Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pumpkin - Part 1

Gary, my neighbor down the street, runs a little farm stand that he stocks by going out to Lancaster County once a week. He buys fresh produce from local farmers and sells their goods right outside his house. This old-school  farm stand is one of the many things I love about my neighborhood.

After living here for over a year, I finally clued in to the fact that I might be able to place an order with Gary. I was really looking for a cheaper way to score good eggs for my family. I can get local eggs at Maple Acres, but they charge $4.00/dozen which is pretty steep. Gary was happy to oblige - and he found me eggs for $1.75/dozen.

Now that Gary and I have a relationship that goes beyond "Hi" and "Thanks," I have gotten up the nerve to ask him to find some other things like cooking apples, tomatoes, honey and a cooking pumpkin. Yep, I have this idea that I will make my own pumpkin puree. And the pumpkins we buy for jack-o-lanterns aren't especially good for eating, I am told.


This is what a cooking pumpkin looks like. I will admit that when I saw this, I considered that Gary was just messing with me. But he doesn't seem the type. And his friend, Nancy, was there and she said that this was in fact a baking pumpkin. Perhaps they were in it together?

Do you like how they wrote my name on it? In case there was a run on crazy looking pumpkins, Gary was looking out for me. Though we have clear rules about drawing on paper only, Kara decided that writing on a pumpkin that was already written on was fair game. I concurred.

By the way, it's huge. Here is Kara holding it for the purpose of perspective. She declared it to be one funny looking punkin'.

Dave's comment:  "How are you going to cook that exactly?" Part 2 with all the info coming soon....

Friday, October 29, 2010


Driving to school the other morning, I asked Kara what we should have for dinner that night since daddy was going to be at a work. Without skipping a beat, she said, "Mommy, can we have brinner?" To which I replied, "Absolutely!"

Brinner, for the uninitiated, means breakfast for dinner. I know this is a tradition in many households. When I was little, my mom would sometimes make corned beef hash with eggs and toast for dinner. Dave remembers his mom making pancake dinners from time to time as well. Dave and I first heard this called "brinner" on the sitcom "Scrubs"  many years ago. (Here is link to a clip.) Needless to say, the term has become part of our family vernacular.

The excellence of brinner cannot be understated. Brinner is your go to meal when you don't feel like cooking. I always have the ingredients from brinner in the house.  Brinner takes about 20 minutes to make and less than that to clean up. And as fast dinners go, brinner is pretty healthy. Finally, when I say we are having brinner, my kids cheer. It is a complaint free meal. How many of those do you have in your repertoire?

Our most recent brinner included eggs, bacon, orange slices and, because its fall, pumpkin pancakes.

Here is the pancake recipe. 

Super Easy Version
Make pancake batter and add 1/4 to 1/2 cup pumpkin puree, a dash of pumpkin pie spice or any combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, ground cloves, alspice. Trader Joe's multigrain pancake mix is particularly well suited to this "method."

Easy Version
-In a mixing bowl combine:
  • 2 cups flour (white, or a mix white and whole wheat)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1tbsp baking powder
  • Dash  each cinnamon, nutmeg, alspice, ground cloves, OR about 1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
-In a separate bowl beat 2 eggs and add 2 tbsp melted butter or canola oil.
-Pour egg mix plus 2 cups milk into dry ingredients; stir until just combined. Add 1/2 cup pumpkin puree. Stir to combine.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Smitten Kitchen Pickles

The weather in the Philadelphia area has been strange this week. Despite the fact that we are a few days from Halloween, it has felt almost tropical since Sunday. Wet, sticky, rainy, all around it's been more like a week in August than October. Feeling like summer outside inspired me to seek out some of the last summer vegetables. Kirby (or pickle) cucumbers are still around at my local farm stand, so I decided to stock up before fall arrives for real.

One of my favorite discoveries this summer was the food blog Smitten Kitchen. Written by Deb Perelman from her tiny kitchen in New York City, SK is a gorgeous site with accessible, interesting recipes. I especially like that Deb is a seasonal cook - her recipes make the most of whatever is locally grown in and around the New York area. She even has her recipes archived by season.
Deb Perelman's Bread & Butter Pickles

Back to the cukes...I love bread and butter pickles, especially the homemade variety. I love sweet pickles so much that I will eat the scary florescent green ones from the grocery store, but I generally try to avoid foods that are a color I might see in Kara's marker box. My stepmother used to can her own bread and butter pickles which is probably what accounts for my current day addiction to them. I have never been able to replicate her success, however. One day this summer, to my great pleasure, Smitten Kitchen's post of the day was on quick bread and butter pickles. Here is the recipe. These are so good. So fresh and sweet and crisp. The perfect addition to a sandwich or burger. Or, as Deb suggests, a great gift for the host of a party. They will keep in your refrigerator for about a month, if they last that long.

