting down the minutes, adults all around me were complaining about how there wasn’t enough time until Christmas.

It wasn’t sheer gift greed that drove my Christmas fever, either. My family was strewn across a few different provinces, so Christmas was one the few times when we actually got together in the same room. To see my dad’s face light up like a kid’s while recounting some ridiculous childhood story with his brother was one of the best things about the holidays, and that’s what I loved the most about this time of year.

But this year seems different — rather than anxiously awaiting my most favourite day of the year, I’m cursing each day that passes, as it’s one less day to get everything on my to-do list done. I barely had time to get my little tree up, and with two days to go, I’m not even done my Christmas shopping. I am, as it turns out, an adult.

So, with just a few short days to go before Christmas, I’m trying to bring back my Christmas spirit by getting back to what it really means to me — showing the people I love just how much they mean to me. And since my absolute favourite way to do that is through food, these hot chocolate gift jars are the answer. They’re super-quick to make and with a little festive ribbon, they’re absolutely adorable to give out as gifts to your friends and family.

Hot cocoa 2

Candy Cane Hot Chocolate Gift Jars
This recipe is enough for 1 500-ml jar, so you can multiply this recipe for as many as you need. Each 500-ml jar makes 4 cups of hot chocolate.

Ingredients:

8 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
8 tbsp white granulated sugar
1 tbsp crushed candy canes
1/4 cup mini marshmallows

Instructions:

1. Wash mason jar and lid thoroughly and let dry.

2. Spoon cocoa powder into jars. Top with sugar, candy canes and marshmallows. Seal.

Include the following directions with each jar, and note that each jar makes 4 servings.

1. Remove marshmallows and set aside.

2. Mix contents of jar thoroughly.

3. Heat 4 cups milk until warm. Stir in contents of jar until completely dissolved. Divide among mugs and top with marshmallows.

For adults, you can include the following tip:  For a naughty twist, add 4 tbsp creme de menthe to hot chocolate while heating.

Enjoy!

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Cardamom Apple Peach Butter

peach butter

This may go against everything I’ve ever said about food and cooking and the virtues of cooking quick and healthy meals from scratch, but I’m just going to go out and say it: there’s no shame in indulging in soup from a can, or buying your Thanksgiving pumpkin pie from the store instead of whipping one up from scratch.

While I’ve always tried to spread the word that cooking from scratch is not as difficult or daunting as it seems, sometimes you just need to give yourself a break.

In my own life, I’ve always tried to do too much. I’ve guilted myself into spending entire Thanksgiving weekends in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, trussing the turkey and somehow finding time in between to knead a pie dough and chop up a pumpkin for dessert. By the end of it, I was exhausted and grumpy — and for what? My fiancé would have been just as happy with a Thanksgiving chicken from Swiss Chalet, but for some reason I’ve always felt compelled to go all out.

But this year, I bought my pie. I know it doesn’t sound groundbreaking or life-changing, but it was for me: it was finally accepting the simple concept that being driven doesn’t have to mean driving myself crazy. Successful, happy people know when to give themselves a break and be less than their idea of perfect.

I’m not suggesting that you buy take-out every night this week just to make your life easier — cooking healthy meals from scratch is incredibly rewarding, both physically and mentally, but you have to find a balance. Cooking has always been a great de-stressor for me, but when I try to take on too much, it becomes a source of stress. So by taking little steps to become less like Martha Stewart and more like a normal, imperfect person, I’m actually becoming a much happier and fulfilled one.

You can apply this concept to anything, even if cooking isn’t your thing. Whether you love gardening or get great fulfillment from your job, try to be a little less perfect next time, and notice the difference it makes in your happiness.

This recipe is the perfect example of striking balance between enjoyment and perfection. I spent hours in my kitchen turning ripe, juicy peaches into smooth and spreadable fruit butter, and then chose to enjoy the spread on store-bought rolls instead of forcing myself to be “perfect” and make those rolls from scratch. It’s all about balance.

spice bag

jars

Cardamom Apple Peach Butter
Makes 8 250-ml jars.

A pectin-free alternative to jam, fruit butter is great spread on fresh bread and rolls, or heated slightly and drizzled over vanilla bean ice cream. I’ve added apples for extra sweetness, and cardamom — my absolute favourite spice — adds an exotic hit of flavour.

INGREDIENTS:

1 stick cinnamon
1-1/2 tsp whole cardamom seeds
8 cups peeled and chopped peaches (Watch my new video to learn the easiest way how peel a peach!)
2 cups peeled and chopped apples
3-1/2 cups sugar
Pinch sea salt
Juice of 2 small lemons

INSTRUCTIONS:

1. Cut a 5×5-inch square of cheesecloth. Place cinnamon and cardamom in centre of cheesecloth and secure in a bundle with butcher’s twine; set aside.

