Sunday, December 23, 2007

Gingerbread, at Last

My kids are finally big enough (4 and 8) that I actually have the presence of mind and time of day to think about things like gingerbread houses. Never mind grad school, financing an addition to our house and catching up on world news. It's gingerbread season, and I'm going to be part of it.

Still, even with both my kids in school five days a week, thinking and doing remain opposite sides of the same spectrum. This is my new strategy: I plan the day and invite people over, weeks in advance, when I am still in the hopeful, dreamy it's-really-going-to-be-a-Martha-Stewart-kind-of-Christmas-THIS-year land otherwise known as early December ("Hey, I pulled off Thanksgiving, right? I'll probably put up garlands and buy new Christmas dessert plates and should it be bûche de Noël or a croquembouches after Christmas dinner?, and maybe we should start a hot toddy tradition...").

Well, it worked (not the hot toddies, nor the garlands, nor the bûche de Noël; but yes to the gingerbread houses): since Friday friends were coming over to decorate houses, it meant that Wednesday I had to buy candy and pretzels and anything else that could conceivably stand in for a northern European cottage's architectural detail, and that Thursday I had to bake and assemble the houses. I stayed up after the kids were in bed, melting sugar and gluing houses together. Since I made the templates myself, there were, um, a few architectural shortcomings. Roofs too small, windows too crooked, doorways too weird.

Oh well, because my other strategy, the one that makes me love cooking and baking and celebrating holidays, is this: nothing has to be perfect. Maybe the process is not quite as important as it is at my daughter's pre-school (where it trumps everything), but it still shares billing with the product, in my kitchen. It has to be fun, right? So you can't get all freaked out about things turning out perfectly. Plus, it's better for kids to see you having fun with it, than flipping out about not getting the medieval German period details down. Or, uh, the pretzel logs perfectly lined up (see below).

Epicurious had a recipe from Bon Appetit that looked good, and it was. Instead of making one big house, though, I made my own templates for six small houses, so everyone could have their own house. Then, a stomach virus upset our group decorating plans, but my kids and I went ahead with decorating our houses. (Tomorrow we're bringing the rest of the houses to the now-recovered child's house, for a final decorating party.)

Here's what we came up with: my son's minimalist take on the gingerbread house motif:

My traditional log cabin, with a valencia peanut chimney and pretzel log walls:

And my daughter's anything-goes take:

Like a real designer, she didn't stop here; the house was nibbled on and re-designed several times over the next few days:

Nobody's documented it, but I've joined in the nibbling, too. Nice thing about this recipe: the gingerbread is actually delicious!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


They drive me crazy, they really do. What is wrong with them, and why can't they just eat like normal people?

But just when I am really going to blow my top, two things happened this week that reminded me of why it is not so bad that they are like that, and how actually we adults are not too different.

First thing: We had some English muffins in the house. We sometimes use whole grain English muffins for hamburger buns, the way this swanky restaurant on Nantucket where I used to work does. (Theirs aren't whole grain, but still, it's a nice sturdy hamburger-holder.) But these ones in our house were so white and soft and refined, they were practically marshmallows. We almost never have this crap in the house. But this one occasion, we did. It's a long story why. Let's just say we did.

Other than these particular English muffins, we had almost nothing else to eat in the house to eat. It was Saturday morning, and I was trying to get out to the park to walk the dog, and the kids were hungry for breakfast. Fine, I made them a couple white flour English muffins, with butter and cinnamon and sugar. (Can you believe this? Am I even fit to be writing abut food for families? But, come on, we all have our low moments. And anyway, when it's whole grain sprouted spelt or whatever, and the sugar is Sucanat -- which doesn't really fit through the holes in the cinnamon-sugar shaker, so it's mostly cinnamon anyway -- it's not such a bad breakfast.) (Don't get me started on the chocolate croissants I get for them, which I feel like is okay because, like, French people do it.)

Anyway, I served them this evil, foul white bread, assuming it was going to be this huge excitement. White bread and sugar! Cinnamon! Butter! Nooks and crannies! But no. My kids cried. They literally cried, they were so devastated. They had never seen a white English muffin before, and besides, English muffins are for hamburgers. Here was their weird mom, once again trying to trick them into eating some freaky food none of their friends has ever heard of. They weren't doing it. They wanted Ezekiel Sprouted Multi-grain toast with Sucanat, or nothing.

Why? Because it's what they're used to. And that's the trick. That's the bottom line. What they are used to is what they will eat. Used to macaroni and cheese? Used to pizza in front of the TV? Used to vegetables on their plates? Used to having the same thing the parents have? Used to dessert every night? Used to no dessert? That's what they'll eat. It's how we are, all of us.

And this is the other thing. My four-year old did a cooking project at her pre-school last week. So cute! I love when they do cooking projects. But I don't really want to have to eat them. Especially when it's a mashed up ball of unidentifiable ingredients with a few million flakes of pre-schooler detritus mixed in. Palm flakes, nose chips, glitter specks, paint dust, you get the picture of where my mind was going. There was no way I was eating this thing, no matter how hard my daughter begged.

This is terrible and wrong, I know. My daughter was so proud of her creation, but I was completely flipped out at the idea of eating it. I was completely repulsed, if you want to know the depth of my aversion. But I kept forgetting to throw it away when she wasn't looking. So tonight she pulled it out of the fridge and took it out of the pretty cellophane bag, and it was really the moment of truth. She was holding it in our faces, unwrapped, imploring us to eat it, this hunk of brown matter. Did she want to eat it? No, definitely not. Did the 8-year-old want to eat it? What, are you kidding? No one wanted to eat it. It was mysterious and disgusting, a handrolled ball of light brown stuff with black streaks mixed in. Would you eat something like that?

Since first encountering it last week, I had seen the recipe posted at the preschool. Okay, so now I knew that it was made of crushed walnuts and dried cherries. Okay, so it was like a Lara Bar. This helped. Then, it spent several days in the fridge -- arrgh! that critical period, in which I completely forgot about it and thereby lost my chance to get rid of it forever. Okay, I can't keep wallowing in this regret.

Chilling helped. Under great pressure from my four-year old's earnest gaze, I finally took a sharp knife and cut the brown ball into thin slices, superstitiously paring off the outside edges, where, I figured, most of the palm-cells and nose-bacteria were living. I took a tentative, sensorially-disengaged bite. Okay, so it tasted delicious. It tasted exactly like a cherry Lara Bar. It didn't matter what it tasted like. It was still disgusting. My husband had a nibble, and then, our obligation satisfied, when our daughter wasn't looking I threw the rest away.

Now I know how my kids feel. Some stuff is not good, no matter what it tastes like, what it's made of, or how much love went into it. You still don't want it. I need to remember this moment.

Friday, December 7, 2007


I can't really make any grand claims when it comes to my ramen soup. In Japan, ramen has almost cult-like followings, with different regions making different versions, and recipes passed down through the generations. It's like grandma's chicken soup, squared.

I usually satisfy my ramen cravings by going to this tiny ramen shop in the East Village, called Rai Rai Ken, until it turned mediocre. Now I love this other place, Settagaya. Still, Rai Rai Ken was my first initiation to ramen that didn't involve an immersion heater. They have giant stocks pots bubbling away, with onions and mushrooms bobbing on the surface, and bone tips peeking up from the murky, steamy depths. There are three types of soups, and a few appetizers, and about the same number of seats along a wooden bar. I always get pickled daikon and then a big bowl of shoyu ramen -- a soy sauce-based soup with toppings like bamboo shoots, seaweed, fish cake, roast pork, and scallions.

But sometimes I want ramen at home. Obviously, I can't compete with Japanese grandmothers and chefs who've been making broth for ramen for generations. Still, I have to say, my soup is pretty damn good. I mean -- chicken stock, soy sauce, sesame oil? You can't really go wrong. And ramen is the perfect Mothership Meal. You can start with a really simple soup -- how about some clear broth, kids? -- and then serve all the exotic toppings on the side.

