Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Dinner with Hanukkah Latkes

We are home again for the holidays, this time sharing a Christmas dinner with another family. For complicated interfaith and interstate reasons, we usually spend Christmas and Hanukkah with "just" the five of us. Family is too far, or don't celebrate; friends have other commitments. We try to create home-spun traditions for our kids, making each holiday special. We make latkes at least once for Hanukkah during the eight nights. For Christmas, we often plan an elaborate menu, even though it can seem a little silly to conjure up a hug feast for the few of us. It's especially silly if my dearest, say, wants to make a goose and the kids don't really appreciate it. This year we were lucky enough to land a few friends, who also happen to be interfaith and who have been similarly stranded without family for Christmas dinner. We are really looking forward to setting a holiday table with our friends, lighting the candles and cherishing our good fortune.

P.S.: Cook's Illustrated has a really good latke recipe, copied here.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Best Cookbooks of 2008 and the Only One You Really Need to Make Family Dinner

The wonderful thing about beautiful cook books and impressive food blogs is that they celebrate good food, made at home. They can inspire, and encourage, you to try new things. Food porn jokes aside, it is great entertainment to leaf through a wonderful cooking book. Food and foodie blogs with those great photos are fun and useful in different ways. Search-able recipes on the Internet is the ultimate convenience as you try to figure out what to make for dinner on the fly. The bad thing, of course, is feeling intimidated by the complicated steps or ingredients and/or feeling like your own cooking can never live up to that standard.

This is one reason I have a renewed appreciation of Mark Bittman, both his books and his Bitten Blog. I used to feel like his books were a little too dumbed down. But our old Mark Bittman "How to Cook Everything" cookbook tells a different tale. Its pages are literally falling out of the binding and it is held together with old cooking grease and string, stained and strained from frequent use. Writing this blog and listening to parents who want to have family dinner but don't know where to begin, I have to recommend his cookbook as a great place to start. It's really is the only cookbook you need. Use his book and take his advice, like the French chef in "Ratatouille":
Anyone can cook, and everyone should.
Short-cuts, simple steps, and quick cooking tips are the way to make cooking everyday work for busy families. Plus, unlike so many of the recipes that pop up on, you can really count on him. Nothing spells home-cooking disaster more than a "quick & easy" recipe that turns out to be inedible. Get down the basics, then added flourishes, steps, or new ingredients to keep it interesting. Bittman's new revised edition will be under our tree this year and will again be pressed into service. (Here's a review from Cookbooks We Love, to show I'm not the only one who feels this way!)

A quick round-up of other recommended 2008 cookbooks or blogs to give or to treat yourself to, especially if you already own and use Bittman!

Best Blogs for Foodies, Tara Parker-Pope, NYT Well Blog, 12.12.08
Bon Appetit's Blog Envy, List of great food blogs, 12.08

Best Cookbooks of 2008 from:
Project Foodie: Baking
Cookbooks for Your Holiday Gift List, Tara Parker-Pope, NYT Well Blog, 12.02.08
Food and Wine
Al Dente Blog's report on Amazon's 2008 List

And in the "No Excuses" category:
So Your Kitchen's Tiny. So What? Mark Bittman, NYT, 12.13.08
Anatomy of a Minimalist Column, Mark Bittman, NYT Bitten Blog, 11.17.08

Monday, December 15, 2008

Holiday Parties at Home

Hooray! We are throwing our "not-so-annual" holiday party, and quite a few friends are signed up to come. Every couple of years or so, we feel up to the challenge and throw open the doors. This year, a party seems especially needed: The economy is in the tank, everyone's worried where the bottom is, and at least some of us wondering if our children will re-live the 1970s recession that branded our psyche. I always felt a little bonded with my Depression-era Grandfather in my basic fear that good economic times can't last. But, really, I don't need to re-live his past. He tells a story of dreaming that one day he would save a rich man's daughter from being hit by a street car. His hope was not to get the girl, but that the rich father would offer him a job as a reward. He also tells a story about being paid to house-sit empty houses for the bank, which seems a little too eerie nowadays.

In that spirit, our parties are very home-made and I try to keep an eye on the budget. I can never justify spending money to cater or even pre-order anything at the grocery store. It's more work, but I think the food and atmosphere are more homey and much better. There are ways to have your party and to save time and money, too. Some modest tips:

Roast a turkey or buy a pre-cooked ham. I actually bought a frozen turkey (half-price) right after Thanksgiving. I'll roast it the day of the party to have lots of food. A spiral ham is also a great choice. Guests can serve themselves and the leftover ham bone can go into a soup or beans.

Make soup or chili. It's very economical to make a pot of soup or chili; you can make it special with a few exotic ingredients or just a funny name. One year I made my Famous Christmas Chili. Obviously, cheap and easy, but it went over great, perhaps due to that witty name. You can serve it in coffee mugs to save buying bowls and also to cut down on spills.

Chips, bread, crackers, cut veggies: All of these are great filler for simple dips, salsas, cheese, etc. Any leftover veggies can be used for soup later.

Potluck. Ask friends to bring food or drinks. If you want more control, ask people to bring specific items (get a couple of ringers if you know Beth makes a mean beef stew) or use email/evites to have people sign up for certain dishes. Or try a theme: "sweet and savory," asking guests to bring one or the other, or pick a country and ask for regional dishes. It 's a lot of fun to try different dishes, and it definitely saves work and money for the host.

Specialty Cocktail or BYOB. For several recent parties, we've created a "speciality cocktail." It's usually an ordinary-type drink, but we make a batch of it and give it a funny name. It's very festive. I have smallish wine glasses that I serve these in. You save money because you are not stocking a full bar, just the special drinks served in modest portions. I'm thinking about doing a mulled wine and a mulled cider this year, so that my preteens can have a special drink that's not alcoholic. If it's clearly BYOB, people will bring their own and you don't have to guess and waste $$ on unwanted liquor.

Use the real thing. If you have enough real plates and glasses, use them! You'd be surprised how much money you end up spending on disposables. Sure, you'll have to run the dishwasher an extra time or two, but it really does seem special and nice to use real glasses and plates. Try to use small plates to make the food stretch.

Focus on friends and food. The point is to get together with friends; don't stress it. Searching for holiday budget tips today, I was surprised to find most of the tips were how to save money on decorations and goody bags. Please. Do away with all that stuff. Straighten your house, make sure there are a few places to sit or put down a drink, but don't go crazy with decorating. Everyone's going to be standing in the kitchen anyway, just wanting to talk and catch up. That's the gift you are giving yourself and your friends at a holiday get-together. Enjoy it!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Eat Local or Shop Local?

Today I was poised to do a "big shop" at my local food coop, but something came up and I had to do an errand in a totally different neighborhood. So, I stopped into my local butcher (Los Paisanos Meat Market) instead to pickup something for dinner. Instead of just getting chicken breasts, I ended up buying meat and other deli items that will probably last our family 4-5 days or so. The owner looked so happy over my big order that I thought he would kiss me. (He's an older guy in his 70s who likes to call the customers sweetie or gorgeous or young lady/man in that old-time Brooklyn way.)

Every time I go into this place, or any of the few local butcher shops left in Park Slope/Carrol Gardens area, I think, "I have to shop here more. I really don't want this place to go out of business." Not only is the food really good, but the experience is so personal. You can ask the guys how to cook something, or how much you need of a certain item for a family of four or a crowd. You know that the prepared foods, take-out and dining-out trends hurts these guys. If no one is cooking at home, no one is going to a butcher shop. Many butcher shops have adapted to have more ready to eat, or ready to cook fare, and that's good business. Several other customers were there to buy sandwiches, although at least one (maybe inspired by me?) ordered something to cook for dinner too.

