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 Chow.com

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 Epicurious.com

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, About.com
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

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Hail Cookie Mag: Great Article on Family Dinner

I read a fantastic article in Cookie Magazine touting family dinner this weekend. In 30 meals in 30 Days, Jenny Rosenstrach writes about realizing that her family's choice of dinner consists of exactly 4 items. She calls it "The Sad, Sorry Lot." I imagine that many parents out there can relate to this thin list.
The Sad Sorry Lot
Chicken fingers (or breaded chicken cutlets)
Sauteed Shrimp
This coming from a former foodie, she muses, who probably created 4,500 dishes in her life pre-kid. She decides to make a life change, or at least a 30-day experiment, to address the problem. She challenges herself to come up with new menus so that everyday can be a new dish, made in 30 minutes of less. Wisely, she planned to have at least one "edible," extractable item on each plate in order to reduce worry and argument at the table. There's a lovely two-page spread displaying an picture guide of the 30 dinners, annotated with symbols for "winners" and "minimal clean-up".

The end of the article, Rosenstrach proudly displays a new list:
Things My Kids Eat Now That They Didn't Eat 30 Days Ago
Soba Noodles
Fish Tacos
Lamb Burgers
Swedish Meatballs
Fish Soup
Sweet Potatoes
Lamb Burgers? Fish Soup? Even my foodie kids aren't into those! I'm going to have to try those recipes! (She used epicurious for research.)

The other small item I liked was the picture of the family at the table, and the parents have a glass of wine with dinner. It's not mentioned at all in the article, and it barely rates a mention, but I think it conveys that the family table can also have some adult enjoyment built in. Her whole article is structured not as, "I'm doing creative family dinners because it's good for my kids." The focus is, "I'm doing more creative dinners to reclaim something that was important to me before I had kids." That's terrific! Family dinner is meant to be enjoyable for the parents and the kids. All the benefits that stem from it are just the gravy.

More tips from Jenny Rosenstrach on Cookie Mag website.
Full article and pictures available in print, Cookie Magazine, April 2008

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Best Birthday Cakes Ever

Artist's Palette Cake (Paint-Your-Own-Pottery Party)

In addition to family dinner, I'm a big proponent of the family birthday. The family birthday is a home-made style birthday with a homemade cake vs. the "industrial" birthday that can be so popular with competitive, yet time-strapped parents. I do understand the appeal of handing over the party to a commercial party space-- lack of time, small apartments, fear of children running amok in your house are all valid concerns. But really, what makes a party special is not the amount you spend on it, but how much it reflects what the birthday kid likes. I've found that if you listen to what your kids like and engage them in the planning, you can come up with something fun and personal without breaking the bank.

We occasionally host the party in a party space; we did a "paint-your-own pottery" one (cake shown above) and ice-skating at the local park for my daughter's winter birthdays. But even if you outsource the party space, you often have to supply your own cake. Use this an an opportunity to shun the standard grocery-store cake and make a special themed cake for your kid.

For me, the most important part of the birthday party is the cake. If you can come up with a cake that ties into your birthday theme, you are golden. All the kids, especially your own, will be so excited over the simplest cake, as long as it "relates" to whatever cool birthday theme you have. That's what my kids remember from each party, not the presents, the cake.

Don't get me wrong; I am not a professional decorator by any means. My cakes are home-made and look it. I almost always use a store-bought mix and ready-made icing. (Though homemade icing is so much better, I am resolved to try it by our next family party.) For me, it's all about the shape of the cake. Sometimes I have to bake two boxes of cake mix so that I have enough to make the shapes or layers I need. (The guitar below required a lot of cake!) But you're still talking about less than $10 for cake, which will beat almost any bakery. Pre-made mix notwithstanding, I get raves about the cakes. Honestly.

Guitar Cake for "music" themed birthday

My personal best, IMO, was the "Thomas the train" cake I made for my son's third birthday. (Sadly, the pictures are pre-digital.) Draw out a basic picture of a train or any shape you want, then make it in cake. For the train, it was a 9x 12 sheet cake plus a round cake. I cut the round cake in half to make the nose of the engine, and trimmed the sheet cake to the right train body size. I used extra cake to cut out a steam stack and three engine wheels. Then I iced it in white icing and used colored sprinkles, raisins and tube icing to decorate the features. It's easy to change the color of vanilla icing with food coloring, if you'd rather have a true blue icing for Thomas.

My son, though, best remembers the "soccer cake" which was a plain round cake (poured extra full, so it was round and puffy in the center) and iced with white frosting and green sprinkles in the pattern of a soccer ball. Yes that's right, a round cake was the favorite of all.

