It's Almost Lunch Time

It’s the time of year that I start to get itchy about school lunches, and so far my anxiety and panic have not set in. In some ways I think I have the system down:

• I have some good fast stand-bys for quick lunches I could pack in my sleep (hummus, bagel, fruit, cheese sticks, chocolate milk).

• I’ve finally learned that I can actually put a lot of the lunch together the night before. That took years. Really.

• My girl started to pack her own lunch during camp this year. We shopped together to make sure we had foods were nutritious and that she enjoyed, and she packed what she wanted to eat from that selection.

One trick over the colder months is to make sure you have a small, wide-mouth thermos for hot soups and beans. Big pay off with the thermos.

Lots of people are talking about school lunches these days. I hate to give a shout out to Whole Foods these days because the CEO is just being a dimwit, but I found a nice flyer there with a great list of foods for lunch. It helped me think of using jicama, snap peas, and green beans and making wraps from whole grain tortillas. That made me think of the Levant sandwiches I used to get at La Mediteranee in Berkeley: basically cream cheese and cucumber with some herbs and lettuce rolled up in levan bread like pin wheels. Those would definitely go over big with my girl.

Our president is talking about school lunches too. I saw Obama interviewed by an 11 year old Damon Weaver, and he is ready to make a move about school lunch. He made similar points in a health care strategy meeting today.

So far, so good.

Thanks to Aubrey's Antiques (aubreysantiques.com) for the lunch box photo. That was the one I wanted when I was a kid.


Dinner (mostly) from the Farm

Today is the My Girl’s last day at Farm Camp at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, and it’s been a good two weeks for both of us. She’s learned about organic foods and composting, gone on hikes, and even prepared a meal in the Blue Hill kitchen. I’ve been able to shop at their amazing Farm Market, drink my weight in iced coffee, and get the sense that all is not bad in a world that create this kind of farm heaven. We’ve been splurging on fresh eggs from the farm, making an amazing egg salad last week and then a frittata (we red and blue flesh potatoes from the farm). Dinner came from the farm last night too.

It was a strange thing to be looking at the little piggies at the Stone Barns farm, knowing we were going to be having ham from there for dinner. I don’t know if I’m good at compartmentalizing or rationalizing: I’m eating dinner that came from the likes of you, little piggy, but it’s not you on my plate. Plus, if I am going to have some pork, how much better to know that the little critters lived a life of trotting around in the woods and rolling in juicy mud.

Once the ham steaks were decided upon (and they’re so easy, you just basically just have to heat them up), I knew that I wanted some kind of apple thing with them. It’s summer and too hot for applesauce, so I decided upon a slaw. My girl and I did this part together: washing the cabbage, fennel, and apple—then slicing them all into thin strips. We made a dressing out of Bittman, which we cut down for our small group: 1/2 C mayonnaise, 2 teaspoons cider vinegar, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon maple syrup. We mixed it all together, making sure we had a nice ratio of veggies and dressing and then let it sit to wilt and mingle in the fridge for an hour.

Evan grilled some more of that delicious light green oval-shaped zucchini they’ve had at Stone Barns, and My Girl whisked up a vinaigrette for the purslane salad, a green I had never heard of until the other day. It’s labeled as both a weed and a “succulent herb” full of good things for the body. It makes a tender and satisfying salad, little bunches of greens like watercress. I got a beautiful bag at the farm market when I picked up my girl from camp, but I’m afraid it’s the same vigorous plant that I’ve trying to weed out of our raised flower bed.


When Summer (or the Upper West Side) Gives You Lemons...

Summer in the city used to mean having an Iced Cappuccino with Chocolate Italian Ice at La Fortuna on West 71st Street. That a hardware store now occupies that site is very sad indeed, the only consulation being that it is a small business and not a big chain. I still mourn the loss of that place, and I’ve come to realize that the New York that you encounter when you first arrive becomes permanently etched as the way New York is supposed to be. So there shouldn’t be a Brooks Brothers on my old corner. That’s supposed to be a Chemical bank. But of course, if I had gotten there a few years earlier I would have longed for the space to be a car show room.

