Tuesday, October 30, 2007

My Mother's Recipe File

Although my mother wasn’t much of a cook when I got older, in the early days of her marriage, she loved to cook and entertain. The evidence I have of this is in part the stories she used to tell me of having people over, and in part in the accordion recipe file I have that belonged to her. This file is easily 35 or 40 years old, and its sides are split, not unlike the bellows of a real accordion that has seen better days. On the front of it is a colored sketch of some fruit—grapes, peaches, a pear, some grape leaves, and the word RECIPES is in a rather narrow, austere typeface. It has an “aged” tint to it, which when it was new probably made it look charming and old fashioned, but now makes it look as though it had tea or coffee (or both) spilled on it repeatedly over the last 30 years. The picture and word on the front are oriented for a “portrait” presentation; I presume that the assumption was that the file would be stored upright like a book. Because this file has been bulging with recipes for as long as I can remember, it has never passed so much as a day in an upright position. It has always rested on its bottom wherever it lived.

For a long time it lived on my mother’s desk in our kitchen in Washington, D.C. This was its primary residence for many years, perched on a shelf at the end of the kitchen that was remodeled in 1979 in a brown and white color scheme that my mother, always one to take things to extremes, even carried down to her pots and pans. Le Cruset no longer makes brown enameled cookware, for which I think we should all be grateful. I don’t recall her ever using the recipe file for reference. It seemed as though she had done all her recipe collecting in the late 1950s and early 1960s and was content to consider her collection complete. She bought cookbooks—I recall The Good Cook collection by Time-Life, which was organized by topic (Poultry, Vegetables, that sort of thing, and I remember the Desserts book had the least-appealing looking dessert in the whole world on the cover, a sort of anemic molded blancmange/pudding thing festooned with blackberries that was having a berry colored syrup poured over it) that she bought over the years, several of which disappeared along with a few thousand dollars and two catering partners in a business deal turned sour (if I’m not mistaken, these folks are now running a hot dog stand in Denver). The others in the series have disappeared over the years, gradually given away as I decided they were just too dated (now I kind of wished I’d kept them, just for the sake of amusement; I’ve seen a complete set sell for around $85 on eBay).

But the recipe file, though just as dated, I still have. In my early 20s, when I became interested in food and cooking, and felt the urge to move to the “adult” world of learning how to prepare my own food, instead of having it prepared for me, I began collecting recipes and adding them to this trove. I’m amused to go back and flip through those recipes, and see not only what my mother collected, but what I added to the collection. In both cases, there are some strange choices, either because of the culture of the times, or because of the idiosyncrasies of the collector. For example, I have many handwritten index cards for such basics as Hollandaise sauce. Evidently I was under the impression that I had one shot at finding a recipe for Hollandaise sauce, and since I had found it, I’d better write it down. I must not have realized that there was a Hollandaise sauce recipe in just about any basic cookbook I cared to open.

The folders are labeled with food categories. There’s nothing terribly remarkable about them: Appetizers, Soups & Sauces; Salads & Salad Dressings; Fish & Seafood; Meat; Poultry; Omelets & Casseroles; Vegetables; Cakes, Pies & Baked Goods; Desserts; Miscellaneous. Although my mother didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, the section on Cakes, Pies & Baked Goods is by far the fullest. In fact, my mother used to say that what she had was a “fat tooth”—her weakness was for fatty, salty things like potato chips and dip. Vegetables appear to have the least representation in this collection. In Miscellaneous we find such gems as a recipe pamphlet called “Cooking Made Easy with a WEAR-EVER Pressure Cooker” which is kind of interesting because to the best of my knowledge my mother never had a pressure cooker. I have a suspicion this booklet came from my grandmother, because the date in it is 1946, and in 1946 my mother was about ten years old. A tad young for experimenting with a pressure cooker, I’d say. But why did she keep it for so many years when we didn’t even own a pressure cooker? It’s too late to find out now.

And that’s the joy, and at the same time the frustration, of this recipe file. It even applies to the recipes that I cut or copied. Because I no longer have access to my mother, nor do I really have access to the person I was almost twenty years ago, I can only guess why certain recipes are saved, while others were discarded. In a couple of instances I might recall something about why I clipped a recipe, or see what the appeal was (or is), but there are so many that are just mysteries. My mother was a big gatherer of recipes, almost a chronicler of a form of cultural history, although she never did anything with her artifacts. I recall having seen in a scrapbook somewhere a handwritten note from some dinner guest she’d entertained in about 1960. It went something like this:

Dear Mrs. Langston,

I know you collect recipes and I thought I would send you this one for [whatever it was]. I hope you enjoy it.

All the best,

[The Author of the Note]

I don’t know where the recipe itself is (although it could be in the scrapbook, which is in a box in a storage locker, soon to be unearthed as we move into a new house). It could be in this very recipe file. Did she ever make it? What did she think of it? If she didn’t make it, why didn’t she? Why was she such a collector of recipes? Why am I? Is it genetic? You see how this could go.

As an exercise in, well lots of things, I am setting forth to make recipes from this file. I’ll work my way through from Appetizers, Soups & Sauces, back to Miscellaneous (don’t expect to see anything from the pressure cooker pamphlet any time soon). This will be a source of discovery about food, of course, and food of specific times (mostly the 1960s, 1970s, and into the early 1990s). Along the way I expect to do some self-discovery, as well as learn a few things about my mother. I will, at the very least, speculate on some things about my mother, since I can’t really say with any confidence that I’ve unearthed her true motive, or thought behind any given selection.

I’ll be keeping a record of this experiment over at mymothersrecipefile.blogspot.com. I’ll still be posting here, but on a weekly basis I’ll be selecting a choice tidbit from the recipe file. Then I’ll make it and (try to) photograph it, and do a write up of it. I must offer these caveats at the outset as regards the photography: first, I’m not a professional food photographer (you probably already knew that), nor do I have a very good camera. Second, if you’ve ever flipped through cookbooks or pamphlets like the WEAR-EVER Pressure Cooker booklet, you know quite well how food was styled in those days (and if you’re not familiar with it, check out The Gallery of Regrettable Food. Actually, check it out even if you are familiar with it, because you’ll laugh yourself sick—but I digress.) In any event, the question must be asked, did food photographs look like that because they were taken in grainy black and white, and styled by people with zero talent? Or did they look like that because that’s what food looked like? I can’t say, but I will say that if it’s the latter, be prepared to be underwhelmed by my pictures. They may not be great to begin with, but if they’re mediocre pictures of weird or unappetizing foods, I hereby absolve myself of all liability.

