Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Very Local Favorite: The Natick Farmer's Market

The Natick Farmer's Market is definitely not fancy. It doesn't offer many of the gourmet specialty items that are available at the Harvard Square Farmer's Market. It doesn't have the dozen of stands that are at the Newton Market.

Ironically, that is exactly why I love it and try to go each week. It is a place for people to gather at the town green and to get wonderful produce and treats. I love that while a supermarket feels so anonymous, here you can talk to the vendors who picked the food that morning, as well as reconnect with neighbors. The parking is easy. There is no stress other than deciding which types of zucchini to buy or how many cobs of corn a toddler can eat.

The market takes place on Saturday mornings from 9:00 to 1:00, in the center of Natick. It is a popular place to bring children (and dogs!) who can run around the gazebo and play in the grass while munching on some fresh fruit. My son and I often go to the wonderful children's room at the library and then head to the market to buy some food for lunch.

The vendors vary each week. You might find some children selling their crafts or a local person who is experimenting with setting up their own cookie business. But you can always find a few farms that come each week.

I always stop at Keown Orchards for their a varied selection of produce. This week the highlight were some little plums. They also had fresh apricots and the first peaches. In the fall, I can always count on them to provide a range of apples and excellent descriptions to help me choose which to buy.

The Chestnut Farms stand is run by a mom and daughter team. They are always patient with questions and it is a great opportunity to get organic, free range meat-direct from the source.

This is the ultimate in "local" food. I have only bought their eggs and burgers so far, but both were very good. Their website is particularly interesting, too, and you can even visit the farm.

I never skip a visit to the Hmong man's stand. I don't know his name and for that I apologize, but I do know that he is part of the Flat Mentor Farm in Mendon. I often get his herbs (a great bargain at $1.00 for a large bunch of basil or cilantro) and his bok choy.
Recently I had his pumpkin greens thrown into some soup. He often has pea tendrils, too. You can just stir-fry either of these with garlic to have some healthy greens.

Tangerini's also has a good selection of produce, as well as friendly and enthusiastic staffers. This week's blueberries were very sweet. They offered gooseberries (they taste like big grapes) and fresh corn. I get their weekly farm newsletter and they offer pick your own options and ice cream at their farm in Millis.

The Natick Organic Farm stand is also a wonderful place to buy some beautiful flowers.
They also have maple syrup, herbs, and a nice selection of vegetables. I will confess, though, that I prefer to just visit the actual farm (only about 1 mile away) and see the animals.

We go as often as possible between May and October, appreciating the market while it is around and eagerly awaiting the return when the cold New England weather still lingers in April. I will still have to return to the Harvard Market for my Taza chocolate and Fiore di Nonno Mozzarella, but here is personal service, warmth and calm each Saturday morning.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Harvard (Square) for Toddlers

Although I love Cambridge, Harvard Square isn't the first to come to mind as a FoodieMommy destination. Chain store and restaurants exist with limited parking and too many tourists. There are exceptions: luxurious hot chocolate at Burdick's, the delicious and creative food at Upstairs on the Square, the independent Harvard Bookstore (with used children's books downstairs) and Curious George and Friends (with a great selection of books for kids).

This past Tuesday, though, made me rethink my image of the Square as I took my infant to the Harvard Square Farmer's Market. Each Tuesday from June to October, between 12:30 and 6:00 multiple vendors set up shop between the Harvard Science Center and Sanders Theater. I have talked about the fun of taking children to the farmer's market before, but this was a very different experience from, say, the Natick market.

Here, amidst the gorgeous produce, was a bounty of gourmet food (all locally made), delicious samples and even a demonstration by Steven Brand, executive chef of Upstairs on the Square. He served goat cheese with fresh basil, radishes, strawberries, blueberries and an incredible reduction of balsamic vinegar with sichuan peppercorns.

For kids, there is a nearby fountain, a green space to run, as well as another opportunity to learn that food doesn't all arrive anonymously at the grocery store. Here you can talk to the same person who picked the flowers, collected the honey or ground the chocolate.

I tried and bought the unique salty butterscotch topping (OK...and the dark chocolate AND the milk chocolate) from Shootflying Hill. The owner, Cory Clarke takes the time to include recipes so that you can indulge in the delicious sauces on more than just ice cream.

I read quite a bit about Taza chocolate and, in fact, the samples proved that their chocolate is as as wonderful and unique as I had hoped.

I enjoy Mexican hot chocolate, but the Abuelita brand is always a bit thin. Taza not only stone grinds its cacao beans for a complex texture, but they also keep the roasting to a minimum. Unlike most chocolate from the supermarket, this actually had flavor beyond, well, chocolate. It tasted fruity and rich, while not being cloyingly sweet. I was also immediately addicted to the texture. It does not have the melting smoothness of a Hershey's bar but is almost grainy. That may sound unappealing...until you taste it. It still dissolves in your mouth. Any child would also be as taken as I was by how the food arrived: the vendor also rode up in a bicycle of sorts: Taza transports its goods on massive tricycle!

