Archive | April, 2011

And the baton is passed to the next generation..

19 Apr

Well, it happened.   I didn’t think it would.  Believe me, I spent years waiting for it.  Expected it even.  Then it started to dawn on me that my children were just too perfect (becuase of my flawless mothering skills, no doubt) to go down that path.  Yes, my children had great manners, I told myself.  They are so good to eachother.  My boys would never pull the stuff on my daughter that my brothers pulled on me.  They didn’t really pick on eachother.  Sure there were minor spats, but overall, my children were perfect angels.   Yes, that was the road that I was going down.  Believing this about my kids.  And more importantly (insert some smug self praising here) believing it about my parenting.  Wow, I was lucky!  But that bliss was shot down.  My bubble popped.  Those kids, my angels, set me straight in one fell swoop.  One family dinner changed it all.

I am the youngest of  5 children and grew up in the midwest.  Summers were spent at the pool by day, and playing kick-the-can by night.  Parents stood in the street and socialized while the children scattered and played.  The neighborhood was alive with barefoot children running, hiding, screaming in delight.  The family unit, other than summer family vacations, didn’t run into each other much.  Summer was about friends, being outside, and running free.  It was glorious.  Winters, however, were another story.

Winters in the midwest can be brutal.  Sure we could ice skate, sled, and take peaceful night time walks in the fresh snow.  But then came the steel grey sky, the biting cold.  The days and days in a row, because of the weather, of being stuck inside.  Together.  Kids.  Bored kids.  Playing cards and Monopoly started off fun in December, then Janurary… but later in the winter, the games incited more arguments than good clean fun.  Then a different kind of games began.  The slightly naughty ones.  Hijinx.  And being the youngest member of the family made me a perfect target.

One night as my sister and I were in bed, lights out, chatting away, little did we know our brothers were planning a good belly laugh for themselves at our expense.  One brother slid out into the dark hallway, tied string onto our doorknob, and ever so slowly pushed our bedroom door open.  He silently slid back into his bedroom, to many snickers from the other boys no doubt!  Then the boys, I will never know which one as some of these secrets will go to the grave, slowly pulled the string, causing our bedroom door to slowly close.  Scared the wits out of us!  Well those blood curdling screams from my sister and I are the stuff legends are made of.  My brothers can’t help but still get a good laugh when relaying this story today.  It is a family legend that continues to be proudly passed down from my brothers.  But that wasn’t all.

One of my brothers had a particular talent for passing gas.  All sorts.  You wanted a good solid belch?  He was your man.  A loud phony flapping armpit “fart”?  We knew who to go to.  A real fart with major hang time?  Yup, my brother could exceed all expectations.  And he could detect parental units with unreal accuracy, allowing him to, uumm, unleash his talents with mom and dad always out of earshot.  And again, being the youngest, I was the most logical and available target.  My brother would oh so sweetly ask for assistance with something that needed immediate attention.  Something on his back.  It was tiny, didn’t I see it?…so I had to get real close.  Then bam!!  His airbiscuit would barrel out of his backside!  There was no escaping the offense, and no mistaking the delight he felt as evidenced by his deep loud peals of laughter at my disgusted reaction.  Years later, a mother of 3 myself, I realized with great satisfaction that my own children were above such hijinx.  Or so I thought.

Tonight was a warm evening.  I grilled dinner while chatting with my children.  I love our family dinners.  They mean everything to me.  It is a chance to talk to all of my children, catch up on the day, hear about whats going on with friends.  A great way to connect and spend time with my 3 angels.  My perfect children that treat eachother with love and respect.  Tonight was no exception…at first.  Then it happened.  My daughter relayed a story of something that happened earlier today.   Her older brother approached her.  He has something on his back.  Get close, he said, is it a bug bite?  A pimple?  She got close, really close, to help her brother out.  Then she got blasted.  Yup!  She got leveled unexpectedly by a huge honkin airbiscuit with major hang time.  As she told the story at dinner and her brother belly laughed uncontrollably, I had major deja vu!  Holy cow!  Really?

