Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Go Ahead, Play with Your Food

Lately, it's been a bit of a struggle at dinner time. No, not over food. Manners. Seems like more than the kiddo can bear to remain seated, use a fork she's been using well for years, and just focus. Hmmm. I can recall my own struggles. They ended with a solid thump of a spoon to the middle of my forehead. A firm tap, dealt out by my dad, who had the longest arms of any human ever known. Or at least it felt that way from the farthest end of the table or the corner of the back seat.

Temporary attention span issues aside, let's think about this for a moment. Maybe dinner should be fun. Food should be fun. Like legos. Maybe not molecular gastronomy smoking and levitating over the plate, but just add a little something to the topography once in a awhile.

So, I played. Basically, this is just grilled vegetables with some spreads and polenta. Yes, I used polenta in the tube. I've not gone all "semi-homemade" on you guys. The only addition to the polenta in the tube is water. It's not ready to go, unless you slice it into circles and bake it. Which works really well. The rest is just stacking up grilled veggies and using pesto for spackle. Don't heat up the grill and oven both just for this one. Wait til you were going to throw something on the grill anyway.

Eggplant Stacks
For the grill
1 small eggplant, sliced 1/4 inch rounds
1 zucchini, sliced 1/4 inch rounds
canola oil
salt and pepper

For the oven
1 tube of plain polenta, sliced 1/2 inch rounds

For the spreads
1/2 cup basil pesto
1/2 cup kalamata olive tapenade (recipe below)
3 roasted red peppers, cut in strips
1 recipe roasted tomatoes (recipe below)
4 oz. goat cheese

Prepare all the pesto and spreads. Oil, salt and pepper the vegetables for the grill.

Now, you can buy the pesto and the olive spread (not that it's better, but you can). Other time saving steps — well, my husband does all the grilling. That helps a lot! Grill these just a few minutes a side on a medium-hot grill. The grill marks are nice to have.

Preheat oven broiler on low.

Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray. Place rounds on the sheet. Broil for a few minutes until golden brown.

Assemble the stacks in this order polenta, 1 tsp. basil pesto, 1 slice zucchini, 1 tsp. olive tapendade, 1 slice eggplant, top with a few red pepper strips and some of the roasted tomatoes, then a tablespoon of the goat cheese. Repeat with the other rounds and veggies. If you are making this in a larger quantity, doubling for a party even, you can keep these warm in the oven before serving.

Kalamata Olive Tapenade
1 cup pitted kalamata olives
1 large clove garlic
1/3 cup, or about 3 roasted red peppers (jar is fine)
1/3 cup pine nuts
black pepper to taste

Put the garlic in the food processor first, then the nuts and red peppers, olives last. Try to keep some of the texture, not just puree, to use the pulse method instead of just turning it on. This dip is amazing with pita chips and bruscetta or a antipasta platter as well. "Pitted" kalamatas are not always all pitted, so for the benefit of your food processor (trust me on this one) check the olives for pits as you put them in.

Roasted Tomatoes
12 oz. cherry tomatoes (about 2 cups), stemmed
2 tbs. olive oil
3 garlic cloves, chopped roughly
1/2 teaspoons dried crushed red pepper
1/2 tbs. chopped fresh marjoram
1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
kosher salt and fresh pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 450°F.

Toss tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper and marjoram in large bowl. Place tomatoes in single layer on baking sheet. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast until tomatoes are blistered, about 35 minutes. Top with chopped basil. These work well in other recipes, but also make a delicious and easy pasta dish when tossed with cooked pasta and a bit of grated parmesan.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Nightmare from the Cereal Aisle

Wow. Is it just me, or does the little dude look completely deranged and possessed? He should really seek some professional help to get down off that sugar high that requires a giant spoon.

Here's what we do for cereal. We buy the great big boxes of plain oat cereal or some organic brand from a big box store or bulk bin. Then, store the cereal in bins, without the labels. Cereal is just cereal. No licensed characters waiting to lure my child into a sugar frenzy.

