Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

The walls of old Delhi

The walls of old Delhi. Via Wikimedia Commons

 

New year, new feature: the Friday Round-up. Below are some features that I found noteworthy over the past week of so (although not necessarily dated within the past week). Filed under some of the rubrics that tend to garner my attention. Morsels for the mind and soul.

Art (Photography)

A while ago I discovered Tasveer Journal, an online magazine for photography in India and elsewhere, and I was struck by many of the collections and articles it features. For example: spend some time with Renunciation. These photographs that Pooja Jain has taken of the world of Jain nuns in Rajasthan will transport you to another time and place, not only of this planet but perhaps of your mind as well.

And in a completely different direction: the pictures that Elena Shumilova takes of her children and animals on her farm are magical. They will make your heart sing, if it doesn’t melt first. The noble, shaggy creature in the first few reminds me of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In fact, many of these look taken out of a fairy tale. The comment stream is interesting, if not particularly eloquent, because of the debate regarding photoshopping and other means of altering an image. Is it the photographer’s natural skill with a camera that matters most, or the final image?

India

This article in The Atlantic, and its accompanying videos, depicts a certain side of the Indian capital: what is left today of Delhi as a sanctuary. (This is not the Delhi that has been so infamously featured in the news of late.) Over the last eight centuries, wave upon wave of immigrants have washed into Delhi, seeking refuge. By conservative estimates, there are now about 30,000 refugees in the city, says the article. Video interviews put a human face to their experiences: an Afghan man who has yet, after 26 years, to feel a sense of accomplishment; a Burmese doctor offering free health care; a musician who found an opportunity which never existed for him at home.

Meanwhile, photographer Stephanie Sinclair, who has dedicated herself to documenting the harmful repercussions of child marriage, shares these pictures of young children in Rajasthan who have taken a stand against their own parents and refused to be married. Cynics may point to the fact that this is yet another western woman going into the dark recesses of Indian society and pulling out horror stories, but the mission is undeniably important, and these snapshots are compelling.

Food

This series has been going around for a while, but it never grows old, and it certainly bears looking at several times: what a week of groceries looks like around the world. As they say in France, sans commentaire.

Journalism

“This is Danny Pearl’s final story.” Intense, and very well told. A decade after journalist Daniel Pearl is beheaded on video (the story and images are haunting), his close friend and colleague Asra Nomani comes face to face with his killer at Guantánamo.

The craft of writing

“The what of the story … doesn’t matter one whit if you’re missing the why.” Read this piece by Ann Bauer who brings home the importance of focusing on reader-based writing, not writer-based writing.

The business of writing

“Should Women’s Fiction Have its Own Category?” Don’t get me started. Just about anyone who writes, and probably anyone who purchases books, is likely to have an opinion about this. The idea of categorization is on my mind these days as my publisher needs to provide the distributor with three categories in which to place my book. Here’s one take on the subject, by Yael Goldstein Love: that category needs to go. (via Lisa Borders.)

Writing and India

The Code of Writing: Vikram Chandra’s quest to recover his Indian self.” On computer programming, Sanskrit, storytelling and the culturally split self, among other things. Lengthy, but a good read, especially if you have read at least part of Vikram Chandra’s body of work. (I highly recommend Love and Longing in Bombay.)

Urban history & development

The historical soundscape of New York City. Here is a fun reconstruction of the sounds of the city in the Roaring Twenties.

Art (Dance)

Returning to the stage at 55, and with an artificial hip, Alvin Ailey dancer Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish has some beautiful reflections and video footage here. “When you’re younger, you have everything — you have the flexibility, you have no fear. But you don’t savor every step, every movement of every fingertip, every beat of the music. I feel like I’m tasting food for the first time.”

 

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Lunch time in Morgantown, PA, 1908 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Lunch time in Morgantown, PA, 1908 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Of all the back-to-school rituals–the alarm clock set 45 minutes earlier than for work and camp, the scrambling to get a solid breakfast into the children and to eat all together before the departure of the oldest, the reminders about back packs and homework sheets, the discussions about appropriate clothing and footwear–the one I most dread every year is the Packing of the Lunch Boxes.

Lunch boxes

Lunch boxes (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Seven years ago, when my oldest child started daycare, I panicked at the thought of how to provide her lunches. You’d think, having managed to feed and water her for two full years while she grew and developed wonderfully, and having a keen interest in food, I wouldn’t need any pointers for how to put some in a box every morning. But. There were all kinds of constraints, some self-imposed (there must be a starch, a protein, a fruit, a vegetable; there must be a variety of colors) but mostly externally imposed:

* The containers had to be ones her little two-year old hands could open on her own. In a pinch, the teachers would help, but they were big on fostering independence, for which I am still grateful.
* There could be nothing that required refrigeration or re-heating.
* Nothing even remotely nut-ish.
* Everything had to be cut up, or in finger-food pieces, or somehow manageable with her nascent utensil-wielding skills. Please include the utensils.
* Containers needed to be spill-proof, as the lunch boxes get tossed about a fair bit.
* Everything had to fit in the box, including a drink and, if necessary, an ice pack.

Don’t look at the image below

Not anticipating the intense feeling of inadequacy and horror that would result from it, I turned to the Internet for advice. There I found a thriving and entirely intimidating community of parents (I venture to guess they are 99% mothers) who post pictures of the intricate lunch boxes they pack for their children. They must spend an hour a day preparing them. (Although some say on their sites that they spend 13-25 minutes. But still.) I mean, look at this:

Bento Lunches

Bento Lunches

(I could find no copyright-free images, so this is a screen shot of the result page on Google Images for “kids bento lunch.”)

