Archive for August, 2008

No Trash Lunch

[This is also published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites]

Monday was the first day of school. Yes, school starts in August in our district, which always seems crazy to me as I used to start school after Labor Day when I was a kid. This means that instead of determining what my kids will eat for lunch at around noon, I am now frantically making lunches at 7:30 in the morning.

Although making a school lunch may seem like a no brainer (PB&J with a banana, anyone?), a lot has changed since my mom threw cellophane-wrapped sandwiches into my childhood Scooby Doo lunch box. For one thing, most lunch boxes are no longer made of tin, but polyester and nylon. For another, people are now starting to take note of how much trash is created during the school lunch hour.

Did you know that a typical American school kid’s lunch generates 67 pounds of trash a year? When I first heard about this statistic, I was amazed. I then did a little math and realized that a class of 20 kids produces 1,340 pounds of trash in the school year, and was horrified when I further calculated that a school with 200 kids (which is a small school), creates 133,400 pounds of school lunch trash a year!

The day-to-day issues of dealing with all this trash, combined with a desire to help students become more environmentally aware, led the administrators and parents club at my children’s school to initiate a No Trash Lunch program. What, you may ask, is a no trash lunch? Well, it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a lunch that doesn’t use anything you would throw away — no baggies, plastic sporks, juice boxes, or paper napkins. I started making no trash lunches two years ago, and although I sometimes slip and use a baggy in moments of desperation — usually when the containers aren’t clean — I’ve found that packing a no trash lunch can be just as convenient as making one that generates piles of trash.

But making a no trash lunch isn’t just about giving up baggies and paper napkins. The fad of toting a disposable water bottle has also thankfully fallen out of vogue. Kids are now being taught that those little plastic bottles of Crystal Geyser and Evian clog up land fills and are bad for the environment. The current trend is to use stainless steel water bottles. I’ve seen these available everywhere from REI and Whole Foods, to the L.L. Bean web site and our school’s parents club. Although the stainless steel bottles cost more than the plastic variety, they will last for years and are not made of plastics that could potentially leach chemicals into your child’s water. Many reusable plastic bottles are also great, but be sure to purchase those with a 1, 2, 4 or 5 on them as they are thought to be safer.

So if you’re ready to give up baggies and plastic bottles, here are some tips that might help. Once you invest in the basics, a no trash lunch can be just as fast and easy to make as one full of waste.

Making a No Trash Lunch

  1. Buy a reusable lunch box. I like the ones made out of Nylon and Polyester that can be washed.
  2. Get some sandwich and snack-sized containers. These are sold everywhere from Target and Longs, to IKEA.
  3. Purchase a reusable water container. I like the stainless steel ones, but these can be pricey. If you get a plastic bottle, try to purchase one that does not have the numbers 3, 6, or 7 imprinted on the bottom as these are most likely to leach chemicals. The best choices are those with the numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 (although these are often more difficult to find).
  4. Give your child a cloth napkin instead of a paper one.
  5. If your child will need a fork or spoon, include a metal one that can be taken home, washed and reused. You can buy inexpensive sets of four at most drug stores.
  6. If your child likes warm food, purchase a reusable thermos.

If you have any other ideas for how to create a No Trash Lunch, I’d love to hear them.

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Fresh Blueberry Muffins

[Published also on KQED’s Bay Area Bites]

When I was growing up, Happy Days was my favorite show on TV. In addition to thinking The Fonz was the coolest and Potsie was funny, I loved when Richie Cunningham would sing “I found my thrill, on blueberry hill…” Whenever he would start to croon, I would day dream about walking on a big hill full of blueberries, picking fruit and eating all along the way. I was a kid and so didn’t realize the Fats Domino song was being played to show that Ritchie was feeling “frisky.” All I knew was that I desperately wanted to live near a blueberry hill. It seemed unjust that I lived on a street named “Berryhill Drive” but had no access to fresh berries.

When I see blueberries, I still sometimes hum Mr. Domino’s song. I’ve been doing this a lot lately as we are now in the height of blueberry season. In addition to stuffing those plump, round, bluish-purple balls of juicy delight into tarts and pies, I have been making fresh blueberry muffins for breakfast.

Although you can easily use frozen blueberries for muffins, there’s no reason to do that now, when berries are fresh, in season, and moderately inexpensive. Frozen berries are for the winter, when you have to pay little buckets of gold for a half pint of fresh ones. Plus, fresh berries exude bursts of sweetness that are unmatched by their frozen cousins.

