Gluten-Free Halloween Treats: Layered Ice Cream & “Spooky Eyes” (Baked Chicken Meatballs)

Halloween is the ultimate holiday in my books. I love wearing costumes, carving pumpkins, lighting fireworks, decorating our apartment, trick-or-treating, eating copious amounts of chocolate and candy, and the list just goes on from there! This was my first Halloween eating gluten-free and soy-free so I needed to rethink the candy and chocolate situation a little. I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat much of the store bought stuff, but what fun, Halloween-themed items could I make for myself instead? Here’s what I came up with…

“Spooky Eyes” are a fun meatball appetizer I developed using sliced black olives over melted mozzarella cheese to make them look like ghoulish eyeballs. These meatballs were super easy to make and they looked and tasted great. Here’s my simple recipe if you want to make them yourself.

“Spooky Eyes”: Ghoulish, Gluten-Free Baked Chicken Meatballs

For the meatballs:
850 grams ground chicken (you could also use ground turkey, beef or pork too)
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup minced fresh basil
1 medium onion, minced
1 small can tomato paste (5.50z / 156 ml)
1/2 cup ground Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
pepper to taste

For the topping:
1 – 2 cups tomato sauce
grated mozzarella cheese
1 can sliced black olives

1. In a large bowl, combine ground chicken with all of the meatball ingredients listed above. I made sure my onions, garlic and basil were finely minced by running all of them through my food processor first. Mix ingredients together until they are evenly combined.

2. Shape mixture into evenly sized meatballs and bake them in the oven at 425 F until they are cooked and start to brown (about 15-20 minutes depending on your oven).

3. Remove the tray of cooked meatballs from the oven and allow them to cool slightly (enough to work without burning yourself). Once ready, spoon a dollop of tomato sauce directly onto each meatball.

4. Top each meatball with a handful of grated mozzarella cheese. Arrange the pieces of cheese so that they will melt into a solid white shape easily.

5. Top each meatball with a good slice of black olive to make it look like an eyeball. If you wish, you can set the olive slices off-centre to make them look cross-eyed.

6. Return the meatballs to the oven and bake for 5-10 more minutes, until the cheese has melted solid. Serve warm.

Layered Ice Cream

I also had my first foray into the world of layered ice cream this Halloween. I saw a photo of it in a cooking magazine and Halloween was the perfect excuse to try it. These tasty treats were also very easy to make. However, they did require a lot of time and patience to pull them off successfully.

I used disposable plastic wine glasses as the ice cream dishes since I didn’t have any glass ones. I used store-bought vanilla and mango ice cream, and some gluten-free and soy-free chocolate sauce. I let the mango ice cream melt a bit, then I pressed spoonfuls into the bottom of the cups trying to fill in all the gaps. I let them sit out on the counter until the layer leveled out a bit before putting them into the freezer to chill.

Many hours later I added the chocolate sauce layer, but here’s where I screwed up. I had put the little ice creams into our mini-freezer before, and they weren’t actually as frozen as I had thought. I had to heat the chocolate sauce up a bit to get it to pour smoothly and once the warm chocolate sauce hit the semi-frozen ice cream it sank straight to the bottom of the cup. I ruined quite a few this way before pulling the plug on the chocolate sauce operation. I cleared some space in our regular freezer and froze the cups over night. The next day when I added the warm chocolate sauce layer it settled perfectly. Time and patience are truly the key to this dish.

After the chocolate sauce layer had sufficiently frozen, I microwaved a big dish of vanilla ice cream to make it a liquid. I filled up the cups with the remaining vanilla layer and chilled them for a few more hours. The results, at least in the cups where I re-froze the mango again, were nice flat layers of ice cream with a gooey chocolate sauce layer in the middle. If you have the time, I highly recommend making these next Halloween!

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Our First Hydrangea Flowers

We added some new residents to our patio garden this summer: three Nikko Blue hydrangeas. We potted them back in early May, but they’ve only recently started to flower. Who cares if it’s almost November already? The flowers look great on the patio.

The shape of our balcony is a bit strange cause we’re in a corner unit. The far left side of our deck wraps around the corner and tapers off into a long concrete triangle of space. We have a perfect view of this wedge-shaped area from inside on our couch, so we really wanted to use the space well.

For a few years we had different bushes in there, but this winter they didn’t fare too well and by April they were half dead. It was time to get rid of them and try something new. But what? We needed something that could tolerate shade and I definitely wanted some flowers. After a little research we settled on hydrangeas since they are relatively easy to grow. That, plus hydrangeas remind me of our wedding cake!

