Friday, January 31, 2014

My Master Chefs (Junior)

In the fall, we started watching Master Chef Junior on Friday nights.  It was an amazing season with very, very talented kids.  As we huddled on the sofa and eagerly awaited the next challenge or the mystery box ingredients reveal, each of us was lost in our own incredulous thoughts:
Mine:  those kids are so tiny! And look at them wielding that knife, that pot of water, that flame!  Look at those meringues, that shrimp dish, that presentation!  
Aidan:  those kids are MY AGE!!!  I can do that!  It's so easy!
Leo:  Wow, I am almost the same as that kid. Does that mean I can cut with a big knife now?
Pax:  Lava cake, lava cake, lava cake, lava cake!!  I wanna make lava cake!
Jeff:  Um..... I need to learn how to cook something.
And so began our Master Chef nights.  Since October, the kids have been cooking a meal with me once or twice a month each.  They decide in advance what they would like to cook, and they do absolutely every step of the process as they possibly can.  For example, I drain the boiling pasta water for all of them, although soon, Aidan will be able to handle this step.  The older boys put food into the oven, but I still take it out - this is purely a height thing right now more than anything else.  Pax's meals are simpler, but he still does as many steps as possible; Pax also tends to do more baking right now, because in many ways, it is more manageable than a meal.  We usually cook together on the weekends, or on a night when we truly have nothing else planned.  Dinner takes longer to prepare on these nights, but it is well worth the wait and the effort.  And I have come to look forward to these Master Chef nights more than any other night of cooking in the month, for I love how it feels to teach these skills to my sons, to savor both their delicious meals and our time spent preparing them.

Successful nights of Master Chef cooking include:
  • A simple enough dish that you have already made yourself; the recipe should also be easy enough for kids to read and to follow.
  • One that you will duplicate again with the same chef so that it starts to become very familiar and comfortable
  • Something that the chef has chosen himself
  • A hands-off teaching mode (literally - keep your paws off the food!), along with frequently reminding yourself that part of the process of learning to cook is learning what to do after disasters.  They will not learn well if you do not allow for mistakes.
  • Enough time so that the chef does not feel pressured or rushed.
  • A complete meal preparation, from table setting, food preparation, and serving/presentation. The chef needs to get a very good sense of everything that is involved in the dinner meal.
  • A reminder to the rest of the family to arrive at the table ready to be a "grateful eater." 
  • Perhaps most importantly - a glass of wine (or two) during dinner preparation goes a long way in maintaining your relaxed teaching state.
Here is a photo collection of some of what's been whipped up by Chefs Carter:

Aidan's Chicken Alfredo:

 Leo's Italian Minestrone Soup (1st time)
 Pax's Apple Crisp
 Aidan's Chicken Parm Meatballs: (and apparently the Darth Vader shirt is *the* shirt to wear while cooking)
 Pax's cutout sugar cookies (made from scratch)
 Leo's Master Chef Lasagna:  (complete with his new Master Chef personalized apron!)
 Pax's Sloppy Joe's (made with turkey meat, which he browned quite nicely, all by himself)
 Aidan's cashew chicken and rice - this turned out the best it's ever been!
 Leo's Italian Minestrone Soup, the second time making this favorite dish:
 Aidan's manicotti and raw chopped veggies

...and this weekend, we're having a Master Chef Double Header.  Leo will be making Chicken Parm Meatballs, and Pax will close out the evening with Molten Lava Cakes (that he's been begging to make since October!)

Emeril Lagasse (whose recipe we're using for the Molten Lava Cakes on Saturday) writes,

"My inspiration was my mom. She's a great cook, and she still cooks, and we banter back and forth about cooking.  Growing up in a mostly Portuguese community, food was important and the family table was extremely important.  At a very young age I understood that."

So there you have it.  The proof is in the lava... er, pudding.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What's for Dinner?

Dinnertime in our home is a sacred time; it is a legacy carried over from my own childhood.  Almost every night, especially now that no one is working 12 hour shifts or running off to graduate classes, we sit down for a meal together - evening activities are arranged around dinner, not vice versa.  A gift from my mother, we have a canvas that hangs in the kitchen: Wash your hands; eat with an open heart; enjoy the company; compliments welcomed; no texts or phone calls; help set up and clean up; talk about your day; eat your veggies; say grace; clean up after yourself; kiss the cook; be thankful for the food in front of you.  Yes.  All of those things.

