Wednesday, December 09, 2009

When Cooking Became Optional

A few weeks ago I picked up the book Something From the Oven. Written by Laura Shapiro, the book chronicles the evolution of American home cooking in the 1950s as more and more convenience foods found their way into American kitchens. As Shapiro notes, post-World War II, “the food industry found itself confronted with the most daunting challenge in its history: to create a peacetime market for wartime foods.” It was an uphill battle, because most of the frozen and canned food, frankly, didn’t taste that great. (And some of the things the marketers attempted to sell – frozen coffee, dehydrated wine – never caught on.)

Convincing American women to purchase these products was also a challenge because, at the time, many women felt that using convenience food was cheating, taking the easy way out, and that part of their responsibility as a wife and a mother was preparing food from scratch for their families. As the decade progressed packaged foods made their way into more and more kitchens as advertisements and women’s magazines persuaded women that they weren’t shirking their duties by opening a can of soup. One of the ways food writers convinced women to use convenience foods was by encouraging them to “glamorize” the food to make it more sophisticated. Examples included flambéing canned peas in sherry, and concocting recipes like Gourmet Crab: canned crabmeat, frozen spinach, cream of mushroom soup, and Cheez Whiz.

What strikes me the most about this era in American cooking is that it’s the period when, for the average family, cooking became optional. For some people, women in particular, that was probably liberating. But, I think it’s clear that, as a country, we followed the food industry too blindly and too far. One of my favorite passages from Something from the Oven comes near the end:

“By now the steady accumulation of packaged grease, salt, and artificial flavors in the American diet [from packaged foods] constitutes a genuine threat to health and culture. Back at the turn of the twentieth century, we began the long process of turning over to the food industry many of the decisions about what we eat, in the name of habit or convenience or taste. Today our staggering rates of obesity and diabetes are testimony to the faith we put in corporations to feed us well. But the food industry is a business, not a parent; it doesn’t care what we eat as long as we’re wiling to pay for it. Although some people think of cooking as a choice now, no more necessary to learn than sewing or shoemaking, that perspective holds up poorly when we gaze around a mall or an airport at Americans en masse. Home cooking these days has far more than sentimental value; it’s a survival skill.”

My sense is that today people are starting to make their way back to the kitchen. Maybe they don’t cook from scratch every day, or they’re following the “semi-homemade” strategy, but I do think there’s a hunger to take our appetites into our own hands, to take responsibility once again for what we eat.


A couple of odds and ends:

If you haven’t seen it, check out my piece on iVillage about convincing my daughter to eat spinach.

Did you know Coolio had a cookbook? For a big laugh just read this page. I was quoted commenting on the celebrity cookbook trend in The National, an Abu Dhabi paper.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Do You Have Any Parmigiano?

That was the question my three-year-old daughter asked the mom of one of her classmates at his birthday party on Saturday. The boy’s mom asked Rosa if she wanted some cheese, referring to the cubed cheddar nearby, and Rosa asked, “Do you have any Parmigiano?” The mom reported this conversation to me, laughing. She knows that food is a big deal at our house, and she wasn’t altogether surprised to hear those words coming out of Rosa’s mouth.

When I heard, I was both proud and embarrassed. It was a complicated emotional reaction. I thought it was adorable that my little girl would ask for Parmigiano – using the real Italian name, no less! But I was also embarrassed. I didn’t want the other mother to think we were food snobs (even though maybe I am), or have her think that I was overly proud of Rosa for her food precocity.

I want Rosa to be choosy about what she eats, but not picky or snobby. So, I guess the happy ending to this story is that upon learning there was no Parmigiano available, Rosa happily ate the cheddar.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Stress-free Thanksgiving

I love planning big meals like Thanksgiving dinner. I make spreadsheets for my grocery shopping and detailed prep timelines for the week before and day of. Organization excites me! And, otherwise, I know I'll never get the shopping list right, and the odds of all the dishes making it to the table at the same time are very slim.

I'm introducing a new class to share my tips, tricks, and shortcuts for pulling off a delicious, and less-stress, holiday meal. The 3-hour workshop is held in my clients' kitchens, so cooks can practice in their own space with their own equipment.

Together we will:

* Plan the menu - from family classics to new favorites
* Decide what to make and what to buy (and from where)
* Put together a comprehensive shopping list
* Pinpoint dishes that can be made ahead of the big day
* Create a detailed preparation timeline
* Practice the dishes that are particularly challenging to you, be it the turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, or pumpkin pie

Thanksgiving is right around the corner! For more details send me an email at

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Vegetable Ambassador

By now, it must be only a cliché that people dislike Brussels sprouts. Most people know that these miniature green cabbages are one of fall’s most delicious vegetables. They realize that the reason Brussels sprouts get a bad rap is because too many generations of cooks boiled them to death, turning the sprouts into smelly mush. But sautéed or roasted these beauties are addictive, a delicious truth that has finally made its way into the mainstream. Right?

Well, based on the reactions of numerous passersby at the Tribeca Greenmarket today who were offered samples of my delicious Brussels sprouts I would sadly say no. Yes there were a few wonderful folks who proclaimed their love for Brussels sprouts, but most of their fellow shoppers were openly skeptical.

This particular Greenmarket draws an interesting mix of people – mostly office workers and moms/nannies with strollers. Unlike my neighborhood market, this one isn’t set apart from foot traffic. Instead, it occupies part of the sidewalk for an entire block, so a lot of people walking through aren’t necessarily interested in the Greenmarket per se; they’re just trying to get from Duane St. to Chambers St.

As the Greenmarket’s demo chef I consider myself an ambassador of sorts, someone who can introduce delicious vegetables to eaters, and encourage them to prepare the veggies themselves. I pushed hard on the Brussels sprouts today, cajoling people to try samples, and I think this simple recipe won a few converts.


Brussels sprouts often get a bad rap, but when cooked properly they are a savory, addictive fall and winter vegetable.

Ingredients: 2 TB butter
1 TB minced shallot
4 cups thinly sliced Brussels sprouts
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup water

1. Heat the butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once the butter is melted and the foam subsides add the shallot and cook for about a minute.
2. Add the Brussels sprouts and salt to the pan. Stir and continue to cook until the sprouts are bright green, about two minutes.
3. Add the water to the pan, cover and cook for three minutes. Test for tenderness; if sprouts are nearly tender uncover pan and continue to cook until remaining water evaporates, about two minutes. (If sprouts aren’t yet tender cover and continue to cook for another couple minutes.)
4. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Yield: 4 servings

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Happy Moms

This morning I worked with four terrific women on the Upper West Side who wanted to expand their kid-friendly, yet adult-appealing, dinner repertoire. One of the moms, Lauren Slayton, is a nutritionist who has her own company, Foodtrainers, and her own blog. Click here for her review of our class. We prepared spinach-basil pesto, turkey-herb meatballs, ham and white bean soup, and a few other dishes.

One of my favorite recipes is for the spinach-basil pesto. Pesto is a favorite in our household, on pasta, chicken, or even fish. While basil is traditional, pesto can be made with other leafy herbs, and this summer I decided to incorporate some baby spinach as well. The experiment succeeded, and spinach-basil pesto has become one of my favorite teaching recipes. It tastes great, and moms (including me) love that it's a vehicle for getting spinach into our kids! The pesto is also exceedingly simple to make and can be stored in the freezer for up to three months. I like to freeze small amounts in ice cube trays to defrost at a moment’s notice.


Ingredients: 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups moderately packed baby spinach leaves
2 cups moderately packed basil leaves
1 small garlic clove, roughly chopped
1/2 cup walnuts
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup grated parmigiano cheese

1. Pour the olive oil into a blender or food processor. Add the spinach, basil, garlic, nuts, and salt. Blend until smooth.
2. Add the parmigiano cheese and blend until combined.
3. Check seasoning. Add more salt if necessary.

Yield: scant one-cup

Monday, August 10, 2009

Rosaberry on the Newsstand!

I am very happy to share Rosaberry’s latest press. I was featured in the August issue of Time Out New York Kids magazine offering strategies to busy parents who want to learn to cook fresher, healthier meals for their kids. Pick up the issue at the newsstand or click here to see the article. There's even a picture!