We liked these pickles so much that I applied the same principles in her recipe to "quick pickle" jalapeno peppers. Also delicious. If you find some Kirby cukes that are hanging on from the summer, give these pickles a try. And if you can't find any decent cucumbers or, for some strange reason, bread and butter pickles don't do it for you, consider giving quick pickling a try with the vegetable of your choice. Carrots, cauliflower, onions, green beans are all good candidates in the fall.

Here are two other takes on the quick pickling: New York Times blog - Quick Pickling and  Mark Bittman's Quick Pickles.You can also Google "quick pickles" or "refrigerator pickles" and you'll find countless recipes. Give it a try. This is another one of those cooking techniques that is really easy and yields impressive results.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Premier Beer Review

I have been invited by the proprietor of this fine site to submit guest blogs from time to time.  What other topic would I possibly blog about but beer.  I am a bit of a beer geek and enjoy trying unusual beers and styles brewed both here in the US and imports as well.  As it happens, Philadelphia is one of the best beer cities in the country.  Not only are there a huge amount of restaurants with massive beer lists, but there are a number of excellent local craft breweries that are really brewing some excellent stuff. 

They recently put up a brand new Whole Foods right down the street from us.  What does that have to do with beer, you ask?  Well, this particular Whole Foods happens to have a bar in it.  And not only will they fill your growler with excellent local beers at very reasonable prices, but they stock a pretty nice selection of craft brews and imports that you can buy as singles or six packs (not an easy thing to find in PA).  Bear with me; I am getting to the actual review at some point here. 

Now, with that said, let’s get to it.  A couple weeks ago I picked up an entry from a craft brewery in Massachusetts called Pretty Things.  The beer is called Jack D’Or.  This beer would roughly be categorized as a Saison, which is sometimes also referred to as a Farmhouse Ale.  Beer Advocate defines a Saison as follows:

Saisons are sturdy farmhouse ale that was traditionally brewed in the winter, to be consumed throughout the summer months. Not so long ago it was close to being an endangered style, but over recent years there's been a massive revival; especially in the US.  This is a very complex style; many are very fruity in the aroma and flavor. Look for earthy yeast tones, mild to moderate tartness. Lots of spice and with a medium bitterness. They tend to be semi-dry with many only having touch of sweetness.

While that definition is not a grammatical home run, you get the idea.  A textbook saison is fairly light and refreshing, not overly bitter, with a bit of a tangy bite that comes from the Belgian yeast strains that are usually used.  This is a fairly unusual beer style, with not that many prime examples out there.  The gold standard being Saison DuPont, brewed in Belgium.  Now this is not typically one of my more favorite beer styles, as I generally prefer beers with bolder flavor profiles, but this beer had been reviewed excellently in Beer Advocate and it has an awesome label, so I picked up one at Whole Foods when I saw it the other week. 

I was very impressed with this beer.  It was very refreshing and surprisingly complex.  There are hints of citrus and spice and a very balanced flavor. The hops are noticeable, but not right up in your face.  There are hints of spices in there as well, but this is pretty subtle and very well done.  This is the best saison that I have ever had.  I would recommend it highly to anyone, and this is a good beer for people who aren’t huge beer geeks that like really strong and hoppy beers.  This is a great example of a small local craft brewer who is clearly in it because he loves beer and is coming up with some really interesting stuff.  The beer is sold in 22 ounce bottles for about 6 bucks.

Tune in this weekend for home brewing with locally grown ingredients!

Monday, October 25, 2010

All No All the Time

Like all moms who are apt to feel guilty after complaining about their children, I will begin with a disclaimer:  I love my son. I love him more than I thought it possible to love a baby. I love everything about him.

Jamie is driving me crazy. And today was a really bad day.

Today was one of those days when I remember why daycare can be a blessing. Today was the kind of day I considered buying a Powerball ticket in the hopes that we could be rich and I could afford a nanny to take care of my son. Today was the kind of day when I heard myself, on the brink of tears, say, "Jamie, mommy is begging you to stop playing in the dog water."

To look at him, you might not guess that he is such a menace. "Come on," you say, "he looks so sweet." And he is. He is super sweet. But he is also in a phase where every drawer must be emptied. Every piece of furniture must be scaled. Every shelf must be cleared of its contents. And every toilet must be thoroughly inspected.

I think that I spent my entire day either saying, or sometimes shouting, "No."  (Or "No no no no no noooooo!") And when I wasn't telling Jamie "No," I was wiping away his tears after he banged into some piece of furniture. Seriously, the whole day was like this.

Remember the book Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day? There should be a mom version. After today, I would title mine, Jamie's Mom and the Horrendously Irritating Incompetent Parenting Day.

The best thing about this day is that it is almost over. And Dave, who should be nominated for husband of the year, is handling the baths and bedtimes. And Kara sang to us in French because she is learning French in school!?! And Jamie stacked eight blocks. And just when I thought I couldn't take any more this afternoon, Kara asked me to play tag with her in the yard, so Jamie and Kara and I ran around shrieking and giggling for 10 minutes.

Bring on tomorrow.