There are a number of sites with pages and pages of such pictures. From a design, architecture, creativity and health perspective, they are works of wonder. I commend the adults behind these creations for their enthusiasm and dedication. But good grief. I don’t know a single person who has the time to do this on a regular basis. (Not to mention the whole notion of creating a “need” to make food cute for it to appeal to a child. Look! You can eat the nose first!) Carrots carved to have rabbit ears. Cookie cutters used for cold cuts, with carefully placed kernels of corn or dried berries for eyes. (How about chives for whiskers?) Star-shaped cucumber slices and edamame on toothpick skewers. Thankfully for me, Pinterest didn’t exist yet. I don’t even dare to do a search for “bento box lunches” on there now.

I can do this

I wasn’t working much at the time (well, I was writing a book, but hadn’t yet learned, for better or for worse, to consider that “work”) so I actually did dabble a bit in making cutesy lunches. I confess there was an occasional gingerbread man shaped sandwich. Without crusts. I peered into the boxes of other children when I picked up my child at 12:30 at the end of lunch time, and was relieved to see that no one else seemed to have vastly “better” lunches. There was, in fact, one child whose lunch was always an almost uniform shade of brown. Poor kid. The teachers shook their heads and couldn’t understand, either, how his mother, who was a nutritionist, could do such a thing. Whole wheat pasta, whole grain crackers, Cheerios, raisins. Never a fresh fruit or vegetable. I was pleased that my child came home with a mostly empty lunch box, and I felt generally satisfied with my lunch-packing skills.

The honeymoon is over

Then, something changed in kindergarten. She started coming home with most of her lunch uneaten.I didn’t understand how she could not starve by 2:30 eating only a few bites over the course of the morning. She kept telling me there wasn’t enough time to eat. According to the school day schedule, there was a half hour set aside for lunch. How could she not find the time to eat? I knew she was a chatterbox, and could picture her gabbing with her friends at the table, but she wasn’t the type to forget completely to eat.

For three years, I went through the same (pointless) agitation every day, asking her why I should bother spending the time and effort to pack her lunches–full of things she liked, mind you–for her to come home with almost everything intact. Invariably, some part, smushed or bruised or no longer cold, had to be discarded. My time, my creativity, my early-morning brain cells, from the box straight into the trash amid crusty yoghurt lids and chicken guts. Then my daughter would sit and grudgingly finish whatever was left. That was the deal. No other snacks until lunch was consumed.

Brilliant, mom

One day of second grade, I made good on my threat to not pack a lunch. What’s the point? I asked her, when she noted the lack of lunch box. You won’t eat until you get home anyway. Feeling both childish and triumphant, I sent her off to school, assuming naively that she’d mope through lunch wishing she had one of my tasty, colorful, healthy and entirely appealing lunches with her, and return home with a new-found appreciation for them. Instead, she came home and nonchalantly mentioned that she told her teacher her mother hadn’t given her lunch, and the teacher had taken pity on her and plied her with classroom snacks–pretzels, granola bars and the like–and it had been a wonderful lunch. Phenomenal Mom Fail.

Jello is not a protein

We continued in this vein. Then it got worse, because she started not wanting certain trusty items. She said she simply didn’t like them anymore. I quickly figured out that it had to do with comments from others at her table. Children with more restricted palates and as-yet-to-be-developed social graces made faces at some of the “weird” things she brought to school. Weird being hard boiled eggs, olives, peas and other such exotic foods. (Just wait until Kindergarten gets a whiff of our Little One, whose favorite foods include capers and marinated octopus.) I tried to be understanding. The dynamics of school lunch tables can be crushing. I didn’t want her relatively broad taste in food (compared to her peers) to become a social burden. I told her we could eliminate anything from the rotation, but if it was a protein, she needed to come up with an alternative. We couldn’t simply narrow the list of options. But the alternatives she came up with were unacceptable to me: Fluff sandwiches. The kind of yoghurt that is bright pink and green. (This was when she still ate yoghurt.) Jello.

Advice from a seven year old

Lunches still came home half-eaten at best. I tried to include her in the planning, figuring she’d be less likely to ignore the lunch if she had a hand in setting the menu. I would suggest several items, and she would turn them all down. This was not working. One school night, she had a friend sleep over. The next morning, as my daughter was in the bathroom, I asked her friend, a good kid, for advice. How do your parents pack your lunch? I asked. She told me she didn’t really know. She just opened her lunch box and found whatever was there. I told her that I consult with her friend, but that it doesn’t make it any easier. “Why don’t you just not ask her?” she suggested with a shrug. Epiphany. I went back to making executive decisions.

Glory be

Finally, mid-way through third grade, there was a shift. I started re-integrating some of the items that had fallen off the list, and there was no backlash. The lunch box returned almost devoid of its contents, save for the empty containers. The kid came home, opened up the box at the counter, ate whatever was left while doing her reading, and didn’t ask for a snack until after that. She started requesting things like dried seaweed. She started commenting on how limited the diets of some of her friends seemed. “I’ve never seen her eat a fruit.” “There’s NEVER a vegetable in her lunch box.” “Every day, his mom packs him a sandwich, and every day, he just drops it in the trash. It’s such a waste. I feel bad for his mom.”

Hallelujah.

Little One is three now. Just in time to start the whole rigamarole again. Because as keen as she is on marinated octopus now, I’ll bet you anything it will fall out of favor between the years of Kindergarten and fourth grade. But that’s ok, because now Big One is back to more exciting foods.

Today’s lunch box:

* A tea roll from Wilson Farms (with cherry jam for Big One, and butter for Little One)
* Rolled up strips of ham
* Semi-cooked carrots
* A cider donut for Big One (her sister gets snacks at school)
* Apple slices and plum slices
* Milk in an insulated, spill-proof bottle with straw for Little One. Water for Big One.
* Ice pack.