I wanted to get some purple hydrangeas, but we couldn’t find any at the nursery. We settled for Nikko Blue instead, and guess what? They turned out semi-purple anyway. Lucky me, I guess?

The variation in colour is actually due to the acidity level of the soil. Acidic soil gives the flowers a deep blue colour, while alkaline soil makes the flowers a lighter purple, or sometimes even pink. How did I manage to get a combination of blue, purple and pink, you ask? Honestly, I have no idea, but I couldn’t be happier.

It’s nearly November and the sky is just about dark when I get home from work. Gazing at these elegant blossoms sure takes the edge off.

Assuming they survive the winter, these hydrangeas should come back every year. I wonder how many blossoms we’ll get next year?

Eating Allergy Free

Two months ago, I discovered I had a host of food allergies I’d never known about before. For years I’d always felt a bit off in the digestive area. I’d tried avoiding certain foods, drinking more liquids, taking supplements, and following special diets, but more often than not, I felt bloated and unable to digest properly after eating. I even felt gross after eating completely harmless meals such as a vegetable stir fry or a fruit salad.

After so many years of feeling this way, I began to accept these symptoms as normal. I thought this was going to be my everyday life. All that changed in July when I had a food sensitivity test done. Turns out I’m sensitive to 13 common foods! It’s been two months since I completely changed my diet and I’m feeling noticeably better than I did before. My stomach hurts less, I don’t feel bloated all the time, I have a lot more energy and I feel less generalized aches and pains. As if that isn’t enough to keep me motivated, I’ve lost a few pounds too! But my new diet is definitely not free of challenges.

I’m now avoiding the following 13 foods: wheat, gluten, soy, eggs, peanuts, ginger, mushrooms, bananas, all types of melons, red wine, coffee, beer & MSG.

The first four on the list are the biggest offenders. Eating gluten-free on its own is fairly easy to accommodate these days, but more often than not, gluten-free products are loaded with soy. Soy, I’ve discovered, is in everything. I’ve said goodbye to all the pre-made gluten-free cake and bread mixes, and most of the gluten-free crackers,  tortillas, English muffins and more. (I’ve even had to say goodbye to almost all chocolate!) Throw the egg allergy on top of gluten and soy and there goes another big chunk of my old favourite recipes.

Vegetable and Mascarpone Quiche with Potato Crust

Some things are just impossible to replace. Soy sauce, which I love, is a definite challenge. A stir fry just isn’t the same without it. And bananas? Previously, I was eating a banana almost every morning, so what gives? Have I been eating them too often, and overloaded my body? In time, I’ll experiment with adding bananas and mushrooms back into my diet, but for the time being I’m resolving to be as strict with my food as possible. That means I’m making almost everything from scratch.

It isn’t all bad though. I’m learning new things, trying new recipes. I’ve got several allergy-free friends to offer me advice, and I’ve discovered a whole massive network of allergy-free bloggers online with loads of delicious new recipes to try. I made a few amazing fruit pies with this pie crust recipe from the Art of Gluten-Free Baking, and some scrumptious cornbread using this recipe from Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef.

Berry Pie (crust recipe from the Art of Gluten-Free Baking)

Although it certainly is time consuming to learn this new style of cooking, I’m always up for a new culinary challenge. I feel healthier, and I’m finding new recipes that satisfy old cravings. That reminds me, it’s time for me to take a batch of chocolate chip cookies (from Gluten-Free Goddess) out of the oven. Thank heavens for Enjoy Life’s allergy-free mini chocolate chips that I purchased recently. So far they’re the only soy-free form of chocolate I’ve been able to find!

Chocolate Chip Cookies (recipe from Gluten-Free Goddess)

Pumpkin Pollination Woes

Last summer, after devouring Lorraine Johnson’s book City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing, I felt inspired to try vegetable container gardening myself. Johnson’s book was filled with countless examples of creative gardeners maximizing their tiny window boxes, back stoops, and unused garden nooks with tomato plants, peppers, creeping snow peas, runner beans and herbs. For a two bedroom apartment in Vancouver, our balcony is actually quite large. We’d already had success with tomato, basil and herbs in previous summers. Why not bump up the food crops on our patio instead of spending a small fortune on pretty, but temporary, summer flowers?

