Dad’s cooking

Something New for Dinner: Soba Noodles with Roasted Squash & Tofu

by Caroline

Like any family, we fall in to dinner ruts, when I feel like our meals fall into two categories: something with rice or something with pasta. This is exacerbated by the fact that I’m feeding two fairly picky eaters, and of course we are also limiting ourselves by choosing not to eat meat or fish. So it was a little thrill the other day when my mom sent me a recipe that looked like something the boys would eat. It does fall into the “something over pasta” category, and in fact uses ingredients we eat all the time, but combined in a new way and that, sometimes, just makes all the difference.

Of course, I couldn’t help tinkering with the recipe; I roasted the squash (because of course I already had the oven on to bake dessert), and we kept the sauce on the side because only one kid likes sauce, we used black sesame seeds because that’s what we had on hand, and at a certain point, fairly early in the process, Tony took over because, as I’ve said before, I really don’t make dinner (but sometimes I do delegate). Happily, it was a hit with the whole family, so thank you, Mom, and thank you, Martha Rose Shulman, for a great new entree to add to our winter dinner rotation.

Stir-Fried Winter Squash and Tofu With Soba

6 ounces tofu (we used a pound), sliced about 1/2 inch thick
2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
1/2 red onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons minced ginger
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 small butternut squash, diced (about 4 cups)
1 tablespoon sherry
1/4 cup water
Soy sauce to taste
1/2 pound buckwheat noodles (soba)
1 tablespoon dark Chinese sesame oil

1. Wrap the tofu in clean kitchen towels or paper towels, and place under a cutting board for 10 minutes. Cut in 1-inch wide dominoes.

2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large nonstick skillet or wok, and stir-fry the tofu until lightly colored, about three minutes. Using tongs or a slotted spatula, remove from the pan and set aside on a plate. Add the onion to the pan, and stir-fry until it softens, about three minutes. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil and the squash. Cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger and sesame seeds, and stir-fry for one minute, until fragrant. Return the tofu to the pan, stir in the sherry and 1/4 cup water, cover and reduce the heat to medium. Simmer five minutes or until the squash is tender. Uncover and add soy sauce to taste. Keep warm while you cook the soba.

3. Bring 3 or 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add the noodles gradually, so that the water remains at a boil, and stir once with a long-handled spoon so that they don’t stick together. Wait for the water to come back up to a rolling boil — it will bubble up so don’t fill the pot all the way — and add 1 cup of cold water. Allow the water to come back to a rolling boil, and add another cup of cold water. Allow the water to come to a boil one more time, and add a third cup of water. When the water comes to a boil again, the noodles should be cooked through. Drain and toss with the sesame oil.

4. Arrange the noodles on a platter, top with the tofu and vegetables, and serve.

Yield: Serves four.

Advance preparation: You can stir-fry the tofu and vegetables several hours ahead and reheat when you cook the noodles. This is one stir-fry that even tastes good reheated the next day.

Making Drinks (kid version)

One of the first things my husband Tony and I learned about each other on our first (blind) date was that our fathers both made wine. His dad actually used grapes. A regular event during Tony’s childhood involved taking delivery of a load of zinfandel grapes, stomping them into juice in the backyard and then – well, Tony’s version skips right to the burritos (a rare takeout meal after a long day of grape-mashing), while his father continued to do all the work to make and bottle wine that we still (on very special occasions) enjoy today.

My dad, influenced by Euell Gibbons’ books like Stalking the Wild Asparagus, made wines from elderberries, dandelions and blueberries. He kept burlap bags in the back of the car so that he was always prepared to gather materials – you never know when you might run across a nice patch of dandelions – and his foraging habit almost stopped before I was old enough to be embarrassed by it, but not quite. I do remember helping him decant it sometimes, holding the tubing that carried the wine from a 5-gallon carboy into the wine bottles. It spilled all over me once and I still remember the pungent smell of the fermented blueberries, vinegary and sweet.

Tony and I do not make wine. We don’t make our own bitters or beer, as some of our friends do, nor limoncello, like Lisa and her family, nor even root beer, as my family did when I was little. The beverage that gets the most care and attention in this household is probably Tony’s morning cappuccino, which he learned how to make at his father’s elbow as a child, and which he is now teaching the boys how to make. And maybe it’s the influence of that morning cappuccino that has the boys lately making complicated milk drinks. It started one hot day with Eli adding ice to his milk, and has now evolved into a recipe that involves a sprinkle of cinnamon, a few grates of nutmeg, and sometimes a spoonful of Ovaltine and/or vanilla. It reminds me a bit of those old Colonial milk punch recipes (but without the booze). And it’s the only way Ben will drink milk, so I’ll keep putting the ingredients out.