Although I sometimes like streusel toppings, when I have the luxury of fresh seasonal blueberries, I don’t want to overshadow the berry flavor with a thick lid of butter and sugar. Crowning each muffin with just a sprinkle of brown sugar is a more simple and straightforward way to get the crunchy muffin top I want, while still highlighting all that blueberry goodness inside.

Here’s my recipe for fresh blueberry muffins. It’s fast and easy enough that you can whip it up in the morning for breakfast. It’s also a great way to enjoy blueberries in the height of the season. I imagine Mrs. Cunningham served these to Ritchie all the time.

Fresh Blueberry Muffins

Makes 12 medium muffins

Ingredients

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 tsp baking soda

2 eggs

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup sour cream

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 Tbsp milk

1 cup fresh blueberries

1/4 cup brown sugar

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Oil your muffin pan or set in paper muffin liners.
  3. In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the sugar into the eggs and mix in the sour cream, vegetable oil and milk.
  5. Add in the blueberries.
  6. Incorporate the dry mixture into the wet ingredients and gently stir, being sure not to over mix the flour.
  7. Divide the batter into the muffin pan. I like to spoon out the batter using an ice cream scoop.
  8. Sprinkle brown sugar on top of each muffin.
  9. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 – 20 minutes (depending on whether or not you have a convection oven and how hot your oven runs).
  10. When you can cleanly run a toothpick through the middle muffin, pull them out and left them cool for few minutes before diving in.

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Making Homemade Pasta

The following is also posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites page.

I only make homemade pasta a few times a year, but when I do, I am always surprised at how easy it is. One thing I never forget is how good it tastes. Making pasta from scratch is always worth the effort as the freshness of the flavor and the silkiness of the texture exceeds that of any noodle you can buy, unless you’re lucky enough to have a good local shop near your house that makes it daily.

Contrary to popular belief, making pasta from scratch isn’t difficult. Although the process can take a while and your arms will get a workout kneading the dough, the steps themselves are not only basic, they’re pretty fun. And, if you have some friends or kids around to help, you can all have a great time making unique shapes and rolling out the dough together. There’s no need to buy a pasta maker. I’ve had one for years, but have only used it once as my rolling pin does a great job and it doesn’t take that long to roll the dough out by hand.

Following is the recipe I use when making pasta along with some suggestions for varying it. Please keep in mind that pasta-making is not an exact science. You can include extra eggs for a richer dough; make different shapes and thicknesses to match your sauce (or simply to have fun); or add herbs, lemon zest, pureed vegetables, squid ink, or whatever sounds good. It’s best to first become comfortable with the basic recipe, but once you do, there are no limits.

I’ve also included one of my favorite pasta recipes at the end: Fettuccini with Heirloom Tomatoes, Fresh Basil, Ricotta Cheese, and Parmesan. When tomatoes are in season, this is a great way to capture their flavor in a warm meal without cooking the fresh flavor and plumpness out of them. The ricotta then provides a creaminess to the pasta that I really love.

Mangia!

Homemade Pasta

Serves 4-8 people (depending on how hungry you all are)

3 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour

4 – 6 eggs (the more eggs you add, the richer the dough)

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp olive oil

1 Tbsp warm water

Preparing the Dough

A. By Hand

  1. Set flour on a marble or wooden counter or board, making a well in the center.
  2. In a bowl, mix the eggs, salt and olive oil.
  3. Pour the egg mixture into the well and slowly incorporate the flour into the egg, mixing everything together as you go along.
  4. Add the warm water slowly if you need to moisten the dough (I almost always do this). Sometimes you may need it all, sometimes you will only need a bit.
  5. Collect the mixture into a ball.

B. Using a Mixer with a Dough Hook

  1. Place the flour into your mixing bowl.
  2. In a separate bowl, mix the eggs, salt and olive oil.
  3. Turn the mixer on low and then slowly pour the egg mixture into the bowl, incorporating the egg into the flour.
  4. Add the warm water slowly if you need to moisten the dough (I almost always do this). Sometimes you may need it all, sometimes you will only need a bit.
  5. When the egg is added into the flour and you have a rough dough, take everything out of the bowl and set it on a marble or wooden counter or board.

Collect the mixture into a ball on a marble or wooden counter or board.

