Cooking For Baby

When G. and I were visiting my cousin in NY, I noticed a cookbook open on her counter.  As I flipped through it, I thought, “Gee, these all sound so yummy!  I need this cookbook!”  Indeed the dishes did sound good: Filet of Fish Mornay with Vegetables, Rosti Salmon Cakes, Zucchini Fritters….  I flipped it to the cover and saw that it was, in fact, a cookbook for children’s food.  I have one of those- Cooking For Baby– but it’s not nearly as inspiring.  This one, well, this one was different.  I asked my cousin to email me the title and then promptly forgot.  About a week after G. and I returned home, this showed up on my doorstep via Amazon:

You know, ’cause that’s how we roll in my family- why send the title when you can send a copy of the actual book?

So, my next few posts will be food from this book.  We’ll start with Cheesy Pasta Stars.  Now, even if you’re not cooking for a baby, stick with me- some of this food is really good, no matter what your age!

Cheesy Pasta Stars

Ingredients

1 cup carrots, peeled and sliced

1 cup boiling water

2 Tablespoons butter

1 cup tomatoes, skinned, deseeded, and chopped

1/3 cup grated cheddar cheese

2 Tablespoons soup pasta stars (stelline)

Directions

Peel and chop your carrots.  I used rounds and sliced mine pretty thin.  It took about three medium size carrots to make one cup.

Place the carrots in a pan with the cup of boiling water (if not cooking for adults, add a pinch of salt).  Cook until tender about 15-20 minutes.  This will depend on both how thinly you cut your carrots and what you consider tender.  It  only took about 10 minutes for me.

Peel, seed and chop your tomatoes.  I did not do this.  I used two tomatoes from our backyard (thanks to a good friend and her husband who are “borrowing” a corner of our yard to grow tomatoes- we get the benefits of extras), which I cored and then just chopped- I don’t mind seeds and skin.  I also threw in the rest of the small yellow cherry tomatoes I had leftover to make it to a cup.  I chopped them a bit as well. 

Melt the butter in a separate pan, add the tomatoes and saute until mushy.

Grate your cheese.  I am too lazy for grating so I just chopped mine pretty thin.

A pile of yummy cheese. Can you hear my daughter frantically saying, "ch-ees? ch-ees?" in the background?

Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese until melted. 

In the meantime, bring a pan of water to a boil and add the pasta.  Cook until tender, about 5 minutes, then drain.

Mix together the cooked carrots, along with the cooking liquid, with the cheese and tomato mixture.  It will look….funny.

Now, the recipe says to blend it to a puree.  I debated this.  I decided to do it, so that I could see what the intention was.  I’m glad I did because I ended up with a thick, yummy, fresh-tasting sauce that was tomato-y and sweet from the carrots.  If you wanted to, you could probably skip the puree step but I’m not sure you’d get the same effect.

Add the sauce to the drained pasta stars and serve.

Best when served on a dinosaur plate. FYI.

If you’re cooking for adults, I’d say use larger pasta, like ziti or rotini.  The stars got lost in my sauce.  Ironically, my husband and I both liked this but G, for whom it was made, turned her nose up at it, preferring instead her nectarine and plain old cheese.  Go figure.

Summer Winter Pasta

While teaching my class today we wandered a bit off track and wound up taking about food and the psychology behind it.  It’s something that interests me on so many levels.  Food is something that, for many people, connects them to their families, their cultures and their heritage.  Food can be a comfort, it can bring back memories of a loved one and it can help to soothe and organize us (don’t believe me?  If you’re feeling anxious about something, eat some raw carrots or chew gum.  The chewing helps to release chemicals that calm and organize your brain.).  Some foods can elevate our moods (chocolate is one) and some can help us change our moods (drinking warm milk to help induce feeling sleepy and calm.).  The psychology and physiology behind all of it is just fascinating.  I’m sure there are several dissertation and book topics in there.  You know, in my spare time.

For me, one memory that is intrinsically linked to food (and I have many) is Christmas Eve and Basil Pesto.  For a zillion years, I have spent Christmas Eve with my best friend from second grade and her large, loving, loud Italian family.  They serve the same dishes every year:  baked shrimp, shrimp cocktail, homemade fresh pasta, basil pesto and tomato sauce.  Sometimes there’s salad or a few other contenders and there are always several varieties of Italian cookies (including the ones with pine nuts, mmmm), cakes and other sweets.  The guest list shifts, expanding and contracting but the tables always reach out of the dining room and into the hallway.  The dinner goes on for hours and is accompanied by laughter and loud voices.  Lots of teasing- the people who attend are generally related to one another or have known each other so long that it feels like they’re related- and joking and by the end of the night, my mouth aches from my smile and my stomach is stretched to its limit.

