Friday, September 26, 2008

Rediscovering a Friend: The Victory Garden Cookbook

I have been known to read cookbooks to bed. I snuggle in, pull up the covers and with the same excitement that others read a new magazine or a great novel, I eagerly anticipate each recipe. I try to keep my buying to a minimum, especially now that I get so many of my recipes from the web. But there is one cookbook that I find myself returning to over and over. It is not glamorous. It is not sophisticated and it is definitely not low-fat. I can't even tell you when I bought the Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash, and in fact, my edition is from 1982. But I love it for many reasons. I can always count on simple, delicious recipes for an enormous range of vegetables. I also appreciate how Morash explains how to clean, store and cook each item in clear language. Since we have relied on getting our produce solely from the Dover Farm CSA this summer and fall, I have found myself facing a large number of less than familiar veggies. So, I have frequently picked up her book to help me decide how to cook fresh edamame, for great ways to prepare radishes and for new uses for shallots.

When Raphael and I returned home from the Dover CSA with leeks and celery root this week, I knew I could find some great recipes to prepare. I am not going to try to persuade you to try the celery root vinaigrette or the baked celery root for that matter. Neither were bad, but it seemed more like I was just tasting celery in potato form.

However, the two leek dishes were much more successful. First, I made a pasta omelet of sorts. Raphael loves his pasta, so I try to make a significant portion about once a week. I refrigerate the rest and serve it to him at least twice. However, I often end up with leftover pasta. One of my new staple dishes is to briefly reheat the pasta in a pan , then pour scrambled eggs over and cooked for a few more minutes over medium heat. This time I sauteed leeks first and then added the pasta and eggs.

It was delicious warm, as well as chilled the next day.

But the highlight was from the Victory Garden book. Titled, "Leek and Barley Soup" the original recipe calls a double step of cooking barley and for 1 cup of cream. As I am still trying to work off the post-partum pounds, I skipped the cream and the finished soup was still deliciously thick and rich. As for the barley, I cooked it with chicken stock in the rice cooker and it was chewy and perfectly cooked. I then simply sauteed leeks, shallots, onion and carrot in butter and olive oil on medium heat until they had softened. Raphael then helped me to use an immersion blender to puree the soup in the pot. He also enjoyed adding the barley and stirring until it was mixed in. Overall the soup was a wonderful fall soup-creamy and textured with the barley. It also reheated beautifully at work the next day. I couldn't quite persuade Raphael to eat it, but my husband loved it...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

From An Amazing Batida to Zany Zebras: The Franklin Park Zoo and El Oriental de Cuba

The weather was perfect for an outing this weekend, so we headed off to the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. And because any trip must be accompanied by great food, we were barely down the driveway before my husband asked, "So, where are we going for lunch?" And, I confess, I spent a good deal of time at the zoo pondering that question.

But first, the Zoo. Like many toddlers, my son loves animals. He has animal figures, animal pajamas, animal stories and he sings endless versions of "Do the Monkey" by the Wiggles. So when he recently asked to go to the zoo, we were more than happy to take him.

Although the Franklin Park Zoo is hardly an undiscovered paradise, I am embarrassed to admit that I didn't go until I was in my early 30s. However, it is fast becoming a favorite. First, it is amazing to actually get face to face with ostriches, kangaroos, wildebeest, giraffes, prairie dogs, tamarins, snakes, gorillas, lions, tigers, jaguars and ponies all in one day. As zoos go, this is also a particularly clean one and while not perfect, it certainly has the semblance that the animals are well taken care for. As my toddler is at that amazing place where he is curious about everything, it was a joy to watch him stare at and ask about each animal. But what I also love is the space for him to run and to just be a kid. They have a small area for young children to get closer to the animals, a farm with a petting area, a carousel and a park with climbing structures. The volunteers are knowledgeable and you can easily spend the day just learning from the people and information that is there. Finally, I appreciate, deeply, the diversity of the people who come there to enjoy the open space and fun experience. As an added bonus, it is also half price on the first weekend of each month!

