DSC_0677

Winter Greens and Leek Frittata

With spring around the corner, I’ve been craving lighter foods but ones that still retain the heartiness of winter fare. This frittata is a wonderful option for this transitional time of year. Use the recipe as a base for any combination of vegetables. Little bits and mixtures are perfect.

The rule of thumb is to create a diversity of flavors and textures, adding herbs if you have any on hand, and a representative of the allium family (onion, leek, garlic, shallot, etc). I love how these humble ingredients are elevated to a far fancier status with the addition of eggs and a little milk. This frittata is super versatile – a full proof choice for any meal and a great option for a casual brunch. Make it the night before if that is easier, and warm gently before serving.

The recipe below features a winter combo. In spring, try gently cooked fava beans, English peas, scallions and chives. In summer, a mix of sautéed summer squashes and basil or cilantro will be delicious. The possibilities are endless. Now if only I could convince the kids to love this as much as I do…

Continue reading

DSC_0573

Sunday Suppers: Moroccan-Spiced Braised Chicken

We launched our Sunday Suppers tradition last weekend with an absolutely delicious braised chicken dish from none other than “Sunday Suppers at Lucques” by Suzanne Goin. Granted it was prepared and served on a Monday, not Sunday, but it was a holiday. Still counts, right? Dear friends joined us for the meal and it was beloved by all, including the little ones.

I loved this recipe for so many reasons and wanted to share it with all of you. First of all, for a restaurant-quality main course, it was surprisingly low-key to make at home. This adapted recipe will hopefully smooth out the kinks I experienced and make it even simpler.

Second, no one can argue with the ease of braising – provided you have a large ovenproof pot and a bit of time, you are guaranteed to end up with a tender, deliciously moist result, especially if you use legs and thighs. Our family is slowly learning to love dark meat, and this recipe is sure to become a standard in the repertoire.

More importantly, thighs and legs are the most affordable cuts of chicken, especially when compared to boneless/skinless breasts. This makes buying organic or sustainably-produced options that much easier. Here is more information on why it is so important to buy sustainably-produced chicken and how to do so without breaking the budget.

I served the chicken alongside the Italian couscous suggested in the original recipe, which was an interesting but not beloved choice. I would stick with a regular cous cous, which will be a perfect compliment to the Moroccan-inspired flavors. Add a vegetable side dish (I made a chicory salad with fennel, toasted almonds and satsuma slices) and you’re all set.

Continue reading

Annoucing New Blog Feature: Weekly Meal Plans

Happy 2012 to all of you! A lovely holiday break has left me feeling invigorated and ready for new adventures that this year will undoubtedly bring. But Tuesday’s return to reality was also a good reminder that its time to get my act together when it comes to cooking routines. My primary food resolution for this year? To be more organized about planning meals. And what better motivation to accomplish that than to commit to sharing those plans with you?

During the last couple of weeks, when dinner often meant socializing and celebrating, I found some much needed to space to reflect on why 5PM is the most dreaded time of day for me. I realized that half the battle of getting a satisfying dinner on the table – especially on weeknights when time is of the essence – is planning ahead. I’ve occasionally tried meal planning in the past but too often, it doesn’t last. This results in various inefficiencies and frustrations slipping into my routine – the lack of ideas, the repetitive meals, the extra grocery runs for that missing ingredient or two.

So. To inspire my family and yours, I decided to do a regular feature on seasonal meal plans, some featuring meat, some vegetarian. Expect to see these posts on Thursdays, to allow for weekend grocery shopping and planning. I’ll recommend a main course; you can assume that almost any side of vegetables will work as an accompaniment. School lunch ideas will also be included, as leftovers tend to be a big hit for my kids.

Let me know what you think!

Continue reading

DSC_0801

Quick Cook Polenta and Our “Three Sisters” Dinner

Summer has finally arrived in San Francisco, but given that it is the middle of October, I find myself instinctually craving cool weather foods. Polenta came to mind immediately, being a hands down favorite. My girls especially love what they call “soupy polenta,” the soft melty version that you make from scratch. I’m sure images of hovering over a stove, stirring endlessly, come to mind immediately. But alas! Let me introduce you to the quick cook polenta technique, which takes nothing more than about a half hour and a working oven.

