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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

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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.

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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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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!

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Beef Tenderloin with Raspberry Wine Sauce and Blue Cheese

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Sometimes you just need to feel the weight of a rock beneath your feet, the chill of a river’s rush lapping at your toes and the calming peace of being completely alone.

It’s in those moments that you truly find yourself, ground yourself. The minute details that cloud your mind daily start to fade, and you realize that life really is just about putting one foot in front of the other, regardless of what obstructs your path.

Last week was not a good week for me – my company closed its doors, leaving myself and 60 of my colleagues and friends out of jobs. It was heartbreaking, saying goodbye to the magazine I’ve loved and cared for over the past two and a half years.

The truth is, my job had become my identity – and from it, I reaped my sense of worth. I came to respect myself and know myself as the associate editor of Clean Eating Magazine, rather than the person I’ve been all along.

So last week, when for the first time in – well, forever – that I woke up without a plan, a schedule of events or miles-long to-do list, I was lost. I floundered, cleaned the heck out of my apartment and spent a lot of quality time catching up on my Facebook feed. I got angry and sad and frustrated. I cried and ate far too many granola bars. I mourned.

But this week is about letting go. I’m spending time by the river, dipping my toes in the stream. I’m picking strawberries with friends and testing out the recipes I’ve been dreaming of but never had time to actually make. I’m just being with myself, learning about myself and appreciating who I am and all that I have.

I’m grateful for my time with Clean Eating – the friends I’ve made, the lessons I’ve learned and the skills I’ve developed. When I moved to Toronto to take this job, my team in many ways became my family, and the doors of Robert Kennedy Publishing became a sanctuary from the homesickness and loneliness that accompanied leaving my friends and family behind.

And while I’m sad to see this chapter of my life close, I’m finally ready to look forward, to embrace this next challenge and spend a little more time with my toes in the water, learning about myself.

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Beef Tenderloin with Raspberry Wine Sauce and Blue Cheese
Serves 4.

INGREDIENTS
:
1 tbsp butter
1 shallot, minced
1 1/2 cups red wine
1 cup beef broth
1 1/2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp each sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, plus additional to taste
1 tbsp olive oil
4 beef tenderloin medallions (5 to 7 ounces each)
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
1 cup fresh raspberries

INSTRUCTIONS:

1. In a medium or large skillet, melt butter on medium heat. Add shallot and sauté, stirring often, until beginning to brown. Add wine, broth and vinegar. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook until liquid reduces by two-thirds, 25 to 30 minutes.

2. Season beef with salt and pepper. In a separate large skillet, heat oil on medium-high. Add beef, leaving at least 1 inch between each medallion, and cook, turning once, until reached desired doneness. Remove from skillet and tent with foil. Let rest for 5 minutes.

3. Season wine mixture with salt and pepper. Stir in raspberries and simmer, stirring occasionally, until berries begin to break down.

4. Divide beef among serving plates and top with wine mixture and blue cheese.

Enjoy!

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Glowing Grain Salad with Dreamy Avocado Dressing

Glowing Grain Salad

Today I just cooked.

I didn’t worry about the rent, or my overdue Visa payment, or the ants that are taking over my bathroom.

I didn’t stress over my job or my career path or why my boyfriend hasn’t proposed yet.

I didn’t even consider whether I’ll have time to have babies before my ovaries start shriveling or how the hell I’m ever going to be able to buy a decent home, or whether I should pack it all up and move back East to be a pharmacist or a barista or something.

There was none of that. There was just me, my knife and my stove.

I was in control, a feeling I can’t say I’ve experienced for quite some time now. For the past few months, I’ve been more or less rudderless and confused, struggling to figure out exactly what happened to me and how I get out.

My plans backfired. I’d done everything right – worked my way to the top of the class, elbowed into my dream job and had, as far as I was concerned, “made it.”

But they don’t teach you in journalism school how to look your colleagues in the eye as they’re walked out the door. They don’t prepare you for the reality of surpluses and restructuring or whatever other buzzword flies around when an industry is on the edge of collapse.

What I did today was cook – because at the end of the day, that is all I can do. I put my knife in my right hand and a sweet potato in the other and I just chop. I slice away my anxiety and worry and frustration and tears and I make food that nourishes me, soothes me. I take control of my kitchen and I make something beautiful.