Yesterday’s lunch box:

* Udon noodles (cut up for Little One) with a smidge of the cooking water and soy sauce to keep them from sticking, in a small Thermos.
* Edamame (in pod for Big One, out for Little One)
* Two clementines, peeled for Little One
* Banana for Big One
* Trader Joe’s chocolate chip granola bar for Big One.
* Berry yoghurt tube for Little One, with ice pack placed away from Thermos.

 

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Salade Niçoise

Salade Niçoise

It’s been a while since I’ve posted about menus, but of course in the meantime I seem to have continued, in collaboration with Next Doors, to feed my family and the “commune.” In case you, like I, are occasionally in need of a nudge to get out of a cooking rut, here is some inspiration for a delicious week of meals. Links to recipes are included whenever I can do so.

Monday: Braised & roasted chicken with vegetables, quinoa, and spinach salad.

I’m a fan of Mark Bittman’s recipes, often simple, usually delicious. For a juicy take on roast chicken, I use his “braised & roasted chicken with vegetables” which you can access if you are registered with the New York Times. It combines juiciness with crispy skin, vegetables and mushrooms. It goes swimmingly with multicolored quinoa. Use a simple salad of baby spinach, sliced red onions, avocado and cucumber for some freshness, zing, smoothness and crunch.

Tuesday: “20-minute lamb meatballs”, Ezogelin (Turkish red lentil and bulgur soup) and Greek salad.

In all honesty, the meatballs don’t take only 20 minutes, more like 30, but they’re fabulous, and do not involve frying (i.e. no spattering of grease for a 4 foot radius around the stovetop). The recipe is once again on the NYT site. The key is to form blobs (no need for perfect orbs) about 1.5-2 inches in diameter, and broil very close to the flame (3 inches or so) for just 5-6 minutes. A tahini/yoghurt dipping sauce (just tahini, yoghurt and lemon juice) adds some good tanginess. Serve alongside a hearty ezogelin corbasi (a Turkish red lentil and bulgar soup; great recipe for this and for many Turkish recipes in A Sultan’s Kitchen, by Ozcan Ozan, from his eponymous restaurant on State Street in Boston). Finish with a light, crunchy, lemony Greek salad, for which I provide the recipe in a previous post, along with some other summer meals.

Wednesday: Chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice, and baby spinach salad.

We recently purchased Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. This book has received a lot of press lately, and I can see why. When I first sat down with it, I began to mark appealing recipes with sticky notes. I soon realized I was marking every single page. This chicken recipe came out superbly well, especially the rice part, and was a breeze to make. The baby spinach salad, which involved pita croutons with sumac (available at Penzey’s Spices) and pickled red onions (which can be prepared in 10 minutes) was fabulous.

Thursday: Home made wonton soup

Ahhh. Next Doors has spoiled me forever. Chewy noodles, home-made and savory wontons, still crisp bok choy, and dipping vinegar. Full recipe, with pictures, here.

Friday: Salade Niçoise

I’ve featured this before, here, with a recipe. No need for anything else, other than a a good piece of bread of a baguette-ish nature, and some unsalted butter.

Saturday: Grilled pork with noodles and herbs

Once again, a summer hit from Next Doors, often requested by their dinner guests.

 

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Chateau de Chenonceau Kitchen Stove

Not my kitchen. Chateau de Chenonceau, France. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It wasn’t that hard, as it turns out. And the child gave me the entry point herself.

It usually occurs to 8-year old K to ask, as she somewhat grudgingly sets the table, what we are having for dinner. A few weeks ago, when she insufficiently masked her dismay, I put down the pot in my hand and looked squarely at her.

Me: I have an idea.
Her, rolling her eyes: Oh no.
Me: No, no. It’s a good one. I promise.
Her, scrunching her eyebrows: Yeeesss?
Me: How about, when you are nine, you can be in charge of dinner once a week. You pick the menu, you be the chef.
Her: Yes! (Jumps up and down.) Do we have to wait until I am nine? That’s still two months away!
Me: No. You can start now if you want. Next week. What are you going to make?

Thus was born a new experiment. I have to confess that I’ve been waiting for this moment for a while now. Last year, Leslie Kaufman wrote a piece in the New York Times on this subject. Her sons were 10 and 14 at the time. I read it and started dreaming (it’s ok, I know it’s a dream, I don’t expect it to come true) of sitting on the couch with a book and a glass of wine while K makes us a simple but healthy and appetizing meal. The reality, of course, is much different. Especially with a child who is still quite young, and with her three-year old sister in the mix. Quite literally. The scene is a bit more like the one Sean Wilsey describes in his hilarious piece, also in the New York Times, in 2011. We might even end up with more items, and people, to wash at the end. In my case, I’m also trying to relinquish responsibility and transfer it to the mature and responsible 8-year old, while attempting to tame a wild toddler we refer to as “the creature.”

We’ve set a few ground rules:

  1. Each menu must include at least one form of protein, one starch, and one vegetable. (Later on we may include dessert. We are all big fans of dessert here.)
  2. She is responsible for making sure we have the necessary ingredients in the house in time. For the moment, this means reminding me in advance to pick up the items we need, and when possible, accompanying me to buy them.
  3. I must be present (for the moment) in the kitchen, and I must be watching when she does anything involving the stove/oven or knives.

She has crossed that invisible barrier, the one that stands between “help” that is in fact totally counter-productive (involving more of my time and patience, creating more work for me, and making a greater mess) and help that is truly helpful in advancing the cause of the meal. Her sister, however, is squarely on the first side, capable of creating a mess of unfathomable proportions in the time it takes me to turn on a pot to boil. When I nearly slipped and broke my back due to a fine layer of flour on the hardwood floor the other day, my husband reminded me: this is a long term investment. Meanwhile, he is steering clear of the whole situation, although wise enough to praise the results with vigor and engage K in a discussion of her techniques and the finer points of being Head Chef. Plus he’s also cultivated her interest in barbecue to the point that she looks forward to watching BBQ Pitmasters competitions and talks about the time when the two of them will enter as competitors.

