Monday, June 27, 2016

Cream of Carrot & Tomato Soup

Image: Goodreads
June was a good reading month. For several weeks, I had not been able to find a book to really sink my teeth into. But then I found these two novels back to back, both engrossing family dramas but with very different settings. 

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler is set in Baltimore and tells the story of four generations of the Whitshank family- a rather ordinary family whose life revolves around a big, lovingly built house. I've read a few of Anne Tyler's novels- she's been writing for decades- and just like the others, this one has no strong linear plot. It is a study of characters and family dynamics, all the big and little incidents that shape the trajectory of a life. 

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is set mainly in a small mission hospital in Ethiopian but follows the characters from India to Africa to North America. Verghese is a physician-novelist and tells the story of twin boys born to an Indian nun and a British doctor. This novel has intertwining themes of an unusual family story and gripping medical narratives against a roiling political backdrop. 

Speaking of Ethiopia, I haven't been accepting any cookbooks for review lately but made an exception for this one- Ethiopian Cookbook: Pinnacle of Traditional Cuisine by Konjit Zewge, a collection of recipes of an 89 year old Ethiopian home cook. These sort of cookbooks are special because they preserve recipes that may be otherwise lost to time. 

I was excited to flip through this book and cook from it but there are some major flaws with how this cookbook has been put together- the recipes call for many specialty ingredients (but of course) and they are not explained very well. Several spice mixtures are called for but there are no recipes or sources given. Trying the recipes is going to take a lot of deciphering! Meanwhile, I am glad we have a new (and first) Ethiopian restaurant here in town, a tiny place tucked away in a strip mall where a very sweet lady makes flavorful home-style Ethiopian food. 

I'll end this post with a quick soup recipe made with simple pantry ingredients- I made it a couple of times last week and wanted to jot down the proportions for the next time I make this. This soup is good hot or warm or at room temperature or even chilled. 

Cream of Carrot & Tomato Soup

1. In a pressure cooker, add:

  • 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 onion cut in large dice
  • 4 medium carrots cut into large chunks
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 cups water

2. Pressure cook. Let the mixture cool for 15 minutes or so. Add 3 tablespoons of cream cheese and 1/3 cup of cream or milk. Blend until smooth and creamy. Adjust seasoning to taste. Depending on the sweetness of the carrots and the acidity of the tomato, a few pinches of sugar may pull the flavors together. Serve.

Growing up, I always felt that the best part of a bowl of tomato soup were the oily, crisp croutons floating on it. A batch of croutons can be made in minutes on the stove top. I save bits of leftover baguette and other breads in the freezer just for this.

Heat a bit of butter and olive oil in a pan. I find that the mix of butter and olive oil is flavorful and does not burn easily. Saute cubes of bread until toasty and browned. Serve croutons with soup. Or just stand there and eat them by the handful- I won't judge.

What are you reading, cooking and eating this week? 

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Little Chef- Thoughts on Cooking and Parenting

We had a beautiful, relaxing Father's Day yesterday and I hope you did too. V and Lila, with Duncan in tow, started the day with leisurely morning walk to our neighborhood bakery to share a chocolate croissant. Later, we met up with friends at a board game cafe and spent the afternoon playing everything from Scrabble to Hungry, Hungry Hippo and Candyland, a very enjoyable and novel way to celebrate the amazing dads in our life.

Lately, Lila has taken over as the new sous chef here at the One Hot Stove world headquarters. What her resume lacks in experience is compensated in her enthusiasm. Every afternoon, this child comes home from preschool, bursts through the kitchen door and demands to know what we're cooking for dinner. She wants to participate in every step of the process, to touch and taste and smell everything. Often she will end up eating handfuls of raw veggies, boiled noodles, nuts and other ingredients even before they get put into the meal, and then she's almost too full for dinner- and frankly, that's fine by me.

Some of her favorite kitchen activities at this age are peeling and slicing hard boiled eggs, slicing tomatoes and avocados (with a hard plastic knife), juicing lemons, making lemonade, stirring ingredients together for granola, spinning down salad greens and yes, stirring things on the stove even as I stand by watching a bit nervously. Making ghee is possibly her favorite activity ever, but that has everything to do with getting to eat the caramelized brown bits left over after straining the ghee.

We don't follow recipes unless we're making baked goodies- this is just everyday cooking, and it is fun to see her developing an instinct for cooking, like knowing how to season a salad correctly with pinches of salt and grinds of pepper, without having to measure anything, and learning how to put together a simple meal from whatever we have on hand in the pantry and fridge.

There are other kitchen tasks that Lila does too- setting the table with napkins (we use dish towels from IKEA as napkins), water glasses and utensils, and helping to unload the dishwasher. Kitchen tasks involve all sorts of learning- math skills, sorting, matching, motor skills, sensory stimulation- not to mention the confidence gained from contributing to family life and being responsible for a job.

We were visiting the home of a relative with grown kids, and she remarked that her kids never learned to cook because their evenings were too busy with activities like soccer, piano and martial arts. "But what activity could be more important than cooking", I said, and she chuckled thinking I was being facetious. But I was dead serious. We all have to eat every day and it is really hard to eat in a way that's both tasty and nourishing (and budget-friendly, especially when you're starting out in life as a young person on your own) if you don't know how to cook.