It’s funny because most people I know associate pesto with summer.  Basil is in abundant supply in the summer and it goes well with so many “summer” meals- sandwiches, over fish, as a spread or dip and, of course, with pasta.  Until I started Christmas with my friend’s family, I wasn’t really aware that you could make pesto.  But make it you can, and pretty easily too.  Since my wonderful friend K. gave me my own personal herb garden for my birthday and included a great deal of basil in it, a few days ago I decided to make my very own Summer Winter Pasta.  It was delicious and after I ate, I called my friend to have a quick catch up.  It didn’t feel right to be eating pesto without her.

Summer Winter Pasta

1/2  box dried pasta (I’m too lazy to make my own) or fresh (which will cook much more quickly, so adjust for that)

2 cups slightly packed basil leaves (i.e. lots of basil)

2 cloves of garlic

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

2/3 cup olive oil

salt, pepper to taste

1/2 c. grated parmesan cheese

Directions:

Put a big pot of water on to boil.  Add salt.  Remember this is your only chance to season the pasta so put lots of salt in there.

Toast your pine nuts.  Be careful, as they will cross the line from toasted to burned very quickly.  You can toast them in a dry pan over medium heat or you can put them on a cookie sheet in the oven at about 350.  Again, watch them closely.  And lest you think I never make kitchen mistakes, here’s my first batch (which I did not watch closely):

One side too burned, the other side too raw.  So I chucked them and started over.

Once your pine nuts are nicely toasted, throw them into the food processor, along with the garlic and basil.  Whir it around until it’s all nicely minced.


Add some olive oil while the processor is going.  You  may not want the whole 2/3 of a cup.  I leave that to you.  It will make a bit of a paste.  Scrape down the sides and then add the cheese and whir again to combine.

I will admit two things about the cheese.  I grind it in the food processor rather than grating by hand.  I’m lazy like that.  I also tend to use more than the 1/2 cup.  What can I say?  I love cheese.  Scrape down the sides and whir one more time to ensure that it’s all combined. Taste and add salt and pepper to your liking.

My pesto tends to be on the thick side which I prefer.  I thin it out with some of the pasta water.  You do know about the magic of pasta water, don’t you?  Speaking of which, if your water is now boiling add your pasta.

Scrape the pesto into a bowl and set aside while your pasta cooks.

Once the pasta is cooked, drain (but reserve some of the water!) and return it to the pot.  Add as much pesto as you like and stir to coat the pasta.

The heat from the pasta and the pot will melt the cheese and warm up the pesto in the best way.  If it’s too thick, add some of the reserved pasta water to thin it out- I used about two tablespoons.

I serve mine with an extra sprinkle of cheese (again, I love cheese.  love it.)

As you eat, think of both warm, sunny, summer days and cold, frosty, family-filled winter nights.  Enjoy the contrast.  Consider yourself blessed to be able to have both.

Summer

It’s summer! This means pool, sun, warm and fireworks!

Here’s the babe last year:

and here she is this year:

For the record, I'm not wearing the same shirt. It's just the same color.

Best of all, summer means the farmer’s market!  I love our farmer’s market.

The bounty from our first farmer's market of the year.

What to do with all those lovely tomatoes?  Well, we simply ate the cherry ones- the yellow ones were as sweet as candy.  The rest I planned to use in a tomato basil tart.  But then I saw Martha Stewart on the Today show and her tarts were so much easier that I decided to try hers.  Back to the farmer’s market today so I’ll buy more tomatoes and make that tomato basil tart later this week.

Martha’s Easy Tomato Tart

Ingredients

Puff Pastry

tomatoes

Cheese (Parmesan, mozzarella, fontina- whatever you like)

salt, pepper

Basil for garnish

Olive oil for brushing over tomatoes before baking

Directions:

Let the puff pastry defrost on the counter or in the refrigerator.Once it’s defrosted (in that you can unfold it without it cracking), sprinkle it with a little bit of flour and roll it until it’s slightly thinner- I went for about 1/4 to 1/8 of an inch.  At this point, you can either use a big round to neatly make tarts or you can use a knife to make square ones.  You want them to be big enough to hold full tomato slices so base it on the size of your tomatoes.  Set them aside on a cookie sheet lined with parchment or silpat.  Slice your tomatoes.

Grate your cheese and spread a layer on the puff pastry squares/rounds.  Place a few tomato slices atop the cheese.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and then brush with olive oil. 

Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes or until the cheese is melty and the puff pastry is golden brown.    Garnish with fresh basil and serve warm.  Although, full disclosure, I also ate these at room temperature and they were still quite fine.  Sorry about the lack of photos on this post- I ended up making them while on the phone with L, a good friend I hadn’t spoken with in some time.  So I forgot to photo.  Sorrysorrysorry.