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Cooking (or not) in America

Obviously I am a big believer in cooking from scratch, and I am always saddened (and amazed) when I read about how little Americans cook these days. When I saw Michael Pollan's cover story in this week's New York Times Magazine -- with the tagline "No One Cooks Here Anymore" -- I dove right in. Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, a slim volume that is one of my favorite food books (so practical and persuasive!), uses the release of the upcoming movie featuring the life of Julia Child as a springboard for the piece. He contrasts Julia's empowering cooking shows with most of today's cooking shows, which are actually more about eating than cooking. People could watch Julia's shows and feel like they could take a crack at preparing beef bourguignon or an apple tart. Julia actually enjoyed cooking and inspired others to enjoy it. Pollan notes that today's cooking shows are either about getting dinner on the table as quickly as you can with as few ingredients as possible (think Rachael Ray), or they're pure theater, like Iron Chef America.

As someone familiar with the economics of the television business I understand why Food Network airs what it does, and, really, today's food shows are just one result of the larger cultural shift away from cooking.

One of the biggest reasons for that shift is the rise of industrialized food, primarily introduced to consumers after WWII. Companies had the technology to make these foods (frozen dinners, cake mixes) and looked for ways to sell them to us. And after decades of marketing, Americans now accept cans of condensed soup, bottled salad dressing, frozen chicken nuggets, processed cheese, and brownie mix as real food, when they're really just products designed to make corporations as much money as possible. To make these processed foods taste decent, the manufacturers laden them with sugar, salt, and fat.

This is one of the reasons that Pollan argues that the decline of cooking from scratch in America is responsible for all sorts of ills, chiefly among them the rise of obesity.

I highly encourage everyone to read the full article. Click here. But here are some of my favorite quotes:

-- "Child was less interested in making it [cooking] fast and easy than making it right, because cooking for her was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles." This is one of my favorite parts about cooking. It is literally the only sort of labor or craft that I can competently perform. I cannot fix anything. I cannot sew. I cannot draw well. I cannot bead pretty necklaces (like my mom can!). Like most people in my generation who do most of their work in front of computers or at service jobs, I cannot produce anything worthwhile. Except for food. I can put together a pie crust, shape a loaf of bread, transform a raw piece of meat into something healthy and delicious.

-- "Currently the most popular meal in America, as both lunch and dinner, is a sandwich; the No. 1 accompanying beverage is a soda." Sigh.

-- "People think nothing of buying frozen peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for their children's lunchboxes." Really?? How long does it take to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Why are people throwing away their money?

-- "A 2003 study by a group of Harvard economists led by David Cutler found that the rise of food preparation outside the home could explain most of the increase in obesity in America."

-- "Cutler and his colleagues also surveyed cooking patterns across several cultures and found that obesity rates are inversely correlated with the amount of time spent on food preparation."

For the article Pollan spoke with a food marketing expert who was very pessimistic about the idea that Americans would ever go back to cooking their own food from scratch. Pollan asked him how Americans "might begin to undo the damage that the modern diet of industrially prepared food has done to our health." The marketer replied: "Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It's short, and it's simple. Here's my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That's it. Eat anything you want - just as long as you're willing to cook it yourself." Amen brother.

Pollan argues for home cooking not only to stem the tide of obesity, but under the premise that cooking is deeply ingrained in the human beings (one of the reasons so many people watch cooking shows these days even if they don't cook). Cooking and eating together is central to what makes us human.

What's on my menu tonight? Pasta with homemade pesto sauce and cherry tomatoes from the Farmer's Market and spicy Italian sausages. It will take me about a half-hour to prepare, and Dave, Rosa, and I will sit around the table for another half-hour eating, talking, and appreciating our good-tasting food. We will leave the table feeling satiated but not stuffed and ready to enjoy the rest of our evening.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Pie Perfect

Pie crusts do not come naturally to me. Long before I can remember, my mother reached the conclusion that her pie crusts turned out badly, and from then on she was resolute in avoiding them. Our Thanksgiving pumpkin pies always had store bought crusts (or even better, we asked that our holiday guests come with dessert in tow). When I was a teenager, a family friend famous for her pastry tried to teach me her method, which I believe involved warm water, but I wasn’t interested enough to attempt it later on my own.

Once I started really cooking in my mid-20s, I made a few pie crusts. Some turned out well; many others stuck to my counter when I rolled them out. Of course I made numerous pies and tarts in culinary school, and once I bought a food processor and KitchenAid mixer for my home kitchen my pastry comfort level moved up a few notches.

This weekend, inspired by an online video at, I went back to basics and made a crust using only my hands. It was the best I ever made – rich and flaky, yet strong and easy to handle.

I really credit the video. It featured Julie Richardson, co-author of Rustic Fruit Desserts. In six minutes she walks viewers through the pie crust process, from mixing the dry ingredients to working in the butter to laying the pastry in the dish. Best of all, the accompanying recipe yields four crusts! This weekend I made a double-crusted ginger-peach pie (my mouth is watering as I type those words). The filling was sweet and succulent, and the pastry tender and toothsome. On the second night we ate the pie Rosa was so excited she literally got up and did a dance. And I have two crusts waiting in my freezer for an upcoming pie or pies.

Click here to watch the video. I think you have to sign in to the site, but it’s a small inconvenience next to the pie crust wisdom you will receive.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dinner Together & Recipe Contest Winner!

As a cook who always wants to feed people and a mom who wants to encourage healthy eating habits I am a big proponent of eating dinner together. So imagine how happy I was when I saw that there is a company called just that: Dinner Together.

Started by Dr. Kathleen Cuneo, Dinner Together helps solve children’s behavioral problems related to eating and offers busy families strategies to help make dinner together a regular part of their lifestyles. As Cuneo notes on her website, “Research has shown that children who eat meals with their families frequently have better eating habits, better academic success, better mental health, and lower risk for both obesity and substance abuse.”

You can’t beat that.

I’ve been receiving Cuneo’s newsletter for a couple of months now and always come away with a great tip or appealing recipe. Recently she announced a No-cook Recipe Contest in honor of the steamy days of summer. I submitted Tuscan Tuna and White Bean Salad, one of my all-time favorite recipes, summer or not. It’s exceedingly simple (put a bunch of stuff in a bowl and stir), very flexible (don’t have one herb? Use another), and extremely versatile (try as a salad on greens, as a sandwich on toasted bread, or even tossed with hot pasta). It’s a winner, if I do say so myself, and happily Cuneo agreed! The recipe will be published in Dinner Together’s next newsletter, so go here and sign up for it. She also mentions the contest and the recipe on her blog. (For those of you who don’t want to get more messages in your in-box I will post the recipe here after it’s published in the Dinner Together newsletter.)

If anyone else has a great no-cook summer recipe I’d love to hear about it!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Greenmarket Love, Part II

When I shop for my family at the Greenmarket, I stick mostly with fruits and vegetables, ordering our proteins and dairy from Fresh Direct. But, when I was planning my Tribeca Greenmarket demo a couple of weeks ago I decided to make use of the wonderful, fresh seafood on offer there. Behold Sauteed Scallops with Salsa Verde -- a light, simple, and delicious dish. My favorite part of this recipe is how nicely the punchy lemon flavor of the salsa verde complements the richness of the scallops. And after tasting the impeccable freshness of the Greenmarket seafood I am vowing to expand my Greenmarket horizons.

This salsa verde is also one of my favorite ways to get vegetables into my toddler. A variation on pesto, it also works mixed into orzo or rice or served over roasted chicken.


Ingredients: 1/2 cup, plus 2 TB extra virgin olive oil
2 cups greens and/or herbs, e.g., spinach, arugula, basil, parsley
1 TB lemon juice
1/2 tsp. salt, plus more for sprinkling
16 large scallops

1. In a blender or food processor, blend together _ cup olive oil, the greens, lemon juice, salt, and a few grinds pepper. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, pepper, or lemon juice if necessary. This sauce should be loose enough for drizzling.
2. In a large saucepan, heat 2 TB olive oil (or canola oil). Season the scallops on both sides with salt and pepper. When oil is hot add the scallops and cook.
3. When the underside of the scallops are well-browned, about two-three minutes, flip the scallops and cook four more minutes, or until just cooked through.
4. Serve scallops drizzled with salsa verde.

Yield: 4 servings

I have another Tribeca Greenmarket demo coming up on Wednesday, July 15. I’m testing recipes this weekend… I think something with peaches is on the horizon.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Greenmarket Love

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure to demo recipes at the Tribeca Greenmarket. It was a beautiful day. My friend Cara came and took a few photos (see above), and I got to meet farmers, shoppers, and several moms and their kids who stopped by to watch the demo.

