Friday, August 27, 2010

10 Simple Pre-School Lunch Ideas

Pre-school lunch is a challenge. As I wrote last year, a lot of love and angst goes into packing a lunch, and in the end the most important thing is that the kids learn how to have a meal together. That being said, here are 10 simple, effective, and fun ideas to make pre-school lunch more enjoyable for all:

  1. Something dip-able. Kids love to dunk things, so pack a little cream cheese or yogurt in a container with an easily removable top, add some baby carrots, and you have a party.

  2. Pack a surprise toy. Nothing elaborate like an American Doll or Buzz Lightyear, but a few tattoos or a yo yo.

  3. Send weather appropriate meals. If it is cold and rainy, a small thermos of chicken soup is a big hit (especially with crackers...see point 1). Warm and balmy weather calls for lighter and cooler fare.

  4. Mix up the drinks. Send water most days, but every once in a while throw in some chocolate milk for kicks - they love being surprised.

  5. Cut fruits into small, manageable pieces - they are too small to do it themselves, and the teachers don't have the time to help.

  6. Cheese sticks are always a big hit. Alternatively, slice cheese into fun shapes using cookies cutters and place in a ziplock bag.

  7. Don't over do or overlook dessert. If you put in too much, they go nuts and the teacher will be calling you in to discuss their behavior/your choices. If you do too little, they feel sad watching their friends guzzle down treats. Here are some ideas: a single homemade cookie or brownie, chocolate dipped strawberries, or 1/3 of a muffin (try the muffin top only - that always goes well).

  8. Wrap it up. Place a choice morsel in a box and wrap it up in paper with a ribbon. Kids love presents.

  9. 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.

  10. Place photos in the lunch box, so when they eat they can see you and your family or even their favorite toys and or pets, and be comforted. You can purchase single photo sleeves to protect the pics,
What are your best pre-school lunch solutions? Comment below and tell me about it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

DIY: Corn Chowder

Rainy days make me yearn for soup. Even rainy summer days, when it is cold but humid, bring out this want in me.

We are on vacation in Beautiful Martha's Vineyard. The island is even beautiful through inclimate weather. Hollyhocks sway in the wind, waters are choppy with boats bobbing forcefully against the current, and the wind blows forcefully but sweetly all through the island. It has been raining for 2 days straight now, and we are all a little stir crazy. The house was feeling a little chilly and damp, and we all needed an excuse to get out so off to the farmer's market we went. I had recently purchased the Morning Glory Farm Cookbook, and decided on their roasted corn chowder, using their own farm fresh ingredients.

Now this soup is not part of my repertoire. I rarely cook bacon, and when I do it is turkey bacon. Moreover, I have a low threshold for excessive chopping and this recipe is replete with knife acrobatics - you need to chop leeks, celery, potatoes, onions, red peppers, corn, parsley, and thyme. Finally, I tend to stay away from cream based soups. So why this soup?

Being on vacation means a lot of things, most of all a change in venue. For me, that includes the kitchen. I love hunting around a rental kitchen, making do with old utensils and re-purposing pots and pans. And there is something inspiring about this that makes me want to cook outside my own boundaries, to shift the scenery of my own culinary life and try new things. And so corn chowder called to me as the perfect rainy day vacation solution.

As I said, there is a lot of chopping. My son wandered in and out of the kitchen while I as cooking, his eyes widening as he watched my knife flash over the cutting board again and again. He took a piece of pepper here, a little celery there, anxious to see what captured my attention. He also eyed the corn happily. Freshly roasted from the oven, it made a nice little snack while waiting for the big show.

The bacon sizzled while the rain drizzled outside, creating a nice cadence and wonderful aroma throughout the house. You need to season the pan with bacon drippings, which provides a nice smokey base to the soup. I then added the vegetables and sauteed them for a few minutes. From there, a simple roux followed by the remaining ingredients and voila, corn chowder. And lots of it - a big mess of a pot that will easily last through several meals.

This is restaurant quality fare, to be savored with a nice hunk of bread and a fire nearby if you can swing it. We all huddled over the soup, enjoying it's hearty warmth. Recipe is below, enjoy every bite.

Roasted Corn Chowder
Serves 8 - 10

6 ears of corn, kernels off the cob
1 tbsp olive oil
Pinch of sea alt
Fresh ground pepper
8 slices of high quality smoked bacon, finely diced
4 medium yukon gold potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, diced into 1/2 inch cubes
2 medium onions, medium diced
4 stalks of celery, trimmed and medium diced
2 medium leeks, white parts only, medium diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded, cored, and medium diced
4 tbsp unsalted butter
6 tbsp all purpose flour
1/2 cup dry sherry
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp thyme, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees
  2. Toss corn in olive oil, adding salt and pepper to taste. Lay in a sheet pan. Roast for 8 - 10 minutes. Set aside.
  3. In a heavy bottomed 5 - 7 quart pot, saute the bacon for 7 minutes. Drain, but leave a small amount in the pot for flavoring.
  4. Add the chopped vegetables and cook for 5 minutes, until tender. Add the butter. When melted, stir in the flour and cook for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add sherry and stir.
  5. Add the stock and bring to a slow boil for 15 minutes. Add the roasted corn, cream, herbs, salt and pepper. Reheat until hot bot not boiling. Serve.
For a vegetarian version, use vegetable stock, skip the bacon, and add 1 - 3 drops of liquid smoke.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sip: Thirsty Lemonade

Today, I got on a bike for the first time in 10 years.

