Dad’s cooking

Cooking under deadline

by Lisa

Since 2009 Pete Wells has been writing a column in the NY Times magazine about cooking with his family. This past Sunday, he wrote his final column.

In it, he confesses that he never really figured out how to cook dinner after working full time–and get it on the table in time for his young children to enjoy it.  It’s an honest column about the dilemma many parents face. If you don’t work full-time, chances are you have volunteer obligations, a sick child, or after-school activities and car pools to run.   It’s certainly next to impossible to involve the kids on a weeknight if there’s homework and sports or just some much needed playing to be done. It can be downright hard to get a homecooked meal on the table.

I work mostly from home, so I’ve written about how prepping at lunch time, or in a quick few minutes after school can make the evening run much smoother. But lately, my book launch has brought a million moving parts to my life, and I’ve been scrambling up to the very last minute I have before picking the kids up from school, supervising homework, gettin them to their activities. I’m exhausted at the end of the day. I have a freezer full of food and a refrigerator full of fresh produce, and yet, I have little energy or time to cook. It’s almost like having a newborn:  if I have to do one more thing (i.e. prepare food) I just might fall apart. But still, we still have to eat, so I’ve gotten by on very easy things like fast pasta, easy fish tacos, a few more dinners out on weekends. And last night…I took a page from Wells’ wish list (healthier frozen food that goes from freezer to oven to table) and pulled out the frozen breaded tilapia filets. The kids had fish sandwiches and fries and a big side of steamed romanesco.  Kory & I had a pot pie that I had made the day before from a frozen pie crust and the leftovers from Sunday’s roast.

We got by.  Tonight, I’m making this fish soup, from homemade broth, also made on Sunday from that Sunday Roast Chicken (which makes 3 meals total from one bird). It sounds fancy and tastes fantastic, but it takes only about 15 minutes to cook and much less time than that to prep.

I know this will pass, and I also know that I am not the only one who faces this issue–whether all the time or just periodically. Like Pete Wells, we’d love to know what you do when you’re truly too busy to cook, and eating out is not an option.

Dad’s in Charge

by Caroline

By the time anybody reads this post, I’ll be comfortably settled into VirginAmerica’s seat 11E on the morning flight from SFO to Dulles. I’ll have my tea, more books and magazines than I can read in 5 hours, and my airplane snacks. I’ll be looking forward to four days at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, four days of inspiring panels and overwhelming bookfair and meals and drinks with a number of writers and editors that I usually only get to “see” online.

I will not be at all worried about my family at home.

I don’t go away too often, and although I love it when I do, I believe perhaps my husband enjoys it even more. Partly he loves to see me get a break, and he urges me to indulge in the opportunity to sleep in, order room service, and eat out (he is making fun of me for packing airplane snacks at all). But also, I think, he loves just being on his own with our boys. It’s not like he’s not here all the time — and I do mean all the time: he works from home, he drives the kids to school twice a week, even his weekly basketball game is late enough in the evening that he sits — if not eats — during dinner with us. And of course he cooks dinner most nights so that’s nothing new.

But my being away makes things a bit different and it shows in my preparations for this trip: I updated my website, finished a couple essays, and researched DC restaurants, but I did not stock up at the farmer’s market over the weekend. In fact, Tony asked me to skip the CSA delivery this week; he’d rather go to the store with the boys and let inspiration hit. I didn’t make any meals and stick them in the fridge or freezer. In my absence, there will be less meal planning, more “cooking show” meals at the kitchen bar — with the boys watching Tony cook — than at the dining room table, more puttanesca, less (homemade) dessert. And they will be fine.

Obviously, it doesn’t go this way in every house, but if you are the one responsible for all the marketing and cooking in your family, maybe this is the week to consider encouraging some of your family members to take a bigger role. Maybe older kids can put together the grocery list for a change, or a different adult can go to the market. It’d be interesting to see what new foods come home in the grocery bags! Maybe instead of urging your young kids to stir up the pancake batter, you encourage your partner to do it. They might not do things the way you would; they might make messes and burn things. But they might also find they love it, and if you back off and let the other members of your family find their way to — and around — the kitchen, you might just find they stay.

