Tag Archives: C(h)ristine

Quick and Easy Meal: Baked French Toast

Baked French toast

Since breakfast is the first meal of the day, I thought I’d put up a recipe for baked french toast as my first Quick and Easy Meal post.

I love breakfasts on weekend mornings, but it’s pretty hard to cook breakfast with a baby attached to you in a sling. Breakfast involves tending to things that are sputtering in oil and butter on a stove top. Things like bacon and eggs and pancakes and french toast that you can’t readily leave to soothe a crying baby–and things that would potentially scald your kid. Nisht gut.

So when I woke up this morning craving french toast, I wondered how I would pull it off. I could put the baby in her high chair and make french toast as quickly as I could (so far, she’s happy for about 15 minutes in the high chair–and after that, all bets are off–she’s known to sit in her high chair for 30 minutes, but she’s also known to scream her head off after 15 minutes, announcing that she is Done With The High Chair Pick Me Up, Dammit).

Orrrr I could bake a french toast casserole. I figured it could be the best of bread pudding and french toast worlds. There’s no required knife work, everything is mix and combine, and the most dangerous part of the whole deal is taking the dish out of the oven. But you can ask someone to take it out for you, or set the baby down for an entire 20 seconds while you do so.

So in sum: no knife work, no open flames. Quick prep. Easy bake. I made the whole thing with my kid in a sling.

It was absolutely simple to cook, and I think you could even prep the whole thing the night before and then just pop it into the oven when you wake up. My husband, who loves custardy french toast, thought this was good. And if you top it with a sugar and butter topping before baking, I think you could even go without the maple syrup. 😉

Recipe follows after the jump…

Continue reading

Farm City

my friend Novella's book is AWESOME

Farm City is an awesome read, written by Novella Carpenter, whose book I rank up with Bill Buford’s Heat, with the spirit of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. And I love the voice–Novella the narrator often wonders why people open up to her and accept her so readily (among others, Chris Lee of Eccolo, who teaches her how to prepare pork from her pigs); the voice of the narrator (straightforward, funny, unblinking to the point of childlike wonder, compassionate) is hers, and as a reader I found myself liking her so very much.

I mean, she describes her community in the ghetto with compassion and humor (describing the “tumbleweeds” as “tumbleweaves”).

I’ve been meaning to buy the book at one of our local stores, at one of Novella’s book tour readings, but my availability did not intersect with her schedule. And so I ordered the book off Amazon–but for as long as I waited to buy her tome, I wasted no time in cracking it open and settling in for what turned out to be an absorbing, delightful, educational reading of a book that drips with optimism and moxie in a world that has in recent months, gone dark and brooding.

Novella has a farm.  She has a farm on an abandoned lot in a part of Oakland nicknamed “Ghost Town,” near the freeway and BART tracks. I’ve visited her farm and was astonished on my first visit to discover an oasis in a part of town that is not a destination site for many–most people drive past it on the freeway, ride past it on BART, there are very few grocery stores, and abandoned lots are many. Like the Valley of Ashes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  But on her street corner, behind a chain link fence, is a lot full of green vegetables and myriad fruits, with a quiet symphony of animal noises.

Turkeys

The farm is serious work, with its share of tragedy: some of her birds die at the mercy of wild neighborhood dogs. Because the abandoned lot on which she squats and plants the garden is purposely unlocked, sometimes others come by and harvest things without permission.  (This, she takes in stride–it’s not “her” land and she willingly shares the harvest).  A farm, rural or urban, is not a perfect fairytale. Nature is unpredictable–but rewarding and complex, too.

When Novella’s animals are slaughtered (by her or, rarely, by a third party), it is not a heartless act but a very complex one; sad, respectful, awful, spiritual, and ultimately, pragmatic.  Once during a visit I commented on how “cute” her rabbits were and Novella quickly responded, “They’re food. Don’t fall in love.”  BTW, they were totally cute.

When she buys pigs at auction, unsure of what “Barrow” or “Gilt” might mean, she asks a boy, “Does G mean ‘girl’?” The way she describes the boy’s reaction, “He looked at me as if he might fall over from the sheer power of my enormous idiocy. Then he nodded, so stunned by my stupidity he couldn’t speak,” is so full of humility and frank humor that I was bowled over as a reader. I laughed out loud. (lol to you). Most writers in the foodie/food realm are so pompous and full of themselves, that I was truly delighted and charmed by Novella here, as I am in real life.

