July 29, 2008

Salsa for families

I have talked about chilies before- sweet chili being a great side for a meal or jalapenos to top off a delicious dish. Now I want to draw your attention to the chilies with NO heat yet plenty of flavor. I have really become excited about Mexican cuisine and admire the simple process of extracting a deeper flavor when cooking the correct way with the right ingredient. I ask the guys at work questions all the time and they feed me with their childhood memories of mamma cooking in the kitchen. After putting some of their advise to the test I can understand why they still remember.
Yesterday I was playing around with the New Mexican Chile. It is a long deep red chili you buy in dried form just about anywhere in the States- for those of you in other countries, have a look and see if you can find it, it is well worth the search.
 The New Mexican Chili has a very deep yet slightly smoky flavor with no heat. When I was making the salsa above, I heated the chilies in a small fry pan without oil to blister the skin. When the skin was an off black color and it swelled with the heat I then soaked them in boiling water to soften. Discarding the seeds and stem I blended it with fresh tomato, garlic and lime juice. The taste- fresh yet earthy. Wondering the best way to enjoy eating the salsa, I decided to make a beef stew with tomato paste, beef, veggies and stock. I popped it in the oven to cook, then for the last 30 minutes I folded the salsa through, left it uncovered and waited to see what happened. 
WOW- The beef was as tender as can be, the flavor was rich with a hint of smoke, yet a touch of  citrus from the lime juice- it was like a power house of flavor and to finish it off I added fresh cilantro and mashed avocado....The sad part about the whole meals was, I didn't even get to eat it!  I had to work so I left it in the hands of Nic who happily informed me 'we all loved it' and ' Max hadn't eaten a meal this fast in ages'.  Granted I was very happy to hear the 3 year old, 6 year old and the 30 something all enjoyed dinner, but a sample taste would of been nice!

July 28, 2008

Marshmallow pops

I don't know about you, but we LOVE dessert in our  house. Anything from donuts and chocolate cake, to fruit brioche or baklava. If it is sweet, we will eat it. Seeing as this is the case we have to limit the amount we eat, self control is minimal! 

For an after dinner treat and a little incentive to finish dinner, 9 times out of ten we will eat yogurt. That could be natural, creamy vanilla yogurt or the standard pre-flavored yoplait variety- these do get a little boring at times so we try to make it a little more interesting with Alex's favorite -green jelly, or one of Max's favorites- marshmallow pops. Marshmallow pops are one of my faves also. You really can't go wrong with marshmallow dipped in dark chocolate and then sprinkled with shredded coconut. I usually make a batch and am pleased with myself thinking that should do us for the week (it only takes about 5 minutes to make 10), however they taste so yummy especially the strawberry flavored marshmallows- Nic and I eat them as well, a weeks worth dwindles to 3 days worth- it is a good thing it is summer and we always have fresh fruit in the house otherwise it is back to plain old yogurt and Max would never finish his peas!

July 24, 2008

Eggplant and kids

It has been a busy week for me. I am back at work part time, kids have play dates I am trying to keep up with and we are constantly running around doing one job after another, weather it be getting signed up for school, dentist appointments or dragging the kids grocery shopping. By the end of the day I am knackered!
  We are not a huge meat eating family, not through choice- I have decided I only will buy organic-preservative, steroid, mad cow free meat. For us this means cutting down on the amount we eat due to the growing prices. It is not a bad thing really because when you finally get to having the juicy New York strip steak at the end of the month- it tastes like heaven on earth! Eggplant (that's aubergine for those of you in Europe) however does not have the same association when telling my boys what's for dinner. 
  I had an eggplant sitting in the fridge for a week- they do last a very long time. I was heading out the door to go to book club in 30 minutes and I needed to eat. The boys had already eaten due to the crazy schedule of this week and they will again eat by themselves the next night so I wanted them to at least eat a delicious meal while I was at work. Max saw me cutting up the eggplant, rolled his eyes and of course said "YUCK!"- typical comment, however I told him he will be eating it tomorrow night. This bought much wining and moaning, I told him I'd serve it with toasted almonds and he said he'd 'just pick out the almonds and be done with it'.
 Well, I made the eggplant and cooked it up with tomatoes, peas and a touch of chili flakes. Served it with couscous and toasted almonds- Beautiful!  The crunchy almonds complimented the eggplants soft silky  texture really well and the hint of chili rounded off the flavor. I was really happy with the out come and I did it in 30 minutes- you have got to love couscous when you are doing a meal on the fly.
 The next day I told Nic to serve Alex's with a little plain yogurt to reduce the chili bite and wait and see for Max. This morning I dare ask how dinner went....."Great! the boys ate it all up without complaint" I couldn't believe it after the conversation I had with Max the day before. Nic did say they asked "what is this black stuff" with Nic replying "there is nothing black in there- now who wants a story?" with that they continued eating and most importantly- enjoying. 
I understand eggplant isn't the first choice for a family meal but it is totally doable- you just need to add a bit of nutty crunch, a touch of chili for some people and the smooth yogurt for others, oh and don't mention the 'black stuff'.

