Archive for August, 2008

Hope in a bottle

Ok, friends, bear with me. I know there’ve been a lot of salads around here lately. A perfect, basic vinaigrette here. Greens and eggs here. Nostalgia and avocado and citrus here.

But it’s hot. Ridiculously, multiple-showers-a-day hot. So, you see, salads are the thing. The ticket to maintaining sanity at this point in the season.

Here, we are so over summer. I know there are those of you in places where summer is fleeting, blink-and-it’s-gone brief, finished before it really got underway in the first place. But we’ve been experiencing summer weather for five full months, and the murmurs are starting. September is coming and, even though we know the heat won’t go the way of August, we still have hope. We know September is supposed to mean fall, even if the reality isn’t that.

I mentioned the other day to my friend, Dawn, that I wish I could experience chilly weather for just one day. Just one day with an umbrella and a long cardigan and zero reason to put on my sunglasses. Just one day so that I could justify those knee-high, gray-as-winter Frye boots that I’m positively mad for, but that, given current temperatures, what would be the point?

Just one day with a Honeycrisp apple. That’s all I want.

Barring the apple, I do have this French balsamic apple cider vinegar to help me wait for fall and its attendant apples. This vinegar has a sweetness, but there’s body to temper it. I could lick it off a spoon (ok, so I have). So far I’ve only used it to dress salad, but it’s so luscious I imagine I’ll try reducing it with sugar and drizzling it over caramel ice cream. Or berries.

Or maybe I’ll just reach for a spoon.

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Gratuitous sharing

[Recipe: Egg Cupcakes]

I have to say I deplore the whole mom sharing thing. You know what I’m talking about, that just because I popped a kid out and you did too, well, my don’t we have a lot in common? And then I become privy to your little Johnny’s sleep and poop schedule, and naturally I give you the low-down on what my little Janey got up to last night, and I guarantee I’ll one-up you.

We’re pretending to vent, but in reality, we’re just seeing who the better mom is. We know it’s our own selves, but just checking…

That said, there’s one area where I don’t mind the give-and-take of mommy tales. I love to talk about food, about what new organic, all-natural snack you’re making these days that your kids love to come home to. About where you like to shop for produce and what you’re doing differently with the salmon, so that maybe I can copy you if it sounds good.

It’s that spirit of mommy sharing –- the helpful kind, where we confidentially discuss things that really will make us better parents –- that brings me here today. School’s started, and I am now the proud maternal figure of one clarinet-wielding fifth grader and a tiny kindergartner whose backpack is so big that, from behind, all you see are little limbs and the tippy top of a brown head. These little people need to be fed –- and well –- before they hike up the sidewalk to school.

Now, do you really care what my girls eat for breakfast? On the off chance that you do, that you also like to benefit from knowing what other parents feed their children, take a gander at these breakfast egg cupcakes. A couple or three mouthfuls apiece, they’re a cinch, they can be made ahead and – I feel the halo coming on – they’re healthy.

Egg Cupcakes

I discovered a version of this recipe while watching one of those cooking segments on the local news a few years ago. Prepare these in muffin tins or silicone muffin cups. Sometimes we sprinkle the tops with grated cheese or chopped herbs before baking or toss in small pieces of sliced ham or smoked salmon. Makes 8 cupcakes.

4 slices of whole grain bread, torn into strips

6 large eggs, slightly beaten

Optional: small slices of ham, bacon or smoked salmon, about ½ inch in width; grated or crumbled cheese; chopped herbs

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

Evenly divide bread strips among muffin cups. If adding ham or other ingredients, place on top of bread strips. Top with scant 1/3 C eggs, filling cups ¾ full. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with cheese, if desired. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.

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Ici, on fait la cuisine (Here, we cook)

I decided a while ago that I’d like my house to be known among my kids and their friends as the cooking house. How positively, eye-rolling-ly uncool, right? Uncool like matching patterns. Uncool like not knowing how to rapid-fire text (hunt-peck-hunt-peck).

So I resigned myself to that knowing negativity, all the while hoping I’d someday land in an alternate universe where having the cooking house -– as opposed to the Wii house/swimming house/snack house with its magnetic pull of Costco tubs of Swedish fish and rec room refrigerators stocked with Coke –- would actually be cool.

My husband and I decided long ago, when our babies were babies, that we’d like our house be the hang-out house. But our house is none of the above, so how to encourage the presence of our girls and their friends? How to contrive an inviting environment that doesn’t include stacks of Pringles or Guitar Hero tournaments in the bargain?

Emmie is the girl world’s latest inductee into sleepover territory. She’s enthusiastic about the whole cooking thing at the moment, and wanted to make dinner with her friends. One night they smushed and rolled hamburger into meatballs. Another sleepover involved homemade mac and cheese, roux and all.

And her friends didn’t balk at the concept of a sleepover that didn’t include delivery pizza. They actually thought it was cool. They want to come back and do it again.

Could it be, then? Cool? I was a little surprised at their eagerness, their willingness to get their hands dirty when they admitted to never really cooking before. One told me she’s in charge of helping at home with the salad, and that once her mom showed her how to do something with chicken (she couldn’t remember what).

