A Bad-Good Day

by Caroline

When my friend Ursula moved to Portugal for a year and said she had room for us all to come stay, I started looking into airfares. When she started posting pictures of Portuguese pastry on her website, I booked the tickets. She wrote me about her favorite pastry shop in Lisbon, and said we could stop in on our way home from the airport.

Now I happen to think that all food is stories, but the story behind Pasteis de Belem is a particularly good one, involving nuns and a secret recipe over two hundred years old.

There was no way I was missing a trip to this bakery. But our flight arrived too late in the afternoon to go out for what’s really a morning pastry snack, and besides, there was a medieval fair to attend. We kept the pastry shop high on the to-do list and went to bed.

Not many hours later, Ben appeared at the side of my bed. Before I could even think to curse the jet lag which I assumed had woken him, his face startled me wide awake. He was grimacing in pain, sweaty, crying. He clutched his left side and moaned as he crawled in next to me. I thought at first that he’d gotten sick from his candy apple dinner the night before, but he insisted it wasn’t his stomach, but a spot lower down, on the left. I flashed to countless readings of Madeleine and Tony googled “appendicitis,” which confirmed everything we were witnessing. I woke Ursula, and her husband drove us into Lisbon, quiet in the pre-dawn hours, to visit the pediatric ER.

And this is where the story suddenly improves. Not just because the walls of the ER were painted with a space theme that delighted my child, and not because the wonderful doctor addressed herself, in perfect English, directly to Ben as she examined him carefully, but because somehow his symptoms all disappeared. Two hours later, instead of sitting by a hospital bed while Ben recovered from an appendectomy, we were sitting in the just-opened, nearly empty Pasteis de Belem, enjoying a sleepy but amazingly delicious breakfast:

The pastry is like a cross between phyllo and pie crust, incredibly light, buttery and flakey, while the egg custard filling is light and not very sweet; the pasteis are served with shakers of cinnamon and powdered sugar (if you get the pastry to go, you’re given perfect little packets of the toppings). They look a little burned on top from being run under a broiler, which just caramelizes the sugar in the filling and gives the pastry topping an unexpected extra crunch. We ate plates full at the bakery, took more home to the rest of the family, and then resumed our vacation, just so grateful that we could.

after the ER

Morale-Boosting Banana Coconut Muffins

by Caroline

There comes a time in every child’s illness when the child is still too sick to attend school (he’s got to be fever-free for 24 hours) but is too well to lie docilely on the couch watching videos while his mother catches up on her New Yorkers. And that is the time, in this house, when we make muffins. I know this might appall some of the more germ-conscious of you, but I am just not really an art project kind of mom. Plus, we are not making muffins to distribute to our friends; these muffins stay home, in the family, where we’ve all been exposed to the same germs already for quite some time. And of course we wash our hands before we start to cook, which we do whether we’re sick or not.

So here we were, after another feverish night but with the Tylenol finally taking effect. Eli was hungry for a snack, tired of his usual dry crunchy things, but not yet up for a real meal. He noticed some browning bananas in the fruit bowl. For the most part, I try to stick to local fruits, but in the winter, when I do even more baking than usual and the variety of fruits available is slightly more limited, I make an exception for bananas. And of all the various banana breads and banana muffins that I make, this might just be the simplest. I’m linking to the original version on Epicurious (pause here a moment to mourn Gourmet, but to be grateful that Conde Nast is keeping the website alive), but of course I always tinker a little bit, so here’s how Eli and I made the muffins today.

a potato masher makes quick work of soft bananas

a potato masher makes quick work of soft bananas

slicing the butter for melting is a good time to practice knife skills

slicing the butter for melting is a good time to practice knife skills

1 1/4 c all-purpose flour
½ c ground flaxseed meal
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
2 very ripe bananas, mashed (3/4 cup)
5 T unsalted butter, melted
½ cup brown sugar
1 large egg
a splash of vanilla
3/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 375°F. Line muffin cups with liners.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and flax in a bowl. Whisk together bananas, butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, and 1/2 cup coconut in a large bowl until combined well, then fold in flour mixture until flour is just moistened.

Divide batter among lined muffin cups and sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup coconut. Bake until muffins are puffed and golden, and a tester comes out clean, about 20-25 minutes; keep an eye on them toward the end, as the flax makes them brown more quickly than usual, and you don’t want the flaked coconut to burn. Transfer muffins to a rack and cool slightly.

Feeding the sick

by Caroline

Despite timely flu shots, good eating habits, and frankly pretty impressive personal hygiene in kids this age, my sons have been passing a cold back and forth for over two weeks now. I can hardly remember what it feels like to send two children to school. And although I’ve managed to stay healthy (knock wood), the broken nights and the days spent tending to one or the other languishing child has worn me down.

While I know that this is not the time to slack off on the meals, know that they need a varied diet of fresh fruits and vegetables all the more now to get them healthy, I’m honestly relieved that when my kids are sick, probably like most kids, they shut down and eat like birds. This worried me somewhat when my first was a toddler, but now I recognize this as an inheritance from their father. I am the only one in the house who feeds a cold (or fever, or strep throat, or whatever other illness has hit me). The boys in my family subsist, as near as I can tell, on water and something crunchy until they’re back to themselves. They eat dry cereal, pretzels, rice crackers, and plain toast. Again, as someone who rarely misses a meal, who generally starts thinking about lunch even as I’m taking bites of breakfast, this continually surprises me. I might not want enchiladas or mushroom stroganoff when I’m sick, but as I’ve written before, I still usually want a couple flavors on the plate.

