Monthly Archives: May 2011

Worm Hunts, Chore Swapping & Games of Chicken: Growing Up One of Ten

My oldest brother is 32. My youngest sister is 11. In between are three younger brothers, four younger sisters, and myself. It sounds like the set up for an SAT math question. The answer, for those who are bad at math, is 10. I come from a family of 10 children.

Many are surprised to learn that I grew up poor. Not the kind of poor where you only get to eat out once a week, or even once a month—the kind of poor where we picked off the fuzzy mold growing on our bread rather than throw the loaf away. We used every part of a vegetable, from the yellowing head of the broccoli down to the tough stalk. We rescued grains of rice that escaped into the sink while being washed, rinsed off the slimy milky substance encasing our tofu, and drank expired milk.

Things are better now. Several of us are working adults, and my family no longer lives in the developing world. Still, on a recent visit I found myself dancing around the shower like I used to as a kid, trying to find the perfect angle for the 5 thin streams of water to hit my body. I dried off with a threadbare towel before scurrying down the hall to bunk up in a squeaky twin sized bed with one of my sisters.

However, all of these little inconveniences don’t really bother me. I love spending time with my legion of siblings. In part because it’s one of the only occasions where I can sit back and not stress about cooking all the meals.  From the 32-year-old down to the 11-year-old, everyone cooks.

My husband jokes that our family gatherings consist of three activities: Fishing, karaoke and eating. It’s not entirely true. We do other activities as well, but we pepper them with tantalizing discussions about food—which are really just elaborate games of chicken. The goal is to provoke each other until someone cracks and runs off to the kitchen to put together a snack.

Last week I arrived at my parents’ home to find my 13-year-old sister in the kitchen baking off batches of her chocolate chip cookies. The next morning the youngest was busy pulling out metal mixing bowls and measuring flour, butter and sugar. Within 15 minutes—and working solely from a recipe she had memorized—this precocious 11-year-old produced a stack of beautiful crepes sprinkled with sugar and drizzled with lemon juice.

They were so good that the following day I made a deal with her… make them for breakfast again, and in return I’d teach her how to make strawberry syrup like I’d learned last summer at the restaurant.

This type of bargaining is rampant in my family. Chores and responsibilities can be traded like commodities in a sibling open market, “If you make me a ramen, I’ll collect and put out the trash” or “If the girls make a night snack, the boys will do the dishes.” Food, and the ability to either cook or provide it, is the dominant currency in our house.

Of course with six girls and four boys the division of labor isn’t always fair. When we were younger my brothers somehow convinced me that every time we went fishing my responsibilities included finding the worms, baiting the hooks, cleaning and cooking the fish. The actual fishing was a “chore” they graciously volunteered to take on.

Thankfully as each of the brothers passes through puberty and they learn the magic of the line, “Why don’t you come over and I’ll make you dinner?” they can more frequently be found in the kitchen honing their cooking skills. Is there anything more motivating to a young boy than the prospect of being popular with the ladies?

Someone asked me the other day if I ever wished my childhood was more “normal”. Maybe. Does that mean a quiet house with a room and bed of my own? Dinners at nice restaurants with cloth napkins and real silverware? Coming home from school to cupboards stocked with tasty snacks? Yeah, that would have been nice. But honestly I’ll take foraging for chestnuts in forests with my siblings, catching trout in rivers, crawfish in cold streams and feeling the satisfaction of turning borderline tofu into delicious fluffy fritters over a “normal” childhood any day.

Even if it means I have to bait the hooks.

(Here’s our attempt at a family photo with only 6 of us. I don’t think we’ve successfully taken a 10 sibling photo in several years)

Strawberry Ice and Parsley Maki: Tips for Minimizing Produce Waste

Like everyone these days I’m making an effort to be “green”. I take shorter showers, drive a fuel-efficient car, hold my thermostat at 76° instead of 72° and eat less red meat. My latest focus is kitchen waste, particularly food that gets thrown away before ever seeing a cutting board or pot.

Unfortunately, my refrigerator often reflects my total lack of self-control when it comes to the mesmerizing grocery store produce aisles and farmers market displays. The lower shelf houses clamshell containers full of wilted salad greens with browning edges. My vegetable drawer often looks like a science project where I aim to depict the various stages of decay. Below thin plastic bags of yellowing greens lay various dehydrating fruit; the flesh deflating under the skin resembles a breast implant due for a fresh saline injection.

Menu planning definitely helps, but it’s tricky if—like me—you fluctuate between extreme cravings and complete indecision. To deal with this I buy ingredients for just three or four meals. This way if I get a crazy craving that I can’t shake, it becomes one of our dinners out and I push the planned meal to the next night.

However, this doesn’t always get at the main problem, which is the ridiculously short shelf life of my produce. Below are some tips I’ve been employing to combat this issue.