I’m always interested in novel structure (in recent months, I’ve been blogging less because I’ve been steeped in writing my fiction), and I took a quick look at how Novella structured Farm City: Rabbit, Turkey, Pig. (Those who read her blog know she has added goats to her farm in recent years, goats with whom I have visited and fallen in love).  She now has goats because during her month of living exclusively off her farm and a 100 yard circumference, which she includes in Farm City, she decided she wanted to have a ready source of milk, sorely missed during that month.

Bilbo and the baby goats sunning on the steps
(Bilbo, Georgina, and Orla).

The book is written, more or less, chronologically–because Novella really did start with rabbits, moving on to turkeys, and then pigs.  But I still found the livestock-centric structure interesting and effective because yes, to a farmer life and time revolves around the livestock at hand.

The book is on Oprah’s list of 25 books to read this summer, and deservedly so.

Springtime’s bounty

baby potatoes from the garden!

Ohhhh! After a long winter (and this year, despite my love for this year’s prolonged cold weather, even I must confess it was a looong winter), Spring fruits and vegetables are a welcome sight! I can’t wait until tomatoes come into season–but for now, I’m very happy with what’s coming out of the ground these days.

My garden, much more sparse than last year (because of my hunt for the gopher), is still bringing me great culinary delights.

I mean, check out the potatoes in the garden–in my overzealous search for gopher tunnels, I decided to uproot a potato plant. Surprise, surprise! Baby potatoes! Of course I snatched all the baby potatoes right away.

potato plant with potatoes

I had no idea that the potatoes were anywhere near ready for harvesting. These potato plants are just the best find ever, first having sprouted from potatoes I’d thrown into the compost pile and now blessing me with unexpectedly early baby potatoes.

The potatoes, by the way, were so delicious. I’ve never had potatoes fresh out of the ground before and I am going to plant some more. If there was ever an excuse to gorge oneself on carbs, this is it–a fresh potato straight out of the soil is a piece of heaven, I think.

In the springtime, we eat a good number of baby veg, little miniature delights, straight from the soil. Not just potatoes. It’s our impatience, and my curiosity–what *is* lurking beneath the soil? I have to know. So I’ll pull out a baby carrot, or in this case, a baby cherry belle radish.

Cherry Belle radish

I paused to take a photo, but then hurried back into the house where I rinsed the red globe, and took it out to show my husband who was washing cars on a sunny Saturday afternoon. “Mrmmm! Bring it over!” He ate it right up. He loves radishes, and he’s the reason I planted a few this year.

“How was it?” I asked.

“Yummy!”

And what my garden does not produce, I seek out at the store. This morning, finding myself in a remarkably calm and optimistic mood (maybe it was finding the radish in the garden), I chanced the crowds at Berkeley Bowl, a market I normally avoid on weekends. It’s CRAZY on weekends there. If you can find a parking spot, you still brave the crowds inside. I mean, there’s a reason for those crowds (the diverse and high quality produce, nevermind the meat and seafood counter and wide variety of baked goods) but it’s still maddening to shop there.

fresh cherry belle radishes from the garden

Still, I decided to head on over. I had a hankering for some fresh produce. I hadn’t been to the Bowl in months, and I was getting sick of the apples and oranges and other usual suspects at Andronico’s and Whole Foods. The Bowl didn’t let me down.

It was there, while browsing the aisles, having parked my shopping cart at the end that I realized how happy and content I was feeling. (you’re crazy if you want to actually stick with your cart the entire shopping time there–you’re better off parking the cart occasionally and then roving the aisles, especially in the produce section). How long had it been since I’d gone grocery shopping by myself, as an act of luxury?

It had been MONTHS. I found myself beginning to imagine the foods and dishes I would make out of the ingredients before me, I found myself delighted at finding Haydn mangoes (not just Tommy Atkins), at the amazingly red and plump flats of strawberries!

And…I discovered ramps. Ramps! The Bowl had ramps! I’ve been reading a lot about ramps these days, and was dying to try them. But they’re not too easy to find in the Bay Area–they’re wild leeks local to the Appalachians.

ramps!

I quickly grabbed them. I found my hand sullied with dirt, they were so fresh. The Appalachia (or what other far away place these ramps came from) was on my hands, and though I would normally wipe the dirt quickly away, I let it linger as I shopped.