Chicken Stock (really, really, REALLY, preferably homemade, with onions and shiitake mushrooms)
To taste: a couple tablespoons of soy sauce, a tablespoon of sesame oil, salt, pepper)

Add: cooked noodles, preferably those tightly coiled ramen noodles, but egg noodles will do in a pinch, as they did in the photo here. And steamed spinach or bok choy, chopped.

Also: cooked pork tenderloin or pork chop.

Garnish with: hard boiled egg, bamboo shoots, scallions, nori squares, and anything else that strikes your fancy.

This is a perfect mothership meal, as it can start so simply -- with broth, for example -- and then become more and more complex. I always find it amazing to see how my children weigh their pickiness against their instinct to copy the adults. As my daughter says, "I just want a tiny bit of scallions, right on the side." She doesn't want to eat it; she just wants it because we want it. Eventually she will want it all.

A Spoonful of Honey...

It's not like I'm a complete zealot about alternative medicine or anything. Like, I think antibiotics are pretty great when you really need them. And I gave Tylenol to my babies when they were howling from teething pain. And I ... I... Hmm. Well, I guess that's about it, actually. I don't use cold medicine or allergy medicine or really any medicine at all, if I can help it. I just feel like most common illnesses are best served by rest, fluids and a watchful eye.

Given my anti-pharmaceutical tendencies, I love reading about studies that show that natural remedies are more effective than things that come in a little brightly-colored capsule with a billion dollar marketing budget and lots of side effects. Like good old exercise -- nobody's designing a campaign for it, but it just keeps plugging away, doing its magic, curing depression, preventing heart disease, and improving almost every other function of the body.

And now honey. A study's come out (funded by the National Honey Boards, it must be said) that shows that a spoonful of honey, given 30 minutes before bedtime, is more effective at soothing a child's nighttime cough and leading to restful sleep, than cough medicines that contain dextromethorphan. Dextromethorphan, a drug used in many over-the-counter cough suppressants, was only slightly better than doing nothing.

They're not sure if it's the soothing quality of the honey, the antioxidants, or the anti-microbial properties in honey that calm the cough and help kids sleep better.

Sounds great, and you don't even need the spoonful of sugar to get this medicine down! (My son's response to the news: "Cool! Can I have some now?")

(But no honey for babies under one, right? Botulism risk. And no cough medicine for kids under six, even if you think this study is wrongn and dextromethorphan is the deal; federal health advisors have advised against it because of, um, lack of effectiveness combined with potential for side effects.)

Sunday, December 2, 2007

OOPS -- The Bean Sprouts!

I ran into my friend and fellow-pho-addict, Jamie, in the wine store last night. We discussed the proportions that go into cooking steel cut oats, made a plan for a playdate and then talked about my pho post, which was when she dropped the bomb -- I forgot about the bean sprouts. Yes, pho should really have bean sprouts, along with the mint and the basil, to add to the amazing balance between hot and cold, spicy and cool, sour and salty... that makes pho so addictive.

Honestly, I did not miss them. Homemade pho is that good, and the basil and mint are such stars.

I'm making it again tonight. I didn't plan to, but there were frozen grass-fed soup bones at the Coop on Friday, and when I got home with them I had ginger in the fridge and it was so easy to just put the ginger and some onion into the oven, and the bones into a pot of water and start making the stock (I actually left it with a lot of water on a low flame overnight, the way my mom does)... and then today I wake up and it's snowing and feels like winter and it's so totally a perfect hot-noodle-soup day, and... it's just so good.

I'll remember the bean sprouts this time.

PS Homemade stocks are also really great because of the minerals that leach out into the broth. (You can add a dash of vinegar or crack the chicken bones to further usher the calcium, magnesium and all their friends out of the bones and into the broth.) Maybe that's one reason homemade-stock-making cultures like in Asia don't need to mess around with milk.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Perfect PHO

Pho is one of those things you never get over. It is just one of the perfect foods of the world. So, when you are trying your hardest not to eat industrially-raised beef,you find yourself in a conundrum. Most of the Vietnamese joints I know, with their $4 vats of steaming, spicy, perfect pho, are not buying humanely-raised grass-fed beef from some Amish farm upstate. It's sort of a problem I've been grappling with. What am I supposed to do, just not eat pho? Ever?

I've made my own pho, and my husband is always buying lemongrass and begging me to make any kind of Asian soup. So coming out of my recent fugue state -- sick with a cold, and awake-dreaming about the many possibilities -- I broke down and made Vietnamese beef noodle soup.

It's actually the perfect Mothership Meal. My non-soup-loving kids slurped down noodles, squeezed limes into their broth and ate thinly sliced steak. ("I'm not really sure if I like it, but I'm going to keep eating it," my son said of his aromatic lime-y broth, perhaps the first soup that is not miso that he has ever eaten. By the end of his second bowl of soup: "I do actually really like it.") My husband and I put too much spicy nuoc cham and both of us, at separate times, had to stagger away from the table with watering eyes and burning mouths. Oops, that wasn't intentional -- but the nuoc cham -- minced chilies in fish sauce and lime juice -- was fresh and unpredictable. It keeps for months in the fridge and mellows over time (without the lime juice, that is).

If you make the beef broth yourself -- sort of essential, since most commercial organic beef broths are just "beef-flavored" and actually not even really beef-flavored at all -- this is a two-step meal. Make the broth and the condiment one day. The night you plan to eat, you just have to heat it up, cook the steak, and boil the noodles.

PS We used potato starch noodles (also known as Korean glass noodles), because we were out of rice noodles, and they were phenomonal.

2 lbs beef shanks, preferably farm-raised, grass-fed, yada yada
1 2-inch knob ginger
1 onion
2 pieces star anise
1 cinnamon stick
Fish sauce, as needed.

Put the shanks in a pot with a lot of water. Don't let it boil -- just simmer as gently as possible. Skim, skim, and skim all that nasty foam away, until you have a clear, shimmering gorgeous broth. Meanwhile, roast the ginger and the onion in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes, and add to the stock. After about 2 hours, add the star anise and the cinnamon stick. Simmer for another 2 hours. Towards the end, add a few dashes of fish sauce, to taste.
Cool, strain and refrigerate until you plan to use it. (You can slice the beef off the shanks and use for sandwiches, or save for the pho.)

1/2 cup fish sauce
4-6 small hot chilies, minced

Combine, and place in sealed jar in refrigerator. Will keep indefinitely, and mellow as it ages. Mix with equal parts lime juice when you're ready to serve.


If you want to make this really quick, you can use sliced roast beef from the deli.

6 cups homemade beef broth (you can supplement with a carton of beef stock if necessary)
1 package rice noodles
1 bunch basil
1 bunch mint
fennel, sliced thinly
1 lb hangar steak or London broil or some other marinade-worthy cut

Marinade: 1/4 cup fish sauce, dash of soy sauce, minced garlic and ginger, 1 teaspoon sugar
lime wedges

1. Begin heating water for noodles.

2. Put beef broth in large pot and bring to simmer. Add fennel. Season with fish sauce, as needed.

3. Cook noodles.

4. Grill, broil or fry the steak until medium-rare. Slice as thinly as possible.

5. Serve with lime wedges and bowls of assorted cool crip vegetables. Everyone gets a bowl with broth. Diners can add noodles, herbs, steak, and nuoc cham, as desired.

The Feasting Cure

So, it turns out that Thanksgiving is not the best time to have a really bad cold, the kind that is almost the flu because you are so tired and weak and have a sore throat and all you can think about is soup and the last thing you want to eat is a bunch of starchy buttery bready things.

