Monday, December 28, 2009

Baking My Angst Away


Hi.  It's me again. 

Sorry to bother you so late, but I really need to talk.  I know you must be tired from a long day and that this kind of violates our protocol, but if I can just get a few minutes of your time. 

You see, or rather you hear, my son will not sleep.  He just won't rest and is up every 2 - 3 hours and the kid is 20 months old already and YES, YES, I KNOW!  He's probably teething.  We've talked about this before.  It doesn't change the fact that my husband and I are becoming zombie mental cases with attitudes.  And YES, I KNOW - he's just a little boy, but that does not ease my circadian rhythms none, understand?  Oh, and yeah, I took an extra pill, I even almost gave him one.  It doesn't seem to help either of us sleep.

Anyway, we're up again, cruising the kitchen for some comfort.  The mixer makes too much noise and I am afraid I might hurt him if I go near the food processor. So I stand before you, my devoted and loyal oven, for a little comfort and plea for patience.

Nothing soothes my rumpled and crumpled soul like baking.  Now with cooking, you add a little of this, a little of that and poof, you get dinner.  But baking is a much more precise process.  Of course you can improvise, as can an acrobat cycling across the high wire. But like that trained performer you best know what you're doing.  An extra 5 minutes is the difference between caramelized and burned.  Too much flour and you'll need a hacksaw to cut through your work.  And then there is the tricky business of the egg white, cream, and yeast.  

But the rewards of baking are far greater than the sum of the final product.  It is the process that relaxes my body like a shiatsu massage.  Rough day?  Start kneading bread.  Too much going on?  Zest a lemon.  The physical acts of baking are repetitive and require confidence, both of which calm me in a storm.  And then there is the comfort in knowing that when I slowly cook egg yolks with sugar, it will turn into custard, or if I keep beating heavy cream it will whip into a delicious treat.  I can count on it as sure as the sun will rise and the tide will come in.  

Anyway, my son won't sleep.  He is teething or growing or evil or something.  It doesn't really matter why anymore, what matters is that we are exhausted.  And I am on the edge.  So the other morning, when duty wailed, I took him down to the kitchen with me, gave him a bottle of milk, and started baking.  Nothing fancy mind you; I can't deal with a pastry bag at 2 am.  But I made a fantastic banana bread that I've been perfecting for a few weeks now.  As I chopped the chocolate and smashed the bananas, I felt lighter and my anger eased gradually.  By the time it came out of the oven I was feeling zen like and hungry.  My son quickly gobbled it down and went back to sleep shortly thereafter.  

This simple recipe comes from Elana's pantry, a great gluten free site.  My adapted version is below.  Happy baking.

Shut Up And Go To Bed Banana Bread

3 cups blanched almond flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup agave
1/4 cup grapeseed oil
3 eggs, whisked
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 - 3 mashed bananas
1/2 cup chopped dark chocolate or 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
  2. Combine almond flour, salt, baking soda and sugar in a large bowl
  3. In a separate bowl, combine agave, oil, eggs, and vanilla
  4. Mix wet ingredients into dry. Add banana and chocolate.
  5. Add batter to a greased and floured 9 inch cake pan
  6. Bake for 30 - 40 minutes. Note: If you are using a convection oven, test the cake after 25 minutes.
  7. Remove from oven and cool



Image: federico stevanin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On the List: Aromatics


Ah the list.  How I admire and envy the folks who are organized enough to always document their shopping lists each week.  The same people who diligently stick to their budgets, clip their coupons and their guns, and plan their meals well in advance of preparation.  Unlike me who is always in a panic/need of a special spice or a specific grain which I forgot to write down and I guess I could make it next week but oops I bought all the produce for it...you get my dilemma.  Same schtick, different week.

Short of intensive shock therapy, I doubt I will ever completely change my ways.  But I do have one trick in my grocery bag that keeps me going, a set of standards that I purchase every week no matter what.  Of these, my most important are the aromatics: celery, carrots, and onions.  They are named for their wonderful scents, which are particularly sweet and mouthwatering when cooked together.  When properly stored, they last for a long time. They are incredibly versatile and flexible, and did I mention they are cheap as well as highly nutritious?  Every week they automatically go in the cart, boosting my confidence and balancing my budget.  

A few notes on purchasing: I do not like the stores to choose for me; it is a little patronizing and tends to yield less than perfect produce.  So my advice is to look for the whole vegetable in an unbagged, uncut, and loose state.  If you can find things with the leaves on top, even better. Don't get me wrong - I am no purist and sometimes we all need to compromise, especially if you are shopping with two crazy children screaming for gogurt.  I am just saying, try this if you can.  Don't buy a bag of vegetables; select the ones that look best to you and put them in your own bag. Each week I buy 3 onions, a bunch of carrots, and a bunch of celery. 

I also like to mix it up.  If they are selling rainbow colored carrots, I am all over it.  Sometimes I prefer red onions to yellow, or even scallions or leeks.  Vidalia onions are always a treat. And if you can find celeriac, please give me a call because once you peel the damn thing it is delicious.  

Once you get them home, cut them up.  Peel the carrots, and then cut the tops and bottoms off, slicing the remainder in half.  Same with the celery.   Put it all in a tea towel or a plastic bag with a paper towel. Add to the crisper.  As for the onions, peel and cut them into eights, then add them to a plastic bag with a paper towel and set them next to their carrot/celery brethren. If you don't have time to peel the onions, leave them on the counter and out of the fridge.  


And now to cook.  Here are three easy things to do with aromatics all week long:
  1. Fine chop them and add greens, tomatoes, chick peas, flax seed, and dressing. 
  2. Rough chop them and add to 12 cups of boiling water, along with 2 pounds of chicken bones, salt, and pepper.  Lower heat to simmer, cook for 1 1/2 hours, and you will have delicious chicken broth. Discard solids.   Serve with steamed carrot coins, dill, and egg noodles. 
  3. Mince them and saute in 2 tbsp of olive oil for 10 - 15 minutes, until soft.  Add 28 oz of canned, whole tomatoes.  Mash tomatoes, add 1 cup of red wine, salt, pepper, and 1/4 cup white sugar.  Simmer for 20 minutes and serve with pasta.
Enjoy every bite, and please leave me a comment below about your own experiences with aromatics. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

20 years

This week-end marked a milestone for me, my 20 year high school reunion.  I had hemmed and hawed about going, worrying if I had anything in common with these people anymore, bemoaning my weight, and delaying purchasing tickets.  Now that it is over, I am only sorry that I hesitated, because I had a blast and it was well worthwhile.

Waistlines were bigger and hair was smaller (in some cases non-existent). Some folks were married with children and others were single and fabulous.  I met lots of other stay at home moms, and envied folks with big careers.  I loved seeing all the smart kids, and learning about what they were doing.  Lot's of attorneys, doctors, financial services gurus, accountants, small business owners, and teachers.  

One friend later remarked about how many people seemed trapped in the high school mentality.  I smiled and agreed, but later thought about it.  He and I were both floaters in high school, friends with everyone and never bound to a single group.  It was the kind of thought we probably would have shared 20 years ago, and it still stands today.  And that of course means we were also still in our high school mode, on the inside but still outside. I suppose it was natural for all of us to gravitate to our former roles.  The cliques still buzzed like little hives.  Some other folks seemed to be holding court.  And some folks were still aiming to please, seeking approval from others who then and now would never acquiesce.  Finally, I also saw and experienced a lot of forgiveness to and from people who may have hurt me/been hurt by me. Past transgressions were overlooked or even transcended in the spirit of evening. 

I have to thank my husband for attending with me; as Jen Balaban (now Fritch) remarked, he deserves a gold star for enduring it.  It was also great to have a neutral party there, someone who wasn't part of my high school experience but knows me so well.  It was like having an anthropologist on hand to observe. On the way home we were chatting in the car and exchanging observations.  He remarked on how large our class was - 700 something people in all, of which probably 150 - 200 turned out.  He also noticed how diverse we were, which I guess was less common in the eighties than it is today.  And then he said something that was so kind, so generous and will stay with me always. 

"Julie, you always talk about how much you admire people who can light up a room, people who draw others in and around them.  What I saw tonight was a bunch of people who look at you like gold, who just loved you and root for you no matter what."  

