Friday, September 27, 2013

A mom's manifesto


There’s some brouhaha about Walt Disney World ending the policy that allows disabled people to skip lines. Disney parks are cracking down on the practice of icky, entitled families “renting” disabled people so they and their diamond-encrusted little offspring can be the first to experience the unique torture that is the Small World ride.
Trust me, as the mom of a four-year-old who needs a walker to get around, it irks me more than anyone to see people abusing a system that was meant to make a very difficult world a little easier for disabled kids whose every step is harder work than some people do all day.
But in expressing their approval for this change, much of the general public hasn’t been, umm, displaying their best qualities, to say the least. These Disney champions have been using a disturbingly broad brush to paint the disabled. A typical response to the change in this policy goes something like this: “Good! The disabled want to be treated equally, so now they will be….suckers.”
OK, so I made up that last part about calling them suckers. But that’s the implication. And to that I say, Gee, thanks! Being unable to walk sure does put my daughter at an unfair advantage over the rest of the world. High-paying jobs and 100-yard dash, look out!
I promise that my little girl expects no special treatment. But as her mom, I do expect a few accommodations. Here they are:  
·         Don’t give me a dirty look when you see me park in a disabled spot. I’m clearly not disabled, and you’re feeling like a parking lot crusader. How nice of you to become so indignant on behalf of all your disabled friends (oh, you don’t have any? My mistake). No I’m not disabled; you just can’t see my daughter and her walker because I haven’t taken them out of the car yet. Trust me, she’s disabled. Oh, and fuck you.

·         Don’t sigh when you’re walking behind us because she’s moving too slowly. Don’t try to barrel past us, either. Unless you’re carrying a cooler with a kidney in it, just wait 20 fucking seconds. I’m sure the really time-sensitive and important thing you’re rushing to do (like cash in your tickets at Chuck E. Cheese…I wish I were kidding) can wait.

·         Open the fucking door for me if I’m struggling with several bags and trying to keep my daughter steady on her feet. Me and that poor old lady crossing the street are desperately wondering where all the Boy Scouts are.

·         If you want to know why my daughter uses a walker, just ask in exactly that way: “Why does she need the walker?” Please restrain yourself from asking “So what’s wrong with her?” (again, wish I were kidding) to which I should have replied…um, what’s wrong with you, fully grown and presumably practiced-in-the-art-of-manners adult? If you can manage to do it politely, please ask away. It's better than staring. Plus, you'll get treated to my four-year-old's precise pronunciation of "diastematomyelia."
So that’s it. That’s all I ask for. See you at Disney. I’ll be the one banging my head against the side of the boat on the Small World ride.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The brief life and death of a sourdough starter


Brian and I went to Vermont recently to visit the King Arthur Flour Company and came home with a new pet! This creature was a sourdough starter descended from a starter that’s more than 200 years old.

A sourdough starter is actually a living thing that needs to be fed flour and water and stirred once a week. And in return for this care, it will reward you with endless loaves of sourdough bread. Just scoop out a little bit of the starter when you want to bake a loaf, feed the rest regularly, and it will grow and live for years and years. In fact, Boudin Bakery in San Francisco says it has been using the same starter since 1849.

So starters can live for hundreds of years, but I managed to kill mine within two weeks. I went on vacation and forgot to tell my mother to feed it. Sadness. Death.

A few weeks later, I got a second chance at sourdough. A chef I was interviewing took pity on my tale of sourdough woe and gave me a portion of his own starter, which he’d been nurturing and baking from for almost a year. It even had a name: Lorraine. So he gave me a scoop of Lorraine Junior (there was an actual a name tag on the jar), and sent her off to what he thought would be a good home.

And….I forgot to feed it again. Actually, I willfully ignored it, continually putting off feeding it for days, then weeks, telling myself that I’d do it later, or tomorrow, until one day I opened up the jar. It sort of hissed angrily, then let out a smell that was scarily reminiscent of paint thinner.