I have been absolutely in love with the Greenmarkets (NYC’s system of farmer’s markets) the last few weeks. Every Saturday morning Rosa and I head up to Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn as early as we wake up, usually by 7:30 AM. The weather then is perfect -- warm, but not hot -- and I'm always surprised and impressed by how many other people are awake and starting their day at that hour. We buy enough fruits and veggies for the week, sampling as many of the berries as possible, and head home for coffee (for me) or milk (for Rosa), the paper, and then breakfast with some of the foods we've purchased. It's a lovely start to the weekend.

This year, more than ever, I have been very attuned to the week-by-week changes in the market’s offerings. One week the strawberries are sweet, perfect jewels. The next week they’re a little mushier, and I know that I won’t be eating many fresh strawberries for another 10-11 months. That’s a long time! And it makes each bite of strawberry, when they are in season, even sweeter. As I'm getting older I'm trying to hold on to time, and it's really not possible. The fleeting seasons of my favorite foods only reinforce that. We must appreciate them while they're around and then let go.

At the Tribeca demo I prepared two dishes: Sugar Snap Pea Salad with Arugula and Pan-seared Scallops with Salsa Verde, two simple, delicious dishes that really capture the flavors of early summer. Here is the Sugar Snap Pea salad recipe; the scallops will come in an upcoming post.


Sugar snap peas usually rank high on kids’ vegetable list – not nearly as egregious as other veggies. For even more takers, try calling arugula by one of its other names: “rocket”.

Ingredients: 3 TB extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 TB fresh lemon juice
1 TB minced shallot
1 tsp. salt, plus more for sprinkling
1 pound sugar snap peas, trimmed
1 cup baby arugula
1 cup other baby lettuces, like a mesclun mix
1/2 cup crumbled soft cheese, like chevre or ricotta salata

1. Heat 1 TB olive oil in a medium sauté pan. When hot, add the sugar snap peas and sprinkle with salt. Cook until sugar snap peas are bright green, one to two minutes, stirring frequently. Set aside.
2. In large bowl, whisk together 2 TB olive oil, lemon juice, shallot, salt, and a few grinds of pepper.
3. Add the sugar snap peas to the dressing and mix.
4. Add the lettuces to the sugar snap peas and toss gently.
5. Add the cheese and toss gently.
6. Taste for seasoning and add more olive oil, lemon juice, salt, or pepper as necessary.

Yield: 3-4 servings


• Replace the arugula with more baby greens, or vice versa (my favorite).

• Omit the green entirely and serve only the sugar snap peas.

• Omit the shallot or cheese if they’re unavailable or unpopular in your household.

I’m still thinking about what recipes I’ll prep at my next Greenmarket demo on Wednesday, July 15. I think peaches may be mandatory – I made a tasty peach relish to serve over T-bone steaks on the 4th of July. Perhaps that will go on the menu -- we still have a few more weeks to eat all the peaches we can get our hands on before they disappear for another year.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Asparagus Options

One of the earliest vegetables to appear at the farmer’s market each year is gorgeous green asparagus – a sight for sore eyes in late spring. And even in early June there should still be a few more weeks to savor this versatile veggie straight from the fields.

Luckily there are an incredible number of ways to prepare asparagus, from the obvious (steaming) to the perhaps less obvious (folding it into scrambled eggs). One of my favorite ways to make asparagus is to roast it, a method I came to late in life. But I love it. The stalks become juicy and brown on the tips – crunchy and succulent. A simple step-by-step method for roasting can be found in a recent NY Times post about all the great ways to enjoy asparagus. Other recipe links include puree of asparagus soup and pasta with asparagus, arugula and ricotta.

Another of my favorite asparagus recipes comes from watching my sister-in-law, China, prepare the vegetable. This recipe takes less than 15 minutes to put together and is a classy side dish for almost any meal.

Asparagus with Sherry & Oregano
Yield: 3-4 servings

1 bunch green asparagus, trimmed
1 TB olive oil
1/3 cup sherry
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
Salt and pepper

1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
2. Add asparagus and a healthy pinch of salt. Toss with tongs until the asparagus is bright green, about three minutes.
3. Add the sherry to the pan and cover. Reduce the heat slightly and cook until the asparagus stalks are tender, about five minutes.
4. Add the oregano and a bit of pepper.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Into the Kitchen, Please

From starting a garden to bringing school children into the White House kitchen, Michelle Obama has been a staunch advocate of eating local food and healthy meals. I say “hooray!” to that. But, click here to read Amanda Hesser’s column in yesterday’s Times about one food-related thing Mrs. Obama isn’t advocating: cooking.

And, really, that’s what it all comes down to. You can have all the gorgeous, local, organic produce and grass-fed meats in the world, but if you don't know how to cook you'll still be dialing for takeout every night. Luckily, as Hesser notes, if you can boil water, roast, and season you can eat delicious food everyday no matter what house you live in.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Chocolate + Tofu = Yummy

“Chocolate” and “tofu” may not be two ingredients you’re used to seeing in the same dish, but I am here to tell you to keep an open mind. When I saw Mark Bittman’s Mexican Chocolate Tofu Pudding recipe in the New York Times last Wednesday I was immediately intrigued. For starts, I love the flavors of Mexican chocolate, with its warm cinnamon and subtle chile undertones. And the pudding recipe was so darn easy – melt chocolate, boil water, put everything in the blender – that I couldn’t resist. Even keeping in mind that one of the ingredients was a package of silken tofu.

I like tofu. I enjoy the texture of the extra-firm variety, especially sauteed or roasted, and I don’t mind the flavor. Frankly, tofu is pretty flavorless, which is why I’m always a bit confused when someone claims to not like the stuff. My father for example. I can understand why he would choose a steak over tofu, but to actively dislike the humble soybean curd? I think it’s mostly in his head, just too many steps removed from the meat and potatoes he grew up with on his family's farm.

So last night I made the pudding in about 10 minutes (no stirring on the stove!) and divided it into eight small cups and chilled them in the fridge. After dinner Dave, Rosa and I taste-tested the pudding, and it was fabulous: smooth, creamy, rich, and not tofu-y at all. Tonight it was even better, almost like chocolate mousse or pot de crème.

Obviously this pudding is excellent for folks trying to cut back on dairy, and I suppose it is a bit healthier than regular pudding thanks to the tofu. But the real reasons to prepare and eat it are that a) it's easy and b) it's delicious. Add a little whipped cream on top and this could be a dessert for company. In fact, I’m planning on making it the next time I see my dad – don’t tell. I think he'll like it.

To read Bittman’s column about the pudding click here. There’s even a three-minute video of him demo-ing the prep. The recipe:

Mexican Chocolate Tofu Pudding
Time: 10 minutes, plus 30 minutes’ chilling

3/4 cup sugar
1 pound silken tofu
8 ounces high-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon chili powder, or more to taste
Chocolate shavings (optional).

1. In a small pot, combine sugar with 3/4 cup water; bring to a boil and cook until sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly.
2. Put all ingredients except for chocolate shavings in a blender and purée until completely smooth, stopping machine to scrape down its sides if necessary. Divide among 4 to 6 ramekins and chill for at least 30 minutes. If you like, garnish with chocolate shavings before serving.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Muffin Quandary

A year or two ago I attended and enjoyed a taping of the The Martha Stewart Show. Before the taping I got a short tour of the kitchen and the set. One of the guests was chef Tom Colicchio and Annie Lennox was there to sing a song off of her new album. After the show taped Martha took a few questions from the audience. One woman asked for a picture with Martha, a request that was politely nixed. Another asked how Martha kept in such good shape. The last one was from a lovely and slightly fragile looking woman from New Jersey. She wore a skirt and pearls and looked to be in her mid-30s. Her question was earnest and her voice was hopeful; finally she’d be getting the answer to her pressing domestic question: “How do I keep muffins fresh and delicious for a day or two after I bake them?”

Martha stammered about following the recipe, saying you really should just eat them right away and rambled on a bit more, about what I don’t remember. Overall, it was a lame answer, muddled and slightly impatient.

I’ve often thought about that woman from New Jersey and how disappointed she must have been in Martha’s answer. In my musings, the woman was a devoted Martha follower who is now confusingly disillusioned with her idol. If Martha couldn’t speak clearly about how to keep muffins fresh then what did that say about Martha?!

But, the thing is, Martha was right. She just should have been clearer about it. Muffins really should be eaten the day they’re baked, preferably within a half-hour after they come out of the oven. And that’s just the way it is. Wait much longer and they'll lose their enticing warmth, crisp top and tender interior texture.

But the good news is that while the muffins should be baked just before serving, the batter can easily be mixed the night before and stored in a container in the fridge. I do this all the time for blueberry muffins, stirring in the fruit just before I bake.

