Rainy Day Craft: Paper Towel Roll and Foil Rocket

Luca brought this rocket home from school this week. You know something makes the cut when it shows up at the breakfast table, rides along in the car and sleeps on the pillow at night.He has not stopped playing with this since he brought it home.

I thought I’d share it since it’s an easy craft that you can make with items around your kitchen: a paper towel roll and a sheet of aluminum foil. A good activity to keep little hands busy on a rainy day.

Maybe we’ll take a trip to Jupiter to try some of their famous orange twiglets.

Here’s How To Make It:

  • Notch one end of the paper towel roll and shape it into a cone and secure it with tape. I like to use gummed paper tape since it’s sticks well to paper surfaces and you can draw, paint and glue on top of it. It’s a great addition to your craft supplies.
  • Paint on some school glue and then cover the whole thing with foil.
  • Add some stickers, paint or other decorations and you’re ready to blast off!

Rice Cooker Mac ‘n Cheese

Homemade mac ‘n cheese in your rice cooker? That’s right people!

When I saw this on the blog Weelicious a while back, I knew it was something I had to try. I’m a total sucker for the rice cooker, especially when it involves cooking things other than rice. While the final dish is certainly not as rich, smooth and creamy as a macaroni and cheese made with a béchamel sauce, it’s an acceptable approximation and oh so easy peasy on a busy night. In fact this recipe is so quick and easy that most kids could probably handle cooking it themselves with just a little supervision. Try it out and see what you think!

Speaking of rice cookers…. I’m about to officially retire my Chime-O-Matic, the rice cooker that my dad bought for me as a going off to college gift. In thinking back on it, I’m pretty sure this was my very first piece of cooking equipment. These days I have to prop it up on a jar lid because it’s missing a leg and it’s so generally raggedy that I have been on the verge of tossing it many times. Only sentimentality has stopped me from pitching it. At long last, I find I can’t resist the new generation of rice cookers with their cool features (a porridge setting for making jook!) and I’m excited to enter a whole new world of rice cooker cookery. So with this batch of mac and cheese as its swan song, I bid a fond adieu to my Chime-O-Matic!

What was your first piece of cooking gear?

Rice Cooker Mac ‘n Cheese (adapted from Weelicious. Here’s the original recipe)

Serves 4

  1. To your rice cooker, add 2 cups of macaroni (we like mini penne), 1.5 cups chicken stock and 1 tsp salt. Stir and cover. Let it cook for 15 minutes.
  2. After 15 minutes add 1 cup milk and 1 1/2 cups shredded cheese. I ended up using a heaping cup of grated cheddar, 1/2 cup or so of nonfat cottage cheese and about 1/3 cup of grated parmegiano reggiano. Stir well and let it cook another 15 minutes.
  3. Since my family loves spinach, I topped each bowl with some finely chopped ribbons of fresh spinach. A sprinkling of homemade breadcrumbs seasoned with garlic powder and toasted on the stove with some olive oil would be a yummy addition as well.

Sunday Stew: Jamie Oliver’s Braised Pork and Pepper Goulash

Feeding our new bambino late one night gave me a chance to catch up on a few cooking shows. This goulash recipe from Jamie Oliver at Home (the “Peppers” episode) “had me at hello”. Slow-braised pork shoulder and peppers? Sign me up! While it takes a few hours to cook, the hands on time is pretty minimal. I wasn’t sure if Luca was going to go for the whole peppers thing so I told him it was carnitas and he ate it right up. This is a great one for a lazy sunday dinner with family and friends since you can feed a crowd with very little effort on an inexpensive cut of meat. Leftovers would make a fantastic sauce for pasta and, of course, we couldn’t resist some “goulash/carnitas” tacos for lunch the next day.

Jamie Oliver’s Spicy Pork Goulash (my cliff notes version below, get the original recipe from Jamie’s site here.)

I knew Simran and I were kindred spirits — when I told her that I was making this, she said she had been salivating over this recipe for quite some time.  Since not everyone in her family eats pork, I think you could substitute chicken pieces (reducing the simmer time from 3 hours to 1) with similarly delicious results. Despite the word “spicy” being in the title, if you like the heat like Simran you’ll want to add some chili flakes.

