Friday, September 27, 2013

Oily Smokey Roasted Peppers

Ben took this whole jar to school in his lunch box! With some kvass and a beautiful slice of liver-and-kidney pie.
One great thing about keeping a jar of roasted peppers in the fridge is that the kids just love them so much! Whether it’s the bitterness or the sliminess or the weird way they get stringy and slippery, with horrible little white seeds clinging to them like alien larvae, who can say. They just know they love them.

My friend Nicole brought me these beautiful paprika peppers from her garden. They are sweet and spicy and perfect for this, but regular bell peppers are grand too, I promise.
Okay, they don’t love them. Or like them. But unlike various of their historic dislikes (potatoes, say, or water, both of which one or another of my children has been disgusted by at some point), I kind of get it.

Maybe good children like roasted peppers.
In fact, I am still someone who might see a cooked square of green pepper in my bowl of minestrone and sigh.

Life is easy under the broiler.
Why roasted feels different to me from cooked, then, is somewhat mysterious. But these roasted peppers are sweet and meltingly tender, smoky and oily and tangy and hauntingly delicious. I love them. 

Do only people from immigrant families eat sardines? I wonder sometimes, because I feel alone in my love for them.
Plus, if you have a jar of roasted peppers in your fridge, then lunch is never far off: roasted peppers on toast with sardines; roasted peppers stirred into a can of oil-packed tuna with a handful of parsley; roasted peppers and a few slices of fresh mozzarella with a pile of Finn Crisps. If it weren’t for the kids, I’d say that you could toss some into pasta with a blob of ricotta and a few capers and call that dinner. But alas.

I asked Michael to do this so that I could "get a shot of it" and then I left the kitchen for the evening. Bait and switch alert! Although, skinning roast peppers is a job I find strangely satisfying. Like peeling strips of blistered sunburn off of your brother's back, say.
Oily Smokey Roasted Peppers
This is not an exact recipe. The idea here is to preserve the peppers (which are in season now, and abundant) using a three-pronged approach—salt, vinegar, and oil—that a) makes them taste great and b) allows them to keep for a long time. The seasonings are optional, of course, and/or could be varied, but the smoked paprika just ratchets up the smokiness in the perfect way, I find, so the peppers taste like you blackened them over a blazing hardwood fire instead of under the boring old broiler.

Any number of bell peppers or other peppers (I’ve been using paprika peppers.)
½ inch of white vinegar in a medium-sized bowl
½ cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
Kosher salt (around 1 teaspoon per panful of peppers)

Cut the peppers in half lengthwise, slice out the stems, and pull out the seeds and veins. Arrange them on a foil-covered baking sheet, and pop them under the broiler until they are fully charred and wilting, 15 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, heat the oil for about 1 minute (via small stovetop pot or microwave) with the garlic and smoked paprika, and leave it to steep.

Dump the blackened peppers into a heatproof bowl, and cover them with the foil. Leave them to steam and cool for around 10 minutes.

Peel and rub off as much of the blackened skins as is easy. One at a time, dunk each peeled pepper half fully into the vinegar, then put each one in a bowl. When they’re all peeled and vinegared, toss the peppers with the salt, and pack them into a perfectly clean jar or glass container. Pour the remaining vinegar over them, then strain the oil over them, and refrigerate up to a month or two or three.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Big Picnic

She picked out her ingredients unhesitatingly. That Birdy.
Kids cooking. Even just reading those two words, you're cringing, because you have toddlers still, or little kids, and it is impossible to let them "help" without everything taking a million years, and you've got a lock-jawed smile stretching your face, sparrows nesting in the white beard that's grown down to the ground in the time it took your child to measure 1/4 cup of flour. Plus, there's the other 15 3/4 cups of flour spilled out of the bag onto the counter and floor, and the cat is trotting through it, and you will find his floury paw prints all over the house for the next 17 months. I hear you.