I have years of evidence that tells me I am no good at keeping plants alive. I guess “eukaryotic microorganisms classified in the kingdom Fungi” can also expect a sad life and swift death under my care.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Some things I learned about food in Italy


  • Drinking really good wine from noon to midnight doesn’t mean you have a problem; it just makes the Italian countryside look prettier.
  • When a Gallipolian fish monger offers you a just-shucked raw mussel that only a few hours ago was plucked from the Ionian Sea, you sure as hell better eat it. Don’t wonder whether his hands are clean. Don’t wonder whether his knife is clean. Just smile and eat it. Then eat another one.
  • I have been mistreating vegetables my whole life. Vegetables don’t want to be steamed or baked. They want to be lovingly bathed in excellent olive oil and fried to luscious, melting perfection. Zucchini, eggplant, I never knew thee.
  • I draw my adventurous eating line at horse meat. Just couldn’t do it.
  • On the other hand, black-hued squid ink spaghetti is A-OK!
  • Sipping a crisp, fizzy rosé feels lovely and sophisticated on a warm Italian afternoon. Whereas drinking rosé at home makes me feel low-budget and icky.
  • The fish head on the dinner platter is there for decorative purposes. Do not be alarmed. Look into his eyes and say thank you.  
  • The existence of tangy, salty, fresh ricotta is evidence that someone in this universe loves us.
  • Lightly battered and fried sage leaves serve no nutritive purpose that I can discern, but who the hell cares? Sometimes crunch and flavor is all you need.
  • My slightly tighter jeans at the end of the week? So worth it.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Three tips for raising an adventurous eater


I'm always hesitant to write "kid" stories because they can come off as indulgent or too cutesy. I often dislike parenting writing for this reason. But a friend of mine recently asked for some advice about raising an adventurous eater. At first I doubted whether I had any real insight on the topic. But then I realized: I’ll eat almost anything once, and come to think of it, so will Chloe. That’s not to say she’ll like everything. But at least she’ll put it in her mouth and give it a go.
If you don’t have kids/hate kids/would rather stick your tongue against an ice-cold flagpole than talk about kids, then by all means, SKIP THIS POST.
For the rest of you: Here’s some advice that we’ll call “Adventures in eating: Baby edition:”
1. Skip the jars: Instead of buying jars of pre-made baby food, try to make it at home as often as you can. My theory is that kids who have always eaten real foods are used to the way those foods really taste. Because let’s be honest: Jarred baby food doesn't really taste like the food itself. Jarred baby bananas don’t really taste like a just-peeled, mashed-up banana. Jarred carrots don't taste like carrots. And jarred chicken? Let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised that if eating jarred, baby food chicken was among the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used at Gitmo. With that in mind, it's really no wonder that kids reject foods when they get a little older and transition to "table foods;" they're not used to the different tastes and textures. To make baby food, just bake or steam any food and puree it with a little water (or maybe breast milk or formula) in the food processor to get the right texture. Either puree what the grown-ups are eating for dinner and serve it right away, or make large batches and freeze the excess. To freeze baby foods in single-serve portions, pour the purees into silicon ice cube trays and freeze. When they’re frozen, pop the little squares of food out of the trays, transfer them to a freezer bag, and defrost them individually in the microwave or stovetop as needed.
2. Spice it up: I don't like bland foods, do you? Maybe your baby doesn’t, either. So don’t be afraid to add herbs, spices, and other flavors to your baby's food. For example, Chloe didn't like mashed black beans until I added a little salt and cumin, and then presto, she loved them. In fact, "more cumin" was among the first food-related phrases she uttered. Seriously. I’m extremely proud that my spawn has a favorite spice. Other good combos? Tarragon is great with chicken and pears; cinnamon tastes nice in applesauce; nutmeg and a little molasses perk up oatmeal. Basically if you like a flavor combo, see if your baby does, too! One thing to remember, though: Introduce spices and herbs one at a time, just like with new foods, in case of allergies.
3. Remember that she might not like everything: I hate black liquorish, shredded coconut, and black olives. And if I were a baby and someone was shoving them into my mouth, I would spit them right back out at the offending adult. It might take a while before babies accept a new food—Chloe rejected avocadoes a few times before they became her all-time favorite—but babies also have their own likes and dislikes. Now that Chloe’s older she has to try everything that’s served to her at least once, and has to actually chew it up and swallow it. And even though she used to eat everything in sight and is still pretty open to new things, Chloe has gotten less adventurous as she's gotten older. I'm sure part of that is because toddlers make a pact with the devil. But another part is that people's tastes vary. No one likes everything! (Except maybe my dad).

