Ugly but Tasty

(I know, I know, two posts in two days?!  The excitement!)

Yesterday, January 27, was National Chocolate Cake Day.  I wasn’t feeling all that well so couldn’t celebrate this holiday appropriately.  But today?  Today we made a cake.

I used Ina Garten‘s cake and frosting recipe.  It was all going well.

My helper was fascinated.

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We measured and mixed and preheated the ovens.  We poured and leveled the batter into pans.

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This is where perhaps I went wrong.  I decided that rather than two cakes (which is what Ina did), I wanted to do three.  Keep that in mind, because I think that’s why it ended up… ugly.

While they baked, we did some clean-up.

It is important to lick all spoons and bowls shirtless.  Easier clean up later.

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The cakes cooled and we made the frosting.

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We talked about what to put in between the layers and agreed on the chocolate spread I’d just bought the day before, in a fit of homesick for Israel-ness.

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(When we lived there, my friend Heather and I couldn’t believe that parents gave this to the kids for breakfast, spread on toast.  It’s really just chocolate frosting.)

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Looks okay, right?  Yeah, well the next two cakes were really hard to take out of the pan so that they started crumbling at the edges as I took them out and frosted them.

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So, in the end, we had an ugly, crumbling, lopsided cake…..

That was really, really delicious.

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I mean dark, chocolaty, sweet, dense but moist.  My husband cut into it and said, “Your cakes are so much better than box cakes. I can tell just looking at it.”  My kids ate it and declared, through chocolate-stained teeth, “Mumma, you make the best cake.”

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Go forth and celebrate National Chocolate Cake Day.  Even if you’re a few days late.  It’s the kind of holiday I can absolutely get behind.

 

 

Freezing

It is 3 degrees here.  3.  My daughter can count higher than the current temperature.  WTF.  To be fair, this is the first time it has been this cold so far this winter.  And we’ve not had a lot of snow so I shouldn’t really be complaining.  But, wow, holy cow it is it cold!

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Work has been really busy, I’ve been really busy so I haven’t been cooking anything interesting.  Lots of soups, stir-fry and that kind of thing.  Quick, easy and filling.  Plus, I’m trying (again) to avoid baking so that there isn’t so much sugar in our house.  We’re somewhat addicted to sugar (should I be concerned that my daughter who is almost three can recognize both Dunkin’ Donuts (we almost never go!) and JP Licks (okay, we go there a lot) and knows what they sell??)?

Last night I got home a little bit earlier than usual and my husband was home which is something that almost never happens together.  My daughter spied a bag of tortilla strips and wanted that for a snack.  Since they were open, I thought perhaps I could use them in dinner.  So I pulled out a bunch of ingredients with no real plan and started cooking.  My husband joked that it could be an episode of Chopped and then he threw in some maple syrup and peanut butter and said, “NOW it’s Chopped.”

This is what we ended up with and it was pretty good.  I’m not sure what to call it, nor can I call it pretty but I can call it filling, delicious and pretty healthy.  I’ll give ballpark directions but I didn’t photograph the way I usually do, I apologize.

Tasty Sort of Mexican Casserole

Ingredients

1 onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1 can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 C frozen corn

Meat from one store bought rotisserie chicken (probably about 1-2 cups), shredded

1 can whole tomatoes

garlic powder, salt, pepper, oregano, chili powder, cumin

a whole lot of shredded cheese

crushed tortilla chips or strips, about 1-2 cups

tortillas (small), about three

Directions

In a large pan heat a bit of oil and cook the onions until soft and slightly brown.  Add the pepper and cook for a few minutes to let the pepper soften.  Add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hands and pouring in all the juice.  Let this cook over medium high heat for a few minutes so that it will thicken a bit.  Add the corn and beans.  Let this cook for another few minutes.  Add the spices and the shredded chicken.  Cook until heated through.  If you want to throw in other leftovers like cooked rice or crumbled cornbread, feel free– I did and it made it somewhat thicker, which was fine with me.

Preheat your oven to 375.  Spray or butter a casserole dish.  Place the tortillas on the bottom, sort of overlapping so they make a base or crust.  Spoon about a third of the tomato mixture on top.  Cover with cheese and crushed tortilla chips.  Spoon another third of the tomato mixture, top with cheese and chips and repeat until you’re out of space or filling.  End with cheese topped with crushed chips.

Bake until the cheese is melted and bubbly and the dish is heated through.

photo 4Serve with sour cream or greek yogurt (what we use).

photo 3It’s not pretty but it’s yummy and filling and….

photo 5All gone!

Make sure to serve other things to those who won’t yet dig into a dish like this.

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Love Story

When I started my pre-doctoral internship, I did it at a site an hour and fifteen minutes from my house.  I figured I could do anything for a year.  In the end, I worked there for over three years and it was one of the best experiences of my life.  What I learned both professionally and personally has stayed with me over the years.  I could go on and on but what I want to tell you about now is one of the people I worked with there.