July 23, 2008

Nacho night

We try not to fill the kids up on 'junk'. They don't get to eat potato chips unless they are at a party or they are at a friends house, so when I came up with the idea to have nachos for dinner one night Max cheered and Alex looking all confused, cheered right along with him. Once the seed was planted and I was in the kitchen beginning my mission, Max saddled up beside me and said 'You do know nachos have chips don't you mum?' (poor confused child) I said I knew this and that is was OK. 
 I love chips- potato, corn, sweet potato, polenta anything fried in clean oil with salt added....I'm there, and that is the exact reason why we don't have 'chips' around the house. I would have no problem scoffing the entire bag in one afternoon sharing only the crumbs. I figure the boys will get to do the same soon enough.
  My mum use to make a bean/vegetable mix when I was growing up in Tasmania, Australia. I lived in a Bed & Breakfast/Restaurant between the ages of 13-17, so when we came home from school my sister and I would always have scones with jam and cream, date scones with lashings of butter, sticky date pudding (only on a rare occasion) and nachos for after school snacks- needless to say the waist band on our school skirts got a bit tight!

 Nachos were my favorite in winter, next to the sticky date pudding (that is a whole other story). Cheesy and thanks to the beans mum use to put in the mix, very filling. Since living in America I have discovered Mexican chilies and I haven't looked back. So when I decided to recreate mum's nachos I added a bit of fire to Nic and mine with dried habanero chilies. I soaked them first in boiling water, took the seeds out and then added them to our batch after I removed the boys portion and kept it chili and cilantro free (not a herb they have caught onto yet).
Needless to say this dinner is ALWAYS a huge success. Boys are happy as can be with their bean nachos topped with sour cream and cheese while Nic and I are enjoying the delicious flavor of the habanero chili an beans mixed with guacamole, sour cream, and salty corn chips. A meal any vegetarian would be proud of.  Of course nothing helps wash it down more than an icy cold beer.

July 22, 2008

Chickpea Dip

We had Alex's party on Saturday, lots of fun was had. Sadly for Nic and I the excitement began and 5.30 am and didn't subside until 9 pm! I think I am still recovering. Alex was ecstatic to have his wish granted with the 'green cake and star wars figure', our guest were happy to see the sausage rolls back once more, but the chickpea dip was by far the crowd pleaser. Since everyone loved it so much (kids included) I thought I'd share it with the rest of you.

Pull out your trusty food processor once more and add a can of drained chickpeas, 1/2 bunch parsley leaves, zest of one lemon, juice of one lemon, 1/4 tsp chili flakes, salt and pepper and 1-2 tablespoons of warm water to add if it becomes to thick.
Blend all ingredients together- then while the motor is running drizzle in about 1/2 cup- maybe less of extra virgin olive oil. Have a taste, adjust seasoning and serve with your yummiest, freshest bread. It will keep in the fridge for 5 days but it never seems to last that long.
As for Alex's next birthday, I am just hoping the green phase has passed and we can return to a decedent chocolate cake- yummm.

