Learning Curve

I’d like to establish a new meal train. Remember that meal train that I talked about in February? The one where people from the community would bring us meals during Lilli’s first few weeks? That was great, but, there also should be a meal train for when both parents go back to work full-time. Talk about juggling a schedule!

Lilli in her vest

Until that idea makes the Style Section of The New York Times, I’ll keep on working at that full-time job/daycare/ spending time with my baby/three meals a day balance that I’ve been tackling for these past few weeks. I’ve chatted with some friends who do it — with two toddlers, no less! Some cook meals for the week in a flurry on Sunday night. Others eat a lot of hummus. The crockpot seems to be a tried-and-true friend. (Meat seems to play a large role in that one, though, so I tend to stay away from mine.) I know my pressure cooker will be making a huge comeback on this blog very soon; I’ll just give it a few more weeks. My friend Jason, who’s done a lot of coaching with me, said last week, “Invest in a wok.” Luckily, my cousin Roz gave us a wok as a wedding present, but I have to admit I’ve barely used it in the past six years. That’s about to change, as you’ll see below.

Thai Eggplant and Basil

But first, there are also a few logistical things I’ve figured out that help me to get dinner together as Rich gives Lilli her evening bath: First, I am constantly doing prep work for the next meal. For example, while my salmon and sugar snap peas poached last week, I peeled and sliced up the next night’s parsnips. I chopped the onion for this recipe before Lilli woke up in the early morning, figuring that, if onion makes my eyes water, it can’t be good for a three-month-old. I keep the chopped onion in a designated Tupperware container in the fridge I have marked with a Sharpie pen.

I cleaned a bunch of parsley by resting it in a bowl full of cold water, right next to some cilantro getting the same treatment. I rubbed down mushrooms and soaked escarole in two washes of cold water last night while chatting on the phone with both Sylvie and Gayle. My methods still need tweaking, as I figure out what works the next day. Mango, I learned the hard way, is touch-and-go two days later.

Now, when I now look at a recipe, I break it down into segments, the way we used to parse a sentence in grammar school. But instead of labeling direct objects and clauses, I break down the recipe into steps that can be tackled at different times, sometimes days apart.

Smile

This dish here is a wok dish, so the actual cooking time is very short. I would also advise wearing rubber gloves to chop the hot pepper if you’re going to be in contact with a baby any time following making this dish. I actually picked up the eggplant, sesame oil and Thai basil at Super 88 (Err, sorry, Hong Kong Market) during my lunch break. Now, I’m not expecting all of you to be able to swing by the market during your lunch hour, although I have learned that markets open very early in the morning. There’s a chance you might see me and Lilli at Russo’s at 8am before she gets dropped off at daycare. If you’re wondering who else is at the market between 7am and 8am, the answer is: seniors.

Do you have a rice cooker? Some people don’t like unitaskers in the kitchen, but honestly, I’ve had my rice cooker since I was 18 years old, and it’s more than made up its $20 price tag. I also use it to cook millet; it’s so nice to set it and forget it. (A pressure cooker can do the same thing, although I find a wok and a pressure cooker on our stove to be a bit crowded.) And rice and most grains freeze and defrost very well.

on the table

This is a pretty quick meal once all the ingredients have been assembled. You can make the corn starch slurry and chop the onion, hot pepper and garlic as the eggplant softens and browns in the wok. The Thai basil can rest in a bowl of cold water as you get everything in order on your counter. And, depending on how many are dining, there’s a very good chance there will be leftovers for the next day’s lunch.

Although the original recipe calls for thin strips of red and green pepper, I eliminated them for time’s sake. They’d be great in the dish if you have the time to clean them.

Thai Fried Eggplant with Basil Adapted from Epicurious.com

Ingredients

3 medium-sized Chinese eggplants, halved and chopped into 1” – 1.5” pieces

1 medium onion, chopped into large pieces

3 Thai or Serrano chiles, finely chopped (depending on how hot you like things)

3 Tablespoons chopped garlic

A generous handful of fresh Thai basil leaves, roughly chopped

4 Tablespoons mild-flavored oil, like canola or sunflower, NOT olive

Sauce:

2-3 Tablespoons fish sauce

1 Tablespoon soy sauce

1-2 Tablespoons brown or palm sugar

¾ warm water

Slurry:

2 teaspoons corn starch mixed with 4 Tablespoons cold water

Directions

Mix fish sauce, soy, water and brown sugar; set aside.

