Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Virtues of White Sauce (and swearing at your kids)

For the past eighteen years I've strenuously steered myself away from swearing around my kids, but now that they're teenagers, I've relaxed my efforts and allowed my language to be a little more natural.

Like when I was teaching Henry how to make white sauce. His first attempt had been a floury, lumpy fiasco. This was his second try, and I wanted him to get it. "You've got to show it who's boss," I told him, "you've got to whisk the hell out of it!"

He emitted little sparks of glee at hearing me say a bad word, and something seemed to click in him. He whisked the hell out of it, and the results were gorgeous, a smooth, satiny white sauce.

We've focused on sauces for most of our first cooking lessons, an approach I've borrowed from the curriculum at Le Cordon Bleu. I worked as an English instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago a couple of years ago, teaching Composition to future American chefs and bakers, and I learned from my students (wonderful students! Some serious potty mouths on them, though) that much of their initial course work was in knife skills, broths, and sauces.

Henry and I have worked a bit on knife skills (see The Tao of Broccoli), we've made one broth so far (see the kombu/mushroom broth in Fast Food), and we'll be delving into these areas more soon. But he is coming along nicely as a junior saucier. He can make a basic red sauce, adaptable for any pasta dish, and convertible - with a change of spices - into enchilada sauce. He can make a pesto out of herbs and vegetables to use as a dip, spread, or pasta sauce. And now he can make a white sauce, the foundation for countless treats: cheese sauce, nacho dip, butternut squash sauce (our favorite fall recipe for Butternut Squash Ziti is coming in the next post), or spinach dip. Henry singlehandedly made this obscenely rich and delicious dip for our family on Thanksgiving.

We ate the hell out of it.

Spinach Dip 

1.5 lb fresh spinach, washed, stems removed

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil

4 medium cloves of garlic, minced very fine

2 tablespoons flour

1 cup 1/2 & 1/2 or non-dairy substitute

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese or non-dairy substitute

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon paprika

pinch each of oregano, basil, thyme

3 tablespoons sour cream or non-dairy substitute

Cook spinach in boiling water for 1 or 2 minutes, just until it's all wilted. Strain well and squeeze out excess water. Chop spinach finely and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, heat butter or olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic and cook for one minute (don't let it brown). Add flour and stir well. Cook, stirring constantly until flour turns light blond and smells toasty, 1 or 2 minutes.

Whisk in the 1/2 & 1/2 or substitute, little by little, until the mixture is smooth. Keep cooking until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens, 2 or 3 minutes.

Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring, for 4 or 5 minutes.

Add parmesan or substitute, lemon juice, salt, paprika, oregano, basil, and thyme. Stir well to combine.

Remove from heat. Add the sour cream or substitute and chopped spinach.

Serve with tortilla chips or whatever you like to dip.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Fast Food

I have many, many reasons for teaching my sons to cook; some that cut really deep, some entirely self-serving, some purely practical, others philosophical, even political. I hope to write about them all, but the reason weighing heavy on my mind right now is this: I want to show my kids that cooking is no big deal, it's not a pain in the ass, not a drag to be avoided, but just a normal everyday thing that you do.

I'm thinking about it a lot these days because I worry that I don't always model this attitude. I work full-time, my partner does too, and 5:45 can find us all tired, hungry, tempted to stick a frozen pizza in the oven or order Chinese delivery. I will more than happily cut myself enough slack to do this sometimes, but during especially hectic times it's easy to over-rely on convenience food and take-out, and I don't like how I feel when we're eating like that too much, or what I'm communicating to my kids (that cooking doesn't fit into a busy life, that cooking is a lot of trouble...)

So I'm cultivating weeknight dinner ideas, looking for simple, from-scratch vegetarian meals that don't take much longer - or much more effort - than frozen pizza. Here's one, not the fastest one, but doable in thirty minutes, easy and adaptable, and particularly satisfying on a chilly fall evening:

Noodles and Vegetables in Broth 

8-ounce package udon or soba noodles

8 cups water

Approximately 3-inch piece of kombu sea vegetable (optional but highly recommended)

4 dried shiitake mushrooms

6 tablespoons soy sauce

3 tablespoons mirin or cooking sherry

pinch dried ginger (optional)

pinch cayenne pepper (optional)

1 lb spinach, washed and chopped - or use pre-washed baby spinach

2-3 medium carrots, sliced into thin rounds

For the vegetables and noodles: Put a large pot,  3/4 full of water, on high heat.

For the broth: In another large pot, combine 8 cups water, optional kombu, and shiitake mushrooms. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and leave to a strong simmer for 15-20 minutes while you prepare the noodles and vegetables.

When the pot of plain water comes to a boil, add carrots. After one minute, add spinach. Cook one additional minute. Scoop the vegetables out of the pot (don't dump the water out - you're going to cook the noodles in it) with slotted spoon or strainer. Set aside.

Add noodles and cook according to package directions.

Drain noodles, rinse in cold water, and divide between four deep bowls.

Finish the broth: Remove mushrooms and kombu. Discard kombu. Squeeze water out of mushrooms and slice very thin (discard stems). Return mushrooms to pot. Add soy sauce and mirin. Taste and adjust seasoning (add optional powdered ginger and/or cayenne pepper, especially if anybody has a cold), and heat gently until steaming.

Add cooked vegetables to noodles, pour broth over everything, and garnish however you like - seeds are good, scallions are good, toasted sesame oil is very good.

Henry took thorough notes on this recipe. I'm hoping to someday walk in the door at 5:45 to find bowls of hot noodles and broth sitting on the table, waiting for me. I can't help it, I'm an optimist.

I told you some of my reasons for teaching my sons to cook are self-serving.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Tao of Broccoli

My partner Jake has a way of making things look easy. We've been married nineteen years, and even I will periodically find myself saying, "Wait, you have ANOTHER book out?" 

During our early years together we were both musicians, and it was exactly the same - he'd disappear into the basement for a bit and emerge with a cassette tape of perfect pop gems, fully arranged, with drum beats, bass lines, vocal harmonies and tasteful tambourine tracks.

Also, you should see his broccoli florets. Mine always turn out hacked and knobby, his are perfect little trees, and he doesn't even look like he's trying.

I'm teaching Henry how to cook, but I asked Jake to teach him how to floret, and Jake - in professorial mode - referred Henry to a story from Chuang Tzu about Cook Ting, carving an ox for Lord Wen-hui with dazzling precision.

Cook Ting explains to Lord Wen-hui that what he cares about is the Way:

"I have left skill behind me," he says. "Nowadays, I am in touch through the daemonic in me, and do not look with the eye. With the senses I know where to stop....I rely on Heaven's structuring, cleave along the main seams, let myself be guided by the main cavities, go by what is inherently so."

So that's Jake's secret, at least concerning broccoli. Henry made a slide show to document the process. Music by Jake Smith.

After Jake florets it, Henry and I cook it.

Here's our favorite recipe:


One large head of broccoli, daemonically floretted

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon salt

1-2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar (optional)

2-3 cloves of garlic (optional)

Heat olive oil in a skillet or pot with a lid, add broccoli, and sauté on medium-high heat, 1-2 minutes

Add salt and optional garlic, stir, reduce heat, and cover

Let broccoli cook covered 3-5 more minutes

Uncover, stir in balsamic vinegar, taste for seasoning, and serve hot