From the Test Kitchen

We’re a PBS household around here. The worst part of moving from Boston was losing our DVR, and with it the Paul McCartney: Live in Performance at the White House, which had been on there since I think 2011. Some afternoons Rich will turn on WGBY to have the cooking shows on in the background, including the OCD tandem of cooking shows: America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country. It’s like The Odd Couple, but they’re both Felixes. I find most of their takes overly complicated, but I do like their taste tests of common products and ingredients.

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That may have been where I got the idea for my own taste test. This summer I received two separate chocolate hazelnut spreads to sample. I jumped at the offer, as Beatrix is a Nutella fiend. (I know, mother of the year.) So we held our own blind taste test with Lilli, Beatrix and a pal of Lilli’s. And yes, I double checked with the mom before serving him three different types of chocolate hazelnut spread.

 

The spreads were served on challah from Tart Baking Company, which has become our go-to for challah. It’s got a hint of sourdough while still managing that slight cakey texture.

 

The spread of spreads comprised: Nutella, the gold standard, the control group; Nutiva, a dark organic hazelnut spread made with palm oil, touted to have 40% less sugar, 450mg of omega-3 per serving and certified gluten-free and vegan; and Nocciolata, organic, non-GMO, vegan, palm oil-free, gluten-free, and certified kosher.

The clear winner was the Nocciolata, which, according to the promotional materials, takes “36 hours of artisanal preparation to develop its rich and complex flavor and easy-to-spread texture.” Honestly, it was like Nutella, but, well, richer and more complex. And the Nutiva? It was remarkably not good. We couldn’t really taste the chocolate or hazelnut, and it was quite bitter from the lack of sugar.

With the children sufficiently sugared, we set out for the side yard, with its new picket fence and hand-me-down swing set. It’s nice to be able to host playdates for Lilli and Bea’s friends. And now we know what kind of fancy hazelnut spread to offer our guests.

 

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Enjoy Every Bite

Despite my best efforts — and believe me, I have tried — Lilli basically lives on yogurt, cereal, plain starch (rice, rice cakes, barley, farro, pasta), grilled cheese, fish sticks and granola bars. As someone who prides themselves on serving whole foods made from scratch, meal times can be… well, is “despair” too dramatic a word?

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Sometimes, if I’m lucky, she’ll enjoy a few pieces of avocado and maybe a few blueberries. We’re a far cry from where she was before she turned two, when she would gobble up mushrooms, roasted broccoli, and all sorts of fruits.

On the other hand, there’s Beatrix, who is like old school Lilli taken to another level. She seriously enjoys food. Daycare has remarked on it. My mother would watch with wonder all summer long as Beatrix would dig into the fresh asparagus, enjoy every kernel on her corn cob, and delight in basically everything that was put in front of her. “It’s a pleasure to watch her eat,” Mom would say.

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Being a toddler, she’s also incredibly impatient. So if we weren’t fast enough, she would shriek and slam her little fists down on the table. My mother actually started calling her “Elizabeth,” as in Elizabeth Taylor, because she was a beautiful drama queen who couldn’t get the food in her face fast enough. “Calm down, Elizabeth, the {brisket, chicken, pasta, meatballs, fish, rice, eggs, fresh vegetables} has to cool down first.” (This was inspired by a particularly mean Joan Rivers joke in which she called Ms. Taylor the only woman in the world who would scream “faster!” at a microwave. Z”l, Joan.) Someone started calling her “the little piglet,” although I want to be very careful about this, because the last thing I want to do is give my daughter an eating complex. Enjoy every bite, little one, I say. Food is delicious.

The biggest threat to Bea’s appetite is her older sister’s influence. Every few days, when Lilli will do her evening ritual of completely rejecting a meal (and ask for a bowl of yogurt or cereal two hours later) Bea will catch on and abandon her plate as well. So when I saw this recipe for homemade fish sticks in Taste of Home’s 100 Family Meals I was sent, I crossed my fingers and went to the kitchen.

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The idea behind this cookbook is to get families to sit down together a few nights a week for dinner. If you do it twice a week, you’ll end up with 100 meals at the end of the year. This recipe was marked as “Eat Smart” and “Fast Fix”, looked super simple to make, and much healthier than the frozen fish sticks I’m loathe to serve the girls. I had everything in the kitchen, including some frozen tilapia from Costco, which I set to defrost in the fridge on a plate covered with Stretch-Tite the night before.