There's a lot of food talk about buying local and buying organic, but in this economy, shopping local is important too. The prices I paid were comparable if not cheaper that the organic, locally-raised meat at the coop, but I'm helping a local business survive. Many places in the country can depend only on big supermarkets or Costco for their food. But there are little, family-run vegetable stores and meat markets quietly tuck away in many places, too. Support your local economy any way you can!

Shouts outs for Los Paisanos from

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Off-topic: My answers to the Obama survey

How would you like to see this organization move forward in the months and years ahead?
There was so much energy and enthusiasm generated by the campaign. It was based on the hope that individual efforts would make a difference. I think there must be some effort to sustain that optimism in the face of difficult times. I think some of that energy can be turned toward greater volunteerism in the community at large: food banks, job banks, tutoring for children, help for the elderly, etc. Use the structure to help people find ways to connect with and help their neighbors and neighborhoods.

What first inspired you to join this campaign?
I originally supported Clinton, because I was afraid that Obama was not experienced enough. But I caught the "hope" bug and found that despite my misgivings, I desperately wanted to believe his words and the words of the campaign: that change was possible and that we could all be a part of it.

What was the best part of your volunteer experience?
The organization of the volunteer effort was truly exceptional. You felt like you were really part of a movement. One that took the individual seriously, respected his/her time and commitment, and took the time to listen and say thank you. It was easy to drop in and help out in a concrete way with the online phone tool and with the central offices in Brooklyn.

Thanksgiving Tzimmes

The biggest family dinner of them all, Thanksgiving is less than one week away. The menu is so simple I often wonder what the fuss is about. The basics are easy: turkey, stuffing, a few sides, pumpkin pie. I guess, there's the stress of having extra people around the table or the fear of revisiting long-held family tensions. Sometimes, there's overnight guests too, since traveling from distant places is a common necessity. Maybe most people have higher standards than me, or at least more complicated recipes. I think the anxiety is rooted in the fact that many Americans don't cook anymore, yet feel like they have to create elaborate dishes for the signature Thanksgiving meal.

I'm getting old enough to just pine for a little extended family togetherness. Thanksgiving was the holiday that brought us all together. But this year, it's hard for many of us to travel, due to health issues or the high cost of air travel. So I'm sending my brother-in-law my tzimmes recipe via email, and we'll plan to do a video-chat with Great Grandpa and Grandma and whoever else is online. Somehow, it's not the same.

On the bright side, we will connect to our extended network of friends in lieu of family on Thanksgiving. Much good wine and food are sure to be consumed. Our relatives may also get a chance to invite a few close friends or neighbors over to share dinner, since the table won't be groaning with the 25+ of us that can take part in family gatherings. And Thanksgiving is the only day of the year that my mother can get my father to her church, where the majority of the congregation comes together for a community pot-luck. "It's a good thing," as she would say.

So if you are lucky enough to be with family this year, relax about the menu and count your blessings. If you are apart from them, connect in the best way you can and aspire to do better next year.

Carrot Tzimmes
Tzimmes means "with a lot of fuss" but this recipe is actually very easy. Organic carrots are optional of course, but worth the "fuss." You can also use sweet potatoes or a mixture.

1-2 lbs of sliced organic carrots (depending on how many people you are serving)
approx. 2 Tbs of each Butter and Olive Oil
1/2-1 cup Orange Juice, enough to fill pan by 1/3.
2 Tbsps. Honey or brown sugar
1/2 cup Raisins or currants, more or less to taste
1 tsp Cinnamon, more or less to taste
Salt and Pepper to taste

Parboil carrots. Melt butter in microwave, add equal amount of olive oil. Then mix in orange juice, honey, and cinnamon. Drain carrots and arrange in 9X12 baking dish. Pour in orange juice mixture, adding more liquid if needed. Toss in raisins and cover with foil. Whenever the oven is free, place pan in oven for about 30 minutes or until hot. If you like the carrots to be more golden brown, remove foil and heat for another 15 minutes or more, until desired color.

(Oven Temperature can vary, though 350 degrees is ideal. If oven is hotter than 350, decrease time and check more regularly so that it does not burn.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama, mama, and apple pie

Photo: Carly & Art, Flickr pool

"In the unlikely story of America there's never been anything false about hope."
Barack Obama, #44

Joy reigns in our household today at the sweeping Obama presidential victory. We are giddy with hope, almost not believing that it is true. God Bless America for choosing hope over fear, and change over the same failed policies and politics. I have been feeling too much like a tired, old cynic and I am proud that we, as a country, have taken a profound step in the right direction.

My voting day was uplifting and tearful in turns. My three kids went to the voting booth yesterday with my husband and me. My 13 year old son stood in line and cast ballot with me for the first time since he was little. My nine year old is now an old hand, as she goes to every election with her dad on the way to school. My three year old thought we we were actually going to see Obama at the polls. (Oh, that's why she wanted me to wear a pretty dress. I complied) There was excitement and giddiness all over as people waited to vote, even in a place as "decided" as Brooklyn, New York. I called my mom who lives in Florida to hear her voting day plans (a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, she) and to share the moment. I was sad to learn that Republican canvassers were at her door on Monday, chatting up my independent-streaked stepfather. Then I went to make calls for Obama, first at a Mega-Call center at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), then at home with that awesome online calling tool. When I had to stop making calls to do school pick up, I re-watched a couple of classic videos posted on The Daily Kos. I was hoping to feel uplifted and"fired up," but in fact, the images reduced me to tears. I was afraid that our country was not ready for Obama, no matter how great his promise.

In the evening, we switched on the TV and followed the political web sites we've been obsessively checking for the past few weeks. The girls were conked out by 8:30pm. But my son held out longer, until about 9:20pm when Ohio was called. It was a positive enough omen for him, and he went to bed with high hopes. My husband and I stuck it out, relived that it was over by 11am. Barack's historic yet humble speech at midnight moving and prescient. The hard work is ahead. Still, the cheering and whopping and car horns blaring could be heard all over Brooklyn. Today is truly a new day.

By chance, I had planned an All-American meal of hamburgers and French fries for tonight's dinner. But now it is definitely a celebration. I may even pull together an apple pie, a family favorite and political symbol extraordinaire.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

Family dinner is being preempted for Halloween! Tonight, we have dinner with friends and put on a Halloween-themed shadow puppet show; it's an eight year tradition. The tale we tell tonight is "Molly Whuppie: A Fairy Tale of Starvation." If you happen by Cambridge Place in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, come hear it!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Family Dinner: Caught between a Teen, a Tween and a Toddler

Last week, the family calendar was bursting. My oldest is applying to public high school in New York City (a daunting process to the uninitiated), my youngest at 3 is starting to get birthday party invitations, and my middle one is balancing the usual 4th grade homework expectations, plus dance, acrobatics, sleepovers and social plans (HSM3!). It was a hectic and anxiety-provoking week, and our family dinners took a bit of a hit. There was food on the table every night, and at least one parent was in attendance, but it wasn't the whole crew sitting down at once the way it usually is. We all felt a little disconnected. I'm pretty sure the lack of a dinner routine just added to the stress.

Last night, I opted out of an evening meeting so that we would all be home, and it felt like the right decision. Everything was pretty calm, everyone went to bed on time. This week, there will be at least 3 normal weeknight dinners, which is probably the bare minimum we should schedule as our lives get increasingly busy. It's hard with the competing needs of a toddler, a tween, and a teen: more activities, more juggling, less time. But it's also increasingly necessary.

There is an old saying: Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems. This adage used to annoy me, because when your baby's not sleeping through the night, it's a big problem. Yet, when you hear that a kid in your 13-year old's class had her stomach pumped because she took pills at a party, that seems like a pretty big problem. For my tween girl, you realize that as strong and smart girls can be, girls are sometimes the "risk-takers" at younger ages, can be more influenced by peer pressure, and tend to be better at deception. All of a sudden, staying connected with your kid is not a given, a luxury or a little problem.