Creamy Dreamy Fall Soup

Last week I took the kids over to Maple Acres Farm, one of the few errands that does not provoke a string of complaints from my little girl. We had fun looking at the pumpkins, their amazing water garden with koi, and scoping out deals of second day produce. Ok, that last one was just me having fun.

After 20 minutes or so, I gathered up our stuff and stepped up to the register and was stunned by the huge stalks of broccoli. They were gorgeous and the price, $1.50 for 2 bunches, was unbelievable. Then, my neighborhood farm stand was offering cauliflower for $.50 a head, so I couldn't resist buying a few. Now my kitchen was filled with these fabulous fall vegetables, but after serving us steamed and/or roasted broc/cauliflower three nights in a row, I needed a change.

I remembered that I love broccoli cheddar soup. Even the industrially produced stuff you get in a cafeteria or a Fridays. Love it. So I scoured the internet for some recipe ideas and found quite a few to go on. Given that I had a plethora of seasonal veggies lying around, I adapted the basic principles for making a creamy soup. The result was stupendous. It was really easy, and, as usual, it made a ton of soup. (I am incapable of making a small amount of soup, I have learned.)

Here's the basic idea:
-Cut up and steam 1 large head of broccoli and 1 large head of cauliflower. If you have leftovers, perfect.
-In a large pot or dutch oven, fry up
  • one large chopped onion
  • 3-4 celery stalks finely chopped
  • 3-4 carrots finely chopped
-When the veggies are getting well cooked, add one large potato peeled and chopped in to smallish chunks. You could use a large russet, 5 small red potatoes or 2-3 Yukon golds. You could definitely add more potato, too, I just had so much other stuff, I didn't want my pot to overflow.
-Fry up for a few minutes. When the potatoes start to brown up, dump all of the contents of the pan out into a bowl.
-Now use the same pot to make a cream sauce. Turn the heat to medium/low. You could start by deglazing the pot with stock or white wine. But if you want to skip this step, just put 1/2 stick of butter in the pot and let it melt. Don't burn it. That is tragic. When the butter is bubbly, add a 1/4 cup of flour and whisk for a couple of minutes as the flour gets nice and golden.
-Slowly pour in 2 cups of whole milk. You could use some half and half, too, if you are feeling decadent. Whisk constantly as the mixture thickens.
-Add 3 cups of stock (chicken or veggie) and keep stirring.
-Put the all of the cooked veggies in the creamy liquid. If you need to, add more milk/stock to cover the veggies.
-Cook the soup for about 30 minutes or so. You want all of the vegetables to be soft.
-Use an immersion blender to puree the soup. If you don't have an immersion blender, I urge you to get one. They are inexpensive and invaluable for making soup, tomato sauce, smoothies, etc... Seriously, transferring soup to a blender is a pain. Just say no. And just say yes to immersion blenders.
-Add 2-4 cups of grated cheddar cheese, depending on how cheesy you like your soup. You could also add some swiss or Gruyere. I will admit that I added about 1/2 cup of Velveeta.
-Stir it up until the cheese melts. Add salt, pepper to taste and more milk/stock if your soup gets too thick.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Epic Dinner Week

I am not one who typically indulges in a self-congratulatory moments, but I have to say that this week was epic. I made awesome dinners. Every night.
Here are a few pictures.

Monday: Pasta with goat cheese, spinach, mushrooms and onions.

Tuesday: Macaroni and cheese picnic dinner. Sorry, no picture of the mac -- so I substituted the kids.

Wednesday: Striped bass that was caught by Dave's dad this last spring. (More on this next week, I hope.)

Thursday: Creamy cheesy fall soup, no knead bread, salad from our fall garden (recipes coming soon).

Friday: Fancy pizza melts using the rest of the bread, fresh mozzarella, spinach and diced prosciutto

I don't want people to think that this is a normal week at our house. It's really not. I can't explain it. Goodness knows when it will happen again, but it  was yummy while it lasted.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Comfort Food for Phillies Fans

For most of my life our hometown baseball team, the Phillies, has been less than successful. They won the World Series in 1980, but I was too young to really appreciate this occasion. And they were pretty good in the early 1990s, but I was too busy going to college and stuff to focus on anything other than myself. But since Dave and I got together, I have discovered my inner fan. Unlike me, Dave has been a lifelong Phils champion - through the good and the bad, he has stuck with his team. So it has been especially gratifying for him to see the team become so successful. (We would be remiss if we did not notice that the Phillies return to the post-season coincided with our move back to the Philadelphia area. Coincidence? Perhaps, but I like to think that our return to the "homeland" has helped bring the good vibes back to the Fightin' Phils. Maybe they just needed a few more cheering fans within 20 miles of their ballpark to push them over the edge to greatness?)