Friday, April 5, 2013

Homemade ricotta and the resulting cannoli will win you lots of friends

As I mentioned in another post, I finally made cheese a couple of weeks ago. And as much as I would like to tell you that it was an earth-shattering, wildly exciting experience, I can’t lie. It wasn’t exciting in any way.
 
Making ricotta cheese with the kit I got for Christmas consisted mostly of staring at a pot for 45 minutes. Here’s how it went down: Dump milk, salt, and citric acid into pot. Stand next to pot. Stare at pot. Experience 2 seconds of excitement when milk finally reaches 185 degrees. Experience 3 seconds of excitement when curds separate from whey. Dump everything into cheesecloth to drain curds from whey. Burn self repeatedly while shaking cheesecloth, trying to speed up draining. Curse out Williams-Sonoma for suggesting that I speed up draining. Drain more overnight in the refrigerator. Taste in the morning and do a happy dance. It was yummy!
So. Ricotta cheese making? Not so exciting. But cannoli making? Very exciting! (Feel free to challenge my definition of exciting).

The next day, I made cannoli filling from my newly made cheese. And I have to say, it was delectable. My only suggestion is to add a pinch of salt to the mixture if you find that it tastes a bit too flat. Also, the mini cannoli shells I bought in a box from the grocery store were a little too mini for my taste. So next time, I’ll hit up a local bakery or the bakery counter at the grocery store and ask them to sell me a few empty shells.

Chocolate-ricotta cannoli
Recipe adapted from Tuscan Kitchen, Salem, NH
You'll need:
8-10 empty cannoli shells
1 ½ cups ricotta cheese
½ cup granulated sugar (or, to taste)
½ cup shaved bittersweet chocolate
½  teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon 
Pinch of salt, if needed

Rock a chef’s knife up and down at the very edge of a bar of chocolate to get shavings.
Instructions:
Combine ricotta cheese, granulated sugar, shaved chocolate, vanilla, and cinnamon in a mixing bowl.
Place mixture in a pastry bag (or gallon-sized zip-top bag with the tip of one corner snipped off) and fill cannoli shells.

If you want to, dust with powdered sugar. Put a few tablespoons of powdered sugar into a metal sieve, hold the sieve over your cannoli, and very gently tap the side of the sieve to allow a dusting of sugar to escape from the bottom.
How to fill cannoli shells:
Thanks to the nine thankless months I spent working in a bakery in high school, I know how to fill a cannoli shell, even without a pastry bag. And now, I pass this knowledge onto you: 
  • Fill a gallon-sized zip-top bag (or pastry bag) with the cheese mixture.
  • Snip off the tip of a bottom corner of the bag.
  • Insert the tip of the pastry bag into the center of the cannoli shell.
  • Gently squeeze out the ricotta mixture while slowly pulling the bag away from the shell. This will fill half the shell.
  • Turn the shell around and repeat on the other side.
And since you’re still here, a confession: Up until a couple of months ago, I had an extremely low opinion of ricotta cheese. Bland, gritty, charmless, no-personality, grocery-store ricotta. The vestigial tail of the food world. Just pointless. But when I finally tried real, fresh ricotta, it was a revelation. And even though the ricotta that I made wasn’t as good as the revelatory one, it still beat the shit out of that semi-liquid Styrofoam I had been eating from the grocery store.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter brunch, or day-drinking for Jesus



I love the cozy warmth of Christmas Eve, and our family’s annual July 4th lobster bake at the beach, and the childlike excitement that I still feel on my birthday. But without question, my favorite food holiday is Easter, thanks to Easter brunch.

Brunch is the Holly Golightly of meals: Effortlessly sophisticated. Charmingly boozy. Sleeps past 9:00 am and rolls out of bed looking fabulous. It combines the best of breakfast, lunch, dinner, cocktail hour, and dessert into a sweet and savory gastronomic extravaganza that lasts for hours. Anything goes at brunch. Bacon? Quiche? Ham? Yes, yes, and yes. Cake at the same time? Of course! Mimosas? Obviously. Day drinking is required business at brunch.  