Kitchen Fail, South American Style

As I have mentioned before, my family is made up of both blood and “adopted” relatives.  The family story is that around eight years old, I took a look around and finally asked my mother, “How come all the other families are all the same color?”  She had a chat with me about multiculturalism and that was that.

One family member came along after my parents got divorced.  My mom took in an international student from Venezuela, L.  L. was supposed to stay with us for a month and then move on to….Oklahoma, I think.  L. was from Caracas and was a tall, beautiful, dark-skinned woman.  After a month, she sat down with my mother and said,”I don’t want to move to Oaklahoma!  I’ll be the only black person there!”  My mother and I, thankfully, didn’t want her to go either.

L. lived with us for several years.  She attended Umass Boston, graduated and started working.  At one point, she dated a guy from Nigeria and we had many, many jokes about being on Nigerian time since he was always, always late.  I’m sure, looking back, that because of the neighborhood we were living in at the time and because of my age (elementary school), people must have thought that L. was my nanny.  She really wasn’t- she’d babysit sometimes but it was more like having an aunt living in the house.  She and my mother became quite close and for many years we were a happy little family.

L. eventually went back to Venezuela and mom and I managed to visit one year, when I was 10.  L. comes from a large family and they embraced us with open arms.  It was a great two weeks- between Christmas and New Year’s.  I learned a bunch of new traditions, ate lots of different food and saw all different parts of Venezuela.  Not bad for a 5th grader! Mom cried when we left (which is generally what she does when vacations come to an end) and L. has come back to visit often.  She’s married now and has two children of her own.  She and the children came for my wedding a few years ago so I’m pretty sure it’s our turn to visit there.

When L. lived with us she’d make black bean soup and arepas.  I didn’t like the soup (mom did) but I loved the arepas.  A few weeks ago when I was trying to make pupusas (which didn’t work), I was reminded of L’s arepas.  Pupusas are sort of a stuffed corn pancake/dumpling/flatbread.  When I tried it my dough was too dry and I couldn’t fill it properly.  I tried again a few nights ago but with the arepas in mind.  I will share with you what I was able to do.  So, in honor of L, here’s my kitchen fail/fix, South American Style.

L’s Corn Arepas with Beans and Cheese

Ingredients

Arepas:

1  1/4 cups Masa

1- 2 tablespoons butter, chopped

1/8 cup white flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1  1/2- 2 cups warm water

A few tablespoons of canned corn kernels (rinsed)

1/2 teaspoon salt

For topping:

cheese, corn, refried or regular beans, salsa

Directions:

Mix all dry ingredients together and then add the pieces of butter.

Mix in the butter with your fingers- sort of knead it together.  Add in the corn kernels.

Divide the dough into six different sections.  Roll these into balls and place them on a foil lined baking sheet.

Flatten them with your hands and cover with plastic wrap so they won’t dry out.  Heat a griddle or frying pan and brush with oil (I used canola oil).  Not too much, just enough to help the arepas brown up and not stick.

Cook on each side for about 3-4 minutes, until they’re just golden brown.

With a greased knife (I rubbed some butter on mine), slice them in half horizontally.  The inside will be sticky.  Return them to the grill, sticky side down and let that side get brown.  Once they’re cooked, place them back on the foil lined sheet and keep them warm in the oven while you prepare the toppings.

I topped mine with the leftover corn, refried black beans (a guilty pleasure that the baby loves too) and my new most favorite kind of cheese, Cotija. 

Just be sure to slice the cheese somewhat thin so that it will melt a bit.  It’s sort of like feta but not quite as sharp.

Top your arepas with whatever you like.   Pop them under the broiler to let the cheese melt and to make sure it’s all warmed through.

We all really liked these even though they aren’t true arepas or pupusas.  And they reminded me of L., always a bonus. 

Kitchen Basics: White Sauce (aka Bechamel)

I realized this afternoon, as I was whipping up a quick cheese sauce for pasta that I make “white sauce” all the time.  It’s the basis for so many of the things I make that I feel like it’s something I should pass on to others.  Plus, I first learned to make it in Israel so that covers the “say more about Israel” clamor I’ve been getting.  (You know, from all four of my fans…love you guys!!)