So now you all know why I married him.  But it was true, not just for me but for all of us.  The friends we had back then really stay with you always, even if you never get to see them but for once every 20 years.  There is a staying power that comes with shared experience, and it ultimately translates into long term albeit hazy bonds that cannot be severed.  I remember fine details about friends from Warnsdorfer Elementary School, Churchill Junior High, and East Brunswick High School; their brothers and sisters, their parents, our teachers, the smell of the classrooms, field day, dances in the gym, parties, where they went to college, football games, the first day of 7th grade, East Brunswick Soccer Club, Farrels, Bella Pizza, trips to Luray Caverns, TAG, IPLE, Ms. Trabilsy's (later Eichorn) wedding, the Metropolitan Club, the fly in Ms. Merli's classroom, Mr. Kenny's ex-wife and antics, scrunchies, Mr. Hanley and chorus, bar/bat mitzvah's, sweet sixteens, crazy science teachers, the Constitutional competition, Model UN, and so much more.  No matter what, I will always remember these folks, and am glad that we had one evening to reconnect.  Class of 1989, it was great to see you - I wish you all the best in your lives, and thank you for the memories.  

Want to share something about the reunion?  Leave me a comment below and tell me about it.





Monday, November 23, 2009

The Best Guest


I love being the hostess. But what I love even more is being hostess to a great guest, you know the kind everyone loves to have in their home. The gal who tells good jokes. The guy who makes everyone smile. The couple who gently takes your screaming 3 month child in their arms and kindly offers its parents a chair and a drink. Good guests are hard to come by, and once found are treasured like nothing else I know.

While I am an excellent hostess, I have had to study to become a good guest and in doing so have found that I have ultimately attracted better company to my own table. Maybe it is just a coincidence but I like to think it is good karma that as my guest skills have improved, so have my own hostessing fortunes.

The best guest never:
  • Argues with the host or the other guests.
  • Smokes in the house.
  • Drinks red wine when there is white furniture nearby.
  • Brings their pet.
The best guest always:
  • Arrives on time. Never 15 minutes early, when I am mental with last minute details and still in my bathrobe. Never more than 30 minutes late, after things have started and then complains that there are no more appetizers.
  • Puts everyone at ease. A great guest comes right in and makes you feel at home in your own home. They can put others at ease, diffuse difficult situations, and fill pregnant pauses with comfortable conversation.
  • Offers to help. I love it when someone comes over and offers to help put things out or even better clean up. They always get my love and respect, and lots of extra dessert.
  • Brings a small gift for the host/hostess. It is just common courtesy, and does not have to be a painful exercise.
Regarding that last point, the key to a good gift is being thoughtful. Don't bring a great bottle of wine to an alcoholic's home. No flowers for asthmatics or the highly allergic. Rethink that ham for the vegetarian. You get the gist.

Once you know the no-no's, think small, homemade, and fun. Here are some of my favorite recipes for the successful guest - enjoy and have a great holiday.

Spiced, Candied Pecans
Ingredients
1/2 cup of light corn syrup
1 tsp of cayenne, chipotle, or ancho chili powder
1 lb shelled pecans
Sea salt
Turbino sugar

Method
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place parchment paper or foil on a large, rimmed pan.
  2. Place corn syrup and chili powder in a large bowl and mix. Let stand for 5 minutes.
  3. Add pecans to the bowl and mix.
  4. Spread the pecans evenly on the parchment paper or foil. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and turbino sugar.
  5. Bake for 15 minutes. Cool and serve or place them in a decorative jar with ribbon.
Gravlax

Note: Please note that this recipe needs to be refrigerated for 3 days before serving.

Ingredients
2 1 lb fillets of salmon
1 tbsp black pepper
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 bunch of dill

Method
  1. Place the salmon fillets side by side. One each fillet, place 1/2 the pepper, salt, and sugar.
  2. Place the dill on one fillet and top with the other.
  3. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Place in a rimmed pan and weight the salmon with a heavy object (I like to use a Le Creuset pot top). Place in the refrigerator.
  4. Chill for 3 days, turning the salmon over nightly.
  5. Slice thinly and serve the salmon. For parties, place on a nice platter with small boiled potatoes and Greek yogurt.
Hummus
Ingredients
1 lb of dried chick peas or 2 cans of chickpeas
1/2 cup of tahini (you can find it in the supermarket, usually near the peanut butter)
1 lemon, juiced
2 cloves of garlic
Sea salt
Black pepper

Method
  1. If using dried beans, soak them overnight. Rinse beans and place in food processor.
  2. Add tahini, lemon juice, and garlic. Pulse food processor 20 times, or until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  3. If you like, try any or all of following additions to the food processor: 1/4 cup of roasted red peppers, 1 tsp ancho chili powder or 1 tbsp lemon zest.
  4. Serve on a platter with pita bread and fresh vegetables.




Sunday, November 15, 2009

Meat and Poultry Matrix

When did meat become so complicated?

Trying to figure out what to buy and why has become a full time occupation for me.  I spend hours at the supermarkets and online reading labels, researching ingredients, and making the best decisions I can.  Some of them are pricey and some are dicey, but they are the choices that my family lives and eats by, so I try to get it right.  

That being said, I am most stumped by meat and poultry.  So much misleading and conflicting information, coupled by the fact that all research leads me to conclude we should be eating less and less of both.  What I have learned can be summed up as follows:
  • Most supermarket meat is not from a farm, it is from a factory.  The animals are treated badly; they live horrible lives in confinement and are killed in a cruel manner.  And most importantly, the factory lifestyle generates unhealthy meat and poultry.  The animals are chocked full of antibiotics and other medications, they are mixed and matched Frankenstein style, so it is impossible to trace where they came from, and they tend to be filthy.  
  • Unless grass fed and pasture raised, organic and/or free range meat does not provide much relief from the above.  They are fed a slightly better diet (although organic cows still are fed corn and not grass, which is really unnatural), but generally live in the same crappy conditions and have very similar problems to non organic factory meat and poultry.  
  • Grass fed and pasture raised meat and poultry is the best way to go, but it is very expensive and difficult to come by.  Often it needs to be shipped and therefore has some environmental limitations.  But this is outweighed by the other environmental, humane, and gastronomic benefits it provides.  
To manage this, I only cook meat twice a week.  I try to only use grass fed, pasture raised, and organic products.  And I try not to purchase any of this at the supermarkets.  I have decided to try and track the products that I have tried, in an effort to keep my research straight. Here is my high level meat and poultry  matrix that documents what I have found.  

Do you have any additional information for me on this topic?  Comment below and let me know - I will be updating this post and the matrix on a regular basis.  

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sour Grapes

For those of you who follow NJ politics, our fair city of Hoboken has a new Mayor.  Dawn Zimmer will hold office for the next four years, and hopefully restore credibility to our local government.  I have great faith in her and her team, and for one am very excited and proud of Hoboken for electing such a smart, honest, and capable woman to the office.  It feels like we have cleaned out our cabinets, rid ourselves of the stale and pale, and started fresh.  Congratulations Mayor Zimmer and best of luck in everything you do.

That being said, a word about the losers who have run less than appetizing campaigns.  In particular, I would like to cite Beth Mason for the most consistently expensive, divisive, and bizarre campaign I have ever witnessed, TWICE.  As you my loyal readers know, this site is normally reserved for tales in and out of the kitchen.  Beth honey, this one's for you.

Recipe for Disaster

Ingredients
1 lb horse steaks, butterflied (technique where meat - otherwise too thick to cook properly - is sliced into dual, conjoined sections)

Directions
  1. Using a mallet or other blunt instrument, beat horse until tender.  Beat it some more.  Beat it one more time, attempting to sever the link between the two pieces. 
  2. Place meat on a broiler plate.  The meat will cook in its own fat. 
  3. Heat the broiler on high.  Cook for 4 months or until charred. 
  4. Plate on a silver platter. Serves less than 25%.


Monday, November 2, 2009

The Three C's

It seems like everyone out there is DIY - it's time we take on step back in the alphabet and CIY - Choose, Cut, and Chop It Yourself.  In the land of the kitchen, convenience reigns for many of us, myself very much included.  I will do anything to save time and to undermine the schizofrenia of trying to cook while preventing my kids from destroying the house/killing each other.  But lately, I have been reconsidering some of my more sloppy practices, and trading up for healthier living. 

Now I am not a big red meat eater - I generally save it for the big holidays, and then maybe every other week we have kind of ball/loaf/chopped meat kind of dinner that hangs on as leftovers and lunches for several days.  Meatballs and spaghetti is a classic example.  I have taken various shortcuts; sometimes I use jarred sauce, sometimes I buy angel hair pasta so it will cook faster.  Very rarely will I purchase chopped meat, because of all the e-coli scares (did you SEE this NYT article - a girl became paralyzed from eating a HAMBURGER).  When I have bought ground beef, I have purchased it at highly reputable places like Trader Joe's, telling myself that I can trust them.  And I do, but not so much so after today's news.  It turns out they are buying from massive factory farms like everyone else, and that their ground beef is sourced from the same place, and as risky as the merchandise on sale at Price Chopper.  Not a warm and fuzzy.