Heat wok on medium-high heat. Add 2 Tablespoons oil and eggplants. Fry for 6 minutes on either side, or until they begin to brown and turn soft. Remove from wok.

Add 1 Tablespoon oil to wok. Add onions and fry for 6-7 minutes, or until soft and glossy. Remove from wok.

Heat remaining oil. Add garlic and chiles and fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add onions; fry for 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Return eggplant to the wok, and toss to combine.

Add sauce to the wok, stirring for 1 minute. Toss in basil.

Add corn starch, cooking until the sauce becomes thick and coats the vegetables. Serve immediately over hot rice.

Lunch Break

In all the news that’s fit to eat, this springtime has brought us sun, rain and food trucks. More specifically, the new Boston food truck schedule includes a rotating list of five trucks parked directly across from my office building. Although my co-workers would be the first to tell you that I’m a lunch packer, in the name of research, I have found myself grabbing my hat and scarf and venturing across Commonwealth Avenue to inspect the goods.

There are a few vegetarian options out there, including one of the pioneer food trucks here in Boston, Clover Food Lab. Clover, which now has brick-and-mortar restaurants in Harvard and Inman Squares, offers up some pretty decent $5 pita sandwiches, including a BBQ seitan, a soy BLT, a chickpea fritter (read: falafel), an egg and eggplant, and a rotating seasonal sandwich. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve had there, but I usually walk away saying to myself, “I could have totally made that,” and then go home and make it, or a variation on it.

The latest seasonal sandwich I’ve enjoyed at Clover (back in April) was a steamed sweet potato that had been tossed with cinnamon, dabbed with cilantro sauce, and then topped with a spicy jicama slaw.

I actually recreated the sandwich more or less, sans pita, during Passover, and it’s the inspiration for the sweet potato and cilantro pesto salad below. (Although now I’m realizing that I’ve enjoyed the sweet potato and cilantro combination in the past.) During Pesach I used walnuts, but I ordinarily make it with pepitas, (Spanish for pumpkin seeds). The nice thing about pestos are that they’re very forgiving and can be endlessly tweaked. I know there are some cilantro-haters out there reading this, but I’ve read that one can actually train the palate to enjoy the ruffled herb.

This can be made without cheese to keep it vegan and, depending on if you like spice, with or without chile pepper, although I would strongly support keeping it. Add a can of black beans to make this heartier. A little tip for cleaning the cilantro: soak the leaves, head first, in bowl of cold water, for 15 minutes. The dirt and grit will fall to the bottom of the bowl. I tend to do two rounds of this hands-free cleansing. This can be done as soon you bring the herbs home from the market. Store them in the fridge standing upright in a glass container filled with water.

Sweet Potato and Cilantro Pesto Salad

Ingredients

1 lb. sweet potatoes (approximately 2 medium-sized potatoes)

1 bunch cilantro

1 clove of garlic, peeled and chopped

2 Tablespoons pepitas

1 chile pepper, chopped

1/4 cup hard cheese, such as Parmesan, finely grated (completely optional)

1 squeeze of lime juice

1 pinch of salt

Olive oil

Direct

Choose a pot that’s large enough to hold the sweet potatoes without crowding them. Fill the pot about 3/4 of the way with water and add several large pinches of salt. Bring to a boil.

While the water is heating, peel the sweet potatoes. Slice them in half, lengthwise, then slice those halves lengthwise. Depending on the size of the potato, cut those into three or four 1-inch cubes.

Add the sweet potatoes to the boiling water. Cover the pot and cook the potatoes for about 12 minutes, until just tender, but resistant in the middle if poked with a fork. When tender, carefully pour the pot of hot water and sweet potatoes into a colander in the sink. Set the potatoes aside and let them cool off a little bit.

Into the bowl of a food processor, place the remainder of the ingredients, except the olive oil. While the machine is running, pour the olive oil down the chute. Process for about 35 seconds. I don’t measure the amount of oil I use – my guess is half a cup – but I look for the pesto to turn to a smooth paste that will toss and coat things nicely. Of course, if you like your pesto a little on the chunky side, run the machine for about 20 seconds.

Once the sweet potatoes have cooled down, gently toss them with the pesto in a large bowl.

Heat and Serve

The evolutionary biologist (and outspoken atheist) Richard Dawkins theorizes that the act of applying heat to food was what enabled our early ancestors to gain the nutrients to evolve. Cooking, in other words, is what makes us human.