Soon enough I was flipping through the pages of the West Coast Seed catalogue like a little kid in a candy store. As a beginner, I followed the advice of City Farmer and stuck to easy-to-grow varieties like snow peas, Swiss chard and lettuce, but some of the more ambitious seeds also caught my eye. Why not try Brussel sprouts, broccoli and pumpkins too! Since Halloween is my favourite holiday, the idea of growing my own pumpkin sounded too good to resist. I decided to order some Little October seeds since they matured in the shortest amount of days (85) and I liked the smooth skin and perfectly round shape. By the time I actually planted the seeds it was the last week of July. Technically I still had 85 days until October 31st, but technically clearly isn’t everything.

If you’ve visited my blog before then I’m sure you’ll remember my pumpkin fiasco from last year. I did grow some pumpkins last year… just itty bitty little tiny ones! After having such a hilarious failure last year, I knew I’d have to give it another try. This year Operation Pumpkin Patch started earlier… way earlier. It’s now the end of July and I’ve been growing the pumpkin plant for nearly three months now. I wish I could say that it’s been smooth sailing the second time around, but that’s definitely not the case.

Apparently, pumpkin pollination is tricky business. The pumpkin plant itself – coated with rough spikes on the leaves and stalks, and bursting with creeping curlicue tendrils from every leaf joint – has both male and female flowers. Not surprisingly, the female flowers need to be pollinated by the pollen from the male flowers. The surprising part is that the pumpkin blossoms remain open for just one day, and the best way to insure success is to hand pollinate the plants directly using a small, dry paintbrush. If pollination is left only to the bees, it might not happen if a bee doesn’t buzz around your plant on that one fleeting day.

For weeks and weeks I’d come home from work to check for new blossoms, then diligently rub the male pollen onto all the female flowers or unopened flower buds. After a few weeks of doing that, small green pumpkins started to appear beneath the female flowers. At one point we had seven growing, then nine, ten… it seemed we’d hit the pumpkin jackpot! I was impressed with myself, especially once they started to turn the slightest shade of orange. At this point, I thought my work was done.

But then… the largest pumpkin fell off the vine! I was mortified. Even more so since the pumpkin broke off right into my hand as I was brushing an aphid from it’s surface.

A few days later, a second pumpkin dropped effortlessly off the vine again. A third died a few days after that. Strangely, they appeared to be slowly rotting around the connecting vine, turning squishy and moist.

My pumpkin dreams were literally shriveling up.

After searching on the internet I realized the problem. Turns out I’d been pollinating the pumpkins incorrectly. It’s true that the male pollen must meet the female flowers. My timing was just off. I should have been pollinating the female pumpkin flowers once they already showed a pumpkin bulge growing beneath them. Apparently the blossom stays open even while the fruit is beginning to expand and that is when they should be pollinated. If proper pollination is not achieved then the fruit will wither and die. Damn!

It’s been about two weeks since I made this discovery. Since then I’ve been hand pollinating the flowers at every opportunity that presents itself and I’m hoping (fingers crossed) that a few of the presently growing pumpkins will stick around. But just in case I don’t get my homegrown jack-o-lantern this year I thought I’d make the best of it.

Feast your eyes on the world’s smallest, most premature token of Halloween ever…

At least it’s good for a laugh!

10 Reasons to Grow Your Own Brussel Sprouts

About two months ago my husband and I indulged ourselves on our homegrown Brussel sprouts. We grew two plants in a pot on our deck, and we harvested them over a series of weeks in the spring. By the end of the season we’d grown enough sprouts to cook with them four separate times even though our plants were relatively small compared to those grown in an actual garden bed (as opposed to containers).

Even after we’d eaten all the sprouts, the plants maintained a striking presence on our deck. As the temperature increased the plants started to bolt and the new sprout buds went to flower – gorgeous golden yellow flowers. Our two plants got so big and bright we could spot them from several blocks away!

I enjoyed growing Brussel sprouts so much throughout last fall, winter and spring that I’ve committed to growing them again this year. I just put two seeds into some dirt tonight, actually.

If you’re thinking of growing Brussel sprouts yourself, here are 10 reasons why you should go for it:

1. Brussel sprouts are good for you! They’re loaded with vitamin A, folacin, potassium and calcium, and they’re high in fiber and low in fat and calories. They also contain phytochemicals that may protect against certain cancers.

2. Brussel sprouts are relatively easy and cheap to grow. The plants are super hardy by nature since they grow through the cold months of the year, and there isn’t much cost to growing them yourself. All you need is a pot, some dirt, a couple of seeds and some water. Nothing too fancy.