July 19, 2008

Sausage rolls

It's party time!
As a kid in Australia, a birthday party wasn't a party if you didn't have a sausage roll or two. At home (OZ), you can buy them in the store, get a cafe to make them for you or make them yourself. I prefer to make them and add my own favorite ingredients. I have served these at every party Max and Alex have had in the States and I have to say they  appeal to the American palette. If you'd like to give them a go-
 Buy a packet of puff pastry sheets, one pound of ground pork, bunch of parsley, an egg, sweet chili sauce, an onion, carrot and sesame seeds (optional).
While you are thawing out the pastry, pop your pound of pork in a large bowl, chop up half a bunch of parsley, roughly, chop half a small onion about the same size as grated carrot- yes go ahead and grate one carrot. Crack in the egg and add about 1-2 tablespoons of sweet chili sauce. The sauce compliments the pork and the heat of the sauce is no threat to kids with adventurous taste buds. Mix it all until well combined. Separate mix into 4 equal parts, roll out one sheet of pastry and line 1 quarter of the mix along the edge of the pastry in a long roll. Roll into a pillow shape. Once you have done this, put in the fridge and continue this process with remaining pastry and meat (you will get two rolls out of one pastry sheet).
When all rolls are ready, brush the top with egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds- if using. Heat oven to 400, cut sausages in half for big ones or in five for bite size. Place on an oven tray and bake for 20 minute or until golden on top. Cool and then eat with more chili sauce, ketchup or just as it. They freeze really well and are great to have on hand.

July 17, 2008


It is a hot and humid day in Chicago today. I have been running around like a crazed chicken, I'm hot, kids are hungry and I don't want to spend anymore than 20 minutes in the kitchen!

Leftovers in my house are usually eaten by Alex and I, however today if the other two resist they will be going hungry. We had some yummy soft polenta a couple of days ago, it was served with a spicy ginger tomato sauce and grilled fish- delish!
When ever I make polenta I always make extra for days such as today. We all LOVE polenta chips, so I thought I'd whip some up (within my 20 minute time frame) and serve it with the left over cold brats we had a few nights ago. Once I cracked open an icy cold beer, I tossed the sausage rounds in with chopped raw carrot, snow peas and green pepper sticks- as long as it is all raw the boys won't complain, and iceberg lettuce. Balsamic vinegar that has been swiftly shaken with a smashed piece of garlic clove, extra virgin olive oil and s&p is a wonderful dressing to compliment. There you have it- dinner on the table in 20 minutes. I didn't have to spend any longer in the hot kitchen than it took me to shallow fry the polenta chips in olive oil (lightly dusted with cornstarch) and throw the salad together. It was gobbled up with no complaints- except the usual picking out of the lettuce from Alex.

July 15, 2008

When do you listen and take note...

It is Alex's 3rd birthday on Saturday. It is hard to believe he is almost 3 and yet harder to believe his suggestion for a cake!
I always ask the boys what they would like for 'party food' and what cake they would like. Alex thought for a while and then yelled (as he is in the habit of yelling everything these days) PAVLOVA- WITH LOTS OF CREAM!!!!
I made the one above a few months ago and it has stuck in is mind and obviously in his palette. I couldn't of been happier as they are easy to make for a large group of people and it is the perfect season to take full advantage of the delicious summer fruits. 
Well of course the conversation hits a curve ball when Max pulls a face and puts on his BEST whine and congers up a few crocodile tears. The conversation begins 'OOOhhhh that's not fair, I won't be able to have ANY birthday cake- what about me????' (bottom lip drops and tears well) Of course Alex jumps to his big brothers rescue and says 'It's OK Max I'll choose something else'. 
Now the whole problem is the WORD cream. Max truly believes he hates cream. Of course his father cannot believe any son of his could say such a thing, but Max has stuck to this statement for the past 3 years- however sometimes I forget or it doesn't fit with the dinner I have prepared so I add it and wait for the storm. I have been waiting a while- it seems Max has gotten over the cream issue and actually eats it if he doesn't hear the word. For example, when I made the above pavlova, he was the first in line to gobble up a massive piece and try to come back for seconds. When I brought this to his attention in a hope to convince Alex to stick with is first choice, Max looks at me and says that it was not cream,' I think you used that Italian stuff' (marscapone).
Alex has now set his focus on the new birthday cake. The instructions I have are as follows:
It has to be GREEN with green frosting, filled with strawberries....LOTS of strawberries, green lollie pops and a Star Wars figure on top-" YES mummy, that is exactly what I want"
Cake anyone????

July 11, 2008

Who wants a hot dog?

