Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ants on a Tree

Menu: Ants on a Tree; Stir-Fried Green Beans; Sliced Apples

Lessons learned:
  1. Easy on the heat while the noodles are cooking.
  2. Don't forget the ginger.
  3. Don't forget the bean sprouts!
  4. Don't forget the brown sugar!!
I know.  "Ants on a tree" is not the most appetizing name for a recipe.  But it's really good if you can find the right balance of flavors, and I love it because it doesn't require pre-soaking the rice noodles.  Apparently, the name comes from the way the ground meat looks on the rice noodles in the original recipe.  I don't know who would want to be thinking about ants while they're eating, but the name stuck in our house.

I've made this a lot so I don't use a recipe anymore, but it's been a while so unfortunately I forgot some things.  I forgot the ginger until the noodles were already soft.  I forgot the bean sprouts until after I had already garnished with cilantro (the picture below is pre-sprout).  And I forgot the brown sugar entirely.  It was still tasty, though, and hopefully I'll get back into practice.

The original recipe calls for cooking the noodles in chicken broth, but I will often use vegetable broth, depending on what I have on hand.  I'm very partial to Wolfgang Puck's chicken broth, ran out of it a while ago, and it wasn't available at the last store where I was shopping.  What they did have was mushroom broth, which I thought could be good.  I went ahead and bought it to use here.  It was tasty, but I'm not sure I want to use it again because my protein is Quorn, which is made from fungus like mushrooms, and I don't want to overdo that element.

I wanted to dress the green beans with Ginger-Hoisin Vinaigrette, but I ran out and didn't have it together enough to make more.  The rice noodles have a lot of soy sauce, so it wasn't my first choice to use it on the veggies as well, but it was the easiest and most reliably tasty thing I could think of to do.

I'm so happy: this is the second meal in a row that Ben has eaten as is, the same way John and I eat it.  He loves flavored noodles!  AND he tried his green beans and liked them!  So he ate pretty much everything on his plate, plus seconds of the noodles.  Sophie only ate apples and the Quorn tenders from the noodles.  She asked for seconds on them, and I tried to tell her she could have seconds if she would taste a green bean.  In response, she freaked out.  I definitely think we will need to use that strategy soon, but I just don't think she's able to respond to it yet.

This dinner would have been good with a beer, but I've had alcohol several nights in a row now, so I decided I'd give it a rest.

Ants on a Tree

Vegetable oil
1/2 red onion, or more to taste, chopped
4 large garlic cloves
1 tablespoon of minced pickled ginger (I use the kind in a tube because I hate grating the real stuff)
8 ounces ground pork or other crumbled protein (I also add Quorn tenders because they're easier for the kids to eat)
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or more to taste
1/4 cup soy sauce
8 ounces rice noodles, medium thickness
2 cups desired broth, plus more if needed
1/4 cup rice vinegar
5 ounces bean sprouts
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

Heat the oil at a medium setting in a large pan or 300 degree on an electric skillet.  Add the onion, garlic, ginger, protein, and pepper and saute until the onions are soft and the protein has browned.  Add the noodles, broth, soy sauce, and vinegar.  Increase the heat if necessary to bring the liquid to a simmer, and stir frequently to ensure that the noodles absorb the liquid evenly, adding more broth as needed.  When the noodles are pliant, mix in the bean sprouts and then add the sugar and sesame oil.  Garnish with cilantro just before serving.

Serves up to 4 people.

Linguine with Spicy Clam Sauce

Menu: Linguine with Spicy Clam Sauce.  The end.

Lesson learned: Tuesday night dinners are about to get a lot simpler.

Tonight I went to a regular running group that meets at 6pm... right when I would normally be cooking and serving dinner.  It was a good workout, so I decided I'm going to go every Tuesday, even though that means I won't be at dinner.  I'll have to make something earlier in the day that doesn't need to be served hot, or that John can easily just heat up: I'm thinking maybe pizza, sushi...

But this week, I already had plans to make my favorite homemade pasta dish, linguine with spicy clam sauce.  Just about everyone who has been a guest at my dinner table has been served this meal, and my husband and I have been known to eat the entire pound ourselves over the course of one night.  It's addicting to the point where putting leftovers in the fridge early is my only hope.  Anyway, John found out great news at work, so I wanted to make it even though we wouldn't be able to eat together.  What's even better is that Ben always loves it, so that means it's a dinner that 3/4 of us will eat!  There aren't very many of those these days.

I had plans to make a salad, too, but I ran out of time before I had to get the kids out the door and to the track.  Even when I don't have somewhere to go during dinner, I've often found that my vegetable dishes get short shrift unless I make them first.  I need to work on sticking to that order.  I'm also planning on putting out a plate of crudites around 6pm, the time at which Sophie has started bugging me for food like clockwork every night.

I was disappointed to see that I had run out of linguine, so I had to make it with farfalle tonight.  Somehow not as classy, but still yummy.

Linguine (or other pasta) with Spicy Clam Sauce

1 pound linguine
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium shallots or 1/2 red onion, chopped
4-6 large garlic cloves, sliced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or more to taste (I keep it mild for the kids)
1 cup half and half
3 6.5-ounce cans chopped or minced clams with juice
2-3 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
1-2 ounces fresh basil, chopped
Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add pasta; cook to al dente.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat and add the onion, garlic, and pepper.  Saute until the onions soften and the garlic is turning golden, then add the half and half and the clam juice, leaving the clams aside.  Add the Italian seasoning and bring the sauce to a steady simmer over medium-high heat.  Let the sauce boil down by about half as the pasta cooks.  Combine the thickened sauce with the drained pasta and toss with the clams, basil, and a generous amount of grated cheese.  Wait a couple of minutes before serving to allow the sauce time to cling to and soak into the pasta.

Makes 4 generous servings; could be stretched to 6 with other courses.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Quesadilla Bar

Menu: Quesadillas; Mango and Guacamole Salad

Lesson learned: Sometimes the kids just aren't going to eat dinner.

At one point I thought tonight's dinner would be enchiladas with homemade green sauce.  But then I thought, why would I do something harder that no one will like more than quesadillas?  So quesadillas it was.

Quesadillas were one of the first vegetarian dinners I worked into our normal routine.  We usually had them with chicken or steak, but you really don't need any meat; even my husband agrees.

So here's what I put out: tortillas, shredded cheddar and jack cheeses, black beans, corn, chopped tomatoes, roasted red peppers, chopped mangoes, black olives, onions, cilantro, and sour cream.  John and I can each make what we want.  Sophie gets a cheese quesadilla, but I'll put whatever I think I can get away with in Ben's.  I also made John and I each a small mango and guacamole salad; the kids got mango pieces and guacamole.