I have nothing against biking, just nowhere to put a bike in my urban home. Coupled with a general apathy toward sport, it has fallen to the wayside over the years. Until today. We are on vacation in beautiful Martha's Vineyard, MA, and this year rented me a bike of my own.

My daughter just learned to ride. She has a green monster of a bike that she proudly pedals up and down the street lie a pro. Five years old and already she shows the promise of an athlete in all her endeavors; her gymnastics teacher named her 'muscles'. Anyway, she has been asking if I could ride a bike too, and a little voice in my head told me, "yes you can, yes you must".

I stood next to my wobbly grey bike, getting ready to get on, when my husband snuck up to wish me luck. "By the way, you know how to use the gears, right?" Gears? What are gears? I never learned to ride with gears. Panicked, I let him show me the way to use them, and coach me on hills, up and down. I was getting ready to make an excuse, fake a leg cramp, offer uxorious erotica, anything to get out of it, when my daughter sidled up to us and asked brightly, "Ready, Mommy?" Her expectant face was so full of excitement, and hope, and I could not say no.

The kids piled into a trailer attached to my husband's bike while I went out to practice. One leg, two legs, BRAKE. Over and over I did this until suddenly I just let go. I am not sure why or when this happened, I only know that it did, and when I released my legs I let go of my fears, letting them float away off the lagoon and back to the shores from whence they came. Biking felt good. I did a mile and change, my daughter yelling from the trailer, "You're doing it Mommy. You're doing it. Good job!" My son gave an appreciative wail of support. We had a great time, and when I came back I was feeling content and upbeat. And thirsty. Which is when I made my favorite lemonade.

This is a great drink for summer days and nights, when you are tired from the heat but still wish the day wouldn't end. It can be easily perked up with a few frozen strawberries or some ice cold vodka. Or both, whatever works for you. The secret is simple syrup, a combination of equal parts hot water with sugar. It forces the sugar to dissolve, and allows the sweetness to travel evenly throughout the pitcher.

I drank my lemonade for one, enjoying a few moments of solitude and a little personal pride. It is sweet but sour, cold yet warm from the citrus. The thin circles of lemon reminded me of my bicycle wheels, and it was the perfect way to celebrate my little triumph. Enjoy every sip.

Serves 4

4 cups of water, plus 1/2 cup
1/2 cup sugar
Juice from 3 lemons

  1. Pour 4 cups of water into a pitcher with ice. Set aside.
  2. Heat 1/2 cup of water to boil. Add and dissolve sugar. Stir mixture into pitcher.
  3. Add lemon juice to the pitcher. Serve.

Monday, August 9, 2010

DIY: Roasted tomatoes

Summer is a hot and sticky time, and on those particularly sweltering days, I have a hard and fast rule: nothing that cooks for more than 10 minutes. There are lots of great options, including a no cook meal like cold cuts or salad. But by far my favorite recipe is roasted tomatoes.

First of all, I like to construct my meals whenever possible. This meal makes me feel like I am at a cocktail hour at a wedding. You take a slice of bread, layer it with mozzarella and roasted tomato, and boom, before you know it the whole thing is gone. It brings the table together, because everyone has common space and purpose, building great community.

Next, it cooks in 10 minutes. 10 minutes is still doable on a hot day, although I admit I crank up the AC before starting. 10 minutes is a blink of an eye, just shy of microwave efficiencies. Finally, 1o minutes is just enough time to slice the bread and cheese, clear and set the table, and yell at my kids.

Moerover, some would argue that a nice raw tomato salad beats that any day, and I hear that. I love a caprese salad. But the roasted tomatoes pack this incredible, juicy, flavorful punch that cannot be beat. Plus there is this texture thing happening, one that creates a unique mouth-feel that brings you back for more. The tomatoes become shrunken, wrinkly like fancy olives, and the skin becomes an asset to the fruit.

Now of course you can dress this up. Simply, using some basil leaves or oregano, even mint works. You can up the ante with some smoked mozzarella or Gouda. And you can certainly bake your own baguette, but that would violate the 10 minute summer rule and I have no patience for that. Any way you serve it, stay cool and enjoy every bite.