J. was the other predoctoral intern with me.  I met her for the first time on the day we both went for a tour.  My first impression was that she was gorgeous and clearly incredibly smart.  As the months went by, we became closer and closer and I began to admire her even more.  She was a mother and had given birth to her son at a young age. She was blessed with supportive parents and while her child’s father did not stay in her life, she raised her son and graduated from high school, college and graduate school (predoctoral internship, remember)?
J. was (and still is) kind, compassionate, smart, loving and always ready to see the best and have faith in  those around her.  She will always give those in her life second and third and fourth chances and will always encourage them to do their best.  As you can imagine, this can be both a positive and negative quality.

When I knew her best, J. was involved with a man she’d met a few years prior.  Their relationship was difficult with extreme highs and lows.  They became engaged a few months after I did and they were guests at my wedding.  J. and I began to lose touch after that when she left our common workplace.  We spoke a few times and through our emails and facebook, I saw that she had broken her engagement, met someone new and moved across the country after marrying him.  From all that I can tell now, this was the best decision she ever made.

She and her new husband are incredibly well suited, incredibly happy and, I must say, incredibly beautiful.  J. has found a happy ending to her love story.

But nothing in life is that cut and dry, black and white.  While she’s happy now, she could only get there by taking the path she did.  Her relationship with her former fiancée was difficult but had some good points as well.  One of them was this stew.  She posted about it on Facebook recently and it looked so good that I immediately emailed her, demanding the recipe.  She responded with some guidelines and I went to work.

I cooked a dish that I have never eaten.  I have no idea what it should look or taste like but it did end up being delicious.  I used J’s guidelines and searched the internet for cachupa rica.  This is what I ended up with- the wrong kind of corn (couldn’t find samp so had to use hominy), no plantains but, in the end, still delicious, filling and hardy.  Good for a cold day.  Plus, it made me think about J and her love story the whole time.  Made me happy.

Cachupa Rica (with deepest apologies to all Cape Verdens everywhere)

Ingredients

6 cups golden samp (I used plain hominy because I couldn’t find samp)

4 cups of beans (I used canned kidney and pinto)- You could use dry and soak them with the samp beforehand.

Meats of your choosing.  I used:

chicken thighs (about 4-6 boneless, skinless)

bacon (I used a package)

Chorizo sausage

country stye pork ribs

1 large onion

Lots of garlic

2 peeled carrots, cut into chunks

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

between 6-10 cups of chicken broth

Directions:

I made it all in one pot.  J. makes it across several.  Because I used canned hominy and beans, I didn’t need to cook them separately.

Start by chopping up your bacon and browning it in a large pot.  Take out the bacon once it is crisp and add your sausage (chopped).  Let that brown up as well and then take it out and set it aside with the bacon.

Season your chicken with salt and pepper.  Add them to the pot with the bacon/sausage fat and brown them as well.

Once they’re brown on each side, set them aside with the bacon and sausage.

Finally, brown your short ribs in the pot.

It’s a lot of meat.  (insert dirty comment here)  Now, chop up your onion and garlic and brown it in the pot with all the fat left from the meat.  Maybe not all.  Maybe drain a bit of the fat, leaving about a tablespoon.

While the onions are cooking, peel and roughly chop your sweet potato and carrots.

Add them to the onions and let them brown a bit as well.

Once the veggies have started to soften and brown a little, add the hominy.

Add the beans and meats back in and then cover the whole thing with chicken broth.  Let it simmer over lowish heat for a long time.

J.  suggests making a sofrito of onion, garlic and tomato paste which you can then add for more flavor.  She also suggests a bay leaf or two (removed before serving) and some coriander.  Not my favorite flavors so I left them out.  J. also reminded me that if you were using samp and dry beans, you’d want to let them get good and tender (about an hour) before adding the veggies and meats back in- otherwise they’ll get too soft and be mushy.

Serve with lots of broth.  Mmmm.

J also suggests frying some of it the next morning (minus the broth), letting a good crisp form on the hominy/samp, and serving it with fried eggs.  I could see that being delicious.

What I Eat When I’m Alone

See, the title sort of evokes something here, no?  Images of either stupidly easy meals (cold cereal, scrambled eggs, toast) or richly decadent and so bad for you (a pint of ice cream, pork belly) come to mind.  I will tell you, prior to having children, these images would have been somewhat spot on.  Now, it’s different.

Mainly because I am never, ever alone.  Ever.

Which, on the whole, is not bad.  In the two plus years of having my daughter (and now, my son), I have only seriously considered running away three times.  Once was this morning, when everyone (including me) was crying.  The beauty of life, though, is that time fixes everything.  Five minutes after plotting my escape, my toddler was happily playing with her playdough and the baby was snuggled in his swing, drifting off to sleep.

At any rate, these days, “alone” really means, I’ve fed the toddler and the husband is at work.  The baby eats what I eat, so to speak.  Last night, I opened the fridge and decided I was tired of snacking on Chickasauras Rex and pasta.  I reviewed the veggies I had to use up and realized I was craving something fresh and simple.  I threw it all together and came up with this, served over multi-colored couscous.

Just in case you find yourself in a similar position, I thought I’d share my process.

