Archive for March, 2009

Doughing for it

When the tough get going, the going…um… bake bread?

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I’ve been dutifully plugging away at a story for hours, and hours later, I am getting nowhere with it. Stuck-at-the-airport nowhere. Dirt-road-surrounded-by-wilderness nowhere.

So where to turn? To the kitchen, of course. To let loose my frustrations on a soft pile of dough.

I was baking bread anyway, so the fact that the dough was present is a happy coincidence, one for which my thanks go to Peter Reinhart. It’s because of him that I make bread with such frequency these days. He took all the guesswork out of it, made it accessible to the cook who now-and-again bakes (c’est moi). The sometime baker who can whip up a batch of really great cookies or a quick banana loaf that kills, but who, when it comes to anything involving yeast, cowers in her pantry, worrying furiously if the yeast will take or if she screwed it up.

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Now that Mr. Reinhart’s absolved me of such flights of frantic, my only obstacle is time. I’ll think — erroneously — that I have time to throw a loaf together. Yet the hands-on parts (kneading, shaping, removing it from the oven) always seem to need to happen at the time I’ve signed up to be doing something else. Case in point: Tonight I need to leave at precisely 6 p.m. for an appointment. The bread will not be done until about 6:10.  But I couldn’t have put the bread in the oven earlier, because it hadn’t finished rising.

It’s an overlap with potentially dangerous consequences. We always need 10 more minutes, don’t we?

I just want my bread, dang it, and I want to eat it, too.

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All cracked up

[Recipe: Cheddar Polenta Crackers]

I wholeheartedly agree with many of the things that come from the mouth of Lynne Rosetto Kasper (host of public radio’s The Splendid Table). Last week at a speaking engagement here in town (prior to which I was privileged to interview her for a to-be-written story), she expressed an idea that I definitely appreciate:

Get your kids working next to you in the kitchen, she said — “even if it’s just to tear the lettuce.”

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There was no lettuce tearing going on in my kitchen today, but, it being spring break, we have penciled in one or two family cooking projects.

First up: Crackers. My oldest (Emmie) is clinging to that precipitous cliff that will drop her headfirst into adolescence. Not only have Brian and I taken to calling her Moody behind her back, and I recently had to put products containing the word “oxy” on the Target list, but she’s been exhibiting previously unheard of (around here) food cravings.

“Mom!” she says, with urgency. “I need processed food!”

My “tween” wants crunch. She wants salt. She wants Cheez-Its.

Instead of buying the box, we decided we’d learn to make crackers. That way she can get her crunch and her salt, but she can also pronounce all the ingredients. I only recently figured out that it’s possible to make crackers at home. No conveyer belts or annatto extract required.

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Our home-baked cracker debut is an adaptation of a Heidi Swanson recipe by way of Patricia Wells. We omitted the cayenne pepper entirely and used shredded sharp chedder in place of Parmesan. Cheez-Its these are not, but even for prepubescent cracker enthusiasts, homemade is better.

Cheddar Polenta Crackers

1 C white-whole wheat flour

1 C cornmeal (or instant polenta — I used Arrowhead Mills)

3/4 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 C freshly grated sharp cheddar cheese

2 1/2 tbsp chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 inch pieces

3/4 C buttermilk

In a food processor, combine flour, cornmeal, salt, baking soda and cheddar. Process until combined. Add the butter, and process until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the buttermilk and process until combined and the mixture is dough-like (if it’s too wet, add a tablespoon of flour). Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead for a few seconds. Let rest on the counter for about 15 minutes.

Roll the dough out onto a lightly floured surface to 1/16 of an inch thick. Using a 1 3/4-inch biscuit cutter or a glass, cut dough into rounds. Place crackers on cookie sheets (I covered mine in Silpat; parchment paper would work, too) and bake at 375 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

Makes about 5 to 6 dozen crackers, depending on size.

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So, tell me how you really feel

Quinn (age 6): “Mom, do you want to know why I sometimes don’t eat the food you make for dinner?

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Silly Me: “Why?”

Quinn: “Because I just don’t like it.”

Of course. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before.

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Just a rant, part II

I hate to go off again about feeding our kids, but I have something to say. And, well, as this is my forum, I might as well say it. Take it for what it’s worth, or leave it here if you don’t want to hear it. Maybe it won’t bother you quite as much, but it’s making me crazy.

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That so-called food in the foil wrapper (squish of bun and pile of protein and ooze of processed-cheese product on the kindergarten table): it’s not lunch. The nutrients in that thing are negligible, handily outweighed by fat and sodium content, not exactly conducive to optimum brain function. Surely you know that much. The question is whether or not you care.

I was just finishing up cutting out bubble letters in Quinn’s classroom today (during one of my relatively rare and random appearances), and one of her little friend’s moms came in to deliver the hot lunches, which come from various fast food joints in the area. (Today’s menu item: Roast beef and cheese sandwich.)

The lunch delivery mom (Mom #1) and another mom (Mom #2) began talking. Mom #2 mentioned that she’d just paid hundreds of dollars for her three kids to get hot lunch a few days a week in the coming quarter because she “just can’t handle packing all those lunches anymore.” Mom #1 gave her the happy news: On the days you volunteer to hand out lunches, your kid gets a free hot lunch. A free white bread sandwich! A free melted mozzarella prospective heart attack, I mean, pizza! A free bag of chips! Freedom from any threat of fruits or vegetables!

