Monday, February 21, 2011

Sweet Potato "Chips" & The Terrible Twos.

A healthy snack: Sweet Potato Chips
Roman is almost two?!   It's strange how that sounds like news to me.  How is it possible that it was almost 3 years ago that I was pregnant with him?  How is it possible that in less than a year he'll be a big brother?  I still get excited when he says "hello" to me, like he's always understood the meaning, always understood the norms of being a real, complete human being.  Yes, the whole business of growing up is amazing to go through yourself, but I have to say it's significantly more amazing to watch. And I also have to concur with the millions who have said it before me: children change you.  And they definitely do teach you too - patience, love beyond any original concept you ever had of it, more patience, and childlike wonder and joy.  It's part of life's plan, I think, for humans to have children, because it keeps us fresh, young, and excited about the things that make life worth cookies, and ice cream and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Oh, and McDonald's salty, delicious French fries.  

Wait, no, that's just a list of the only things my nearly-two-year-old seems interested in consuming.  And not that he has any of them very often.  He just cherishes their memory as if their culinary fingerprint were permanently imprinted on his budding palate.  And if he doesn't get them when requested, he has no qualms about throwing terrible little tantrums that come and go at the drop of a hat, no matter where and with whom we are.  This from the child whose favorite food used to be broccoli and cherry tomatoes and apple sauce?!  

I'm putting it down to a phase, and one that I will not give into.  But nevertheless, I've had to come to some serious realizations: like the fact that time-out works most of the time but in certain situations so does a swift smack on the butt, like the fact that talking honestly and frankly to your children is usually the single best preventative measure on every level (even with a 2 year old), and like the fact that no matter how bratty, I can't help but laugh and love some of the mischievous and misguided things my son does.  But the most important of these realizations of late is one that I had refused to admit to myself, even before I had kids, which is that: It's true, the terrible twos are....pretty terrible.

I'm convinced that even the most "perfect" and "angelic" of children, the most "obedient," the most "helpful," reach a point of mental transformation right around the time of their 2nd birthdays, or shortly before it (in my case several months).  The desire to be independent oscillates between being terrifying and entirely necessary to them.  They don't know why but they suddenly have impulses, agendas, and ideas they don't know how to measure, control or properly carry out - and yet they do.  They can't put their shoes on, but they HAVE to try.  They can't be outside by themselves, but they WON'T hold your hand.  They want THAT car RIGHT now, and if they don't get it, hell breaks loose (until they are distracted by the truck next to them).  And worst of all, things like getting dressed, brushing their teeth, and, wth Roman especially, eating, become battle grounds.  Although I will say he's pretty good about looking both ways when crossing the street. :)
No, he won't wear the blue shirt today.  He wants his red Lightening McQueen one.  And he doesn't seem to care that the brown leather Osh Kosh shoes go better.  He MUST wear his wellies, at all times, every day.  Just in case there's puddles somewhere in this desert home of ours.  I literally have to restrain him to brush his teeth (sorry but I'm not letting this one go).  And dinner is like a game of go fish at a National Park - every single bite is scrutinized for size, maturity, and appeal - and he throws back most of them.  No, this one has zucchini, screw that.  This one doesn't have enough noodles - what're you nuts?!  No, he wants BROTH, not soup with vegetables!  Man, what is this?!?  I'm going nuts.  Where's my sweet, quiet, docile, eating-machine child?!

In desperation I've been harassing all my mom friends about healthy but fun foods they feed their children.  I've gotten some responses that got me to thinking and trying new things.  Today's recipe, Sweet Potato "Chips" is one that my best friend, Monica, gave me.  She's keeping her daughter vegetarian for now, so I like hearing the stuff she feeds Julia because it is usually really different from what I feed Roman, given that it doesn't involve meat. *gleam of the fangs*

These chips are delicious.  I don't know how well they would keep so you really have to make them the day of and use up or they'll lose their warm crunchiness.  But otherwise, they're a great way of fooling little two-year-old tyrants into eating some healthy stuff when the going gets tough.

