Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Friday, July 21, 2006
Honestly, Odd Toddler is getting too skinny. I poke at his rib bones to see if there is any body fat left on my formerly Fat Baby, and all I get is giggles because apparently those pokes are in tickle spots. I will use him as my excuse for this ridiculous need of mine to ALWAYS have dessert on hand. I don't mind making weekly brownies anyhow, since they tend to last six or seven days at our house, and mostly since it allows me to try new brownie recipes every time I get an itch.
Seriously, We Love Brownies.
I wised up on Sunday last weekend and made a huge lunch so that we could get our big meal of the day over with, allowing me to relax for a few hours instead of spending all afternoon on supper. But things didn't work out exactly as planned. As usual.
I cleaned up the lunch dishes, put the leftovers away, and plopped down on the sofa next to Odd Toddler. He was occupied with some new wildlife books that his Nana brought to him, The Carnivore had his nose in the newspaper, and I had a long list of relaxing activities to tend to (most of which included reading cookbooks). I was pretty sure I had exhausted every brownie recipe that existed when I came across a short section on them in my favorite new reference book How to Cook Everything. There were only a small handful of brownie recipes, each of which was inordinately similar to the other ones I have tried, but (oh joy of all joys) there was also a little inset of variations to normal brownie recipes. And, be still my beating heart, one of the suggestions involved adding ESPRESSO POWDER to the batter.
Maybe I haven't stressed it often enough before, but The Carnivore and I are Coffee Freaks. Neither of us can get more than five minutes into our day without coffee, and I usually drink four of five cups. Just to start the day, that is. I have been known to French Press another cup or two in order to make it through the afternoon. And there was that time in a beautiful mountainous city in Venezuela when I stood my ground outside my hotel room and steadfastly refused to Do Anything, Take Another Step, or Say Another Word to Anybody unless my two doting travel companions went IMMEDIATELY in search of some coffee for me. In many Hispanic countries (and neighborhoods, if you find yourself in the small annexed "country" of Miami), you cannot get coffee in anything smaller than a thimble. I have long found this inordinately frustrating, because it meant I had to juggle 15 or so thimbles full of scalding Cuban coffee when I would stop at the market in the mornings in South Beach. But I digress.
Coffee is such a fixation that I cannot resist, under any circumstances, coffee desserts. There was a cappucino cheesecake in San Francisco that made me swoon a few years ago, and I love the coffee-flavored Italian dessert tiramisu so much that I took Odd Toddler into a (gasp) liquor store in order to get the coffee liqueur I needed to complete the recipe. And, oh my gosh, have you ever had dark chocolate covered espresso beans? Wow.
Even Odd Toddler has developed a taste for anything coffee. He has grown so accustomed to tasting everything I make that I have had to begin allowing him a tiny amount of Cheapaccino (diluted by large quanties of milk while he has his back turned, of course) when I whip up a batch for myself and The Carnivore on weekends. Odd Toddler will even stick his nose over my coffee cup in the mornings and breathe in the vapors, cooing "Yummy, mama's coffee."
So I felt safe in attempting an espresso-flavored brownie recipe. Actually, the variations also included adding 1/2 cup of chocolate chips to any brownie recipe, and since I have an equal fixation on dark chocolate...
With recipe in hand, in the time I had set aside to relax and NOT cook, I sprinted to the kitchen, chuckling gleefully. The Carnivore smiled at Odd Toddler, and said "Mama's up to something. This sounds like its gonna be good."
BITTERSWEET ESPRESSO BROWNIES (adapted from How to Cook Everything)
- 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
- 8 Tbs (one stick) unsalted butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- pinch of kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 Tbs instant espresso powder (Cafe Bustelo makes one that can be purchased in little jars at Publix)
- 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips (such as Hershey's Special Dark)
- Combine the unsweetened chocolate and butter in a large glass bowl and microwave for a minute or so, stirring every 15 seconds. When the chocolate is nearly melted, stir until the mixture is smooth.
- Stir in the sugar.
- Beat in the eggs, one at a time.
- Gently stir in the flour, salt, vanilla and espresso powder.
- Fold in the chocolate chips.
- Pour into a greased 8-inch square baking pan, and bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes, or until just barely set in the middle (the longer you cook them, the drier they will be - I prefer mine to be so moist that you nearly need a fork to eat them).