And Hadleigh’s is supposed to be a few blocks down on Broadway. That was the place to go to choose chocolate to sneak into the movies or Lincoln Center. It was the place to sit outside and have a paper cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll on Sunday morning. Hadleigh’s has been gone for a few years too, and it has been replaced by something more appropriate to the new neighborhood: Bar Boulud.

My friend Amy and I decided to stop there after a matinee the other day, and we indulged ourselves with a decadent cheese plate for lunch. Your first look at the platter makes you think that they might have made a mistake, no, we didn’t order the mouse meal (something they would have at Alice’s Tea Cup). But when you start in on the cheese you find you get nicely fed.

This is a long story to tell about their lemonade. They had two specials: basil and rosemary lemonade. They infused their simple syrup with the herb, then added the lemon juice. You poured in your own Pelligrino. It was like an herbal citron pressé, and perfect for a warm summer day.

I made some at home yesterday, just as described. I picked some rosemary, muddled it with a mortar and pestle, wrapped it up in cheesecloth and then let it simmer with the sugar and water.

The rest is just lemon juice and bubbly water to taste. Perhaps it will become a new summer tradition, she said with just a small amount of uncertainty.

Thanks to Jim in Times Square for the UWS photo from his flicker page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jim-in-times-square/2259528804/


So Far, So Good

The cooking en famille experiment continues, and I’m cautiously optimistic about how things are going. Last night’s meal of roast chicken and an assortment of veggies worked well. My girl and I did the beets together, cutting off the greens, washing them well, and putting them in a pot of shallow water to braise (it was too hot to roast). Then we sorted through the greens and had a pot ready with those as well.

Evan was in charge of the chicken, and then had the idea of grilling the rest of the loaf of bread while the roasted chicken rested. I had an adorable pale green squash that would be easy to grill, so I sliced that up, doused it in oil, salt and pepper, and put that on with the bread. We put some goat cheese in with the cooked beets after they’d been skinned, then simmered down some balsamic vinegar for a sweet and tangy glaze.

Dinner came together like a waltz, except for when the bee flew into the kitchen. Huge distraction, a bee buzzing around your kitchen, so some of the bread was well done.

Dinner was wonderful, and I invented this little taste sensation: grilled bread, spread with fresh goat cheese, topped with a slice of grilled zucchini, and topped with a few sprigs of thyme. Oh my.


Headline News: Woman Revitalized after Family Dinner Slump

I’ve been in a dinner slump. No joy in thinking about, preparing and putting dinner on the table. For the past few months dinner has been a job and an ordeal for me. I would have been happy to open a carton of yogurt for myself or have some cheese and crackers.

I’d been trying to figure out what was going on. I had lost my knack, my confidence and my desire. Was I slipping into a mild depression?

Time dragged on, meals were served (at home or in restaurants), and then a convergence of ideas emerged. It was like the clouds that have been coming together lately for our magnificent thunderstorms.

Here’s what happened:

1) Evan read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and became a convert.

2) My girl started Farm Camp for the third year.

3) I read Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Depression, by Mildred Armstrong Kalish.

4) I went on a quest for a coffee cup, which entailed driving for 5 hours, and we ended up listening to some of the podcasts on my ipod, including a TimesTalk with Alice Waters.

These four events happened within about a week and it suddenly dawned on me that the Family Dinner I was dedicated to putting forth needed to be re-worked. Family dinner had been a big effort on my part to put dinner on the table (set generally by My Girl) and then cleaned up by Evan. It had seemed like a fair distribution of effort, but not any more.

Evan’s interest in eating in a more responsible and healthy way made me realize that he had a bigger stake in the meal than before. He had always been appreciative of the meals I prepared and served. But one night I realized that he makes rice better than I do and that the work is easier when we share it—both preparation and clean up.

My Girl was excited about Farm Camp this year because it involves more cooking. She harvested zucchini yesterday. She prides herself on her ability to clean garlic.

I was drawn to Kalish’s book by the cover and the hope that her voice would be like that of my grandmother, telling stories about how to “make do” with less. She helped me get my shower door clean with baking soda (truly, make a paste and scrub lightly—all of the sick scum comes right off without the fumes or cost of the scrubbing bubbles) and reminded me about the green husk on walnuts and how you have to let them age.

