MODERN DAY MARTHA

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    Who Has Time to Cook?

    Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

    Well, everyone and no one is the answer to the title question. I used to cook under the catch phrase, “If it doesn’t take an hour or more, it’s not cooking.”

    I say “used to” because one day I found myself holding a very small child in one arm and wondering “How am I going to chop onions now?” and breaking down in tears. And now with three small girls ruling my life and running my house, the luxury I enjoyed as an under-employed home maker–you know, spending half a day on one meal–has flown out the window and left me searching for ways to make my desire to create in the kitchen mesh with the needs of my young family. It’s a struggle.

    Let me share my vision with you. What is food? Simply, energy for your body. Every body needs basic nutrients everyday to live. What is cooking? To me, cooking is the way we transcend meeting the basic needs of our bodies and create foods that do indeed nourish our traditions and our souls as well as our bodies. What is a meal, then? Every meal is an opportunity to use food to express some aspect of ourselves to those we are feeding. Even if that person is you.

    To this respect, one doesn’t have to master the art of French cooking to be a fine cook. After I had my first child and stood in the kitchen crying about no longer being able to spend two hours on dinner I realized I had to change my idea of what cooking was. For me cooking evolved from mastering exotic cuisine (I have made my own Indian curry blends…grinding seeds and spices by hand for the authentic flavor and textures) to mastering the art of a fresh delicious fast meal. I think the disservice that food television and the lovely glossy magazines and the oh so wonderful food memoirs has done to the home cook is to make us feel like we have to spend hours over a stove or we’re not really cooking. I know that’s exactly how I felt. As working women–be it career wise or mommy wise–can’t be expected to spend as many hours in the kitchen as a professional cook does. Julia Child, as much as I respect the work she did to increase the awareness of good food to Americans, didn’t cook with kids under foot.

    I have turned back to so many home-style basics some of my culinary school classmates would chide me as hopelessly old-fashioned. But they work. And by looking to healthy short cuts and meals that can prepped during nap time then popped in an oven later on or even utilizing a slow cooker I can have a dinner on the table I’m proud to serve and still have a day to spend with my girls doing the things that matter to them.

    In terms of practicality I focus on one large meal a day. As much as I would love to bake muffins and pastries in the morning, I love how late my girls sleep in and relish my late nights with my husband. I am not waking up before six to cook. And so, breakfast is a mostly cold cereal affair. Sometimes we have oatmeal. Sometimes French toast. We do eat it together and take our time. We linger over milk and bananas and coffee instead of hot buttery croissants. It makes us happy and I know the kids are starting off with tummies full and a less stressed mom.

    Lunch is a challenge, as two to three days a week we picnic it and my girls do not eat well with the distraction of friends and fun around them.When we are at home, I serve toddler food. I make a meal in 15 minutes or less because that’s what I’ve got to work with. We have a whole lot of chicken tenders and pasta with butter. I do serve veggies we all love and I again, sit and eat a meal with them. My focus at lunch is to round out nutritional needs and make sure another good meal gets into their systems. I don’t fight or stress over lunch choices. A well stocked freezer and snack pantry is my friend for lunch.

    Dinner is hard. I know it is. But I believe it is important so I make it a goal to cook for my family every night I can. Dinner is the meal I cook for myself and my husband. Dinner is the meal I use to expand palettes. Dinner is also the meal I don’t worry about if it doesn’t get eaten because I’ve tried to meet the needs of the kids throughout the day. So I can enjoy my meal and know that one day my adventurous eater will return because I’ve properly set the stage (this is the mantra that gets me through all the ‘but I don’t like thaaaaat’ whining happening here right now).

    So let’s talk about dinner. Dinner has become the cornerstone of my day. I plan my weeks around dinner and my dinners around my weeks. I make a dinner schedule. I sit down either Friday night with a couple of my favorite cookbooks (I’ll post some titles at the end of this missive) and decide what I want to make based on the weather, how we’re feeling, what we’ve had the previous week and how busy our week is going to be. I have a white board I stick on the fridge with the meal plan written out so I don’t forget what I’m cooking. If I’m using a recipe (I don’t always) I have the cookbook and page number written next to it.

    I use the season and the weather as inspiration. I like to make sure I’m planning a variety of proteins, balancing red meat, pork, chicken and fish and at least one meatless meal throughout the week. And I do find inspiration in food magazines. I love Bon Appetit. They have a few regular features that work for me. I love the “Dinner for Four and Leftovers” which is a kid friendly meal all planned out that uses the leftovers for lunch the next day. And “Fast Easy Fresh” utilizes seasonal ingredients in recipes that take 20-45 minutes to prepare.

    I shop once and (try to) obtain everything I need for a weeks worth of cooking because nothing is more frustrating than staring at a cupboard with no clue as to it’s contents and no idea how to put them together anyway. Like any craft, having the right tools will make your project more fun.