When I lived in Israel I lived on a kibbutz.  It was a small kibbutz, about 70 families.  There were about 15-20 volunteers and factory workers at any given time.  We worked all over the kibbutz- landscaping, cleaning the dinning room, cooking in the kitchen, running machines in the factory.  We worked six days a week- really, more like five and a half since Fridays we were able to knock off a bit early.  The volunteers all lived in the same row of flats and the factory workers were a few rows away.*

Since it was a small kibbutz there wasn’t much to do on our days off. Sometimes we’d travel into Tel Aviv or down to Jerusalem for the night.  Often we’d stay on the kibbutz and drink at the pub- which was actually a converted bomb shelter- or walk over to the “bush pub” which was a bar a bit further away.  Saturday mornings were the best- we’d all sleep late and then gather in one of our small flats to make breakfast on our hot plates.  We’d take fresh vegetables from the kibbutz kitchen (this was how most of the kibbutzniks did their shopping- just wandered through the walk-in with plastic bags in hand.  It’s really no wonder they had to revamp their practices a few years after I left!) and eat them with fresh bread and cheese outside on the grass in front of our flats.

The kibbutz (or at least a tiny piece of it)

 

Sometimes we’d make dinners.  That was always a bit harder and we’d have to get creative.  Sometimes we’d take the Friday chicken from the dinning room and supplement it with vegetables.  One night, and I remember it clearly, despite all the Shabbat wine I’d had, one of the Australian volunteers made what she called “white sauce” with pasta.  It was delicious and I watched intently and then demanded that she tell me how she made it.  She described it to me and I memorized it.  It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized what I was making was technically a Bechamel Sauce.

Bechamel is, according to epicurious.com, a basic French white sauce which is the base of many other sauces and was named after its inventor, Louis XIV’s steward Louis de Bechamel. I have found this to be true and have used it in numerous applications over the years.  So, to me it is an invaluable Kitchen Basic.  Plus, it  always reminds me of S., the sassy Australian volunteer (who, in a strange twist of fate, met her now husband (who is from South Africa) on the kibbutz and they currently live a few towns away from me! So she had to come from Australia to Israel to meet her South African husband and then to move to the U.S. Funny how life works, huh?)

Bechamel Sauce aka White Sauce

Ingredients

3 Tablespoons butter

3 Tablespoons flour

1 cup milk

nutmeg (a true Bechamel uses a bit of nutmeg, I don’t always use it)

Additional items:  cheese, dry mustard, onions, garlic, other flavorings

Directions:

In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.  If using, add the onions and garlic, letting them soften but not crisp up or burn.

Sprinkle the flour around in the pan and use a whisk to combine it with the butter. 

Keep whisking until all the butter is absorbed and you have  kind of paste.
Let it cook over medium heat until it’s a nice golden color- about 1-2 minutes.  It will be sort of nutty smelling which is good.  (This mixture of flour and fat is technically a roux.  It can be used as a thickening agent for a number of dishes.)

Add a bit of the milk and whisk in order to make it smooth with no lumps. It will thicken up very quickly. Add the rest of the milk and whisk again.  Cook over medium heat for a few minutes but keep an eye on it and whisk it often since it will continue to thicken and you don’t want it to scorch on the bottom. 

Season it with salt, pepper and nutmeg.  A few sprinkles of all three- nothing too strong.  If you’re using it to make a cheese sauce, stir in the grated cheese a bit at a time (I have a visual in my mind of S. standing at her hot plate, patiently tearing pieces of cheese and dropping them into the sauce while she stirred it.).   In this case, I added cheddar cheese to make a cheese sauce.  Serve over pasta or meat or whatever you like.  The basic Bechamel sauce is what’s used as the topping to moussaka which is a dish I love but almost never make since it’s a time-consuming one.  Of course as I write this, I’m thinking it’s probably no more time-consuming than lasagna so maybe I’ll give it a shot one of these cold weekends.  Stay tuned!

*In scouring the web for links I came across a website made by a volunteer whose time on the kibbutz overlapped with mine. He’s made a bit of a website with photos and such so if you’re interested, click here.

Do Not Doubt Grandma

We are snowed in.  Again.  It’s amazing how much snow we have. What to do on a snow day?  Cook, of course.

I went back to the recipe box.  You know the one.  I browsed the pink cards, trying to decide what I felt like making.  Savory?  Sweet?  Meat?  Dessert?  Main Course?I decided on savory.  Grandma had a recipe for Cheddar Cheese Puffs, which she noted were “from Canada.”  What might this mean?  We have friends and relatives in Canada.  My grandparents certainly had traveled to Canada many times and eaten in many places.  There was no way to tell.  Well, no matter, I decided, I’ll make them anyway- they seem simple.

So, make them I did.  I don’t know about you, but I’m a taste-as-you-go kind of cook so when I got to the pre-baking step, I sampled the dough.

I was horrified.  It was awful.  Gross, icky, sharp and not at all tasty.  What had Grandma done?  How could this be in her recipe box?  Had I messed it up?  I re-read the recipe.  Nope, I had followed the directions.  Of course, I had used a different set of cheeses but that was ok- Grandma said so right at the bottom of the card.  What had gone wrong???  What to do?  Should I scrap it altogether?  Bake it and see what happened?  Muddle through?

