comfort food

Al Fresco Dinner with Cuban Black Beans

by Lisa

We’re having a mini-love affair with all things Cuban in our home, which began with Picadillo and may have reached its peak when I read Pete Wells’ piece about scorching but not ruining a batch of black beans.

These beans take some time, but they are surprisingly easy  to make and they are completely, fantastically delicious.  Delicious as in you could eat them for your last meal delicious and never regret a thing. They’re great with rice, or a little picadillo, or fresh tortillas and a side of your favorite slaw.  In the spontaneous spirit of Wells’ piece, I’ve found they’re still terrific if you leave out the ham hock (but better with it in), and certainly you can adjust the heat of the jalapeno for your family.  Certainly, vegetarians can find a work-around for the meat.  They’re great for a family dinner, they’re great leftover, and they’re really great for company.  However you subtly adapt these for your kitchen, just try these. I promise you:  The husband loves them. The kids adore them.  They’re a revelation all around.

We ate them first on a warm spring night, for a really casual al fresco dinner on the lovely bench the husband built. Finn set the bench.

Ella personalized the place cards.

Here’s the recipe as it originally appeared in the New York Times:


Cuban Black Beans

  • 11/2 green peppers, stemmed and seeded
  • 10 garlic cloves
  • 1 pound dried black beans, rinsed and picked over to remove any stones
  • 1 smoked ham hock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 4 slices thick bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 Spanish onion, diced
  • 1 jalapeño, stemmed and finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground
  • black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon turbinado or other brown sugar.

1. Cut 1 green pepper into 1-inch squares. Smash and peel 4 of the garlic cloves. Put the green pepper and garlic into a large pot with the beans, ham hock, bay leaves and 1 tablespoon salt. Add 2 quarts water and bring to a boil. Cover the pot and simmer until the beans are tender, an hour or more.

2. Meanwhile, make a sofrito. Cut the remaining ½ green pepper into ¼-inch dice. Peel and finely chop the remaining garlic. Heat the olive oil in a very large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until it starts to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the green pepper and onion and cook, stirring, until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, jalapeño (leave out the seeds if you don’t want it too spicy), oregano, cumin, black pepper and 2 teaspoons salt and stir for another minute. Pour in the vinegar and scrape any browned bits from bottom of pan with a wooden spoon. This is your sofrito.

3. When the beans are cooked, discard the bay leaf. Remove and set aside the ham hock and let it cool. Transfer 1 cup of beans to small bowl, mash them into a paste with the back of a fork and return to the pot. Add the sofrito, then the sugar. Pull the meat from the ham hock, leaving behind any white sinew or gristle. Chop the ham into ½-inch pieces and return it to the bean pot.

4. Stir the beans well and bring to a boil over medium heat, then lower to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes or so, skimming any foam from the top. Taste for salt and serve with white rice. Serves 8 to 10. Adapted from “Tastes Like Cuba,” by Eduardo Machado and Michael Domitrovich.

Thousand Island Dressing

by Lisa

It’s a snack food, a packable lunch dish, a side dish, an appetizer, an all around helpful thing to have in your kitchen. It’s lightening fast to make. It’s completely addictive.  It’s a way of getting your kids to eat more raw vegetables.  And even you won’t be able to stop eating it with salads, with crudite, for lunch, before dinner, after school. Even if you don’t like the bottled stuff, try this.  There’s no comparison. And there’s nothing like having a big batch of something healthy to pull out and feed the kids when they’re begging for food and dinner isn’t quite ready.

I dug up this recipe a few years ago, and while we don’t always have it the refrigerator, it’s the kind of thing that the kids suddenly remember and beg for. Last week it was Finn’s turn to remember that “pink dipping sauce” and so I made it. I had half a head of iceberg lettuce in the refrigerator, left over from fish tacos the night before, and we whipped up a batch of dressing, and it has lasted us all week.   I served it to them first over wedges of lettuce, which Finn thought was just about the best thing ever.

The recipe makes a lot, but it keeps really well (even gets better as the flavors blend), so we portion it out all week long, mostly with carrots and celery, which I precut and keep in the refrigerator.

The original recipe is here. My only change is to substitute ketchup for chili sauce and add a dash of tabasco (or more or less to your taste).  I usually don’t have pimentos, so I often leave them out, but when I’m short on pickles I’ve thrown in a few pimento  stuffed olives; you can leave out the egg, but it’s much better with it in.

Homemade Thousand Island dressing

  • 1 1/4 cups mayonnaise
  • 1/3 cup ketchup
  • 1/4 cup chopped drained pimiento
  • 1 large hard-boiled egg, shelled, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped dill pickle
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons drained capers
  • 2 tablespoons chopped green onion
  • Tabasco or other Hot pepper sauce

Strawberry Clafouti or, Trying Again After a Recipe Failure

by Caroline

The pudding wasn’t setting.