When I got home, I used the ingredients to make a spring pasta–not a primavera, but my own “hacked together” (as they say in high tech) version: ramps, morel mushrooms, peas, and asparagus.

ingredients for Spring pasta

Aren’t they beautiful? I also saw fiddlehead ferns at the Bowl–I regretted not grabbing some of those to make a perfect Spring vegetable bouquet.

Just chopping them up and sauteeing them together made me feel more alive, healthier. It has been a long winter, and I’ve missed my vegetables.

Spring pasta with ramps, asparagus. morels, and peas

Chelada

Budweiser + Clamat = "Chelada"

I was out of town a month ago when we spotted this can of Bud Chelada, aka Budweiser+Clamato. Hrm. Intrigued, we bought a can and then took turns drinking from it and making funny faces, and then doubled over with laughter, we took sips again just to keep on laughing.

Needless to say, we were not too entranced by the taste.

But then the other day, I came across a Slashfood’s post on Michelada–at first, knowing of Bud Chelada, I thought this was perhaps a proprietary name for the Michelob version of this same drink.

Nope. It’s some other concoction–one that you can make with Michelob even though it’s preferable to use a dark beer.

Not being a beer fan, I’m not a fan of the beer cocktail, either.

Matzo Shortage 2008!

ready for the Seder

I guess I wasn’t the only one who drove all over town looking for matzo last week before Passover began. Unlike others, I found one box of matzo. However, I could not find, to save my life, kosher-for-passover matzo meal or chrain (grated, bottled horseradish).

I drove to no less than seven stores in search of matzo meal and chrain (I’d bought the matzo a few days earlier on what turns out to be a fortunate lark). I’m talking: Whole Foods, Andronico’s, Afikomen, Star Grocery, two Safeways (note to self: Safeway had the best assortment of Kosher-for-Passover foods, sans matzo, matzo meal and chrain), and (you never know–but they ended up having no Passover items at all) Trader Joe’s. NO matzo meal. NO chrain. And though this was a day before Passover began, I was still surprised: after all, Passover lasts EIGHT days. There’s got to be enough kosher-for-Passover eats for eight days and it was incredible to me that stores ran out before the holiday even began.

But here’s the important question, the reason for my frantic matzo meal and chrain search…

How was I going to make gefilte fish?! Matzo meal is a crucial ingredient (other than ground up whitefish) in gefilte fish, and chrain is a crucial accompaniment. And gefilte fish is, at least in our household, a crucial dish served at the Seder table. Alas, I found an old container of matzo meal from Passover past. Not entirely kosher–and I fretted before I used it, rationalizing that I’d done my best to hunt down matzo meal, to no avail. (I wonder how many other Jewish families had to make compromises this year with the matzo shortage).

gefilte fish prepared

I was first acquainted with gefilte fish when I used to buy and devour the kind in jars. I remember my preference used to be Rokeach brand over Manischevitz. But that all changed when I tasted my mother-in-law’s gefilte fish for the first time. She made hers by hand. It was fantastic–the texture of the gefilte fish was firm but not like something out of a rubber mold, the aspic just light and with distinguishable flavors.

I had to make mine from scratch too! I watched her make gefilte fish the next year, helped her form them, put them into the boiling broth, complete with fish heads, and vowed to make my own from that point on.

I thought it would be complicated–it isn’t very complicated at all. Just a tad time consuming with a very delicious outcome. You’ll want to start the gefilte fish the day before the dinner because it requires overnight chilling in the fridge to assure a firm aspic. And remember to put your order in for ground up whitefish far ahead of Passover (and also to buy your matzo meal in advance) so that you have all you need without the stress of hunting down ingredients.

Recipe follows after the jump…

Continue reading

Hedonistic crawfish boil, topped with etouffee…!

Crawfish Etouffee

I know, it’s been a month since the last post on Muffin Top! March was a crazy month with a lot of business-oriented travel. In terms of food, that meant a lot of rushed and convenient meals at home resting between trips…and then a lot of rushed and convenient meals on the road. But we’re back. It’s April. And good news: it’s crawfish season.

We have a crawfish boil every year–an homage to family roots in Louisiana. We began our tradition tentatively several years ago, not knowing at first where to order live crawfish, and treading through the logistics carefully. We did our research and found the Louisiana Crawfish Company–every year they deliver 100+ pounds of fresh, live crawfish to us, with nary a dead shellfish (impressive).