  • Boneless Pork Shoulder
  • 2-3 Red Yellow or Orange Peppers
  • 1 Onion
  • Jarred Marinated Sweet Peppers
  • Can of Tomatoes (diced or squish up whole tomatoes)
  • Paprika
  • Caraway Seeds
  • Sour Cream
  • Lemon
  • Parsley
  1. Season a piece of bonelss pork shoulder with salt and pepper and sear well on all sides in a very hot pan (start with the fat side). Set the meat aside and drain off the rendered fat.
  2. Add 1 finely diced onion, the leaves from a sprig or oregano or marjoram, two heaping Tablespoons of paprika, and a teaspoon of caraway seeds crushed in a mortar and pestle. Let the onion soften for a few minutes.
  3. Add 2 or 3 thinly sliced red, orange or yellow bell peppers (no green ones!);  a cup or more of jarred, marinated sweet peppers; a couple of Tablespoons of red wine vinegar; and a can of tomatoes.
  4. Add the meat back into the pot and add water as needed to nearly cover the meat. Cover and place in a 350 degree oven for three hours. The meat will be fork tender when it’s done.
  5. Remove the meat from the pot, skim off any fat that has risen to the top and taste the sauce for seasoning. Serve everything together with a dallop of sour cream flavored with lemon zest and parsley.

This one is seriously good —  awesome recipe, Jamie!

Family Crafts: Fortune Cookies for the Lunar New Year (or Valentine’s Day)

Gung Hay Fat Choy and Happy Valentine’s Day!

Wanted to get a jump start on a Valentine’s Day craft that Luca could bring to his friends at school. We spotted this cute felt fortune cookie craft over on good old Martha Stewart’s website. Bingo! You could fill these with a couple pieces of candy, write up funny fortunes, or just tuck in some stickers or doo-dads from the dime store. A cute one for the Lunar New Year or Valentine’s Day, but a quick and fun craft project or party favor for anytime of the year, too!

Felt Fortune Cookie Craft (adapted from Martha Stewart)

Materials: felt, floral wire, sewing machine and thread (or hot glue).

  1. Cut some felt circles 4.5″ in diameter.
  2. With your leftover felt scraps, cut some pieces less than 4.5″ long (We did ours about 3.5 inches, you don’t have to be exact) and about 1/2″ wide.
  3. Cut some thin wire (floral wire will do) in pieces 6-7″ long (about twice as long as your felt scraps), bend them in half and twist the ends to secure. You can use some pliers to crimp pointy ends so they don’e poke through the felt.
  4. Place your wire across the center of your felt circle and place your felt scrap on top to cover the wire. We tacked ours down using a large zig zag stitch on the sewing machine, but you could use hot glue. If you use a sewing machine, it’s a good idea to back stitch both ends fairly well.
  5. Bend the circle into a fortune cookie shape. First, bend in half like a taco with the wire on the inside along the bottom edge. Then, bend the two wired ends towards each other and shape the felt until you like the shape.
  6. Tuck in your surprises and give to someone special.

 

Speaking of fortune cookies….. “Sparkletack”, a great podcast for anyone interested in San Francisco history, has an interesting episode on the disputed origins of the Fortune Cookie. Check it out!

Quince: Where Have You Been All My Life?

I’m not sure why we have missed out on quince all these years. I had a vague notion that they they were like a pithier apple — something that needed to be preserved or cooked for long periods of time. Something about quince seemed old-fashioned and fussy and therefore not on my radar. Funny thing is, we almost always buy boughs of quince blossoms this time of year to decorate our home for the Lunar New Year, but so far we have totally ignored the actual fruit.

So the other day were doing a little produce shopping and Luca saw a great pile of sunny, yellow quince and asked “what’s that, mom?”. I mistook them for papaya at first, but then soon realized these were the elusive quince. I’m not sure I had a notion of what they looked like, and so was surprised at both their color and shape. We took a smell and I was completely taken by how beautiful the aroma is. You could/should make perfume from the stuff. It’s heavenly. We snapped some up and then scoured our cookbooks to find a recipe.