So that is it - I am writing my way toward healthier living, and sharing with you my resolve to do better.  I am going to fully and consistently implement the following CIY practices, all of which can be illustrated with minimal pain.  I have been doing this most of the time anyway, but from now on, no more shortcuts. If you come to my house for dinner, feel free to audit me on any of the below:
  1. Choose it yourself: I don't buy pre-chopped fruits vegetables anymore for the simple reason that I don't believe they are the brightest or the finest.  Rather, I am fairly certain that the stores and suppliers are chopping second rate produce and we cannot tell the difference because, well, it all gets mixed up together.  Buy a bag of onions, carrots, and celery each week.  Chop them up when you get home and use them as you need them. Another example:  Don't buy canned, chopped tomatoes - g-d only knows what is in there.  If you can't buy them fresh, at least buy them whole.  
  2. Cut it yourself: Don't buy parts.  If you want to eat chicken, buy a whole chicken and cut it yourself.  It takes a little practice, but honestly it is a) cheaper, b) the best way to ensure that you are getting the entire original bird and not some frankenstein mix of chicks, and c)  key to sleeping better at night knowing that the bird was less handled than its counterparts, and therefore a less likely to have been passed food bourne bacteria. 
  3. Chop it yourself:  Don't buy ground anything.  Just don't.  If you are a meat eater, try to buy grass fed, pasture raised meat and poultry, cut it into 1 inch squares, put it in the Cuisnart, and pulse 10 - 20 times, until them meat is loose but not pureed.  Chuck and sirloin works for ground beef.  I prefer dark meat for my ground turkey.  

Do you have any other suggestions for better living?  Leave a comment below and tell me all about it.  

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Chick peas a la Noonie

I have always had great affection for the chick pea, since I was a little girl. We would go to the Seville diner in East Brunswick, NJ where they had installed a new salad bar, which was a big deal in the 80's.  Anyway, the salad bar was enormous, filled with every possible fresh fruit, vegetable, and homemade combination possible.  I would walk up, circle three times, and then promptly fill my entire bowl with chick peas.  And then go back for seconds.  It made my mom crazy, but I just loved them so much.  

Imagine my surprise as an adult when I learned you could BUY them in the store and have them in your own home, whenever you wanted.  They became my favorite treat, a pick me up for rougher days when I was feeling down and chocolate just wouldn't do.  They are creamy, nutty, soft, and incredibly addictive.

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I developed a mild case of gestational diabetes. I had to test my blood 4 times a day, check in with the endocrinologist, eat more frequently, and make significant dietary changes.  While some were less than pleasant (Splenda) there were some nice surprises, particularly that beans apparently can act as a natural sugar regulator.  I gave it a try and would eat 1 cup of chick peas mid day (love those NYC salad bars), an hour after my morning snack and before my main lunch.  Lo and behold, steady and low sugar levels. 

Since then, chick peas are no longer a treat for me, they are a staple.  I eat them often, almost every day, and prepare them for my family at least once a week.  Below is my favorite chick pea recipe - it is a riff on the Indian dish Chana Masala.  I love double up and to serve it over chana dal, dried baby chick peas that you can find in most Indian grocery stores.  Give it a try, and enjoy. 

Ingredients 
1 large yellow onion 
5 plum tomatoes 
2 cans  chick peas/garbanzo beans 
2 tbsp canola oil (or as you like) 
2 tsp Garam Masala 
1 tbsp + 1 tsp tsp California garlic powder or 8 cloves fresh garlic 
2 tsp dried ginger or 1 tsp fresh, grated ginger (ginger is optional) 
1 can tomato sauce (15 oz)
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup water or milk 


Directions 
1) Chop onion. Chop and seed tomatoes. Rinse and drain chickpeas. 
2) Heat oil on Medium in a large saute pan. Add onions and garam masala. Saute for 5 - 7 minutes, until onions are soft. Add tomatoes, garlic, ginger and saute another 3 - 5 minutes. 
3) Add chickpeas, tomato sauce, sugar, and 1/2 cup of water or milk. Simmer for 20 minutes. 

Serve hot with any of the following:
  • Baby chick peas (Chana dal)
  • Trader Joe's Harvest Grains Blend
  • Basmati rice
  • Trader Joe's brown rice medley
  • Plain whole milk yogurt
  • Freshly chopped cilantro, mint, or parsley

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

French Onion Soup

The wind was blowing, leaves were falling, and all I could think was "Man, I have got to get me some french onion soup."  This time of year always makes me crave comfort, and for me french onion soup is comfort incarnate. I love the sweetness of the onions, the smooth melted cheese, and the delicious broth that warms me from head to toe instantly, even on the chilliest afternoons.  

It has always been a staple recipe in our house, but this year is different.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have just ended, and a new year is upon the Jewish community.  I was not raised kosher.  I never intended to live that way.  But as I have gotten older and wiser, I find myself wanting to adopt a more kosher lifestyle, and have been taking small steps to bring myself in line.  This year, one of my New Year resolutions is to take bigger steps.  I will buy kosher meat whenever I can find it.  Neither pork nor seafood can enter my oven. I will not cook milk with meat.  And I will do all of this consistently and with conscious diligence.  

But that onion soup beckoned....

My mouth watered at the thought of it as I walked home past the leaves just turning, the last rays of sun peeking through the late afternoon sky.  To my mind, french onion soup evens looks like autumn; the yellow of the onions, deep reddish brown of the broth.  Mmmm, so yummy, so cold outside, so...wake up dummy!!!  No milk with meat.  There had to be a way to reconcile my resolution with my appetite.  I thought about soy cheese, but am generally opposed to faking real ingredients.  I don't make Passover cookies with matzo meal cake flour; I'd rather have meringues.  What was an earnest girl to do? 

Coincidentally, I recently ordered a used copy of an out of print cookbook by one of my favorite authors, Rozanne Gold.  Every once in a while she still pops up in Bon Appetit, but seems largely (and sadly) out of the mainstream these days.  I have several of her other books, but wanted to treat myself for the new year and purchased Recipes 1-2-3. Her premise is simple; no more than 3 ingredients in any given recipe (exceptions: water, salt, pepper).  Not that her recipes are easy; rather they are adventures in the spare, yielding luscious results with what seems like very little.  

As I glanced through my book on that first cold day, I found the answer; Red Wine French Onion Soup. This ingenious technique replaces beef broth with a wine based, white pepper infused, buttery broth that is rich, delicious and completely dairy.  

Here's the original recipe.  I have modified it slightly, but kept to its spirit.  Enjoy, and please send me any tips you have as I move forward with my kosher efforts.  

Red Wine Onion Soup

2 lbs sweet onions
3 medium leeks
4 tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 tsp sugar
1 cup red wine (she recommends cabernet sauvignon, or other like full bodied wine)
6 cups of water
2 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp white pepper
6 oz Gruyere cheese, shredded
French bread, sliced into 1/2 inch rounds

  1. Peel and halve the onions.  Slice thinly, about 1/8 of an inch (this works best if you use a mandoline or the slicing disk attachment on your food processor).  
  2. Rinse leeks.  Select the white part and chop finely.  Discard greens. 
  3. Melt butter on medium heat using a large cast iron or stainless steel pot with a lid.  Add onions.  After 15 minutes, add the sugar and the leeks. Continue stirring for another 20 - 25 minutes.  Scrape brown pieces with a wooden spoon.  The onions are ready when they are a deep yellow/brown color.  
  4. Add wine and cook until most of the liquid is evaporated, about 10 minutes.  Continue stirring throughout. 
  5. Add water, salt, and pepper.  Bring to boil, cover, lower heat, and simmer for 20 minutes. 
  6. Remove 2 cups of soup and blend.  Return liquid to pot. OR, use your immersion blender directly in the pot - pulse 10 times.  Cook for 10 more minutes.  
  7. Turn on the broiler.  Place ceramic crocks on a foil lined, rimmed baking sheet.  Fill each ceramic crock with soup.  Add 2 - 3 croutons and 1 oz of cheese to each bowl. Broil on a top rack for 2 - 5 minutes, until the cheese is golden brown.  Serve.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mommy needs a drink

I have always been a teetotaller,  from my college nights through my big 4 consulting days.  That is until I had children.  

It started with my daughter's all nighters followed by the all day efforts to seem conscious at work.  I started to swipe small doses of my husband's coffee just to see what it was like, and honestly it was pretty friggin fantastic. I had more energy than the electric company, and that kind of high end coherence is addictive.  So much so that I ratcheted my intake up to 3 or 4 cups a day and began requesting Starbucks gift cards for all occasions.  