I don't know why, but the little ones just didn't eat tonight.  Sophie even left some of her mango, which is unheard of.  Ben did ask for lots of mango, and he ate all his guacamole.  Neither of them really ate their quesadillas, though, or even their tortilla chips?!  This is one of those nights where I really have to remind myself of one of my core principles: I am NOT stressing about what they eat for dinner.  As long as I put a healthy, balanced plate in front of them, I've done my job.  But sometimes I just wish there were even one thing that I could make and know that everyone would actually eat it.  If not quesadillas, then what?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pantry Day

Attempted Menu: Homemade Spinach-Ricotta Ravioli with Tomato Sauce; Arugula Salad with Strawberries and Goat Cheese

Actual Menu: Pasta with Tomatoes and Herbs; Garlic Bread; Arugula Salad with Strawberries

Lesson learned: if I don't want to go to the grocery store, I probably don't have to.

For whatever reason, I couldn't sleep last night.  I've been cranky, irritable, and lazy all day.  I had plans to go to the grocery store, but I could barely keep up with the things I had to do here at home.  So, dinner was improvised.

I think many people try to minimize trips to the grocery store, especially in my situation.  I don't, for two reasons: (1) I'm always in need of places to take the kids, and (2) fresh produce.  The garden's in between seasons right now, so that second one is even more important.  So it happens I still had tomatoes and strawberries on my counter, plus the Italian herbs and arugula still in the garden.  It was good enough.

We cooked a pound of pasta and did a little customizing.  John thinks that plain-as-plain pasta is a treat (don't ask me, I have no idea), so I put half of it aside.  In the other half, I mixed in olive oil and lots of bread crumbs with Italian herbs.  Then I took some out for the kids and put it on their plates with some marinara from a jar that probably only had a couple of weeks left at most.  For me, I mixed in the fresh tomatoes, fresh herbs, garlic, onions, and some Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Sophie only ate strawberries and garlic bread.  Ben ate strawberries, pasta, and some bread.

UPDATE: I was wrong about the kids' marinara being good for a couple more weeks.  When I went to put it away, I noticed a patch of mold on the inside rim of the jar.   So despite all my efforts to feed my family well, it turns out that sometimes I serve my children moldy food.  I guess there was more than one lesson I needed to learn last night.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Backyard Cookout

Tonight we hosted several families from the moms' club I help organize for a potluck cook-out in our backyard.  John did the grilling and my "side dish" for the potluck was buns and condiments, so I didn't have to cook at all.  It was a really good time with wonderful food.  Our family had some grass-fed beef burgers (beef two nights in a row -- crazy!) that were really, really good.  All I did was mix some Worcestershire, salt, pepper, and garlic into them.  Delicious!

I have really been spoiled lately.  From now until Memorial Day, we have no plans for dinner guests -- or guests who can babysit for us while we go out to dinner -- so the meals will probably be getting simpler.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Shula's 347 Grill

Tonight I had a much anticipated and needed date night with my husband!  We went to Shula's 347 Grill, the steakhouse on the first floor of the Hotel Duval.  It was a very nice time!  I normally don't care about little touches and formalities, but I actually enjoyed having the door being opened for me.  It sounds so silly, and I hate to think of myself as "that kind of person."  And I wouldn't have noticed opening the door for myself.  But what can I say?  I appreciated that someone was there to open it for me.

First things first: we ordered our wine.  They had a decent selection, with many pinot noirs and cabernets.  I had a wonderful Malbec, and John ordered the only Tuscan red on the menu.  Mine was better!

John didn't eat lunch, so for once I wasn't the only one interested in the appetizers.  We had bacon-wrapped jumbo shrimp with barbecue sauce, and also a Caesar salad.  The shrimp were fantastic!  Very plump and flavorful.  I'm not usually a fan of barbecue, but this sauce was excellent.  The Caesar was fine.  Nothing wrong with it, but nothing special.

Our steaks arrived right after we were done with the shrimp and salad.  I had a filet mignon, and John had a bone-in ribeye.  As soon as they put each plate on the table, they asked us to cut through the center of each steak to check that it was done appropriately.  They even had little flashlights for the inspection.  To be honest, I didn't really care for that part.  I'd rather just assume it's cooked well, unless it's obviously not.  And I don't think the test really did what it was supposed to do, because although I initially thought my steak was cooked fine, as I started eating it I realized it was closer to medium than medium-rare.  It was still very good, though.  I actually got to taste a little of John's, and it was even better.  Maybe I just like the ribeye cut better than a filet and never realized it.

The sides were good as well.  We both got smashed potatoes, which were delicious.  I had asparagus and John had green beans.  The asparagus stalks were nice and crunchy, just how I like them.

We had a wonderful time, and after dinner we went up to the 8th floor bar, which has a nice balcony atmosphere overlooking the city.
However, I have to subtract points for price.  The food was good, but a little more expensive than it deserved to be, in my opinion.  It's ok... we were celebrating!

Score: 8/10

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Barbecue Hawaiian Pizza

Menu: Barbecue Hawaiian Pizza; Mango Salad with Guacamole

Wish I could have learned some lessons tonight, but I don't think I did.  Pizza should be easy, right?  Well, it sure isn't in my kitchen.  Am I just trying to have my cake and eat it, too?  (And really, what could possibly be wrong with that?  Worst idiom ever.)

The crust.  The crust is my problem.  I don't like any pre-formed crusts that I've tried so far, so I buy dough and roll it out.  Or rather, I knead it into a cookie sheet while swearing.  I do own a pizza stone.  I know that you have to let it preheat with the oven.  I know that you can sprinkle cornmeal on it to keep the dough from sticking.  But how to get the dough onto the stone?  Do I need a pizza peel?

Despite the work, the pizza was good.  I like Publix's pizza dough, and tonight I used their 5-grain.  It's good, but it's even harder to knead out because the 5 grains tend to make holes in the dough.  For the sauce, I used a mixture of canned tomato sauce and tomato paste, then mixed in a little barbecue sauce (a little goes a long way).  After wrestling with the dough, I spread the sauce over it, sprinkled it with fresh oregano and onions, then layered shredded gouda and cheddar, roasted red peppers, pineapple chunks, shredded carrots, and ground white pepper.  I baked it at 450 degrees for 10 minutes and it was pretty much perfect (even if the picture isn't that pretty):
The kids eat a little bit of pizza, but strangely they really aren't crazy about it in any form.  So I made this salad with leftover produce so Sophie could at least eat mangoes for dinner:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Italian Rice Salad

Menu: Italian Rice Salad; Steamed Broccoli with Lemon and Basil Oil; Strawberry-Kiwi Salad

Lessons learned:
  1. Ingredients are everything.
  2. Chocolate mint is my favorite mint.
  3. Choosing wines by their cutesy labels usually doesn't pay off, but sometimes it does!
Italian rice salad has turned out to be one of my favorite weekday meals.  It requires very little cooking, is very hard to screw up, and it has some of my favorite flavors.  And since it goes so well with an Italian red, I just can't help opening a bottle!  Tonight I went with a 2009 Cabernet called Monogamy.  Let me just reprint what's on the back of the label:

"You know you've experimented.  It's a way to discover what you like.  And what you don't.  What makes you happy.  What satisfies your soul.  It's how you know when you've found the one.  The one that makes you say, 'Sorry, I'm with Cabernet.'  When you've met the love of your life, is there really any reason to keep looking?"