Expect to see the first post early next week. I’m torn between Liptauer and Mushroom Hors d’Oeuvres. The mushroom hors d’oeuvres are by far the more palatable, but the liptauer has more humor value. So we shall see.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

I Never...

When I was younger, my friends and I played a drinking game called “I never” in which the object was to stay something completely humiliating or bizarre that you’d never done, and anyone who had done that thing had to drink. The idea, clearly, was to discover what outlandish things other people had done. (The game should, of course, be called "I've Never" to be perfectly grammatical about it.)

Something reminded me of this game a few weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about the culinary version of it. What cooking-related things have I never done that I think I should have done, or that I’d like to have done? So here’s my list. As you read through it’s not necessary to drink when you come across a thing you have done that I haven’t (unless you want to, of course, in which case, by all means, do so).

I’ve never made hollandaise sauce from scratch. Or béarnaise sauce. Or really any of those classic butter-based sauces. Probably because I’ve never served Eggs Benedict to anyone. Although I have served filet mignon, which I’ve had served to me with béarnaise sauce in restaurants, but since my husband hates béarnaise sauce, I’ve never made it to go with filet at home.

I’ve never poached an egg. I don’t know why—it’s just never come up. As I said, I’ve never made Eggs Benedict, and I’ve never had any other need to poach an egg. Nor have I ever really craved one. I’ve eaten them, but I’ve never made them.

I’ve never made pudding from scratch. As a child of the packaged food generation, pudding was powder out of a box mixed with milk. My mother never made pudding from scratch either (my mother never made a lot of things from scratch), so I guess it never occurred to me to think of how “real” pudding was made (or even considered that there was such a thing as “real” pudding) until I was an adult, by which time I didn’t like it so much anymore. I might make pudding for my own kids one day, since pudding is a very kid food.

I’ve never had any success with buttercream frosting. It always tastes iceboxy. And it’s always too…too much. I don’t know if it’s greasy or slick or heavy or rich or what the exact word is I’m looking for here, but real buttercream that I’ve made is always too much for me. I might have had other people’s buttercream and loved it (I can’t recall every single encounter with buttercream in my life), but when I make it for my own cakes, I always am not enamored of it. I want to like it—after all, I made it, and I made it with good ingredients—but I just can’t warm up to it somehow. Maybe this is just me, and not the frosting.

I’ve never made jam. I really want to, but I have a couple of things currently stopping me. The first is my four children. They don’t leave me a lot of time for picking berries, preparing them, cooking them, and putting them up. The second thing is my fear of botulism. Marion Cunningham, updater of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, assures me that my fear is unfounded, and that it’s perfectly safe to put up preserves, but I’m still a little reluctant. That, combined with my conviction that all the lids would blow off the jars as I tried to “process” them, leaving my kitchen a mess and me a scarred shell of a woman, has kept me from making jam. In the next couple of years I’ll get over this and take the plunge. No doubt the details will be recorded here (assuming I survive the explosion[s]).

I’ve never had any luck frying chicken. In spite of the fact that I think this is one of the more important things every cook should know how to do, I confess that I pretty much suck at it. I know technically how to do it, but I’ve never had any success with the execution. Just like some people can’t make pie crust, or bread, or white sauce, I’m just a Fried Chicken Failure. It’s always burnt on the outside and raw on the inside. Maybe I’ll try again someday. Better make a note to do it before making the jam, in case the exploding jars take out my kitchen.

I’ve never made fish stock. I’ve never really had a need, to be honest. We don’t eat much fish, we don’t eat much fish soup, so I’ve never had either the components or the need. There are a few things I’d like to make that call for fish stock, such as bouillabaisse. As my kids get older, one of my goals is to start introducing them to more fish so that we all become more fish eaters (it just seems a crying shame to live a ferry ride + a short walk away from Pike Place Market—Home of the Heaved Salmon—and not eat more fish), so no doubt I’ll remedy this at some point.

I’ve never cooked a whole fish. See above. Also, the idea of a fish with its head on kind of ooks me out. I have a friend who insists that she doesn’t eat anything that ever had a nose (which I think is kind of an overly cute way of saying she only eats chicken and fish, and I’d like to point out that chickens do have noses, just not in the traditional sense that we as humans do, but whatever), and I for one am somewhat put off by a dish that can actually look me in the eye. Which isn’t to say that I won’t eat it, or I have a rule about not eating food that can stare back at me or anything like that. I just have some reservations on this one, and it’s going to take me a little time to get over them. I think we’re looking at a lot of fish filets and steaks until I can work through this one.

I’ve never made puff pastry or croissants from scratch. I’m a bit intimidated by this kind of dough, frankly. I, who stand as a mighty soldier before yeast, am a tad cowed by the whole butter-flour-fold it-turn it-refrigerate it type of dough. It just seems there’s more chance for me to screw it up. With bread dough, I toss in the yeast and it does its thing. As long as it’s not too old or too hot, it complies. With puff pastry, there’s more of me involved in the process, and therefore more chance that my fallibility will reveal itself.

I’ve never made pasta. This is something I’ve always wanted to do, and think it would be such fun, but I’ve heard that it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, and this would be one of those things that I would try to make for a dinner party, and my guests would arrive to find me sobbing uncontrollably over a misshapen pile of goo. They’d try to comfort me: “Really, it’s great looking linguini!” and I’d wail, “It was supposed to be tortellini!!” Maybe one day when I’m feeling brave, and cavalier about the possibility of dumping a couple of pounds of flour right into the trash, and just have a few hours to do absolutely nothing at all, I’ll give it a try.

There are plenty of other things I’ve never done—made pate from scratch (my mom was big on doing this, for some reason--she never made pudding, or dinner, but she'd grind up chicken livers and wrap them in bacon...go figure), cooked on a woodstove (my aunts have both done this), tried brains or sweetbreads (I have an uncle who has eaten just about everything deemed edible by any group of people in the world). On the other hand, my aunts and uncle have never roasted a whole pig.

Friday, October 19, 2007

So You're Thinking About Throwing a Holiday Party This Year...

I once I read the menu for a holiday party someone threw and it was incredible. It must have had fifteen different items; several dips with both crackers and vegetables, a smoked salmon, cheeses, individual hors d’oeuvres, desserts, the works. The party was, as I recall, for about 25 people. I thought as I read about how much work that person must have put into making all that food, and wondering how much they had left over.

