Friday, September 29, 2006

The End of Summer, the Return of Comfort Foods

David, B, Phil, and M take one last splash at the Lilly Pool before packing away the swim suits. Nice shot, Anne!

So the original plan was that every Friday I would post recipes that I'd, in theory, tried and perfected throughout the week using a focus ingredient. Last week I had grandiose plans to not only find real turmeric (vs. the little bottles or tins of powder), but work up a recipe and post it. Apparently for a few moments I thought I was living someone else's life. Someone who doesn't get home at 6:00 and have to feed the boys in 15 minutes before they melt down.

Doesn't mean there wasn't more home cooking this week than normal. There was. But it was some pretty easy fare: chicken, slow-cooker red beans and rice, pizza.

But in honor of the crisp air here in Indiana, the first of October, and the beginning of the falling leaves, here are my favorite comfort foods-with-shortcuts.

Tuna Noodle Casserole is a specialty of my friend Katie, passed down to her by her mom, a single mother of three girls born within four years of each other. (Typing this statement makes me break into a cold sweat.) It's my favorite tuna noodle casserole and has been since Katie first introduced me to it almost 10 years ago:

1 package No Yolks noodles
2 cans tuna, drained
2 cans cream of mushroom soup
1 can mushroom pieces, drained
Half a bag of frozen peas
A good-sized hunk of cheddar, shredded
Crackers (Katie uses Zesta; I use Ritz)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Put the noodles in boiling water and just barely cook them -- like swirl them around a couple times with a wooden spoon. Then drain. They'll still be a bit crunchy. Mix together the noodles, tuna, soup, mushrooms, peas, and half the cheddar. Stick the mess in a casserole dish. Now pour in milk to about the level you would with a bowl of cereal -- it should be peeking through the noodles, but not totally drenching the whole thing. Spread the rest of the cheese on top, and then crunch up the crackers and sprinkle them over the cheese. Bake it for about 75 minutes. It's even better the next day.

Dill Beer Bread came originally from a cooking with herbs class I took in my leisurely single, childless days. I played with it slightly, but as you can see, with this few ingredients, little playing is possible. Any beer is just fine here, so I like making this after people bring over beer (like a Michelob Lite) that will never get drunk in our house.

3 cups self-rising flour
3 Tbsp. sugar
1 bottle (12 ounces) room-temperature beer
3 Tbsp. onion, chopped finely
1 tsp dried dillweed (or 1 Tbsp. fresh)

Mix this all together and pour/spoon it into a greased loaf pan. Place the pan into a cold oven and then set the oven to 350 degrees. Bake for about 50 minutes -- until the top is a little brown, a cake tester comes out clean, and the smell of dill is about to drive you crazy enough to rip this out of the oven with your bare hands and start shoving chunks into your greedy mouth.

One-Pot Brownies come from an out-of-print cookbook from the late 90s that I love; it's called Cook Something by Mitchell Davis, and if you find it used, grab it. It's great.

1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped (I never bother with this)
2 ounces unsweeted baking chocolate*
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
3/4 cup all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small saucepan, melt the butter and chocolate over low heat. When it's all melted, pull it off the heat and use a wooden spoon to stir in the sugar. This will take a couple minutes -- you want the sugar to dissolve. Now add the eggs and vanilla; the mixture will seize up a little. Then add the flour. Pour into an ungreased 8 X 8 pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes -- the sides should just be starting to pull from the pan.

*I never have unsweetened chocolate around, so I substitute 3 Tbsp. powdered cocoa and 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil for each ounce.

Last night I'd planned to make the roast I bought at the farmer's market -- bake it in the clay pot and see if we could avoid a repeat of last week's injury. But Phil's parents are back home after a two-month driving vacation and volunteered to watch the boys. We jumped on the offer after not having anything resembling a date for more than two months. We walked to a local restaurant, had a great meal and a glass of wine, and actually talked. On our walk, we even ran into Katie (of the Tuna Noodle Casserole fame, above) and her husband Todd (owner of the best independent record store in Indy). It was a great night. The roast can wait.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Best-Laid Plans

The Plan:

What Really Happened:

Sunday was a nice day. I took the boys to the Children's Museum, the most fun place in Indianapolis for a kid. T splashed in the water and colored hieroglyphics in the mummy tomb. M climbed through the mole hole and worked a crane. We even avoided Burger King in the little food court and ate yogurt, peanut butter sandwiches, fruit, and Jell-O. T fell asleep on the way home.