Muddle through I did.  I finished up and put them in the oven, already planning to taste one and then toss the rest.

When they came out of the oven I mentally shrugged and tasted one.

Do not doubt Grandma.  She knows of what she cooks.  They were delicious.  Not quite flakey but cheesy, soft, pastry.  So good.  Totally different from the raw dough.  The heat of the oven had melted the cheese and allowed it to incorporate with the flour and spices.  It was a nice, savory treat for a snowy, cold day.  So, try them.  And Grandma, if you’re somehow reading this from the beyond, I promise not to doubt your cooking again.

Cheddar Cheese Puffs, From Canada

Ingredients

4 oz. cheddar cheese (about 1 cup, shredded) (you an use other cheese as well, I used parmesan and jarlsburg for this)

1 1/3 cups of flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter, cut into 1 inch pats

1 egg white beaten

sesame or poppy seeds (for garnish)

Directions

Preheat oven to 375.

Grate the cheese in the food processor.  Switch out the blades in the food processor.  Add the flour, salt and pepper and blend.  Add the butter and blend again.  Grandma said that if it was too dry, you could add “a bit of white wine.”  Mine looked like this after adding the butter:Since Grandma had described the dough as a “ball”, I decided that this was too dry.  I added about 1/8 of a cup of white wine (I had Riesling in my fridge) and blended again.  After about 30 – 40 seconds I had this:Take out the dough and separate into balls.  I experimented with size and I think that between walnut and golf-ball size is perfect.  Place on a parchment lined cookie sheet and use a fork to press down on each one to flatten it slightly.  They’ll look kind of like oddly colored peanut butter cookies.Brush the egg white over the top and sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds.  I used white and black sesame seeds- I thought I’d want the black for color but I think the white tasted better.  I didn’t have any poppy seeds on hand to try.  Bake for 15-20 minutes or until brown and sort of soft-looking.  Let them cool before you try one because they’re really hot.I think these must have come from some of our Israeli cousins who relocated to Canada from Haifa.  They have a very Israeli feel to them- almost like boreakas without the filling.  I think once you make these once with this recipe, you could then experiment with ways to play with flavors. Maybe adding some herbs or garlic.  They’re good but I could see even more cheesy or spicy.  If I make them again, I’ll report back on my combos.

Comfort Food, Take II

As I mentioned in my last post, I had every intention of making a classic comfort food, tuna noodle casserole, the other night.  But I’d had a bad day and ended up combining some steps and giving up.  I threw the whole mess into the freezer and decided to deal with it another night.  That night was last night.  But instead of tuna, I used chicken.  I just wasn’t in a tuna mood. (My friend, Mrs. N, is NEVER in a canned tuna mood and declares that fish and dairy do not mix.  I beg to differ and offer fish chowder as one example)

In general, casseroles are not my cup of tea.  They were really popular back in the day because it’s basically condensed soup, noodles and some kind of protein.  Maybe a veg if you feel like it (usually peas).  Now, I can’t stand canned soups.  I use boxed broth because it’s easier but I always check the ingredient lists and make sure that I’m buying one whose first ingredient isn’t salt.  But canned soups to me are just salt, salt and more salt.  When you add the idea of a “cream of”, well, ick.  So I make my own- which isn’t that hard, really- and that makes my casseroles taste fresher, more savory and just generally less gross.

So, I give you my basic noodle casserole recipe- you can pick and choose what veggies/proteins you want to use- it doesn’t have to be tuna. (I must say that casseroles were not something made in my childhood. My Grandmother never used condensed anything, really.  But I have a strange affinity for them anyway.  I’m not sure why….)

Noodle Casserole

Rather than writing this the way I usually do, I’m going to describe what I did- one of the best things my grandmother ever did for me, was to explain and demonstrate how she thought about cooking rather than just handing me a cookbook.  Cooking is pretty basic- once you have an idea of how things work, you can improvise and experiment.)

All casseroles have three basic parts, the noodle, the protein, the condensed soup part.

Noodles

One bag (or half bag depending on how big a casserole you’re making) wide egg noodles

The noodles are easy:  boil a bag of egg noodles.  Well, don’t boil the bag, boil a pot of water (remember to salt it so that it adds flavor to the noodles) and add the noodles.  Cook until al dente- about a minute less than suggested on the bag.  Drain and set aside.

Protein

Tuna, chicken thighs or breasts (boneless skinless) or another protein of your choice.  I don’t know that beef would be the best- maybe a pork loin or boneless chop?  I bet fresh tuna would be good or another kind of fresh fish.

If you’re using tuna, you don’t have to do anything, just open the can and drain it.  If you’re using chicken, season it with salt and pepper (this time around I also threw on some minced dried onion and seasoning salt), throw on some olive oil and roast in the oven until cooked through but not too dry. 

