Monday, June 30, 2008

An Easy Snack For When Mommy Is Going Bananas

I do know that I am not the only person with a picky toddler. This foodie/mommy always assumed that my son would be requesting his pasta al dente by the time he was 2, but instead, he prefers yogurt and crackers, chicken nuggets and pizza. However, he is always willing to try foods. So he frequently requests everything from tofu to beets, dosas to sushi. In fact, he loves to go to the grocery store to get bananas.

And, thus, we have many bananas in the house. Now I will confess that I am one of those fussy banana people. It must be pure yellow, not a brown spot anywhere. And there is just so much banana bread that I can make. I have created and found a number of lite banana bread recipes, but sometimes I just can't muster making one more loaf that my husband and I will eat, adding to our non-dietary lives.

So one more banana goes in the freezer. And then recently, as an avalanche of bananas toppled over us when we reached for the ice cream, I decided it was time to ressurrect a childhood favorite: The Banana Shake.

As a kid I would throw a regular banana in a blender with whole milk and vanilla. In the heat of the summer, desperate for a way to rid myself of those frozen bananas, I am using those instead. I simply throw them in the freezer with their skins on and when I am hungry, I defrost them in the microwave for about 30 seconds per banana. I put the peeled banana in the blender with a more mommy friendly liquid (soy milk, rice milk or lowfat). I add whatever extra flavor I am craving: vanilla or nutmeg; frozen strawberries or cinnamon and blend away. It is easy, fast, and just delicious.

Other possibilities include adding frozen fruit such as strawberries or blueberries (I recommend briefly thawing them unless you have a very strong blender); pureed mangoes (available canned at most stores); or freezing them for popsicles for you and your toddler. My husband "foodiedaddy", loves to add yogurt (plain or vanilla) and lots of ice for a very cold treat.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A family that farms together...

I never truly appreciated living in the suburbs until I had my sons. Now, with about 8 different farms within 30 minutes of us and 4 within 10 minutes, I feel incredibly lucky to be able to share this world with them. I am not gardener. I do find the idea of planting and growing appealing. But realistically, the monotony of weeding and the likelihood that I will forget to water makes a vegetable garden out of reach for now.

However, visiting farms is a common experience for us. Twice in the last few weeks I have had the pleasure of picking strawberries with my two year old. Granted he tramples on many and picks some very pale white ones, but each time he presents me with a "good one, Mommy," I grin with excitement as he carefully puts it in his "bucket." As scenes from Blueberries for Sal linger in my head, I watch him happily trot down the paths, trying to get another "stwahbewwy" and patiently awaiting permission from me to eat it.

We have also been sharing the fun of a CSA. Essentially we and our good friends share a part of the Dover Farm. Each Tuesday my sons and I go to the farm stand and collect our share. Again, R. grins broadly as I hand him collard greens, radishes, baby turnips and lettuce which he gently lowers them into our bag. At dinner each night I offer him our selection, hoping that his involvement will make vegetables that much more appealing.

Finally, this week was the start of our weekly trips to the Natick Farmer's Market (or the "market farm" as he calls it.) This week was more focused on flowers so we walked away with a few more organic beets and peas, but R. enjoyed each minute.

So 2 simple recipes, inspired by these trips:

Roasted Beets

Simply wrap whole beets in a double layer of aluminum foil. Bake at 425 for 1-2 hours for large beets and about 45 minutes for baby beets. Take out and let sit for about 10 minutes. When you open the packets, you can easily peel the skin away with a fork. Carefully cut up the beets (they will stain everything in site a gorgeous ruby color) and season with salt. You can add olive oil and/or vinegar. Eat warm or cold.

