The Cook and His Sous Chef

It’s chilly here in Northern California. Not Minnesota chilly mind you, where growing up, I didn’t wear a jacket until the thermometer dipped below 40 degrees. Now after living in California for more than a decade I’m a certified cold weather wimp, and will layer up in thermal wear if it gets colder than 60 degrees. It barely hit 60 degrees today so a hearty fish stew seemed the perfect Sunday night meal to warm us up. That, and my sister-in-law sent a Vitamix, and we wanted to experiment with this new kitchen gadget.

In full disclosure, I did not lift a finger in cooking this meal. That was left to my husband. He ended up not using the Vitamix. Instead, he used Olivia who turned out to be way better than a high-priced, high-powered blender. They cooked downstairs, while upstairs I sat contentedly reading a novel. I would hear snippets of their conversation while amazing smells of garlic, cilantro, and fish wafted upstairs, causing my stomach to make ridiculous hunger noises. Most of the talk centered on the husband explaining the importance of correctly measuring out ingredients, and why you can’t rely solely on the timer to gauge whether mussels are done. My husband also tends to be more patient that me when cooking with the kids, so I only once heard him raise his voice over misread cooking instructions.

The misread mishap did not ruin the recipe in the least and everyone ate with gusto.

 

The meal not only warmed my belly, but it also warmed my heart to see my husband and daughter share their love of food by cooking together.

The recipe, courtesy of Andrew Zimmern was a hit. I highly recommend trying it even if you don’t have budding young sous chefs to help out in the kitchen.

 

Twisted Sisters

Of the three girls, Olivia hands down is the kid chef. Erin’s the eater, and Carrie, well at 4, Carrie’s just usually in the way in the kitchen. Today however, they all banded together to make homemade soft pretzels.

Since Olivia is already pretty darned accomplished in the kitchen, she started things off and made the dough.

My Dough Girl

Check out her arm muscles. She used all of them to knead this dough ball. The flowered apron also helped.

Next came the twisting, and that’s where the two younger girls entered the picture, putting their own spin on rolling and pretzel twisting.

They may have little hands, but these girls can twist!

Don’t they look good?! I can’t even say I took over and twisted these puppies. Nope, my girls got some pretzel twisting skilz.

The Final Product

And after 12 – 15 minutes, here’s how they looked. Sure, they’re not a deep, dark, golden brown, but they were still crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside.

You have to eat homemade pretzels hot out of the oven right? Anything else would be blasphemy. So even though it was lunchtime, these mammoth pretzels turned into our lunch.

Who needs things like fruits or veggies for a lunch right?

;

It was an all carb meal until my Jewish guilt kicked in and I cut up some watermelon triangles to go along with the mega pretzels.

Olivia’s been on a huge cooking kick recently, and as much as we want to encourage her to cook, it can be a huge pain. Sometimes, we just want to get a meal on the table, without the huge production a 9-year-old brings to that table.

At the onset of this cooking adventure, I was not excited about this, but by the end, I think I may have had more fun than the girls.

With the end of summer approaching us, I’m trying to make a point of having some memorable days on my days off work. Today was a memorable day at home, as much for me as it was for them.

Cooking Note:

This was a really simple recipe, and really good when you have some young helpers. Thanks to PBS for posting this recipe.

Passover 2012: A Few Questions and a Few Answers

I really didn’t want to put together a Passover Seder this year. I really didn’t. We had just come home from an extremely relaxing vacation at the beach and the last thing I wanted to do was stress out over a Seder meal. I almost blew it off. Almost. Then the Jewish guilt set it, and it set in hard.

So last night I toasted farfel, which for those not in the know, is crushed up matzoh that is mixed with egg, oil, salt, and pepper, and toasted in the oven for about twenty minutes. It’s basically a Jewish version of oyster crackers for matzoh ball soup because in our family you can’t have too much matzoh in matzoh ball soup. It has been a staple on my family’s Seder table for decades and it would be blasphemy to keep it off my own table now that I’m the one doing the cooking.

I also made something that I dubbed matzoh crack.

It may look pretty disgusting, but it’s totally addicting.  Come on, you’ve got to doctor up matzoh to make it edible. Drenching it with homemade caramel and chocolate does the trick.

