Sunday, April 29, 2012

Our Portland Vacation via COOKIES

I painted cookies for the first time! I purchased a set of food-safe paintbrushes awhile back and have been looking forward to painting on bakes for a long time. I'm no Arty McGoo but I'm quite proud of my first attempt :) I don't think I have painted anything since grade school.

For my first painting project, I decided to paint our latest vacation. We recently went on a one week road trip to Portland, Oregon. It was our first time there and it was as lovely as I had imagined it would be. Before even going, I knew we were going to see some pretty amazing things so I already starting planning the art project. Yeah, I like to plan things :) I thought it was a cool idea but I had no idea how challenging it would be, given that I'm not a painter or anything. I decided to go with watercolor-type paintings because they didn't seem too hard.

Yesterday, I painted 14 cookies. That's 14 different images! It was so much work, I actually felt nauseous afterwards:( It took several hours and I messed up on a few colors since I couldn't mix very well without white. I tried to use the existing white on the cookie canvas for areas that were whiter. I think for future projects I will have to track down some white food coloring to make my life easier. In the end, I only ended up using a bit of food coloring for all the paintings. I also found that it was not necessary to add water to the food coloring gel or liquid beforehand. I was constantly dipping my paintbrush in water and that water was added to the food coloring, diluting it each time. I only squeezed one drop of gel into each palette on my tray but that was WAY too much. Next time, I'll just use a bit of gel from a toothpick. I probably could have painted another 50 cookies with the food coloring I had left, assuming I had the energy to do so. I'm so glad it's done but boy was it a lot of work!

Cannon Beach, north view

Haystack at Cannon Beach

Coffee/pastry break at St. Honoré Boulangerie

Spring flowers by the Columbia Gorge/River

View of Columbia Gorge/River by Vista House

Vista House

Multnomah Falls

Lan Su Classical Chinese Gardens

Goldfish at Lan Su Gardens

Woodburn Outlets

Snow-tubing on Mt. Hood

Mt. Hood

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why Canadians Love Trader Joe's

I started hearing about Trader Joe's on Twitter years ago. I follow quite a few moms who like to shop green and organic foods. People wouldn't stop talking about Trader Joe's and how much they love it there. There were moms who would drive down to Bellingham regularly and stock up on Trader Joe products. There were even people who would drive down south after work during a weeknight to grocery shop and then drive back. Apparently, the customs at the border is quieter at that time. The Trader Joe's in Bellingham is only about a one hour drive from Vancouver. What kills you is normally the wait at the border. If you go during a weekend, you may have to wait 3 or 4 hours at the border. It just isn't worth it in that case. It's still unclear to me how customs will treat grocery purchases if you are gone for just a couple of hours. Someone told me that groceries don't count at all but when I bought a few things at a grocery store in Point Roberts, we were inspected and then charged duties on all the stuff we brought over, including groceries.

Here in Vancouver, organic products are very expensive. Sometimes organic products are as much as 3 or 4 times more expensive than their non-organic equivalent. Compared to Canada, organic products and products in general at Trader Joe's, are about half the price. If you purchased $200 worth of organic and healthy groceries in Canada, you could probably get the same thing down at Trader Joe's for around $100. That is HUGE! Take organic butter for instance. Half a pound of organic butter may sell for $6 or $7. Compare this to the one pound organic block of butter at Trader Joe's for just $4.79. It's twice as much and it's cheaper. The same thing with regular butter. One pound of regular butter sells for around $5-6 here but only $2.76 at Trader Joe's. We don't even have to compare organics to organics. Organic milk at Trader Joe's is cheaper than regular (non-organic) milk here ($2.99 compared to $3.69). Now, that is just nuts! Since the dollar here is at par with the US dollar, that makes Trader Joe's an even bigger bargain. Our dollar has been this strong for many years now.

As a family, we have been eating more and more organic and healthy foods. We have also been eating more vegan foods and vegan products are also very expensive here in Canada. Tofurky, which is a vegan sausage, can be purchased for $6 or more here. At Trader Joe's the same one sells for just $2.99. Frozen tempeh at Whole Foods costs $3.99. At Trader Joe's it's $1.69. The one we had from Whole Foods didn't taste very good either. Cheese is really cheap too. A chub of soy cheese was only $2.79. Regular cheese is about 50% the price we pay here. In fact, I found cheap Canadian brie cheese at Trader Joe's! Now, why in the world is Canadian cheese cheaper in the US than in Canada?? That is totally wrong man. Sausage and deli meats are also great buys. I bought a 227 gram stick of Italian sausage for $3.99 at Trader Joe's. I saw a similar 300 gram Italian sausage advertised on sale at Thrifty Foods for $8.99. Ouch.