Brian and I have been hosting Easter brunch since we got married, and every occasion holds a memory that I’ll never forget. Like the year I nearly lost a layer of foot skin when I dropped a spatula-full of 400-degree stuffed French toast onto my bare tootsies. Or the time my buddy Jon brought this creepily delicious Rice Crispy Treat lamb:
 
Since there’s something inherently lazy and decadent about brunch, it requires a lazy and decadent starring meal. At our house, the star of brunch is bread pudding.
Bread pudding is really just glorified French toast, but there are many reasons why bread pudding wins the breakfast battle every time: It can be prepared entirely the night before; it cooks in the oven in a single pan, eliminating the need for over-the-griddle tending; the custard fully soaks into the bread and always cooks completely; it can be served warm or cold; and it tastes better. You know what? Just stop making French toast altogether.
Bread pudding also lends itself well to rich and delicious accessorizing. This year I paired it with caramel-bourbon sauce and homemade whipped cream. So good, so easy. It’s truly an instance where the finished dish is much, much bigger than the sum of its parts.
Let’s say you’re hosting your brunch at 10:30 am on Sunday and want to serve bread pudding with caramel-bourbon sauce and homemade whipped cream.
First you’ll need:
½ dozen eggs
Milk (I used 2%)
Vanilla Extract
White sugar
A loaf of cinnamon swirl bread
Brown sugar
Light corn syrup
Butter
Pint of whipping cream
One nip of bourbon
On Saturday afternoon:  
Make the caramel-bourbon sauce (recipe slightly adapted from Epicurious) by melting and whisking 6 tablespoons of butter, 1 cup packed dark brown sugar, ½ cup whipping cream, ¼ cup light corn syrup, and ½ teaspoon of salt in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and allow to boil for one minute without stirring it. Pull it off the heat and add 3 tablespoons of bourbon. Pour into a glass container, like a mason jar, and cool for a while on the counter before covering and putting it into the refrigerator.
Pour the rest of the whipping cream and ¼ cup of white sugar into a glass bowl and beat it with an electric hand mixer until it becomes whipped cream. Cover and put it into the refrigerator.
Make the custard for the bread pudding (recipe adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book) by combining 6 beaten eggs with 2 ¾ cups of milk, ¾ cups sugar; and 2 tablespoons of vanilla. Cover and put it into the refrigerator.
Right before bed on Saturday night:
Place the slices of the cinnamon bread into a single layer on cookie sheets to let the bread dry out overnight.
 
At 8:00 Sunday morning:
Break the pieces of now-dry bread into chunks and put into a greased 9x13 baking pan.
 
Pull the custard mixture out of the fridge, whisk it a little, and pour it over the pieces of bread. Stir it around and push the pieces down to make sure all the bread gets wet. Cover the pan and put it back in the fridge.
At 9:30 Sunday morning:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cook the bread pudding for 35-40-minutes, until it’s puffy and a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let it set on the table until it’s time to serve.
While the bread pudding is in the oven:
Warm and loosen the caramel-bourbon sauce by placing it (in its glass container) in a bowl or pan of hot water.
To serve:
Scoop out a large spoonful of the bread pudding, drizzle with the caramel-bourbon sauce, and top with a dollop of whipped cream.
Oh dream maker, you heartbreaker. Wherever you’re going, I’m going your way.
 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Whey pancakes and Grade B syrup

I drove behind this truck in late March. Oh, New Hampshire.
I am now the kind of person who makes pancakes out of the whey that’s leftover from home cheese making. I’m eagerly waiting for my hipster card to arrive in the mail.

My inability to dump a perfectly viable food down the drain sent me on a Google search for whey recipes that didn’t involve whey protein powder and promises of bulging neck muscles. (Naturally, my largely cheese- and chocolate-based diet has already given me a rock-hard physique).

I found these whey pancakes from King Arthur Flour, and to make them even stranger, I added some green food coloring in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Alarmingly, Chloe was totally willing to eat green food without question, which is something we’ll have to work on.

The pancakes came out tasty and super moist, even if they did look like little green alien Frisbees. The only issue: I didn’t sift the flour and baking soda together, but just dumped it into the bowl and stirred—children crying wildly that they're starving can make you do wacky things. This oversight resulted in an icky, crunching lump of baking soda in two of the bites. I didn’t know my mouth was capable of twisting into such a wretched shape, but that’s what an unexpected hit of a baking soda landmine will do to you.