I actually skipped the two tablespoons of garlic herb seasoning blend the recipe called for, first because I had no such thing in the house, and second because I could almost hear Lilli’s stock protest (“It’s too spicy!”) in my head as I was reading the recipe. I don’t have cooking spray in the house, so I put my finger over the olive oil and drizzled that on top of the fish sticks.

And how were they? They were great! Rich and I enjoyed every bite, with homemade tartar sauce (at his insistence), and a side of red cabbage slaw with dried cranberries and fresh slices of mandarin oranges. But alas, Lilli flat out rejected them, and Bea took a bite, and then followed her big sister into the living room to join her in watching some Youtube garbage.

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Regardless, these are going into the rotation and will be served instead of the frozen ones from the store. I will not be deterred! They really are a great weeknight meal. I think if I serve these to Bea without her sister being there, she will devour them all, then slam her tiny hands into the table demanding more!

Parmesan Fish Sticks from Taste of Home’s 100 Family Meals: Bring the Family Back to the Dinner Table

Ingredients

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

½ tsp. salt

1/8 to ¼ tsp. pepper

2 large eggs

1 cup panko bread crumbs

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 Tbsp. garlic-herb seasoning blend (Optional)

 1 lb. tilapia fillets

Cooking spray

Directions

Preheat oven to 450F.

In a shallow bowl, mix flour, salt and pepper. In another bowl, whisk eggs. In a third bowl, toss bread crumbs with cheese and seasoning blend.

Cut filets into 1-inch-wide strips. Dip fish in flour mixture to coat both sides; shake off excess. Dip in eggs, then in crumb mixture, patting to help coating adhere.

Place on a foil-lined baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Spritz tops with the spray until crumbs appear moistened; or, drizzle with olive oil for the same effect.

Bake 10-12 minutes or until golden brown and fish begins to flake easily with a fork.

 

 

 

SA PA: Building a Better Banh Mi

As I have written about here previously, I love Vietnamese food, so much so that I request it coming out from anesthesia. Anything with fish sauce will do, but I also love a good banh mi sandwich, that post-colonial combination of Asian flavors on a crunchy French baguette. When I was working at BU, I would take the 57 bus to get my fix at the Super 88 food court.

I do have one pet peeve about the standard recipe, and that is that almost every banh mi comes with pork pate standard. That’s a no go for me, so I always have to order it without. Don’t get me wrong, I like it without just fine, but sometimes I do feel like I’m missing out on the full banh mi experience.

That’s why I was excited to try out a new Vietnamese place that opened in Cleveland Circle in Brighton, not far from our house. It’s called SA PA, and it’s been open since May. (There’s also a Chinatown location that’s been open longer). The SA PA banh mi is made with a walnut-mushroom pate instead of the standard pork. The owner, Ky, told me he uses the veggie spread because it’s tastier and healthier, to boot.

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The decor is sleek and modern, wood floors and counters with red and sky blue accents. On the walls are photos of the owner’s family from their time in Saigon. The menu is similarly streamlined, with a few entrees available with a choice of protein, a couple sides, and the classic Vietnamese iced beverages. (The Cleveland Circle location also serves beer and liqueur cocktails.) In a nod to the college clientele, you can get your banh mi in a burrito instead of a baguette.

I brought Rich and Lilli along to sample the menu. I got the tofu banh mi with the walnut mushroom “pate”, with a side order of avocado summer rolls, fresh kimchi, and a chili mint limeade to drink. The sandwich came with the standard pickled daikon and carrots and fresh sprigs of cilantro, but also had sliced grapes, a fun and offbeat touch that really worked. It was a great vegetarian sandwich, full of fresh flavors and just the right amount of spice. Another common frustration of mine is shellfish lurking in kimchi, but I chatted with the chef about their version, which turned out to be crustacean-free. Rich got a big bowl of pho soup with slow-braised beef (brisket, we think) and thinly sliced rare beef that cooked in the broth, with crispy eggrolls and a Vietnamese Iced Coffee. We ordered Lilli a big bowl of vermicelli noodles, but she quickly took to Rich’s soup!

We very much enjoyed our meal at SA PA, and perhaps more importantly, I now know where to find a delicious pork-free banh mi without sacrificing an important ingredient.

