Thursday, December 31, 2015

Brushing up

I've been brushing up an old skill lately--namely contorting my body into the physical position that allows me to knit and read at the same time. The first few times I tried recently to revive this skill my right hand fell asleep. Then I encountered a new challenge as the 55 lb dog climbed in my lap (she's a heat seeking missile) and complicated things. I had to try and prop the book on her head and not poke her with a needle. But I finally got the hang of it and so was able to finish a sweater and read a really good YA novel. And the dog got a lot of loving.

You'd think that my knitting would have picked up because of the lovely new yarn shop that opened in town (and where I occasionally work). Spun has beautiful yarns and is an inspiring place to spend some time and satisfy the fiber cravings. But Fiona requested that I knit her this sweater in mid-November and Spun didn't open until December 1st.

Owls by Kate Davies knit in Lion Brand Chunky Wool-Ease in Silver Gray. 
And look--the pre-teen is smiling! That's pretty notable these days...

The significance of her asking me to knit for her cannot be understated since she has pretty much refused my offers of knitwear for the past few years (though she will occasionally still wear the fish hats that I made.) I didn't want her to change her mind so I rushed out and bought yarn at the big box craft store and cranked this baby out in washable acrylic/wool mix. (If I'd been a bit more patient and waited for Spun to open, I probably would have still bought an acrylic mix--like the affordable and soft Berroco Comfort Chunky that Spun carries--because my kids are crap at taking care of their clothes and I fully expect to find this sweater crushed in a corner under Fiona's premium fibers for them until they learn that a sweater is not a dust rag.) The pattern was easy and speedy and fun to knit. There are only two tiny seams to sew up at the end, but there are 36 (damn) buttons to sew on for the owl's eyes.

And the book I read while knitting the end of the sweater is this one:

I loved Patrick Ness's previous books, particularly The Knife of Never Letting Go, and loved this one, too. The Rest of Us Just Live Here has a clever concept that, with a different author, could have been irritating. The beginning of each chapter has a brief summary of a parallel tale--one that will be familiar to YA readers (particular fun is poked at Twilight with numerous references to vampires, but the same could be said for Harry Potter.) Pretty much any novel that has a "chosen one" aspect and some form of paranormal activity is referenced in these brief bursts. Then the rest of the chapter shifts to four (mostly) normal kids and what it is like to witness weird stuff happening but be more focused on real world problems like family dynamics, crushes, what comes after high school and particular mental challenges. The main character, Mikey, suffers from OCD and his struggles with it make for some really poignant writing which Ness manages to make more interesting that the weird blue light and enchanted deer that keep appearing in the background and that are the problems of the chosen ones (not our main characters.) The satire never dominates but is gentle and appreciative and eventually does end up intertwining with the paths of the four main characters. It was a really lovely read and one which I couldn't predict what would happen which was a welcome change from a lot of the recent YA fiction I've read.

And now I need to go do some yoga stretches to straighten out my posture before contorting again for the next yarn/book project!

Monday, November 16, 2015

This is what I'm bringing to Thanksgiving....

...because it isn't f***ing beige.

It also tastes great.  Crunchy, spicy, sweet and salty--it hits pretty much all of my happy tongue spots and is the antithesis of mashed potatoes, stuffing and turkey.  If you are a lover of Thanksgiving foods, then don't make this. Or at least, don't make it for Thanksgiving. If, like me, you dread the festival of beige, bland foods and yet have to do most of the cooking for it because you love people who love it, then do yourself a favor and slip this onto the sideboard. Most people will ignore it which is great because then there's MORE FOR YOU!

I plan to load my plate with this, the spicy cranberry relish that my sister introduced me to years ago that has kept me sane at every following Thanksgiving, and some roasted potatoes. This will also mean I will have plenty of room for apple pie (which is one beige food in the Thanksgiving spread of which I heartily approve).

Cabbage, feta, date salad
adapted from this recipe on Smitten Kitchen

  • 1/2 of a medium head of red cabbage, sliced thin on a mandoline if possible (or use a very sharp knife)
  • 1/2 C chopped Italian parsley
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 -3 T olive oil
  • 1 T pomegranate molasses
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 t sumac (can skip this if you don't have any, but it gives an extra sharp burst of flavor that complements the lemon)
  • 1 T of Aleppo Pepper flakes (use only 1 t or less of regular old crushed red peppers. Aleppo Pepper is milder and wonderfully addictive and you can order it online pretty easily these days.)
  • about a 1/2 C dates, sliced lengthwise into halves and then crosswise into thin half circles
  • about 1/2 C crumbled feta
  • 1 T toasted sesame seeds

In a large bowl, toss together the cabbage, parsley, lemon juice, olive oil, pomegranate molasses, sumac, salt and peppers. Taste for seasoning and adjust for how you like it. Then gently toss in the dates and feta and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Can be left at room temp to wilt a little or popped in the fridge if you like your cabbage crunchier.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Salmon, two ways

The big revelation this summer is that my kids will eat salmon. I had assumed that the two humans whose eating habits so frustrated me at one point in time that I started a (now dormant) blog about them called The Picky Eater Chronicles would reject salmon simply because they somehow intuited that kids don't like fish (believe me, that would have been one of their more rational reasons for rejecting a food).