I firmly believe that family dinners help keep parents and kids connected. Family dinners (or the connectedness it brings) can help protect kids from using drugs and alcohol. The most recent surveys indicate that most kids do not use drugs and alcohol, though they can get them if they want to, and at surprisingly young ages. Parent attitudes, expectations, and behaviors make a huge difference. CASA surveys indicate that five or more dinners a week are the most effective. To me, that number is to set a goal, not to set an impossible standard for families. Every dinner helps, and the routine and the expectation that you sit down together on a regular basis may be the most important of all.

Are parents passive pushers? (10.24.08) reports on recent CASA survey (August 2008).
Increase Risk for Alcohol Problems in Adulthood when Consumption Starts Before Age 15. Medical News Today, 09.30.08

Drug Use Prevention Sites for Parents and Teens

For teens:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Casserole Crazy and Childhood Memories

Casserole Crazy, by Emily Farris

Here's shout-out to Emily Farris, author of Casserole Crazy: Hot Stuff in the Oven. I first met Emily through BEAM camp, and I didn't know that she was a casserole chef in addition to her many other talents. Her new book just came out, so I want to give her props. Emily also hosts a Annual Casserole Party in November that seems to be a hot ticket in Brooklyn.

Although I am not a big casserole person myself, I love the book and there an obvious home for casseroles at family dinners. They are something easy that you can throw together when you have a minute and then pop on the oven for a fresh, home-cooked dinner. With cooler weather and thoughts of economizing, casseroles seem a perfect fit for the times.

I don't really have casserole memories as a child. Growing up in Florida in the 1970s (a recession-era), the Crock Pot was our family dinner staple. My mom would throw chicken and a can of soup in there, plug it in, and then dash off to work. Many hours later, it would be dinner. It sounds gross, but I remember loving it. The only family casserole dish I know of is "Concoction," which is a Depression-era dish made by my husband's Grandpa Dave. It includes ground meat, cheese, noodles, and corn flakes, believe it or not. I think the recipe stems from a USDA cookbook designed to help people stretch the surplus food they would give out in the 1930s and 1940s. Yes, I ate it, out of love and respect. I have similar memories of his famous Rainbow Jello, which was a multi-layer extravaganza he created for holidays. Since I never really knew my own grandparents, meals and food I ate with Grandpa Dave in my early twenties substitute for childhood ones. My children have been lucky to know Great-Grandpa Dave (who is now 93) as well as their grandparents. (We miss Grandpa Jonny terribly, though).

Emily claims casseroles as a Midwestern staple, with far more upscale potential than a pot with a plug or a dish with cornflakes. Hence, her recipes might include sun-dried tomatoes or portobello mushrooms. I'm going to try this recipe printed in The Brooklyn Paper. I will probably substitute cremini mushrooms because that's what I have on hand. I'll report back on the results. Since I don't own a Crock-Pot, maybe I can create some casserole childhood memories for my kids.

I couldn't find a recipe for Dave's "Concoction," but I found this:
How to Make a Casserole: A Simple Scientific Formula at Helium.
Casserole Crazy by Emily Farris, at Amazon

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Eat Local Family Dinner

We are halfway into the Eat Local Challenge Month of October. I'm participating, but only in the sense that I am trying not to shop anywhere but my food coop this month. (And that may be a more "worried about the economy" thing.)

Still, it's a good time to try eat local as much as possible. Harvests are in for the Northeastern parts of the country and the late summer-like weather is keeping the farmer's markets brimming with produce. Places like California, where the challenge originates, and parts of the South have more variety and selection of local produce year-round, but you have to work with what you have.

Eating locally for yourself is one thing; getting your family to eat local is quite another. On one hand, my kids are pretty flexible about food. But on the other, they won't eat any of the organic breakfast cereals I buy. They only want "good" cereal which means Life, Honey Nut Cheerios, and Special K with strawberries. I make special trips to Target to get these coveted brands, because as a mom, I think eating breakfast is important too. (Is there a "local" breakfast cereal, anyway?)

Dinner is more open to a local-only domain. Sarah Beam writes about the Eat Local Challenge family-style. One plus is that it has added new dishes to her family dinner rotation and is inspiring her family to try new things. Her somewhat reluctant husband even surprised her by showing up at their CSA (Athens Locally Grown) to join in the spirit.

Sarah hints that one tension for her family during the challenge is meat. Our family eats meat and has the luxury of grass-fed, locally-raised meat from our food coop. The prices are discounted, but it is still very expensive compared to conventionally-raised meat. I constantly have to adjust my expectations about what meat "should" cost. So, we just try too eat less of it. Last night, it was two pork chops (thick ones, but still) among our family of four, plus toddler. We shoot for one pound of meat or less for the family; half a pound, if it is stir-fry. Four or so ounces per person is the actual advised serving size, though many Americans eat far more than that at each meal. The meal is rounded out by extra vegetables and grains, local and/or organic whenever possible. We are moving in the right direction, at least.

A Challenge for the Whole Family. Sarah Beam

A Family Eats Local In Hawaii
. Debbie

Farm Stand on The Run
. Lisa Abend, Gourmet. 10.02.08

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Worth Fighting For

Martin Klimas for The New York Times

Food and food politics were the leading topic of the New York Times Magazine this week (Food Fights! 10.12.08). So many interesting and informative articles to peruse. Mark Bittman gives a personal, cook's perspective on how attention to food can improve your health and lifestyle. But food policy reaches beyond personal health and well-being; it is comingled with the economic health of the nation, energy dependency, and national trends in morality and morbidity. As usual, Michael Pollan gives us some shocking stats on the state of the (food) union. He also offers wise words and innovative solutions for how to rebuild and improve America's food system.

Pollan says that the next President will have to address the nation's food crisis. I'm not so sure. Health insurance has been a crisis in this country for over 30 years, yet it has only recently become a campaign issue with any life. (Bill Clinton was one of the first, believe it or not.) Even so, health insurance reform is a perennially "left behind" because strong lobbyists oppose meaningful change. I trust Obama, who at least has eaten arugula in his lifetime, to be ably equipped to deal with complex issues surrounding food. Yet, food policy is not easily wrenched from the hands of agribusiness and pork barrel subsidies, just as the health insurance companies and conservative lobbyists have ably undercut health insurance reform.

Still, good food, and all that represents, is worth fighting for. It's a fight you can take on personally, at home, with all the choices you make for you and your family around the dinner table.

Why Take Food Seriously? Because Your Life Depends on It
. Mark Bittman, NYT 10.12.08
Farmer in Chief. Michael Pollan, NYT, 10.12.08
Attack of the Tomato Killers. Doug Fine. NYT, 10.12.08
A country so polarized that consuming arugula has become a political act. John Schwenkler. Plenty. 10.6.08

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Economy Got You Down? Eat Dinner at Home

National Archives.

From hardscrabble Brooklyn to Main Street Vermont, it's hard not to talk about the economy these days. Talk of the Great Depression and widespread financial panic are juxtaposed with images of bread lines, poverty, and homelessness during the 1930s and 1940s. We all hope it will not, cannot get that bad in the country again. Yet, this crisis, like many of the crises America is facing today at home and abroad, gives us a chance to reflect and prioritize. All the stress of the marketplace makes the comforts of home, food, and family all the more important. Eating dinner at home is a personal way to both economize and reconnect to your family and values during a fearful time in the world.

Sweat Equity Put to Use on a Farm in Sight of Wall St. Jim Dwyer, NYT. 10.07.08

Uniting Around Food to Save an Ailing Town. Marian Burros, NYT. 10.07.08

Are Bad Times Healthy? Tara Parker-Pope, NYT 10.06.08

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Dinner Makes a Difference! September Round-up

With three school-age kids (the youngest just starting preschool and the oldest nearly in high school), I should know that the first month of school is a whirlwind. But I guess I forgot, and missed the whole month of posts this September! My worst miss of all was CASA's national holiday for family dinners on September 22, 2008. I was actually at a PTA meeting that night--shame, shame. (My husband made dinner and ate with the kids, though.)