Of course, I think cooking is cool. Now. But when I was Emmie’s age I pretended the word wasn’t in my vocabulary. At the time knowing a saucepan from a sauté pan was pretty low on the list. Ok, so I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a sauté pan. Of course I didn’t. I was enmeshed in gaping at music videos at the house of my one friend who had MTV while we crushed barbecue potato chips into cottage cheese. Besides, Hardee’s was within walking distance.

And I had a mom who made me food. When that luck ran out, I knew there were plenty of purveyors of edible items out in the wide world. Since I planned on growing up and having the swimming house anyway, might as well go for the eating-out-every-night gusto, too.

Now, I know there’s more to edibility than the fact that the thing sitting on the wrapper in front of you won’t kill you if you ingest it (at least not immediately). So while I’d refuse to accommodate a Hannah Montana marathon (right – Hannah Montana isn’t so cool anymore), I’ll gladly host an afternoon of experimenting with crêpe fillings.

Come on down, kids.

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Indulge me

My latest favorite snippet of copywriting genius came yesterday in the J. Crew catalog. It refers to an Italian calfskin bag and, I quote: “Is it a splurge if it’s completely worth it?

Immediately my thoughts turned to tomatoes. Specifically heirloom, that rainbow resurrection that’s been going on for some years now. Not that I easily toss off thoughts of pretty leather handbags; no, I’ve lost days to handbag dreaming.

But I think it would be a productive exercise for us to consider that word ‘splurge’ for a sec. A splurge is the opposite of economical, hardly provident, never necessary. It’s something superfluous, frivolous, but that you spend money on anyway. An indulgence.

Like a tricked-out, tasseled and pebbled Italian leather bag. Like heirloom tomatoes.

If all you take into account is the cost of something (especially when you compare it to the availability of a similar item of baser quality and a much lower price), than heirloom tomatoes can qualify as splurge material. Then again, heirloom tomatoes can be necessary on so many levels. They are, I learned yesterday, a necessary accompaniment to a fine round of recently acquired bucheron. A called-for late afternoon snack, sliced and flecked with sea salt. An irresistible lure for a hungry, curious kindergartner who really should progress her palate beyond her prized grape tomatoes.

In short, completely worth it.

So does their worth make them a splurge, or an essential? Or something of far greater consequence, as the couple shopping next to me concluded while selecting this and that tomato. I quote: “Let’s just have these for dinner.”

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So nice

[Recipe: Maple-Balsamic Vinaigrette]

I count myself a fan of nice. Nice neighbors who help you load up the half eucalyptus tree that broke off in the monsoon storm. Nice shoppers who let you in front of them when you only have one item (I thought this kind of thing was an urban legend, but it really happened!). Nice big sisters who share their truckload of candy from the orthodontist’s office with their little sisters*.

So allow me to share a couple of particularly nice things with you today.

A nice salad always makes a fine beginning, so salad it is. This salad is nice on a couple of counts. First, because we became acquainted in a fantastic little restaurant in Vermont (it may have been in Middlebury, to be exact, but we were getting around, so I can’t say for sure), where people are unequivocally nice.

And it’s nice not just for its provenance, but for the all-important ingredients. The menu described the Wonder Salad as a combination of crunchy green leaf, avocado chunks, orange segments and walnuts (candied or not; take your pick). Compounding the niceness was the dressing: a maple-balsamic vinaigrette.

And now we’re to the unfortunate part of the story. When I tried to order the salad, I was told they were out, and was there something else I’d like instead? (Of course our server was nothing but gracious — you know, nice.)

Mental notes duly made, I prepared the salad when I got home. The dressing is such a hit around here I make it often, dripping it onto this or that salad or slathering it on salmon or dribbling it over scallops.

The other nice thing I wanted to share -– only in order, certainly not in rank –- is a nice gesture. Sarah at Life is Still Sweet passed on the Beautiful Site Award to me! Little me! That is the epitome of nice, of magnanimity, and now I get to pass the honor along. Thanks, Sarah!

I’d like to send it on to a site I only recently discovered: Nourish Me. Lucy’s over there working some marvelous shots – a recent photo of parsley soup had me wanting to dive in, head first. I’ve been in heaven sifting through her archives, poring over her vignettes.

Maple-Balsamic Vinaigrette

I typically like a 1:1 ratio of vinegar to oil. Use more olive oil if your tastes prefer. My favorite method of dressing salad right now is to mix the dressing in a big bowl, place the greens on top, then toss with tongs to coat the greens. After the greens are coated, I add the other ingredients and toss again.

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 tsp pure maple syrup

2 tsp Dijon mustard

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Combine all ingredients in a bowl with a whisk.

* Back story: Emmie just got her braces off today! Evidently, the orthodontist supplies the happy patient with a sizeable sackof previously verboten goodies as a celebratory gesture. As in: “Congratulations on taking such good care of your braces! Now go shred your newly exposed enamel with caramel and corn syrup!” How nice is that?