I chopped up garlic, onions and mushrooms and threw them into a pan to brown with a little bit of olive oil.  Medium-ish heat. 

I let that all cook down a bit and then added some halved cherry tomatoes.  I think I tossed in some salt, pepper and a splash of chicken broth (though water or wine would have worked too).  I let that all cook while I heated about a cup of chicken broth in a separate saucepan.

Once the chicken broth was boiling, I added some couscous, salt and pepper.  I covered it and took it off the heat.  After a few minutes, the couscous was ready to go, just needed a little fluff with a fork.

I added some baby spinach to my original pan and let that wilt down.

I threw a little more salt on for seasoning and then dished it up over the couscous.

I have to say, it was perfect.

Ok, back to the two reports left, the two crying children and the two turkeys in my yard.  Sigh.

A Week of Meals

“So, what do you eat all week?”

This is a question that’s been asked of me by people who don’t cook.  For many people, the idea of creating dinner/lunch/breakfast seven days a week is daunting.  As I’ve mentioned before, I plan out a week in advance, shop for that week and do as much prep as I can motivate to do over the weekends.  As far as I can remember, my grandmother worked a different way- she decided on the day of or perhaps a day before, what she would make.  Then she’d shop that day and see what was available.  I know from reading, experience and talking with others, that in places where fresh produce and farmer’s markets are widely available, people tend to cook dinner based on what’s there that day.  When I’m on vacation or over the summer, I tend to do more of that since I have the time.  Grandma, when I cooked with her, had retired, had no children in the house (well, except me and my cousins when it was summer) and had many options for fresh meat, vegetables, baked goods and fish.  The neighborhood has changed a bit since then and many of the Jewish bakeries, produce and meat stores have closed.  There’s still a fishmongers, a farmer’s market once a week and a Jewish grocery which has a meat counter.  I use them sometimes and feel like I’m back with Grandma.

Anyway, rather than a long story and recipe today, I thought I’d let you in on what it is we eat all week.  Just in case you were curious or wanted some menu ideas.

Breakfast around here tends to be a hurried affair on work days.  I’ll give the toddler some toast and a scrambled egg or just a banana, depending on what she wants.  Hey, sometimes it’s “ack-ers”.  I figure she eats well at daycare and at dinner so I can afford being  more lax around breakfast.  We eat early- maybe her stomach just isn’t ready.  I tend to have an egg white omelette with Munster cheese.  Protein, baby.  The husband eats cold cereal (the same one.  Every day.  Which always makes me think of this scene in City Slickers).

Today, however, I didn’t have to work  so breakfast wasn’t rushed.  We had french toast made with the challah I’d taken out of the freezer for Friday night.

Lunch is usually salad- I make a big one on Sunday and use it all week.  I’ll cook some chicken breasts as well and slice them, leaving them in the fridge for the week.  If there are good leftovers from dinners, I’ll take that to work as well  Packing your lunch definitely saves money and makes good use of the leftovers.  Plus, as I am “eating for two”, I am constantly either hungry or dissatisfied with what I have.  Good times.

Dinner is where the money is, so to speak.  I plan Saturday or Sunday through Friday.  By Friday I’m often beat and if it’s a paycheck week, might treat us to Chinese or Thai or some other easy take-out.  If it’s not, it might be leftovers or sort of a catch-as-catch can kind of thing.  In a perfect world, I’d cook a good, special, sit-down meal to celebrate Shabbat but I’m not there yet.  Challah and candles are the best I can do right now.

So, our meal plan for the week:

Sunday:  Lettuce Wraps(so good, check out the Hippo for the recipe) and Vegetable Fried Rice.  I don’t really have a recipe for fried rice.  I use leftover rice and whatever veggies I can find in the house.

garlic, celery, onion, carrots, green pepper, red pepper and broccoli

I’ll also throw in chicken or other meat if I have it.And sometimes, for decadence, cashew nuts.  If they’re on hand.  I saute all the veggies in some sesame oil, add the rice, add some soy sauce, siracha or whatever else seems tasty at the time.  I stir it all together and then throw in the nuts at the last minute. If you can find the dark soy sauce, that’s what makes it take like “real” fried rice.  What comes out is different every time, not always pretty but generally pretty tasty.Monday- Tonight I’m going to make a ricotta frittata and salad.  We’ll have been home all day and nibbling on leftovers and snacks so I won’t be that hungry and I’ll want something easy.  Plus, I have some ricotta to use up.  If I were doing it “right”- I’d make the ricotta itself.  But not today.  Today is for catching up on work, spending time outside with my daughter and napping.

Tuesday- It’s just me and the toddler as the husband is in class so we’ll try this soup I’ve read about but have never made, Avgolemono.  I’ll add some chicken for more protein and call it a day.

Wednesday- It’s supposed to be a bit more chilly so I’m making broccoli and cheddar soup, based on this recipe, and will serve it with salad or good bread (If I can remember the night before to throw it in the bowl).

