Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Taking The $#@! Out Of Dinnertime

Lord knows I love a good challenge. Any type of challenge that requires crafting, cooking or baking in a short amount of time pretty much wins my attention every time. I think it's why I gravitate towards shows like Top Chef and Project Runway.

It also explains why I have kept a copy of an April, 2008 article from Cookie magazine (R.I.P.) in my recipe binder for so long. It is crusted with so many ingredients it can practically stand upright on its own. In the article, the author documented a 30-day challenge of cooking a new meal every night for her family. She had discovered that her family had hit a dinner rut by eating the same rotation of pizza, breaded chicken nuggets, hamburgers and sauteed shrimp and wanted her children to try some new dishes and foods. Some would call this Dinner Suicide but I call it Dinner Genius.

At the same time that the article came out, my son was nearly 4 years old and we were just starting to see an end to our dinner battles with him. So you can imagine my shock and surprise when his sister came along and presented herself as our Dinner Waterloo. I suddenly realized that my son's "battles" at the dinner table were more softball than hardball, because that little blond elf pictured below can seriously ruin a good dinner.

But I know from experience that if I keep trying then I will eventually find some middle ground with her eating what we are serving for dinner. She'll come around eventually, right? I know she won't starve (like we seriously thought our first child would if we didn't cave in to every demand at the table). Her diet is a puzzle that will  never be solved: She'll eat the broccoli, but not the rice. She'll eat the chicken, but not the green beans. She'll inhale kale chips, but throws a fit if you give her cereal in a bowl.

I believe it was a year after the article came out that I made the connection that the writer of the '30 Dinners in 30 Days' Cookie article was the same Jenny Rosenstrach of Dinner: A Love Story. When I realized that the article and blog were written by the same person (a true 'A-ha!' moment), I felt like I had found a comrade in arms. Her children are a few years older than mine and seeing firsthand how her humor and perseverance with dinner has paid off makes my future look really good from where I sit. When I find myself getting a little glum about making dinner or feel like I am in a rut with what I put on the table day in and day out, I pull out the Cookie article and get inspired all over again. If she can do it, so can I.

Since Conde Nast put the magazine to rest in 2009 you can find a copy of this article by going to Wayback Machine and searching the url: www.cookiemag.com. From there go to April 2008 and you will see the link to the '30 Dinners in 30 Days' article at the bottom of the page.

Her recipes have reached cult celebrity status at our dinner table and I cannot wait for her book to come out this Spring.

This article really changed my outlook on dinners for good. I started to see dinner as a fun time to be had with my family rather than a chore that I had to gut through before putting them to bed. I thank Jenny for this, she really showed me the light and the fun to be had with dinner.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Dinners for January 29 - February 4, 2012

Sunday: Roasted pork tenderloin with sweet potato wedges and steamed green beans

Monday: Kale and potato frittata

Tuesday: Maya Kaimal's tikka masala sauce with chicken (marinating during the day), TJ's naan bread and steamed broccoli

Wednesday: Tomato soup with grilled cheese. This is a clever idea to get a creamy soup without the cream - pureeing alphabet pasta. I'll sub in Pastina.

Thursday: Shrimp and bacon pasta

Friday: TBD - this might be a take out night!

Saturday: Birthday party at dinnertime

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Problem with Pinterest

I have fallen head over heels in love with Pinterest and am inspired everyday with the pins that my friends and random strangers have pinned. I eagerly re-pin ideas to my boards with all the hope in the world that I can actually find the time to do some of these amazing ideas. Amazingly enough, I have even had a few pictures from this blog re-pinned and that was incredibly flattering!! I try not to look at it while I am at work, because it is a time suck vortex when I should really be focusing on my work. A girl has to earn a living, right?

But my problem with Pinterest is the visual overload, Sometimes I quickly look at a pin, make a note in my head and move on. Which is exactly what I did when I saw a recipe for this amazing Apple Pie Oatmeal made in a crock pot. I made a quick note of the measurements and now I can't find the source of the recipe and I didn't even pin it onto my own board.