I stopped at the Flat's Mentor Farm stand. The Farm is actually run by 10 different Hmong families and appears at a number of different farmer's markets around Boston and Metrowest. The range of vegetables, and especially greens, was amazing.

I also appreciated the time the vendor took to explain the difference between amaranth, purslane and pumpkin greens, as well as how to cook them. That evening I sauteed the pumpkin greens with some garlic, ginger and tofu, added some soy sauce, and sesame oil and served it over rice. While I can't say I tasted pumpkin, the greens retained their crunch. I have shopped at the Flat's stand in Natick for 3 years now and have always gotten wonderful bargains on fresh bok choy.

Finally, I had read so much about Fiore di Nonno burrata cheese which is apparently like homemade mozzerella with cream inside. I recognize that it doesn't get much more indulgent than that...but I so wanted to try it. Today, though, they were just selling the mozzerrella.
It was delicious-a perfect balance of salt, a firm texture and yet moist. To prevent the taste from being masked by cold, the vendor suggested that I not refrigerate it if I was going to eat it that evening. This proved to be a great suggestion.

Lastly, perhaps the best part. Maybe I missed it, but most of the metered parking in the Square now has a 1 (or sometimes 2) hour limit. The irony-there are many more spaces. Perfect for a quick trip for some special and tasty treats.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Twice the Farming Fun: Drumlin Farm and Verrill Farm

We are very lucky to live 10 minutes from one of the gem's of Natick: the Natick Organic Farm. It is not only a community owned farm, but it is actually free to visit. They have pigs, cows, goats, sheep and chickens. You can go and pet the animals, buy freshly laid eggs and organic vegetables and walk through their beautiful "toddler" garden.

As lovely as it is, there are times that I prefer to take the boys to one of my favorites as a child: Drumlin Farm. It is a bit bigger than the Organic Farm, and also has horses, owls, a fox and a badger. Although it takes a few more minutes to drive there, my son loves it and it is has a great area for a toddler to run.

But now, one of my secrets: I am always eager to take the boys because it is 5 minutes down the road from Verrill Farm-one of my favorites farmstands. Verrill isn't really a hidden gem. It is well known for its produce and speciality foods (for example free range chickens and organic beef). They also have an in house kitchen that produces salads, decent roast chicken and sandwiches as well as prepared dinners. However, for me Verrill is as much about the gorgeous carrots as their ethereal scones. These scones are light, full of flavor and incredibly moist; quite unlike the leaden hockey pucks that I usually find. They range in flavors from mocha chip to mixed berry to banana plum. Simply put, they are worth every calorie. Amazingly, you can keep them for a few days in a paper bag and simply heat them up to near perfection by placing them in an oven at 350 for about 10 minutes.

Finally, it is worth checking out their website for the festivals. Our favorite is the tomato and corn festival. After paying about $10.00/person, you enter an all-you-can-eat paradise. They have samples of about 10 different prepared dishes. Our favorite part, though, was the opportunity to sample about 40 (seriously!) types of tomatoes and about 6 different varieties of corn! R. loved the traveling petting zoo that showed up with tot size animals. This weekend is their Blueberry Pancake Festival. The cashier told me that it is popular among dads who bring the kids while mom sleeps in. I love the idea, but R.'s egg allergy prevents that from from happening...yet!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

An Unexpected Sweetness

One of our favorite activities in the late afternoon is for R. to gather his bucket and pail, to put D. in his car seat and take a walk through the neighborhood to the lake. There we throw rocks in the water, look for fish, and watch people swimming at the town beach. If the timing is right, we make it home just in time for dinner.

So, on days like this I love to have a quick and easy meal almost completely ready for us to eat. Tonight, with just a few ingredients, it worked. I always keep frozen tortillas on hand (I prefer the texture of corn and highly recommend trying to get authentic ones, though any will be delicious) and I make sure to have a selection of beans. Whole Foods and Trader Joes both have "refried beans" that are simply cooked, mashed and spiced beans. They are not actually fried, so they are low in fat and offer low sodium varieties.

We still had some lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and radishes left from our trip to the farm, as well as some fresh peaches. I had read about using peaches to make a salsa, but when time ran out (R. was so ready to go for our walk that he brought me his hat, his sunscreen and his water shoes!), I simply cut them up and threw them in a bowl.

When we returned from our voyage, I simply heated my cast iron skillet to medium heat and put the frozen tortillas down for just a few minutes on each side. I prefer them to be soft and pliable, though my husband leaves them on a for a few more minutes to get a grilled taste and texture.