Thursday- Is my night to work so on Wednesday night, I’ll do some prep work (browning meat and onions) and Thursday morning before I leave, I’ll throw everything into the crock pot for this pasta and beef recipe.  Pasta and meat are never turned down in my house and since I won’t be eating it, I’ll even use real beef (Recently I’ve developed a revulsion to ground beef).

Friday- I’m planning dinner with a good friend/adopted brother and so will probably go with take-out of some sort.  Asian probably, ’cause that’s how we roll.

Meanwhile, in the fridge, along with the leftovers from Sunday night, I also have a yummy carrot and parsnip soup that I created on Saturday.  A friend of mine mentioned it a few weeks ago and I’ve been dying to try it.  Again, I didn’t really have a recipe but here’s how I made it:

I peeled some carrots and parsnips and chopped them into chunks.  I chunked up  half and onion and a few tomatoes I had to use up.  I throw in a handful of peeled garlic as well.  It all went into a roasting pan and was salted and tossed in some olive oil.  They roasted at 425 for about 40 minutes- until things were tender and roast-y, if you know what I mean.

I put all of them into a pot, including all the veggie juices from the pan, and added enough chicken broth to cover.  I let it simmer for a while probably about an hour- I was busy!

I used my stick blender to puree all of it and added some chicken broth to thin it out a bit.

Then, because I needed to use it up and because I’m decadent like that, I added some heavy cream.

A little salt and pepper to taste and it was done.  It was really quite good and didn’t really need the cream.  I’m not sure I’d have missed it.  The carrots and parsnips were just sweet enough and the tomato gave it a nice little bit of acid.  I’m looking forward to eating it for lunch today and a few more days this week.

So, there you have it.  The answer to, “So what do you eat all week?”

A ’tisket, a ‘tasket, a brisket, a basket

Growing up, while my parents were still together, we were family friends with another Jewish family.  They lived a few towns over and my mother and the mother of the other family taught together in Roxbury (Fun fact, my mother was teaching in the inner city of Boston when the forced busing happened.  She can remember the helicopters flying overhead.  Another fun fact, when I finally got around to reading Common Ground (I was in my late teens), I recognized so many of the names as people I had met!).  Both the fathers were lawyers and the children were all girls.  R. and M. remained close to my mother after my parents divorced and I played with their older daughter, A., often.  (Another fun fact, a family friend of theirs, P., used to babysit me and A. when our parents would go out on the town.  Fast forward 30+ years later and P. is the assistant at the daycare where I send my daughter.  Small world!)

After my parents divorced, my mother and I spent many a Jewish holiday sitting around R & M’s table.  R. is a wonderful cook and makes all of the traditional Jewish foods- latkes, matzo balls and brisket. She also makes a legendary pumpkin muffin and fantastic meatballs. I have such fond memories of sitting at her table, listening to the adults laugh, giggling along with A. and eating the delicious offerings.  So, it’s no surprise that when I needed a brisket recipe, R was my go-to source.  It’s a remarkably simple recipe with an incredibly delicious result.  It’s so good, in fact, that I made a second brisket last night- there was none left over from the Seder and I had only gotten one bite!

R’s Famous Brisket

Ingredients

1 flat-cut brisket (The smallest I’ve used has been in the 5-7 lb range)

1-2 red peppers, thinly sliced (I use the cuisnart)

1-2 onions, thinly sliced (again, I’m lazy and use the cuisnart)

olive oil

ketchup

water

Directions

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees F.  In a roasting pan, place a small amount of olive oil.  Layer the onion and pepper slices on it and toss to coat.  Place the brisket on top of the onion and peppers.  Cook in the oven for about 20 minutes.  In the meantime, fill a drinking glass about 1/3 of the way with ketchup.  Fill the other 2/3 with water and mix well.  After twenty minutes, pour the mixture over the brisket and return it to the oven.  Bake forever.

I mean it, forever.  In R’s words, “there’s no way to overcook this.”  Add more of the ketchup mixture to keep the liquid in the pan at a reasonable amount.  I flipped mine about two hours in- it was starting to burn so I changed sides.  I ended up cooking mine between 4 and 5 hours.  In the last hour or so, I covered with foil to keep it from burning.  When it’s done, it will sort of just shred itself as you try to pick it up.  It’ll be delicious- sort of sweet and sour at the same time.  So good.It may not be pretty but I guarantee, it’ll be gobbled up so fast, no one will notice that it’s not elegant.

Crock Pot of Friends

Over the last few weeks I’ve been able to spend some time with good friends.  The kind of friends that you can not talk with for months, even years, but when you do reconnect, it feels like nothing has changed.  When you’re done talking, you feel calm and relaxed and sort of floppy- kind of like after a massage.

One such friend is my friend D.  We worked together when I worked in residential care and our offices shared a wall. She worked with the adolescent girls and I worked with the boys.  I will always remember listening to her therapy sessions. In case you’re not familiar with adolescent residential care, it’s tough.  The children and adolescents are placed outside of their homes and communities because they aren’t safe without 24 hour adult supervision.  This means that they’re angry, depressed, physically and verbally aggressive, self-injurious and/or suicidal and sometimes homicidal.  In other words, they’re not quiet, reserved young people.