Speaking of maple syrup (OK, we weren't, but c'mon, pancakes), last weekend was New Hampshire Maple Weekend, which opens up the state's sugar shacks to the maple syrup-crazed public. Nerd that I am, I’ve had this year's Maple Weekend on my calendar since last year's maple weekend, because I just can’t seem get enough of watching clear sap drip slowly into a bucket.

Maple weekend also alerted me to a food scoop: The maple industry wants to re-grade syrup to eliminate names like “Grade A” and “Grade B” and instead categorize maple syrup based on its color. Because even though Grade B implies dog-food quality, Grade B syrup is actually darker, tastier, and the favorite of true maple lovers.

So go forth, make some cheese, save the whey, cook some pancakes, and get busy smothering them with Grade B syrup.

Whey pancakes
Recipe from King Arthur Flour’s The Baking Sheet Newsletter
2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose or Traditional Whole Wheat Flour or a combination of both
1 to 2 tablespoons sugar, honey, maple syrup, etc. (I used two of sugar, but I bet maple syrup would be better)
1 teaspoon baking soda (Sift this mofo if you know what’s good for you!)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups whey
2 large eggs
2 to 4 tablespoon vegetable oil
Mix the dry ingredients together in a mixing bowl.
In a smaller bowl, beat together the whey, eggs and vegetable oil.
Blend the liquid ingredients with the dry for about 20 seconds.
Scoop by 1/4-cup measures onto a hot, buttered griddle, cook, and enjoy.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

My dad, master of the healing arts


“I got a shot a whisky for ya!” my dad announced a few minutes after we arrived at his house for a St. Patrick’s Day dinner of corned beef and cabbage. I was in the middle of coughing my brains out to a soundtrack of Irish music so jaunty I half expected Michael Flatley to come leaping out from behind the kitchen curtain.

I was still recovering from a terrible chest cold that left me hacking like an old man every time someone made me laugh. My dad’s solution? A shot of Tullamore Dew Irish whisky, which certainly helped to clear up my chest (and maybe put a little hair on it, too).

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tacos with homemade seasoning mix



Once upon a time, two sleep-deprived parents of a newborn were deeply craving tacos, so they made an extremely slow-moving excursion to the grocery store for all the fixings: lettuce, ground beef, tortilla shells, sour cream, tomatoes, the works.
Then they got home and lost their shit: They’d forgotten the taco seasoning mix.
As the infant screamed preternaturally from her bouncy seat, as the naked ground beef mocked them from its package, as the walls threatened to close in around them, the two realized they had a choice: Go back to the grocery store or improvise.
Then, through the fog of baby-brain, the mother had an epiphany: Perhaps the World Wide Web held the answer.
One Google search later, and they had their salvation: A recipe for homemade taco seasoning mix, calling for ingredients they already had in their kitchen cabinets. They whipped it up and beheld a little miracle: Their child took a merciful 30-minute nap and they ate the best homemade tacos they’d ever had. And they and their baby and their homemade taco seasoning mix lived happily ever after.
The End
Taco seasoning mix
Adapted from several online recipes and tweaked into this one over the years
1 tablespoon chili powder
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon onion powder
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon oregano
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 ½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon pepper
Instructions:
Brown a pound of ground meat in a skillet, drain the fat, and return skillet to the stovetop
Mix 2/3 cup of water with 1 teaspoon of cornstarch in a small bowl
Add the cornstarch-water mixture and 2 heaping tablespoons of seasoning mix to the meat and simmer over medium-high heat until thickened and the water is mostly gone, about 5 minutes
Serve on taco shells with all the fixings.
TIPS:
  • Tweak the spice mix until your get the heat level you like
  • Double or triple the mix recipe each time you make it and store in an airtight container so you always have some on hand
  • Any ground meat will do, but we like bison

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Making ravioli and other Traditional American Skills

When I was a kid I was obsessed with a certain book on my mother’s bookshelf: A big, thick Reader’s Digest volume called “Back to Basics: How to Learn and Enjoy Traditional American Skills.”

These Traditional American Skills ranged from baking bread to making soap to building a house with trees you cut down yourself; all things that an eight-year-old suburban girl like me or a paranoid, off-the-grid survivalist like the Unabomber needs to know for living a happy and productive life.

