Monday, September 29, 2008

Rosa in the Kitchen

For over a year Rosa has had an apron and a chef hat. She often asks to wear them so she can “make” soup or pasta with a bowl and spoon I’ve given her to play with.

But on Friday I decided it was finally time for Rosa to participate in the kitchen – just add some ingredients to a bowl, maybe help me stir. Cookies seemed to be the natural, homiest choice. I found a simple recipe in my Dorie for midnight crackles: chocolate gingerbread cookies. I put on an apron, and dressed Rosa in her apron and chef hat. She asked that I don my chef hat as well, so I did.

I stood Rosa on a chair and we go to work. I measured the dry ingredients and then, with my help, she dropped them into a mixing bowl. She taste tested the chocolate for me – a very important job. Everything was going great…until I made one little mistake: suggesting she smell the ground cloves.

I love having Rosa smell ingredients, especially fresh herbs and ground spices. I think it connects her to what we’re going to eat and opens up her senses to aromas she never before dreamed of, from mint leaves and cinnamon, to fennel and pomegranate molasses.

The ground cloves were beautiful and fragrant; to me they smell like Christmas. But, the jar was new, and the cloves were filled to the brim. And, I forgot that often when she smells something Rosa breathes out first, with a big burst of air. Soooo she blew air from her nose, and in an instant ground cloves covered her face and the countertop. She started to cry, startled for sure, but I think she also inhaled some cloves, which I’m sure wasn’t a pleasant experience. I quickly cleaned her off and gave her kisses. A second tasting of the chocolate helped ease any lingering discomfort. But, that was the end of Rosa’s helping that day (and despite baths, she smelled like cloves for the next 48 hours).

Happily, the midnight crackle cookies turned out wonderfully: dark, velvety and moist. Overall, Rosa enjoyed her first of what will surely be many baking experiences. And I learned a valuable lesson: only ask a two year-old to smell something that is guaranteed not to blow away.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Subbing for Starch

Like many cooks before me, I frequently rely on the much-maligned “protein-starch-veg” combo when planning my weekday (and some weekend) meals. Frankly, I think the combination is unfairly criticized, since a protein, starch and vegetable is a lovely, satisfying, time-honored tradition. Often I could personally skip the veg, but I know that’s not a good idea. And, if I don’t eat the protein and starch I won’t feel satisfied and usually find my spoon in the peanut butter jar later in the evening. For me the starch is usually the highlight of my meal: coconut rice, garlic roasted potatoes, sweet potato fries, quinoa, risotto, pasta salad, or even warm, crusty bread.

Recently I have been cooking for clients who don’t want gluten, potatoes, or rice in their diets. Creating menus for their dinners has been a fun challenge, because I want the meals to be both well-rounded and satisfying. So far I’ve found two strategies that seem to work.

One is to make a soup the stand-in for the belly-filling starch. A smooth carrot-ginger puree was particularly successful. Tomato and butternut squash are also looking like winners.

Another trick is to employ beans and lentils in the place of rice or potatoes. Roasted salmon on a tangy white bean salad with steamed vegetables on the side leaves even me satisfied, and when red lentils accompany a meal of rosemary-grilled shrimp and a classic Greek salad, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.

While I don’t plan on giving up my potatoes anytime soon (such amazing variety! such toothsome texture!), creating these menus has helped me think outside of my traditional meal-time box and encouraged me to add some variety to my own meals at home.

That said, on tonight’s menu: beer-battered tilapia, mango salsa…and rice.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

My New Favorite Pan

This is yet another chapter in the saga I call, “What was I waiting for????” Other entries have been written along similar lines: the Microplane grater, for example. Tongs. (How on God’s green earth did I ever live without tongs?) A small strainer to strain the seeds out of lemon juice. A citrus reamer. Silpat. (Thanks Allison!)

None of these things cost more than $15, most much less. Yesterday, I upped the ante a bit and spent $40 on something that I can’t believe I haven’t bought before now: a grill pan.