Deborah Madison to the rescue! Simran, Ria and I attended a fabulous potluck last year with Deborah, hosted by 18 Reasons and Onmivore Books (a book tour stop to support her new “Seasonal Fruit Desserts” cookbook). I was lucky enough to sit next to Deborah that night – and nervous that she would be tasting my rendition of her chard and saffron tart! Both Simran and I of course immediately added this dessert book to our respective collections. It’s a great one for anyone who wants to showcase fruit throughout the year and for anyone living with sweet-tooths like my son. The recipes range from simple to elaborate. She gives ideas for fruit and cheese pairings, fruit-based sauces, and condiments as well as cakes, tarts and other deliciousness. The book includes two wonderful quince recipes including “nearly candied quince” that you roast and enjoy on it’s own or in concert with your favorite apples and pear desserts.

I opted for her braised quince with honey, cinnamon and wine. The Atlantic published the recipe, and you can find it here (but do yourself a favor and check out the book, too).  The recipe is ridiculously simple and utterly delicious — so simple that you can make this on even the busiest of nights when you want a little something special to end your meal. Case in point: I was able to pull this one off on a hectic Monday night amidst the distractions of a 2-week old infant and preschooler (while cooking dinner)! You don’t even need to peel or core the quince, just wash and slice the fruit and chuck it in a baking dish with the other ingredients and throw at all in the oven. Even though the fruit is braised with wine, it will appeal to young dessert fans too — anyone who likes the middle of an apple pie.

I’m a believer now. Quince rules!

Luca’s Fish Shop

;

With Christmas boxes and gear for the new baby (did I mention we have a new baby here at Casa Stacie?), we have boxes upon boxes upon boxes around here. The upside is that we have about as much crafting material as we can handle.

Luca happens to love the aquarium, fishing and eating fish so one of the projects we dreamed up was (surprise surprise) a fishing game. The pole is just a stick with a piece of yarn tied to it and a magnet hot glued to the other end of the yarn. Then we created a school of colorful fish and attached paper clips to them so they would stick to the magnet. Voila, instant fishing derby! These fanciful fish also inspired a pretend fish store and made for some very inventive dinners in Luca’s play kitchen.

We were able to squeeze out several days worth of fun just putting all the pieces together: decorating our fish and making funny things to fish for like Luca’s contribution, a pickle wearing a hat (which happens to be the punchline to most of his jokes these days). I made an old shoe and a tin can because no fishing derby would be complete with out them. Another day we put together our fishing pole and attached paper clips to our fish. This was the perfect activity for a preschooler: gluing, glitter and googly eyes, what more could you want?

Materials:

  • a stick, a magnet, and a piece of yarn
  • hot glue and white school glue
  • cardboard (corrugated is sturdier and easier to work with than thin cardboard from cereal boxes and notepads, but thin cardboard will work in a pinch)
  • whatever decorating supplies you can scavenge such as aluminum foil, party napkins, glitter, wrapping paper, tissue paper and markers

For our sardines, we glued pieces of aluminum foil to both sides of a piece of cardboard and then cut out fish shapes. You can use a sharpie to draw on some details, or “emboss” the details using the back of a ball point pen or a toothpick. Using the same technique, we also got instant pattern and color for our fish by gluing printed party napkins to our cardboard (separate the layers of the napkin and use just the printed layer — or use some colored tissue paper or wrapping paper). If you want, you can seal the surface by watering down some school glue and brushing it over the top.

For those competitive fishers, you can assign points to each fish and make a contest of it. Just scatter the fish in a big shopping bag or a box and fish away!

Top Secret Stir Fry Tips

A quick and easy stir fry makes for a great weeknight family dinner and it has the versatility to accommodate meat, seafood, tofu and any kind of vegetables you like. However, as handy as stir fry is, it’s easy to end up with soggy and uninspiring results if you’re not careful. Here are a few simple tricks and techniques that I’ve picked up over many years of stir fry experimentation.