You could easily spend a day there, especially if you brought a picnic. There is also the adjacent Franklin Park or nearby Arnold Arboretum to explore. And the Zoo itself does have food options but they range the gamut of hot dogs to reheated Uno's pizza.

So, by 1:00, I was still torn between Poppa B's in Dorchester (amazing fried chicken and cornbread), Piccos (pizza and ice cream in the South End) and, one of our favorites-El Oriental de Cuba. Realizing that Oriental was only about 10 minutes away, we headed there.
El Oriental is a pretty perfect restaurant-incredibly friendly servers, good prices and big portions of absolutely delicious food. Each time I have also been struck by how welcoming the atmosphere is to children, as well. The last time we were there, after asking about 2 dishes, the server actually brought us a taste to make sure that we and our son would enjoy it!

We always start with a batida, which is essentially a milk shake. They come in great flavors-from mango to guava to my favorite, passion fruit. This time we tried blackberry. It was tangy and delicious. No matter how caffeinated I am, I can never resist the cafe con leche-deep espresso with sweet, rich milk. As for the dishes-although they are known for their cuban sandwiches, I can return again and again for the chicken fricassee. Essentially cuban chicken stew, it is comfort food at its best. The chicken is falling off the bone tender. It comes with wonderful potatoes that absorb the delicious sauce. You get two choices with most main dishes. First, you will be asked if you want white rice or yellow. Do not, do not pass on the yellow. It is fantastic-full of tender pigeon peas (like, mild black beans), tomatoes and carrots. You will also need to choose between sweet maduros or fried tostones. My recommendation: get two main dishes and get one portion of each so you don't have to make such a hard choice in the first place.

This time we also decided to try the "fried chicken." Take any image of batter dipped chicken out of your head. Instead, as FoodieDaddy put it, the dish was more similar to boneless Chinese chicken wings...Cuban style! Pictured at the top of this post, these little bits were salty but also tender and addictive.

We have tried a few other dishes. I can't say I am quite as fond of the ropa vieja (shredded steak in a tomato based sauce) but it is definitely popular among friends. My son ordered a burger, but then promptly spent the meal inhaling the fried plantain chips, the maduros and all the pigeon peas to my complete delight. El Oriental de Cuba on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Most Delicious of Misshapen Muffins

I know that the thought of cooking with a toddler can bring images of messy countertops and unappetizing baked goods. But, I still melted the day that my 2 1/2 year old son asked me if we could cook together for the first time. "We make cupcakes, Mommy?" We had only cooked one other time, making somewhat edible chocolate cookies. The reality is that R's allergy to eggs definitely makes baking sweets a bit challenging. Once again, Baking Without Eggs by Rosemarie Emro came to our rescue. Rather than make cupcakes, in the interest of healthy cooking and eating, I made her applesauce muffins. (I still called them "cupcakes" and, luckily, at 2 1/2 R. doesn't yet know the difference!)

Just as I had done the first time, I prepared most of the ingredients in advance so that R. could do most of it himself, with minimal mess. So, after nap time a string of measuring cups were all laid out. R. was excited just to put the items in a bowl and stir. I let him add as many raisins as he wanted-really the perfect toddler item for baking. I realized that one of the joys of skipping eggs was that I had no worries about him liking the spoon, the bowl, the measuring cups-all of it!

The biggest uncertainty came when we finally had to pour the muffins in the pan. R. is in the typical toddler phase in which he insists that he does everything himself. And after all the cooking together, I wanted to give him the chance to make them from start to finish. I am not a perfectionist baker by any means, so it didn't take much for me to let go of any image of big beautiful muffins. Instead, I gave R. a spoon and a cup and let him measure and pour and fill. And he did a great job.

Of course I put them in the oven, but I turned on the oven light so he could watch them bake. And ultimately (and a big surprisingly), they were delicious. They were moist, lightly scented with cinnamon and apple and stayed fresh for a few days. And R. couldn't have been more proud.