This could be why I spent the day before Thanksgiving NOT pulling my menu together and shopping for last minute things at the Union Square Farmers Market, but rather dragging my mother and my husband into Manhattan to get soup at a ramen shop, and then even though we were just a few blocks from all the squash and fennel and kale and other seasonal bounty we could ever ask for to enhance our holiday table -- went to Sunrise Mart, the Japanese grocery store for miso and rice balls and staples for my new obsession, bento boxes.

Whatever, I pulled it together on Thursday morning. Brined the turkey, roasted it on high heat, made the stuffing, the fennel, the salad, did my trade with my friend Mirem (mmm, pots de creme and carmelized sweet potatoes), made my pies (pumpkin, apple, and a cranberry tart), and ... some other stuff. It was all good. Ate too much and drank too much, and woke up on Friday miraculously cured.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Four Days

Okay, I'm getting into the swing of things here. In between attending the last soccer game of the season, admiring stacks of drawings, and trying to complete a deadline that is not going away no matter how much I ignore it, I have begun thinking about Thanksgiving.

This is what I am thinking: I love Thanksgiving. I love that it is non-denominational. I love that it is about food. And I especially love that it is structured but infinitely flexible, so that feta cheese and grape leaves, or curried lentils, or pineapple chutney or okra or cornbread or maple syrup or oysters, or any other regional specialty or family tradition can find a place next to the turkey. It's one of the only times when we actually are expected to dig up old family recipes and look around at our local landscape for food ideas.

And even if we don't have so many family recipes we want to use (like if you're deciding to give up the marshmallows or the can of fried onions, for example), we can trade and borrow and steal with friends.

For example, I was at my friend Sarah's house the other night. Without breaking conversation stride and while co-managing our daughters' playdate -- three girls between us, who wanted to do things like create a trampoline at the bottom of the stairs -- she managed to make carrot-leek soup, pumpkin pie and spaghetti with spaghetti sauce. It was all homemade and delicious, but I what I loved most was her effortless approach to baking pumpkin for her pie. "The texture's much better when you bake it yourself, don't you think?"

Yes, I do, and it only takes a few minutes more work than digging the can opener out of the drawer.

I know you all already know this, and so did I, but maybe it's worth the reminder in the season of pyramids of pumpkin puree in the supermarket.

Cut the pumkin into wedges. Place in cast iron pan. Cover with foil and bake in a 400-degree for 40-45 minutes, until soft when poked with a fork. Let cool, then scoop out seeds and peel off skin.
Puree in a food processor. Ready for pie.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Road to Thanksgiving: Diversion Number One

That's chocolate up there, not coffee. This is what happened:

My friend and neighbor Mirem suggested we do a swap on Thanksgiving. Twice the food, half the work, right? Plus, she's a couple days ahead of me in the planning department and already has some great ideas.

We're just swapping a couple of things: I'm bringing her a bowl of fennel salad, and a turkey, having volunteered to be the one to brave the crowds at the Food Coop for heirloom birds. In return, Mirem is making for us: a squash or sweet potato dish, plus little tiny pots de creme au chocolate, to be served with pumpkin spice cookies. (It might seem like this trade is skewed in my favor, and maybe it is, but I will say that the Food Coop is going to be an utter madhouse for the next 6 days.)

Shot glasses de creme for Thanksgiving! I love this idea. Little tiny glasses, not big gluttonous vats. I don't believe my children have ever had these, and I have a feeling it's going to be a memorable occasion. Between pumpkin pie and chocolate, I think I know which one we'll all go for first.

Here's the recipe Mirem uses. She swears it's absurdly easy:


1 egg
6 oz semi sweet chocolate, chopped
1 tablespoon liqueur - rum, Cointreau, Grand Marnier -- or espresso
Alternate: 1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup heavy cream, scalded

Put chocolate in blender, add egg, blend. After a lot of noise and drama on the part of your blender, you will have a mixture of finely chopped chocolate and egg. Add the scalded cream in a slow stream, with the blender running. Add liqueur or vanilla. Pour into 8 demi-tasse cups or 12 shot glasses. Let set in fridge for at least 6 hours or overnight.

Garnish with whipped cream, or a reference to the extra flavor (ie: candied orange peel if you used Cointreau, hazelnuts if you used Frangelico, etc.)

You can get creative, too: make it with Mexican chocolate, add ground almonds, black pepper, chili, cinnamon anything.

I am totally making this. Right now. Forget planning for Thanksgiving. I've got pots of cream to make.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

It's November WHAT?

So... Thanksgiving is in, like, a WEEK!

How did this happen? I am completely unprepared.

Do I have a menu? Have I been reading Gourmet and Fine Cooking? Do I have some new and fabulous ideas for updating the traditional menu, without losing sight of the old-fashioned elements everybody loves?

Some vague ideas about pickling vegetables a la grecque, plans to get an heirloom turkey at my local coop, and my old standby, fennel. But other than that... not much.

As of this moment, with a bagful of new booty from a recently cashed-in credit at Barnes and Noble, I am more prepared for Christmas than I am for Thanksgiving.


Be back with you all shortly.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Butternut Chips

Since we already know that even sawdust would be delicious fried in oil and served with chunks of sea salt, it should come as no surprise that something as sweet and accommodating as butternut squash makes a sublime chip.

And since squash of all kinds is in season now -- meaning, cheap, local and highly sustainable -- it's great to have one more way to cook it. Tonight, as we were getting ready to have a good old Saturday Night Burger Dinner, I thought -- just burgers and salad? We make small burgers, and everyone is always still hungry afterwards. Meanwhile, this lovely butternut squash had been giving me the eye for over a week, expectantly wondering: Are you making a pie? A soup? What exactly is your plan...? My eyes fell on it as I was scanning the kitchen for potatoes, because I thought chips would be nice.

Any why not butternut chips?

They were delicious. In fact, we fought over them -- not the four-year-old, who explained in great detail that she liked them, but did not love them.

But the rest of us, including the highly selective 8-year-old, joined the fight for scraps.

One tip: As I served an exploratory chip to each kid plate, I announced that I needed to know -- not if they liked it, but -- what it tasted like. "I need some words to describe these. I think they are sweet and salty, but I'm not sure. Tell me what you taste."

"Not so good," said my daughter.

"Like a hot salty lollipop," said my son. "Can I have more?"


1 Butternut Squash
Vegetable oil
Coarse sea salt

Halve, seed and peel squash. Use a mandoline or a vegetable peeler to make thin slices.

Meanwhile, fill a large skillet with oil about one inch deep. Heat until extremely hot. (How hot? When you slip a test piece of squash into the oil, it should begin to bubble.) Fill skillet with one layer of squash. Fry until browning on one side; flip and brown on the other side. Err on the side of over-browning.

Use tongs to remove chips from oil into a large bowl lined with paper towels. Blot oil, then sprinkle chips with coarse sea salt. Serve immediately.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Some Oatmeal with Your Sugar?

I remember as a kid sprinkling brown sugar onto a grapefruit half, then looking up to see my mom's hardcore hippie friend looking at me with horror. "You're putting sugar on THAT?" She was aghast. I guess grapefruit was a sweet treat to her, but I needed some sugar on mine.

I feel the same way about oatmeal. I love oatmeal -- that is, the real kind, made from steel cut oats, that takes 30 minutes to cook and has great texture and flavor, and is not gooey and slimy and tasting of cardboard like rolled oats. I love it, but I still like to sugar it up.

This is what we do with our one cup of steel cut oats, which magically expands over the course of 30 minutes into enough food to feed our entire family of four, for something like 5-cents a serving (Who says eating well has to be expensive?) Right as it finishes cooking, we add (prepare to look at me with horror):

- a couple teaspoons of molasses
- a tablespoon or so of maple syrup or honey
- a knob of butter

That does it for the stoic adult male in our house, who is not really a sugar person (and whose recipe this is).

The rest of us add a few little hard pebbles of brown sugar or sucanat, which melt into syrupy pockets of deliciousness in the oatmeal.

