Archive for April, 2009

The Case for Quinoa

April 27, 2009

DSCN0003

Would you attend a free cooking class if your child’s school offered one? The good folks who run the cooking and gardening programs in my kid’s school district provide five-week parent nutrition classes in the spring. The evening program reinforces instruction about healthy eating these parents’ children receive at public school — and helps time-challenged adults expand their recipe repertoire. The classes emphasize local, seasonable, and organic produce and whole grains.

It’s a great idea. Who among us hasn’t fallen into a rut serving our family the same dozen or so dishes we have down pat and know our kids will eat? We stock our pantries with familiar ingredients so we can make these staples in a jiffy after the work-school-pick-up-soccer-practice shuffle.

The very nature of our busy lives can make it tough to steal away from our families to attend night school, even if its purpose is to help us feed our families better. And yet a small but eager group showed up a week or so ago to the first class I taught. Asked what they hoped to take away from the sessions each participant placed fresh ideas for healthy meals at the top of their list.

Truth be told, I felt a tad nervous about getting up in front of a group of adults and waxing on about the wonders of fruits & veggies. Sure, I’ve taught kids cooking classes. But I live in Berkeley, California, aka the Gourmet Ghetto. Some parents at our school run highly-acclaimed restaurants in the community. I’m just a home cook with a passion for produce. Indeed, several of the parents who showed up that first Thursday night clearly knew a thing or two about cooking. Still, everyone seemed willing to share what they know for the common cause of feeding our children well.

And it turned out that in our initial class, focused on simple salads, most folks found something new. A couple of participants made vinaigrette for the first time — and were delighted to discover how easy it is to do. One mom learned about zesting and how to incorporate this technique to add a little zing to her kitchen cuisine. And all but one of the assembled crew were new to the nutritional powerhouse quinoa. I’m a huge fan of this pearly little protein-packed, grain-like seed, which makes a great alternative to rice or couscous, and also works well in salads or as breakfast cereal. It’s fiber-rich, gluten-free, and helps keep blood sugar levels in check.

DSCN0001

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) an ancient Incan food and a key staple in South American cuisine, is becoming more widely available in grocery stores and increasingly showing up on restaurant menus as well. I can still recall the first quinoa salad I sampled at the Station House Cafe in Point Reyes Station, a favorite coastal walking destination. Light, crisp, and colorful, the quinoa served as a nutty, fluffy, and satiating base for my post-hike feast.

The quinoa salad we made in class is quick to fix and easy to tweak. (Your kid doesn’t like apricots? Simply omit. No parsley on hand? Cilantro works just as well in the dressing.) It proved a big hit on the night. Maybe you’ll find a way to work it into your menu schedule some time soon.

Quinoa Salad with Dried Apricots and Currants

(Recipe courtesy of the cooking instructors at Berkeley Unified School District)

Good to Know: Some folks swear by rubbing the quinoa grains together to activate or energize them. Some also advocate toasting quinoa seeds over dry heat to increase their nutty flavor. Others say soaking quinoa for several hours or overnight improves nutrient absorption.

Handy Hint: Time may factor into whether you try any of the above. Regardless, do rinse quinoa thoroughly in cold water and drain in a fine sieve before cooking to remove a naturally-occurring protective coating called saponin, which can leave a bitter or soapy aftertaste.

Ingredients:

Salad:

1 cup quinoa (well rinsed)
2 cups water
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
6 dried apricots, finely chopped
1/4 cup dried currants
3 scallions, finely chopped
1/2 cup finely diced red bell pepper (in season)
1/4 cup lightly toasted pine nuts (optional)

Vinaigrette:
1 lemon, zest & juice
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped parsley
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt

To do:

1. Bring water to boil then add quinoa and salt.
2. Cover and let boil for 5 minutes.
3. Turn off heat and keep lid covered another 15-20 minutes or until all water is absorbed into grain.
4. Fluff up grain with a spoon.
5. Make dressing: Combine lemon juice and zest, oil, parsley, spices, and salt in a small bowl and whisk together.
6. Mix quinoa, dried apricots, currants, red pepper, scallions, and pine nuts with vinaigrette.
7. Serve as a side dish.

