You go, grill

It’s way too hot outside (112 degrees F/44 degrees C — Can you believe it?), but we’re grilling anyway.

It’s typical, unsurprising fare. No pizzas on the grill or fish on Himalayan salt blocks, no paella or stuffed poblanos — nothing as adventurous as all that. We’ll get there, later.

For now it’s back to basics. And who can blame us when we’ve found the season’s first sweet, white corn? And when it’s been way too long since we’ve had a decent (salmon or beef) burger, fixed up a bit sloppy with layers of avocado and tomato and cheese? (See here for a little cheeseburger-in-Paris inspiration.)

Now, what are you grilling?


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Blueberry maple scones

I hadn’t wanted to go to too much trouble. What good is asking for trouble when all you really want to do is sleep?

But somehow I wound up here, with buttery dough crammed beneath my fingernails and pressed into my palms, a small stain of blueberry at the corner of my lip, not to mention the downright stickiness of maple camouflaged on the edge of my countertop and that insidious flurry of flour in places where flour shouldn’t go.

It’s sort of a blur, the kind of haze that’s more typical of a Saturday night than a bright Sunday morning.

I’d woken at 6 a.m. — far too early for a Sunday. I’d planned on a ritual sleeping in, because Sunday is pretty much the only morning I’m not up at 5. And as Saturday had involved the usual Saturday things — 60 miles of riding my bike + 3 loads of laundry + 1 birthday party — I was ready to sleep. And sleep.

Or not.

If I was up anyway, I figured I might as well do the domestic Sunday thing and prepare a solid Sunday breakfast. Something slightly more adventurous than the usual weekday oatmeal. Pancakes crossed my mind. And French toast. But I was tired, and, like I said, hardly in the mood for a mess.

I browsed a few cookbooks until my fingers fell upon a recipe for blueberry-maple scones. There I was in the dense quiet of the morning, no hustle of garbage trucks or landscaping crews, no rush of cars, just a couple of rowdy birds and the crackle of my sack of flour.

I weighed the flour and measured the copious baking powder and flaxmeal, then diced a cube of chilled butter. I tried mixing it all with the pastry blender, because even though the recipe said to use my hands, my heart wasn’t in it. And if your heart’s not in it, you definitely don’t want to get your hands dirty.

But the pastry blender wasn’t up to the task of achieving the necessary crumbly state, so I dug in with bare hands after all. I gave myself over to it, sifting with my fingers, the cold butter giving way under gentle pressure from my fingertips.

These things we do in our kitchens are hypnotic and enchanting, rightfully and necessarily. They work magic in more ways than the simple transformation of separate ingredients into cohesive dish.

Maybe I didn’t need sleep, after all. Maybe all I really needed was to make scones.

Blueberry Maple Scones (adapted from Breakfast, Lunch, Tea)

3 1/2 C white whole-wheat flour

1 handful cornmeal

2 heaping tbsp baking powder

1 heaping tbsp granulated sugar

1 tsp salt

zest of 1 lemon or 1 orange

1/2 C unsalted butter, chilled and cut into tiny dice

1 C blueberries, fresh or frozen

2 eggs

3 tbsp maple syrup or agave nectar

1 1/4 C low-fat or whole milk

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Grease a baking sheet with butter or cooking spray.

Combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, sugar and salt. Add the butter and rub it in with your fingers until the mixture resembles fresh breadcrumbs. Mix in the zest and blueberries.

In a separate bowl, beat one of the eggs, then add the milk and the maple syrup. Make a well in the center of your flour mixture, then pour in the liquid and use a fork to work in the dry ingredients. Use your hands to complete the mixing, just until the the dry ingredients are incorporated — don’t overwork the dough. If it’s too dry, add more milk. Add more flour if the dough is too wet. It shouldn’t be sticky.

Prepare a lightly floured surface, then pat or roll the dough until it’s about 1 1/4 inches thick. Cut the dough into rounds using a 2-inch cutter or an inverted glass, then place the dough rounds onto the baking sheet so that they almost touch. Beat the remaining egg and use a pastry brush to glaze the tops of the scones.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until lightly golden.


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Chickpea skillet bread

I don’t know how I missed it, but when I was visiting the south of France, I never once encountered socca. Just another reason (as if I really needed one) to go back.

In the meanwhile, I’ll content myself with this chickpea skillet bread, easily put together right in my own kitchen at a moment’s notice — anytime I’m feeling the pressing need to get the heck out of the desert.

And even though my home-wrought bread is a meager substitute for the authentic experience, it will at the very least exhaust me of my chickpea flour supply (why did I buy it again? Probably for the same reason I secured that giant bag of cardamom I still need to find uses for. Surely in some untapped [by me] culinary universe I could tackle both ingredients at once. Perhaps a cardamom-scented dal to smear on the flatbread is in order?)


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Improv night: Broccoli penne with lentils

Welcome to Improv Night, when I feature a thrown-together meal from my kitchen.