And then of course came the accompanying shakes, as well as the stress from trying to manage-while-conscious a husband, 2 children, a cat, mortgage payments, a career, and being a decent person most days.  My insomnia returned full force, and after several nights I was desperate.  Nothing worked, not even Benadryl.  Enter alcohol, which had a wonderful way of taking of the day's edge as well AND rendering me unconscious.  I'd have a drink, nurse the baby, and then we would both take a nap.   I could manage to my days and nights, my tired past and (hopefully) restful future. 

And so my caffeine and cocktails got me through two children, nursing, and being a working mom.  All was well until I lost my job last December.  Three weeks later, my son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.  Shortly afterwards I went on Zoloft.  You see, coffee and booze helped when I needed to manage my sleep because a baby was always crying and waking me up. It did not help when I woke up because I was crying; nope, that is what Zoloft is for, and thank goodness for it.  Taking the meds does not prohibit me from indulging in either, but it is not recommended, and honestly I was uncomfortable having too many competing influences in my bloodstream.  

Fast forward to today, and more than 10 months have past.  I am still unemployed; helping my son has become a full time job, one I am proud to do.  He is making much progress and getting lots of help from people I know and work with closely.  In addition to his incredible physical advances, my son is so much happier and more independent than he was last year.  He is one of those super charismatic kids that everyone can't help but notice, with a cheerful energy that just lights a room. It wasn't always like this; there was a time when he could not be put down for more than 5 minutes at a time without screaming bloody murder.  Today, if I put him down for 5 minutes he scoots straight for the stairs and determinedly climbs higher and higher chanting "Up, up!!".

In fact, it seems like my entire family is moving on up.  On the first day of school, I was there holding my daughter's hand. We eat a home cooked meal most nights, and the kids are eating every night by 5:30.  All the details of our previously running on empty lives seem more manageable.  We don't run out of diapers or wipes.  Packing lunches is less of a hassle.  There is a lot less dry cleaning.  

I don't know when I will go back to work; the market stinks and honestly I am much needed here at home.  My life has changed in ways I never anticipated, and my routines have changed with it. That said, I am rarely drinking coffee or alcohol but miss it every morning and evening, especially on the rougher days.  Every "Mommy I hate you" makes me gaze longingly at the wine, and each nap strike is just one step away from the Dunkin Donuts. I still have bouts of insomnia and irritability, and my life is far from perfect.

Despite this, I feel better than I have in a long, long time.  I am no longer jonesing between stimulants and depressants; I do not have to choose between conference calls and parent teacher conferences.  I set my own priorities, and while there is a financial price that comes with this, the overall rewards are exceptionally gratifying. For the first time, I am living my life in the present and I am celebrating the moments of my life.



Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sweet and sour

“Joowley.  Yur Grand Muthah cawled.  Cawl her back.”, read the note from my college roommate.  

I laughed while imagining her initial shock at hearing my Nana’s voice for the first time, all Brooklyn and all business. It was fall and I knew she was calling for my annual re-instruction on how to make her famous stuffed cabbage, and g-d help the poor soul who did not expedite the message to call back.  A powerful bleached blond beehive of a woman, my grandmother was part of the great Brooklyn-Florida exodus of the seventies. Most of our relationship was spent on the phone, and much of that was kitchen talk.  In my mind, I can still hear her lessons. 

“Make sure you use brown sugar”, and of course “I don’t like raisins in it. Feh.”  

Every year she would urgently remind me to be to be careful with the leaves. Always proprietary, she was annoyed but I think secretly proud when I updated her recipe and incorporated the 2nd Avenue Deli’s method for prepping them.  She would have been even prouder this year when I did the same with Julia Child's method.

My Nana was an exceptional cook and hostess.  But she was not an easy person.  She could be exceptionally warm and loving one moment, and then unbelievably cruel and cold the next. My memories of her are a confluence of this dichotomy, and I have spent many years reconciling them. Nana lived her life as she made her stuffed cabbage, sweet and sour. I miss her all the time, but never so much as when I catch a whiff of those holishkes every Rosh Hashanah.  Below is her recipe, which is strange for me to see on paper.  Prior to this post, I only had it in my memory and heart.  Enjoy every bite.

 

Stuffed cabbages

1 large head of green cabbage, cored (savoy cabbage as seen here is best - ask for it at the grocer)

1 ½ lb ground beef

2/3 cup of rice (you can use any white rice – I like medium grain)

2 eggs, beaten

1 tsp salt

½ tsp pepper

 

Sauce

30 oz (2 cans) tomato sauce

1 tbsp lemon zest (finely grated)

3/4 cup of lemon juice, freshly squeezed

1 1/2 cups light brown sugar

6 tbsp white or cider vinegar

1 1/2 cups finely chopped apples

1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion

1 1/2 cups of tomatoes, peeled and seeded

 

  1. Fill a large stockpot with 2/3 full with water and bring to boil.  
  2. For savoy cabbagePeel the cabbage leaves off one by one and put them aside.  When water is boiling, place 4 - 6 leaves at a time in the pot and blanch for 3 -4 minutes.  Remove and lay them on a tea towel to dry and cool.  Repeat until all leaves are cooked. Cut and discard the thick ends/spines.
  3. For all other cabbage types: Stick a long fork (one with a rosewood or like handle) into the cabbage and gently place in water. When leaves will become soft and start to fall off,  carefully remove them one at a time and place in a large, flat colander.  Return cabbage to water and repeat until they are all done. Place the colander in the sink and then pour the water from the pot over them.  Gently spray the leaves with cool water. Cut and discard the thick ends/spines.
  4. In a large bowl, combine chopped meat, rice, eggs, salt, and pepper. Finely chop remaining cabbage leaves and add to mix.  
  5. Lay a leaf out carefully and place a 1 inch oval ball of the meat mixture at the top. Roll top of leaf over meat, and about halfway through, tuck in both sides of the leaf.  Continue rolling until you have a small, tight package.  Do this for remaining leaves/meat mixture.  If you have any remaining meat mixture, make small meatballs and set aside. 
  6. Begin layering; I use a 7 quart Dutch oven which generally yields three layers. Add 10 oz tomato sauce, a pinch of lemon zest, ¼ cup lemon juice, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 2 tbsp vinegar, 1/2 cup apples, 1/2 cup onion, 1/2 cup of tomatoes, and 1/3 of the chopped cabbage or remaining meatballs.  Place stuffed cabbages on top of this but do not crowd them.  Repeat until you have three layers. 
  7. Add water until just filled to the top of the last layer.  Place on stovetop and bring to boil.  Lower heat, cover, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.  Correct sauce with salt and pepper as you please.
  8. Plate, and serve with egg noodles or boiled potatoes,

 

Note: Stuffed cabbage ages well and in my experience tastes better if it has a chance to sit longer, making it the perfect make-ahead meal.  If possible, leave it in the fridge for at least 24 hours before serving.  To reheat, warm in oven using shallow aluminum trays covered with foil.   

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rosh Hashanah with Julia

I love to host the holidays.  Nothing gives me more pleasure than planning, marketing, preparing, and entertaining for these special times, and I have established a tradition of going a little over the top for the occasion. 

I also loved the books Julie and Julia as well as My Life in France.  Both inspired me to swipe my mom's old copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and happily start practicing.  That was 2 or 3 years ago, and my appetite was rewet when I heard the film was coming out this summer.  It inspired me to begin planning Le Marais, or an all Julia Child tribute to Rosh Hashanah.  

In many ways the planning was consistent with other themes in my life.  For example, we live in a very small place, so much so that for every item we bring in, another needs to move out. It's a real house of cards and sometimes frustrates me to no end.  But there is a wonderful economy that comes from living like this.  We are bound by our limitations, and so when we go furniture shopping, we have to look high and low for something sized within reach.  I can't just purchase that cute little serving dish that caught my eye because there is no where to put it and I am not ready to sacrifice what I already have.  It seems that having fewer options leads to better choices, as well as less wasted time spent searching.  The entire Le Marais exercise echoed this bit of wisdom.

So now that you know I like to be challenged by boundaries, here were my self imposed rules:
  1. We don't keep kosher Per Se, but we do try to keep a Jewish home.  I do not mix milk with meat, nor do I cook seafood or pork in my home.  
  2. The main dish would be meat and needed to have apples listed in the ingredients. 
  3. There had to be enough food for at least 6 - 8 people, with room for an additional 2 if necessary.
  4. There had to be a kid friendly option on the table.
  5. At least one baked desert was required, because I am a masochist mental case.
  6. All food had to be based on Julia Child's recipes.
Now, all of those rules are daunting to even the most fearless cook, but by far the most challenging was number one.  JC is all about dairy.  To wit, I usually make challah bread once a week using a stand by recipe that has worked for years.  Like most challah recipes, it has only parve (not dairy, not meat) ingredients like eggs, oil, and flour.  Julia Child has a lovely challah recipe from in Baking with Julia, but it calls for unsalted butter, more unsalted butter, whole milk, and cream.  'Can't she just call it a brioche and a ^&$&% day', I muttered under my breath as I tried to reconcile with my rules.  I reread the recipe, and while I could not use it verbatim, I was able to glean from her Method and improve the challah, especially by double egg washing the loaves while baking.   And so I learned how to make a better bread, as well as manage the rules of the game.