Many years ago BC (Before Children), my husband and I used to throw a holiday party every year for between 50 and 100 people. Also many years ago, I sold catering services, and a major component of selling the services was developing menu proposals. When the glamour of food service (ha!) faded, I moved on to project management. So with this combination—experience in catering, experience in project management, and many parties thrown for my own friends (as well as total strangers)—I’d like to share some of (or, you know, a lot of) the things that I learned on the subject of How to Throw a Party.

To define what I mean by party: a gathering of more than 8 people whose final destination is not the dinner table. I’m thinking of more of a cocktail party, although some of the planning suggestions could be applied to a dinner party. Planning is planning for almost all types of cooking, after all.

I was taught to think of planning a buffet of “heavy hors d’oeuvres,” which is usually what a cocktail party consists of, in much the same way one thinks of a meal. Or more accurately, in the way we used to think of meals—meat, starch, vegetable, etc. Transport yourself back to 1950s and 60s sitcoms when you start this exercise—channel your inner Aunt Bee. Break out that old Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook from the late 60s and check the section on “Meal Planning Tips.” There should be a protein dish or two—chicken, beef, or fish. An egg or cheese dish is good in case your guest list includes vegetarians (if it includes vegans, you’re on your own—I don’t do vegan). Then add a vegetable or two, something starchy, and perhaps something sweet and you’re all set. Really, seven items is plenty. If there are many more than that, several things happen—there are always one or two popular items you’ve never made enough of because you didn’t have time, so you run out of them; you always end up with tons of leftovers of one or two of your choices; and you drive yourself completely bananas trying to schedule the prep for all the things you decided to make.

In making choices, think about prep. A catering manager I worked with once sold someone a menu that included stuffed cherry tomatoes. We had to hollow them out with a paring knife, and then pipe herbed cream cheese into them. This would have been a terrific vegetable component, and a really nice change from the usual “crudités with random dip served in a hollowed-out cabbage.” I even recommend you consider them as a possible choice for your own party. But not if you are serving 150 people. Since you need to provide two to three of each individual hors d’oeuvres per person, that meant stuffing between 300 and 450 cherry tomatoes. I won’t even go into the horrors of transporting that many cherry tomatoes to the party site, with their artfully swirled herbed cream cheese atop them, and how the artful swirls get smashed down by the plastic wrap that is critical to keeping them upright on the sheet pans so that they don’t all fall over like so many drunken Weebles and go sliding into each other, smearing their herbed cream cheese all over the neighboring tomatoes…but I said I wouldn’t go into it.

So the moral of this story is, think about the degree of labor intensity. Does the preparation of any one item require you to fiddle around with each and every piece to some degree? If so, consider having only one, or at most two, of something like this if you’re hosting more than about 15 people. This is the reason why things like vegetable platters, slabs of smoked salmon, bowls of olives, and cheese boards are so popular. They rate almost a zero on the fiddle scale. On the other end of that spectrum, we have things like those cherry tomatoes (curse their souls), or something-on-party- toasts that need to be assembled, heated, and garnished, or the famous shrimp-wrapped-in-a-pea-pod. If you have to handle each component of an hors d’oeuvres for more than a couple of seconds, it’s going to be pretty labor intensive.

The question, though, is “What can I serve to a fairly large group that’s not a boring old cheese board, but is also not a fiddly thing requiring hours of individual attention?” There are some choices. One thing that I like to do is sausage in puff pastry. These look impressive, but aren’t really very time consuming. Cook Italian sausage (pork or turkey) in boiling water until they’re pretty well cooked through (10-15 minutes). Drain the sausage, and remove the casings. Cut thawed puff pastry into rectangles—about 3” wide, and about as long as your sausage. You want a little bit on either long end to tuck down over the end of the sausage. Wrap the rectangle of puff pastry around the sausage and press the seam firm, possibly using a little water to seal it. If your puff pastry is getting sticky, you can put the wrapped sausages in the freezer for 10 or so minutes to firm up. Using a serrated knife (I’ve found this works best), cut the wrapped sausage into ¼” slices, and lay them on a baking sheet. Bake them off in a 400 degree oven for about 12 minutes, or until the pastry puffs and browns a bit.

Really what you’re after is something where you’re making one part of the item in bulk, and doing a little fiddling with the finished product. Curried chicken salad in phyllo cups (you can buy these and they’re fine; if you’re determined to make them yourself, make them a couple of weeks in advance and freeze them so you’re not tearing your hair out making phyllo cups three hours before your guests arrive). Biscuits or muffins (either of which can have cheese, nuts, or herbs added to the batter) stuffed with a little meat of some kind (roast beef, turkey, ham), and served with a couple of interesting condiments—honey mustard, herbed mayonnaise, chutney spread. Homemade cheese “crackers” in which the dough is made, rolled into a log and chilled, then sliced and baked. These could be served with a fun dip or spread. Baked polenta “fries” dusted with grated parmesan and served with a warm marinara sauce for dipping.

Think about entrees you like and consider ways to make them into hors d’oeuvres. We did an office party for which the client requested a “holiday meal” theme. We served cranberry muffins with sliced turkey (an idea borrowed from Martha Stewart’s Entertaining book), mini stuffing balls served with gravy for dipping (prepare your favorite stuffing recipe—not one with tons of nuts or fruit in it, nor one in which the bread is in big chunks; it won’t hold together in balls—and using a melon baller, make little balls of stuffing, bake at 350 until crisp on the outside, about 10 to 15 minutes; serve with toothpicks for spearing and dipping), twice baked new potatoes (steam new potatoes and cool until they can be handled comfortably, cut in half, scoop out the top of each potato with a melon baller, reserving the “scoops.” Combine the reserved potato with butter, sour cream, chives…your favorite baked potato toppings. Using a pastry bag, pipe back into the hollowed out potatoes and heat in a 350 degree oven until hot through, about 20 minutes), baked sweet potato wedges dusted with a brown sugar-orange zest “glaze,” and a crudités platter with a blue cheese dip. Dessert was mini pecan pies (full disclosure: we bought these from a bakery. Never be afraid to supplement your own menu with something from a really good bakery; better to do that than to have your guests find you in tears because the fat wasn’t hot enough when you were frying the mini donuts and you wound up with a pile of half raw oil sogged donut dough.)

