Thursday, October 29, 2009

Food October 2009: Healthy Dinner for 4 on a Budget

There was a legendary place in Waitsfield, Vermont when I was growing up called The Den (now called Ake's Den).  A comfy cozy restaurant that served the famous juicy Den burger on an english muffin with fries.  It had the good old-80's-fashioned salad bar... you know, where you could make a salad that was more calories than the burger.  A total winter comfort meal, but maybe not as healthy as it could be.

To update this classic to a healthy at home meal on a budget - head to Trader Joe's.  I make 4 burgers (2 adult size and 2 smaller sized) from the 16 oz. organic beef packages for $5.99 (240 calories for 4 oz.).  To give the burgers a little added juice, put a small pad of Earth Balance Organic Whipped buttery spread (40 calories for 1/2 tablespoon) in the center of each burger so that it can melt as the meat cooks.  Toast and serve on whole wheat english muffins from Disraeli and Gladstone for Trader Joe's ($1.99 for 6 muffins at 130 calories each).  For the kids smaller burgers, I use a cookie or biscuit cutter on the muffins to make them just the right size.  If your kids like cheeseburgers, try Trader Joe's Sliced Lite Cheddar (70 calories for $4.69 with plenty of cheese left over for the week's sandwiches.)

To serve with the burgers, my toddlers love sweet potato fries.  Two sweet potatoes works for our family of four and, depending on the size, go for less than $3.   Not a lot of money considering that one medium sweet potato at 108 calories (or 56 calories for serving) boasts 384% of the Vitamin A, 33% of the vitamin C and 14% of the Vitamin B6 in the recommended daily portion - and more importantly they are flippin' yummy.  I slice them thinly and long (almost the shape of a McDonald's fry) earlier in the day and toss them with 2 tablespoons safflower oil (each portion will have approximately 1/2 tablespoon for 60 calories) as it is healthy and works well at high heat, and sprinkle with salt.  Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and when you put your burgers on the grill, place the fries on a baking sheet in the oven.  Turn them frequently to prevent burning and they should be done in roughly 20 minutes depending on their cut, or when the fry is crisping up on the outside and soft on the inside.  If the fries are soggy you might be using too much oil, or your oven is not getting hot enough.  For the burger and fries healthy style for 4 you come in under $17 and 520 calories for the meal without condiments!  (590 calories if you opt for the cheese) If you are willing to spend a little more, search out a local butcher shop or farm that sells local meat so that you can best research your source; or if you are concerned about fat and are willing to spend more, Whole Foods sells lower fat organic ground beef options.

If you are feeling ambitious, or just missing the 80's, feel free to recreate the salad bar for your kids - its a great way to introduce them to the idea as kids love having the control of making their own salad.  I like to offer them organic baby spinach ($2.69), dried cranberries ($1.99 for 8 oz. or at least two meals), chopped organic grape tomatoes ($2.99) and sliced almonds ($2.49 for 8 oz.. or at least 4 meals) (easy items to find at Trader Joe's).  ENJOY!!

NOTE:  Since this was published, on 10/31 a beef recall is affecting some Trader Joe's beef products.  Thus far, their organic beef has not been included, see the USDA information here. 

Momma Like: October 2009: Buy of the Day

Momma Can Sleep on Saturdays for $7.50

Available Products
Pretty incredible but potentially true.  Take a little advice from the Montessori folks in the self-help arena, and teach your kids to pour their own milk into their cereal from this spill preventive small pitcher.  A friend past on this tip to me yesterday which allowed her son, as early as five, to help himself to cereal and milk on mornings when she was busy with her younger two children.  I, of course, began dreaming of the moment when the kids could turn on PBS and help themselves to cereal allowing me another half hour on Saturday mornings to stay in bed to the tune of 6:30 a.m. - how luxurious!  Check it out at the Montessori Experience.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Momma Like: October 2009: Buy of the Day

Fisherman Knit Wool Kids Slippers Leather Bottom fits 4-5 years old made from recycled materials

"Upcycling" is hot.  The creation of something from objects already used in a way that adds value.  These slippers are particularly cute in a size 11-12 (roughly for a 5 year old).  Made from felting an old wool sweater, they are lined in flannel and bottomed with leather.  A great eco-buy for $20 from Little Friend.   