I’m trying not to place too much weight on this experiment. Sure, it might end up being a wonderful mother-daughter(s) bonding moment (like when we’re both bonded to the floor by the honey her sister spilled), but for the moment K is talkative enough, and I am available enough to her, that there are other opportunities for such bonding. It might end up fostering in her a greater interest in nutrition and health and the environment and such, but she’s already fairly attuned to these. Mostly, I view it from a practical perspective: it’s good to be independent, to know how to manage, to go forth in the world as prepared as one can be. The French have a good word for this: to be “débrouillarde.”

The first menu consisted of spaghetti with “meat sauce” (i.e. a simplified bolognese) accompanied by broccoli sautéed with garlic and olive oil. A relatively involved project to begin with, as we made the sauce from scratch. But K was game. She had a friend over that afternoon, and at 4:00 pm I called them both down to the kitchen.

K: Let’s go! I have to make dinner.
Me: You’re welcome to hang out and help.
Friend: Why are you starting now? It’s only 4.
Me (thinking Aha! Teachable moment. Lesson 1.) Well, it’s one thing to make dinner, it’s another to get it all done by dinner time. One has to plan. For example, the sauce takes a while to simmer, and we have the added variable of S. A 3-year old can be very disruptive in the kitchen. We have to allow extra time. You can’t just wait until you are hungry to start thinking about dinner.
Friend: Oh? That’s what my mom does.

That first afternoon, there were many introductory lessons: how to turn a burner on and off, and to control the flame. (K already knew, apparently, to keep the handle of the pot or pan turned away from the edge.) The importance of keeping track of what utensils and surfaces have been in contact with raw meat. How to delegate tasks whose outcomes are irrelevant to the progress of the prep to the little sister while still making her think she’s being helpful. That type of thing.

There came a time when every utensil and container in the kitchen was dirty, when the sauce was burbling up out of the pot in explosive spurts, when K was sprawled on the floor moaning, and when S was rummaging untended in the fridge like a bear cub. But the experiment was a success for these three simple reasons:

  1. Dinner was on the table at something that approximated dinner time, and was quite tasty to boot.
  2. We’d had a few good laughs.
  3. Most importantly, K wanted to cook again.

Which she did last night: steaks (rib eye, broiled, first rubbed with garlic and fresh herbs), corn on the cob, and sesame semolina bread with an array of French cheeses. This time, our commune neighbor 8 year old L joined in, eager to help out. Lots of small fingers to pull the leaves off the thyme stems. He suggested they keep track of the recipes, create a book, and publish it. My kind of boy! I don’t see that really happening, but so far I’m quite pleased with this experiment.

 

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Tarte Tatin. Photo courtesy of the blog of Christine Pae.

Tarte Tatin. Photo courtesy of the blog of Christine Pae.

Look, there’s no big secret to a successful Tarte Tatin, the traditional French apple tart baked with the crust on top, and then flipped over to serve. I don’t know why people think there is. Or perhaps, there is a secret, and I’m about to reveal it to you. Ready? Here it is: don’t try too hard. Don’t complicate things. I’ve often heard people bemoan their inability to make a good crust, thinking it’s harder than it is. And, believing they can’t make a good crust, they just give up, and deprive themselves of this heavenly dessert, looking at me as though I were a wizard for being able to conjure one up in my kitchen. Or if they can manage the crust, they then worry about caramelizing the bottom (which becomes the top) of the tart.

I say this: Skip the caramel top. Instead, make a simple brandied caramel sauce to drizzle on afterwards. Then, all you need is a good crust and 6-7 non-mealy, somewhat tart apples.

Here is how to make a crumbly, buttery, delicious crust:

In the bowl of a food processor, put:

1 ¼ cup flour, a pinch of salt and 1/3 cup cold butter, cut into pieces.

Process for a few seconds until the mixture is the consistency of rough sand.

(If you don’t have a food processor, just use a regular, large bowl, and two butter knives to cut the butter into the flour. This is not a big deal. I grew up doing it this way, and it really doesn’t take long. Plus it’s kind of satisfying to criss-cross the knives through the mixture, going after the larger butter clumps until the consistency is right.)

Now add three tablespoons of ice cold water, and process/mix again.

That’s it. Knead the mixture together into a ball, and flatten slightly with your palm. Wrap in Saran wrap and place in fridge for a half hour.

While the crust is chilling, peel and slice about 6-7 apples. I like to use half Granny Smiths, half some other kind like Fuji, Pink Lady, Macintosh, etc. Avoid Red Delicious or Golden Delicious. If you have an 8 year old helping you with measurements, and a two year old puttering around with bowls of flour and sugar and generally making a mess on the floor, you can feed them some of the peels. (Yes, in some respects, these smallish creatures bear a striking resemblance to piglets.) Place the slices in a large bowl and sprinkle with sugar (I use about 2 tbsp, but you can use more for a sweeter experience) and cinnamon (about half as much as the amount of sugar you put). Squeeze half a lemon into the bowl, and toss.

Take out a pie dish and butter it generously. Lay out the apples in it, in several layers. You may want to make the first layer into a pretty pattern, as that will end up being the top of the tart. The pie dish should be very full, a bit higher than the edges of the dish, as the apples will soften and fall in on each other. Put a few (4-5) small pats of butter on top of the apples.

Take out the crust and roll it out on a piece of wax paper. If necessary, dust your rolling pin with flour. The crust will be crumbly, so roll it slowly, taking the time to re-stick any bits that threaten to separate from the main piece. When it is big enough, flip it onto the pie dish. Tuck in any overhanging bits. With a fork, poke a few sets of holes in the crust, to let the steam out.

That’s it. Place in a preheated oven at 350 degrees (Fahrenheit) and bake for about 45 minutes, maybe a bit more, until the edges of the crust start to turn golden. You might want to place a piece of foil below the pie dish, in case apple juices burble out.