“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” I can't remember at all where I first heard or read this quote but it has resonated strongly with me for several months. (I just looked up the quote and it is from Peggy O'Mara.) This is a powerful way to repeat "mantras" that you believe in, and that you want your child to internalize as guidelines through life. The everyday routine of cooking and eating dinner provides so many opportunities for talking about values, priorities, manners, habits, attitude, gratitude. Here are some of the things I find myself saying over and over again. (And truthfully, these are helpful reminders for myself and not just for the kid.)

"Eat until your tummy is happy" is a way to get Lila to listen to her body's cues of when she is no longer hungry, when her hunger is satisfied.

"In our family, we don't waste food" is a general, gentle reminder to treat food with care, to serve yourself a reasonable portion, to not fling food around. We don't believe in the clean plate club. There's no guilt for not finishing the food on a plate- but it does not end up in the trash either. It just goes into a container to be eaten at a later time.

"You can say 'yes, please' or 'no, thank you'"- this is a reminder that when we are offered any food at any time by anybody, we can say yes or no politely, no questions asked. Responses such as "eww", "yucky", "it smells gross" or "I hate that" are not OK. There's no need for tiresome explanations of why you won't or can't eat something. Eat it or don't eat it, but always respect the food and just move on.

"The kitchen is closed" is a reminder to not leave the dinner table too early and then keep asking for snacks as bedtime nears.

"What's mama's number 1 job? My number 1 job is to keep you safe and healthy"- this is my usual reason for saying no to any number of requests- mostly about putting reasonable limits on sweet treats in a sugar-saturated culture.

Did you hang around the kitchen as a kid? Do your kids like to cook with you? 

Tomorrow is the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and I hope you have a good one! And warm and cozy winter wishes to my friends in the Southern half of the planet.  

Sunday, June 05, 2016

A Freezer Cooking Session

While I greatly enjoy cooking quick and simple dinners on an everyday basis, having a few meals stashed away in the freezer is like having money in the bank.

I have a week-long conference at work starting tomorrow, which will mean long and tiring days, so I wanted to get ahead of the game and stock the freezer with a few meals. A dear friend happily agreed to cook with me and split the loot- so we had a freezer cooking date last weekend. This was the first time I cooked specifically to stock the freezer. A surprising array of recipes are good freezer candidates so there's a lot to choose from. A few years ago, I wrote this post and got many helpful suggestions in the comments. This time, we made these 4 recipes. Before meeting up in my kitchen, we each gathered containers for freezing, and rounded up ingredients for two recipes each.

Mac and cheese- We doubled Martha Stewart's recipe and followed the recipe quite closely, while cutting down quite a bit on the quantity of cheese. The food processor made it a snap to grate all of that cheese in seconds. The rest of the recipe came together quickly and boy, did it make a huge pot of mac and cheese. We did not bake it- simply divided the pasta and sauce mixture into several baking dishes, topped with the breadcrumbs and covered the dishes with foil, to be baked just before eating.

Already this week I cooked up one of the pans of frozen mac and cheese. It went straight from freezer to preheated oven, the broiler got the top nice and browned once the baking was done, and the mac and cheese was pretty much perfect. I'll definitely be doing this again.

Madras lentils: We made a double batch of this recipe. Because the pressure cooker was going to be in heavy use for our cooking session (and I only have one pressure cooker), I did soak and cook kidney beans and lentils and have them ready the day before. So this recipe consisted of simply sautéing and grinding the tomato-onion masala and simmering it with the cooked beans/lentils, then cooling the curry and portioning into containers. I plan to pull this out from freezer to fridge a day before we plan to eat it, then reheat in the microwave in a glass container.

Potstickers: Again, we made a double batch (two packages of wrappers), and my friend took the lead on this one. I have to say that potstickers were by far the most labor-intensive of the recipes we made. We froze the potstickers on sheet pans, then transferred into bags for freezer storage. The idea was to make sure the potstickers didn't stick to each other in a giant lump- well, clearly I didn't freeze them long enough on the sheet pans because they have stuck together in the bags after all! We shall see how it works out when I cook these...

Mexican style Rice & Beans- No recipe here, and it would probably be a stretch to call this Mexican anyway. I made about 3 cups of yellow rice- sautéing the rice in olive oil on the stove top until toasty, with some salt, garlic and turmeric for flavor and color, then cooking in the rice cooker. The bean stew was simply soaked pinto beans cooked in the pressure cooker with onions, peppers, tomatoes and spices.

All in all, it took us about 2 and a half hours for cooking and clean up. This included the time needed to deal with the kids' shenanigans. My friend's daughter and Lila are great friends and play well together. Well, that morning they raced around the house, knocking over and shattering a lamp (thankfully, no one was hurt except the lamp), and found a container of baby talc and liberally sprinkled it all over every square inch of Lila's room. At crucial cooking moments, like when I was stirring the roux and trying not to burn it, I would hear a shriek and a crash. All in a day's play, I guess!

The cooking session was hard work but we did have several tasty meals to show for it, neatly portioned and labeled and stacked in the freezer. I don't see myself ever doing the once a month freezer cooking thing (where you cook 30 days worth of meals in one day and freeze them away) but it certainly makes sense to stash away freezer meals when you're anticipating a busy time.

Last year, when I was away working in Kenya for a few weeks, I stocked the freezer with many meals for V and Lila and they appreciated it very much- they requested everything from broccoli cheese soup to pav bhaji, rajma and I forget what else.

Certainly the most painless way to stock the freezer with prepared meals is to double recipes on a regular basis (when you're cooking something anyway) and freeze away one half for another time- cook once, eat twice. I should try and do more of that.

Do you rely on the freezer for quick meals? What are your favorite freezer-friendly recipes?