Nevermind. Family dinner can take place any night and there's always another day for blogging. So here's my jump start on October, more about family day and other recent articles of interest.

Dinner Makes a Difference! Casa's Family Day was Sept. 22, 2008. Next year's is Sept 29, 2009. The Public Service Announcement is a beautiful thing. Don't wait! You can start a new routine of family dinner any day! More tips on family dinner here and tips on talking about drugs and alcohol here.

Momma, I'll have Some of What Your Having. Keith Dixon, NYT, 09.30.08. What a great article! We loved the Happy Baby Food Mill and used it right at the table to crush up the dinner food for our littlest one. I didn't have the gagdet for our other kids, but the blender worked well for leftovers. All my kids are adventurous eaters and I really think it's becuase we gave them real table food from any early age. Try it!

6 Food Mistakes Parents Make. Tara Parker-Pope. NYT, 09.14.08. I totally agree with every single one.

Rachael Ray Wants Kids in the Kitchen. Tara Parker-Pope. NYT, 09.14.08.

Alice Water Takes Kids Beyond Chicken Nuggets. Tara Parker-Pope. NYT, 09.26.08

Back to School Lunch Ideas
from Epicurious and the authors of Real Food for Healthy Kids.

A New Tasting Menu in the Baby Section
. Dana Bowen, NYT, 08.02.08.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olympic-sized Food: Don't try this at home

I have to admit, I'm a bit of an Olympics-junkie. My eyes tear up at the familiar "BAAA-bum-ba-baa--bada-da" as NBC starts it's nightly montage of fantastic athletes and beauty shots of their most amazing moments. It's hard (and not advisable for your own health) to sit through hours upon hours of it, but it can be so inspiring. My almost 3 year old has been practicing "jumping off a chair and rolling across the rug" in a toddler-style mimic of the synchronized diving. Although my heart goes straight to my throat when she does it, I'm glad she's responding to the athletic display by getting active herself. I'm DVR-ing events to similarly inspire my older kids who are away at camp--Gymnastics for my acrobatic older daughter and Track and Field for my son who joined the middle school track team last year.

There was an NBC profile of gold-medalist swimmer Michael Phelps in which he said one of his biggest problems was getting enough to eat. He reportedly consumes 10,000 calories a day as part of his regimen. Wow! He is great evidence that exercise (a tremendous amount) can balance out even the largest of diets.

In contrast, most Americans consume far too many calories and exercise far too little. This past Sunday, the Times had a very interesting piece with a cool graphic, The Overflowing American Dinner Plate. Basically, from 1970 to 2006, American food consumption rose as did its rate of obesity. Americans now eat roughly 2 additional lbs of food per week, most of it in increased fats, refined grains, and refined sugars. According to the CDC, 15 percent of adults age 20 to 74 were obese in 1980, but by 2007, that percentage had doubled. Many other social and economic changes have occurred in these decades. many of which seem to contribute to a thickening waist-line: the rise of two-income families (leading to less time and more $ to purchase "convenience" foods), more "take-out" and restaurant meals, more car driving and commuting, less exercise, and of course, less family meal time.

Let's take the spirit of the games home and be inspired by those wonderful athletes. Don't go for the McDonald's version of the Olympic spirit. Instead, get yourself and your family out there and have fun with some physical activity. Be mindful of your eating, knowing that you are no "Michael Phelps" with 5 hours+ in the water everyday. Eat dinner with your family and get some play time in too.

Related Links:
14,000 pounds of Tofu and Hold the Lettuce. NYT Ring Blog. 08.11.08. Report on Size of Food venture needed to feed Olympians in Beijing.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Local Food Round Up, 08.08

There have been so many articles on local food lately, it's hard to keep up. Maybe it's that the high summer growing season is upon us, and the sheer bounty and promise of fresh, local, food is inspiring writers and eaters from coast to coast. I found several local food advocate organizations today online and want to further the "Buy Local" message here. So click and explore the links below. Family dinners are a natural part of the slow food movement, even though it is sometimes cast as a elitist, foodie sentiment. Family dinners not only provide your own family with nurture and stability, they contribute to the wider economy and ecosystem of how food gets produced and delivered to the table, By choosing healthy, "cook-you-own" food, that is also as local and organic as possible, you help improve the system. You help make family farms economically viable while educating your children about food, culture, and the wider world. One study of the Maine agriculture system cites that consumer shifting of just 1% of their purchases to local goods, increased farmer's income by 5%. Every little bit helps, and the summer is the easiest time ever to enjoy what great local produce is all about.

Coming up soon is the Slow Food Nation Conference (Labor Day Aug 29-Sept 1 2008) in San Francisco. I won't be there, but I look forward to vicariously celebrating local food via the blog posts and news articles that sure will follow. Edible nation writer calls it the "First Continental Culinary Congress." Forgetting for a moment that the First U.S. Continental Congress is often considered a failure, it did serve to inspire the Constitution and the re-making of our nation. Can we hope for the same with good old local food? It's sure to be a good time, anyway.

FoodRoutes - Where Does Your Food Come From?

Some ways to find and support local food:
Guide to NYC greenmarkets here and what's in season: Pride of NY Harvest schedule.

Food Routes: A national non-profit which sponsors "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" Chapters nationwide

Search local food directories from ATTRA - National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, a public-private partnership with the USDA.

Eat Local Challenge
Join the East Local Challenge October 2008, start planning now!

Local Harvest, an extensive website and directory connecting people to local food sources, search by zip code, or mail order from small farms nationwide.

My Top Six Favorite Farm Food sites, by Ethan Book, editor

More Articles on Local Food.

Comments on NYT's Lazy Locavores article at

Mark Bittman belongs to a CSA and here's his happy report: Back to the Farm, Bitten Blog 08.05.08

Register Your Beliefs: how to go green at the grocery, also at

Niche Farming Offers Way Back to the Land, Brent Bowers NYT, 08.06.08

Greenmarket Sellers Debate Maze of Producers-Only Rule Indrani Sen, NYT, 08.06.08

NYT Well blog post on healthy local food: Boosting Health with Local Food. 06.06.08

Monday, August 4, 2008

Keeping it easy in late summer

Our friend, the pig. Note Pasquale Ravioli on the window sign.

My older kids are away at summer camp and we are down to the Freedman 3. I had envisioned more elaborate, adventurous fare, like curries, paella or hot pots, during their time away. My kids are foodies compared to many their age, but there is still a long list of meals that my children tolerate but do not appreciate in the least. So, the effort seems wasted and many foods my husband and I like are not part of the standard rotation. Hence fantasies of more adult fare...

I'm surprised to report that quite the opposite has happened. With only two real eaters, the dinner efforts have dwindled significantly. (My almost three year old eats heartily but her consumption amounts to a pittance compared to a couple of preteens.) The heat doesn't help. Who wants to put together a multi-step meal after a long, hot day, be it slaving at the office or doing playground duty. A salad and a nice glass of chilled wine are what's called for.

Wonderful summer produce makes it easy to make great no cook meals and to be happy and sated with a salad or sandwich. My best quick and delicious summer meal so far has been: fresh cheese ravioli (purchased at Esposito and Sons Pork Store in Carroll Gardens, see photo above) with homemade pesto, local cherry tomatoes, and chopped bacon. The only cooking part was boiling water and cooking the ravioli, which went quickly since they were fresh (maybe 5 minutes). Easy, cool, delicious. The presentation: served on nice plates, with candles was very adult, but any kids would love this too.
Homemade Pesto
1 bunch of fresh basil*
1/3 - 1/2 cup olive oil, depending on consistency
1-2 cloves of garlic, depending on taste
1/4 cup of chopped nuts or seeds (pine nuts are traditional, but I usually have walnuts on hand, and have used sunflower seeds)
1/2 cup or less of fresh Parmesan cheese
Salt and Pepper to taste

Wash basil and pick leaves off stem. (I had my toddler help with this.) In food processor, mince garlic. Stuff the basil leaves into the food processor bowl, then process while drizzling olive oil through chute. Add nuts and Parmesan cheese and continue to process. Add small amounts of olive oil if needed until the mixture is the consistency of a wet paste. Add salt and pepper to taste. Toss with cooked pasta or in any other dish. If you don't use the entire amount in your dish, freeze the remainder or use within a couple of days.
*I only do this in the summer when the basil is plentiful and inexpensive. You can mix fresh parsley with basil if you need to stretch the amount.