Ok, so I had to laugh too.  And I also marveled at the irony of this happening in another generation of my family.  My perfect angels were apparently not above yanking eachothers chain.  And you know what?  I am thrilled to hear it!  The baton is passed to the next generation…

Side Dish Dilema

18 Apr

Red, yellow, and orange baby bell peppers

When preparing a meal, it is usually pretty easy to come up with a protein to serve.  Fish, steak, chicken, tofu.  All are great choices.  And coming up with a complimentary carbohydrate is usually easy as well, because as we all know, in this country we love our carbs!  Standing in the “side dish” aisle in the grocery offers many choices that are easy to prepare.  There are savory rice dishes, creamy pasta choices, and wonderful bakery breads to choose from.  But what about the “other” side dish?  Creating the vegetable side dish can be a little more challenging.

Sure opening a can of green beans or corn is super easy and quick.  I grew up in the midwest and in the winter that was all there was.  Oh, and peas every now again.  Baby green peas if you please.  That was about it!  Canned green beans do not exactly excite or inspire a meal.  But then again, back then the produce section of the local grocer did not look like it does now.  Nor were farmers markets as popular as they are now.  Thank goodness for that!  Inspiration here we come!

I love going to a local farmers market.   Try it.  Mosey on through.  Chat with the farmers.  Look at what others are selecting.  Ask for preparation ideas. In my part of the country, farmers markets are seasonal.  The rest of the year the produce section of the grocery store works just fine. In the grocery store, peek into other grocery carts.  Coming up with a wonderful fresh vegetable dish can be challenging, but inspiration for an exciting dinner choice abound if you just get a little nosey!  I have stopped people to ask what they are planning to do with a particular vegetable or ingredient.  Let me just say that his pays off!

I was in my local warehouse grocer and went into the “produce room”.  Its like a huge walk in fridge, so as much as I like to take my time looking at produce, I do not like being cold.  So I get in and outta there quickly.  I spotted a bag of mixed baby yellow, orange and red bell peppers.  They were pretty, so I grabbed a bag and ran.  When I was safely out of the refrigerated section, I noticed a teenaged girl and her mother had made the same choice with the peppers (I am nosey in all grocery stores!).  I asked them what they were planning on doing with the peppers.  The girl said that she was going to make a big beautiful salad and toss the peppers in it.  Yum!  The mom said that she liked to cut the baby bell peppers thin and layer them on sandwiches.  Double yum!  I was tucking that away in my brain to try sometime.  But I wanted to prepare them and serve them warm.  So I kept looking and being nosey.  Then inspiration hit!

I had gone from the produce section of the warehouse store to the freezer section.  I was looking at the bags of frozen vegetables, and noticed a bag of frozen roasted asparagus.  It hit me!  Roast the peppers!   I got excited thinking about it as I finished my shopping.  Being the dorky foodie that I am, I started planning and timing the meal out in my head.  Timing a meal to have everything done at the same time is challenging and takes planning.  But I was on it.

Dinner started with my washing and cutting the peppers up to roast.  I cut them into large pieces.  I put them in a roasting pan.  It was beautiful, those red, orange and yellow bell peppers in a white roasting dish.  The colors were pretty and very appetizing.  The oven was preheating at 400 degrees as I cut the peppers up.  After the peppers were cut, I drizzled them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  Then I sprinkled them with salt and pepper.  Into the oven they went for 30 minutes.  Easy peasy!  While that was cooking I got the rest of meal ready.  I seared scollops and pulled out some pesto pasta that I had made earlier in the day.  Dinner is served!

It isn’t really any more difficult to make a lovely fresh vegetable side dish.  Vegetables can be easily roasted, and they are so sweet when prepared this way.  In the winter, I roast carrots, potatoes and onions.  In the summer it is  fresh peppers, squash, and  tomatoes.  They can go into the oven with various seasonings, but I like simplicity.  I usually just use olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.  Sometimes I also sprinkle summer roasted vegetables with basil to add a twist, and fresh basil in the summer is amazing and versatile.  This is a jumping off point.  Start being nosey, spend more time in the produce section, and let the inspiration come!