Recent convert to quinoa? Find more tempting recipes here.

Photos: Sarah Henry

An Eggscellent Spring Staycation

April 20, 2009

gabe&ninaPhoto: Sarah Henry

Spring Break plans went pear-shaped, work and other obligations thwarted my best efforts to plan a mini-break with my son. I was feeling a bit sorry for him (truth be told: both of us). We were just going to tool around town during his week off.

It didn’t help that others in our circle had some pretty big adventures in store. One friend flew to Tokyo to take in all things Japanese anime related — an abiding interest of most of the 10-year-old boys I know. Another went snorkeling on the Big Island. A third headed for the mountains to snowboard. Others hit the desert.

Even if I’d been able to swing a getaway it would have been modest, given the economic times. But hello, how did you spend your school vacations? One of six, I  recall staying at home annoying my siblings, romping around the backyard, reading endlessly, and getting creative when boredom set in. This pressure to constantly provide your kids with stimulating experiences seems a peculiarly modern parenting concern — and one only available to the affluent, I might add.

So I got over my pity party pretty quickly. It was made easier by the fact that over winter we spent a month in Australia.  (It’s not quite like how it sounds. You won’t find us snorkeling on the Barrier Reef or roaming around the Outback. There’s lots of visiting with family and friends in suburban Sydney. Okay, Gabe did catch a wave with a dolphin one day. But I think the highlights of the trip for him included playing Guitar Hero, discovering hard-rock Aussie legends AC/DC, and watching his older cousins consume copious quantities of alcohol during the festive season.)

Early in the Spring Break week, my son helped me see the simple virtue of a staycation. He loved lolling around in pjs for much of the morning reading books, and catching up with friends he doesn’t get to see much during the school year. We took day trips to places we never seem to find time to visit on the weekends because of the martial arts-baseball-birthday party-sleepover shuffle.  All good.

It didn’t hurt that the weather grew more gorgeous as the week went on. This time last year my son and I marveled at the appearance of a family of owls on the hiking trail I routinely climb.  We spent the spring tracking their progress. First the mom and dad shared the task of sitting on the eggs. Once the babies hatched, the parents took turns leaving the nest in search of food for this trio of fuzzy little creatures. We followed their babyhood intently, as did many regular hill walkers — along with an army of photographers and owl lovers who emerged once word got out that something both ordinary and magical was happening up on the hill.

babyowlsFlickr photo by Doug Greenberg used under the Creative Commons license

Gabe was delighted to watch nature in the wild. He’d just studied owls at school. So he’d spot the fledglings in their nest and then rattle off a bunch of owl factoids. After a few weeks I realized these fragile, fluffy young ones with the big eyes had taken on greater significance in my mind. It wasn’t lost on me that the parents shared nesting duties 50-50, closely mimicking my own new domestic situation. I found myself willing those baby owls to survive and thrive in this configuration. They did.

What a difference a year makes. Easter weekend we picnicked on a windswept beach and taught a gaggle of kids the joys of beach cricket. We joined in an egg hunt on a spectacularly sunny day in the woods by a lake. My sweet son shared his chocolate loot with a couple of girls whose families were forsaking the sweet stuff this year as an economic conservation measure during uncertain times.

And, of course, we made a special breakfast. I grew up with hot cross buns on Easter morning. Plump, yeasty buns, dotted with raisins, glazed and crossed on top, toasted and served with lashings of butter. Try as I might, I’ve never been able to replicate these treats in the Bay Area, even though some bakeries make a reasonable facsimile of these baked goods. Most are too self-consciously gourmet, though, and thus don’t evoke youthful memories of buns bought from what I now affectionately refer to as nasty Australian cake shops. (As a 15-year-old, I worked in one. We sold such monstrosities as vanilla slice, flaky pastry with icing and a gelatinous rectangle of solidified custard. Don’t get me started.)

