Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Grateful for Our Urban Harvest

I've been amazed and grateful for over the last few weeks to witness the huge outpouring of support for neighbors in need following Hurricane Sandy. I have always known New Yorkers to be generous and giving, despite the tough exteriors that we may show. What I've also been reminded of again and again is our flexibility, resilience and persistence. Inspired by Red, Round and Green's call for #SecondHelpings, I wanted to share this story about how small efforts can add up to make a real difference.

On Monday, my daughter's public school held its annual Harvest Day celebration. Originally scheduled for the week Hurricane Sandy hit, it was unclear if the event, themed "Our Urban Harvest," could even be rescheduled. The band couldn't make it, nor could the worm composters from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. A few of the outdoor art projects also had to be scrapped because it could only be held inside. Would it even be worth it?

A key component of Harvest Day was a food drive which seemed especially needed in our community this year, so with the backing of the administration, we went ahead with a curtailed day. There were concerns about the hasty re-scheduling. Parents were only given a couple days notice (a backpack flyer on Friday for a Monday event (!)) and there was concern of donor fatigue (this would be week 4 of near-continuous asking for local donations). All those worries were washed away as the food and donations came pouring in that morning in the school yard. There was such a mountain of food, we weren't quite sure how to handle it.

The kids stepped in. Preschoolers and Kindergarteners sorted cans and older children actually put together boxes of balanced meals for the pantry. They were all beaming and filled with pride because it was clear that this urban harvest had a purpose. Their donations were not just being left in a big pile at the schoolyard gate to go some mysterious place; they were being actively organized and sorted to go to a real family's Thanksgiving table.

Parent volunteers drove over 40 meal boxes and many other bags filled with goods to the food pantry. One parent stepped in to rent a truck to bring over the haul, once it was clear that a couple of cars wasn't going to do it!
Parent volunteers.
Once at the pantry, they were welcomed. Another volunteer reported:

We just dropped off the food at the [food pantry] in Sunset Park. The gentleman who received us was so choked up - he said he was so worried because the shelves were bare. They didn't know what they were going to do for Thanksgiving. 

The shelves had only a few boxes of cereal until our delivery showed up.

Some critical differences that made this food drive a success:

  1. The school PTA worked closely with a local pantry and asked them what was needed. The pantry was able to refrigerate items and could distribute the ingredients for meals, not just canned or non-perishable goods. 
  2. Each class was asked to put together a Thanksgiving meal for a family. Rather than just ask for "anything," specific sign-up sheets were established so parents could donate a main course, fresh or canned fruits and vegetables, fresh bread and pies and all the other makings of a real Thanksgiving feast. This avoided duplication and made the bounty much more diverse. Fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh bread and pies are very rare but welcome commodities at food pantries, if they can store them. 
  3. The kids learned about healthy choices and balanced meals and then immediately put that knowledge into action. The food was arrayed into sections across the gym floor, and the children were encouraged to choose items to make balanced meal boxes.

Over 40 main courses (turkeys, chickens and hams) were donated.

As for the kids, I'm sure they probably missed not having a band or not having any take-home arts and crafts goodies. But they will remember being a small part of something bigger, making a difference by being part of the our urban harvest of generosity.

Happy Thanksgiving!

#Second Helpings
Red, Round and Green's Round -Up
The Lunch Tray's Round-up 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Comfort Foods & Cash: Carrot Tzimmes for #FBS4Sandy

Food Bloggers Support Sandy Recovery #FBS4Sandy 

I am proud as ever to be a New Yorker and Brooklynite. I live just a few blocks away from flooded Red Hook and Gowanus and just a few miles away from some of the worst of Hurricane Sandy's devastation in the Rockaways and Coney Island. I can report from the field that the outpouring of support--goods, money and hands-on help--has been truly inspiring and almost overwhelming in this time of great need for our city.

One of the most pressing needs has been to help deliver hot foods to serve to flood-stricken survivors, to the elderly that are without electricity, to evacuees that are in shelters around the city and to the many volunteers who have been on hand to dig out, bail out or help out in any way they can. Something as fleeting and precious as a warm cooked meal has served to both feed hungry bellies and to show that people, strangers no less, really care.

I love #FBS4Sandy idea from Barbara at Creative Culinary's and Jenn from Jenn Cuisine  to build food blogger support to raise money and awareness for Sandy Recovery efforts. I believe in the power of our online community. We can help with thoughts, prayers and dollars so that the "real-life" communities of New York, New Jersey and all the affected areas on the East Coast have the tools and support they need to rebuild.