The girls are known to be harder than the boys.  While D. and I each used the white noise machines, we could often still hear the sessions, especially if the clients were yelling.  Here is what I’d typically hear:

“WILL you please just LISTEN TO ME!” the client would yell. D. would respond appropriately and calmly, pointing out that it is much easier to talk with her if she does not yell.

She would continue to yell, taunting D., calling her things like “b*&%h,” “c$%t,” and a “f$#%ing a#@$%^e just like all the rest.”  She would push the boundary further and further until D. would calmly and firmly announce, “That’s it.  I’m done.”

To this the young girl would respond, “You’re done?  FINE.  SOME CLINICIAN YOU ARE!  I should get a new clinician.  A real one. A REAL one wouldn’t tell me she’s done.”  This, after heaping piles of insults and derogatory comments onto her D.  D. had amazing patience for her girls and she has changed more than one young lady’s life for the better.

We got married within four months of each other and ended up planning our weddings at the same time.  We’d alternate between excitement and feeling overwhelmed with all the logistics and many an afternoon was spent at work, venting about guest lists or family details or late rsvps.  We both left our residential jobs around the same time and we stayed in touch. A year or so later, D. got pregnant and then, a few months later, so did I.  It was neat the way we stayed sort of in line with each other.

We don’t see each other much, but when we do we can pick right up where we left off, as though no time has passed.  I value her outlook on life, her dry sense of humor and her – sounds odd but makes sense- cynical optimism.  I also adore both her husband (we worked together as well) and her son.  Her son is one of the cutest boys I know- outside of the little boys in my own family.

I had the opportunity to visit with them this past weekend, after about a year since our last visit.  We’d emailed and facebooked (see? a new word!) in there and had even made plans but baby sicknesses and general craziness had gotten in the way.  But this past Sunday the baby and I drove the forty minutes to her new house and spent a few hours catching up and laughing.  It was wonderful. I saw the house, the babies played, we chatted and I watched her throw her dinner in the crockpot.

As you know, I’m waiting for my new appliances (scheduled! for the 12th! one more week!) so I’ve been cooking very little.  Watching D. with her crockpot, I realized I could be utilizing mine.  So I asked for her chicken recipe. The one she gave me sounded delicious but of course, being me, I had to play with it a little bit.  So I’ll give you both here. 

D’s Crockpot Chicken

Ingredients:

1 small jar orange marmalade

1 packet onion soup mix

1/4 cup russian salad dressing

4 chicken breasts

Directions:

Place chicken into crockpot.  Mix the other ingredients together and pour over chicken.  Cook on low 4-6 hours.  Serve over rice.

 

My Crockpot Chicken, based on D’s recipe

Ingredients:

3-4 chicken breasts (I used boneless skinless but might do skin and bone-in next time as mine dried out a bit)

1-2 Tb. beef bullion crystals (or 2 beef bullion cubes)

1/2  of a 12 oz jar chili sauce

1 18 oz jar apricot preserves

1/2 onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

4 teaspoons sweet relish

1 teaspoon dried, minced onion

1/4 cup boiling water

Directions

Place chicken in crockpot.  Mix together the rest of the ingredients and pour over chicken. 

Cook on low 4-6 hours.

I shredded the chicken.

I poured the sauce into a saucepan on the stove.  I let it reduce a little by putting it on high heat and letting it boil for a few minutes. Then I added the chicken back in and let it warm through.  I served mine over red quinoa which was delicious and added a nice texture.

 

It ended up being a really red, not so pretty dish. But tasty!

 

It was quick and pretty easy.  Plus it reminded me of D. and left me feeling warm and fuzzy because of that.  Can’t beat good friends.  Especially if they can cook!

Asian Kitchen Fail

Growing up, I heard story after story about my uncles.  I’ve mentioned them briefly  here but for a quick refresher, my mother had two younger brothers, P. and A.  When P. was in high school, he was on the wrestling team with S., a young man from Japan who was boarding with a family while he attended the local high school.  His family was in South America.  Eventually, S. moved into my grandparents’ home and became a member of our family.

S. was born in Japan and continues to travel back and forth often.  He still has an extremely heavy accent and one of my very favorite memories is listening to him talk with my cousin K., who is Israeli.  It was like a meeting of the United Nations in my kitchen.  Actually, to be fair, when my whole family is together, both the blood and adopted relatives, there are often several countries represented.

Since S. lived with my grandparents through college- he attended a local one and so came home on vacations- my grandmother learned how to make sushi and other Japanese dishes (she also learned a bit of Japanese.  Things like, “WAKE UP!”).  As a result, I grew up eating all kinds of “exotic” foods including sushi at a fairly young age.  I can remember tasting saki at one point and wondering why anyone would like it– I’ve since reformed my opinion.  The famous family story is that my grandmother would make chocolate chip cookies for college care packages for my mom and her bio-brothers but sushi care packages for S.  He’s the only one who wasn’t asked to share in his dorm!

