Stuck in the Middle with You

Can anyone pinpoint the exact moment they reversed roles with their parents? Do you have one crystal vision of that transposition that you can articulate? Or was it a gradual slipping and sliding until suddenly, you found yourself reassuring them, checking on them, providing for them, repeatedly?

And what about simultaneously parenting our own children? Don’t we blindly dive into parenthood with the belief that we will always be the caregiver to our kids, that we will never be “a burden”? As young adults, are they silently watching us parents frantically calling long distance to siblings, doctors, health aides, relatives, friends or, god forbid, the police, and wonder when they will be doing the same for us?

How do we maintain a healthy balance in our lives as we juggle the responsibilities of caring for both the young and the old, and still take care of ourselves? How much should one be expected to handle alone and when is it justifiable and okay to ask for help?

I suppose I should consider myself lucky; my parents are both alive and still (barely) managing to live on their own, having downsized from the home I grew up in to a smaller, safer condo in a lovely over-55 community, and I have two very involved siblings who live near them and manage their emergencies. My own two sons are happy, healthy and thriving, as they should be. Yet, they all have their needs, different though they may be, that require the assistance of others. But then again, don’t we all?

melted choc for browniesSo in an effort to cheer and comfort my eighty-three year old folks, and my twenty-one year old son, all of whom have been literally frozen in place on the east coast, I fired up the stove, melted some chocolate and set to baking and shipping off some care packages.

My version of Maida Heatter’s All-American Chocolate Brownies, (this time with pecan pieces) for my folks, and Melissa Clark’s Chocolate Streusel Poundcake for Adam and his adorable girlfriend – the one with the finishing salt fetish – are on their way. Here’s hoping UPS can beat the coming blizzard!IMG_0352

If you’re hankering for your own bit of comfort, try my brownie recipe below.

Chocolate Pecan Brownies

1 stick unsalted butter

2 oz semi-sweet chocolate

scant cup sugar

1/2 tsp vanilla

2 eggs, beaten with a fork

1/2 c flour

generous pinch of kosher salt (my secret ingredient!)

2 oz chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line an 8″ square baking pan with foil.  Butter the foil or spray with nonstick cooking spray and set pan aside.

Melt the butter and chocolate in the top of a double boiler and stir to combine.  Set aside to cool, then stir in the sugar, vanilla and eggs.  Carefully mix in the flour and salt until completely smooth.  Add the nuts. (Throw in extra – my husband likes handfuls!)

Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and place in hot oven for 20-25 minutes. The top of the brownies should give a little and a small knife inserted into the center should be just barely clean, indicating a cooked but still slightly soft interior.  Gooey and yum!

Allow the brownies to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then carefully lift them out using the edges of the foil.  When cooled, slice into squares.

Homemade brownies & a good read for a cold day!

Homemade brownies & a good read for a cold day!

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“Vitameatavegamin” – Do you know where your vitamins are?

Last week I put out a challenge to you to stop relying on mass produced, microwavable foods and tried to inspire you to reach for something better by making your own meals using “real foods”.  I said your life would improve in many ways, most notably, the intimacy gained by the shared experience of preparing food well and enjoying it together, as well as by eliminating processed and artificial foods from your diet.

In yesterday’s New York Times, appeared an opinion piece by science writer Catherine Price, in which she plainly states we have been complicit in our own deception by food manufacturers that fortify junk as well as otherwise healthy foods with synthetic vitamins. Initially, the vitamins were added to these products because the processes were necessary to achieve a long shelf life, but at the same time, they destroyed any benefit we might have gotten from the organic nutrients in the foods in the first place.  Ironic, isn’t it?

This ignores the natural synergy of other ingredients inherent in real foods that possibly ensure our ingestion of them, by supplanting them with synthetic vitamins.  In other words, we think we’re eating healthy, vitamin fortified foods, when in fact we are fighting a losing battle.  If you’d like to read Ms.Price’s own words you can find her article at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/opinion/sunday/vitamins-hide-the-low-quality-of-our-food.html?_r=0

 

So here I am offering you a very nutritious, delicious and healthy salad made from all real ingredients.  It was kindly given to me by a young cook at Chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s “Animal”, the extremely popular lots o’ meat restaurant on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles.  I’ve loved it in their restaurant and now I love it at home.

Animal's Kale Salad

So lemony and crunchy!

Baby Kale Salad

For the vinaigrette:

1/2 tsp garlic paste

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

2/3 cup good olive oil

3/4 tsp dried red pepper flakes

1/2 tsp kosher or sea salt

To build the salad:

Cleaned baby kale leaves, cut across the rib into 1/2 inch wide slices

Grate pecorino cheese

pinch of kosher or sea salt

homemade bread crumbs*

Toss the kale leaves with the vinaigrette, sprinkle with cheese & salt, and scatter breadcrumbs on top.  Deliciously invigorating and good for ya!

*To make bread crumbs at home, toast some whole grain bread in the oven, then whirl in a food processor.  Alternately, process stale bread until it is crumbs, stir in some melted butter and toast lightly in a saute pan until crunchy.

And here is a recipe for a healthy and satisfying kale snack from your’s truly!

Smokey Kale Chips

1 bunch kale, stems removed and torn into long strips

1 T good olive oil

1 tsp smoked paprika (feel free to swap out chili powders, garlic or onion powder, or za’atar)

1/2 tsp sea salt

Toss the prepared kale leaves with the next 3 ingredients and spread in a single layer on parchment paper lined sheet pans.  Bake at 350 degrees for about 12 minutes, until crispy.

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My Challenge for You

FEB 12

Friends are often surprised when I tell them I did not grow up in a home where cooking was a relished activity.  My mom ran a very tight ship, raising five children and overseeing everything from housecleaning to homework.  Cooking however, was definitely not high on her list of “Likes”.   Nevertheless, year after year, mom planned and prepared three square a day for her often unappreciative but always hungry brood.  She wasn’t a particularly creative cook but her meals were always well balanced, healthy, and properly cooked. She was not one to burn the Sunday roast.

Dad however, enjoyed his occasional forays at the stove, most often after Mass on Sunday mornings, whipping up scrambled eggs and the kielbasa he so loved as a boy in my grandmother’s Polish kitchen. Perhaps the best food memories I have, though, were the late nights I would return home from a high school play rehearsal or some other activity and he would descend the stairs to join me in the kitchen and whip up another little treat, this time prepared just for me. They were always unique and tasty but those clandestine meetings were really about spending private moments with together.

zack cooking

Zack gets busy in the kitchen

My point in sharing these memories with you is to suggest that we never know which experiences or relationships will influence us in later years. Despite those warm moments I had with my dad, I was neither really interested in learning to cook nor in eating in general.  (I’m sure many of you are having an impossible time imagining that!) It wasn’t until I decided to woo my then boyfriend/now husband that I set about learning.  My initial attempts were disastrous, as he will happily recount for you.  Over time however, we began preparing meals at home and, without too much trouble, became pretty good at it.  Now our boys are involved in relationships of their own and I am delighted when they text me pictures of the dishes they prepare with their girlfriends.

adam's egg dinner

On a college budget, Adam is taking time in the kitchen

I guess what I’m trying to convey here is that no matter what your personal history with food and cooking, we all still need to eat. At some point grabbing fast food or throwing something in the microwave isn’t gonna cut it, and whether or not we had mothers or dads who thrived in the kitchen, we need to make time to nurture ourselves.  If we want to bring more balance to our lives, don’t we owe it to ourselves to prioritize creating enjoyable moments to spend together?  If we devote a small portion of our week to planning and preparing healthy and delicious meals, our relationships will deepen from the intimacy shared over them. Our health will improve as we eliminate processed and prepackaged foods from our diets, and we will benefit from slowing down and living more fully in the moment.

So in an effort to nudge you closer to your stove, I’m making it my mission to share simple recipes that can begin to form the foundation of a culinary repertoire for even the most novice cooks among you. With some practice, you will master these and from there, can build on them, resulting in your own special style and your own warm memories.

Speaking of warmth, they’re predicting eighty degree heat here in Los Angeles, but most of the country is completely snowed under.  So for all you snow bunnies in need of a good thaw, I thought we’d start by making soup.  Another good reason to begin here is that once you know the basic formula for making soup, you can create your own with whatever you have in your fridge and pantry – no recipe needed! You will see that all you need to make a tasty soup is some aromatics, a liquid and whichever veggies and/or proteins you have on hand. Here are two versions of a heartwarming, tummy filling classic CHICKEN SOUP.  The first was passed on to me years ago by my jewish mother-in-law, an excellent cook in her day.  The second takes much less time and uses some store bought ingredients, but still qualifies as healthy and ‘real food’.   Enjoy and let me know how you like them!

Old School Chicken Soup

kitchen rooster closeup

Don’t be a chicken, get in the kitchen!

Place a whole or quartered (preferably free range) chicken in a large stock pot and cover with cold water.  Bring the pot to just under boiling over a high heat.  Lower the heat to a simmer and add a peeled carrot (or 2) that has been cut in quarters, one onion (peeled and cut into large chunks or slivers, whichever you prefer), two stalks of celery cut like the carrot, and a large handful of parsley. Allow the soup to simmer for three hours (the house will smell delicious and you will feel warm and cozy), skimming any accumulating foam off the surface and discarding.  The meat of the chicken should be falling off the bone and your vegetables will be quite soft.  Generously season the broth with salt and pepper, discard the parsley, and voila!

Quick & Easy for the 21st Century

Peel and chop 1 onion,  a couple of carrots and 1 celery stalk.  Saute them in a little butter with some fresh thyme leaves if you have them, until softened.  Add 6 cups of low sodium/low fat chicken stock and simmer for 20 minutes.  Shred and add a couple of cups of store bought rotisserie chicken (or use the leftover you have in the fridge!), throw in a handful of fresh dill or parsley, and a squeeze of lemon if you have one, and serve.  How easy was that?

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Surviving the Super Bowl Blitz

FEB 4

Okay, so it’s a little after the fact, but I think the thoughts I’m going to share with you here are applicable at any time — whether you are entertaining friends or family, a holiday is approaching, or there is some other special occasion on your calendar.  If you’re like me, these impending events excite you and perhaps make you think about all the wonderful dishes you’d like to prepare and share with your loved ones. Sometimes I let my heart speak to me and go all out, but at others I exercise more self-restraint and rein it in a bit.  Either way, I mull over my options again and again and again before deciding my final menu.

This year for the Super Bowl, we found ourselves in the somewhat unusual place of not really having anywhere we were compelled to go, but okay with that because we have family in from out of town. As it turns out, some of us like to play it fast and loose during the game, ingesting Buffalo wings, onion dip with chips, and chilli with all the fixings, while the rest of us prefer a little less gluttony – without sacrificing flavor.

So as a sort of experiment, I thought I’d put out a buffet that offered a little of both, that would hopefully satisfy everyone’s taste buds, and afford me the opportunity to eat well without suffering the inevitable remorse.  Here’s what I tried…..

The game hasn’t yet started, but our guests are arriving and they need to see something laid out, right? Typically they might want “poppers” those delectable cheese stuffed chiles? How ’bout I give ’em some tasty grilled Shishito Peppers? Drizzled with a little olive oil and some sea salt then thrown on a screaming hot griddle?  They went down like water. With all that silky smoky goodness, I don’t think anyone missed the cheese.  The platter was emptied in minutes.

We’re still in the first quarter, so it’s clearly time for snacks.  Normally this would demand Buffalo chicken wings with blue cheese dressing.  Instead, I’m making a sort of Korean baked chicken drumette – which by no means is ‘health food’, marinated in soy sauce, honey, fresh ginger and more overnight, then browned on the stove and baked in the oven – I wouldn’t recommend this for weight loss.  They are delicious and a hit–but still.

As a healthier alternative to the drumettes, I’m offering oven roasted shrimp (SO much more flavorful than boiled!!) with a fresh tropical fruit salsa.  Yum!  Looks colorful and pretty and was gobbled up perhaps more quickly than the sweet, slightly spicy wings.

Next up, our main course, which will still be served as a small plates offering.

I really wrestled with the big beef sort of manly thing expected on such an occasion and, as I had a beautiful frozen beef brisket in my freezer, I decided to defrost it, reheat it smothered in its own gravy, and shred it to serve as sliders on gorgeous miniature buns from Rockenwagner Bakery in Venice, California.  I’d top those with homemade chipotle mayonnaise and a couple of Famous Dave’s “Signature Spicy Pickle Chips”.

Not forgetting those of us looking for somewhat ‘liter’ fare, I decided to serve a Do-It-Yourself Cobb Salad; I provide all the traditional toppings (ie, chopped rotisserie chicken, crispy bacon, creamy avocado, tomatoes, hardboiled egg & crumbled bleu cheese), as well as some healthier selections.  I bake a salmon filet that has marinated overnight in a Dijon mustard and white wine combination and roast up some turkey bacon to boot – ‘coz who doesn’t want bacon?  Instead of a heavy bleu cheese dressing (my all-time fave), I whisk up an equally delicious, figure friendly tarragon-mustard vinaigrette that guests will spoon on as liberally or stingily as they like.  These are perfectly fresh, individual custom-designed salads.  Cool, right?  Everybody’s smiling.

Buffet service that offers customizable meals is a great way to take care of ourselves and our guests, ensuring everyone is satiated and happy.  The options are endless. Think about putting out a DIY taco bar with healthy and traditional toppings, or a sushi bar using brown rice or another whole grain instead of typical white sushi rice, a breakfast bar, Middle Eastern or Spanish tapas bar (you can sneak in lots of tasty veggie dishes on these and no one will complain).  Use your imagination and replace some of the heavier toppings with an updated lighter version. Turkey burgers instead of beef, hummus or avocado in place of mayonnaise, whole grain pastas and rolls rather than those processed with white flour.  I do these swaps all the time and will be sharing more ideas with you in future postings.  And we’d all love to hear some of your ideas!

Back to the big game where, unfortunately, the drama on the field was no match for the drama in the den and dinner was ultimately not served!  Whaaa?  Fortunately, the wings and shrimp were served in abundance and no one went home hungry.  In fact, there’s plenty of food leftover, which I’m sure we will all enjoy together in the coming days.

The important lesson here is that no matter what challenges we face, there are ways to gather our loved ones around us, accommodating all and making memories (for better and for worse!) that last a lifetime.

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Orange Chicken

FEB 3

Orange Chicken

I have been making this chicken for years and it is every bit as finger-lickin’ good as it looks.  The good news is, it is so easy!  I love a dish that looks spectacular, tastes delish and is simple to prepare – all great for serving a crowd.  You can serve this warm from the oven with a rice and nut dish to keep it kinda wintry feeling, or with a bright salad, at room temp for a warm weather gathering.  I’ve done both and it’s always a hit.

This recipe is tweaked from California chef Diane Worthington, and serves 4.  I don’t think I’ve ever made it for a group that small, but it doubles, triples (or more!) easily.  Enjoy!

Make the marinade: (Feel free to adjust these measurements to your taste – I always do!)

3 T hoison sauce*

2 tsp chile paste with or without garlic*

1/3-1/2 cup soy sauce*

1 T honey

1 T sesame oil*

2-3 T peeled fresh ginger, minced

1/3 cup of your favorite orange marmalade

(1 T minced fresh garlic, if using chile paste that doesn’t contain it)

4 lbs chicken parts, patted dry.

Mix all the marinade ingredients in a large glass bowl.

Add the chicken to the marinade in the bowl and turn to coat completely.  Alternately, spread the chicken out in a single layer in a shallow roasting pan or sheet tray covered with parchment or a silpat sheet, and pour marinade over.  Cover and place in refrigrator for at least an hour, longer if possible.

Bake the chicken in a preheated 425 degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour.  Baste occasionally with the juices accumulating in the pan.  The chicken can be served immediately with the degreased juices poured over, or placed in the fridge for later use.  (Reserve marinade juices separately.)

Diane recommends garnishing the serving platter with whole scallions and fresh orange slices – it looks inviting and gives the dish extra drama on your table.

*These items can be found in every grocery store in the Asian food aisle.

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A Perfect Balance

  1. JAN 31

    The hubby and I just returned from a lovely two day getaway, joining my sister-in-law and her spouse in beautiful Santa Ynez, California – gorgeous wine and horse country.  As we drove up the coast past Santa Barbara, the rolling hills became greener, the clouds seemed fluffier in the blue sky, even the livestock that dotted the pastures seemed at ease.  Cows, horses, alpacas, pigs, even the ostrich looked so picturesque and, well, relaxed.

    IMG_0235

    Stop whine-ing and start wine-ing!

    Our first order of business was to meet the in-laws at Dierberg Winery for some wine tasting.  Following a flight of seven enjoyable pours, we headed to the Inn to check in and begin planning our evening.  First stop, the complimentary wine and cheese gathering in the hotel great room.  Ensconced before a roaring fire, we chatted amiably with a lone Texas man, in the area for a team cycling event.  The man was well-travelled and we shared several anecdotes about visits to distant locales, whilst sipping and munching away happily.

    As is always the case, while engaged in this conversation, my mind was tallying up the calories I was thoughtlessly ingesting and, while enjoying myself, I couldn’t help steeling my resolve to actually use the gym clothes I’d packed that morning, with a visit to the Inn’s fitness center the next day.  As is usually the case, I diligently pack some lightweight workout clothes and shoes in my suitcase.  Whether or not they are actually put to use is always up for grabs.  The intent is always there; the follow-through?  Not so much.  But if this guy could say goodbye to his wife and child, and catch a flight to California to bicycle, surely I could take the elevator down two levels and get myself on the treadmill!

    The evening ended following a steak dinner and wine back at the Inn.  This was serious.  I HAD to get to my workout in the morning.

    IMG_1994

    Weight, it gets better!

    The following morning, I’m happy to report, I rode the elevator down to the basement and made good use of the tiny workout facility, working up a really good sweat in the effort.  I don’t know if the gods were testing me, but no less than three staff members tried in vain to help me change the channel from the talk show that was blaring “Big Game Snacks” featuring ‘Bacon Wrapped Tater Tot Bombs’ – really?? – turn down the volume for the love of God!
    IMG_2005

    This artichoke you up!

    Back home, I am taking advantage of a rare rainy day in SoCal, prepping food to stock our fridge with healthy and tasty treats that will be waiting for me the next time I mindlessly open the door to “just look”.  Because really, we all want to live our lives and enjoy ourselves.  And we all, ideally, would like to maintain some level of fitness and, of course, good health.  So naturally that means that somehow we must each find a manageable equilibrium.  How does one do that?  How difficult is it to achieve and hold onto?  I ask myself those questions every day. In the meantime, I just keep searching, keep trying, putting one foot in front of the other, looking for the elusive perfect balance.

    I’d love to hear how you are managing this.  Have you found your balance?  What set backs have you had?  What progress or discoveries have you made?  Please add your thoughts, suggestions, anecdotes and yes, recipes! in the COMMENTS box below.  We all look forward to hearing and learning from you!

    (Corny photo captions provided by enthusiastically misguided elder son & husband.)

    Next up: Surviving the Super Bowl blitz!
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A Fork in the Road

JAN 27

I had dinner the other night at the home of a famous actress, the food prepared by a famous French chef.  To say that the multicourse meal was astonishing, delicious and nothing short of exhilarating, would be an understatement.  It was abundant and memorable.

Our family is coming to the end of a rather extended holiday period, beginning sometime around Thanksgiving with a large family reunion, special anniversary celebration, and a copious round of terrific meals in New York City.  It is only now coming to a close weeks into the new year, following massive amounts of food-oriented celebrations both homemade and restaurant served, as we head to LAX to deliver our younger son and his girlfriend to their flight back to their college apartment in Brooklyn.

It is now that I am once again, faced with a dilemma – a fork in the road, if you will.

As my devoted family, friends and various supporters will remember, in May of 2010, as our two sons were working their ways through high school and becoming increasingly independent, I felt myself succumbing to a mid-life crisis of sorts, managing to salvage my remaining sanity and dignity by starting a tiny catering company which I named “No Reservations”, blogging about it in the process.  (If you’re interested in following my public culinary journey from its inception, you can still find it out there on “the internets” at http://ihavenoreservations.blogspot.com)

DSC_0681

See what I mean?

For many years, my husband Daniel and I nurtured our inherent foodie inclinations through frequent entertaining in our home, staying current on trendsetting restaurants, and taking culinary inspired vacations.  Over the years, I took over most of the cooking responsibilities and with the creation of No Reservations, basically lived and breathed food. Not surprisingly, as my confidence and creativity in the kitchen grew, so did my waistline.

IMG_0234

Is it one or the other?

Therefore, after our son dramatically changed his body working out with a trainer and following a more healthy fitness diet, I too entered into what has become a long-term, life changing friendship with the trainer.  As a result, I lost over 50 pounds, learned a tremendous amount about healthy eating and cooking techniques, invested in my trainer’s new gym, and have even taught some ‘fit cooking’ demonstrations to its members.

So here I am at a crossroads.  My husband has recently retired and our sons are both living fairly independent lives, leaving us free to eat what and where we like, and to travel when we can.  I want to indulge in this newfound freedom and yet, I want to maintain a fit lifestyle.  So I’m trying to incorporate some indulgence but keep a healthy balance. Is that realistic or even possible?  Do we have to choose All or Nothing? I feel like I’m supposed to have all the answers at this point but I don’t. So at the urging of my loved ones, I am stepping into the public forum to explore this honestly and with what I’m sure will be plenty of missteps.  I hope to find my way and am looking forward to hearing about your personal journeys as well.

At the very least, as Daniel says “When you come to a Fork in the Road, PICK IT UP!”

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