After the bread planning, I decided to start by searching for a main dish recipe that met my requirements, knowing I would pair everything else accordingly.  Rule 1 eliminated more than 90% of the recipes in Mastering The Art of French Cooking (MtAoFC) volumes I and II.  Rule 2 left me with a single wonderful option from MtAoFC vol I (p 275), Caneton Roti a l'Alsacienne or Roast Duck with sausage and apple stuffing. I had made the master recipe before with great success, but the apple and sausage stuffing were just over the top.  I used a chicken and apple sausage that beautifully complimented the apples, sage, cognac, and port.  Two ducks took under two hours, made a wonderful main dish, and my house smell like heaven on earth. 

Once I had nailed down the main event, I tackled the next challenge...stuffed cabbage.  Now stuffed cabbage is a Rosh Hashanah tradition that goes back to my grand-mother Esther Steinberg-Levy, who handed me her recipe when I was in high school and went to her grave trying to help me get it right.  She made it sweet and sour with apples and lemons, and it is a family favorite.  Julia Child has an eight page recipe for Chou Farci in MtAoFC vol II (p 379), complete with sausage and ham for the stuffing and several methods.  The gist of the primary approach is to dismember an entire cabbage, reconstruct it in a pan with layers of stuffing, and present it 'whole' for family and friends.  Unfortunately, this requires the dish to be served as soon as it is cooked, eliminating the convenience of cooking the cabbage in advance.  I get crazy right an hour or two before the guests arrive; the last thing I needed is some last minute cabbage debacle to unhinge me completely.  Therefore I stuck to Nana's recipe, but used Julia's alternative method.  First of all, I am always getting a savoy cabbage from now on..what a difference. Never again will I boil a whole head of domestic cabbage and burn my first three layers of skin while peeling it.  Also, her wrapping technique which is beautifully illustrated, made for a much tighter roll.  Maybe next year I will try the mold. 

To satisfy rule four, there was apple and honey on the table, as well as her Risotto/Pilaf/Pilau recipe (MtAoFC vol I, p 532). Substituting oil for butter did not detract from the wonderful taste, and to boot I molded it into a rice ring per her suggestion.  To serve, I placed the stuffing from the duck on the center and garnished with parsley - fabulous, and my daughter ate it with gusto.  

Petites Oignons Aigre-Doux/Sweet and Sour Onions Braised with Raisins from MtAoFC vol II (p 410) paired beautifully with the duck and met my unspoken rule of making little pearl onions that my husband loves so much.  The flavor of the vegetable is enhanced by dry mustard, white wine vinegar, tomato, thyme, and bay leaf.  And I knocked out rule 5 with a gem from MtAoFC vol I (p 671), Gateau a l'Orange/Orange Sponge Cake.  A very simple dessert that has NO DAIRY whatsoever - no substitutions required.  I topped it with JC's apricot glaze, and then rounded it out with almond bits on the side.  I could have put it in a box and sold it at Carlo's Bakery for twenty bucks.  

It was a wonderful dinner, with great food and company.  Everyone, including me, was impressed with the fare.  At one point though, one of my guests remarked about how time consuming it was to cook JC's recipes, how complicated they were.  Hilda is my sister in law's grand-mother, a shrewd woman with a terrific sense of humor.  We love having her in the family, and she always brings something to the table.  When she heard about the menu she told us a story about her JC experience.  

"I remember it took all day to make those recipes." she told us in her thick Germanic accent, "When it was done, it was delicious.  And I thought 'Never again'! " 

This is one of the few times where Hilda and I will disagree; while it was time consuming, I cooked 5 recipes in a single day and everything came out wonderfully.  This is in part attributable to my wonderful husband, a quiet hero who who took charge of cleaning and watching the kids while I focussed on the food.  But help aside, I was able to do a lot in a limited period of time, and for that I thank the author. I love the simplicity of Julia Child, especially compared to her more contemporary peers.  There are no excessive ingredients or mysterious techniques; everything is laid out in a way so that the cook feels confident, like Julia is rooting for you.  I understand why Julie Powell was so taken by her, and how the entire world loved her so very much.  My guests should expect more events like this, and I suspect that they will happily come back for more. Next time I will wear my pearls.  






Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Shopping for the fishes

Funny for a town where so many sleep with the fishes, so few can successfully shop for them.

Hoboken, NJ is a place where you can order sushi delivery at 2 in the morning, but finding a fresh tuna steak is as rare as an uncorrupted Hudson county official.  All the fishmongers went out years ago.  Every once in a while I will walk past an oceanic themed building, begin to get excited, and then realize it is relic of days gone by, an empty storefront (or a nail place that never redecorated). We are across the river from one of the largest fresh fish markets in the world, but to the untrained eye seemed doomed to Mrs. Paul's. I don't think this dilemma is unique to my little town. Much of America resides inland, and away from large lakes, rivers, and other sources for fresh fish.  But I do think it is extraordinary that we are right on the Atlantic Ocean and cannot muster a storefront for her harvests.   

Subsequently, we have adjusted like most of the country and are therefore subject to the tricky business of frozen fresh fish. To clarify, unless it just came in from a local fishing boat, most "fresh" fish is frozen.  The best is frozen right on the fishing boats, and then defrosted only once it hits the stores.  After that quality often goes downhill based on how frequently it is defrosted and then refrozen. There are a few telltale signs such as how clear the eyes are, how shiny the scales seem, and the redness of the gills.  But most of us are not purchasing whole fish these days - it's a lot of work to de-bone and gut them, and honestly unless it is a holiday or the Mayor is coming for dinner (esp Mayor Dawn Zimmer), who wants to make the time? Most folks are buying fillets and steaks, and in this case only the nose knows. My rule is if it smells like the ocean, it's worthwhile.  If it smells like rotten fish, then it is.  Trust your instincts. 

Over the years I have found a few worthwhile options for fish in and around town, as well as some that should just be thrown back.  They include the following:

  • Sobseys (Hoboken): Old school charm with a small selection, great quality, and high prices.  It is not my first stop for fish, but I do pick some up occasionally when I am buying their terrific produce.  
  • Garden of Eden (Hoboken): GoE has a nice little counter in the back of the store.  The fish seems fresh frozen, and they have a nice selection.  Be prepared to pay a premium for these amenities. 
  • A&P (Hoboken): I have to give them credit for hosting one of the few manned fish counters in the city.  The people who work there are helpful and seem nice, which is why I get so frustrated with their products.  Everything I have bought there has seemed of a lower quality than my other haunts. I have had inconsistent luck with their salmon, but other than that cannot recommend them.  On a catty note, someone get some Glade from aisle 5 please. 
  • Whole Foods (Edgewater): A grand fish counter of yesteryear awaits you.  There are several staff members who are generally helpful, although they don't seem to do well with custom orders.  Good selection and fairly pricey, which is consistent with the rest of the store.  I like that you can find whole fish here, as well as many eco-friendly options not available at all stores.
  • Trader Joe's (Edgewater): TJ's does not have a manned counter but they do have a wonderful fresh frozen fish selection.  The fish comes right from the boat and is defrosted for the first time when you slap it on your counter.  I have had very good luck with everything I have bought, including wild salmon, tuna, and sole. Best of all is the price, which is significantly less than the competition.  I always have some of their fish in my freezer for week-night meals. 

Where do you buy your fish and why?  Comment below and tell me about it. 


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Preschool lunch box lowdown


Back to school is upon us and of course so is the lunch box frenzy.  Anxious parents are everywhere, searching for the perfect solutions.  Preschool in particular can be harrowing, as it is their first time eating away from you and it means ceding a little control.  I remember sobbing as I packed that first lunch, mindful of how much my baby was growing up.  I wanted it to be flawless, and labored accordingly. In the end, it is just lunch, and the most important thing is that kids learn to have it together.  

Getting them ready to eat at school is also a challenge.  You can have a rehearsal play date to help kids transition.  Reading about lunchtime at school is another effective strategy; my favorites are Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban and Morris Goes to School by B Wiseman.

Below are some tips that served me well for my first year of preschool lunch.  Be brave, good luck, and enjoy every moment.  Feel free to comment below and tell me all about your own experiences.

