Say Cheese! (aka: One Cheesy Summer)

Cheese glorious cheese

Okay, I know it’s Independence Day, and I should probably write a post celebrating our nation’s bold and wonderful patriotic heritage, or about the joy of celebrating by making things blow up. But that’s pretty cliché, so instead, I’m going to write about cheese.

Yes, cheese. Queso. Fromage. Der käse.

See, every summer, my kids and I like to have a foodie adventure. Usually, we pick a country, or a type of cuisine, then we spend a few weeks tasting foods from that culture. We sample at restaurants, look up new recipes, and try our hand at preparing all sorts of interesting foods from around the world. The French and Chinese experiments were huge hits. Soul food and Indian food, to my disappointment, didn’t go over so well with my kids.

This summer, we took a slight detour from our annual tradition. After a delicious visit to a famous Berkeley restaurant known as The Cheese Board Collective, the kids and I were inspired. What if, instead of trying many types of food from one culture, we try eating a variety of fresh breads and cheeses from many cultures? Think of the possibilities!

bread

So once a week, instead of cooking dinner, we head out to the deli, or farmers’ markets, or to local bakeries, and we pick up a fresh, hot loaf of some type of interesting bread, and one or two cheeses. Then we head home and prepare a cheese platter to sample with our bread. So far, along with the usual staples like cheddar, swiss, and mozzarella, we’ve also eaten fontina, harvati, goat cheese, brie, and munster. We’ve also had plenty of breads, like pugliese, naan, rosemary olive loaf, cheddar-jalapeño ciabatta, and garlic-onion baguettes. Like with any foods, we have found definite winners (harvati with dill) and definite losers (a spicy artisan cheese from a farmers’ market stand).

You know, when you really think about it, this is a very patriotic blog post. No, not because of the amber waves of grain that went into each loaf of bread. But because our little food experiment embodies one of the values we Americans hold dear–the freedom to make our own choices. We live in a country where we are at liberty to make our own choices, to try any kind of bread or cheese or other food that we desire. And, true to the American spirit, we can break from tradition and define our own customs, like spending a summer tasting new foods together as a family.

Happy Independence Day!

Independence Day USA

Slow Can Be Mmm Good (aka: Slow Food)

I like a lot of fast things. Running fast. Speeding fast down a deserted stretch of highway. Fast roller coasters (with fast-moving lines). Fast rock songs that leave you breathless after a fast impromptu dance session. The charge of adrenaline, the fast blood pumping through your veins – speed can be quite a rush.

But not always.

slow sunrise heart Sometimes, slow is much, much better than fast. Slow sunrises on a warm summer morning. Slow hikes through a mountain wilderness. And especially, slow food. No, I don’t mean crippled prey that hobbles away as you aim your hunting rifle. I mean sloooow food, as in the opposite of fast food. As in, the slow food movement, which, in case you don’t know, is an entire thing.

There’s some political stuff, too, but to keep it simple, the slow food movement is about three things:

  • Avoiding fast food and processed foods with long lists of ingredients
  • Buying whole foods, then cooking and eating them
  • Making efforts to buy organic, sustainably grown foods from local growers, and even growing your own

There are so many good reasons to avoid fast food, that I could write an entire blog about it. Or, I can point you toward eye-opening books, such as Fast Food Nation or Food, Inc. I try to very rarely eat fast food. Yes, it can be very challenging in today’s fast-paced culture to make meals a slow-paced affair. Believe me – as a single mom of three kids who just happens to be a college student with a job, I get the whole time-crunch defense. Still, I try to find ways to cook healthy meals from scratch for my family on a regular basis. With a little effort, advanced planning, and some help from the kids, I manage to produce homemade soups and stews, veggie-loaded quiches, and pots of thick, spicy chili. We plant a small, organic garden plot each spring, and by summer, enjoy a harvest of juicy cucumbers, crisp green beans, and plump, colorful tomatoes.

more good slow food

Do we ever take shortcuts? Sure! Schedules can get pretty hectic some days, and there is just no time to wait for a casserole to bake. During times like these, we try to turn toward not-so-fast foods – foods that cook quickly, but are still minimally processed, like grilled cheese sandwiches, veggie omelettes, or homemade bean burritos. Foods like these are nutritious and packed with flavor, and can often be prepared faster than a trip to a drive-thru window.

veggies are the best

There’s one more component of the slow food movement which really appeals to me. It is about slowing down and savoring food. Sitting with family and engaging in conversation while eating meals (something I need to work on). Taking a moment out of our busy lives to enjoy the flavors of good, well-prepared foods, and taking comfort in knowing exactly where they came from and how they were produced. There are plenty of moments in our lives when faster is better. Food, however, is much better in the slow lane.

