I find that the best place to celebrate life is at a table full of delicious, homemade food and vibrant conversation. It's where I find comfort, pleasure, and love. So I decided that one of the greatest gifts I could offer my family is a full table at our house for all four of us, every night, until the kids have tables of their own. It certainly isn't easy, but this is the record of my efforts.
I've always loved the recipe for Shrimp Fra Diavolo in my America's Test Kitchen book. It involves a whole bunch of garlic, a simple tomato and wine sauce, and lighting some shrimp on fire. Over time, I've simplified it a bit to make it a simple but upscale weeknight meal. Usually it calls for a can of tomatoes, but it being summertime and all, I decided to try out a fresher-tasting version.
Shrimp Fra Diavolo, Summer Edition
Half a pound of pasta (the original recipe suggests linguine, but I pretty much always use farfalle these days to make things more kid-friendly)
6 garlic cloves, minced
About three large fresh tomatoes, finely diced (and seeded if you prefer... I don't bother)
1/2 cup of dry white wine (something you would actually drink)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (if you take your spice seriously and want to make this extra fresh and summery, you can use a real hot pepper!)
1/2 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
About 1/4 cup cognac
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated to taste
Boil the pasta. In the meantime, heat some oil on the skillet over medium-low heat and saute five cloves of the garlic until it turns golden. Add the tomatoes with their juice, then the wine, sugar, salt, and pepper. Increase the heat to medium-high and simmer it until much of the liquid has cooked off and it looks like about the right amount of sauce for your pasta... somewhere between 5-8 minutes. Toss the pasta with the sauce and the last clove of minced garlic. Yup: RAW.
Clean out your skillet and put it back on the burner over high heat. When the pan is smoking, add a couple tablespoons of olive oil and then the shrimp, making sure they are all in a single layer. Sprinkle them with just a couple of shakes of salt, and don't turn them for about a minute so they can brown nicely. Once they have, turn each one over and add the cognac to the pan. It should burn off pretty quickly, leaving the shrimp with a sweet, delicate essence.
Add the cooked shrimp to the pasta and sauce, then garnish with the chopped parsley and cheese.
It basically looks like a normal steak, right? It's a filet, so unless I overcooked it, it's probably pretty good. But how different could it be from any other steak you've enjoyed?
Well, I love a good steak, and this may have been the best one I've ever had. I think it's official: this is the only steak marinade I will ever use: one part Worcestershire sauce to three parts soy sauce to six parts hoisin sauce, plus ginger to taste. I'm not exactly sure how long the marinating process needs to take to achieve these results... I gave these steaks 24 hours.
I didn't want John to have to grill on his special day, especially because I think our grill needs a good cleaning. So, paying no heed to the inefficiency of using the oven during summer in the South, I heated up my ovenproof skillet, seared the steaks on both sides over the range, then let them cook in the oven at 450 degrees.
Now despite what I've said so far, if I claimed that process went off without a hitch, I'd be lying. First of all, I got my skillet so hot that the steaks started to char before they could really establish a good crust and cook for the full three minutes per side recommended by most how-to guides I've seen. It ended up being only about a minute of searing per side, then I put the pan in the oven.
You may not know it to read my blog, but my husband and I have very similar tastes. He and I have shared many of our best times over food. We do have one major disagreement over the alleged satanic qualities of onions, but other than that we generally say "mmmmmm!" to the same concoctions. However, when we order steaks at a restaurant, I make sure to eat mine so that only I can the inside of it, because my man just can't help but be a little repulsed by the idea of raw beef. I order medium-rare, but I'd never send it back for being even redder than that. But he likes a good, solid medium: pink enough so that the meat is still moist and tender, but cooked enough that a clear unraveling of proteins has occurred. So I took my steak out after about six and a half minutes, and I gave John's steak eight minutes. When you pay upwards of $20 per pound for filet, you damn well better not overcook it.