Here’s the thing: As much as I love my cookbooks, and my dog-eared food magazine collection, and the wide, wide world of worldly recipes on the web, sometimes dinner is less about following someone else’s very specific instructions and more about catering to my of-the-moment whims.

Allow me to continue: Sometimes dinner is about that fresh bundle of asparagus that looked too promising to resist, or about those languishing greens or leftover salmon. Put together with some grains or legumes from the pantry, whatever herbs or spices beg to be used, and we’re one fed and happy family. No recipe required, just a little hard-won experience and well-practiced intuition.

It’s not the timid way I used to do things, back when separate ingredients like flour and baking soda were suspect time-suckers, when I thought making muffins from a mix was the modern way to do things.

These days I care less about modernity and more about scratch cooking (and aren’t we glad that cooking is the new take-out, anyway?).  Now when I use a recipe it’s because I want to learn a new technique, or get a feel for an unusual ingredient. More often than not, I’ll take a recipe as a suggestion rather than as a set-in-stone way to prepare a dish.

The keys to improv dinners are a well-stocked pantry and freezer, a few fresh herbs, a well-honed trick or two, and a willingness to experiment.

This time there was a waiting head of organic broccoli from my produce basket and a Tupperware of leftover lentils. Once I discovered some caramelized onions in the fridge as well, things really got moving.

Prep went something like this: I washed and thinly sliced the broccoli (it cooks better that way) while my medium frying pan, with a bit of olive oil, was heating. I sauteed the broccoli with a fat pinch of red pepper flakes for several minutes until it was just tender, but nowhere near mushy. I added a few cloves of minced garlic part way through the saute.

Then I poured in a can of whole tomatoes (Muir Glen’s Fire-Roasted are my favorite) and broke them up with a wooden spoon as they simmered. I threw in the caramelized onions and about a cup of black lentils, got generous with the salt and pepper, and let it bubble gently away while I cooked the penne.

I boiled the penne until it was just barely al dente, then, using a large slotted pasta ladle, transferred it to the pan with the sauce to let it finish cooking there.

Of course I topped it all with shavings of Parmesan, and of course I served it with a bit of crusty bread and a simple crunchy salad. Like I said: Fed and happy.


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Grilled tofu skewers

Tofu is much less maligned than it used to be, and aren’t we glad? I mean, if you’re of the alternative-protein persuasion at all, even a couple days a week, then you must be thrilled with the increasing availability of tofu, and with the bounty of recipes in all sorts of mainstream mags.

I know I am.

I like tofu. My girls like tofu. Even my husband, a smoked-pastrami-on-sourdough guy if there ever was one, likes tofu. But I always do essentially the same thing with it: Throw it in a stir-fry or pad thai or fried rice or something else in the neighborhood of Asian preparations.

Know this for sure: Where there has been tofu in my kitchen, there has always been soy sauce.

And surely the stuff is more versatile than that, right? So this time I grilled it. I stuck cubes of it on a stick — after marinating them in a not-Asian-inspired dressing, but a Greek-inspired one made with olive oil, garlic, lemon zest and oregano — and put them on the grill.

Easy, right? Easily out of my comfort zone. Easily attractive to the wee diners at my table, who get a kick out of anything on a stick. Easily delicious.


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Baked pasta and cheese

Doing a little menu planning for the week? Might I offer a suggestion, a go-to recipe around here that I’m sure you’ll love as much as I do?

My baked pasta and cheese is a favorite of mine because a) it’s easy; b) it’s amenable to whatever fiddling I want to do with it (rotini or macaroni? Fontina or cheddar? You get the idea); c) it’s what I make when I’m not in the mood to hear Quinn whine/pout/protest about what’s for dinner.

And, finally, it’s a favorite because it’s featured at Raising Arizona Kids magazine this week. Check it out.


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Pick and choose

Here’s my problem: I can’t do everything. Yes, that’s a superfluous-by-virtue-of-its-obviousness statement, but it’s a fact, and facts demand to be faced now and then.

I can’t keep my pinky toe in my writing career and volunteer to run the craft at my first grader’s class party and stay on top of watering the basil and remember that my sixth grader needs new shorts and train for a 200-mile cycle race and mop the kitchen tile after every meal preparation.

As moms (or as parents, or just busy people, for that matter) we’re in the business of picking and choosing. Do we do this or do we do that, because when we choose this instead of that, that is going to go undone.

And so I’m not obsessed with whatever sticky thing may be on the kitchen floor at the moment.

Instead, what I’m choosing to be awfully dang-good at is feeding my family well, at keeping my pantry stocked and the fruit bowl filled. I’m a pro at making sure there’s a constant supply of grape tomatoes and baby carrots, that we always have frozen berries for after-school smoothies and enough whole grains and beans for nights upon nights of rushed throw-together suppers.