Before we get to the preparation, a few more words about polenta. It is an incredibly versatile side dish, it compliments almost any dinner, meat-centered, vegetarian, or vegan. Of course it is healthy, not to mention nourishing in that way that only a good porridge can be.

I decided to try something different this week, serving the polenta alongside Rancho Gordo’s Good Mother Stollard Beans that my friend Elizabeth (who writes a stunning blog called Pastry Break) recommended. They had been languishing in the cupboard for months now, but after my recent post about homemade beans I was motivated to put them to good use. Topping things off with the last of the summer squash from our garden, sautéed with lots of garlic, I realized that I created the culinary version of the traditional Native American agricultural trinity known as the Three Sisters: squash, maize and beans.

It was hearty, delicious and simple to pull together quickly on a weeknight if you have the beans prepared in advance (which will just need defrosting and reheating time). Any beans will work. I also recommend drizzling a bit of simple tomato sauce over the polenta if you happen to have some on hand.

Preparation: Quick Cook Polenta

Adapted from the San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook Volume II

Preheat over to 350°

Boil at least 6 cups of water in a kettle or pot. In the meantime, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a medium to large ovenproof pan over medium-high heat. Add 1 cup polenta, and stir to coat with oil. Cook until heated through. Gradually stir in 6 cups of boiling water to the polenta – be very careful of backspray when the first cup of water touches the pot.

Return to a boil (should be almost instant) and add 1-2 teaspoons of salt. Cover the pan and place in the warm oven. Cook undisturbed for 35-40 minutes. Take care as you remove the pan from the oven, as it will be VERY hot. The mixture will look somewhat separated at this point, so whisk the polenta until it is well-blended to determine if it is done.

No stirring until its ready!

Mix in 1-2 tablespoons of butter, and a cheese of your choice (or skip both in favor of more olive oil for a vegan option). Serve immediately to enjoy its softest and creamiest texture. Or, chill to transform into a hard polenta dish.

DSC_0646

Easy, Delicious From Scratch Beans (Yes). Bisphenol A (No).

I’ve wanted to do a post on beans for a while now, because they are such a wonderful healthy food that seems to appeal to even the pickiest of palettes. In our house, beans satisfy both the carnivore and the omnivores, and are a perfect hot school lunch option when paired with rice or polenta.

Over the past two years, I have slowly weaned our household away from canned foods. I came to this decision out of concern that canned foods are contaminated with a chemical called bisphenol-A (BPA for short). BPA is hormone disruptor that can interfere with normal development and function of the body. Recent tests by the Centers for Disease Control show that exposure is fairly ubiquitous, and human evidence of harm is emerging. Since canned foods are a primary source of exposure, and one that we generally have control over, reducing our family’s reliance on canned food seemed like a good strategy.

Figuring out how to efficiently make beans from scratch was key to this effort (that, and canning my own tomato sauce, which I’ll leave for another post). The great thing I discovered is that making beans at home is actually very easy; it inspires exploration of different bean varieties (we were stuck on pintos for years but tried heirloom black beans this summer that wowed us with their flavor and texture); and most importantly, it is far cheaper than canned.

The key to making this work? Don’t plan around a bean dinner to make beans. Make them anytime you’ll be around the house for at least an hour and have the capacity to stir a pot every so often. Or, better yet, rely on that slow cooker that may just be collecting dust in your small appliance cemetery. If you’ve got one, all you need is an outlet and a few hours of passive (ie no involvement from you) cooking time, no soaking required. Make lots of cooked beans and use some, then freeze the rest in small to mid-size containers. They defrost beautifully.

Stovetop Technique

Note: 1 cup of dry beans = about 3 cups cooked beans

Rinse and sort dried beans of your choice, discarding any blemished ones and stones/grit. Place in a medium-large pot and cover beans with cool water by about two inches. Soak overnight or for 8-10 hours. I usually set this up in the evening and if I don’t have time to cook the beans the following morning, I’ll place the soaked beans in the fridge until I carve out a more convenient cooking time.