Please pass the salt and pepper!

13 Apr

I am fortunate enough to work with a very talented chef.  I shamelessly pick his brain more often than I have a right to, but I do it anyway!  I will get a culinary idea stuck in my brain, then make a bee line for him to discuss it… poor guy!  When he is cooking, I put my schnozz right into the beautiful scents that his amazing creations emit.  And start with 20 questions.

What cut of meat is that?  Did you marinate it?  What seasonings are you using?  He has the patience of Job, and he is a foodie too, so he gives me the food 411.  But he has one basic premise that he does not waver from:  always salt your meat.  I have heard so many different theories of when, during the cooking process, to salt meat.  And I believe that every chef has their own twist on this.  Perhaps every home cooks should develop one too.  But whatever your twist is, just salt your meat!

What is salt?  Chemically speaking, it is a combination of sodium and chloride.  Like a magnet, it has a positive charge and a negative charge, so it is attracted to its counterpart.  And it is a perfect combination.  It is a naturally occurring mineral and has been around for centuries.  Food is better because of it and our body depends on it. Salt comes in many forms.

Kosher salt, sea salt, table salt, iodized salt, the list goes on and on.  It is used to season just about everything that we cook.  It is a seasoning as well as a condiment.  Salt has different size crystals thus has different uses when being used in cooking.  It is fun to try different types of salt and find a favorite.  At any given time, I have at least 3 different kinds of salt with different size crystals in my cupboard.   It is soluble in water so it dissolves beautifully while lending its subtle (if used correctly) tones to add  flavor to food.  It is also symbolic.

We can go all the way back to biblical times to begin seeing the symbolism of salt with phrases still around today, such as describing someone as “salt of the earth”.  Salt is thought to be healing and symbolic of wisdom.  It was also used in ancient times as a form of currency, thus was symbolic wealth.  It is a preservative, so it has also symbolized life.  And it is known universally around the world. So why has it gotten a bad rap at times?

Salt can be hidden in most processed foods, which is why is has become a bit of a taboo for some these days.  It can jack up the sodium in our body when we eat foods that contain hidden sodium.  Too much sodium in our diet can cause hypertension, and that can be a life threatening condition.  Hypertension means that our  blood pressure increases, and we don’t want that to be artificially inflated!  Like anything, too much of a good thing can turn into a bad thing if moderation is not practiced.  It is important to really look at food labels and watch the salt intake.  Best to try to keep salt in its natural form in our diet and keep processed food to a minimum.

Salt is good to cook with and on our food in moderation, and can be found on most kitchen tables.  It is rarely alone though, as the pepper shaker, or in my case pepper grinder, usually stands loyally by its side.  There is a reason that pepper always accompanies our salt shaker on the table.  It is a classic combination.  Go ahead and toss pepper on with your salt.  Better yet, use pepper with a little more wreckless abandon than salt.  When pulling out a great piece of meat, whether it is going in the oven or onto the grill, grab the shakers too!  Before that meat hits the heat, remember to not only salt, but pepper your meat.  Pepper comes in loads of fun forms too, so experiment and have fun with it.

In the grocery store, spend a little more time in the spice aisle to peruse the salts and peppers.  Keep your spices and seasonings fresh by replacing them often and using them regularly in your kitchen.  Get a little snobby with your choices.  Have fun.  And if the snob factor does kick in when picking your pepper, remember the words of satirist Andy Rooney  “When those waiters ask me if I want some fresh ground pepper, I ask if they have any aged pepper”.  Have fun cooking, and remember to salt (and pepper!) your meat!


Color and Texture Extravaganza!

10 Apr

Color and Texture Galore!

