comfort food

Quick Yeast Bread

by Caroline

We love bread. And while it is very easy, living in San Francisco, to buy a different kind of delicious bread every day, we love to make it, too. I learned by watching my mom make bread every week, and my kids are learning the same way. In fact, if I can send my children out into the world with one lesson learned in my kitchen, I’d like them to feel that producing homemade bread is not a tricky thing.

I think we’re off to a good start. Ben invented his own bread recipe (which is really not half bad) when he was five, and now we’ve added another easy bread recipe to the repertoire. “Quick” and “yeast” rarely come together in bread recipes, but they do in this new one from Heidi Swanson (which she adapted from another source; I do love how recipes travel).

The next time you’ve got a hankering for fresh bread, give this a try; it’s barely an hour from the idea till you’ve got a piece of warm bread in your hands.

1 1/4 cups warm water (105-115F; if it feels neutral — not too hot nor cold — on your wrist, it’s the right temp)
2 teaspoons active dry yeast (one packet)
1 tablespoon honey or maple syrup
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup old fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2 teaspoons fine grain sea salt
1 tablespoons butter, to grease the pan

In a medium bowl, sprinkle the yeast onto the warm water and stir until the yeast dissolves. Stir in the honey and set aside for a few minutes, until the yeast blooms and swells a bit – 5 – 10 minutes.

In the meantime, mix the flours, oats, and salt in a large bowl. Add the wet mixture to the dry and stir very well.

Grease an 8-cup loaf pan with butter. Turn the dough into the pan, cover with a clean, slightly damp cloth, and set in a warm place for 30 minutes, to rise.

Preheat the oven to 350F, with a rack in the middle. When the oven’s hot, bake the bread for 35-40 minutes, until golden and pulling away from the sides of the pan.

Remove from oven, and turn the bread out of the pan quickly. Let it cool on a rack so it doesn’t steam in the pan. Serve warm, slathered with butter.

Makes 1 loaf.

Adapted from Gran’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Notebooks of Dulcie May Booker.

Goodbye to all that

By Lisa

not much more al fresco dining

Even though the temperatures here are still summerlike, and our markets are still full of piles of plums, rainbow swaths of  tomatoes, giant bouquets of cilantro and basil, I am facing the end of summer and all that comes with it. This weekend, I will slow roast dozens of pounds of early girls, zip their jammy goodness into bags, and freeze them for the winter rains.  I’ll continue to make double batches of pesto as long as I can, freezing half and hoping the stash will last until March. Other than that, our summer food will be gone.

Cling peaches; waiting to be drenched in cream and  brown sugar for the kids; in Prosecco for the adults

This is the way it should be.

Eating seasonally has become the paramount virtue at our table.  It’s more important than organic.  It’s more important than family dinner. It’s more important than getting my kids in the kitchen or dragging them to the farmers’ market.  We’ve done all that, and we still do all that. Sometimes. Now that Ella and Finn are older, they have their own ideas about things, and they just don’t always want to be in the kitchen. Most of the time, they’d rather climb the orange tree than juice its fruit.  They’d rather kick the soccer ball into the fence than harvest the tomatoes growing along it. And they’re a lot more interested in the chocolate croissants than another peach sample on Saturday mornings. Can you blame them? Ella has been to over 400 farmers markets in her life. She’s 9.   She gets it.

summer corn with butter and basil

Most weekend mornings, she’d rather stay home and finish building that new metropolis she and Finn started.  They have an open invitation to the kitchen. They can mix up smoothies or kidtinis when  the (nonalcoholic) spirit moves them.  But bedtime is more important than eating with dad. So we will have family dinner on the weekends.  They won’t leave the house without knowing how to chop an onion or read a recipe or buy their own food.