And because I love fish but lack confidence when cooking fish--I often order it in restaurants, but have found my own attempts making fish lackluster--I just stuck with canned tuna and omega 3 fish oil pills to get some of that good fat into all of us.

But one day in June I was in Costco and I cast my eye longingly over the seafood case, trying to figure out when I'd be able to go out to some restaurant and order fish. The wild caught salmon in particular was so beautiful and orange and fresh looking. So finally, I just said, fuck it and chucked a tray in the cart. Of course, this being Costco, it was a big tray with two full long fillets, enough fish for 8-10 people depending on hunger and portion size.

When I got home, I was pretty motivated to figure out how to cook it since I had just spent $28 on food I wasn't sure anyone would eat.  I can't remember where I found the super basic technique, probably by googling "idiotically easy salmon recipe" or something like that, but I found something that has worked well beyond my wildest dreams and I now make over and over and over.

I take the filet, pat it dry with paper towels. Cut it into portions and sprinkle the non-skin side with salt and pepper. Then I heat up a ceramic non-stick pan* until it is pretty hot, put in a couple of teaspoons of neutral high smoke-point oil (like canola), and then slap in the salmon, skin side down.

Then, this is one of the best parts, I walk away and go do something else in the kitchen for about 3-5 minutes (depending on the thickness of the filet). Don't poke or nudge or bother that fish! After 3-5 minutes, the skin has crisped up and a spatula slides right under it. Flip it over and leave it alone again for 3-5 minutes.
On the cut side, you can see the center of the fish start to turn opaque and use that to decide how long you want to cook it. Put it on a plate and, hot diggity, your main protein source is cooked and ready in less than 10 minutes.

So what happened when I put this down in front of the kids? Not one bit of drama. I'm slowly learning to shut the hell up so I just placed it in front of them and when they asked what it was, I said, "Salmon." That's it. Nothing more--no explaining, no preface about how salmon is mild and since they like tuna I thought I'd try this, no begging them to just try a bite.  And then my husband did something truly wonderful: he pulled off the crispy skin, popped it in his mouth and said, "Yum. Tastes like chicken skin."

Those are magic words in my house. If not watched carefully, my daughter will strip a roast chicken (or for god's sake, once at Thanksgiving, half of a turkey) of the skin and munch on it like potato chips.

And now she does that with salmon skin, too (!!)

That first night I served the salmon plain, just a squeeze of lemon on the grown ups' portions, and it was so good. Since then I've been buying wild salmon pretty much every time I go to Costco, about once every two weeks, and we eat it two nights in a row. I've also gotten better at figuring out interesting stuff to put on top of it: the cucumber yogurt sauce that I usually serve with kibbeh, the miso/ginger dressing from the baby bok choi recipe, some defrosted garlic scape pesto, all were really good and took the salmon in different directions. And best of all, the saucy stuff can be left off of the kid portions and I don't have to cook theirs separately (they still only want it plain, plain plain plain plain, thank you very much.)

Here is what this weeks two salmon dinners looked like:

Last night the salmon was topped with lime juice and a little lime zest, served with a corn, red pepper, radish, cilantro, red onion salad (which could have easily gone on top like a salsa, except I made so much of it--hey, it's corn season--that it would have buried the salmon), and a few slices of baguette.

Tonight's dinner looked like this:
Salmon and sesame noodles topped with a riff on David Chang's Momfuku ginger scallion sauce (recipe below), served with a Korean spinach and bean sprout salad and a nice glass of chilled Provencal rose.

By contrast here is what the kid-version of dinner looked like:

Plain salmon, plain sesame noodles, plain spinach, a plain sliced ginger gold apple and plain milk. Detect a pattern here? Oh my god they are the most boring eaters on the planet.

I enjoyed both dinners and even more, I loved the fact that both were fast to make and I got to eat them with no sour expressions, no kvetching, and no people sitting next to me sullenly poking at their food until it had disintegrated into an unrecognizable mush.