On the outside:
  • Avoid metal lunch boxes.  They are heavy, easily damaged, hard to clean, and readily re-purposed as weapons. Personally, I prefer the cloth ones with an insulated lining, which you can wipe with a damp cloth. The bento boxes are cute but come with lots of pieces that are easily lost. Brown bags get smashed and easily confused - a big deal if you have kids with allergies or other food concerns. 
  • Get a back-up or two.  We went through four lunch boxes last year, all of which mysteriously disappeared on the way home.  Trying to buy a lunch box in April is like trying to get pregnant in your sixties - it's a little late and probably not such a good idea.  Although if you do find yourself in this pickle, Amazon.com did have some slim pickings available. 
  • Given the above, do not spend more than $15 on a lunch box.  $12 if you can manage it.  
Rules and regs 
  • Assuming the school has a microwave, try not pack to anything metallic that needs to be reheated.  Glass is great but make sure it is shatterproof.  Plastic is fine if you can live with the risks. 
  • Try to avoid peanuts, sesame products, and anything on the allergy alert list.  Kids swap lunches and then some; it is a nice courtesy to the other parents and school. 
  • Anything messy will end up all over the kids and their teachers.  Avoid the unnecessary drama.
  • Do not pack candy.  The kids get crazy and their teachers will be annoyed. Give them a small treat like a handful of graham crackers or one cookie.  Anything else is over the top.
On the inside
  • I love little thermoses (thermi?). Not only can you save money and mother earth by packing them water instead of a juice box, but in the winter you can also pack some warm soup.  
  • Keep healthy side staples on hand, like cheese, crackers, Cheerios, and yogurt.  Rotate them, and toss in one or two in every day.
  • Always pack a fresh fruit or vegetable.  My best luck has been with celery, carrots, apples, strawberries, melon, and grapes. Clementines are a big hit when they are available - they love to peel and eat.
  • My best success entrees include basic grilled cheese, hard boiled eggs, pasta wheels with cheese, rice with vegetables, tomato soup, and pizza.  
  • Try to make it fun.  Make eyeballs out of egg slices.  Put fruit on a stick (with dull edges) so they can pull it off piece by piece.  Throw in a small package of bubbles. 


Recipe: Basic grilled cheese sandwich
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
2 slices of bread
1 oz of cheese (any)
  1. Brush both sides of bread with butter.  
  2. Place cheese in the middle of the slices.  
  3. Add sandwich to a frying pan and heat on medium for 2 minutes.  
  4. Flip, and heat again for another 2 minutes.  
  5. Cool sandwich.  
  6. Slice and wrap in wax paper.  
Tip:  Make it fun by cutting it into fun shapes with cookie cutters.  Place the cookie cutter in the middle and press down.  Slice the outer edges into equal pieces.  

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Despite the blight: Adventures in heirloom tomatoes


"My kingdom for a good tomato", I muttered a few months back.  Summer had arrived but alas my beloved nightshades were just beginning to flower.  I was sick of the cardboard substitutes imported from g-d knows where, and hungered for a ripe, juicy gorgeous tomato to call my own.  July was particularly unsettling, when reports of the record blight seemed to doom this year's crop.  A non-event for the general population, the news sent me straight to the medicine cabinet for some Valium.  Honestly.  

Despite the blight, I have found some wonderful tasting tomatoes this year.  Albeit pricey, as witnessed while on vacation where at one farm stand they weighed my single, impressive find to the tune of $7.50.  Even I have my limits, although I do think about the one that got away from time to time and wonder what if.  

Today however, all the elements aligned and I found fresh, succulent, and well priced tomatoes at the 10th annual Hoboken Heirloom Tomato Festival.  Vendor Catalpa Farms delivered a wide range of goodies, including purple peppers, red oak lettuce, farm fresh eggs, and of course, tomatoes.  I counted more than 20 varieties on hand, and sampled as many.  Favorites included Yellow Brandywine, Striped German, and Prudens Purple.  I also liked the tomatillos and heirloom cherry mix.  More than anything, I enjoyed being in the company of my fellow tomato-philes, none of whom blinked an eye when I packed up 7 1/2 pounds to take home.  At $3.99/pound, it seemed like a bargain.

I arrived home with my loot, which my husband eyed suspiciously.  I heard him muttering something to himself about the fridge real estate and rotten tomatoes, but no matter.  All would be right come dinner time.  In addition to the produce, I brought home a terrific tomato and garlic dip which I enjoyed with crackers.  Once sated, I kept thinking about how I would make it, and proceeded to experiment for a good part of the afternoon until I came up with the below recipe.  I used the Prudens Purple variety because they are sweet with a nice texture that works well against the cheese, but I am sure Roma's would work too.  Now for the other 6 1/2 pounds....

Smoky tomato garlic dip

1 lb of tomatoes (2 or 3 medium size tomatoes), seeded, cored, and rough chopped
6 cloves of garlic
2 tomatillos, rough chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
8 oz cream cheese
2 oz goat cheese
1/4 - 1/2 tsp of chipotle pepper (Do this to your own taste.  Note: you need to let the flavor bloom for at least 10 minutes before you really can gage the level of spiciness.)
salt and fresh pepper to taste
1 tbsp finely chopped herbs (I like parsley or cilantro)

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees (roast setting).  Combine tomatoes, garlic, tomatillos, and olive oil on a foil lined pan.  Roast for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.
  2. Add ingredients from step one to a food processor and pulse 10 times.
  3. Add goat cheese and cream cheese, and process until smooth. 
  4. Add chipotle pepper, salt, and freshly cracked pepper. Pulse twice.  
  5. Top with fresh herbs and serve.






Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lost and found


My mom,daughter and I wandered around like the mother and child reunion, on a relentless quest for farm fresh eggs.  Perhaps this sort of fecund adventure should have aligned our bio-rhythms or at least our stars, but it was not meant to be.  

I consider myself to be geographically dyslexic; if I need to go right, I go left, if North I go South.  Even with the GPS gently reminding me, I invariably get lost (and tell it shut the f*!! up). So when I have no real directions as was the case today, it can be a little harrowing for me and my passengers.  The farm is located on a major road but no number was given.  We finally stopped for directions and after a few confused tries, the woman at the pharmacy broke out into a smile, "Oh, you mean the place behind the lumber yard...", of course I did! which is where we went.  There were no chickens among the 2 x 4's, and just when feeling doomed to be lost and eggless, we spotted the discrete sign near an impossibly small path.  

We wound out way down, passing a lake with ducks and then cows grazing on sweet pastures, finally stopping in front of a large chicken coup. 30 - 40 red hens were cheerfully clucking hello from inside, while a few rebels wandered around the farm giving me sudden and clear understanding of the term free range.  Our moods were lifted, and we began to poke around.  My daughter hopped out to chatter with the animals, as my mother and I looked for the farm stand.  Again, there was a sign with prices, but no people or produce or eggs.  Lost again, I wondered if the hens would accept a check.  

Up the road was a house with several large sheds surrounding it, one with what looked like the wooden frame of a boat in progress.  Debby Farber, co-owner of the farm approached me curiously and explained that the stand is self serve.  Eggs are in the first fridge, meat is in the adjacent freezer, just tomatoes and beans today, put the money in the box and write down what you took in the log under the calendar.  We wandered back, grabbed a dozen brown eggs, put $4 in the box, and set out for home while explaining to my daughter that the hens needed to nap.  

The kitchen is one place where I do not feel lost, but fresh eggs are new to me.  I had always heard about what a pleasure they are, how different from store bought, but never cooked with them. The three of us wandered in the kitchen and set out to make omelets.  I used Julia Child's recipe (http://www.savory.tv/2009/07/29/julia-child-omelette/) in honor of the Julie & Julia film.  It was one of the first recipes I tried after reading Julie Powell's book, upon which I swiped my mother's MtAoFC and began cooking in earnest.  I have made this recipe a dozen times and while my flipping skills can use some attention, the final product is generally quite good.  

As I readied the eggs, I immediately noticed a difference in the shells; they were denser and broke cleanly, with a more satisfyingly loud crack.  The yolks were a deeper yellow than I am used to, and blended together with the whites beautifully (this despite the fact that I did not add water per the recipe). As for the omelets, well JC never had it so good. The eggs were more fluffy and rich.  The entire thing was easier to handle and flip.  And there was a faintly sweet odor that made each bite a little more savory.  

My mom and I sat down together to enjoy our lunch.  We agreed that omelets sure beat boxed cereal as a last resort dinner. We compared notes on the food and mused over why people don't cook these at home anymore. Was it the lingering effects of the 90's cholesterol scare, laziness, or ignorance?  My mom taught me and my brother to cook; what happened to everyone else in my generation? I read a lot about the farm we visited today; where were all the other foodies?  Michael Pollan seems to think cooking has become a spectator sport. Julie Powell recently asked her fans to blog their favorite MtAoFC recipe; the majority commented that they loved her work but never attempted to cook anything JC.  It seems like something larger has been lost, the art of the home cooked meal in America.