So, go ahead and be horrified. The thing, it's not even nearly as sweet as pancakes. And the other things is, my eight-year-old son has been eating organic steel cut oatmeal for breakfast most winter mornings for the last few years. I think it's worth the sugar. It's soooo good, and really cheap. And my daughter joined our oatmeal-eating corps last winter at the age of 3.

If your family is of stronger moral fiber than ours, you could try raisins, or apples, or even just a little cinnamon, instead of tumbling down this slippery sugar slope with us. Either way -- eat oatmeal!

PS Did you know sucanat stands for 'sugar cane natural'? It's unrefined cane sugar, with lots of molasses flavor left in it.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

"Can We Have This Again Soon?"

I don't like stew.

This is sort of a problem, it being stew weather and all. But I have always gotten nervous at the sight of soft brown and orange chunks of stuff in a mysterious gravy base. It didn't get better as I got older. Weird kid-food paranoia was merely supplanted by industrial-food paranoia and a general fear of things like Liquid Smoke.

But -- that chill in the air. The rustling of red and gold leaves. My Weber grill looking like ever more of a bitter stranger in my windswept Children-of-the-Corn backyard. It's clearly time to warm up the kitchen with some softly bubbling braising meats.

The problem -- the reason I have always treated the entire genre with suspicion -- is the lazy, hodge-podge way that everything in the pantry is usually thrown willy-nilly into the pot, doused with Worcestershire and left to ... stew.

Enough with the one-pot meals! Things have different cooking times! It can't be brown-brown-beige-brown, and soft-soft-liquid-soft. We need some lovely bright colors on that plate, in addition to lovely bright flavors and textures. Needing this bright stuff on the plate, I realized stew would actually be a perfect Mothership Meal.

My ideal stew: I pictured a dark, winy, silky gravy as a background for the dark, winy, silky chunks of meat. Then: bright crisp snow peas, sweet carrot coins, and spicy turnips to be added at will. Crusty bread to mop up the gravy. A big glass of red wine. Happy kids. Happy grown-ups.

This is, more or less, what I got.

I'll post a recipe after my kids are in bed.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Twinkie Defense

Inevitably, when you start debating food politics, someone raises the Flag of Elitism and starts railing about, who are you, a middle class person, to tell an entire population of poor people how to eat? If all they can afford are Twinkies and Big Macs, at least let them eat in peace. Stop waving your bunches of organic carrots and kale at them because They Are Poor and that is their Culture and they can't afford good food.

I hate this line of logic because it ignores some basic questions, like for example: Isn't the current system -- in which poor people are expected to eat industrial foods that are killing them -- elitist? And, are Mountain Dew and Twinkies really part of anyone's cultural heritage? And, why is farm-raised food so expensive? Why is a giant bottle of Coca-Cola cheaper than a farm-grown tomato?

It's not a law of nature, after all. It costs a lot less to plant some carrot seeds than it does to turn corn into high fructose corn syrup and soybeans into hydrogenated oil. But because of the Farm Bill, which allots billions of dollars in subsidies to corn and soybean farmers, crappy food is cheaper than real food.

The Farm Bill is up for renewal this year, and although some provisions have been made, it's basically the same old nonsense. For example, in this bill, there will be a cap on the amount of subsidies each farmer can receive: no more than $250,000. I guess that's progress. The final vote is next week. Stay tuned for more info.

In the meantime, read Michael Pollan's Op-Ed piece in today's Times.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Opposite of Deception

I just opened the paper and saw a full-size ad for Jessica's Seinfeld's book, Deceptively Delicious . For those of you who have been living in a cabin in the woods with no media access and no ability to watch Oprah: Jerry Seinfeld's wife has written a cookbook about how to sneak vegetables and beans into foods so that your little kids will not die of malnutrition during the picky years. It has shot to the best seller list, and been accused of plagiarism due to remarkable similiaries between its recipes and those of another book touting the same philosophy, by Missy Chase Lapine.

I am opposed to this nonsense.

Okay, a little chard in the spaghetti sauce, a little wheat germ in the oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies, fine. But there is something weird (not to mention gross) about putting avocado into chocolate pudding, and trying to turn one food into another thing entirely. Why can't a cupcake be a cupcake? And why do we need ways to sneak blueberries and avocado into foods? If we're after developing any kind of food consciousness in children, this is not the way to go.

Here's why: I understand that kids go through an annoying developmental stage in which their appetites essentially shut down. As mentioned earlier on this blog, a recent study showed that this is a biological necessity, which saves the newly mobile, omnivorous bi-ped from making some disastrous meal choices. Around age 7, they come out of their self-imposed shut-down and start eating new foods.

If you've read Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, you might be led to think that this 4-6 year culinary exile gives our species time to figure out our culture's food sense. Since we can eat anything, Pollan writes, we have to depend on our culture to tell us what is okay to eat. It seems only sensible that we would need some time to sort through the endless possibilities, some time to think about it.

It all makes me think that those 4-6 years are an essential learning time. It's like the sushi chef-students who spend three years watching the sushi masters before they are even allowed to pick up a knife. Or the apprentice in a French kitchen who spends an entire year peeling potatoes, and watching the genius chef do his magic.

Our kids spend those years watching us and learning -- which is why it's especially important to keep showing them the way to eat. But I believe they are not just learning that shellfish is okay, and slugs are not, but that they are also gaining a nutritional consciousness. They are learning how foods make them feel. Hungry and thirsty when your mom picks you up from kindergarten? How about a cold crisp apple? Got a cold? How does plain homemade chicken broth make you feel? Halfway through a giant piece of chocolate cake and you can already feel your mind spinning and your entire body spazzing out? Hmm.

When I was about 8 I had chocolate ice cream for breakfast. I was the youngest of three kids, and when you are the youngest of three kids by the time you are eight, you are often on your own on Saturday morning. Everyone was off doing their thing and no one even noticed when I pulled out the chocolate ice cream and helped myself. I felt like absolute crap for the rest of the day. It was a huge lesson for me.

Along the same lines, when my son was 6 he discovered broccoli. We went out for pizza with friends, and they ordered broccoli, which came with garlic, and olive oil and lemon to squeeze on it. Watching the other kids eat it, he dug in, ate heartily, and then requested enormous bowls of broccoli every day for the next week. I could have been sneaking broccoli into his brownies for years, and he would have been getting all those vitamins and minerals. But he would have missed out on that incredible discovery -- that moment of eating something new, realizing his body wanted it, and then continuing to eat it. It is that developing consciousness that I am after. That awareness of food and how it makes you feel: the absolute opposite of deception, and, I would argue, far more delicious.


In my cooking classes, this is probably the most popular, most requested recipe. There is no deception here. The thrill is in seeing the kids realize that zucchini and carrots make amazing cupcakes. They are horrified and skeptical at first. Then they want to know when we will make them again.

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup cane sugar
1/4 cup applesauce
2 large eggs
1-1/2 cups flour (either ww pastry flour, or mixed ww and white)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp sea salt
2 medium carrots, grated
1/2 medium zucchini, grated

1 package cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup maple syrup

1. Preheat oven to 400°F.

2. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter with the sugar and applesauce. Add eggs. In a separate bowl, mix together the flours, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Add to the liquid ingredients. Fold in carrots and zucchini. Spoon into muffin cups. Bake 20 to 25 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

3. For frosting, beat cream cheese and maple syrup until smooth and creamy.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Look What I Got at the Farmers Market

Please do not make fun of the fact that I love radish sandwiches until you have tried a radish sandwich for yourself. I got the idea for this years ago when I found an old Time-Life cookbook series in a thrift shop. The French book in the series had a picture of a four-year-old French kid eating a baguette slathered with cold butter, laid out with long red and white radishes, and sprinkled with sea salt. It looked so good I had to try it, and then I couldn't believe how perfect it was. The spicy crunch of the radish, the creamy sweet butter, the background of the bread... Best if you use really crusty bread and some kind of cultured amazing sweet butter, and coarse sea salt.