Once the beans are soaked, it is time to cook. Start with a medium to large pot, depending on how many cups of beans you are preparing ( I would recommend at least 2 cups of dried beans to make it worth the time). Cover with three times their volume of fresh water. I like to add 1-2 tbsp. coarse sea salt to the cooking water, along with some aromatics.

Bay leaves, whole garlic cloves and onions are great options, especially for Mexican-style black and pinto beans. Bring beans to a rapid boil, then lower heat to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Check occasionally to be sure there is enough cooking water. You’ll know the beans are done when they are cooked through but not falling apart.

See below for use/storage info.

Slow Cooker Technique

This is my favorite method because no soaking is required! Wash your beans thoroughly, and place into slow cooker. Cover beans by about an inch of water, a little more is fine too. Add 1-2 tbsp. coarse sea salt. If using a fine salt, use less. You can always add more salt later but you don’t want to overdo it. Toss in the aromatics of your choice (see above) and cover. Set the timer for 3 hours. If you are home, check the slow cooker to be sure the beans are covered with enough water. If they begin to look dry, add some more. They should be ready in 3-4 hours depending on the beans.

Storage and Use

I recommend holding on to a least a can’s worth (a 14 oz. can of beans is about 1 ½ cups) in the fridge for school lunches; to serve alongside quesadillas for a quick lunch or dinner; to accompany chicken tacos; to sprinkle with nutritional yeast for a quick snack; and to make into proper vegetarian dishes of various sorts. The possibilities are endless.

Freeze the rest, and be sure to cover the beans with cooking water when freezing them. Now you have beans at your disposal anytime, after a quick defrost.

Final note: For those of you who eat beans frequently, a pressure-cooker may be a useful tool. I had to put the kibosh on further appliance purchases for our household but my vegetarian friends swear by it. Unsoaked beans can be cooked in a pressure cooker in 20-45 minutes, depending on the variety.

DSC_0450

Turkish Dinner Part 2: Lamb Burger Sliders + Yogurt Sauce

I’ve been meaning to send out this post for several months now, originally intended to follow closely on the heels of the Turkish Lentil Soup. Distractions in the realms of summer fruit, fish in packets, and life in general have arisen lately, but wait no more. Turkish Dinner Part 2 is here, in its full splendor.

The idea is to create a quick and hearty main course to accompany the soup. Originally conceived as a lamb burger slider intended to fit perfectly into a pita pocket and drizzled with a simple yogurt sauce, we ended up trying it with ground beef on account of Ava’s dislike of all things related to lamb (as least as of last week). For once, I’m grateful for a finicky kid palate because the beef version turned out to be almost as good, and I tend to keep ground beef in 1 pound packets stocked in the freezer. Why, you ask? Because the awesome grassfed beef producer at our farmers’ market sells them at a discounted price if you buy four packs. Which I do, and then appreciate having it on hand. But I digress..

Preparation

Serves: 4-5 (4 adults)

Preparation time: 30 minutes

For burgers:

  1. 1 1/2 pounds ground lamb or beef (preferably grassfed)
  2. 1 small onion, minced
  3. 1 garlic clove, minced
  4. 3 tablespoons finely chopped mint
  5. 3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  6. Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  7. Whole wheat pita bread (ideally the small round version but anything goes)

In a medium bowl, lightly knead the ground lamb/beef with the onion, garlic, mint, parsley and 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Mix gently but well.

Shape the meat into small sliders, 1/2 inch thick, and line them up on a cutting board.

In the meantime, pour 1-2 cups plain,whole milk yogurt into a serving bowl. Add any combination of the following, depending on preference and ingredient availability: 1 small garlic clove, finely chopped; 1/2 cup seedless cucumber, finely chopped; 1-2 tbsp fresh mint/parsley; several pinches of ground cumin and chili powder; salt and pepper.  This is intended to be a very flexible sauce. Salt and pepper alone will do the trick in a pinch.