I’d had my doubts about the recipe. It seemed to call for way too much sugar, it called for milk instead of cream. But, I had it in my head that we should have fresh vanilla pudding to go with our strawberries.

I know, I know. There’s nothing wrong with ice cream or Greek yogurt (we didn’t have cream to whip) on berries; really, there’s nothing at all wrong with plain strawberries. But I felt like cooking something. I’d already made strawberry pie, didn’t feel like strawberry shortcake (and again, we didn’t have any cream). I felt like something different.

So, pudding.

I usually flip through three or four recipes when I haven’t made something in a while, to remind myself of the various techniques and/or ingredients involved, and then I either choose one or combine a few. But I was in a hurry to get it made and chilling in the fridge before I headed out on an errand, so I just embarked on the first recipe I found. I tossed the ingredients in a sauce pan and stood at the stove, stirring and stirring the only-slightly thickening mixture, checking the clock, needing to leave the house. I finally poured the soupy pudding into ramekins, set them in the fridge, and hoped for the best.

On the way home, I couldn’t stop thinking about that vanilla soup. I called Tony and asked him to get a stick of butter out of the fridge and turn the oven on. “What are you baking?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I answered. “Something for the strawberries. That pudding’s not going to work.”

In the event, I didn’t even need the butter.

Clafouti is basically a pancake batter poured over fruit and baked until set. It tastes a bit like a fruity Yorkshire pudding. Traditionally it’s done with cherries, but strawberries were lovely, and raspberries or blueberries would be nice, too. It’s not something I’ve made before, but plenty of experience with pancakes, popovers, and Yorkshire pudding made me more confident than I was about the pudding. The recipe I used (from Sunset Magazine) couldn’t be simpler and, unlike the pudding recipe, it worked.

The lesson for me here is not to never try new things (I’ll certainly try vanilla pudding again), but to slow down in the kitchen and to trust my instincts. We’re on kind of a pudding kick around here, having already enjoyed milk chocolate last week, and with butterscotch still to come, so I’ll try vanilla again, and post the recipe when I get it right.

In the meantime, if anybody has suggestions for how to repurpose my too-sweet vanilla soup, I’m all ears.

The Real Thing

by Lisa

I have never brought a bottle of soda into the house. Occasionally when my father or father-in-law are visiting, they buy their own diet soda, but I can safely say that nothing with corn syrup has ever been brought into my house by me or my husband.

This is not to say the kids haven’t had their share of Shirley Temples at restaurants, and if you’ve read even a little of this blog you know that they have kidtinis with some frequency.(Try the new search engine on the blog site! You can have your pick of recipes!). The point is,  we don’t have a ban here on sugary drinks, but we do choose to drink them selectively and to make them less sweet than say, a can of coke.

However.    As I was paying for my wine at BevMo a week ago, I saw a big stack of Coca-Cola. From Mexico. Made with real sugar.  In thick glass bottles.   Caroline’s husband is, I think, partial to this elixir for himself. But we don’t see it all that often here, and if you know me, you know I bought a dozen bottles.

When I showed the kids the treasure I had found, they had no idea what it was.  “What’s coke?” Finn asked. “What’s it taste like?” Ella wanted to know.   “It’s delicious,” I told them, and I let them split a bottle for lunch, over ice.

We made appropriate ceremony, and then they tasted.

Finn loved it.

Ella really didn’t care for it, and now, while Finn will chant “Coca-Cola! Coca-Cola!” while watching football (we each had a bottle during the Superbowl), Ella leaves her bottle untouched.  There are worse things, of course, but for the rest of us, not much better than a good, real Coke once or twice a year.

Classic Oatmeal Cookies

by Caroline

There is nothing remarkable about this cookie recipe except, perhaps, that I have been following it faithfully for over 35 years, and if you read this blog periodically or know me at all, you know that I am always tweaking recipes for baked goods. But why mess with a classic? This is the recipe in the Joy of Cooking, the recipe my mom taught me years ago, and although I don’t buy the same kind of oats anymore or bake cookies with my mom very often (though my dad and the boys bake cookies together now), when I want an oatmeal cookie, this is how I do it.

Preheat the oven to 350 and get the butter and eggs out of the refrigerator to come to room temperature.

Whisk together in a bowl:
1 3/4 c flour
3/4 t baking soda
3/4 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1/2 t cinnamon

In another bowl, beat until well blended:
1/2 lb (2 sticks) butter
1 1/2 c brown sugar
1/4 c granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 1/2 t vanilla

Stir flour mixture into butter mixture until smooth.
Add 3 1/2 c old fashioned rolled oats
Add 1 c mini chocolate chips (ever since making those flourless peanut butter cookies, I’m using mini chocolate chips in all my cookies — a bit more chocolate in every bite!)

Scoop tablespoons-full of cookies onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, space them 2 inches apart, and bake for 6-9 minutes, rotating the pan for even browning.