Being a true Philadelphia sports fan, the resurgence of his home team has been a bit of mixed blessing for Dave. On the one hand, he loves to see the guys win the big games, but on the other hand, watching their games in the playoffs has become a kind of torture for him. Dave is the most mild-mannered guy...unless his team is in a big game, and then he morphs into a crazed, couch punching, profanity spewing, version of himself. I have learned to accept this psycho Dave during the playoffs. (Watching his dad watch the Phils, I can see that Dave comes by his multiple-sports-personality disorder naturally. Remarkably, they are both even worse when the Flyers are in the playoffs.) In a way, it is sort of cute. Plus it gives me so many opportunities to tease him. And to his credit, Dave will often say, "I realize that I am not very fun to be around right now."

So in a stressful playoff run, what my man needs is some comfort food. For the last several years, it has become our family tradition to have a "Picnic" dinner if the game time coincides with our meal time. Tonight is one of those nights. The dinner of choice: Macaroni and cheese. It soothes the soul of even the most insane Phils fan, my kids love it, it's easy to make and easy to eat in front of the TV.

There are some great mac and cheese recipes out there, and I have tried a bunch of them. Ann Hodgman's macaroni and cheese from Wondertime Magazine was delicious. (You gotta love a food writer who includes this in her article: "If you want to win a recipe contest, consider adding a little bacon.")

My mother in law has made the Creamy Four Cheese Macaroni from Cooking Light to great acclaim. She brought this dish of this yumminess to us right after Kara was born. I don't think mac & cheese ever tasted as good as it did to my ravenous, nursing, sleep-deprived self.

Ree Drummond's website, Pioneer Woman, has many mac and cheese recipes. I particularly like the Simple Macaroni and Cheese.

These recipes are all great, but more often than not, I just make it up, following a few principles:
  •  Start with good noodles. I tend to like regular elbow macaroni, not whole wheat, for a traditional mac. When it is done cooking, use a pyrex measuring cup to scoop out a cup or so of starchy cooking water. This is great to have in case you have to thin out your pasta and sauce once it is combined.
  • Any cheese is good cheese. Fancy cheese like Gruyere, Parmesan, goat cheese, are all delicious. But the every day stuff like cheddar, American and, yes, Velveeta, are fabulous. Whatever your feelings about processed cheese products, I highly recommend setting them aside when making macaroni and cheese from scratch.
  • I start with a roux - about a tablespoon of butter melted with a tablespoon or so of flour - and slowly add a couple of cups of milk (whole milk if you have it works best) and stir with a whisk until it thickens. Then add a couple of cups of grated cheese. Pour the sauce over cooked noodles, spoon into baking pan, sprinkle bread crumbs on top and bake for 30 min or until brown and bubbly. 
  • If you are going to go through the "trouble" of making a batch of mac and cheese, make extra. It freezes really well and you'll be glad to have it for the next time you, or your rabid sports-loving man, are in need of some comfort food.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Easiest Dinner Ever

When I can't think of anything else to cook, my go-to meal is quesadillas . All you need is tortillas, cheese and beans and you have a hardy, healthy dish that even picky kids will like. (It's like a folded over pizza! It's like a Mexican grilled cheese! You can choose your own filling! You can add as much cheese as you like!)

Other advantages of the quesadilla include: they are great for using up left overs; they look impressive if you serve them to guests, they are easily gluten free if you use corn, not flour/wheat, tortillas

We used to make our quesadillas in the oven (450 for about 10 min.), but ever since I got a cast iron skillet last Christmas, I like to make them on the stove top. It's quicker and you get a nice crispy finish on the tortilla. Just be careful to keep the heat lowish so that you don't burn the tortilla before the cheese melts.

My kids like just cheese and beans, but if you want to branch out, consider some of these suggestions:
  • Try a different cheese than cheddar or the "Mexican blend" sold in stores. Goat cheese, blue cheese, Gruyere, feta, all work great. Heck, I have been known to throw some velveeta in there. (Don't knock it until you've tried it.)
  • Any left over meat works great. Obviously the remnants of last nights chicken are prime candidates. But try left over steak, pulled pork, brisket, roast beef, meatballs, bacon. (Because everything is better with bacon, as Dave always notes.)
  • Veggies taste that much more delicious when smooshed between cheesy tortillas. I love onions, peppers, mushrooms, green onions, broccoli, corn, but my all time favorite addition...spinach. Again, give it a try. You'll be surprised. 
  • Spices! Whatever you've got in your spice rack is a possibility. Go Indian and curry it up. Stay traditional with chili powder, garlic & cumin. If I have it fresh, I love cilantro, parsley and chives.
  • We love the traditional toppings of salsa, guacamole and sour cream. Chutney, sweet salsas (peach, pineapple etc), steak sauces, ranch dressing, tzatziki are also fabulous additions.
Have fun!

Kara wanted everyone to see her love for quesadilla dinner.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Gateway Fruit

Fall has arrived here, that much is certain. Cooler nights, windy days, and a renewed need to wear a sweater and slippers around the house during the day. And of course, there are the apples. At our local farm, they have lined the shopping area with huge wooden boxes and filled them with all kinds of locally grown apples. If you are looking to "go local" with your food shopping, think of apples as your gateway produce. They can be found just about anywhere. They are cheap. And, in my experience, it is hard to find a bad apple.