If I had read that when I bought it, I might have just put it back.  I mean, there is surely something romantic about a good glass of wine, but let's not get carried away.  Anyway, I think I got it because it was on sale at New Leaf Market.  But it's actually quite good!  I hope there's some left when I get back from the coffee shop tonight.

Tonight, after many long days, my husband was home for dinner and we all ate together!  The kids ate some prosciutto, cheese, and broccoli, but mostly loaded up on this:
OK, maybe my food photography leaves something to be desired.  I'm learning!  Anyway, those green flecks right there?  Chocolate mint.  Yeah.

But back to the rice salad.  The key is ingredients.  For almost everything in this dish, there is a cheaper substitute you could use and it would really be fine.  Instead of Arborio rice, you could just use regular white or brown rice.  Instead of prosciutto, you could use bacon, ham, or salami.  You could leave out the pine nuts entirely.  Instead of fresh mozzarella, you could use regular.  If you don't have homegrown herbs and don't want to buy fresh ones, you could use Italian seasoning.  And it would still be a decent weeknight dish that covered the bases.  But it wouldn't be something that you really look forward to eating.  And I just need to mention that I tried the fresh mozzarella from Earth Fare for the first time tonight.  SO good.  Highly, highly recommend.

I think the two most harmless substitutions would be the rice and the meat.  I'm not sure I really noticed the difference between Arborio rice and the white sushi rice we buy in a huge bag for a much better price.  Bacon instead of prosciutto would be different, but probably just about as good, since everyone in my house loves bacon.  Of course, then I'd have to cook it, and one of the things I love about this dish is that the only thing you need to cook is the rice.

So here's the recipe.  I think just about any Italian salad dressing would work pretty well, but tonight I still had some basil oil leftover from last week's soup, so I emulsified it in red wine vinegar with salt, pepper, and garlic.

Italian Rice Salad

2 cups Arborio rice
2-3 cups of fresh tomatoes
3-4 ounces prosciutto
6 ounces fresh mozzarella
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 large garlic clove
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh basil
2 tablespoons fresh oregano

1/4 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup fresh grated hard Italian cheese, such as Parmiggiano-Reggiano

Cook the rice using your preferred method, leaving time for the rice to cool before mixing the salad ingredients into it.  Chop the tomatoes, prosciutto, mozarella, and herbs into bite-sized pieces.  In a small bowl, mix the garlic, salt, and pepper into the red wine vinegar, then whisk in the olive oil to emulsify it.  Mix the tomatoes and prosciutto into the cooked rice, including as much of the tomato juice as you can preserve.  Next, gently mix in the mozzarella and toss everything with the dressing, herbs, and pine nuts.  Top it off with the grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano and enjoy.

Makes 4 servings.

In Search of the Perfect Veggie Burger

Tonight John stayed late again and we had enough food leftover from other dinners that I didn't have to cook at all.  So I don't have anything to report from my kitchen tonight.

But I did find this very interesting article just now in the New York Times about a veggie burger revolution of sorts that's happening right now.  The article cites many restaurants whose chefs are getting very creative with the idea, in a way far removed from the bland, frozen patties we might think of.  It even mentioned the Shula's chain, which John and I are going to visit on Friday night for a much-needed celebration.

I've been thinking right along these same lines.  I already have many veggie/grain combinations that I fry up in patty form -- two just in the time I've been blogging.  I wouldn't call them veggie burgers, but this method is particularly attractive to me because it's both tasty and more kid-friendly than serving veggies and grains in, well, piles.

So what actually qualifies as a veggie burger?  I think that while it doesn't have to pretend to be meat, it should have a meaty taste -- the umami flavor.  I haven't found a satisfying recipe that does this yet.  The best one I've tried, which is a combination of bulgur, beans, and nuts, has a good flavor but is too mushy.  I've been thinking of making my own changes to it to make it a little grainier, but I'd really like to see some more recipes.  The article mentioned a new veggie burger cookbook coming out in May... maybe I'll get it for myself if it gets good reviews.

Has anybody else out there found a good veggie burger recipe?  What do you like about it?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Susan's Cioppino

Menu: Cioppino; Garlic Bread; Lemon-Garlic Green Beans

Lessons learned:
  1. It's awesome when someone else cooks.
  2. I mean, it's really, really awesome when someone else cooks!
Cioppino ("chip-EE-no") is my husband's favorite home-cooked dish.  His mom made it for dinner right before she went into labor with him, and it's still one of her signature dishes 30 years later.  He's been putting in a lot of time at work, so she decided he deserved to have some when he got home tonight.  Woohoo!  It was delicious, especially because I didn't cook it!  And it requires wine, so since the wine was already open, my father-in-law and I finished off one of his favorites, a Monte Antico Sangiovese blend.

Sophie ate only garlic bread.  Ben, however, couldn't get enough of the fish from the soup!  He probably ate 2/3 of what was in my first bowl, then had seconds.

My mother-in-law says I can share her recipe, so here it is!

Susan's Cioppino

1/2 large green bell pepper
2 tablespoons onion, chopped
1-2 cloves minced garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
14.5 ounces canned diced tomatoes, with juice
8 ounces canned tomato sauce
1/2 cup dry red wine
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning
Fresh ground pepper to taste
1/2 pound white fish, chopped
1/2 pound sea scallops, chopped
1/2 pound uncooked, peeled, deveined shrimp
6.5 ounces minced clams, with juice

Saute the green pepper, onion, and garlic with oil in a large pot over medium heat.  Add the tomatoes, sauce, wine, and seasonings.  Bring the soup to a boil, then lower to a simmer for about 20 minutes.  Add the fish, scallops, shrimp, and clams.  Return the soup to a boil briefly, then take it off the heat and serve with crusty garlic bread.

