Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It Takes a Village

Everybody knows that it takes a village to raise a child. But does it take a village to prepare dinner?

In our house, dinner is often a collaborative affair. For years, my husband, Avo, bore the full responsibility of meal preparation -- shopping, cooking, and cleaning (well, I'd occasionally chip in). But then when he landed a new job with later hours, I rose to the occasion and took over these household duties on weekdays while he ruled the kitchen on weekends. Now that I'm suddenly busy with work, he's happy to chip in (what a mensch!).

On Friday night, we pieced together a meal -- I roasted asparagus with olive oil and salt and pepper (always a safe, yummy bet) and he grilled buffalo burgers (the ones at Trader Joe's are the cheapest and the best). It wasn't anything fancy, but it was as satisfying as a gourmet meal at Chanterelle.

Friends have suggested that we form a dinner co-operative so we can all take turns preparing meals. The idea appeals to me, but the logistics overwhelm me. Just coordinating a play date seems tough enough these days since everybody is so overbooked.

In college, I lived in a co-operative where we all traded off on meal duties. Since I didn't know how to cook, I made the same thing every week -- falafel from a prepared mix. Now that I'm a bit more domesticated, I bet I could even try making falafel from scratch. And then Avo can make some tabbouleh to go with it. I'm ready for the kids to learn how to cook so they can pitch in too!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Cooking Ennui

"Cooking ennui is an inevitable test of your character to which you must rise."

At least that's what my friend Beau, says. Beau cooks a full meal for his wife and kids every night and makes it seem effortless.

"What's your secret?" I ask. "How do you manage to maintain your enthusiasm for cooking when it's so routine? And how do you come up with something to cook every night?"

"The secret is pre-planning for easy predictability occasionally interrupted by novelty," said Beau. "You've got to plan a handful of days at once, so you won't have to think about it all too much. Then, most of those meals have to be things that are relatively easy and well-liked, so going on auto-pilot isn't too taxing. Add one (relatively easy) thing you've been meaning to try (you may have to dig for this: another reason to subscribe to Fine Cooking) that keeps the week from seeming like endless repetition, and you're good. time will pass and suddenly, you'll find you're over the hump. definitely takes deliberate planning and will, though."

Of course, relatively easy is all relative. For me, it means taking out a bowl of cereal and pouring in milk! Maybe some fresh fruit to add some color.

With Beau as an inspiration, I've come up with the following ideas. Keep in mind that I don't practice what I preach, so let me know if you have any ideas to add to my list:

Ten Tips for Easy Meal Planning:

1. Designate a "Meal Planning Day," where you compile a list of recipes and ingredients you'll need for the week. Try to pick at least one recipe that you can incorporate in several meals.

2. Keep your pantry, freezer and refrigerator organized so that you can cross-reference the ingredients needed for a recipe with what you have on hand. Plus, this way you'll be sure to toss old stuff before it becomes rancid.

3. Plan for every night of the week (and lunch if you prepare that too). Try to mix it up so you don't have pasta or red meat two nights in a row. Designate one night "Leftover Night."

4. Create a recipe binder to organize recipes from magazines, friends, and family. We use a photo album to store favorite recipes and keep it handy in the kitchen

5. Rely on old favorites, but be sure to experiment with a new recipe at least once a week. Or else you'll get bored fast.

6. For new recipes, rely on websites such as CookingLight.com, myrecipes.com or allrecipes.com where you can enter a particular ingredient (or a list of ingredients) and get recipe ideas.

7. When in doubt, just cook something. It doesn't have to be a masterpiece. Make the effort and it will be worth it.

8. It's okay to cheat with household gadgets like a rice cooker, a microwave and a crock pot to speed things up.

9. Cook in bulk and freeze individual portions.

10. Don't feel bad about ordering in or going out to dinner every once in a while. You deserve it!

Now what am I cooking for dinner tonight?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Fishy Setback

"I feel like an undomesticated failure," I moaned to Avo tonight.

"Why? Because dinner didn't turn out as you planned?" he said.

That was a generous understatement. Dinner was pretty much inedible.

I tried something that I thought would be a no-brainer: I baked catfish with panko (seasoned with thyme, salt, and pepper) for 15 minutes at 425 degrees. But instead of becoming brown and crispy, the panko remained the color (and taste) of sand. I suspect the problem is that I used canola spray on the bottom of the pan rather than relying on good old fashioned butter (or margarine). As a result, the panko never browned. The fish tasted about as tantalizing as cardboard. I would have been better off using a store bought fish seasoning mix.

