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Pasta with Broccoli Romanesco and Chickpeas

For reasons I cannot quite pinpoint, my cooking mojo has disappeared the past few weeks. Maybe it is the neither-here-nor-there winter we are having in Northern California, or the inevitable decline in innovation that comes at the tail end of a season. But whatever the case may be, thank goodness that some variation of pasta with vegetables and legumes always works for a quick weekday dinner. The beauty of this meal is that it primarily relies on ingredients you typically have on hand, and exact proportions don’t matter. Cooking these humble basics together elevates them to something far more special, with very little effort.

As I’ve probably mentioned too many times, my cooking inspiration usually comes from the CSA box and the crisper drawer. Grounding a meal around a (preferably local and organic) vegetable is somehow easier than starting with any other pantry staples. Not to mention healthier. This simple meal begins with the bumpy, lumpy, gorgeously lime green broccoli romanesco, which appears to have landed in the 21st century straight from the Jurassic era.

But any broccoli would be a perfect substitute, as would a combo of other cruciferous vegetables. I throw in olives and capers for a salty tang, and chickpeas for protein. This is a great “transition” dish for kids who prefer their food components separate but are willing to try a more “adult” meal where everything is tossed together.

On a separate note, in honor of my one-year anniversary of blogging at A Happier Meal, I made some updates to the design and functionality of the site, including a direct to Pinterest button. Enjoy!

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Salted Caramels: Happy Valentine’s Day!

My crafty and creative older daughter started her class Valentine’s project early this year, knowing even without my prompting that burnout can set in quickly once the novelty of fancy paper, glitter and flashy pens wears off. In addition to the lovely cards, she also settled on the lofty goal of making homemade candy.

Salted caramels seemed easiest to tackle though I have to admit I was skeptical, given previous experience that resulted in a lovely sauce instead of a cute candy. Using a different recipe, she made her first attempt last week. Unfortunately, that turned into teeth-cracking toffee.

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February Weekly Meal Plan

February is upon us, and though it feels like spring outside, I’m still in winter cooking mode. Here is what I plan to make for dinner next week. A combination of simple weeknight meals (even simpler if you make the lentil soup on Sunday night) and a roast chicken to celebrate the end of the week. I’m assuming various vegetables will be added as side dishes. Don’t forget to consider organic when buying produce for your family. How to make organic choices without breaking the bank is discussed in more detail here.

MONDAY: Winter Lentil Soup with Greens (spinach, kale, chard, etc), crusty bread and a good cheese on the side.

LUNCH NOTE: Make a large batch. Freeze half for future use, send the rest to school for lunch this week.

TUESDAY: Store-bought ravioli of your choice with either a simple marinara sauce and parmesan; or butter/olive oil, sautéed kale and toasted walnuts. Maple-glazed brussels sprouts would make a great side dish.

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Coconut Macaroons (Dipped in Chocolate)

I’ve gotten in a habit of keeping unsweetened coconut flakes around as a pantry staple. It’s perfect for elevating simple cut-up fruit to “dessert” status, for spiking banana bread batter, sprinkling on yogurt and granola, you get the point. But its most important use is as a main ingredient in these delectable macaroons. I promise that even without taking it all the way to chocolate-dipped (which we almost never do), you won’t be able to put these down. Even my non-coconut loving friends can attest to how awesome these are!

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Quick Tip of the Week: Foolproof, Easy to Peel Hard-Boiled Eggs

I have to hard-boil two dozen eggs this weekend for a kid snack contribution. Normally, I would be anxious with worry about how they will peel. After all, I’ve never had consistent luck with the various approaches to a perfectly peeled egg. Some say  to chill the cooked eggs in cold water. Some say to peel right away. Some say to wait until they cool. Use older eggs. All good ideas but not foolproof, at least in my kitchen.

But thanks to my friend A. and her friend’s Pennsylvania-Dutch granny, I’ve hit the holy grail. How we got to talking about eggs when we met for lunch on a rainy fall day, I’m not sure. But we did. And out came a story about how A. and her friend volunteered to make hundreds of deviled eggs for a wedding. The horror on my face was immediately visible but she reassured me that there was no reason for concern. Each and every single egg peeled beautifully thanks to this nifty trick: cooking the eggs in salted water!

This works for us every time. Let me know how it goes for you.

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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.

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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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My Favorite Food Books of 2011

Life has been a whirlwind the past few weeks since Thanksgiving, filled with traveling spouses, busy weeks at schools, and wonky injured lower backs. I would love to share with all of you details of my experiences learning how to make delicious challah from scratch, and how my kids reacted to roasted pumpkin Thai curry I decided to try out in the midst of the madness. But that wonky lower back is still with me, and time in front of the computer is scarce this week. So instead, in the spirit of the holidays when we all tend to cook/bake more, as well as wrack our brains for those perfect gifts, I though I’d share my favorite food book acquisitions from this year.* I hope this provides inspiration on various fronts.

Happy days to all of you!

Lena

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Baking Ups and Downs: Apple Marzipan Galette

Though I only bake cakes, tarts and pies a handful of times in any given year, the perfectionist in me inevitably takes over the minute the oven is warming up. So each Thanksgiving, never quite satisfied with the previous year’s results, I up the ante and vow to try something new.

From a culinary standpoint, the best thing to emerge from my Thanksgiving efforts this year is knowing how to make graham crackers from scratch. This is a fun trick to add to the repertoire. Turns out, homemade graham crackers are remarkably easy and taste far better from scratch then store-bought. But the reason for the graham cracker experiment in the first place? I’ve had problems the past few years with homemade pie crusts. Despite following strict directions provided by reliable sources like Smitten Kitchen and David Lebovitz, I seem to have no luck with the the hand-blended, all-butter crusts they favor, which leave melty, buttery oven messes and crunchy, crackly pastry. Far from perfection.

Luckily, a few days after the holiday, I decided to make this apple marzipan galette (which I haven’t been able to get out of my head since eating it at a friend’s house over a year ago) using a slightly adapted version of Ina Garten’s pastry crust. Remember that saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” Well, that couldn’t be more apt in this case. I used this pastry crust recipe for years with great success but the combo of shortening and food processor seemed passe and a bit fussy compared to the all-butter version. The galette turned out gorgeous and delicious, with a wonderfully flaky crust. I will never stray again! Even if I will have more tools to clean up.

Incidentally, pumpkin pie might just be out next year, in favor of this incredibly easy version of apple “pie.” Unless one of you has a favorite recipe you might be willing to send my way?

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