Still, there is one, unwavering constant: here, in this very lucky climate, we eat what grows in season.   If it’s not in the farmers market, we don’t buy it. What we eat is tied to the cycle of the year, and reminds us of a specific time and place. It’s the one, true constant of our food life.

the end of the heirlooms

The kids mourn the loss of stone fruit, but they can’t wait for apples. They gobble up the blueberries, but are enchanted by the first knobby, ruby red, pomegranates.   Sharing these things, like the fleeting perfume of pineapple guavas or winters’ crunchy Hachiya persimmons, brings us together. We have shared desires. We know it’s the dead of winter when our oranges are ready to eat. We know spring has come when I bring home the first favas. In fall, shelling a new crop of walnuts is like digging for gold.  These things are our common memory. These things bring us to the table. We don’t have a large family. We don’t have an elaborate kitchen. We don’t cook together all the time. We don’t have a whole lot of traditions or generations-old family recipes, or a rich cultural legacy.  What we do have: things to remember and things to look forward to and things to eat right now.  We make the most of what is in front of us, in the pantry, or the refrigerator, or on the counter.  We “watch what it is, though it fades away” and it’s a lesson in food, and family, and, yes, life.   Persimmons come, peaches go. Padrons give way to pomegranates.   These are the things I think they’ll remember about growing up in California.  That, and maybe cooking with sticks.

Variation on a Theme: End of Summer Pan Fried Gnocchi

by Lisa

In some ways, the food blogging/writing world misleads us.  If you believe everything you read, people out there are cooking new, interesting, fresh, inspired things all the time.  On the one hand, this can inspire you and give you lots of new ideas, recipes, ingredients. The blogging world is great for that.  On the other hand, the constant stream of new content can put a lot of pressure on the cook in the house. It can be hard to measure up, not just in terms of skill and innovation, but simply in terms of getting something new and different on the table every single night.  Where are the leftovers? The repeat meals? The meals that come straight out of the freezer? The take-out or pizza nights?  Not to mention:  those nights when activities and work schedules mean the kids have to eat separate meals and the parents eat even later. Pete Wells got it right: sometimes we are just too busy to cook.

It is true that I do try to cook every night. But last night? Wednesdays are my teaching night, so my sitter prepares what I leave, and my kids had TJ turkey chili out of a can. Which, for the record, they think is one of the best things ever.

Also: we eat an awful lot of the same things for weeks, even months at a time. This is what happens when you eat seasonally. When it’s tomato season, we eat tomatoes. Lots and lots and lots of them. We’re Italian like that.  You can romanticize it all you want, but it’s not exactly inspired.  And unless you’re Mark Bittman, it can be a challenge to figure out something to do with all the same stuff day in and day out. A girl can dream and plan and try, and lots of us do, of course, but if you’re not a food professional, and you’re tired, it can be a lot of work to be inspired.

Moreover, we have had an unusually busy week.  A slight shift in Ella’s schedule has meant that she has 20 minutes to eat dinner in between Finn’s drop off and pick up from swimming and her own drop off at soccer.  I have no idea when Finn is going to eat.  Our afterschool hours are such that I have to have dinner ready for them both to eat by  4pm.  Because between 4-7 pm, I won’t be home long enough to cook. Certainly, this week is not usual, but the fact remains that there are plenty of other families who face this challenge on a regular basis.  It’s one thing to cook and eat a family meal when your kids are young.  I found it a hell of a lot easier to cook for toddlers than it is now, with a 6 and 9-year-old.  It doesn’t help to say my family dinner will never be sacrificed, because if your kids have activities, sometimes it will be.  All of which is to say that how we cook and how our families eat our meals changes.  I am here to say: it’s okay some nights to eat on the run. It’s okay to eat the same thing over and over again.

Which brings me to my dinner dilemma tonight. What could I cook that would keep from 3:45 pm until 8 pm? I had tomatoes, corn, and hooray! a package of gnocchi, which, once cooked, keeps far better than pasta.  I have  a bin full of good produce: green beans and great lettuces for a side dish or salad.  Also some good mozzarella.  And this morning I was talking to my very dear friend Melissa Clark, the novelist, who introduced me to gnocchi, and is also a contributor to our book. Then there was Caroline’s post yesterday, and dishes I’ve made before, and this is the result:  our end of summer (and end of a very long day, and nearly the end of the week) pan fried gnocchi.

Like tonight’ s dinner, which has not yet been cooked, this photo is repurposed. But you get the general idea…

End of Summer Gnocchi with Tomatoes, Corn, and Mozzarella

1 package gnocchi

1 clove garlic

2 T butter

2 T olive oil

1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

2 ears of corn, cooked, cooled and kernals sliced off

2-3 slices fresh mozzarella, sliced into bite- sized cubes

3-4 leaves fresh basil

  1. Mince the garlic & sautee in olive oil and butter in a large pan.
  2. Add the gnocchi to the pan & cook until heated through and lightly golden brown.
  3. Remove from heat, and in a large bowl gently toss in tomatoes and corn.
  4. Toss in mozzarella and basil.
  5. Serve immediately or after (soccer/swimming/piano/tutoring), at room temperature.