I also experimented with a tomato, cucumber, mint salad:

I marinated cucumber slices in 1/3 cup red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 teaspoon of salt for about an hour. Then I tossed it with two tablespoons of olive oil, 1/4 cup of chopped mint and a handful of plum tomatoes. It looked colorful and appetizing, but it tasted like it had been doused in soy sauce.

With effort, Avo forced the fish in his mouth, trying to make a good show of it.

"I'm not lovin' it," I confessed, letting him off the hook.

"Well, it is nice to come home to have dinner waiting," said Avo, trying his best to be encouraging. "That said, I think I'm done," he added, pushing away his plate.

"Me too."

Not only was dinner a complete flop, but toys are strewn around the living room and I've got a pile of laundry waiting for me to do.

All is not lost though since my sweetie was nice enough to clean up the kitchen.

The Spice of Life

Variety is the spice of life, so I assume that using spices might add some variety to my culinary repertoire.

While looking for recipes which rely on spices that I have in our spice cabinet, I came across this in an old issue of Everyday Food Magazine:

Chicken Tenders with Cucumber Salad and Chickpea Couscous
(from Every Day Food Magazine)


- 1 (1 pound) seedless cucumber
- 1/2 cup whole flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 1 to 2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar
- 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
- Coarse salt and ground pepper
- 1 can (15.5 ounces) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 1/3 cup raisins (I left them out)
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 1/2 pounds chicken tenders
- 1/2 cup couscous


1. Make salad: Quarter cucumber lengthwise; slice quarters 3/4 inch thick diagonally. In a medium bowl, combine cucumber, parsley, vinegar, and 1 tablespoon oil. Season with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Set aside.

This is where I had to call my dad and read him the recipe so he could translate for me.

"What does it mean to quarter cucumber?" I asked.

"You cut them in quarters."

"Yeah, but what does that mean exactly?"

I'm a bit dense when it comes to directions sometimes. Without a video connection, my dad couldn't demonstrate.

"Don't worry. I'll figure it out," I reassured him.

When I got off the phone, I cut the cucumber in four pieces lengthwise and then did my best to slice them diagonally. But, the pieces looked too long, so I cut them again.

2. Make couscous: In a small saucepan, combine chickpeas, raisins, 1 teaspoon oil, 1 cup water, 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, and 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper; bring to a boil. Stir in couscous, and cover pot; remove from heat. Set aside (at least 5 minutes) while cooking chicken. Fluff couscous gently with a fork before serving.

This was the easy step. I left out the raisins since I don't like raisins in my food (except for Raisin Bran).

3. Make chicken: In a medium bowl, combine ginger, coriander, 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, and 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper. Add chicken and toss to coat.

This was surprisingly easy and fun. The only question I had was: what are chicken tenders? Are they like chicken nuggets or cutlets? I'm still not sure, but I used chicken breasts and they did just fine.

4. Cook chicken in two batches: Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high; add half the chicken, and cook until browned, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate; add remaining tablespoon oil to skillet, and repeat with remaining chicken. Serve with cucumber salad and couscous.

I cheated and cooked the chicken in one batch. Basically, all I did was coat the chicken with spices and sautee it in oil. I kept checking to make sure it didn't get overcooked. Amazingly, I pulled it out at the perfectly tender moment.

When Avo got home, he was thrilled to see dinner on the table waiting for him. Usually, I just make one or two dishes, so making three separate things to complete a balanced meal was a big accomplishment for me.

He bit into the chicken first.

"Delicious!" he exclaimed.

He looked at the cucumber salad and crinkled his nose.

"I wasn't sure if I cut it the right way," I explained, showing him the recipe.

"You're supposed to hold the cucumber lengthwise and then cut it once horizontally and once vertically so you get quarters."

"Oh! Now I get it," even though I still a bit confused.

I admit the cucumber salad looked weird, it was crunchy and refreshing (and a worthwhile companion to the spiced chicken).

The couscous, however, was too mealy and bland. Next time, I'll try to spice it up some more (maybe some garlic would help?)