But, and I always say this: it gets better. Invest now, deal with the mess and the endlessness with as much patience as you can muster, because one day. . . Oh, one day your kids will be cooking for you, and you will lie around on the couch with the New Yorker while they make dinner, dreaming up your brilliant cartoon captions and dispensing occasional cheerful nuggets of advice, as required. "Pomegranate and mint?" you will say. "Yes, that sounds like a lovely way to glaze the tofu." (That is a transcription of a real conversation that took place while Ben and Ava were cooking dinner a couple of months ago.) "The rice cooker? It's where it always is."  Even the cat is relaxing in your lap because there is no flour everywhere to tromp ecstatically through.
The Minted Pomegranate Tofu meal. They "finished" the sauce with a bit of butter. I know!
As you know, ChopChop, the non-profit family cooking magazine that I edit, is all about teaching kids to cook--and our mission there is not about parental laziness (like mine is here) but about childhood obesity. Study after study links from-scratch home cooking with healthy weight. And we believe that kids are going to have to lead the way--which means getting them excited about learning to cook. To that end, and to draw attention to the important issues at stake during National Childhood Obesity Awareness month, we're hosting something we're calling The Big Picnic: really, an opportunity to post and share photographs of your family cooking and/or eating together. It's this Sunday.
Our art director designed this snazzy badge! 
Tweeting, Google+ing, hashtagging, there are many vehicles for this sharing, and they're outlined here. There are also loads of recipes over there for inspiration, including one that I developed for Greek Salad Kabobs.
An early kabob prototype. You gotta love the banana.
That's what I'm "bringing" to the picnic. Although what I'm really "bringing" is Birdy's version that she made for a party, because it illustrates one of the fundamentals of teaching your kids to cook--and to love doing it--which is this. Lean in close. You have to give them room to make decisions and, maybe, fail, even if they are not making decisions that you would make or failures that are convenient. I know! It's terrible. At my house, this has involved deciding at the last minute to cook a green salad ("Wow, it's really really small now! Also very cooked tasting. I wouldn't do that again!"), experimenting with many dubious choices around salad-dressing concoction (cough *banana yogurt* cough), and threading fuzzy, choky lemon-balm leaves onto kabobs for a party.

The thing is? It doesn't really matter if I think that lettuce and apples and mint leaves are a real dream-boat kabob combo. Besides the fact that I'm often wrong anyway! (My own personal dream kabob would be, scallops and avocado and French fries, if you were thinking about my birthday and how it's coming up.)

But that was Birdy's vision. And you know what? They were magnificent. On a bed of hand-torn lettuce. With a dubious-but-delightful yogurt-based dressing as a dip. And they were gobbled up by grown-ups and children alike (with only one guest commenting about itchy lips). Birdy was thrilled. To quote Harvey Milk, my favorite politician of all time, "You gotta give them hope."

Please, post a photo on Sunday, hashtag it BigPicnic, and know that we're changing the world one mess cooked salad lemon-balm leaf bite at a time.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Plum Cake Redux

Does this look strangely unplummy? The plums are under there. They just sink a little.
Our cat-poop tree has finally decided to bear fruit.

This is a scrubby little diseased tree out front that has, in the 5 years we've lived here, only ever borne masses of turd-like fungus clumps and, occasionally, a single sad plum.

Where are all the cat poops? Oh, don't worry. There are still plenty.
Only this year it is laden. Or was, until we harvested every last plum--over 10 pounds in all. Mostly, I made jam.

But I was asked to save enough to make "at least two" plum cakes, and so I have.

This is a favorite, this recipe: "a dense, buttery cake dotted with sweet-tart plums that have gone silky in the oven." I'm quoting myself from 2008. It's is the first-ever recipe I ran, after I switched from gossiping about the children and their annoying habits of speech and mind, to gossiping about the strange and sometimes delicious ways that I choose to feed them.

I'm running it again because, well, it's not just that I'm trying to get all my old recipes over here, although that's part of it. But also because I've slipped a little wholegrain flour in this time around. You will love it. You will.

Plum Cake Redux
(adapted from the Original Plum Torte recipe published in the New York Times some time in the late 17th century)

The original NYT recipe calls for neither vanilla nor almond extract, but it asks you to sprinkle a teaspoon of cinnamon over the cake before baking, which I did for years, until I discovered that I wasn’t that crazy about the cinnamon. Did you make it in 2008, when I first ran it? Make it again with me, and swap in a little bit of spelt. Just a liiiiitttle of the whole-grain action. It is even better this way, I swear. Note: this is Ben's favorite cake of all the cakes.

1 stick butter (I use salted), softened
¾ cup sugar (plus 1 teaspoon)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon almond extract
2/3 cup white flour
1/3 cup spelt flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
12 plums (more or less), halved and pitted
Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream for serving (optional)

Heat the oven to 350.

Use an electric mixer (if you have one) to cream together the butter and sugar—or do this all by hand, which is fine. Now add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each, and add the extracts too. Beat in the flours, which you’ve either sifted or whisked together with the baking powder and salt, and mix until the batter is well combined.