C. Using a Food Processor

  1. Place the flour into your processor’s bowl.
  2. In a separate bowl, mix the eggs, salt and olive oil.
  3. Pulse the processor while slowly pouring the egg mixture into the bowl and incorporating it into the flour.
  4. Add the warm water slowly if you need to moisten the dough (I almost always do this). Sometimes you may need it all, sometimes you will only need a bit.
  5. When the egg is added into the flour and you have a rough dough, take everything out of the bowl and set it on a marble or wooden counter or board.

Kneading the Dough

  1. Knead the dough for 10-15 minutes. When you’re done, it should be smooth with everything fully incorporated. Be sure not to stop too soon (even if your arms are tired) as your dough won’t stretch well later and you’ll regret it.
  2. Let the dough rest in a bowl covered with plastic wrap for at least an hour on the counter or up to a day in the refrigerator.

Making the Pasta

A. Rolling out the Dough by Hand

  1. Line a cookie sheet with paper towels that have been sprinkled with flour.
  2. Spread some flour onto your counter or board and set the dough on top of it.
  3. Cut a 1/2-inch slice off your dough ball, and keep the rest covered with the plastic wrap.
  4. Using your rolling pin, roll your dough to your desired thickness (I like it on the thin side) and then cut into whatever shape you’d like. I think pappardelle, tagliatelle, and fettuccini are the easiest to cut.
  5. Set the cut noodles onto the cookie sheet, being sure not to clump them too much. Sprinkle on more flour if needed.
  6. Continue until you are out of dough.

B. Making Individual Shapes by Hand

  1. Line a cookie sheet with paper towels that have been sprinkled with flour.
  2. Spread some flour onto your counter or board and set the dough on top of it.
  3. Cut a 1/2-inch slice off your dough ball, and keep the rest covered with the plastic wrap.
  4. Make whatever shapes you’d like (I think orecchiette is the easiest as you just make little balls and then press your knuckle into them), being sure not to make your shapes too thick or too big as they won’t cook well. About.com has a nice <a href=”http://italianfood.about.com/od/pastabasics/ig/The-Pasta-Shapes-Gallery/”&gt; pasta gallery</a> you can look at if you’re interested.
  5. Set the cut noodles onto the cookie sheet, being sure not to clump them too much an sprinkling on more flour if needed.
  6. Continue until you are out of dough.

Note: I won’t provide pasta-maker instructions as I rarely use mine and each machine comes with a helpful manual.

Cooking the Pasta

  1. Add the pasta to salted boiling water. Be sure to have a nice full pot so there’s enough room for the pasta to move around and cook in separate batches if your pot isn’t big enough.
  2. Boil for 3-5 minutes, or until the pasta seems cooked through.
  3. The pasta should be firm, but cooked through, when you take it out. Just be sure not to let it get mushy.
  4. Serve with your favorite sauce.

Freezing the Pasta

An entire batch usually makes two full dinners in our house, so I freeze the other half for later use. Just follow these simple directions:

  1. Take your fresh (uncooked) noodles still lying on the cookie sheet and cover them with a layer of paper towels.
  2. Stick the cookie sheet in the freezer for about an hour.
  3. When the noodles are frozen, place them in a freezer bag or container and freeze until ready for use.

Fettuccini with Heirloom Tomatoes, Fresh Basil, Ricotta Cheese, and Parmesan

Makes 4 Servings

Half a batch of freshly prepared and cooked fettuccini

1 -2 pounds of heirloom tomatoes chopped

1/2 cup fresh ricotta cheese

3 Tbsp chopped basil

Olive oil

2 Tbsp freshly grated Parmesan Cheese

Preparation

  1. Add the cooked pasta to a large bowl, adding enough olive oil to thinly coat the noodles.
  2. Add the tomatoes, basil, ricotta cheese and Parmesan and toss.
  3. Season with salt and pepper if desired (I find that the Parmesan often adds enough saltiness to the dish, but you may need more).
  4. Serve and enjoy.

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Eggplant Your Kids Will Love

I am so tired of hearing people say they hate eggplant. Children, particularly, seem hard pressed to even try it. Maybe it’s the name, or the fact that without properly prepping it, this vegetable is just a big loafy sponge. It can also turn into a soggy mess if it’s not cooked correctly. So when people say they don’t like the taste, I figure they’ve just had a bad experience with it.

When my nieces were visiting recently, they said they didn’t like eggplant. I found this hard to believe as they live near my mother, who is the queen of eggplant, and I know she’s made her famous eggplant parmesan for them numerous times. But after a little questioning, I found out that what they really didn’t like was the texture of unbreaded eggplant. Ready to defend the honor of this beloved vegetable, I set to work to find a recipe they would love.