Pinterest is like a new form of ADD.

But back to the recipe. You know how excited I got about cooking in my sleep? I did it again with this recipe, except this time we woke up to the house smelling like apple pie - not that I noticed. But my kids sure did and so did my husband. We greedily ate this up for breakfast and now I can add another hit to the breakfast menu. I can't say the same for the protein shake I made yesterday which left me feeling like I had a tire sitting around my waist for the entire day. I need to work on the measurements, because apparently 1 scoop of protein powder, 1 spoonful of peanut butter, 1/2 cup of milk, 1 cup of yogurt and 1 banana is not a good combo for this lady.

Apple Pie Oatmeal in a Crock Pot

3 apples, cored and peeled and diced - I used Gala apples
1/2 teaspoon cinammon
1 cup steel cut oats
1 cup apple juice
3 cups water

Combine together in a Crock pot and cook for three hours on High. You can probably figure out that I didn't turn it on when I went to bed, but I did wake up at 2:45 AM to get a drink of water and flicked it on as I left the kitchen. The original recipe said to stir it every hour or so, but I didn't and it turned out fine.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dinners for January 22 - 28, 2012

Sunday: (Tahoe)

Monday: (Tahoe)

Tuesday: Roasted salmon with brussel sprouts and pastina with green peas, parmesan and butter

Wednesday: Dinner out with family

Thursday: Roasted chicken sausages with fingerling potatoes and apples with green beans

Friday: Bean and pasta soup with bread

Saturday: Quiche Lorraine for an ailing friend and a surprise dessert... more on that later!

Monday, January 23, 2012

California Snowin'

Does anyone else panic a little when they go away for a long weekend and are staying at a place that has a kitchen? I do. We spent three nights at a friends cabin in South Lake Tahoe and I was in a food planning frenzy the week leading up to the trip. You would have thought I was planning to take my family to a third world country with the amount of food I was bringing. As if there wasn't a Safeway a mere six minutes from the house. I started to plan every single possible meal and potential food disaster headed my way.

Growing up, we used to spend a lot of weekends up in the snow and the dinners that I remember the most were big bowls of spaghetti and meatballs and lots of garlic bread. I loved those weekends, because we always shared the house with a few other families and there were always plenty of kids to play with. The dinner would magically appear on the table and people would serve themselves.

I wanted that vibe going in, but my need for meal planning took over and so I created the following menu.

Friday dinner: Pasta bake, salad, garlic bread, steamed broccoli and kale chips
Saturday breakfast: Cinnamon rolls and fruit - I bought canned cinnamon rolls for the first time in what must be twenty years and they were just as delicious as I remembered them. 
Saturday lunch: Friday night leftovers
Saturday dinner: Homemade pizza, salad

Sunday breakfast: Pancakes, fruit
Sunday lunch: Quesadillas and/or leftovers
Sunday dinner: Chicken stew with pasta

Monday breakfast: Out to eat at the Red Hut
Monday lunch: On the road out of Tahoe we hit an In-N-Out!

The trip was great and here are a few highlights. The kale monster struck again, eating pretty much the entire bowl of kale chips by herself.

However, the culinary highlight of this trip were the homemade Sno Cones. I wanted to make these with real snow and my kids flipped out when I made them. It could not have been easier (or totally unhealthy, I quickly got rid of this syrup after this picture was taken).

Sno Cone Syrup

1 cup water
2 cups sugar
2 packages Kool-aid mix

Combine the sugar and the water in a sauce pan and bring to a boil for one minute or till the sugar is dissolved. Take the pan off the heat and pour half of the sugar-water mix into a bowl with one package of Kool-Aid and then pour the remaining sugar-water mix into another bowl with the other package of Kool-Aid. Pour into squirt bottles and... Instant Sno Cone syrup!

When we arrived on Friday afternoon, we didn't see any snow and made do with this

And then we woke up to this the very next day

Instant Winter Wonderland. Best trip of the year and it's only January!