Another consideration is the various flavors, and, for lack of a better word, nationality of the food. The polenta fries with marinara sauce, on a buffet with tortellini skewers with pesto dipping sauce, and cherry tomato-and-mozzarella salad with a basil vinaigrette would be too much Italian (unless you were going for an all-Italian theme). For a holiday party that doesn’t have a specific ethnic theme, make sure that the flavors harmonize without being repetitive. If you choose an obviously ethnic dish—sautéed shrimp with Indian spices, or miso glazed beef skewers—try to keep the rest of the menu ethnically neutral. America is a melting pot, but the flavors of all cuisines don’t always blend as harmoniously, and in some cases may actually clash.

Once you’ve got a menu in mind, the next steps are to think about how to assemble it, and how to serve it.

Look at the recipes for your chosen hors d’oeuvres. Are there parts that can be made ahead? Can the whole thing be made ahead? If everything requires absolutely last-minute preparation, you might want to rethink your choices. Empanadas, for example, can be made in stages. The filling can be made a couple of days ahead and refrigerated. They can be assembled (I use the pre-rolled pie crust dough from the grocery store for these) a day or two ahead of time and kept covered in the refrigerator. They can be baked off right before everyone shows up, but they also taste fine at room temperature. Dips can be made a couple of days ahead. Biscuits need to be cooked at the last minute. See how timelines can slot together so you’re not trying to cram everything in the oven at once. It may be more realistic to buy some things already made. As nice as the idea of baking your own ham for ham biscuits is, Honey Baked is just as good and far easier to work with.

Storage space is also a consideration. If you don’t have a lot of room in your refrigerator, you may want to consider things that can be stored at room temperature, or in the freezer. Of course, if you live in a part of the country where it gets cold enough, and you’re throwing your soiree during the winter months, you may be able to use a garage as additional cold storage. This was the case at my in-laws’ house in Western Massachusetts (average winter high temperature: 0 degrees Kelvin). We could make baked goods or sauces, wrap them up well, and store them in the garage in a cooler for a day or two. Even if you don’t have a garage, if the temperatures are cool enough, an Igloo cooler sitting in the shade could be used for storage for a short time. When thinking about what to make ahead, think about where you’re going to put it until you’re ready for it again.

Another catering manager I worked with was always shopping on the day of the party. She was pretty badly organized and somehow she always realized that she lacked a platter, bowl, or pitcher for some critical menu item on the very day of the event. She would then bop off to the local Crate & Barrel, or Linens & Things or whatever and spend a couple of hours buying serving items while the rest of us toiled in the kitchen. From her I learned to think about what to serve and what to serve it on (or in) at the same time. Then I’ll know a couple of weeks before the party that I really don’t have a suitable sized bowl for a dip, or I’ll remember that the platter I’m thinking of using got broken two years ago at Thanksgiving and I need to replace it. It’s much easier to find just the right thing if you’re not in a rush, and if you’re working with someone to get everything ready, you won’t piss them off by being gone for half the day while they work themselves into a froth cooking and cleaning and decorating.

Look at each menu item and think about how people are going to eat it. Is it something fairly tidy that can be eaten in two bites? Or is it something that has a filling that might slip out so that someone might want to be holding a plate under it? For anything being served on a skewer, there are some special considerations: how are your guests going to get it off the skewer (if it’s chicken or beef, consider cutting the meat into pretty small chunks so that the teeth can be used to pull it off; you don’t want your guests to spear themselves in the soft palate while trying to gnaw the satay off of the stick), and then what will they do with the skewer when they’re done? Will there be a trash can right there (perhaps a very small one discreetly tucked under the edge of the tablecloth), or will you provide a tray or plate for “used” skewers? If you do this, I always recommend “seeding” the used skewer plate before everyone shows up. Eat one or two, make sure the skewers are recognizable as used, and put them on the plate. Either that or make up a little tent card that says “Used Skewers.” Some things are really better eaten with a fork—anything that might be drippy or sticky. I’ve served soup at hors d’oeuvres buffets with great success. Just provide small Styrofoam cups and spoons, and someplace convenient for people to toss them when they’re done

If you’re having enough people and want to rent china, it’s not terribly daunting, but know that most rental places are very busy around the holidays, and you’re generally required to return plates rinsed; they don’t have to be washed, but they shouldn’t have food clinging to them. Rental linens are generally pretty bad. Most of them are a polyester blend. Given the choice between rental linens and good quality paper napkins from the grocery store, I’ll go with the paper. Of course, you can always buy pretty printed napkins at party supply stores. These may cost a little more, but you may not want just a plain solid colored paper napkin. If you have enough of your own linens to provide for your guests, even if they don’t all match, I say go for it.

Be sure to have lots of napkins on hand, even if that means putting out your “nice” cloth cocktail napkins and having a backup pack of paper in the kitchen. People generally go through several napkins in an evening and you don’t want to run out. A tablecloth makes the easiest table covering (yes, yes, banana leaves stitched together would be hugely fun for a tropical theme, but if you’ve got time to do that…then do it. I don’t have that kind of time). Cut flowers are nice as decoration, but so are pots of herbs, or blooming plants. I’ve found that I got so into arranging the flowers that I got behind on food prep. One holiday we bought three dozen white roses, and when I got them home from the florist (the day of the party, mind you), I must have spent two hours wiring all their little heads to keep them from drooping. They looked outstanding, but I wound up feeling frazzled as the seconds ticked down to the arrival of the first guest and I was still putting the finishing touches on food.
Probably the most important rule of party-giving is: everything is going to take about 50% longer than you think it is. If you think it’s going to take you 20 minutes to chop the onions for the dip, and you’re making dip for 75 people, figure on 30 minutes. The only area where this is not the case is in baking times. Generally speaking, baking times tend to be pretty close if you’re using well-tested recipes. If you’re sautéing or browning, I’d suggest using the 50% rule, because it always seems that between the difference in the stove I’m using, and the variations in cookware, sautéing mushrooms until their liquid is evaporated for example, can take longer than a recipe recommends. Also, if you’re doubling or tripling a recipe, stovetop activities may take longer because of the increased volume of food.

I could probably go on for another page or two. Or twenty. After all, whole books have been written on this subject. This is only my 2 cents (or maybe 5 or 10 cents). I love throwing this kind of party, and I love to think about what to serve at this kind of party. Sometimes I’ll see a recipe in a magazine and plan an entire party around it. This is fun for me. People tell me I should become a caterer because I enjoy this kind of thing so much. These are mostly people who don’t know that I’ve already done that. I’d never do it again because it’s hard, hard work, and anyone who does do it has my utmost regard. I’ll just keep planning menus, and someday serving them to my friends and family for them to enjoy. And maybe pratting on about the logistics of it in blog entries.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Most Interesting Part of My Day

When you look around and realize that the most interesting thing you’ve done during the day involves Murphy’s Oil Soap (even if the dining room table is extremely clean now), you feel like maybe something a little nice for lunch is in order.