I used boneless, skinless breasts that had been sliced thin so it only took about ten minutes to cook them at 375.  Set them aside to cool and then slice into chunks.

“Soup”

1 medium onion, chopped

10 oz mushrooms, cleaned and chopped (I used one pint of white mushrooms)

4 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1/4 cup sherry

1/4 cup flour

1-2 cups milk

1/2-1 cup of broth (chicken or veggie)

1 cup frozen peas

Ok, so lots of steps but not too difficult.

Melt the 4 tablespoons of butter in a pot over medium heat and then add the mushrooms and onions. When the onions have softened and the mushrooms have started to cook down, add the soy sauce and sherry.  Let them all cook together over medium high heat, until the liquid has mostly evaporated. 

Add the flour and stir around to let it cook for about one minute. 

Add about a half a cup of the milk and whisk it around so that the lumps break up.  Add the rest, slowly, and let it cook for a few minutes.  It will thicken up.  If it gets too thick (you’re going for a cream soup consistency, not paste), add some broth to thin it out. 

Add the peas and let them cook for a few minutes.  Taste and season accordingly.

Topping

1 cup breadcrumbs

1/2 cup shredded cheese- I used cheddar and parmesan

1 tablespoon butter, cut into small pieces

Mix all ingredients together with your fingers.  Set aside.

To put it together:

Put the drained noodles into the pot with the “soup” mixture.  Stir.  Add the protein (fish or chicken or whatever) and stir.  Pour the mixture into a casserole dish.  Top with the breadcrumb mixture.   Bake at 350 degrees until the top is browned and it’s bubbly.

Weekends In My Kitchen

Weekends in my kitchen are hectic. 

I try to cook as much as possible so that during the week I’m mostly heating up or throwing a few things together.  This means chopping veggies, making sauces and making baby food.  The baby food is obviously, a new addition but every weekend I chop, steam and puree sweet potatos, squash, peas, apples, pears and all kinds of other fruits and veggies for the baby.  I then freeze them and use them during the week.

Today I was making a sauce for baked pasta later in the day.  It involved mushrooms, onions, garlic and canned tomatos.  I wasn’t cooking with recipes today, just sort of winging it.  I ended up with a pretty good sauce that was pretty simple.  I sautéed a bit of onion and garlic and some sliced mushrooms and then added a can of crushed tomatos, a can of stewed tomatos and a can of tomato paste.  I seasoned with salt, pepper, oregano, basil and a bit of sugar to cut the acid of the tomatos.  I let that cook over medium heat until it was all warm and tasty.

I then mixed in some ricotta cheese and some grated parmesan. I also added one egg, as a binder.  I stirred in a few handfuls of baby spinach leaves and then a box of cooked rotini.  I mixed it all together and put it into a casserole dish with some grated parmesan on top.  It baked at about 375 for about 30 minutes and was just delish.  See, sometimes you don’t need a recipe!  (Sorry that there’s no photo of it- I am currently upstairs with the baby who will not sleep and can’t get downstairs to take a photo).  Perhaps I’ll get one tomorrow and add it in…

Happy weekend cooking to you all!

Tea Parties and Book Clubs

My grandparents were huge readers.  My grandmother always had a book with her- she kept one in her purse and one in her car, just in case she ever found herself someplace with a long wait ahead of her.  She belonged to multiple book clubs and read several books at once.  My family instilled this love of reading in me as well and Grandma made it a point to take me to the library every week.  I’d leave with piles of books and when we got home, we’d sit together and read.  Usually with a snack.  So the idea of joining a book club of my own is one that I’ve had on my mind for a long time.  I just never got around to it.  So when one of my closest friends suggested we start one, well, I was all in.  Of course, I couldn’t go to the first meeting because I couldn’t get the book in time.  And I didn’t make it to the second because I had theater tickets with my mom.  How to ensure I’d get to the third?  Well, offer to host it, of course!

It ended up being only four of us and we barely discussed what we had read (The Smile On Happy Chang’s Face by Tom Perrotta, part of the One City One Story project) but it was a wonderful excuse to get together, get two babies together, drink tea and  eat lots of baked goods.

And what baked goods there were!

 

Mmmmmm.....Carbs....

 

 

I made these Cheddar and Apple Scones from The Hungry Hippo.  My only change was that I made them in my food processor- I hate cutting in butter into dough.

I made a version of these scones from epicurious.com. They were supposed to be Cheddar-Chive scones but I didn’t remember to buy chives and was already using cheddar in the above scones so I improvised and substituted a four cheese mix (I think it was Italian so probably parmesan, romano, provolone and mozzarella) and rosemary for the cheddar and the chives.  They were good- very savory.  And while I do like rosemary, I find too much of it overpowering (and sort of soap-like) so I was skimpy on it and in retrospect probably could have used more.