Rachel Ray's Asian Slaw Salad

Chop up carrots and savoy cabbage. Saute briefly in canola or vegetable oil with peapods or peas on high heat. Mix a few tablespoons of honey with rice wine vinegar. When the vegetables are just cooked, add the honey/vinegar mixture and let it coat for 1-2 minutes. You can also add chopped pickled ginger. This is also delicious warm or cold.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

3 Easy Recipes for Really Hot Nights

The weather has been oppressive recently and I have had no urge to turn on the oven. When my mother decided to come over for dinner, I was a bit stumped. Luckily she shared a friend's new recipe for a delicious, quick and easy salad. Combined with some adaptations from The Seventh Daughter by Cecilia Chang, we had a meal that required no cooking. Better yet, R. loved the "mahmay and peas."

Wanda's Salad
Can of Black Beans
1 Can of Hearts of Palm
Frozen Edamame
Frozen Peas
Frozen Corn
Sesame Oil
Rice Vinegar

You can either use the black bean can to measure equal amounts of the other vegetables, or just do as I did and add them as you desire. Defrost the frozen veggies in a strainer or a microwave. Mix in a bowl with the black beans and chopped palm hearts. Add a few slugs of sesame oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. I recommend putting this in the refrigerator until you are ready, but take it out about 15 minutes before you serve it to take the chill out of the dish.

Shanghai Asparagus
1 1/2 T soy sauce
1 T sesame oil
1 tsp sugar
2 T sesame seeds
1 1/4 pounds asparagus

Mix the soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar. Blanch the asparagus. Pour over the sauce. Put in the frig til you are ready to devour them. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds.

Sesame Chicken Salad
2 T Sesame seed paste (Chinese or tahini)
3 T soy sauce
1 T sesame oil
1 T black Chinese vinegar
1 tsp minced ginger
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tsp. sugar
cooked roast chicken

Mix the first 7 ingredients. Add salt and pepper (or spicy pepper like I do!). Break up the chicken and serve on the greens with the sauce on the side.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Long Awaited Date Night at Clio

My brother and sister-in-law gave me the greatest of gifts for my last birthday: a gift certificate for a dinner out with an additional goldmine: free babysitting! To make it all the more special, the certificate was to Clio, a restaurant that I had wanted to go to for about 10 years. However, due to the discomfort of late pregnancy and then the birth of our second son, the certificate remained unused.

Finally, though, as we began to feel more confident and comfortable with our new son, we decided to have the babysitters come last weekend. Like many parents going out for the first time, I was nervous. Would the baby take a bottle? Would he go to sleep? Would we actually get to enjoy Boston or spend hours looking for parking...and then need to leave early, racing home to our hysterical children?

As luck would have it, we found a parking spot instantaneously. And due to the excellent babysitters (again, my brother, sister-in-law and mother!), we didn't have to worry. (Confession, I did call home twice...but the baby had his first cold!)

Ultimately, it felt like a true date night. My analysis: the plates were esthetically beautiful, and each element clearly was the product of a tremendous amount of care. But overall, the parts never quite came together. Yet my husband felt differently: that the dishes were delicious and worth the expense. I wish I had brought my camera as the dishes are truly works of art, but instead the descriptions (from memory) will have to suffice.

I had 3 appetizers:
Artichoke hearts with dried, crumbled olives; apricot puree; goat cheese powder, shallots, anchovy bones and peppercorns and my favorite: baby chanterelles

Lacquered Fois Gras with strawberry puree, pureed strawberries and dried violets. I have read so much about fois gras that to the chagrin of my prior vegetarian life, I decided to try it. And, I will not need to have it again. The dish tasted of fat and sugar. While I have enjoyed pates, I could pass on this.

Cassoulet with uni and lobster and foam. Although this is a Clio classic I found it to be dominated by salt. I am also not a converted uni fan.

My husband had Kobe Beef Brisket with Fiddleheads

For Dessert:
Financier with hazelnuts and banana miso ice cream. The financier was buttery without being too sweet. The hazelnuts provided a delicious contrast.

Milk Chocolate Mousse with white beer ice cream and tangerine sorbet. The mousse was smooth and elegant, but the covering (white chocolate?) tasted like plastic. We could have both skipped the beer ice cream.