Wine, food and great friends

 

 

Sriracha Everything! (aka: A Spicy Food Experiment)

Sriracha is the key Yesterday, I discovered an amazing new sandwich combination: two slices of white bread spread thick with avocado, plus mayo, a few leftover fish sticks, and plenty of Sriracha sauce. Mmm…my mouth is still watering, just remembering how it tasted.

What’s that? Ew? Okay, I know…maybe most people would have tossed the leftover fish sticks. But I didn’t want to see them go to waste. And anyway, who cares what the rest of the sandwich consisted of? It was all about the Sriracha sauce.

First of all, let me just say that I am not a Sriracha newbie. I’ve been happily dousing my Asian food dishes with the delectable, spicy red sauce for years. But recently, I decided that maybe it was time to experiment a little. After all, I am not a big fan of bland American food, like hamburgers or mac ‘n cheese. So why not try spicing it up a little?

So I did. I poured Sriracha onto my pizza. Squeezed some onto my scrambled eggs. Slathered it onto my cheese sandwiches and painted it onto my black bean burgers. And know what I discovered? That Sriracha makes just about everything taste better. Sriracha is the key. Sriracha is like edible poetry. Sriracha food pyramid

My kids have been amused, watching me worship at the church of Sriracha during meals. “How do you manage to keep a straight face while you eat that?” they ask. “Isn’t it super spicy?” Sure, I say. But that is the great thing about it – the blaze of fire that gives way to flavor. The calculated risk, like the sudden, shocking drop of a roller coaster that leads to a thrilling joy ride.

Sriracha everything!

Sriracha fire bear

I thought about making that my new motto, but my kids kind of ruined that by creating a list of foods they think I should try with the sauce: Peanut butter and Sriracha sandwiches. Sriracha pancakes. Sriracha ice cream. Ugh…grody. So maybe there are a few limits — Sriracha can’t make everything taste better.    But for the most part, it has been a fun experiment. Sometimes we need to try new things to put a little spice in our lives.

I Love Sriracha Sauce

Beans and Cornbread (aka: Food for the Soul)

Soul Food

Sunday night is a trip to the south

Journey for the soul by way of the mouth

Come round!

Come round!

Have a steaming plate of collard greens

Crispy meat and simmered beans

Bowls of gumbo, fiery spice

Taste it – ain’t that nice?

Grandma’s cornbread, bless her soul

Come round hungry, leave here full.

Every now and then, my kids and I decide to go on a cultural food kick. We pick a type of cuisine – say French food, or Thai, or Chinese, and we research recipes and cook and sample all sorts of dishes. It is great fun, and we often end up adding a few new dishes to our usual repertoire. So this summer, I got a bright idea. “Hey kids…maybe we should try cooking some soul food.”

“Soul food?” asked my kids (who are, I should point out, half black American). “What’s soul food?”

Oops. Guess I accidentally left that out of their upbringing.

I’m not going to lie. I was never a fan of soul food. I mean, some of it is okay. I actually love simple dishes like beans and rice, cornbread, and sweet potato pie. But there are a few soul food dishes that even I haven’t worked up the courage to try; like chitlins (aka: chitterlings), for example. I’m just kind of thinking that there are some parts of the pig that maybe are okay to go to waste, you know?

So we went to work researching. We read about the history of soul food, which has its roots in the south, during the period of U.S. slavery. (“So soul food is poor peoples’ food?” asked my teen. “Well, technically it’s southern food,” I explained.). We called up a few relatives to get their input on the correct way to cook gumbo or collard greens, which apparently are supposed to be simmered with meat for several hours. I cheated and steamed ours in the microwave.

For my kids, the results were mixed. Thumbs up: Cornbread, hush puppies, fried fish, biscuits and gravy. Thumbs down: collard greens, red beans and rice, hot links, and grits.

“But the important thing is, did it feed your soul?” I asked, at the end of our culinary journey to the south.

Meh. My kids were indifferent. Apparently, it is pizza that feeds their souls, and not beans and cornbread. Oh well. Maybe our next culinary journey will be to Italy.