Monday, October 26, 2009

Momma Like: October 2009, Wine Tags


Invited over for a friend's house for dinner with or without the kids and you want to bring something nice.  Alas, I am not the type to have a closet of "hostess gift" to bring along - who has the time?  So I typically bring a bottle of wine (because let's face it - its a gift I can enjoy at their house)... but so does everyone else.  These custom wine tags from Tina Labadini design are a great way to dress up your gift.  With adorable designs for $24 you get to give a cute gift 8 times!  For an extra $4, they will add your name to the tag.  If you are feeling early this year and organized, also check out their holiday cards!

Design: October 2009

Kelly Wearstler, Modern Moire Cushion - MercurySassari Ikat Cushion - Navy/Natural

If you are not a fan of yet, you will be.  Etsy is a site that allows artisans to have a digitial storefront, without any of the usual costs of setting up one of their own.  You can find anything there from a needlepoint pillow made by a genuine grandmother to a sassy halloween costume, mittens for your kids or amazing home design items.  My new favorite Etsy "shop" is Plum Cushion.  Melanie, the creator, started Plum Cushion to be a "place for people with discerning tastes and real-life budgets to find inspiration." If you like her Etsy store, check out her online blog Plum Cushion filled with sophisticated home touches.

Momma Like: October 2009, Cookbook

There are some books that you buy for the recipes and some that you buy for the pictures. This cookbook teaches you how to cook. For each of the recipes, a team of chefs has cooked and cooked and cooked and ... you get the picture, until it reaches perfection. It is not the results that bring you back for more, although each of the recipes is a classic. What hooks you into this book is the introduction to each recipe where they share their experiences with you and explain how changing the ingredients changed the recipe. It provides a knowledge of the actual chemistry of food in a palettable way. This book is always where I start, even if its not where I end up. Check it out The New Best Recipe by the editors of Cooks Illustrated.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Food October 2009: Part 3 - Braisied Short Ribs

This is a family favorite believe it or not. My daughter who has a hard time chewing burgers or steak loves this version of beef that melts in your mouth and leaves a lingering sweetness. Its great for a dinner party because you can not only cook it the morning of but even better, the day before, and reheat to serve. It is even easier than a stew, and in terms of actual time at the stove top, its less than 15 minutes to make. Just make sure to make in advance so that you can refrigerate, let the fat congeal, skim the fat and reheat.

Two things that you have to get right on this one - first is owning a braising pan. Look for a medium low pan that is wide and flat on the bottom, that has a tight fitting lid. Check out this beauty at Williams-Sonoma, but if you can't afford it, just check out the picture. Braising pans are a big seller at yard sales,, and COSTCO because many people register for them and simply have no idea what to use them for! Second, when you go to the butcher or meat counter, ask for boneless short ribs. If they don't have them, ask them to cut a chuck roast into strip-like rib cuts. This recipe serves 6-8 people.

Braised Balsamic Short Ribs

3 lbs. beef short ribs (or roughly 6-8)
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
sea salt
1 and 1/2 glasses red wine
2 cups beef stock
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 shallot diced finely

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Clean, dry and lightly salt (pinch) the ribs. Dice the shallots. Put the braising pan over high heat with oil and butter. Here is where you need five minutes of dedicated time. Brown each of the 4 side of the ribs on high heat, rotating when necessary to achieve a nice brown crust on each side - keep kids away - the oil will splatter. (5 minutes total if pan is hot enough) Take off and place on a clean plate. Reduce the heat to low, and add shallots stirring for one minute. Put the heat up to medium-high and add wine, deglazing the bottom of the pan and boiling down for about 5 minute until the wine is halved. Add the broth, spice, and vinegar. Let it reach a boil, then turn off the heat, and add the ribs back into the liquid. Make sure the liquid comes about 3/4 way up the ribs but not over - adjust with beef broth if necessary. Place in the oven on 300 degrees for one hour, moving the heat back down to 275 for another 2 1/2 to 3 hours for a total of 3 1/2 to 4 hours cooking time. You can flip the ribs before turning the heat down, but its not necessary.

Take off heat. Wait for pan to reach room temp and then place in the fridge for 2-3 hours until the fat congeals. Skim off fat and reheat to serve. If I am in a pinch, the freezer works well - either way -just be sure your fridge shelves are tempered glass and place a towel or hot plate down on the refrigerator shelf before putting the pan on top.