SA PA has two locations in Boston: 93 Bedford Street in Downtown/Chinatown, and 1952 Beacon Street in Cleveland Circle. Visit http://www.sa-pa.com for menus and directions.

CSA Support Group

I’m here! I’m here! And, I come bearing recipes. Yes, it’s CSA time, and I know there’s a bunch of you peering into your box, wondering what to do with garlic scapes and that crazy kohlrabi. Of course, it’s still early in the season, so we’ve also been working our way through lots of lettuces and greens. For the salads, these pickled onions are working out really well.

With the cilantro that’s come, we had a dressing from one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbooks (I borrowed it from the library) that had me whirling the herb up with some yogurt, green garlic, also from the CSA, scallions, jalapeno and fresh lime juice. I used the rest of the cilantro tonight in this rice. Good stuff.

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As for those aforementioned kohlrabi and scapes, I drew inspiration from an extraordinary meal Rich and I had at Ribelle last week to celebrate Father’s Day and his birthday. (I chose the restaurant and just asked him to trust me.) One of the dishes I had featured both kohlrabi and pickled garlic scapes. It was really terrific, and I plan on pickling the scapes in my crisper in the next day or two.

We did a separate fruit CSA this year, which was smart because Lilli basically eats her weight in strawberries daily. I was able to wrestle a few of the berries away from her and tossed those with some maple syrup and roasted them in a hot oven for about 20 minutes. Feel free to swirl those into some plain yogurt.

Strawberry

 

But the main recipe for this week is for kohlrabi. If there’s anything I’ve learned about vegetables, when in doubt, reach for Ottolenghi. Yotam has yet to let me down, and his cabbage and kohlrabi salad is no exception. The cabbage in this recipe is the boring kind that is probably growing old in your crisper. At least that’s what was happening with mine. (If you have napa cabbage, drizzle this buttermilk dressing on it and enjoy it raw.)

Rich was skeptical about a recipe that called for alfalfa sprouts like this one does, but he had thirds. Thirds! I had white pepper in the house from this hot and sour soup. I think dried cranberries will work as a substitute for the dried whole sour cherries, and will make this recipe very affordable in case you don’t have a surplus from your local Ocean State Job Lot.

It turns out a friend of mine from college also just made this, and they added fresh fennel and its fronds to their salad which sounds like a great addition. If you have it, go for it.

Cabbage and Kohlrabi Salad from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

Ingredients

1 medium or ½ large kohlrabi

½ white cabbage (8 to 9 oz)

Large bunch of dill, roughly chopped (6 heaped tablespoons)

1 cup dried whole sour cherries (or dried cranberries)

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Juice of one lemon (he actually calls for 6 Tablespoons, but whatever)

¼ cup olive oil

1 garlic clove, crushed

Salt and white pepper

2 cups alfalfa sprouts

Directions

Peel the kohlrabi and cut into thick matchsticks that are about ¼ inch wide and 2 inches long. Cut the cabbage into 1/4-in-thick strips.

Put all the ingredients, apart from the alfalfa sprouts, in a large mixing bowl. Use your hands to massage everything together for about a minute so the flavors mix and the lemon can soften the cabbage and the cherries. Let the salad sit for about 10 minutes.

Add most of the alfalfa sprouts and mix well again with your hands. Taste and adjust the seasoning; you’ll need a fair amount of salt to counteract the lemon.

Use your hands again to lift the salad out of the mixing bowl and into a serving bowl, leaving most of the juices behind. Garnish with the remaining sprouts and serve at once.

L’Chaim!

In the Hebrew alphabet, each letter is assigned a numeric value. Aleph is one, bet is two, and so on. All words have values too, based on the sum of their letters. One of the big words is chai, which means life, as in “L’chaim!” My Hebrew name is Chaya, which is derived from it. The two letters that spell that spell chai add up to 18, and so it’s traditional for Jews to give charity and gifts in increments of 18: 36, 54, 72 etc.

I’m telling you all this because today I turned 36. Now, for some that might mean I’m on the back end of my 30’s, only a few years from 40. But I am viewing my birthday as double chai, and I feel pretty good about that.

Riding a panda

It’s not that uncommon for my birthday to fall during Passover, which meant growing up I often didn’t have a proper birthday cake. I have many childhood memories of my mom sticking candles in a watermelon and telling me to make a wish. I honestly don’t know if I ever wished for real cake, because I’m actually a huge watermelon fan. But for a few years, a bakery that only opened during Passover (I guess we’d call it a “pop-up” these days) sold these incredible flourless chocolate brownies and an outstanding flourless chocolate cake. It was so extraordinary and beautiful the shop called it “the Robert Redford cake.” Oh, Hubbell.