On sale for $39.99 at Bed, Bath and Beyond my new, square, nonstick Calphalon grill pan is, in a word, awesome. It requires virtually no oil, heats to sizzling hot very quickly, and makes absolutely beautiful grill marks. Yesterday I grilled chicken paillards, a thick tuna steak, and turkey burgers (which I detest by the way). It was easy to cook each protein to its proper level of doneness, and they all tasted light and healthy. The pan is super-easy to clean, and unlike cast iron it doesn’t require me to use two hands to lift it. The grill pan is a star!

I am far from done with the grill pan. Next I may try Asian shrimp on skewers, courtesy of a recipe I saw Corinne Trang make once. And of course, salmon, hamburgers, pork chops, vegetables….

By the way, here’s the trick to making lovely crosshatch grill marks. When you put your piece of chicken, say, on the hot pan make a mental note which end is facing “up” (12 o’clock), towards the back of the stove. After a few minutes turn the chicken 90 degrees, making the end that was once facing the top now face 9 o’clock or 3 o’clock. It’s easy, but easy to mess up, too, as I do sometimes when I forget to notice which end is at 12 o’clock. Just make that mental note and you’ll be fine.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Fish = Cake

Fish is confusing. Many nutritionists and public health advocates call it one of the best foods you can eat to promote good health. Many species are high in the famed omega-3 fatty acids, and almost all fish is high in protein and low in calories. But… and of course there’s a but…

Many species are overfished, leaving our oceans depleted. Some species that are farmed are done so in a way that’s terrible for the environment and for your health (farmed Atlantic salmon for example). Then there’s the whole mercury issue, which I know has scared some people off of fish entirely.

Personally, I err on the side of eating more fish. It’s been the basis of healthy diets for millennia AND I always feel so darn virtuous after I’ve eaten it. Like I could easily justify a piece of cake for dessert!

But, I try to choose my fish responsibly, so the seafood is good for my family’s health and the environment’s health. My favorite way to do this is to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch site. You can browse fish by type, and the site will fill you in on health and environmental concerns. And, if that’s too much work for you you can simply look at Seafood Watch’s clear-cut recommendations: “Best Choice”, “Good Alternative”, and “Avoid”.

The site also shares some astonishing fish facts. Did you know that orange roughy live up to 100 years or more? And, even more amazingly, the fish is sometimes called a “slimehead”? Yummm. But, don’t worry about eating slimehead, because according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, orange roughy is a fish to AVOID.

Photo courtesy of Colin Purrington.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Meal-time Mistakes

You have probably already guessed that food and eating are among my very most favorite parts of life. I love the fact that every meal is a new opportunity to experience pleasure and to feel good about what I’m putting into my body. The fact that I have the chance to get this buzz three times a day is pretty darn amazing!

So, rushed, stress-filled, tear-inducing mealtimes are not high on my list of fun times. But, as pretty much every parent of a toddler knows they are a sad fact of life. When we put Rosa in her high chair and place her plate in front of her, 80% of the time she eats without incident. She doesn’t always eat everything, which is completely fine with me, and she often makes a little mess, but, jeez, she’s two years old.

What haven’t been going well lately are our weeknight dinners. Anyah feeds Rosa supper at 5:30. I get home around 7 PM, and Dave and I sit down to dinner about 45 minutes later. Rosa is still awake, so she sits in a chair at the table, and essentially begs for food during the entire meal. We make her ask politely (“May I have some chicken please?”), and give her small bites. But all too frequently whining and raised voices ensue. Rosa will try to grab food on my plate, or yell, “Bread! Bread! Bread!” Neither Dave nor I enjoy our meal, and even worse, we don’t enjoy Rosa. (Although I can’t help to crack up when she says, “Give a friend a bite?”)

Plus, last night I had a flashback to every Helen Keller movie I’ve seen, with the blind and deaf Helen making an utter mess of the dinner table, grabbing food off of everyone’s plates, and basically acting like a wild child. So, I decided that a change of strategy is in order. From now on, even if she’s only eating a little bit Rosa will sit in her high chair. I expect a much more civilized dinner!