Unable to solve the conundrum, we eased back into small talk.  It had been a while since we had eaten eggs together, and the aromas coupled with the company brought me back to my childhood, to her kitchen where I happily played and learned.  I spied my daughter giddily watching, eager to revisit tales of the coo-coo chickens while my past and future seemed to keep time with each other.  We are staying at a vacation rental, but at that moment I truly felt at home. 


Note: Blackwater Farms is located at Lambert's Cove Road, behind Cottle's Lumberyard, West Tisbury, MA.  If you are visiting Martha's Vineyard, I recommend giving it a try.  Worth the trip.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Milking It for What It's Worth

I felt like a science fiction porn star.  Two funnels were attached to my breasts, trailed by yards of tubing that led to the MACHINE, also known as a breast pump.  The MACHINE ceaselessly and loudly and efficiently pumped my milk into 2 small bottles which I clasped tightly, yielding about 6 ounces after 20 minutes. Now, to the uninitiated, that might not sound like much but you try strapping this thing on four times day (twice at work in a conference room without a lock), literally sucking the life out of you as you try to preoccupy yourself with anything that does not require your hands.  It is easier to give yourself a bikini wax.  

Let's face it, breast pumping sucks.  It was worse a generation ago, it will be better a generation from now, but for the time being it sucks.  I remember my brother coming over for lunch to see the MACHINE (we had viewings) and staring at my hospital grade rental.  "It's a piston", he stammered, then unable to eat the meal I had lovingly prepared.  And so it was, a crappy bot designed to help me feed my children.  I also nursed whenever possible, supplemented with formula, and tried to get them on solids as fast as I could.  And I would do it again, because for me this was the right combination, the right amount of effort.  But had you asked me about my feeding plans a week before my first delivery, that would have been a different story.

I was a text book, 1970's, bottle fed, formula loving baby.  My mom took care of me and my brother that way, and I did not see any reason to do differently.  My feelings were exponentially confirmed whenever I came in touch with any of the Lactation Specialists/Nipple Nazi's that chanted breast is best and were one haircut shy of the Krishna's.  Their obsessive message of intolerance for any other method fed my determination not to nurse.  And then there was the delivery.  

The first two days in the hospital were as planned, my daughter happily bottle/formula fed.  All was on track until my last mommy class.  The Nazi went through the usual speech, and then listed all things breast feeding could help achieve (Harvard admissions) as well as prevent.  I felt myself tuning out until she said Crohn's.  Crohn's is in our family, and is painful to consider; I would have done anything to prevent it.  I went back to my room and called for a consult. An hour later later there was colostrum (Inverted nipples, wouldn't you know).  Two hours later there was the MACHINE.  

I have always been short and busty.  But this was no ordinary time; when I went to get measured for a nursing bra I clocked in at 36K.  Even my OBGYN was impressed.  The store had to order me extra large funnels for the MACHINE, and even they seemed inadequate. Hauling these things around for 8 months was no easy task; I felt like a circus freak waiting for the bearded lady to join me at any moment.  You would think that mammoth as I was, the milk would have flowed, but no it came at the same pace as my A cup friends.  In fact, it probably caused the pumping sessions to go long, thanks to the extra plumbing.

The MACHINE came to rule our lives. One morning it broke, prompting me to scream for help.  My poor husband was woken from a  sound sleep and came frantically running to see what was wrong.  "Are you sure it's broke?" he asked. "Am I sure?  Am I sure?!!  Listen to it, can't you hear that the rhythm is off, it's all I can hear night and day is this MACHINE.", I ranted, panicking at the thought of the MACHINE being down while my husband's wooden ears enraged me further.  Looking back, it was so wholly integrated into our routine that even though I despised it I could not imagine life without it.  

My children are now 4 and 18 months, and my pumping and nursing days are behind me.  Despite the time gone by, and all of the history as written above, I still long for the days when I held my children while nursing them.  I am not nostalgic for the MACHINE but do miss the satisfaction of being able to provide so completely for them.  It is really the most intimate form of local farming.  I think it has also affected me in the kitchen today, where I beat myself up every time we serve hot dogs and feel best when I am feeding them something right from the garden.  I am compelled to constantly chop and cook, shop locally and require fresh fruit and vegetables with each meal and snack.  My husband drew the line when I expressed interest in a make your own yogurt machine, but that's OK because I am pretty sure I can fake it with some whole milk and a dixie cup.

Did you nurse, pump, or bottle feed?  How has it affected your later cooking experiences?  Comment below and tell me about it.  

Faking It

Whenever my Mom comes over she is always accompanied by a large bag from TJ Max or Marshalls, full of things for the kids.  She does a lot of shopping, and every once in a while I will throw in an actual request.  So it came to pass that camp was starting and my daughter needed water proof shoes.  My mom picked her up a pair of the real deal, the kind used by channel swimmers, meant to stay on in the ocean and and more than adequate for the light sprinklers and water tables available at camp.  My daughter wore them for about a week, and then started lobbying for Crocs.  I finally gave in for her birthday, and for the last week of camp she had her dream shoes.  

Now we are on vacation and the ocean beckons.  A pair of water shoes would be just the thing, and of course I left them at home, my daughter forced to crunch around the flotsam and jetsam, her Crocs useless. And so I ask why is it that no matter how well prepared I am, no matter how much I plan, I am always without the one thing I think I need?  

So it goes in the kitchen, where I have learned to adapt more readily than the other rooms in and out of the house.    Yesterday was raining, and we ran from place to place, stand to stand, trying to keep the kids entertained.  I came home with some strawberries, baby squash, and flowers.  I sliced the berries for the kids, placed the flowers in a plastic pitcher, and faked the below side dish.  Now if I could just learn to do this outside the kitchen...

When have you faked it and why? Please comment below.  

I Faked It Baby Squash

2 tbsp olive or canola oil
1 lb of baby squash, sliced thin (about 1/4 inch.  Zucchini would probably also work here)
salt and pepper to taste
1 lime, sliced in half
2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
2 tbsp chopped fresh dill

_________________________________________________________________

Heat oil on medium in saute pan.  
Add baby squash, and saute for 5 - 7 minutes, until just soft. 
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Squeeze 2 lime halves over the zucchini and stir juice into squash.  Cook an additional minute.  
Add rice wine vinegar and stir. Cook an additional minute.
Plate squash.  Sprinkle dill on top and serve immediately.  

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sweet

She snuck through the door with the stealth of a cat burglar, quietly entering the room and approaching the bed.  I hear her little girl footsteps and lie there quietly, hoping to catch her the act, of what I have no idea.  I hear her breathing excitedly, clearly she has a plan.  She comes to the edge of the bed, takes a deep giggly breath, and climbs up.  Suddenly I feel her hands playing with my hair and stroking my forehead.  "Sleepy mommy" she whispers.  This goes on for a few amazingly sweet minutes, as I lie there completely happy but still wondering about her plan when it occurs to me that this is the plan.  This is it, lying next to her mother and being close to her, that is all it takes to make this wonderful child happy. She gives me one last pet and then tumbles back into her room. 

A few minutes later I find her there, under a sheet, watching a movie.  She thinks I am her father. "Go away Dad" she chuckles, burrowing under the bedding.  I tickle her foot and she laughs but resists.  "Go away Daddy. No bike ride", she says, anticipating what comes next.  I grab her tummy and let her have it.  She is now breathless with laughter, and lifts of the sheet, surprised to see it is me with the long fingers.  We pad back into my room and I give her choice. "Bike ride with daddy or grocery shopping with me." The negotiations begin.  "I want to take my bike", she begins, knowing well that my husband is planning to take them in a cart that attaches to his bicycle.  She just learned to ride 2 days ago and is ready for the big leagues.  

"Sorry, maybe the next ride." 

"OK, Mommy, ok.  If I go to the supermarket you can get me an ice cream cone, ok? Alright".  I smile at her tactics, "I'll think about it, but you need to get dressed."  

"I want to wear my butterfly shirt." Long pause.  "Bike ride" 

We get dressed and come downstairs, where her brother greets me with a big smile and scoots into my arms.  The kitchen smells, well, used.  My husband smiles, "I made pancakes", he says to my disbelieving face.  "I'm an Eagle Scout you know", he gently teases as he takes the baby from my arms.  They are all off together on the bike, bound for adventures that are for their eyes only.  This is their time together.  