Trader Joe's is like Whole Foods but at a discount. I actually came across a nice article about Trader Joe's while I was looking for some links. Organics, no preservatives, no artificial additives, gourmet, and in general everything is just healthier at Trader Joe's compared to regular supermarkets. Not only are you getting healthier, cheaper food but their products also tastes great! Soy yogurt down there tastes really good. It actually tastes similar to the soy yogurt you can find in France. We have tried a few brands of soy yogurt in Vancouver but none of them impressed us. Oh and have you tried Trader Joe's fresh pineapple juice? At $3.99, it's about the same price as an orange Tropicana when it's on sale but it's probably the best pineapple juice I have tasted.

Trader Joe's in Portland
Needless to say, I have been looking forward to going to Trader Joe's for a long time now. This past weekend, we were vacationing in the US and we finally got the opportunity to check out the supermarket. Can you tell all the prices and deals are fresh from my trip? :) The first store we visited was the one in Seattle by the University. It was surprisingly small. Then we visited the one in the city of Portland and it was a bigger store but still fairly small. For some reason, I thought the store would be large like a Save on Foods or Thrifty Foods. The store was actually more like the size of a Choices. On the way back home we visited another Trader Joe's store in the Portland area and it was still fairly small. Then we went to the Bellingham store and it was actually a bit bigger than the others we have visited. It's funny because when we were at the Bellingham store, I noticed so many cars in the parking lot with BC license plates. There were more Canadians shopping at that Trader Joe's than Americans! Lol.

The following are some other great buys, in case you want to stock up like we did :)
  • Fresh breads
  • Various dark chocolate/nut treats $2.99-4.29
  • Organic coconut oil $5.99
  • Cracker snacks
  • Carton unsweetened coconut milk $1.99
  • Carton almond chocolate milk $1.69
  • Baking cocoa $2.29
  • Bag of sundried tomatoes $1.99
  • Honey organic raw fair trade $5.99 (really good)
  • Organic apple cider vinegar $2.49
  • Carton organic red pepper & tomato soup $2.79 (yummy & great for emergencies)
  • Whole wheat flour $2.99
  • Frozen wood-oven pizzas $3.99-4.99
I heard from others that marinated artichoke hearts, pizza sauce, and jar olives are also good buys. I also bought some cheap red wine made from organic grapes. I haven't tried it yet but for just $3.99 a bottle, it would still be cheap just to use it for cooking :)

Do you shop regularly at Trader Joe's? Did I miss anything? If you are a veteran shopper there, what would you recommend for a newbie like me?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thin Crust Vegan Pizza using Coconut Almond Pesto Sauce

It's so great to see that vegan foods are becoming more and more popular these days :) There are so many sites dedicated to it and more and more people, even non-vegans like myself, are curious and interested to try it out. More and more restaurants and cafes are catering to vegans too. It's actually pretty awesome. I have been blogging for just over a month now and my vegan posts mee goreng and chocolate cupcakes are by far my most popular posts! Each of them has at least twice as many views as my favorite recipe posted so far: Loaded Cannelloni with Kale & Sausage. I suppose more people are searching for vegan dishes and there are a lot fewer of them online compared to non-vegan foods. I'm still a bit surprised at the statistics.

Vegan foods are something I have been interested in exploring, especially in the past few months. I'm beginning to learn that good vegan food actually isn't that hard to come by. I love that it takes a bit more creativity and challenges me as a non-vegan cook to make sometimes daring substitutions. I'm excited to be able to share another successful vegan dish creation! This one was inspired by another recipe that uses a coconut sauce for its pizza. I actually made that recipe but mine turned out too wet even though I used a lot of garlic and coconut cream. We also found it to be overwhelmingly garlic-y. Lol. Then when I tried to fix it with all these other additions, things started to mix really well and I found myself eating a really good vegan pizza. I love when accidents lead to new and great discoveries! :)

Coconut almond pesto sauce

Thin Crust Vegan Pizza using Coconut Almond Pesto Sauce
Serves 8-10

6 medium thin crust pizza doughs*
2 packages of grape or cherry tomatoes, cut in half
handful of fresh basil, chopped
1 package daiya cheese (this vegan cheese melts!!!)

