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Tips & Tricks: Homemade Corn Tortillas

31 Aug

I’m not a huge fan of flour tortillas unless they’re being used for some sort of sandwich wrap. They don’t have a lot of flavour, and the ones in the grocery store are kind of like chewy cardboard. A few stores carry commercial corn tortillas now, but I find the texture on them a bit weird too.

It might be because I’m spoiled by hot, fresh corn flour tortillas. They’re super easy to make and are WAAAY cheaper than store bought. For about $5, I pick up a bag of Maseca masa mix. It looks like this and is available at most large mainstream grocery stores. This bag will make multiple batches of about 10 tortillas vs. about $3.50 for 10 at the grocery store. Added bonus for celiac sufferers – they’re gluten/wheat free!

You’ll also need a large ziplock freezer bag, a flat griddle or a crepe pan and a tortilla press which can be obtained at your friendly local Latin market, some speciality kitchenware stores or online for about $20.

Homemade Corn Tortillas

Follow the instructions on the bag of masa – it’s 2 cups of mix, a dash of salt and 1 1/8 (ish) cup of warm water. Add the salt to the masa and stir before slowly adding the water. Combine the water and masa with your hands and keep adding water until you have a playdough like consistency and the dough sticks together. Depending on how humid a day it is, you may need to add more or less water than last time.

Take golfball sized pieces of dough and roll them into balls. When all your dough is rolled, cover the bowl with a damp tea towel to prevent them from drying out.

Put your pan on just a little over medium heat. It’ll take some fiddling/testing to see what the perfect temperature on your stove/griddle is but you’ll get the hang of it quickly.

Take your freezer bag, and cut the zip portion and the sides off leaving the bottom of the bag so you have a rectangular piece of plastic with a fold in the middle that fits your tortilla press like this.

Place the ball of dough in between the two sheets of plastic and squish it between the plates of the press, turning it once or twice to get an even press.

Then pick up the plastic, open it and place the tortilla face down on your palm. Slowly peel away the plastic and then carefully flop the tortilla on to your hot griddle.

Cook it for 30 seconds on one side, then flip. Cook for 30 seconds on that side and flip again. Cook on this side for about 1 minute. At this point the tortilla should puff up in the middle like a balloon. If it’s not, your grill might be too hot or too cold.

If you’re not getting some browning, it’s too cold. If you’re getting singeing, it’s too hot. Don’t worry about getting a perfect ‘balloon’ each time. Even if they don’t get super fluffy, they’re still good.

Keep the finished tortillas wrapped in a tea towel in a covered casserole, or in a tortilla warmer like this. I also use mine to keep pancakes warm when I have company!

All in all, it should take you about 15 minutes to make a batch of tortillas. If you get a helper to warm up the pork, make the salsa and dice the veggies, you can have a fresh taco truck worthy dinner on the table in 20 minutes. Not too shabby!

Tips & Tricks: Keeping a Stocked Pantry

24 Aug

It’s only when I’m working in someone else’s kitchen that I forget that I keep mine stocked to the gills in comparison to most. There are a few reasons that I keep so much on hand:

  • Reduces trips to the store – When you go to the grocery store for one thing, how many times do you come out with just one thing?  Plus we live in the country so ‘popping out to the store’ isn’t a 5 minute trip.
  • Saves money – Not running out to the grocery store every day will keep you from buying things you don’t need. By staying fully stocked at all times, you’ll also be able to pick up things only when they’re on sale.
  • Trying new recipes – Having most ingredients on hand makes it easy to try to new dishes.
  • Satisfying cravings – Have a sudden desire for fresh buttermilk biscuits? A stocked pantry can make that happen in 20 minutes.
  • Zombie apocalypse – Ya never know when it’s gonna happen… 

It’s not like I have some crazy ‘extreme couponing’ style warehouse of stuff either. I have a regular sized kitchen. I do use space saving ideas like keeping my spices on the side of my fridge using these magnetic tins. They just happen to be on sale at Canadian Tire this week.

My one secret though, is that I did turn a coat closet into a pantry. It was right off of our kitchen and let’s face it, we’re bad at hanging up our coats anyway so it was a win-win situation. It cost just over $100 and a half a day of labour from Mr. Bacon and his dad. It’s by far the best home improvement we’ve done in our house.

If you don’t have a coat closet, a shelving unit in the basement will do nicely as well.