This salad is my latest obsession. Bursting with fresh seasonal produce, hearty barley and topped with a creamy avocado and lime yogurt dressing, it transcends salad territory, edging its way into summer comfort food.

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Glowing Grain Salad with Dreamy Avocado Dressing
Makes 5 servings.

INGREDIENTS
1 1/2 cups pearl barley, rinsed
2 tsp olive oil
2 5-oz boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded to an even thickness
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and chopped into 1-inch lengths
2 cups loosely packed baby arugula or spinach
1 pear, chopped
1/2 cup dried cranberries

Dressing
1 avocado, peeled and pitted
1/2 cup plain 1% yogurt
Juice of 1/2 lime
1/4 tsp sea salt

INSTRUCTIONS:
1. In a large saucepan, add barley and enough water to cover by 1-inch. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a gentle simmer and cook until tender, 30 to 35 minutes. Drain well.

2. Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, heat oil on medium. Add chicken and cook, turning once, until golden and cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and use 2 forks to shred chicken into bite-size pieces.

3. Fill a pot with 1-inch water and fit with a steamer basket. Bring water to a simmer and add asparagus to basket. Cook until tender-crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl of ice water until cool, then drain and set aside.

4. Prepare dressing: In a blender, combine avocado, yogurt, lime, salt and 1/2 cup water. Blend until smooth, adding additional water as needed to reach desired consistency. Season with additional salt and lime juice, to taste.

5. In a large bowl, combine barley, chicken, asparagus, arugula and pear. Toss to combine. Divide among serving bowls and garnish with cranberries. Serve with a dollop of dressing.

Enjoy!

1

Healthy Granola, Three Ways

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So what’s your excuse?

We all have them – these everyday annoyances we tell ourselves are more important than what we should actually be doing.

I’m not talking about housework or taking the dog for a walk – I mean the things we really want and should be doing, but foolishly let life get in the way of, like switching careers or leaving a bad relationship or, say, writing this blog post right now.

Maybe it’s a financial excuse (who can afford to go back to school?) or a time excuse (who’s got time to be single?), but ultimately it all comes down to fear and frustration.

I’m afraid that people won’t read what I write or that what I do write won’t live up to what I wrote last time. I’m frustrated that what I love to do – tell stories – is going out of style in favour of shorter, punchier news bits that require little time or knowledge to read and understand.

And then come the excuses – the floor needs vacuumed, the tub needs scrubbed, dinner needs made, dishes need washed, lunch needs to be packed – and before I know it, it’s bedtime and I haven’t written so much as a word.

It should come easy. I spent four years in school learning to write and I’ve got five years’ experience writing for newspapers and magazines, yet somehow it’s so much easier for me to sit down at work and pump out 400 words on a musician or an entire column on pomegranates than it is for me to sit down and write for myself, which is, after all, what I spend all this time wanting to do.

At first I thought it was just writer’s block and that the dread that comes with staring at an empty page was just an unfortunate side effect of what I do. But upon closer inspection, I saw glaring examples of people around me letting the small stuff get in the way of their goals, too.

I see people staying in relationships because they’re scared of being single, or sticking it out at dead-end jobs because the idea of pushing themselves into something else seems like too much work. Or there’s my boyfriend, TJ, who insists that he needs to amass every possible piece of camera and lighting equipment before he can even power on his video camera to make a simple video.

It’s fear, yes, but there’s a comfort in sticking with what you know, even if it makes you terribly unhappy. Think back to the proudest moment of your life – chances are it didn’t happen because you stayed in your comfort zone.

So how do I get out of this funk? How do I get back to actually enjoying writing again and seeing it as a joy rather than a chore? I guess, like everything, I just have to do it, get it over with and then hope to God it gets easier the next time.

When I made these three low-sugar and low-fat granola recipes over a month ago (yep, it’s been that long), my boyfriend was openly skeptical. He took a bag to work out of desperation one morning when he didn’t have time to have breakfast, and halfway through the day, I got a text that read, simply, “make more.” The Pear & Walnut has become a favourite in our house, but I also like experimenting with whatever kind of dried fruit I can get my hands on at the bulk store – dried bananas, peaches, figs and mango are all great options.

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Pear & Walnut Granola
Makes 3 to 4 cups.