Friday, January 13, 2012

You Could Totally Make That

If you were to ever come along with my mom and I as we shopped together you would think we were nuts for the way we cluck our tongues and say, "Tsk... you could totally make that," to each other as we walk through a store. If we're in a fabric store and stop to browse through patterns, she'll  mutter, "Tsk... you could totally make that." As we stroll through Cost Plus and admire a hand-knit cowl she'll say to me in passing, "Tsk, you could totally make that."

And you know what? I could totally make those things if I had all the time in the world and no commitments and a staff of three thousand (I'm talking to you, Martha Stewart).

Still I love how we enable each other, often to the point of goading. Sometimes I'll bite and go for a project that is out of my league (and occasionally knock it out of the ballpark) and other times the project that I thought I could do in my spare time sits there as a reminder of how little time I do actually have and maybe I could manage it better.

The point of this long-winded rant is that last week I bought a bagged kale salad mix at a fairly high-end grocery store in my neighborhood. It looked good and I thought it might save me a few minutes in the kitchen one day. Sure enough, it did save me time but the dressing was so overly sweet that I threw it out and made my own quick dressing by copying the ingredients on the back of the bag and omitting the sugar. I could practically hear my mom say, "You could totally make this."

So a few days later I had a bunch of kale in the fridge and a lot veggies leftover from our New Years resolution week. I put the salad together and not only did I knock it out of the park in terms of taste, but it gained another fan - my two year old.

I sat down with her so we could eat our lunches together, she with her peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cheese crackers and sugar snap peas and I with my salad. I got up for a moment to get us a drink to have with our lunches and when I came back, I saw this:

And this 
(Disclaimer: No chocolate chips were used in the taking of these pictures)

And this

I have no explanation for this other than the Rapture is coming, ya'll.

Kale Salad With the Works (aka You Could Totally Do This On Your Own Without a Recipe)

1 bunch kale, washed and torn into bite-size pieces
1 handful chopped red cabbage
1 shredded carrot
1 handful pomegranate seeds
1/2 can garbanzo beans, drained
1 quarter of a preserved lemon, chopped fine

Dressing (shake in a jar to combine):
1 lemon, squeezed
2 Tbls. EVOO
1-2 drops of sesame oil
1 Tsp. sesame seeds, toasted
Few drops of hot sauce
1 Tbls. rice vinegar
2 green onions, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Mix the veggies in a bowl and toss with dressing. Let it sit for 30 minutes in the fridge before eating. The lemon does something magical to the kale to make it softer. If you happen to have a two year old nearby, leave them with this salad alone in a room and watch quietly from around the corner. It's like watching a leprechaun find his pot of gold. Seriously.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

When Cereal Just Won't Do

We are not very exciting breakfast makers around here. With limited time in the mornings I can barely get the kids to eat yogurt, cereal or oatmeal on most mornings. On the weekends I do make more of an effort and pull out a Sleepover Pancake, some popovers or buttermilk waffles.

But there are those rare times where if I have enough coffee and the kids beg long enough then I will make this old favorite that guarantees a breakfast win. 

I started doing this modified Egg in the Hole breakfast for my son when he was in preschool and now his sister loves it too. What I do to make a little extra special is that I cut out the center of the bread using a cookie cutter in the shape of the first letter of their first names. These simple Sur la Table cookie cutters transform boring old eggs (and occasionally sandwiches) into

M and C in the Hole 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Cooking in My Sleep

I love it when I've shown the Dinner Gods a thing or two about efficiency. Lord knows I love a good Twofer, but this Crock Pot idea I had blew.my.mind. And when it comes to dinner, it's hard to blow anyone's mind around here.

I've complained before about using my Crock Pot while I am away at work, so feel free to read that rant some other time. But I really wanted to make a soup in the Crock Pot this week and I couldn't figure out how to avoid making mush while I was away from the house. Do I telecommute that day - seemed a little far fetched to accommodate a dinner wish. Maybe I could have my neighbor come by and turn on the Crock Pot for me...