When the pie is done, remove from the oven, and let sit for a good hour or so. Then, place a plate over it, and flip the dish over, so that the tart ends up crust down on the plate. You might need to coax some of the apples down from the pie dish with a knife.

I tend to leave it at that, and serve warm with two things: crème fraîche (which is NOT the same as sour cream) and the brandied caramel sauce.

Voilà. Bon appétit. It’s not apple season in most parts of the world now, but apples are widely available, and this is a dessert that is always a hit.

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By now you may have noticed this blog is not about a single topic. I struggled for a while to think of my “niche,” my “platform” and all those irritating terms. And then I had the epiphany that I have no single niche or platform, and that this is a good thing. I simply believe in enhancing life’s richness by exploring many interests at once. I hope those of you who have clicked to follow this blog after reading a post on writing and publishing will nonetheless enjoy those on food, or parenting, or dance, or freelancing, or community, or how to manage a creative career, or juggle all of these at once.

So today, Friday Food.

Salade Niçoise

The harvest season is at its peak here in New England, and the farmers’ markets are hopping. Here are a recent week’s simple, easy-prep meals from our table, with recipes below.

(In summary, in case you want to jump down to one in particular:
Monday: Lemongrass beef on rice noodles
Tuesday: Salade Niçoise and chilled cucumber and yellow pepper soup
Wednesday: Spicy chicken thighs with rhubarb salsa, garlicky rice, spinach salad
Thursday: crab cakes, home made tartar sauce, corn on the cob, sauteed spinach, lemon squares
Friday: Fresh vegetable extravaganza!)

Monday: Lemongrass beef on rice noodles

This is a meal-in-a-bowl, a go-to for Mrs. Next Door. Fresh, lemongrassy, crunchy, fried-shallot-y goodness. And all four of the Commune children LOVE the meat, which comes out tender and flavorful. Apologies to those of you who don’t have a native Vietnamese friend conveniently living next door, but she did post the recipe here last March, so it is within everyone’s grasp.

Tuesday: Salade Niçoise and chilled cucumber and yellow pepper soup

It’s a sad state of affairs that every Salade Niçoise that I, or friends, have encountered lately in Paris, or anywhere in France (although I haven’t tested Nice itself) has included canned tuna. Seems like heresy to me. Granted, fresh tuna is pricey, but a little goes a long way in this dish, and it makes all the difference. One doesn’t need any more than a quarter pound per person. Upon returning from two weeks in France, one of Next Doors’ first requests was for a “real” Salade Niçoise. So from a kitchen in New England comes this Parisian’s version of the dish:

Boston lettuce, or other similar lettuce, not too crunchy, not bitter
Red or yellow baby potatoes, boiled whole until tender, then cut in half—about 3-4 per person
Green beans, steamed until crisp tender—a small handful per person
Hard boiled egg – one per person
Nicoise olives – a couple of tablespoonfuls per person. (Use Kalamata if you can’t find the smaller Nicoise variety)
Cherry tomatoes – 4-5 per person
Fresh tuna steak –1/4 lb per person
Capers
Olive oil, salt and pepper

Vinaigrette (for 4 servings)

1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp shallot, chopped fine
1 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
Leaves from 2-3 springs of fresh thyme
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt & pepper

Spread a few lettuce leaves on each dinner-sized plate, enough to overlap and cover at least half of the plate. Arrange potatoes, cherry tomatoes, olives and green beans on the plate, part on the lettuce, part not. Cut the hard boiled eggs in half and arrange two halves on each plate as well.

Pat the tuna steak(s) dry, brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat a non-stick pan, add a tablespoon of olive oil. When the oil is hot but not smoking, put the tuna in the pan. It should make a satisfying sizzly sound without spattering. I tend to prefer my tuna seared on the outside, light pink as one gets to the center, and still semi-raw in the center. (To be done this way only if you obtained the tuna from a source of reliably fresh fish.) For this, I let it cook on medium-high heat for about 3 minutes per side. (NOTE: the fish will continue cooking after you take it off the pan, unless you slice it right away. So best to take it off just before you think it’s ready. If you’re tempted to leave it on another minute or so, it’s time to take it off now.)

Slice the tuna into quarter inch think strips and distribute among the plates. Spoon the vinaigrette over all elements of the salad on each plate. Sprinkle with capers.

Serve with baguette and butter, and a crisp Sauvignon Blanc or Vouvray.

In this case, we also had a cold cucumber and yellow pepper soup with crab meat and chives.

This is a super easy chilled soup: toss all the ingredients in a blender, blend, strain, and let sit a couple of hours in the fridge. (If you’re short on time, it works fine to put it instead in the freezer for 30-45 minutes.) Five minutes at the end to prep the crab meat and mound it in the middle. It looks fabulous and impressive, it’s flavorful and refreshing.

Wednesday: Spicy chicken thighs with rhubarb salsa, garlicky rice, spinach salad

A good bet for all eight members of the quasi Commune, these chicken thighs are not really spicy but definitely flavorful. This happy cook gets to munch on extra chicken skin (I know, I know, but so tasty!) since the under-9 set tend to reject it. It’s crisp and moist, and, due to the skin, also just fatty enough, and the salsa, with its tangy-crunchy-tart-sweetness, is a perfect complement. Mrs. Next Door provided garlicky fried rice, and I put together a quick salad of baby spinach leaves, thinly sliced red onion, and avocado, with a homemade balsamic vinaigrette.