I have not yet had luck getting my own children to share the wisdom of this French child. But I am all for it.

ps Radishes are also great with cheddar cheese.

Monday, October 29, 2007


Sushi is the one thing I never minded if my kids liked it or not. You don't want your maki? That's okay, sweetie, Mommy will take care of it. Naturally, they figured out they were missing out on something delicious, and now they love maki rolls filled with avocado or cucumber.

Since I am already a sushi addict, this is a bit much. I can barely afford to feed my own sushi habit. Now I'm supposed to feed theirs, too? The only option was to start making sushi at home. But since I am not Martha Stewart, I don't have the time or patience to roll up the one thousand makis my whole family would require.

Last year a Japanese mom was a guest teacher in my cooking class, and she taught me how to make hand rolls. They are the deal, and they work perfectly for the Mothership Meals method: a main vehicle (the nori), plus lots of stuff to put on it, and then you just roll it up. It's a perfect family meal, because it is infinitely flexible, and especially because most of the work can be done ahead of time.

If you are on the ball, you will pickle your vegetables (if you are using them) and make (or buy) your sushi vinegar early in the day. You can make extra pickles, too, and keep them in the fridge for small snacks and meals of your own.

(If you are pickle-type of person, as I am, you will find it utterly fascinating that in Japan a traditional breakfast is a bowl of rice and a few pickled vegetables. Every time you read about this your mouth will water, and eventually you will try it and love it. If any of your children are pickly-types of people, they will find this breakfast fascinating as well, and you may find yourself, as I did, sending your three-year-old to preschool with a macro-biotic lunch of brown rice and pickled daikon radish. This is a really cute thing and almost makes up for the following year in which the same child may only want plain salami and pink yogurt, every day, for lunch.)

Another thing: brown rice is great in sushi. The only challenge is making it sticky. I use short-grain brown rice, and soak it for an hour beforehand. Then I cook it in my rice cooker as usual, and toss it with the sushi vinegar. (You can also make the rolls without the rice -- not because you are anti-carb, please, but because you already scarfed down all the rice and still have fillings left, as we did when taking the picture above.)

Remember, you don't have to force your kids to do it your way. If they want to just eat rice and cucumbers, that's their business, just like it's your business if you want to spike your soy sauce with so much wasabi that each bite is an exercise in pain endurance. To each her own. It's the mothership way.

1 cup short-grain brown rice, soaked in water for one hour.
Sushi vinegar: 1/3 cup brown rice vinegar, 3 tbs sugar, 1 tsp salt, heated gently to dissolve, and cooled
Many sheets of nori, cut into halves
1/4 lb smoked salmon, sliced into strips (or seasoned tofu, seared shrimp, grilled chicken, or any other kind of protein)
1 cucumber, peeled and seeded, and cut into 1/4" strips
1 red or yellow pepper, seeded and cut into 1/4" strips
1 avocado, peeled, pitted and cut into 1/4" strips

Optional: Pickled Vegetables
1 carrot, cut into 1/4" strips
1/2 daikon radish, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch strips
1/4 cup brown rice vinegar
2 tsps sugar (preferably less processed, such as palm, turbinado, demarra, etc)
2 tsps sea salt

Soy sauce and wasabi

1. Put rice on to cook.
2. Make pickled vegetables: Mix vinegar, sugar and salt in a small sauce pan until sugar and salt are dissolved. Cut vegetables for quick-pickling. Combine in a bowl with the pickling mixture and let sit in the fridge for 20 minutes or longer. (This can be done ahead of time, or done in larger quantities and kept in the fridge for a week, either in the pickling solution for a more heavily pickled vegetables, or drained; it's purely a matter of pickle preference.)
3. When rice is cooked, turn out into a wide plate. Sprinkle with sushi vinegar and fan to cool, as you turn the rice over to mix in the vinegar.
4. Lay out all the ingredients. Each diner takes a piece of nori in hand. Add a spoonful of rice and smooth out. Make a groove into the rice to make room for the filling. Lay a piece of salmon and a piece of cucumber (or whatever combination strikes your fancy) onto the rice, and roll up into a tube or into a cone shape. Dip into soy sauce and enjoy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bad Beef

Yech, here's one more reason to either not eat industrially-produced beef, or to stick to grass-fed locally raised beef.

Last summer Topps Meat had to recall almost 22 million pounds of beef after more than 40 people got sick from eating e coli hamburgers. Mmm, uninspected meat. Now it turns out the company was only testing its meat 3 times a year, and, according to the NY Times, "untested meat boxes from the freezer were tossed in with the daily grind, as were untested scraps from the plant's steak line."

I know part of the appeal of hamburgers is that they are a huge convenience -- especially if you are just taking the patties out of the freezer and throwing them on the grill -- but, it's pretty disgusting to think about a patty that might contain bits of meat from hundreds of cows, which were raised and slaughtered until filthy conditions. Which is not to say that I don't love burgers. I just want the meat to be well-raised and properly-processed.

If you want to be really safe, it's not that hard to grind the meat yourself, and it's much safer.

Here's what you do: buy a sirloin steak, or London broil, or some other cut that is not that expensive, but from a grass-fed farm. (Yeah, they won't be a buck-a-patty, but that's what sets you and your famous hamburgers apart from everything that is gross about McDonald's.)

Cut the meat into chunks. Put it in the food processor and press pulse. When it's just barely ground, form into patties and cook. Based on everything I have ever read, your chances of getting e coli poisoning and mad cow disease just dropped drastically. And, they will be the best burgers you've ever had. And the safest.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Dinner Stories

In France the average family dinner lasts something like 60 minutes. When I first heard this, I started keeping my eye on the clock. Could we even make it to 30 minutes? Could we be maybe 1/2 of the way toward being like French people?

It's hard, especially when you have young Ann-Margret-in-the-making, standing up in her chair, rocking the house instead of focusing on eating her beans. I don't keep my eye on the clock anymore, but I do always try to make dinner last longer. It's like, this is it. This is our time together. One of the best ways to keep my kids focused on the table is to tell stories, and one of the best kinds of stories to tell at dinnertime are food stories.

This is our parsley story: When my mom was little, her neighbors had a parsley patch. When she was a little girl, she used to sneak through the hedge and sit in the neighbors' parsley patch, nibbling on parsley. Sometimes she sat there for so long and so quietly, rabbits came up to her. Rabbits love parsley! And it makes your breath smell good!

That's it, that's the parsley story. My son loves this story and wants to hear it every time we have parsley on the table, which he likes to nibble raw, like a rabbit. I swear it was the story that made him love parsley.

Food stories are a great way to make the acquaintence of a new food, and just to keep kids at the table for longer. Plus, times have changed. We're the old fogies now, who used to go fishing for food, and get mussells for dinner at the beach, and buy Grape Ne-Hi's for a nickel out of old-fashioned soda machines that had the glass door that opened up and you pulled the soda bottle out of the shelf (we really did, in North Carolina, with my grandfather). Everyone has some kind of obsolete food story by now.

Make dinner last longer! Tell Food Stories!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

That Salad

Years ago Chris and I used to go to this restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, called Seasons. This is right when Williamsburg was just about to become super-hip. People couldn't believe there was something so bourgeois as a bistro in a gritty industrial cesspool like Williamsburg. But, there it was. And we displayed our lack of gritty industrial hipster credentials by loving it.

Even in daylight you couldn't really get good vegetables in Williamsburg then, and if you came home from the city after 6 pm and didn't have dinner planned, you were kind of screwed. There was just nowhere to go. Except Seasons.

So we would go there and get chicken liver toasts and hanger steaks and grilled figs and a bottle of Rhone wine and then stumble home to our enormous run down tenement apartment with its 12-foot ceilings that only cost $800/month (which for many disgusting reasons was a fair price).