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: Use the Crock Pot overnight while I slept! My husband was skeptical, but I knew it had to work. I went to bed at 10 PM, flicked it to the Low 8-hour setting, and woke up to a batch of delicious Split Pea Soup. I didn't even care that my toddler had woken up three times in a row that same night because I JUST MADE DINNER AND IT'S ONLY 6 AM, PEOPLE! 

Something as simple as using my Crock Pot while I slept gave me so much joy that when I woke up this morning I did a twirly dance in the kitchen before even having my first cup of coffee. It was only 6 AM and my night had already dramatically improved. I could sit with the kids on the couch and read books while the soup reheated on the stove. I could help with homework. But best of all, I could have a glass of wine and not run that proverbial marathon for one night this week.

I guess the only downside to cooking while sleeping is that your house will smell like whatever it is you have in your slow cooker and you have to do the prep work the night before. Not that I noticed. This morning we had a Split Pea Soup smell mingling with our morning breakfast. Maybe next week I'll have Carnitas co-habitating with my coffee. The possibilities are endless!

If this is the price I have to pay to not cook dinner after work on some nights, then sign me up.

((shaking fist angrily at the sky)) Take that Dinner Gods! You will not break me.

Whole Foods Simple Split Pea Soup (with modifications)

(16-oz) package dried green split peas, rinsed
1 ham hock
1 cup diced baby carrots
1 cup chopped yellow onion
2 ribs celery plus leaves, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 tsp fresh thyme
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
3 cups water
3 cups chicken broth

Layer ingredients in slow cooker in the order given, adding the broth last. Do not stir ingredients. Cover and cook on high 4—5 hours or on low 8—10 hours until peas are very soft and ham falls off the bone. I bought a ham steak at the store, diced it and threw it into the soup while it reheated. It's a very thick soup, so add some water to it as it reheats. It will thin it out and prevent it from burning while you reheat it.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Loving: Erato

I joined Twitter (but I don't tweet, just enjoy the tweets of others) and I sheepishly clicked on Gwyneth Paltrow's twitter feed which led me to this video. (Go ahead and judge but have you seen her cookbook? I credit its "Green Rice" recipe for getting  my kids to eat brown rice and kale together. Moving on, people!)

Now I can't stop watching this video she tweeted about. And inquiring minds want to know... are those plastic butter containers?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Dinners for January 8-14, 2012

Sunday: Pollo alla Cacciatora with egg noodles and a side of roasted brussel sprouts

Monday: Salmon and roasted cherry tomatoes with cous cous

Tuesday: Crock pot split pea soup, salad and bread (Doubling this recipe for the freezer, also thinking of cooking this overnight on Sunday so I can just reheat and serve for Tuesday.)

Wednesday: Pasta with sausage and kale

Thursday: Waffle grilled cheese and rainbow salad

Friday: Movie night -Indian food? We're thinking of making our own tikka masala to save a few bucks. Why are Indian restaurants in SF so darn expensive?

Saturday: TBD: We might have dinner plans with friends this night. Otherwise it will be Crock Pot Mexican Tortilla Lasagna

Friday, January 6, 2012

My breakfast with Jacques Pepin

About fifteen years ago, well before I had kids and right before I met my husband, I used to have breakfast with Jacques Pepin every single Saturday morning. Sadly I was hungover for most of our visits, but I treasured those thirty minutes of one on one time with him. And his daughter Claudine. And my roommate Erin.

Maybe I should explain this a little better.

Every Saturday morning, my roommate and I would meet up on the couch in the living room, flick on the television and watch the 10:30 showing of the PBS series 'Cooking with Claudine.' My roommate and I would sit and watch carefully as Jacques patiently explained to his daughter, Claudine, how to clean a leek ("Claudine" Jacques would say, "It should not take ten hours to clean a leek.") I loved watching their banter back and forth, particularly how Claudine would roll her eyes off camera about something her dad, Jacques, would say to her (in a condescending tone at times) or how he would heavily sigh about something she said, like when she suggested adding ketchup to a sauce. Seriously, Claudine?