Since this is pretty much a summary of my day, I looked to a new cookbook I got recently. I’ve long been a fan of Bill Granger through my subscription to an Australian cooking magazine called delicious. and I have two of his cookbooks (biils food and bills open kitchen). About a year and a half ago I read of another one that had been published in Australia, bills sydney food. I looked and looked for this one, but with no luck. Finally, about two weeks ago on a trip to Elliot Bay Book Company, I stumbled on it. It wasn’t cheap, but I had to complete my collection.

Thank goodness I bought it, because this morning when I realized I wanted to make a nice lunch, Bill had just the recipe: Spiced Lentil Salad with Prawns and Mint Yogurt Dressing. As I’ve said, I’m of the opinion that lentils are a wonderful transition food from summer to fall. Today was a dreary, gray day with lots of yellowy brown trees, and some rain. Also some sick kids.

Did I mention that? Three of my kids have high fevers—103+. They’ve had them all weekend. The fourth one seems interestingly immune to whatever it is that the others have. I started making this recipe at 10:30 this morning, and finished up about 1:30. That’s not to suggest that there’s anything time-consuming about it. Quite the opposite—it’s really a pretty quick fix. Cook and dress lentils, cook shrimp, make dressing, assemble. But when you’re interrupted every 10 minutes to give a baby a bottle, change a diaper, change a DVD, or dispense Motrin (did you know children’s Motrin comes in cherry, grape, and bubble gum flavors??), things tend to drag out a bit.

So this recipe had the autumnal lentils I love, plus some flavors that have hints of summer in them—shrimp, mint, spring onions. The shrimp, bathed with olive oil and turmeric, have a bright yellowy orange color that can either be reminiscent of summer, or a reminder of the bright leaves outside that today are dripping with raindrops.

My lentils took longer to cook than the recipe directs because they were old. Instead of taking 15 minutes to cook, they took more like 25. I also omitted the green chili that it called for because I don’t care for things that are too spicy, and because I didn’t want to take the time to chop it. I left out the blanched green beans, again on the grounds that I was hungry and wanted to eat before Thomas the Tank Engine was over.

I made the dressing in my mini chopper, which worked beautifully. I used nonfat yogurt, which was OK, but I think it would have been even better with whole milk yogurt, or even that extra thick Greek yogurt that’s available now. Once the fish sauce and lime juice are added it would be a nice creamy dressing.

All in all, a bright sunny lunch on a rainy day filled with taking care of children, cleaning the dining room table, and little else of interest.

Spiced Lentil Salad with Prawns and Minted Yogurt Dressing
From bills sydney food by Bill Granger

1 cup du Puy lentils
¼ cup finely slices scallions
½ cup olive oil
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 green chili, finely chopped
Sea salt
Fresh ground pepper
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
¼ cup cilantro leaves.
1 tsp turmeric
20 raw prawns, peeled and deveined, tails intact

To Serve
1 cup baby spinach leaves
3 1/3 oz green beans, blanched and refreshed
Mint yogurt dressing

Place lentils and 1 ½ cups of water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Drain the lentils.

Place warm lentils, scallions, 4 Tbsp of the olive oil, vinegar, chili, salt, pepper, ground coriander, cumin and cilantro in a bowl. Stir to combine, and set aside.

Place remaining olive oil, turmeric, salt and pepper in a bowl and stir to combine. Add prawns and stir to coat with oil.

Heat a non-stick frying pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Add prawns and cook until just opaque, shaking pan frequently.

To assemble salad, divide lentils among 4 plates, top with baby spinach leaves, green beans, and prawns. Finish with a drizzle of yogurt dressing. Serves 4.

Mint Yogurt Dressing
1 cup yogurt
2 Tbsp lime juice
2 tsp fish sauce
4 Tbsp finely chopped mint

Place all ingredients in a bowl and whisk to combine.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Bag It

When my husband and I first moved from stage 1 to stage 2 of our relationship (that is, from the talking-on-the-phone-having-dinner-together-regularly stage to the more serious indication of commitment, the going-to-the-grocery-store-together stage), he spent a lot of time fussing about how the groceries were loaded in the cart, how they were distributed on the belt, and how they were bagged. What a lot of nonsense, I thought; much ado about nothing. Over time, he has educated me and opened my eyes to the ways of correct grocery bagging. It’s like being initiated into a cult, only without having hand out flowers in airports.

About two months ago something happened that doesn’t very often. We went to the grocery store, and the bagger did an outstanding job of bagging our groceries. It was as though they hadn’t been taught what seem to be the unspoken rules at my grocery store: “Make sure there’s something cold in every bag,” and “Make sure there’s something soft on the top of every bag.”

An article in today’s Seattle Times echoes my trials. It also reports on a grocery bagging contest, which I know that almost none of the baggers from my regular grocery store would stand a pint of Ben & Jerry’s chance in an oven of winning. In the contest, they bag the groceries, and then the bags are cut apart with a box cutter and the groceries are supposed to stand there by themselves! What a joy that would be!

My shopping trip is highly organized. I make my list by section: Produce, Meat, Canned, Pantry, Dairy, Frozen, Bakery, Deli, and Other. Other is comprised of things like cleaning supplies, paper goods, cat food, and drug items. Pantry is anything not produce and not refrigerated that isn’t canned—flour, spices, crackers.

We go first to the produce section, so that the produce can be safely stored under the baby seat area where it won’t get crushed. Then we go around to meat and dairy. The baking needs aisle, and the canned goods aisle are next, followed by things like cookies and crackers. Then we do cleaning supplies. Wine, frozen food, and bakery are last. I’d rather do frozen food right after meat and dairy, but the layout of the store is such that it’s easier to do panty goods before frozen. I suck it up.

With this method I can unload the cart in the following order: pantry goods, bakery, cold foods (frozen and dairy), meat, cleaning supplies, and produce last. In spite of the fact that I group all the cold foods together, all the meat together, and all the produce together, it still winds up spread through every single bag. And to add insult to injury, they manage to put a package of bread or letuce on top of every single bag. This means that when we put everything in the car, the bags can’t be stacked on top of one another. They all require their own space on the floor.