Today, Seder Day, I went into hard-core Jewish Mom Cooking mode or JMC for short. I first got the chicken soup simmering. I’m known for never cooking the same thing twice, and chicken soup is no different. I perused epicurious.com and found a chicken soup recipe that looked interesting and decided to give it a go. So much for a stress free Passover. The recipe called for removing the skin, which I did, giving me a good excuse to try for the first time making chicken schmaltz and gribenes.

Gribenes and Schmaltz: The Dynamic Duo

These two things are a Jewish delicacy. I used the schmaltz, also known as rendered chicken fat, for the matzoh balls. When you render the fat, you still have the skin, which is the gribenes. The little pieces of greasy goodness didn’t last long. They may be small, but each bite gives you a pop of crunch and grease all at the same time. I haven’t tasted them in years, and it took all my willpower not to eat the whole plate. It’s amazing how one food can transport you back in time. As I snacked on these sumptuous morsels, I felt like I was sitting in my Grandma Ida’s kitchen fighting with my brothers over who got the last piece of gribenes. My Grandma Ida was an amazing cook, but an even more amazing woman. She was a pint-sized powerhouse who raised two sons all on her own. If you know my Dad, you know that was an even more difficult task than it sounds. From the stories I’ve heard, he was hell on wheels as a kid. Some think he still is.

The star of any Seder has to be the matzoh ball soup. I usually pop open a box of matzoh ball mix, but since I had the schmaltz, I tried a homemade concoction that included fresh herbs.

For an adult palate, they tasted great. They even tasted great to a 9-year old.

For the younger set however, not so much. My 6-year old said, “I like the soup and the farfel, but I don’t like the green stuff in my matzoh balls.”

She may not have liked matzoh balls, but she loved the grape juice. So did her younger sister.

They don’t usually get juice for dinner, so they took full advantage of the four cups of wine. (or juice in their case)

 

 

 

 

While they may not have been drunk, they were entertained thanks to these little guys:

Nothing says Passover like plague finger puppets! I bought these a few years ago, and shockingly we still have all ten. Yes, we do know our young audience. Unlike Seders from my childhood, we also do a kid-friendly abridged version, using a preschool Haggadah. It hits all the highlights from the four questions to the dayenu song in about fifteen minutes.

One thing that didn’t make our Seder however, was gefilte fish. I couldn’t do it. I don’t like it. My husband doesn’t like it. And my kids? Are you kidding me? No way.

Sure, our Seder may not have been 100% traditional, but we’re far from a 100% traditional family. All I know is it created lasting memories for me and my family. That’s good enough for me, and I’m sure it would have been good enough for my Grandma Ida too.

 

 

 

 

Cook in Training

Olivia is quite comfortable in the kitchen. She can make a mean cinnamon toast and a delectable cream cheese sandwich. She also has whipped up her fair share of easy bake oven dessert creations. But at nearly 9 years old, we figured she’s ready for real cooking, none of this easy bake oven crap.

So onto amazon.com we went and she picked out a kids cookbook. It’s an around the world cookbook, with each chapter devoted to a different region. It arrived yesterday, and today she made her first dinner. You’d think she’d start out simple, cheese quesadillas maybe, or even good ‘ol spaghetti with jarred pasta sauce. Nope. She picked out shrimp pad thai.

Yeah, the kid in the picture looks happy, but I knew I’d be lucky to get this meal on the table without any tears.

First up was shelling and deveining the shrimp, which she did with the help of a sous chef.

Next, she soaked the rice noodles.

Then came mixing up the sauce.

Now, here’s where things got interesting. Olivia started pouring the soy sauce.

And she didn’t stop until she reached the 1/2 cup mark. I was still working on deveining the shrimp, and her dad was concentrating on the pictures.

It was only when she started measuring out the fish sauce that he noticed how much was going into the cup. Needless to say, she misread the instructions. It could have been worse. Much worse. Imagine if we didn’t notice until we took the first bite. So we started over with the  sauce, but this time there was a little more parental oversight.

Once all the ingredients had been carefully measured and added to the bowl, Olivia was ready to start chopping.

She may have been ready, but I wasn’t. Every time she got ready to make a cut, I kept yelling, “watch your fingers!”

I finally stopped sweating and yelling once she put down the knife.

But next up was actually cooking, using a hot as hell wok. I started sweating again, and not from the hot wok. Did I want her to get anywhere near it? Hell no! Did I? You betcha.