More No Cook Ideas:
No cook menus by the Food Network
No bake blueberry cheesecake by Mark Bittman
Summer Express, Bittman's list from last summer of 101 quick summer meal ideas.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Farmers Come to Market

While on vacation in the Catskills, there was a back road called Farm to Market Road which ran parallel to the main road, 9W. Maybe it preceded 9W or was merely more direct route from the farm to the city. The road ran past many rolling hills of farmland, much of it which appeared to be "still working." As I drove, I thought of a local article I'd just read by Amy Kenyon, "A Sense of Place: The Catskills Working Landscape" (Catskills Region Guide, July 2008). She writes about the goal of preserving not just land, but a workable, sustainable landscape. This represents the farming hertiage of the Catskills, she argues, and provides not just scenery, but community, economy, and culture--not to mention, great food.

The real Farm to Market road these days is I-87, which upstate farmers use to bring their goods to the City and local suburbs. Traffic, gas prices, accidents, and weather all contribute to make this a daunting journey, even in the high summer season. The City, in a renaissance of local food awareness, is welcoming the bounty and the effort, ready to renew the "farm to market" connection. It's exciting that so many people are interested in local food and willing to pay more for the privilege.

The relationship comes with "issues" apart from logistics. Small local farmers may find it difficult to "ramp up" production and deal with success of having many more buyers, as the recent Dines Farms case points out. Organic or local standards may get bent or even broken, despite efforts to assure quality by the Greenmarkets and others. (Many consider the USDA organic standards to be onerous for small farmers.) Plus, what may be fashionable this season, may not sell in the next, or the overall economy may push people back to cheaper food. Nonetheless, I hope that the local food trend itself is sustainable and will not just be forgotten or co-opted by Whole Foods and the "big-business" farmers. In the height of the summer growing season, here's to hoping that the business model grows too, and that the interest in local, sustainable food and food hertiage helps sustain and support these hard-working farmers for many years to come.

Some great recent articles about local food, and one very old one (1989!):
The Man with a Pig Over his Shoulder, by Daniel Meyer on Bittman's Blog, 7.28.08
I've seen the Flying Pigs Farm truck in my Brooklyn neighborhood, so they must be delivering here too.
Farmer Deals with Drop in Business and Credibility, by Irandi Sen, NYT, 7.30.08
A Locally Grown Diet with Fuss, but No Muss, by Kim Severson, NYT 07.22.08
Farmer's Apples Aren't Pretty, and She Like Them That Way, NYT, 10.09.89
An old profile of Amy Hepworth, who runs one of my favorite family farms; every week I buy her produce at the coop. Her family's farm was found in 1818, so that's pretty sustainable!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Finding Farms (or Farm Stands) in the Catskills

Farm Fresh Pie, optional blueberries

Our family vacationed in the Catskills earlier this month, and we made it a mission to seek out local farm stands and farms. The quest almost had a false start. It was my husband's birthday and I thought a fresh fruit pie from a country stand would be just the thing to celebrate. The only store in town was a Stewart's (a convenience store/gas station type of place) and I asked the 20-something clerk if there was a place nearby that I could buy a fresh pie or a cake. He was stumped for a minute and then said, "There's Wal-Mart in the next town. I think they have cakes." My heart sunk. Luckily, I pushed a little and said, "Isn't there a farm stand or a bakery or anything else, anywhere?" "Oh yeah," he replied, "there's a farm stand about 15 minutes from here" and he promptly gave me back-roads directions.

Well, the farm stand was Black Horse Farms in Athens, NY, which is sort of like a Wal-Mart of farm stands. Yes, they had pies, about 20 different kinds, as well as fresh breads, jams, fruits, veggies, flowers and all sorts of "gourmet" items like Raspberry Chipotle Salsa and "Gourmet Dipping Sticks" (aka thin pretzel sticks). My husband picked out a Country Apple Pie, which is out of season, of course, but it was his birthday choice. The 20-something clerk said as she rang up the items," Oh I hope you like that pie, I made it this morning." Priceless, and it was a good pie.

Through our travels in the area, I picked up a guide to "farm-fresh products" in the Catskills (from an organization called Pure Catskills). Unfortunately we were a long drive from many of the farms in the Catskills region or those along the Hudson Valley. But we did seek out and find the Three H Ranch in Hudson, NY. We were very much the Brooklyn tourists driving down the road to the farm and ooh-ing and aah-ing over the various chickens, goats, and even alpacas. The young farm hand said, "We only have fresh goat cheese today." No was the freshest, lightest goat cheese I've ever had. We left talking about whether we could raise chickens in our own backyard or community garden!

It would have been great to find more places (the guide lists hundreds), but it was hard for our city-temperaments to put up with the required hours and hours of driving. Luckily so many family farms make their way to the city to sell their wares at the farmer's markets, grocery stores, and restaurants.

P.S. Stewart's was not all bad. It was definitely the local meeting place and they had fantastic, inexpensive local ice cream. (The store started as an ice cream shop in the 1920s). We found a new family, favorite flavor, too: "Crumbs Along the Mohawk." It is a non-chocolate version of Cookies and Cream made with Graham crackers and caramel. My strictly non-chocolate son loved it.)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Home Away from Home Cooking

I'm on vacation with my family this week and we're taking family dinner on the road. Our typical vacation is to rent out a house by the week, preferably near some body of water. It ends up cheaper than a hotel and more "normal" since you can cook your own meals and not eat out every single meal. You get the suburban thrill of letting the kids play outdoors in wide open spaces otherwise known as a lawn. The downside is that there's still the basic routine of making and eating dinner, all while negotiating someone else's kitchen.

Often we go to the beach. But this year, we are trying out the Catskills, with its lakes and mountains. It's a bit cheaper and I have fond memories of lake swimming. When we go to the beach, I try to pack all kinds of food and drink, because the island provisions can be slim and pricey. But this time, I'm going to try the local sources, which may just mean big suburban grocery stores. I hope, though, I'll be able to connect with local farms stands and wineries. We'll be near the Hudson Valley which has been touted for it's produce and wines. I'll report back on my success.

For cooking on the road to work, you have to be willing and able to improvise. It's good idea to bring a few staples: olive oil, some herbs and spices, garlic, rice or pasta, so that you have a foundation to work from. A grill is necessary equipment for a summer house and should be pressed into service daily. Vacations and grilling should be intertwined whenever possible. Plus, I'll let the kids have potato chips, and maybe soda or popsicles. Eating summer treats, outside, in a wooded locale or by the lake is a summer memory in the making.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy 4th of July!

Staying in the city this Fourth of July weekend; it's hot and muggy, and threatening rain. Not the perfect weather as we wonder if thunderstorms will drown out our BBQ plans and the fireworks. Never fear, rain or no rain, there will be a red-white-and blue dessert!

My older daughter wanted to make a special dessert for the holiday and we whipped up this banana cream pie in about 20 minutes. (I was glad we had all the ingredients on hand, didn't have to turn on the oven for long, and could do it before the littlest one woke from her nap.) Happy 4th!

Easy Banana Cream Pie
1 box of pudding mix (we used Dr. Oetker's Organic Vanilla which is probably less sweet that others)
2-3 bananas
Other fruit to decorate

Make pudding according to box. Line graham cracker crust with sliced bananas. Pour pudding into pie pan over bananas. Decorate with fruit on top. Chill until ready to eat.