3. Freshly picked Brussel sprouts taste WAY better than anything store bought or, dare I say, frozen. We actually did a taste test to compare our green gems to their frozen counterparts and the difference was impressive. Ours were crisp and fresh and had a slight sweetness mixed into their bitter taste. The frozen ones looked pretty pathetic by comparison, and they tasted about as good as they looked: mushy, starkly bitter and generally unsatisfying.

4. Your own sprouts will have a much lower carbon footprint than anything you buy from a store. Think about all those transportation miles you’re eliminating.

5. It’s fun to watch the plants grow and change, especially once the sprouts start to form in the fall.

6. Come wintertime your friends, family and neighbours will be impressed to see that you still have plants growing in your garden even though it’s snowy and cold.

7. By growing your own Brussel sprouts you can ensure that you grow them organically, if you wish.

8. Even after you’ve eaten the sprouts and the towering stalk starts to bolt, it will continue to impress you with it’s abundance of golden yellow flowers for weeks.

9. It’s a general rule that everything tastes better if you’ve put some effort into it. After you’ve nurtured your plants through several seasons, your first bite of crisp Brussel will delight you more than you might realize.

10. Above all else, you’ll make your mother proud. Every mother wants their children to eat their vegetables, and if you had any sort of childhood aversion to Brussel sprouts I guarantee the best way to get over it is to grow some delicious fresh ones for yourself. You won’t be disappointed!

Gluten Free Swiss Chard Turkey Rolls with Goat Cheese

We’re growing Swiss chard again this year and it’s quickly becoming a star in my books. It grows fast and furious, and it’s incredibly versatile. Within about three weeks ours has grown large enough to start harvesting, and the long, broad leaves make it perfect for leafy rolls. You can use it instead of lettuce or spinach in most recipes. It has a peppery flavour, like lettuce with a kick.

I made a really tasty appetizer on the weekend that I just had to share. It’s quick, simple and it tastes great with a glass of chilled white wine.

Ingredients

12 leaves of Swiss chard
150 grams of goat cheese (flavoured or regular)
400 grams ground turkey breast
28 grams fresh basil
3 cloves garlic
1 shallot
40 grams parmesan cheese
handful of pine nuts
handful of assorted lettuce (mixed baby greens)

1. Wash the Swiss chard thoroughly and pat dry with a kitchen towel. Cut the leaves in half along the spine of the leaf, and removed the spine completely (the spine is too stiff to roll properly if you leave it connected).

2. Using a food processor add the garlic, parmesan and shallot while the processor blade is spinning. Run until mixture is thoroughly chopped.

3. Add basil, assorted lettuce and goat cheese to mix and pulse until smooth.

4. Sauté ground turkey in a frying pan until cooked. Strain any fat, then combine the cheese & herb mixture with the turkey and cook until the cheese begins to bubble and melt.

5. Stir in the pine nuts and allow the mixture to cool enough that you can carefully touch it without burning yourself.

6. Place the Swiss chard leaf underside up on a cutting board. Use a tablespoon to roughly measure the amount of filling you place in each chard leaf, then roll the leaf around the stuffing. Carefully place the rolls on a serving dish so that they won’t unroll accidentally. Serve warm and enjoy!

Vegetarian Tapas for Four

My husband and I love to have friends over for dinner, and we recently invited two friends over who presented us with a serving conundrum. The man is a vegetarian, though he’s alright with eating seafood, but the woman eats only chicken, and isn’t interested in any other meats or seafood. We’ve had dinner with them many times before and always stuck to serving a safe vegetarian dish. But, I was starting to get bored. I turned to my shelf of cookbooks for inspiration and for the week leading up to the dinner, skimmed through countless recipes for meatless main courses, salads and appetizers. I couldn’t decide which recipe to pick. But finally, inspiration struck. Why not cook a series of small dishes instead? My husband liked the sound of that.

I decided to make five dishes in total, and space them out over a number of hours. The thing I hate the most about hosting a dinner party is getting stuck in the kitchen while everyone else gets to talk and drink, so I resolved to pick recipes that were easy and could mostly be prepared in advance. Here’s what I ended up serving:

1. Sun-dried Tomato Hummus with Pita Bread
2. Camembert with Caramel Sauce
3. Vegetarian Stuffed Baguette
4. Vegetarian Thin Crust Pizza
5. Chocolate Brownies with Cookie Dough Ice Cream

1. Sun-dried Tomato Hummus with Pita Bread

Hummus is a great vegetarian dish because it’s packed with protein from the chickpeas, and it can be whipped up very quickly in the food processor. Adding a 1/2 cup of sun-dried tomatoes to the recipe adds a nice tangy flavour, and gives it a good kick of colour instead of the usual brown. I used the hummus recipe in The Cocktail Chef, by Dinah Koo & Janice Poon, but I ended up needing to add a lot more liquid (water, lemon juice and olive oil) to the mix. Any other hummus recipe would do just fine. Serve with toasted pita bread triangles brushed lightly with butter.

