Cooking for Others

Over the weekend, one of my oldest friends got married. You know her from her jalapeño cheddar bread–a good thing to be known for. She was beautiful, the setting was incredible, and as the sun set on the longest day of the year and the florescent fuchsia light melted over the converging lines of the vineyard’s vines, the twenty other friends I’d known since childhood or preteen-hood were beautiful too. Awww.

One of the ways we’ve all stayed friends for so long is through potlucks and dinner parties. After a night of eating and drinking, it’s never long before someone emails to begin planning the next event. Geographically, we’re only scattered across a city, not the country, so gathering is easier. But you can’t underestimate how much a love for food–particularly rich vegetarian food like cheesy jalapeño bread and avocado aioli–can keep a group together.

Not all the events are the result of long email chains. I brought this carrot and avocado dip to Essie’s impromptu barbecue the other day (the final version included cut-up beets, too, but those stain your thumbs red, and this recipe is all about easy-to-eat finger food). Essie is one of the few high school friends who’s made it to Brooklyn, and I can walk to her apartment, which has a terrace, in 10 minutes. She has a grill, and I have a way with carrots, avocados, and herbs–and a couple Sundays ago this added up to yet another beautiful day spent over food with people I’ve been eating with since I wore pastel bell bottoms in 7th grade. Yes.

Fried Cheerios

Posted by on Monday May 5th, 2014

A year and a half ago, I drove to the Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., as part of the research for a story on U.S. military cuisine. (A year and a half later, the story is finally coming out later this month in Gastronomica!) As part of my tour of the facility where the food that soldiers eat gets developed and formatted into “recipes” (though not the kind of recipes we’d recognize, they’re more like contract requirements…but more of that in the piece), I got to sit in on a tasting session. Now for those of you who have eaten military food (or even subsisted on it), this may not sound like a treat.

But for me, it was a huge learning experience–and not just in empathy for those who have to eat pre-packaged food for days on end, as their only form of sustenance. I also got a quickie education in how tasting works. That is, what a professional taster does for a living. At the Soldier Systems Center, teams taste rations at different points in their lifespan, to ensure both safety and quality. Lots of people on the campus are trained as tasters, which means they know how to identify the different flavors in terminology that were summarized for me on a worksheet the tasting room manager handed to me.

As I tasted (and, if we’re being honest–spat out), shelf-stable foods like MRE cinnamon buns at age 1 month and age 6 months, I actually noticed how a brand new bun had fewer brown notes than an aged one. Brown notes are the essence of nutty caramel that you sometimes taste in carbs.

Back in my kitchen, I decided to test this theory on some Cheerios.

No, what really happened is: I kept remembering a snack my mom made throughout my childhood, fried Cheerios. Why on earth did she bother to fry the cereal when the wheaty O’s tasted just fine on their own? I asked her, and she told me that back in the 80s and 90s, she was always looking for relatively healthful snacks that seemed more exciting than a healthful snack should. That made sense.

And then why did fried Cheerios taste substantially better than plain Cheerios? Well, that brings us back to the Solder Systems Center and the tasting room. Like the “aged” MRE cinnamon bun, a chemical reaction (heat, rather than time), had caused the wheat to take on more sweetness, depth, and toasty caramel notes, making for a delicious snack.

In my mom’s recipe, the browned butter and wheat play off the third of three ingredients in this simple, healthful snack–oregano–to create a finger food that’s as snack-able as stovetop popcorn–whether or not you’re a kid, or a soldier. 

Pot Roast with Rutabaga & Parsnips

Posted by on Wednesday Apr 9th, 2014

Just popping in quickly today to share a recent variation of my favorite (aka my mother’s) brisket. With Passover approaching, I thought you might like to see a vegetable-rich approach to serving a big hunk of meat. In this recipe, I throw in rutabaga and parsnip for added sustenance–and a little change.

So if it’s the same as a brisket, why do I call this one a pot roast? Well, I actually didn’t use the cut of meat known as brisket for this dish; I ordered a small chuck eye roast  from Fleisher’s, via Good Eggs. Apparently, chuck eye comes in smaller chunks than brisket, so if you’re not feeding a crowd, I recommend the cut.

Most of the time, though, brisket refers to the meat and pot roast to the method of cooking it low and slow in a pot. (You can actually roast the pot roast, but I prefer to do it on the stove.) For me, “brisket” sounds like Passover and Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays, whereas “pot roast” seems more non-denominational. So you can see why the names might have come in and out of fashion over the last hundred years or so.

A few weeks ago, when spring seemed like it would never come, I finally conceded to winter’s vegetables, which I hadn’t cooked with all that often throughout December, January, and February. Perhaps it’s counterintuitive, but to me the diced parsnip and rutabaga, though they should remind me of winter, make the pot roast herald the beginning of spring.