Now scrape the very stiff batter into your pan: I use a spring form pan that seems to be 9 ½ inches across, but you could butter and flour a regular cake pan and use that, need be. Use a rubber spatula to even it out; it will make a very shallow layer, and that’s fine.

Arrange the plum halves skin-side-up in a fancy concentric pattern around the cake. Or else willy-nilly, if you prefer. You will be tempted to put the cut side up because it looks prettier that way—but don’t. You want all that lovely plum flesh to bake its juicy way right into your cake. Now sprinkle the cake with a teaspoon of sugar and pop it in the oven to bake until it looks nice and brown and doesn’t jiggle anywhere when you, uh, jiggle it—the recipe says an hour, but mine is always done after 40 or 45 minutes; if your pan is smaller (and your batter therefore deeper) it may take a bit longer.

Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. 

Friday, September 06, 2013

Bride of Poop

A rare out-take/prop malfunction.
Ben's latest is here. Even if you think you don't want to see a claymation movie about an interpoop romance, you really do. The falling-in-love montage alone is worth its weight in. . .  well, you know.

And in case you missed the earlier films:
Poop gets his wings in this one.
And the origin story is here.

Happy weekend, my darlings.

p.s. It bears repeating that Unbored is a wonderful book, and the place where the kids really got a foot in the door to the mechanics of animation. Just one of many, many things that book inspired them to try and do, including the hacking of Candyland into an actual strategy game that doesn't make you want to saw your own wrists apart with the Plumpy card.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Zucchini Soup with Corn, Cilantro, and Mint

School has barely started and already, come dinnertime, I'm stumped. We're still getting such fresh, summery things from our farm share: zucchini and corn, peppers and herbs and tomatoes. But I'm not really in a corn-on-the-cob mood anymore, you know? But this soup came together quickly, used a lot of what I needed to use, and was a surprise smash hit: fragrant and flavorful, studded with sweet corn kernels and crunchy corn tortilla strips. The children, who are wild about neither soup nor summer squash, both helped themselves to seconds. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: garnishes. That's the key to happy soup eating. 

Zucchini Soup with Corn, Cilantro, and Mint
This is fairly loosely adapted from—wait for it—Local Flavors! I know. Come September, I’m obsessed with that book. I added the corn and jalapeno, and skipped some roasted Poblanos and a blended-in tortilla. Maybe I was trying subconsciously to make it taste like this pasta? Also, and this may sound odd, I served it neither cold nor hot (both of which are officially recommended) but at room temperature, which I’m recommending here. It was perfect that way: dinner-like and not coldly off-putting, but not too hot on a still-warm evening. (Note: Did you get a corn zipper, like I told you? I'm going to keep mentioning it until you do. You'll see.)

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 or 4 medium-sized zucchini, diced
1 small bunch cilantro, washed well and slivered (including stems)
1 fresh jalapeno pepper, sliced (optional)
1 garlic clove, smashed and peeled
3 tablespoons chopped parsley (if you didn't have this, it would not be a tragedy)
2 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
2 teaspoons kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
5 cups water or chicken or veggie broth (I used water and one excellent veggie bouillon cube)
1 corn tortilla, halved and then cut into skinny strips (use scissors!)
3 ears of corn, kernels shaved off (or 2 or 3 cups good frozen corn)
Lime wedges, sour cream, and cilantro leaves for serving

1.     In a large soup pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium-high heat, and sauté the onion, zukes, cilantro, jalapeno, garlic, parsley and mint for ten or so minutes, stirring frequently, until everything is nice and limp and soft.
2.     Add the water or broth and salt (use less salt if your broth is very salty), bring it to a boil, then simmer, uncovered, until the zucchini is completely soft—around 10 or 15 minutes. Turn the heat off and leave the soup to cool.
3.     Meanwhile, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a small pan and fry the tortilla strips over medium heat until crisp. (If you wanted to just swap some tortilla chip crumbs here, I don’t see why you couldn’t.)
4.     Remove them to a bowl and, in the same pan and oil, sauté the corn over medium heat until just tender—3 minutes.
5.     Puree the cooled soup until smooth. I used a stick blender, but you could use a regular blender if that’s what you have. Stir the corn into the soup, and taste for salt.
6.     Serve the soup hot, cold, or lukewarm, garnished with tortilla strips, sour cream, and cilantro, with a wedge of lime on the side.