Just make sure to have them delivered the same day as your boil, they don’t keep very long at all! We hunt down the outdoor burner at a local party rental place, and have industrial-sized boiling pots from our local Smart and Final. The list goes on. But we’ve got that list down pat.

And now we have our own tradition, resembling those of my husband’s childhood. He boils the crawfish, and I make the etouffee halfway through the boil. The organization is now like second nature, and the boil proceeds with a breezy familiarity, despite the hustle and bustle and occasional wayward crawfish making his way to freedom. We do sometimes wonder if one or two make it, as we don’t live too far from a creek.

crawfish

Crawfish boils are a jolly occasion. I love cooking, as you know, but I especially love food as a center of social gatherings. And there’s just something about getting an order of live crawfish, boiling them along with potatoes and ears of corn in a spicy concoction, spreading them out in a large pile on a table, and then, communally, shelling each one.

Crawfish pile

Food tastes better when your friends are a part of the cooking process, when there is a community around the eating. Mrmmm. And not just because it makes shelling go faster! (Seriously, when you’ve got over 100 pounds of crawfish, it takes several hours to plow through it as a crowd, let alone as an individual).

There’s always a communal bowl on the table–not for the shells, but for tail meat. We make sure everyone knows to keep shelling and filling the bowl with tail meat. Don’t stop shelling! we joke. Keep filling that bowl! Because that bowl of crawfish tails becomes…etouffee.

Oh yes. Etouffee, a Creole dish of butter smothered crawfish, is my favorite culinary part of the boil. There’s something about the red crawfish stacked in piles on the table, the cheerful hubbub of shelling, everyone focused on getting that tail meat out that makes it one of my favorite annual occasions. But nothing beats the etouffee part of the boil for me. I eagerly eye the communal bowl–and as soon as there’s at least four handfuls in that bowl, voila! I whisk it off to the kitchen and disappear for about half an hour as I make the etouffee.

It takes about as long as it takes to make basmati rice. So start the rice when you start making the etouffee, and you’ve got a perfect pairing at the end: rich buttery smothered crawfish paired with rice. Say it with me: mrmmmmmmmm.

And–later on, the crawfish tails that don’t make it into the etouffee? You pack that up in little ziploc bags, and give to your guests to take home. No one ever seems to get sick of crawfish. One of our guests also takes home a garbage full of shells each year–he makes crawfish butter with the stash, in an illustration of the adage, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” The gorgeous crawfish keeps delivering!

By the way, there’s never ever any leftover etouffee.

Recipe for crawfish etouffee follows after the jump…

Continue reading

a salad for late winter

lunch on my day off

Spring is around the corner. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the cherry trees have begun to blossom, the cars are covered with a fine dusting of bright yellow-green pollen, and my allergies have begun to act up. The wild turkeys in my neighborhood are courting, and I’ve put away my winter scarf.

Elsewhere, I know, winter has not unloosened its firm grip–I was just in the mountains and in the midwest, where the trees are still encased in ice, laden with snow (and not blossoms), and you can’t leave the house without a hat and a down jacket. It’s beautiful–but the residents are long-weary of the cold and snow and ice. As I pranced around, admiring the snow and ice and cold, they looked at me as if I was insane and remarked, “You’re a very cheerful person!” Well. It’s easy to be cheerful, I guess, when you don’t have to live in the snow for months on end.

Regardless of snow or spring blossoms, my palate is craving some bright, light flavors. After a long winter of rich stews and soups and pies and all other such heavy eats…I am craving FRUIT. I am craving something that has CRUNCH! And I don’t mean a parsnip or turnip. Or an apple. I want a melon! I want something other than anemic looking tomato!

So when I saw a stack of seasonal blood oranges, something clicked in my head: a SALAD. A salad full of bright flavors and colors. Blood oranges and pickled beets. Tart and sweet.

On my day off, I indulged. I sliced the blood oranges and pulled pickled beets out of the fridge (these days, I always have some pickled and on hand! They’re delicious). I took some baby greens and tossed them in a vinaigrette piling them atop the blood orange slices and beets.

Oh, and I dotted some goat cheese atop the salad for good measure.

Delicious. And it fulfilled my craving for spring with ingredients easily found in late winter.