This whole experience is a combination of maddening and entertaining. It’s almost amusing to see how the bags will be put together this week. Will all the cheese from the deli section be on the bottom of a bag again with the apples and pears on top of it? Will the box of aluminum foil be stuck down into the bag that has the tomatoes and mushrooms? Will there be one bag with nothing but six cans of beans and orange slices in it? (Hint to grocery store baggers: the hot dog rolls can go on top of something like this.) Can they manage to get one cold thing in every bag?

Then one week we had a bagger who got it all right. I was floored. I took the bags to the kitchen, and began pawing through for the cold things. There wasn’t anything in the bag with the produce. Nothing in the bag with the canned goods. Why…why…here they all were—together, in one bag! I’ve never seen that bagger again.

I think the reason that the quality of the bagging is so low is because it’s usually kids who are employed to bag groceries, and kids don’t usually spend much time unloading groceries, nor are they well schooled in food safety, on subjects like cross contamination. This seems to be the case most of the time at my usual market—the baggers are mostly high school kids. However, I will say that one of the worst baggers I know is a woman at one of the other grocery stores I go to occasionally, who is by far old enough to know better. I think some people just don’t get it, period. And I’ll grant that it’s not the most fascinating topic for a cocktail party conversation, but if you love food, you care about what you’re choosing, and you care about what condition it’s in when it reaches your house. That makes the bagging process important.

I did stop at the Safeway last week, and I bought five things: carpet cleaner, a magazine, cream of tartar, baking soda, and a plant. Because I went through the express lane, the checker was also the bagger. While she did put everything in a single plastic bag, she took great care to wrap the carpet cleaner in a couple of smaller plastic bags, and even remarked that she thought that way even if it leaked, it wouldn’t contaminate my pantry goods. Clearly she was in training for the contest.

Monday, October 08, 2007

He Liked It!

This weekend I bought a pumpkin, which inspired my son to beg for pumpkin pie. The kid has an insatiable sweet tooth (he’d eat sugar straight, if I’d let him), but since pumpkin pie is one of the healthier desserts he could ask for, I agreed that we could make it on Sunday.

In fact, I’ve decided to take a slightly different tack on trying to curb his sweet tooth. My plan is that on Sunday he will be allowed to choose a recipe, and make the sweet thing of his choice with Mom or Dad. He can indulge all he wants in the finished product on Sunday. After that, whatever it is gets put up out of sight, and will be distributed on a very limited basis. We were getting a little out of hand with dessert every night—gummy worms, Rice Krispy treats, cookies, candy corn, marshmallows. Not all of that in one sitting, of course, but that was perhaps the catalog of a weeks’ worth of desserts. Too much crap, too often. I’d far rather have him satisfy his sweet tooth with something homemade, and I’d like to encourage him to make it himself (with our help) so he gets a feel for cooking. And we’re not talking about cake from box mixes here—if we’re making cake or cupcakes, we’re starting with flour, sugar, eggs, etc.

I did not, however, force him to make the crust for the pumpkin pie. I think that would be a little cruel, especially since the recipe I originally chose (from the Bon Appetit cookbook) included the instruction “refrigerate dough for 30 minutes” at least twice, and involved the cutting out and scoring of pie crust leaves, then scattering them across the surface of the baked pie. That’s hard on a little kid who just wants some pie. It was hard enough getting him to wait until the one we made cooled down. But we did find a good recipe for pumpkin pie that involves few ingredients, and little measuring, and so is ideal for small children to help with. The recipe comes from the back of the little container of McCormick’s Pumpkin Pie Spice that I bought at the grocery store on Friday. It goes like this:

1 15oz can pumpkin puree
1 14oz can sweetened condensed milk
2 eggs
1 Tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 frozen pie crust

Combine pumpkin, milk, eggs and pumpkin pie spice in a bowl. Pour filling into pie crust. Bake for 15 minutes at 425. Reduce heat to 350 and bake for another 40 minutes. Cool. Eat.

Couldn’t be simpler. The next time I would blind bake the crust, at least half way. It was a tad underdone for my taste, but the recipe did clearly call for a frozen pie crust. Otherwise it was perfectly fine, and even the twins at age two could help. Matthew cracked one egg, Chris cracked the other, and Chris, Patrick and I each lent a hand (or a finger) to getting the mixer turned off and in an upright position. This actually does require some tricky manipulation because of my lame duck mixer.

Everyone had a slice with whipped cream (made by all interested parties with the help of Dad) for dessert. Chris loved it, Matthew liked it, and Patrick was a little unsure. He’s the pickier of the twins anyway. Matthew pretty much shovels it all in and looks around for more.

The other great food event from this weekend was that I actually made something from scratch (well, OK, mostly from scratch) that my kids would eat. You simply cannot imagine my delight. Granted, what I made was bean and cheese “burritos” made with canned refried beans, but hey, it’s a start! It didn’t start life as a brick of ice that spent two and a half minutes in the microwave before hitting my dining room table. I actually assembled and baked them in the oven, and my kids ate them. In fact, when I coaxed Chris into trying a bite, the first words out of his mouth were:

“It’s yummy! Can I have some more?”

It brought tears to my eyes.

I put burrito in quotes here, because I didn’t have burrito sized tortillas, so they were kind of funny looking. Also, because the tortillas I started with were cold, they broke when I tried to fold them around the filling. But since they get cut up into little squares anyway, appearance isn’t that important to my kids. And I didn’t hear, “It doesn’t taste like at school.” This is the sentence I so dread, because I know what I’m competing with is processed, over-sugared, over-salted, lacking-in-nutrient crap. Of course it doesn’t taste like at school—it has actual food in it, instead of a laundry list of chemicals!

So between the semi-healthy pie (healthy, that is, as compared to something like gummy worms), and the warmly accepted bean and cheese burritos, it was a good food weekend. For someone as food-obsessed as I am, my children’s acceptance of my food is one of the keys to my happiness. I know I need to work on this—I can’t dissolve in tears or become angry when they reject something I’ve made. Food shouldn’t be the only way I have of showing them that I care about them. And I do try. I do my best to shrug and think, “In a few years—they’re just little kids.” I also remind myself how downright finicky I was as a child. I must have driven my mother completely around the bend. I guess this is what they mean when they talk about karma. I’m getting as good as I gave.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Lessons Learned

What I learned today

Tomato Lesson #1
Tomato sauce made with really fresh tomatoes (ones grown in someone’s garden) really is way better than anything you can buy, or even make with excellent canned tomatoes. As I mentioned, I had these tomatoes sitting around that were just giving the fruit flies something to feast on, so this morning at 8 a.m. I dug out my food mill, ran the tomatoes through it, and cooked them down.