I also have a favorite muffin recipe from my mother (via Susan Berkey, a neighbor in Logan, Utah circa 1980) that claims the batter, enough for two-dozen muffins, can be kept in the refrigerator for five weeks. That seems like a long time to me. But, I do feel comfortable keeping the batter for several days, and I did just that last week. I prepped the batter Friday afternoon, baked a dozen muffins on Saturday morning and then baked the other dozen before work on Wednesday. If I’d wanted I could have baked four muffins a day for three days or any other combination I desired.

I still eat one or two-day old muffins, of course. But it’s nice to know how easy it is to have fresh, warm, healthful muffins any day of the week.

Here is Susan’s recipe with a few tweaks:

Raisin Bran Muffins (originally called Refrigerator Bran Muffins for obvious reasons)

3 cups whole bran cereal (like All-Bran)
1 cup boiling water
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup molasses
2 cups low-fat buttermilk
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup raisins
2 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour

1. In a large bowl pour the boiling water over the cereal. Stir to moisten evenly, and allow to cool for a few minutes.
2. Add the eggs, molasses, buttermilk, canola oil, and raisins to the cereal. Stir to combine.
3. In a medium bowl stir together the baking soda, salt, sugar, all-purpose flour, and whole wheat flour.
4. Add flour mixture to cereal mixture and stir until just combined.
5. Store in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator.
6. When ready to bake, spoon the batter into greased or papered muffin cups and bake in a 425º oven for 20 minutes.

Yield: 24 standard-sized muffins

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Perfect Pantry

Now that everyone has seen my dirty little panty secrets (e.g., malted milk powder, microwave popcorn, and a honeycomb from 2003) I thought it would be wise to create an ideal pantry list. If I were starting from scratch, what would I stock my larder with? I would want foods that I could use to create a whole meal in a pinch and foods that would complement the fresh ingredients I was using. Foods that I used frequently, and others that are always good to have on hand… just in case. Here’s what I’ve come up with, and I’ve offered two tiers: just the Basics and Step-ups for those of us who like more options:

Basic: Long pasta (like spaghetti) and short pasta (like penne or fusilli)
Step-up: Basic plus another interesting shape like orechiette, whole wheat pasta, small pasta like pastina or cous cous, rice noodles, and soba (buckwheat) noodles

Basic: White rice and brown rice
Step-up: Basic plus jasmine or basmati rice, quinoa, farro, Arborio rice (for risotto)

Basic: White sugar, light or dark brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar, all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, cocoa powder, bittersweet chocolate chips (thanks Megan!)
Step-up: Basic plus bread flour, cake flour, superfine sugar, molasses, cornmeal, gelatin, yeast, light and dark corn syrup

Basic: Canned diced tomatoes, canned or tubed tomato paste, a couple cans of beans (e.g., chickpeas, pinto beans, black beans, or cannellini)
Step-up: Basic plus a variety of dried beans and lentils

Basic: Walnuts and/or pecans, almonds, raisins
Step-up: Sesame seeds, pignoli (pine nuts), dried cranberries, any other dried fruits and nuts you enjoy!

AND… panko, dried bread crumbs, oats, tuna canned in oil, and dried porcini mushrooms if you’re feeling ambitious.

Obviously this doesn’t include oils, vinegars, spices or anything to keep on hand in the fridge or freezer. We can play that game later.

Tell me what you like to keep on hand in your pantry and what I should stock up on!

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Pantry Inventory

A fully-stocked pantry can be a home cook’s best weapon in the never-ending war of, “What should we have for dinner tonight?” From cans of beans and tomatoes to pasta and rice, having a well-edited selection of non-perishables is very wise.

“Well-edited” is not necessarily an adjective I would use to describe my pantry selection. First off, my “pantry” consists of two 16 X 30 inch shelves -- not a whole lot of space. The other shelves in the closet hold cooking equipment and extra dishes. Once it became clear that I couldn’t add another item to my pantry and still be able to close the door, I decided it was time for a pantry inventory. Here’s what I discovered (keep in mind that all of my dried herbs/spices, oils and vinegars are in other spots):

All-bran cereal (to make refrigerator raisin bran muffins next weekend)
Cranberry Almond Crunch cereal
One bag microwave popcorn from Dad’s visit in October
Two packages black tea
Irish Breakfast tea
Herbal tea sampler
Peach tea blossoms
Tazo tea sampler (this is a lot of tea for someone who hardly drinks tea)
Instant coffee (for baking)
French hot chocolate mix
Malted milk powder
Three cans chickpeas
Can beef broth
Tube of tomato paste
Chicken bouillon cubes
Can diced tomatoes
Two cans tuna in olive oil
Fregola (semolina pasta)
Two packages rice noodles
Farro (whole grain)
No-boil lasagna noodles
Organic whole wheat rigatoni
Organic penne
Soba noodles
1/2 pkg thick spaghetti
Cous cous
Arborio rice
White rice
Dried breadcrumbs
One full bag and one partial bag of panko
Dark brown sugar
Superfine sugar
Palm sugar
German rock cane sugar
Gelatin packets
White flour
Whole wheat flour
Cake flour
Semolina flour
Multi colored sprinkles
Christmas sprinkles
Food coloring
Cocoa powder
Dutch-process cocoa powder
White chocolate chips
2 large cans French chestnut spread, one small can
Candied violet petals
lady fingers (for tiramisu)
A handful of dried porcini mushrooms
Crispy Wheats crackers
One bag microwave popcorn
Homemade taralli (Italian crackers made by a friend of my mother-in-law’s)
Dried pineapple rings
A honeycomb
Dried thyme
Sea salt
Dried Chinese ginger
Moroccan seasoning
Crushed red pepper
Gray salt
Herbes de napa
Smoked paprika
Kosher salt
Garlic rosemary oil
Ground allspice
Toasted spice rub
Balsamic vinegar
Can coconut milk
Grape jelly
Homemade apricot sauce
Peanut butter
Mango chutney
Two small, mostly empty bags of pine nuts
Pie weights (dried beans)
Sesame seeds
A tablespoon walnuts
A tablespoon pecans
Two tablespoons quinoa
Half bag red lentils
Four packets yeast
Quarter bag dried pinto beans

During my inventory I threw away a few pistachios, since I didn’t pay any attention to which pistachio nuts were recalled a few months ago, some toasted sesame seeds that didn’t smell toasty anymore, a bag of past-expiration pepitas (pumpkin seeds), and a can of coconut water that I bought once hoping Rosa would think it was juice. But it was too sugary anyway.

So, yes, this is a lot of stuff. But for the most part I’m glad to have it all. I could whip up a dozen meals based on the ingredients there (not to mention a few desserts and a couple hundred cups of tea).

After I cleaned the shelves I put everything back nicely and thought about what I learned. Obviously, being selective with pantry choices is smart. As is reorganizing frequently to remind me what I have on-hand in the hopes that I will use it (I totally forgot I had cornmeal and I really should use some of that chestnut spread). But the real lesson I learned today is clear: I need a bigger pantry.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Basic Risotto

In my last post I mentioned risotto as a “culinary blank slate”, and I’ve been making it more frequently for just that reason. The basic recipe is delicious, but it’s also a convenient, inexpensive palate for numerous ingredient combinations, i.e., whatever I have left over in the fridge or pantry.

Before I started making risotto regularly, I was daunted by the much-ballyhooed 30-40 minutes of constant stirring the dish “requires”. Note the quotation marks – risotto does just fine with frequent, as opposed to constant, stirring.

This change from constant to frequent makes all the difference for me. I can’t leave the kitchen altogether (to watch the Yankees game for example) while the risotto is cooking, but I can do other cooking tasks in between stirs. My results may not be quite as creamy as constant stirring would produce, but for me the trade-off is worth it since the risotto is still fantastic.

I’ve found that the most important thing to do when cooking risotto is to taste it periodically. There will come a point when it is perfect – tender, but with a bite. Cook it any longer and it will become mushy – still edible but missing the essence of what makes risotto so special.

The basic recipe is straightforward.

For two servings:

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 TB olive oil
1 cup short-grained rice, like Arborio
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano cheese
1 TB butter
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat the broth in a small saucepan. Keep it over a low flame near the risotto pan.
2. Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the rice and toast it gently for about five minutes.
3. Add the wine to the rice and simmer until the wine has virtually evaporated.
4. Add a 1/2 cup of broth to the rice, stirring to incorporate it. The broth will gently simmer, and the mixture will get thicker as the rice absorbs the liquid. Stay close to the stove, but feel free to do a few dishes, or trim asparagus or the like. Stir again a few times, and when the liquid is mostly absorbed, add another 1/2 cup broth. Repeat the process until the rice is al dente – tender, but with a bite. (The rice may be perfect before you use all the broth. Don’t force the rest of the broth in; your rice will become too mushy. Or, you may use up all the broth and still have hard rice. In that case, add a 1/4 cup of water at a time and incorporate it just as you did the broth. In my experience the risotto is usually ready before I’ve used all of the broth.)
5. Turn off the heat. Stir in the butter and Parmigiano cheese. Taste for seasoning; add salt and pepper if desired.