Because it is just cereal we're buying.

Summer Treats

Lately, I have been exploring homemade frozen fruit bar recipes. It's ridiculously easy, and yet the kiddo is totally impressed that Mommy can make popsicles. I guess it's the simple things in life. As long as she keeps eating eggplant and squash disguised as lasagne, I am happy to hand her a "dessert" with two servings of fruit packed into it. She doesn't have to know all this is healthy.

The first round of popsicles I made were peach, honey and herb. Really good. But have to save that one for the book project. The other one was a bit more creative.

Pineapple-Cilantro Frozen Fruit Bars
1/2 of a pineapple, peeled, cored, diced
1/2 cup orange juice
Juice of 1 lime
2 tbs. agave nectar
1 tbs. chopped cilantro

Put all but the cilantro in the blender and blend until smooth. Fold in the cilantro (to keep the popsicle from ending up greenish). Pour into six popsicle molds and freeze at least two hours.

Just before the last bit where you pour the mix into molds, I was very tempted to dump in some ice and about six ounces of rum. It's been that kind of few weeks, kids. And it still sounds good. So, there's another approach. Note that the rum will prevent your mix from freezing into actual popsicles, in case you were thinking about that.

Whichever way you choose to make this, enjoy!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Extreme Grocery Shopping

When we're wheeling the cart around the grocery store, picking up pantry staples and dairy products, you generally don't find any meat in the basket.

No, we are not vegetarians. It's just that our meat buying habits require "go around back" and entering the side door, as opposed to the back door — that's where the cows go in. There, greeted by a man with blood-spattered clothes and a knife at his side. It sounds more like a horror flick than a meat run, but, if you are going to eat meat, you need to know where it comes from.

Growing up, with an uncle who raised our beef, this was a normal way we bought meat. For others, it may take a bit of getting used to, but it is well worth the effort.

Recently, we took a field trip to a different meat locker. I know, not your typical weekend activity, and there is the awkward moment explaining to the kiddo that no, the cows are not going to get up and walk. But, it was an educational trip. The meat locker is called Paradise, and it is the source of the heritage Berkshire pork that the likes of Thomas Keller and Mario Batali have shipped to their restaurants.

The owner, Mario, will happily walk you through the facility. It is so clean you could safely eat off the floor. And he also talks through their methods — one animal slaughtered at a time with every precaution and never a single positive test for E. coli. It made me want to eat medium-rare hamburger again. It also restored my belief that there are people who care about the way our food is produced, who are passionate about the end product being safe and the best it can be. It just takes some looking and extra work to find these folks.

The animals were all sustainably-raised without antibiotics or animal byproduct in their feed. You can find both Wagyu beef and grassfed beef dry aging in the locker. For a quick comparison, the two sides at the far right in the photo are grassfed, note how much less fat they have. The locker also has Berkshire pork, chicken, lamb and even goat.

The prices are surprisingly reasonable buying direct as well. Expect to pay more than "conventional" factory-farmed meat prices, but far less than the "natural" product from Whole Foods. If you buy in quantity from a trusted source, you can get your meat prices down to around $4.00 per pound for beef or less. Indeed, knowing what the NY restaurants that serve this stuff are charging, I felt like I was shoplifting the two slabs of Berkshire pork ribs under my arm.

Ways to Buy Better Meat (and be more green)
  • Find ranchers/farmers who raise their livestock in a sustainable way (
  • Visit the facility where the meat is processed and ask to see the locker and how the process is done — ask about safety record
  • Visit the farm and see the living conditions for the livestock
  • Ask the farmer if the animals have been treated with antibiotics or hormones
  • Ask the farmer what the animals have been fed, grassfed is the most sustainable and safest beef
  • Share a cow with other families to save costs by buying in bulk
  • Skip meat one day a week to lighten your carbon footprint, eat less, eat better