This is, without a doubt, my new favorite brownie recipe. And Odd Toddler ate his weight in them.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Life with a child, I am learning, means that sticking to a schedule is vitally important. For a few months, that is. Then the schedule changes drastically before the new one is established and must, again, be stuck to verbatim for the next few months. It is I that gets knocked out of whack every time a new schedule change smacks me across the face. I had finally adapted to Odd Toddler's new summertime schedule when The Carnivore threw me for a loop and began working later every day. I don’t mind that he leaves for work at 6:30 in the morning, but is has taken some adjusting now that he usually doesn’t get home until 6:00 at night.
My more complicated and time-intensive dinner recipes are having to wait for the weekends now, which means I am having to develop a new repertoire of faster and simpler menus for weeknight meals. This is no easy feat for me. Though I absolutely love picking out new recipes, I seem to be drawn to the more complex menus. With The Carnivore working later, and with Odd Toddler falling asleep earlier, after hours in the pool every afternoon (and therefore needing cuddle time earlier), I find that I either can’t start dinner until The Carnivore gets home, or poor Odd Toddler falls asleep before dinner, or The Carnivore gets home to a very cranky and over-tired Odd Toddler who is stuffed after snacking while I cooked. ‘Tis frustrating, at the very best.
Needless to say, I am learning to adapt. Again. And even though I’m not a big fan of cookbooks that are geared toward “quick and easy recipes,” I’m finding that I have no choice but to simplify our weeknight menus. The upshot is that I’m learning an entire new way of approaching dinner. While I already have a few easy recipes left over from the days, many moons ago, when I still had a Full-Time Traditional Job, our tastes have changed since then (read: we have gotten pickier and more spoiled by the elaborate recipes that I've been cooking).
So, even though I have never been a fan of Rachel Ray and her annoying 30-Minute Meals television show, I swallowed my snide comments and bought her latest cookbook when I found it for $1.00. My low opinion of her approach to cooking was reinforced when I realized that out of 365 recipes, I was drawn to only two of them. The vast majority either revolve around meat, or are boring and overly common.
With low expectations, I tried the first of those two recipes last week, a fancy-sounding tuna sandwich stuffed baguette, and was extraordinarily surprised to find that not only did I absolutely love it, but The Carnivore and my mother raved about it as well. I’ve always been kind of a sandwich person, but since The Carnivore isn’t a big fan of cold sandwiches, I had my doubts with this recipe. And then I was a little worried about the whole tuna salad thing too, since before now I have never run across a tuna salad worth talking about. Or worth eating, for that matter. This particular recipe takes the cake though. Its fresh and bright tasting, without the smarminess of the usual mayo and pickle based tuna salads everyone remembers from bad family reunions.
The artichoke hearts, the sundried tomatoes and the capers add a full-flavored tang the dish, and the arugula lends a spicy, peppery bitterness as well. A couple of anchovies could be added, if you're so inclined (which I'm not), and the onions could be replaced by scallions if you, like Yolie, have an aversion to the assertive red onion philosophy that I so heartily subscribe to.
FANCY TUNA SALAD STUFFED BAGUETTE (adapted from 365:No Repeats)
- 1 crusty baguette (I used the chubby kind, those skinny Nicole Ritchie baguettes wouldn't work here)
- 2 small cans Italian tuna in oil, drained
- 15-oz can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
- 1/2 cup marinated sun-dried tomatoes, drained and chopped
- handful of fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped (the flat-leaf has MUCH more flavor than the curly variety)
- handful of olives, chopped (I used a mixture of kalamata olives and pimento-stuffed green olives)
- 1/2 red onion, chopped
- 3 Tbs capers, drained and chopped
- 2 cups arugula, chopped
- 3 or 4 large basil leaves, chopped (or any other fresh herb that you're partial to)
- coarse ground black pepper to taste
- kosher salt to taste
- zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 3 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
- Crisp the bread in the oven. Remove, split in half, and hollow out some of the soft insides.
- Place tuna in bowl and flake it with a fork. Add the artichoke hearts, tomatoes, parsley, olives, onion, capers, arugula and basil.
- Dress salad with pepper, salt, lemon zest and juice, and olive oil. Work salad together.
- Overfill the bottom of the loaf, mounding the salad. Set the top in place and press down to set the sandwich. Cut into quarters.
Yummy. Makes me want to whip up a big batch and eat it for lunch all week long.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Feeding Odd Toddler has become more of a challenge than I had hoped. I had grown accustomed to him walking around with his mouth open all the time, which made it incredibly easy to offer the chubby little child a varied diet. In those days, I hardly batted an eye over any junk food, knowing it was counterbalanced by any number of healthier items over the course of the day. Not so, any longer. The little guy seems to subsist now on maybe fifteen bites of food per day. He is very active, and though I have seen this play out in plenty of other children, nothing seems scarier to me than watching a toddler slim down, especially when I can’t figure out how he gets by on so little food to begin with. Obviously now, every little bite counts.