Childhood food memories remain strong in the psyche. But part of becoming a grown up is creating your own family food traditions. My son has never cared for hot cross buns anyway; they’re not part of the culture he’s being raised in. Still, Easter breakfast deserves something a little celebratory. And so over the years we seem to have settled on the delicious puffy baked pancake, commonly known as a Dutch Baby, though there’s nothing Dutch or baby-like about this dish.

I first stumbled across it in a well-curated cookbook co-authored by Rick Bayliss and his teenage daughter. I interviewed the celeb chef from Chicago for a story on picky eaters. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy. I especially appreciated that his daughter wasn’t one of those kids who would eat truffles, oysters, and every dark, leafy green imaginable, like some offspring of professional cooks. She was, um, quite particular about what would pass through her lips as a young one. So he got what it was like for many of us, who have children with quirky eating habits, be it taste, texture, or the horror of different food groups touching.

The handy thing about this breakfast dish is that it’s easy to make and looks pretty splashy when you serve it up, which gives it special-occasion cred, without a massive outlay of energy first thing in the morning. So, what’s not to like?

Plus, it’s loaded with berries. Need I say more?

Puffy Baked Pancake (also called a Dutch Baby) with Fresh Berries

(Adapted from Rick & Lanie’s Excellent Kitchen Adventures, which is adapted from their French friend Bob’s recipe…you get the idea)

Quick caveat: Do use a 12-inch skillet. I spaced out and used a 9-inch skillet last weekend and the result was a little too eggy in the middle. Oops, sorry Nina.

easterbrekkiePhoto: Sarah Henry

You need:

5 Tablespoons of butter

3/4 cup flour

3 large eggs

3/4 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

Strawberries (cut into pieces), blueberries, blackberries, and/or raspberrries

Powdered sugar for sprinkling

Maple syrup for drenching

To do:

1. Adjust the oven rack to the upper third of the oven and preheat to 450 F.

2. Melt butter completely in the 12-inch skillet — one with an oven-proof handle —  in the oven for about 5 minutes or so.

3. Mix flour, eggs, milk, & salt in a bowl. Whisk until smooth.

4. Pour batter into skillet. Bake in oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until sides are puffed up and golden brown.

5. Remove from oven. Loosen sides and bottom of skillet with spatula.

6. Slide onto serving plate.

7. Pile fruit in center and sprinkle with powdered sugar via a strainer or shaker.

8. Cut into wedges. Serve with warmed syrup. Watch it disappear.

Baseball, Bonds, and Banana Bread

April 9, 2009

So my ten-year-old plays ball for the Berkeley Bears. Last weekend, his team went up against the San Francisco Falcons. It would have been just another baseball game on a gorgeous spring day except he played against his great mate from the mamas group we started right after the kids were born.

Photo: Yuriko Gamo Romer

Back then, ten of us got together on a regular basis when all we did was feed, burp, and change our little bundles. Feels like ancient history now. One of those babies is now taller than his mom. A lot has happened since then. The kids are all thriving and developing into unique beings. The adults have dealt with death, divorce, disappointment, unemployment, transition, relocation, and reinvention — along with the joy of raising these resilient kids, and, in some cases, subsequent children.

What struck me, while I hung out at the ballpark on Sunday, was just how much I wanted Niko, my son’s friend, to have a good game. Niko’s parents confided they felt the same way about my boy. When Niko struck out a Bear, I gave him a high five. When Gabe got a Falcon out on second, Yuriko and Bill cheered. We all had a bit of a laugh about it at the end of the game — even though the Bears got well and truly bitten by the Falcons.