2. In a large pot, combine peaches, apples, sugar and salt. Add cheesecloth bag of spices. Heat on medium and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and cook, barely simmering, until peaches and apples are very tender, 20 to 30 minutes.

3. Remove mixture from heat and take out spice bag; set spice bag aside for later use. With an immersion blender, purée peach mixture until completely smooth. (Alternatively, transfer mixture in small batches to an upright blender and blend until smooth; return to saucepan. Be sure to work in batches, as doing the whole batch at once can cause the mixture to overflow or splatter). Return spice bag to peach mixture and heat on lowest setting. Stir in lemon juice and cook, stirring often, for 30 minutes.

4. Divide mixture among sanitized 250-ml glass jars and top with lids and lid bands. Process in a canner for 15 minutes. Carefully remove from canner and transfer to a flat surface. Let rest, undisturbed, for 24 hours. After 24 hours, ensure all lids are popped down; if not, this indicates that the lids are not properly sealed, and peach butter should be refrigerated and consumed within a week.

Enjoy!

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Creamy Buttermilk Ranch Macaroni Salad

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I’m just going to start off by saying that I am so not the kind of person who tries out for reality television.. I don’t even watch it!

Yet somewhere out in the ether of the internet, there exists a photo (or possibly several) of me standing amongst a frenzied crowd in downtown Toronto before the crack of dawn, surrounded by people yelling and shoving self-promoting signs at a panning camera lens (I was not, for the record, one of those people).

It all started with a nudge (okay, more like a heavy push) from a friend. Me? Masterchef? I would never do that. That’s just crazy.

But that is exactly why I did it. Because over the past couple of months, I’ve come to realize that doing things just because they aren’t comfortable is not actually the way to be doing things at all. The quite opposite, in fact.

So I did it. I stayed up all night making a recipe that I thought completely encapsulated myself and my approach to food. I took my favourite summer dessert, strawberry shortcake, and made it tinier, healthier and infused with just the right amount of whimsy. Two-bite strawberry shortcake, I called it, before carefully stuffing them into containers, packing up my cooler and falling into bed just a few hours before I would be lining up outside for the auditions. (Don’t worry, that recipe will be popping up here soon!)

To cut to the chase, I didn’t make the cut. And to be completely, utterly honest, I’m not the least bit disappointed. The point of this crazy little adventure was not to get on television at all, but to prove to my reserved, humble little self that saying “no” to something simply by proxy of it being scary gets me absolutely nowhere, but wholeheartedly embracing the weird and wonderful opportunities that come my way will ultimately make me a happier person.

That’s what food is to me – a constant push and encouragement to be better, try harder and never doubt what I’m capable of. My relationship with food has taken me on an incredible journey – it’s shaped my career, my confidence and the way I see the day-to-day challenges. It’s made me lose my cool while [over]cooking 30 servings of basmati rice for a banquet class at George Brown, but it’s given me the gumption to stand in front of Masterchef judges and present them my dish without the slightest tingling of self-doubt.

Food is so much more than what you put on a plate three times a day. It’s a language, an expression of who you are and what you stand for, and it teaches you lessons about yourself you never thought possible from a simple bag of cornmeal or a bowl of icing.

Whether you’re crafting a simple grilled cheese sandwich or concocting a grand three-course meal, remember that every step you take in the kitchen is an expression of yourself. Make it count, take some risks and trust yourself. You never know where it will take you.

Macaroni Salad IngredientsCreamy Buttermilk Ranch Macaroni Salad
Serves 6 to 8.

This recipe is my own version of my mom’s classic summer go-to side dish. The creamy combination of Greek yogurt, sour cream and buttermilk give this simple ranch-style dressing just the right amount of tang.

INGREDIENTS:
3 cups elbow macaroni
2 to 3 carrots, peeled and sliced into coins
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
1 cup chopped cheddar or mozzarella cheese
1 green or red apple, chopped
2 green onions, sliced

Buttermilk Ranch
1 cup Greek yogurt
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 1/2 tbsp chopped fresh chives, divided
1/2 tsp each sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

INSTRUCTIONS:

1. Cook macaroni according to package directions. Drain and rinse with cold water until cool.

2. Meanwhile, prepare buttermilk ranch: In a blender, combine Greek yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, garlic, 1 tbsp chives and salt and pepper. Blend until smooth and well combined. Transfer to a bowl and fold in remaining 1/2 tbsp chives. Cover and refrigerate until needed.

3. In a large casserole dish, combine macaroni, carrots, bell peppers, cheddar and apple. Stir in buttermilk ranch until fully combined. Cover and refrigerate until cold.

4. To serve, garnish with green onions.

Enjoy!

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Watermelon Gazpacho with Fresh Basil Cream

gazpacho 4

Every once in a while, we need a fresh start.