I stay behind and have a pancake.  They are actually pretty good, blueberry.  And then I look in the sink and see the used plastic bowl instead of the one good metal mixing bowl this vacation has to offer, which gleams on the counter untouched. The crappy plastic spatula lies in the sink, covered with batter while my top notch metal one sneers at it from the side.  The tiny appetizer plate is crammed with pancakes while the platters lie untouched a few cabinets below.  We don't always do things the same way, my husband and I.  We are different creatures, in all things.  He is a good, kind man that centers me and our family to this life, and despite that I am forever criticizing.  Today the kitchen is a reminder of my limitations, a place that is usually stage for my strengths.  But on this day I put my lesser instincts aside and am grateful for the whole package, and my entire life seems...delicious. 

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Don't Leave Home Without It

The boat sails, the wind blows, and we are bound for the island.  This year we are vacationing at Martha's Vineyard, the prettiest, most charming place on the planet.  I love the flowers that spill from every corner, lagoons that drift between the bays, and smell of the briny ocean.  So of course, the first place I head to once on island is...the kitchen.  Yes, the kitchen.  

Lady did you forget your meds you say?  No, it's just that I love to cook, especially when away, and what makes my vacation rental a home is the kitchen.  It's where everyone gathers at the end of a long, sun filled day.  It's where the kids play and draw on rainy afternoons.  It's where I bring my loot from the local farm stands and antique stores.  And it is where I cook and dream all the time.  I really enjoy learning my way around someone else's kitchen.  There is something deliciously vicarious about searching for pots and pans, firing up an unfamiliar stove or grill, and serving on foreign plates.  The smell of coffee brewing on someone else' pot.  The hunt for sugar, flour, and other basics.  Hidden treasures left behind waiting to be discovered, like real maple syrup, fine teas, unexpected spices, or a bottle of top notch hot sauce.  

And yet...there is always something missing.  It is unusual to find high quality kitchen items at a rental house; the owner's probably figure it is best to leave things out that may get broken or stolen.  So you tend to get a lot of low rent dutch ovens with missing tops, 3 of the original 8 scratched plastic cooking utensils, and mismatched tin cutlery.  And that is OK, because it is a vacation and only for an all to short while.  But there are a few things that I cannot cook without, and must come with me wherever I roam.  Here's what I bring assuming I remember and can fit it in the car:

  • Cutting board: With 2 young children, I spend a lot of time peeling and cutting things into teeny tiny pieces. That in addition to regular cooking requires a good board, preferably wood.  The vacation house variety tends to be odd shaped and plastic, although this year we got lucky with a well sized maple slab.  Doubly lucky since I forgot my board on the counter at home.
  • Knives: One for chopping, one for paring.  If not, at last bring a small knife sharpener, as the ginsus you find in the drawer are going to be duller than a tax seminar.  
  • Whisk: Nothing fancy, just a small whisk is all I need. My wrist gets tired from trying to fake it with the cheap forks.  
  • Handheld blender: I love my little Braun Multiquick.  It comes with an immersion blade, whip, and chopping attachments, all for less than $40.  Covers as a blender, food processor, and mixer.  Although I must say that if the house has any of these appliances I will try them; it is a blast from the past breaking out a LaMachine.
  • Grater: Again, keep it simple.  Something thing and small that can grate cheese or zest a lemon.  Trying to finagle one of those industrial four-sided graters in the car is a recipe for an angry husband and ripped luggage.
  • Tongs: Planning to make corn?  Enough said. 
  • Cookbook: I like to bring one or buy one when away.  This year I took the Black Dog cookbook, which is nice and local, and has great summer recipes.  
  • Spatula: I bring my large metal one with the thin but hard edge.  Learned to do so the year I made pancakes while away, and could not flip them with the mother f*^$*(ing thing they called a spatula.  Had to supplement with a knife.  Never again. 
  • Spices: You can usually count on iodized salt and some pepper.  After that, it is hit or miss.  I bring garlic powder, paprika, chipotle chili pepper, cayenne pepper, kosher salt, ginger, and cinnamon.
  • Oven mitts: How many times have I burned myself with the less than substantial gloves available at a rental? Enough to know better.  Bring your own or if you forget, use it as an excuse to pick up some cute new ones at the local home goods shops. You were going anyway, right?

What do you bring and why?  Comment below, and thank you for your feedback.  

Friday, August 7, 2009

To Market, to Market

Once upon a time in Hoboken you had two supermarket choices; the A&P on Clinton or the other A&P on Clinton (which is now CVS). Thankfully, those days gone and we have a wide variety of grocery stores to choose from. Wide to the point of unwieldy. In an effort to better understand the lay of the land, I have decided to put together a very biased, personal review of some of our local markets, their pros and cons, and what makes them stand out. As I begin this adventure, I'd like to ask for your feedback. Where do you do your local shopping and why? Comment below and join me on this adventure.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Iron Chef Hostess

Highly competitive cooking shows are for amateurs.  Don't get me wrong, I love to watch them.  The frantic chopping, amazing equipment, ongoing pressure, and endless pantry are a site to behold and I love every minute.  But come on guys, if you really want a food challenge, try preparing a holiday meal for your family and friends with young children at your heels.  You think coming up with 3 recipes in an hour is tough?  Try braising while nursing.  Searing while soothing.  Cooking while supervising.

I watch the Iron Chefs and laugh.  Need a last minute chopped onion?  Right away sir say the sous chefs who hurry to dice or mince a shallot, leek, or other variety on hand.  In my house, I have to find the damn onion, clean the board, cut it up, and throw it in hoping it's not too late, all to the melody of "Mom!!!", "Mommy!!!", "He took my toy!!!", or just plain screaming from the baby. If attention is not paid, band-aid emergencies pile up.  The floor gets covered with toys, and not the big ones - oh no, the little things that cause me to slip, trip, and fall.  Thomas trains.  Blocks. Small hairclips.  Try cooking in a loud obstacle course.  Where at the end of the show, it's not Jeffrey Steingarten doing the judging; it's your mother-in law - so it better be good.  

Beyond all that, you're not just making dinner, you're making memories which will outlast the big event.  The smell of my Nana's stuffed cabbage does not just make my mouth water; it makes me long to see her, to ask if I put in enough brown sugar, to show her how I am doing.  My Mother's mushroom barley brings back memories of our kitchen with my Grand-Mother, who loved to eat the cooked onions and mushrooms and taught me to enjoy the whole as well as the parts.  The warmth of a happy kitchen are some of my best childhood memories.  I'd like to pass that on to my children.  

Not to brag, but one year I piped, baked, and filled a full meringue tart with one hand while carrying my 3 month old son with the left. It was fabulous, and I felt like a combination of next Food Network Star and Supernanny.  Here are a few tips and tricks that have worked for me.

Play with your food.  I try to buy extra fruits and vegetables to keep the kids distracted.  What you say?  Yes, even if they won't eat them, they will play with them, especially if they see them in mass quantity.  When my daughter was two, I made lemons into currency and would bargain.  "If you eat your Cheerios, you can have two lemons" Worked like a charm. 

Get crafty. Another technique is to make art projects.  For Rosh Hashanah we go apple picking and come home with bushels of apples.  I cut them in half and let the kids use them as stamps.  Get a big piece of posterboard, some paint, and let them have at it.  Accept the mess - it's worth it if you get 15 minutes to focus on what you're doing. You can even use the result as a decoration.

Enlist the troops. Kids like to help in the kitchen.  Give them age appropriate tasks.  Let babies play with old pots and pans.  Toddlers can help stir, put the dishes in the machine, put candles in the candle sticks, and find ingredients from the pantry.  They also may like to use their own kitchen toys - give them some whole foods to use as ingredients.  Older kids can actually help do some prep, measure, read from the cookbooks, and set the table.  And everyone loves to taste.  Solicit opinions whenever possible.  Let them lick the bowls to their heart's content.  

Think ahead. If you can, try to have holiday appropriate activities for kids on hand during the meal.  Get extras, and use them for emergency activities while in the kitchen.  Some ideas include tattoos (always a hit - get frog ones for Passover), coloring books, stickers, oragami for older kids, gardening projects, etc.  

The more the merrier.  It helps having other adults on hand in the kitchen.  Invite friends and family over.  If they have kids it turns into a big playdate.  You can share the responsibility for cooking and watching the kids, as well as the results.  This works especially well with things cooked best in quantity like brisket or gefilte fish.  

Mary Poppins got it right; "In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job's a game."  I call it the spoon full of sugar school of cooking.  Kids get excited when they see the drama in the home kitchen stadium.  Manage them well, and you will be rewarded.

Resources: 
http://www.jewishcrafts.com/
http://www.judaicaforkids.com/index.php
http://www.orientaltrading.com
http://www.oytoys.com/