The thing we loved at Seasons, the thing we started doing at home, was the arugula salad with lardons and chewy crunchy croutons. Lardons, we learned the first time we went, meant big fat chunks of salty bacon. I forget what part of the salad we make now was from Seasons, and what part we added. Through the years it became one of those "that thing"s. "Let's have that thing with the bacon. The arugula thing. With the lentils."

We added lots of things, and took things away, depending on our mood. Grilled fennel. Feta cheese. Then ricotta salata. Sauteed kale in the dead of winter instead of arugula. Croutons in bacon fat instead of butter. Onions quick-pickled in red wine vinegar and sea salt.

By now we have it down to basics, and we serve it broken down, and the kids love it. Bacon, what are you kidding? Plus my son loves lentils with lemon squeezed on them (and my daughter eats exactly one and then crows proudly about it for the rest of the meal). I make sure to serve a few extra vegetables on the side and everybody comes out extremely happy.


1 bunch arugula, washed and dried
1 cup green lentils, cooked and cooled
3 to 5 slices of thick-cut bacon (or more if you like)
About 1/3 cup of salty white cheese like goat cheese, feta, or ricotta salatta (more if not using bacon)
1/2 yellow onion, sliced paper thin
1/2 loaf of crusty French bread
1 tbs butter
Extra virgin olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Sea salt
Black pepper
Assorted crudite, like carrot, snap peas or cherry tomatoes

1. Soak the onion slices in enough red wine vinegar to cover, with a dash of sea salt, for about 15 minutes. This will mellow them out.

2. Cut the bacon crossways into 1/4-inch-wide strips. Cook in a pan until just crisp; drain on paper towels. Pour the rendered bacon fat into a glass jar and let the solids settle (if there are any).

3. Cut the French bread into 1-inch squares. Throw a knob of butter and a dash of the clarified bacon fat into a pan, and sauté the bread until just beginning to brown. Season with salt and black pepper. Set aside.

4. Toss the arugula thoroughly with a couple dashes of olive oil, followed by a dash of red wine vinegar. Serve with the lentils, the bacon, the goat cheese, and the croutons. Put out the extra vegetables too. Let each diner assemble his or her own dish.

TV Dinners: Good or Bad?

One of my many guilty pleasures is watching TV while I fold laundry. So one night right before dinner I had some laundry to get through and I started flipping around. Of course, the second my kids see the laundry basket they immediately crowd around to see if I will settle on some boring news show, or something that is actually good. (The night I found "King Kong" right at the beginning of the dinosaur stampede gave them eternal hope.)

On this night I came across a semi-reality show that took these unwanted dogs and placed them with dog trainers who specialized in training that particular breed. So the border collie who had been kicked out of three homes cause it was so crazy went to a real sheep farm, and the bloodhound who had dug through a chair to get to the bone it could smell underneath the chair went to a detective who trained bloodhounds. My entire family, ages 4-40, was hooked. We love dogs.

I'm getting to the food part.

We ended up eating dinner around the show, all of us agog and thrilled at watching these dogs get rehabilitated. It was so great.

But was this bad? So much for my family dinner fixation, right? Around the TV?

According to a piece in yesterday's Science Times, we're okay. We're still on track with the family dinner brigade. Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that whether you're watching "The Simpsons' or sitting around a candlelit table, as long as you're eating together, the kids are more likely to eat more vegetables and other good food, and less likely to become drug addicts, cigarette smokers, potheads, surly teenagers or devil worshippers. Okay that's not exactly how they put it, but you get the point.

According to the article, by Tara Parker-Pope, "While many parents worry about what their kids are eating — vegetables versus junk — a voluminous body of research suggests that the best strategy for improving a child’s diet is simply putting food on the table and sitting down together to eat it."

Hey, that's my line.

It's all good to know, and I will keep it in the back of my mind for the day when a new and improved "Man vs Wild" comes back on the air. And we will keep eating together.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Why Won't They Just EAT IT Already??

I always think I have made peace with the fact that children -- and more to the point, MY children -- are picky freaks about food. They are just not going to eat the things I want them to eat, and certainly not WHEN I want them to eat them.

And yet, eight years into this business, I am still completely annoyed and offended to open up a lunchbox in the evening and find -- oh right, that again: most of my son's lunch, looking just as lovingly packed and arranged as it did when I zipped the box shut in the morning.

My four-year-old daughter tends to eat her entire lunch, and yet still shrieks at the injustice of a piece of lettuce on her plate, or a basil leaf on her pizza. I can only imagine the horror.

It's an irritating conundrum, this pickiness thing, made even more irritating by the complete inanity of the kids' aversions. In my house: carrots, guacamole, extra sharp cheddar cheese, toasted whole grain bread: okay. Celery, diced avocados, meunster cheese, untoasted whole grain bread: not okay. Can't they at least make an appearance of logic in their choices?

But at least now it's been confirmed: it's not our fault. According to an article by Kim Severson in the New York Times today, picky eating is about 78% genetically related, and 22% environmental. Phew. The author of this study about picky eaters, led by Dr. Lucy Cooke at University College London, says we're basically genetically coded to become extremely food-avoidant around the time we become mobile. As the doctor puts it, "If we just went running out of the cave as little cave babies and stuck anything in our mouths, that would have been potentially very dangerous."

The solution? The experts in the article suggest:
- Family-style meals
- No separate foods for children
- Preparing foods the parents like, with new foods served next to at least 2 things the child likes
- "If you make a stew, separate components into separate dishes"
- Don't use rewards, bribes, punishments or nags.

Hmm, sounds familiar. My sentiments exactly.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Deconstructing the Curry Dish

Coconut curry is one of the work horses of the Southeast Asian food world. It's like what a buerre blanc is to French people. This stuff tastes good on EVERYTHING.

Even root vegetables. I used to love getting curried root vegetables at this funky little restaurant called Oznot's Dish in Brooklyn. There were crazy lamps reconstructed from junk, and lots of unshaven hipsters ordering $10 bottles of wine to go with their meze. The curried vegetables were so spicy my eyes watered, but sweet and earthy from the parsnips, sweet potatoes and beets, and delicious. Another great thing to curry is shrimp or, hell, even tofu, over black Thai rice.

It's all good. For this dish, I chose chicken for its easy appeal to my kids, and short grain brown rice as the starch, because... I had some. Since I am always trying to sneak the flavors onto my kids' plates, I gently poached the chicken in coconut milk. Then I stir-fried all the vegetables I had in my house, and made a spicy coconut curry, which the adults used almost like a gravy.

It was a hit. It did not perturb any of the adults present (including guests) that they had to pour the curry onto the dish. We got sweaty flushed faces from the delicious heat, just as if it'd all been mixed up at the stove, or arrived in a takeout container. The only difference: children happily sitting next to us, eating coconut-flavored chicken, plain rice, and stir-fried broccoli.


1 can coconut milk
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons Thai Kitchen Red Curry Paste
1-2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons brown sugar
Handful of basil leaves, stems removed
About 3 cups of vegetables, peeled, trimmed, and roughly cut: zucchini, scallions, broccoli, red peppers
1 tablespoon oil
Lime wedges

1. Start the rice, then the sauce: Pour about 3/4 of the coconut milk, including the cream, into a small pot. Set aside the other quarter. Add the oil to the pot, and heat until bubbling. Add the curry paste, stirring to combine, and continue cooking until the mixture turns brown and the oil separates. Lower heat and add the fish sauce and the sugar. Stir and taste. Add more fish sauce if necessary. Set aside.

2. Pour the remaining coconut milk and the salt into a saucepan. Add the chicken, and 1/4 cup of water, and gently poach until cooked through. Don't overcook. You can add a stalk of lemon grass, sprig of basil, and a few dashes of fish sauce if desired. Set aside and keep warm.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a wok or large frying pan. Saute the vegetables, in order of cooking needs: ie, eggplant, broccoli and peppers first, then zucchini, then scallions. With each new addition, push the cooked vegetables to the side, so you can keep them reasonably separate.