I’ve got to give Olivia credit. She may have been nervous about cooking, but she didn’t show it, and didn’t get upset when she had to redo the sauce.

But redoing the sauce meant a finished product that brought her a big smile.

Meal Masterpiece

Smiles are one thing, but the proof is in the taste.

If you ask her sisters, they really liked it, Erin probably more than Carrie. The nearly 4-year old was mugging more for the camera than actually eating.

The adults liked it all right, but there was a problem that had nothing to do with the cook. We topped ours with some chopped peanuts, which unfortunately expired in February of 2010! Oops. Rancid peanuts will never make a meal tasty, no matter how good the cook.

Olivia didn’t seem troubled by the bad nuts, and she’s already talking about the next meal she wants to make: English scones. Luckily it doesn’t have nuts.

The Layover in San Francisco

He’s been all over the world, and now in his new show The Layover, Anthony Bourdain returns to my turf, San Francisco. If you haven’t seen the show, which I highly recommend, Bourdain spends about 30 hours drinking his way through a city. I didn’t particularly like the first few episodes because it felt like a cheap off label version of Bourdain’s original series No Reservations. Yeah, I’ll watch it if nothing else is on, but if I want the good stuff, I’ll save up for it. Well I was low on TV options so I decided to catch up on a couple of  The Layover episodes, and I have to say, they’ve gotten better.

Maybe I’m biased because I love San Francisco, or maybe it’s because he was inebriated for 29 out of the 30 hours he spent in SF, but it was funny. Damn funny. Any show that starts off in the Tonga Room at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel is bound to spark a fair amount of hilarity, and this episode of  The Layover did not disappoint. It was like watching a progressive pub crawl in fast forward and skipping the right to the slurred words and stumbling in the street scenes. I lost count of the amount of drinks Bourdain consumed. He had at least three potent drinks served with fancy umbrellas in huge lava or skull themed glasses. I’ve been to the Tonga Room a couple of times, even used it as a backdrop for a news special I produced, but never, ever did I try even a fraction of the drinks Bourdain enjoyed.

From Nob Hill, he continued his San Francisco tour through a one of a kind Chinatown bar, and then headed into another bar where the dude behind the counter wore a tie. Bourdain eventually ended up at a pizza and burger joint that’s known for staying open late. The chef and foodie is in one of the top food cities in the world and he’s scarfing down a double cheeseburger. Yep, that pretty much sums up The Layover. The show highlights people, places, and drinking establishments that you’ll never read about in Fodor’s or Rick Steve’s guide books, but still make you want to visit.  Hell, I was just happy Bourdain didn’t dog San Francisco again, like he’s been known to do on No Reservations. It’s probably because he was drunk almost throughout the entire episode, but Bourdain was effusive in his love for SF. I think at one point he even said it’s the best drinking city in the world.

After watching probably a half-dozen episodes of The Layover, I’ve noticed something. The drunker Bourdain, the better the episode. In fact, I’m watching the one on Miami as I write this, and Bourdain is way more sober, and it’s nowhere near as good as the San Francisco episode. So if Bourdain were to ever ask my producing advice for his show, I’d tell him to do what he did in San Francisco. Drink early and often. It may not serve him well on the flight home, but it makes for entertaining television.

Family, Food, and Fun in that Order

It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without overindulging in butter laden carbs and sweet gooey pecan pie with your family by your side.  I’m thankful that I had both good food and family to enjoy it with this Thanksgiving.

We originally thought it would just be our immediate family, but at the last minute, Van’s sister decided to join us. I’m not sure who was happier, us or the kids. “Auntie” is one of the best house guests you can ask for. She’s very low maintainance, empties the dishwasher, and never seems to tire of playing UNO. Every time she visits, we beg her to relocate. Maybe if we issue a moratorium on kiddie card games, she’ll actually take us up on our request.

While Auntie spent countless hours entertaining the kids, Van and I cooked.

Homemade Pecan Pie with Vodka Pie Crust

I once again used America’s Test Kitchen famous recipe for vodka pie crust, which produced a beautiful dessert. The pecan pie tasted as good as it looked, but as always happens with Thanksgiving, my eyes were much, much, much bigger than my stomach, and eating a slice of this little piece of heaven put me over the edge of gluttony. It hurt me to shovel bite after sweet bite into my already huge stomach.