Coconut Almond Pesto Sauce

7-8 tbsp of almond pesto (recipe below)
400 ml can of coconut cream (it's thicker than canned coconut milk)

Almond Pesto (makes 1 1/2 cups)

handful of fresh basil
4 cloves of garlic
20 roasted almonds
2 tbsp nutritional yeast
1 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp salt

Blend all of the pesto ingredients together until a fine puree and set aside. Empty the can of coconut cream into a bowl and then add just 7-8 tbsp of the pesto. Mix well. You can save the extra pesto for salads, pastas, other pizzas or just freeze it. Spread coconut almond pesto sauce on a pizza dough, sprinkle on some daiya cheese, and top with a few tomatoes. Repeat until all dough is used. Baked at 400F for 10-15 minutes. Remove and cool for a few minutes. Top with a bit of fresh basil. Slice pizza and serve.

*Note about the pizza dough: I like to make my own pizza doughs. I often think that the dough makes the pizza. In France and Italy, pizzas are thin and cooked in wood ovens. There are few ingredients on them and despite being so simple, they are just delicious. I have nothing against the large, filling, loaded North American pizzas but if I had to choose between the two I would choose thin crust pizzas as my favorite. In general, I love all pizzas but since I have full control over what I can make, I always try to mimic the great pizzas I've tasted in France and Italy. You could probably use a normal crust pizza for this recipe but if you are curious about thin crusts, I found a great thin crust pizza dough recipe on 101 cookbooks. It's a bit of work but it's so great I always use it now :)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

French Leafy Greens with Cured Ham

My first visit to France was to Lyon. Did you know that Lyon is the "kitchen capital of the world?" I was pretty much introduced to French food there and it was amazing! In particular, I was surprised to discover how awesome the salads were. We dined out a lot in France and I don't think I have ever been disappointed by any kind of salad there. I tell you the French sure know how to make a great salad!

My mother-in-law in France doesn't have a lot of interest in cooking but there is this one salad she can make and when I first tasted it, I was instantly in love. This is pretty much the only salad she ever makes :) It's one of those salads you'll want to serve during a special occasion though because it's definitely a crowd pleaser. Since being introduced to it, I have been making it a lot myself. Well, I made it more often when we were still living in France since they had very tasty cured hams. Hams, salami, any kind of deli meat, and of course cheese were plentiful and delicious there.

The following salad recipe is inspired by my mother-in-laws salad. When you taste it for the first time, just close your eyes and picture yourself sitting outside dining in Paris on a Spring day :) You can use any kind of leafy lettuce. I used an assorted organic green salad mix. Remember, when it comes to eating things raw and in particular, anything French, it's all about the freshness and quality of the ingredients. The balsamic vinegar that I used was actually a bottle my mother-in-law gave us. In fact, we have quite a few kitchen ingredients and supplies that are straight from France. We're a bit spoiled that way :)

French Leafy Greens with Cured Ham
Serves 4

200-250g mixed leafy greens
1 sweet medium apple, cut into small cubes
150-175g cured ham
1/4 cup roasted almonds, roughly crushed


2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tsp sea salt
1-2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1-2 tsp fresh herbs, finely chopped (e.g. basil, thyme, oregano)

Unless you bought the pre-washed mixed greens, you'll need to first wash your leafy lettuce, break it up a bit and spin it dry. Assemble the lettuce on each plate. Sprinkle on the bits of cut apple. Lay on the cured ham. Mix all the dressing ingredients together well and spoon over each plate. Finally, sprinkle over the crushed almonds and drizzle on a bit of olive oil. Serve this with some fresh baguette. And a glass of red wine, if you like ;)

Note: This is one of those dishes that I just eyeball so the quantity I listed in the ingredients above may need to be adjusted a bit. If you don't feel like your salad is oily or has enough dressing, you may need to add more olive oil or make more dressing.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Happy Easter!

You know you are a food blogger when you stage scenes out of cookies, cupcakes, and chocolates. I thought it looked pretty cool at the time but now I think I probably tried too hard. Lol.