Now that I think of it, every place I have lived in my adult life has had local apples in the fall. In New York City, I used to grab a bag at the Union Square farmers market on Saturdays or at Fairway on a weekday walk. In DC there were several apple stands at Eastern Market just a few blocks away from our place on Capitol Hill. And here in Philadelphia there are farmers markets, farm stands and even local produce in the big chain grocery stores. My sister in law and her family have their own "Apple Guy" who not only sells delicious fruit, but makes pretty accurate long range weather predictions.

I took my kids out to Maple Acres Farm on Wednesday and we had lots of fun running around inspecting the many pumpkins and gourds for sale. It was my intention to just buy a sampling of apples to see what is tasting good this season. But I was distracted by the big basket with a sign on it that read, "Baking Apples $.50/lb." ("Baking apples"  = bruised and battered apples that no one will buy.) And when the owner agreed to sell the bunch to me for $6.00, I knew that there was an applesauce project in my future. By Friday night our cheapo box of galas, McIntosh and golden delicious apples was transformed into 5 quarts of applesauce. It is so yummy and it made our whole house smell like apple pie. A perfect fall treat.

Making applesauce is so easy, it barely requires a recipe, but here is the basic idea:

  • Peel and core apples; cut into small chunks.
  • Put chunks in large pot and add a little water or apple cider to help them get steamy.
  • Cook on medium heat until they are soft and mushy. You can add sugar or spices if you desire. I usually don't add a sweetener, but I do add cinnamon, ground cloves and nutmeg.
  • You can easily preserve applesauce in jars. Here are some good instructions from Pick Your Own, a great website for guidance on how to preserve all manner of produce.
  • If you don't want to go through the canning process, you can freeze the applesauce and/or it will keep in your refrigerator for several weeks. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Who am I -- June Cleaver?

Last night, I had a moment when I looked down at the dinner I was making and thought that it must have been transported to my kitchen straight out of the 1950s. Yes, I went old school last night and made meatloaf, mashed potatoes and broccoli. Of course, my versions of these timeless classics would be a little unfamiliar to the June Cleavers and Donna Reeds of yore. The ground beef was from grass-fed cows. The broccoli was purchased from the local farm 15 minutes away. And the potatoes were...nothing exceptional. They did come from from Trader Joe's. (How did we manage with out Trader Joe's?)

The point is, that no matter how many new food trends and techniques I love to try, I also relish the opportunity to come back to a classic. And it doesn't get any more classic than our dinner last night.

My children, it turns out, are less enamored by the solid fare of the 1950s. They both eschewed my delicious meatloaf -- so they doubled up on mashed potatoes.

This recipe comes from my stepmother who was an amazing cook. To me, meatloaf is all about the sauce, and the this is a particularly saucy, dare I say sassy, loaf. Enjoy!

-In a large mixing bowl combine:
  • 1 1/2 lbs ground beef (or turkey or a combo of the two)
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup onions finely chopped
  • 1 tsp sage
  • 1 tsp parsley
  • salt, pepper and any other spices that you like -- Worcester sauce, Cajun seasonings, garlic, chili powder, Tabasco etc.
-Mix with your hands until combined. Put meat mixture into a loaf pan or form into a loaf shape and place in the center of your broiling pan. (You can definitely make the meat mixture ahead of time and refrigerate until you are ready to cook. I have never tried it, but I am sure you could freeze it in a loaf pan, too.)
-To make the sauce, combine in a small bowl:
  • 1 tsp mustard
  • 3 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup ketsup
  • 2 tsp nutmeg
  • Chili powder, cayenne pepper powder or Tabasco if you like spicy stuff
-Adjust the seasonings to your liking.
-Pour half the sauce on the meatloaf and bake at 375 for 45 min or so. Pour the rest of the sauce on top just before serving.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Picky Eaters

One of my favorite foodie blogs is Dinner, A Love Story. Not only does the blogger, Jenny Rosenstrach, include excellent recipes, she has a wonderful sense of humor. She never lets us forget that she is a real mom with real, often persnickity kids. Her husband, Andy, often posts too. Much like his wife, Andy is funny, wise and cuts right to heart of what its like to try to raise "good eaters." (Full disclosure: both Andy and Jenny went to my college alma mater -- but I liked the blog even before I realized this connection.)

This most recent post, A Picky Eater Taxonomy,by Andy, came at just the right moment since both of my children pretty much rejected the dinner I made tonight. (More on that tomorrow.)

This one goes out to all the picky eaters, and the parents who put up with them...I mean love them.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


One of the many things that I love about Dave is his seemingly endless patience for all of my obsessions. Of late, these fixations have revolved around food (Eating less meat, eating local, eating bread made in the bread machine I got for Christmas. You get the idea.) So when I announced at dinner a few months ago that I was thinking about trying to can some of the tomatoes, and was going to buy a canning kit and jars for this purpose, Dave said, "Ok." But this nonchalant answer was delivered with a look of complete resignation and not an ounce of surprise. His mouth said, "Ok," but his look said, "I can't believe it has taken this long for my wife to get into yet another foodie trend." He is sweet, and perceptive.

It turns out, however, that canning is the perfect cooking application for Dave because, unlike me, he is a very precise cook. His mother's mantra is, "If you can read, you can cook." And Dave takes this to heart; he chooses a recipe and he follows it to the letter. The notable exceptions to this rule are his chili, pulled pork and hamburger stroganoff -- three of his cooking masterpieces.

Canning, though, lends itself to Dave's natural tendency to follow directions. And in case you didn't know, canning is cooking on the edge. Because, while eminently satisfying to preserve a whole box of tomatoes in a few jars, canning turns this project into a daring kitchen feat. Measure incorrectly, fail to maintain the proper PH, compromise your seals, improperly sterilize the jars, and you will have a big bunch of botulism on your hands instead of the "taste of summer" you were hoping for.

Needless to say, a cook like me, needs a man like Dave in the kitchen when there is canning going on.

I am proud to say that Dave happily did his own share of the preserving last weekend making a yummy looking salsa. (God knows there were plenty of tomatoes to use in this project.) I cannot wait to try it this winter.

Here is the recipe from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving:
-In large, non-reactive pot combine:
  • 7cups chopped, peeled tomatoes
  • 2 cups coarsely chopped onion
  • 1 cup chopped green bell pepper
  • 8 chopped jalapeno peppers - the more seeded and de-pithed, the less hot they will be
  • 3 cloves garlic finely chopped
  • 1 can tomato paste (5.5 oz.)
  • 3/4 cup white vinegar
  • 1/2 finely chopped cilantro -- loosely packed
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
-Bring to a boil over medium heat, stir frequently, until thickened. This should take about 30 min depending on your stove. 
-Prepare jars and lids (See Ball website for directions.)
-Ladle hot salsa into hot jars leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Process 8 oz or pint jars for 20 minutes in water canner. Let cool and check seals before storing in a cool, dark place.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Not So Fancy Sunday Dinner

I love Sunday dinner. When I was growing up, I spent most Sundays at my dad's house where my stepmother, building on her own childhood experience I suspect, made pretty elaborate Sunday dinners. By "elaborate" I mean substantial main course, several side dishes, bread, salad and a delicious, often homemade, dessert. Dave, too, lived in a house where Sunday dinner was often more than the run of the mill weeknight meal. I am happy to say that we have kept this tradition alive in our newer family. When we were younger and without kids, we would often use Sunday as an excuse to grill up a thick steak or roast a big, stuffed chicken, open a bottle of nice wine and even make some kind of appetizer to enjoy while watching the football games and drinking the aforementioned wine.

Now,  our current version of Sundays may not allow for sipping wine while reading the Times and watching the game, but they are still a respite from the weekly sprint of getting dinner on the table before someone, and I am as likely a suspect as either of my kids,  starts crying. Our meals are not typically fancy, and I have not taken to making a dessert on Sundays, but they are more thought-out, more relaxed, more complete somehow.

Yesterday was a good example. I finally made it to the farmers' market on Thursday and was able to buy some freshly ground turkey from "the chicken guy," as I like to call him.(I am sure he has an actual name, but everyone I know calls him "chicken guy.") Using my newly purchased ground meat, I made bleu cheese stuffed turkey burgers. We learned this trick years ago when we were on vacation and one of Dave's sister's college friends, Danielle, joined us for a few days. This was in the way back time before marriage and kids -- when vacation meant a week at the shore hanging out, eating, lots of drinking and even more lounging on the beach all day. Good times...but I digress... Danielle's husband, Lee, made turkey burgers one night and his squished blue cheese into the middle of each one. He also coated them in ketchup which was delicious. Anyway, Danielle has long since divorced Lee, but his legacy of delicious burgers lives on in our house.

And because I was feeling super motivated and energized by the lack of stress on a Sunday, I broke out the mandoline and made fries. Then, because I am crazy, I made an actual sauce for our green beans. And let me say that the sauce was apparently magic because my kids ate every bean on their plates.  Here are the basic "recipes" for your eating pleasure.