So I'd been planning to cook a chicken in a clay pot. I'd had the clay pot since my New York, Dean and Deluca-haunting days, but had used it only a handful of times there and not once that I can remember since we've been back in Indy. Have you ever used one? You soak the whole thing, top and bottom, in water for about 15 minutes before putting food in, and then you stick your food in and an hour or so later, pull out this really juicy, flavorful meal. Or so the instructions say. Seemed very slow food.

First, prep wasn't what I was hoping for -- the meditative few moments where I planned to lovingly prepare a sauce of olive oil, paprika, Fine Herbes, and crushed garlic and rub it all over the organic bird. Then pour in some leftover white wine from Saturday night. Then trim some fresh parsley and add it and more garlic to the cavity of the bird. I figured classical music would be softly playing in the background, and I'd have a thoughtful look on my face. Instead, T had just woken up from his nap in a foul mood, and I slapped it all together quickly with him clinging to my leg and crying. I did make the rub, did stick some fresh parsley and a little salt in the cavity of the bird, and did add potatoes, baby carrots, and frozen pearl onions. Then I stuck the heavy thing in the cold oven, turned it to 480 degrees, and waited for our beautiful family meal. I figured if T could turn his attitude around, we could still have the Rockwell evening.

That's when I heard new loud crying that wasn't coming from T. M came in, bawling. After a lot of snuggling and cajoling, he could finally speak enough to say that he'd been running with a push toy, hit a spot bump on the sidewalk, and had flipped over the toy. He had a mark on his chest where he'd hit the handle of the toy. He spent the next 30 minutes spontaneously crying, saying, "It still hurts!" We were sure he'd cracked his sternum, so I called his doctor and then took him to the ER.

He got progressively perkier on the way to the ER, but still insisted that it hurt. The ER was like a scene from the old Clooney show, with a line a mile long, and M was seeming better by the minute. So we went to an Immediate Care place instead, and the doctor felt a little and said nothing was broken. M was disappointed; he'd had his heart set on an x-ray like George gets in Curious George Goes to the Hospital.

We got home, and Phil has subsequently pulled out the chicken, which didn't look as browned to perfection as I'd envisioned. T hadn't eaten any of it, but had had a cracker and a little Yo, Baby! yogurt and then whined to get out of his chair. M, however, sat at the kitchen table, ate with gusto, and said it was the best chicken he'd ever had. He had seconds and asked if we could have it again the next night.

So even if we were sitting under the interrogation lights in the kitchen instead of eating as a family in the dining room, and even if it was 8:00 instead of a normal Midwest family dinner hour, I suppose it was a great meal.

A couple things I'd forgotten about successful clay pot cooking:

  • They require a lot of salt; like double the salt of other recipes. I salted lightly, like I always do, and Phil, M, and I all added more salt to the end product.
  • You can get the crispy brown look I was going for. About 10 minutes before the cooking's done, take it out of the oven and pour off the liquid. Thicken this liquid in a pot with arrowroot. Then cook the last 10 minutes with the top off. I'd forgotten to actually read the instructions after not using the pot for five years.

The book I have for clay pot cooking is a little paperback that's more than 30 years old and was kept in print until the last few years: Clay Pot Cooking by Grover Sales. You can still get it on Amazon Marketplace. Even though it's old and there are more chicken livers in recipes than we probably cook with today, the recipes overall have aged well, and it's a nice introduction to clay pots.

I'm thinking next weekend we might have a roast in the pot, minus the trip to the ER.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Sin and Redemption

Saturday started out beautifully. T was up early, and I had coffee and he had milk. He wanted to color. (I stepped out of the room while he was diligently working away with a pencil; some other random kid must have run in and made all of those scribbles on the wall next to him during that time.) I read a little. M got up soon after.

Later I went to the farmer's market and got lamb from a local farm for our friends Noah and Holly who were coming to dinner. The boys don't like lamb yet, and our hope was that we'd get them fed and to bed and eat our adult meal later. So I stopped at Wild Oats for some salmon for the boys' dinner; while there we ran into our friend Todd, who lives in the neighborhood and owns my favorite independent music store.

Unfortunately, Wild Oats is in the same strip-mall complex as a Burger King. It was lunchtime. M begged. I caved. Being more aware of what we're eating has been sobering; how can the execs at Burger King even pretend there's something resembling chicken in nuggets shaped like crowns?

Noah and Holly came for dinner and we had lamb with this great yogurt/cumin marinade Phil made. And local squash. And not-local-but-organic broccoli (that I made a cheese sauce for, this being the midwest and cheese being smeared on anything green), and couscous salad from The Barefoot Contessa cookbook.