Makes about 4 main course servings.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Falafel with Tzatziki Sauce

Menu: Falafel with Tzatziki Sauce; Lemon Bulgur Pilaf with Almonds; Caesar Salad

Lessons learned:
  1. Read new recipes through at least once before starting to cook.
  2. While I cannot even remotely do falafel in balls, falafel patties work really well!  But next time I'll make them smaller.
Looking back through the blog after advertising it among my friends, I realized that my last several dinners have been Asian meals with seafood.  Oops.  Fortunately I changed it up tonight.  In my efforts to overcome my aversion to all beans other than the jelly variety, I tried to make falafel a month or so ago.  The filling was mouth-watering, but when I tried to deep fry the balls like I've had in restaurants, they completely fell apart.  So this time I took a chance by trying again with my in-laws, pan-frying them in hamburger shapes. And, yum!

This meal did trip me up a few times.  First of all, I needed dry chickpeas and the store where I happened to do my shopping for this weekend didn't have them.  I'm so very disappointed in you, Fresh Market.  Or I would be if not for your perfect croissants.  Of which I bought eight.  So, you are excused.  (Why did I go to Fresh Market?  Because I was taking Ben to a birthday party right next door on Saturday morning and it was, for once, the most convenient place to go.)

Then I almost forgot to start soaking the chickpeas yesterday.  As will probably become clear as this blog progresses, I don't do well with advance prep, but I'd like to get better.  Anyway, I used a recipe from Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa) for the tzatziki, and she recommended starting the sauce 6-8 hours before serving.  Um, no.  In my world, that just doesn't happen for a condiment.  I did make it during the kids' naptime and decided that would be good enough.

Finally, when I started making the pilaf I had in my mind that it was a quick recipe that would somehow cook brown rice in about 20 minutes.  I just wasn't thinking.  I didn't noticed that the recipe called for brown rice that was already cooked until I got to the part where I needed it!  BUT I thought fast and subbed in bulgur, which cooks very quickly.  And it turned out fabulous.  But I'd like to play around with it a little more, so I won't post the recipe quite yet.

Not really a meal that goes over well with the kids, but I feel like they aren't giving it a chance.  I'm going to keep making it.

Falafel Patties (from HTCEV by Mark Bittman)

1 3/4 cups dry chickpeas
2 cloves of garlic (actually I used four!)
1 small onion, quartered
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 scant teaspoon cayenne
1 cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Neutral oil for frying (I used safflower)

In the afternoon of the day before you plan to cook falafel, put the beans in a large bowl or pot, cover them with water by 3-4 inches, and let them soak until you start cooking the next night's dinner.

Drain the beans and put them in a food processor with the rest of the ingredients, except the oil.  Let the machine run until the mixture is smooth.

Heat a generous amount of oil in a pan over medium/medium-high heat -- definitely more than enough to just cover the bottom of the pan.  When the oil is hot, put tablespoon-sized patties in the pan and fry each side until nicely browned -- it won't take long.  (In the picture above, you see I made hamburger-sized patties.  But the browned part is the best part, of course, so making smaller patties maximizes that.  It also might make the entree seem more appetizer-like, though, so I suppose that's something to consider.)

You can probably get about 40 small patties, and they're filling.  A serving would be about 5-6.  This is vegan, until you add the sauce below.  If you want to stay vegan, I'm sure there is an alternative to yogurt sauce that would work well.

Tzatziki Sauce (adapted from Ina Garten on Food Network)

1 pound plain yogurt
1 cucumber, peeled and seeded if necessary (unpeeled in the original recipe)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons garlic (I increased this from the original recipe)
1 1/2 teaspoons dill
Ground black pepper to taste

OK, Ina says to drain the yogurt and cucumber, separately, for several hours.  That wasn't happening, so I drained the yogurt briefly in a mesh strainer, just to get some of the liquid out.  I poured that yogurt into my serving bowl, then grated the cucumber into the strainer and squeezed the liquid out through the strainer using paper towels.  I added the drier cucumber to the yogurt, then mixed in everything else and let the sauce sit in the fridge for three or four hours, where the flavors blended and the texture thickened nicely.  It was the perfect amount for the falafel.  But Ben enjoyed it on its own.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Potstickers with Shrimp and Scallops

Menu: Potstickers with Shrimp and Scallops; White Rice; Broccoli; Mango; Strawberries

Lessons learned:
  1. This is one of the few recipes for which it's not worth it to buy the big sea scallops.
  2. Don't just make rice; make rice salad!

My parents and I lived in China when I was a toddler, and my mom cooked many Chinese dishes on a regular basis when I was growing up.  She would make potstickers from almost-scratch, buying the wrappers from an Asian market and making her own filling, usually with pork.  She taught me how to fold them her way and pan-fry them, and I've made them ever since.  I LOVE potstickers.  I can't control myself around that fried dough.

At American restaurants, potstickers are an appetizer and you usually get between 4 and 8.  My parents say that when they would eat big dinners with Chinese hosts, potstickers would come after the meal.  Bowls and bowls of them.  That's more my style; splitting 4 delicious fried dumplings with someone else just seems crazy to me.  And it's nice to know exactly what's in the filling when you make them yourself.  I've made mine with chicken and mango, pork and pumpkin, and this seafood filling.  Completely vegetarian ones are on my list next.

This is my second time making seafood potstickers, and they turned out very well!  My in-laws, who got in this morning, said they were delicious.  However, I served them with pretty uninteresting sides, and the rice seemed kind of redundant.  Next time, I'll do a rice salad with more complex flavors.

Since my in-laws were here to help with distracting the kids and dinner prep, we all got to sit down together (at the BIG table!).  My father-in-law opened a nice Chianti, which I will drink with pretty much anything.  My kids spent most of their time asking for more mango (Ben: "o pees? kay") and strawberries, but Ben did eat some of his potsticker and rice, and Sophie ate her broccoli.  I feel like she's barely eating anything these days, but I guess if she eats broccoli I should just calm down.

You can totally make your own potstickers, too!  Get the square Na Soya wonton wrappers from most any grocery store around here, or the circles from an Asian market.  And you can fill them with anything you want.  Just make sure you have an ingredient to bind the filling together, such as an egg.  I got tonight's recipe from The Potsticker Chronicles by Stuart Chang Berman (a book with mostly non-potsticker recipes), and adapted it as you see it below.

Potstickers with Shrimp and Scallops

1 package of 40-50 potsticker wrappers
3/4 pound small or medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
3/4 pound scallops (I shelled out for sea scallops tonight, but I'm pretty sure I shouldn't have)
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon Hennessy
2-3 tablespoons of chives, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 egg white (optional)
1-2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 cup oil, plus more as needed
Soy sauce
Rice vinegar

If you forgot to take your potsticker wrappers out of the freezer in time for them to thaw completely, take them out of the plastic and stick them in the microwave for 30 seconds.  They'll be fine.  :)

Next, start making the filling in one of two ways.  First, you can mince all your seafood by hand, in which case you will need the egg white.  Or you can do what I did, which is to put all my seafood in the small bowl of my food processor and pulse it until there weren't any huge pieces left.  Since food processors chop things unevenly, this meant that some of the seafood had basically turned to paste (very appetizing, I know).  I figured that meant I didn't need to bother with the egg, and I was right.  But the filling probably would have turned out more delicate if I had minced by hand and made it bind with egg.  Too late now, and they were delicious anyway!

At any rate, once your seafood is no longer in big pieces, put it in a mixing bowl and stir in the other ingredients.  Take the mixture, a small spoon, your wrappers, and a little bowl of water to a work station, along with a baking sheet covered in parchment paper and dusted lightly with flour.
Now you can start filling!  No matter what wrapper you're using, you want just a scant tablespoon of filling in each one.  Overfilling makes folding much more difficult than it needs to be.  If you use Na Soya wrappers, there are instructions on the package for making a wonton shape, which is fine.  Here is what I do with the round ones:
Like my mom says, it really doesn't matter, especially if you're not Chinese.  But I do what she does, which is to fold the wrapper in half around the filling, and then make 4-5 small folds in the side facing me, keeping my fingers wet the whole time so the dough stays together once you've folded it.

You can make these ahead of time, too, but I never end up doing it.  When you're ready to cook them, put some oil in a pan -- enough to cover the bottom -- over medium-high heat.  Arrange the potstickers in the pan comfortably; you may need to do two or even three batches, depending on the size of your pan.  When the bottoms of the potstickers are brown, dump in about 1/4 cup of water and quickly cover the pan.  This step is what cooks the filling.  Give it about 5 minutes, then uncover the pan and check one of the potstickers to make sure it's done.  If the outside looks good to you, take the potstickers out; if the water and steam have made the skins too soggy, let them fry a little longer after the water has boiled off.

Serve the potstickers with dipping sauce made of 1 part soy sauce to 1 part rice vinegar.

Of course, you can definitely boil the dumplings, too -- it's more authentic, and also healthier.  But for me, that's what makes the difference between being worth the time... and not.

This amount was plenty for four adults and two kids.

Brickyard Pizzeria

A couple of friends and I got together for dinner and a movie last night, so I got a break from cooking!  I gave the kids some Quorn nuggets, strawberries, and carrots.  I think John made himself some pasta and a ham sandwich.

The ladies and I ordered pizza from a place we hadn't tried before called Brickyard Pizzeria.  My family has really not found "our" pizza place in Tallahassee yet, so I was excited to see if this could be a candidate (even though it isn't close to our house).  The place smelled amazing, and I noticed that they also serve many other Italian dishes.  We ordered a white pizza with spinach and tomatoes, a Hawaiian pizza, and a simple pepperoni to carry out.

The pizza was ok... definitely better than the chains.  There were a lot of appealing choices for toppings, and they seemed to be good quality as well.  But the crust was a little gummy, and I wish the cheese had been balanced with more sauce.  I'd still be interested in going there to sit down and try something other than pizza.

Score: 6/10

Friday, March 18, 2011

Ginger-Hoisin Vinaigrette

Menu: Stir-Fried Noodles with Shrimp, Snow Peas and Carrots; Broccoli with Ginger-Hoisin Vinaigrette; Sliced Fresh Pineapple

Lessons learned:
  1. My other stir-fry sauce is better.
  2. Stir-fry the vegetarian protein with the veggies, not the shrimp.  It doesn't get overcooked and absorbs a lot of flavor if you leave it in for the whole process.
One of the best places to buy fish for sushi in Tallahassee is also an Asian grocery store, so when I stopped in yesterday for fresh fish, I also stocked up on noodles.  Normally I'm just getting rice noodles, but this time I grabbed some egg noodles as well and gave them a try tonight.  Yum!

This is the deal with most Asian noodle dishes that I've come across: you cook the noodles separately.  You cook the meat or seafood separately.  You cook the veggies separately.  You make the sauce separately.  Only at the very end do you throw it all together.  It's easy if you accept that almost all of your time in the kitchen is prep time, and it's delicious.

Tonight I used 1/2 pound of shrimp and 1/4 pound of Quorn tenders.  This is our third seafood meal of the week, but I just don't feel bad about that.  This shrimp was only $6/pound at the fish market, and I used half a pound tonight.  On the other hand, I'm still not sure what to think about Quorn.  I've liked every product of theirs I've tried, but it still seems like made-up food to me, so I don't use it too often in meals.  The kids eat it, though, so throwing it in with shrimp is a good way to please everyone.  I went with onions, carrots, and snow peas for our veggies.  The sauce I used was from the pasta & noodles cookbook from America's Test Kitchen: soy sauce, sesame oil, chicken broth, sugar, garlic, and red pepper.  It was good, but I have another one I like better that I'll use next time.

Here is my plate:
The kids ate pineapple, Quorn, some noodles (Ben), and broccoli (Sophie).  No John tonight, so I ate mostly by myself.

The dressing for the broccoli is very convenient to make in a large quantity and keep in the fridge for the times when you know you need a vegetable but don't know what to do with it.  The recipe follows.

Ginger-Hoisin Vinaigrette (The New Best Recipe from America's Test Kitchen)

2 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

Just whisk all the ingredients together and pour as much as you like over cooked vegetables.  I usually double or triple the recipe so I don't have to make it as often.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tuna Avocado Sushi

Menu: Tuna Avocado Sushi; Edamame Pods; Coconut-Fried Plantains

Lessons learned:
  1. Plantains are hard to peel.
  2. Uncooked plantains taste TERRIBLE.
  3. Coconut-fried plantains would probably be pretty tasty if they were ripe.
I adore sushi.  It's delicious, filling, healthy, and easy to make.  Not even very expensive.  Hooray, sushi!  I've tried a few different homemade variations, but my favorite is still tuna and avocado.  John prefers salmon and mango, but I usually don't get salmon because I know the Atlantic variety isn't harvested sustainably.  I'm not sure about the tuna, but until I find out I still buy it.  Posting this photo makes me want to eat dinner again:
I kind of like the inside-out sushi better -- with the rice on the outside -- but I haven't mastered that roll, so I'm just keeping it easy on myself.

Or not.  It gets a lot more complicated when you do things like stir-fry the remaining fish for your kids and decide to make coconut-fried plantains!  What is wrong with me??  This is my easy dinner.  Or it was.