All I can say is, WOW. The resulting sauce was sweeter than anything I’ve ever tasted (leaving out the jarred sauces that are sweetened with sugar—and now I see why, since it’s clearly to compensate for crap tomatoes), and not the least bit acid. It needed nothing—no herbs, no onion, no olive oil, not even salt. I’m sure I’ll add all those things when I use it as a pizza sauce, or a pasta sauce, but it was pretty darned good just plain.

Tomato Lesson #2
It takes a lot of tomatoes to make sauce. I had maybe a dozen of varying sizes, and I started with probably a cup of tomato puree, and it cooked down to maybe a third of a cup. I have new respect for those 28 ounce cans of tomatoes on the grocery store shelf.

Tomato Lesson #3
You can’t make sauce out of green tomatoes the way you can out of red tomatoes. As I was cranking the food mill this morning to push the red tomatoes through it, I happened to think of all the green ones that I know aren’t going to ripen between now and winter. I went over and picked an armload of them, and brought them home to push them through the food mill.

This is really, really hard. The skins aren’t the least bit soft, and I cranked on four tomatoes for probably fifteen minutes and only had about 2 tablespoons of puree in my bowl. I’m not done yet—I might try cooking them down a bit in some olive oil and then running them through the food mill and see if that works. Or I might just give up on green tomato sauce, dig out my copy of Fannie Farmer, and see if there’s a recipe for green tomato pickle.

Baking Powder Lesson
It’s super easy to make baking powder. I kind of might have guessed that, but today I made it. Now I need to find out if things made with homemade baking powder are better than those made with commercial baking powder.

Spice Lesson
None of my spices are more than fifteen years old. Most people don’t have to do any research to discover this, but I did. Anyone who does things like keep ancient bottles of Liquid Smoke needs to do the research. There’s this ad—which you may have seen—in which McCormick is trying to let you know that you may have some seriously old jars and cans of their spices hanging around. Obviously they want you to run out and replace them as soon as you realize how old they are. Anyway, the two ways they give you of identifying their older spices are that they’re labeled as being from “Baltimore, MD” and/or that they’re packaged in a tin (with the exception of black pepper). So I went through all my jars and they all say “Hunt Valley, MD” on them. I must have gotten rid of the really old ones.

Camera Lesson
I really, really want a digital SLR camera for Christmas. My little point and shoot number just isn't going to cut it. Fortunately, I already told Santa what I wanted.

Job Lesson
I think I need to get a new job. Something where taking all the fresh tomatoes I picked in my cousin’s garden and running them through a food mill, then cooking the puree down into sauce, actually counts as work. I need a job in which going through all my old jars of McCormick spices and reading the labels to see if they say “Baltimore, MD” or “Hunt Valley, MD” is an employer-sponsored activity. I need to get paid to find out if biscuits made with my homemade baking powder are any better than those made with commercial baking powder. It would help if writing about it was part of the package too. While there are jobs like that out there, I’m afraid they’re not going to bring in enough at the outset to pay for the new house, the daycare, the electric bill. So maybe that will just have to wait.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

They're Putting in the KITCHEN!

I had to post this because I found out this afternoon that, as we speak (or type, whatever), they are installing the kitchen cabinets in my new house! Appliances are expected early next week! When they start putting in the kitchen, I start to think of it as a real house!!! Don't have the bathrooms tiled? Oh well. No baseboards, no trim around the doors and windows? Eh. No lockset on the front door? Call it keyless entry. If there's a kitchen, it means I can live in it!
UPDATE: Actually, turns out the appliances won't be delivered until Halloween...it seems they need to call the electricians back in to actually install the plugs. The wires are there, but there are no physical plugs to plug things into, so we need to wait for that. Plus based on how many cabinets we have, they're not all going to be fully installed by next week. It's going to take a little while. But progress is being made!!!!

Love Lentils

Now that Fall is officially here, with grey rain, grey water, and piles of grey clouds, I’m reading many odes to Fall foods. Squashes, pumpkins, apples, pears. All of these are wonderful, and add a splash of color to days that are now noticeably shorter and darker (and grey—did I mention grey?). But I’d like to chime in with a personal favorite Fall food, a quiet, unassuming little legume that generally neither brightens nor adds color. Lentils.

Lentils do come in red, of course, but they are not the lentil of autumn to me. Autumn lentils are green or brown. Like the tree leaves that just turn brown, they provide a neutral canvas for all those splashy bright fruits and vegetables. On a bed of colored leaves, a pumpkin competes for our attention. On a carpet of brown ones, it dazzles.

One of my favorite ways to eat lentils isn’t necessarily confined to Fall, but it certainly makes an excellent lunch. Cooked lentils with a little chopped red onion, served with baby rocket and some really high quality Italian tuna (in olive oil, please—no spring water in this dish). The whole is dressed with a simple mustard vinaigrette that unifies everything and gives it a spark. After my twin boys were born, I think I ate this for lunch for three weeks in a row. The lentils were easy to make in large batches, and would keep well in the refrigerator. One can of tuna would provide four servings. It was easy to put together when they were down for one of their many naps (most of which only seemed to ever last twenty minutes—just long enough to get to that last bite).

This dish was inspired by something we had at an Italian restaurant. We used to live near a busy intersection, but it hadn’t always been a busy intersection. The addition of an overpass had pushed what was once considered a sophisticated and elegant restaurant onto a little triangle of land, surrounded on three sides by busy highway, and flanked on the fourth side by an old and dumpy Giant Food store. On a night we didn’t feel like cooking, we tried the now-fallen-from-grace Italian restaurant for dinner. The only thing worth eating, we found, was a lentil salad that they served on their Antipasto Bar. My husband had about four helpings of it. We never did know how the restaurant stayed in business, because the rest of the food was truly deplorable, but perhaps the constant stream of mid-1970s model Cadillacs and Buicks that were always in the parking lot explained it: people who had loved the place when it was sophisticated and elegant still clung to it, remembering it as it used to be.

Lentil soup is another comfort food. I like it with Indian spices like garam masala. I make it sometimes with pancetta, or regular bacon. Before we had kids, my husband and I used to host a holiday party every year, and we liked to have a pot of soup (or two) in the slow cooker so people could have a little cup of soup to warm them up when they first arrived. One year it was lentil soup with Indian spices, and there wasn’t a drop left at the end of the evening. The logistics of serving the soup were never very fancy—just little Styrofoam cups and plastic spoons, but it was always welcome.