Give to the Red Cross, or considering giving to one of the local on-the-ground sources I list below. Our local Brooklyn communities have doing tremendous work and have been in many ways more nimble and earlier on the scene that FEMA and the Red Cross.

Today I present my family recipe for Carrot Tzimmes; it is a wonderful, healthy comfort food that is a staple at our Thanksgiving and Passover dinners. I wanted to use a vegetable dish because unfortunately vegetables have been sorely lacking from the hot-food donations. If you are making or giving food locally, consider a vegetable dish like this or a healthy soup.

Carrot Tzimmes
Tzimmes means "with a lot of fuss" but this recipe is actually very easy. You can also use sweet potatoes or a mixture.

1-2 lbs of sliced carrots (depending on how many people you are serving)
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.)

Check out Creative Culinary's List of #FBS4Sandy contributors here. Remember these virtual posts of comfort foods for #FBS4Sandy will only help actually feed people if you give generously. Below I've listed links of local organizations as well as national ones. More details on the local resources are in my post from earlier this week.

Local Resources:
Occupy Sandy Wedding Registry on Amazon

National Resources:

Monday, November 5, 2012

Resources to Support NYC in Recovery from Hurricane Sandy

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I have been moved to tears and moved to action many times this week. My family was blessed to be unharmed and without damage. Neighbors less than a few blocks away were less lucky, but for the most part, the damage my close friends experienced is repairable. Many others, so many families that lost their loved ones or their homes, are really hurting.

It is heartbreaking to see the devastation of many of our cherished communities in Brooklyn, Red Hook, the Rockaways and other nearby communities of Staten Island, Long Island and New Jersey. The volunteerism and outpouring of resources (time, money and goods) has been amazing and overwhelming. It will be a long haul to rebuild, a marathon not a sprint, and we need sustained help and commitments from everyone.

I have listed a few resources for making contributions, mostly financial, but there is also an Amazon registry that you can purchase and send goods.

Thank you for all your help and support and please keep it up!  For the love of our city and our country, many, many thanks.

Occupy Sandy Wedding Registry on Amazon

Where to Eat, Donate and Volunteer for Sandy Relief from The Village Voice

Brokelyn Blog, which has had amazing and repeatedly updated resources on the relief efforts

Red Hook Initiative 
Brooklyn Recovery Fund
Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York
Salvation Army
United Way Sandy Recovery Fund

Thursday, September 27, 2012

B4FD Reflections: Fitting Family Dinner into Crazy Family Life

This month, Blog for Family Dinner founders will reflect back on some lessons learned from our B4FD guest bloggers over the past year. This week, I share my reflections.

"Really? You have family dinner every night?!" It's a question I get asked quite a bit. I sense people feel I am lying when I say yes. That's one reason I love  Jennifer Grant's Blame it On post for B4FD. Her post speaks to balancing the modern reality of crazy-busy family lives with the ideal of nightly family dinners. Let's just say, reality can be messy.
Blame it on my husband’s travel schedule. 
Blame it on my four children’s soccer, lacrosse, and softball games. 
Blame it on my daughter’s passion for viola or my son’s commitment to cello. 
Blame it on whatever you’d like, but my family isn’t able to sit down and eat dinner together every night of the week. But, most nights, we manage to make it happen. The kids are given heaping bowls of Cheerios or Life cereal before they run off to sports or music lessons, but when we all return home, sweaty, tired, sometimes jangly and out of sorts after too long a day, we sit down to dinner together. 
Read Jennifer Grant's full post, Blame it On... 
Jennifer writes elegantly about what could be the story of my day...juggling the activity and homework schedules of three kids, husband travelling or working late, my own work commitments, random school meetings, illnesses or other minor emergencies that can throw even a well-planned schedule into chaos. Yet, we still manage to find time for family dinner most nights, because it is a touchstone and a center of gravity for all of us. I find when there's been too many nights without family dinner, because of work or other evening commitments, everyone is cranky and out of sorts. It's important to schedule in that little bit of family time to keep us all grounded. 

So, while I laugh when someone mistakenly thinks our family dinner routine is "picture-perfect," I am also grateful that we have found a way to make family dinner consistent in our lives when our schedules are anything but.

As Jennifer counsels, when life is crazy-busy, the answer is not to give up family dinner all together. Instead find the happy medium that works for your family. Find that happy place and forgive yourself for not reaching some "made-up" ideal.  Just remember the "real goals" of family dinner, finding a daily connection among you and your loved ones. Relax and enjoy it, even in the chaos!