I hadn’t thought much about this idea until a few months ago, when I found myself trying to explain the intricacies of cooking on Shabbos. I won’t go into exacting detail here; entire books have been written, and degrees have been earned, about the process. But the person I was helping was absolutely fascinated with the idea that, in according to Jewish law, applying heat to raw ingredients actually creates a new substance, which is forbidden. That’s what cooking is: the application of heat to create something new.

I roasted some root vegetables at my parents’ house earlier this week, and my mom asked what I had added to the mix. “Nothing,” I replied. “It was just olive oil and salt. And, I added heat.” I had taken raw, inedible parsnips and potatoes, added heat, and created a spectacular side dish. In college, I used to create a marinade for my roasted roots, with things like tamari and balsamic vinegar, which created a savory crust to the vegetables.

This simple recipe from Melissa Clark’s newest, Cook This Now, is the perfect example of the application of heat to create something entirely new and unexpected. A simple rutabaga, which I learned this year from Ottolenghi can be spectacular raw, has been cooked this time into a warm dish for a cold night. And it’s cheap; today at Russo’s, rutabagas were 29 cents a pound. Granted, maple syrup is expensive, but I get mine at Ocean State Job Lot for a fraction of what it would cost elsewhere.

Roasted Rutabagas with Maple Syrup and Chile from Cook This Now by Melissa Clark

Ingredients

1 ½ pounds rutabagas, peeled and cut into ¾ inch cubes

2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 Tablespoon maple syrup

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Directions

Preheat oven to 400F.

In a large bowl, combine the rutabagas, oil, maple syrup, salt and cayenne; toss well to combine. Spread the rutabagas in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Roast, tossing occasionally, until the rutabagas are tender and dark golden, about 40 minutes.

Clark adds that if you’re not a rutabaga person to feel free to use whatever root vegetables you are enjoying at the moment.

Long Trip, Quick Pickle

I had so many plans for the Fourth of July: pickling things, making jams, eating hot dogs. Lots of hot dogs. But my case of Bell jars and package of pectin were left unopened on the dining room table when we zipped out that morning to visit Brian.

When I finally did return home that Friday, the jars were waiting for me, and most of the veggies I had purchased for my pickling party were still salvageable. And I had company. Through the magic of Facebook I connected with my second cousin, once removed. I think I saw David last at his bar mitzvah, when I was in college. I don’t remember too much about that day, except that his chanting was flawless, there was cholent at the kiddush, and even though I wasn’t quite 21, I was allowed to drink a Sam Adams.

Due to my concern about my not-so-fresh veggies, I asked David if it would be OK if I took a little time to do some cooking during our visit. “Molly,” Rich began, “it’s not very polite to drag your cousin all the way to Boston and make him hang out while you’re in the kitchen.” But much to my surprise and delight, David not only didn’t mind, but asked if he could help me cook.

And it was then that we made the most wonderful discovery: David was the best assistant I have ever had in the kitchen. It made sense: He grew up standing next to his mom in her kitchen, helping clean and chop things, just as I did the same with my mom. And his mom grew up helping her mom in her kitchen… you get the picture. Although we had not grown up with each other, we grew up doing the same things within our own families.

It was so late by the time we got back to Boston that the thought of sterilizing all the jars seemed too daunting a task that night. So we quick-pickled the sugar snap peas and cucumbers for the BBQ the next night we’d planned in cousin David’s honor. Good news: The pickles were fabulous; bad news, since I hadn’t been around that week to remind people, we had more food than people. It was OK, though. The people who could make it were terrific, and the food was pretty darn tasty. But really, these pickled sugar snap peas stole the show.

Pickled Sugar Snap Peas

I adapted this recipe from the amazing Deb, who adapted hers from The Joy of Pickling via Epicurious.

Ingredients

1 ¼ cups white distilled vinegar

1 ¼ cups cold water

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 pound sugar snap peas, stems trimmed and strings removed

4 garlic cloves, sliced

4 small dried chile peppers

4 sprigs fresh dill

Directions

In a nonreactive saucepan, heat the vinegar with the salt and sugar until they are dissolved. Remove from the heat and add the cold water. (This gives you a leg up on getting the liquid to cooling the liquid.)

When the vinegar mixture is cool, pack the sugar snaps, garlic, chile peppers and dill into a 1-quart jar or bowl, and pour the brine over it. Cover with a non-reactive cap or plastic wrap.

The original recipe suggests to wait two weeks before enjoying, but they were pickled ever so slightly by the next evening. I’m not sure how long they’ll be good; these were devoured in less than a week.