Well, mine was on the rare side of medium-rare, and I loved every second of it. My husband loved his, too... until he started to get closer to the middle. No problem, I said. Stop right there, let the oven preheat, and we'll pop it back in. That turned out to be a little bit more complicated than I anticipated: we had to take it out, test it, and put it back in three times before it looked good to him, and even then it was still slightly too red. The steaks were pretty thick, after all. Especially in light of the reduced searing time, I probably should have left his in for a good ten minutes the first time. It sounds like an ordeal and maybe a disappointing Fathers' Day dinner for him, but he would want you to know that regardless of the cooking issues, the flavor on those steaks was amazing.
I made a compound butter by softening half a stick, mixing in some lime zest, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and ginger, and re-chilling it in the fridge the day before. Given how incredible the steaks tasted, it was completely unnecessary, but a nice addition all the same.
One of the great things about French toast is that you can make it with just a few ingredients that are almost always on hand: bread (even stale), milk, and eggs. My husband loves a hot breakfast, so he is usually the one to treat us to French toast in the morning. When he wants to make it special, he might add some cinnamon and vanilla.
This Fathers' Day, I decided to make three significant improvements over our normal weekend fare:
I bought some challah bread and sliced itmyself. When you compare a thick slice of egg bread French toast to the sliced whole-grain sandwich bread variety we usually have, it hardly seems fair to call them by the same name.
I gave our maple syrup a makeover by boiling it for two minutes with a tablespoon of butter and two teaspoons of cinnamon (for one cup of syrup). Wow.
The night before, I sliced up some peaches and let them sit in a bowl with brown sugar and orange juice until they became French toast topping in the morning.
Well, it finally happened. Two of our bananas turned brown. Usually, bananas are the reason I go to the grocery store. Both kids often want multiple bananas for breakfast (although they only get one each), and if either John or I have one, they're gone in two days. I don't know what happened this time, but I was thrilled to see those brown speckled bananas. It meant I could make my famous coconut-banana bread, and then blog about it.
Or... not. Because you see, a loaf of banana bread takes an hour to cook. And wouldn't you know it, I found myself out of coconut. So I looked up a banana bread recipe in my America's Test Kitchen cookbook, mixed up some ingredients, and poured the results into a muffin pan. We were eating them 25 minutes later.
My favorite part of banana bread is not actually the cakey interior. The best part of banana bread to me is the crust, specifically the top of the crust where it splits as it rises, and what results is twin peaks of sweet brown crust that surround a small valley of gooey, sticky banana deliciousness. Am I alone in this? It doesn't matter. All I know is that yesterday, I made twelve of those. Best idea I've had all week.
Someday soon I will make my famous coconut banana bread and blog about it, because these recipes actually yield somewhat different textures. My usual recipe is pretty cakey, whereas this one was a little lighter and airier. Perfect for a muffin, if you ask me.
Banana Bread Muffins, adapted from The New Best Recipe from America's Test Kitchen
1 stick of unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 cup plain yogurt
2 (or 3, if you've got them) very ripe bananas
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
Let me say at the outset that I'm the kind of cook that uses only one bowl when I bake. I'm not washing two mixing bowls just so I can sift out the dry ingredients. I hope you're still willing to read my blog despite that confession.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the butter, sugar, eggs, yogurt, bananas, and vanilla extract in a medium mixing bowl. You'll want to use a potato masher, or something similar, for the bananas. I like some bigger chunks of banana in my bread, so I don't spend too much time mashing. After the first set of ingredients is well blended, add the flour, baking soda, and salt, and stir just until the dry flour is gone. Spoon the mixture evenly into the greased cups of a muffin pan and bake for 20 minutes. Yum.
Menu: Barbadian Chicken with Jamaican Jerk Sauce; Moroccan Toasted Couscous with Fruit; Seared Zucchini
My kids won't even try plums or apricots. That totally bummed me out.
I think I just need to admit that I'm not a couscous person. That should be fine, since it's not a whole grain anyway.
This chicken would be much better unbreaded and grilled. The sauce is great.
It often happens that I end up making multiple recipes for the first time on the same night. I guess I'm just taking advantage of the fact that I have time to do that these days, because very soon that will not be true. So tonight I tried two, or two-and-a-half, recipes from The Whole Foods Market Cookbook, which I recently borrowed from a friend (thanks, Heather!).