Read Jen Grant's Blame it On and her other great B4FD post, Ordinary Pleasures.

Monday, September 24, 2012

B4FD Reflections: Family Dinner & Health

This month, Blog for Family Dinner founders will reflect back on some lessons learned from our B4FD guest bloggers over the past year. This week, I'm offering my reflections.

Family dinner is a wonderful way for kids and families to stay connected; that's something we at B4FD talk about all the time. I believe that family dinner also has the potential to improve the broad health of society. Family dinner has been shown to be effective in addressing many health challenges ranging from childhood obesity to risky behaviors in teens to self-esteem issues to adolescent depression. Coming from a background in public health, that's one reason family dinner resonates with me. A positive health intervention that can change the lives of millions for little to no cost? Something that, once your family gets into the routine of it, can be fun, rewarding and good-for-you? Family dinner is the opposite of medicine, but it has the potential to bolster the health of our nation, especially our children. Yes, it's that important.

So, my B4FD reflection centers on Elizabeth Brotherton's ( post, Keeping Kids Healthy, One Meal at a Time. Her post captures the "touch-feely" reasons for embracing family dinner as well as citing the scientific research that backs this "gut" feeling many of us have. She writes's often those memories of time at the table with my own family that keeps me motivated. In my gut, I know that people are more likely to have a healthier relationship with food if they spend time with it —preparing it, serving it, taking time to eat it (rather than just shoving it down from the drive thru). 
As it turns out, my instincts are backed by scientific research. A growing body of evidence shows that children who regularly eat meals with their family are less likely to be obese. 
In one major national study, 4-year-old children who ate dinner with their family six or seven days a week had a 25 percent lower risk of obesity compared to kids who ate dinner with their family less frequently. Other studies also have found that adolescents who regularly eat family meals are less likely to be obese. 
Read Elizabeth's full post here:  Keeping Kids Healthy, One Meal at a Time 
Today, Monday September 24, 2012, is also CASA's Family Day, established over a decade ago as a way to remind parents that family dinner was an effective way to stay connected with their kids. CASA research has shown many times over that frequent family dinners reduce the likelihood that teens will engage in risky behaviors, as well as improving family relationships and performance at school. CASA's Family Day is an important campaign we champion at B4FD, though we know reducing illegal drug and alcohol use among teens is just one of the important benefits of family dinner. Family meals can mean happier, healthier families and a healthier society as well, and that's something to celebrate!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Summertime Meals and Family Dinner

I'm thrilled to be guest-blogging on The Lunch Tray today. I share many of Bettina's passions, embodied by her motto "Kids and Food, In School and Out." is part of my own advocacy efforts for reclaiming family meals, despite our busy schedules, improved access to good food for all, and more support for healthy habits for kids and adults.

* * * * * *

Summer and the living is seems that way at our house. Longer days, later schedules, no homework to do in the evenings, just happy stories from the camp day, frozen juice pops on the porch and watching for fireflies (whilst battling mosquitoes!).

Of course, parents still have to work, but even work schedules seem a bit shifted. Everyone seems to have conflicting vacation schedules that can make deadlines more flexible and lengthen out the cycles of "must-do" assignments. Skipping out of work a bit earlier (or merely on time!) once or twice a week may be more do-able now that in the hectic autumn days.

So why not use this time of relaxed bedtimes and looser schedules to re-think family routines, and in particular, family dinner? During the summer, there tends to be less pressure to get children to bed early in order to be awake for school. My daughter's day camp starts at 9am instead of 8:40am, and even that 20 minutes gives us a little more breathing room in the morning than seems to last all day. Take advantage of this to stop looking at the clock at dinner time. Schedule family dinner time a bit later so that everyone can be there. 

Summer is also a prefect time for simple dishes or cold food that requires little or no cooking. No one wants to eat fussy food when it's hot outside. I've included a recipe for chicken below that is so easy; it's like not cooking at all. Maybe making a few simple summer meals will take the pressure off thinking of family dinner as a big elaborate to-do.  Keep it simple and focus on what really matters, setting up some regular time together to enjoy each other's company and be a family.

5 reasons why summer meals can help start your family dinner routine

  • Less time pressure for kids and adults, so dinner can start later.
  • Simple or no cook meals, like salad or sandwiches, are welcome.
  • Kids tend to be more hungry after camp and all-day play, so they may be more open to trying new foods
  • Meals taste better outside, if you can manage to eat in your backyard or a picnic at a park
  • More relaxed bedtimes and no homework can mean more time to sit and linger after dinner, play family games or even play outside or take a walk after dinner.