Serving options:
The great thing about the recipe is its versatility. After reheating, I serve it family style in the braising pan on the table and just spoon the sauce over mashed potatoes and the ribs with a side salad or green beans. When serving at a dinner party, I will reheat the ribs in the broth, them remove them to a plate and cover with tin foil while I boil down the brother into more of a demi-glaze. I then a spoonful of mashed potato, a chunk of lightly steamed kale or spinach and the rib on top and slightly off to the side and top off with the demi-glaze all around the bottom of the plate. You can serve with polenta as well and if you are feeling really ambitious it tastes great with a Parmesan risotto.

Variations: You can add some yummy veggies - like carrots - when you reduce the heat. Try this same recipe with Lamb Shanks, Rosemary and Garlic (taking out the ribs, thyme, and shallots respectively). As always, you can experiment with IPA, or Guiness in place of the red wine. If you are in the mood to really jazz it up - try different wines and an aged vinegar.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Momma Like Part 2: October 2009

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If you are looking for an alternative to plastic or melamine for the kids cups and dishes, check out this adorable enamel cup bowl and plate set for $21.90 from Nova Natural Toys and Crafts. Nova is a family owned company whose products seek to use the imagination of your child. The company commits to safe and healthy environments for the producers of their products and promises to never market directly to your children. Sort of refreshing - right?
The walking blocks at $27.90, are a great way to use all the outdoor energy your kids have on an indoor November rainy (or even snowy) day. They are as great for pretend play, "look Mommy, I'm a huge dinosaur," as they are for gross motor skills. Simple stand on the blocks and hold onto the ropes and walk away on these stable stilt like blocks. The little sailboat, at $12.90, is a great wooden toy that will last for years of ocean, river or bathtub use. Happy Browsing!

Food October 2009: Part 2 - Braising Chicken

As defined by Merriam-Webster's Dictionary:

Main Entry: 1braise
Pronunciation: \ˈbrāz\
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): braised; brais·ing
Etymology: French braiser, from braise live coals, from Old French breze, probably of Germanic origin; akin to Swedish brasa fire
Date: 1797

: to cook slowly in fat and little moisture in a closed pot

Braised dishes are great recession food. Braising in fat typically means that you are cooking using the fat already in the meat and slowly rendering that fat out of the meat. Therefore, by definition, you are choosing meat cuts that are significantly lower in price than their lean counterparts. Moreover, if you make ahead of time, rendering out the fat during cooking, refrigerating and then skimming the congealed fat, you can even make this cut as healthy as its expensive brother. And then of course there is the recession perfect result - comfort food.

I promised to deliver on braised short ribs, and I will, but first there have been numerous requests for chicken braises, so here are my favs. Remember to feel free to use the comment section of the site to make these kinds of requests - they are always welcome.

Picatta Braised Chicken Thighs

This recipe is my version of Grace Parisi's from Food and Wine Magazine in 2008 - slightly less zesty. I like to serve it as the magazine did, straight in the braising pan in the center of the table. It works really well with loose polenta, mashed potatoes, or most other starches light in flavor so that you don't lose the subtle flavor of this beautiful dish. Best of all, its super easy, can be started before your guests come and thrown in the oven while you put the kids to bed, change into something less mommy, and start your first glass of wine (because though you normally wait for the guests, oops, the wine is already opened for the chicken.)

8 chicken thighs
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 cup flour
sea salt - teaspoon
pepper - 1/2 teaspoon
1 shallot diced
2 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
fresh thyme, 5 sprigs leaves only
1/2 teaspoon herb de provence
1 tablespoon capers
1 teaspoons lemon zest
2 cups white wine - not a chard, something lighter and crisper like sauvignon blanc
1 cup chicken broth

Wash and dry the thighs and roll in the flour which is mixed with the salt and pepper. Dice the shallots and crush the garlic. Take out a skillet and put on medium heat, adding the butter and olive oil. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the shallots in the pan and stir for one minute, and turn to medium-high. Brown the chicken thighs, skin side down first, roughly five to seven minutes each side, setting aside on a plate. Pour out half of the fat, keeping the bits in the pan. Pour in the wine and deglaze the pan, stirring to get all the shallots and chicken tasty bits off the side. Bring wine to a simmer and reduce by roughly half, (about 7 minutes) then adding the chicken broth, herbes, garlic, and capers. Let come to a simmer again and re-add the chicken and the single bay leaf. Place in the oven and cook for 45-50 minutes or until the chicken passes the braising test - falling off the bone with a fork. Remove the chicken onto a dish and cover. Place braising pan on the stove top on high to reduce the liquids by a third to a glaze. Add chicken back into the pan and serve.