2. Camembert with Caramel Sauce

This recipe, from the cookbook Caramel, by Trish Deseine, is almost too good to be true. It’s simple to prepare, but best of all, it’s makes a stunning presentation. It’s also gluten-free. I will definitely be making this recipe again… and again.

The trickiest part is getting the caramel to the right consistency. In a small sauce pan mix together a 1/2 cup minus 1 Tbsp granulated sugar and 2 Tbsp water. Stir them together, then bring the mixture to a simmer and watch it closely until it turns a light golden brown. If you have a candy thermometer try and achieve the soft ball stage (116 °C or 240 °F).

In the meantime, place a round of camembert in the centre of a serving dish and dress up the top and sides with a healthy mix of nuts and dried fruits. I used a combination of almonds, cashews, peanuts, dried cranberries and dried bluberries. The first time I made the caramel I completely burnt it since I wasn’t watching closely. Be warned, once it starts to change colour, it changes very fast. Once the caramel reaches the desired colour and consistency pour it gracefully over the arranged cheese. Let it cool for at least a few minutes before serving. The caramelized suger will be extremely hot at first.

Tips: Place the cheese either on parchment paper on a plate or on a wooden cutting board. That will make it easier to cut through tough caramel chunks, if necessary. Brie is a good substitute for camembert if you can’t find it at the store.

3. Vegetarian Stuffed Baguette

I had the most fun making this appetizer. I created my own recipe based on one in The Cocktail Chef that I’d made before. Again, this recipe is simple to make, yet it possess a certain wow factor that makes it a great choice for easy entertaining.

Ingredients:
5 ounces roughly chopped fresh basil
1 finely chopped shallot
2 or 3 tablespoons minced garlic (as desired)
1 package Yves Veggie Ground (or substitute with any type of ground meat)
1 30-inch baguette (or 2 smaller baguettes)
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup ground parmesan cheese
1 cup roughly chopped mushrooms
1/2 cup tomato sauce
salt and pepper to taste

Slice the ends off the baguette and then slice lengthwise, without breaking the bread into two halves. Hollow out the baguette by removing the soft inner bread by hand. Reserve the bread chunks. If you’re using a very long baguette (like I did) you may want to cut it in half to make it easier to manage.

Sauté the Yves Veggie Ground (or other ground meat) in a frying pan with the minced garlic and chopped shallots until cooked. Transfer mixture to large bowl and add remaining ingredients. Using a food processor, pluse the bread chunks into fresh bread crumbs and add 1/2 the amount to the mixture. Mix all ingredients together in the bowl.

Spoon the mixture into the hollowed out baguette carefully, so as not to crack the spine of the bread. Fill the baguette as much as possible. Once the baguettes are stuffed wrap them in tin foil and bake them in the oven for 15-20 minutes at 375°F.

To serve, slice the baguettes into 1 inch rounds and enjoy!

4. Vegetarian Thin Crust Pizza

To make this easy on myself I pre-chopped all the pizza toppings earlier in the day and made the pizza crust a few days before. By the time we were ready for the pizza the sun had long ago set and all of us had consumed our fair share of wine. I thought it would be fun to switch things up a bit, so instead of preparing the pizza myself (like I normally would), I got the crust ready on the pizza stone and let my guests arrange the toppings themselves. It was pretty fun, and of course, it’s hard to go wrong with pizza. For toppings we had some Yves Veggie Ground, basil, mushrooms, artichokes, sundried tomatoes, garlic, and cheddar and mozarella cheese.

5. Chocolate Brownies with Cookie Dough Ice Cream

No meal is complete without some type of dessert. I had some Triple Chocolate Ghirardelli Brownie Mix in the cupboard already so I decided not to reinvent the wheel. Chocolate brownies are always well received. They’re even better when slightly warmed and topped with a few scoops of cookie dough ice cream.

All in all, the vegetarian tapas were a success. Everything tasted great and I was satisfied that I hadn’t spent too much time working away in the kitchen. With these five easy recipes I had a lot more time to sip wine and enjoy a night of great conversation with friends. That’s what entertaining is all about!