Unlike watermelon on the porch or catching fireflies, a summer meal tradition can be one that you can hold onto into the fall and throughout the year. What better time to enjoy family dinner!

"No-Cook" Slow Cook Whole Chicken
I just discovered this recipe when it was to hot to roast or even grill a chicken I had bought. Not wanting to waste it, I searched my slow cooker cookbook for ideas. The result is very much like a poached chicken. There is literally no water added, but it works! 

Adapted from "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker" by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann

1 whole chicken
Salt and pepper
5-6 garlic cloves (optional)

Salt and pepper whole chicken inside and out. Place in crock-pot. Add garlic cloves if desired.  Cook on LOW setting for 4-6 hours depending on size. Test chicken for doneness with a thermometer. Inside the thigh reading should be at least 165 degrees. 
When chicken is fully cooked, remove it to a platter. The skin should be removed and discarded. (It will look pretty bland and awful). There will be a concentrated sauce that you can use to make gravy or just save for stock. 
Cut the chicken off the bone to be served separately or used in any recipe with cooked chicken, such as tacos or chicken salad. At our house, we used the chicken to make delicious make-you-own sandwiches with good crusty bread, fresh tomatoes and a side salad. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Real Food Dinner: Oven Grilled Asparagus & Homemade Garlic Mayo

Welcome to our Food Revolution Day Virtual Dinner Party! I hope you have been enjoying the delicious offerings of my friends (hop over to their blogs listed below). Wonderful, delicious real food, perfect for family or friends, and I can't wait for Bettina's dessert!

Here is the full menu with links:

The  Real Food Dinner Menu (#foodrevdinner)
Bacon Wrapped Blue Cheese Dates by Billy at Time at the Table

Grilled Asparagus and Homemade Garlic Mayo by Grace of

Real Food Dinner: Oven Grilled Asparagus with Homemade Garlic Mayo

On Mother's Day, my good friend hosted a fabulous brunch and part of the menu was amazing oven-grilled spring vegetables with homemade chipotle mayonnaise. It was a wonderful assortment of spring vegetables: sweet red peppers, baby eggplants, cherry tomatoes, leeks and fava beans! I was inspired and decided to oven grill asparagus for our Food Revolution Day Dinner and try to make my own homemade mayo for the first time.
The Inspiration!

Oven-Grilled Asparagus
This recipe is shamelessly easy, but amazingly good!

1 bunch of asparagus (can substitute almost any tender vegetable)
Drizzle of Olive Oil
Sprinkle of Sea Salt
Squeeze of Lemon (optional)

Preheat broiler to High. Arrange asparagus on a single layer on a baking tray. Drizzle with olive oil and shake to toss. Sprinkle with Sea Salt. Broil on high for 3-5 mins (watch carefully to avoid burning). Turn veggies over and broil 2-5 mins more, if needed. Cooking length will depend on your taste and variability of your broiler. You can let them get pretty dark and then they will really look and taste "grilled," though your kids may prefer them only "lightly browned."
Step 1:

Step 2:


My kids, who will eat many vegetables, don't really like asparagus, but they devoured this version. Delicious even without the mayo! (You can give a squeeze of lemon when plated.)

Next for the real challenge: homemade mayo! I remembered seeing Jennifer Perillo's super-easy recipe and method for mayo, using a stick blender and decided to give it a whirl. Here is a video below that I first found on her website.

Garlic-seasoned Homemade Mayo
(Adapted from Jennifer Perillo (In Jennie's Kitchen) and Mark Bittman)
Adding garlic gave it a robust flavor so it could hold up to the other grilled fare, and also made it a bit fancier for our dinner party!

1-3 cloves of garlic, depending on taste
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon of Dijon Mustard
1 cup canola oil or other neutral oil, or you can use olive oil for richer taste
1/4 teaspoon of salt
juice of half a lemon (approx 2 tablespoons)

Soften whole cloves garlic by boiling in water for 10 min. Smash with fork or garlic mincer. Then add to mayo recipe.

Place egg yolk, lemon juice, salt, mustard an oil in a tall container, mixing cup, or bowl with high sides. Let ingredients settle for one or two minutes so that yolk settles to bottom. Place immersion blender in cup and slowly pulsate the mixture. In a few seconds, the mayo will begin to form; keep moving blender around the container to fully mix all the liquids. Stop as soon as it reaches the desired consistency, not more than one minute. Serve immediately, or can be save in refrigerator for up to one week.
(Jennifer has a low-fat version too; check here.)