Both lamb and flank steak seem to have a natural affinity for lentils too. Many times I’ve ordered a rack of lamb in a restaurant that came with lentils. Once, when I was a tourist in the town in which I now live, we had lunch at one of Tom Douglas’s restaurants, Etta’s in Pike Place Market. He served a trout that came with lentils, and although I don’t really think of fish and lentils together (other than perhaps salmon, which almost doesn’t even seem like fish to me anymore because it so often seems to be treated like meat), this particular dish was excellent.

I’ve never tried lentil puree, although I’m very fond of white bean puree. Somehow lentils are so small and innocent, it just seems mean to puree them. On the other hand, in soup I feel like they should be pureed. They make a nice creamy soup, but it’s possible to make it very low fat (that would be in the versions with no bacon, of course).

Lentils are filling, friendly to cooks because they’re ready so quickly, good hot or cold. Fall is a perfect time of year for lentils, when you can’t decide between soup or salad because the weather is cold and rainy one day, sunny and warm the next. They’re great as a co-star, or as a supporting player. This may just be a lentil soup weekend. It’s supposed to rain.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Let's See How This Looks

I've never done this before--never had a camera handy when I finished making something. But this weekend, the camera happened to be lying around when the pear and granola muffins came out of the oven, so I figured, what the hell...I'm not sure Everyday Food would claim these as theirs, but here's my version of them...a little heavy on the shadow, it seems to me. I need some tools that I haven't had time to obtain and/or fabricate. Maybe I'll try this again when I've had the chance to do that.

Let Us Eat Cake...and Cobbler...and Muffins

We had a dessert-heavy weekend. Alex made an apple cobbler, and a chocolate zucchini cake. I made pear and granola muffins. Actually the muffins aren’t so much a dessert, as a mid-morning snack item, but I’m grouping them with dessert (hey, the twins called them “cake”; work with me on this one).

The apples and the zucchini both came from our new house. Until about two weeks ago, my cousin lived in a rental house near where we’re building our new house, and they planted a garden in the spring. Now they’ve moved into the house they built for themselves, and the garden of the rental house has been left untended. My cousin told my husband he was welcome to whatever he could find in it (which to date is a really big zucchini, and a lot of tomatoes that need to have something done with them fast).

The whole island we live on was once strawberry fields and apple orchards. There are still a few apple trees (OK, more than few—a lot of apple trees) scattered around on various properties, including ours, so he picked a few and brought them home. I have no idea what kind of apples they are. Red ones. Ones that made a really good cobbler.

The cobbler was Saturday night’s dessert. He had asked me to find him a recipe, so I pulled out The New England Cookbook: 350 Recipes from Town and Country, Land and Sea, Hearth and Home by Brooke Dojny, on the grounds that a cookbook that focuses on the food of New England should have an outstanding apple cobbler recipe. Brooke didn’t let me down, but somehow things didn’t work out as planned. Not realizing what I was marking, he looked at the page, saw a recipe title, assumed that was it and dismissed it because it called for whole apples (it was Maple Baked Apples or something; he’d already started cutting them into cubes).

I suppose this proves the rule that the human eye falls to the right. The recipe I was marking was on the left facing page, although admittedly the title was not. The title appeared at the bottom of the previous page, just under the headnotes. I think this is a layout problem with that book as a whole—it’s the case in more than one instance—but I’m willing to overlook it because the recipes in general are pretty good. Not that the recipe he ended up making wasn’t good—it was, very—but it wasn’t the one I picked out for him to make.

So Alex pulled a recipe from the Bon Appetit Cookbook, which was supposed to be a pear cobbler, but for which he substituted apples. I would like to take a moment here to encourage everyone who has their complete cookbook collection unboxed and under one roof to pause and give thanks for this. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to have had to cull down my collection to almost nil because we’re in a teeny little rental house. The only cookbooks I really have accessible are the twenty or so I deemed critical to my survival, and the ones I’ve collected since we moved (a frighteningly high number, actually—let's just move on).

Anyway, the cobbler, served with vanilla ice cream, was an excellent dessert after baked pork chops, Brussels Sprouts with Balsamic Glazed Red Onions, and oven roasted Yellow Finn potatoes. Very autumnal and perfect for a rainy night in late September.

The chocolate cake was also a Bon Appetit Cookbook recipe, and used two cups of grated zucchini (sadly, our monster zucchini made about four cups shredded; we may be having some kind of fried zucchini cake for dinner one night this week). This my older son adored, because it was chocolate cake. Of course, he did ask what the green thing in the cake was. In typical dad style, my husband stumbled and stuttered, not wanting to tell him it was a vegetable, but not sure how else to get out of it. Mom, of course, always knows what to say.

“It’s part of the flour. Flour sometimes does that.”

Say anything in an authoritative tone, and people will believe you, even skeptical four-year-olds.

The muffins were from an old issue of Everyday Food. I noticed them a couple of weeks ago, and decided to make them to have as a morning snack. Every morning around 10 a.m. I feel the need for a snack. I often eat an apple, but I’m finding I’d like a little something more to carry me over to lunch (which keeps getting later and later as I get busier at work). So I made the muffins, using the last crumbs of a box of Kashi Go Lean Crunch cereal. I’ve found that once you get down to the small pieces of that cereal, it’s just not worth much on yogurt (which is how I usually eat it), and besides, it’s usually stale by that time. So making it a muffin ingredient worked out well.

I planned to make them while Alex took my older son to the (indoor) swimming pool, and the twins and the baby napped. What I didn’t bargain on was one twin taking a scant hour long nap. Thus, I measured, peeled, chopped and folded, all the while answering the same three questions over and over—What are these? (Muffin tin liners); Where is Matthew—is he in time out for throwing toys? (No, he’s napping); and We’re not supposed to throw toys, right? (Right).

In the end, they were a success (the twins ate one each, Chris said they weren’t as good as the chocolate cake, Alex wasn’t sure about the crisp topping, but said the flavor was good), and I’d make them again, but I think I might pulse the pears in the food processor. Even though I cut them into the ¼” chunks the recipe calls for, I still found the pieces to be a little big. Otherwise they were fine, except that the topping did burn a little bit. I’m not sure how to get around that. Using the topping the recipe called for, as opposed to the Kashi Go Lean Crunch, might help. I might try it the next time I make them.

So I have my to do list for this week: find something to do with remaining shredded zucchini, make notes on pear and granola muffin recipe to chop pears finer and figure out how to keep topping from burning, and make tomato sauce with the tomatoes before we become a headline in the local paper: Family of Six Consumed by Swarm of Fruit Flies.