Category Archives: Downhome Cookin’

Vancouver Farmers Market: Heirloom Tomatoes

I love buying tomatoes at the farmers market. Yeah, they sometimes cost more than tomatoes at the supermarket or local grocer, but not too much more. And these heirloom tomatoes are homegrown, with varieties of distinctive taste, texture, and colour that no storebought tomato can match.

~ lovely striped beauties fresh from the Vancouver Farmers Market ~

Homegrown Tomatoes by Guy Clark

Ain’t nothin’ in the world that I like better
than bacon and lettuce and homegrown tomatoes…

Plant ’em in the Spring, eat’em in the Summer
All Winter without ’em’s a culinary bummer…

Only two things that money can’t buy
that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.

Support Free Folk Music @

There are tomatoes for every taste: dense flavourful plum tomatoes that are excellent for sauces, as well as big juicy red, yellow, orange tomatoes that make the perfect slice for a BLT. There are citrusy tomatoes that add zing to your salads, and tiny pop-em-in-your-mouth-like-candy  tomatoes that taste like sunshine.

Look for homegrown/heirloom tomatoes at the farmers market [Vancouver].
Better yet, grow your own: Heirloom Tomato Seeds from Victoria.

For more farmers market goodies, see also:

To Market and Home Again ~ Sunday Morning Market Fare ~ Farmers Market Feast

Leaving a comment? I’m curious… how do you like your tomatoes?


Clever Comfort: Stand Up Mac & Cheese

rigatonicakeThis dinner was inspired by Martha Stewart and the need to use stuff up (namely, half a brick of cheddar cheese). A while back, I discovered the rigatoni “cake” at Martha Stewart dot com. The idea was too clever not to try, so I used my own red sauce recipe and followed the assembly instructions successfully. The end result: a delightful looking cake of tall pasta tubes with cheesy topping. Sliced in giant wedges, it just begged for candles and a round of Buon Compleanno. It’s the kind of recipe that delivers . . . provided you are patient and attentive to details.

Tonight, I decided to try a cheesy version. I made two individual portions in a pair of mini-springform pans for dinner and prepared the rest in a smaller baking dish to freeze for later. With a little garnish of bacon and tomato salad on the side, this comforting meal is sure to satisfy. We had some tilapia and white wine to go with. Next time, I think I’ll skip the fish and make a bigger salad.


Standup Mini Mac & Cheese with potato crusted tilapia and salad.

The process might seem complicated, but it’s really easy and fun to do. Kids could definitely help with the recipe, and the results are really special.  Dinner was awesome, and I can’t wait to do it again.

Tips For Success:

  • Rigatoni: Don’t overcook the pasta. To make sure the tubes don’t collapse, boil them approximately 8 minutes so they are slightly underdone. Tossing the noodles with oil and parmesan helps the pasta stick together and stand up in the baking dish. Pack them in the dish gently so the tubes don’t close. Can’t fit all the tubes? Use the leftovers to make tomorrow’s lunch or a midnight snack.
  • Cheese Sauce: The sauce must be thick enough to cling, but thin enough to pour. Inexpensive cheddar, American cheese, or Velveeta will make the creamiest sauce, but many combinations of cheese will work nicely, so there’s a little room to experiment according to your taste.
  • Crust: Fancy Mac & Cheese deserves a delicious crust. Seasoned bread crumbs, cheese, potato chips, cornflakes . . . however you like it. A tasty crust helps protect the pasta ends from hardening during baking. To prevent cheese sauce leaks: sprinkle a little crust mixture on the bottom of the pan before you assemble the pasta.
  • Baking: A springform pan makes the perfect shape and best “cake” presentation, but I’ve also used a rectangular glass baking dish (cut squares for serving).  Put the baking dish on a cookie sheet to prevent spills in the oven. Be sure to let the baked pasta cool at least 15 minutes before cutting.

Stand Up Mac & Cheese

Mini Mac

Mini Mac

It’s all about the technique . . . and that yummy cheese sauce! I managed to make the sauce in the time it took to boil water and cook the rigatoni. If you aren’t confident about juggling two tasks at once, make the pasta first and assemble it in the baking pans, then focus on the sauce. Use a springform pan for the prettiest results and easy slicing. A regular baking dish with high sides will do, though.

Cook the Pasta

  • Cook 16oz rigatoni (~450g) in boiling salted water about 8 minutes (a little underdone).
  • Drain pasta, rinse briefly in cold water (to stop cooking), and drain well.

Assemble the Pasta:

  • Toss cooled pasta with 1 Tbs olive oil, S&P, and 1/4 cup grated parmesan.
  • Grease a 9″ springform cake pan (or whatever pan you’re using)
  • Arrange the pasta tubes (standing on end) in the baking pan. Tilt the pan slightly as you build the rows of tubes, so they don’t fall over. Pack tightly but gently, so tubes stay open to hold the sauce.

