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Monday, September 4, 2017

A FAMILY VISIT AND PROJECT: "KITCHEN-FIT GRAND KIDS"



This past month, I had the pleasure of visiting with my son, daughter-in-law, and my three lovely grand children, ages 10, 8 and 5 years. It was an especially joyful time for me because I don´t get to see see them often. I live at the Mexican border and they live at the Canadian border, about 2000 miles away. While the children are always sweet and loving, they are still a bit shy with me. Thus, as a sort of icebreaker, I wanted to do a one-on-one project with each child. After a bit of reflection, I decided to do a cooking project with the children.  My past visits and recent communications had shown me that the grandchildren were way above average, doing a multitude of activities such as soft ball, swimming, gymnastics and community theater. All that was proof of their mental and physical fitness. And I hoped that their days of cooking with Abuela Susan (as they call me) would be ä giant, first step toward "kitchen-fitness".


In preparation for this project, I sent ahead a set of children's cookbooks. A cupcake book for Iris, the oldest, a cookie book for Myra, the second, and a simple snack book for Cruz, the youngest. In my judgement this choice of books would reflect the complexity of the cooking tasks, according to ages. (As related below, my estimation of the relative difficulty of the recipes turned out to be wrong.)


As soon as I arrived, I asked each child to choose one recipe from their book. They seemed eager to get started and, within minutes, selected their recipes. Iris chose lady-like, pink lemonade cupcakes and Cruz chose a fancier sort of grilled-cheese sandwiches, shown crust-less, cut into quarters, and held together with fancy toothpicks. Myra's choice was unexpected. She wanted to make what were the most complicated cookies imaginable. These cookies, called "Treasure Chests", were a quadruple-chocolate concoction with a brownie base, two layers of fudge icing, a chocolate cookie top and MnMs, a child´s version of gold treasure, that fell out of the sides of the "chests". My better judgement should have sent up red flags on Myra's choice but, being still somewhat jet-lagged mentally, I agreed to help her make complicated treat.


The second day of my stay, I went with the family to a neighborhood grocery store and, together, we bought all the ingredients for the recipes. Cruz wanted to make his sandwiches the very next morning. With just a bit of guidance, he was able to do almost all the work. I did the grilling, of course, and he cut them into quarters and placed them on a large platter, toothpicks stuck into each piece. The children and I ate them for lunch and leftovers went kept back for their Mom and Dad. Cruz was very pleased with the favorable comments that were made, and the first project was a resounding success.


Myra was ready to begin her treasure chest making on the third day. The process took more than two hours to complete because everything had to be done in steps.  I helped her with the initial steps of measuring and mixing and put the brownies in the oven. We had to wait for them to cool. And much care was needed to decorate the treasures.
Myra's 600-calorie "treasure chests".
The results were attractive and had a surprising resemblance to those shown in the cookbook. These treasure chests definitely had the wow-factor and received family raves. 
The only unfortunate part of this project was that the children wanted to eat multiples of these 600 calorie creations. I put out one for each of us on a plate and, when I had the chance, hid the rest in two plastic containers in the freezer behind other foods. My idea was to keep them hidden so that each of us could have one the next day. That trick worked, at least partially, and only a few had been stealthily removed from the freezer by the next day.


A few days later, Iris prepared her cupcakes. I taught her how to crack open an egg. She had never tried it before, but, after just one demonstration, successfully opened the remaining two eggs. She also did all the decorating by herself. I just had to oversee her work and helped her with the oven. The cupcakes were quite attractive and good. Also, luckily, they were normal cupcakes so that eating more than one in a day´s time wasn't so much of a worry.


These few days that I spent cooking with my grand kids were priceless to me. It reminded me of my own childhood when my sister and I learned (mostly from our Mom and Aunt Jane) how to make such treats as  popcorn, chocolate fudge, cookies and cakes. With these long-ago memories go warm feelings of family closeness and the joy of cooking adventures.


Project "kitchen-fit grand kids" was wonderful fun. And they radiated confidence what with their new skills of grocery shopping, measuring, mixing, pouring and decorating.  All-in-all, it turned out to be a perfect way to build a great family learning experience -- and all through the art of cooking.


Yes, it was a bit messy and the finished items were not quite as sophisticated as the pictures in their cookbooks. But the very best thing was that the kids felt they did it "for themselves" and, for all of us - especially grandma, we were building family memories. And that was absolutely worth it.

Monday, June 19, 2017

TALES – OLD & RECENT - OF LENTIL-BASED CHUNKY SOUP.