Prepare either an outdoor or indoor grill, and grill the sliders for about 6-8 minutes to the desired doneness, turning once during cooking. Toast pita bread either on grill, in oven or in a toaster. At this point, you can either set 1-2 sliders on the pita bread or open the pita and stuff them inside (I prefer the latter). Drizzle with lots of yogurt sauce and serve. If your family is anything like mine, you will need LOTS of extra yogurt sauce.

I couldn’t help but also add padron peppers as a side dish to this dinner.If you haven’t already tried these, you should. They take about 5 minutes to prepare, no work other than washing is involved, and they are addictively delicious. And generally not spicy.

Quick sautéed padron peppers with olive oil, sea salt and pepper. Yum!

Success!

CZC_7282

A Perfect Package: Fish “En Papillote”

A dear friend made a blog request the other week for fish. Innocent enough, right? Yet I instantly felt paralyzed. For not one, but two reasons.

The first is easy: fish is definitely not my strong suit in the kitchen. I’ve been known to buy gorgeous fillets of salmon and halibut only to overcook/undercook/generally destroy said fish in myriad and creative ways. I did not have that magic touch, which turned out to be fine because the kids rarely clamored for a fish dinner. Until recently. But more on that in a minute.

The second reason for my hesitation is more challenging to explain. As a passionate environmentalist and public health advocate, I am acutely aware of the slow but steady destruction of our oceans, evidenced by the continuing decline of fish stocks among other factors. Couple this with the fact that many fish we eat, while so healthy and delicious, also happen to be seriously contaminated with industrial pollutants like mercury, led me to stop eating fish altogether in recent years. Lucky for us, several incredible environmental organizations have created handy guides that provide recommendations on how to make fish choices that are best for the oceans AND best for our health.

With the explanations out of the way, we’ll come back to kids clamoring for fish. Recently, Ava asked about a dinner I made years ago, one that she summarily rejected if memory serves me. It was halibut “en papillote,” and her excitement caused me to set my hesitation aside and give fish another try. We discovered in the process that everything IS better gift wrapped. These lovely little packages of perfectly steamed fish are now a favorite family meal. You can use any white, flaky fish you like (ideally, from a sustainable source). Add any combo of aromatics and vegetables you prefer and/or have on hand. Right now, we are into a caper-olive version with sliced onion and lemon. I can’t wait to try an Asian-inspired combo with sliced ginger/lemongrass/scallions/soy sauce/sesame oil.

Preparation

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Total time: 25-30 minutes

Serves 4

Preheat oven to 425°. Gently cut 1-1.5 pounds of fish fillets into four equal pieces. Tear off 4 sheets of parchment paper – about 12-14 inches long depending on size of fish. Arrange your toppings, which could include salt and pepper; oil (olive oil, sesame oil, walnut oil, whatever works for the flavor profile you are choosing); soy sauce; chili flakes; chopped herbs; lemon slices; onion/scallion/shallot slices; olives; capers; roasted red peppers; the list goes on and on!

Place fish in the center of parchment paper, in line with the shorter direction of the paper. Generously sprinkle fish with salt (or soy sauce) and pepper, and drizzle with oil of your choice. Add toppings to the fish – this is a great time to include your kids into the cooking experience. After all, when’s the last time they got to decorate dinner?

Bring parchment paper ends edge to edge, with the fish and toppings in the middle. Work your way down in small folds until the fish is snug underneath the paper. The outer edges will still be open at this point so fold each down into a triangle like you would wrapping paper, then work your way in toward the center. Those edges probably won’t stay folded perfectly but it will work. (As an aside, there are other, probably prettier ways to create the folded packet – I urge you to share them if you try any out!).

Folder packet, ready to bake

Transfer packets onto a baking sheet and place in the 425° oven for 15-20 minutes, depending on thickness. Serve alongside a whole grain, roasted potatoes and vegetables, a salad, anything works. Do be careful opening the packets – they are filled with steam so this part is NOT for little hands.