Add The Cheese:

  • Make the Cheesy Bechamel Sauce (recipe below).
  • Spoon the cheese sauce over the pasta, allowing it to run between and into tubes. Don’t worry about completely filling the tubes.

Make The Crust:

  • Combine about 1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs with 1 tsp thyme, 1/4 tsp paprika, and S&P. Toss with 2 Tbs olive oil and 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese.
  • Sprinkle topping over rigatoni, pressing into place.
  • Cover the pan with foil (a little olive oil on the foil helps keep it from sticking).
  • NOTE: You can stop at this point and refrigerate or freeze to bake later.

Ready, Set, Bake!

  • Preheat oven to 400°
  • Bake 15 minutes, then remove foil.
  • Bake another 10-15 minutes until crust is lightly browned.
  • Let rest at least 15 minutes before serving. Run a knife along the side to loosen pasta, then remove the outer ring of the springform pan and cut in slices.
  • Garnish with real bacon bits and fresh tomato slices.
  • NOTE: If baking from fridge/freezer, use 350° oven and bake ~ 45 minutes, then remove foil and bake (or broil if pasta is well heated) until topping is lightly browned.

Cheesy Bechamel Sauce

Fat plus flour equals a roux, the beginning of any good gravy or thick sauce. Cook and stir, cook and stir. Watch over your sauce as it cooks, and stir constantly.

  • In a heavy saucepan, melt 2 Tbs butter with 1 Tbs olive oil over medium heat.
  • Add 2 Tbs flour and stir a minute or two, then add 2 cups cold milk, stirring briskly to combine.
  • Season with S&P, 1 tsp mustard, a dash of granulated garlic, a little fresh grated nutmeg, and a dash of worchestershire sauce.
  • Stir frequently as the mixture returns to a boil, then lower the heat a bit and cook until it begins to thicken (stir constantly).
  • Cook a few minutes more until it reaches a saucy consistency, then turn off the heat and stir in 2 cups grated cheddar and 1/4 cup grated parmesan until sauce is smooth.

Hello, Crock Pot!

The recent heatwave in Vancouver brings back memories of those sultry summers down south.  Eating in the summer is fun, but cooking and doing dishes in hot hot heat is not my idea of a good time. It’s a nostalgic chore: washing a mountain of dishes by hand in the middle of July with the radio on. Even with a fan blowing the hot, humid air around, nothing cools off until the sun goes down. Of course, it was always nice to have a dip in the pool (i.e. bathtub of cold water) afterward. Things haven’t changed much, except I don’t wear my dishwashing bikini anymore.

Summertime cooking doesn’t have to turn the house into a sauna, nor does dinner need to be limited to salads and sandwiches. Grilling out takes the heat away from the kitchen, but sadly we have neither a grill nor the space to use it. Recently, I’ve been missing my crock pot and toaster oven, both of which have gone on to the great small-appliance graveyard in the sky.

Happily, a few days ago, I found the perfect brand new crock pot on sale for about $16, so I snapped it up quick. It isn’t fancy; there’s no indicator light and only one knob with three  speeds: Low, High, and Off. However, it does have two very important crock pot features: an oval shape and a lift-out crock. The oval shape is perfect for accomodating racks of ribs, long loin cuts, even a couple of cornish hens would fit side by side, and the crock separates for easy cleanup (or serving at the table). I’m so looking forward to making some pulled pork in the not-too-distant future.

The one drawback to crock pot cooking is that more often than not, I end up with a mushy, overcooked, boring stew of sorts. Last night, I made my first crock pot meal in ages. I threw together a chicken and vegetable red curry with rice, and once that was done, I decided to make a cake for dessert. Yes, you CAN bake in a crock pot! I made a peach cake topped with a mixture of brown sugar and water that turned into a caramelly sauce by the end of cooking. Not bad at all! It was very moist, rather dense, and super sweet. After a few more tries and variations, I think the results will improve. I just can’t believe it worked!


Farmers Market feast at home.

Despite the stress, I do like to travel, and the comfort of returning home is a reward in itself. Coming home to my own kitchen, to food made by me, seasoned to my tastes . . . nourishment of the palate and the soul. A trip to the farmer’s market yeilded treasures fit for a feast: tender chicken breasts, golden potatoes, fresh carrots, green onions, heirloom tomatoes. I picked up some blueberry pesto, which was delicious with the chicken and potatoes. Ginger Man and I had a lovely homecoming roast for two on a restaurant plate with a glass of white wine and a cat on each lap. I feel recharged.