* * *

Sweet Potato "Chips"
Serves 1-2 children

1 large or 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp butter, melted
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt

1. Preheat oven to 450F or 225C.  

2. Mix all the ingredients except sweet potato in a small bowl.  Then, lay the sweet potato rounds on a baking sheet in rows.  You should have about 25-30 rounds total.

3. Using a pastry brush, brush a light coating of the butter-oil mixture onto the rounds, on both sides.  Do not be too generous as the chips will get soggy if they have too much oil on them.

4. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until brown in spots and nicely roasted.  The chips should feel dry on the outside but still be a little soft on the inside.  If they are soggy, keep baking.

5. Allow to cool briefly and serve to little ones who will think they are having a decadent snack on your watch. :)

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Roman Lately.

Floating in the Persian Gulf: Abu Dhabi, Corniche Beach
February 2011

Al Ain Zoo, Al Ain, UAE
February 2011

Making Daddy's Valentine
February 2011

Meeting a Camel
Banyan Tree Resort, Ras Al Khaimah, UAE
January 2011

Playing with his Truck
January 2011

Connecticut, USA
December 2010

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Lovely Memories & Chocolate Cream Pie: Happy Valentine's Day!

Chocolate Cream Pie: Successful Man-Present

Happy Valentine's Day!

I feel no shame in saying that I am one of the people in the world who celebrates Valentine's Day and expects my significant other to do the same (not that he dislikes it :)).  

I see nothing wrong with a day dedicated to love - preferably Romantic, but platonic, familial, and cosmic are all acceptable on this day too - and happiness.  I love going out for a deliciously romantic dinner, being given flowers, and maybe even chocolates too.  I love having a day to remember why I married my best friend, why I decided to actually promise I'd live the rest of my personal forever dedicated to one other human being, instead of running rampant in a self-centered and probably semi-drunk state.  

Unfortunately for men, I think girls generally tend to get the lion's share during Valentine's Day (blame it on tradition, blame it on the man - it is what it is) which is why I am always at a little bit of a loss as to what I should get / do for Matt.  Is it too weird for me to buy him a box of chocolates?  Last year I solved that problem by buying him a giant pile of Extra Large Cadbury Fruit & Nut Bars (his personal kryptonite, nightly snack, and the only food he never gets sick of eating, or so he claims) which I wrapped in red crepe paper.  I thought was a nice, more-masculine version of a somewhat female-stereotyped traditional V-day favorite.  This year I decided to go the homemade route: I will conquer Matt once more by seducing his taste buds with a home made *brief drum roll* Chocolate Cream Pie.  

This pie is usually a creature of the semi-homemade persuasion.  Whenever I've had it, it's been made with Jell-o chocolate pudding and from a store-bought crust.  Most people consider it a fast, easy cheat-sheet to above-average dessert.  Luckily, the real thing is not much harder to make fully from scratch than the somewhat forgettable semi-homemade one, but with quality ingredients and some preference-tweaks, it is significantly more delicious.

But now for my small-but-loving bone to pick: This top 5 list is going out to all the Valentine's Day Humbugs out there - the ones who call it a "corporate-created-holiday" and refuse to buy Hallmark cards or wear anything red on the 14th.  I think there is a small but definite little corner in my psyche's conception of Hell reserved for you, right there next to the freaks who think somewhere in an underground bunker / sky scraper there's 11 angry white men in suits sitting around a conference table ruling the world via Blackberry.  Weirdos.  Go get some happiness and leave the rest of us alone. :P

* * *

Top 5 Lovely Memories This Year & Beyond
or, things that will make me smile this February 14th

5.The Answering Machine Message.
This is really random.  Matt and I have had the same answering machine message since the first month we moved to London in January 2007 - it even survived the move to Abu Dhabi.  And it's a special message that always makes me laugh and warms my heart each time I hear it, or each time someone laughs when they hear it and consequently leaves a message.  I would be lying if I didn't say I occasionally listen to it for no reason, and sometimes I enjoy not picking up the phone just to hear it.

It's funny and sweet because it involves me blasting "Don't Stop Me Now" - my favorite song by Queen - while I then record a brief message muffled with maniacal laughter as Matt screams "No!" in the background -also laughing, though incredulously - because he'd just specifically shot down the idea of me recording a Queen-themed answering machine message.  