And then My Girl and I listened to Alice Waters (who I both admire and find grating) talk about teaching children to appreciate good food by growing it and preparing it. My girl is already 9, ready and able to learn more about making meal plans and preparing food.

My vision of Family Dinner has shifted. It’s no longer just the three of us sitting down to dinner I prepared. A real family dinner has to involve all of us – in decisions, in preparation, in sharing and cleaning up. So last night we had lamb chops, mashed potatoes and cauliflower (My Girl’s choice of vegetable). We all worked together to get the meal on the table. My Girl picked and washed the rosemary for the rub, prepared the garlic and mashed everything up with the mortar and pestle (then made her lunch for camp when she was done). Evan put water on to boil, cleaned and chopped the cauliflower and made the mashed potatoes. I grilled the chops and prepared the cauliflower. We sat outside in the summer evening enjoying all of it, and I knew that I was on to something and that my delight in dinner was recaptured.


Fast and Easy Pasta Via Bittman

Spaghetti with Broccoli Rabe, Toasted Garlic and Bread Crumbs

I made this pasta for dinner tonight, and oh my was it easy. Want dinner in about 20 minutes? Here it is.

My only change would be to give a little more olive oil at the finish. Oh, and I used fine linguini. It was gobbled up by everyone.


Everybody Loves Chocolate Pudding –or- Family Dessert

My Girl’s pediatrician told me that you can count on homemade chocolate pudding as a good source of calcium, so what more excuse did I need to whip some up. I had seen some lovely looking puddings at the always cute Kitchenette restaurant. They serve them in canning jars, and that’s the kind of pudding I wanted to pull out of my fridge too.

I looked around for recipes and finally found one that didn’t rely on cornstarch and understood the benefits of good chocolate. Weeks went by. I tap tap tapped the ingredients into the little list app for my phone and carried it around with me for days. First I got the Valrhona chocolate chips at Fairway and stored them in my pantry for a couple of weeks. Then the day finally came (thank you, Spring Break!) when I had time to make the pudding. I purchased the remaining ingredients and some more canning jars and was ready to go.

Making the pudding itself was hardly any work. You could do it while talking on the phone and supervising children on a play date. I did! The bad news came when I realized that the pudding had to cook in the hot water bath for an hour, cool outside of the oven for an hour, and then chill in the fridge for another hour. I guess if you want instant you go the Bill Cosby route.

When the pudding was finally done we weren’t disappointed. It is rich and smooth. Thicker than a mousse, more complex and (dare I say?) more satisfying. In a few minutes all you could hear was the clink-clink-clink of our spoons trying to dig out the last bits of it from our jars.

The recipe made six - 1/2 jars, and we were generous enough to give two away. That meant we had some to spare, and it was even better on day 2, when it had set even more.

I was feeling guilty about the calories, but when I divided up the amounts of whole milk and heavy cream by six servings it really didn’t seem all that bad. Really. No really.

You don’t want to have the oven on for an hour in the summer, so you should really make this dessert soon, maybe tomorrow.

Valrhona Chocolate Pudding – adapted from Gourmet 9/04 and epicurious.com

yield: Makes 6 servings
active time: 30 min
total time: 3 1/2 hr

1/2 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup sugar
4 1/2 oz Valrhona bittersweet chocolate (61%), finely chopped, or chocolate chips
5 large egg yolks

Special equipment: 6 (4-oz) ramekins or 1/2 pint canning jars, it helps to have a kitchen scale

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 275°F.
Scrape seeds from vanilla bean into a 2- to 3-quart heavy saucepan with tip of a paring knife, then add pod, milk, cream, and sugar and bring just to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Add chocolate and cook over moderately high heat, stirring gently with a whisk, until chocolate is melted and mixture just boils. Remove from heat.
Pour mixture into a metal bowl. Set bowl in a larger bowl of ice and cold water and cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Whisk in yolks, then pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a 1-quart measure, discarding pod and any other solids.
Divide mixture among ramekins. Place pudding jars in a roasting pan and fill with water up to half of the jar. Bake until puddings are just set around edge but centers wobble when ramekins are gently shaken, about 1 hour.
Cool puddings in the water bath 1 hour, then remove from water and chill, uncovered, until cold, at least 1 hour.