I saw the idea to fry plantains in coconut in HTCEV and had to try it.  I really thought the kids would like them, and there are a couple of dinners I have where they'd make a fun addition.  But I don't know anything about plantains, except they look like bananas.  Turns out that when they're green, they're not as sweet.  Just like a banana.  Only much, much worse.  Blech.

But after I coated them in coconut and fried them in safflower oil, they were decent.
They would have been better if they were ripe, though.  In fact, unripened fruit was sort of a theme tonight.  Our avocado was NOT ready for consumption.  I still put it in the sushi, and fortunately the other components picked up the slack.  But back to the plantains -- my real problem with them is that I am never going to feel up to coating and frying all. those. little. circles.  However, I don't think they would lose much, if anything, if I fried long skinny strips instead of the circles.  They might be slightly less appealing to the kids, but honestly the little circles weren't exactly irresistible to them tonight anyway.

We did manage a four-person table tonight.  The kids ate most of their food while I was still rolling, but they still came back to sit/play with John and me while we ate.  Ben even tried some sushi!  So, full table accomplished.

Sushi doesn't really need a recipe, but here's one anyway.

Tuna Avocado Sushi for Two

1 1/2 cups sushi rice
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 nori sheets
1/3 pound fresh sushi-grade tuna
1/2 ripe avocado
Vegan mayo
Chili paste
Pickled ginger
Wasabi paste
Soy sauce

Cook the rice using your preferred method.  In the meantime, dissolve the sugar and salt in the rice vinegar; when the rice is done, pour the mixture over it and mix it in well.

Slice the tuna into long strips, about 1/2 inch wide.  Do the same for the avocado.  Lay out the nori sheets, smooth side down, and spread a thin layer of the rice mixture over each one.  Try to cover the whole thing.  On the edge closest to you, lay down a single layer of tuna, and a single layer of avocado just above it.  Using a rolling mat or just your hands, roll the sheet tightly from the nearest edge to the farthest one.  Using a very sharp cleaver or similar knife, cut the roll crosswise into eight equal pieces (I do this by cutting the roll in half, then into quarters, then into eighths).  Arrange cut-sides-up on a pretty plate.  Mix chili paste to taste into about 1/3 cup of vegan mayo, then top each sushi piece with your desired amount.  Serve with the ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce for dipping.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Arugula Salad with Strawberries, Bacon, and Mozzarella

Menu: Tomato Bread Soup; Arugula Salad with Strawberries, Bacon, and Mozzarella

Lessons learned:
  1. Sometimes it's just faster to eat soup with your hands.
  2. There are occasions to fry basil leaves.
Four years ago, I marked the recipe for this soup in a Williams-Sonoma cookbook about Florentine cuisine that I got for my wedding.  I don't usually get very excited about soup, so I'm not sure why this one got my attention.  But I finally got around to making it tonight.

It was ok.  You saute onions, carrots, celery, and garlic, and then add tomato paste and tomatoes.  Then you add toasted bread and water and boil it down, and finally finish it with basil oil and fried basil.  This is what you get:

It was actually much tastier than it looks.  It kind of looks like... well, I'll just let you use your imagination if you're so inclined.  The texture was off-putting.  I think I could make it look and taste a lot better, so I'll be trying it again with better bread, some wine, a little parmesan, and possibly more fresh herbs.  The basil oil and fried basil were interesting.  I think I'll keep them around on the next attempt.

It took me several minutes to plan what I was going to make with it.  Breaded eggplant would be great, but it's not in season yet.  Anything with pesto would also work, but I just planted my basil and there isn't enough to make pesto.  I finally decided on a salad using a bunch of extra stuff I had around: arugula from my garden, some bacon, fresh mozzarella, strawberries left over from yesterday's pie, and pine nuts with balsamic vinaigrette.  Generally, my intent is to save meat for special occasions, and I know there's no way I can spin it so that tonight qualifies.  Sorry, hard-core vegetarians, but every now and then I must make an exception for bacon.  And yes, I also realize this is the third night in a row I've used strawberries.  They're not in season very long here, so I'm making the most of it.

I had some nice cross-pollination, if you will, going on between the two dishes, too.  I used bacon grease to cook the veggies for the soup, and I mixed up the balsamic vinaigrette using the basil oil from the soup.

No John again.  I got the kids' plates set up with bread and the salad components, and gave them each a teeny bowl of soup.  By the time I got my own food (and wine) ready, Sophie had already eaten and left and Ben had left his chair to see what was good on Sophie's side of the table.  He had finished off his soup, trying to use his spoon at first but having better luck with his hands.  As he walked around the table, I noticed that his shorts were completely soaked through.  Not with pee.  With poop.  Off to the bathtub we went right quick.

When we were done in the bathroom, I noticed that somebody had torn our U.S. map off the wall, which meant that the pushpin holding it in place had to be on the floor somewhere.  That's not ok with toddlers around.  So with my dinner still waiting for me on the table, I searched fruitlessly all over the carpet for said solitary pushpin, finally giving up in the hope that if I couldn't find it, neither could they.  I went back to the table to eat my dinner alone.  Well, not completely alone.  I had my wine.

The salad was actually quite good, so the recipe follows.  Please know that I am not one for exact measurements, so the amounts listed are approximations.

Arugula Salad with Strawberries, Bacon, and Mozzarella

1 cup fresh-picked arugula, no stems
1/2 pound strawberries, quartered
1/2 cup fresh mozzarella, chopped
1/2 pound bacon, cooked, drained, and torn into bite-size pieces*
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1/4 cup raspberry balsamic vinegar
Pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4-1/3 cup basil oil or regular extra-virgin olive oil

Combine the arugula, strawberries, mozzarella, and bacon in a serving bowl.  In a small mixing bowl, combine the vinegar, salt, pepper, and garlic powder.  Emulsify the oil into the vinegar by drizzling it in slowly while whisking as quick as you can.  Pour the dressing over the salad, toss, and sprinkle with pine nuts.

Makes just enough to serve two.

*I already had bacon in the house, but if I were shopping specifically for this salad, I'd spring for some pancetta or prosciutto.

Some variations I think would be good:

Replace the strawberries with cantaloupe, OR
Skip the bacon and pine nuts, and replace the mozzarella with goat cheese and parmesan.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Menu: Broiled Tilapia, Quinoa-Parsnip Rosti, Buttery Snow peas with Thyme, Strawberry Pie

Lessons learned:
  1. Never, ever go to the grocery store without lots of snacks.
  2. Cooked vegetables are not even a little bit amenable to peeling or grating.
  3. Little pancakes are better than big pancakes in every way.
  4. I need to learn to make some dipping sauces.
I don't think there was a single part of tonight's dinner that went as I hoped.  Ugh...