You can see more Passover recipes here.

Lacinato Kale Spanokopita

Posted by on Friday Jan 10th, 2014

After baklava, I think spanokopita–spinach pie–is the most crave-worthy of the Greek phyllo-wrapped specialties. The handheld savory pastries contain well-seasoned bits of chopped spinach, and they’ve always struck me as one of the most perfect light lunches or afternoon snacks in the world.

In my slightly updated recipe, you’ll find, inside layers and layers of olive oil-brushed phyllo, these delicious things: blanched kale, umami-rich parmesan, and a touch of lemon zest. It’s the perfect proportion of indulgent to healthful. Today I’m over at talking about this classic.

Click over to check out the full post and get the recipe.

I wrote this sponsored post  in partnership with Athens Foods. Thanks for reading!

Phyllo Pigs in a Blanket

Posted by on Monday Dec 16th, 2013

In Great Britain, a pig in a blanket is a mini sausage wrapped up in bacon.

I had no idea! As someone who shuns neither tradition nor bacon, I suddenly felt like a rebel for rolling up what I thought was a completely classic version of pigs in a blanket today, which I thought you might like to add to cocktail menus during this week before Christmas and then New Year’s.

I learned this fact at a cocktail party, just after the waiter had come by with a tray of American pigs in a blanket, offering bites to Brits and Americans alike. As I chewed my mini hot dog covered in dough–with apologies to any Brits reading–my reaction was one of Yankee haughtiness. We Americans may have appeared to get the recipe wrong, but in fact we have perfected it. Buttery dough and salty meat are an ideal cocktail food combination.

I did make one tweak, though. I picked up a package of Athens Fillo Dough from the freezer in my supermarket, defrosted the dough, melted some butter, grabbed a brush, and began layering the sheets with butter.

Last week, I finally sat down with my three-month-old pin loom and started weaving coasters. My mom got me the loom for my birthday so that I would stop giving everyone potholders for Christmas. To make these coasters, you wind one color of yarn around the loom three times, creating both warp and weft. Then you take a second color, thread it on a long weaving needle, and weave until the square is complete. Finishing is the easy part: you pry the whole thing from the loom and the loops settle into a tighter weave, a self-sufficient square.

Why am I telling you this? Because last week, I confided in my coffee date how I didn’t have time for homemade gifts this year, for tying up bags of cookies or giving a meal as a gift or planning a latke party for friends. For a couple of months, it’s felt like I haven’t planted myself in a chair and just sat still there. I haven’t paused to weave, to watch more than a single TV show (Scandal, Nashville) in one session. I haven’t made a meal with more than one dish, let alone an appetizer. And so, weaving has forced a pause. Relaxation. Enjoying the evenings. Making an extra dish or two for dinner.

Like, this hors d’oeuvres, cheesy, gooey, and delicious, which will slowing down dinner, giving time to sit for a bit with drinks and snacks before moving to the main course.

Something cheesy and savory to linger over, then–that’s what I had in mind when I created these as part of a group menu with the other bloggers who’ve been working with Sargento all year. Back in February, we all started covering food trends, everything from food trucks to herbs in dessert to Peruvian cuisine. I took on Middle Eastern food, and I hope you’ve loved the bright flavors, the doses of pomegranate molasses, and all the lentils as much as I have.

Back to my crostini.

There are seared mushroom slices, rich-tasting and bright with herbes de provence. I piled squares of Sargento Swiss cheese onto bite-sized baguette slices beneath the mushrooms, and these mini toasts are just killer. Really killer. Slow down and smell the seared mushrooms. Weave. Hang out. That’s what I’ll be doing.

Keep scrolling to see the recipe and all the other dishes that are part of the menu!

When you are trying to figure out how you feed yourself decent food on a semi-regular basis, at home, without spending tons of money or all your free time soaking beans, and you happen upon someone who seems to have the whole feeding thing down pat, and you ask her, “so, how do you do it?” you’re bound to hear one of a few unhelpful answers.

I say unhelpful because at some level feeding yourself is something you have to do on your own terms, and whether it’s your astronomical takeout bill that gets you on the path or the awareness that everything at the salad bar has started to taste the same or the really good three-ingredient quesadilla you fried up in five minutes yesterday and have realized you could easily make a variation of today, if you want to cook at home, I know you’ll get there.

Anyway, one of the unhelpful things don’t-sweat-it, at-home cooks say is that you can make food on the weekend and eat your pot of stew all week. Though I love leftovers, this is not something I can do. I like to cook, after all; and so reheating chili on Wednesday that was delicious on Sunday kind of bores me, thereby making the chili less delicious.

This is crazy, not only because chili gets better with time.