Recipe: Mom’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

11 Aug

Usually, I’m all about the chewy cookie. These chocolate chip cookies are the exception. Anyone who’s had one has been unable to eat just one. In fact, last time I brought them into the office, people would randomly show up at my cube after their first taste like a crack addict pleading with a dealer, “Please man! I just need one more!!!!!” *twitch twitch*

I think it’s the hint of saltyness with the sweet cookie and the chocolate but for me, it’s just because they’re the cookies my mom made when I was growing up. She said she’s never made another recipe after finding this one, and I haven’t either.

Mom’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup hard margarine, softened
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped nuts, optional (walnuts or pecans are best)

Mix the flour, baking soda and salt and set aside. Cream the margarine until fluffy and beat in the sugar. Beat in the egg and the vanilla. Stir in the flour mixture, chocolate chips and nuts.

Use a medium cookie scoop to portion spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet covered in parchment. Bake @ 350 degrees for approximately 17 minutes or until golden.

Tips & tricks:

  • Don’t use butter for this recipe! Use hard margarine, in particular Imperial brand (the kind that comes in squares). It works best and yes they still taste lovely and buttery even with margarine. Ignore this rule at your peril.
  • For perfect cookies every time, pick up some Air Bake cookie sheets. The double wall construction means that your cookies don’t get burnt on the bottom while the middle cooks. They’re worth the investment and are available at Home Sense, Bed Bath & Beyond and other nicer kitchen stores.
  • Use parchment. They sell it at the dollar store and it means never scrubbing crud off of pans. You just pick the parchment up, wipe any crumbs off the pan and put it back in the cupboard.

Recipe: Amish Sandwich Bread

9 Aug

Earlier this year I set myself a goal of perfecting two cooking ‘staples’ that I was leery of attempting: pie crusts and yeast bread. I’m still working on getting the pie crust just right but thanks to this recipe from The Kosher Foodies, I’ve got the yeast bread thing down.

Since making it the first time, I’ve shared this recipe with dozens of people looking for an easy bread recipe and they’ve all raved about how great it’s turned out. So do not fear amateur bread bakers – you can do it!

Amish Sandwich Bread

2 cups warm water (110 degrees)
1 1/2 tablespoons of active dry yeast
1/3 cup of honey
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup of vegetable oil (I use canola)
6 cups bread flour (I use 4 bread and 2 soft whole wheat)

In the bowl of a stand mixer, dissolve a teaspoon of the honey in the warm water. Sprinkle the yeast on top and let it sit for five minutes. You should be able to smell the yeast as it blooms and it should rise to the top and get fluffy. If it doesn’t, your water wasn’t the right temperature or your yeast is old.

Put the dough hook on your mixer and start it on low. Add the salt, the oil and the rest of the honey. Add the flour, one cup at a time and knead the dough until smooth or about three minutes. You may want to boost the speed to medium towards the end but not before or you’ll wind up with flour all over your kitchen. Been there done that.

When you’ve got a nice elastic ball of dough, spray the biggest bowl you’ve got with some Pam and throw the ball in the bottom. Spray it a little more on top. Find a clean tea towel and dampen it with water and drape it over the bowl.

Turn your oven on just until the element gets red and then immediately turn it off. You now have a proofing box. Shove the covered bowl inside the oven and leave it there for about an hour or until the dough is doubled.

When you come back, you’ll have a monster hunk of dough. Turn it out onto a floured surface, punch it down (seriously, just throw your fist into it a bunch of times) and kneed it by hand for a couple of minutes.

Cut it into two pieces (using your handy dandy bench scraper), form it into a loaf and stick it into a greased and floured loaf pan. Set both pans (a few inches apart) on a cookie sheet, re-dampen your tea towel and put it on the cookie sheet next to your pans. It’ll provide moisture to your loaves while they proof a second time.

Turn your ‘proofing box’ on again just till the element turns red and then put the whole cookie sheet for another half hour. When you come back, your bread should look like this.

Remove the tea towel and bake for 30 minutes @350 degrees.

If you store the loaves in an airtight container, they last an amazing amount of time for something with no preservatives – sometimes up to a week. They also freeze well.

A few other tips & tricks:

  • Use a digital meat thermometer to make sure your water is at 110 degrees.
  • Get your yeast at Bulk Barn or another bulk store. It’s likely to be way cheaper than the packets or the jar.
  • You can totally make bread without a stand mixer, you’ll just have to have stronger arms than I do.
  • If you don’t have honey, sub for plain white sugar.

MMM, delivery system for butter….