But he obviously secretly loved it.  And we've never changed it since.

4. Beauty and the Beast
My sister and I grew up watching Disney movies like there was no tomorrow.  My sister's favorite was Beauty and the Beast, and so now that Ava, her daughter, is two, she is also obsessed with it.  When we were visiting them in TX during Christmas this part year Ava could sing the refrain to the theme song: "Tale as old as time, Song as old as rhyme, Beauty and the Beast."

One day, she and Roman were standing in the living room watching Beauty and the Beast for the nth time that day, when she suddenly grabbed Roman in a ball-dancing pose and started forcing him to dance while she sang the theme song, just like Belle and Beast on the tv screen.  Roman was a little taken aback, but after a while, he joined in.  Ava proclaimed herself Belle, leaving the beastly title to the little man who'd won it long before.

When we got home I discovered that my generally somewhat quiet beast child could also sing the theme song, and ask for his cousin "Aywa" with arms stretched out when he did it.  :)  That's love if ever I've seen it.

3. Happy Birthday To Me.
This past boxing day I turned *gasp* 30.  We were in Texas visiting my little sister and her husband and I wasn't quite sure what we'd do to celebrate, if anything much.  Little to my knowledge, Matt had orchestrated a night of debaucherous karaoke at a local dive called Marina's that will not soon be forgotten.  
Somewhere between Matt singing "Happy Birthday" Marilyn -Monroe-style as the opening number, someone slapping down the giant silver blimp balloon in the middle of the dance floor, pretending to spank a top-hatted townie with whom I decided to dance to a Michael Jackson song, taking free kamakazi shots with Marina's half-Mexican, half-Russian American Airlines employee son who also works for the Mexican mafia (he showed us the tat), and getting a free 2011 Waffle House calendar AND pins (which we all wore proudly) from our awkward waitress at 3am, I had one of the best and most unforgettable birthdays in memory.  And it was all kept under wraps by one very thoughtful and hilarious husb.
2. He said "I Love You."
This may seem silly because I generally assume Roman loves me, but it was a really big deal when he actually said "I love you" to me for the first time last week.  I've been saying it to him numerous times daily since his birth (usually accompanied by bone-crushing hugs and slobbery-Mama kisses), and even though I knew someday, somehow he'd be able to say it back, nothing could prepare me for the magical, pixy-dust-filled moment when he did say it and gave me a huge hug and kiss back.   Being a mom is the best.

1. Rome.
I know I've gone on somewhat endlessly about our trip to Rome in November of last year, but it really was an emotional big deal for me.  One of my favorite things Matt and I did (spontaneously) throughout the trip was walk back to all the places we used to go as boyfriend and girlfriend in 2002.  And at every single one of those places we'd remember silly little things like what he said to me, or what I was wearing (that white dress) or he was wearing (that Red Sox hat), or how some idiot screwed up a presentation by cursing and I missed it because my eye was swollen to the size of a tennis ball thanks to my insisting that Matt pet the urban-horse-and-carriage horse because he'd never petted a horse before in his life (freak) and I was on the number 44 bus headed back to the centro at the time. *deep breath* Ah, good times.   

But actually, those moments were precious, because they were the moments in which Matt and I first got to know and love each other, and it's always important to remember that. That in particular.  And for the rest of your life.

EXTRA SPECIAL BONUS REASON:  Two and a half months ago we found out that in late September we'll be parents for the second time!  Bring on little creature number two, be it a girly or a boyly one :)

* * *

Chocolate Cream Pie

Serves 6-8

I made this pie by adapting this recipe on Epicurious.  The recipe only needed a few tweaks in my opinion: I doubled the amount of whipped cream I put on top (and whipped it until it held stiff peaks instead of soft ones), and I used half bittersweet chocolate and half dark chocolate, and found it rich but delicious.  I also used Oreo cookies (icing removed) for the crust and thought it was more flavorful than just using chocolate Nilla wafers would be.  Matt liked it so much, I'm making it again this week!  Winner.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Braised Fennel with Anchovy and Lemon

Braised Fennel with Anchovy and Lemon

Fennel is a vegetable I don't use enough.  And actually, I didn't discover it until I met Matt.  I first had it at his parents' house in a raw fennel salad they make - and I didn't like it.  I'm not particularly fond of Anis (and at that point in my life I also very much disliked fennel seeds) and when I first bit into the celery-like slices, I had to force myself to keep it down.  Not because it wasn't a tasty salad, but because it was a flavor I was used to hating.  I was too proud then (and probably still so now) to admit that I didn't like almost any food - much less something my then "maybe-one-day-in-laws" had just presented on the table, so I ate it up and smiled and moved on, wondering what the heck I'd just eaten and how I could avoid it for the rest of my life.