I would watch this show every week and wish I could be in Claudine's shoes. I didn't have the best relationship with my dad growing up and maybe this was the father figure that appealed to me the most. In any case, I always thought I'd make a great partner on the show, one who would prep any vegetable he asked me to without any complaint. To her credit, Claudine always redeemed herself at the end of the show by picking some amazing wine to go with the meal they prepared together.

So now you can understand how I viewed this thirty minutes as "My breakfast with Jacques" every single weekend. Nowadays, I can't sit through any cooking show on the Food Network because they drive me to boredom. But Jacques could have a show about taking out the garbage and I would watch it. The man is that interesting to me.

I have made so many of his dishes over the years. I made them for my then boyfriend (now husband) in a lame effort to woo him. Together, we used his recipes for friends at dinner parties in our tiny apartment in the Richmond district. Now that we have kids, we make them now and then for them.

I rarely change his recipes. You can't mess with a classic.

Penne Au Gratin (or what we jokingly call High End Mac n Cheese)

Lentil and Barley soup

Quick Almond and Plum Cake

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Beginnings - Meal Plan for January 1-7, 2012

After the cookies, the prime rib, the crab, the mussels, the decadent breakfasts and the tour of Bay Area burger joints it was time for my family to wave the white flag of unhealthy dining during the holidays. I couldn't wait for December to be over with because I just wanted to go back to our old routine of simple breakfasts, straightforward lunches and dinners... without meat.

But just for one week.

This isn't revolutionary, but after 31 days of indulgence we all could use a little penance for our meaty ways. I will admit, though, when I first created this menu it had three dinners with seafood as the main entree and my husband called my bluff when he saw the menu, "It's not vegetarian if there is seafood on the plate," he said. So I rolled my eyes and sighed heavily removed the offending dinners and made it more vegetarian friendly. Below is our week of dinners for January 1-7, 2012. Wish us luck!

Sunday: Spinach feta quiche with salad (from my mother in law, recipe below)

Monday: Veggie burgers with sweet potato fries (From 'Super Natural Cooking,' a fantastic vegetarian cookbook by San Francisco author Heidi Swanson, 101cookbooks.com)

Tuesday: Black bean tostadas

Wednesday: Risotto (Jenny! A Twofer that is worthy of our table!)

Thursday: Risotto Cakes (these are a modified, crazy delicious version of Arancini di Riso. My grandmother would be so proud!)

Friday: Salad pizza (with a side of cheese pizza for the kids)

Saturday: Minestrone soup, salad, bread

Spinach Feta Quiche

*This recipe was given to me by my mother in law and I have no idea where it came from, I am guessing its either from Sunset or Bon Appetit, since those are her usual go-to recipe sources.

Pastry for a single crust 9 inch pie
2 packages of frozen chopped spinach, defrosted
6 oz. feta, crumbled (about 3/4 cup)
1/2 cup cottage cheese
6 green onions
1 Tbls. EVOO
1 Tsp. dry basil
1/2 Tsp. pepper
1/2 Tsp. garlic salt
4 eggs
1/2 cup light cream (like half and half) or milk

Line pastry shell with foil and partially fill with dry beans or rice. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes. Lift off foil and beans, return crust to oven, and bake until lightly browned about 5 minutes. Let cool.

Meanwhile, squeeze out as much liquid as possible from the defrosted spinach and set aside. Put the feta into a food processor along with cottage cheese, green onions, EVOO, basil, pepper, and garlic salt and process until smooth. Add the eggs and cream and blend again. Pour the mixture into a bowl and stir in the spinach with a wooden spoon to mix well. Pour into baked pastry shell.

Bake pie in 400 degree oven for 20 minutes; reduce temperature to 350 and bake another 10 to 15 minutes or until center jiggles just slightly when pan is gently shaken. Place on a wire rack and let it stand for 15 minutes before cutting into wedges. Makes 4-6 servings.