To Meat or not to Meat (aka: Going Mostly Meatless with Kids)

Just for the record, I am not a vegetarian. Although I am far more likely to choose a meatless alternative than not, I do eat meat on occasion. My children, however, are crazy about meat. They love big, homemade meatballs, grilled salmon or chicken, and sausage pizza. Unfortunately, anyone who has walked into a supermarket lately has probably noticed the outrageously high meat prices. If not, you can read more about it here: http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/04/16/cpi-shows-food-prices-rising/7742669/ and here: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/05/meat-prices-are-skyrocketing/371383/ .

greasy hamburger

greasy hamburgers are what the kids crave

Veggie Burgers are the best

Now the kids are eating more veggie burgers, just like me.

And so, thanks to inflation, my kids are now half-vegetarians, like me. I’ve cut the amount of meat in many of our usual recipes by half, and I’ve been serving meatless meals 3-4 nights per week. If the kids have noticed a difference, they haven’t said a thing. I’m hoping that it’s due to my mad cooking skills. J

It isn’t really that hard to cut out meat-based meals, or to adjust them to use less meat or no meat at all. And thanks to the internet, there are about a bazillion great vegetarian recipes available to choose from. I’ve finally begun to organize them on my Pinterest page, to make them easier to find. Of course, I’m not bothering to include the super easy meat-free standbys that we eat so often, like grilled cheese sandwiches, frozen black bean burgers, or egg salad. (And as I write this, my teen is cooking a huge bowl of oatmeal with raisins and walnuts).

Will I ever take the leap to become a full vegetarian? Probably not. I have a genetic tendency to develop iron-deficiency anemia and already must take iron pills twice a day. So my health really does benefit from meat. Besides, I love seafood too much, and occasionally crave a good juicy piece of meat. As for my kids, I like to give them the freedom to choose what they enjoy eating, meat or no meat. But unless the prices come back down, they will have to enjoy meat a little less often.

 

Grilled-Meats

What the rich people may be grilling this summer.

grilled veggies

What the rest of us will be grilling this summer.

The Bread of Life (aka: The Joy of Baking Bread)

So here I was, baking fresh sweet rolls to go with dinner, and totally thinking about writing something profound and creative about the way yeast causes bread dough to rise could be a metaphor for life. But instead, I was overwhelmed with hunger pangs as the smell of baking bread began to drift throughout the house. So if this post is a little lacking in depth, well, blame it on the bread. 😉

Bad Bad Baking Bread

Okay, I’ll admit it. I cheat. I’m a big cheatery-cheater-head. I use a bread machine.

I know — shocking. Right about now, all the purists out there are judging me, because surely homemade food should be prepared without relying on modern aids and shortcuts. Well, I don’t care. My trusty bread machine has been faithfully helping my dough to rise since 1997, and I am not ashamed.

Baking Bread

I adore baking bread. Hot, buttery rolls; flaky croissants, and crusty French baguettes. Challah bread beside a bowl of winter stew, and sweet, spicy Finnish Pulla bread with Christmas dinner every year. I can think of no baked item quite as special as fresh, home-baked bread. Now you can talk science all you want, but to me, there is something almost magical about the process, and the way a plain, gooey blob of dough undergoes a metamorphosis, growing, rising, and changing during each step.

Christmas bread

After I have punched, pushed, and twisted the dough into submission, it at last goes into the oven to bake. And then comes my favorite part — the aroma. That delicious, mouth-watering aroma of fresh bread baking. That amazing fragrance that fills the kitchen and wafts into every corner of your home, until at last, you are so overwhelmed with hunger, that you rush to pull those shining, golden-brown loaves from the oven. In your mad impatience, you tear into the hot crust to expose the soft, white interior. Although it is still steaming, you pop your first bite of fresh bread into your mouth.

You burn your tongue of course. But it is worth it. It is always worth the burn to get that first taste of bread while it is still piping hot and perfect. Just as I am going to do right now.

 

 

My Favorite Challah Recipe (Makes 2 Loaves)

Challah bread recipe

2 (.25 ounce) packages active dry yeast

6 cups bread flour

5 eggs

1 cup warm water (110 degrees)

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon salt

Instructions (without bread machine):

In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add 4 of the eggs and beat well. Mix in oil, sugar, and salt. Beat in flour to make a firm dough. (You may not need at 6 cups). Turn out onto floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic (between 5-10 minutes should do it). Place dough in greased bowl and turn once. Cover and allow to rise in a warm place 1 hr. or until double in size.

