Monday, April 23, 2012

And Baby Makes Three: Assembling a Food Hamper for the New Family

I’ve been inspired by the spate of babies due this Spring. Primarily it is the crafty part of me that has been at work, learning new patterns for baby blankets and designing some very cute felt and fleece monsters. While I was clearly on track to finish the latest blanket and have a coterie of homemade stuffed monsters for the two due in May, Mother Nature clearly had other plans. Friday the first of the babies arrived, almost four weeks early, and the blanket intended for the wee one is just not ready yet. In fact, it probably won’t be done until the original due date of May 17th. But I still found a way to celebrate the blessed event by providing a food hamper for the new parents, friends of Butcher Son.

Upon hearing the news that the mother-to-be was in labor, my mind raced. Knowing I could not knit fast enough to finish the blanket, I went into full-on chef mode. I sketched out meals, and on Saturday went shopping. Starting Saturday night and working all Sunday morning, I was able to cook several meals for the happy little family, and pack them up in a hamper to be delivered. One thing new parents don’t need to worry about is trips to the grocery store or standing in front of a stove. And who wants to eat microwaved food or take-out every meal? There’s nothing like a home-cooked meal, filled with love and goodness to keep up the energy a new baby requires.

The weather here is vacillating between hot and cold, so I made sure the meals could accommodate both. There is banana bread and yogurt parfaits for breakfast, some quinoa salad for lunch, a creamy French lentil soup and Rocky Mountain brisket and pasta salad for dinner. I also baked a batch of triple ginger cookies and boxed up some of my super tasty bacon caramels for a sweet treat. I also threw in a dog chew for the puppy, so he is not left out, as well as a mini-bottle of champagne for mom and a bottle of Jameson for dad (in honor of the new baby’s name). And peeking out amongst it all are three of my new best friends, soft stuffed monster mates.

I utilized canning jars for much of the food, as the quart jars contain enough for two. I labeled everything, not so much to be cute, but more in the interest of allowing them to avoid anything they may be allergic or sensitive to. The food itself is pretty healthy, with grains, vegetables, and fruit predominant. The parfaits are made from Greek yogurt and fresh berries, providing protein, calcium, vitamins and antioxidants. The banana bread provides some B6 and potassium (not to mention tasty mini chocolate chips!).

Quinoa, an ancient grain that is hitting mainstream markets, is high in fiber, has about 15% protein, and 9 essential amino acids. Paired with a healthy serving of avocado, I add in ponzu, sesame oil and a dab of sriracha, making it a tasty main or side dish. The pasta salad, made with whole wheat pasta, has carrots, celery, zucchini and olives, along with a balsamic dressing, meaning fiber and vitamins packed into that jar. The base of the soup is lentils, which are high in protein and iron. It also contains onion, garlic, carrot, celery, tomatoes, all good vegetables, plus a dose of cream (some good fats are required to help mom with milk production).

The Rocky Mountain Brisket is a lean cut of beef, slow cooked in the oven, sliced and topped with my homemade barbeque sauce. I really made this dish for dad—hearty and flavorful. And who doesn’t like a BBQ beef sandwich?

The triple ginger cookies contain three kinds of ginger, good for settling stomachs and quelling a sweet tooth. Made with molasses, raw ginger, ginger powder and crystallized ginger, these soft rounds are a family favorite and pack easily without breaking. The bacon caramels were made a few days before, with the fat from our home-cured bacon. They have garnered rave reviews from everyone who has tried them and they deserve to be shared with everyone, especially new parents.

The Brady Bunch sends the hamper with heartfelt congratulations to Meghan, Chris, and their new son Jameson.

(NOTE: The cute little stuffed monsters will be featured on Crafting Suburbia in an upcoming post)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Party Planning: Untraditional Wedding

So Brilliant Daughter has friends who underwent an amalgamation (euphemism for wedding) last weekend. In a very non-traditional gathering, family came to town for what was ostensibly an engagement party. They holed up at the gorgeous CordeValle Country Club in San Martin, and the blended families spent two days enjoying a slew of events. From a hands-on dinner party with a local chef to a morning sojourn to Point Lobos, the beautiful couple capped off their time together with what they called a “ceremonial amalgamation.”

