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.