Yum! Homemade Garlic Mayo

What a great way to celebrate Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution Day! I hope you enjoyed it and feel to share your favorite recipes or real food blog posts in the comments section or via Facebook or Twitter (@eatdinner).

Get into the kitchen this weekend and make some real food to enjoy with your family!

Join us for a Food Revolution Day Dinner Party! Our Virtual Dinner Party starts Friday May 18!

Jamie Oliver is having a huge celebration for Real Food. On May 19th, he's hosting a Global Food Revolution Day and encouraging folks to have dinner parties, send in videos, and tout all the good things about real food. The power of this movement is in your hands! We as shoppers, as parents, as eaters, as cooks, all need to take a stand to demand real food.

This past fall, a group of bloggers held a progressive virtual dinner for CSPI Food Day. We were all pleased to offer a dish and a virtual entry into our homes and kitchens. This time, we are thrilled to do it again with a few more friends.

We kick off the party early on Friday May 18, so be sure to check in and join us. Here is the outline of our Real Dinner Menu.

Join the conversation!  Post your own real food recipe on your own blog, on Facebook, or you can even upload it to Jamie Oliver's site. We are using #foodrevdinner on Twitter.

Take action! Choose Saturday May 19th to be a real food day in your house. Cook a family meal, host a real food potluck, or get involved in any of the activities in your area. Check out Food Revolution for more details or follow them on Facebook or Twitter @FoodRev #foodrevolution.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thanks Sheryl Sandberg for Taking Family Dinner "Out of the Closet"

Family dinner has come up again in the news, this time thanks to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, who has come out publicly to declare that "Yes," she makes time for family dinner.  It is interesting that she said she's been doing it for years, both when she was at Google and now at Facebook, but has only recently "come out" for family dinner publicly. What a powerful statement! First, that you would have to "come out" to say that you leave the office at 5:30pm so you can have family dinner (and that it is big news with over 1,000 shares on Huffington Post). And second, that one of the leading business people in America can say that finding regular time for your family is important and priceless, and that it is important for women, and men, to agree to do it.

I often get distinct reactions when I talk about family dinner. Some people treat my advice to try family dinner as something akin to suggesting they build a spaceship and take it to the moon -- it just seems like an impossible task! Other people whisper to me in hushed tones, "We have family dinner most nights a week, but I never really talk about it. It's great that you are actually talking about it." Their tone suggests that they are slightly embarrassed about making family dinner a priority and actually pulling it off regularly. There is a (genuine) concern that if you are committed to family dinner you must be
  • hopelessly old-fashioned, 
  • willing to commit career suicide, 
  • have live-in help, 
  • have a lot of time on your hands. 
  • Or maybe all of the above.
I know from talking with dual-income working families across the country that family dinner is a way of life for many and not rocket science. But in certain circles, family dinner is totally "in the closet" and is some kind of mystery that men and women are reluctant to even discuss. I'm glad Sheryl Sandberg's statements are bringing out more discussion on family dinner so we can talk about the hows and whys to make it a reality. (Some of my own tips are here and Blog for Family Dinner is a great resource for stories about how real families are making it work.)

I applaud Sheryl Sandberg for coming out for family dinner. Will you? The first step to making family dinner a reality is the commitment. Talk with your family about what small steps you could take. Can you try for family dinner 2 or more nights a week? Can you build up from wherever you start? What would it take to put that together? Talking to your boss, doing more meal planning, reducing out some after school or evening commitments? Make the commitment and follow through. Just like you do at work everyday.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

NYC Blogger Potluck: All Kind of Families #B4FD (with recipe for Red Cooked Pork)

Way back in February, I had the pleasure to meet with many NYC Bloggers and to celebrate with them at the NYC Chinese New Year Potluck, organized by Jackie Gordon (@divathatateny) and Ken (@HungryRabbitNYC). Because my husband loves Asian food and has made a very nice hobby of learning Asian cooking (nice for me and the whole family), this was a must-attend event for us. We even booked a babysitter.

Even though I'm very belated with writing this post, I realize the blogger potluck story is actually a great match to the "All Kinds of Families" theme on Blog for Family Dinner this month. Potlucks are about making new connections, trying new things, taking leaps in both foods to try and conservations to start. I knew many of the people in the room only from social media, so we were "twitter-friends" or acquaintances at best. Yet, it was a warm and open group of folks, with everyone ready to share a table, talk about their passions, share tips of places to get obscure ingredients or trade stories of great restaurants to try in far-flung corners of New York City.