Tools of the Trade: Cookie Scoops

10 Jul

I love my cookie scoops. If you don’t have at least one in your arsenal you should go buy one.

Courtesy of The Coastal Cupboard

Perhaps I should explain why.

Before the advent of cookie scoops in my world, dishing out a batch of cookies would take a while and would involve a lot of scraping and squishing of dough with two spoons. The cookies would never have a pretty ‘oh those must be from a bakery’ shape and some of them would cook faster than others because they were bigger or smaller.

Now my cookies are perfection and I can scoop out two whole trays in a couple minutes flat.

That being said, ‘cookie scoop’ is a bit of a misnomer. I also use mine to:

– Scoop muffin and cupcake batter – Not only do they come out more uniform due to portioning, but you wind up with more of the batter in the muffin liners instead of ON the muffin tray
– Scoop ice cream – You get perfect scoops every time!
– Making meatballs – Again, perfect size and way faster.

I will never go back to the two spoon method ever again.

Now when you go out to buy yourself one, do not make the mistake of cheaping out. Go whole hog and get the Oxo Good Grips versions. They come in three sizes – small (good for tiny applications like chocolate truffles), medium (good for most cookies, mini cupcakes and small meatballs) and large (good for regular sized cupcakes and muffins and large sized meatballs). I’ve never been disappointed with any Oxo product. They usually have superior design and mechanisms and are dishwasher safe. In Canada they’re available at Bed Bath and Beyond, Home Outfitters, Home Sense and at some local stores like @Home in Kanata Centrum.

I’ve tried other scoops from Norpro and Wilton. The Wilton one had terrible action on it – with stiff cookie batters the scraper would stick, negating the whole point of the scoop. I found it was too small as well. The Norpro was OK but the action was much stiffer and was really uncomfortable to use. It also had issues binding with stiff dough and I eventually stripped the gears on it trying to pry it apart in frustration.


Tips & Tricks: Saving Money at the Grocery Store

30 Jun

Groceries are probably one of the biggest items on a family budget and the cost of food just keeps increasing. There are however a few ways that you can save a few cents or in some cases up to ten dollars on a single item.

Here are just a few ways to save your pennies:

  • Check out sales south of the border – Lots of things can be significantly cheaper in the US. See my post on that here.
  • Consult the flyers– Yes, this involves checking out the flyers each week but this is one of the best ways to consistently save

    Courtesy of TechEh

    money each week. If you don’t get flyers delivered to your door, all of the grocery stores have their flyers posted to their website. For those of you in Ontario (especially Ottawa), the Ottawa Citizen’s food guru Ron Eade actually does most of the work for you, posting a list of the top grocery store deals on his blog.

  • Plan your menu – Have a basic idea of what meals you’ll make during the week so you don’t wind up buying things you don’t need or won’t get a chance to use. It’s even better if you plan meals based on what’s on sale.
  • Make a list – Keep tabs on what you’ve used up at home and what you’re missing to complete the meals you’re planning to make. Stick to the list and avoid picking up things you’ve already got in your pantry or stuff you pick up on a whim.
  • Pick up staples when they’re on sale – Why buy canned tomatoes at 1.69 a tin when you can buy a flat when they’re on sale for .99  cents? They’re not going to go bad! Same goes for any other non-perishables.
  • Know how much things cost at different stores – This seems like a no-brainer, but if you usually go to Walmart and a grocery store, it pays to know that Tostitos are around .40 cents cheaper per bag at Walmart.
  • Do the math – Compare the price per oz. or pound or unit on different sized packages. Just because it’s a bigger size doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cheaper. Some stores will actually have this information on the shelf label for you.
  • Buy in bulk – Club packs or large sizes from places like Costco or even regular grocery stores can mean significant savings. Example – I used to buy ready chopped garlic in the little sized jar for between $2.50 and $3.50 but we like our garlic and I’d go through it pretty quickly. I got wise and picked up the jumbo size which = at least 6 or 7 of the smaller packages for about $4.50.
  • Don’t buy spices at the grocery store – Bulk food stores are much cheaper for spices because you’re not paying for the fancy bottle. Plus, you can buy only as much as you need, especially if it’s not a spice you use commonly.
  • Courtesy of

    Invest in a deep freezer – Having open freezer space allows you to take advantage of sale prices to stock up on meats, butter and other things that freeze well. Split them up into meal sized portions before freezing, or make meals in big batches (like spaghetti sauce) when the items are fresh and freeze as ready made meals.

