The Second Time Around

Man, things are so different the second time around. With Lilli, we were so clear with our rules: No sugar until her first birthday, no screen time until she’s two. And now with Bea? She had Fluff last week and has seen every presidential debate to date. (And let’s just say Lilli is making up for lost time with the screens.)

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Now, now, it’s not as bad as it sounds. We’d made Lilli a Fluffernutter which she obviously rejected after one nibble. Since we’d been given explicit directions by the pediatrician to expose Bea to all the allergens that trip kids up – her first bit of peanuts was mushed-up Bamba a month ago – we figured, why not give her a little? And she loved it. I mean, what’s not to love? It’s all sugar.

fluffernutter

We’re not doing that much better for our own dinners. We ate nachos for dinner last week. To be fair, it was National Nachos Day, and the nachos involved roasted butternut squash that had been tossed with maple syrup and sprinkled with cayenne and cumin. There were also sweet balsamic onions that did a perfect job of balancing the spice of the squash. They were phenomenal, and would have been even better if I’d used the gruyere that the recipe called for instead of the shredded cheddar we have on hand for Lilli’s quesadillas. (She likes them best with stars and moons carved into them. Thanks, Ranger Rick Jr. magazine for that pro tip.)

quesadilla

The recipe comes from The Ultimate Nachos cookbook, which is home to the horchata recipe I just shared with you guys. Some might be surprised to hear how much use a nacho cookbook gets used in my kitchen, but I’m really serious about my nachos. There’s a taco shop very close to us, Lone Star Taco, that makes my favorite ones in town. I went there solo on my birthday for them, and that’s where I’ve chosen my Mother’s Day brunch two years in a row. What can I say, I really dig nachos. Incidentally, Guy Fieri featured the place on his Boston show and we once totally sat next to some fans of his who had come specifically on his recommendation. And yes, I told them to get the nachos.

nachos

Being a nacho recipe, it’s pretty straight forward, except that I found the directions for prepping the squash a bit confusing. After I peeled the squash, I cubed half, then sliced each piece thinly, and saved the other half for this recipe. It honestly didn’t take very long to do.

Autumnal Nachos

½ butternut squash

2 Tablespoons maple syrup

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

½ teaspoon ground cumin

1 Tablespoon unsalted butter

1 large red onion, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon sugar

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

7 ounces corn tortilla chips – approximately half of a store-bought bag, or, if prepared fresh, use 15 corn tortillas, each cut into 6 triangles

6 ounces shredded Gruyere cheese (about 1 ½ cups)

¼ cup sour cream

Directions

Preheat oven to 425F

Peel the butternut squash and then cut it in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and fibers from the center. Thinly slice the squash and then cut it in half again lengthwise.

In a medium bowl, toss the squash with the maple syrup, cayenne, and cumin.

Place the squash on a parchment paper or aluminum foil-lined baking sheet. Roast the squash for 20 minutes, or until tender.

While the squash is roasting, melt the butter in a skillet. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat until a deep brown color, 10 to 15 minutes. Be careful not the burn the onion.

Stir in the sugar and balsamic vinegar and season with a bit of salt and pepper. Cook the onion for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350F.

Layer the tortilla chips on a 9×13-inch baking sheet. Evenly distribute the squash and onion over the chips. Cover the chips with the shredded cheese.

Bake the nachos for 10 to 15 minutes until the cheese has melted.

Serve the nachos with sour cream on the side.

Easy Does It

We’ve been enjoying the sunny weather, which means there are some days – and even some weeks during the summer – when the stove and oven go untouched. Rich is in his element in the heat, enjoying the Weber Grill my parents and I gave him a few years back.

Sure, I’m always happy to bring a salad to these meals — and trust me, there are dozens to talk about — but given the chance, Rich will snatch the vegetables off the counter and cook them over the coals. I can’t complain too loudly about someone being helpful and taking responsibilities off my plate. And this weekend, when I was feeling a bit under the weather, it was nice and reassuring that I didn’t have to worry about our next meal.

I did bring dessert, though, and it couldn’t have been simpler. It’s this time of year that fool recipes – a simple British summer dessert consisting of stiffed whipped cream and berries – start to crop up. And why not? There’re always berries on sale at the market, and the oven stays off, keeping the kitchen cool.

I made our version in an extremely lazy way, mashing berries I had macerated for about an hour. If you have the gumption, I’d say turn on the stove and cook down the berries even more, or get out your step stool and get down the blender and give the berries a whirl. It’s up to you, of course.

The recipe I used for the berries comes from a strawberry shortcake recipe from a Bon Appetit from last summer. If memory serves, it was a dead simple biscuit recipe and the results were superb. But skip the biscuit and just make this. It’s so easy and so so delicious.