Ball games, parties, B.b.q's (or as it has been pointed out to me- cook outs) are where I like to see hot dogs, but every now and again we do have them for dinner. The boys of course want the white bun with dog, ketchup, mustard and pickles- what ever! If you want to eat that for dinner there are going to be a few rules and surprisingly they comply. 

For example, tonight is 'hot dog night' but the boys have to choose what vegetables they want with the dog. Corn on the cob and green beans with mint and lemon have won first place so I am happy to give them the dog- however, I'll be serving it on a whole grain bun along with ours. I am not going to take all the fun away, so they can have the beloved 'game ball dog', we'll be having the juicy brats I got from Trader Joe's yesterday. We'll all share the veggies but we'll have sauerkraut topped with seeded mustard and grated sharp cheddar to bring it all home. 

I never use to be flexible and I was a grumpy mum. Now I have changed and compromised, I'll  know they will eat a healthy meal and I'll be able to slather min dog in mustard and butter (you know I will) every one wins and I don't have to be nagged for 'hot dogs' for another month. Oh yeah that is my other policy- if you get the dog, your good for the month.

July 9, 2008

Chili sauce kids?

When is it time to introduce chili sauce to kids? Some people might gasp at the question and think it insane to do so before 20, 12 or even 8- Why?
I am a total chili addict. I knew I had a problem when I was pregnant with Max. I was working in Scotland at the time. I was a first time mum, delighted to be pregnant (I hadn't read any parenting/baby books at this stage and clearly did everything 'wrong' according to half the books I did end up reading) but I had cravings and desires just like most pregnant mums. 
We had just finished a busy service, it was hot, sweaty and I was exhausted. I opened the walk in cooler for some fresh air and found a small jar of pickled jalapenos that had been put in the wrong place. My attempt to put them back was foiled by a strong desire to gobble down the entire jar! There were times I felt like I was going to pass out from the heat the least I should of done was to have some water- but no I continued until the jar was empty.

I don't know if I set a good or bad example but some how I passed on my love of all things hot to Max. He first wanted to taste chili at the age of 2 and to no surprise of mine he hated it! I asked him why he wanted to try it and he said 'you like it'. At age three he asked to try it again on a bowl of noodles he was eating. I reached for my favorite sweet chili and that is where his love of chili sauce was born. Everything in moderation and small drops grew into teaspoon size portions and now at the age of six, he is dipping everything in it from pork dumplings to steamed vegetables.
Alex has just started his chili sauce stage. So far he hasn't been interested but just the other day over a soba noodle salad Max reached for the sauce and Alex decided to join in, I couldn't of been happier.

July 7, 2008

The Picky Plate

It is pretty much standard practice in our house to have sandwiches/rolls for lunch every day. Although they are packed with salad and sliced meat (bar Alex's, he will only entertain the idea of cucumber, cheese and ham- a bit of work to do here!) they do get a little, how should I put it- boring. So every weekend I will come up with something different and exciting. 
When we lived in Virginia we had a garden, so I grew my first crop of lettuce. It was a great success and even more successful with the kids. Alex as I have mentioned HATES lettuce, but when he planted the seed, watered the garden and chased away the rabbits I think it made him realize how much work was involved in growing veggies (I planted peas also but we had a family of rabbits who feasted one night and ate the lot!). Alex managed to eat a few leaves of lettuce knowing is was from our garden and did so with out gagging, sadly this has not continued and we are back to getting the performance of a lifetime with salad eating again.

Our favorite lunchtime meal would have to be the 'picky plate' and a great way to introduce new flavors and use up leftovers (another thing I don't understand, Nic and Max seem to have an aversion to leftovers??).
Lima bean dip is a favorite in our family. I puree a tin of lima beans with lemon zest and juice of a lemon. Pop a handful of parsley leaves in, salt and pepper and then blend it with extra virgin olive oil. Really simple, very good for you and Alex of all people LOVES it- maybe he is color blind and can't see it is green?
Mix that with what ever sliced meat I have around the fridge, olives (always in our fridge), cheese, hummus (bought from a fabulous little shop up the road because I like to cheat when I can) and what ever left overs I have from the week. This week I had some pinto beans left over from tacos and half a bunch of rappini. It doesn't matter what I do to the rappini, my boys hate it, but that is OK. I combined the beans with rappini, tomatoes, lemon and a hint of dried red peppers. They eat the beans, pick out the 'green stuff' and Nic and I enjoy the whole flavor. 
Even thought they wont eat the bitter green leaf I am happy that they are enjoying the flavor without realizing it. 

