I didn’t mean to take off nearly the entire summer. I meant to write frequent posts on the many and varied meals that I’d cooked using fresh produce from farmers markets across the land (a good swath of it anyway). I meant to improve my photography skills. To cook new and exciting dishes. To develop my recipe writing skills. To come to terms with the irrational squeamishness that I feel when confronted with soft-boiled eggs.
What did I do instead?
I traveled, read, cooked, ate, and indulged my desire — nay, my need — to spend long, lovely days with my daughter who starts school later this week. Mimi calls her new school the “working” preschool to distinguish it from the “playing” preschool where she spent three days a week during the spring. She’ll spend five morning a week at the working school, which means that our family will officially make the shift from toddler parenting to school-age parenting. With the shift comes more time for Jim and I, of course, but as any parent knows, it also marks another big step away from precious babyhood.
I thought about this step a lot this summer as Mimi and I ran on beaches, splashed in pools, and lounged about. I definitely thought about it when she danced with the seriousness of a professional at her end-of-camp ballet recital. I kept it in mind as we drove from one mid-Western city to the next, and I decided to enjoy these lovely days with my — for now — baby, knowing that I would have more time in the fall for blogging and other writing projects.
I did cook often this summer, mostly simple, laid-back, enjoyable meals. This is, of course, the best way to cook during the hot months. And, since we’ve returned home I’ve enjoyed cooking with the fabulous local produce, especially tomatoes, which we’ve eaten practically every day.
We’ve been eating a lot of a Greek food, specifically the tangy Macedonian spread called htipiti, which translates into “that which is beaten.” It’s made with feta, oregano, garlic, and lemon and is the easiest thing in the world to whip up (or “beat up,” I guess) and slather over warm pita. Htipiti is perfect summer food — no fear of breaking a sweat — and makes a great addition to a mezze, a fabulous way of eating during these sultry Dog Days.
8 ounces of feta, crumbled
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp. Aleppo pepper
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. dried oregano, preferably Greek or Turkish
The juice of about two lemons — you might not need it all
2 tbs. olive oil, preferably Greek
1 roasted red pepper, sliced into strips (optional)
In a large bowl. combine the first 6 ingredients and stir gently with a rubber spatula. Add the lemon juice, a splash at a time and stir until everything is just moistened. Slowly drizzle over the olive oil while continuing to stir gently. Stop when the feta mixture is softened but not soggy. Refrigerate for about an hour to allow the flavors to meld. Adjust seasonings. Top with the slices of red pepper, if using, and serve with warm pita.
My most recent batch of htipiti did not photograph well. As you might guess, the spread is a little on the white side, one reason why the red peppers make such a nice addition. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any red peppers on hand so there was nothing to provide that much needed contrast. The photos were not fit to post. Sadly, I also immolated the pita — such a silly, rookie mistake — which didn’t help matters. No matter: we managed to polish off the entire batch of htipiti quite happily.
make lemonade popsicles.
Don’t hold me to this, but I think my desert island ingredient would be lemons. It would be more convenient if a lemon trees actually grew upon said island — then garlic would be my default ingredient. At any rate, I use lemons nearly every day.
I can’t image cooking without them. Often, when I think a dish needs salt, what it really needs is a good squeeze of lemon. This is especially true of stir fries, pesto, and many soups. Lemon also provides the much needed brightness in hummus, tapenade, and muhamarra and so many other tasty dips. How many cookies, pies, cakes, and tarts are improved by a squeeze of lemon, a bit of lemon zest, or a combination thereof? And, these days, I’ve been squeezing even more lemons than usual — lemonade popsicles are all the rage around here.
Any of these foods would be welcome on an island, deserted or not. Plus, they all stave off scurvy, which, as we all know, can be a bit of a problem for seafaring types.
Here’s a quick recipe for lemonade, whish is so ridiculously refreshing on a hot summer day. It comes from The Hot & Hot Fish Club Cookbook by Chris and Idie Hastings. For those of you who aren’t familiar with The Hot & Hot Fish Club, the venerable Birmingham, Alabama, restaurant, let me just say…”wow.” Its executive chef was nominated this year for a James Beard Award for best chef in the Southeast. He deserved the honor.
Last weekend, Jim, Mimi, and I enjoyed a meal there that was nothing short of spectacular (unfortunately, I forgot my camera, so no photos). The tomato salad I ordered was simple and perfect: dead ripe tomatoes — deep, dark, red and juicy as can be — layered between a kind of deconstructed succotash. The salad was surrounded by bits of fried okra, and topped with a piece of bacon. It’s a dish that could stand up next to any dish from any fine restaurant in the world. In fact, it could handily stare down any dish from any fine restaurant in the world. Assuming, of course, that plates of food can stare.
Akward metaphors aside, the food was fabulous. Jim got the wonderful quail as a very rich appetizer and then shrimp & grits, which just about knocked his socks off. The wild caught Gulf shrimp was sweet and succulent; the grits were creamy and flavorful. In addition to their justifiably famous tomato salad, I ordered the vegetable plate, which featured 5 different vegetable dishes, including a truly luscious corn salad as well as fried orka that Mimi ate like popcorn.
I was a little reluctant to share.
Like any restaurant worth its salt, H & H is interested in locally sourced ingredients and really pioneered farm to plate dining in Birmingham. I bought their cookbook back in January and have spent several pleasant hours pouring over its gorgeous pages, but the only recipe that I’ve used thus far is one for lemonade. There’s a reason for this. The recipes are organized by season, and I was so attracted to their Summer dishes that I’ve been waiting until the requisite produce was in season to try them out.
My day has come! Look for several recipes from the H&H cookbook this Summer. In the meantime, I offer the promised lemonade recipe, which is delicious both as a beverage and in frozen form. Enjoy!
The Hot & Hot Fish Club Lemonade (with very minor adjustments)
1 cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cup cold water
1/4 tsp. vanilla
pinch of salt
Combine the lemon juice, sugar, water, vanilla and salt. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Refrigerate immediately. Serve over crushed ice or freeze in popsicle molds until frozen solid.
One of the great joys of my life thus far has been feeding my child. After a rocky start, I was able to nurse Mimi for the first year of her life. While there were many, many times when that process was painful, tedious, or inconvenient, it was nevertheless a miraculous experience, a period marked by a feeling of intense physical closeness to my child that I long for today. I can remember looking into her contented face as she nursed and being so often struck by a sense of real accomplishment and even power. Here was something I could do well for her — something nourishing and essential, something ancient and mysterious. (I was also often amazed by her tenacity and strength as she nursed, but that’s another story.)
When the time came for Mimi to eat solid food, I was excited to make simple pureés for her — mostly organic, usually seasonal. An early favorite was a combination of plain yogurt and fresh mango that we playfully called “mango-dango.” Throughout this next phase of eating, I spent many happy afternoons steaming and pureéing Asian pears, green peas, Pink Lady apples, even quince. I roasted and mashed eggplant and sweet potatoes. I smashed bananas, strawberries, and peaches as well as red beans, lentils, and boiled edamame. Later, when her pretty little teeth appeared, I steamed green beans, broccoli, and carrots, cut them up, and served them with hummus. I fed her salty bacon and smoked salmon, quinoa and couscous. I topped baked potatoes with pesto, a practice that eventually became mandatory. One happy memory is of my six-month old daughter, to the surprise and delight of my mother-in-law, greedily gobbling up a plateful of steamed asparagus at a favorite restaurant in Michigan. We ordered some extra and she polished that off as well. Even the waitress was impressed.
Mimi has always been a fairly adventurous eater. She will eat almost anything that she sees her parents eat. When she was tiny, the only foods that she refused outright were infant cereals, commercial baby food, and, well, avocados. We all have our culinary quirks.
But that quirkiness works both ways. She has long had a passion for kalamata olives. When she was just over a year old, she shared them for first time with our friend Laura at a dinner party, Laura biting off tiny pieces and feeding them to Mimi as if she were a baby bird. She’s loved them ever since. Even now, I have to hide the olive jar in the fridge or my child will insist upon having an “olive snack.”
Before Mimi was born, I resolved that she would not be a picky eater, as so many children are. I was keenly aware that the odds were against us. I’m not sure when this happened, but at some point in American history, someone decided that children don’t like to eat the same foods as their parents and, moreover, that “adult” food was not even really appropriate for kids. Of course, a whole new market opened up to accommodate this trend: children’s food. These foods are marked by uniformity and infantile product names — “Go-Gurt,” “Captain Crunch,” ”Snackables,” “Spaghetti-O’s.” None of it is any good.
This trend logically expanded into American restaurants. Just try to find one that does not have a separate set of dishes prepared for children. I’m not the first person to point out the fact that the phenomena known as the “Children’s Menu” reinforces the idea that kids need to eat their own special food. The problem is that this food is never particularly special. I suppose it makes some sense to offer smaller portions of food to children, who usually don’t eat very much anyway. However, most children’s menus dumb down food, providing only a handful of blandly predictable items: grilled cheese, hot dogs, pizza, macaroni & cheese, chicken fingers — sometimes a hamburger and always french fries. It’s generally impossible to determine what kind of restaurant you are in by surveying the children’s menu. In the US, I’ve been to Indian restaurants that serve hot-dogs; French restaurants that offer hamburgers; Italian restaurants that feature chicken fingers. (Isn’t it interesting that restaurants in India, France, and Italy seldom have children’s menus? Kids eat what their parents do, just less of it.)
Thus, tastes and habits are created. Presented with an array of “appropriate” foods, kids pick up their forks and they eat. But not adult food. No, thank you. Children always strive to meet our expectations — even when those expectations are impossibly low.
Interestingly, it is possible that food preferences become instilled even earlier than toddlerhood. Some researchers theorize that amniotic fluid — that watery substance that nurtures and protects the aquatic fetus during gestation — changes flavor depending upon what a mother eats. The flavor of breast milk varies similarly. Taste, then, might be developed prenatally, at least initially, and probably long before solid foods are introduced. If true, then children’s food manufacturers have already tailored the tastes of at least one generation of American eaters. It occurs to me that the menus of several major American food chains support this theory. How different are the adult and children’s menus at Applebee’s?
Back when I was pregnant and nursing, I was especially concerned with eating as many different things as I could so that Mimi’s palate would be as varied as possible. I liked to imagine Mimi, tucked away inside of me, wondering what new flavor experience would come next. I made sure to eat a lot of broccoli, hoping to raise a lover of that unfairly maligned vegetable. It seems to have worked. Mimi likes her little trees.
Now that she’s older, Mimi will often ask me what’s for dinner and then, when she finds out what we’re having, she asks a follow-up question: “Do I love that?” Usually, I’m able to assure her that she does love whatever it is that we’re having, but I’m not a fool. I’ll know that eventually, there will be some resistance. At some point, she’s likely to wonder why she eats foods that other kids do not. Worse, she’ll wonder why we never feed her the special foods for kids that so many of her friends get to eat. From a child’s point of view, if there are special foods and menus in stores and restaurants, there must also be special foods and menus at home.
And, usually, there are.
But not at our house, at least not preprocessed “special” foods. We’ve tried to protect Mimi from the tyranny of low expectations. In restaurants, she either shares with us or we request a small plate of something from the regular menu. Decent restaurants will usually cooperate. It’s easier at home. Except when she was very small, she has always eaten what we do. Even her baby meals bore a strong resemblance whatever Jim and I were eating for dinner — softer versions of the family meal. One of the first dishes that we all enjoyed together was Megadarra, a wonderful lentil and rice dish from the Middle East. Topped with yogurt, carmelized onions, and a small salad of cucumbers, tomato, and mint, the dish is complex without being confusing. It is meatless, healthy, delicious, and visually appealing. Minus the salad, it’s a perfect first “real” meal for a small child. There’s nothing to choke on and it can be rendered appropriately mushy with the addition of extra yogurt. The lentils are earthy and the basmati rice and onions, together with the cinnamon and allspice, provide a nice bit of sweetness. I served it to Mimi first without the salad and, later, with the salad on the side so she could gobble up the small pieces with her fingers. Now, she eats the dish exactly as we do and just as happily.
It’s an old standard at our house, one that satisfies both young and old alike.
2 white onions, thinly sliced
1 tbs. butter
3 tbs. olive oil, divided
1 white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
3/4 cup brown lentils
4 cups water
1/2 cup basmati rice
1 English cucumber, diced
2 tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 cup 2% Greek yogurt
1/2 cup mint leave, roughly chopped
salt & pepper
First, caramelize the onions. In a large frying pan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add olive oil and onions and saute until the onions are soft and brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a large Dutch oven, heat remaining olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until soft. Add garlic and continue to saute until fragrant. Add allspice, cinnamon, and cumin. Stir constantly for one minute. Add water and lentils. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes until the lentil begin to get soft, stirring occasionally. Add rice and more water (if necessary) to cover). Bring back to a boil and simmer, covered, for another 20 minutes, until the rice is soft and the water has evaporated. Stir only as needed.
Remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper, stirring very gently. Serve the lentils in bowl topped with onions, cucumber, tomato, mint, and yogurt.