Strawberry Fool

Ingredients

2 pounds fresh strawberries (about 8 cups), hulled, quartered if small, sliced if large

6 Tablespoons sugar, divided

3 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 large pinch of freshly ground black pepper

1 cup chilled heavy whipping cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

Mix strawberries, 5 tablespoons sugar, vinegar, and black pepper in a medium bowl. Let macerate an hour, stirring occasionally. At the end of an hour, use a potato masher to break down the berries even more. Alternatively, puree the macerated berries in a blender for 30 seconds.

Using an electric mixer, beat cream, vanilla, and remaining 1 tablespoon sugar in another medium bowl until peaks form.

Assemble the fool: Fold berries, its juices, and the cream together. Serve in a tall glass, if you have one.  In fact, you can assemble the fool and serve it from the same glass.

Sister Act

My older sister Sylvie is a middle-and high-school librarian in inner city DC. It’s a tough area to grow up in, and she has made her library into a safe space for her students. In her first year alone, circulation was up 40%, and her students know they can always go to her for guidance on how to research a paper, use reference materials, and, most importantly, she provides just the right book. She’s made reading fun. “God’s work,” my friend Elissa once quipped in trying to explain to someone what Syl does.

It really was Syl’s destiny to be a librarian for teenagers, but this wasn’t her first career. She used to cook. I mean, she still does, but cooking was much more a profession for her than it is for me. People would pay her money for her food back when she lived in Boston nearly 20 years ago — in Allston, as a matter of fact. And she, too, rode her bike everywhere.

I think she would have continued working in professional kitchens as long as she could, but just as I’ve done a number on my back with a herniated disc that has slowed down my cooking, she did a number on her front: double hernias. Those professional-sized pots are very heavy, and that’s without them being filled with gallons of soup.

The dish I have for today is a Sylvie dish. I asked her earlier this week how she came up with it, but like I said, 20 years is a long time ago. This is actually not the first time I’ve written up this dish: I was a food writer for my college newspaper (surprise, surprise) and our editor once did a spread on the food writer’s favorite dishes. This was mine.

This is a pantry dish, and it uses a box of Near East rice pilaf. Before you get all huffy and start accusing me of pulling a Sandra Lee, if you’ve ever had the stuff, I think it’s safe to say it’s a really fantastic side dish. All supermarkets seem to have sales on Near East products every few months. When the Star Market around the corner marks it down to $0.88 a box, I usually buy five or six and store them in the pantry. And even though portobello mushrooms can be expensive, Market Basket always has a good price on them, and I’ve walked away with 3 pounds worth from Haymarket with spending just a dollar.

Although there is technically a lot of vinegar and garlic in the dish, the added sugar cuts it all down into something sweet that matches perfectly with the pilaf. This is one of Rich’s favorite dishes, and last week he learned how to make it. Like I’ve mentioned, the herniated disc has really slowed me down, but Rich has been an absolute godsend in making sure there is food on the table and clean clothes on our backs. Last week, when he was prepping and slicing the mushrooms, he came to me with a panicked look on his face because one of the mushrooms he cut had a magenta streak down its side. I asked if he possibly used the same knife he used to dice a beet the night before. He walked away a little sheepishly, but I have to admit I thought that was absolutely adorable.

I had forgotten that there had been a typo in the recipe. Well, not the actual recipe, but the byline. The paper has me down as my middle name, Miranda, which seems so much more exotic and exciting than my first name.

This dish can work as a main dish for three people with a small salad, or be a side dish for five or six, depending on how hungry your crowd is.

And one last thing: If you could ask the governor’s executive director of his PAC four questions, what would they be? How about four questions for the founder of the Boston’s first Jewish rugby team? Turns out it’s the same fellow. Here are mine.

Mushrooms and Rice Pilaf a la Sylvie

Ingredients

3 Portobello mushrooms

4 cloves garlic

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

3 Tbs. sugar

Dash salt and pepper

Enough oil to cover a pan

Box of Near East Rice Pilaf

Directions

Prepare rice pilaf according to directions on the box.

While the rice is cooking, peel and chop the garlic and toss into heated oil in medium-sized pan (at this point it should have a very low flame because you don’t want the garlic to brown.)

While the garlic is cooking, clean and cut the mushroom caps into bigger than bite-sized pieces. Toss mushrooms into pan and watch carefully. When they begin to sweat – the meat will become pink – add balsamic vinegar. When the mushrooms, garlic and vinegar begin to sizzle, add sugar and reduce heat. Cook on reduced flame until mixture turns syrup-like (about seven minutes). Add a dash of salt and pepper to taste. Remove dish from heat and mix in the rice pilaf.

Serve and enjoy.

Belle of the Ball

Today’s recipe doesn’t come with a story, just a warning: If you make this eggplant caponata this weekend for a barbeque, or maybe a picnic, or maybe even a college reunion get-together, people will flock to you. You’ll be surrounded, inundated by compliments. It can get embarrassing, and I just want to give you fair warning.

You’ll start getting e-mails from people you didn’t even know you’d met at the party. Maybe they’ll find you through Facebook, maybe they’ll look you up in a Student Directory or Google you. I don’t know how they’re going to find you, but they will. At a certain point, you’ll just keep this recipe on your desktop, or just embed it into your email so you can just send it out without thinking about it.