Roasted Tomatoes

2 pints of cherry or grape tomatoes, washed and dried
olive oil to drizzle
salt and pepper
12 oz wet mozzarella cheese
1 baguette

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Scatter tomatoes on a broiler pan lined with foil. Drizzle with olive oil and mix until coated. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Roast for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.
  4. Serve with mozzarella and baguette slices.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sweet: The Birthday Cake Diaries

This week is my daughter's 5th birthday. In addition presents, favors, decorations, guests, and the rest of the birthday requests, there is of course the cake.

The birthday cake is the centerpiece of a kid's party. It sets the tone, be it through decor or taste, for the rest of the party. Kids notice it, even more so than adults, and talk about it for many days after. So failure is not an option.

I have gotten pretty good at birthday cakes; not as good as my friend Rachel, who actually built a working volcano on her last masterpiece, but I can bake a decent cake. This year, I am challenged by a request for Thomas the Tank Engine, chocolate cake with pudding in the middle. I have my game plan in place, and am going to document it night by night, as I step through the process.

Day 1: Make the frosting and pudding
So the first part of today has been spent delaying as much as possible. This is an excellent waste of time, and terrific way to make yourself crazy later on. Going downstairs to take the butter out of the fridge. There, that's much better.

Here is the recipe for the pudding, shamelessly stolen directly from Martha herself. I have made this before with pretty good results. Just a little time consuming, but well worth the result. All done and mmm...good. Velvety, chocolaty, and very smooth, this a pudding lover's dream come true. Don't let the thickening psyche you out - you can feel when it is ready. Trust your whisk. Out of saran wrap, damn. Parchment paper to the rescue. Think the frosting will have to wait until tomorrow, unless I get a second wind.

Oh yeah, I forgot about all the other birthday food in the fridge...must alert my super organized husband and get him on the job.

Day 2: Make the cakes
Took out all the dry ingredients, mixed and sifted, got ready for the wet and realized none of it is at room temperature. Damn, damn, damn, damn. This gives me a few minutes to blog and berate myself for being such an airhead. It is 9:45 pm the night before the party and even though I took the day off, I have waited until now to begin baking.

This year I am challenged with a Barefoot Contessa Chocolate with Butter Cream recipe that is most likely as delicious as the rest of her repertoire. I really love her best of all the Food Network stars; she seems like the kind of person you would want at your table. Relaxed, casual, elegant. I love when she goes outside to cut herbs or takes us to her local chicken farm. But most of all I love her recipes, which I find to be simple by design although rarely easy in execution. TBC is work, work that is supposed to seem effortless which is not how at all consistent with how I am performing at the moment.

Watching it bake. Its after 11. Not sure if I over-mixed -it seemed a little on the fluffy side for batter. Smells good though.

OK, they seem cooked through and pretty moist, but I really screwed up when I turned one of them out. Cake pieces everywhere - I had to reconstruct them like a surgeon. Not sure how it will hold up tomorrow, but they are cooled, wrapped, and ready to be decorated.

Day 3: Assemble and decorate
Well as usual, the frosting is being done the day of the event. Not a big deal, just frustrating. The frosting is also from TBC. This is a traditional butter cream, the kind with a meringue base. Luckily, I saved the 8 egg whites from the pudding (which required 8 egg yolks), making this a very efficient recipe. I whip the whites into a frenzy, good, good, all is going well.

fuuuck. I just added warm chocolate to cold butter and it is now a soupy mess. Ruined. I have my tantrum until my together husband suggests sticking it in the fridge, which actually works! Super husband saves the day.

Now putting it all together. This is not a duplo set where everything fits together. The lower piece is in at least 20 pieces, all of which I carefully assemble and stick together with chocolate pudding. There, it somewhat resembles a rectangle. Frosting will even it that out later. I slather on a mound of pudding and top it with the remaining layer. Whew.

Now the next step is critical. Known as the crumb coat, it is the first layer of frosting to go on the cake. It gives the cake some shape, but more importantly layers down the crumbs so they are not all over the final product. I grab my bench scrapper, load on a pile of frosting, and stick it in the fridge for an hour. I am starting to feel more calm, and start hunting for decorations. Hey, the paper piece of a party blower works, as does a spare plastic Thomas train bubble blower. This is going to come together, I can feel it.

OK, it's been an hour. Frosting layer number two goes on without a problem. Back in the fridge for another hour.

Time to decorate. Nothing over the top - just happy birthday with some glitter pen icing, a little fringe on the bottom, and add the other pieces, voila. A birthday cake for at least 40 people. Too bad we are only having 20. Oh well, the neighbors will have a good week on us.

Anyway, the cake was a big hit; moist and delicious. Frosting was fabulous, just the right texture with hints of mocha. My daughter really enjoyed it, as you can probably guess. And as you now know,
the entire process was fraught with mistakes, recoveries, and love, as it should be. Happy birthday my beautiful girl. We love you so.