Our family dinner ritual is one of the finest legacies handed down to me by my mother, and yet I would be remiss if I were not to mention the other most influential foodie in my life:  Betty Eater.  When I was 7, I learned to make English Muffin pizzas, all by myself, followed quickly by French toast and cinnamon-sugar toast.  After several years perfecting my signature dishes, when I turned 10, I determined that it was time for me to write my own cookbook.  I got a small, yellow, spiral-bound notebook and titled it "Betty Eater's Guide to Cooking."  Naturally, it began with a detailed, step-by-step recipe for English Muffin pizzas.  I filled it with recipes I had made and loved, and ones I wanted to try.  I scoured the newspaper for inspiration and ideas; I laboriously copied ingredients and instructions from the many cookbooks we had in our kitchen.  I doodled pictures of the dishes in the margins and dreamed of filling tables full of food.

Betty Eater liked to dabble in the kitchen, especially at lunchtime, but she mostly liked to be served dinner (promptly at 6:15).  She didn't like to choose what was for dinner that night, or to be asked about it by her mother.   Betty Eater was slightly insufferable.  Driven by that memory, I set out many years ago to end the "what's for dinner" saga by planning out a monthly menu.  I've been creating menus by the month for almost 10 years now, and it has proven to be one of the greatest time-savers of my life.  I love the efficiency of the menu; I love that the readers in our family can now consult the menu posted on the fridge; I love hearing them excitedly shout, "Yes!!!  We're having [insert meal] tonight!"

I plan easy and no-recipe-needed dinners for busy weeknights, or I use the crock pot.  I maximize ingredients I have, serving roast chicken one night, then using the carcass for homemade stock for soup the next day.  I save time-intensive or more difficult meals for weekends, savoring the time I have to cook them.  In summer, I make quiches in advance to serve with gaspatcho, or pesto that can be tossed quickly with hot pasta.  We enjoy sandwiches and hearty salads that can be prepped easily and quickly, and even carted off to swim practice or meets.  In winter, I plan at least one soup a week, plus chili and oven-baked dishes like lasagna and eggplant parmesan.  I follow general patterns of quick-and-easy; something on a bun (veggie burger; sloppy joes); something Mexican; something Asian; something pasta; something extra special.  At least 2 nights a week are vegetarian, and while there are the occasional nights when the kids eat something different from us, by and large, we all eat (mostly) the same meal.  (A vow we made very early on was that we would not fight any food battles with our kids.  The occasional separate dish for picky eaters has never bothered any of us, and if they truly hate what is being served, they can help themselves to a bowl of cereal.) Each meal has side dishes (cooked veggies, rice, bread, etc.) that complement the meal, along with salad (for Jeff and me) and crudite or fruit (for the kids).  Although this is not a hard and fast rule, there are no repeats during the same month.  Leftovers get taken in as lunch, or frozen and saved for an unexpectedly hectic day when we need a quick meal. 

Posted on the refrigerator in a prominent spot:

I made two new year's resolutions this year, and one of them was to make 50 new recipes this year.  The * denotes a new recipe; I'm 6 meals in with weeks to go.  

And the Master Chef night?  Those nights deserve a post of their own, coming soon.

My best online resources:
The blog renewed my dedication and passion for the Sacred Family Meal.  I haven't met a recipe of hers I didn't love, and the book she published - part memoir, part cookbook - is among the best I own.  Be sure to read her posts that include deconstructing dinner, like this one. And if you want to make Family Dinner Sacred, but you don't exactly know where to start, read this post.  If I had to choose just one all-time favorite meal of hers, it would be these chicken parm meatballs - high concept food that is easy, delicious, and a much healthier version of the real deal, to boot. She is funny, she is witty, her husband is someone you kinda get a crush on, and she is a strong advocate of pairing a glass of wine, or a gin and tonic, with the nightly ritual of cooking dinner.  What more could you ask for?  (Oh yeah - you could ask for a cool bumper sticker.  She has those, too.  "Make dinner, not war" - you can order it on her site.)