Odd Toddler drinks organic whole milk all day long, supplemented by water and the occasional smoothie I whip up to increase his fruit intake. For now at least sodas and juice are fights I can postpone a little bit longer. And, of course, I have had him taking children’s multi-vitamins since he was weaned from the breast. Obviously he isn't wasting away, but I can't help but become hyper-vigilant about his diet.
Meal planning has become more creative, to say the least. Since I have such tiny bird-like meals in which to fit in his nutritive vegetable, fruit, and fiber needs, I am having to focus with a single-minded concentration that nearly sends me over the obsessive edge. To save my sanity, and to not become a Snack Nazi, my latest child-feeding goal has centered on making typical child-friendly foods in a more healthful manner. Like all red-blooded American children, Odd Toddler loves French fries more than life itself (and gummy candies, but that’s a different battlefield altogether). I realize there are snacks much more evil than oven-baked pre-packaged frozen French fries, but I’d be hard pressed to find something that I find more disgusting, and so it was time to improve upon them...
I needed a side dish for last night's meal anyhow, and had been waffling for a couple of days over the best counterpoint to a catfish Po-boy dinner, when I had one of those sweet “Eureka!” moments. I remembered a recipe for Spicy Potato Wedges that I’d been dragging around for a long while, waiting for the right opportunity, and so I dug around the kitchen until I got my hands on it early yesterday morning. Alas, the recipe involved grilling, and I wasn’t in the mood. I’ve read countless variations of the standard toss-potato-wedges-with-olive-oil-and-bake recipe, but I’m always wary to try something the first time without better guidelines than my faulty memory can provide. So I pulled out my trusty How to Cook Everything, and was disappointed to find only one French fry recipe, which sadly involved deep frying (which would, of course, defeat the whole purpose here).
So there I stood, hands on hips, sneering at the cookbook shelf for nearly fifteen minutes as I pulled down useless cookbook after useless cookbook, relatively embarassed that I had never attempted to make french fries from scratch before now. Finally, too frustrated to continue the manual search any longer, I fired up the laptop and went to the Cooking Light website where I was chagrined to find that a search for “French fries” yielded nothing. Nada. Not one single recipe. Out of possibly tens of thousands of recipes in their archives, I didn't get the first hit.
I scratched my head for a minute, fiddled with a pen, tapped my feet, mumbled, and typed “potato wedges” into the search. Unbelievablly, I received innumerable possible recipes in the results window. Figures. The first recipe I clicked on looked like a winner, and I already had all the herbs and spices on hand.
So last night, with Odd Toddler looking on hopefully, I rolled up my sleeves and tackled what I assumed would be the difficult task of carving two large potatoes into French-fry-looking shapes, but which turned out to actually be fun. After no more than 10 minutes of prep (including the time it took to admire a spider that Odd Toddler brought to me, unstick two of his stubborn Legos during a tower-building fit, and refill his sippy cup), the fries were in the oven and I was free to prep and assemble the rest of our dinner. So far, so good.
And less than an hour later,( the last few minutes of which were filled with Odd Toddler hopping around manically, constantly repeating the refrain “French fries, mom! French fries, mom! Me French fries, mom! Me, mom! French fries, mom!”), I hesitantly bit into an uber-hot French fry and was overjoyed. They were fabulous. I love French fries (who doesn't?), but have always considered them a guilty pleasure. In this recipe though, they're downright GOOD FOR YOU.
Odd Toddler ate two plates of them, and The Carnivore yummed himself through quite a few as well. I feel like I've won the lottery (or finally passed Remedial Cooking for Dummies).
TASTY-YET-HEALTHY FRENCH FRIES (adapted from Cooking Light), makes enough for 2.5 people
- 2 large (approx 12-oz each) baking potatoes
- 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- 1/2 tsp coarse ground black pepper
- 1/4 tsp dried marjoram
- 1/4 tsp dried tarragon
- 1/4 tsp dried rosemary
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Cut potatoes into fry-like pieces, leaving the skins on (for texture and for additional nutrients and fiber). Out of two large potatoes, I got 40-50 fries. The smaller the size, the crispier the fries.
- Place fries in a large jelly-roll pan, in a single layer.
- Drizzle fries with oil; toss well.
- Combine salt and other herbs/spices; sprinkle over potatoes.
- Bake at 400 degrees for 50 minutes, stirring/tossing once or twice during cooking.