With great power comes great responsibility, and I feel I’d be setting you up without the warning.

I have Mario Batali to thank for this recipe. It’s his take on the Sicilian eggplant classic caponata. He makes his with an entire tablespoon of hot red pepper flakes, which is much too much for most people. I usually stick to a teaspoon, maybe a second if I’m feeling bold. The last time I made the dish, I accidentally made it with the tablespoon, but saved it by melting about 1/3 cup of chocolate chips into a hot spot in the pan. The chocolate danced perfectly with the cocoa and cinnamon; if you’re curious, I say go for it.

This is one of those dishes whose flavors need to date for a while and get to know each other. If you want to make this for a party on Sunday, I’d suggest making it Saturday, or even Friday night. Like a nice wine or Ray Allen, it just gets better with age.

Every time I cook this, I wonder what it would be like if I steamed the eggplant first. If you do end up steaming yours, please let me know how it turned out. I cook it for much longer than Mario suggests, softening things as much as I can. He calls for ¾ cup of basic tomato sauce; I’ve discovered that a box of Pomi marinara sauce works perfectly.

Eggplant Caponata (Caponata di Melanzane) Adapted from Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 large Spanish onion, cut into ½ inch dice

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons pine nuts

3 tablespoons dried currants

Up to 1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes

1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes (I salt the eggplant to remove the bitterness while I scurry around the kitchen prepping the onion and gathering my spices. Be sure to rinse the salt off before cooking.)

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

2 teaspoons fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried thyme

¾ cup basic tomato sauce, or 1 box Pomi marinara sauce

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. In a 10-to-12 inch sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add the onion, garlic, pine nuts, currants and red pepper flakes and cook until the onion is softened and translucent, around 15 minutes.
  2. Add the eggplant, sugar, cinnamon, and cocoa and cook until the eggplant has softened. Sometimes it takes as much as 20 minutes for it to lose its firmness. Just keep on stirring it to make sure it doesn’t stick and brown.
  3. Add the thyme, tomato sauce, and vinegar and bring to a boil.
  4. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

Bring to room temperature before serving.

When you bring it to the party, serve it on crostini, or some slices of baguette. I also enjoy tossing it with some pasta and making it into a meal.

Dinner for Two Becomes Dinner for Five

Shabbos dinner somehow grew from just me and Rich to three guests at our table Friday night. In my fridge I had three beets, a head of cabbage, five mushrooms, and a block of feta. We feasted.

I was very silly and didn’t take photos of our food before we supped, so what I have here are leftovers — hooray for leftovers! I have no shots of the cabbage and mushrooms, which turned out to be the hit of the night. I didn’t do anything special to them — just sauteed up an onion for  a good long time until it began to caramelize, tossed in some garlic, then the mushrooms, then the cabbage.  Right before I took it off the flame I added two sage leaves. All I did was cook the cabbage down until it was too exhausted to put up a fight anymore. Limp, molted green and muddy brown, it probably wouldn’t have made very pretty picture, but it tasted great.

The beets took 25 minutes in the pressure cooker.A very simple dish: I cubed the beets, and half a block of feta, then drizzled balsamic vinegar and sprinkled fresh mint (from my container plants outside) on top.

I used the other half of feta for the quinoa, chickpea, and farmers’ market tomato salad. I cooked the chickpeas in the pressure cooker for 11 minutes with some bay leaves, a teaspoon or so of whole black peppercorns and two cloves of garlic, unpeeled. While that was going on, I cooked the quinoa in my rice cooker — no muss, no fuss. Quinoa is a great pantry staple: protein, carbs, fat, calcium, you can get a pound of it for less than $4 in bulk at Harvest Co-op.

As for feta, here’s a tip: If you go the Market Basket in Somerville — which, by the way, has FANTASTIC produce at the some of the best prices in town — head over to the deli counter. On the right hand side up against the wall is a counter fridge. Inside you’ll likely find huge blocks of really decent feta for about $4.

To dress the quinoa salad, I combined:

6 TBS olive oil

3 TBS red wine vinegar (I like my lips to pucker, so I always go 2 to1 with my dressings, while I think most recipes will say 3 to 1)

1 clove of garlic, minced

1/8 teaspoon mustard (I’m actually pretty anti-mustard, but it can’t be beat for emulsifying salad dressings)

a pinch of salt

a few grinds of fresh black pepper

2 teaspoons agave nectar (you can do honey, too, but I like the sweetness of agave, and it’s good to have on hand for vegan salad dressings)

2 TBS chopped fresh mint

I put all these together in a glass jar, and shook. That’s all. This is basically the blue print for all my dressings.

Make sure to let the quinoa cool down before you dress it. Otherwise it will soak up everything and you’ll be wondering where all your flavor went. I speak from experience!

Quinoa salad on one of my new plates... thanks Freecycle!