Once you’ve got the basic method down, you can vary it in all sorts of ways. Omit the butter and cheese if you want. Add any number of other ingredients: sausage, shrimp, blanched asparagus pieces, shallots, garlic, butternut squash puree, nuts, blue cheese, baby greens…wherever your refrigerator and imagination take you. Sunday night I made porcini mushroom risotto, and it was creamy, earthy, and deeply flavored. Recipe to come in my next post.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pizza Pizza

Confession: I’ve only made pizza at home twice. And it was just okay. The crust was soft, too doughy. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I love making bread. I love the moment when the yeast begins to bubble in the liquid. I love the feeling that I’m working with something alive. And bread truly is alive; I get a charge out of it every time.

Pizza is also attractive because I know Rosa would love it (duh), and there are a mind-boggling array of toppings one could use based on what’s around. Pizza is sort of a culinary blank slate, like risotto and frittatas, infinitely variable and almost always delicious.

So homemade pizza is definitely in my future, especially after watching the new, long-awaited video from Jill Santopietro on the NY Times website. She demos a bacon, fig, caramelized onion, and gorgonzola pie, prepared in her very small kitchen. It’s not a quick recipe, but man does it look good.

Click here to see the video and stay tuned for pizza!

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Shepherd's Pie

When I posted after Valentine’s Day about giving shepherd’s pie a try for St. Patrick’s Day, my husband’s cousin Laetitia emailed me from Montreal saying she had a sensational recipe for me to try: shepherd’s pie by way of Au Pied de Cochon. Laetitia is a passionate food-lover and a wonderful cook, who had made a few tweaks to the recipe, so I knew it would be a winner.

I loved, too, that it was from Au Pied de Cochon, a famous Montreal restaurant that I have read all about but not yet tried.

Anthony Bourdain sang the restaurant’s praises calling its food “all things porky, ducky, fatty and wonderful.” Chef Martin Picard has been hailed for his fidelity to local ingredients and innovative takes on classic dishes.

In fact, word initially spread about the restaurant thanks to its luxury poutine. Poutine is a Quebec specialty consisting of French fries topped with melted cheese curds and smothered in gravy. Just thinking about the dish makes me sick to my stomach, but Quebecers seem to love it. It’s their culinary claim to fame, and they’re sticking with it. Don’t even think about disparaging poutine when in Montreal.

Picard updated the “classic” poutine recipe by adding foie gras. Why not, right? If you’re already eating French fries, cheese curds, and gravy what will a little foie hurt?

But of course Au Pied de Cochon is much more than just poutine. The menu is unique, larded with an intriguing combination of offal, fat, and local ingredients. Much of it is mouthwatering: French fries fried in duck fat, foie gras with apples, duck magret in mushroom sauce, and maple syrup pie. And much of it is distressing (at least for someone like me who plays it relatively safe when it comes to food): tripe pizza, tarragon bison tongue, and stuffed pig’s foot with foie gras (actually this one doesn’t sound so bad).

When I read through the shepherd’s pie recipe Laetitia sent I was a little alarmed. Like the foie gras poutine, Au Pied de Cochon’s shepherd’s pie is similarly sinful, taking a “comfort food” dish and all that entails (i.e., more emphasis on comfort and taste than nutrition) and upping the fatty ante even more. Picard replaces the ground meat on the bottom with duck confit (basically a duck leg poached in duck fat). Top the shredded duck with corn cooked with onion, rosemary, two cups of cream, wine, and butter. Cover with mashed potatoes loaded with butter, cream, pecorino and a whole head of roasted garlic. The result is a shepherd’s pie straight from the mind of a culinary genius and a culinary rebel: someone who says to hell with healthy, to hell with low-fat. Someone who is focused on just the dish, on making the best shepherd’s pie possible, and throwing all dietary and other rules out the window.

It certainly fit with the “ducky, fatty, wonderful” theme, but could I really make a dish with that much cream, butter, and even duck confit??

Yes, I could.

(Although I did cut the cream by half.)

And it was sublime. Warm, rich, and delicious. Sweet from the corn and savory from everything else. I have my St. Patrick’s Day recipe -- thanks Laetitia!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Organic or Not?

Clients and friends often ask me about organic produce. Is it really important to buy everything organic, particularly when most of it is more expensive than its conventional counterparts?

The Environmental Working Group has the answer for us. The organization compiled a list of produce most affected by pesticides, fruits and vegetables for which buying organic is best, and a list of produce least affected, for which buying conventional is probably okay.

Buy Organic – the most pesticides

- Peach
- Apple
- Bell pepper
- Celery
- Nectarine
- Strawberries
- Cherries
- Kale
- Lettuce
- Imported Grapes
- Carrot
- Pear

Buy Conventional – the least amount of pesticides

- Onion
- Avocado
- Sweet Corn
- Pineapple
- Mango
- Asparagus
- Sweet Peas
- Kiwi
- Cabbage
- Eggplant
- Papaya
- Watermelon
- Broccoli
- Tomato
- Sweet Potato

One exception I would make is when shopping at the local farmer’s market. Small farmers frequently practice organic methods without going through the long process of becoming organic-certified. So your local apples or lettuce may be safe without actually being labeled organic. When in doubt, ask your farmer.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Cucumber Nirvana

Who knew that the mild, unassuming cucumber could be the basis for a knock ‘em dead dish? Nancy Donnelly, that’s who.

Nancy is a D.C.-based television producer and an avid cook. When we met a few weeks ago at a baby shower we talked food pretty much non-stop. I asked her what she’s cooking these days and she got the look of an evangelist in her eyes and said, “Cucumber salad.”

Here’s the story, in her own words:

Back in 2004 I was on a shoot in China for two weeks. We went all around China in that time, and had many incredible meals. My DP on that trip was/is a native New Yorker but he had spent many years living in China. So he knew where to take us to eat authentic, fresh Chinese food that normal tourists wouldn't easily find but that we as Westerners could stomach - and a few that were definitely experimental.

Everywhere we went we would order enough food to share (family-style) with our 4-person crew, our minder, our fixer, and anyone else who may have been joining us for that meal. Those meals were the best part of the trip. Just about every restaurant we went to brought out as an appetizer - without our even ordering it - a heaping plate of cucumbers drenched in a yummy dressing that I could only guess included cilantro and some kind of pepper flakes. Probably soy sauce. So garlicky and spicy but cool with the cilantro and cucumbers. Each restaurant had a different variation on them - spicier, milder, peeled cucumbers, unpeeled cucumbers, neatly sliced cucumbers, broken-up cucumbers, etc. But they were always wonderful. I asked what the dish was called and was told that it was simply called "Huang gua." Translation: Cucumbers. After only a few meals with these cucumbers our team took to asking for two heaping plates of them: One plate for the team and one plate just for me. I LOVED huang gua.

So when I returned from China I missed the huang gua so much that I emailed my fixer, Lu Bo and asked him if he could figure out the recipe for me. It was one of those things he as a Chinese man just took for granted - like a basket of bread in one of our restaurants - but had never thought about the recipe. He said he guessed it had cucumbers, cilantro, soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, and sesame oil. And to achieve the often broken-up appearance of the cucumbers, he suggested cutting the cucumbers into 3-inch sections, then cutting those sections in half, then flattening them with the flat side of a wide-blade knife (cleaver?) or something. Doing it that way instead of slicing them allows the scrumptious dressing to be absorbed into the cucumbers' little nooks and crannies!

I have been to a couple relatively authentic Chinese restaurants in the States since then and have asked for "huang gua" by name. It's almost always not on the menu but if you ask for it sometimes they'll bring some out for you. Even in the out-of-the-way, authentic places I've been to the Huang gua has not been quite as tasty as they were in China. And if you're looking for it at a Chinese joint mostly frequented by Westerners, forget it.

So, after much experimentation, here is my simple recipe - very much estimated, but easily adapted to your taste!