1. Stock Your Pantry: Since stir fry is often the dish I turn to when I need to cook something quick, haven’t had time to go to the store or just can’t think of what to make, the key is keeping a nice array of sauces in your pantry, a few pieces of meat or seafood in your freezer and using whatever vegetables you have on hand.

Handy Sauces: You’ll want these around for stir frying, but they are great for all kinds of other uses, too. A hint of soy sauce can add a bit of complex saltiness to even non-Asian dishes or try a spoon of ketchup when you want a bit  tangy-sweetness.

  • Soy sauce
  • Sesame oil
  • Oyster sauce
  • Fermented black bean paste: If you’re not familiar with this one, give it a try. It’s salty and on the pungent side, but in small doses it goes brilliantly with beef or chicken. You’ll find it in any Asian market and in well-stocked grocery stores, too.
  • Dry sherry (or Shao Hsing wine)
  • Hoisin sauce (plum sauce)
  • Ketchup
  • Yank Sing’s Chili Pepper Sauce is one of our all-purpose favorites, too. As the label says, it’s “delightfully hot” with a nice saltiness from the fermented black bean paste that’s mixed in. It’s great for cooking and as a condiment at the table.

Other Pantry Items:

  • Chicken or Vegetable Stock — when you have a bit of leftover stock, freeze it in ice cube trays so you have some small portions when you need them.
  • Cornstarch
  • Jasmine Rice
  • One of our favorites for stir fry are thin slices of flank steak sliced across the grain. I usually keep a few small pieces in the freezer as a back-up. The meat is much easier to slice thinly while still partially frozen, so I toss it in the refrigerator in the morning and it’s usually just about right for slicing come dinner time.

2. Marinate! 20-30 minutes is plenty. You can marinate your protein of choice while getting your rice started and cutting your vegetables.

  • Beef: soy sauce, a dash of sherry and a tsp or so of cornstarch. I toss in a clove or two of smashed garlic and a few thick slices of ginger that I can easily pull out before serving.
  • Chicken: oyster sauce, soy sauce, dash of sherry and sesame oil.
  • Fish/Seafood: scallions, cilantro, minced ginger, a pinch of sugar and salt and a little vegetable oil. A few chunky slices of lemongrass are nice if you have some on hand — just remove them before serving.

3. Cook Everything Separately

  • Saute each vegetable separately in a hot pan until tender crisp (I use peanut oil because it has a high smoke point) and set aside.
  • After cooking the vegetables, saute your meat/seafood/tofu until just cooked — set aside in a separate bowl while you work on the sauce.
  • If you’re using tofu, you’ll want the firmer variety. Either gently sear it in a hot, well-oiled pan, or alternatively warm the tofu through by lightly steaming it or microwaving it in lieu of stir frying.

4. Make Your Sauce After Cooking Everything Else: The beauty of cooking and removing all your ingredients before attacking the sauce is that you can spend time to really adjust the flavors and consistency before combining everything together.

  • As soon as your meat/seafood/tofu is done, immediately turn down the heat and deglaze the pan with a little stock (1/2 cup or so) taking care not to burn the bits on the bottom of your pan. After de-glazing, start adding your sauces. This is where you can get creative. One of our favorite combos (especially for chicken or beef) is a few spoons of fermented black bean paste and a little dash of ketchup and sesame oil to help everything come together.
  • The cornstarch from the marinade works to thicken the sauce. If you find your sauce is too thin for your liking, just combine a few spoons of sauce with a tsp of cornstarch, mix well and return to the sauce. Cook for a few minutes until it thickens.
  • Take time to taste play around with the sauce until you’re happy. I like to add the meat/seafood/tofu back to the sauce for a minute then layer vegetables in a shallow bowl or platter, and spoon over the meat/seafood/tofu and sauce over.
  • Garnish with some chopped scallions or chopped cilantro – a little something fresh makes all the difference.
  • My husband is more of a sauce person than me, so I make quite a bit of sauce bringing the extra to the table and we’re all happy.