NOTE: Photo courtesy of Martha Stewart's Everyday Living (my meal didn't look nearly as photogenic).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Ginger-Carrot Soup

There are days when I slack off on my domestic duties and can't even bear to make the effort to toast a slice of bread or make my bed. Other days, I frantically scrub, bake, and neaten. I'm a whirling dervish of domesticity. Friday was one of those days. Here is a rundown of all of the useful things I did:

1. Washed and folded two loads of laundry
2. Went shopping at the Park Slope Food Co-Op (and lugged the groceries home)
3. Loaded the dishwasher (and unloaded it once it was done)
4. Cleaned the bathrooms
5. Made the beds and generally tidied up
6. Baked uber-hearty banana muffins (using honey, canola oil and whole wheat flour)
7. Cooked up a big batch of carrot ginger soup.

In hindsight, I realize I made the soup simply so I could have an excuse to finally bought a hand blender. The kids were intrigued by the new toy, but I knew Avo would roll his eyes as yet another kitchen gadget crowding the pantry.

I was just finishing up with the soup when Avo walked in the door. I shoved a spoonful of the soup in his mouth and pretty much begged for praise. Before he could swallow the soup (or compliment the soup), I hurried out the door -- on my way to Manhattan to celebrate my friend Becky's 40th birthday. As I ran down the hallway, I called back to Avo, "eat the soup and then freeze the rest!"

"So how was it?" I asked the next morning.

"Not gingery enough for me. And I don't think you pureed it enough. I got some big chunks of carrot," he said.

Oh well. I guess I need to practice some more with the hand blender.

Luckily, I liked the soup just fine and will surely make use of the frozen leftovers.

Ginger-Carrot Soup (from Every Day Food)



- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 2 lbs carrots, chopped
- 1 1/2 lbs sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 (14 1/2 ounce) cans reduced-sodium chicken broth
- 4 cups water
- coarse salt
- ground pepper
- 2-3 teaspoons sugar
- 2-3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice (1 lemon)
- 1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)


1. Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.

2. Add onions, stirring occasionally until they are translucent (5 minutes).

3. Add carrots, sweet potatoes, ginger, broth and water.

4. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until vegetables are tender (20 minutes).

5. Puree mixture in batches in a blender until smooth. (for safety, you should let the soup cool a bit before doing this, and be careful of any splattering. Or use an immersion blender right in the pot).

6. Add sugar, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.

7. Return to pan and reheat over medium heat, adding in cream if you wish.

Disclaimer: That's not my soup in the photo.

In the summer months, I think this would be yummy chilled. Refreshing and oh so healthy.

Friday, April 9, 2010

A Potato Garden

"Honey, your potatoes are sprouting," Avo said last night after peeking in the shopping bag I had perched on the window sill beside the air conditioner. "They look like little alien creatures!"

Oops. Guess I waited too long to decide what to do with the leftover potatoes from Passover (thanks for the shepard's pie idea, mom).

"So what do I do with them now?" I asked.

"Well, you've got two options: throw them out or grow potatoes in the back garden," Avo answered.

Dear reader, I chose the first option.

The good news is that now I don't have to figure out how to use this sack of potatoes. The bad news is that now I feel guilty for wasting so many good (organic!) potatoes.

My cooking juju is clearly off these days. I just can't seem to get it together to prepare a decent meal. Even Avo's birthday dinner on Monday night was underwhelming ("I'm just not that hungry," he said, perhaps to spare my feelings).

I blame the balmy weather we've been enjoying -- It's hard to contemplate cooking hearty foods like potatoes and meat when it's scorching out.

But now that it's cool and misty today, I've got no excuse. You'll be relieved to know that as I type, I'm prepping banana muffins -- I can't bear to throw out these fast ripening bananas without putting them to good use.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Buffalo Meat for Cheap

Wouldn't you know it? Just when I finally get the hang of cooking with beef (well, I can make burgers), Avo's doctor tells him to keep his cholesterol down by cutting out the red meat.

At the same time, I'm still trying to come up with a recipe which will use up the potatoes left over from Passover (I made so much kugel and yet somehow I still have a ton of potatoes). In my truly undomesticated days, I used to mock Avo for his obsession with using every last bit of food we had in the fridge. Now I think I'm worse than he ever was. Can't let one potato go to waste!

I found a recipe for meat loaf and mashed potatoes in an old copy of "Everyday Food" that one of my neighbors left on the window sill in our front hallway. But, not surprisingly, it calls for ground beef.

"Why not use buffalo meat?" asked Avo. "It's leaner and they sell it cheap at Trader Joe's. And instead of using the potatoes for mashed potatoes, why not make potato gratin?"