The design for the bakes I made this year were all from Pinterest. In particular, the egg chick sugar cookies, the grass-filled egg nest, and the egg bunny sugar cookies were all taken from images I saw on Pinterest. For the egg nest, I made mine look more like hay since chickens lay their eggs in areas that were more like these colors. It's hard to see in the image but there are actually two colors to the simulated hay grass: beige and mustard yellow. The cupcakes were easy to do, simple, and just adorable.

I love baking for the holidays. We are not religious or anything and we don't particularly celebrate Easter. We do like to take part in the "fun" and baking for Easter was definitely fun! I personally loved how all the bakes turned out. The best part was that it didn't take me long to do them at all. To think that about 1 1/2 years ago, I didn't even know how to make a sugar cookie. The whole cupcake thing was even newer but those were a walk in the park, after learning to decorate sugar cookies. I used to drool and envy all the cute cookies and cupcakes I saw from others and now I can sort of create them all myself. You do not know how excited that makes me! :) If you are interested in how I first started in baking sugar cookies, I already wrote about it on my other blog.

It was a beautiful sunny day here for us on Easter. I was able to take all my food pictures in natural light and they turned out well. Enjoy the pictures and hope you all had a great Easter too :)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Decorating with SPRINKLES!

A week ago, I had maybe six bottles of sprinkles in my kitchen. Then I visited a new baking supply store called Sprinkles and Trinkets. I now have more than a dozen different bottles of sprinkles. Yikes. I'm actually afraid to count them because it could very well be more than a dozen. Omg.

Collecting sprinkles could be dangerous for me. I have already gone crazy with buying all sorts of cute gifting paper and bags I don't use. This whole cake and cookie thing is still pretty new to me so I'm probably just buying a lot now out of excitement and anticipation. Right?? Luckily, sprinkles last a long time so I think I should be good. Who am I kidding, right? A dozen bottles!!!

Well, I have them so I mind as well use them. I should totally throw a "decorate your own cupcake" party. That would be cute and fun! :) By the way, for those who are in the Greater Vancouver area and are looking for a good variety of sprinkles, Sprinkles and Trinkets in Surrey has a good selection and they're very well priced. They are even cheaper than Winners. Yeah, I was surprised too. I will definitely be back there when I need to restock on sprinkles.

Loot from Sprinkles and Trinkles



Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Chayote: the Pear-Shaped Squash

Chayote squash is a fruit that is native to Mexico. You can buy chayote in West Indian, Jamaican, Latin, and most Asian supermarkets, which is where I get mine from. It tastes and looks a lot like zucchini. It holds very well when cooked so it's crunchy rather than soft and mushy like cooked zucchini. It's for this reason that I fed my son chayote when he was a baby learning to feed with his hands. They make good finger foods since they are firm and can be held. Chayote are also low in calories and are a good source of vitamin C and B6, potassium, copper and manganese.

Chayote was one of the many Asian vegetables and fruits I grew up eating at home. I'm fortunate that my parents exposed us to so many different Asian foods, vegetables, and fruits. In some cases, I don't even know what some of the vegetables are called. If I see it in the supermarket though, I would know how to cook and eat it. I shop based on visual recognition rather than by name some times :) I would buy it and then cook it the same way my parents would. Or at least I would try based on what I could remember.

My favorite way of cooking chayote is in a stir-fry. I peel the fruit and then discard the seed. Apparently, you can eat everything but I have only ever eaten the flesh. Be careful handling it because it's super slippery to hold when the skin is off! After you prepare and chop the chayote, you get a sticky film on your hands much like if you were cutting a butternut squash. It can take some serious scrubbing to get it off. Some chayotes are prickly as well so be careful when you are choosing them from the supermarket.

The following is a simple stir-fry recipe I often do to accompany steamed rice and other dishes. If you haven't tried chayote yet, this will give you an example of how you can serve it. If you have tried chayote and love it, I would be interested in hearing how you like to serve it ;)

Stir-fry Chayote with Dried Shrimp and Abalone Sauce

4 chayote, peeled and sliced
2 tbsp of canola oil
2-3 tbsp dried shrimp
2 tbsp abalone sauce
1 tsp black pepper
pinch of salt

2 tsp of fried garlic
drizzle of Maggi sauce

Throw everything but the last 2 ingredients together in a wok and cook for a few minutes until the shrimp is soft. You can cook longer if you like the chayote to be softer. When done, add the fried garlic, drizzle a bit of Maggi sauce and mix. Serve hot with steamed rice.
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