Without a doubt, PMS (or pregnancy cravings) will now become easier to deal with.
Friday, July 14, 2006
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
The underlying problem is my new feeling of inadequacy. The last two foodie books I read (A Cook's Tour, by Anthony Bourdain, and Julia Child's My Life in France) have given me the inordinate desire to learn French so that I don't feel quite so stupid. It seems that all great chefs learned classical techniques from French chefs/schools, and everyone keeps bringing up recipes whose TITLES are even in French. Three years of Spanish in high school (see how I blame everything on high school?) mean that I cannot even pronounce half of these dishes, much less glean any clue as to what they refer to. Ugh. I cannot ABIDE with feeling stupid.
Which brings me to the next issue: I am not finished with higher education. It took me 9 years to get my undergrad degree because I dragged it out. For years, I couldn't think of a good reason to give up free bus passes, free use of the greatest college gym facilities in the South, reduced healthcare at the student clinic, and the (pseudo)-freedom to take any class that struck my ever-changing fancy. I have so many hours under my belt that my second-to-the-last advisor warned me they might just make up a degree to fit my hours if it would get me off their rolls. And sure, I happened into a major and thus into a career that has really fit my needs and has allowed me the freedom to create my own job. I fear though that I may have missed my calling.
But hey, Julia Child didn't find her own true calling until her late thirties. As a matter of fact, she didn't even start cooking school until she was forty. And I think she was in her fifties before she first got published. So I probably shouldn't be beating myself up too badly over how much I still have to learn. But I do have to make a new list of educational goals. No longer will the list include classes in Greek culture (I swear it this time, I am REALLY leaving Homer behind). Now my goals will include learning basic French, and the anal-retentive study of culinary school textbooks so as to learn the science behind cooking. I will have to do it all by independent study at this point, because there is no way that I can go back to school right now, not with a toddler to take care of and (hopefully) another baby on the way in the near future. Someone please remind me of these reasons every time I get the itch to start filling out college apps again.
Until recently, my self-education in cooking has been limited to reading anything I could get my cheap little hands on (Cooking Light magazine, the AJC Food section, the New York Times Dining section online, etc). And sure, I've tried an absurd number of recipes, and I've even gotten fairly adept at making ingredient substitutions, and because of all that I haven't taken my severe lack of real culinary knowledge too seriously since my main and probably only goal when I embarked on this hobby (read: obsession), in the beginning at least, was just to have a wide repertoire of dinner recipes with which to dazzle my hard-working husband every night. But I have never been one to leave well enough alone.
And so now I find myself attempting all manner of complex recipes, and spending entire afternoons in the kitchen trying to perfect some new technique or another. But I have increasingly become aware of my limitations. On Sunday I attempted a focaccia bread recipe, and though I could tell something was off before I even finished kneading my dough, I didn't know how to fix it (or even how to tell for sure that something was really wrong), so I sat on eggshells for an hour and a half, anxiously lifting the towel every fifteen minutes to see if my dough was rising properly. The dough did, in fact, rise, but it was a sticky, airy, gooey, useless mess that I had to chunk out. After a hissy fit (yes mom, it really WAS about the dough), I somehow managed to salvage our dinner plans, but in a peevish snit I grabbed the biggest cookbook off my shelf and skulked outside to the porch swing where I flipped to the very first word and began reading.
Mom called a few minutes later and I told her I was reading How to Cook Everything. "What book is that?" she asked innocently, assuming I was reading another foodie memoir. "It's a 900-plus-page cookbook," I grumbled," and I'm only on page xiv. "Hm," was her uncharacteristically short and un-opinionated response, apparently not wanting to push me when it was obvious I was so close to the edge. Because of course, this isn't JUST about the food. A lot of this is just about me. Sunday was the day my second son should have been born, but instead he was delivered, stillborn, five months too early. And though emotionally I have (mostly) healed, I have had no choice, in my own mind, but to throw myself headlong into self-improvement. It was either that or wallowing, and a mother doesn't have time to wallow.
Maybe this will pass, the self-education that is, but I doubt it. I'm more focused these days than I've ever been before (one of the many benefits of parenthood), and I actually tend to finish the things that I've started. So even though I haven't yet figured out the best way to go about learning French, I have begun a subscription to Cook's Illustrated, a dry and quirky black-and-white bimonthly ultimate food nerd magazine, and I have stomped around in Ebay, bidding on a couple of used Cordon Bleu textbooks. At least this particular hobby (again read: obsession) will be of great benefit to my household; I mean, its not like I've taken up ballroom dancing or golf.