This is all a very long-winded way of saying that, despite being Jewish, Asian food is something I grew up eating.  My grandmother learned how to cook authentic Chinese food because a friend of my grandfather’s from his MIT days lived with my grandparents for a bit and his wife taught my grandmother.  That’s actually a story for another post- the couple was here for an MIT reunion but then Tiananmen Square happened and they couldn’t go home.  I promise to tell it sometime.  Anyway, Asian food is as much in my blood as matzo balls.

So it was embarrassing to have a friend join me for dinner and for me to completely screw up the Asian themed menu.

My friend B. is a new friend.  She started working at one of my schools this year and, I will freely admit, I developed a bit of a girl-crush on her.  She’s tall and beautiful and funny and so damn smart.  I have many, many good friends so this is going to sound a bit odd, but I don’t make friends easily.  Most of the friends I have I’ve known for years and years.   Anyway, I decided I wanted to be friends with B.  Luckily, she wanted to be friends with me too and we’ve managed to get together a few times outside of work.  She’s fantastic with my daughter, which of course goes a long way with me, and she’s funny and still so damn smart.  Plus, she got me a job teaching so I feel like I totally owe her.  How do I repay my debts? By cooking for you, of course.  B. contributed wine, a delicious dessert and a fabulous frosted cookie for baby G.  Those were definitely the best parts of dinner!

Sadly, my part did not go well.   I made the yummy asian noodle soup but added too much fish sauce so it was far, far too salty.  B. was nice and choked it down but I felt badly.  I had tried to fix it earlier but to no avail.  That was ok, though, because I had also made a rice-paper-wrapper version of spring rolls.  This was an experiment and I think they were, well, not as big a failure as the soup. I would maybe experiment a bit more with the cooking method because I am not used to deep-frying but I couldn’t make the pan fried ones stay together because the rice paper was so thin.  I was using rice paper wrappers, which are usually used for summer rolls which are not fried, because B. doesn’t eat a whole lot of gluten.  Some, but not a ton.  I’ve made these before with wheat-based wrappers and it does work to pan fry them then.  So I was looking at it as a challenge.  Which I sort of failed.  Sigh.

At any rate, I give you a recipe in process.  Do with it what you will.

Spring Rolls

Ingredients

1/2 package coleslaw mix (I used a small package of “confetti slaw”)

1/2 lb. ground dark meat chicken

1-2 Tb. soy sauce

1-2 Tb. sesame oil

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tb ginger, minced

5-6 rice paper wrappers

Directions:

Heat the sesame oil in a deep pan or wok over medium high heat.  Add the ground chicken and cook through.  I think I may have sprinkled a little bit of Chinese five spice powder in as well but it’s not totally necessary.  Add the garlic and ginger and cook for about a minute.  Add the slaw mix and cook for two to three minutes.  You want them soft but not mushy.  Set aside to cool slightly.

If you’re using rice paper wrappers, you’ll need to soak them in hot water for a few seconds on each side in order to make them pliable.  I put water on a plate and soaked the wrappers one by one, switching sides a few times.  I didn’t want them to get soggy but I needed to be able to move them around. Put the soaked wrapper on a flat surface.  Place a few spoonfuls of filling in the upper middle of the wrapper.Wrap the top part over and towards you, pushing the filling together.  Fold in the sides and continue to roll towards you until you have a sort of fat cigar kind of thing.  Set aide and continue until you run out of filling.  Do not stack them, keep them separated on a flat surface.  Also, can’t hurt to cover them with a damp paper towel.  Now, here is where the fail started.  I tried to simply pan-fry these in a little bit of sesame oil.  However, I couldn’t get my pan temperature correct and so the wrapper stuck.  So I decided to deep fry.  I heated up a few inches of canola oil in my iron pot.  I heated to about 360 degrees which is somewhere between french fries and fried chicken temperature.  I dropped a few in at a time and turned them once or twice.  They cooked pretty quickly and only one fell apart.  They were good but a bit oily.  I did let them drain on paper towels which helped.

So not pretty. But somewhat tasty.

They were good, flavor-wise (despite the oil) but I’m sure I could do better.  Definitely not my best work.  I’m going to have to have B. over for dinner again, when I can make something more impressive.

*sorry about the photos- I was using my iphone and didn’t notice the weird lighting in the kitchen.  Clearly, this is an apology post.  Perhaps I’ll have to create a new tag!

 

Salad, Salad Everywhere

As I mentioned in my previous post, Myrim had three children.  I’ve told you a bit about the youngest and now I’d like to share some about the eldest, Amatzia.  Amatzia is in many ways a typical Israeli man- a little chauvinistic, very sure of himself and a bit arrogant.  He is also quite atypical.  He’s spent most of his adult life studying Saddam Hussein and his Iraq.  So much so that he’s one of the world’s experts and when Iraq was big news, he was on television all the time.  We’d turn it on and be all, “Hey, there’s our cousin!” Amatzia has trained our military and has spent time at the U. S. Institute of Peace in D.C.