    Food should be fun. I think we as home cooks also lose sight of that simple fact in the rush to get food to the table and the cajoling to get kids to eat or in the balancing act of cooking for one. Food is fun. We could all drink protein shakes and take vitamins and survive. Cooking transforms the cook as well as the food. It builds us up on many levels. It doesn’t have to be tricky. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be done with love.

    I could go on…but maybe I’ll let you all digest this meal. I will recommend this cookbook even thought it’s out of print: The Working Stiff Cookbook

    One great feature is the “Well Stocked Pantry” page with suggestions of basics to keep around for cooking these, and many other, tasty meals. There are also very easy versions of exotic foods that use familiar ingredients and are a good place to begin the introduction of, say, curry to a three-year-old.

    Also check out A Year of Slow Cooking for slow-cooker inspiration. This is my saving grace on days when I know we’re going to be out of the house for most of the day. And honestly, nothing is better than walking into your own home and smelling dinner cooking deliciously away.

    A call for help

    Friday, October 2nd, 2009

    They say the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one, right?

    Well here we go: I don’t understand food.

    I know that it’s fuel for our bodies, that it’s necessary to keep us alive and functioning.

    I know that it can be delicious, and function as a bonding and binding ritual.

    I know it can nurture body, spirit and relationships.

    I know that variety is important, that partaking in different taste experiences can refresh our bodies and open our minds.

    I get it on a conceptual level, like I understand how a car works, but where it all falls apart for me is the practical level. I’m experiencing the equivalent of popping the hood and staring helplessly at the motor when the car breaks down.

    Problem # 1:  I don’t know what to cook.

    I have a bunch of cookbooks, and often buy magazines full of recipes, but mostly end up using the types of recipes that are already in my wheelhouse. Eating the same 10 meals over and over gets boring. I don’t know how to break out of that.

    Problem #2:  I have a really picky 3 year old eater.

    Seriously, she’d just eat hot dogs and peanut butter sandwiches every day if I’d let her. And most days I do. And I know that her behavior is normal, I’d just like to stretch her horizons (and her nutrient intake).

    Problem #3: Meals come at really inconvenient times.

    I’d love to make delicious breakfasts to start my family off right every morning, but sheesh it’s early in the morning. And I’m tired.  And lunch is right before naps, when the kids are all feisty, and dinner is right when they’re all wound up and losing it at the end of the day.  It’s so much easier to cop out and rush something to the table than try to cook and solve the house’s problems at the same time.

    I’ve considered those services that just pre-prepare the meals for you, but I really feel like there’s something I’m supposed to learn about cooking for my family, and important things they get from me cooking for them.

    Problem #4:  I just can’t catch the vision.

    I feel that if I could catch the vision of what meals could be, I could overcome the other issues I’m dealing with. But I can’t seem to do that. And that’s why I’m turning to you.

    I’m a reader, and I get inspired most by reading. SO…. give me books, websites, magazines, anything that can help me out.  I’ve read Julie and Julia, which I enjoyed, but which convinced me to stay (FAR!) away from French cooking. I’m currently reading My Life in France by Julia Child, which I highly recommend; I love how years after the fact she can recall what she ate and where, and I want to be more like that, but the book does not give good clues as to how to do that.

    Where do you get your recipes?

    When you want to cook something new, where do you look for ideas?

    Any good memoirs/books that inspire your creative cooking juices?

    Help!!

    And don’t forget to go here and enter the giveaway! We know you’re here, why aren’t you entering? Seriously! It’s easy! And the prizes are awesome! Are you afraid you’ll be too disappointed if you don’t win? Well you won’t even have a chance if you don’t enter! Go go!

    The Year of Magical Thinking

    Saturday, September 26th, 2009

    Later after I married and had a child, I learned to find equal meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life.  Setting the table.  Lighting the candles.  Building the fire.  Cooking.  All those souffles, all that creme caramel, all those daubes and albondigas and gumbos.  Clean sheets, stacks of clean towels, hurricane lamps for storms, enough water and food to see us through whatever geological event came our way.  These fragments I have shared against my ruins were the words that came to mind then.  These fragments mattered to me.  I believed in them.

    What rituals of domestic life do you find meaning in?

    May I recommend

    Saturday, September 19th, 2009

    a book? I’m only partway through it, but it’s fascinating so far.

    slowbook

    You can get it here for $6.  (Woo hoo, bargain books!) It’s all about why we feel the need for speed (historically and sociologically speaking), and the movement to take back control over our own time. It may have just given me the inspiration I needed to tackle more hands on cooking – what will it inspire you to do?

    I’ll post a more comprehensive review once I’ve finished it, but for now, if it sounds interesting to you, go take a look!