Molten Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Ice Cream and Carrot Syrup. Our favorite dish (and one of our favorites of all time!) A fabulous twist on the ubiquitous and cliched molten chocolate cake. Again, not too sweet, but incredibly flavorful.

Clio on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 9, 2008

To Love and Hate the Super 88

I headed over to one of my favorite places recently: The Super 88 grocery store and food court in Allston. Relatively easy to get to, but feeling as though you have stepped into another world, it always guarantees a mixture of good food, inexpensive surprises and frustration.

I headed into the supermarket with a list in hand. This time I was planning to cook from two great cookbooks: Seventh Daughter by Ceclia Chang and Land of Plenty by Fuschia Dunlop. Both required similar but overlapping ingrediants: Sichuan wine, black beans, 3 types of preserved vegetables, fava bean sauce, lotus root and sushi rice.

I always begin in the produce aisle, picking up fruits and vegetables that seem like bargains, but that are occasionally overripe. I often hesitate at the vegetables, trying to decide if I should be so risky as to pick a vegetable that was unfamiliar or stick with the known (e.g. Thai basil) or stick to my list. And this is where my challenges begin: I couldn't find lotus root. I knew what it looked like. I knew where it would be. But I didn't see it, surrounded by taro and malanga. Alas, the first employee didn't know the term "lotus root." As I don't know any Chinese, communication failed. Luckily, I spotted it.

The more significant issues came up with the remainder of the list. No less than 6 different employees tried to help, but none knew the English terms. And the few employees that knew English, didn't know the Chinese ingredients!

So, I meandered the aisles, trying to decipher the jars, while avoiding the msg and other hidden items ("shrimp flavoring") that lurked inside.

I made sure to buy more familiar things: a few packets of our favorite dried mangoes (the best are imported from the Philippines), some frozen rice dumplings and steam buns (great quick desserts and breakfasts), a few bottles of delicious soy sauce (Pearl River brand) and some sweet potato noodles for jap chae.

But by the end, I knew that I had missed the mark on a few key items.

Thus, by the next trip, this time to CMart in Chinatown I made life easier: I brought Dunlop's book which lists the Chinese!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

MetroWest Food Finds

After the birth of my first son, I focused on the disappointment of the food world West of Route 128. However, this time around, with Chowhound as my new guide I have discovered some fabulous food and restaurants in the Framingham/Natick area. Some of my favorites (all family friendly!) include:

1. Oga's-just outstanding sushi everytime. The rice is perfect, the fish is fresh and moist and the chirashi sushi (amongst others) is gorgeous. The lunch deal-soup, salad and 3 rolls for $11.00 is also excellent.

2. Sichuan Gourmet-Oh, heaven. I adore spicy Chinese food, especially when it isn't simply spicy "hot", but spicy and flavorful. So far, all the dishes I have had at Sichuan Gourmet have fit that description. My favorites: Fresh bamboo shoots with special sauce, sichuan wontons with spicy chili sauce, dried chicken with chili sauce and beef with spicy sauce. I have been craving the dried chicken on a daily basis since I ate it a month ago! Complex-with sichuan peppercorns, amazingly not greasy, it was just fabulous. For non-spicy people, I think it is a bit weaker, but the rainbow chicken, chicken wings and bok choy with mushrooms were quite good.

3. E O Noodle-Another Chinese food find. In fact, like Sichuan Gourmet it makes me not feel the need to go to Chinatown quite as often. My husband said that his mongolian chicken was the most tender he has ever had. I enjoyed the spicy beef noodle and the roast duck soup. I particularly appreciated that for a take out order they packaged the noodles separately from the vegetables and duck so that the noodles remained chewy. My addictions here: the chicken ravioli with spicy szechuan sauce (not nearly as heavy and oily as typical pork ones) and Noodles with meat sauce-absolutely fantastic. The noodles have a fantastic texture, while the sauces remain flavorful. However, you have to make sure to order the homemade noodles.

4. Market Basket in Ashland. An unusual food find. I love the cheap prices. I hate the blocked aisles (they clearly save money by stocking shelves when it is most busy). I love the fabulous assortment of Brazilian and Latino products-especially the queso fresco, queso blanco, malanga, calabeza and other produce.