In order to grow, we need to every so often challenge ourselves, sweep the cobwebs, shake out the rug and take inventory of what we have. And most important, we need to determine whether what we have is what we really want.

You might have noticed my site looks a little different than it did the last time you visited. It’s fresher, brighter and a better reflection of the kind of person I really am and continue to strive to be.

Over the years, this blog has been a resource for me – it’s grounded me, taught me how to cook and given me opportunities I never would have had otherwise. In turn, I’m going to make this blog a resource for you. I’ll be incorporating short how-to videos and offering more instruction on how to make cooking healthier, easier and more enjoyable, and I’ll continue to share the recipes I’m concocting in my own kitchen.

I want to help you rediscover your kitchen as the creative oasis that it is. I want you to take joy in cooking and view dinner as something to be savoured each and every day – not something to dread the minute the five o’clock hunger pangs come along.

Please let me know what you think of the new look – I’d love to hear your thoughts! And special thanks to my friend, graphic designer and illustrator Bianca DiPietro, for creating my adorable logo at the top. For more of her work, check out her website.

I created this refreshing soup a few weeks ago, when we were suffering through a pretty intense heat wave here in Toronto and my stove and I just weren’t getting along that well. It’s a great mid-afternoon cool-me-down for those days when it really is just too bloody hot to eat, let alone cook, and it literally comes together in just a few steps. The basil cream is an indulgent and delicious topper, but totally optional. Here’s what you need to do:

1. Chop your watermelon into medium-size cubes.

watermelon chopped

2. Peel and halve cucumbers lengthwise and remove seeds by running a spoon along the middle of each half.

seed cucumber

3. Purée it all in a food processor with lemon juice and white balsamic for a hint of acidity… and that’s it!

purée

Watermelon Gazpacho with Fresh Basil Cream
Serves 6 to 8.

Serve this chilled soup as a refreshing light summer lunch, or spoon it into small mason jars for a cute dessert option!

INGREDIENTS:

6 cups cubed watermelon
3 cups peeled, seeded and roughly chopped cucumber
2 tbsp fresh lemon or lime juice
1 tbsp white balsamic vinegar
1 avocado, peeled, pitted and chopped

Basil Cream
1 cup heavy (35%) cream
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, finely chopped (TIP: Basil bruises and browns quickly, so wait until you’re ready to fold the basil into the cream before you chop it.)

INSTRUCTIONS:

1. In a food processor or blender, purée watermelon, cucumber, lemon juice and vinegar until smooth. (TIP: You may need to work in batches, depending on the size of your food processor or blender.) Refrigerate until chilled.

2. In a large chilled bowl, add cream. With an electric hand mixer or whisk, beat until stiff peaks form. Fold in basil.

3. Serve gazpacho in chilled bowls with a dollop of basil cream. Garnish with avocado.

Enjoy!

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Blueberry Lime Ice Cream

ice cream final

You know when you go into one of those frozen yogurt bars and get just a little carried away?

It all happens so fast. You get really excited because your favourite flavour is back – then the featured flavour catches your eye and that swirl option just looks oh-so-tempting and before you know it, you’ve got a 1/2 pint of mango-crème brûlée-oreo cookie crumble staring back at you.

And don’t get me started on the toppings. As soon as I see the rainbow of colourful fruits and gummies and chocolates, I think to myself, “This is what’s really going to pull this act together.”

That excitement – that no-holds-barred risk-taking creativity – that’s how you should approach your kitchen every single day.

Sure, you need to reign it in just a little (I don’t know how many times I’ve told my boyfriend that I will NOT make a hamburger topped with caramel sauce), but keep in mind that all of your favourite recipes are the result of someone, somewhere saying, “why not?”.

I found the best way to get myself into the groove of cooking off the books was to start making tiny variations on recipes I already know by heart. For example, make a simple fettuccine alfredo recipe, but toss in some fresh asparagus, or knead up Alton Brown’s pizza dough, but top it with whatever you have in your fridge instead of making a special trip to the store for someone else’s idea of what should go on your pie.

Ice cream is an incredibly easy and fun food to customize – I know it can sound complicated at first, but once you familiarize yourself with my three-step system, you’ll be leaving your ice cream maker out on the counter from now until October!

First, you want to make your custard. A custard is basically just a mixture of egg yolks, sugar and cream. To make it, whisk together the yolks and sugar (and sometimes vanilla and salt for flavour). Meanwhile, heat the cream until small bubbles form around the edge. Then you want to very slowly whisk the cream into your yolk mixture – a really handy trick to whisk in the cream without the bowl roaming around your counter is to anchor the bowl in a pot, like I’ve done here. You can also add in any last-minute flavourings for the base ice cream here – for a bit of tartness, I opted for a squirt of lime juice and a hint of zest. Be sure to chill the custard to room temperature before storing it in your fridge to chill completely.