    Browsing for inspiration

    Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

    Sometimes you just need a little inspiration.

    Some new ideas.

    A fresh approach.

    When I feel that urge, I hit the library. (Oh, how I love the library.)

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    Not only do the ideas inspire me (how would I think of them on my own?), but the  lovely images inspire me to pursue greater beauty. (All pictures within the pictures are copyrighted by the people who, you know, actually took and published said pictures.)

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    The item in the third picture down is a measuring tape cover. How delightfully ridiculously cute is that? I MUST have one. And now I can make one! And I love those cheese grater lanterns. And the blues in that top picture… sigh.

    For me, when the inspiration yearning hits, I have to stick within the areas I know and am comfortable with. Crafts? Sewing? I’m so on it.   Gorgeously written novels  inspire my writing, but also spark creativity in other areas. But the other day I went and browsed the cooking/baking section and came away befuddled and empty handed.  Just as I’m sure Martha Stewart’s 415 page behemoth would completely discourage some of my non-craft inclined friends, I need to take my “learning books” in smaller doses, and not expect them to serve the same purpose  as my “inspiration books”.

    So, two questions. First, what books (specifictitles or general types) inspire you? And second, anyone want to suggest a good, non-befuddling, inspirational cooking book?

    Unexpected Company

    Friday, September 11th, 2009

    I found myself with unexpected (not at all unwelcome) company for breakfast this morning.  What to eat?  Coffee Cake :)

    Coffee Cake

    1 1/3 c. flour

    2 t. bkg powder

    1/4 t. salt

    1/4 c. butter

    3/4 c. sugar

    1/2 t. vanilla

    1 egg

    1/2 c. milk

    1) Preheat oven to 350, butter brownie pan

    2) Combine flour, bkg powder, salt

    3) Cream butter, beat in sugar, vanilla and egg

    4) Add flour mixture and milk, alternatively, to wet mix

    5) Pour into pan, sprinkle with cinnamon, and bake 25 minutes

    6) Enjoy :)

    Coffee Cake

    Cooking Feeds More Than The Body

    Friday, September 11th, 2009

    This past weekend I went to visit family and friends in the Bay Area for Labor Day.  I have so many good memories, including watching Coraline with Justin and Hilary wearing 3D glasses and riding the carosel at the Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park with my Mama.  The best part of my trip, though was Sunday evening, when I baked an apple pie with my Mama.

    Mama makes pieMama and I sat across from each other and peeled apples and we talked.  We talked about her upcoming retirement and my adventures in dating.  The pie was delicious (obviously):

    Apple Pie…but the time I spent making it was even better than eating it :)

    Please comment any experiences with household chores/activities that feed more than the body…

    Breakfast Magic

    Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

    I have a special relationship with breakfast. My dad made the best weekend breakfasts while we were growing up: pancakes, muffins, bacon scrambled eggs or other treats. We looked forward to those breakfasts all week.

    As an adult learning my way around a kitchen, breakfast was first on my list to be “perfected”. I have friends who remember the evenings that extended into mornings at my little house where I would wake all my sleeping guests with Fleetwood Mac and a pile of fresh from scratch pancakes or french toast made with cinnamon raisin bread.

    During our long-distance courtship in San Diego, John and I eschewed the normal dinner/date routine and indulged in long weekend breakfasts at our favorite spots around the city. We’d linger over pancakes as big as our heads filled with fruits and slathered with butter and syrup, drinking coffee and planning our day.

    Breakfast was what brought me to professional food, in the magical roundabout way that things happen in life. John joked over one of our extended breakfasts that I could certainly “do this” gesturing to the busy dining room. I took a business class and then found a hospitality program so that I could, one day, have my own kitchen to make breakfast bliss in.

    Of course, my kitchen currently only serves five, plus a guest here and there, but breakfast still holds sway as a magical meal.

    When Maia was little she did not eat. It was a wretched experience for a foodie mom to have a child who would not eat. Her first birthday was an exercise in misery as she flat out refused our attempts to get her to even taste a dreamy cream-filled pastry that served as her impromptu birthday cake. I was at my wits end until I stumbled upon something she loved with gusto: French toast. The humble breakfast food was our saving grace at meal time.

    I made batches of toast at the beginning of the week and added nutrition by smashing bananas into the batter, stirring in finely grated carrots or zucchini, or adding apples and sauce. She ate French toast at almost every meal for months.

    She finally became a more adventurous eater, but she did survive on French toast and still loves it. At this point, we still make toast 1-2 times a week for breakfast and Maia will tell me what to get out of the fridge for her. Sometimes when we’re not fast enough, she’ll get out the eggs, milk and bread herself.

    I like to think she’s on the path to making her own magical breakfast memories.