First we made our twice-weekly grocery shopping trip this afternoon.  Sophie skipped lunch, so her usual grocery store snack was unusually important to her.  She seriously squealed and cried the entire time because I wasn't feeding her Life cereal fast enough.  Thanks to my son for only trying to climb out of the cart three times and only losing his shoe once.

On to the cooking: quinoa and I haven't gotten along so well in the kitchen.  I've overcooked it.  I've undercooked it.  I can't seem to serve it in such a way that someone besides me will eat it.  And yet I persist.  Maybe it's because quinoa seems like the cool kid of the whole grains, the one where you can tell people, "it's pronounced keen-wa."  Or maybe it's the challenge -- I just can't accept that I don't have the cooking skills to turn out some edible keen-wa.

Anyway, when I was growing up, my mom made these really simple but fantastic potato pancakes called rostis.  You shred potatoes, toss them with butter and salt and pepper, and spread them out in a big frying pan.  When they're brown on one side, you do a big FLIP and slide the pancake back into the pan for the other side to cook.  So when I saw a recipe for rostis made with parsnips and quinoa in HTCEV, I had to try them and I decided this was the night.

I cooked my quinoa.  Not mushy, not crunchy... so far, so good.  Cooked the parsnips, too, according to the recipe.

That's when the trouble started.  The directions say to peel and grate them after cooking.  Well, neither of those things worked because the parsnips were too soft.  First I tried using a cheese grater: no luck, so I broke out the grating tool on my food processor.  That didn't work either, which meant I had just dirtied up my big old food processor bowl for no reason.  So I just switched to the regular old chopping blade and threw the parsnips in, skin and all.  Mixed them up with the quinoa, and decided at the last minute that it would be a good idea to throw in a little cheese.  That's probably why, when the pancake was in the big skillet and it was time to flip it, only about 2/3 of it came off the pan.

So, no rosti.  Just hash.

BUT.  I think this would work out just fine if I made little pancakes instead of one big one.  The kids would be more likely to eat them, and I'd have no trouble flipping them.  Served with a dollop of something yummy on top, I bet they would be tasty.

While I was messing with the parsnips, I threw some seasoning on the tilapia and got it into the oven.  It ended up... fine.  It was a bit watery, like it had been frozen.  From now on, I'm only getting my fish at a fish market, even if it means an extra trip.

I also had the snow peas in the pan and forgot that I had planned to saute them gently with butter.  I turned the heat up too high and burned many of them.  So I just sighed and dumped a little bit of soy sauce on them.  And opened a beer.

As you can see, John isn't home for dinner.  It's a busy time for him at work, so I told him he was excused from dinner for the next week if he wanted to be.  But the table feels a lot emptier without him.

There may be a bright spot, though.  A big, bright red spot in honor of Pi day.  During all the dinner fuss, I managed to pre-bake an old store-bought pie crust I found in my freezer and fill it with strawberries and strawberry jam.  Homemade whipped cream is on the way.  I still have hope.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Japanese-Style Egg Rolls

Menu: Japanese-Style Egg Rolls; Sushi Rice; Guacamole; Fruit Salad

Lessons learned:
  1. Lots of fruit = happy family.
  2. Not even my husband will eat two cups of rice.
After a fabulous visit from one of my best girlfriends, it was back to normal for dinner tonight at our house.  I knew I was going to make the egg rolls, probably with rice.  But I realized there were NO GREEN VEGETABLES in the house!  I must have convinced myself long ago that a meal has to include a green vegetable... maybe so that we wouldn't just eat a couple of carrot sticks at dinner and call it "balanced."  I still have some greens in the garden, but I couldn't think of a way to make them such that they would complement the egg rolls and anyone other than me would eat them.

What we did have was plenty of nearly overripe fruit!  So rather than drag my, um, self out to the grocery store, I figured that maybe two green fruits are as good as one green veggie.  I made some quick guacamole  -- 1 avocado, juice from 1/2 lime, salt, and pepper -- and chopped up these lovelies:

Rice was in the rice cooker, so the only thing left was the egg rolls.  They're basically rolled-up egg crepes, but they're a lot more flavorful and filling than you might think.  Here are mine:

So yes, I took a couple of pictures.  John smirked at me and asked if I would be "hamming it up" for the blog now.  At least he realized that would probably only be good news for him.

But I'm happy to say it was the first few minutes in a while that all four of us were sitting at the table together, just eating happily.  Usually there's somebody who's still at work, still cooking, jumping up to get a wet cloth or refill a drink, asking for more food, playing in their food, or playing somewhere else.  Tonight, though, we made it happen: we had a full table.  Sophie didn't eat any rice or guacamole, but she asked for fifths on eggs.  Ben wasn't into the eggs tonight, but he couldn't get enough mango ("uh-oh") or strawberries ("buzzies").  After we were finished, John played with the kids while I put the food away and did the dishes.  That's right... I said the dishes are done.

Japanese-Style Egg Rolls
Adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, by Mark Bittman

9 eggs
1/4 cup kombu dashi or whatever other broth you have on hand
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 tablespoon sugar
Dash of salt
Safflower oil, or another oil with relatively neutral flavor

Whisk together the eggs, broth, soy sauce, sugar, and salt.

Put your smallest saucepan over medium heat and add about 1/2 teaspoon of oil.  Pour in just enough of the egg mixture to cover the bottom of the pan and make a crepe.  When it has cooked through, roll it up from one side to the other so that the rolled crepe ends up on the perimeter of the pan.  Once again, pour in just enough of the egg mixture to cover the bottom of the pan; once it has cooked, roll the first crepe over the second, in the opposite direction as before.  You'll end up with a roll of two crepes on the other side of the pan.  Repeat this process once more so that you have a roll of three crepes.

Move the egg roll to a serving dish, and then start on the next one, adding just a little more oil before each new roll.  I serve them either whole or sliced crosswise.

Thanks again, MB!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sustainable food for everyone?

OK, this is NOT a blog about macro-level food systems, I promise!  But I have a friend visiting through the weekend, so I'm not officially blogging about food production in my own house until Sunday.  In the meantime, I just read two articles about whether organic/sustainable farming is feasible on a global level, and they present seemingly contradictory conclusions.  So let's take a look at what they say.

Mark Bittman, who has to be my favorite food writer, had this op-ed in the New York Times two days ago.  Armed with a new report from the United Nations Council on Human Rights, he rebuts the popular claim that organic, sustainable food production is only for rich foodie-types, and that it has no hope of being able to feed a growing world population that already struggles mightily with hunger and malnutrition.  (Why the Council on Human Rights?  It turns out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights endorsed by the UN includes a right to food.  Good to know!)