Because the wedding was to be a surprise for their families, and due to work constraints, Brilliant Daughter and I pitched in to help make the weekend less stressful, by preparing food and the welcome packet. (See this post on Crafting Suburbia for the printed welcome packets.)

Saturday, the official amalgamation day, started off with a drive to Point Lobos on the California Coast. There was a hike in to a knoll at Whaler’s Cove, where all enjoyed a picnic lunch—which is where we came in. Given that there are 18 people, and we needed to keep things to 3 backpacks, we tried to think creatively. We packaged bags of trail mix for the walk itself, and Parisian walking sandwiches, gazpacho, and mini fruit crisps baked into 4-ounce canning jars and topped with an oatmeal mixture.

Once the families returned to CordeValle, and after a brief respite, they made their way up a short trail to a yoga deck overlooking the foothills and the golf course; a beautiful outdoor setting that seemed perfect for this active couple. Amongst loved ones, and with the help of a minister-friend, they officially joined their families with personalized vows and a kiss to seal the deal.

Upon returning to their luxurious fairway homes, they celebrated with champagne and chocolate truffles. (In lieu of a traditional wedding cake, we made champagne truffles, boxed up in pairs of two, and wrapped in special Just Married bands, found at the most adorable store in the Cedros Avenue Design District in Solano Beach.)

To get ready for the event, the last week has been spent in the kitchen preparing all the yummy goods. I started on Tuesday, mixing and packaging the trail mix. Eighteen clear bags, tied with twine and a personalized label. Walnuts, sunflower seeds, cashews, coconut and dried fruit should sustain the families during their hike.

Wednesday I made the batch of dark chocolate champagne truffles, which are rolled in cocoa powder, nestled into purple paper cups and placed side by side into ballotins. A purple ribbon overlaid with the Just Married bands (originally intended to make a daisy chain) enclosed the sweet treats and keep them safe. 

I also decided to provide a bonus treat for arrival day. Using my nanny’s shortbread recipe, I zested and juiced two of my Meyer lemons to add in, and rolled the dough out. Cut into various sized heart shapes, some with a cushion design, they are simple and tasty—perfect for a cup of tea, a cappuccino from the couples’ famed “Miss Sylvia,” or even a glass of wine.

Thursday was spent making gazpacho. This is a fresh and lively soup, full of multiple types of vegetables and healthy ingredients, and makes a great picnic item. We had originally intended for the gazpacho to be put in 8-ounce canning jars, but felt that 18 canning jars in a backpack was an accident waiting to happen. Instead, we poured the soup into a large-mouth plastic container with screw top, and provided plastic cups. Lighter in weight and less bulky.

Friday morning was the last push. Bringing home fresh baguettes from our favorite bakery, Pamplamousse, I assembled Parisian walking sandwiches. Fresh mozzarella and pesto (some with prosciutto, some with homemade sundried tomatoes) and dry coppa with Emmenthaler. Bound in parchment, we slipped them into plastic sleeves, twisted the top close and sealed with twine and label. 

The fruit crisps also got made. Pear/blueberry (with a touch of crystallized ginger) and apple/dried cranberry, topped with a cinnamon-cardamom infused oatmeal mixture and cooked in 4-ounce canning jars, which were sealed and got the same twine/label treatment.

Both Brilliant Daughter and I were honored and grateful that we could help make this special family weekend a little easier on our friends. It gave me a chance to keep busy, test some new recipes, and let the creative juices flow a little bit. We wish them nothing but the best in life and love.

Recipes on Page 2

Saturday, April 14, 2012

5-Minute Artisan Bread

I don’t eat bread on a regular basis, and in fact I may only eat sliced bread (or bagels or English muffins, for that matter) once every two weeks. The only exception is a good hearty wheat bread or an artisan loaf that has some heft and flavor to it. Being from the Bay Area, sourdough is a longtime favorite, but we have also been fortunate to have some very creative bakers in the region that put out flavorful artisan breads, with a good crust and crumb. I am often tempted to eat a loaf by myself, which is saying a lot.