Baked and ready to serve

The final photo, ready to eat!

DSC_0401

Summer Squash Linguine with Cheese

We returned from a wonderful vacation a few days ago, and I’m finding myself very happy to be home and cooking again! Not that we didn’t have an amazing time exploring the various treasures of British Columbia but after a long stretch of restaurant meals, I crave the simplicity of home-cooked food. This post was set up the week, assuming there would be time to finalize it and share while away but as with so many things, you live and learn. Everything about my daily life – even this blog – felt very distant as we explored gorgeous Salt Spring Island and dabbled in city travel with two little ones (the former is far easier).

And now, onto important matters, like: zucchini candy. Yes, zucchini candy. This phrase was coined by yours truly last summer after years of frustration trying to get the girls to willingly eat summer squash. After all, it is a quintessential summer vegetable.  It not just withstands, but thrives, in the harsh conditions of our little backyard plot. It is surprisingly versatile. And it happens to show up in droves in the CSA box, which means I am often on point to come up with creative strategies for preparing it.

Of course zucchini muffins go down easy, but not so the savory options. I tried the soup approach (which is incredibly delicious and simple – will post on this later). No love. I tried the simple saute with mushrooms. Lukewarm. Then, I hit the magic bullet: we grew our own. Suddenly, there was real pride involved in harvesting, which then leads to a greater willingness to eat the spoils. The outcome of  a quick saute on high heat with garlic and olive oil became “zucchini candy”. We struck gold. As long as it was served as a side dish, it disappeared alongside smiling faces.

So this summer’s test was to see whether I could incorporate it into a main course with any success. Since I’ve been personally obsessed with linguine for the past few weeks (on account of a transcendent version with anchovies and spicy peppers I had at Locanda recently), I decided to give a simple summer pasta dish a try. To my total surprise, they went for it hook, line and sinker. It seems as though a new quick, simple and delicious dinner (or lunch) is born!

Preparation

Total time: 30 minutes

Serves: 4-6 or more  (easily scaled to the number of people you are serving)

  1. Working with a ratio of about 1-1 1/2 pounds of summer squash per 4 servings, cut squash in half, then slice into thin half circles. Thinly slice 4-5 garlic cloves. Chop a few handfuls of fresh sage if you have on hand (or parsley, oregano, tarragon, whatever you favor).
  2. In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to boil for the linguine (or other pasta, per your preference) and cook according to package instructions or until al dente, remembering to generously salt the water before adding pasta. Be sure to reserve about a cup of cooked pasta water before draining the noodles.
  3. Warm a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan and saute the squash over high heat, stirring often so it doesn’t stick or burn, about 10 minutes. It should be caramelized (brown) and soft, a darker in color and sweet to taste when ready. When you think the squash is almost ready, add the garlic slices and cook for a minute or so, until fragrant but not brown.  This would be a great time to add a dash or two of chile flakes (adding them later, upon serving works too).
  4. If you are using fresh herbs – besides sage – add them to the squash-garlic mixture in the last 5 minutes of cooking. If you are using sage, fry them in warm olive oil in a separate small pan and reserve as a garnish. This is totally optional.
  5. If your pan is large enough to hold the zucchini mix and all of the pasta, add the drained pasta and a bit of the cooking water to the pan. Toss to distribute the vegetables throughout the pasta. If you – like me – don’t have room to mix everything in one pan, create a saucier vegetable mix by adding about 1/2 cup (or more if dry) pasta water to the squash mix and cooking for a minute or two, making sure to scrape the delicious caramelized bits on the bottom of the pan.
  6. Drizzle lemon juice, to taste, on the pasta and serve with grated Parmesan cheese  (Asiago, Gruyere or another hard cheese would work great too) and a salad on the side. Don’t forget to sprinkle the fried sage on top if you made some.

DSC_0007

Turkish Dinner Part 1: Summer Lentil Soup with Lemon

I woke up the other morning feeling like soup. A light, summery soup, but not a cold one. Not yet. Temperatures were barely grazing 70  so I decided to wait for a real heat wave before bringing out the gazpachos and cold yogurt soups.