Ginger Scallion Sauce
adapted from David Chang's and Peter Meehan's recipe 
My version is a bit saucier than the original and I cut the quantity of scallions and ginger in half since there are only two of us who eat it in this household. It still makes plenty and is great for adding to things like leftover rotisserie chicken or, as Chang recommends, a big bowl of cheapo ramen noodles.

1 and 1/4 C thin sliced scallions
1/4 C fine minced fresh ginger, peeled before chopping
2 t sherry vinegar
2 t hoisin sauce
2 t (or more) tamari 
1/2 t kosher salt
fresh ground black pepper

Mix everything together in a bowl and let sit for at least 20-30 minutes. Any left over can be refrigerated and kept for a few days.
*I love this thing. It's a T-fal ceramic non-stick that I got for about $20 at TJ Maxx and it works like a dream. The best thing for keeping it non-stick is to run a Mr Clean Magic Eraser over the surface after washing to get off any sticky oil blobs that resist scrubbing.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Winter break

I don't know about you, but I am heartily sick of roasted vegetables at this point in the winter. Roasted cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, parsnips, carrots, I could go on and on. I welcomed them when they first appeared in the autumn and happily consumed them with the roasted garlic, lemon juice and zest, black pepper and grated parmesan which works on just about any vegetable to make it taste great.

But I've had enough. Maybe it was the 14.1 inches of snow that fell a few weeks ago, or the heavy gray skies, or the stir crazy feeling of being inside too much because the windchill makes my face feel like it's going to fall off. It isn't fair to the roasted vegetables, but they are getting lumped in with everything wintery that I'm sick of (along with hot chocolate, hearty soup, fires in the fireplace, cozy wool sweaters and other things that were pleasant when they first appeared but have outlived their welcome.)

Rather than purchase disappointing tomatoes and other summer vegetables, I hit the Asian grocery store. Yesterday I picked up a massive bag of baby bok choi. They looked so alive and promising and like the antithesis of cauliflower.

But then I got home and realized I don't really have any recipes for baby bok choi. I usually chuck one or two into a bowl of udon, but I'd be eating udon every hour if I wanted to get through all these before they spoiled. (Besides udon is soup which, as I mentioned above, I'm pretty sick of.)  Also, to compound the challenge, Brian is out of town and my kids don't like bok choi (maybe because they've only been served it limp in udon...) so I needed a recipe that could use up a lot of it and that was tasty enough that I'd want to eat it all.

Happily I can report success! I found a recipe in Fine Cooking that consists of basic sautéed baby bok choi that gets interesting by being doused in a warm miso ginger vinaigrette. It is bright and zippy and crunchy and fresh and an excellent antidote to the frozen dingy piles of snow outside. For lunch today I ate 1/3 of the big bag of baby bok choi that I'd purchased and can easily see replicating this again in the coming days.  Did I mention that it was fast and easy? It is. Next time I'll probably put it on top of some brown rice and add a little cubed firm tofu in with the bok choi, but it was excellent on its own too.

Baby Bok Choi with Miso Ginger Dressing
(very loosely based on a recipe from Fine Cooking issue #127 because I didn't measure anything)

baby bok choi (as many as you want to eat)
some neutral oil
a clove of garlic
a small nob of ginger
miso (I used white but any kind will do)
a lime (if you have it)
rice vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
Sriracha or your favorite hot sauce
sesame oil

Cut the baby bok choi in half.
Chop up the garlic and ginger.

Get a big skillet or wok to saute the bok choi and a little skillet for the miso vinaigrette. Pour a little oil into each and turn on the heat. When hot, toss the bok choi in the big skillet and the ginger and garlic in the small one. After about a minute, turn the heat off under the small skillet and plop in a spoonful of miso and a glug of mirin. Use a whisk to blend the miso and mirin until there aren't any lumps of miso. Then add a little vinegar and whisk again (meanwhile you are occasionally tossing the baby bok choi with a pair of tongs.) Squeeze in half a lime (if you have it) and whisk again. Put in a squirt of sriracha, whisk and then give it a taste. Do you want it sweeter? Add a little more mirin. More acidic? Add a little more lime or rice vinegar. Saltier? A little more miso. Once it tastes good to you, add a little bit of sesame oil, dump the baby bok choi (which have wilted but are still crunchy at the base) onto a plate or serving platter (if you plan to share) and then pour the vinaigrette over the top. Cooking time total was about 5 minutes; tack on a few more for prep and you can have a plate of these sitting in front of you in about 10 minutes--faster than takeout!

Relish that this tastes nothing like winter.