The first time my husband met him, we were having breakfast in Boston at Amatzia’s hotel.  He was here for a conference or some such.  When my husband, my mother and I met him in the lobby, he was on the phone with NPR.  Y’know, like one is. You see, moments before Saddam Hussein had been captured.  Remember that?  NPR immediately called Amatzia for an interview.  During breakfast his phone didn’t stop ringing and we ended up cutting it short because a car from an NBC affiliate had come to pick him up so he could be on television. immediately.  We got home, turned on the tv and saw him speaking.  My husband called his parents, made them turn on the tv and said, “See that guy?  I was having breakfast with him about a half hour ago.”

But aside from being a big old expert, Amatzia is still my cousin.  He’s the one that drove us around Israel, proudly declaring, “This is Israel.  We go where we like.”, whenever one of us was nervous about where he was taking us.  And we had reason to be.  My absolute favorite Amatzia story is this:  my two cousins and I were visiting Israel after my junior (their sophomore) year of college.  Amatzia brought us way, way up North on the border with Lebanon to see Rosh Hanikra.  Which was beautiful, as it always is.  

After our visit, he decided he wanted to show us this view that he remembered.  So we begin driving.  I was in front with him, my two cousins were in the back. One fell asleep.  As we’re driving, I start to notice big, imposing, important signs written in Hebrew, Arabic and English.  These signs say things like, “Military Only.  Keep Out.”  or “Border Crossing- Military Vehicles Only.”  or, my favorite, “Entering Military Only Zone.  Trespassers Will Be Shot.”  As we’re passing these signs, there’s a barbed wire fence to our left and military watchtowers every ten feet or so.  We drive through a few gates which are marked (of course) “Military Only.”  My cousin and I start to get nervous (remember, the other one was asleep) and I say timidly, “Amatz, I think maybe we aren’t supposed to be driving here….?”
“Nonsense.”  He replied confidently.  “This is Israel.  We go where we like.”  He kept driving.  We pass more scary signs and gates.

Suddenly, he pulls onto the shoulder of a road and makes a sound something between a “huh.” and a “hmmm.”  My cousin and I (other one is still asleep) look around, realize that the barbed wire fence that had been on  our left is now on our right, start to panic and say, “Amatz?  Hmmm?  Hmmm what?”

“I think….”  he says with some authority, “….that we are in Lebanon.”

My cousin and I start to panic.  I immediately start thinking about where my passport is (back on the kibbutz in my suitcase) and my cousin starts looking in her bag for some sort of weapon (she found a small pair of nail clippers).  My other cousin continues to sleep.  “LEBANON?”  I say, trying to keep my voice calm, “How can we be in Lebanon??”

“Sometimes there are holes.”  He said, shrugging.  He then turned the car around and drove us back the way we’d come, my cousin clutching the nail clippers with white knuckles until it was clear that we were back on Israeli highway.

(My sleeping cousin, by the way, will tell you that she was awake for this.  She would be lying.  When we told her later what happened she was both disappointed and pleased that she’d missed it.)

I tell you these stories so that you get a sense of the kind of man my cousin is.  He’s truly one of a kind.  But, like all Israelis, he loves to eat.  And he loves his salads.  In Israel meals are accompanied by many, many salads and they are not salads the way that we think of them.  The only way I can describe it is that you get to start your meal with an assortment of dips, fresh vegetables and soft, warm pita bread.  Sometimes the salads are the whole meal, sometimes they’re just to start.

So, I give you two traditional Israeli salads, in honor of my Israeli cousin who goes where he likes.

Traditional Israeli Salad

The trick to this salad is good, fresh produce and the technique in cutting.  Everything should be in small, somewhat uniform pieces.  Don’t dress it until just before you serve it.  Also, the leftovers make a great breakfast, especially when mixed with plain greek yogurt or cottage cheese (unusual for the U.S. but excellent in Israel).

Ingredients:

1/2-1 red bell pepper, washed and seeded

1/2-1 cucumber, peeled

8-10 cherry tomatos or one medium tomato

Optional:  parsley, chopped and one scallion, chopped

olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice

Directions:

Start with the pepper (no reason, just the one I tend to start with).  Slice it into long strips.Cut small chunks of these strips and dump into a bowl.  Next, cut the cucumber in half lengthwise.  Then cut each half in half again:

Cut into long, thin strips (like the peppers) and then into chunks (like the peppers- are you sensing a theme?).Dump those into the same bowl as the peppers. Then get your tomatos ready. I always use cherry because they’re my favorite (ok and grape but I used cherry this time).  If you’re using a whole tomato, cut it like the cucumber- in half and then in half again, then strips and then chunks.  If you’re using cherry, cut each one in half and then into quarters.  Sometimes I cut the quarters in half as well, depending on how big the tomato is.  Basically, you want things to be roughly the same size.  Mix everything together in the bowl.  If you’re using parsley and scallions, throw them in now and toss them, too.  Set aside until you’re ready to serve.  If it’s going to be a few hours, put some plastic wrap over it and put it in the fridge.  Just before you serve it, dress it with a few teaspoons of olive oil (good olive oil is essential here- keep in mind this is a Middle Eastern dish and olive come from the Middle East), a few squirts of lemon juice and salt and pepper.  This part really is to taste- some like the salad really tangy, others a bit more mellow.  Toss it all around and serve.Eggplant Salad (a version of baba ghanoush)

This is just about the only way I like eggplant.  It’s a version of baba ghanoush but I find it a bit milder than store versions. And lest you think that mayo is not used in Israeli, I will tell you that I made this salad every week when I worked in the kitchen on the kibbtuz.  Industrial size container of mayo and all.