My girlfriend has her own little food blog that I love to check out for all sorts of new recipes and ideas. She bakes way more than I ever do, so I use her blog as a go-to when I'm looking for a good muffin or cookie recipe.  My dinner favorites?  The salmon vodka cream sauce (being served here on Sunday the 26th) is the first recipe I remember her making for me.  I was 6 months pregnant with Aidan, she was 3 months pregnant with her firstborn, and we spent an amazing night eating.. and eating... in their NYC apartment.  This chicken alfredo is decadent, and worth every extra minute required on the treadmill.  And when I made this baked caprese as an appetizer for our dear friends, Ryan positively moaned with pleasure when he took the first bite.  

I've gotten a lot of great recipes from Food Network, but you have to know your chefs and your preferences on that site, or it can be overwhelming.  Read the reviews - they are quite helpful. I knew I'd found a good one when Ina Garten's seafood chowder received so many 5 star reviews.  I served this on Christmas Eve, and again on New Year's Eve, in bread bowls.  It was insanely good.

I keep just a handful of cookbooks on my kitchen counter; the rest are stored in a bookshelf in the basement.  Among those I grab most often are:
How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach
The New Vegetarian Cuisine by Linda Rosensweig
The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman
The Grilling Book by the editors of Bon Apetit...
...and, of course, The Joy of the Table by Betty Eater.

Does something on my menu look especially appealing to you?  Submit a comment, or send me an email, and I will be sure to send along the recipe for whatever entices you most.  Now if you'll excuse me, I hear Betty Eater calling.  She has a glass of wine waiting, along with a grocery list that needs a second review before tomorrow's shopping trip....

Monday, January 13, 2014


Happy Birthday to Leo Gabriel, who turned 7 (!!!) on January 5.  Why, pray tell, am I just posting about it now? Because only just today did we finally finish celebrating the birthday boy, in an epic 9 day stretch.

Day 1 of Birthday Celebration:  The Actual Day....
...where he starred in the "leading" role of The Angel Gabriel in our church's Christmas Pageant!  Aidan was a clear-spoken, articulate narrator; Pax played the ever-wandering, errant black sheep.
That Angel Gabriel sure is mischief!
Day 6 of birthday celebration was supposed to be cupcakes at school and singing... but school was cancelled because of "weather" (ha!  Cold rain is what we got!) and cupcakes were delayed. Leo was crushed... luckily, the Hobbit Hole my parents created for him in the closet of the bedroom he shares with Pax was enough of a distraction to save us all from the misery that is a cancelled school day with kids who thrive on structure, routine, and predictability:
Leo's own Hobbit Hole - entry by invitation only!
it includes a bright overhead light, a dimmer reading lamp, a cozy floor pillow, and a box for treasures (filled with writing supplies, a journal, and books).

Day 7 of Birthday Celebration:  Rock climbing at our beloved indoor rock climbing gym...the party ROCKED.  Some photos:

Party favors
Bouldering in the bat cave (low climbs plus lots of mats = no need for a harness)
Aidan was feeling totally psyched about his bouldering feat!!! (Even if his feet are still parallel to his youngest brother's head...)
 Fearless climber, until...
 "Uh, can I get a little help here?"

Some perspective on the 20 foot ceilings:
One of the many reasons why I love this particular gym is because of its staff.  We all were encouraging a rather nervous Leo to climb the rest of the way to the top, but Leo was "stuck," mentally speaking.  Dan climbed up the wall beside him and coached/coaxed him up until he reached the very top! What an awesome moment that was for the birthday boy.

 Time for cake!

The party was so much fun for everyone. Even though I missed hosting a party at home, this party is among one of my favorites because of how much joy I had in watching the kids' excitement in climbing the walls, in listening to them encourage one another, clap for each other, and praise good efforts and great skills, and in simply being around the 8 very happy, sweet friends (and brothers) who joined us in celebrating Leo. (Yeah okay.  It was also among my favorites because it mattered not one bit that my house was a total mess, both after AND before the party.  Love me some destination parties!)

Alas, the epic celebration ended today, Day 9: Lunch and cupcakes at school with the birthday boy, his brother, his classmates and teacher.

Leo Gabriel, you are a dream come true.  Happiest of birthdays to you, dear boy!