Nemesis Foods

by Caroline

A year or so ago, we had a funny dinner table conversation about our “nemesis foods:” the things we really, really don’t like to eat but occasionally must to be polite. Ben’s is chili; Eli’s is sauteed spinach; mine is sweet potato casserole (the kind with marshmallows on top [shudder]). Tony’s is something I don’t eat at all anymore but when I was a kid, it was my absolute happy comfort food, and my mom made it almost every week.

This week, visiting my parents, I offered to stock their freezer with meals for when they don’t have the energy to cook. My mom and I talked about a couple different options — enchiladas, soups, lasagne, curries — and decided on a corn chowder, a vegetable and tofu curry (using many of my dad’s garden vegetables), and, as a cold weather comfort food, Tony’s nemesis food: tuna noodle casserole.

Now it’s my sister who makes it for her family most often, and her essay for The Dish shares a funny story about my nephew’s love for this dish, plus her recipe, which I offer you here, following this picture of the tuna noodle casserole assembly line. My husband kept his distance.

Libby’s Tuna Casserole

My kids would eat this every night if I would make it. Especially Nick.

1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk (skim is fine)
1 tsp mustard, optional

1 lb. pasta; shells or fusili seem to work best

1-2 cans tuna, packed in water (or, I suppose, oil, but I never buy that kind. Actually I buy the kind that has no salt added, too.)

1-2 cups frozen tiny baby peas. Or not so tiny ones, if you don’t mind them. They seem kind of icky to me, but I like the little tiny ones. You don’t need to thaw these.

2-3 cups shredded cheese of your choice. I usually use 2 cups of colby-jack and a cup or so of parmesan or romano, but it depends what I have in the house. Something that melts well is what you’re going for, and since you’re probably feeding kids, don’t bother with really good cheese. I buy bags of shredded stuff and throw them in the freezer, then pull out whatever I have and use it. “Italian” blends work fine, as do “Mexican.” Real cheese that you shred yourself is probably better.

breadcrumbs, optional

OK. So you have your ingredients. Turn your oven on to 350 or so (400 if you’re in a hurry) and make sure you have a casserole dish that holds a pound of cooked pasta.

Put up a pan of water for the pasta. While you wait for it to boil, melt the butter in a medium sauce pan. Medium heat. When the butter’s melted (don’t let it burn!), whisk in the flour. When it collects into a sort of pasty mess at the bottom of your pan, add the milk and whisk madly to break up the clumps. (If you heated the milk beforehand this might go more smoothly, but if you just keep whisking it will work with cold milk out of the fridge.)

Keep whisking while you heat the milk to just below boiling. Turn the heat down a bit if you need to. The sauce will thicken up quite a bit. Whisk the mustard, if you’re using it, in as it thickens. (I find it makes a big difference.)

If you already knew how to make a bechamel (aka white sauce, aka cream sauce) you could have skipped those last two paragraphs.

When the sauce has thickened take it off the heat. When the pasta water boils, duh, add the pasta and boil it until tender but not mushy. Drain the pasta and run cold water over it to stop it cooking.

Dump the pasta back in the pasta pan. Pour the sauce over it and mix it together. Then add the tuna (breaking it up in the can a bit before you dump it in) and the peas. Mix it all together so that the tuna and peas are evenly distributed.

Put half the pasta/sauce/tuna/peas mixture in the bottom of the casserole. Scatter half the cheese over it. Then the rest of the pasta, and the rest of the cheese. If you like, blanket the top with bread crumbs. Crushed up Ritz crackers or potato chips would be decadent and tasty. Pop the whole thing in the oven and bake until the top is golden and crusty. This will take 15-20 minutes at 400, up to half an hour at lower heat. Since everything was already cooked before it went in, all you really need to do is melt the cheese and brown the top, but if you have to go take a shower or something and need it to be in the oven longer, you might cover the casserole when you put it in, then take the top off and blast the heat up to 425 or so for the last few minutes.