I was really excited to try this Barbadian Chicken and accompanying Jerk Sauce (I'm choosing to refrain from any bad "jerk" humor; you're welcome). Once again, as soon as the kids found out we were having chicken, that's all they could talk about. I spent most of my cooking time deflecting urgent pleas for "some sicken." Here's how it turned out:
To be honest, I was kind of disappointed because I don't cook meat very often, and this was just so-so. I mean, it was... fine. But there are so many things I could have done with this that would have turned out much better; at least I think so. I guess if you really love breading on chicken, this was a healthy way to get it. But these chicken tenders would have been much tastier just pan-fried, grilled, or even broiled, because the jerk sauce marinade was quite good and worked very well as a dipping sauce, too. The breading was just unnecessary.
The couscous was one of those recipes that sounds really good to me, but the flavors somehow just don't combine into something I'm excited about eating. The basic idea was to toast some Israeli couscous in the oven, then cook it with boiling water and turmeric (that's what gives it that golden color). Toss in some apricots and plums (the original recipe called for dried fruit, but it's summertime!) and chopped pistachios, then dress it with a really fun-sounding citrus dressing made with delicious flavors like cardamom, cinnamon, and honey. What can I say? It just didn't work for me (or anyone else here). But it looks kind of pretty:
I'm really interested in doing more with yogurt. I thought it combined really well with the jerk sauce. A few weeks ago, I tried making some fried green tomatoes and decided they needed a dip, so I combined some peach yogurt and Worcestershire sauce. It doesn't sound good, but it was! I need to keep some plain yogurt around and do more experiments like that. For now, here's the recipe for the sauce.
Jamaican Jerk Sauce, adapted from The Whole Foods Market Cookbook
1 jalapeno pepper, halved and seeded
4 scallions, or a handful of chives
3 garlic cloves, peeled
A 2" piece of fresh peeled ginger
About 4 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 teaspoons dried allspice
Juice from 2 limes
1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup pineapple juice
Put everything in the food processor and press go.
This makes about 2 cups; combine it with plain yogurt to make it a dip.
The Alexia sweet potato crinkle fries are pretty delicious. Not cheap. But delicious.
Two ears of corn to one regular broccoli stalk would be a good ratio; I wasn't sure so I used three.
Stir-Fried Corn and Broccoli, adapted from Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges
Fresh sweet corn cut from 2 ears
1 stalk of broccoli, cut into small florets
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced (if you like heat, you could use a spicier pepper, which is what the original recipe called for)
1 large garlic clove, minced
About 2 teaspoons of pickled lemongrass from those squeeze tubes in the produce section
Heat a skillet over high heat. Add a small amount of oil to coat the bottom of the pan. When it's smoking, add the corn, broccoli, and pepper. Leave it still for about a minute so it has a chance to brown, then toss it with a spatula and leave it to brown for about another minute. Add the garlic and lemongrass and mix it in evenly. Add 1/4 cup of water to the pan to cook the broccoli a bit more, stirring the mixture constantly now. When the water has cooked off, take the broccoli off the heat and sprinkle on soy sauce to taste. If the broccoli isn't cooked enough for your taste, you can cover your pan for about a minute to steam it some more.
This makes enough for two adults plus two kids who don't eat much of it. I'd double it if I were serving four adults.
Menu: Mac 'n Cheese Italian-Style; Fridge-Digger salad; Grapes
Going out back today, I discovered there were a whole mess of these:
So I grabbed them before anything else could. I have more tomatoes than I can use. Several bigger varieties are rotting on the vine. I cannot tell you how sad that makes me.
I originally thought I might make two 8x8" pans of this dish and freeze one for another night, since these days I'm not home at dinner time on Tuesday or Thursday nights. (That's a conundrum to discuss another time.) But when I looked over the recipe, I realized that's it's actually not that kind of casserole. Because of the need to preserve the integrity and flavor of the cheese, it seems like you pretty much have to bake it right after you've assembled it. So I figured I would just score some (hopefully) delicious leftovers for lunch this week.