Well, for one, the potato gratin recipe in Patricia Wells' Bistro Cooking calls for 1 cup of Gruyere cheese and 1 cup of heavy cream -- somehow I am guessing Avo's doctor wouldn't approve of that!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Brooklyn Eats

As I've said before, Brooklyn is the place to be for foodies -- or anyone who appreciates a good deal (and a tasty meal), scintillating conversation or all of the above.

Today is my hubby's birthday, so I plan to cook him something special and stay home to celebrate. But if you're in the mood to go out on the town and do something fun and food-related, you're in luck. There's plenty of events to choose from tonight (April 6):

1. Melt's "Taste of Life Tasting Menu"

Melt Brooklyn 5-course Tasting Menu $30

Soy and Dashi Dipping Sauce

Avocado, Wasabi, Salmon Roe

Garlic Croutons

Grass Fed Lamb Burger, Sunny Side Egg, Beet Relish on Brioche.

Butter Pecan Ice Cream

created by Mark Simmons, Executive Chef

Pair each course with a taste of 5 carefully selected wines $20

Call 718.230.5925 to secure a table as seating is limited.

2. Edible Brooklyn & Edible Manhattan Magazines Present
GOOD SPIRITS, a cocktail celebration, at The Bell House
, 6-9 pm

Brooklyn-based mixology-minded chefs will strive for liquid symbiosis, cooking up perfect pairings for cocktails made with storied spirits. They'll be pouring Empire State favorites like Tuthilltown Spirits and Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery, as well as small batch selections from Vertical Vodka, Chartreuse and Ilegal Mezcal.

The Vanderbilt, No. 7, James, Walter Foods, The Farm on Adderley and Palo Santo will be on hand to prepare food.

A special guest bartender will provide bite-by-sip commentary.

Tickets are just $40 for an evening of food, drink and merriment.

Information at www.ediblebrooklyn.com and www.ediblemanhattan.com or contact Samantha Seier, sam.edible@gmail.com.

3. The powerHouse Arena is hosting a book release party:

Gristle: From Factory Farms to Food Safety (Thinking Twice About the Meat We Eat)
Edited by Moby with Miyun Park

Tuesday, April 6, 7–9PM

For more information, please call 718.666.3049
RSVP: gristle@powerHouseArena.com

Multi-platinum musician Moby has compiled writings from 15 of the country's leading food-minded folks who lay out a hard-hitting and eye-opening guide to the meat you eat.

Moby and co-editor Miyun Park, Executive Director of Global Animal Partnership, as well as a selection of Gristle's contributors, will be present to discuss and sign the book. Refreshments will be served.

Just because I'm staying home doesn't mean you have to! Now I've got to figure out what to cook for Avo's birthday dinner tonight.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Spring Break and Mila's Thighs

Did you miss me? Not only did I miss you, but I actually missed cooking. With the kids off school for the week and our friend Beau and his kids in town visiting, I barely had a moment to boil water.

We were busy playing tourist in our hometown -- visiting The Museum of Natural History, The Bronx Zoo, and Coney Island. Mostly, we ate out (although we did pack homemade sandwiches for our daytime outings).

One night, our friend Beau, a terrific cook, treated us to one of his specialties, Mila's Thighs.

Here is the recipe (in Beau's own words):

Mila’s Thighs

4-5 lg. cloves garlic
1 t kosher salt
2 T lime juice
2 T olive oil
1 lg bunch cilantro
2-3 lbs chicken thighs

Finely chop the garlic, then sprinkle the salt over it and chop the salt into it a little more. Then use the side of your knife to work it into a paste. (Hold your knife at a 5-10-degree angle, almost flat against the cutting board, and start nipping bits from the pile of minced garlic, sliding your knife along as you press it against the board. It’s obvious once you’re confronted with it....)

Put it in a bowl, add the juice and the oil and give it a good whisking, then chop the heck out of the cilantro. Don’t worry about avoiding the stems--just gather the leafy stuff up and chop it finely, stopping when you run out of it.

Marinate for a couple/few hours—no more—and grill as above. Sometimes I substitute a couple big whacks of tarragon for some of the cilantro.

Can't wait 'til August when we'll visit Beau and his lovely wife Galen at their place in Wellfleet and enjoy some of his other culinary specialties, including Jamaican meat pies, caramel cod, and Thai Fried Halibut.

He's kindly shared his recipes with me, so I'll see if I can re-create the magic on my own....

Meanwhile, once the girls return to school on Wednesday, it's back to the old routine. Time to go shopping and start drawing up a menu or else I'll be reduced to takeout again.