The report presents a set of goals related to global food supply, cites numerous examples where agricultural methods that prioritize ecological sustainability have made good progress toward these goals, and notes the inability of large-scale, centralized farming to do the same.  It stipulates that food needs to be available (supply meets need), accessible to everyone, and nutritionally adequate.  In order to meet these goals, the authors argue, global food systems must be based on small-scale farms that prioritize ecological sustainability.   The extent to which large-scale, centralized food production irreversibly depletes the resources it will depend on in the future makes it a poor model, even in areas where food is scarce and poverty is rampant.  On the other hand, a small farm generates both food and income for its inhabitants, is less resource-intensive, and makes the local food supply less vulnerable to climate and other shocks that drive prices up for everyone.

Sustainable agriculture depends on "recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than introducing external inputs."  These practices not only preserve the ecosystem and promote food stability, they lower the cost to the farmer of working the land.  The report cites many studies, mostly in Africa, that show various types of sustainable agriculture increasing yields, reducing poverty, and improving nutrition on small scales.  Given these results, the report's message was that relatively cheap, sustainable agricultural methods have significant potential to feed the world's population, and would benefit greatly from more focused research and investment.  While it may be able to produce more and cheaper food in the short term, the industrial model does not solve any of the long-term global problems cited by critics of the organic movement; if anything, it makes them worse.

The report also stressed that flexibility is important when it comes to sustainable agriculture.  Sustainability is a spectrum, especially where there are no regulations in place that certify food as "organic" or some similar label.  The idea is to move food systems toward the sustainable end of that spectrum in ways that make sense for the region, rather than imposing a broad, strict set of standards.

Yesterday, published this article about a recent study comparing the yields of conventional and organic crops in the US in the same year.  Although organic farming held its own in production of certain crops like regional sweet potatoes, peaches, and raspberries, commodity crops and "secondary staple" crops almost always produced substantially lower yields when grown organically.  As the article's author notes, this finding is not promising for the idea of using organic production to feed the world's people as population continues to grow at an alarming rate.

However, I don't think these results are as discouraging as they may seem.  For one thing, we don't know whether they're valid for agricultural systems outside the U.S., let alone whether the increase in yields justifies the environmental degradation it causes.  Also, most agricultural research at the moment is geared toward increasing the yields of conventional farming, not organic farming, so it's not surprising that organic methods may be less productive for the time being.

But no matter what agricultural methods we use, we know that the earth's resources are not sufficient to feed the extra 2.3 billion people we're projected to add to our global population in the next 40 years, so this problem will require us to reach well beyond the realm of food supply for remedies.  In the meantime, it seems like a clear course of action is to invest heavily in research that identifies sustainable agricultural practices and encourages their implementation in our own country.  One way to do this is to redirect agricultural subsidies away from the corn and soy that make our processed junk food so cheap, and toward farmers who grow fruits and vegetables.  Another way is to place stricter regulations on the chemicals used in food production, even banning them for certain crops that absorb them in greater quantities.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Challenge

I live in a country where food is almost ridiculously abundant and cheap, and I'm at home with my kids each day instead of being out at a job until 6pm.  So why does cooking a healthy dinner for four every night require so much time and effort?  Well...

1.  My children are aged 2 and 1 1/2.  They come grocery shopping with me, they need to be entertained while I'm cooking, and their tastes are, shall we say, limited.  Neither one is particularly adept with utensils.  This is to say nothing of my food preferences or my husband's.  Here is a sample of common ingredients that at least one person in my family will not eat: pasta, rice, potatoes, cheese, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, greens, and really any other vegetable.  But the point here is to cook ONE dinner, so accommodation can be challenging.

2.  I have strong political views about food.  I'm convinced that the industrial processes that turn plants and animals into food in the U.S. are unhealthy for our bodies, our culture, and our entire ecosystem.  So I hate to contribute money to that way of production.  I try to buy local, organic, and otherwise sustainable, which may mean I have to get my food from several different locations instead of just a supermarket.  Still, transparency in food is not the norm, even in "natural" markets -- pause for a moment to ponder how wrong that is -- and if I really care about where it all comes from, it requires a lot of extra research (read: time).

3.  I've mostly cut meat out of my dinner planning.  This is new, and it wasn't exactly a "political" decision, although I think that industrial meat production is one of the scariest parts of American food right now.  Where I live, I can get organic beef from grass-fed cows, pork from pigs raised humanely, and fresh sustainably-caught seafood.  However, my husband and I both grew up pretty carnivorous, and I don't like how much we've come to depend on meat to have a meal feel "complete."  I don't want our kids to feel like they have to eat meat at every meal, and certainly not in the quantities we got used to.  So I have to find ways, largely still unfamiliar to me, of providing balanced meals that make us feel satisfied without beef, pork, or chicken.  Once again, this requires extra time and energy.

4.  I try to save money on groceries where I can.  Of course, cheaper food tends to be less healthy and less environmentally conscious, so when I have a chance to pay less for an item, I always wonder what kind of practices I'll be supporting if I take it.  On the other hand, judging food quality based on price is asking to be suckered.  I struggle with this dilemma literally every time I go shopping, but given the lack of transparency and my negligible impact, I realize there's no sense in getting too worked up about it.  I'll usually pay the lower price unless I can think of a specific reason not to.  On most people's lists, the cost constraint would probably come first, and I'm fortunate that my family can afford to eat the best kinds of food.

5.  Dinner has to be delicious.  I know I'm spoiled, but if it's not really yummy, then I just don't see the point of either cooking or eating it.  I'm fine skipping a meal if there's nothing good around to eat.  But I have other people to think about than just myself, so if I'm going to be cooking and eating anyway, then I'm not phoning it in.  At least not on purpose.
    My constraints will change over time.  The kids will get older and their tastes will evolve.  I'll probably start working or going to school in the near future, so I'll have much less time to spend on planning, shopping, and cooking.  Maybe our financial situation will get a lot worse and we won't be able to afford the types of ingredients I like to use.  Maybe we'll move to a place where there are fewer options that fit into my food ideology.  Or any number of other things.

    That's why I've started this blog.  I want to tell a story about what it takes to provide a modern American family with something as seemingly mundane as a healthy, satisfying dinner every night, and about the emotional impact of sharing this one happy experience as the day ends.  I want to chronicle my struggles, my failures, and my successes so I can learn and get better at making this happen.  I also want to preserve my love of food and cooking through the times when it seems like it's not worth the effort.  And I hope that other family cooks out there take an interest in my story -- which, on a basic level, is one that every family shares -- and offer their own experiences and suggestions.

    Happy dining!