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Before you go

[Recipe: Tapenade]

An open letter to my little sister, who’s moving halfway around the world:

I’m listening to The Perishers and Dumas while making tapenade, so of course I wish you were here. The size of the anchovy selection at Whole Foods this afternoon would have astonished you, too –- the two of us could have put together “salt preserved” in Spanish –- but we would have been astonished together.

That’s always a good time, you and me, marveling in some market somewhere, happening upon unfamiliar ingredients we suddenly can’t live without.

The tapenade was supposed to be for the French pique-nique, pour la rentrée. See, Quinn starts back at her little French school next week, and, as is tradition, each family brings something sucré or salé to the start-of-year get-together. Of course I pored over cookbooks this week, mulling over what to bring. It’s a significant decision, right? This opportunity to make something new, something perhaps just a little bit impressive but nothing that would hint that I’d tried too hard to impress. It’s a fine line, and that’s where you would have come in handy. You’re always a good sounding board when food decisions hang in the balance.

Do I make the cumin-gruyère puffs, or is that too obvious? Would the red bean cilantro spread with pita chips be too, well, American? And what if my oven isn’t fixed in time?

I went with the tapenade, because Quinn’s crazy for olives, and because I couldn’t be certain of the oven situation. Turns out the oven got fixed this morning, but Quinn’s come down with something (elle a attrapé un gros rhume), so we won’t be attending the picnic, after all. Quel dommage.

If you were here, you’d eat the tapenade with me. You’d appreciate its salty, lemony goodness, the way it completes an olive oil cracker or our portobella and chèvre burgers. And then for lunch tomorrow we could have tossed it with some warm penne and fresh basil, and you’d sit at the bar leafing through the cookbook that this particular recipe comes from, My French Kitchen, marking pages with Post-Its.

But now you’re off to a world wider than an anchovy selection, to a place saltier in some ways than tapenade. Enjoy. And collect a few recipes for me.


Adapted from My French Kitchen

10 oz pitted black or green Mediterranean olives

8 salted anchovy fillets (Kitchen declares salt-preserved are the best)

3 tablespoons rinsed or drained bottled capers

1 garlic clove

Juice of ½ lemon

Sea salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

½ to ¾ C extra-virgin olive oil

Put all ingredients except oil into a blender and chop roughly. Add olive oil to your liking and blend again to form a paste. Store in refrigerator for up to four days.

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While they’re still here

[Recipe: Homemade Playdough]

So it hit me the other day, with the start of another school year, that my kids are growing up and all that. You know, getting bigger. Getting smarter. Learning stuff. Becoming more aware.

I guess that’s what kids do.

If they really are growth-spurting their way toward the ranks of mature humankind, then I suppose that means they won’t be running (squealing? bickering?) around my little house forever. Sometimes I think they will. Sometimes I imagine we’re congealed in a time warp that has me slicing up baby carrots so that they’re braces-friendly and folding tiny underpants and vacuuming up pink Polly Pocket wedges -– how impossibly tiny can a toy be, for crying out loud? –- for all perpetuity.

But I know it’s not true. Those Polly shoes will one day vaporize along with all the other outgrown toys, and with them, my opportunities to mold my young breed (Mary Poppins, anyone?).

Guess I’d better get on with it then, this molding thing. They are still impressionable after all, my girls, just like this homemade playdough. Not only do they pretty much believe everything I tell them, they still think it would be cool to grow up and be me. And why ever should I argue with them?

Before they’re outta here, then, there are a few kitchen/food specific things I’d like us to do together. Some of the things on my list are replays of my own childhood memories, like this playdough we always made at Grandma’s. And some are things I’ve never done, which is good, because learning new things keeps one young, right? At least that’s how it works for us grownups. Here, for now, is my top (baker’s) dozen:

  1. Make fruit leather
  2. Grow herbs (successfully, for once; it must be possible)
  3. Teach them to make a vinaigrette, with variations galore (does unconditional love meet its limits at bottled dressing? Oh, stop. I’m kidding)
  4. Work our way through a collection of bread recipes (including, but not limited to, tortillas and fougasse and pretzels and…)
  5. Plant a citrus tree (I’m thinking Meyer lemon)
  6. Teach them the fundamentals of tomato sauce
  7. Make tofu
  8. Learn to grow tomatoes (and if that goes well, there will be no holding back. I’ll go full vegetable garden if I have to)
  9. Make crackers
  10. Make jam (preferably raspberry)
  11. Learn how to make a fresh catch edible
  12. Teach them about quality chocolate and using chocolate in recipes
  13. Learn to make pickles


Super Playdough

Adapted from my Grandma

1 C flour

1 C water

1 tbsp oil

1 tbsp alum

½ C salt

2 tsp vanilla extract

Food coloring

Mix all dry ingredients in a medium saucepan. Add the oil and water (if you want the entire batch to be the same color, you can add food coloring with the water). Stir constantly over medium heat until it reaches the consistency of mashed potatoes. Remove from heat. Add vanilla. Divide into balls (as many as you want colors) and make an indentation on each with your thumb. Drop color into the indentation, then knead color into the dough ball, adding more color as necessary. Store in a plastic bag or closed container in the fridge.

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