To Make Crust:
Use a pre-made grahman cracker crust or make the simple one below:

20 graham crackers, or 2 cups of similar cookies
4 Tbsps of melted butter
1-3 Tbsp brown sugar (adjust based on sweetness of cookie used)
1/2 tsp. cinnamon (optional)

Use food processor to pulverize cookies into crumbs. Add butter, sugar and cinnamon and process a few more seconds. Pressed into pie plate and bake at 375 degrees for 8 minutes. Allow to cool.

PS. The pie was demolished, even after a big steak dinner. My son declaimed it his favorite, ever. The rain held off to only drizzle and we hiked down to DUMBO to see the Macy's Fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge. A "little" exercise after a big meal never hurts!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Summertime and the living is...

easy? I don't think so. The kids are home for summer vacation, and all hell breaks loose with the schedule, while battling the twin evils of boredom and shuttling three kids to separate activities all day long. It can be fun, but it can also be exhausting. (And it partly explains my lack of posting. Apologies.) Dinner is the last thing I seem to plan for.

Still, everyone's got to eat and quick, easy and cool is the way to do it. We've been having "salad meals" and picnics; eating outside if the mosquitoes don't seem too bad. For meal salads, I start with lettuce and then just add on whatever I have: ham or turkey and hard-boiled eggs for a Chef salad, chicken and parmasean for a Caesar salad. (Bell and Evans makes great pre-cooked, frozen chicken breasts that make it easy.) Bittman has a great list of 101 picnic ideas today. These can easily combine for family-friendly, fast dinners.

Tara Parker-Pope also wrote a compelling piece recently about how kids often gain weight over the summer (Summertime Nutrition ). It struck a chord, because I do find myself allowing many treats over the summer: ice cream, Italian ice, pizza, soda, etc, just to get through the day. Ice cream or pizza is usually after a long day at the playground, but not always. It's sometimes the carrot to get one of my older ones at least out of the house, away from the TV and on a dog walk or other errand with me. Luckily, as a no-car family, we do get quite bit of exercise just schlepping around. Everyone's pretty fit, but it's easy to worry. My older kids go to sleep-away camp, which traditionally has bad, starchy food in abundance. But their camp (Beam Camp) is "food righteous." The camp director, a friend of mine, is a foodie and he makes sure there is quality food, with right-size portions and absolutely no junk. Plus they do so much physical exercise, each of them comes home fit like an tri-athlete. They love it, and it's an inspiring example of how when you do more, you enjoy life more.

So here's to finding a good balance of summertime fun: embrace the sliding schedule, the late bed-times, the fireflies, enjoy the occasional ice cream cone (ie., buy one for yourself rather than just stealing licks) and savor the summer while you can.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Beware! Children Eating Scorpions!

That's children eating scorpions, not children-eating scorpions! So many great articles in yesterday's NYT Food section, but the one that caught my interest most was the dad writing about his two adventurous eaters (Scorpions for Breakfast, Snails for Dinner by Matthew Forney). He was trying to decide whether their culinary openness was related to where they lived (China), his and his wife's attitudes toward food, or some other cultural factor, like their Italian mother's insistence on real cheese at the table or her breastfeeding. All of these things play a part, I'm sure. But you don't have to move to China to encourage a little culinary adventure.

In addition to the scorpions in the breakfast bowl (I don't think I could stomach that!), the dad had many other anecdotes about preferring edamane to granola bars. Clearly there is some showboating here. It reminded me of a story about my son, when he was about 4 years old. We had just come home from Chinatown dim sum and he had bravely sampled many of the dishes including salt and pepper shrimp with the heads on. When we walked into the house, there was a large moth fluttering around the hallway. My son jumped up and down excitedly and yelled, "What's that?!" "Oh, it's a moth," we replied. He then asked, "Can we eat it?" He was completely serious. We laughed, of course. It was a sign of things to come.

When my daughter orders escargot from a restaurant, the servers routinely assume it is for me and misplace it on the table, even when she herself has ordered it. She knows why and just chuckles about it. Even in a French restaurant in Brooklyn, it seems inconceivable that a 9 year old would order snails. My youngest is 2.5 yrs old and has been making a very annoying habit of saying "I don't like this!" and pushing food off her plate. I am trying not to overreact and have to instruct the big kids not to bully her about it. My husband has "tricked" her at least once but saying, "Oh, you loved the mushrooms the last time. Do you want one?" "Yes, she said and ate it saying , "yummmm." Of course, she had spat it out the last time, but no matter. The older kids know they get serious cred with adults by being adventurous eaters. Gotta hope the little one catches on quick.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Ahh...Summer food

Image from

We are prematurely in a total summer mode here in Brooklyn, with an unseasonably early June heat wave. The only good news is that it's a great time to embrace summer food and the rituals of the summer table. For our family that means a lot of barbecue. Cooking outside saves the house from the heat and saves me from a lot of pots and pans to clean up. (Plus, my husband, our resident grillmaster is doing the cooking.)

Already this season, we've been grilled spatchcocked chicken, slow-roasted pork, and done smoked seafood, all on the Big Green Egg. (The Big Green Egg is a very special grill, a grail of sorts for serious BBQ mavens.) But any grill will do, and summer grilling can be as easy as throwing some dogs, burgers, or marinated chicken breasts on the fire. You can have a quick, easy and fun meal in no time.

Grilling out is often thought of as only a weekend activity. But grilling and eating outside during the week is a great option, if you have the space. It's a wonderful way to make everyday life feel a little more like summer vacation. Once you get the hang of starting a charcoal fire, or if you use gas, the grill can be up and running in about 20 minutes. It's a schedule that can fit easily into a weeknight meal. (Tip: Use a charcoal chimmny to get the coals started.) Plus, you save time on the clean up.

There is no better summer memory to create for you and your kids than a summers' night eating outside, finished off with watermelon or ice pops. Maybe you'll be lucky and even get some fireflies (aka lighting bugs) to spark the night.

Links and Ideas:
Secrets of Good Grilled Foods, from Real Simple
Best Grilled Food Recipes, from How Stuff Works
Frozen Delights, easy homemade ice pops from Cookie Magazine
Grilled & Ready, under Good Food Fast section of

Friday, May 23, 2008

Cabbage Chronicles: Purple Cabbage

Looking over old posts, it must seem like I'm a big cabbage lover. I'm not. But it does present its challenges at the family table. I am always on the hunt for new vegetable recipes that will add more variety and color to our usual rotation. My kids happen to love spinach, broccoli, and many of the other supposedly "hated" vegetables, so cabbage is the most notorious one around here. Except for maybe chard. I have no luck with chard really, though it often looks so beautiful at the store. The worst thing about chard is my older daughter has literally choked on the stems (twice now), which makes me reluctant to make it again. (If a child chokes to death on food, it is definitely not healthy!)

So here we go with cabbage again. Last night I made purple cabbage with turkey sausage, and a peppery vinegar sauce on the side. This accompanied pork chops my husband made. I thought it was very good, and a nice match with the pork. I was going to follow my own advice and add applesauce to the table for an extra fruit, but we were out of it. Dear daughter (didn't choke) and said the cabbage was "OK." Considering we were talking about cabbage, that was good enough praise for me.