  • Don’t shop on auto pilot Keep your eyes peeled for savings you aren’t expecting. For example, I almost missed that a certain brand of milk was on sale because I usually bought what was regularly the cheapest. Tonight, I almost missed a larger bottle of laundry detergent for cheaper than its smaller counterpart, just because it wasn’t in the same shelf area.
  • Look for coupons – Coupons aren’t as big of a deal here as they are in the states, but lots of stores (especially the Loblaws brand ones) have a coupon station at the front of the store. The savings can be huge, especially if those items are already on sale.

All of these tips will help cut your grocery bills on an every day regular basis but the secret to slashing your bill by as much as $10 on a single item is simply knowing about the scanning code of practice. The scanning code of practice is a voluntary code that most major Canadian retailers (grocery stores, Walmart, drug stores etc.) participate in.

The basics of it are pretty simple – if the item you buy scans in higher than the price listed on the shelf you are entitled to the item FOR FREE if it’s below $10, and if it’s above you get a $10 reduction in its price. This applies only to the first of multiple items. The remainder just get price adjusted.

Want an example? Remember that big bottle of laundry detergent that was cheaper than it’s smaller cousin I was telling you about? Well, it was even cheaper because the tag on the shelf said $12 but it scanned in at $18. I just told the cashier that the item scanned in wrong. She had someone verify the shelf tag and confirmed it was priced at $12. Most stores will just adjust the price at this point in order to save themselves the cash so be bold and tell them the code and what you should get. Many newer cashiers don’t even know this exists but their managers do.

And that’s how I got a $2 jug of name brand laundry soap.

I’ve also gotten free pork souvlaki and free nailpolish.

Courtesy of CBC

Canada Day Countdown

27 Jun

In our household, Canada Day is an excuse to have our nearest and dearest friends over for a BBQ and a bonfire. Nothing seems to be a more ‘Canuck’ way of celebrating than communing with nature while eating grilled meat and drinking beer.

Preparations are still fluid but I thought I’d share some inspiration ‘pins’ from Pinterest that you might be able to use for your own Canada Day celebration!

  • Want a new twist on a burger? Why not try stuffing your burgers with cheese? Or mixing the beef itself with blue cheese. Or going for something more exotic like buffalo, or elk. In Ottawa, the Elk Ranch in Kanata sells the same burgers you can get at the famous local burger chain The Works among other tasty treats for humans and dogs.

    Southwestern Skirt Steak Courtesy of Plain Chicken

  • If you want to step it up a notch, this southwestern skirt steak would be a surefire winner with beef lovers. This version of Korean bulgogi would be a winner too.
  • Want to serve ribs but don’t want to have to cook them all day? Why not try these ‘boneless’ ribs made from a pork tenderloin?
  • This summer’s favourite grill meat has been kofta, a middle eastern spiced meat on a stick. Everything is better when it’s on a stick. I’ve actually been buying my kofta meat pre-mixed at Damas Supermarket on Carling (across from the movie theatre) – really tasty and it’s also a great stop for other middle-eastern grocery items. It goes great with a cool garlic/yogurt/mint/lemon sauce.
  • Chicken’s always a winner too. We often do legs marinated in tandoori sauce (Patak’s is the best we’ve tried) and grilled on one of these gizmos. Totally worth the $14.
  • For dessert, last year I did cupcakes with maple leaf quins (available at The Bulk Barn) but this year I’m thinking either strawberry trifle or this donut/ice cream/maple syrup and strawberry combo. So Canadian eh? 🙂

    Courtesy of A Beautiful Mess

Have a happy (and safe) Canada Day everyone!

Recipe: Mexican Chicken Skillet

24 Jun

For those of you who have not jumped on the Pinterest bandwagon, you’d better get there soon before the wagon fills up. It’s a great place for recipes, home decor, craft, organizational and other ideas. It’s also a great place to waste a lot of time so beware 🙂

Most ‘pins’ come from blogs, magazines, or other kinds of websites, but more often now people are just uploading photos of their dinners directly to the site with a bit of rough explanation for a ‘how to’. That’s where I found this rough recipe (pin). I wish I could give credit where credit is due, but I’ll just have to send a random ‘thank you’ to the interwebs cause this was a winner. It was quick, easy and had a nice spicy flavour. Low fat too!