5. The Indian Market on Route 9-Another great store. Not only does it have a nice range of ingredients and fresh and quick to prepare products, but there is an inexpensive take out place at the back! I had decent samosas, but they also have a varied menu including different types of dosas.

6. Bagel Fresh Cafe-Surprisingly good bagels in a range of types. Definitely big and doughy. The egg sandwiches are quite good.

7. Giannis Pizza-It isn't Reginas, but it is good. They offer a regular and a Sicilian which is a deep dish, very doughy style, too. Try to go when it isn't too busy.

8. Asinayo Market on Route 126 in Framingham. Small, pricey and definitely not the Super 88, but the staff are always kind and helpful and for those times when you need a specialized ingredient (from fresh to frozen), it is convenient. They seem to be strongest in the Korean foods.

9. Lola's in Natick Center. Tony who runs this place is originally from the North End. His mother makes delicious sicilian style pizza that is available fresh or frozen. They have decadent arrancini (stuffed and fried risotto cakes) and stuffed and fried potato cakes, too. While it isn't Ernestos, nor is it cheap, the food is homemade and wonderful and Tony couldn't be more accommodating.

10. B and R Bakery: The best baguettes. Only Clear Flour's are comparable.

11. J and M Diner: A wonderful breakfast spot. The pancakes, although quite dense, are the size of plates. They come with tons of chocolate chips or fresh fruit. The hash browns are good, the omelets are full of fresh vegetables and the service is warm and welcoming. Great place for kids.

12. Firefly's-We like the food here. The cornbread is moist, sweet and cake-like. I love the large salads. The bbq chicken is consistently good. They are also incredibly kid-friendly, with a condiment bar that curbs the appetite while the little ones wait. We have had some mediocre meals here, but the service has made up for it every time. (An item immediately taken off the bill with a personal apology from the manager.) They are also extremely sensitive and courteous to people with food allergies which doesn't always happen.

And still to try: Green Tea, Oriental Pearl and Uncle Cheungs for Dim Sum as well as Terra Brasilis and Aztec.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Bakin' Without Eggs With A 2 Year Old

For me, food is so much more than sustenance. It is a way of experiencing a culture. It is the pleasure of taste and texture. It is discovery. It is creation and art. It is a way to connect. So to me, I inevitably and naively assumed that food would be as integral a part of my children's lives as it was of mine. I envisioned us cooking, eating out and creating gardens together. I hoped that food would be as much an entry point to their world as it was to mine and that of our family.

However, when we discovered that our first child was allergic to a number of food, that image dwindled and became complex. That combined with the fact that he, like most toddlers, prefers the comfort of noodles and chicken nuggets made it hard to include him in food preparation.

However, as he as gotten older (he is now 2) and his allergies have decreased to peanuts and eggs, I have begun to try to let him experience more tastes and to include him in cooking. In fact, his allergy to peanuts has pushed me to expand my range of cooking since doctors have discouraged us from taking him to restaurants. Thus he has recently tried (and liked!): tofu in black bean sauce, jab chae, dosas, radish greens, roasted beets and spinach with sesame sauce.

Recently, as our friends' children turned 2, R's allergies meant that the birthday party circuit was challenging. Our options: buy a vegan cupcake at Whole Foods, use a vegan mix or make our own. The reality is that the vegan cupcakes taste like dirty cardboard and the mixes are incredibly expensive. So, I invested in one more cookbook: Bakin' Without Eggs by Rosemarie Emro.

And I decide that 2 year old R was ready to start cooking with me. I laid out the ingredients and put his booster seat on his stool. Telling him it was time to bake, I helped him to put each ingredient in the bowl and turn on the mixer. When the mix was done, he declined the joy of licking the bowl (how many more years will that last?), but was happy to press "start" on the oven. And, when the cupcakes were finally done, he jumped with excitement to try them. Two bites later, he was done. Whether because they weren't up to Betty Crocker standards or because he is so unfamiliar with sweet desserts, muffins and cakes due to his allergies, I am not sure. My husband was certainly impressed with their moistness despite the lack of eggs. (I reassured him that sour cream generously made up for it!)