July 6, 2008

Bonnie's muffins

Before we headed off to Virginia last year, we were lucky enough to get an invite up to our friends parents place in Michigan. The last time we saw them, Bonnie, our friends mum made us the most delicious pecan rolls- soft buns, oozing with brown sugar syrup and crisp pecans, Nic and I had gone to heaven and when Max tried them he was hooked too! Sadly Alex hasn't yet had the pleasure.
We arrive at the lake house around 1-am, after work and kids are fed. Being it a 5 hour drive the kids usually fall asleep on the way up........20 minutes before we get there of course, the rest of the 4 hours is the favorite road trip question "Are we there yet?" at 20 minute intervals.
Tired and a little bleary eyed, our kids awake at 6 am ready for the days adventure. After walking around the lake and checking out all the great places for the kids to run and go wild, we head back up to the house where Bonnie and her grand daughter are preparing cinnamon muffins. I didn't think anything of it at first but hoping they were as delish as the pecan rolls a few years back. I was also impressed with the fact that Bonnie took it all in her stride with an extra 8 mouths to feed at an early part of the morning.
Once the muffins were cooking the smell started filling the air and I knew we were in for a treat.
Twenty minutes later we were eating the warm, soft buttery muffins- heaven! I have a love of donuts and they were almost the same texture, coated in  cinnamon and sugar yet half the work.  Since my first taste of these muffins I managed to persuade Bonnie to share her recipe and I have to say it is one of my favorites. I have tinkered with it a fraction but the results are wonderful. Granted they are doused in melted butter and sugar but I always say- everything in moderation, especially when you have a house of friends and family and you need a quick tasty muffin on the fly.
PS I made them with black bananas the other day and they were sensational
Bonnie's muffin recipe 
2 cups flour (all purpose/plain)
1 cup whole meal flour
1 Tb baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp all spice (or nutmeg)
1 stick butter- melted
2 eggs
1 cup milk

In a large bowl add all dry ingredients. Make a hole in the middle of the flour and add the butter, milk and eggs. With a light touch, fold the mixture to combine. When all mixed (you will have a few lumps and that is fine) place into muffin tins.
Bake in a 375/190 oven for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and turn out. 

While muffins are still warm dip them in 5 oz (130grams) of melted butter and then roll each muffin in a mixture of:
1 cup sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
Eat warm or cold. They taste great the second day, if your lucky enough to have any left. This recipe make about 18 muffins.

July 5, 2008

Pizza night

I have to say I am a pizza fan. When in Naples for my honeymoon almost eight years ago, Nic took me to some fabulous restaurants, hole-in-the-wall places for truly delicious pizza. A couple of years ago we had the good fortune of living in Italy for 10 months and really got to taste some of the best produce I have eaten. We lived in Florence, in the 'Nonna' neighborhood and every weekend we would wake up to the most delicious smells of the up and coming family lunch.
 OK so it has nothing to do with pizza (being that Florence isn't known for pizza) but I still remember the zucchini's having flavor and tomatoes so juicy and sweet you ate them like peaches- which does being me to our pizza last night. I really love zucchini and I really love butter. Since living in Lexington Virginia for the past year I was deeply saddened to find I couldn't buy my favorite- Kerrygold unsalted butter, so as you can imagine when we arrived back in Chicago it was one of the first things on the list. I knew the boys would dry reach and chuck a fit if I suggested putting zucchini on their beloved pizza, so I let them choose their own toppings of calamata olives, salami, red peppers and cheese. I on the other hand lightly fried some zucchini rounds in butter and popped them on top of our pizza with a liberal shake of the chili peppers- hot and sweet, one of my favorite combinations.