If you’re using canning jars you can screw the caps on them to keep the pudding fresh or to transport to a really, really good friend.


Tamales - Epilogue

I know I skipped some steps here, going straight to the epilogue, but the tamales were such an ordeal that I didn’t have the energy to tell the tale until days after.

Lesson 1, which needs to be learned and relearned, is read your recipe though – carefully. I think my confidence and exuberance make me skim a recipe, rather than pay close attention. Whatever the reason, I need to get better at this.

Lesson 2 is if your mind’s eye sees a bunch of women gathered together to do the work (think quilting, making preserves, making tamales), it’s usually because it’s a lot of work.

So I left you with the cornhusks soaking and the chicken roasted, on the first day. That was the easy work. I used Rick Bayless’ recipes, which you can find here.

Making the batter was pretty easy, so I started that at 10:00 pm, after My Girl had gone to bed and the kitchen was clean from dinner. It basically involved making dough in the mixer and letting it rest for an hour. I made the rest of the filling during that hour, getting the meat from the chicken, mixing up the salsa and masa (masa makes it thicker). I used Trader Joes jarred tomatillo salsa, but I added the drippings (fat scooped off).

Next thing I knew it was 11:00 pm, and I was determined to finish the job that night! I dried off the biggest and best cornhusks and cut kitchen string in about 9 inch lengths. Bad news: I only had enough for nine strings. My visions of 24 glorious tamales began to dash. Still I soldiered on, spreading a 4x4 inch square of the dough in the center of a big husk. I made a little dollop (1 heaping Tablespoon) of filling in the center and sprinkled a bit of queso fresco on top. Then I rolled one side of the husk onto the other side so the masa would meet as I rolled up the husk. I folded the top and bottom sides in and tied it up length-wise with the string. This took a long time.

I read more of the directions: Steam the tamales in batches, filling one layer of a steamer at a time. Steam for 1 1/2 hours.

Midnight. I have 8 tamales (one string was too small, so I had to tie two together) making one layer in the steamer. They cook for 1 1/2 hours. I call my girlfriend in California and talk to her for as long as it takes to steam the tamales. I do a bit of cleaning while I’m on the phone. I rationalized that I could go around the house looking for more kitchen string, but assembling more tamales would take hours. What if I spent all that time and they were horrible? As they say, eight is enough.

The tamales now have to sit for another hour and then you need to steam them again (for 15 minutes) before you serve them. I put them in fridge, cleaned up the rest of the kitchen, and crashed in bed at 2:00 am.

Jump to next night and absolute tamale bliss. I steamed them and then carefully peeled back the first bits of husk. Soft, smooth masa is revealed. I cut into it and have a taste. I swear, it is one of the best tamales I’ve ever had. It is magnificent, beyond my highest expectations.

Friends said I could have used the leftover masa dough to make a tamale pie, and I could have. The thing is, the steaming is what made them so incredibly soft and moist. You’d lose that with a baked tamale pie.

So I’ll be making these again, but next time it won’t be a solo affair. I’ll be doing it the way it’s supposed to be done, with some friendly helping hands.


The Tamale Experiment

After having one too many dried out tamales, where the masa was like cardboard and the filling bland, I am embarking on an experiment: Making My Own Tamales.

Day 1 - Procure ingredients

Most everything is available at Fairway, though it was a search for the dried corn husks. I had bought some for Esme to make dolls with years ago, but I had to ask four employees where they were. Turns out they were in their usual place in the produce section, hiding behind some dried chilies.

I had to ask about the lard too. It was above the pork products in the cold room.

Day 2 - It's a start

I roasted a small chicken with salt, pepper, and coriander. I decided to stuff it with a lime, which seems to have worked well. When it was done, I cut it up and saved the juices, making stock from the bones.

I started soaking the corn husks in hot water, with a plate over them to keep them from floating up.

It suddenly occurred to me that some cheese would be good, so I googled "mexican market westchester" and found Mariachi Loco on Central Ave. (the ugly, busy street that every city seems to have). I got the cheese, some more limes, some warm tortillas, and some pre-made mole. On the way out I sampled a chicken taco at their restaurant next door. Muy bien.