4. Quickly reheat the curry, and serve: Rice, Chicken, Vegetables, and Curry Sauce. Garnish with lime wedges and basil leaves, as desired.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Beans, Greens, and Sausage

Some kids are picky about meat. Not mine. I have to protect bacon in the frying pan to keep little fingers from getting burnt as they try to swipe it. And when I bought sausage the other day at the fancy butcher counter, my 8-year old son was salivating at sight of the raw steaks. "And 20 steaks," he said in a high-pitched voice to the butcher, trying to pass it off as my order. We're not squeamish about meat at my place.

Naturally, sausage is an easy sell. I just say the magic words: "It's like bacon."

This sausage-and-beans-and-greens dish is a natural for the mothership method. I made it as a pasta dish, but it could easily do without. And I used white beans, although I've used chickpeas in the past.

The sausage had a little bit of spice in it, but my resourceful daughter made herself a little satellite dish of ketchup for dipping, and the heat factor was solved.

1 lb sweet Italian sausage
1 can or small carton white beans, cooked
1/2 cup olive oil
1 small can plum tomatoes (or half of a large can), chopped, juice reserved
1/2 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch kale or other hearty green, stems removed, chopped
1/2 lb pasta, such as gemelli or penne
Hard grating cheese, such as Asiago or Parmesan
Salt and pepper

Put the pasta water on to boil and begin preparing pasta.

In a medium-sized skillet, brown the sausage on all sides.

In a large skillet, over medium heat, begin cooking the onions. When they have begun to soften, add the garlic. A few minutes later, before the garlic has begun to brown, add the tomatoes, with their juice, and the beans.

Transfer the sausage into the skillet. Add the kale, too, but keep it to one side of the skillet for easy removal later. Cover and cook until the kale is thoroughly steamed, and the sausage is cooked through.

Slice the sausage into bite-sized pieces. Serve in separate bowls: the kale, the sausage, the pasta, and the tomato-bean mixture. Make accessible the grated cheese, salt and pepper. Allow each diner to assemble plates as desired.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Linguine and Clams, for Families

One time in France I got my daughter, who was three and adventurous, to take a sip from an ice cold oyster I was about to eat. She wasn't too crazy about it, but I felt like it was a triumph. At least she tried it! That taste memory is in there. It's a reference point she'll have for the rest of her life.

In general, though, my kids are not big on seafood, which is a problem, because I love seafood. One of my favorite things to eat is linguine with clams. What, am I supposed to just not eat it for the next 15 years?

This isn't feasible, so I started making the dish in the mothership style: deconstructed. One bowl of linguine, surrounded by smaller bowls of the other things I like to serve it with: diced tomatoes, sauteed spinach, parsley and lemon zest, and clams.

The sly beauty of this method is that the linguine is tossed with the clam juice sauce. Unbeknownst to my children, they are locking in sense memories even as they think they are eating plain pasta. Fools! I'll have them eating oysters by the time they are teenagers.

Linguine With Clams and Greens
serves 4

1/2 onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons butter (optional)
1/2 cup white wine
1 lb clams (more, if you have more than 2 clam-eaters), thoroughly scrubbed and rinsed
1 tomato, diced
1 bunch spinach, washed and loosely chopped
1 lb linguine
1 bunch parsely chopped finely
Zest from one lemon
Sea salt and pepper
Hard grating cheese, such as Asiago or Parmesan

Put water on to boil, and begin cooking the linguine. If the linguine is ready before everything else, drain and toss with a splash of extra-virgin olive oil, and toss thoroughly to coat the strands of pasta.

In a large saucepan, heat the onion and the olive oil over medium-low heat until soft.
Add the garlic and continue gently cooking.

Meanwhile, heat the wine in a small pot with a tightly fitting lid. Add a sprig of parsley, a twist of lemon peel and a pat of butter if you like. When the wine is boiling add the clams and cover.

By now the garlic and onions are translucent. Turn up the heat, place the spinach directly on top of the onions and garlic, with a pat of butter if desired, and cover. Steam until the spinach is thoroughly wilted. Gently remove it with tongs (leaving the onions and garlic behind) and place in a warmed bowl. Cover and set aside.

When the clams are opened, use tongs to pluck them from the pot and place in a warmed bowl. Set aside.

Mix the chopped parsley and lemon zest togther and serve in a small dish.

Pour the clam-wine liquid in with the onions. Turn the heat to high and reduce slightly. Toss with linguine.

Serve the linguine, surrounded by the sauteed spinach, diced tomatoes, clams, parsley-zest and Asiago cheese. Allow each diner to assemble his or own plate.

Season with salt and pepper as desired. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Back in the Saddle

After a month in New Hampshire, it was hard to come back to the city. Let's face it, it's noisy and dirty here, and there are no mountains. But... there is the small issue of food.

For instance, there is this middle eastern deli around the corner from my house, with creamy incredible feta. The store is sort of grungy, and sells things like cans of instant milk, and Brillo pads, and hookahs. It's a great store. Then there are farmers' markets that sell red carrots and purple kale and green-striped tomatoes. At my local supermarket, Fairway, there is an OLIVE OIL BAR. I can get extra virgin olive oil from Lebanon, Sicily, Spain, or France (and taste it before I buy it.) It's pretty hard to beat. My second day back in the city, I bought marinated sardines, daikon radish, a bulk pack of nori seaweed, fresh mozzarella, and organic, humanely raised deli turkey, thinly sliced. It was like... a miracle.

But the best thing about coming home was getting back into my own kitchen. After four weeks in my mother's kitchen, I thought I'd lost my mojo. Did I even still like to cook? I could barely remember why it was worth it. All that work, all that mess, just to what -- eat? But then Chris brought home a brilliantly green, fragrant bunch of arugula, and I figured I'd rouse myself to just make a little dressing. Turns out I'd just been missing my STUFF, which I use to make AMAZING FOOD. My knives, my mortar and pestle, my space.

I have made this salad dressing almost every night since I got back. It is worth the effort to do the pounding, but you have got to have a mortar and pestle. (Note: kids LOVE pounding.)

Garlic Lemon Vinaigrette

1 garlic clove
1 pinch coarse sea salt
1 tsp mustard
Juice from 1/2 a lemon
2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

Mash the garlic clove and the salt in the mortar until they are a smooth paste. Add the mustard and the lemon juice. Let sit for 5 minutes or so while you attend to something else. Come back to it, add the olive oil, and swirl rapidly with the pestle until a smooth mixture forms. Pour onto salad greens or grilled vegetables.

Thursday, August 9, 2007


Tacos are the ultimate mothership meal, and the easiest one to understand. You put out some taco shells, and a mess of stuff. Every one gets a plate, and a taco. Let the stuffing begin.

For a long time tacos meant, to me, supermarket ground beef and those little MSG flavor packets that came in the El Paso taco family dinner packet. So it wasn't until my son was a preschooler that I made tacos, my way. I was amazed to watch my little four-year-old, one of the pickiest eaters known to civilization, systematically stuff his taco with almost every item of food I'd put out. Since then tacos have become a regular meal in our family. Okay, so my daughter still does not like tacos; she just eats the filling. The beauty of the Mothership Meal: that's okay.