Ingredients:

1 medium eggplant

mayonnaise

salt

pepper

Directions:

Clean out your oven.  Then set it between 450 to 500 degrees.  Poke the eggplant with a fork in several places.  This will allow steam to escape and will keep the eggplant from exploding in your clean oven.  Place the eggplant on a rimmed baking sheet (I always cover mine in aluminum foil to help with clean up).  Bake the eggplant for a long time- between 45 minutes to an hour.  When it’s ready, it will be charred in some places and will have sort of collapsed in on itself.  It will basically look like garbage.  I apologize for not taking a picture of this but it will look so bad that if you leave it out like that, someone will throw it away, assuming you have burned your dinner (no lie, happened to me). It will look something like these:

Image not mine- from a google search for whole, roasted eggplant.

Let the eggplant cool for a long time or else you will burn your fingers.  Once it’s cool, scrape out the insides into a strainer.  Place this over a bowl and let it drain.  I usually leave it overnight but a few hours might do it.  Discard the skin of the eggplant.

Ugly but stick with me- it'll get good, I promise!

Once it’s drained you’ll get lots of oil in the bottom of the bowl.  Discard this or else you’ll have a really oily dip/spread.

Eggplant is one oily vegetable.

Chop up the eggplant pulp and put it into a bowl.  Add enough mayonnaise to make it creamy- this is to taste as some like the mayo taste more than others.  I’d say for one small to medium eggplant, start with one to two tablespoons and taste from there.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Okay, so it's not a pretty dish. But it's good.

I like this best on warm pita bread.  The eggplant has a sort of smokey, mellow taste which is offset nicely with the mayo.  It’s really good.

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving in my family wasn’t a big deal.  I suppose we must have had Thanksgiving dinner with my grandparents when I was little but I honestly don’t remember.  What I do remember is going with my mother to NYC where we’d meet up with one of my cousins (the one who talked grandma into more cookies) and her mother.  We’d spend a blissful four days, wandering the streets of Manhattan, seeing show after show after show and eating well.

When I met my husband it was shocking to me just how important Thanksgiving was to him.  For weeks leading up to the event, he starts talking about the stuffing his aunt makes- how good it is, how much he’s going to eat, if there’ll be enough to bring home, how he doens’t want to have to share it.  He talked up this stuffing for so long that when I finally went with him for a family Thanksgiving, I was surprised at how different the stuffing was from what I expected.  It was nothing like stuffing I’d had before- it was sort of compacted and dense.  In fact, if you look at the photo, the stuffing isn’t particluarly pretty.  My husband would say that in this case looks don’t matter.

Two years ago, I asked his aunt how she makes it and she gave me a sketchy recipe since she doesn’t really use measurements.  Last year we had Thanksgiving at our house so I made two stuffings- my grandmother’s which involves chestnuts rather than meat and his aunt’s.  My husband declared his undying love for me on the spot as well as proclaiming my stuffing, “as good as” his aunts as well as “cleaner.”  I suspect I use less oil than she does.

No matter how you do it, this stuffing is legend in my husband’s family.  I’m sure your families all have legendary dishes of their own.  Feel free to post and describe them.  I’m always open to new legacy dishes!

Ingredients

*Because his aunt doesn’t use measurements, it’s kind of hard to say how much of each you’ll need.  I’ll approximate for one bowl of stuffing- you can double/triple as needed

ground cherise (Portuguese Sausage)- one pound

flat parsley- a few handfuls of chopped leaves

black olives- to taste- I’d say maybe a half a cup

celery- four stalks

onion- one medium sized

eggs (the number will be equal to the number of loaves of bread used)- one egg

bread (vienna or another bread that has a lot of while but not much crust) – one loaf

salt & pepper to taste (the meat is pretty salty so go easy)

bell’s poultry seasoning- about one to two teaspoons

olive oil, portuguese if possible

Directions

Chop the olives, celery and parsley.  Set aside.  Chop the onion and saute it with the cherise until soft and the cherise is cooked through.  Soak the bread in a pan of cold water until soft.  Wring out all the water from the bread and shred into tiny pieces.  In a bowl, combine the bread, olives, celery, parsley, cherise, onion and egg.  Mix until there’s no white left on any of the bread.  In batches, fry the stuffing in a pan in olive oil and canola oil.  Let it cool and then stuff the turkey (remember, don’t put warm stuffing into a cold turkey and don’t jam-pack your turkey either). Alternately, you can just bake it in the oven until the top is sort of crispy.