In the past year, I've been to potluck parties with people of every stripe: with parents from my kids' different schools, with local community gardeners, with close friends and family, and of course, a few blogger parties and cookie swaps, both for fun and charity. Sometimes these gatherings are about solidifying friendships and catching up with old friends; other times, it's awkwardly meeting people you may only have a tenuous connection to. Still, there is something about a communal table that gets people talking, and that's one reason we turn to them as a culture again and again.

I dare say, a blogger potluck is unlike a community or neighborhood potluck in one significant way: the food is a whole lot better! Potluck, by its very definition, is a hit or miss type of meal. Unless you go in with serious organization or a theme, you can easily end up with a buffet of pasta or multiple repetitions of the same appetizer (hummus and chips for dinner, anyone?) And you can almost always count on the desserts outweighing the actual food. You are usually lucky if you have two or three killer cooks contributing to the meal.

Hosting a potluck of food bloggers seriously changes these odds in your favor!  Food bloggers bring their A-game to these affairs, and their dishes can be a signature or a calling card. (Oh I loved your won-tons!). But mostly, just like any community gathering, a blogger potluck is about food, conversation and connections.

I relish any opportunity to sit down with the people who love food and talk about the benefits of family meals, no matter how you define family. My message of the power of "family dinner" is a pretty easy sell with the food blogger crowd. Whether they have children or live alone, whether they cook only at home or also in restaurants, food bloggers understand the power of food and connection.


We don't usually include daikon, but it was too beautiful at the market to pass up!

So what did we bring to the Asian potluck party? Michael made Red Cooked Pork, adapted from an old, Sichuan cookbook. This is a perfect potluck meal because it tastes better once it sits and it can be served warm, as opposed to piping hot and fresh, which is more typical for Asian cooking. We have had great success serving this at dinner parties, and many non-Asian friends say they have never had anything like it. I think it is a bit of a "meatloaf" type dish though, to Asian foodies. The best compliment of the day (other than the empty pot) was "This tastes just like my mother's!"

Star Anise
Red Cooked Pork
Adapted from Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook, by Ellen Schrecker

2 lbs. pork, 2 in cubes (we use pork shoulder)
4-5 medium carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1-2 large daikon roots, cut into chunks (or any other root vegetable)
3 scallions, washed and tied together in a bunch
2 inch piece of fresh ginger
5 cloves of garlic, whole, peeled
 2 tablespoons of canola oil (peanut oil is more traditional and can be used, but adds a strong flavor that you may or may not like)
1 tablespoon sugar
4 whole star anise
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
6 Tablespoons soy sauce
3/4 cup water (or chicken stock if you have it)

Heat wok or any pan that can take the heat over a medium flame for 10 seconds, then add the oil.  (For this recipe, we usually use an enameled pot we received as a wedding gift. Traditionally, you'd make a few other dishes as well, so it's nice to reserve your wok for other things.) Let the oil get warm, but not as hot as you would if stir-frying. Add sugar and stir in for 20 seconds to turn it brown, without burning.

Turn up the flame (you want it as hot as you can get it, but work quickly so you don't burn the sugar) and add ginger and pork cubes. Stir-fry them for 1 minute, scoping and stirring them with metal spatula. Add garlic cloves and continue stir-frying for another 1-2 minutes.

Toss in vegetables, including scallions, plus anise, rice wine and soy sauce. Bring liquid to a boil and let cook for 3 minutes, without stirring, (the soy sauce mixture will become very concentrated) then cover the pan and continue cooking pork for 7 more minutes.

Add the stock or water. Bring to a boil over a high flame and boil vigorously for 5 minutes, before covering the pan and lowering the heat. Simmer the pork got 1 hour, until pork is very tender. Can be served immediately or reheated to serve later.

At the Chinese New Year Potluck we served the Red Cooked Pork in a Crock Pot, but we would never cook this is a slow cooker. The meat would get too mushy!

The NYC Chinese New Year Potluck 2012 hosted a truly amazing spread. Check out the full list of dishes here.
    Sichuan Wontons in Red Hot Oil by Margaret Sweet Savory Living

Chinese "Sushi" by Jessica @foodmayhem Food Mayhem

Asian Pulled Pork made with Tiger Beer by Andrea & Jeff @highlowfooddnk 

Many lovely desserts too.... My favorites were Japanese Custard Pudding (sweet) Lillian @sweetsillianah Sweets By Sillianah and Auspicious Walnut Cookies by Ken

Thank you Jackie and Ken for a wonderful potluck! Please visit Ken's website and photo gallery of the event for some "beauty" shots of the day.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Call Me a School Gardens Convert

I have a confession to make. It is hard to publicly admit this but, I think I'm ready and here is goes. I have been skeptical about school gardens. (Gasp! I know). True, I advocate for healthy eating for kids and basically support, any and all strategies to encourage them to eat more fruits and vegetables at school or at home. But I have not been a fan of school gardens (more on that below).  Yet, I have been inspired recently by the work of Stephen Ritz of Green Bronx Machine and by Edible Schoolyard NYC. I dare say I am so impressed that I might become a school garden convert.