    Apple-Cinnamon French Toast

    The rule of thumb for French Toast is one egg + milk will coat about 2 pieces of standard sandwich bread. I really soak my bread, so I get about 1 1/2 pieces per egg. This recipe is sized to make about 6 pieces. Adjust to your family as need be.

    Ingredients

    4 whole eggs

    3 tablespoons milk

    1 teaspoon vanilla extract

    1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

    1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

    1 4-ounce container or 1/2 cup apple sauce

    ~6 slices bread (I use whole wheat–it gives it a wonderful hearty flavor)

    Method

    Beat together the eggs, milk, vanilla and spices in a shallow, wide dish (I find a pie plate works perfectly for this job). Stir in applesauce. Dunk bread into batter, pressing lightly to help really soak in the batter. Place soaked bread on a heated and oiled skillet. Cook until nicely browned on both sides.

    Serve with butter, warm syrup, or more apple sauce. Enjoy!

    Cooking for One

    Monday, August 31st, 2009

    Today was payday (hallelujah!)  and I went grocery shopping.  Until fairly recently I would buy a lot of prepackaged meals (like Smart Ones or Top Ramen), because it seemed a lot of work to go to just for one person.  About six months ago, though, I decided to spend one evening a week cooking one or two dishes for the week.  I make a recipe for a family (4 or 6 servings), and then Tupperware it up for the week.  Then I just heat up a container for lunches.  It’s easy and I get the benefits of a homemade meal, including the savings.

    Today I made Mama’s Pot Roast:

    Pot Roast

    Here’s the recipe, in case you would like to play :)

    4 potatoes

    4 carrots

    1 beef roast

    butter

    salt & pepper

    1) Brown roast in butter, add salt & pepper

    2) Add H2O to 1/2″ depth, cover & simmer

    3) Peel potatoes & carrots, add to roast

    4) Simmer, covered, adding H2O periodically, until tender (approx. 2 hours)

    Voila :)   It’s tres yummy…

    Meal Plan

    Saturday, August 29th, 2009

    I am working on a family goal near and dear to my heart. Family Dinner. As simple as that sounds, the past year has really challenged us to find time to sit and eat and enjoy a meal in the evening as a family. After the birth of our twins the little rhythm we had established with daughter one was out the window and food, dinner especially, became whatever could be tossed in the oven and shoveled down between bottles, diapers, sleep, loves and the “rinse and repeat” pattern of dual infants.

    As the little ones established an early (6:30 PM or they were toast) bedtime, dinner morphed into whatever could be made between the ritual of bedtime for wee ones and the ritual of bedtime for a toddler. Most nights, I opted on a three-headed-dinner approach: Feed toddler “toddler food” while spooning dinner into the twins. Put babies to bed. Put toddler to bed. Make some kind of adult food and eat on the couch after all children were asleep. Sometime around 8 PM.

    This is not me, nor is it the family time I imagined when my husband and I envisioned having children.

    Fortunately, babies grow. Bed times can be pushed back and moms can restate the importance of sharing a meal at the end of a busy day. For me, it is a chance to reconnect as a whole family. The girls haven’t seen Dad all day, and neither have I. We love to share stories and some quiet time before the hustle and bustle of getting three small girls to bed. And there is always a new dish to try. Something fun to cook and taste. Meals in out house are about more than body nourishment. They can be about comfort, adventure, excitement, remembrance, or even about having found that perfect “something” while wandering at the Farmer’s Market.

    Enter a commitment to dinner time. My husband and I have made a pact. Dinner will be done at 6:00 PM and he’ll be here to enjoy it with us. With this arrangement dinner has become a new cornerstone in my day. An added bonus for someone as hopelessly inept with schedules as I am. Dinner is now a goal and a way for me to focus the late afternoon post-nap-time-lethargy that tends to overtake me. I know I have to get prepping and chopping and cooking once the wee ones wake up, if not before, if we are going to share a timely meal. And a timely meal leads to a timely bed time and more quality time for the grown-ups to share.

    Dinner time has also changed my shopping habits. With a meal goal (and a weekly plan to make it happen) I am also focusing the food brought into our home and seeing less waste as a result. I am also able to take full advantage (most weeks) of the local fresh produce which is a blessing and a gift where we live.

    All of this is my way of introducing myself to you. I am by no means perfect in my Family Dinner goal, but it’s been a great month so far. I’ve seen my little babies be excited to try a variety of new foods and have seen my toddler eat more than microwave chicken for a meal (ah three, where did my little adventurer-eater go?). I’ve broken bread with my husband surrounded by our children and felt the happiness that brings to our home.

    I would like to share some of that with you. Be it lunch, dinner or a snack (or breakfast which belongs in a glorious category of its very own food-wise) I’d like to share some of the magic the food contains and explore some of the ways food connects us together.

    Thank you, and enjoy.