I have no watermelon in the house right now, but I did have all the ingredients to make myself a flourless chocolate cake for my birthday. So I did.

As you know, I take Passover pretty seriously, so every year my beleaguered Catholic husband lugs an entire set of pots, pans, utensils and dishes up from the cellar. My Passover kitchen is a work in progress, and every year the same thing happens: I go to cook or bake something and realize that I’m missing a certain piece of kitchen equipment. This year I learned I need to buy a whisk and an offset spatula for next year.

It turns out, though, that I don’t need to buy a cake pan. I just used my go-to, glass-lidded non-stick Passover pan, which has been with me as long as I’ve been cooking on my own. It’s deep enough to cook 2 cups of quinoa, and has a metal handle that can go in the oven (ideal for fritatta making). It’s not quite the Jews wandering in the desert, but making do with only a few kitchen tools does evoke the spirit of the holiday for me.

So, whisk-less, I mixed this simple batter with a fork, poured it into my trusty pan and stuck that into the oven. Because the pan is a little larger than the 8-inch pan the recipe called for, I reduced the baking time from 25 minutes to 20 minutes. Instead of fancy chocolate, I used kosher-for-Passover chocolate chips. There was a half an orange in the fridge leftover from Lilli’s breakfast, so I had Rich zest it. (For some reason, I have a Passover zester but not a whisk. Go figure.) I don’t have a kosher-for-Passover sifter, so I just stirred the cocoa powder with a fork and carried on.

We ate this tonight with dollops of fresh whipped cream, or schlag as my German mother would call it. It now occurs to me that I could have used the hand mixer I used to whip the cream for the batter, but no matter. There’s always next year. L’chaim!

Flourless Chocolate Cake, adapted, ever so slightly, from Gourmet, November 1997

Ingredients

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened)

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter

¾ cup sugar

3 large eggs

½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder plus additional for sprinkling (which I did not do)

1 teaspoon fresh orange zest

Directions

Preheat oven to 375F and butter an 8-inch round baking pan. Line the bottom with a round of buttered wax paper (I used parchment paper).

Chop chocolate into small pieces. In a double boiler or metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, melt chocolate with butter, stirring until smooth. Remove top of double boiler or bowl from heat and whisk sugar into chocolate mixture. Add eggs and whisk well. Sift ½ cup cocoa powder over chocolate mixture and whisk until just combined. Stir in the orange zest.

Pour batter into pan and bake in middle of oven for 25 minutes, or until top has formed a thin crust. Cool cake in pan on a rack for 5 minutes and invert onto a serving plate.

Not necessary step: Dust cake with additional cocoa powder and serve with sorbet or whipped cream if desired. (Cake keeps, after being cooled completely, in an airtight container.)

Back Like a Lion

Well. The last time I disappeared from my blog I reappeared with a baby. No baby this time, but I do have news: I have a new job. After nearly six years at Boston University, I packed up my things and said goodbye to Kenmore Square. Tomorrow morning is my first day at The Perkins School for the Blind, just over the river from us in Watertown. And no more development research; I’m trying my hand at stewardship. The easiest way to explain it is that I will be writing donors to tell them how their gifts are being used. There will also be some proposal writing and research drawing on my past job.

But anyhow, my job search explains my absence. I spent a good portion of this past month applying, interviewing and submitting writing samples, and I’m excited that I ended up at such a great place and so close to home and daycare for Lilli. I’m sorry I was gone for so long, but if there was a month to disappear in, March is really the one to skip. Nothing really grows in March, and we’ve reached the end of cabbage and kale. Honestly, the only thing you missed was Lilli dressed as a Leprechaun for Purim this year.

Lilli the leprechaun

Consider yourselves caught up!

Now it’s practically April, which means asparagus and ramps and fiddlehead ferns. My new job is about a mile from Russo’s, which should mean there’s now time to shop for produce after work before I pick up Lilli at daycare. And while leaving BU means no more Ward’s Berry Farm CSA, we’ve already signed up for a new one at Red Fire Farm which starts in early June.

I’m sorry for disappearing, but I’m so happy to be back.