(Note: Applications are now being accepted to be an Edible Schoolyard NYC Showcase School. Find more details here. Deadline is soon!) 

School gardens are feel-good stories in the making, for sure. Furthermore, it makes sense that they would make a difference. Gardens provide hand-on lessons that show kids where  carrots come from, "from the earth and not aisle 9 in the grocery store" as Stephen Ritz would say. School gardens provide chances for kids to eat leafy greens that they grew themselves, while learning about science and nature.  And it's hard not to love the images of smiling kids holding up vegetables freshly pulled from the earth, or chomping down on a kale salad for maybe the first time. So what's my issue?

Let it be said that I am a gardener myself, and this maybe why I am skeptical. Gardening is hard, especially in the urban environment with poor soil (often filled with lead and other chemicals) and lack of easy water access. (Water access probably doesn't even cross the minds our suburban garden counterparts.) Gardening can have significant start-up costs. (My grandfather talks about the $300 peach he grew one year. That's how much he invested in caring for the tree that yielded just one fruit.) Gardening, like farming, can be plagued by failure, as it is dependent on so many vagaries in weather and soil that you never know what you are going to get. This is the life of a gardener--thorns as well as roses.

Furthermore, school gardens work against the growing season calendar. Just when the gardens need the most care, school is out for the summer. Just when the plants need the most water, no one is home to water them. In a typical urban schoolyard, the sun beats down on the blacktop and dries up that garden in no time. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I have unfortunately seen many a dry and neglected school garden. All these reasons have lead me to be a school garden skeptic.

Recently, at the 2012 TedxManhattan conference,  I learned about a two projects that are restoring my faith in urban school gardening: Green Bronx Machine and Edible Schoolyard NYC.

Stephen Ritz's talk about Green Bronx Machine at TedxManhattan was a true revelation about the power of gardening in young people's lives. If anyone can make you a believer, it is him.  Just watch, enjoy and cheer.

Working in the Bronx, "in the poorest Congressional District in the county," Ritz is not just growing seeds, he is truly growing lives. For him, gardening is a stepping stone to broader skills that the middle and high school students in his school desperately need. I love that his program is not just about "little kids." It is mainly targeted at teenagers who are often overlooked as potential change-agents in their own lives. These are kids that need a break and urban gardening is giving it to them: job skills, math and science skills, the chance to care for something that grows and can be tended for without judgement or fear, and most importantly, an opportunity to see themselves differently. Teenagers are very close to living on their own, making life choices now that will follow them forever, for better or worse. Stephen Ritz's program is showing at-risk kids a path that they perhaps never knew about. They are learning carpentry skills, marketing skills and skills in the kitchen that can help them cook everyday meals for themselves or start a career in culinary arts. Plus these kids, who are at very high risk of dropping out, have an  incentive to come into school everyday because there is something living and growing in that classroom that they care about and are interested in. Plants are not abstract; they are right there, growing in front of you, needing your care. That's a powerful message of hope.

A second project, Edible Schoolyard NYC had caught my attention earlier this year, but I didn't understand the full extent of their programming until recently, when its name came up again and again at TedxManhattan. Based on Alice Waters' famous Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, CA, Edible Schoolyard NYC (@ESNYC) is the first of its kind in New York City and is set in PS216, a Title I elementary school in Gravesend, Brooklyn. Unlike the school graden programs I've seen, Edible Schoolyard doesn't just put in some planters, plant some seeds and call it a day. They have a rich and fully integrated curriculum that teaches kids in an age-appropriate way and incorporates New York State standards of science, math and English. They are in it for the long-haul, setting up a kitchen curriculum, establishing evaluation standards (are kids eating better? are grades improving?) and thinking about how their students will develop from ages 5 to 10, exploring and learning from the garden.