Ultimately, it was just so fun. His pure pleasure at the simplest aspects of the cooking process were delightful. He didn't mind or realize that he was merely putting pre-measured flour in a bowl. To him, he was doing something fun with mommy.

And despite R. not really eating them, he talks about them almost every day. And, of course, it is nice to have him be part of parties as he brings his cupcake along. Since then, I have begun to include him in more and more of my cooking even if it sometimes means choosing his frozen chicken nugget or picking the beet greens at a farm. But I hope that he is beginning to create his own foodie memories.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

An Ode to A Rice Cooker

Since I was a child, food has been one of the loves of my life. My grandmother tells endearing stories of me eating chilled shrimp as a toddler, while I fondly remember creating pancakes without a recipe in her kitchen a few years later. My Easy-Bake Oven was my favorite toy and my idea of fun was cooking for my parents. By my teenage years, my ideal gift was a dinner out and I dreamed of owning my own inn or restaurant. Once the realities of that lifestyle hit, I decided that cooking and eating would remain (for now) a hobby of sorts, though I made sure to find a partner that would indulge as well. And, like any other mom-to-be, I had visions of life with my children. And for me those included using food as a way for my children to experience the world. I imagined us traveling and eating in hole-in-the-wall restaurants, creating pad thai and sushi rolls and jab chae and baking at home.

So, one of the ultimate curve balls that have come my way as a mother has been having 2 children with food allergies. My older son was first diagnosed with allergies to dairy, wheat, eggs and nuts. More in the future.

But when I made the decision to nurse my second child, I knew that I may need to alter my diet slightly: minimal spicy food, caffeine, cabbage. All manageable. Well, one colicky baby later, I have adjusted my diet so that I don't eat soy, dairy or wheat as long as I continue to nurse him.

The reality is that when I first set out to experiment I was at a loss to envision life without cookies, pasta, cereal, toast, steamed buns, tofu, ice cream, cheese, and good butter. Yet, watching my son slowly stop crying, no longer grasping up his little legs nor hollering in pain and seeing him become an angelic little peaceful boy made it worth it.

But it doesn't mean that it hasn't been challenging, especially when I had set out to enjoy food on this time off. The dairy has had its own level of complexity: reading each label not only for the obvious (milk) but for casein-the biggest culprit for gassy babies. I will confess that I have occasionally forgotten (big mistake: Thai iced tea; little mistake: bite of scone). As for the soy, I only eliminated soy milk and tofu, choosing to use soy sauce and soy oils. The wheat-that still remain the hardest as at times I find myself craving, just CRAVING a big cinnamon bun or Chinese noodles or banh mi from Pho Viet in the Super 88 Food Court.

What has saved me? The obvious, of course: that my son is so much happier, more comfortable and content. But on a practical note, there were 3 other things. First: At least I love to cook. Thus, I can adapt recipes so that noodles are now rice noodles, rice milk replaces dairy, oatmeal is my new breakfast treat and I can cook chicken in multiple forms. Ironically, my restaurant crawls have also been helpful as I have rediscovered the world of Asian and Latino restaurants. As both are dependent on rice, rice noodles, corn and beans, they have provided me with many meals. And I have found myself enjoying foods that I never would have otherwise eaten: sweet arepas (without cheese), bowls of Vietnamese bun, gorditas with chicken and sweet rice dumplings for dessert. Finally, I have a new appreciation of rice in all its forms. I have now willingly (and happily) drink rice milk (really not bad!) and eat rice paper, rice noodles, rice crackers, rice chips.