What a screamin’ deal.

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Surely you know where I’m going with this. I could leave off here and you’d pick it up, sans problème.

But here it is, anyway, the thing that I don’t get. If one has time to volunteer at school to distribute hot lunches, doesn’t one have time to make one’s child a lunch using better (and no doubt less expensive) food choices?

I know it can be rough, getting the lunches together every single night, making sure the pantry and fridge are stocked with the right stuff, the stuff the kids will actually consume (I’ve been known to throw a slice of leftover [ahem, not homemade] pizza in my kids’ lunches — but I decide the portion size, and I include fruit and a vegetable.).

Making lunches is just another thing on the list, the list of tasks that have got to be done, the list that never, no matter how many things we check off, goes away. But you know what? When you sign up for parenting, you sign up for that list. You sign up to provide the foods that will offer optimum health and nutrition to your kids. And that’s hardly convenient. But it’s right, all the same.

And lest you think I’m an utterly hopeless food Nazi, we eat our fair share of treats around here. I happen to prefer M&Ms (those dark chocolate ones), and after making all those lunches, I deserve a few now and again.

In the spirit of encouraging lunches from home, here are a few of my girls’ favorites main dishes, with fruit on the side. Leave a comment with your lunch ideas, too.

  • Any small pasta, cooked and coated with a tiny drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, salt & pepper. Add peas, tuna and feta crumbles (or cooked, diced carrots, shredded chicken and grated Parmesan; or lentils, cooked broccoli and shredded asiago…).
  • Bean & cheese burrito (any bean & cheese combo will do: garbanzo and mozzarella, black and monterey jack, etc.)
  • Homemade pizza, using a quick homemade crust (Linda Collister’s Cooking with Kids has a good recipe) or store-bought crust
  • Pita wedges and hummus, with baby carrots, grape tomatoes and cucumber slices
  • Healthy muffins (carrot oat, for example), a Babybel cheese and slices of nitrate-free turkey or ham
  • Finely julienned carrots tossed in a light vinaigrette with a mini bagel or pita sandwich
  • Hard-boiled eggs, crunchy romaine and a hunk of baguette or mini bagel
  • Couscous or quinoa with olives, tomatoes, pan-fried tofu crumbles and shredded cheese

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Squash pusher

[Recipe: Sweet Roasted Butternut Squash & Kale over Farfalle]

I admit it: When it comes to the story of dinner, I’m prone to burying the lede where squash is involved.

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The question comes, inevitably, from my girls somewhere around 4:30 p.m., and they want all five ‘Ws’: “Mom, what’s for dinner?” I hype the least-offensive ingredients: The “butterfly” pasta part (farfalle, for you purists), the Parmesan cheesy part, whatever other parts won’t push their noses up into disapproving wrinkles. I put off mentioning the squash part somewhere toward the end, because I know what protests will ensue. And I don’t want to hear it.

Maybe I should just get it over with, bad news first, good news second style. Start with a shrug, end with a song.

Yes, squash can be bad news around here. I may love it, heart and soul, for its versatility and color, for its long list of nutrients, but my girls are rightly skeptical: I remember how much I disliked squash as a kid. So much that ‘disliked’ is a pretty rich euphemism.

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This winter, though, I issued myself a challenge: Find new ways to prepare squash that my girls will actually enjoy. I wanted to work a little motherly magic (is there such a thing?) in favor of getting them hooked on squash.

Winter’s nearly over and while they’re not quite hooked, their feelings about squash are now more reserved than skeptical. That, for me, is a triumph, one that followed the path of maple-soy glazed acorn squash and spaghetti squash pancakes.

This recipe, though, was the hands-down winner. This is the one that sealed the deal.

Sweet Roasted Butternut Squash and Kale over Farfalle

adapted from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper, by Lynne Rosetto Kasper & Sally Swift

While plenty of squash varieties would work here, so would other greens. The original recipe calls for escarole or curly endive. It also calls for half-and-half, but I didn’t have that on hand and so saved about a half cup of the pasta water to coat the pasta with instead. The result was still full and plenty rich.

For the vegetables:

1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into bite-sized chunks
1 medium onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 bunch kale, washed, dried and torn into small pieces
1/3 C tightly packed fresh basil leaves, torn
16 large fresh sage leaves, torn
5 garlic cloves, coarse chopped
1/4 C extra-virgin olive oil
1 packed tbsp brown sugar (I’m using Billington’s)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the pasta:
1 lb farfalle (bow-tie pasta)
1 C shredded Parmesan or Asiago cheese

Place a large sheet pan in the oven. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a large bowl, toss together all ingredients for the vegetables (butternut squash through salt and pepper). (Lynne says be generous with the S&P — I agree.) Carefully turn the squash blend onto the pre-heated sheet pan and spread it out. Roast for 25 minutes, or until squash is tender, turning two or three times during roasting.

During the last 15 minutes or so of roasting time, cook pasta until tender but not soft, reserving about a half a cup of the pasta water.

When the squash is tender, turn on the broiler. Watch the vegetables closely and turn pieces often with a spatula, removing them from the oven when the squash is dark golden brown and the greens are near crisp.

Scrape vegetables into a serving bowl. Add some of the pasta water, the cooked pasta, and cheese. Stir to blend, adding more pasta water or salt and pepper as needed.

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