Mexican Chicken Skillet
2 large chicken breasts, cubed into 1″ cubes
1 can of Rotel
1 packet taco spice
1 1/2 cups water
2 cups instant rice
2 cups grated cheddar, Mexican blend, or marble cheese

Over medium high heat, place the cubed chicken in a deep 12″ frying pan sprayed with Pam. Fry until just brown and then add 1 can of Rotel, 1 1/2 cups of water, taco spice and salt. Stir to combine and let it come to a good boil. Throw the rice in and stir. Reduce heat to low, cover with a lid and let it simmer for about 7-10 minutes or until the rice is cooked through. Add the 2 cups of cheese to the top and cover again until it melts. Serve with taco chips.

Notes, tips & tricks:

  • Use heavy duty kitchen shears to cut through meat. It’s fast and easy and you don’t have to dirty a cutting board!
  • If you don’t have Rotel, you can substitute 1/2 can of diced tomatoes and some diced jalapeno.
  • Other substitutions: swap the white rice for brown, add a can of black beans and a can of corn to feed a larger crowd for less (or just add those and omit the chicken for a vegetarian option).
  • Tired of Lean Cuisine for lunch? Make a double batch and package the leftovers in microwaveable/freezable containers. You’ll never be scrambling for a lunch in the morning again.

Making a Run for the Border – Part 2

23 Jun

In part one, I talked a bit about American treats that I get nostalgic about as well as some American-only pantry staples. Today I’m going to talk a bit about US shopping options close to Ottawa and why it’s often worth the price of gas and bridge fair to get there.

Image courtesy of

For those of us who live in eastern Ontario, there are a few options within a short drive:

  • Ogdensburg, NY – A short 1 hour drive down the 416 and over the bridge from Prescott, Ogdensburg is a smallish border town but it has a Lowes’, a Walmart, several options for groceries and pharmacy products and a couple of women’s clothing stores.
  • Watertown, NY – About 2.5 hours from downtown Ottawa and across the Thousand Islands Bridge between Brockville and Gananoque, Watertown has a lot more to offer with a small mall, perennial favourite Target and my personal favourite – Kohl’s. Kohl’s is a department store with great quality and on-trend clothing and home products at excellent prices. If you go, check out  the Texas Roadhouse for lunch. They make a mean steak and will stuff you until you’re about to burst.
  • Massena, NY –  Massena is 2 hours from Ottawa but a quick 20 minute trip from Cornwall. Similar to Watertown, it has a small mall but lacks some of the big box options like Target and Kohl’s. It does have a Home Depot though as well as several grocery stores and pharmacies.
  • Syracuse, NY – Syracuse is the big daddy of shopping options in the area but it’s also the furthest away – a 3 hour jaunt. It is doable as a day trip, but I like to turn it into an overnighter. They have a large mall, and just about any big box store you could want in nearby Clay, NY.

Why Make the Trip?
Invariably when I tell some folks I’m planning to make a trip down, they ask me why I’d waste my gas to go down there when Ottawa has a pretty good shopping selection. Two reasons: variety and price. Even with gas and bridge fare, the new personal daily exemption of $200 means I can get a lot of deals without having to pay any duty. Even when you do get dinged for duty because you’ve crammed your car full of ‘deals’, it’s STILL worth it.

Here’s just a few examples of why it pays to go:

  • Pop – The pop deal in Canadian flyers lately has been two 12 can cases for $10 – that’s .41 cents/can. At Price Chopper last week I picked up two 24 can cases for $12 – that’s .25 cents/can. This week they’ve got four 12 can cases for $9 – that’s even cheaper!
  • Eggs – Much like milk whose price is regulated in Ontario, eggs are a better deal south of the border. I saw a flyer that was advertising a dozen large eggs for .99 cents and turkey bacon at the same price. You’d be hard pressed to make a $2 breakfast for a large family in Canada unless you served oatmeal.
  • Cool Whip – In my local Independent Grocer, Cool Whip is around $4 Canadian. It’s on sale for $1/tub this week.
  • Yogurt – Single serving greek yogurts are prohibitively expensive here running around $1.70/serving but are usually on 10/$10. You’d save $7 just going for yogurt alone.
  • Old Bay seasoning – A hard to find item in Ottawa (only Sobey’s seems to carry it), a 74 g tin is around $4.70. I picked up a 170 g tin for $4.24. That’s more than double the amount for less money.
  • I also got deals on fresh chicken, jambalaya mix, brownie mix, clothes, toothpaste, makeup and even a bike!

Despite the deals, there are some items that are either priced the same in Canada, or are even more expensive in the US. Before you leave, check the flyers (they’re all available online), know your prices for your usual items and know the rules about what you can and cannot bring back.

Happy shopping!