When it comes to pizza in our family I use Jamie Oliver's basic bread recipe and have never made a bad pizza yet. It is great! Depending on what flour I use gives me a chewy crust or a firm crisp crust.
 As for the tomato base I get a little cheeky. I use to cook the base first and reduce it down to a rich thick sauce but I have to say I like making pizza because it is fast and no fuss (the sauce was not fitting into this equation). One day I was running low on time so I banged whole fresh tomatoes (skin and all), olive oil a diced onion and garlic into a food processor and pulsed it for a few seconds. It was a little runny so I added tomato paste and a handful of chopped green beans (I'm sorry but a few shreds of red pepper isn't enough veg for dinner in my opinion) and a pinch of salt. Perfect consistency and it was made in a matter of seconds not minutes- lovin' that!
The boys have never questioned the sauce and always gobbled the pizza up. Max did ask me once how I made the sauce and I told him, he looked at me for a few minutes and then said 'I don't think you remembered the beans this time, I would of tasted them' Believe what you will!

July 4, 2008

Sour kids

Be it, lemons, olives, pickles, feta etc whenever I put one or two of these ingredients in the boys food it is almost a give in they will eat the arugula, spinach or tomato it is paired with (sometimes through gritted teeth)

 Max HATES peas but loves bacon and lemon. Alex pretends to hate peas to show his 'brotherly love' but truly HATES salad. My compromise was this-
I wanted the preserved lemon and pea risotto with crisp panchetta for dinner, knowing the boys would make every face in the world when the green peas came into sight. I wanted the cucumber salad on the side also. To get what I wanted the boys risotto got made into half a dozen mini balls, dusted in corn starch and then lightly pan fried (changing the green peas to brown crisp bits). The cucumber salad was drenched in lemon and olive oil with the crisp panchetta crumbled on top.
 We all sat at the dinner table and everyone is happy until a pea is spotted of course! Still finishing the meal sounded like a better option for Max than going to bed on a half empty stomach. A few tweaks made my life so much smoother in the kitchen and we all enjoyed the delicious flavors of salty/sour. 
Just before bed the boys did ask- 'could we PLEASE have pizza tomorrow night?' I figure they sat threw my dinner request I am sure I can whip up a delicious pizza, after all Jamie Oliver's basic bread recipe has NEVER failed me yet!

July 3, 2008

What's for dinner?

This is a question I get on an hourly basis from the boys. At first I played along, telling them of my plans and thoughts on the matter- god knows why! After a few months I finally caught on to the game. 
Basically, if the question gets asked in the morning they have all day to find reasons NOT to want beef satays with lime and peanut sauce and will continue to tell me the reasons on the hour, every hour until I loose my mind.
 If they ask me straight after lunch it gives them the rest of the afternoon to wonder what I will be doing to the peas and beans so they will like them or why can't they just have a seaperate meal like Jo down the street. The earily afternoon generally goes along the lines of 'if I eat everything, can I have dessert?'
If I get asked 'what's for dinner' around 5 when they are starving, exhausted and looking like they could eat half a cow- they can't seem to wait the last 60 minutes of the day and barely look at the food in front of them let alone taste it!

This is why I decided to take the approach of cooking the food my husband and I love to eat instead of wondering what my children would like. It took some getting use to on their behalf but I have to say it wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be. The fact that the boys will scoff down lima bean dip, olives, and rabbit to name a few makes my life SO much easier in the kitchen. It doesn't stop them wining about 'what's for dinner' but it does make me a happier cook at home.
My husband decided to make this delicious Ethianopean chicken dish we discovered in Saveur last night. It is a wonderful blend of ginger, onions, chili, egg and chicken. Absolutely delicious every time he makes it. Of course there were left overs of the juice, a whole boiled egg and warmed pita so I served it to the boys for lunch today (had dinner guests so boys went to bed earily and we could converse without all the interuption). 
They love rice and eggs however I was a little sceptical about the chili for Alex seeing as he isn't quite 3.  They were up for the testing. Max (6) loved it and wanted to eat it all. Alex enjoyed but a little hot so I whipped out the old faithful plain yogurt and then the fight was on to see who was going to finish it.
Kids can eat anything and will be willing if they see their parents getting excited about food. They might not love it at first or you may need to tailor it to their needs (plain natural yogurt is my loyal and best friend when it comes to getting the kids to try spice) but it is fantastic when you see them enjoying all the flavors of the meal you are licking your lips over- now I just have to try and work out a way to reduce the nagging!