While out, I picked up a chicken to roast on Sunday. I had visions of our Norman Rockwell evening repast with Phil carving the chicken and M and T, napkins tucked into their collars, holding utensils in both hands in anticipation. Didn't turn out that way. But I'll have to blog about that later.

Tip for Today: Phil ran out of cumin partway through making his yogurt/cumin marinade, so I ran out to get some more. If you don't already do this, pick up herbs and spices at a health-food store. They're super-cheap, and I like to think possibly prepared more naturally, although I don't know this for sure. And, at least for me, any time I'm in the bulk food health-food store near us, I come out with two pounds of some kind of grain or bean for us to try. In recent years, that grain has sat in a glass jar in our pantry for a couple years until I do a clean and chuck it, but this blog is going to change all of that, right?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

So the Story Goes...

that a member of the King's court walked by a peasant eating lentils. "If you'd learn to be subordinate yourself to the King, you wouldn't need to eat lentils," he told the peasant. "If you'd learn to eat lentils," replied the peasant, "you wouldn't need to subordinate yourself to the King."

I decided that Friday is recipe day, and there's going to be a focus ingredient. Carla asked in a note if I had any good lentil recipes, as she's seen me buying them, so in honor of Carla, this first recipe post is themed to lentils.

I love lentils because they're such a leveler. They're cheap cheap cheap to buy, so they make great, super-miserly meals. They're nutritious, so us parents trying to wean ourselves from McDonald's should be getting acquainted with them. But they're also really yummy and versatile, so they've become very fabulous and show up, gingerly prepared in an emulsion of duck something, in exclusive restaurants.

I have to admit, in the last few, post-kid years, I've been a better purchaser-with-good-intentions of lentils than preparer of them. Often, I'm not a great fan of the lentil -- too many times recipes seem to bring out the inner mealy texture, which I don't consider a feature. So I either like recipes (like the first here) where the lentils are cooked past the mealy stage, or others (like the second) where they're still a bit firm and keep their shape.

Lentil-Rice Casserole harkens back to the days in my 20s when I was single and saving for a house and reading The Tightwad Gazette, where the recipe comes from:

3 cups chicken broth
3/4 cup lentils
1/2 cup brown rice, uncoocked
3/4 cup chopped onion
A couple smashed and minced cloves of garlic
1/2 tsp sweet basil
1/4 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp thyme
1/4 tsp garlic powder

Mix this all together and throw it all into a casserole dish. Bake, covered, for about 90 minutes. You can eat it just like it is, or you can use it for pita or tortilla filling. Truthfully, eating it totally plain always feels a bit spartan to me, but I love excess, so you might like it just fine that way.

Herbed Lentils are a really nice side dish, especially with veggie burgers. I just found this recipe in a recent issue of Weight Watchers magazine that I picked up while standing in a check-out line feeling pudgy. Here's what you do:

3/4 cup lentils
4 large sprigs thyme
2 tsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 carrots, diced
2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup broth
1/3 cup chopped fresh herbs
1 or 2 Tbs tarragon or other soft vinegar (no balsamic -- it's too harsh)
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper

Put the lentils in a saucepan with the thyme and enough water to cover by 1", and get those things boiling. Boil the lentils for about 20 minutes -- until they're "firm tender," as they say.

Heat the oil in a big nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, carrots, and garlic, and stir a bit for about 5 minutes -- until they're a bit soft. Drain the lentils and thyme, and add them and the broth to the skillet. Bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, stirring once or twice, until the broth is absorbed. This will be about 15 minutes. Throw out the thyme, and then stir in the herbs, vinegar, salt, and pepper.

Meanwhile, I wanted to relay that yesterday morning before work I had a nasty bit of oral surgery done and decided to go with just novocaine -- no putting me under. Which saved us $200 since insurance doesn't consider preventing my being creeped out to be "medically necessary." I don't think Phil gave me enough snaps for my bravery, so I'm posting here what a brave, brave person I was.

Also, here's another look at the reasons I feel so emphatic that we start eating better, preserving regional tastes, supporting local businesses, and protecting the environment:

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Goodbye, My Love

In taking this journey, I know I need to go one step at a time. And I thought I'd start with the boys' frosted cinnamon PopTarts. No more buying them, I decided. It was just one food item, but it was a start, and they could do without.