(Tune in later for a post about the mixed drinks the adults are drinking around here)

Comforting Soup for a Sick Day

by Caroline

This is the time of year when we get sick. Whether it’s the weather (cold mornings and nights sandwiching hot afternoons) or our busy schedules, February always seems to be when this household is put on hold by illness. Lately, my son Ben has been suffering it all: first strep throat, then a vomiting bug, now a cold. He hasn’t been interested in eating, particularly, and he’s wistful about that; the other day, he pulled out Pretend Soup, Mollie Katzen’s classic cookbook for kids, and asked me to read him some of his favorite recipes: french toast; berry dip and roll; oatmeal surprise. I promised I’d make him whatever he wants when he’s interested in food again, and he’s taking his time to think about it.

In the meantime, I’m posting the recipe for what I want when I’m sick, my husband Tony’s hot and sour soup (followed, I have to admit, by a big piece of chocolate cake; de gustibus, right? I’ll post that recipe another day.)

Hot & Sour Soup

3-4 carrots, cut into matchsticks (or you can cut thin curls of carrot into the soup with a vegetable peeler)
1 lb. tofu, medium firm, cut into 1/2 cubes
2 quarts stock
7 Tbsp. soy sauce
7 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
fresh ground black pepper to taste (I think I use maybe a teaspoon or so)
ginger (optional, just a touch of fresh grated or slivered super thin, or ginger extract/juice, to taste)
scallions or cilantro to garnish (optional)

Drain/blot the tofu briefly.

Dump the stock, the soy sauce and vinegar into a good-sized soup pot. At this point, I cube the tofu and put it in.

Add the pepper to taste. Add ginger, if using.

Simmer for about 10 minutes or so, until the carrots soften a little but still retain some firmness.

Mix cornstarch in a cup with a few tablespoons of water. Add about a third of this mixture to the soup, and stir it in. Give it 30 seconds or so to thicken the soup a bit. Repeat as desired until you reach your desired thickness. You’ll often find this super thick in restaurants, others like it thin. One advantage of a thicker version is that it “suspends” the black pepper much more readily and you don’t simply end up with a pile of pepper at the bottom of the pot.

Garnish with super finely-chopped cilantro, scallion or chives.

Pasta Puttanesca, 2 Ways

by Caroline

Thanksgiving prep is starting early this year as preliminary reports from my brother-in-law indicate that the rental house has an Inadequate Kitchen. So Tony and I have each made one kind of cranberry sauce, my mom’s brown and serve wheat germ rolls are rising, and the wild rice is cooking for the vegetarian entree. Meanwhile, Tony is prepping Wednesday night’s dinner: our standard pre-Thanksgiving dinner, his dad’s pasta puttanesca. While he’s chopping, Eli and I have been enjoying a little tea party of play tea and imaginary puttanesca. Here’s Eli’s recipe:

First you need some olive oil. And then some olives and capers and celery and garlic. Then some more olive oil. Then a little bit of honey. And now some mushed-up bananas!

He started off fine, of course, then took some weird turn into puttanesca smoothie, which doesn’t really sound good to me at all. Here’s how Tony makes it, as his dad made it years ago:

Pasta Puttanesca

This recipe is for a pound of pasta, which would serve 4 adults.  I’ve never actually measured this stuff, it’s all eyeballed, so these quantities are my best guess.

The celery might suprise you. The taste is really quite nice — it’s important to dice it finely so there aren’t big celery “crescents.” But the subtle crunch is really what you’re after.

Note the rather small quantity of tomato sauce. This is decidedly not  a chunky, olive-y marinara sauce. It’s very light on the tomato sauce… the small quantity of tomato sauce and some olive oil makes the sauce just barely fluid and helps it coat the pasta well.