Purple Cabbage with Sausage
(Serves 4)
  • Slice half of small purple cabbage in quarters. Steam for 10 minutes. Chopped cooked cabbage into small bite-sized pieces.
  • In a skillet, cook 2 links of turkey sausage, crumbled or sliced into small pieces when throughly cooked. Remove when finished.
  • On same skillet, add a little oil, half a minced onion, some grated ginger, and one squeezed garlic clove. Add a little beer, water, or wine, if needed, to loosen brown bits in pan.
  • When vegetables are soft, add cabbage and sausage to pan. Toss and reheat until hot.
  • Can serve with pepper-vinegar sauce: 2-4 tablespoons of vinegar and add hot sauce to taste.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Food for Thought: Work-Life balance

Over the last few weeks, I've been balancing my extensive network of non-paying jobs with a paid job. Not even counting the big job of being a mom to three, which is paid though indirectly, my non-paying jobs include being an involved parent at my kids' school, being a community gardener, and of course, being, the "eat dinner with your family" blogger. This past week was a trifecta of obligations with the school's big fundraiser, the neighborhood greening day, and the usual assortment "can't miss" parent events, like my son's track meet and a parent meetings on "health" (aka need-to-know stuff on puberty, drug use, and other adolescent adventures.) On top was the paid job I took writing a grant for a very important topic that won't be named here (way too depressing).

I was very excited to get the opportunity to work freelance in my field (public health policy), and especially happy since it was a time-limited gig (the hard deadline was May 15th). It was interesting work and I hope the grant is ultimately successful, but the most important things I learned were about how I might balance a full-time job with my real life in the future.

First, I think my family can handle it. I had to get a lot of extra babysitting (and needed extra housekeeping), but in general, the older kids and even my two-year old adapted very well. My two girls were actually playing "get dressed up to go to a meeting" this morning instead of the usual princessy dress-up. That is a totally new phenom in my house.

Second, we still had dinner together every night and there were no major melt-downs from anyone, myself included. True, that might be hard to sustain, but I was glad that we had enough "systems" in place so that this relatively minor schedule change didn't derail us completely.

Last, and perhaps most importantly in this forum, I missed blogging on my favorite topics--food, health, and family dinner. I really enjoy this platform and the process of reading, learning, writing, and advocating for family dinner. I hope my readers enjoy it too. The challenge is sustaining it and moving forward, financially and professionally. But I'm up for it. I think it's worth a shot, so stay posted!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Eat More Vegetables!

Wow! Sorry, I skipped a whole week of posts! I plan to be back more consistently, though I'll need a plan of action in a few weeks when school is out.

I'm taking the easy way today and angling off a great column in today's NYT by Tara Parker-Pope, "Getting the Most Out of Vegetables." My take-away message is that the best way to get more out of vegetables is to eat them (!) and to eat more of them. In other words, it matters less how you prepare vegetables, just as long as everyone likes them enough to actually eat them at the table. Sometimes I serve our veggies totally plain, and since they tend to be fresh and organic, they do get eaten. But when I add a little butter, salt, or maybe Parmesan cheese, the vegetables do tend to get snapped up even faster. Last week. my hand tipped a bit too much when I was salting green beans and I added way more salt than I meant too. The result: the kids and my husband said they were the best green beans ever! (I'm not recommending overdosing on salt, but it's a little lesson in trade-offs.)

Butter isn't so bad either. One interesting note at the end of the article referred to a study done at Ohio State. It found that adding a little fat to the veggies actually helped you absorb more nutrients from them. And of course, another study with teenagers found that taste trumped all in terms of eating vegetables.

Another "trick" I read about in Real Food: to encourage your family to eat more vegetables, put more than one out on the table. So have a cooked vegetable and a salad, or raw veggies. Or you can add fruit as an actual course or side dish. Plus this adds variety to the table and to the foods you introduce to your family. Have one "stand-by" vegetable, say frozen peas, and try our a new one, say collard greens or cabbage, as a second.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

City Farms

Photo: Yue Qui, Edible Brooklyn, Spring 2008

It's a beautiful day in Brooklyn. Fittingly, there was more about spring, and food, and gardening in the NYT today: an interesting article on city farms and raising crops for cash in community gardens. Community gardening can connect to so many issues: food, health, the environment, the economy, the urban landscape, and more.

I biked by the Red Hook Farm last week and it was aglow with new plantings, small and light green, so full of potential. One thing I like about urban gardening is that it is seems so incongruous, so unlikely. How can you really grow anything in a vacant lot? But plants, like many urbanites, are tough; they fight the odds, they grow and thrive in the most unlikely of places. Love, care, work, and of course, sunlight is needed, but you'd be surprised what you can grow on a little scrap of dirt. I wish more suburbanites would rip out their lawns (or at least a small portion of it) and take advantage of the wonder of space and sunlight that they have. Maybe urban gardens can inspire, too.

What's the family dinner angle? Well, sparkling fresh food you've grown yourself is certainly appetizing, but that's not an easy order. (Believe me I don't do it, although I dream a little with my little herbs in window boxes.) So instead, support these farmers. Seek out farmer's markets, and bring your kids. The high produce time doesn't come for several weeks, but there is lettuce, spring veggies, and many lovely flowers out now. I saw "ramps," the foodie sign of spring, at the Brooklyn Boro Hall market yesterday. Your kids will probably love the tables piled high with offerings that you pick out yourself. These are not the sterile, waxed vegetables of the grocery store, wrapped in plastic and stacked under florescent lights. The warmer connection to Farmer's Market food may pique their interest in a wider variety of vegetables. And this may translate into a greater willingness to try it at the table. It's worth a try.

City Farmer's Crops Go from Vacant Lot to Market, NYT 05.07.08
Two articles in Edible Brooklyn, Spring 2008 about the Red Hook farm ("Homegrown") and a personal chef who uses CSA veggies ("Farm to Fork")
Red Hook Farmer's Market opens in June
More ramp recipes at

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Earth Day 2008: Grow Your Own Dinner

Spring Onions (photo taken on Earth Day, 4.22.08)

OK, this post is belated: Earth Day was a week ago on 4.22.08. I apologize for skipping last week's posts. I got busy with a work project that is pretty much the diametric opposite of "eat dinner with your family" (the blog) and I couldn't keep up. I'm glad to say that we were still actually able to "eat dinner as a family" (the reality) through the last few busy weeks. But extra writing? No, couldn't swing it.

Every day should be Earth Day anyway, and spring is definitely in the air. As any gardener knows, spring leads to thoughts of growing and what better than to grow you own dinner, or some part of it, anyway?

I am lucky enough to have a small brownstone garden in Brooklyn, but it is shady and has next to no sun. This is a bad thing for vegetables. Many years ago I could grow tomatoes, but more of the neighbor's trees have grown in and new buildings have sprouted up in vacant lots. Those days of 6 or more hours of sun hitting my yard are long gone. Still, like any gardener, I try and I hope. The main thing I grow is herbs in window boxes from my porch. It makes it easy to get a few snips of fresh herbs when I'm cooking in the kitchen. This year I plan to plant 6-8 kinds of herbs, which would be a record. You can buy herbs now and plant them and start taking small trimmings right away. Once established, the more you use you herbs, the bushier and healthier they will grow.

If you've never tried vegetable gardening, you can start small. Containers work really well for cherry tomatoes and other vine vegetables. You can use a long stick and string to encourage the plant to grow upwards. (Here's a how-to link.) The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is selling a "salad mix" window box this year that sounds intriguing and easy. Also, if squirrels are a problem, you can cover the container with mesh. Covering a few pots is a little easier than trying to cover a large garden plot.

If you can't grow your own, now is the time to consider joining a CSA (Community-supported agriculture) for produce in the early summer through late fall. Find out more about CSAs from Just Food. Or join or visit a community garden. Even if you never grow anything, there is something wonderful about enjoying a garden in the middle of the city.

More Articles and Links:

Why Bother? Earth Day article by Michael Pollan NYT, 04.20.08

Some Bold Steps to Make Your Carbon Footprint Smaller. The Green Issue, NYT, 04.20.08 . Check out the cool graphics. (Rollover the words, Act, Eat, Invent, Learn, Live, Move)

Kitchen Gardening from BBG: Info on edible plants and herbs from the "new American kitchen." If you have a specific gardening interest, the BBG book series is great. You can order individual books on gardening topics that interest you online.