At that point I wasn't aware the fennel could also be cooked and served hot - something that almost guaranteed I'd like it better, being a sucker for hot food.  But somehow somewhere I had it again and it was cooked - probably in Italian food, as it's used ubiquitously in it - and I loved it.  Cooking fennel takes all the licorice-y bite out of it and if not overcooked keeps the crunch and texture.  I have never gone back to my fennel-hating ways, and I even eat it raw now.  Just comes to prove my theory on food that if at first you don't succeed, buy, buy again.

A Tale of Fennel Fronds and Lemon Zest

I was inspired to cook this dish by a braised fennel dish I had in a hotel a couple of weeks ago in Ras Al Khaimah, when Matt, Roman and I took a weekend trip there.  Overall it was a pretty mediocre dish, but the idea seemed brilliant to me (as limited as I am in my fennel repertoire): braise fennel!  Their version was just fennel in a somewhat bland tomato sauce and it was still pretty good.  I am making mine with some of my favorite Italian flavors: garlic, lemon, anchovy and pepperoncino.

It makes a great sidedish or could be beefed up to be a delicious main tossed in pasta, served warm over couscous or as part of a cold or warm salad - in fact, the juice the fennel is cooked in would make a wonderful salad dressing.  Even better, serve some steamed or braised fish over it for the perfect summer or winter meal. 

* * *

Braised Fennel with Anchovy and Lemon

Serves 2

2 large fennel bulbs, quartered, then sliced in half again into wedges
*reserve some of the fronds, minced
1 large juicy lemon (or 2 small ones), zested and juiced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp anchovy paste
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 cup chicken stock (or 1 bouillon cube + 1/2 cup water)
salt and pepper
4-5 tbsps olive oil

1. Heat half the oil in a pan at medium high heat; add the garlic and allow to fry for a little bit before adding 1/2 the chopped fennel.  Sautee the fennel until golden on both sides (5-6 minutes).  The garlic will turn brown, but turn the heat down if it starts to burn.  Remove the fennel to an oven-safe dish.

2. Add the other half of the oil and sautee the remaining fennel as above.  Remove to the same oven-proof dish.

3. Turn down the heat slighly, then add another tablespoon of oil to the pan and about 1 tbsp minced fennel fronds, the red pepper flakes, and the lemon zest to the remaining hot oil and garlic bits.  Then add the anchovy paste and lemon juice.  Sautee briefly.

4.  Add the chicken stock and some pepper.  Allow the mixture to reduce for 1-2 minutes.

5. Pour the mixture over the fennel in the oven-proof dish.  The liquid should come up about halfway.

6. Put in the oven to cook uncovered for about 30 minutes at 200C or 400F, or until the fennel is slightly golden at the top and the liquid is reduced by nearly half.

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

An American Classic: Homemade Funnel Cakes

Roman's First Funnel Cake - homemade too. :)
This Christmas was spent in Texas, where we ate many delicious things - many homemade, many not.  While a prime rib roast (which we made twice over Christmas break) does rank high on my all-time top foods, I was reminded of another food that is also among my favorites on my Texan culinary adventures - a more humble food for the masses, country-folk fare, you might even call it.  Fair-fare, if I may be so bold: The Classic American Funnel Cake.

Funnel cakes are a funny thing.  I had a couple on my trip home to Texas, but it was the first time I'd had them since I was a child.  They are truly a "niche" food - I have never heard of anyone making funnel cakes at home because they are reserved for that special experience when you go to a carnival or fair, or Six Flags as was the case with me.  Their smell is unmistakable, and their taste even moreso.  The whole experience of the carnival music, the flimsy paper plate, and powdered sugar flying all over your face is the thing that childhood memories are made of.  Which is why I simply couldn't get them out of my head after my Christmas-time binge.