Turkey Burgers: 
Yep - I served my kids hot dogs. Keepin' it real.
  • Combine ground turkey with spices of your choosing - I used garlic powder, worcester, cajun spice mix - and a handful or so of bread crumbs to help them hold together.
  • Scoop out enough to make a small burger and flatten on your work surface. Spoon out 1-2 tbsp of crumbled blue cheese, add some additional burger on top to cover the cheese. Shape appropriately.
  • These can be cooked on the grill, but I find they do better in a skillet so they get super seared and don't fall apart.
  • Cut potatoes into strips, wedges, chunks or whatever shape you like your fries. If you want them to look like "real" fries I recommend using a mandoline -- but be careful. I have nearly sliced my finger on several occasions.
  • Let the potatoes drain and then dry them off before tossing with oil and spices or your choosing.
  • Cook at 450 for 20 minutes or longer on a sheet pan. Don't skimp on the oil or they will stick.
Magic Sauce:
  • Combine a spoonful or two of apricot jam, or use a few packets of duck sauce from your Chinese takeout, with some sesame oil, rice wine vinegar and mirin if you have it. Mirin is an amazing  sweet rice wine that is used in Asian cooking. It is excellent in all manner of vinaigrette and marinades.
  • Just adjust the ingredients to get the taste you are looking for. You could also add something spicy like chili paste/powder, sriracha, ginger. Or some soy sauce or fish sauce to give it a little more punch. 
Kara had milk, not beer, with her dinner.
  • This sauce is great as a salad dressing, on noodles, dumplings, chicken or shrimp, pretty much any vegetable. Plus it is a great way to use up those take out packets floating around one of your kitchen drawers. 

News Flash! Food = Community

If you don't get it at home, or haven't had time to read it perhaps, I encourage you to look at the New York Times Magazine from yesterday. It is their "Food Issue" and focuses on the myriad ways food helps to build, rebuild and sustain communities. Plus, the cover is fun to look at with your kids.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Power of The Apology

One of the first things I learned when I was teaching was to admit when you had made a mistake. It didn't matter how silly or serious the error was, it was always worth it to suck it up and say a sincere "sorry" for messing up.New teachers are always worried about losing their power or authority in the classroom, but experienced teachers have learned that being honest about your own foibles goes miles towards earning your students' respect. So, I have tried to apply this same theory to parenting. It's not always easy to admit to a five year old that mommy is wrong, grumpy, shouldn't have yelled at you, wasn't really paying attention, forgot to get the good kind of apples etc. But I have decided that it is worth the small, or maybe large, admission of guilt to foster good feelings between me and my daughter.

I was reminded of this last night when I had to apologize to Kara for being so grumpy all afternoon and evening. The day started off on a bad note when Kara and I had a lengthy "negotiation" about what to wear to school. (Think UN security council, Middle East Peace Process, Bill & Hillary Clinton.) While this was all going on, Jamie was happily exploring Kara's room being completely ignored...right up until the point he walked up show me Kara's brand new glasses (that her grandmothers had just purchased for her) the arm of which he had nearly twisted off. So now, Kara starts crying because her glasses have been mangled. And Jamie is crying because I yelled, "Jesus Christ!" and snatched them out of his hands.

After we all had the day to recover from this morning trauma, glasses temporarily repaired for school, we got to relive it all again when, on our walk home from school, I realize that one side of Kara's glasses, the aforementioned mangled arm piece, is now missing. And, to make matters worse, upon hearing this story when we got home, my mom reveals that the glasses were very, and I mean very, expensive. At that point my mood hit a new low making it a struggle to get through "Phineas & Ferb" without losing my temper. But after a terrible two hours, a disastrous dinner that both kids hated (so predictable), I had a moment of clarity when Kara told me to come see the play room she had just cleaned up all by herself. Her eagerness to please me when I had so clearly been a jerk just about broke my heart. All I could say was, "I am sorry I was so grumpy tonight. I am just upset about what happened with your glasses."

"I'm upset too," she replied.

"But I am not mad at you. Not at all. It's not your fault; it's no one's fault."

"It feels like you're mad at me." Don't you hate it when your kids nail you?
"I am so sorry I made you feel that way, bunny. I was wrong."

And, you know, the evening got much better from that point on.

Here she is with her new, formerly intact, glasses.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Tomato Anxiety Syndrome

I have a problem. And I think I have finally reached rock-bottom.

In an effort to eat locally, more or less, throughout the year, I have been attempting to preserve the summer bounty for winter use. Last year, I started with tomatoes. My mom and I bought a bushel from a local farm and spent a sweaty, but very fun, afternoon peeling, seeding and cooking them up into a delicious tomato sauce. At the end we all enjoyed a fabulous spaghetti dinner. And throughout last winter, we ate our way through the sauce I had frozen in August.

But it all went so fast.

So this year, with more time and certainly more energy with one child in school and the other adhering to an actual schedule most of the time, I decided to, "take to the next level, baby." (Who knew I could work in a reference to former college football start Marcus Vick while writing about tomatoes?)

This year, with the help of Val and her Lancaster farmer connections, my local farm, and my neighborhood farm stand, I purchased and processed five bushels of tomatoes. Every time I thought I had enough, I had an inexplicable fear that we would run out of tomatoes in the dead of winter. Now, it's not like I consider canned Del Monte diced tomatoes some kind of toxic food abomination. I have often purchased them in bulk at Costco to, again, ensure that I always have some on hand when the need arises. (Perhaps my tomato issues go back further than I thought. Hmmm...)

But preserving your own tomatoes is so satisfying, cost effective, and, in a weird way, fun. I think everyone in the family has participated in the tomato assembly line this year, save Jamie. (That would have been a show.) And now when I break open a bag or jar in a few weeks when the weather has turned fully, I will be able to savor one last little taste of summer. In the mean time, I can look at the "wall of tomatoes," as Dave calls it, with a little pride and the realization that I completely lost the edge.