“Think Pink”! Luca’s Favorite Raspberry Milk

We’re smitten with “pink milk” at the moment. Our version is nothing more than 1 cup milk blended with 1/2 cup frozen (or fresh) raspberries, and a dash of honey. We love its cheerful color especially on gloomier mornings and its not too sweet taste. Luca likes to help measure the ingredients and I like the fact that I can pull it together even when I’m half asleep come breakfast time. The true measure of its appeal, however, is that Luca asked to bring it to his snack day at preschool. Pink milk, you are IN!

So in the words of one of my favorite movie musical numbers of all time (from 1957’s Funny Face):  “Banish the black, burn the blue, and bury the beige! From now on…. Think Pink!”

Rainy Day Crafting: Groovy Rainbow Fruit Salad Tree

This is the way most of our craft projects start… Luca says something like “mom… what if there were purple banana trees?”. We never seem to be organized enough to actually plan out craft projects in advance, so we just go with it when inspiration hits. Many times we don’t get much father than paper and crayons… but this time I just happened to glancing over at a pile of cardboard to go out with our recycling just as Luca was saying the words “purple banana tree”. Eureka!

We had a lot of fun cutting, painting, gluing and raiding our random craft supplies. Pretty soon our purple banana tree turned into a “work in progress” rainbow fruit salad tree. Luca has big plans to add lemons, apples and pigeons (?) to the other sides of our tree in the coming weeks. I may have to throw in a butterfly or two… just because. We’ll keep you posted on our progress. Our tree has already been called into service as a prop for Luca’s current favorite game “monkey circus”, and comes in handy for our imaginary restaurant where sparkly bananas are always on the menu.

Not only was this project fun and satisfyingly messy…. we got to talking about our favorite foods that grow on trees (and also animals who call trees home). I love how projects like these always spark curiosity and conversation.

Genius Cauliflower Soup

Our family has been on a quest to include more vegetables and whole grains in our diet. As we’ve gone down this path, I’ve realized that it helps to mix it up and go beyond our standby salads and steamed/stir fried vegetables. So we often have a simple pureed soup as a starter or side to our meal. What’s nice is that you can make a soup like this over the weekend or on an evening when you have a bit more time and you’ve got a readymade vegetable course for a busy night. Smooth, pureed soups are also baby-friendly which is another bonus.

Genius Cauliflower Soup

One of the pureed soups I make most often is this ingeniously simple cauliflower soup from one of my absolute favorite cookbooks “Cooking By Hand” by Paul Bertoli. Cauliflower is one of those things I’ve noticed a lot of people actively dislike, but stay with me here…. even if you’re not a fan, try this one! It might just change your mind. In the preface to this recipe, Paul Bertoli himself admits to not liking cauliflower, but enjoys this soup because it brings out the vegetable’s finest qualities. I agree. When prepared this way, cauliflower has an incredibly silky, velvety texture. You would swear that this soup was cream-based.

With only 2 ingredients (cauliflower and onion), it couldn’t be easier to make and or more versatile. It’s perfection as is, but you can also dress it up with condiments (crispy shallots, garlicky croutons, herbs, a drizzle of your finest olive oil, a pinch of spices), or use it as a sauce for a crispy fish or chicken fillet, even add it to other sauces where you want a little creaminess (mac and cheese). It’s a great dunk for a sandwich or a piece of garlic bread. So grab a head of cauliflower and an onion and give it a go!

Cauliflower Soup

(from “Cooking By Hand” by Paul Bertoli)

Ingredients: 1 Head of Cauliflower, 1 Onion, Water, Salt & Pepper

  1. Wash and trim one head of cauliflower and set aside.
  2. Saute one medium onion in a little olive oil in a large pot until translucent (about 5 minutes).
  3. Add the cauliflower to the pot along with 1/2 cup water. Cover tightly and let braise for 30 minutes (cauliflower should be tender by this point).
  4. Uncover the pot and add 4 1/2 cups water and simmer uncovered for another 20 minutes. Let cool.
  5. When cool enough, puree in blender. Beware of hot foods in a blender — they can explode on you!
  6. When ready to serve, warm through and season with salt and pepper. Serve with a drizzle of good quality olive oil.