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.

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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…

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Not Asian — I Just Eat Like One

Almost Perfect Stir-Fry Chow Fun

I’m pretty sure that my taste buds are in a constant state of identity crisis. They reject most of the typical American foods, such as mac ‘n cheese, heavy casseroles, pizza, and tacos. Sloppy Joes for dinner? No way. Fried chicken? Not in my house. But offer me a plate of pad thai, or won ton soup, or potatoes vindaloo served with basmati rice, and my taste buds will be your best friend. Maybe in some other life, I was Asian. Who knows?

After popcorn and sushi (no, not at the same time), my absolute favorite food is Mongolian B-B-Q, which actually is not Mongolian food at all, but Taiwanese stir-fry. Yeah, confusing, I know. But stir-fried noodles with lots and lots of veggies, and sometimes a little meat or seafood, is indeed one of the BEST FOODS EVER. I could eat it every day. Well, with occasional breaks for popcorn.

Of course, eating Asian food at restaurants can be pretty expensive. So I have been practicing for years to cook my favorite dishes at home. In this post, I will show you how to cook the perfect stir-fry. Okay, maybe “perfect” is too conceited, since this is my own recipe. So we’ll call it Almost Perfect Stir-Fry. Got your wok ready? Here it is:

The Noodles:

There are many different types of Asian noodles. In my photo, the ones on the right are made with wheat flour, and are the kind you typically find in Chow Mein dishes. To prepare for stir-fry, cook in boiling water for 1 minute. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT overcook, or they will be mushy and gross. Drain in  colander. Set aside. For today’s recipe, I used my favorite, rice noodles, also known as rice stick. When cooked in a stir-fry, this dish is often known as Chow Fun.

Rice Noodles must be soaked in cold water for about 30 minutes, and then drained in a colander before they will be ready to stir-fry. Do this before preparing your sauce and veggies.

The Sauce:

3 Tbsp. soy sauce

2 Tbsp. cornstarch

2 Tbsp. oyster sauce

1/2 cup chicken stock

1 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar

2 Tbsp. brown sugar

1/4 cup minced fresh ginger OR 1 tsp. ground ginger

2 Tbsp. cornstarch

Mix together soy sauce and cornstarch to make a smooth paste. Slowly mix in remaining ingredients. Set aside.

Everything Else:

You can stir-fry a huge variety of vegetables, meats, tofu, or seafood. It is a great opportunity to try veggies that you may not have eaten before. For today’s example recipe, I used:

*1 onion

1 yellow zucchini

mushrooms

green beans

1 Asian eggplant

2 jalapeños

*2 cloves garlic

*several green onions

this weird yellow squash I’ve never seen before but found in the Asian supermarket

*cilantro

*I highly recommend always adding onions, garlic, and cilantro to your stir-fries, as they are very flavorful. Cilantro and green onions are best added at the end.

Prepare everything before you cook!

The first key to success in making stir-fries is to prepare everything before you cook. Slice, chop, peel, get those little stringy tips off of your snow peas. Prepare. Then have everything in bowls, ready to be tossed in at the right time. Heat 2-3 Tbsp. of olive oil in your wok (high temps!). Get your wooden spatula ready.

1. Add onions, garlic, and jalapeño. Stir fry 1 min.

2. Add hard vegetables (green beans, carrots, etc.) Stir-fry 1 min.

3. Add soft veggies (zucchini, mushrooms, etc.) 1 min.

4. Push all veggies to the sides of your wok to create a well in the center. Add your noodles to the well. Stir-fry 1 min.

5. Pour sauce directly on top of noodles. Stir-fry everything together for 1 min.

6. Toss in cilantro and green onions

7. Remove from heat and serve in cute Asian bowls with chopsticks. (Chopsticks are not optional, sorry)

One last tip: if you want to add meat to your stir-fry, cook it before the onions and garlic, then remove from the wok and set aside. Add to pan just before the noodles. If you are adding pre-cooked shrimp or peanuts, do this just after step 5. Feel free to adjust my Almost-Perfect sauce until it is almost-perfect for you. Add hot sauce! Try sesame oil! Or forget the homemade stuff and buy one of those pretty little bottles of pre-made sauce. I won’t be offended. Remember, I am not Asian. I just eat like one.

Onigiri — IKEA-Style (My Version of Fast Food)

So our family does a lot of sports. At the moment, my 10-year-old daughter is training to compete in Level 8 gymnastics (22 hrs. of training per week!). My 12-year-old son plays soccer almost year round and practices 2-3 times per week. My youngest starts soccer again this summer, and I play indoor soccer three times per week.