Environmental Cost of Shipping Groceries Around the World, NYT 04.26.08

Organic Food Lifestyle Coach, My Dream Job?

Today's NYT Metro Section had an interesting juxtaposition of articles: one about closed inner-city grocery stores and obesity and one a "style" piece on a Westchester woman who is an "organic lifestyle coach." Since I've written about the tragedy of the first topic recently, I'll skew to the fluffier piece today.

Wow, I thought, "organic (food) lifestyle coach" that could be the job for me. But as I read on, I saw that, despite the potential upside in pay (clients pay $3,000 and up for her advice), this woman's work is totally not my style.

My first bristles went up when she recommended cutting out "volunteer activities." True, you have to be jealous of your time as you balance family and work, but connecting with others and helping your community, however you define it, is actually a healthy thing to do (Putnam, 2000). I agree with her on the Seinfield issue, though, and that parents need to be able to assert some control around the dinner table (and other parts of family life). But her remedies sound unrealistic. A kid is going to be interested in picking out flavors of tahini? And why exactly should they put "liquid amino acids" on their food? It sounds just as bad as the tempeh meatballs, and scientifically dubious to boot.

The bigger question is why perfectly reasonable women (I assume) would pay for this kind of advice. It's the same reason why people clamored for Michael Pollan, who I greatly admire, to write a follow up to "The Omnivore's Dilemma." He says in that book, as a journalist, "Why would people take advice from me?" on food and nutrition. People have so lost there way as to what real food is and as to what a healthy lifestyle is, that they throw good money after bad and drive their luxury SUVs (I assume) to the Whole Foods to spend precious time and money to be told to buy tempeh. Not that I have anything against tempeh, really. It's just that tempeh, and all its soy brethen, are all so beside the point.

For me, it's about trusting yourself and making changes in your life that are meaningful to you and your family: be it eating meals together more, eating more organics, or more vegetables, or less meat, or exercising more or whatever. It's not about guilt. It's not about judgment. Change is hard; it doesn't happen overnight. But if you want to eat better or simply to eat anything at all with your family, you don't need a lot of advice or even fancy ingredients from Whole Foods. You just have to do it. Start small, start today.

Parents Meet Your Coach on the Organic Aisle, NYT 05.05.08
Strategic Spending on Organic Foods, NYT Well, 4.18.08

Monday, April 21, 2008

Passover: Monday morning quarterbacking

We came, we shopped, we cooked, we ate; we took Passover on the road and many relatives and friends converged in Atlanta for the ancestral feast. Family dinner writ large, with more than 30 guests; all in all, a great success. Jonny would have been proud.

The first two nights are over, but the biggest challenge of Passover for observant Jews is still ahead. No bread, pasta or any chametz for another 7 days or so. Here are some intriguing recipes I found recently to inspire for the extended dinner challenge of Passover week.

Why are these Cookbooks Different From All Other Cookbooks? Bitten Blog, NYT 04.18.08 Guest post on favorite cookbooks and recipes from a veteran of many, large seders

Dirty Matzo Recipe from

Even Passover gets Pasta (aka Matzo Lasagna)

Passover Desserts from The Food Section (See their archives below the article for more ideas.)

The Perfect Passover from

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Passover: Nuts and Bolts

I was raised a Catholic but I have been with my Jewish husband now for close to 20 years. Many people, in fact, think I'm Jewish. But the truth is that I learned much of what I know about the Passover story from The Prince of Egypt, the Dreamworks movie. For other newbies, Moses parting the Red Sea is a central aspect of the story that overlaps in the Judea-Christian tradition. Recounting the story is a main tenet of this religious holiday, so I feel no shame in this admission. My kids really know the story because they love the movie so much.

Despite by non-Jewish background, I certainly have stepped in over the years to make Jewish holiday specialities, especially at Passover. There is no contest that I make the best haroset (a delicious mix of apples, nuts, and honey) and the best tzimmes (sweet carrots and raisins) in the extended family. Since I have not converted to Judaism, I also love that it's a holiday primarily celebrated at home. Like Thanksgiving, it's a real family holiday and we use it to bond as an extended family and to define what is important to us in the Jewish tradition.

After so many years of making seder, I think I can make many of the dishes in my sleep. Since we'll be preparing the feast "in the field" this year, and not at our own home, planning and management of the event will be an even bigger factor. I'll be delegating a lot of carrot peeling and matzo-ball making.

The challenge is getting everything done, so the seder can proceed smoothly. Seder means "order," and the order of the ceremony and the order of the dishes is a very important part of the holiday. The ritual of the order, scholars say, is part of the lasting power of the holiday. The holiday dinner itself reminds you of all the important things you should remember about the holiday and about being a Jewish family.

In a related note, The New York Times had a great article on Susie Fishbein an her new Passover cookbook. She is a cook and author of the Kosher by Design cookbooks. It never occurred to me, but traditional Jewish women are stalwarts of family dinner. Dietary restrictions and family size make going out and doing take out a truly rare treat. Family style dinner, several times a day is the norm. And traditional Jewish dishes night after night would indeed be boring! Fishbein's new books try to add new life and interest to daily kosher cooking, more, she says in the style of a "kosher Rachael Ray than [a] kosher Martha Stewart."

Oy Vey! Thirty-five or more guests, cooking on the road, and multiple generations either weighing in or under foot, this is definitely going to be more of a Rachael Ray holiday. Very messy, lots of wine, and hopefully at the end of the day: YUM-O!

One Cook, Thousands of Seders, NYT 04.16.08

Rachael Ray's Passover recipes

Passover Archives from the New York Times

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Passover: On the Road

Passover is coming up this weekend; Saturday April 19 is the first night of the eight night holiday. If you celebrate and are hosting the seder, you are free to begin panicking now.

Non-Jews often have no idea how big a holiday Passover is. In my husband's family, it is, hands-down, the most important one. I tell people it's like Thanksgiving, only much, much bigger. In addition to a feast, which often features a huge turkey to feed the crowd, you have an elaborate ceremony, maybe 5-6 ceremonial food dishes, the four-plus cups of wine, and all important Passover story. It is the ultimate "family" dinner.

Since both my husband and I like to cook and throw a party, we have often been the house of choice to host the family seder. We've skipped hosting some years and let others take turns, but it always seemed as if all roads led back to Brooklyn, the Freedman/Sanders motherland, for Passover. These tend to be huge affairs. Just "the family" coming to seder means 25 people, and there are usually friends or companions that get added last minute. It's a lot of work, but usually a lot of fun. Somehow this year, we're going to host a seder for 30+ people, not in our home kitchen or even our home town. Advanced planning required.

Last year's seder was especially memorable, so the standard bar is high. Jonny, my father-in-law, presided over the seder with expertise, humor, and deft skill in timing. The last is especially important as both cranky kids and guests get cranky with the long ceremony and no food until the prescribed time. The meal took place in our, then, newly renovated house, so there seemed to be lots of room for eating, and conversing, and serving the multiple courses of food. It was hailed all around as one of the best family seders ever.

This year won't be the same. This year will be our first without Jonny, who suddenly and unexpectedly died in his sleep this past June. He was so well-loved and we miss him dearly. To try to fill in this gaping hole in our life, our brood and many others are flying to Atlanta to host the seder in my mother-in-law's home. She really can't pull together the meal herself. So, the idea is that we and the other "children" will shop, cook, and prepare everything in two days and host the first night seder on Saturday. There will be a lot of craziness, some tension, and, I'm sure, a few tears. Those four cups of wine will come in handy as usual. But there will be memories, no doubt, and joy in reuniting our extended family for Passover.

Some Passover resources and articles:
Passover Fun website: 30 minute seder
Ten Tips for Cooking Passover Seder,
It's "Hide the Matzo" for Real: Where are the Tam-Tams? NYT, March 27,2008
Matzo sells like hot cakes NYT, April 13, 2008