1 English (seedless) cucumber
1 handful cilantro leaves
1 medium clove garlic, minced
2 T rice vinegar
1 T soy sauce
1-2 tsp roasted sesame oil
1/2 tsp crushed pepper flakes
1/2 tsp chili oil (optional)

Randomly (but not completely) peel the cucumber and cut it into 3-inch sections. Put the sections into a plastic bag, take a heavy can of beans or something you can easily wield in your hand, and use the edge of the bottom of the can to lightly smash and roughly slice through the cucumbers. You just want them to appear broken-up, not mutilated - it may be a fine line! Open up the plastic bag and take the cucumber pieces out. Leave behind any mush you may have inadvertently created.

Combine cucumbers with all other ingredients in a bowl, toss, and enjoy!

This should feed two-four people, but I can eat the whole damn thing myself in one go.

I’ve made the cucumber salad twice now (and I currently have a cucumber in my fridge for another), and my mouth is literally watering as I think about it. The beauty of this recipe is that everyone can customize it to his/her own taste. I added a 1/2 teaspoon sugar to punch up the salty/spicy/sweet quotient, and one time I omitted the garlic and red pepper flakes and subbed in Chinese chili garlic sauce. It was truly awesome – once I had eaten all the cucumber I tipped my plate and drank the remaining sauce.

The pic above is mine (actually Dave’s); these are Nancy’s:

Friday, March 20, 2009

Not in My Backyard (unfortunately)

The Obamas have decided to plant a vegetable garden on the White House grounds, tangible evidence of their commitment to eating fresh, local, and seasonal food.

While, frankly, I’m not great with plants (I’ve had the same two somewhat sorry houseplants for seven years) I like to think that with a vegetable and herb garden I would be more proactive and dedicated. I would learn when to plant my arugula and snap peas, how to fertilize my potatoes and pumpkins, and how much to water my radishes and strawberries. I would weed and water in the mornings before the sun got too hot, and I would pick fresh produce just before dinner.

It’s a nice fantasy! And one that’s not likely to come to fruition anytime soon for this Brooklyn apartment-dweller. But, as Michelle Obama says, even if you don’t have a garden, “You can begin in your own cupboard by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables.”

Well said and well done.

Click here for an article about the garden.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Tough Night

I almost succumbed to the take-out menus tonight. I have a cold, work kept me away until 7 PM, and the few ingredients we had didn’t inspire me at all. Two flounder fillets threatening to go bad in the fridge. A lone grapefruit languishing in the nearly empty fruit bin. Rice? Rolls? Quinoa? Take-out?

I’m not anti-takeout, as long as it’s only occasional. We love burritos from Los Pollitos and I craved bibimbap from the Korean place nearby until it closed.

But we ate out a couple of times over the weekend, and I really didn’t feel like dropping $20 for dinner.

So I cooked. I put two frozen dinner rolls in the oven. I lightly oiled a Pyrex dish, salted and peppered the flounder fillets, and sprinkled them with grapefruit zest. I drizzled the fish with grapefruit juice and olive oil and roasted it for about 15 minutes. Finally, I wilted some baby greens with sautéed onion, garlic, and red pepper flakes. It would do.

I will be the first to say that this meal was only passable. It was nothing outstanding and nothing memorable. But it was a homecooked dinner, and sometimes that’s the best we can do.

(P.S. - Stay tuned for my St. Patrick's Day shepherd's pie -- I'm making it over the weekend.)

Monday, March 02, 2009

Not breaking the bank

It’s not even that I’m trying to cut our grocery bills as much as I’m trying to maintain them. As you can imagine, I could spend a FORTUNE on food. If Dave would let me, I would have a dinner party (at least) once a week. I would buy gobs of fresh herbs and exotic spices. Twenty-three-dollar-a-pound fish and porterhouse steaks would be regulars in our kitchen. And, don’t get me started on the expensive cheeses I would buy.

Since emptying our accounts to buy food is not the ideal scenario (in any economy) I’m working hard to maintain our standards of eating without breaking the bank. Think less prosciutto de Parma, more mortadella. One strategy I’ve been employing is to prepare more vegetarian meals, ideally two or three a week. Dried beans and tofu have become my kitchen friends. I’m also working more whole grains like farro and quinoa into my repertoire. Besides saving money, vegetarian meals are healthier for us (less cholesterol, saturated fat, and usually calories) -- and the planet. In a article
about Mark Bittman, Laura Miller explains the environmental toll of industrial meats and crops:

In brief, our current meat-heavy system of food production is unsustainable, a waste of resources and a source of pollution in the form of pesticides and hormones as well as methane gas from livestock manure. Our overreliance on a few big crops (especially corn and soy) [JH note: to feed the animals] depletes the soil, demanding the use of ever greater quantities of chemical fertilizers, whose manufacture requires massive amounts of fossil fuel. The foods produced by agribusiness, in the form of highly processed flours, fats and -- above all -- high-fructose corn syrup, have little nutritional value and foster a host of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure as well as obesity. The industries fabricating these foods have bought and paid for American politicians and government agencies, costing taxpayers billions of dollars per year in subsidies and other benefits paid to businesses who profit while eroding the public's health.

In keeping with my budget-friendly vegetarian goals I made homemade refried beans this weekend, and they were phenomenal! We wrapped them in flour tortillas with rice, avocado, and salsa and ate like (thrifty, healthy) kings.

I don’t have a specific recipe for the beans, but here’s a general method:

1. Cook a pound of dried beans according to package directions. I soaked mine overnight and then boiled them in water with minced onion, garlic, and green pepper. (Once cooked, I froze half of the beans in their cooking liquid for another meal and used half for the refried beans.)
2. Drain the beans.
3. In a nonstick pan, heat about a tablespoon of canola oil over medium-high heat. Add a diced onion and sauté it until it softens. Add a teaspoon of cumin, a healthy pinch of salt, and a dash of cayenne pepper to the onion and stir for about 30 seconds.
4. Add the beans to the pan, stir to coat. Using a potato masher, mash the beans to the desired consistency. Heat through. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper if necessary.

There was also an interesting article in the Times today about how cooking magazines are reacting to the economy and providing more articles to their readers focused on “budget cooking”. Click here to read it.

(As you can see from the articles I link to online, I love If they ever required a subscription fee to read their articles as they once did, I would comply in a second. Some things are worth the money.)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

What's Eating Our Kids? And What Are Our Kids Eating?

There are two interesting articles on relating to children and what they eat. The first What’s Eating Our Kids? Fears About Bad Foods cites a trend some experts see emerging about kids who have been so indoctrinated with ideas about what foods are “good” and what foods are “bad” that they sometimes develop eating disorders. Schools and parents are so adamant about the dangers of sugar, white rice, and sodium that kids become increasingly extreme and doctrinaire about their food choices.

It’s a controversial idea and one that I’m sure will drive many parents up the wall. I can hear it now: “First the experts tell us we need to educate our kids better and feed them well… Now they’re saying we’re doing too good a job!” To me, it’s the idea of complete avoidance that is problematic. I overheard a mother last month say that her four year-old daughter had never eaten a cookie. Never eaten a cookie?! I truly feel sorry for that little girl. A cookie is a small, but delightful, pleasure. And I wouldn’t be surprised if later on in life that girl couldn’t keep her hand out of the cookie jar. Personally, I’ve found that deprivation does not a good diet make.

But, I also feel sorry for the child whose parents stock the pantry with bags of Oreos, Mint Milanos, and Chips Ahoy and dole them out indiscriminately. Packaged junk food is not the basis for a healthy diet and these kids will likely grow up missing nutrients and possibly obese. Plus, they’ll grow up not knowing the sublime taste of homemade cookies, golden with butter and studded with raisins or chocolate chips, the pleasure of tasting a cookie right out of the oven.

So I guess it’s pretty clear that I’m not an absolutist when it comes to food. I believe in eating lots of the healthy stuff and a little of the less healthy (but delicious homemade) stuff. I also believe that we should teach our children about the pleasures of eating healthful, nourishing food without making them scared to ever touch a cookie.

The second Times piece that I enjoyed was an interview with Tom Colicchio, executive chef of the Craft family of restaurants and the head judge on Top Chef (which I love!). Colicchio is considered one of the best chefs in the country, and he spoke with the Times about his efforts to get his son to eat healthy food. For Colicchio the choice isn’t between healthy and unhealthy, but between processed and unprocessed. He says, “If food is well sourced and well prepared, I don’t think the word healthy needs to be brought into it. It’s healthy because it’s wholesome. That’s what we should focus on. You can buy a box of low-fat macaroni and cheese made with powdered nonsense. I’m not worried if I’m using four different cheeses and it’s high in fat. It’s real food. That’s what’s more important.”