I know it’s mid-summer. And, yes, I’m preparing a hot, chunky soup. I LOVE home-made soup and always have. It's healthy. What's more, this kind of soup is not only filling but also helps make us sweat, thereby cooling the body. All tropical cultures, at least, the ones I know about, eat warm and often spicy foods to create a higher level of perspiration. It’s nature’s own cooling system. So, even though it’s the summer solstice, let’s talk soup –chunky-style, at that.

Now, for a bit of personal background lore…
Today, as I prepared what might be my 100th - or more - pot of lentil-based, veggie soup, I found myself a bit misty. Past memories came back to me of a time when chunky soups meant an awful lot in terms of nutrition and comfort. This reminiscence was the product of some Internet news I saw today about not one, but two, tropical storms that appear to be on a target course for Texas or some other Gulf destination.
And I remember a time when my husband, Enrique, his good friend, Bob, and I spent the better part of a month eating chunky soup almost every night. Imagine that, and we didn’t complain a bit, since we considered ourselves more than lucky to have all that soup. It was, back then, when Hurricane Wilma devastated a good part of South Florida, including our own condo and the entire building that we’d been living in for 5 years. Enrique’s friend, Bob, invited us to spend time with him in his condo - nearby - that was not so much affected by the storm. We thought it would be just for a few days or a couple of weeks. But it turned out to be more like eight weeks.

In the first week, we didn’t have electricity and our menus were made up of what Bob had in his pantry and the cans that we’d bought when we knew the storm was approaching. Luckily, Bob had a patio gas-run grill and we were able to heat up essential food and drinks on the grill. Main courses were a bit hard to come up with. Fortunately, we had plenty of cans of chunky soup. So, for that first week, we ate soup out of cans, just warmed over, along with crackers, olives and such in order to conserve cooking gas. Then, in the second week, the electricity came back on. Cooking, was then, less of a problem. Still, we decided to keep our food budget as low as possible, given the economic crunch that we found ourselves in when our work places did not reopen for several weeks. Our answer was to make chunky soup with the addition of white rice and garlic bread as our go-to menu for supper that month. I bought a lot of lentils and other quick-cook and canned legumes, and whatever fresh veggies I could find. The supermarkets, when they reopened, didn’t have a lot of fresh produce – and that lasted for several weeks.

My main productive role during that mostly quiet month was soup cook. I simmered chunky soup all day in the slow cooker. And, with the aid of a large rice cooker, I prepared enough white rice for three days at a time. Plain sandwich bread - the only bread available for some time - was toasted and spread with margarine and garlic salt. We enjoyed our meals and were grateful to be eating well –– or, at least, what we considered correctly – at a time when so many other people were having a hard time feeding their families. So much for reminisces.

Most recent chunky soup
There are a few tried and true soup-making tips that every cook should know. And remembering some of these tips, I've successfully once again made soup – and if I may say so - with great flavor (and as little effort as possible).

 - Sauté all the chopped vegetables to enhance the flavor. But, if you’re short on time, just skip the sauté and add all the vegetables and accompaniments to the pot.
- Use some aromatic vegetables –garlic, onion, leek, etc, among others, and add all the veggies directly into the pot for good flavor and no waste.
- Don’t be shy about using time-savers, including such things as canned beans and frozen veggies.
- Use a stock cube or some soy sauce or pesto to get more flavor into the soup. Any of these can make a big flavor difference.
- Don’t dilute the soup too much when you begin the cooking process. You can always a bit more water later if the soup appears too thick.
- Spices are your friends. Proper seasoning is a must for all dishes and especially so for veggie soups. Salt, pepper, a variety of your favorite spices – even a squeeze of lemon or vinegar - will give some zing to the final product. Just be sure to taste after putting in what seems to be just a little seasoning. Experience has shown that it’s not easy to overcome an over-salted or over-spiced soup.
- Last minute, soup toppings are great, too. A regular tasting soup gets a lift with toppings such as croutons, cut green onions, grated cheese, avocado slices or a few toasted nuts.


So, here’s the recipe for chunky soup that I improvised today, made with fresh veggies and pantry ingredients - no particular recipe consulted. I think this soup would be a winner any time of the year and in all sorts of climate, including hot, cold, stormy and post-stormy weather.

Chunky lentil-based soup, great in all kinds of weather...  (6 to 8 servings)

2 teaspoons olive oil
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves
4 small potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 (18 ounce) can lentil soup
Enough water or broth for thinning
4 ounces of tomato sauce
1 ½ cups of red cabbage, cut up in slices
¾ cup of pasta noodles (optional)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon of balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
Toppings: Parmesan cheese, cut green onions, or sunflower seeds

Instructions
- In a large pot, heat olive oil and sauté carrots, cabbage, garlic, onions and potatoes for 5 minutes.