I thought this as I reached into the Fat Free Pringles canister for the fourth time. My crutch food. My old faithful. The one I go to when forsaken everywhere else. And then I realized that it's not fair for me to impose change on a one-year-old and four-year-old, even though I can since I'm bigger, if I can't sacrifice a little myself.

So when this canister is gone, it's history. No more stacking three at a time and mindlessly chomping away during Sex In the City marathons. No more gelatinous Olean coating my tongue. (Mmm... Olean.) No more waking up dehydrated and clutching for water in any form after a particularly harsh late-night bender. Nope. It's time to crunch one last time and then bid adieu to the moustachioed round-faced cartoon man.

Don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out, little guy.

The Stinking Rose

Last night I had a work dinner at Ruth’s Chris – three hours, which I consider to be Slow Food. Because we eat early here in the midwest, we started at 6:00, and I was home just after 9:00. And feeling like cooking.

Phil’s in a band and practices a couple nights a week. On those nights we both get the boys fed and bathed and get our littlest to bed, Phil leaves for practice, I get the four-year-old to bed, and then I have dinner. So, inspired by a small bowl of local garlic Carla had left over the weekend, I made a batch of Julia Child’s Garlic Soup to eat this week. Here’s all you do:

Boil together 2 quarts of water; at least 2 heads of garlic, peeled and smashed (I used four of the little local variety); 2 Tbsp. olive oil; 1 tsp. sea salt; some black pepper; 2 whole cloves; some parsley, sage, and thyme .

After this starts boiling, reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 30 minutes. Strain it all, squeezing the garlic that’s left so that you get all the good garlic flavor in the soup.

The long simmering mellows the garlic and the soup just tastes mild and flavorful and a little bit nutty. It’s something.

Julia adds oil and whisked eggs to hers when she’s ready to serve it – sort of like egg-drop soup. I use her alternate method of heating up a single serving of the soup (about two soup ladles' worth) to about boiling, and then poaching an egg in it. If you’re calorie-conscious, you’ll love the soup: It’s about 120 calories or 3 Weight Watchers points.

A note about the garlic: The local kind that Carla brought looks puny if you're used to the elephant variety at the supermarket. I don’t think, though, that the mondo elephant type has as much flavor as the littler fellows. And I love that there’s a definite stalk/pole that sticks out the of little kind; it's a neat, clean, Mother Nature feature. Maybe next summer I’ll try growing my own.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Epiphany in a Terry Cloth Robe

Saturday night we had some friends over for dinner. Mark and Carla have a little girl just a couple months younger than our oldest son (who's four and a half), and they're finally at an age where we can let them have the run of the backyard and we can have a martini and finish sentences. It's nice.

Carla, who is very involved in organic, slow, local food, suggested we have a slow food meal -- she and I would both take a look at what was being offered at local farmer's markets and make a great meal. She had just bought some local meat, so offered to bring some huge t-bones that Phil would grill.

It was really fun going through the farmer's market Saturday morning, thinking through what would work. Here's what we ended up with:

* Cheese from two local dairies/cheese artisans
* Crostini made from a baguette from a local bakery
* T-bone steaks Phil grilled to perfection
* Bacon from the same local butcher; it was amazing and my four-year-old ate about 3 pounds of it
* Cherry tomatoes mixed with salt and pepper and olive oil, then broiled for about 20 minutes
* Stir-fried pattypan squash, zucchini squash, summer squash, and okra
* A greens salad made with some special dark greens I'd never even heard of -- with a light balsamic vinagrette
* An apple crisp made with four varieties of apples from a local orchard

We ate well.

Sunday morning I made my coffee and stumbled to our pantry to get the boys their morning PopTarts and, staring at the shelves of processed, micro-packaged food, had an epiphany: We can do better. I can take better care of my family. I can slowly make a difference in what goes into our bodies and the impact it has on our environment.

So I'm adding to the millions of blogs with my own. I hope this will help me be honest. Help me not feel guilty because I can't do it all at once. Help me remember that with a teensy bit of planning I can:

* Make more homemade meals
* Stop supporting McDonald's (added bonus: all those plastic crappy toys that end up between the couch cushions will eventually disappear)
* Eat local, organic, and fair
* Maybe steer ourselves toward having a simpler life

I'm a VP at a major publisher. I regularly carry a cell phone, iPod, and Blackberry in my Coach purse. I subscribe to Netflix and drink premium gin. I'm not a 60s hippie throwback. But I'm one person who knows that my actions can change things for my family and myself and can help to break the cycle of bad, homogenous, tasteless, over-packaged, unhealthy, bad-for-the-environment food.

Party on, little blog.