Archive for the 'Cooking with Kids' Category



Ali’s non-radioactive restaurant-style egg drop soup (with a story, of course)


I whipped up a tasty, kid-friendly egg drop soup last night. There’s a recipe below, if you can hang in that long.

The short version of how this recipe came to be is quite simple: Merrie loves egg drop soup. She adores the stuff. At least three times a week, she begs to go to the local Chinese-Sushi-Korean dive just so that she can slurp up a bowl. This egg drop soup frightens me, however. It is yellow — bright, bright yellow. It is a shade of yellow that shouldn’t be allowed to exist. It is highlighter yellow. Neon yellow. I’m certain it’s filled with food coloring that’s going to knock five points off of her IQ each and every time she eats it.

Seriously. Their soup is so bright it’s almost…radioactive.

Which brings me to the second part of the story behind the soup. As many of you know, I’ve had a couple of bad weeks. Abdominal stuff. Pain. Bloating. Nausea. More recently, I’ve been feeling better. Not yet 100%, but so, so much better. When I was at my worst, my physician had ordered a bunch of tests (my endoscope went fine, thank you, and I have a very pretty stomach interior. I’d be happy to post the photos if anyone wants to see). One of the tests — a scan to see if I have a weak gallbladder — was scheduled for yesterday morning. I didn’t know much about the test beside the fact that I couldn’t eat beforehand.

Blair took the day off to be with me. We had an hour and a half between dropping the kids off and my appointment, so we went for a hike together. It was a beautiful, blustery spring morning, apple blossoms in bloom, gray clouds rolling overhead. Even with the test looming, we had fun. Lots of fun. After a decade of marriage, Blair still makes me laugh, and we still have plenty to talk about.

“We should do this more often,” I said. “We should do this on days when I don’t have to go take a stinkin’ test. We should do this, just the two of us, for no reason, and then go out to breakfast.”

Then, a short time later, we were sitting in a field of grass, looking at an expansive mountain view. Blair told me it was time to head over to the hospital. I sighed, picturing myself in a hospital johnny, lying on a table with a needle in my arm, some high-tech Siemens equipment taking pictures of my innards.

“Okay, but I like this part better,” I said. Then I sighed again. “I really wish we could go out to breakfast.”

Fast-forward 30 minutes. I’m seated in a hospital waiting room with Blair, marveling that there is a 2-year-old Time magazine is still on display (Al Gore: will he run for president in ’08?). A friendly radiology tech in floral scrubs, cropped hair, us into a windowless, fluorescent-lit room. At the center of this room is an imposing machine. The machine looks like it could eat me. As she sets up the equipment, she asks casually, “and you won’t be around young kids today, will you?”

And I answer, “Yes, I will. I’ve got two.”

She stops what she’s doing, looks me in the eye. “Okay, well, I’m not going to say that you can’t be around them, but you don’t want to hold them in your lap.”

I stare at her. Not hold my kids in my lap? Why would —? Huh?

“You’ll be radioactive,” she says.

I try to make sense of her words. Surely I mis-heard. “I’ll be — what?”

“Radioactive. In this test, we inject you with a radioactive fluid. It will be in your system for 12 hours, during which time you will be radioactive. Please don’t hold your children.”

Blair told me later that at this moment, he thought, “Okay, THIS is not going to go well…” And he was right. Because this, friends, is where I start to panic. I gape at the radiology tech. I am picturing the scene in the opening credits of the Simpsons, the part where Homer gets the radioactive rod of plutonium stuck in his overalls. And I imagine that rod inside of me, lighting up my insides, house, my kids. Gee, kids, doesn’t Mommy have a special glow tonight?

And then the words come. I want to say something logical like, but I’m getting better! Not worse! Shouldn’t making me radioactive be a test of last resort? But I’m feeling trapped, and I can’t stop thinking about that plutonium rod — doesn’t Mommy look luminous tonight? — and panicked tears have started welling up in my eyes. I simply whisper, hoarsely, “This feels wrong.”

The tech eyes me carefully, then goes in search of a radiologist who can counsel me through this panic attack. Suddenly, I really notice all the “Caution: Radioactive” signs that are plastered around the room. But my kids! They’re too little to carry Geiger counters! For Pete’s sake, I try to keep them away from artificial food colorings! And if I’m too radioactive for them, how should I feel about this stuff being inside of me?

The radiologist arrives. Unfortunately for him, it is one of the two radiologists that I know personally — he owns a horse farm on our road, and he trot-trots past our house several times a week. We often chat. He and his wife bought a baby gift for Charlotte when she was born. They let the kids pet his horses. He thinks of me, no doubt, as a waving, smiling neighbor, not a crazy lady who panics in a medical imaging room.

He strides into the room, prepared to patiently counsel an irrational stranger. Then he notices it’s me, his neighbor, and that I’m crying. He is so caught off guard that he literally must turn on his heels, walk out of the room, regain his composure, and come in again.

We talk. “It’s a low risk,” he says. “But it’s not no-risk. Like flying in an airplane.”

I nod and look down at the floor. Gee, kids, isn’t Mommy just da’ bomb?

He thinks a minute. “But listen, if you’re feeling better lately, not worse, there’s really no need to take it today.”

I stared helplessly at him. He is saying the right thing, but I can’t get past the trapped feeling.

Gather ’round, kids! Mommy’s going to lead us in a round of “this little light of mine, I’m gonna’ let it shine…”

“Really,” he says. “Go home. If your symptoms get worse, you can come back. If they keep getting better, then you won’t need to worry about the test.”