Roast Chicken and Veg

Pimento Cheese Burgers with Bacon Studded Slaw

Pimento BurgerGingerman recently expanded our cable services, for which I am truly thankful because now I get the Food Network. The last time I had it was during the second season of The Next Food Network Star when the bold and brash Guy Fieri beat sugar baker Reggie Southerland in the finals. I like both of them, but Guy was totally made for American TV. He now hosts several shows on Food Network including:

I watched an episode of Ultimate Recipe Showdown featuring burgers, and the cooks were really creative. There was a turkey burger, a vietnamese burger, and a unique artery-clogging Croque Monsieur burger, but the winning patty was 74-year-old Harold Cohen’s Southern Pimento Cheese Burger which looked incredibly nummy. Harold made his own slaw and pimento cheese, right there on stage, so I followed his lead and started from scratch.

Osage pimentos Pimentos are the little red bits stuffed in a martini olive. They are slices of sweet, succulent, heart-shaped Cherry Peppers, a type of red bell pepper (Capsicum annuum). The taste is distinctive, and pimento cheese is popular in the Southern US. Homemade pimento cheese is definitely better than that thick orange goo in a jar we used to eat in white bread sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

Like the slaw, pimento cheese spread gets better if it rests a while, so I made it ahead of time. It comes down to three simple things: cheese, creaminess, and spice. For authentic taste, be sure to use real pimentos, quality cheddar cheese, and don’t forget the pickle juice! I’m a big fan of sharp old cheddar, but you can use a blend of cheeses if you want (some recipes use Monterey Jack, Colby, or American cheese). There are oodles of recipes out there for Pimento Cheese Spread, so really it’s one of those things you can make to suit yourself.  The peppers and cheese must be the star of the show, but there’s room to experiment. After the mixture sits in the fridge, the flavours get a chance to know each other better. Delicious!

I used a mini-processor to blend everything together coarsely. Add a little extra liquid (milk or water) or a bit more cream cheese make an even smoother puree. Melting the cheese first is another way to create a more homogenized spread, but I like having cheesy bits that can melt on a burger (or under a broiler on toast).

Slaw isn’t something I usually make, but I do like eating it. I wanted mine to be crunchy, tangy, and creamy, with a hint of sweetness. I compared a few recipes and started by sautéing a little bit of minced onion, then mixed that into some honey and apple cider vinegar, a shake of celery seed, mustard, and some mayo. It came together fine and tasted pretty good, but something was missing. I think it needed some lemon to wake up the flavours, plus I discovered I don’t really like celery seed much.

Harold jacked up the meaty flavour in his burger by adding chopped ham to the ground meat and topping it off with bacon. I  just wanted to have a good burger with a whole lotta that cheese spread on it. I figured bacon bits would be awesome in the slaw, though. That turned out to be a good idea, and it kinda made up for the presence of celery seed.

For the burger patties, I mixed up some ground sirloin with a few spices (nothing fancy) and cooked them in a skillet while a couple of buns went under the broiler to toast. When they’re ready, they get a good shmear of homemade pimento cheese spread. Top off the burger with a fair bit of delicious bacon studded coleslaw, add a side of cherry tomatoes, and a sprinkling of Terra Stix for crunch. Yum. Yum yum yum. It was a sloppy delicious mess, and I’d definitely make them again.

Curious Pimento Cheese Spread

  • Pimento Cheese SpreadSmall jar of pimentos with juice
  • 2 TBS minced onion
  • 1 garlic clove minced
  • Dash of cayenne pepper or hot sauce
  • Splash of worchestershire sauce
  • 1 Tbs pickle juice (yes, juice from the pickle jar)
  • 2 oz cream cheese
  • Canadian cheddar (about 1 1/2 cups grated)

Mix together everything except the cheddar, then fold in the grated cheddar, cover, and let sit in fridge until ready to use. Slather it on burgers, spread it on toast, or dollop some on an omelette.

*Note: The fresh version is really nice on hot foods or as a grilled cheese, but sometimes I make this using powdered onion and garlic instead (1/4 tsp onion powder, 1/8 tsp garlic powder).

Bacon Studded Slaw

Make the Bacon Bits:

Chop 6-8 slices of thick bacon into small pieces. Cook over medium heat until browned and crispy. Drain bits on paper towel.

Mix the dressing:

  • 2 Tbs minced onion, cooked briefly
  • 2 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • 2 Tbs honey
  • 1 tsp mustard
  • 2 Tbs mayo
  • 2 Tbs milk
  • Dash of celery seed (optional)
  • S & P

Toss dressing with:

  • 1/2 head green cabbage, sliced thin
  • 1 large carrot, grated
  • Homemade Bacon Bits