My older daughter has recently had an ice skating pond, a snowgirl cake, and an Olympic Rings cake, shown below. All were tied into the party theme of the year.

S-Olympics Cake (Winter-themed Sports Party), inside has different colored layer cakes.

Now that my daughter is older, and a huge the Food Network's Ace of Cakes fan, her cake-style quotient has been raising higher and higher. (Charm City Cakes in Baltimore start at $500 and boy do they look it. You can browse their cool catalogue of cakes here.) We've starting using fondant which is like molding clay made of sugar to make special designs. The Artist's Palette cake is just a plain cake with a palette made of fondant and dabbed with colored icing. A brush and tube of paint were also made of fondant. The Olympic Rings were fondant-covered cupcakes, painted with food color. I was also inspired, if not daunted, by the cake challenge posted by the Daring Bakers on Party Cakes. These are made from scratch cakes with homemade icing that are on a whole other level. Simply Anne's were the best cakes I saw in the challenge--simply amazing creations. Great ideas for the next family birthday, which happens to be mine. Maybe I'll ask my daughter to make one together with me!

Monday, April 7, 2008

The No Car Diet

Wow....another article about bloggers' deadly lifestyle in the Sunday NYT this weekend: Writers Blog Til They Drop. Seeing the headline, my son actually said to me, "You're not going to die, are you Mommy?" I think he was kidding. Maybe he thinks there's a weird virus that you get when you stare at the computer screen too long. I don't think he needs to worry, though. My blog is hardly written under 24/7 deadline pressure. And just to set the record straight, even though I blog about food and family dinner, I'm not overweight. I do wish I could find more time to exercise, but I'm pretty healthy. Living in Brooklyn, with three kids, a dog, and no car, I do quite a bit of walking and biking.

My daily walking routine clocks in at roughly 3 miles or more. Plus there's schlepping groceries, pushing the stroller, and carrying the weary toddler to add to the "weight" training.
I often joke that you should forget your "no-carb" diet and get a "no-car" diet.
It's pretty simple: Incorporating regular exercise into your day, be it a bike commute or walking your dog, helps burn calories. The NYC Department of Health found that Manhattanites were more healthy that other New Yorkers because of all the walking they do. It's the same in Downtown Brooklyn, if you can eschew the car and get around on foot. Not only do you get more exercise without a car, you experience the city in a whole different way. Instead of looking for parking, you stop in shops as you pass them. My daughter is quite proud that she bikes to school every day with her Dad. Not having a car is near impossible anywhere outside of a city, but you can try to reduce your car dependence and walk and bike more. Good for the environment, good for you health.

Speaking of transportation and lifestyle alternatives: Today may be the day that they vote on congestion pricing for NYC. Doesn't look good, but our family is hoping for a "yes" vote. We think it is a fair policy that will relieve traffic congestion in our busy neighborhood and get more money for public transportation. More information on this topic and on livable streets can be found at Streetsblog.com. Support Congestion Pricing! Call your state assembly member today!

Sorry the topic is only tangential to family dinner today; it is certainly a big topic of conversation at our family table!

In a Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Til They Drop, Matt Richtel, NYT 04.06.08
Taking Back the Streets, Jeff Byles, NYT 04.06.08

Friday, April 4, 2008

Visions of Strawberries and Sugar Plums

Ah, visions of sugar plums (er, strawberries) dance in my head... For me, that vision is the lovely photo images that appear on most food blogs. So many of them have such beautiful pictures, you wonder if these women and men are professional photographers as well as professional foodies. Seeing the images, you are inspired, or perhaps intimated, by the wonderful creations that gleam before you. I've been wanting to add images to my food blog since I started, but I've been falling far short of my goal. But I'm going to try harder, fuzzy images be damned.

This is a picture of our family dessert last night, taken with an iPhone. We had strawberries from California (sorry, not local), totally plain, but pretty darn good. The bowl was demolished in a few minutes.