I’m not cut out to live entirely off the grid—I don’t ever see, say, animal husbandry in my future—but I have always been intrigued by relying less on the grocery store and more on myself for food, and I credit (blame?) this book for that outlook.
Since DIY everything and local food is so trendy right now, I will choose to believe that my eight-year-old self was an ahead-of-the-curve sophisticate instead of a picked-last-in-gym dweeb.
This book is also why when I do things like make homemade frozen ravioli, I feel less like a put-upon housewife and more like a spunky, enterprising homesteader relying on my wits and ingenuity to create hearty food out of little more than flour, eggs, and water. Or maybe I’m over thinking this. They’re just noodles.
If you, too, want to feel spunky and enterprising, and if you happen to have a few extra hours on your hands sometime, I encourage you to try out this recipe; it's even gotten the enthusiastic approval of my three-year-old. It’s easy, if tedious, and the results are delicious. At the very least, you’ll have dinner. At the very most, you can go to bed knowing that you’ve done your best to hone your Traditional American Skills.
Homemade Frozen Spinach Ravioli
Step one: Make the pasta. I used the following recipe from Better Homes and Gardens:
Ingredients:
Sprinkle a clean kneading surface with the remaining 1/3 cup flour. Turn dough out onto floured surface. Knead until dough is smooth and elastic (8 to 10 minutes total). Cover and let the dough rest for 10 minu2 1/3 cups of all-purpose flour
½
teaspoon of salt
2 eggs, beaten
1/3
cup water
1 teaspoon of olive oil
Directions

1. In a large bowl stir together 2 cups of the flour, the basil (if desired), and salt. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. In a small bowl combine eggs, water, and oil. Add egg mixture to flour mixture; stir to combine.
2. Sprinkle a clean kneading surface with the remaining 1/3 cup flour. Turn dough out onto floured surface. Knead until dough is smooth and elastic (8 to 10 minutes; DON’T SKIMP ON THE KNEADING!). Cover and let the dough rest for 10 minutes.
3. Divide the dough into four equal portions. On a lightly floured surface, roll each dough portion into a 12-inch square (about 1/16 inch thick). Let stand, uncovered, about 20 minutes. If using a pasta machine, pass each portion through machine according to manufacturer’s directions until dough is 1/16 inch thick.
Now, it’s time to make the raviolis themselves. During the 20 minutes you need to wait after you roll out the dough, move onto

Step Two: Make the filling
Ingredients:
4 cups fresh spinach
1/3 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 tablespoon olive oil

Steam the spinach until it’s soft and wilted; then put it in a bowl and use the back of a spoon to squeeze as much water as possible out of the leaves. You want the spinach to be wicked dry.
 

Put the spinach and other ingredients into a food processor and blend into a thick paste.
 

Step three: Make the ravioli
Take one of your rolled-out pieces of dough and cut the edges off so it’s a square (ish). Then cut that into 9 equal-sized rectangles.
 

Spoon about 1 1/2 teaspoon’s worth of filling onto each rectangle
 

Brush around the edges with a beaten egg
 

Fold the dough over the filling
 

Pinch around the sides to seal
 

Put them on a parchment or waxed-paper lined baking sheet (or something else that’s flat that will fit into your freezer), freeze them solid, then transfer to a zip-top bag for storage. To cook, boil in water for 10 minutes.
 

PS: Don’t throw out those dough scraps! Cut them into strips, boil them for 1-2 minutes, drain, and enjoy an ugly but tasty lunch

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Love, 80s Style: Tuna Fish and Rice Casserole


This snazzy, tie-wearing lady is my momma, circa 1985. When I imagine the mom of my childhood, she looks like this and is making my favorite high-sodium, low-budget comfort food: Tuna fish and rice casserole.

It’s a one-dish, four-ingredient casserole that’s straight out of the 1950s housewife playbook. In fact, the original recipe, which might have been nicked from the side of a can*, called for a topping of crumbled potato chips. My mother wisely omitted this ingredient (her mother did not).

Even without the chips, my brother and I would BEG for this meal. We danced gleefully when it was on the menu. We hovered while it was being made and stalked the oven window while we waited for it to finish baking. Even now, it’s our top request when my mom wants to make us a special dinner. Once it’s served, we’re both instantly seven years old again and reverting back to the way we ate it when we were kids, flattening it out on our plates and taking bites in a specific pattern. (Obviously, yes, we were weird then, and we’re weird now).
 