Sports, I love. Kids’ sports, I love. Feeding my family fast food? I loathe. With a passion. I’d much rather throw together a bunch of homemade bean and rice burritos than swing through the drive-thru of Taco Smell. I prefer to prepare and freeze a dozen healthy mini pizza calzones to warm up on the run, or even pack good old-fashioned sandwiches for dinner. And here is one of our family favorites: Onigiri. But, being a true Californian, we had to turn our Japanese favorite into a fusion dish by adding some frozen meatballs from our friendly-neighborhood IKEA store. Ta-daa!! Swedish Onigiri! Here’s how we do it:

STEP ONE:

Throw some Calrose Rice into the rice cooker (the good, sticky Japanese sushi rice works best, although we have tried this with Thai glutinous rice, too. Totally different awesome fusion dish). While the rice is cooking, warm up your meatballs. No IKEA where you live? Any basic 1-inch meatballs will do. When the rice is cooked, line a small cup (like the one on the right) with plastic wrap and add some rice. Make a little “nest” in the center for the meatball.

STEP TWO:

Easiest step of all. Add the meatball to the nest. Cover with more rice (not too much, or your onigiri will be huge!)

STEP THREE:

Lift the saran wrap from the cup and twist around until very tight. If you can stand the heat, then use your hands to shape the onigiri into the perfect ball (or whichever fun shape strikes your imagination).

STEP FOUR:

Unwrap onigiri and sprinkle with salt for flavor and to reduce the stickiness. Best way to eat it? With the hands, of course, especially while sitting in the car driving kids to sports, or while sitting in the stands and watching. Also works well for school lunches, and probably even the dinner table. But who has time for that?

The Best Spanish (?) Rice Ever

Okay, so it is totally conceited to refer to my own recipe as The Best Ever. And it is ridiculous to call this Spanish Rice, as I am 98% certain that people in Spain do not prepare rice dishes like this. Really, it is Americanish Rice. But that sounds dumb. So do other cheesy Spanglish/Mexamerican recipe name ideas, like Fiesta Rice, or Tex-Mex Rice (I am SO not Texan!). Whatever. Let’s just call it arroz. Now let’s cook, because I’m hungry.

The Recipe

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 cup long grain rice, uncooked

1/2 cup chopped onions

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 jalapeño chili, chopped

1 Tbsp. chili powder

1 tsp. cumin

2 cups chicken stock

1 can or 2 cups chopped tomatoes

1 8oz. can tomato sauce

1/2 cup fresh cilantro

salt to taste (plenty–at least 1 Tbsp.)

My Not-Quite-Spanish rice, after I cooked it for lunch today

Before cooking, create a Pandora music station based on Johannes Linstead, Jesse Cook, Armik, or Ottmar Liebert & Luna Negra. Trust me…this will make the cooking more fun and the food more flavorful. Next, follow these directions:

In olive oil, brown onions with rice, jalapeño, garlic, cumin, and chili powder. Add chicken stock, tomatoes, tomato sauce, and salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for approximately 30 minutes, or until rice is cooked. Remove from heat and stir in fresh cilantro. Enjoy as a side dish, or add a can of black beans or cooked, chopped chicken to serve as a main dish. Or roll in a tortilla with refried beans and cheese. Just enjoy.

 

 

Christmas Cookies, Cookies, Cookies (etc.)

Do not…I repeat, do NOT peek into my kitchen right now. It is not just a mess, but a catastrophe. It is as though a bomb made of flour, powdered sugar, nuts, chocolate, cinnamon, dough, and sprinkles has exploded, plastering every possible pan, bowl, and surface.

That is Christmas Eve in my kitchen.

Every December, I take great pleasure in poring over cookie recipes, then spending hours measuring, mixing, and dipping to create dozens of delicious treats. Sometimes I even let the kids help. This year, as always, I baked a few dozen sugar cookies, which I will soon paint with sugary vanilla-almond icing. I have tried a number of recipes for sugar cookies, and here is the one which has always turned out beautifully.

I also made an annual family favorite, Chocolate-Peanut Butter Pinwheel Cookies, dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with crushed walnuts. Sorry…this recipe is top secret. 😉 Okay, fine…the truth is, I got it from a cooking magazine ten years ago, and it is nowhere online. At least, not my version.

I also made Ranger Cookies, and a new recipe, which will perhaps become the next huge family favorite–a cookie from Argentina, called Alfajores. They are a crisp, buttery, vanilla-almond-lemon cookie, sandwiched together with dulce de leche. Can I just say…yum?

A delicious Dulce-de-leche sandwich cookie from Argentina.

Oh, and I just had to try one fully dipped in chocolate, as the Argentines like it. They looked like this:

Every chocolate lover must try this cookie, if only once in a lifetime.

And the taste? Omgcookieheavenomg! I don’t think I will try that again. The very idea of how many calories I just devoured makes my stomach feel a little queasy. Or maybe that is from all the cookie dough I nibbled today.

Finally, I made fresh Pulla Bread, a sweet Finnish Christmas bread flavored with cardamom; and vanilla nut fudge, which is my favorite fudge in the world.

Mmmm...vanilla fudge!

This year’s came out a little grainy instead of creamy and smooth, but that is the risk of fudge-making. The kids don’t seem to mind. They don’t mind the disaster in the kitchen, either. We will all happily ignore it, munching dozens of delicious Christmas cookies together for the next 24 hours or so. Then I will enjoy a nice cup of chai while my kids wash the dishes. (But don’t tell them that part…I don’t want to ruin their Christmas!)