As an advocate of family dinner, Family Cooking Nights and Harvest/Market Days are the parts of the Edible Schoolyard program that excite me the most. It is crucial to connect with parents and get them as excited as the kids are about good food and healthy eating. To truly make a difference, school garden programs must work with parents so that the lessons from school come home. No one wants that kale salad a child enjoyed at school to be the first and last of his life. That salad should be the first of many and part of a long-lasting change for the whole family at mealtimes. School gardens can start a dialogue between parents and kids, spurring the kids ask for vegetables at the grocery store, not just junk food.

Edible Schoolyard NYC is expanding to have showcase schools in all five boroughs of New York and will provide this incredible program at no-cost to the schools. The exciting news is that applications are being accepted now for Title I schools in the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island. If you know a school that could benefit, please pass it on. (My kids' public schools are not eligible as they are in Brooklyn, otherwise I might be keeping this to myself!)

You can support the wonderful work of either Stephen Ritz, Bronx Green Machine by buying a cool T-shirt or Edible Schoolyard NYC with a donation. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Power of Parents in "Changing the Way We Eat"

Last Saturday (01.21.12) was the 2nd TEDxManhattan conference: Changing the Way We Eat and I was honored to be in the audience. I learned so much, met many amazing people and, as cliche as it sounds, I was truly inspired. My goal in attending was to try to get a handle on how parents and family dinner can fit into the bigger conversation about changing the food system. It's not too far a stretch, really. Laurie David, noted environmental activist and author of The Family Dinner book was the host again this year. She argued eloquently at last year's event that family dinner can indeed be an important step in the right direction for systemic change. I feel like parents are an untapped resource in the battle for better eating, better nutrition and a better food system.

The TedxManhattan talks were live streamed that day and there were over 4,000 viewing parties all over the world. Twitter followers can find many great quotes from the day under the #TEDxMan hashtag (Here's one compilation from Buckybox on Storify.) The actual talks are set to be posted online within a month or so. In the meantime, over the next few posts, I'm going to share my thoughts and big "take-away" messages.

Big Take-away #1: The Consumer
Many speakers talked about how the consumer could or would lead the way in changing the food system. By demanding high quality food, by being more knowledgeable about where food comes from and by understanding the true costs of food, consumer demand could help "move the market" so that healthier foods would be more available. I totally agree. (Statistics on the growing market for organics alone are here.) Yet, no one came out and talked about who the most powerful consumers in this game are: the parents.

Let's make it clear about who our consumer audience is for the good food movement and reach out accordingly. Families, by and large, spend more money at the grocery store than any other segment and are a huge market. Parents (and kids) are the targets for multi-billion dollar advertising campaigns, mainly pushing overprocessed, unhealthy foods. There is a huge tidal-wave of misinformation that we have to combat. There are many factors in the childhood obesity epidemic, but the proliferation of fast-food, kid-food, and sugary soda and drinks aimed at kids and teens are a huge part of the problem. Parents must be engaged and enlightened on their role in demanding better food choices. Parents should not be the "elephant in the room," but instead empowered to be the first line of defense.

Two people at the conference did talk about parents directly, although one was just on video: Urvashi Rangan from the Consumer Union and Jamie Oliver in his Ted Big Wish Award talk (February 2011).

Urvashi Rangan, a parent herself, made a persuasive and impassioned case for how food labels need to be better regulated. Consumers do read labels and generally want to purchase healthier food, but they are often confused by labels, and rightly so (from Fooducate). As Rangan presented, the term "natural" means nothing, but some parents think it does and even report thinking "natural" is better than "organic." Organic is not a perfect label, she reasoned, but hundreds of pages of federal standards are behind it. We need more clarity.

Update: Urvashi's Rangan's TedxTalk added 2.13.12

So, parents do care, but are easily tricked. (Not to suggest that parents are stupid or uneducated, it's that millions of dollars goes into the "science" of misinformation.)  In my experience, even well-educated parents can fall for the "Pop-Tart" trap. Almost every parent knows that pop-tarts are a "treat" at best. But it's easy to think "Hey the label says 'Made with Real Fruit,' how bad can it be?" Or maybe a parent might think, "Oh, these have been improved and are healthier now." Labels should be helping consumers, not setting them up for a bad-food trap.

I fell in love with Jamie Oliver all over again seeing his talk on the big screen of the TEDx stage, even though I've seen it before. Singing to the choir with me obviously, but it is a pity and a shame that we can't get home-cooking more in favor. Family meals can be at the core of widespread change. "Mums and dads," as Jamies would say, have got to realize they they are part of this change movement. He actually has a movement afoot. If you haven't heard about it, sign up here.

I'll leave you with Jamie's impassioned speech. What do you think about the power of parents in the good food fight?