I made banana bread, posted about here.  And pumpkin bread, because it’s fall and I love pumpkin bread.

Pumpkin Bread (recipe from an old family friend, R., who was a teacher with my mother and who makes these every year in muffin form….mmmmm.)

Ingredients
3 cups white sugar
1 cup vegetable  oil
3 eggs
1 16 oz can pumpkin
3 cups  flour
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
(1 c chopped walnuts if you want but why would you?)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350.
Beat sugar and oil in a stand mixer or with a hand mixer.  When blended, add eggs and pumpkin. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, salt, baking powder (or if you’re me, put it in a bowl and whisk it).   Add the dry to the wet in two steps.  Pour into two well greased loaf pans (I use Pam).  Bake for about an hour or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

And because I was in a pumpkin mood and had a stale loaf of bread bought last week in case my bread didn’t turn out well, I made pumpkin bread pudding. It was delicious.  The caramel sauce I poured over it was also delicious.  Mmmm….  It tasted like fall in a bowl.  So, so good.  So good that I am regretting the fact that I brought the leftovers to a dinner I attended that same night.  Of course, my waistline doesn’t regret it, but my tastebuds do!  Anyway, I followed the recipe pretty exactly but made a different caramel sauce- I’m sure the one listed with the recipe is great, I was just out of brown sugar.

 

This photo does not fully convey how delicious this was. In fact, in the photo it looks kind of yucky. But do not be fooled. It was gooooood

 

One of the other book club members brought cupcakes and they, too, were yummy.  And much cuter than any of my food.  Another book club member brought a yummy apple plum tart and a lovely brie en croute but we were too busy eating for me to take more photos.

With food like this, who needs a book?

Oh, and the babies?  Had a great time:

Uncles

My mother has two brothers.  She’s the oldest and then there’s P. and then the baby of family, A.  My mother also has an “adopted” brother, S.  S. is Japanese and was on the wrestling team in high school with P.  S. didn’t like the family he was boarding with and spent so much time at the house that he eventually moved in and became one of the family.  Really.  My grandmother even learned how to say, “Wake up, S.” in Japanese and how to make sushi.  But that’s another story, for another post.

My uncles are hard livin’ kind of men.  They smoke, they drink, they ride motorcycles.  In fact, all the men in my family are cut from the same cloth, even if some of the details are different.  Our long standing joke is how homey it felt for me after my grandfather died and everyone came home a year later for the unveiling.  I came downstairs at 9am to my dad standing in the kitchen, in his boxers and t-shirt, cooking bacon and drinking beer, my uncles P. and A. at the kitchen table with their coffee mugs, bottle of whiskey and the go board out and my uncle S. face down, asleep on the living room floor, beer just out of reach of his hand.  My family isn’t for everyone but it’s certainly for me.

My Uncle P. is my favorite uncle.  My relationship with A. is complicated due to choices he’s made that I’ve struggled with and my relationship with S. is good but a bit distant as I don’t see him or email with him as often.  P. was the middle child and first boy, so he had the honor and burden of paving the way for his younger brother(s).  My grandparents were wonderful people but my grandfather could be difficult.  It wasn’t easy for P. and as a result, he’s one of the most interesting and smartest people I know. He’s also had an amazingly interesting life which I’m only just now hearing stories about- I cornered him this summer and made him tell me his stories.  I got to hear about him traveling around the country on his bike, about spending time in Alaska, about living in Canada and about different brawls and fights.  I also got to hear about the people he’s loved along the way.

He’s a set of contradictions.  He’s tough and gruff (he hung around with a motorcycle gang for a long time but didn’t join because he didn’t want to have to back them up in a fight if he felt like it was started for a stupid reason.  Which is not to say that he didn’t fight.  Apparently he once dropped a television on someone’s head.) but really sweet and gentle.  He loves motorcycles and fast cars (when I was little he lived across the street from us and used to take me to school in his red corvette), tequila and smoking.  He also loves animals and flying model planes.  He worked with computers long before the dot-com boom and he programmed my grandparents’ computer to talk with me when I was little (I’d type in “Hi” and the computer would print, “Hi, will you be my friend?” across the screen. And then it would play a guessing game with me.  It wasn’t nearly as creepy as it sounds now- this was before we felt like computers would take over the world).  He is impatient with people but has boundless patience for animals.  Or for figuring out how something works.  He is extremely stoic and extremely generous.  He’s not someone you’d figure out just by looking at him.