I heated the bean up in the microwave and served them with the chopped up veggies and fruit. We started by wrapping the beans and tomatoes in the tortillas, but the adventurous FoodieDaddy went further and added, yes, peaches. Once he proclaimed them to be delicious, I tried them as well, with a squirt of lime (to cut the sweetness) and a splash of salt.

And, remarkably, they were fantastic. The mixture of tastes, akin to any sweet and sour dish, just worked. R., as always, ate his in a more deconstructionist style (first he ate some beans, then the tomatoes, then the peaches and finally, a few bites of tortilla) but we were all well fed within minutes.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

You Say "Potato", I Say "Plantano"!

Food is incredibly expensive these days and although I am not one of those mothers that is obsessive about buying organic, I do love for my children to be relatively healthy eaters. Ironically, although R. frequently refuses most foods, he absolutely adores most fruits and vegetables. He regularly asks for peas, "mamay" (edamame), stawbewwies and bwoobewies. So, the rising prices of produce (even at the fabulous Russos and Market Basket) makes me turn more frequently to frozen items and the less expensive veggies, such as potatoes and plantains. Molly of the fabulous Orangette offered a delicious and incredibly easy potato dish this week, but although the adults loved it, R. was less than persuaded.

I have had a bit more luck with him eating plantains. You have probably seen them and perhaps wondered why on earth the store is selling incredibly rotten bananas. But, no, they are actually ripe plantains. Incredibly cheap and absolutely delicious. They taste a bit like bananas that are a bit less sweet, but with a firm texture that is almost addictive. At 3 for $1.00, buy them. Now!

Then, take them home and let them get even darker. And darker until they are almost completely black.

Then heat up a skillet on medium heat. I love doing this in my cast iron, but you could use any, preferably non-stick, pan. Pour some vegetable oil on the skillet.

Slice the plantains up and simply saute them on both sides until they are a golden brown and caramelized. Eat them up, hoping that your toddler will also want to share. I highly recommend a sprinkle of salt as it both brings out the sweetness and the flavor.

You can also throw them whole on the grill.

Finally, an odd but recent discovery mentioned in a Cuban food memoir: if you happen to have leftovers just put them in the refrigerator. The next day, after eating a few cold, reheat them in a pan and then pour in some lightly scrambled eggs in and cook it until the eggs are as well done as you like. When it is done, you have a simple plantain omelet. Think of it as a lighter version of a crepe. One more easy meal.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Pasta Salad: 3 Ways for 3 Appetites

My husband (AKA "foodiedaddy") and I tease that he is a "supertaster." Whether this is fact or fiction, there is no doubt that he can taste a grain of pepper (or cilantro or ginger or chili pepper) even if it is buried in a dish. Alas, this means that I have to find creative ways to cook for both of us while satisfying my love of strong spices, particularly those that he dislikes. Add to that R.'s desire to eat simple food and it is easy to find myself eating bland noodles or being a bit more creative.

Tonight I came up with a great way to appease all of our appetites, while also keeping things simple on another steamy night: pasta salad with 3 different toppings.

R. and I had just returned from another trip to our CSA in Dover, while I had also taken a side trip to the Newton Farmer's Market. I was thus armed with so many delicious vegetables-apricot colored beets, swiss chard in shades of rose and orange, spicy radishes and arugula, fragrant basil and mint and sage, thin and crisp Armenian cucumber and amazing gold bell tomatoes from Kimball Farm (one of my favorites).

First I cooked a bag of pasta. (I choose fusilli, though any small pasta would work.) I chopped tomatoes and and opened a can of chick peas and mixed that together with the pasta. From there, I simply separated the salad into 3 tupperware containers and then, to

Pasta 1: I added chopped garlic, fresh mint, lemon juice and olive oil.

Pasta 2: I added basil, arugula, carrots, olive oil and lots of salt and pepper

Pasta 3: I added olives, cucumber and olive oil.

I ate all 3. FoodieDaddy ate #3 and R. (Foodietoddler?) ate almost all of our chickpeas and tomatoes (ironically he skipped the noodles tonight!)

3 happy people. With many leftovers.

Friday, July 4, 2008

More Kalbi, Mommy!

I once read an article about Ana Sortun, the acclaimed chef/owner of the wonderful restaurant Oleana. She talked about how she believed that her daughter, Siena, was a good eater as a toddler because Ana repeatedly gave her daughter everything that she ate with her husband. So Siena ate food flavored with many spices. I loved the idea of not "dumbing down" my food for R, of sharing these complex meals and of enjoying food.