- Add the canned lentils and other ingredients to the pot.

- Bring the soup mixture to a boil and reduce the heat to simmer, uncovered for 30 minutes. Add noodles and cook for another 10 minutes.

- Serve immediately or reheat later with one or more toppings. Leftovers keep well for 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator. (Soup is always better the second day.)

Notes
I made this stove-top soup in less than sixty minutes but it cooks just as well in the crock pot. It might take 4 to 6 hours to slow-cook the soup.

Go veggie-crazy and add any of your favorites. Modifications of this kind of soup almost always taste great. You can also use up whatever veggies you find at the end of the week as a version of “refrigerator-stew”.

This lentil-based, chunky soup is perfect for quick everyday lunches and suppers. What's more, I’ve taken similar soups to covered-dish dinners. And it's always "just perfect" for all kinds of weather.

Friday, February 24, 2017

QUICK & TASTY RADISH & CARROT PICKLES


There are a few veggies that are almost always available at markets and remain fairly cheap all year long. A good deal, right? But, on the other hand, we – you and I - may not be used to buying them. For me, radishes were among those veggies. I always found them somewhat overpowering like raw garlic and onions. My own feeling was that radishes were good – finely sliced - in small doses buried in a green salad but, still, the quantity that I could consume was very little indeed. Most every time I bought a bunch of those rosy red roots, I found some left behind in my vegetable bin at the end of the week.

I, of course, knew what to do - serve the remainder to my husband who loves them and can eat them as a snack without anything – not even a dressing or dip. Now, with this recipe that I'm sharing with you, I know how to love those little red goodies and find no obstacle to consuming some of them most any day. I found that I truly like radishes when they pack a vinegary punch. Actually, the recipe is one my husband showed me how to make. I asked him to add the carrots, thinking - correctly, as it turned out - that the sweet of the carrot would combine nicely with the spicy tart of the radish.

So, here's our recipe for crisp, radish and carrot pickles. We made our first batch this past Sunday afternoon. We have pickled other things, before, and I don’t know why we took me so long to make these tasty pickles. They're so easy to make and go great with all kinds of foods, from tacos to salads, to sandwiches and crackers.

We sliced the veggies very thin because that way they soak up the flavors of vinegar and spices in just a few hours. A sharp chef’s knife was the key to getting the thin slices.
A sharp chef-style knife will make the work a lot easier.


The best thing about these quick pickles is that they’re ready munch on right away. We ate some about 4 hours after they were made – still a bit crunchy but good.

Here is the recipe for these tasty pickled radishes and carrots . The recipe as given below yields about 2 to 3 cups of pickles.

Ingredients
1 bunch radishes (should make 1.5 cups when thinly sliced)
2 medium carrots, also thinly sliced (about a cup's worth)
¾ cup balsamic vinegar or apple cider vinegar
juice of a medium lime (something my husband always adds for extra zip)
2 tablespoons of minced garlic
2 tablespoons of kosher salt
1 cup of balsamic vinegar
1/8 teaspoon of black pepper or a bit of crushed red pepper flakes

Instructions
To prepare the veggies: Wash and slice off the tops and bottoms of the radishes and carrots, then use a sharp knife to slice the veggies into very thin rounds. Peel and mince the garlic. Pack the rounds and garlic into a quart-sized canning jar.  

Sprinkle the kosher salt on top and shake the jar to thoroughly salt the veggies. Leave without a top (or cover with a clean kitchen cloth secured to the jar with a rubber band) and let them sweat for, at least, 30 minutes. This step ensure crunchier veggies.

Add the vinegar, lemon juice and pepper. If you use some other kind of vinegar - other than balsamic - you may want to dissolve a couple of teaspoons of sugar with it. Make sure that there is some space between the veggies and the rim of the jar. This allows a space for the good gases produced by fermentation. Shake, again, to make sure you've coated all the veggies. Put a secure top on the jar and refrigerate. They're good to go from the first day.
These pickles keep very well for a week or ten days, and usually will be gone long before that. 

Best of all, you can pickle almost any thinly sliced vegetables in this manner. Try carrots, beets, cucumbers, red onions, cabbage or cauliflower. The thinner you slice the vegetables, the better they absorb the vinegar solution and taste like pickles.

Vinegar is good for us, too. It helps control high blood pressure, improve digestive system, reduce urinary tract infections and strengthen bone. With this pickle recipe, you will have a delicious way to have a little vinegar everyday. So go ahead with confidence and make pickles of all kinds, knowing it's almost impossible to get it wrong, and, for most people, they're a spicy delight. And get ready to for a lifetime (healthy) addiction to homemade pickles.