But what I eat most of all is, in fact, rice. I splurged and spent all of $35.00 at Target on an Aroma rice cooker, and another $20.00 on the Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook. Together, my family and I have been well fed, trying Spanish, sushi, Basmati, Thai Purple and Jasmine rice. Every rice dish that I have made in the rice cooker has come out perfectly and I continue to be amazed at the range of tastes and textures that rice provides. In fact, the Thai sticky rice was a revelation: simultaneously sticky, soft and with a subtle tooth that comes from steaming the rice after soaking it overnight. The one dish that hasn't been a true hit, Cuban rice and beans, was the one that I dared to make in my dutch oven. Next time: I am converting it to a rice cooker!

And, most ironically, when I have strayed and eaten a roll, a cookie or noodles, I find myself feeling quite full, as if my body, too, has embraced this new diet. So, can I envision this for my life? Absolutely not. But is it fine for now. And, for my son-it is absolutely worth it!

Today's recipe is one of my staples. Fabulous for when you have leftover rice, it is really a template in that you can adjust this in so many ways.

Incredibly Easy Not-Really Fried Rice

A few cups of cooked, cooled rice (any type will work; leftovers are great here)
About 1 cup of frozen vegetables (peas or edamame I especially good)
About 1 cup diced protein (optional, but I like tofu or leftover cooked chicken)
1-2 eggs, scrambled lightly in a separate dish
2 T Soy Sauce
sesame oil
2 T minced ginger and/or scallions (yup, optional)
hot oil or hot sauce (I love the Korean kind-but again this is optional)

Oil a skillet or wok and heat it on medium high heat. Add the rice until it is warmed through. Add the frozen veggies and protein and again mix until it is hot. Move this to the side of the pan and pour the scrambled eggs in. Let them set for 2 minutes and then mix into the rice. Add the soy sauce, sesame oil to taste, the optional seasonings and try it. Add more soy sauce or sesame oil or hot sauce.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Exploring East Boston

Over the years my list of places to eat has had a noticeable bulge under the "East Boston" category. East Boston has always been a far away and unknown world, relegated to airport travels. But I never had the time to drive there, to explore or to satisfy my culinary cravings.

Yet, when I found myself particularly overwhelmed this mother's day, I decided that I would give myself a mother's day treat: A day to myself to explore this part of the foodie landscape. Thus, last week both children went to day care so that I could recharge my batteries.

The night before I spent considerable time preparing: doing last minute Chowhound searches, checking addresses and phone numbers, hours open and plotting on my map. Armed with a good plan, I headed out, making it to my first stop by 9:15. There, I discovered a foodie nirvana: Betty Anne's bakeshop on Bennington. Easily missed as it looks just like a house, it is the simplest bakery I have ever encountered. In front of a cash register and refrigerator from the 1930s sat a case with 2 types of cookies, 2 types of bars and 5 types of donuts. I ordered one of each donut, despite the fact that they never seem quite worth the calories.

But, OH, were these worth the calories! Still warm from the fryer, the jelly donut was, unquestionably, the best I have ever had. Moist and light, incredibly tender and perfectly sweetened, it was almost impossible not to eat it in entirety. The owner explained that they are made with fresh eggs ("Unlike other places that use powdered eggs.") While it meant R. couldn't eat them, I knew my husband would appreciate warming the plain cruller in the toaster.

With ethnicities ranging from Guatamalean to Peruvian, Columbian to Mexican, East Boston was a world within a world. From there I tried a pupusa at Rotisseria Cancun, checked out bakeries and taco stand and multiple roast chicken joints. Ultimately, I bought 2 roast chicken halves. The first, garlicy and moist was from Betos, while the second was from Rincon Limeno. The highlight was a garlicy sauce that came with the chicken.

One of the best parts of the trip was a much anticipated meal at Angelas. I had read about this place on multiple occassions and couldn't wait to try the authentic Mexican. Ultimately it was more than I had hoped. First, the owner, Luis was as kind as I have ever met. When I expressed that I wanted to try multiple items on the menu, he literally made me chicken with 4 kinds of sauces! My favorites included the moist and flavorful gordita, the simple black beans and the complex mole.

Will I return? Perhaps. We still need to try the infamous Santarpios. But was it worth the exploration? Absolutely!