The floral-scrubbed radiology tech smiles gently. “It’s okay to go,” she says. She wants to scream it, no doubt: Just go, Nutso! Stop wasting my time! Go! But she is too kind to scream. She’s in a healing profession. She’s a healer. A healer who was prepared to shoot gamma rays into my body. A healer who wields a terrifying medical device. But a healer nonetheless. “You won’t be the first to have decided not to do the test.”

Then I realize: they are handing me a get-out-of-jail-free card. I take it. I go. We thank them, walk out of the room, out of the hospital. We get some breakfast. Just like I wanted.

So then later, after picking up the girls, I’m able to hold them. I’m able to make egg drop soup with them — the first meal I’ve made with them for a while. After we eat, I help brush their teeth, read to them, and lie with them in their beds. On this night, these things feel better, more meaningful, than they do most night. While I do them, I do not worry about whether I should really be at Yucca Mountain (and with that comment I must confess that some Googling revealed that any risk to the kids was probably low, no worse than flying. But still. I never liked flying.)

And the soup? Merrie loved it. Charlotte loved it. Blair thought it was like the Chinese-Sushi-Koren restaurant’s egg drop soup, but “way-better.” It didn’t look radioactive. And you know what? Neither did I.

Here’s my super-easy, super-fast recipe for yummy non-radioactive egg drop soup:

Ingredients:
4 cups chicken broth, with half-cup reserved
2 scallions, chopped, white and green parts separated
1/8 tsp dried ginger
1/8 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp sherry
1/2 tsp soy sauce
1/4 salt, or more to taste
Few drops of sesame oil
1.5 TBSP cornstarch
2 eggs, beaten

Directions:
Pour 3.5 of the cups of broth into a pan, reserving a half-cup for later. Add the white parts of scallions, the ginger, white pepper, sherry, and soy sauce. Bring to boil and let cook for 5 minutes. Add 2-3 drops sesame oil (a little goes a long way).

Mix cornstarch with remaining broth, and add to pan. Turn heat to low. Beat eggs, then add to broth while stirring rapidly in a clockwise motion. Stir for one minute, until the eggs have cooked and look like shreds.

Sprinkle with the scallion greens. Serve hot.

Note: if you’re not worried about a wee one’s palate, you can slightly increase the quantities of spice. But I preferred to ease into the spices, lest Merrie be turned off and then spend the rest of her life believing that the only good egg drop soup is neon in color.

Big thumbs up from the family on this one. As for me, I’m just glad to be back in the kitchen again.

One for the Weekend: Expat’s Meatloaf Florentine

Okay, omnivores. Here’s a great twist on an American staple, and a fantastic, foolproof dinnertime option: Expat Chef’s brilliant Meatloaf Florentine, which she posted last fall in honor of National Meatloaf Day. It’s awesome. And it’s easy. And it’s a flexible recipe.

But I don’t want to tell you about the meatloaf yet. First, please indulge me briefly while I tell you about the meat I used, and why I used what I did.

I don’t buy conventional beef anymore. I just can’t do it. Last year, thirty-three million pounds of beef were recalled during 20 different recalls. This year, we witnessed downer cows being forklifted so they could be processed for our food supply, after which the USDA recalled 143 million pounds of beef. All of which might make a person feel safer (I mean, the bad meat is recalled, right?), except that the majority of recalled meat is never recovered and likely eaten. And the downer cow scandal? The processing facility was picked at random by undercover investigators (from the Humane Society, mind you. Not from anyone who’s actually paid to be investigating this stuff). Just doesn’t make me feel reassured.

It’s tough to say ‘no’ to conventional beef, though, for one main reason: the pasture-raised stuff is much more expensive. Like most things, you do get what you pay for — grass-fed beef also has far less overall fat, less saturated fat, more of the good fats like omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and lots more vitamin A, vitamin E, and beta-carotene. The ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is closer to 1:1, whereas in conventional beef, it’s as much as 20:1— an imbalance that is increasingly linked with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and depression, among other nasty things.

Still, I really can’t swing $12.99 per pound, particularly when I’m working with a recipe that calls for 3 lbs of meat. Thirty-nine dollars worth of meatloaf is just out of the question in our house.

So what to do? I did what so many people have already done on their journey toward Real Food: I went direct to the farmer. At nearby Cricket Creek Farm, pastured ground beef, from a facility that is exceedingly clean and lovely, and from cows that are some of the healthiest I’ve ever seen, goes for $4/lb. More expensive than grocery store? Yes. But in a more affordable range, particularly when the meal is stretched with veggies and lasts many, many days? You betcha’.

Here’s a nice photo of the farm, taken last summer (it’s not nearly so green in New England this time of year):

Besides, the experience of buying the meat was about as heart-warming as it gets. The kids got to pet friendly barnyard cats. They ate some fresh-baked cookies that sell alongside the meats and cheeses. They frolicked outdoors. Charlotte found herself enamored by the pigs:

Whereas Merrie discovered she was something of a chicken whisperer:

It was one of those gorgeous New England spring days, and it was an absolutely lovely way to pass the afternoon. The entire time, I just kept thinking how grateful I was to have a farm like this nearby, and a part of our lives.

Anyhow, the meatloaf. Yes, it’s great, and I like that Expat allows you to “stretch” your meat by sneaking in greens. My version was a variation of what’s on Expat’s site. To keep costs down, I used a can of tomato paste instead of ketchup (her suggestion).