Just look at the colors and textures of this meal!  Aren’t they wonderful?  Meals begin with a vision and perhaps a “craving” for a certain taste or texture.  Then comes the decision about cooking at home or going out.  Next comes the amazing aroma’s and the feast for they eyes!  Dive in!

I love  food.  I have tried cooking all sorts of ethnic food, but not with 100% success.  So I took some cooking classes.  Having limited exposure to Asian food in my midwestern upbringing, I was not familiar with all of the flavors, spices and proteins of Asian food.  But I have always loved to cook, so I decided to stretch my culinary muscles by taking an Asian cooking class.

Asian fare is a big departure for me to try to prepare at home.  I grew up with my sole experience in asian cuisine being from a suburban Chicago eatery, Chins Chop Suey.  Sure I ventured out in Chins menu selections…sometimes I had Beef Chow Mein and sometimes I had Chicken Chow Mein. Yes, I was living on the edge with my variety!   But let me say that I just loved Chins.  When mom pulled out the Chins menu (did we really need to look at it every time we ordered from Chins?  What a crack up!) we knew we were in for a huge treat!  So clearly I am no culinary expert when it comes to asian food and cooking techniques.  Even now, despite my Asian cooking class, I still can’t really do it.  I know my limitations, so when I am craving Asian food, I go out!

Can you blame me?  First, I take full advantage of 1/2 price sushi night at my favorite Asian hangout.  Second, we all need to treat ourselves to having someone take care of us for a change.  And third, someone else does the dishes!  There is no downside in heading out for good asian food.  The textures and flavors of asian food are unlike what I usually have at home.  I mean, did you see that picture at the top of the blog?  YUM!

What is really great about all food, though, is the variety of colors and textures to play with.  I always try to consider that regardless of what type of food I am ordering or preparing.  Who wants a plate of a baked chicken breast, rice, and cauliflower put in front of them?  BORING!  Texture and color come into play when preparing food every bit as much as taste in my opinion.  It makes the food more appealing, more interesting, and overall more enjoyable.  So if I am preparing seared blackened scollops, for example, I want to juxtapose the crusty seared fish with something soft.  I would probably go along the lines of some savory sweet potatoes.  I might finish with a good pop of color, like some fresh blanched haricots vert (french green beans).  Texture is one of the reasons good crusty peasant bread accompanies soft pasta so well.  So let the artist in you bloom.  Let the variety of colors and textures inspire your next meal!

Calzone madness

6 Apr

So I was chatting with a friend, and being a foodie, the topic turned to food.  My friend mentioned that his daughter made calzones for dinner, and that they were darn good.  Well that seed sure took root, and a few days later, I knew that even though I have never attempted this dish, I was going to jump in and try it.   After all, I gotta showcase my culinary talents for my teenagers in common ways, and not always show off my sheesheefoofoolala side!  But when you are getting ready to steal…eeerrrr, I mean borrow someone’s dinner idea, where does one start?

I began my calzone journey by grilling my friend for information.  How was their calzone cooked?  What was it filled with?  How did it taste?  Then I headed to the internet to not only look at recipes, but to look at pictures of calzones.  After all, you want to know what the dang thing is supposed to look like, don’t you?  I learned  quite a bit from this research.  I also took a peek into some of my cookbooks.  Being a foodie, I have loads of cookbooks and love any excuse to sit on the couch with a glass of wine to do “research” by paging through some of my wonderful cookbooks.  I was looking for not only calzones, but for inspiration of other combined Italian flavors.  I wanted to knock this one out of the ball park!

I looked at dough recipes, italian cheese combinations, sauces, and assembling procedures for pastries.   I also looked at recipes for other Italian dishes.  I tried to get my head into this dish!  After looking at a bunch of calzone recipes, I then proceeded to do what I always do.  Take a recipe and change it!  When cooking, which procedurally is almost opposite of baking, a recipe can be tinkered with.  This is how I make my recipes unique and all mine.  A recipe is simply a jumping off point.  A canvas.  Somewhere for creativity to make that first brush stroke.  Then the fun begins!