Luckily my mother was also visiting so I had two brains working on this problem instead of just one. When one of my nieces saw my zucchini post on BAB, she said the fried flowers looked good. My mother then remembered that her dad (my grandfather) had loved eggplant dipped in only seasoned flower and egg and then lightly fried in olive oil. I figured this was a great way to introduce kids to eggplant as the simple batter recipe kept the spices to a minimum and the crunchiness of the fried eggplant would negate any squishy texture the eggplant would naturally provide.

Both my nieces and daughters loved this dish. We actually had to slice up a second eggplant to make more for the demanding fans. Everyone also had a lot of fun preparing it with me. So if your little ones insist they hate eggplant (or if you have an adult in the same boat), try this recipe. It’s fun to make with kids and a surefire way to create eggplant lovers in your house.

Simply Breaded and Fried Eggplant

1 medium-large eggplant
1 cup flour
2 eggs
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp salt

Preparation

  1. Peel eggplant and then cut it into 1/4-inch thick slices.
  2. Lay sheets of paper towel onto a cookie sheet or large colander (I prefer the latter) and lay enough eggplant slices down to cover the surface. Generously sprinkle salt onto the eggplant and then cover with another layer of paper towels. Repeat until you’re out of eggplant.
  3. Let eggplant slices sit for 30-40 minutes.
  4. Heat a frying pan (not nonstick) on medium high. Add enough olive oil to cover the bottom with a 1/4-inch of oil.
  5. Beat eggs with milk in a large flatish bowl and add 1/2 tsp salt to season it. Then mix the oregano and the other 1/2 tsp salt into the flour on a plate.
  6. When oil is heated, press paper towels into the eggplant to soak up any extra liquid and then start dipping the eggplant slices into the flour mixture. Shake off an excess flour and then dip into the egg mixture to coat thoroughly.
  7. Lay battered eggplant into the pan in batches, being sure not to crowd the pan.
  8. Fry each side until golden brown. If the pan starts to get too hot, just lower the heat.
  9. Serve immediately.

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Homemade Mayonnaise

Mayonnaise is a standard sandwich and salad dressing ingredient, but what most people don’t realize is that it can be delicious if made from scratch. Americans have gotten used to just popping open a jar and spreading it on bread, adding it to recipes, and making salads with it. Although it’s possible to get a decent jarred variety, homemade mayonnaise offers such an upgrade in taste and texture that it’s really worth making yourself, especially for a special occasion.

The great thing about homemade mayonnaise is that you can vary the ingredients to suit the food you’re serving it with. From thyme and rosemary to mustard or champagne vinegar, small additions to this simple condiment often end up adding great flavor to the finished product.It’s just as easy to add herbs or a dash of mustard as not, as you’re simply pureeing everything in a blender anyway, so you should feel free to experiment freely.

Mayonnaise is ridiculously easy to make once you know how, although I’ve found a couple of methods make for a better end product:

1. Drizzle in your oil slowly and stop adding when you’ve reached the desired thickness.

2. Remember that the mayonnaise will thicken once refrigerated.

3. Using only olive oil can make the mayonnaise have a strong olive taste, which may be good for some dishes, but not for others.

4. I like to add both some lemon and white vinegar, particularly when using olive oil in the recipe.

5. Add the herbs with the egg so they are nicely minced and incorporated into the final product.

6. I like to use organic eggs as they will remain uncooked and so pose a lower salmonella risk. That said, pasteurized eggs are also readily available from the grocery store.

Here’s the recipe. I hope it’s simplicity will inspire you to make a batch yourself.

Homemade Mayonnaise

1 egg

1cup oil (I like using 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil and 1/2 cup canola oil, but only canola oil is fine. You can also use all olive oil, but it will have a stronger taste)

1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 Tbsp white vinegar (I like sherry or champagne vinegar and usually add it only if using olive oil)

1 tsp herbs (I prefer thyme, but any herb is fine)

salt and pepper to taste

Preparation

1. Place egg, lemon juice and vinegar in a blender.

2. As the mixture purees, slowly drizzle in the oil until you get the consistency you desire. Remember that it should be slightly runny as it will firm up in the refrigerator.

3. Season with salt and pepper and use as desired.

Note 1: Anything made with raw eggs has a risk of carrying salmonella.

Note 2: Please be sure to refrigerate any dishes prepared with the mayonnaise and the mayonnaise itself to avoid spoilage.

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