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Easy and Delicious Homemade Yogurt

Our family is nuts about yogurt. Especially of the plain and simple variety. I’m not exactly sure how, but my kids  – who love sweets in every other context – continue to prefer their yogurt rich, creamy and unsweetened. This all means that we were going to through 3-4 32. oz tubs a week. Cost not withstanding, recycling that many yogurt containers began to feel incredibly wasteful. I tried creative reuse at first but one can only hold on to so many empties before they overtake the house. Even the preschool had politely declined donations. I knew it was time to get over my fear of culturing my own food and forge ahead toward homemade. With one caveat: the finish product had to taste just like our favorite Straus Family Creamery yogurt or else. Actually, two caveats: the kids would have to eat it without complaint.

With very little trial and error and a few months of practice, I’ve earned enough yogurt-making props from family and friends to officially go public with the technique. As you’ll see, the beneficial bacteria really do all of the work.

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Quick Tip of the Week: Sweet Potato Fries Discovery

I accidentally bought a couple of Japanese sweet potatoes last week, along with the usual garnet yams, with sweet potato fries in mind. You know the Japanese ones – they are light yellow on the inside, darker purple on the outside and most commonly found breaded with tempura alongside sushi.

Of course I threw them into the mix, assuming it couldn’t hurt. It didn’t. In fact, I discovered that Japanese sweet potatoes are perfect for this preparation. Because of their higher starch content, they hold up better than regular sweet potatoes/yams (this reminds me to again research the difference between the two) and have a stronger resemblance to thick-cut french fries. They are also a bit less sweet, which I prefer.

Give it a try! General directions for sweet potato fries are found here. Once they are tossed in olive/peanut/safflower/grapeseed oil, salt and pepper, a quick 15-20 roast minute roast in a 425° oven is all it takes. End result? Happy, goofy kids:

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Me, Jacques and Kale Caesar Salad

I haven’t been myself in the kitchen lately. Or with food in general, really. No inspiration for cooking, no new ideas to spark our weekly routines, not even an appetite for eating. This is a sad state of affairs for a food lover like me to be in. Especially as the bounty of spring and summer approaches.

That all changed this week. Thankfully. During the past four days, I had the pleasure of spending an evening cooking and learning from the wonderful Tamar Adler, (whose new book is keeping me up at night, in a good way) AND attending a talk by my all-time culinary hero Jacques Pepin, whose KQED TV programs taught me so much about how to cook with precision, economy and love during my college years. A few new cookbooks that just arrived didn’t hurt either.

Me and Jacques, Saying Hello

I see the cook and eater in me re-emerging from the cocoon. This makes me very happy. And now, for a quick recipe to inspire your weekend cooking…. Continue reading

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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…

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Maple-Glazed Brussels Sprouts

When it comes to Brussels sprouts, I’m generally a purist: savory, with olive oil, salt, high heat, maybe some pancetta if it’s on hand and the mood strikes. So you can imagine my reaction the other week when my lovely mother-in-law suggested steaming them, then tossing with maple syrup. I couldn’t go there, but I agreed to split the difference. We went with my usual method but added in the dash of maple toward the end to glaze them. I will be the first to admit that my skepticism went out the window. This is a new family favorite, and with the sweetness, may even entice a reluctant “sprout” to partake.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Warmed Fresh Corn with Cilantro

I’m staring out my window at the pouring late June rain (an entirely bizarre weather pattern for San Francisco) and can’t believe that just two days ago I was enjoying this very summery side dish.

The girls and I had arrived home from warm and sunny Southern California on Sunday evening. The plane landed early, with what felt like plenty of time to whip up a quick dinner (due in large part to the well-stocked fridge my awesome husband left behind). We decided on cheese and mushroom pizza as the main course. One look at the bursting crisper drawers made me want to scrap veggies altogether, until the two beautiful ears of corn caught my eye.

Rather than boil or grill (no time for either), I decided to make a pared down version of a classic summer combo in our house, chopped zucchini, corn, onions and herbs. It was a lovely way to welcome our first summer 2011 corn.

As an aside, I heard an NPR interview over the weekend with star London chef Yotam Ottolenghi, speaking about his new vegetable-oriented cookbook “Plenty.” He totally won me over with his simple yet sophisticated approach to vegetables (not to mention his sexy voice!). Apparently, his secret to home cooking is the liberal use of herbs, which have the magic ability to make even the most humble foods shine. The cookbook is in the mail!

Preparation

Serves 4

With a sharp knife, cut kernels from two corn cobs. This is best done over a bowl since the corn tends to fly in every direction.

Finely chop several handfuls of cilantro (or another fresh herb of choice). You want to end up with 2-3 tablespoons of herbs.

Melt butter (to taste) over medium heat in a pan. Add corn, chopped cilantro, several pinches of salt and a few dashes of pepper to the mixture. Sauté for about 5 minutes, depending on how crunchy or soft you prefer the corn.