IPA Chicken Wings

This recipe was developed from a friends absolutely perfect red wine soy glaze chicken wings that always disappear instantly at cocktail parties. My take is a fall version that balances bitter flavor with the sweet for a more football flavor (picture the Pats playing in the dark with snow falling circa 2001). I like to use Geary's Ale from Portland, Maine or Harpoon IPA. This recipe is slightly less of a braise then above and while really simple, must be watched very carefully at the end, as they can quickly over-glaze and burn. This is a great tailgating item (for anything from football or a U2 concert) to make ahead of time and serve at room temperature later!

36 chicken wings (ask the butcher to cut the tips off)
12 oz. bottle - or 1 1/2 cups of IPA
3/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 clove garlic crushed

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Arrange chicken wings skin side down in a large roasting pan or baking pan with raised sides. In a saucepan, on high heat, pour the beer and bring to a simmer for about 7-10 minutes, until the beer almost boils down to half of its volume. Then add soy sauce, honey, sugar, ginger and garlic and reduce heat to medium low, stirring frequently until the sugar dissolves and it begins to form a runny syrup - about another 5-7 minutes. Pour over the wings evenly - making sure that the sauce gets under the wings that are facing skin side down. Bake for 45 minutes then turn wings and bake for another 30 minutes. Check here and start watching closely for another 15-30 minutes, pulling it out when the liquid is sticky and syrupy, the meat pulls off very easily with a fork and before a crust appears on the top of the skin.

For a more Asian flavor, check out this Malaysian Glazed Wing recipe from Chef Zak Pelaccio of Fatty Crab in New York from Food and Wine 2007. It melts in your mouth leaving a small fire.

Friday, October 16, 2009

October Momma Like: Faux Flora


I'm not a big fan of the houseplant - fake or real I seem to always get it wrong. That said, who can resist a beautiful freshly cut vase of flowers? Someone on a budget - that's who. At a friend's house recently I was gaping in jealousy at her peonies when she revealed that they were not real but from Gump's San Francisco. Many of the flowers on the site were beautiful but not great on the budget - but these Japenese Maple branches come in at $18 each and can be paired with a flea market clay pitcher for great fall effect. Of course, if you have a beautiful Japenese maple or bittersweet bush, you can do it for even less.

Food: October 2009: Foliage Stews and Braising

CAUTION: If you are a veggie, or one of those women who doesn't eat red meat because of "health reasons," please stop reading. I feel about red meat how most men feel about sex... and well, red meat. So if you are a veggie, this is about to get gross. If not, read on.

Nothing says comfort food like braised beef short ribs on the side of polenta in front of football game, or Guinness lamb stew over mashed potatoes, in front of a fire, under a blanket. Braising and stew cooking can be time consuming, but they are simple recipes that have high rewards for merely the act of waiting, the perfect compliment for a day when you were not planning on leaving the house anyway.

A delicious stew or braise is dependent on two things. The first, as silly as it sounds, is the oven. As fifties retro-chic as a crock pot may appear, do not be fooled. The convection oven makes a much more consistent heat source (meaning any point in the oven is as hot as any other given point which allows for a perfect slow cook). The intention of a braise or stew is to have the meat fat rendered out of the meat in a slow melt, allowing the meat to tenderize to the point that it falls apart at the touch, and this can be best achieved with the oven.

The second necessary requirement is patience. Every person who first braises makes the classic mistake. After a couple of hours of cooking, they taste the meat, decide it is done, or even over-done, and take it out. Consequently they end up eating really tough stuff. A braise or stew cooks just beyond that point you think it should and suddenly, the meat loosens to perfection. That said, if you possess an oven and patience, these recipes are extremely forgiving.