It’s amazing how many pitfalls can come with feeding your child, just beginning with what they’re eating. Yesterday I read a great article in the New York Times: 6 Food Mistakes Parents Make, from pressuring them to take a bite to serving boring vegetables. The article has been one of the site’s top two most popular reads since it was published, and I can see why: it offers practical advice that will hopefully make everyone’s dinnertime a true pleasure.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tofu Recipe

Last time I wrote about the yummy tofu dish I made I forgot to include the recipe. It's from Bon Appetit and here's the link.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Tofu Toddler

Rosa likes to "cook". One of Dave's friends gave her a small wooden cutting board, wooden fruits and vegetables, and a small wooden knife. She also has various cups and spoons. She regularly makes us "vegetable soup", offering Dave or me a spoon to "taste" her creation. We always tell her that it's delicious, sometimes reminding her to add a little salt. ;) Occasionally she makes pasta, her hands-down favorite food. Last week she came to me with a spoonful to taste, and I asked her what it was. She said "tofu" and my heart melted.

I know tofu gets a bad rap. My dad detests it (although his food preferences are a bit suspect; that's the subject of another post!). I'm not rapturous about it, but it's hard to beat as the building block of a weekday meal. It's rich in protein and relatively low in calories. It's inexpensive ($2.29 for nearly a pound at Fresh Direct), and it takes on the flavors of whatever you're cooking. I usually include it in Asian-flavored foods since that seems the most natural, and the spicy sauces help give the tofu some, um, taste. Think of it like chicken - a blank canvas. Plus, I actually like the smooth, crumbly texture.

Last week I made a simple meal of tofu and vegetables. I put it over rice, and we had a satisfying two-dish supper. I made it primarily for Dave and me, so it was a bit spicy for Rosa, but she still devoured the tofu.

So now tofu is already a part of her cooking repertoire! I couldn't be more proud, although I'm sure her grandpa is sorely disappointed. Don't worry, Dad. Rosa still won't eat raw tomatoes - just like you.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Olive Lamb Burgers

A few weeks ago I blogged about the olive lamb burgers Dave and I were raving about. I tested the recipe for Leite's Culinaria (I am a volunteer tester for the site) and, for someone who doesn't adore lamb, I strangely loved them. I couldn't link to the recipe, though, since it wasn't for public consumption. But, it's up now; here's the link. You'll also see my comment below the recipe.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Happy September

Because Labor Day is on September 1 this year, I have to admit, I feel like we were cheated out of a few days of summer.

But happily the end of summer does bring some wonderful culinary pleasures. I promised Dave that over the next week or two he would grow so sick of heirloom tomatoes that he wouldn’t want to look at another one until next August. And I’m gorging Rosa on the “peachy peachy”s that she loves since she won’t have another one until next summer.

Another annual end of summer treat for us is zucchini bread. My mom made this quick bread when I was a kid, and my brother and I always loved it. It's sweet with a hint of cinnamon and a brown top crust that adds a bit of crunch to the chewy, almost gooey interior. But looking over the recipe a few years ago I was frankly APPALLED at how much sugar there was in it. I’ve made a few tweaks over the years (subbing in some whole wheat flour, reducing the sugar, and cutting back on the oil), but it’s just as good as I remember. I’ve made two batches so far and have enough zucchini for at least another two.

So clear a little room in your freezer and spend 15 minutes putting together the ingredients for this yummy zucchini bread.

Mom’s (Healthier) Zucchini Bread

3 eggs, well beaten
3/4 cup canola oil
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 cups grated zucchini
2 cups white flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp nutmeg
1 TB cinnamon
1 TB vanilla

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Grease three small loaf pans. I use PAM.
3. Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl. Spread into the loaf pans.
4. Start checking the bread after 35 minutes. It may take up to 15 minutes more. It’s finished when a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean. Try not to overbake though!
5. Cool the breads in their pans for 15 minutes, then take them out of the pans and let them cool completely on a wire rack.

It’s a great snack and delicious for breakfast. I especially like it smeared with a little peanut butter (then again I like pretty much anything smeared with a little peanut butter).

So enjoy some now and thaw some later in the fall to taste summer again.