The word “wholesome” is one of my favorite food words, and it goes back to the cookie question above. To me, eating a homemade chocolate chip cookie is wholesome, while eating a Chips Ahoy cookie just isn’t. (None of which is to say that our kids should be eating a dozen cookies every day.)

Click here for the whole Colicchio interview. It’s interesting and I agree with him in theory on just about everything. When asked about a quick recipe he prepares for his family on a weeknight he replies, “I can go out and buy clams and some shallots and garlic, chop it up, put some wine in it, olive oil. Let the clams steam open, add chopped up tomatoes and mustard greens and toss with pasta. That is going to take me 20 minutes. It’s a great simple pasta dish. It is that easy. Anybody can do it if they want to do it. It just takes practice.”

Bingo. The best way to ensure your family eats healthy food is to cook it from scratch in your own kitchen. And having those skills and the confidence that emanates from those skills doesn’t happen over night. It takes practice, but you don't have to be a top chef.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Hide and Seek

So back to cheating. I’ve written a longer blog post about the pros and cons of deceiving kids about the foods they eat, i.e., hiding fruits and veggies in their mac 'n cheese, chicken nuggets, and blueberry muffins. My friends at Go Baby have welcomed me as a guest blogger on their site, and the entry is posted there. It starts:

When I tell people that I teach parents and nannies how to cook for the family I am often asked where I stand on… deception. My answer? It’s complicated.

Click here to read the rest of the entry.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Daily Candy

Rosaberry got a shout-out on Daily Candy Kids today! Click here to see the story.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cheating on our Husbands

A couple of years ago Jessica Seinfeld and Missy Chase Lapine published cookbooks that explained to parents how to hide nutritious fruits and veggies in their children’s favorite foods. Think cauliflower macaroni and cheese, blueberry muffins with yellow squash, and brownies with carrot and spinach. The kids would eat their veggies and be none the wiser.

I’m on the fence about this practice (more on that later), but perusing Amazon today I ran across the title of another of Missy Chase Lapine’s books, and my jaw dropped: The Sneaky Chef: How to Cheat on Your Man (In the Kitchen!): Hiding Healthy Foods in Hearty Meals Any Guy Will Love.

Sigh. Have we really come to this? Hiding broccoli in our husbands’ meatloaf?

If my husband didn’t eat a balanced diet I would do my best to tempt him to enjoy the delicious diversity of fresh produce. But I’m not going to treat him like a child and trick him. If I were a man, I would be insulted by this. As the cook of the family I would also be taken aback by the idea that my vegetables aren’t appealing enough on their own.

But, maybe that’s the solution. Instead of hiding greens in other foods, let’s just make them taste better! I’d bet that if most men (or veggie-averse women for that matter) were offered nutty roasted Brussels sprouts with shavings of parmigiano-reggiano, spicy sweet potato fries, or garlicky sautéed Tuscan kale they would happily eat their veggies – and even ask for seconds.

I’m sure most of Lapine’s recipes are delicious, and, in the end, I suppose it’s the premise that I disagree with more than the practice. If we both liked the “cauliflower sneaking into sesame noodles" then we would eat it regularly. But, I would hope that my husband was man enough to still enjoy the dish knowing there was cauliflower in it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

V-Day Cocktail

I love holidays. I’m an anticipator, a gal who likes to look forward to things. Knowing there’s an approaching red-letter day on the calendar keeps a spring in my step and distracts me from the day-to-day grind: think crowded subways, freezing soggy weather, and never-ending potty training. Yes, holidays are a good thing.

Most of all I love holidays because they’re an excuse to make something special for dinner. I’m a pretty equal opportunity holiday cook. Birthdays, Father's Day, Halloween, Cinco de Mayo, Mardi Gras (pancakes!), Columbus Day (Italian), and my family’s “big four”: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve/Day, New Year’s, and Easter. On this year's list to celebrate in a culinary fashion: Hanukkah, Ramadan, Chinese New Year... why not??

Two holidays I sit out: Independence Day since it’s my birthday and St. Patrick’s Day. Irish food doesn’t really inspire me… although now that I think about it I really should try to perfect a version of shepherd’s pie.

And, of course, there is Valentine’s Day. Truth be told I’ve never been super-excited about eating out on Valentine’s Day. The restaurants seem like romance factories: churn the couples in, feed ‘em, and spit ‘em out. So, instead I cook. This year I prepared Cornish hens which I knew would make my husband happy. And they did.

But the part of the meal that made me the happiest was the sexy champagne cocktail that kicked everything off. I saw a recipe for Blood-Orange Mimosas on the Gourmet website and was instantly seduced.

Blood-Orange Mimosas
Yield: Makes 8 Drinks

3 cups fresh blood-orange juice (from about 10 oranges)
1/3 cup Grand Marnier or other orange-flavored liqueur
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1 (750-ml) bottle Prosecco, chilled well

Stir together juice, liqueur, and sugar in a 2-quart pitcher until sugar is dissolved. Chill until cold, about 1 hour. Slowly pour in Prosecco, stirring to combine. Serve immediately.

The cocktails were sophisticated, refreshing, and GORGEOUS. I would have been almost as happy just looking at them as drinking them. An added perk: the mimosas will go into my Thanksgiving and Christmas repertoires.

So another holiday down. Next is St. Patrick’s… and shepherd’s pie! Now, if only I had thought of something clever for President’s Day. Next year.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Savoring Saveur

Saveur magazine is not one of my regulars. I’ve picked it up a few times on the newsstand; my go-to cheesecake recipe is actually from Saveur. But when “savoring a world of authentic cuisine”, as the magazine’s tagline asks its readers to do, involves buying new equipment or venturing to Chinatown or Little India for ingredients (excursions I do enjoy … but not ones that generally work for me on a random Friday afternoon), I tend to do my savoring in restaurants. Saveur recipes are frequently more demanding than I, alas, can handle most days.

All that said, I picked up the January/February issue last week and really enjoyed it. It was a special edition – “The Saveur 100 Home Cook Edition”. The issue features an interesting list of 100 dishes, extraordinary home cooks, cookbooks, food markets, and essential pots and pans.

I cornered a few pages and prepared the Whole Roasted Red Snapper Friday night (except I used striped bass since buying a three-pound red snapper for two and a half people didn’t make a lot of sense). As you can see in the not-perfectly-centered photo above, you nestle a whole fish inside an aluminum foil packet with clams, kielbasa, fennel, fingerling potatoes, lemons, and herbs. The recipe also calls for olives, which I forgot to buy, so I subbed in briny capers. You sprinkle the mélange with salt, pepper, and white wine and roast it in the oven for about 35 minutes. I slit open the foil packet and brought the whole thing to the table on a large dish.

And we just dug in. We ate and ate and ate until there really wasn’t a whole lot left. Rosa loved the kielbasa and asked for more clams. For me, the fennel and the fish were the star. Dave was pretty happy with all of it. The ingredients retained their individual flavors, but everything had an aromatic, mellow tenderness from being cooked together in the moist environment of the aluminum packet.

It was also a very interactive dish since throughout we’d put a few nibbles on our plates and then reach back in for more. Probably not the most sanitary meal, but if you’re with family or close friends, I highly recommend it.

Click here for the recipe.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Tiny Kitchen

It’s almost a given that New Yorkers have small kitchens. Mine is no exception. If I had to guess, I would say that it is roughly six feet by five feet, and that most of the potential workspace is taken up by the sink, fridge, and stove. Only one person can comfortably inhabit the space at a time, especially if the refrigerator, oven, or dishwasher happens to be open. As I said, it’s small.

But, I’m pretty sure my kitchen is bigger than Jill Santopietro’s. Her kitchen – or at least what I can see of it – is truly tiny. But, she makes excellent use of it.

Jill is a recipe tester and food stylist for The New York Times, and recently she has been starring in short cooking videos posted on the Times’ website. In her latest she demos how to prepare Eggs in Purgatory, the mouth-watering recipe in last Sunday’s Times Magazine. Click here to watch it.

As you’ll see, Jill is entirely charming (just like in real life!) and knowledgeable. Her tiny kitchen travails are an inspiration for anyone who ever thought they just didn’t have enough space to make a satisfying meal. Trust her… you do.

Saturday, January 31, 2009


I admit, I was a Facebook holdout, dreading the time it would suck from my life. And, yes, it has… somewhat. But one of the true pleasures of Facebook has been connecting with people who were once very dear to me. One of those people was Kelly, my wonderful friend that kept me sane and happy during middle school and high school.