I have not had good luck with homemade mac 'n cheese in the past. It's ALWAYS too milky. But here's what came out of my oven tonight:
If anything, there wasn't enough sauce here, but actually I think it was almost perfect! The focus is pretty much all on the cheese: fontina, gorgonzola, and pecorino romano (the recipe called for parmesan, too, but I didn't feel like buying it when I already had plenty of romano). And the texture was everything I wanted it to be: crispy noodles on top, gooey cheesy pockets throughout.
However, I'm not going to post the recipe just yet because there are still some kinks I need to work out. For starters, the original called for heavy cream and it really seems like you could get away with half and half here. Also, it was a bit too salty, so next time I'm going to try it without adding any salt and using homemade bread crumbs instead of the packaged Italian ones I happened to have on hand. Finally, the writers included a variation where you add tomatoes and I'm pretty sure I won't be able to resist trying that.
But if you're interested in this version, the basic idea is: cook some pasta until it's very al dente. Meanwhile, make a bechamel sauce with a tablespoon each of butter and flour, then 1 1/2 cups of cream. Put the drained pasta into a bowl, then put /14 cup each of fontina and gorgonzola on top, plus about 3/4 cup of romano. Add some fresh Italian herbs if you've got 'em. Pour the bechamel over everything, then cover it immediately with a lid of some sort to keep the heat in for a couple of minutes. Stir it all up, then bake for 7 minutes at 500 degrees.
Anyway, all I knew going into dinnertime tonight was that I was, at long last, going to make the Italian version of mac 'n cheese that I discovered in my America's Test Kitchen cookbook. No plans for vegetables. I'm testing my hypothesis that if I just make a habit of grabbing the good-looking veggies and fruit when I go shopping and combine those with whatever I may have in the garden, I can pretty much ad-lib the veggies when it gets to be dinner time. In my fridge, I found some spring mix on its last legs and some iceberg lettuce with barely one leg left. Mixed it up with the little darlings you see above, some carrot slices, some homemade croutons (otherwise known as toast), and a nice red wine vinaigrette. We ate it all.
Menu: Scrambled Eggs with Peppers, Monterrey Jack, and Worcestershire Sauce; Roasted Potatoes; Garlic Lemon Green Beans
Purple potatoes just aren't quite as good in this dish as my adored Yukon Golds. But they're definitely fun.
Purple peppers are just a tease.
Sophie will not eat scrambled eggs. Ben will. One-for-two is a partial win in this game.
Even though I haven't really figured out how to use them, I can't seem to resist purple potatoes. They were at Earth Fare and no more expensive than the Yukon Golds. That was all I needed to know. While I was putting them in my cart, I remembered the purple peppers growing in my garden and got very excited:
Do you think I might have a condition? Maybe I'm just amazed that this color is actually found in nature:
The potatoes. Not the bowl. Yes, I use pink mixing bowls. And a pink spatula. My food processor is also pink. So are my dry goods canisters. I'm feeling very vulnerable right about now.
As I mentioned already, though, the peppers were just a big tease, which you find out as soon as you cut them open:
I dry-roasted them anyway, which completed my disappointment by eliminating ALL of the purple. What?
So maybe it wasn't a purple party. It was still a pretty decent weeknight meal.
Menu: Farfalle with Black Pepper and Cheese; Broiled Tomatoes with Pesto and Mozzarella; Cucumber Grape Salad with Herbed Croutons
This might be one of the few occasions in which fresh mozzarella isn't ideal.
My son likes cucumbers!
Dear fresh tomatoes of summer,
My love for you is deep and true. I adore you straight from the vine, chopped in a salad, sliced on sandwiches, tossed with pasta, blended into a smooth fresh sauce. Whether you're paired with cheese, dressed with oil and vinegar, seasoned with soy, or wearing nothing at all, you are divine. I would eat you smothered in pesto:
And topped with fresh mozzarella:
Sadly, my family doesn't understand my passion for you. My daughter wants nothing to do with you, and my husband and son will only tolerate cooked tomatoes. So tonight, you go under the broiler. It's the only way we can be together.