Punch down dough and turn onto floured surface. Divide into two portions (each will make a loaf). Divide each portion into three. Roll each section into a rope of around 15 in. Place the three ropes side by side and braid, then pinch the ends together to seal and tuck them under the loaf. Places braided loaves on greased baking sheets, cover, and let rise 1 hr.

Beat together last egg with 1 Tbsp. cold water. Use pastry brush to paint loaves with egg mixture. Sprinkle on poppy seeds or sesame seeds, if desired. Bake at 350 for 30-35 minutes. Remove and cool before eating. (Or not).

(Note: There’s more than one way to braid a challah. Try braiding all six ropes together, like in this recipe: http://www.chow.com/recipes/29091-challah )

Cold Winter Nights, Hot Soup (aka Real Soup is Better)

chilcken wild rice soup I’m afraid that I may have spoiled my kids for life. No, not from being overindulgent. In fact, they are usually pretty grateful, compliant children. However, I am afraid that they will never be able to enjoy a bowl of soup from a can. Mushy noodles? Tasteless broth? Tinny aluminum flavor? Blech. I don’t blame them for turning up their noses.

Unlike my kids, I grew up eating soups that came in familiar cans with red-and-white labels. You open a can, dump it in a pot with some water, and heat until warm. Really, the blandness of those soups never bothered me until I grew up and figured out how to cook homemade soups. And now I will never turn back, nor will I force my children to slurp down the canned imitation.

Nothing beats homemade soup. The rich, fragrant broths, the smooth, creamy bisques, the mouth-watering aroma filling the house as the soup simmers on the stove – if you have not experienced it, then perhaps it is time to try. It really isn’t difficult. Most soups begin with a good stock. If you must, or if you are in a hurry, then using a canned stock is not the end of the world (unless you are making chicken soup). But it is very easy to make your own stock. Every time I cook a whole chicken for dinner, I immediately turn the leftover carcass into a delicious stock, which I freeze until I am ready to make soup. There are hundreds of basic chicken stock recipes available on the web – just experiment until you find one that suits your taste.

Not sure where to start? Chicken noodle soup with veggies is usually a safe bet. My children especially love when I make yummy, chewy, homemade egg noodles using this recipe. Here are our other favorites:

  1. Potato Leek Soup (My kids think it tastes just like mashed potatoes with gravy)
  2. Chicken and Wild Rice Soup (Okay, my kids aren’t so into it, but it is one of my favorites)
  3. Butternut Squash Soup (Great fall soup, perfect with a crusty loaf of bread. Tip: Very fast soup if you have already pre-cooked the squash)
  4. Chicken Corn Chowder (My own personal recipe and my kids’ favorite soup – sorry for the lack of photos!)
  5. Udon Soup (I really need to post this recipe to Allrecipes soon. It is a very quick and simple Japanese soup. Makes a delicious, simple lunch):

 

Udon Soup Super-Simple Udon Soup Recipe:

 

*Before you begin, you should know that this recipe is more of a guideline, since udon soup can be modified to accommodate a variety of vegetables, meats, shrimp, or tofu. Also, I don’t really measure anything, so it is tricky to determine exact amounts and times. The best thing to do is taste and add until it is right for you. Oh, and yes, udon soup can be made using dashi, but I prefer to use memmi, which is more readily available to most people, and can be found in most major supermarkets beside the soy sauce.

 

 

2 quarts of water

1/3 to 1/2  cup Memmi (a Japanese soup base)

2-3 Tbsp. tempura sauce

1 pkg. dried udon noodles (Usually come banded together in bunches – I use 1 bunch)

2 cups assorted chopped veggies (I often use mushrooms, spinach, green onions, and bok choy)

1 cup cooked shrimp (or cooked chicken, or hard-boiled egg, or chopped firm tofu)

 

Boil water. Add Memmi base and tempura sauce to taste. Add noodles along and cook 1-2 minutes (do not overcook, or noodles will be mushy!). Add veggies and shrimp (or other protein). Remove from heat and serve. See? Super-simple.

Don’t be intimidated by making soup. It is really quite easy to do, once you get the hang of it. Naturally, you and your family will enjoy some recipes more than others. For example, one Thanksgiving, I made oyster chowder, which, according to my darling children, tasted exactly like pond water, or perhaps sewage. Nice, huh? Well, when in doubt, bake a loaf or two of homemade bread to accompany the soup. That way, if it doesn’t go over well, no one will starve.

campbells chicken soup 1960

No…don’t do it, kid. You’ll regret that bite. Ew! Spit it out! Yuck! Here, try some real soup…