Quick Strawberry Recipes:
  • Quarter strawberries, toss with a teaspoon of sugar or two and a splash of balsamic vinegar. (Yes, even kids like it!) Terrific if the strawberries aren't sweet enough on their own. Great with vanilla ice cream.
  • Serve with vanilla yogurt and granola for snack or breakfast.
  • For easy shortcake, toast pound cake slices, add strawberries, and top with ice cream or whipped cream.
  • For adults, toss strawberries with a little sugar and a little fruit-flavored liqueur like Chambord or Grand Marnier.
Another thought: Since I'm not selling "beautiful food" on this blog so much as the concept of family dinner, perhaps I would be better served with a podcast of our dinner conversations. Wait a minute, maybe not....might be too incriminating, uh I mean, lively. Entertaining, though, I'm sure. Any tips on photo-blogging or other multimedia effects for me?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Tips and Inspiration for Home Cooking

Catching up on my food blog reading this week, I found some great posts on home cooking from the New York Times blogs. In her Well Blog, Tara Parker-Pope interviews Mark Bittman and he has great tips on how to start "home cooking" for the intimidated or time-pressed. Kate Stone Lombardi has a lovely article about enjoying cooking for herself and her husband, a family of two, now that her kids are grown and in college. (They come back for favorite home-cooked meals, naturally!) Plus, I found some cookbook suggestions, Family Style Food Blog, and tips from Chowhound.

Lessons in Home Cooking, Bittman Interview in NYT Well Blog, 3.28.08

Joy of (Still) Cooking, Kate Stone Lombardi, NYT, 3.30.08

Readers' ideas for Best Cookbooks (about 250 comments!) NYT Well Blog, 3.20.08

Family Style Food A blog with interesting stories and recipes, lovely pictures, and a "family style" focus, that is beautiful food that you might be able to put together for your family dinner.

Home Cooking Section of Chowhound. Lots of Articles and Ideas for Home-Cooking Foodies

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

High Food Prices, Take Two

So often my posts are inspired or informed by New York Times articles, I fear that I sound like a broken record. But today, I noticed a NYT article (Kim Severson's Some Good News on Food Prices) about something I wrote about here and here a few weeks ago. The gist: High food prices might have some positive effects by: 1) reducing the portion size of high-calorie items, and 2) reducing the cost difference between organic and local food and conventional food.

I would never say it's good news for food prices to go up. As someone with a family and 5 mouths to feed (6 including the dog), I'm feeling the crunch every time I run to the bodega for milk or orange juice. Two separate visits this weekend for breakfast staples set me back for more than $10 each time, and I was buying only 2 or 3 items. Personally, sticker-shock aside, I can well afford more expensive food. But I know that many of my neighbors can't. The sign on the local food pantry, which I pass daily, usually says "Sorry No More Pantry Today." It features a little smiley face that breaks my heart.

Yet, I do think there is a huge swath of people who can afford to spend more on food. The decreasing price difference between organic food and conventional food will help average shoppers look twice at their alternatives. I think that many who try organic and local produce and dairy products will be convinced not to go back. The taste and freshness are often so much better. Plus, the cost of grocery-store food has to be put in perspective. When you think about how much money it costs to feed a family on take-out or packaged, processed foods, the price of food that you cook yourself, even if it is organic, is so much lower. Plus, you can really budget when you're feeding a family. You might have expensive grass-fed beef on one night and then turkey burgers on the next.

Reducing portion size to combat high food prices is a win-win. The portion sizes of restaurant meals and NY take-out food, like bagels or pizza, can use a little trimming. Americans simply expect too much food on their plates and are possessed to eat whatever is in front of them, regardless how outsized the portion. One study showed that participants didn't notice the portion they were given (they just ate it), even though they were given 50% to 100% more food.

Recently my husband and I went on a date during Brooklyn's "Dine In Brooklyn Week. We went to a trendy, expensive place that we dared not bring the kids. The special menu featured a choice of appetizer, entree and dessert from a limited list of choices, a standard " Restaurantprixfixe. These entrees were also on the regular menu, which had a much longer list of choices in a wide price range. The special prices that were about one-third less expensive than a normal dinner. How could the restaurant afford to do this? Well, the portion size was smaller, of course! And all the better for us, in my opinion. I'd rather have three reasonably-sized dishes (with room for dessert) than pig-out on one thing or on multiple things as is often expected with big appetizers, big entrees, and big desserts all in line. The table next to us ordered the regular-sized dessert, for instance, and it was clearly twice the size of the prixfixe one. The special menu entrees were smaller too, but plenty of food and in line with an "at-home" portion of dinner. Of course, even the normal portions of a Brooklyn place, probably have nothing on the national chain restaurants that often describes huge portions as a "value."

Some Good News on Food Prices NYT, 4.02.08
As Jobs Vanish and Prices Rise, Food Stamp Use Nears Record NYT 3.31.08
Increased Portion Size Leads to Increased Calorie Intake. Dr. Barbara Rolls, Obesity Research
Fooling the Satiety Meter (With Recipe) Science News, 2.18.06