Thursday: crab cakes, home made tartar sauce, corn on the cob, sauteed spinach, lemon squares

By Thursday, the Commune gals sometimes needs a break from cooking. Plus Thursday afternoons are tricky in this double house, with two small kids needing to nap (invariably at different times), one older one going to kung fu class and one going (i.e. being taken to and from) a guitar lesson. By the time Mrs. Next Door and I are both home, it’s 6 pm, so time for something quick. In this case, crab cakes from our local fish store, Fresh Pond Seafood, which we were delighted to see open up a few months after we moved here. I served these with homemade tartar sauce, made earlier in the day with the following ingredients (and very approximate measurements):

Tartar sauce

3/4 cup light mayonnaise
1 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
4 scallions, chopped (green parts only)
2 tbsp dill relish
2 tbsp capers, drained
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce (which itself is a complete enigma to me)
Some small amount of a hot sauce of your choosing

We steamed some ears of corn, sauteed the leftover spinach from the previous night’s meal, and finished off with some defrosted lemon squares from Trader Joes, which are not half bad, and definitely tart.

Friday: Fresh vegetable extravaganza!

My fridge was exploding with produce from the farmers’ market, because I have a hard time controlling myself there. So I put many of the veggies to use in a modified pasta primavera, sautéeing them in specific combinations to keep them semi-crisp while I also boiled a large pot of penne:

First, quarter-inch zucchini half rounds, with thinly sliced carrots. Meanwhile, I steamed some broccoli until half-cooked, then added it to the zucchini and carrots, along with some sliced purple pepper.

Then, I took off the veggies, and in the same pan added some more olive oil, some sliced onion (fairly thinly cut in half rounds) and some minced garlic. When the onion began to soften, I added in some sweet Italian sausage meat, breaking it up with a spoon.

Once the meat was fully cooked, I added back in all the veggies, and tossed in a couple of diced up heirloom tomatoes. I also added some chopped herbs from our garden: basil, thyme and oregano. Finally, I poured in a quarter cup of white wine.

When the penne were done, I drained them, put them back in their large pot with some olive oil, added in the whole mess of veggies, sprinkled with pecorino romano and some fleur de sel, and served.

Following this was a Greek salad:

Chopped romaine lettuce
Diced green pepper
Diced cucumber
Kalamata olives, cut in quarters
1/8th inch cubes of feta
Thinly sliced red onion
Cherry tomatoes, cut in half

(The key to this salad is to chop the ingredients small enough that you get several in each mouthful, thus mingling the vinegarishness of the olives with the smooth-yet-with-a-bite feta and the crunch of the peppers and cuke.)

For the dressing, a simple combination of lemon juice, chopped fresh oregano and olive oil.

I could eat this salad all night.

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(See Part 1 for the early part of the week, from Korean kalbi to Greek salad)

 Thursday: Vietnamese bun ca nuong, i.e. grilled fish over noodles and herb salad.

This meal was courtesy of Next Doors. Mrs. Next Doors has a post about it, complete with photos, here. Do hop over and take a gander. She provides an easy to follow recipe. (Of course for me the recipe is super easy: go next doors with a tray and return with fabulous meal.) This is such a perfect one-bowl dish: fresh and crunchy and tangy and grilled and fishy and noodly and minty all at once.

Friday: Spicy Chicken Thighs with a Rhubarb Cucumber Salsa, multi-color quinoa, salad.

I recently found this recipe on Epicurious, and the chicken came out moist, flavorful, and a hit with all ages. The preparation is very easy: five ingredients in a food processor, baste onto chicken thighs (with skin—this is essential) in a baking dish, and roast for 25 minutes. The rhubarb and cucumber salsa takes 10 minutes to make, and is refreshingly crunchy and zingy, a good counter to the aforementioned chicken skin. Accompanying this was a packet of multi-colored quinoa from Trader Joe’s (cooked in chicken broth, not water, and tossed with olive oil, fleur de sel and some sauteed shallots) and a salad.

Saturday: Herb-roasted cod on potatoes, and sauteed asparagus.

Chop up a couple of tablespoons of whatever fresh herbs you can lay your hands on. Oregano, thyme, rosemary, chives, etc. Peel and slice (1/4 inch thick at most) some red bliss or Yukon gold potatoes. Toss the potatoes in half the herb mixture, along with some kosher salt and olive oil. Roast potato slices in a single layer (or slightly overlapping double layer) in an oiled roasting pan at 400 degrees for 40 minutes. Place fresh cod fillets on top of potatoes, brush with olive oil and sprinkle with remaining herbs mixed with minced garlic. Roast until fish is cooked through, about 12 minutes. We served this accompanied by asparagus sauteed until crisp-tender with garlic, olive oil and a pinch of fleur de sel.

Sunday: Memorial Day BBQ. Featured guest: North Carolina Pulled Pork. And lots of other things. Oh, and some people, too. We did need some help eating all this.

A couple of years ago we moved and acquired a bit of a yard. This, of course, was certainly not the point of the move, but having a corner of outdoor space has enabled many positive things, including an opportunity for parents to say to whining children “Why don’t you go play outside?” and some fantastic grilled and smoked meals. Within a couple of weeks of our reconfiguring the mud heap that was behind the house into a semblance of a usable yard, a big, green egg landed on the little square landing pad that J had lovingly planned for it. Yes, a Big Green Egg. It sits, mysterious and alluring, amid the greenery, and under J’s unrelenting attention (which includes night-time wakings reminiscent of the baby years) disgorges delectable eats.

Big Green Egg

The day’s full menu:

North Carolina Pulled Pork, with slaw and dip and potato rolls. While the exact recipes for the first three items now reside in J’s head, the inspiration for them came from a combination of Holy Smoke: the Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed, along with some lessons run by Lester’s BBQ.

Marinated steak tips.

Hot dogs for the non-believers, otherwise known as children.