Because I live in fear that the casserole’s key ingredient, Campbell’s Condensed Cheddar Cheese Soup, will someday be discontinued, I occasionally hoard cans of it when I see it at the grocery store. If I ever do hear that it’s going off the market, I will do my best to buy it in bulk, Today Sponge-style, and will only use it for people that I deem casserole-worthy.
 
I’m pleased to report that the tuna fish and rice casserole obsession has infiltrated a fourth generation: My daughter, Chloe, who recently declared herself a vegetarian, has made an exception for fish because she couldn’t bear to live a life without tuna fish and rice casserole. Such is her love.
 
I make this meal sometimes at home, and I encourage you to as well. But mostly I still beg my mom to make it, and if you want the best version, you’ll have to do that, too.
 
Tuna Fish and Rice Casserole
Health-wise, this meal seems all kinds of wrong, but it tastes all kinds of right. But at $5 a pop and five minutes to prepare, you can’t beat it for convenience and price. Make it a little unhealthier by piling on the butter and salt.
Ingredients:
One can of Campbell’s Condensed Cheddar Cheese Soup
One can of tuna, drained
About 4/5 of the empty soup can filled with milk
1 ½ cups of uncooked rice (My mom says the original recipe called for Minute Rice specifically. But many 50s and 60s recipes were marketing driven, so I'll leave the rice decision up to you).
Directions:
Cook rice according to the package directions
Grease a 9x13-inch casserole dish
Whisk together the soup and milk in a large bowl
Stir in the tuna and cooked rice
Bake in 375-degree oven until bubbly, about 30-40 minutes
Let it set for 15 minutes before serving
*Note: My Auntie Jackie (mom's sister) says: "My mother supposedly made this up, or at least she said she did, in later years."

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bread: The final frontier


I’m a decent cook and baker, but there’s one food I’ve never been able to master, one food that’s always made me feel like a foodie imposter. That food is bread, with its wily alchemy and its temperamental yeast (an ingredient that you might KILL if you handle it incorrectly. That’s intense).
Bread takes time. And patience. And muscles. And then there are the imprecise instructions in most bread recipes, like kneading the dough for a long time…but not too long! Or the fact that your bread will misbehave like a spoiled, petulant diva if you don’t cover it with a towel and let it rest for a good long time. Is this a food or one of the real housewives?
But I am happy to report that my days of fighting with and being scared of bread are over because I have found a recipe that’s easy, no-fuss, and even tastes good as part of a sandwich. And if you happen to have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, this recipe requires about five minutes of labor that's basically limited to measuring ingredients. I’m not kidding.
It’s a gluten miracle!
I should note that my husband, Brian, has replaced this bread with the whole wheat potato bread he usually makes his sandwiches on. He also revealed to me this morning that said potato bread actually tastes like “butt,” so my homemade bread must offer some modicum of relief.
Anyway, here it is! Happy baking!
Oatmeal Sandwich Bread
Recipe from the side of King Arthur Flour’s bag of unbleached bread flour
3 cups (12 ¾ ounces) of unbleached bread flour
1 cup (3 ounces) old-fashioned oats
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) butter, softened
1 ½ teaspoons of salt
3 tablespoons of honey
2 teaspoons of instant yeast or 1 packet of active dry yeast
1 ¼ cups (10 ounces) lukewarm milk
In a large mixing bowl, or in the bowl of an electric mixer, combine all of the ingredients, mixing to form a ragged-looking dough. (Don't worry if you still see chunks of butter. It will all melt when it's kneading).
Knead the dough, either by hand (10 minutes) or by machine (5 minutes using the bread hook on your Kitchen Aid mixer).
Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover it with a towel, and allow it to rest for 1 hour; it'll become quite puffy, although it may not double in bulk.
Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled work surface, and shape it into a log.

Place the dough in a lightly greased 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch loaf pan, cover the pan (with lightly greased plastic wrap or foil), and allow the dough to rise for 60-90 minutes, until it's crested 1 to 2 inches over the rim of the pan.

Bake the bread in a preheated 350°F oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers 190°F. If the bread appears to be browning too quickly, tent it with aluminum foil for the final 10 minutes of baking.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Cozy soup and grilled ham and cheese for a cold winter night

 
There’s nothing quite as comforting to me as a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of soup. It’s perfect for warming up after an afternoon of sledding, making you feel better when you’re sick on the couch, or calming your nerves the night before your wedding while you obsessively watch the Weather Channel hoping that the approaching Nor’Easter will magically disappear from the Doppler screen.