INGREDIENTS:
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 cup chopped dried pears
1/2 cup walnut pieces
1/4 cup pepitas (aka shelled pumpkin seeds)
1/4 cup plus 3 tbsp pure maple syrup
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp sea salt

INSTRUCTIONS:
1. Preheat oven to 325˚F.
2. In a large bowl, mix oats, pears, walnuts and pepitas. In a small bowl, whisk maple syrup, oil and salt. Drizzle over oat mixture and stir to coat.
3. Spread mixture on a large parchment-lined baking sheet and bake, stirring every 5 minutes, until oats are golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely. Store in an airtight container or bag for up to a week.

Apple Pie Granola
Makes about 3 cups.

INGREDIENTS:
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 cup chopped dried apples
1/2 cup sliced almonds or walnut pieces
3 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
4 tsp honey
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/2 cup dried cranberries

INSTRUCTIONS:
1. Preheat oven to 325˚F.
2. In a large bowl, mix oats, apples, almonds, sugar and cinnamon. In a small bowl, whisk honey, vanilla and salt. Drizzle over oat mixture and stir to coat.
3. Spread mixture on a large parchment-lined baking sheet and bake until oats are golden, about 20 minutes. Let cool completely. Stir in cranberries. Store in an airtight container or bag for up to a week.

Coconut Papaya Granola
Makes about 3 cups.

INGREDIENTS:
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup chopped dried papaya
1/2 cup shredded dried coconut
1/4 cup honey
1 tbsp pure maple syrup
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp sea salt

INSTRUCTIONS:
1. Preheat oven to 325˚F.
2. In a large bowl, mix oats, papaya and coconut. In a small bowl, whisk honey, maple syrup, oil, vanilla and salt. Drizzle over oat mixture and stir to coat.
3. Spread on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake, stirring every 5 minutes, until oats are golden, about 20 minutes. Let cool completely. Store in an airtight container or bag for up to a week.

Enjoy!

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Kale, Sweet Potato and Sausage Soup with White Beans

soup final

There are foods that sustain you, satiate and fulfill you. They can be delicious, hearty and satisfying – for some, it might be a creamy bowl of luscious pasta.

For me, it’s soup – soup tends to live in that same place in my heart as my Granny’s apple pie or my dad’s phenomenal weekend coffee. It’s not necessarily perfectly seasoned or cooked just right, but it soothes, comforts and ails in a way that makes everything seem alright, if even just for a spoonful.

It starts with the prep – I find comfort in the simple sautéeing of my favourite vegetables, followed by a quick deglaze with broth and some seasoning to hit that fine balance between salty and savory, hearty and slurp-worthy. Soup doesn’t ask for much; a quick simmer will do.

And then there’s that moment, that perfect second when your brimming ladle hits the bowl, offering up chunks of tender veggies, melt-in-your-mouth meat and full-bodied broth. It makes you wonder why you ever bother trying to make anything else, because this right here, this is the crescendo of comfort food.

I like this soup for its simplicity, but also for its use of seasonal ingredients in this blustery time of year. Kale and sweet potatoes are unbelievably bitter and sweet (and inexpensive!) during the winter months, and they really steal the show for vibrancy and flavour.

To round out this soup, I opted for simple ingredients I already had in my kitchen – sausage for oomph, mushrooms for flavour and white beans for extra creamy texture. You can go ahead and switch up the add-ins depending on what you have on hand, or you can make it vegetarian and double up on beans for extra filling protein and fiber. A curl of Parmesan is great as an indulgent garnish, but make it your own by playing around.

prep
Kale, Sweet Potato and Sausage Soup with White Beans
Serves 4 to 5.

To dress up this simple soup, serve with crusty bread and fresh Parmesan.

INGREDIENTS:

1 tbsp olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
500 g uncooked mild sausage, casings removed and chopped into 1-inch chunks
1 cup sliced brown cremini mushrooms
2 small sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 cups chicken broth
3 to 4 cups chopped kale, stems and tough ribs removed
1 19-oz can white kidney or navy beans, drained and rinsed
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste

INSTRUCTIONS:

1. In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat oil on medium. Add onion and sauté, stirring frequently, until translucent. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 more minute.

2. Add sausage and sauté until browned. Stir in mushrooms and potatoes and sauté until mushrooms soften, about 4 minutes.

3. Add broth and 3 cups water. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until potatoes are beginning to soften, about 10 minutes.

4. Stir in kale and beans and cook for 3 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Enjoy!