Next, make your flavouring. The options are pretty much endless – caramel ripples, raspberry swirls, fudgey trails – think back to the frozen yogurt story and let your inner mixmaster free. For my ice cream, I opted for a simple blueberry sauce. With any fruit sauce, you want to cook it with a little bit of sugar and some lemon juice to really bring out the flavour. This mixture should also be chilled before you add it to your ice cream.

Lastly, churn and swirl. Place your pre-chilled ice cream maker bowl into the unit and turn it on. Slowly pour in the cold custard while the machine is running and let it churn for about 45 minutes. Depending on your unit and the temperature in your kitchen, the custard may not reach that ice cream consistency you’re looking for, so you want to transfer it to a shallow container and freeze it for another hour or so. But before you do so, you’ll want to swirl in your flavouring. Here’s a quick video I made that shows how I do it.

Now you just need to freeze it until firm! Here’s my recipe below (I adapted it from a basic ice cream recipe from Cuisinart).

ice cream 4

Blueberry Lime Ice Cream
Makes 1.5 quarts.

Kissed with tart lime, this custard-style ice cream features a brilliant blue swirl of fresh local blueberries.

INGREDIENTS:

2 cups heavy cream (35%)
2 cups whole milk
5 egg yolks
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
Pinch sea salt
1 tsp fresh lime juice
1 tsp lime zest

Blueberry Swirl
1 cup fresh blueberries
4 tbsp granulated sugar
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp lemon zest
Pinch sea salt

INSTRUCTIONS:

1. In a medium saucepan, combine cream and milk. Heat on medium and cook uncovered until edges begin to bubble; do not bring to a boil.

2. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk yolks, sugar, vanilla and salt. Slowly stream in cream mixture, whisking constantly, until combined. (TIP: To keep the bowl steady while whisking in the cream, arrange a damp towel over a separate pot and place bowl in pot as shown here.)

3. Return mixture to pot and heat on low, whisking often, until thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon.

4. Let cool to room temperature, then transfer to a large shallow container and refrigerate until cold, 2 to 4 hours, but ideally overnight.

5. Meanwhile, prepare blueberry swirl: In a small saucepan, combine all ingredients and heat on medium. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a gentle simmer and cook uncovered until berries begin to break down and mixture thickens to a rich sauce. Cool to room temperature, then transfer to a separate bowl and refrigerate until cold, at least 2 hours.

6. Turn on ice cream maker and pour in chilled cream mixture while motor is running. Churn according to manufacturer directions. Return mixture to the large, shallow container. Pour blueberry mixture into centre of mixture and swirl through mixture with a butter knife. Freeze until firm. Ice cream will stay good in your freezer for four to five days.

Enjoy!

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Tomato, Basil and Mozzarella Toss with Crispy Garlic Chips

tomato saladI want you to reframe the way you think about cooking.

Ditch the recipe, hide your cookbooks and put away that smart phone. Hit up your local market and gravitate toward the brightest, freshest ingredients you can find. Then go home and own – really, truly own – your kitchen.

Too often we feel lost in our kitchens – like we need a guidebook or action plan to do what is at its core a very simple task. We dread the moment we enter our kitchens, and are easily tempted by the can of Campbell’s that’s been lurking in our cupboard since God-knows-when.

But what I love about cooking is the control. I really, truly crave control. And too often in our lives, we aren’t at the helm, but rather following someone else’s idea of what we should be doing and how.

So when you get in your kitchen tonight, don’t let someone else dictate how you chop your garlic or whether you sauté chicken or shrimp. Do it your way, have fun and don’t be afraid to fail.

This super simple toss happened one night when I had a plethora of tomatoes kicking around the fridge and was craving soft mozzarella in a really passionate kind of way. I added basil and deep-fried garlic because, well, they’re delicious, but you should try adding your own mix-ins depending on your tastes. Chopped watermelon would be divinely refreshing, feta or goat cheese are always delicious, and mint is a nice, light topper too.

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Tomato, Basil and Mozzarella Toss with Crispy Garlic Chips
Serves 3 to 4.

Whip up this five-minute dish for a light lunch or summery side. The quickly caramelized garlic chips add sweetness, plus they infuse heart-healthy olive oil with irresistible flavour for a hassle-free dressing.

INGREDIENTS:

3 tbsp olive oil
2 to 3 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
1 180-g tub buffalo mozzarella, drained and cheese torn into chunks
1/2 bunch fresh basil, chopped

INSTRUCTIONS:

1. In a small skillet, heat oil on medium. Add garlic and cook, shaking skillet occasionally, until garlic is golden and crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. (TIP: Garlic should be completely submerged in oil, so you may need to use more oil depending on the size of your skillet to ensure garlic is covered.)

2. In a large bowl, toss tomatoes and mozzarella. Add garlic and oil from skillet and toss to coat. Garnish with basil.

Enjoy!