But basically, I took all of these ingredients:

(that would be: 1 medium onion, finely diced; 1 large clove garlic, minced; 1 can tomato paste; 1.5 cups of fresh greens (spinach and chard, mixed), chopped; 1/2 cup of herbs (parsley, mostly, with a little fresh thyme and some dried basil); 2 eggs; 1 cup + 1 TBSP bread crumbs; a half-cup of grated parmesan; 1 tsp kosher sea salt; some black pepper; and a few sprinkles of red pepper flakes)

Then I sauteed the onion and garlic in olive oil first, then I combined it all — everything, all at once — with 3 lbs of grass-fed meat. Yes, with my hands. Which aren’t actually claws, despite how it may appear:

Then I stuck it in two loaf pans in a 350-degree oven for an hour, until my meat thermometer said that the meatloaf had reached 180-degrees:

And guys? It’s awesome. I mean, it’s a really nice meatloaf. Everyone ate it, and Blair kept saying, “what is it about this that’s so good? What’s the secret ingredient?” And I didn’t know the answer — maybe it’s the quality meat, maybe it’s Expat’s great touch, maybe something about the lovely afternoon we’d spent got absorbed right into those ingredients.

The recipe makes two loaves — it would have been plenty for a good-size dinner party; as is, we ate one over two different nights, plus a lunch. Then the rest of it we’ll be adding to other dishes, like pasta sauce, soup, and homemade pizza. I’m guessing that in the end, we’ll have gotten 4 family meals out of it, plus several lunches — not bad for $12 worth of meat.

When we first sat down at the table, Merrie turned her nose up at the meatloaf. “I don’t think I like this,” she said, grumpily, as soon as she saw it.

I ignored that comment, and then about 30 seconds later, I said “Hey, Merrie, this is made with the meat you helped me buy at Cricket Creek.”

Her eyes got bright for a moment, and she asked, “Mom, can we go back there again tomorrow?”

“Soon,” I promised.

Then I tried not to smile when I saw her lift her fork and start to eat.

Norman Rockwell and me…and some really good cookies

Over the weekend, I took Merrie down to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Yes, I know that Rockwell is the scourge of the art world. I know he is dismissed as saccharine, unchallenging, simplified, utterly corny. And I’ll admit that for decades, I myself have ever-so-slightly rolled my eyes every time I see a hokey Rockwell print hanging on a doctor’s wall, or adorning the hallway of some sentimental grandma. Something about him made my teeth hurt.

Still, I knew Merrie would enjoy his pictures, the way they tell a whole story in a single image. I knew she’d enjoy his images of happy children, and the safe, simple world in which they appear to live. So we packed ourselves into the car, armed with coffee (for mom) and a muffin (for daughter), and headed south.

As expected, Merrie dug the paintings. But here’s what surprised me: I was really moved by the visit.

It’s true: Rockwell’s world is relentlessly sweet. It’s a world of white picket fences and big-hearted grannies. It’s a world of backyard baseball games, humble prayer, and drug store soda fountains. The freckled, apple-cheeked kids are always smiling. Adults are all hard-working, earnest. In Rockwell’s world, the worst trouble a child can get into is to ignore a “No Swimming” sign only to be chased, naked, from the pond. In Rockwell’s world, every runaway child will be discovered by a gentle police officer, then taken out for ice cream. It’s Pleasantville, plain and simple.

Insipid? I’d always thought so. But while I was there, I began thinking about the historic context in which he painted — the Great Depression. The rise of Hitler, World War II. I tried to imagine what it would be like to learn for the first time about the horrors of the Holocaust.

I tried explaining some of these events to Merrie. I tried explaining that the world can be dark and depraved, and Rockwell’s freckled faces — even his goofy hobos and heroic returning soldiers — were a kind of antidote to this, a call to Americans to cling to our own goodness even as we lost our own innocence.

It is a difficult thing, explaining Hitler to a 6-year-old. It is equally hard to look at Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings, the ones inspired by FDR’s 1941 speech to Congress, and to try to explain that they are just as relevant today as they were in 1943. That even today, people are still hungry, they are still oppressed, they are still fearful, and they can’t always worship as they wish.

I’m frankly embarrassed to admit it. But I was moved.

The next evening, I baked oatmeal chocolate chip cookies — I typically make up a batch of cookies, then freeze them and take out a couple at a time for Merrie’s lunches. I’d been reading about natural sweeteners, and so I tried using sucanat — which is sort of like a grainy brown sugar that has more nutrients than most refined stuff — which I had bought in bulk, alongside my organic rolled oats, which I’d also purchased in bulk. The girls were tucked in their beds, the kitchen smelled fabulous, and I was feeling frugal and wholesome, filling up plates with fresh-baked goodness.

And that’s when it hit me — I was doing a Norman Rockwell.

Not just the cookies, either. I mean this whole thing, this whole return-to-the-table, go natural, make-it-pure, buy-from-a-farmer thing. It’s very, very Rockwell-esque. And not only because it looks picturesque to go to a farmer’s market, or to serve a fresh-from-the-oven family dinner. I mean because it requires turning toward goodness, toward something wholesome, in a world that is still, and may always be, dark and depraved.

Sometimes I wonder about what I’m doing here, on this blog, talking about food when there are so many important things to talk about. It’s not like I don’t know that there’s a war on. It’s not like I’m unaware that close to a thousand U.S. soldiers have been killed since I started this blog, or that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, or that that global warming is increasing the virulence of existing diseases and may very likely release some terrifying new diseases, or that today alone close to 22,000 children will die from a preventable cause.

I know all of these things, and you do, too. These things are always looming, always hovering in the shadows. They are there as I write funny stories about getting my kids to eat vegetables, and they are there as we talk about sippy cups and meat recalls and brussels sprouts.