Here are some of the things we use:

The Mothership: Taco shells (or soft whole-grain tortillas)

The Satellite Saucers:

Chicken or steak, cut into cubes. (Best if freshly grilled and diced. But no complaints if leftovers are used)
Grated cheese (cheddar, jack or queso fresco)
Diced tomatoes and onions tossed with corn, cilantro, lime juice and a dash of olive oil
Sliced radishes
Shredded lettuce
Hot sauce
Any other vegetables on hand that might be munched on by small children

1 clove garlic
1 tsp coarse sea salt
Juice from 1/2 a lime
1 avocado
1/2 tomato, finely diced

Use a mortar and pestle, if you have one, to pound the garlic and the salt. (If you don't have a mortar and pestle, chop the garlic finely, then use the flat side of the knife blade to smush the garlic into a paste. Add the lime and let sit for a few minutes; the lime will 'cook' the garlic. Add the avocado and mash with the pestle, or a fork, until not quite smooth. (Never use a food processor! And never refrigerate guacamole. Sorry, but you must eat it all the night you make it.) Add diced tomatoes and serve immediately.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Garden Groove

We're in New Hampshire now, on our annual summer trip to my mother's house. It's the heat of the city that really pushes us up here for the entire month of August, but the draw of the mountains, and "Mima", is undeniable. I like to expose my kids to nature and bugs and backpacks -- and especially to the garden. We always come in the spring to help my mom plant her garden, and then we come back in August (and at Thanksgiving) to reap all that we have sown. (Well, the kids don't really sow that much, but as long as they are reaping, I am happy.)

Of course, it's northern New Hampshire, so the harvest is not exactly bountiful. In last year's sweltering summer, we were astounded to have both canteloupe and corn. This year, it's not so impressive. New Hampshire is just too cold for a really swell tomato crop, and the wildlife is far too fond of broccoli and squash. On the other hand, it's August and we still have snap peas! Those 50° mornings really keep the coolweather crops coming.

As always, I am astounded by my children's willingness to eat almost anything that they have personally picked. My daughter will not eat green beans from a plate, but will obsessively forage through vines and leaves and eat all she can find, crying when she can't find any more.

It all goes back to what my grandfather (who gardened into his 90's) used to say: "You want your kids to like vegetables? You've got to have your kids GROW vegetables."

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Grill Talk

The only problem with grilling is that it's not exactly efficient. If you use a charcoal grill, like I do, it's really hard to get the right amount of coals hot. Either you set up too many and have this inferno blazing long after your burgers are done, or, as has been happening to me ever since Chris came home with this jumbo size bag of itty-bitty charcoal pieces that burns like matchsticks, you don't use enough and your barely get through a round of chicken.

Lately I've been erring on the side of excess, and grilling up a storm, in preparation for keeping my kitchen dark the following night. Here's the chicken I grilled last night, which was destined to be tonight's dinner.

First I marinated it in:
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 lemon
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1 tsp ginger, grated
1 tablespoon maple syrup

Then I put all the hot coals in one quarter of the grill, and cooked the chicken slowly over the cooler part. The ambient heat cooked the chicken through, and I moved it to the inferno corner when I was ready to brown the chicken. When it was done, I set it aside to cool, then cooked that night's dinner: burgers.

Tomorrow night: the ultimate mothership meal: Chicken Tacos. Come back and find out if my 3 year has finally conquered her disdain for the hard shell taco.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Our Last Community Meal

I teach cooking classes at my son's public school, and at the end of every term the kids in my class cook a giant meal for all the kids in the afterschool program. It is so beautiful. The kids help me choose the menu, we get a couple parent volunteers, we fire up the propane burners, and this incredible natural urge for community dining takes over. It brings out the best in everyone.

At first it is all like a normal cooking class -- walking the fine line between this perfectly calibrated culinary ballet -- and total chaos. At any moment I could look up and see a couple 5th grade girls with linked arms, spinning around on their heelies, like some giant disco ball has just descended and they were compelled to drop their Parmesan cheese and their Microplanes and pay homage to the funk machine that resides within.

We get past this, and by the time we finish and start serving the meal it's like we have turned into a catering outfit, staffed by extremely short waiters in fuzzy tee-shirts and jeans. The kids set the table like professionals, and do all the serving. This was their idea, the first time we did a community meal. I'd assumed we'd do a buffet, and I walked out into the cafeteria and the kids had set the tables and were walking from kid to kid offering salad and jambalaya. "Do you want salad? Do you want salad? Do you want salad?") (And, yes, the all do; the salad is the first thing to go.)

Today was the best Community Meal ever. One group of three kids made four batches of orange yogurt cake, with no help whatsoever. Two 4th-graders took over the food processor and intuited their way to a couple batches of FINE-tasting pesto. (We used to pound the pesto by hand, but if you've ever been in a room of five stone mortars and pestle pounding for 20 minutes straight, you will know what i mean when I say the headache is not worth the thrill.)

The meal was our best ever. We've learned to avoid the ongoing problem of an ancient electrical system that shorts out the whole room, usually right as we are in the middle of frying tortillas or ten minutes into baking zucchini-carrot cupcakes. We had the propane burners flaming away, and the kids were experienced and confident enough that they helped pull the whole thing off. Like real caterers.

Here's one of the recipes, with apologies to Martha Stewart, from whom/which this recipe is adapted:

Orange-Yogurt Cake
(Hint: for a crowd, make two batches and use a larger pan.)

Softened butter for the pan
1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
1/2 cup plain whole yogurt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp grated orange zest
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350°
2. Butter an 8-inch square cake pan.
3. Stir flour, 1/2 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, yogurt, oil, orange zest and juice, egg and vanilla into a bowl. Mix.
4. Pour into the buttered pan. Bake for about 25 minutes. Let cool, then cut into squares and dust with confectioners’ sugar.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

So this is the idea.

Kids are picky. From age 3 through age 7 the vast majority of them are stuck in a kind of developmental psychosis, in which only about 6 foods are considered safe to eat.

At the same time, parents want to sit down with their kids and eat a meal that does not consist of macaroni and cheese and baby carrots, and a soundtrack of whining.

The solution? Deconstruct the meal.

In some parts of China, a typical meal is served like this: everyone gets a bowl of rice. Condiments and accessories to the rice are on the table. You make your own meal. If you are three and only eat beige foods, you can have rice, and possibly chicken. If you are five and don't care for beige foods, you can ignore the rice and go for the chicken. If you are seven and starved for micronutrients, you can eat a whole damn bowl of broccoli. If you are 37, you can have it all and douse it in hot sauce.

No nagging. No cajoling. No whining. Everyone gets what they want.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The First Launch

Tell the truth: Before you had kids, you thought the world's current crop of parents was a bunch of idiots. Not only did they give their kids plastic toys and let them ride in strollers until they were practically teenagers, they also cut the crusts off their kids' sandwiches and made separate meals for every member of the family every night. What was wrong with these people? No wonder we had a diabetes epidemic on our hands, and fat kids everywhere. These damn fools were raising kids who couldn't even eat a pizza if it had a basil leaf on it. What a bunch of numbskulls.

Boy was it going to be different when I was in the driver's seat. I was going to feed my kids like a wholesome organic prairie mom. We'd be growing our own zucchini and picking blueberries from the patch I'd grow out back (yeah, in our shady Brooklyn backyard). We'd scrape the whole wheat flour drawer to make biscuits from scratch from the, uh, whole wheat flour drawer I'd create. My kids would eat shredded carrot sandwiches in whole wheat pita pockets, the way my friend Blake used to when she was a kid. They would love my homemade vegetable soups, and scarf down their lentil burgers and squash patties. Mmm, it was gonna be so great.

Then my real kids came along and messed everything up. My son wouldn't even drink juice as a toddler. It was a major triumph when he realized cake was good. Flash forward eight years, and he does like lentils with parsley and snow peas and tomatoes. He is slowly but surely shrugging off the insanity of the toddler madness years, in which different foods could not touch each other and anything green was poison. But the list of things he does not like still vastly overwhelm the select list of edibles.

Yeah, that's great and all, but it's too little too late. Now I have two kids, and between my son's dislike of rice and chicken, my daughter's dislike of tomatoes and corn and my husband's and my dislike of Annie's Macaroni and Cheese and Amy's Pizza Snacks, we are sort of in a bind.

The only solution: the mothership meal.