To demonstrate, this is my uncle P. with his newest bike:

And this is also my uncle P., with my daughter when she was about 4 months old:

I think P. is my favorite because as a child I was told not to bother him since he didn’t like kids.  As a result, I grew up a little afraid of him.  We saw him often because he lived across the street from us for several years but I have very few memories of spending time with him.  When he would drive me to school, I’d sit really quietly, afraid to annoy or bother him.  As an adult, I started to get to know him when I was in college and have really valued the times I’ve sat, talking with him at the kitchen table.  He’s not someone who’s warm and fuzzy but he is someone who cares about his family deeply.  I’m tearing up as I write that but don’t want to share how I know.  Suffice to say I’ve witnessed some displays of emotion I wouldn’t have thought would come from him.

P. started riding motorcycles because he really wanted a horse.  My grandparents couldn’t afford one so he got a motorcycle instead.  I guess I can see that- it’s probably a very similar feeling when you’re going fast.  I wouldn’t know as the last time I rode a horse I was 12 and it was on a trail in Colorado and I’ve never been on a bike.  I’m scared to be on a bike but if I were ever going to ride one, it would be with my uncle P.  Maybe it’ll be on my life list.  On my living room wall, I have a contract typed up and signed by my uncle P. and my grandparents outlining the rules and use of his first motorcycle (I think he was 16).  Among the things listed are, “No leather jacket.  Not to play the part of a toughie.”  One of my most valued possessions for several years running was a black leather motorcycle jacket left here by my uncle P.  Apparently that rule didn’t get followed.

So where’s the recipe?? you ask.  It’s coming, hang on.  I asked P. what he remembered Grandma cooking.  He responded that he actually remembers Mama’s cooking better than Grandma’s, which makes sense.  So he remembered her chopped liver and her blintzes.  It’s a well-documented fact that no one makes things as well as Mama did so I will state right here and now that I didn’t even try.  But in honor of my uncle P., I did make cheese blintzes.  They probably aren’t as good as Mama’s but Uncle P. lives across the country so I couldn’t ask him to taste test for me.  I used a recipe Grandma had in her recipe box which was entitled “Al’s Crepes.”  Not sure which Al it was (we know a few) but I figured it had to be somewhat authentic since it was in her collection.  I made up my own filling, based on a bunch of recipes I’ve read over the years.

Cheese Blintzes for Uncle P.

Ingredients:

For the Crepes:

3 egg whites

2 egg yolks

pinch of salt

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup water

5 Tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon sugar

For Filling:

1 cup cottage cheese

2 eggs

4 Tablespoons cream cheese

1-2 Tablespoons sour cream

2 Tablespoons sugar

pinch of salt

Directions:

Make the crepes: Blend all crepe ingredients in the blender.  To be fair, you could probably also just whisk together if you don’t have a blender. 

Heat a nonstick pan over medium heat.  Melt a tablespoon of butter in pan but don’t let it burn.  If you have a really good nonstick pan, you might be able to forgo the butter.  Pour a little bit of the crepe batter into the center of the pan and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. 

Keep swirling until it sets

Sort of hard to swirl and photograph at the same time but you get the idea.

 

and then let it cook for just a minute or two, until it starts to brown slightly.

Flip it over- carefully!  I used a spatula and my fingers to flip mine but the difficulty will depend on how thin you’ve made it- and let it cook for a minute.

You want it to be cooked but not brown.  Make several crepes- I gave up after about 8 but probably could have made at least 10-15, depending.  Also, account for some waste– you’ll throw away your first crepe if you’re new at this because it won’t be the right width and it’ll have holes and you’ll screw up the flipping.  It’s not hard, just takes a few tries to get the hang of it.

I'm still learning how to make the perfect crepe- as demonstrated by the varying thickness and color on these.

Make the filling:

Place the filling ingredients into a food processor.

Process until blended.  You could probably use a whisk (or blender) for this too, if you don’t have a food processor.

When the crepes are cool enough to work with but not cold, place one on a flat surface.  Put about one to two Tablespoons of filling a little below center (facing you)- how much filling will depend on how big your crepes are. 

 

Fold up and over the filling.

Fold the sides in towards the center. Fold the top down to cover the sides.

Set aside, seam down, as you make the rest.  At this point, you could freeze these to eat later.

To cook the blintzes, heat some butter and oil in a saute pan over medium heat.  I’d say between 1-2 Tablespoons of both.  This is not a low-cal meal.  You want to brown the blintzes well and it just doesn’t work as well without the oil/butter.

Place them seam side down in the pan and let them get brown and crispy.  Flip once.

I like my blintzes with sour cream but I’ve been known to eat them with applesauce or blueberry jam. The cheese gives a nice tang and the crepes are the perfect smoothness to go with it. The jam adds a nice sweetness but it’s not necessary.

Lest you forget, these are in honor of my Uncle P.  The toughest and gentlest man I’ve ever met.