I’m not usually one for cranberry sauce, but I’ve got to hand it to Sunset Magazine for their cranberry pear relish recipe.

Instead of a gelatinous sauce, this tasted fresh and bright.

Van was responsible for the turkey, gravy, and dressing. This year the bird turned out brown and beautiful, and most important, not undercooked. Another near first: no lumpy gravy. It was smooth velvety, and really helped improve the taste of some lackluster mashed potatoes made by moi. The dressing was equally spectacular, moist and full of flavor. Sorry traditionalists, we did not stuff it in the bird. We bake ours separately.

As much as I enjoyed the food, the company is really what made Thanksgiving memorable. Our crazy kids.

It doesn’t get much better than watching your kids stuff their face with turkey and all the trimmings. Who would’ve thought a 3-year-old would  attack a turkey drumstick with such gusto? Clearly she is Van’s child.

Once all the leftovers were put away and the dishes washed and dried, I finally took a moment to really reflect on what I’m thankful for. It’s holidays like these, that are small and simple, and filled with laughter and love. What more could a mom ask for?

Proof I’m a Jewish Mother

If the daily guilt I impart on my kids wasn’t enough, here is picture proof that I am a Jewish Mother:

Momma's 1st Homemade Challah

Yep, you are looking at a misshapen, but honey browned holiday challah. It may not be pretty, but I’m hoping it tastes better than it looks. I’ll find out tomorrow when I bring it to a friend’s house for a break the fast dinner. This challah was made with lots of love, some sweat, and a little bit of fire.

Burning Challah

OK, the challah didn’t actually catch fire, but the parchment paper did. Imagine my surprise when I glanced at the oven and saw flames, big flames through the oven window. I quickly opened up the oven, and managed to save the challah from the flames, thereby preventing an epic fail for my first challah making endeavour. Who knew making challah could be so dangerous?

I’m a decent cook, but making a braided holiday challah takes crafting skills that I’m not hardwired for, but  that didn’t stop me.  I gave it the old college try, first making the dough and letting it rise,

then braiding it into a circle,

My challah braiding skills are a little lacking

and letting it rise again before popping it into the oven.

House of the Rising Challah

Since this was my first attempt at making a braided challah, I did what any good Jewish Mother would do; I searched YouTube for a video demonstration. I must have watched a dozen of them, but based on how this turned out, I probably should have watched a few more.

Erin didn’t hold back with the critique of my challah braiding skills, as she yelled at the top of her lungs, “That’s not how we did it at preschool!” She’s right. I’m sure that’s not at all how they did it at preschool, but the preschool teachers are challah experts. I am not.

Ugly or not, I am pretty darned proud of my first attempt, (minus almost burning down our house) and considering it will be served at a break the fast dinner, I’m guessing the fasting adults won’t be too picky. And if it gets a resounding thumbs down, there’s a backup Trader Joe’s holiday challah.

I finished the challah in plenty of time before the sun went down for Yom Kippur. As I look out my kitchen window, it looks like I’m just going to make the deadline for this blog.

If you observe Yom Kippur, may you have a meaningful and easy fast.

Homemade Cambodian Cuisine at its Finest

Having my in-laws in town means I’m eating really well, a little too well. As I write this, my stomach is crying uncle from the four extra helpings I ate at dinner. The original Mamma Meak is one mean cook, and is able to whip up some pretty amazing Cambodian concoctions.

Last night I came home to dinner waiting for me at the table, courtesy of Mamma Meak. The girls happily informed me that they LOVED Grandma Meak’s fresh spring rolls. They’ve had them before, but usually deconstructed them to avoid any green vegetables. This time, they ate the entire roll, six of ’em in the case of Olivia and Erin. The girls know good spring rolls. My mother in-law’s are about the best I’ve had with chicken, shrimp, noodles, lettuce, cucumber, and mint. She also serves them up with hoisin dipping sauce.

That was followed up with Cambodian crepes, also pretty darned delicious. I’ve eaten them plenty of times, but this time Mamma Meak shared the recipe. Rice flour, coconut milk, and water. Once it’s cooked she fills it with minced chicken, shrimp, bean sprouts, onion and garlic. I not only gobbled up a couple of them, but so did the girls. I guess I’m got some crepe making to do once my in-laws leave town.