Mac n Cheese (also from the Holy Smoke book)

Corn bread (purchased from Blue Ribbon BBQ)

Radishes with anchovy butter (pulled from the “sides” section of Serious Barbecue by Adam Perry Lang)

Chopped salad (inspired by Serious Barbecue, but modified for whatever we had in the fridge at the time)

Mini pecan tarts (brought by a lovely guest)

Brownies (recipe from the back of the Ghiradelli sweetened cocoa powder can, surprisingly moist and pleasingly rich, and helpfully made by Next Doors)

Ice cream from the unbeatable Christina’s

Bread pudding with rum sauce

Watermelon slices

Oof, what a week!

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One of the blogs I follow religiously is Jane Friedman’s. Writer, professor and social media goddess, she posts every day, and invariably addresses a question that I asked myself in the previous 48 hours. It’s uncanny. A couple of days ago, her post addressed a Top Ten list of Blog Traffic Killers. First on the list? Not posting enough. Gulp. Of this, I am guilty. Many of us are. With a lot of pots on the stove at once (including a couple of young children whom I try to steer clear of the stove), I often find my head spinning, and I apologize (to you, to myself) for not carving out more chunks of time to follow up on what I started here.  However, my family and I do eat. No matter what is going on, we manage, in combination with our semi-commune, to pull together some fine meals. A friend recently asked for more food posts, so herewith is a recent week’s menus, with an extra meal courtesy of The Soup Lady.

Monday: Korean kalbi, rice, scallion pancakes, miscellaneous banchan (Korean side dishes), green tea ice cream

A few months ago, J and I got hooked on a 13 episode PBS series on Korean food, called the Kimchi Chronicles. This show must have been such a fun project. What a way to combine travel, food, family, creativity and work. Marja Vongerichten, of Korean heritage, and her French chef husband Jean-Georges traveled throughout Korea tasting and exploring the specialties of different cities and regions, and then reproduced the recipes at home and adapted them to the American kitchen. The result was a mouth-watering show featuring gorgeously filmed Korean landscapes and markets, and of course a cookbook, which we purchased. We are fortunate to live within 15 minutes of the Korean market that sponsored the show, and thus have access to all the ingredients. On Monday, we feasted on the leftovers of the weekend’s experiments: Kalbi (very thinly sliced barbecued short ribs, for which we implemented a short-cut by purchasing a pre-made Chungjungwon brand kalbi marinade) and seafood and scallion pancakes. The Soup Lady threw some jasmine rice in the rice cooker and whipped up some parboiled spinach with sesame oil, garlic and red peppers, we put out some purchased banchan (cucumber kimchi, blanched bean sprouts with sesame oil, seaweed salad) and yum! Added bonus: The children devoured the meat (although Little One also stole all the shrimp from my pancakes).

(Note: I know, this all deserves some photos. Next time.)

Tuesday: Fusilli, sweet Italian pork sausage and broccoli rabe, with a salad

Work day, school day. This is a good meal that can be pulled together quickly, with only slight modifications for children who have issues with everything mixed up in one dish. (The rule I am trying to enforce is that modifications are acceptable for children if they use the same ingredients as the grown-up meal, and don’t involve more work. Exceptions are made under certain circumstances, although I’m trying to reduce their occurrence. Little One turned two this week, which is the point at which I’d told myself I would stop altering things specifically for her. Let’s see how well I stick to that.) The pasta works for everyone. While it is cooking, remove the casings from some sweet Italian sausages (about one per person) and saute the crumbled sausage meat. In another pan, sauté a bunch of chopped broccoli rabe in olive oil with some minced garlic and hot pepper flakes. When it is crisp-tender, combine with the sausage, and toss the whole lot into the drained pasta. Serve with some grated pecorino romano for sprinkling, and a salad. (The kids got the pasta, the crumbled sausage, and some steamed broccoli.)

Wednesday: garlicky shrimp, baguette, Greek salad

Summery weather has arrived, and as soon as this happens, I find myself craving a good Greek salad. Here’s my favorite combination, which provides a delectable crunchiness, with the perfect combination of the acidity of the lemon juice, the saltiness of the olives, and the tangy smoothness of the sheepsmilk feta:

Cucumber, cubed (I like those little Persian ones, skin on)
Green pepper, cubed
Red onion, sliced (the key is to make the pieces thin and small enough that they do no overpower the mouthful)
Pitted kalamata olives, cut in half (not jarred)
Greek feta (I prefer the kind sold in a bloc in liquid, not the crumbled, dry kind)
Romaine lettuce, chopped
Cherry tomatoes, halved (optional)
Simple dressing of lemon juice, olive oil and chopped fresh oregano.

Accompanying the salad was a clay potful of shrimp sauteed in a generous amount of olive oil, butter and garlic. (This can also, of course, be done in a regular skillet.) If you have some Vermouth or a bottle of white wine handy, then I recommend adding a few tablespoonfuls into the pan once you remove the shrimp, and letting the winey, garlicky, buttery goodness simmer an additional minute before pouring it back onto the shrimp.

And essential to this meal is a good, crusty bread for dipping. Serve with a chilled Vouvray or Sauvignon Blanc.

Stay tuned for Part 2, from Vietnamese bun ca nuong to North Carolina pulled pork.

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I would have enough to fill my time without having to attend to the need to eat, but it just so happens I care a good deal about food, as does the rest of my family. Some folk are so driven by their work or their art that food and its preparation take a back seat. But for me, the preparation of food is a creative endeavor in and of itself. And yet, the need to feed a family several times a day, every day, can certainly seem like a chore at times. So in the hopes that it might help folks in need of meal ideas—because we all get in a rut now and then—I’ll post our Monday-through-Friday menus on occasion, with links to recipes. One caveat: thanks to our quasi-commune, we are frequently the lucky recipients of fabulous Vietnamese concoctions, often in the form of pho or other soups. I can take no credit for those, nor share the recipes, as they are a mystery to me. I know they often involve oxtail or dried squid, and virtually always fish sauce.