Roasted Chili Paste (Nahm prik pao)

by Caroline

I might like to think that my strawberry pop tarts were the hit of our New Year’s Day party, but it’s Tony’s roasted chili paste that friends are still talking about, and while Tony’s made a couple extra batches to give away, somehow we find ourselves opening the jars and digging in before we can make delivery. I don’t usually even like hot sauces or spicy food, but this is so good, I’ve been dunking broccoli spears into it as a snack, spreading it on crackers, wondering at breakfast when I can eat some next. So as a public service (and so our supply will last a little longer), I’m offering the not-so-secret recipe here, which Tony found in Nancie McDermott’s Real Vegetarian Thai, and is also conveniently posted on line. I’m pasting the recipe in, lightly edited, but do click over to the original to enjoy the talk of feisty coals and palm sugar kisses.

The only ingredient that can be tricky to find (and that involves a particularly time-consuming step) is the tamarind for the tamarind liquid. We’re lucky enough to live near loads of Asian markets, but you can find this ingredient online at one of our new favorite websites (check out those cooking videos!) or use freshly-squeezed lime juice sweetened with a bit of molasses.

* 1/2 cup small dried red chilies such as chiles de Arbol, stemmed, halved crosswise, and loosely packed, about 1/2 ounce
* A generous 1/2 cup unpeeled shallots, cut lengthwise into chunks, about 3 ounces
* 1/4 cup unpeeled garlic cloves (8 to 10 large cloves), about 1-1/2 ounces
* 1/2 cup vegetable oil
* 3 tablespoons palm sugar or brown sugar
* 3 tablespoons Tamarind Liquid (recipe below)
* 1 tablespoon soy sauce
* 1 teaspoon salt

In a wok or a small, heavy skillet, dry-fry the chilies over medium-low heat until they darken and become fragrant and brittle, 3 to 5 minutes. Shake the pan and stir frequently as they roast. Remove from the heat and transfer to a plate to cool.

Increase the heat to medium and dry-fry the shallots and garlic, turning them occasionally, until they are softened, wilted, and blistered, about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer to the plate to cool.

Stem the chilies and shake out and discard most of the seeds. Crumble the chilies into small pieces. Trim the shallots and garlic, discarding the peel and root ends, and chop coarsely. Combine the chilies, shallots, and garlic in a mini processor or blender and pulse to a coarse paste, stopping to scrape down the sides as needed. Add 1/4 cup of the vegetable oil and grind to a fairly smooth paste. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

Pour the remaining 1/4 cup oil into the wok or a skillet. Place over medium heat until a bit of the paste added to the pan sizzles at once, about 1 minute. Add the ground chili paste and cook, stirring occasionally, until the paste gradually darkens and releases a rich fragrance, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool to room temperature.

Combine the sugar, tamarind, soy sauce, and salt in a small bowl and stir well. Add this mixture to the cooled chili paste and stir to combine. The paste will be quite oily, and must be well stirred before each use. Transfer to a jar, cap tightly, and refrigerate for up to 1 month. Use at room temperature in recipes or as a condiment.

Makes about 1-1/4 cups

Tamarind Liquid

* 1/2 cup tamarind pulp
* 1 cup warm water

Place the tamarind pulp in a small bowl and add the warm water. Let stand for 20 to 30 minutes, poking and mashing occasionally with your fingers or a spoon to break the sticky lump into pieces and help it dissolve.

Pour the tamarind pulp and water through a fine-mesh sieve into another bowl. Use your fingers or the back of a spoon to work the tamarind pulp well, pressing the softened pulp against the sieve to extract as much thick brown liquid as you can. Scrape the outside of the sieve often to capture the thick purée that accumulates there. Discard the pulp, fibers, and seeds that have collected in the sieve and thin the tamarind liquid with water as needed until it is about the consistency of pea soup.

Use as directed in recipes, or seal airtight and refrigerate for up to 3 days. It sours and sharpens as it stands, so if it has stood for several days, taste it and adjust the flavor with some sugar.

Makes About 1 Cup

Shitake Mushroom Dumplings

by Caroline

When Tony and I were dating, we used to eat pretty frequently at a nearby restaurant, Eos. It’s got a lovely Asian-influenced menu, with plenty of fish and vegetarian choices for us. We used to order broadly off the menu until we realized that we really love the shitake mushroom dumplings the best, and so pretty much just made our meal of salads (they do a really nice Thai herb chopped salad) and dumplings.

Fast forward a couple years, to when Ben was a baby, and he and I took off to Virginia to hang out with my sister and her family. Tony, left to his own devices for a week, made a project of trying to recreate the dumplings. He ate at Eos, and then made a dumpling attempt at home, and then ate there again another night before refining the recipe some more. The recipe he developed will never quite be as rich and buttery as what they serve at Eos, because that would take a pound more butter than we can put in one dish (this is one of the reasons we eat in restaurants, isn’t it? Because they will use all the butter and cream that we can’t bring ourselves to), but it’s still pretty delicious, and we don’t make it nearly often enough. But with family gathered for Christmas, and kids willing to pitch in to fill dumplings, we made a huge batch.

The recipe scales up or down easily depending on how much you want to make.

12-16 oz. fresh shitake mushrooms
1 bunch baby bok choy
2-3 shallots
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 small knob of fresh ginger (about a tablespoon, grated)
olive or vegetable oil
a dash of soy sauce
a dash of rice vinegar

Very finely dice the vegetables, shallots, and garlic, and saute with the ginger over medium-high heat with a good slug of oil. When the mixture is nicely browned, and the mushrooms have given off most of their juice, add a dash of soy sauce and a dash of rice vinegar. You can pause at this point and refrigerate the filling until you are ready to fill the dumplings.

Use whatever dumpling wrappers you can find at your grocery – we usually use the round gyoza wrappers rather than the square wonton wrappers, though it shouldn’t matter too much; we haven’t ever attempted making the wrappers ourselves.

Put about a teaspoon of filling in the center of each wrapper. Moisten the edges with water and press shut, then crimp the edges a bit with your fingers. Keep the dumplings moist until you steam them by putting them on a plate or tray under a dish towel wrung out with cool water.

Steam the dumplings 3-4 minutes, until the wrappers go translucent, and then serve with the sauce.

For the sauce
2-3 cups vegetable stock
soy sauce
2 tablespoons butter

Bring the stock to a boil and cook until reduced to one cup. Add the soy sauce and sherry a tablespoon at a time, to taste. Stir in the butter until the sauce is smooth and velvety. Keep warm until ready to serve.

Okra. A Reminder.

This is not really a post about okra (though I do have a simple recipe below) but a reminder that when kids are involved in your meals, they should be involved in your meal planning. My husband and I know this, of course, and we do involve them to a certain extent — we ask whether they want pasta or rice; we let them vote on cooked spinach vs spinach salad; we bring them to the farmer’s market and let them pick things out. But lately we don’t often go to the grocery store with them, and that was site of this weekend’s revelation.

Tony and Ben had snuck out secretly to get a Christmas tree while Eli and I were at a birthday party. Decorating a Christmas tree requires eggnog, of course, so the guys headed off to our local market, which you enter through the produce section. Ben spotted the okra and remembered he loves it. Years ago, a friend made an Indian-spiced fried okra dish that he devoured, and Ben still talks about it (I remember it simply as the first time I enjoyed okra). But okra doesn’t show up in our CSA box and I don’t seek it out at the farmer’s market. Frankly, I don’t love it, but that shouldn’t be the most important factor now that the kids are getting older, and especially not if we want them to try new things. Plus, it is incredibly easy to cook.

Tony gets the credit for this simple recipe, which was delicious and different and everybody enjoyed (except Eli, to whom I suggested he could learn to like it). It inspired an entire Indian feast, with a simple curry of potatoes and tofu, papadum, and lime-mango chutney. More than that, it inspired us all to think we might possibly be taking the first small steps away from the kids narrow food choices of the last couple years.

Simple Fried Okra
Wash and trim the okra, then slice it into 1/2″ rounds. Fry it in a bit of olive oil until it has started to brown and crisp around the edges, about 6-10 minutes. Sprinkle with a mixture of ground cumin, coriander, turmeric and a bit of salt.

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