Last night I saw that there were three big old cucumbers in my backyard garden. I'm afraid of delicious produce rotting on the vine, so I picked two of them and mixed them up with some sour cream, lemon juice, paprika, and parsley (plus salt and pepper). Meh.
What do you do with this staple of summer? I need ideas. If you have any, please share them in the comments!
This Spring, we found out that a new era of our lives will begin in August. I'll be going to law school, which means that the kids will be in school and that running the household is going to be more challenging for all of us.
John and I have had several tense conversations about the dinner issue in particular. The way I cook now is very time intensive. Grocery shopping alone has gotten kind of crazy: Earth Fare has the best selection of organic and healthy food, plus the cheapest dairy. But I'm not paying $2 for one pound of pasta, so we need a trip to Publix about twice a month so I can get Barilla, cereal, the Good Seasons packets I will never give up, and the like. Then again, New Leaf (our co-op) actually has cheaper prices on just a few items like ricotta cheese and tortillas; plus, their locavore cred is a lot higher. When I buy fish, it's both cheapest and highest quality at Mike's Seafood, so that's another stop. If I want prosciutto, I need to swing by an Italian deli. And of course I like to support farmers' markets... The thing is, my kids actually enjoy going on these errands with me; grocery shopping is one of the many activities I use to fill our days. But it's obviously not going to be feasible when John and I are at work all day.
Then comes the issue of cooking. As of now, I usually spend 30-60 minutes making dinner, and if I have no help it's another half hour for cleanup. When I haven't seen my kids all day, I'm not going to be ok with letting their dad play with them for their remaining 2 hours of waking life while I'm stuck in the kitchen. My solution -- which I think is a common one -- is that whoever cooks doesn't have to clean. But my husband thinks the incentive structure in this arrangement is inherently unfair. If the cook only has to worry about the experience of eating and not at all about the experience of cleaning up, then large-scale increases to the clean-up job might be added for only marginal benefits on the eating side. (I love being married to an economics professor almost all of the time.) He wants us to split cooking/cleaning duties during the week.
At first, I felt pretty hostile to that suggestion because I exert a lot of control over our diets right now, and on his three days I would lose a lot of that. I'm also remembering what he ate for dinner before I cooked for him: lots of enriched starches and dry slabs of meat smothered in barbecue sauce.
But then I had a seemingly-unrelated epiphany about sending my kids to preschool. I've gotten them through babyhood with lots of patient nurturing, but it suddenly dawned on me that we're moving into the phase where my goal as their mother is to teach them how to live good lives without my help. Paradigm shift! But in the context of the food discussion, I realized that part of that goal is teaching them how to feed themselves in a healthy way. I want them to leave my house knowing how to buy good food and make it into something delicious; that would be an even greater gift than making sure they always have a full table to sit at for dinner in my house. And it's not going to happen if it's always me doing all the work of filling that table.
So if John and I can agree on some ground rules, I think I can accept beginning the process of letting other people in this family share the responsibility of feeding us. Here's my first draft:
Every meal needs to include a vegetable. (Ideally, we'd follow the new federal dietary guidelines just presented this week, which recommend filling a full half of your plate with fruits and vegetables. My style of cooking tends to mix the food groups within single dishes, so it's hard to separate them out quite like they do with the new plate icon, but the point is still pretty clear.)
We all eat the same dinner. Arranging it in different components is fine, but no special meals for kids.
Try to buy local and organic ingredients whenever possible. I think we can do this by shopping at one big store each weekend, then making quick stops for specialty items or fresh produce on our way home on weekdays as needed.
Two nights ago, I made corn fritters and peanut noodles for dinner with a few tweaks. To the corn fritters, I added tomatoes and peppers from my garden and some leftover black beans, and I served them with sour cream. Yum. To the peanut noodles, I added some cantaloupe for extra sweetness. Not all changes are improvements, but my motto is "just try it." (Hopefully my kids will not be finding out that's my motto.)