Tonight, dinner was once again waiting for me when I came home from work. This time, she made fried rice and fried noodles. Her noodles are hands down, my absolute favorite. That’s why I’m so full now.  I don’t know what it is about these noodles, but I can’t stop eating them. I have absolutely no willpower.

There’s already plans in the works to make egg rolls tomorrow. I’ve got some pretty mixed emotions about this. While I love them, they’re definitely not part of the P90X diet. I know I can’t say no to eating one, but the question remains, will I stop at one? The odds are against me.

Berry Picking Bonanza!

Living in the Bay Area, I don’t see myself as a country girl, not in the least, but one of the many great things about living where I do is that all it takes is a ten minute drive to end up at a farm.

Webb Ranch and Family Farm

Today, thanks to the brilliant suggestion of a great friend, that meant taking the family to the Webb Ranch and Family Farm in Portola Valley. For a few weeks every year, the farm turns into a berry bonanza, and that means acres upon of acres of blackberries, boysenberries, and raspberries, ready for picking, for a small fee.

We first started out in the raspberry field, and while the raspberries were not the biggest or the juiciest, they were worth the hunt.

Carefully Inspecting the Perfect Raspberry

The kids made their way into the raspberry fields, and immediately started their search for the best raspberries. We by far spent the most time in this field. It took work finding ripe, red, raspberries, but we did it, and the girls enjoyed every second of it.

Look at My Raspberries!
Think This is the Perfect Raspberry?

After plucking dozens if not hundreds of raspberries from countless bushes, we made our way to the blackberry and boysenberries fields. This proved to be much easier work. Apparently, there was a bumper crop of blackberries and boysenberries so we did not have any problem finding berries worthy of ending up in our baskets.

Bumper Crop of Blackberries

The biggest problem was the berry juices staining anything it touched, including our little people.

Look Ma, Berry Stains!
Yeah, I've Got Boysenberry Stained Hands

They didn’t seem to mind, and this is the time you say, “That’s what wash machines are for!”

This is also the time you say, “Anyone want some blackberry pie?”

Since we had an overabundance of berries, I decided to put my pie making skills to use, and attempt a lattice blackberry pie. After plenty of cursing, here’s how it looked before I popped it into the oven.

It’s not perfect, but it’ll do.

And here’s how it looked after it baked for an hour. It may not look perfect, but I have to say it tasted pretty darned good.

Baked Blackberry Pie

Thankfully, we have family in town, so they graciously helped us consume the pie. As good as it was all on its own, it tasted even better with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

We still have plenty of berries just waiting to be eaten in our fridge. And the beauty of these beautiful berries is they taste just as good in a pie as they do eating by the handful.

 

This Mom’s Lunch

I know I’m never going to be the size 2 or 4 I was before I had kids, but I still dream about it, and still complain about the baby weight I’m still carrying three years after Carrie came into this world.  I know however, that I have no reason to complain when I’m shoveling huge spoonfuls of the left-over day-glow orange mac ‘n’ cheese into my mouth.

I didn’t even have the decency to put it in a bowl. Nope, I ate it right out of the pan. I don’t know what’s worse, eating out of the pan, or finishing up the cold coagulated leftovers from my kids’ plates, which I’ve also done more times than I can count.

Yesterday however, my lunch consisted of about 5 gargantuan spoonfuls of said mac ‘n’ cheese, and a couple of banana slices, which I washed down with a diet coke. Lunch of champions right? I know why I do it. It’s easier than actually making something for myself, and it brings back memories of my own childhood lunches, although I know it tasted much better as a kid.  I also know that I’m not alone and millions of other moms also eat this same type of lunch for the same reasons.

Still others are probably judging me and asking, why does she even make that crap for her kids? Well, I’ve never said I’m the perfect parent. I’m not even close, but I don’t believe letting them have mac ‘n’ cheese every so often is all that awful. They usually get some fruit to go with the day-glow pasta, and if I’m eating a good amount of it, they’re definitely not overindulging.

I’m done though. I felt guilty and horrible while eating, and was starving a few hours later. As tempting as it will be to indulge in this classic kid food the next time I give in to my kids’ demands for it (which will probably be tomorrow), I’m going to pass. It likely won’t bring me back to a size 4, but it will make me feel better, and maybe, just maybe allow me to get away with complaining.