Alas, despite all my attempts, my son really subsists on "yog" (YoBaby brand yogurt), "noodlesauce" (pasta with jarred sauce on the side), chicken nuggets (the frozen kind) and "orangemacancheese" (Annie's brand only) to anything else.

As our son is so small that he is literally not on the growth charts, my husband and I continue to try to find a balance between our style of eating (we eat most anything), what we grew up with (the begging and pleading of the "One more bite or no dessert" sort) and the practice that R. experiences with his daycare provider, Anne. Anne is a big supporter of the Ellyn Satter belief system. Satter, author of This Child of Mine advocates that as parents you provide the "what" (what type of food) and the child decides on the "how much." She is against the begging and pleading, and is opposed to the "one bite rule" and being a "short order cook."

In theory her ideas are great: Yay, a simpler life. Yay, a toddler that eats everything. But like every great mommy book, the ideas are often better in theory...

For example, it doesn't address the reality that I would far more prefer to eat bi bim bap or a composed salad than noodlesauce. Or that despite my son trying chicken (the grilled kind) for the 20th time, he still isn't ready to eat it.

So, for now most meals are dual: I make what my husband and I would like. And I make what I know R will eat. And then I am thrilled when he wants to try a bite. I am even more excited when, on the rare occasion he asks for more!

This happened recently after a trip to the new John's Market on Linden Street in Brighton (right by Spike's Dogs and just down the street from the Super 88.) John's Market is a Korean grocery store, but better. Why? Well the owners make many of their own dishes. So, in the refrigerator section are dish upon dish of banchan, or little dishes that are served with Korean meals. These include sweet black beans; dozens of kinds of pickles (from radish, to fern to bean sprouts); and multiple styles of kim chee. But the best was the prepared meat section. There, although not cheap, was Kalbi or Korean short ribs. Soaked in a sweet soy sauce, the owner explained that all I needed to do was heat up a pan and saute them on both sides for a bit.

Armed with my stash from John's and a fresh bowl of rice from our great rice cooker, I placed my meal on the table in front of R. And the same little boy who rarely diverges beyond his noodles, took one bite of the sweet beans and one bite of the kalbi...and ate almost all of it up. While I confess to being a bit sad that I didn't get to indulge too much in this wonderful treat, it was worth it.

I found this kalbi at Trader Joe's in the freezer section and cooked them up on the grill. They were good and incredibly easy, though a bit sweet. But I also think another trip to Brighton is in order!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Grilling with Toddlers

In the years before we had children, barbecuing was actually fun. I can't say that we did it frequently. And it was the gas grill rather than the charcoal variety. So, while some would scorn us as not true grillers, it worked for cooking up some salmon, chicken or eggplant.

I have yet to say that I have mastered the art of grilling with young children. On the surface it seems so simple. Go outside, turn on the grill. Go inside. When it is preheated, go outside again and put on the meat or veggies. Go inside. Go outside again and see if it is done.

But wait??? Where are the children during all this? That is the conundrum! Either they are inside which means tempting fate that my toddler won't accidentally smother our infant while giving him a hug or a toy (which can be anything from a rattle to a drumstick). Or, alternatively they stay outside which means covering my toddler with layers of sunscreen and a floppy hat while my infant bakes in his carseat.

So, instead we rely on my husband who while a good griller, doesn't always come home from work (actually just down the stairs as he works on our 3rd floor) until 6- a bit late in toddler world for dinner.

Recently, then, on one of those hot summer nights when it was just too steamy to consider cooking outdoors even without children, I rediscovered an old gadget. A number of years ago my grandmother got me and my mother "grill pans." Really, this is simply a non-stick pan with raised edges. The idea is that you can cook items on the stove and the ridges give it a grilled style.

I had just returned from a Trader Joe's trip and was armed with some frozen kalbi, new mango sausages (already cooked-a great convenience food), organic all beef hot dogs for R. and some tofu.

I threw some rice in the rice cooker, the tofu in a teriyaki sauce and then tossed the meat and then the tofu on the pan. I was, honestly, impressed. The tofu was seared, the sauce caramelized, the hot dog was juicy....and all done in an air conditioned kitchen.

Tofu Teriyaki

One block of firm or extra firm tofu
1/4 cup of rice wine
1/4 cup of soy sauce
2 T of sugar
minced ginger (optional)
sesame oil (optional)

Drain the tofu and wrap it in paper towels. Place a heavy object (a can or a heavy plate or skillet work well) on the tofu and let it drain for about 30 minutes. This will just take away some extra moisture. Slice the tofu in slices. My husband likes when I slice them about 1/4 inch thin so that they get crispy. Mix the remaining ingredients in a large dish and put the tofu in to marinate for about 30 minutes.

Lightly oil and preheat the grill pan on medium heat. Cook the tofu on both sides for about 5-10 minutes each until it is gets a bit dark and hot.