The best bread is that which comes right out of the oven—warm and fragrant and flavorful, without need for butter or other accompaniments. For over 30 years I have attempted to make my own breads, something my Granny did on a regular basis. In fact, once she bought me a bread machine thinking that would help me along, but I quickly found the device useless, and the shape less than optimal. Given limited storage space, it didn’t last long in my household.

I’ve even invested money in cookbooks to further my cause: most recently Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day. But I have yet to fully embrace a recipe that I want to make weekly. Until now…..

I have never, and I mean NEVER, encountered a recipe that I like so much for a bread. It combines all the requirements of a suburban cook: very little time, very few ingredients, and a delicious product.

The process is super simple and requires NO KNEADING. In fact, it really only takes 5 minutes of active hands-on time. Truly…..

In a nutshell, you mix your 4 ingredients for a minute or two, leave them in the bowl overnight, heat up a pan, throw it in, and Voila!, 45 minutes later you have a crusty artisan bread, reminiscent of the $4 loaves you find in the market.

Although the timing and the taste are the most significant attributes of this recipe, there is an added bonus. It lends itself to a variety of flavors. Want a raisin-walnut-cinnamon bread for breakfast? No problem. Herb bread for that pot of minestrone? Can do. A cheesy-sundried tomato bread to accompany pasta? Easy peasy.

Other than the 4 ingredients, the only other thing you truly need is a cast iron enameled pan. I have one cheap version from Home Goods ($29.95) and one fancy Le Crueset ($199). Because I double the recipe—every time—I use both. And they work equally well. The shape of the pan doesn’t matter—it can be a round pan or an oval one. (Skillets are too shallow, however.) I’m thinking that a plain cast iron Dutch oven might also work as well, although I do not have one to experiment with.

So, go ahead and give it a try. Don’t be intimidated. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.

5-Minute Artisan Loaf

3 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon yeast
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, salt and yeast.  Add water and mix with a wooden spoon until a shaggy mixture forms.  Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set aside for 12 to 18 hours.  (I usually start this after dinner or before bedtime to make the next day.)

Heat oven to 450 degrees.  When the oven has reached 450 degrees place a cast iron pot with a lid in the oven and heat the pot for 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, pour dough onto a heavily floured surface and shape into a ball.  Cover with plastic wrap and let set while the pot is heating. 

Remove hot pot from the oven and drop in the dough. Cover and return to the oven for 30 minutes.  Remove the lid and bake an additional 15 minutes.  Take bread from the oven and place on a cooling rack to cool.

Flavoring Suggestions:
Raisin-walnut-cinnamon, rosemary-lemon-Gruyere, lemon zest-thyme-Asiago, mixed fresh herbs (your choice), sun-dried tomato with shredded mozzerella, pesto….the combinations are limitless.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

My New Favorite Frosting: Lemon Meringue

I am constantly searching for new frosting recipes for my cupcakes. Brilliant Daughter hates any frosting with cream cheese, and buttercream is fine but tends to be too sweet. I have a wonderful chocolate frosting recipe that Brilliant Daughter makes and is perfect and creamy, but is just too much for Easter cupcakes, so I went a-hunting. And what I found is remarkable: light, airy, not too sweet, and with considerably less sugar than any frosting, ever!

This lemon meringue frosting takes about 10 minutes to make, which is more than a traditional frosting, but once you taste its lemony goodness, you won’t complain one bit, and if you have a freestanding mixer, most of the work is done by the machine. This recipe garnered rave reviews from Butcher Son’s fellow butchers, as well as Brilliant Daughter, Mr. B, and the neighborhood kids—who happened to stop by and eyed them lasciviously.

While the recipe calls for raw egg whites, the process for preparation should eliminate any concern over salmonella. The egg whites are heated thoroughly with the sugar for several minutes, and according to the American Egg Board, “Although it is possible for Salmonella to be in both the white and the yolk of the egg, the white does not readily support bacterial growth.” So between using only the whites and the cooking, any fears should be allayed.

This tasty recipe yields enough frosting for 15 regular cupcakes and 24 mini cupcakes. This should translate to 24 regular-sized cupcakes, unless you want to really mound up the frosting, in which case, you may only be able to frost 18.