1 lb. pasta (works with either long noodles or shapes, e.g. penne)
40-50 pitted kalamata olives
4 tbsp capers
10 cloves of garlic (adjust to taste)
8 stalks of celery (especially the tender inner stalks)
1 cup tomato sauce
olive oil
fresh ground pepper
grating cheese

Either mince the garlic or slice it really thinly and saute in a frying pan with a generous lug of olive oil. When lightly brown, transfer into a bowl. Use a rubber scraper to get all the flavored oil as well.

Chop the olives coarsely and add to bowl. Rinse the capers in a strainer and then chop just once or twice and add to bowl.

Trim away any of the tough celery stalk bottoms. Cut the celery lengthwise into strips (about 1/8″) and then dice. Add to bowl.

Add tomato sauce to bowl. Add another couple tablespoons of olive oil. This is important to make the sauce nice and thick so it coats the pasta well.

Add as much ground pepper to taste — I’m a pepper freak, so I’d do about 30 grinds for a full pound of pasta.

Mix well and let stand. You can do this as far in advance as you like… the flavors will only improve. I wouldn’t do it more than a day in advance for fear that the celery would go soft. Although if you made this and froze it immediately, I imagine it would be great. I keep meaning to make a giant batch and try that some day.

Cook your pasta. Before draining the pasta, pull out a cup of the pasta water.

Drain the pasta really well. We can add water later, but we want to control the moisture ourselves.

Add the sauce and 1/4 cup of water to the empty pot or a large bowl. Add the drained pasta. Mix well coating all the pasta. Add more water 1/4 cup at a time if needed. The pasta should be nice and moist, but we don’t want a big puddle of liquid at the bottom of the pot.

Serve with lots of nice grated cheese at the table.


Dessert, (urban) homestead style

by Lisa

Unlike Caroline, I don’t bake a lot. We were joking the other day about our families and how although we have many things in common, there are some major differences. The fact that we eat meat for one. The fact–as she joked–that I’m going “going urban homestead.”  I demurred, but she’s not entirely wrong.

This fall, as we do every year, we roasted and froze 40lbs of tomatoes, made and froze about 20 family-sized servings of pesto, froze 3 flats of raspberries, and picked over 300 apples. My freezer is a sophisticated and delicately balanced puzzle of epic organization.

I do this because it saves me time and money, it adds some variety to our winter diet, but I do this mostly because all this produce tastes better than the canned kind. Bring home mountains of fresh, organic produce, freeze it immediately, and you have a farmers market in your freezer all winter long.  Yes, it takes time in those weeks that you’re canning and freezing, but then when school starts and you need a quick dinner, just reach in your freezer and there it is: emergency pesto, tomatoes that cook to the richest, sweetest sauce you’ll ever make, a surprise dessert.

But now, with the weather not turning, the apples are not lasting as well as they should.  So this weekend, it was time to invest in an automatic apple peeler and make apple sauce.  The gadget worked like a dream, and while I roasted beets and peppers (because, okay, the hoarding & stockpiling instinct is still strong within me), Kory, Ella, and Finn went to town. In about ten seconds flat, a four year old can peel an apple.

And so can his sister:

Or they can peel, core, and slice into cute spirals in the same lightning speed:

They ate a lot of apples, and Ella chomped down the skin like it was a long string of candy.

I made the apple sauce by instinct after reading a few recipes online.  Honestly, I made it for the kids. I don’t think I’ve eaten applesauce for 30 years. But after tasting our homemade version, I’m guessing that Ella and Finn will be lucky to have two more bowls.

We ate it warm that night for dessert. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  It tasted like fresh picked, intensely sweet apples. Dessert gets fancier, and more chocolate-y, but I’m not at all sure it gets any better.

Homemade Apple Sauce

20-30 small apples

1/4 cup organic white sugar

1/4 cup organic brown sugar

2-3 strips lemon zest (from an organic lemon)

juice from 1/2 lemon

1 cup water

1 cinnamon stick

1. Peel, core, and chop or slice the apples. (Alternately, try leaving the skin on for flavor).  Put them in a large pot with the other ingredients. Bring to a boil then lower heat and simmer until apples are nearly dissolved.

2. REMOVE lemon zest and cinnamon stick.

3. Mash with a potato masher for a thicker, chunkier sauce. Or pass the mixture through a food mill.

Note: If you use fewer apples, just reduce the amount of sugar and zest accordingly, as long as you keep the brown & white sugars of equal proportion.  But you can also freeze this in individual or family-sized servings, just in case you’re compelled to start your own stockpile.