The Nor’Easter didn’t disappear, and I managed to get married without incident. But I’ve kept with me the memories, not only of a great wedding and 60-mile-per-hour winds, but also of that yummy grilled cheese sandwich and the reassuring feeling of my fingers around a warm soup bowl.

Since the weather’s been cruelly cold over the past few days, grilled cheese sandwiches and soup were in order for a frigid Friday night this week. But with some friends coming over, I decided that slapping American cheese on a couple slices of potato bread, cracking open a can of condensed soup, and calling it a day just wouldn’t do. Some fancying up was in order.

The result? Grilled ciabatta bread filled with ooey, gooey gruyere and slices of uncured ham, pears, and onions, plus a Crock Pot filled with butternut squash and apple soup. (I also made wilted collard greens, but I thought they sucked, so I’ll just pretend they never happened).

Aside from being cozy and delish, this meal is one that can be prepared almost entirely in advance. If you make the soup the day before, you can warm it on the stove when you’re ready to eat. You can also slice all of the sandwich components ahead of time, and even soften the pear and onion slices, too.

Butternut squash and apple soup
Serves 4-6

Ingredients:
One butternut squash
Three apples
Four cups vegetable broth
Brown sugar
Nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste


Instructions:

Peel the butternut squash and cut it up into one-inch cubes.

Peel the apples and cube those, too.

Put the apples and squash on a cookie sheet, toss with a couple tablespoons of olive oil, a heavy pinch of salt, and about a tablespoon of brown sugar.

Roast in a 400 degree oven, stirring every 10 minutes, until everything is soft, about 30-35 minutes.

Transfer the squash and apples into a soup or stock pot and add about 4 cups of vegetable broth (You can make it a little richer with a splash of half and half, but it’s totally optional).

Add about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg, depending how much you like.

Using a food processor or immersion blender, blend the squash mixture until smooth. Add more broth, if you’d like your soup a little thinner.

(If you aren't in the mood for grilled cheese, try this soup with some homemade garlic bread).

Grilled gruyere sandwiches with pear, onion, and ham
Serves 4-6

Ingredients:
About one pound block of gruyere cheese
Eight slices of deli ham (I like uncured), each cut in half
One onion
Two pears
Ciabatta bread, cut into 16 half-inch slices
One stick of very soft butter


Instructions:

Using a mandolin* or your crazy knife skilz, slice the gruyere cheese into 1/8-inch slices.

Slice the peeled onion and cored pears into 1/4 –inch slices.

Spread the onion and pear slices in an even layer on a cookie sheet and roast in a 400 degree oven until they’re softened, 10-15 minutes.

Let the onions and pears cool on a plate in the fridge while you prep the bread slices by smearing one side of every slice with butter.

Assemble the sandwiches on the unbuttered side of the bread with a layer of cheese, two half-slices of ham, 3-4 pear slices, a few onions, and a little more cheese (if you have enough); top with another slice of bread. Butter should be facing out on both sides of the sandwich.

Grill on an electric griddle set to 300 degrees or on a frying pan on a medium-high stove. Adjust the heat as needed to ensure that the bread doesn’t brown before the cheese is melted. When one side is golden-brown, flip and repeat on the other side.

Serve the soup and sandwiches with a warm fleece blanket on the couch.

* I’m not usually one to demand the use of fancy kitchen gadgets, but a mandolin makes it much easier to slice everything thinly and evenly.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Letter to my body

Dear Body,

Hey. How’s it going? I don’t say this enough, but thanks. Thanks for being my ride through life. Even it you’re a little bit sorer and a lot pastier than ever before, I want you to know that I appreciate you. Sure, we may not always see eye-to-eye (Zits at 32, really? And that rogue chin whisker the other day? Not cool.) And you might have punished me a few times for too much wine and too much sun with raging headaches and blazing skin.

But in the long run, you’re a miracle. You’ve grown a person, been cut open and healed, run lots more miles than I thought you ever could, spooned, snuggled, smiled, cried, hugged, and kissed. You’re always with me and put up with a lot. I promise to do my best to give you lots of good food and water, more bubble baths and more sleep, and many, many more hugs.

Love,

Me