Jonah and I honeymooned in Turkey this time of year about ten years ago, and absolutely fell in love with their classic red lentil soup, known as Mercimek Çorbasi. It is beyond humble in terms of ingredients yet the squeeze of lemon and dash of sumac and cilantro at the finish results in something delicious and satisfying either as a light meal or a first course.

Soup preparation also sparked some last-minute inspiration, which I always appreciate, especially on a Wednesday. I spied a pound of ground lamb hanging around the freezer, and turned the simple soup dinner into “Turkish Night.” The ground meat became lamb burger sliders, which we served in toasted pita, drizzled with yogurt sauce. I’ll share those recipes in a separate post – they were amazing. According to Ava, so amazing that the dinner “could be served in a buffet.” There is no higher form of compliment.

PS I just realized I’ve been on a lentils kick. This will pass soon. I promise.

Preparation

Adapted from the New York Times

Serves 4-6

Prep time: 5-10 minutes; total time: 40 minutes

In a large pot, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over high heat until hot and shimmering. Add 1 large chopped onion and 3-4 minced garlic cloves, and sauté until soft, about 4 minutes.

Stir in 1 tbsp. tomato paste, 1 tsp. ground cumin, 1/4 tsp. each kosher salt and black pepper and a pinch of chili powder or cayenne (yes – even for a family meal. It won’t be spicy, I promise!). Sauté for 2 minutes longer.

Add 1 quart of chicken/vegetable broth and 2 cups water (or 6 cups of water) to onion-spice mixture along with 1 cup of red lentils and 2 diced carrots. Bring to a gentle boil, then partially cover pot and turn heat to medium-low. Simmer until lentils are soft, about 30 minutes. Taste and add salt if necessary.

Cool soup a bit, then purée half the soup using an immersion or regular blender or a food processor. Add pureed soup back to pot. The soup should have some texture.

Reheat soup if necessary, then stir in juice from 1/2 to one lemon (to taste). Garnish with fresh chopped cilantro, a sprinkle of sumac if you have it on hand and a drizzle of olive oil.  You can also dust it lightly with chili powder if desired.

DSC_0648

Lentil Salad with Spring Vegetables and Goat Cheese

I’m addicted to grain/legume salads these days (see here, plus there will be more to come). Easy to whip up, a great way to use miscellaneous vegetables languishing and neglected in the crisper drawer, perfect for warm summer weather (which will come to SF at some point, right?). What’s not to like? In terms of a family dinner, this falls into the questionable category – dishes that I offer many times before they become a hit.  I’ll ask the girls to try a few bites of the regular version, but likely keep on hand the various ingredients in their separated form in case the “yuck” factor strikes. Aim for color with the vegetable mix and also crunch. Eventually they’ll come around. I hope!

Preparation

Serves 4-6

Mix 2-2.5 cups of cooked lentils*** (french or beluga lentils would be best here, or a mix) with 1-2 cups of mixed chopped vegetables. In my version, I used cooked fava beans, sliced cheery tomatoes, chopped hearts of palm for a tangy contrast, radishes, carrots, a few turnips. English or sugar snap peas would also be perfect additions, as would fresh corn, cucumber, bell peppers, etc. Add a combination of chopped herbs you have some on hand: parsley, cilantro, mint and tarragon would be great choices.s Toss with lemon juice or your favorite vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. If desired, add crumbled goat cheese, feta or Mexican cotija cheese.

Dressing please!

Version without cheese ready to serve

*** I tend to rely on Trader Joe’s prepared lentils to make this salad extra easy. If you don’t have access to this product, make your own:

Cooked Lentils

Place about 1 pound of french lentils to a large pot of water. Pierce a small onion with a few whole cloves (optional) and add it to the lentils, along with 3 dried bay leaves, and one large diced carrot. Cover by at least 2 inches of water. Bring to boil, cover and simmer for about 20-30 minutes, until lentil are soft but intact. Add more water if needed. Season with salt and pepper and drain.