Here’s last week:

Monday:

Adults: Leftovers from a local Indian restaurant. I’ve found that, contrary to some expectations, it’s harder to cook on weekends than on weekdays, perhaps because I’m “on” all day on weekdays, but try to relax a bit on weekends, and spending time in the kitchen after ferrying kids to activities and doing my own extra-curriculars doesn’t qualify as relaxing. (Although K recently asked why I’m so tired often, when I have “plenty of time to rest.” Huh.) Hence there are sometimes leftovers from a weekend take-out night.

Kids: Leftover “sausage pasta,” as it’s come to be known in our house, and sauteed okra. (I use the chopped, frozen kind. Both kids like it. Says K: “I like how okra has slime in it. It gives my mouth a massage.”) One could go on a tangent about how kids should really just eat whatever the parents are eating, but I’m not going there right now. Besides, the Indian leftovers were pretty spicy.

The “sausage pasta” is a simple concoction, liked by all 8 of us (our family and Next Doors) and easily made in large quantity. For 4 people: Saute a chopped onion with two cloves of minced garlic and a sprinkling of hot pepper flakes. When the onion is translucent, add in a 28 oz can of diced tomatoes, with juices. Simmer, uncovered, until most of the liquid has evaporated, approx 20 minutes, stirring now and then. In the meantime, place 5 sweet Italian sausages in a pan and pour in a half cup of white wine. Prick the sausages with a fork first. Cook, covered, until sausages are cooked through. Make whatever quantity of pasta you need (I tend to use rotini or fusilli). Mix everything together, and sprinkle with grated Pecorino Romano. The whole thing takes about half an hour, if you have three burners going at once.

Tuesday:

Crêpes. This was a bit of an extravaganza. Delicious outcome, but I don’t recommend doing it unless you have a couple of hours to devote to it. We had friends over, which is how I justified the effort to myself. But I was beat by the end of the evening.

I made about 40 crêpes, using the basic crêpe recipe from the Joy of Cooking, and quadrupling it. (A crêpe pan is not necessary, as long as you have a good non-stick pan.) Everyone had two savory ones and two sweet ones. For the savory ones, I prepared a variety of fillings, and made them to order, as it were. Gruyère, fried eggs, ham, sauteed spinach with garlic and red peppers, and sauteed mushrooms with fresh thyme. A slight sprinkling of fleur de sel in each. Accompanied by salad for adults, and steamed broccoli for the kids, who seem to object to lettuce.

Side note: Admittedly, “crêpes” is a difficult word to pronounce if you are not a native French speaker. But hearing “crayps” is painful to me. Try saying “creppe” instead. (The “s” is silent, and the “e” is a short “e”, as in eggs.) Although then, I suppose, you run the risk of not being understood by most people.

Wednesday:

Sauteed salmon with balsamic glaze, recipe from Epicurious.com. Quick, simple and delicious. Accompanied by quinoa, and green beans steamed and then sauteed with shallots. If you organize things right, this whole meal can be made in about half an hour. A bit longer if you have a baby clinging to your leg. Consider opening a bottle of chilled Vouvray. If aforementioned baby is in the picture, consider chilling it (the wine) in time to partake of it while cooking.

Thursday:

I was out at a meeting with my writing group. Husband had a leftover portion of boeuf bourguignon that I pulled from the freezer (recipe next time I make it) and egg noodles, with a salad. The kids had a couple of chicken drumsticks briefly marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, ground cumin and salt, with okra and egg noodles. I had a lovely evening out talking about books and writing, and eating good food with whose preparation I had nothing to do. And no, I don’t dangle my participles.

Friday:

Another good meal to feed all eight of us, with leftovers: Mark Bittman’s “anti-roast-chicken” as we call it. This is a good alternative to a roast chicken, with more going on, yet not much more effort. I’ve become a huge fan of Mark Bittman, who has the New York Times Magazine food feature now. This recipe was printed in the March 13, 2011 issue. Bittman calls it “Braised and Roasted Chicken with Vegetables.” The recipe is like so (copied here in case it disappears from online accessibility):

2 tbsp olive oil or butter (he actually calls for chicken fat, reserved from chicken-skin croutons, but good grief.)

2 skinless chicken leg-thigh quarters

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 skin-on chicken breast, split in two

3 leeks, trimmed, cleaned and chopped

4 carrots, chopped

6 celery ribs, chopped

12 to 16 oz cremini, shiitake, button or other fresh mushrooms, quartered or sliced

3 to 4 sprigs thyme or rosemary (I tend to use both.)

Chicken-wing meat (I don’t find this necessary)

Chicken stock (Bittman recommends making your own. Which is great and all, but in the interest of time, I use the boxed stuff.)

  1. Heat the oven to 350. Put the butter/olive oil/chicken fat in a roasting pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Sprinkle the leg quarters with salt and pepper and add them to the pan, flesh side down. Cook, turning and rotating the pieces as necessary, until well browned on both sides, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove, then add the breast halves, skin side down. Brown them well, then flip and cook for just 1 minute or so; remove to a separate plate.
  2. Put the leeks, carrots, celery, mushrooms, herbs and chicken-wing meat in the same pan and cook until the vegetables are tender and beginning to brown, 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Nestle the leg quarters among the vegetables, meaty side up. Add enough of the stock to come about halfway up the thighs.
  4. Put the pan in the oven and cook, uncovered, for about 1 hour. (Stir vegetables if they threaten to brown too much.) When the thight meat is tender, raise the heat to 400 and lay the breast halves on the vegetables, skin side up. Continue cooking until they are done, 20-30 minutes longer.

Bittman recommends transfering the vegetables to a platter, slicing the breasts and shredding the leg and thigh meat, and placing on the vegetables. I forego all this presentation, and just serve out.

Accompaniments: brussel sprouts sauteed with butter, pancetta and lemon juice, and mashed potatoes.

Bon appetit.

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