The inside of my toilets may not have seen a scrubber all week, but I could care less because tonight — after I supervise the first graders’ craft, that is — I’m making some chargrilled asparagus and zucchini with strange cheese that’s a byproduct of feta. I’ve cleaned those toilets a zillion times over, but I’ve never made this recipe before.

No, I don’t get it all done, but never say I don’t have my priorities.


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No-cook pizza sauce

Aren’t you always hoping to discover a secret shortcut? A step that can be skipped, with zero consequences?

When it comes to cooking, shortcuts aren’t always a boon. Skip marinating your chicken long enough and you miss out on flavor and tenderness. Throw entire eggs into your waffle batter, instead of separating them and whipping the whites to fold in later, and you compromise fluffiness.

But forgo simmering pizza sauce before putting it on homemade pizza*, and nobody will be the wiser. In fact, you’ll be rewarded, not punished, with bright tomato flavor.

I learned this from Saveur, in those back-of-the-book pages where they sneak in some awfully helpful kitchen tips. Dump a 28-oz. can of whole tomatoes into a blender (diced or crushed are fine, it’s just that whole canned tomatoes retain more of that fresh flavor). Add a couple cloves of garlic and some herbs — a handful of fresh basil along with a scatter of dried oregano, perhaps. Salt and pepper the thing, and maybe sprinkle on some red pepper flakes.


That’s it. The sauce cooks when you cook your pizza, and you’ve saved yourself the cleaning of one pan along with some precious minutes you would have spent watching it simmer.

*Have a favorite dough? Tell us about it here!

If you’re not yet a homemade pizza convert, here are some dough resources to get you started:

My hands-down favorite from Peter Reinhart.

Easy with a twist, from King Arthur Flour.

Mark Bittman‘s recipe

But in the spirit of shortcuts, there’s always the ready-made dough from Trader Joe’s. It’s marvelously easy to work with, and I always keep an extra or two in my freezer for times when I’m not able to make it from scratch.


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Preserving lemons, preserving self

[Recipe: Preserved Lemons]

We humans are a little bent on preservation. Think about it: We preserve everything in sight, from the natural (coral reefs) to the man-made (buildings) to the personal (moments and experiences, captured on camera).

I even take great pains to preserve my children in their various stages, their words immortalized around the house on paper scraps. (My latest jotting is a quote the other night from Emmie: “Mom, I want you to still tuck me in and kiss me good night when I’m 17. Will you promise me you will, even if then I don’t want you to?”)

Naturally, we even preserve food: raspberries at the height of sweetness to be spread on toast; the freshest cod for later, when fresh cod isn’t an option; pickled anything because we have a thing for that pickled flavor.

People have been preserving food forever and why? Because preserving food means preserving life, preserving self — delaying the inevitable in times of scarcity.

There are a couple definitions of “preserve” that I like in particular: 1) protecting something from loss (because who in their right mind wants to lose fresh raspberries?) and 2) saving organic substances from decay.

So in the spirit of use it or lose it, I’ve preserved a nice batch of lemons. I don’t want to lose a single bright, precious piece of citrus to decay, so I’m dousing them in an awful lot of salt and lemon juice and sealing them up tight in a jar with a few peppercorns.

Those simple steps mean that three weeks from now, the lemons will still be useful to me. They won’t get dumped in the bin or tossed in the wash behind my house to become a midnight snack for some javelinas.

What to do with preserved lemons? I love dicing the peel (after rinsing it first) and adding it to quinoa or couscous dishes. I’ve heard they’re good thrown in with a roasting chicken and a must-have in tagine, or any Moroccan dish for that matter (hence, their affinity for couscous). The juice is useful, too. The best thing about preserved lemons — besides that they’re easy to make — is that they add a surprise tart and salty punch to any dish.

This recipe is the one I’ve just used, but in the past I’ve used Mark Bittman’s recipe. His uses more spices than just peppercorns, so be sure to experiment, adding to your jar a few cloves and coriander seeds, for example.


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I’m no meat eater. But hearing Nigella Lawson wax on about eating Irish lamb stew almost makes me wonder if I’m missing some essential aspect of the human experience:

“I mean it doesn’t make for dainty eating. But it’s such sort of wonderful robust, sort of rapturously robust stew, really, that I think it’s okay to take out each little chop as you eat it, and gnaw away and fling the bones away into the fireplace.”

Rather, this is what an evening of delectably messy protein looks like to us: fish fingers produced by Emmie over spring break on her night to cook. Soy sauce dribbles indelicately over our chins and we lick errant sesame seeds from our lips. Breading slips from the tender cod in shards, and we immediately pluck it between our fingers to pop into our mouths.

Our Alaskan cod doesn’t quite conjure the nourishing, lusty warmth of a brawny stew. There are no bones, but that’s just as well since there is no fireplace close enough to be within flinging proximity.

Still, it’s satisfying in a different sort of way. We are eating it together and as we are thoroughly staining our napkins with soy and a little grease, it’s hardly dainty. It may not be rapturous, but it’s wonderful enough.


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