In the recipes that follow, you will note that the stews require more prep time than the braises, because of the addition of vegetables, but that all the of recipes are remarkably similar, so once you tackle one, the rest will come easy. These are great recipes to start when your kids are in school, playing soccer, or napping, and then let cook in the oven while you play with them in the afternoon. One you do the work on the stove top, you are walking away from the oven for 3-4 hours and doing nothing but enjoying your fall. Keep in mind that these dishes are like lasagna and a great hair cut - they are even better the next day, so if you want to make them the day before and put them in the fridge overnight - GO FOR IT. Last but not least, do not go for low fat meat in these recipes. The fat is a necessary component to creating the flavor. However, the fat is not necessary in keeping the flavor, so if you are health conscious, or want to avoid a tummy ache for you and your guests, make them in advance, refrigerate for at least three hours and them skim the fat that has congealed at the top before reheating and serving.

Finally, though they make great dinners, don't be afraid to throw them in small Pyrex containers and put them in the freezer so that they can be thawed for a great packable lunch for work for mom or dad.

Part 1: The Fall Day Beef Stew: serves 6 or 8 with mashed potatoes
3 lbs. all natural chuck beef cut into 1 inch cubes (or pre-cut "stew" meat)
1/2 package bacon, nitrate free, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups Cabernet Sauvignon or red zin
3 cups beef stock (I could say homemade, but come on)
2 vidalia onions
2 garlic cloves
1 cup flour plus 2 tablespoons
5-6 carrots, medium to large sized, chopped roughly and chunky
4 parsnips, peeled and chopped as above
1 turnip, chopped as above
10 fresh sprigs oregano, leaves only, chopped
5 sprigs sage, leaves only chopped
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons tomato paste
sea salt to taste

Step 1: 15 minutes work time: Wash, dry, and cut up beef pieces. Dice bacon. Chop all onions, crush garlic and set aside. Place the flour in a plate with high edges, or a flat bowl. Put a medium large to large stock pot that is oven safe onto the stove top and medium heat with olive oil until oil is translucent but before it starts to smoke. Add diced bacon. Cook until crispy. Remove the bacon, set aside, and pour out half of the fat in the pan, replacing it on the stove with high heat.
Add the butter to the pan and place on high heat. Take a handful of the beef and dredge it with flour in the bowl, placing it in the hot pan. Carefully watch the beef as it browns about a minute each side. Don't walk away here so you don't burn. Take the meat out and place it on a plate, keeping all the juices in the pan until all the meat is browned. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.
Step 2: 20-25 minutes work time:
Put the onions in the pan, adding more olive oil if necessary, with a pinch of salt and cook on medium low for about 10-12 minutes, allowing the onions to caramelize a bit. While the onions are cooking, chop the carrots, parsnips, turnip and set aside and herbs and set aside separately. When the onions are translucent and sweet, add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds, then adding the veggies, two tablespoons flour and a pinch of salt stirring for 5 minutes allowing them to soften. Take all the veggies out of the pot but keeping the oil. Try not to over-salt here as the bacon grease will be naturally high in sodium.
With the pan still on high heat, add the 2 cups of red wine and deglaze the pan. Stir so you get all the juicy bits off the bottom of the pan and let it come to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes, letting the wine reduce and the alcohol to be burned off. Add the beef stock, vegetables, meat, bacon and herbs to the pot and bring to a boil.
Step 3: 2.5 - 3 hours cook time.
Turn off the heat, placing the bay leaf in the stew, cover and put in the preheated oven. Let cook for about 2 and a half to three hours, until the meat falls apart with a fork.
Serve over mashed potatoes or just as is. (You will see I did not put potatoes in the stew as they tend to get starchy and lose their flavor punch in the broth. If you are a potato fan, the mashed potatoes are a great side to this dish).

The Half Day Ticket - Ski Day Lamb Stew:
This is so easy - just follow the above recipe and make the following substitutions: Guinness for Red Wine, Rosemary for Oregano, remove the sage and add two more crushed garlic cloves for a total of 4. I like to make this one on a ski day because not everyone likes the smell of lamb, so you can be out of the house while its cooking! (legal proviso - of course you would never leave the house with the oven on...)

Part 2: The Braised Short Rib - Coming Soon!