A couple of days after we reconnected Kelly asked me if I still made snickerdoodles, the cinnamon-sugar cookies that used to be a mainstay in my extremely limited repertoire. I’m not even sure where this recipe came from, although I think it is of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook genre. It was one of my mother’s favorites, and she actually made the cookies with Rosa recently.

In fact, I hadn’t baked snickerdoodles in years. But Kelly’s question made me eager to try the cookies again. I baked them this afternoon, and fresh out of the oven they were divine: meltingly soft, cinnamon-touched, and with a bite from the cream of tartar. Once cool they became crisp on the outside, but still a bit chewy inside, and very good.

Makes about 4 dozen

2 3/4 cup flour
2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup butter at room temperature (two sticks)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs

2 TB sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 400º.
2. In medium bowl whisk together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt.
3. Cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in eggs.
4. Blend the flour mixture into the butter mixture.
5. Stir together the sugar and cinnamon for the topping.
6. Roll dough into 1-inch balls and roll in the topping mixture.
7. Place the dough balls on a baking sheet, a dozen per sheet.
8. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until the cookies are lightly golden.
9. Let them cool for five minutes on the baking sheets and then remove the cookies to a rack to cool.

These cookies get hard all too quickly. My mom would put a slice of bread in the container and the cookies would become blissfully soft again.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Roasting Vegetables

First off, let me say that roasting vegetables deserves much, much more than a single blog entry. My most favorite way to eat veggies is roasted. It's so easy, so versatile, and so delicious. Almost any veggie can be roasted. My favorites at the moment are asparagus, cauliflower, fennel, and, of course, potatoes. The method is universal: toss the vegetable with olive oil, salt, pepper and roast in the oven until tender. Of course you could throw in any number of other spices or seasonings. Here is the basic recipe for roasting broccoli, which I did tonight.

Spicy roasted broccoli

1 bunch broccoli, cut into small florets
2 TB olive oil
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper
black pepper to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a jelly roll pan with parchment paper (my favorite because nothing sticks to it) or aluminum foil.
2. In a medium-sized bowl toss all of the ingredients together and pour the mixture into the pan.
3. Roast for 15 minutes or until the broccoli is as tender as you want it.

These babies were so irresistible right out of the oven that they became my dinner in its entirety. And of course you can adjust the level of salt and spice to please your palette.

Another roasted vegetable recipe that I really love is Balsamic and Parmesan Roasted Cauliflower from Eating Well magazine. If you don't skimp on the balsamic (or even add a bit extra) it's fantastic!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Ugly Apples

I was in Union Square this morning for an appointment, and I couldn’t resist walking through the Greenmarket even in the bitter cold. The stands were a far cry from their summer glory, but I quickly found Red Jacket Orchards and bought a few apples: three Cameos and two Galas. The apples weren’t shiny, red beauties. They were a mottled greenish-rust color, with unsightly bulges and dull skin.

Next I popped across the street to Whole Foods to buy a few staples. Walking through the front doors, the first items on my right were rows and rows of berries – blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries from Florida and Mexico. All of them were colorful and shapely, brightly beckoning a shopper sick to death of winter and eager for a little vicarious sunshine.

But no.

Over the years I have learned my lesson. Mid-winter strawberries shipped from afar may look inviting, but they taste like sawdust. Blueberries and raspberries in January may promise to cure the winter blues, but they are actually small bursts of sweet disappointment, never tasting as luscious as they do when they are fresh from the local summer sun.

I used to write profiles of chefs for a well-known food organization. After a while the challenge became putting a fresh twist on a chef’s devotion to local and seasonal ingredients, because, “local and seasonal” was the mantra of so many of the nation’s top chefs. The philosophy became so ubiquitous it almost became a cliché.

But taking a bite of the ugly, local apple today and tasting its crisp, honeyed sweetness brought the chefs’ mantras back into focus. Aside from its eco- and community benefits, local and seasonal tastes good… something I will instantly be reminded of when I bite into the first sweet strawberries of summer.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

In the Immortal Words of Jamie Oliver

"If you're going to eat three times a day until the day that you die why not be good at it? It will save you money. It will more than likely make you healthier."

And it will make you happier!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Practically Summer Outside

Compared to the last few days the 34 degree temperature outside is downright balmy. However, not quite balmy enough for me to forsake my warm kitchen. I’m cooking up a storm today; here’s the full list:

- Date muffins with a crunchy, nutty topping
- Pan-fried deviled eggs… so delicious, and I’ve never even liked deviled eggs. The recipe is from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper.
- Polenta cakes (made with last night's leftovers)
- Chicken stock
- Pizza with homemade dough (plus enough dough to put in the freezer for another pizza next weekend)
- Spicy roasted broccoli
- Fried mozzarella balls, courtesy of Gourmet magazine. Recipe here. This recipe has gotten mixed reviews on the Gourmet/Epicurious website, so I’m curious to see how it turns out. But, the photo (click on the link above) just looks heavenly…molten mozzarella oozing out of a crispy, golden coating. I have high hopes.

I will post a photo or two once everything is prepared.

Yes, this is a lot of food. But unless Rosa suddenly develops an enormous appetite, not all of it will be consumed today. We’ll have enough muffins for breakfast for a couple of days. The chicken stock is for tomorrow night’s risotto, and there will be leftover pizza and broccoli for tomorrow’s lunch.

It’s a win-win-win. Time spent puttering around a warm kitchen, ready-made meals for tomorrow and beyond, and, most importantly to me, delicious food to brighten up a gray day.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Taking Stock

When I return home after traveling one of the first things I do, often even before unpacking, is head to the kitchen and take stock. I go through the fridge and toss anything that is past its prime – the most obvious candidates are the fresh herbs in the veggie drawer that have either turned brittle or slimy. I smell the milk and make sure we have peanut butter and eggs. Next I open the freezer to see how much butter, drip coffee, and espresso we have. Then I check out our stash of garlic at the top of the fridge and our onion levels in the cabinet across the way. Finally I open up the pantry and see where we are with our family’s staples: raisins, canned chickpeas, canned tomatoes, pasta, sugar, flour, and salt.

It goes without saying that we have the exact same amount of food in the kitchen that we did when we left (hopefully!), so my investigations rarely lead to a surprise. But there’s something about making my way back into the kitchen after being away that is the true signal that I’m “home”. Checking out “what’s what” grounds me and reintegrates me into the fabric of my everyday (cooking) life.

I start to think about what I can cook the next day with the ingredients we have on hand and make a mental shopping list for when we have food delivered the day after that. Once I've puttered around the kitchen I can go back to the more nuts and bolts parts of everyday life reentry.

Taking stock is a popular topic this time of year, and Mark Bittman wrote a great column (as usual) with practical tips for cleaning out your kitchen – what to toss and what to substitute. Examples:

OUT – Bottled lemon juice
IN – Lemons

OUT – Dried parsley and basil
IN – Fresh parsley

OUT – Bottled salad dressing
IN – Oil and vinegar

Click here for the full column.

It’s an inspiring list with a simple aim – to encourage people to eat better-tasting food that also happens to be fresher and, in the end, healthier. Personally, I will prepare more dried beans this winter instead of always relying on canned ones (which are a big part of our diet). Canned aren’t the end of the world, especially when rinsed and drained, but the flavor and texture of cooked dried beans are a hundred times better. For someone like me who wants to eat delicious food as often as humanly possible, it’s worth the (small) effort.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Holiday Goodies

When we were home in Colorado for Christmas, we visited my friend Allison and her parents John and Charlotte. In addition to treating us to a wonderful impromptu wine tasting (at noon I might add…I love the holidays), they gave us a bottle of homemade limoncello, a strong, sweet Italian digestif, or after-dinner liqueur. We’ve bought a couple of bottles in the past but having a batch of Charlotte’s Christmas limoncello was special indeed. Per instruction we kept the bottle in the freezer where it became icy cold but didn’t freeze thanks to the astronomically high alcohol level. On New Year’s Eve we brought out the bottle to share with the friends we had over for dinner, and the limoncello was outstanding – bracing and lemony. Next time I’m in Colorado I’m planning to pop by Charlotte’s and ask, pretty please, for a lesson.

On another note, my mother asked how the chocolate pistachio cookies that I blogged about earlier turned out. The answer: pretty good. The cookies looked beautiful – deep brown and studded with shards of the pale green pistachios. The flavor was rich and chocolate-y. But they were crisp. As a soft, chewy cookie person, a crisp cookie seems like a bit of a waste to me. Even if the flavor is nice, I’m not satisfied with the texture. So, I think these cookies are off my list…even though Rosa couldn’t keep her hands off of them.