Lemon Meringue Frosting

4 large egg whites, preferably at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch fine salt
Food coloring (if desired)

Bring a few inches of water to a boil in a double boiler. Whisk the egg whites with the remaining ingredients (except food coloring). Set the bowl over the boiling water and whisk continuously until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is hot, approximately 2 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment  (or hand bowl for hand mixer) and beat at medium-high speed until the frosting holds a soft peak and has cooled, which takes about 5 minutes. At this point you can add in food coloring (I used 4 drops of yellow to yield a very light pastel shade).

Continue beating on medium-high until stiff peaks form.

This frosting lends itself well to piping, but also holds shape, so using a spoon or spatula with also work to make either a smooth topping or a more traditional meringue topping with swoops and swirls.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Spring Garden Planting: A Time for Reflection

I spent part of sunny Saturday out in our garden, pulling weeds and planting seeds and seedlings in our large raised vegetable beds. The time I spend there, working the soil and bringing things to life will forever remind me of my mother’s illness and death last year. Because it was during that time that Butcher Son took over my vision for our backyard renovations and provided a bright spot in what was a very dark time. 

During the months that I was mired in my mother’s medical crisis, my whole family showed great strength and support. They took my phone calls at all hours of the day and night, often patiently listening through my tears. They put up with my long absences, my vacant stares, and tried to follow along as I explained, in often confusing medical terms, everything that was going on. 

Much like the household chores that went undone, my plans for the back garden got put on hold. Of course, they were grand plans that would take months to execute. I wanted to remove the entire lawn and make the backyard our own little suburban farm. The project, as I envisioned it, would require renovation of about 60 percent of the yard, leaving only the outer perimeter plants and trees. 

To my amazement and surprise, just like Brilliant Daughter took over the kitchen and handled feeding the family, Butcher Son stepped in and made my vision a reality. He rallied the troops and rented a sod cutter and took out the whole back lawn. Then he rented a stump grinder and got rid of a huge unsightly tree stump and much of its oversized roots. He took out old bushes and shrubs, and made what seemed like a million dump runs. After rototilling and amending the soil, he provided me with a blank slate to work from.

I provided him with my design and he found the person to do it, securing prices, setting appointments and supervising the build. For two days, his friend Refugio came and measured, sawed, bolted and capped. He placed paper around the inner sides and stapled in chicken wire to keep the critters from burrowing up.

Once the gorgeous raised beds were built and I ordered the 12 yards of soil, he almost single-handedly (with a wee bit of help from Mr. B and I, and his trusty sidekick Lauren) trucked all that dirt into the back yard, one large garbage bin at a time. For hours he labored filling the cans, trucking them back, dumping them and then starting all over again.

Needless to say when all was said and I done I was in tears. It was such a labor of love, designed to provide me with a happy place. Our garden last year was a bit sparse and some things never really took off. Part of that was the lack of time we could devote to it, part of it was me learning what would grown in the more shaded beds.

This year I am trying to plant more carefully, more intensively. Although it won’t be a square-foot garden, and I am still a bit hesitant to cram too much in, I think we will have some good crops and be able to do some canning.

Tomorrow, Butcher Son will rent a rototiller and turn the soil in the part of the garden that is not raised, where we plant tomatillos, tomatoes and peppers. I’ll have four kinds of tomatoes going in this year: San Marzano, Roma, Tomande (an heirloom plant), and Big Mama, which is a variety of paste tomato, plus 3 tomatillo plants. And this year I am confining the peppers to jalapeno and poblano. Also planted this year are:
  • Snap peas
  • Jewel-toned beets
  • Purple pole and rattlesnake beans
  • Kale
  • Zucchini
  • Lemon cucumber
  • Japanese eggplant
  • Lettuce (Rouge and Farmer’s Market blend)
  • Basil
  • Parsely
  • Cilantro
  • Dill
  • Oregano
  • Tarragon
  • Chives, rosemary and thyme planted last year
I’ve got a bit of room left, so I am hunting around for just the right thing. Any suggestions?

Last Year's Garden: