Winter Sucks. This Will Make it Better.

It does. It just really does in St. John’s. Don’t get me wrong, if I could hole myself up in a little house in a fenced off enclosure in the middle of Bowring park and toboggan all winter, I would. Someone could deliver my groceries and I wouldn’t have to walk to Sobey’s in the slush and I would be like, the park winter caretaker and just make bread and soup and feed the swans or whatever until I came out in May. See, at the end of the day, I’m a Labrador girl. I like my snow squeaky and my cold dry. Cold enough you have to plug in your car. I like snow coming down on the roads and staying and freezing so hard it’s like dry pavement. The winters at home are so blue and clear, it doesn’t even matter if your nostrils stick together when you breathe in. But the cold horizontal rain and snow and slush of this city makes everyone feel like throwing shovels at each other. And the only thing that makes a St. John’s winter better (besides a hut in Thailand from November to April) is food. Warm, spicy, stewy foods that stick to your insides. And cupcakes.

Weeks 45, 46 and 47 were about comfort foods. November’s all pure, unadulterated denial. It’s not fall anymore, no matter how optimistically you look at it. The leaves are gone, there’s no colour, no sun. It’s the month you wait for the rain to turn to snow while the days get shorter and everyone gets a little crazier. It’s no wonder everything went to shit in that Guns N’ Roses video. I feel things may have turned out differently if there had been a Dutch oven and a Cornish hen lying around.

I ate my first Cornish hen when I was fourteen. We had been invited out to supper by family friends and it turned out to be a formative food memory for me…I had no idea chickens came in mini-size. It was stuffed with couscous (what what?) and when I found out I could eat one all to myself something went off in me. So I was as surprised as anyone that I waited twenty years to have a crack at cooking my very own little chicken in my very own little red kitchen. And it turns out I think I may have invented something pretty deadly. Pick up a hen and give this a try….Slice half a dozen potatoes in not too thinnish pieces. I bought some nice organic ones with yellow flesh, so I left the peel on to save some time and make it look all rustic-like. Slice a couple of red onions (thinnish) and toss with the potato slices and lots of olive oil, sea salt, fresh ground pepper and some smoked paprika. As much paprika as you like, depending on how smoky you want to go (be careful with the spicy Spanish stuff, it’ll punch you in the face…the regular smoked you’ll be able to handle in generous amounts, and so will guests who can’t do a lot of heat). Stick a few peeled garlic cloves under the skin of the hen and rub it all over with the same stuff, olive oil, salt, pepper, smoked paprika. Place the hen in a cast iron Dutch oven or a good strong oven friendly pot/roasting tin and tuck the potatoes and onions around the sides. Top the whole thing up with some chicken broth (I had some lovely homemade stuff my friend Nicole had given me), cover and bake in the oven until the hen is cooked through and potatoes are tender.

I have a genetic fear of salmonella (chicken-death) so I’m famous for overcooking poultry; I had it in for around an hour and a half on 375F. Leave the cover off for the last half hour of cooking if you want to crisp it up a little. What you end up with is a smoky chicken and potato stew that you can stick in the oven and leave while you get some shit done, like laundry or a nap. It’s that easy and it tastes like a dream. I get a little overcome thinking about the possibilities…replacing the paprika with cumin, turmeric, coriander, and making a curried Cornish hen. Or an Italian-type stew with crushed tomatoes and basil, or something Asian with sesame oil and shiitake mushrooms. Get the hen, get some potatoes and broth, go nuts, and let me know how your experiments turn out.

Onwards to week 46 and Paula Deen’s Basil Lime Coconut Cupcakes with Coconut Lime Frosting. Yes, yes. And yes. I did say basil, and I’m telling you now that if you need a cupcake recipe to impress, whether you’re trying to win over the in-laws, trying to seduce someone, trying to settle an international border dispute, this is the recipe you want. It’s no secret I’m a huge Paula Deen fan. She fascinates me. I like how big her eyes get when she tastes something she just made and how she says things like “Y’all, I just wanna stick my face in this.” I like how much she loves sour cream. I kinda wish we were pals. I read a quote a while back from one of America’s top chefs (he can’t be that great because I don’t remember his name). He said that Paula Deen is the reason America is fat. Umm, I’m pretty sure America is the reason America is fat, Mr. Top Chef. Who probably doesn’t eat anything that’s not grown in an organic lavender field in France. I’m also pretty sure that Paula Deen was a divorced mother of two who grew an empire out of her last two hundred bucks. If I had an empire I wouldn’t give a shit if the entire universe was fat, as long as I was making money and having a laugh. If you eat a pound of sour cream and two sticks of butter every day, you’re an idiot. But I think if you can’t enjoy a cupcake now and then, or a bowl of the most decadent macaroni and cheese you can imagine, you’re also an idiot. It’s a fine balance.

Basil Lime Coconut Cupcakes

1 cup butter, softened                        2 cups sugar                                        2 tbsp minced fresh basil                   1 tsp lime zest                                      4 large eggs, separated, at room temperature                                         2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour                1 tbsp baking powder                      1/4 tsp salt

1 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup sour cream

Preheat oven to 350F. Line 2 (12-cup) muffin pans with paper liners. In a large bowl, beat sugar, basil, and lime zest at medium speed with a mixer until fluffy. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Gradually add to the butter mixture alternately with coconut milk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition. Stir in sour cream. In a medium bowl, beat egg whites at high speed with a mixer until stiff peaks form. Gently fold egg whites into batter. Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups, filling two-thirds full. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in centre comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes. Remove cupcakes from pans, and cool completely on wire racks.

Coconut Lime Frosting

1 1/2 cups butter, softened
1/2 cup coconut milk
2 tsp lime zest
6 cups confectioners’ sugar

In a large bowl, beat butter, coconut milk, and lime zest at medium speed with a mixer until combined. Gradually add confectioners’ sugar, beating until smooth.

Both recipes from the Paula Deen 2011 Holiday Baking Collector’s Issue. A stellar purchase from the pharmacy in Norris Point, if I do say so. I’m on a mini-cupcake kick at the moment…you can eat three or four and not feel guilty because it’s like one. Mini-cupcake math kicks ass. I looked for mini paper liners, I’m not even sure if they exist, but my pans are new and non-stick so I went with some baking spray and the cupcakes popped out no problem (baking time was reduced to ten minutes or so).  Makes two dozen regular cupcakes and close to eighty minis.  Bring your stretchy pants.

Make them. And for St. John’s readers, if you can’t find fresh basil at Sobeys or Domionion (when you need it, you definitely won’t see it) go to Belbin’s. They saved my ass a couple of times this past holiday season.

And now more chicken for mid-November…regulation size this time and with the same Dutch oven but a little North African. I found this recipe for djej besla (chicken and onion tagine) on my new favourite food website, Make a cup of tea and block out about three hours of your day and take a look. I wish I was joking. This one’s easy and tastes exotic with very little effort, perfect for the little red kitchen. Don’t let the saffron scare you; it’s expensive but a little goes a long way depending on how often you cook Spanish/North African. Jesus that sounded pretentious, but you know what I mean. And after you realize how amazing it is, you’ll want to have it in the house all the time. When I was making this I stuck my nose in my little container of saffron and smelled hard and almost cried. I think it’s time for a vacation.

Djej Besla (Chicken and Onion Tagine) from

1 tbsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 tsp cumin seeds, crushed
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp ground turmeric
5 tbsp olive oil
4 skinless bone-in chicken thighs
4 skinless bone-in chicken drumsticks
1 tsp crushed saffron threads
4 medium yellow onions, cut into wedges
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 lemon, thinly sliced crosswise, seeds removed
1 1/4 cups pitted green olives
1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro
Cooked white rice, for serving

Make a spice paste: using the flat side of your knife, chop and mash salt and garlic together on a cutting board into a smooth paste. Transfer paste to a large bowl and stir in cumin, paprika and turmeric. Stir in 3 tbsp of the oil and then add chicken thighs and drumsticks. Toss until evenly coated. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for 4 hours. Heat remaining oil in an 8-qt Dutch oven or large tagine over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add chicken pieces and cook, turning once, until golden brown on both sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Add saffron and onions to pot, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally until soft, about 15 minutes. Return chicken to pot with the lemon slices, add 1 cup of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, covered, until chicken is cooked through, about 40 minutes. Remove from heat and scatter olives and cilantro over chicken. Serve with rice. (I’m mental for olives and added a little too many, so watch your salt. When everything cooks for a long time it’s easy to miss the lemon rind; watch that you don’t bite into one because they’re pretty bitter.)

I loved this. I loved it so much. And the leftovers were over the moon. So easy and made my kitchen smell like I was somewhere warm. I think Moroccan food might be the secret weapon St. John’s needs to get through the dark half of the year. Invite some friends over, make a couple of tagines, drink some beers, steam up the windows in the kitchen a little. Because it might be hard to hold a candle in the cold November rain, but you can always stay inside and eat some chicken and cupcakes.

21 thoughts on “Winter Sucks. This Will Make it Better.

  1. I am trying all of these things this weekend. I cannot wait to get you in my kitchen, I am already preparing. I am a nerd like that. Happy New Year.

  2. I live in St. john’s! I live in St. John’s! I’ll be over this afternoon. Man I could go for a tagine right now! Great blog Wills.

  3. I love this blog so much that I have a fantasy that Willow Kean will one day invite me to come cook with her in her kitchen. I am serious.

  4. As usual fantastico…I am sure Jason is already menu planning. 🙂 Sounds delish and I 100% agree with the Labrador winter thing – would do anything to be back there right now and not ankle deep in wet slush. xxx

  5. Hi…. this stuff looks great. I can’t wait to try the Cornish Hen. Can you email me here at the CBC? I’d love to speak with you about this blog.

    Ted Blades
    Host of On The Go

  6. Made the chicken and onion tagine – it was DEADLY WICKED!! Here’s the recipe for the potatoes I served with it instead of the rice:

    Moroccan Sesame Potatoes

    Ingredients: 1T. harissa (I used Ras al Hanout)
    2T. olive oil
    11/2 t. coarse sea salt
    1T. sesame seeds
    1/4-1/2 lemon
    Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
    Cut potatoes in 1-inch chunks – toss with harissa (Ras al Hanout). Add olive oil and toss again. Sprinkle with salt and sesame seeds.
    Bake 30 minutes – turn and bake 15 minutes more.
    Squeeze with lemon before serving.

    They’re deadly too! Perfect with your awesome chicken! Thanks for the recipe!

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