It turned out to be a weekend full of activities with friends from that mamas (and papas) group. I had dinner with Katherine on Friday night and played Scrabble at Julie & Isidro’s home Saturday evening. As a sideline, Julie knits sweet stocking caps for kids. She’d just made a blue-green-black striped beauty for my son. Her family nicknamed it The Gabe, because the cap seemed, so, well, Gabe-ish. It’s tough to get a ten-year-old to model his new cap, even one he loves. But here’s how adorable these hats look on babies:

5 Photo: Elisabeth Jenson

Sunday after the ballgame, Lisa and I hiked the hills behind her home, and when I returned to Berkeley I found an email from Emily, an artist, with some feedback on an art-related story I wrote. Every morning I get to wake up and look at one of Em’s amazing pin-art paintings, inspired by our hikes in the woods together. You’ll see a little piece of this calming, color-saturated creation in this recent happy snap of a bunch of us:

Photo: Michael Wynia

So I was feeling nostalgic about this gaggle of galpals come Monday morning. That day, since we had Spring Break, the Bear and the Falcon were getting together for some non-competitive fun. We decided that the California Academy of Sciences followed by dinner at the Falcon’s place in the city was the way to go. (The newly refurbished natural history museum is fabo but uber-expensive. We were grateful to go with folks who have a membership. The food’s also good but super exxy.)

We took over leftover Indian takeaway and in keeping with my break-the-rules baking style (I find it hard to follow a recipe exactly, something that can lead to disastrous results on the cake ‘n’ bake front) Gabe & I whipped up a batch of banana bread complete with three of his favorite ingredients: chocolate chips, crystallized ginger, and shredded coconut.

I rarely get the urge to bake. It’s just not my thing. But in my sentimental state I wanted to show up with something warm, cozy, and made with love. So I borrowed these scrumptious recipes from Molly Wizenberg, the author of the lovely memoir-cookbook A Homemade Life who blogs over at Orangette. I rolled two recipes into one, and tweaked them a tad (basically just omitting ingredients I didn’t have on hand). The bread turned out pretty well. Nice and moist. And who can argue with the combined delights of chocolate, ginger, coconut, and banana? Plus I discovered just how yummy demerara — a treacly brown sugar served with coffee at fancy pants restaurants — can be cooked on top of banana bread batter.

That night the banana bread got two thumbs up from the ballplayers who devoured a couple of slices and then returned to playing games — on the Wii.

Banana Bread with Chocolate, Crystallized Ginger, and Coconut

(adapted from recipes by Molly Wizenberg)

Quick tip: Overripe bananas can be frozen until you have time to bake. Thaw them for a few hours before you need them. When they’ve defrosted simply peel and let the flesh slip out.

Photo: Sarah Henry

Ingredients:

3 large, overripe bananas

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/2 cup shredded unsweetened coconut

1/3 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger

2 large eggs

1/4 cup plain yogurt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

1 Tablespoon demerara (can substitute dark brown sugar)

To do:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and set a rack in the center of the oven.

2. Grease a standard-size loaf pan.

3. Puree the bananas in a blender or food processor. You need 1& 1/2 cups of puree. If you wind up with extra try stirring it into plain yogurt and serving as dessert. It’s delish.)

4. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, nutmeg, and salt in a bowl.

5. Add the chocolate chips, ginger, and coconut to the dry ingredients. Stir some more until combined.

6. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, using electric beaters.

7. Whisk the eggs with a fork.  Then stir the eggs, banana puree, vanilla, and yogurt into the butter and sugar mixture.

8. Pour the wet banana mixture into the dry ingredients and gently combine using a rubber spatula. Scrape the sides of the bowl with the spatula and fold in any unincorporated flour. Try not to overmix.

9. Scrape the thick batter into the loaf tin. Smooth the top and then sprinkle it with demerara sugar.

10. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until the top is brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

11. Cool on a wire rack. Turn the cooled loaf out of of the pan.

12. Keeps for a few days in a sealed, airtight container. May not last that long.