A Next Step

After I wrote about granola yesterday, I realized that I should have included a logical next step: turning granola into granola bars. So easy to do and, again, much healthier and cheaper than what you will get at the store. (Though I do have a soft spot for Trader Joe's chewy granola bars.) Mark Bittman has published several versions of  a granola bar recipe. Here is one that just ran in the Times. But I would submit that there is no need to follow any particular recipe too strictly. The basic idea is to combine a cup of granola with a cup of "puffed rice cereal" (aka Rice Krispies) with a cup of warmed sweetener. You can use honey,or maple syrup or even agave, I suppose, though I have not tried it. If you have some corn syrup languishing in your pantry, that would work too. Warm the sweet stuff in the microwave or on the stove to get it thin and pliable. When it's warm, I like to add peanut butter and/or almond butter. Pour the mixture over your granola-krispie mix. Stir gently, but quickly.( It's sort of like making Rice Krispie treats -- if you pause too long, you go from sticky goo to rock hard Krispie cement in a matter of minutes.) Dump the granola into a greased pan. (I usually use a 9x9 brownie pan.) Use wax paper too make an even layer of granola goodness. Refrigerate for a couple of hours to firm them up. When everything is cool and hard, you  can cut into squares and store in Tupperware. They'll keep for at least a week, maybe more. This is a very fun thing to make with kids, too. Feel free to add chocolate chips, more nuts, dried fruits, flax seeds, wheat germ - anything goes, pretty much.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I'm Back

So after rashly diving into the "blogosphere" (I really hate that word, by the way.), I had a momentary, month- long panic that I had nothing of worth to say and no one would ever read this and who really has the time to blog etc. and so on. But after suffering through another bout of "what am I doing with myself" angst, I felt inspired to write once again, get some momentum going, and see what happens. My darling girl is at school, big boy is "napping", and, let's face it, I am not going to actually vacuum today. I have no excuses.

Do you remember the big scandal in 1992 when Hillary Clinton, when asked about her ambitions and work history, explained that she thought being a working mom was an important role for her to play? And then, in an ill-advised moment of candor, continued to say something like, "I suppose I could have stayed at home and baked cookies." Cue the media frenzy. At the time, I remember chatting about this in my house. (I would have been 20ish..) And, uncharacteristically for me at that age, I said that I hoped to one day to stay home and make cookies. My mom has reminded me of this on only a few occasions since -- she is a very kind woman. I was remembering this prescient, off-handed comment in my past as I contemplated my existence as a stay at home mom. I don't bake cookies all that often, except at holiday time when my kitchen turns into a 24/7 bakery, but I do cook every day and I have found that this practice is one of the most satisfying parts of my life. I have discovered that cooking has helped me actualize some of the things that I value most: Like eating together as a family, learning about different cultures, establishing a healthy "food culture" in the home, supporting local and/or sustainable food producers, passing down the culinary "arts" to my own kids.

But as the title of this blog suggests, I am not a precise cook, by any means. I love to read recipes, food magazines, food blogs & websites, but I do not regularly whip out a cookbook and follow the instructions to produce a dish. Rather, I might make a recipe following the directions once, and then improvise the next time. Or more likely, I might read a recipe, try to understand the basic technique involved and then riff off the author's original idea. Dave argues that only an already good cook can cook like I do, but I don't quite agree. I think that as long as you have some basic kitchen skills (how to saute, how to roll dough, how to cut an onion etc.), you can buck up, be a fearlessly improvisational cook. Of course, you may suffer through some bad meals, or a few times where you inadvertently cooked 4 quarts of cheese sauce, but more often than not, you will make something yummy and will be more likely to cook it again because you did it without the constraints of a recipe.

Granola is a great example of a food that you can make with minimal effort, and even less attention to detail, and achieve delicious results. I was inspired by Mark Bittman's recipe. The basic idea is to combine some combination of the following:
  • 4-6 cups old fashioned oats (try buying them in bulk -- much cheaper)
  • 1-2 cups nuts/seeds
  • 1/4-1/2 dried, unsweetened coconut
  • spices like cinnamon, alspice, nutmeg plus a dash of salt
  • 1/2 to 1 cup sweetener - maple syrup, honey, agave or some combination 
Spread the mix onto cookie sheets and toast in a 350 oven for 15 min or so. The idea is to toast, not cook the granola. Let the mixture cool a little and then mix in a cup or more of dried fruit. I usually use this as an opportunity to empty all of the almost used up bags of raisins, apples, apricots that are floating around my pantry. This stuff will keep for weeks in a jar or ziploc bag. It makes a great gift. Give it a try -- it's much cheaper and healthier than store-bought granola. Here it is. Thanks to my dear friend Val who recently gave me a jar of her version of homemade granola as a belated housewarming present. (I didn't want anyone to get the idea that  I had a decorated jar on hand.)