Another issue of note with funnel cakes is that they are mostly associated with middle America.  When I decided to embark on a homemade funnel cake adventure, posted that I'd be making funnel cakes on Facebook a lot of my international friends commented in puzzlement - one of them was a pastry chef, mind you - with regards to what a "funnel" cake could be.  The Brit didn't know, the Kiwi didn't know, the Thai didn't was only my fellow American friends who lauded the inclination and stated plainly they'd consider flying to Abu Dhabi if I'd make them one.

Yet, there seems to be funnel cake-esque desserts all over the world.  According to Wikipedia:

"In America, funnel cakes were originally associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch region. In Austria the equivalent is called Strauben and is made and served similarly. In Slovenian cuisine they are called flancati (pron. FLAN-tsa-tee). In Finland the analogous tippaleipä is traditionally served at May Day (Vappu) celebrations. In Ripon, North Yorkshire, it is also known as "Fennel Funnel Pie". It is also rarely called "Elephant ears".[1] In the Indian subcontinent a similar dessert is called jalebi which has a somewhat chewy texture with a crystallized sugary exterior coating; in Iran this would be known as zulbia and is a popular dessert."

Who knew?  Then again, in all honesty, I can't say I'm terribly surprised.  Funnel cakes are so good that it figures the whole world has their own recipe.  Although I can't say I'd compare jalebi to American funnel cakes, personally. :) 
A very unfortunate funnel cake sign at a fair in Austin, TX
image credit
Funnel cakes are especially good when served piping hot and shared with a loved one.  And they pair admirably well with corndogs, another one of my favorite carnival foods.  This past December we all went to the Grapevine, TX Polar Express train ride with the kids and my sister and husband.  They got to meet Santa Claus, jump in a bouncy castle, and eat corndogs and funnel cakes.  I got to talking to the old couple in the funnel cake trailer, who told me they'd been making funnel cakes at all sorts of carnivals and fairs for years.  It turns out they use a mix they buy from a wholesaler (which makes sense) and can make, they said, up to 50,000 funnel cakes in one good weekend at at Texas fair.  Pretty impressive.  At $5.00 a pop, maybe we're in the wrong business? :)

I discovered a ridiculously easy recipe online that I adapted slightly and will share below.  And please also enjoy salivating over the pictures I took - do not attempt to fry funnel cakes while simultaneously taking action shots - fair warning. :)


Homemade Funnel Cakes
Recipe adapted from this one.

Makes 5-7, 6" Cakes

They're called funnel cakes because the dough is put into a funnel and released into a deep pan of hot oil in the traditional squiggly, wiggly shapes.  It's just as much fun to do as it is to watch, I've finally discovered after all these years of standing mesmerized at the fair.
The traditional topping for a carnival funnel cake is powdered sugar, but feel free to improvise.  And remember that the cake is meant to be cake-y, not crunchy, so don't be tempted to leave it too long in the oil.

1 egg
1 cup milk
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder

1. Beat egg and milk. Mix all other ingredients in a separate bowl and slowly add to the egg mixture, beating until smooth.

2. When ready to fry the cakes, use a cast iron pan (a small one works perfectly) and heat about 1-2 cups of vegetable oil (depending on the size of your pan) over medium-high heat until hot.d Test the temperature by dropping a drop of dough into the hot oil - if it fries right away without smoking, it's perfect.

Note: If you make the batter ahead of time and refrigerate, make sure to mix it very well and add a little extra milk if necessary or the batter will take forever to come out of the bottom of the funnel, and your cake will burn while you are trying to pour the rest of it.

The Action Shot.
3. Using a funnel, drop into hot oil working from center outwards in a web pattern. 

4. Cook for about 2-3 minutes or until golden on both sides.  Do not overcook - funnel cakes are meant to be more soft and cake-like than crunchy.

5. Sprinkle with powdered sugar (the traditional way to eat them) or drizzle with honey, caramel, nutella and serve immediately.  They also go great with ice cream and fresh fruit!
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