I had picked up my basic ingredients and fresh vegetables ahead of time for my big calzone experiment.  I decided to take a bit of a shortcut with my calzone  and I used store bought dough.  There are a couple of stores in my area that have fresh dough in the deli section, and I had picked some up along with my other ingredients.  Then it was off to the races.  I took ricotta cheese, and threw in some shredded parmesan and mozzarella cheese as well.  I added salt, pepper, and some basil and parsley.  Some of the recipes I looked at included a beaten egg, so I tossed that in too.  Then I got my vegetables ready to use with my cheese filling, much like pizza toppings.  It was time to roll!

I had mushrooms and bell peppers.  (I had roasted to bell peppers prior to assembling my calzones, and cut them into strips).  I rolled out my dough, then added the cheese mixture and mushrooms.  I made a second one, and added roasted pepper strips to my cheese.  The creativity was burning, and I was in a happy calzone frenzy.  I folded the dough over, crimped the edges, and gave them a fancy fork tine border.  I decided to add an egg wash to make the calzones shiny and pretty.  Then into the oven they went.  And we waited…

Success!  The calzones were delish!  Since I always try to make sauces in bulk, I had pulled some of my famous marinara sauce out of the freezer, warmed it up, and we dipped away!    Much to my surprise, when I began looking at recipes, I learned that calzones don’t have sauce in them.  The marinara sauce is for dipping, and I must say, that was a whole lot more fun!  My children loved them.   Will I make them again?  You bet…because we all want to be rock stars to our children, and one way to get there is with good food!  PS- look for my Calzone recipe on my recipe page!

Clear the Air!

6 Apr

Yes…Clear the air.  Not clear the room (please see previous post on passing gas…).  Clearing the air and cleaning out the lungs with some good deep breaths is wonderful!  Theraputic!  Necessary!

Today I took a walk, a very long walk, with my teenage daughter.  We walked, breathed deep , and enjoyed the spring (and very windy!) afternoon.  Walking with a teenager is a very different experience than any other type of walking.  A weight can be lifted, deep breaths can be enjoyed, and problems can be solved.  It is pure delight!

Movement and activity is very important to wellness.  As often as I silently curse my trips up and down the stairs in my home, the walk across the parking lot to my building, the aisles of the grocery store, all of that activity adds up.  And that is a good thing!  But no matter how much I have moved, walked, and traipsed from place to place, when my daughter wants to go on a walk or a run, I am all in!

Teenagers are breed all their own!  Which is great.  I love it.  I am someone that does not like labels, especially with children.  I felt that my children never hit the “terrible two’s, and although teenage years present challenges, I love every stage of motherhood!  The definition of a teenager may be something like “a person between the age of 13 and 18”. I think a more accurate definition would be “someone who can pick out the voice of a friend from three blocks away, but can’t hear his mother calling from the next room”.  No labels, but their quirks are fun, even when they are temporarily deaf!  But I digress…

Walking with my daughter today, as we do most everyday, is like a good therapy session.  We walk, we talk, and we can really share in an easy environment.  Teenagers have lots of drama and pressing issues, and walking is a wonderful way to learn about a teenagers comings and goings!  And it is a good chance for a teenager to learn about the ins and outs of parenting and family challenges.  It is a great time to clear the air.  Discuss problems.  Role play with potential situations.  And just chat.

Walking feels good.  There are times for really solid activity, a good workout session.  And there are times for a “pep step” walk.  It feels good to put your shoulders back, breath deep, and put one foot in front of the other.  Walking with a partner is pleasant.  It is a good mental release.  Walking and talking takes a load off and can really contribute to wellness.  And if it is with a teenager, even better!  Keeping connected with your children is imperative, and taking a walk is a way to accomplish that.  So put your shoulders back, fill up your lungs with some good fresh air, open your ears to listen to your teenager, and clear the air!