It’s true that I deeply believe that changing how we eat is one tangible thing we can do to change some of the world’s horrors — check out the UN report if you want to learn more about that. We eat over, and over, and over again. We do it many times, every day — it is one of the only things we do with such frequency — and if we can make some of our eating choices with an eye toward how those choices impact the world around us, I do genuinely believe that we can improve that world.

Still, there is something else at work, too. For me, at least, food gives me something I can retreat into, some kind of escape from the world’s many nightmares. Food — real food — is nourishing, food is beautiful, food is grounding, food brings people together. And when I connect my food to the farm where it was grown, it is even more of these things.

I suspect I’m not alone here, that the eat-local movement, the anti-fast food movement reflects some kind of national zeitgeist that is in some way related to the fear and anxiety that exists elsewhere.

Take farmer’s markets, for example. Since 1994, farmers’ markets have increased by 150%; since 2000 alone, they’ve nearly doubled. Go to a farmer’s market, and you’ll wind up chatting with neighbors. Then you’ll take your produce home, and you’ll put on an apron, and you’ll chop and peel and then make a meal that reminds you of one that you once had at grandma’s. And it feels good. Not just right, but good, the way Norman Rockwell’s families appear invariably, undeniably, good.

Invite people over to dinner, and you’ll wind up around a table laughing. Stop by a U-Pick farm for Berries, and your kids’ faces will soon be smeared with berry juice. All of it, so Norman Rockwell.

High-art types be damned. It turns out that Norman and I have more in common than I ever imagined.

If you want to bring a little more Rockwell into your world, but you aren’t quite ready to hang a print on your wall, I offer you my recipe for Norman Rockwell-esque sucanat-based oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. They’re not just tasty. They’re good.

Ingredients:
Half pound (2 sticks) butter, softened
1 cup sucanat (buy it in bulk or it’s too expensive)
Half-cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 and a half cups unbleached flour
3 cups rolled oats (buy in bulk for best price, least packaging)
1 teaspoon baking soda
Half-teaspoon salt
Half a pound chocolate chips (again…go bulk!)

Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix softened butter, sucanat, and sugar together. Add vanilla and eggs. In separate bowl, combine flour, oats, baking soda, and salt – mix these well. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter-egg mix. Blend in chocolate chips. Drop in small spoonfuls onto your baking pan, then Bake in oven for about 9-10 minutes. Note that because you’re using succanat, it’s hard to tell when the cookies are “browned.” You want to remove them when they’re formed, but still soft.

My (least) favorite things: additives that are as bad as gasoline

I know, I’m all like “Blah blah blahbity blah blah Monsanto blah blah blahbity Additives blahbity blahbity blah blah More vegetables blahbity blah blah My house is a mess blah blah blah Cook more blah.”

But as long as I’m on a roll….

Over in Britain, they’re phasing out a bunch of food additives that are damaging childrens brains. Apparently the damage to children’s brains caused by these additives (about 5.5 IQ points) is as bad as the damage caused by lead in gasoline before they phased it out. They’re thinking that this move will cut the number of hyperactive children by a third.

Over there, the suspect additives are food colors: tartrazine (E102); quinoline yellow (E104); sunset yellow (E110); carmoisine (E122); ponceau 4R (E124); and allura red (E129).

Don’t recognize them? Don’t feel reassured. Three of the banned additives are approved and widely used in the U.S. — their more familiar names to us Yanks include: FD&C Yellow 5; Yellow 6; and Red #40. Now you recognize ‘em, right?  Sigh.

Just another reminder to blah blah blahbity buy foods that are as whole as possible blah blah blah blah stay away from foods with ingredients that you don’t recognize blahbity blah blah farmers’ markets blah blah nutrition blah blah blah.

Many thanks to Jack from Fork and Bottle for the link.

Soup’s On! Mostly-Veggie Cheddar Broccoli!

Be honest. You came here expecting bad news. Something stomach-turning, probably. Am I right?

Tonight, there shall be no bad news. No food woes, no grocery store jitters. Nope. Tonight, the Cleaner Plate Club is all about comfort.

It’s been cold today, and snowing. Not a big snowstorm — something less dramatic and yet more relentless. Icky roads from morning until nightfall. Wiper blades that kept gathering ice and smearing slush across my winshield. By this point in February, frankly, I’m a little worn down from the cold, from the grey skies. It’s time for something cozy. Something warm.

So put a pot on the stove, light the kindling in your fireplace, shut the doors against the elements, and let’s settle in for the ultimate in a comfort food dinner: cheddar broccoli soup. Shall we?

This recipe was inspired by one of the Middle Earth recipes I found when I decided to become a hobbit — I took a stab at my own version of the cheddar stew mentioned over at the Lord of the Rings fan site.

A confession: I’ve always been a little afraid of cheddar-type soups. It always just seemed so milky, so…artery-hardening, somehow. That’s why I was delighted, absolutely delighted, to discover that you can make a cheddar soup — heck, maybe all cheddar soup is this way — that is almost entirely comprised of vegetables. Mostly vegetables! And yet it tastes just like cheddar cheese!

It does feel like there’s a little Elvin magic at work somehow. Plus it’s easy! And, friends, it is just the perfect thing for a cold, snowy February day.

And? Kids love it.

Ingredients:
Update: see Anna’s notes about making it more friendly for diabetics and low-carb types, in the comments section! Thanks, Anna!
4 small carrots
2 small-ish potatoes
1 large leek
1 stalk celery
1/2 teaspoon thyme
pinch of sage
1 clove garlic, chopped
4 cups of veggie broth
1-2 cups water
1 cup milk
big hunk o’ cheddar (about a quarter pound)
florets of 1 head broccoli, steamed

Okay, chop your leeks, potatoes, carrots, and celery:

cheddar-soup-veggies.jpg

Melt some butter in a pot. Add garlic and stir. Add your chopped veggies, thyme, and sage. Sautee them for about 3-4 minutes on medium heat. Then vegetable broth (for those of you using the Imagine boxes, it’s 1 large box). Add a cup of water if you want very thick soup, or 2 cups if you like your soup to be a little thinner. Let simmer away:

cheddar-soup-veggies-broth.jpg

I’ll just point out: Tain’t nothin’ in that pot that’s not a vegetable! Not yet, anyway. Feel virtuous. Once the veggies are very soft (15 minutes if you sliced the veggies thin, longer if the pieces were larger), add a cup of milk. Then you need to run the whole thing through a blender. I used my hand-held “immersion blender”, the kind that you dip right into the pot. It might not be as effective as blending in an actual blender, but it works fine and oh-so-dramatically cuts down on the mess. (don’t have one? lots of options, many of them inexpensive. We have a cheapo, a Sunbeam, and it’s served us well for years).

Anyhow, then it starts looking more like this:

cheddar-soup-veggies-blended.jpg

At about this point, you’ll want to have some broccoli florets steaming away. Add cheese. I started grating the cheese, then I realized “Hey, this is a waste of my time, because it’s all gonna’ melt anyway.” So then I took the lazy cook’s shortcut, and just started breaking it into little pieces. The total quantity filled a 1-cup measuring cup to the top, half of it grated, half broken. It looked like this:

cheddar-soup-cheese.jpg

Stir it in until melted, remove pot from heat, and dump the now-steamed broccoli in:

cheddar-soup-broccoli.jpg

Add salt and pepper to taste. I didn’t add much, because the soup tasted pretty darned good without. In the end, it looked like this:

cheddar-soup.jpg

Actually, it looked much better than that, particularly with a big hunk of crusty bread. But my camera was running low on batteries, and that’s the only photo I was able to snap before the camera shut angrily on me, leaving me with inexplicable feelings of inadequacy and shame. Electronics can do that to me.

My kids loved this soup. And so did Blair. And you know what? I did too, and it helped me put years of cheddar-soup-skepticism behind me. I don’t mean to go all Jessica Seinfeld on you — I’m not a fan of the stealth-vegetable tactic — but it was nice knowing that this soup was far more veggie-rich than it appeared.

It was filling, cheap, and pretty darned easy. And it was comfy-cozy. The perfect thing to fend off midwinter’s chill.

Cheesy leeky cauliflower, with a touch o’ kale

Another kid-friendly vegetable-based option. This one I made up myself, after looking up all kinds of cauliflower-gratin type recipes and deeming them unworthy. They were not unworthy based on taste, mind you, but rather because they all had one too many dishes to be cleaned up afterwards.

We’ve established that I’m kind of a lazy cook, right? And I’m pretty sure we’ve also established that I am a lazy cleaner. It’s no joke; some days, I’m only a few steps away from becoming the kind of person who eats soup straight from the can while wearing an old dirty bathrobe. My biggest problem with all of the cauliflower-gratin recipes? They required steaming the cauliflower in a separate pot. Which makes an additional pan to clean. One pan too many, in my opinion.

So you care to point out that I could have cleaned the extra pot, probably many extra pots, in the amount of time it took to search fruitlessly for a one-dish recipe? Oh, hush up, you. It’s about inertia. You go-getter types wouldn’t understand.

Anyhow, this one is pretty simple, if inexact. It’s a good side dish, even without the separately-steamed cauliflower, and I also got two days of kindergarten lunch-box fodder out of the leftovers (it was perfect scooped over a baked potato).

I’m going to pause here to talk about dairy in general, because on the surface, this is a pretty dairy-intensive recipe. And some of you out there don’t dig dairy, because it makes you bloated and uncomfortable. I hear you, because the same thing happens to me.

We’re not alone in that. Marion Nestle says that 75% of the world’s population is lactose-intolerant, which means that we lack a stomach enzyme that can break down the lactose of milk. So the lactose remains intact, until it gets to our guts, whereupon the lactose-lovin’ bacteria that all of us harbor in our intestines have a field day gobbling up the stuff. And then? Those bacteria release gas and small molecules that attract water to our guts. Hence our bloating and, ahem, airiness. But, see, it’s not our gas. It’s the bacteria’s gas. They’re the ones who should be embarassed.

But anyway, I tell you all of this, simply to assure you dairy-fearers that you can make this recipe more tolerable-for-the-lactose-intolerant by doing what I did: using rice milk and a hard cheese. Why is a hard cheese better? Because the process of making cheese basically gobbles up all the lactose. Long diversion, I know, especially for those among you who can consume dairy with impunity and who don’t actually want to hear about the gas in other people’s guts. Anyhow.

Ingredients:

1 medium leek, chopped
Half a bunch of kale, washed, stemed and chopped into small pieces–So small that you hope your children won’t bother to complain about the green stuff.
Pat o’ butter
Florets from 1 small head cauliflower
About a cup of milk (rice milk, in my case)
1 cup cheese (cheddar in my case)
2 tablespoons flour, dissolved into a bit of milk
Few sprinkles bread crumbs
A little salt and pepper

Directions: Sautee chopped kale and leek in butter, until soft, about 5 minutes:

cheesy-cauliflower-1-leeks-and-kale.jpg

Chop and add cauliflower to pan. Stir, then add milk and let bubble away for a few moments, until cauliflower is a little soft:

cheesy-cauliflower-3-with-milk.jpg

Then add cheese, and mix through. In a separate dish, mix flour with a touch of milk. Add the flour-milk mix, and let simmer just until the milk starts to thicken. Pour the whole thing in an oven-safe pan (unless you are one of those lucky-duckies who isn’t too lazy to get out there and buy yourself an oven-safe sautee pan. As mentioned, I am not one of those, which is why I still, after all this time, do not own a single pan that can do double-duty. And because of that, I now I have an extra dish to clean. Doh! It catches up with you in the end, laziness. Yes it does. Let this be a lesson to you.):

cheesy-cauliflower-4-in-pan.jpg

Cover with a few sprinkles of cheese, and a few shakes of bread crumbs. Bake until browned on top:

cheesy-cauliflower-5-cooked.jpg

So there it is. And it’s pretty tasty. With one less dish to clean. Just think of all the sitting-around-in-our-bathrobes that we can do with that extra time!

We’re celebrating! With chard-feta pasta!

Wish me a happy anniversary. I’ve been blogging for a year now. A year! And I haven’t been chased out of the blogosphere by an angry, pitchfork-wielding cyber-mob! Not yet, anyway!

How shall we mark the occasion, friends? How about we celebrate by returning to the original purpose of this blog: a healthy, fast recipe that my kids will actually eat?

Let’s start with this one, which I call Merrie’s Chard Feta Pasta, With or Without Meatballs. Recently, I was experimenting with swiss chard, which I happen to think is about the prettiest vegetable ever, even if it does have a really ugly Latin name: Beta vulgaris. Who thought of that one?

Ruby red stems, vibrant green leaves….i’s a spinach-meets-beet kind of vegetable, which the World’s Healthiest Foods calls a “vegetable valedictorian.” Says they:

If vegetables got grades for traditional nutrients alone, Swiss chard would be one of the vegetable valedictorians. The vitamin and mineral profile of this leafy green vegetable contains enough “excellents” to ensure its place at the head of the vegetable Dean’s List. Our rating system awards Swiss chard with excellent marks for its concentrations of vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, magnesium, manganese, potassium, iron, vitamin E, and dietary fiber. Swiss chard also emerges as a very good or good source of copper, calcium, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, protein, phosphorous, vitamin B1, zinc, folate, biotin, niacin and pantothenic acid.

At the time, I’d been trying to make a chard pizza on a baguette, which didn’t turn out exactly as planned. It was edible, but not great. Except that Merrie, my six-year-old, couldn’t get enough. She just kept scraping it off of the bread, eating it, and asking for more.

In the immortal words of Jiminy Cricket: I’m no fool, no sirree. My kid asking for seconds, then thirds, of one of the most healthful veggies out there? We’re going with it. In this case, we’re putting it into pasta.

As far as I can tell, there are two key things you’ve got to do with swiss chard: wash it effectively, and separate the stems and leaves. Washing it correctly is particularly important when you’re getting it fresh from the farm – like spinach, it can get a little gritty. The best strategy I’ve found is just to let it soak in a big thing water for a while, swishing it occasionally. Any grit falls right off:

chard-1-soak.jpg

Separating the stems is important, because the stems cook more slowly than the leaves. Note, I cooked the leaves a touch too long – you can remove them from heat before they’re completely wilted. In a perfect world, I would recreate this recipe and take new photos, but…perfectionism? Not for me.

Here’s what you do:

Ingredients:
1 bunch of chard
3 cloves garlic
Olive oil
Half teaspoon dried basil (fresh would be better, but it’s mid-winter here, and — drats! — I haven’t yet planted my aerogarden)
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 small can garbanzo beans
A few ounces crumbled feta
Salt and pepper to taste.
Pasta (I used about three-quarters of a spaghetti packet)

Directions: Start on pasta. Chop garlic, and sautee in olive oil until soft (not brown). Add chard stems and sautee for about 4-5 minutes. Add balsamic vinegar, basil, and chard leaves. Sautee another 3 minutes or so.

Oh, heck, add a splash of wine, because, let’s face it: you’re drinking as you cook (relax, the alcohol gets cooked out).
chard-3-splash-of-wine.jpg

Add garbanzos, and heat through:

chard-4-with-chick-peas.jpg

Remove from heat. Crumble feta over chard. Add salt, pepper, and mix. Drain pasta, add chard, and crumble just a touch more feta so it looks pretty:
chard-bowl.jpg

Serve to your child. Note it is served here with two meatballs, only because she really wanted them. The recipe is plenty hearty by itself. No meat required.

chard-on-plate-with-meatballs.jpg

Watch it disappear. Mostly.
chard-pasta-finished.jpg

Merrie declared it delicious, and Blair (who ate it happily without meat, even though he tends to be suspicious of all meat-free meals…AND who doesn’t particularly care for pasta) noted without prompting, “hey, this is really good.”

The baby? Well, she put the meatball in her ear:

meatball-in-ear.jpg

And threw the spaghetti at the dog:

spaghetti-on-dog.jpg

But she does that sort of thing all her meals, so I don’t consider her a credible judge of taste. The rest of us considered it a fine meal to celebrate a year of cooking and blogging.

Kale and cauliflow-izle turn me into (a harried) Supermom

Blair’s out of town right now, and I’m flying solo. So far, the dog hasn’t gotten a horrifying intestinal bug, like he did during one of Blair’s more recent business trips (Blair was in Hawaii. I was scrubbing really nasty stuff off the walls). But still, any solo-parenting is surprisingly hard — I gotta’ give my props to any single parents out there.

(do I sound hip saying “props?” I just wanted to try it on for size. I’m a fly mamma, dogg. That’s right, I am OFF the HEEZY. I might even work the phrase “fo’ shizzle” into this post somewhere, too. Keep a lookout).

During times of crisis like this, I’m not above throwing cheese puffs and spoonfuls of ice cream at my children and calling it dinner. But last night, I turned to Expat instead, looking for kid-friendly foods that are fast, fast, fast. I opted for garlicky white beans and kale and honey spice roasted cauliflower.

(You might not know this, but considering any kind of roasted cauliflower these days makes me a wee bit brave — or foolish, perhaps. See, the last time I roasted cauliflower, we had an unfortunate incident. It was a Tuesday night, and Blair and I had decided to eat in front of a new-to-us episode of the Sopranos, courtesy of Netflix. I was afraid that our naughty, snarfy dog would jump up and eat the pan of cauliflower off the counter when we weren’t looking, so I turned off the oven, and placed the leftover cauliflower inside. We watched Tony Soprano get his freak on with Bada-Bing dancers, then we put our dishes in the sink and went upstairs to bed…leaving the cauliflower sitting in the oven. This was a Tuesday. My mother-in-law arrived the next day, and we spent a couple of days dining out with her. By Saturday morning, something was clearly very amiss in our kitchen. We weren’t sure what it was — had the dog gotten sick in some remote corner? Was something rotting in our garbage? Did we only smell it when we opened the refrigerator? Perhaps a mouse had died in our walls? Then we remembered: the cauliflower. I gagged and retched when we took it out of the oven, I felt a deep and abiding sense of shame on behalf of my mother-in-law about the kind of wife her son had chosen, and I was quite certain that I would never, ever eat cauliflower again. Thanks to Expat, I was wrong.).

Anyhow, the steps to each are pretty simple. Check out her site for the precise proportions, as I tend to be wildly inexact.

Expat’s Non-Rotting Honey-Spiced Cauliflower:
Mix honey, olive oil, kosher sea salt, a lemon’s worth of juice, cumin (I couldn’t find my cumin, so I put in a dash of curry)…

Update: Expat says that the cumin is important. Do as she says, not as I do

…plus bit o’ pepper, plus zest (not sure what zest actually is? Neither was I. It’s just a fancy way of saying peel) in a bowl.

cauliflower-1.jpg

Pour and rub it into a head of cauliflower, both top and bottom. Put cauliflower in a pan, flower side down, with a touch of water:
cauliflower-2.jpg

Note: I’ve been reading a bunch about cauliflower, and I left on too much of the stem. It apparently would have been even better if I cut out a big chunk o’ the stem.

Roast in pre-heated 400-degree oven for 15 minutes, then turn it over (flower side up), and roast for another 15 minutes until golden brown.

The kale-bean recipe is even easier:
Chop a couple of cloves of garlic. Heat some olive oil, add the garlic, and as much red pepper flakes as you think your kids can tolerate (for me, it was about a shake). Gently heat garlic, but don’t let it get too brown. While it’s cooking, remove stems from kale:
kale-stem.jpg

Chop roughly, add to olive oil, and cook until it’s starting to wilt but is still bright green. Remove kale, put it in a bowl, and dump a can o’ white beans into the pan.

kale-bowl.jpg

kale-bean-simmer.jpg

Bring to simmer, add the kale, and mix until it’s all evenly heated. Add salt and pepper to taste.

And? While I made these things? I also cooked up some catfish (just a little olive oil and lemon, cooked side-by-side with cauliflower until ever-so-slightly browned). So, in the end, my kids’ plates looked like this:

cauliflower-kale-dinner.jpg

(the true foodies and locavores among you will give me a hard time about the baby carrots. They’re organic, but hardly local. Apologies).

The question is, did they eat it? These children of mine who are members of the Cleaner Plate Club only under protest?

The answer? FO’ SHIZZLE.

Huzzizle, my friends. The child with words called the beans “delicious” (she ate every bean on her plate, a little less of the kale, but I can tell you I saw some green sneaking in there). She declared the cauliflower “yummy. Really yummy.” And, okay, she dipped them in the ranch dressing I’d set out for carrots, but she also ate every single bite.

The child with far fewer words said only “Mo? Mo’? Mo bean? Mo’ shish? Mo’?” (actually, she sounded surprisingly hip herself, didn’t she?). And on this night — why is this night different from all other nights, asks the Mezinikel? — this child of few words actually ate her food before throwing it on the floor or spitting it out.

I’d be feeling a bit more like Supermom, if only my older child hadn’t been watching TV as I cooked, and my younger child hadn’t been discovered standing on top of the dining room table only when I heard her throw a mug full of orange juice on the floor, breaking it in the process (because that, friends, is how she rolls). Here’s the dining room I found — and believe me, it’s nothing compared to the playroom:

broken-cup.jpg

Howdy, dumplings!

Here’s the kind of moment that can’t be beat: you come home, exhausted from an afternoon of cramming three weeks worth of projects into a few hours. Your kids have been with a babysitter, and you are expecting a sink full of dishes, clinging children, toys strewn everywhere.

You walk in the house, and immediately sense that something is different. Something smells good. It actually smells really, really good. The counters are clean, the sink is free of dishes, and something wonderful is bubbling away on the stovetop. It’s a soup, which your babysitter was miraculously inspired to make from your kitchen leftovers. In addition to leftover turkey, there are carrots, and leeks, and a wee bit o’ garlic and many wonderful spices – thyme, parsley, basil, and pepper among other things. It is more than you could have hoped for. It is supreme.

Look, here it is:
turkey-soup-without-dumplings.jpg

Best of all, there is a little note, stuck to your refrigerator with ABC magnets:

dumpling-recipe.jpg

This note? It includes directions for the “fun part,” of the meal: homemade dumplings to be cooked right inside the soup. Dumplings!

You are aware that some people make dumplings, but these people are not like you. These dumpling folks are the real cooks, the cozy homemaker types who never snap at their children and who don’t trip over toys as they walk across their living room floor. These dumpling people — they are a kind of secret society, a Skull and Bones for the homemaker set. These dumpling-makers are comforting. They are giving. They are orderly and tidy and have hearts full of love. They are good. And they manage to change diapers without smearing poop everywhere. That’s always how it seemed to me, anyhow.

Dumplings! In my kitchen! Such an idea! And yet there was the recipe, posted on my refrigerator, like an invitation. So Merrie and I made ‘em, and they turned out beautifully:

turkey-soup-with-dumplings.jpg

These were very good, and they made the soup far more festive. Merrie loved making them, and she loved eating them. (Charlotte ate ‘em as much as she eats anything…in other words, she took a few bites, threw the rest to the dog, then proceeded to Houdini her way out of her high chair straps, only to climb on the tray of the high chair).

Now I’m a member of the Order of Dumpling Makers, the kind of giving cook who can add these touching, comforting little details to meals. Best of all, I get to over-use the word “dumpling.” For that evening, Merrie was my “dumpling.” Charlotte was my “dumpling.” Blair was a “honey-dumpling,” which caused him no small amount of squirming. Even the dogs were dumplings. And now you, friends, are my dumplings, too.

Want to join the Order of Dumpling Makers? It’s simple:

Ingredients
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/2 cup cold water

Directions: Mix and form into teaspoon-size balls. When soup is boiling, plop teaspoon-fulls into pot. Cover pot and simmer 7 minutes. Turn them over halfway through if you want. If you throw in a little butter, it will seep into the crevices of the dumplings and make it extra-tasty.

The flour can be sticky, but enough mixing gets them to the right consistency (and you can always add flour if need be):

making-dumplings.jpg

One note: dumplings get bigger when they cook (that’s the baking powder at work, folks), so start ‘em small.

Mmm, mmm good. By the way, here’s a nice recipe for a chicken soup with cheddar dumplings that they claim can be made in a half-hour, start to finish.

Here’s a recipe for you…

Recipe for a Blog that Doesn’t Get Updated Nearly Often Enough

Ingredients:
1 feverish husband with Influenza
1 six-year old with a stomach bug
1 clingy toddler
2 dogs, at least one of whom eats underwear, dirty diapers, and children’s socks; and who still has accidents in the house
3 projects that you expected would be finished months ago, but aren’t
1 raging caffiene addiction
Zero internet access
Dash of stress-induced tears
Exhaustion, to taste

Directions: Do not sleep. Repeat as many nights as necessary until you cannot see straight. Clean up bodily fluids, both human and canine, until you realize that we mammals are simply giant sacks of nasty, stinking liquid. Stay home for several days with six-year old; watch Cheaper by the Dozen with her until you can recite from memory Steve Martin’s eulogy for Beans, the dead frog (“Beans was a good frog. Not like those other frogs, all hopped up…”). Each time you watch, wonder why the movie version does not resemble in any way the book that your mother read to you in your childhood. Try repeatedly to access the internet from your old K-mart brand computer, which you bought back in 2000, when K-mart made a failed attempt at providing $499 desktop computers and free internet prior to going bankrupt. Tear your hair in frustruation. Snap at your sick child, then cry a little. Drink coffee. Fall asleep on the sofa, until the dog who eats dirty diapers wakes you by licking your face. Howl in horror. Go bonkers. Leave your sick husband with your sick child and clingy toddler and 2 dogs, so you can get a little work done. Ignore nearly all emails, except for work-related ones, and the ones with subject lines like “Drink! Drink! Drink!” Wonder if you are going to stay bonkers for a long, long time.

…oh, wait. You say that’s not the recipe you were looking for? No? Well, then try this recipe from Expat Chef for Eggs-Not-Over-But-Easy. Expat is the culinary world’s equivalent of Rumpelstiltskin, spinning humble dishes like scrambled eggs into gourmet-quality gold.

While you’re clicking around, check out Barbara’s analysis of the roles of our noses in detecting flavors. I found it especially interesting, because I once seriously dated a guy who had lost his sense of smell in a climbing accident (for those of you interested in digging a little more into my past, you can find some photos of him here. Which one is he, you ask? Oh, take your pick, I reply. Any fella’ who skis the Alps in his spare time is bound to be a cutie-pie). Anyhow, it was fun to date him, partly because I never, ever had to shower or brush my teeth when I was with him. On the other hand, he didn’t value tasty food nearly as much as I did, probably because he couldn’t actually taste it.

You might also want to check out some reviews of Michael Pollan’s new book, In Love with Ali. Wait, huh? He named his book In Love with Ali??? Oh, yes he did, if by “Love” you mean “Defense of,” and by “Ali” you mean “Food.” (Okay, okay, his book is officially called In Defense of Food, but the message is hidden in there, if you know how to read between the lines. It’s all about the SUBTEXT people. Jeesh.). The New York Times did a review of this book, calling it a “simpler, blunter and more pragmatic book” than Omnivore’s Dilemma. Slate has a smart review, as does the Ethicurean and lots of others.

Okay, heading back to the land of hacking-pooping-shivering-stomach-clutching-and-diaper-filling-AND-diaper-eating.

You envy me. You know you do.


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