I’m lucky, I know, that I’m not talking about serious illness here. A friend’s son is recuperating from brain surgery and, while he’s recovering, has been vomiting daily for weeks. One of Ben’s classmates was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes a couple years ago, and continues to have a caregiver attend school with him daily to monitor his blood sugar and his meals. My kids don’t have allergies or any chronic illness that we have to factor into their diets. They’re picky eaters to start, and now with stuffy noses and taste buds dulled by fever, there’s not much they are interested in eating. For days, their meals have looked like this:

bunny plate with rice & edamame

bunny plate with rice & edamame

(note the attempt to add appeal by serving the food in a cute plate, one that belonged to Tony when he was a boy.)

Today was the first day in a while that Eli could hold his head up long enough to come to the table, but I was feeling pretty droopy myself so was grateful to discover that our favorite local bakery, Arizmendi, was making a family-favorite pizza: pesto and roasted potato. Arizmendi makes a different pizza every day, and while we all love to make pizza from scratch, this was not the day for that. Instead, we let our bakery friends do the cooking, and saved our energy to make a nice salad and slice some crudites:


Everyone ate a great dinner, and when there was interest in fresh Bolinas apples for dessert, I went to some trouble for my congested children and served them up in slices with sugar and cinnamon for dipping:


Dessert was followed, of course, by their nightly doses of sudafed, tylenol, and a fervent wish for a good night’s sleep.

Road Trip

by Lisa

We decided to drive to San Diego so my husband could attend ComicCon, and once we figured out that it was too late to reserve a camping spot halfway down, we decided to stop in Solvang.  For us, if it’s a toss up between a tent and a great deal on a hotel with an excellent restaurant and spa, we’ll take the hotel any day.

We left at 5 AM. That’s right, before dawn, because 1) we wanted to be in Solvang for breakfast and 2) Ella gets carsick, so we figured the more hours asleep in the car, the better.  I had a bag packed with boxed milk, strawberries, and bagels to tide us over until breakfast.  Of course, the kids were so excited that once we were in the car there was No Chance in H— of Sleep.   To combat Ella’s carsickness, I gave her Seabands, which proved miraculous. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a pair for Finn, and about halfway into the trip he moaned, and turned green, and threw up.  So that was the end of the food on that leg of the journey.  He eventually slept, and we did, in fact, arrive in Solvang in time for breakfast at Paula’s Pancakes. I was basically underwhelmed by the restuarant, but the kids quickly got over the sleep deprivation and Finn bounced back from the queasiness, and they loved this place. They both ate impossibly huge stacks (adult servings, actually) of pancakes and blueberries…



which kept them fueled for the rest of a really fun day visiting the Hans Christian Anderson Museum (ok, not their most favorite part of the trip):


riding a bicycle surrey with  fringe on top(really!):


and taking funny pictures of windmills and other such Germanic-Scandanavian things:


We tried to think about eating ebelskiver, and fudge, and ice cream, which everyone around us seemed to be enjoying, but we had no appetite for anything after all those pancakes, not a single one of us.

That evening, we had a really lovely meal at the Hadsten House, which I enjoyed all the more after a terrific massage/body treatment, and then it was on to San Diego.  The kids ate breakfast at the hotel, which made me quite nervous, naturally, but we got Finn a pair of Seabands at the local CVS, and they worked miraculously for him, too. No carsickness for either child for the rest of the trip, which left them free to munch on the granola bars, plums, and piles of pistachios I had packed.  Yes, the car was a mess, but they were happy & not too junk filled.  On the way home, we ate lunch at In ‘N Out burger, the one fast food we allow ourselves, and for which we all, admittedly,  have great weakness.

The trip was not supposed to be about food, but it was about me not having to cook for nearly a week (which was an excellent vacation in itself, mind you).  I was wary of theme park food (which was only truly horrible on one occasion), and I had brought cereal, milk, juice, fruit, bread, peanut butter and jelly, and snack crackers for our hotel room, which proved a really efficient and economical way to deal with breakfast and the occasional lunch.   The food at San Diego Zoo was more than tolerable, at SeaWorld was abysmal (and you can’t bring a lunch in), and we avoided the crowds and junk at Disneyland by making reservations for 2 sit down meals (Blue Bayou and Big Thunder Ranch BBQ, both of which were pricey, but we found worth it for the decent quality food and the down time both places afforded us).

For most of the rest of the trip we visited with beluga whales & dolphins:



where the kids (& I) were truly smitten at the Shamu show:


enjoyed very cute pandas who really did eat bamboo:



met various Superheros & other denizens of the 2 & 3-D world:




consorted with fairies in Pixie Hollow:



rode rides with abandon (including every roller coaster at Disney & Space Mountain (twice), with both kids, and no, for some inexplicable reason, Seabands were not necessary…):


and just generally enjoyed watching Finn vanquish Darth Vader (which video I can only link to for size restrictions, but below is a preview…):


But we did have a few absolutely memorable family food experiences, which will be chronicled here in the coming days, including two excellent local San Diego spots, the kids’ first exposure to truly fine dining, and then the antidote to fine dining:  room service.

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.