Wash and place fruit like strawberries, cherries and grapes in bowls in the center shelves of your fridge. This way when you pop open that door looking for a nibble you’ve got easy access to several healthy options. They won’t be forgotten in a back corner of the nether drawer.

Chances are you never walk into your kitchen eager to break down a melon or softening mangoes. So, take a few minutes to cut them up as soon as you bring them home, and keep them in containers for a snack or light breakfast.

You can extend the life of parsley and cilantro by employing a little sushi technique. Remove the elastic or wire twist securing the stems as well as any bad or yellowing leaves. Wash, and shake well to dry. (Remember if your herbs are wet it will be impossible to get a feathery chiffonade or fine mince, so wash them before storing). Lay the sprigs out on a couple of paper towels. Roll them up carefully like you would if you were making a maki roll. Store the roll in the plastic bag you purchased the herbs in.

But being socially responsible need not only be about extra kitchen prep, scratchy toilet paper and choking back blocks of flavorless beige soy products. Saving produce from a landfill can offer tangible satisfaction by using this trick I picked up in Beijing last year.

Since tracking down ice cubes in China yields basically the same success rate as Googling Tiananmen Square Incident, an enterprising friend began turning surplus strawberries into ice. Simply remove the tops and store them in ziplock bags in the freezer. When you’re ready for a cocktail, pop a few in a glass, top with gin and tonic (or your liquid of choice). Suddenly you have a visually stunning and delightfully refreshing reward for your efforts.

Chicken Liver Pâté with Apples and Cognac

Ever wondered why some restaurant meals taste so much better than what you’re whipping up at home? How they manipulate their steak so that the flesh reacts like a sponge when squeezed between your teeth, savory juices oozing as you bite down? Or stared suspiciously at a creamy risotto, its rounded grains relaxingly spread out on the plate, glistening as they mock your home cooked version that barely shudders even when violently shaken? Perplexed why those golden nests of pasta twirled in silky sauce look nothing like your go-to lady slayer, spaghetti “sticky strands with watery red goop” Bolognese?

Many a frustrated home cook has justified their shortcomings by laying blame on the evil kitchen duo, butter and salt.

Well they would be right… kind of. What this flippant response ignores is mastery of proper cooking technique. Yes, professional cooks use a great deal of salt, but they also know when to add it. They know that to build flavor, you have to learn to cook with salt rather than showering it on at the end, expecting that it will magically fix the failures in your dish.

Sure restaurant cooks use butter (in a French kitchen they use A LOT of butter). However, they also know the difference between using solid, clarified and beurre monte. Salted versus unsalted. Most importantly, they know that there is no acceptable substitute for top quality stuff.

But it’s not just butter and salt. A good cook knows when to use lime instead of lemon juice, champagne vinegar instead of sherry vinegar. The subtle difference between virgin and extra virgin olive oil. What will happen if they use canola rather than grapeseed oil. And how the flavor will be affected if they add honey instead of crystallized sugar.

Knowledge and technique are the so-called tricks to decadent food.

I promised Chef I would never divulge any secrets I learned while apprenticing under him, but I think I can get away with spilling one tiny one… if you want to highlight an ingredients’ natural sweetness without bringing the whole dish into the realm of dessert try adding fruit instead of sugar.

In the recipe below I’ve used an apple to add a subtle sweetness to the pâté that could never be accomplished with honey or any type of sugar. As for the butter that is called for, toss out all the fake “healthy” fat substitutes in your fridge, and go out and get the real thing (I use Kerrygold, Pure Irish Butter).

Wanna cook like a chef? Start with the right ingredients, and take the time to learn how to use them.

1 stick butter + 1 Tbs. (9 Tbs. total) 
1 onion, diced
1 large garlic clove, sliced
1 shallot, diced
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 Granny Smith apple: peeled, cored and diced
¼ tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
1 lb. chicken livers, trimmed
¼ tsp. black pepper
2 Tbs. cognac 

  • Melt ½ a stick (4 Tbs) of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, shallot and ½ tsp of salt. Gently cook for 4 minutes, stirring often. Add the thyme. Cook for one minute more.
  • Add the apple and nutmeg. Continue to cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Remove mixture from the skillet.
  • Return the skillet to the medium heat. Melt the other ½ a stick of butter. Add the chicken livers, ½ tsp of salt and ¼ tsp of black pepper. Cook for 5 minutes turning the livers occasionally to insure even cooking. Add the onion and apple mixture to the skillet. Cook altogether another 4 minutes, or until the liver centers are just slightly pink (you can cut one open to check doneness).
  • Add 2 tablespoons cognac. Stir through and remove from heat.
  • Place mixture in blender. Process till you get the texture you want. I like my pâté to be very smooth so I do it in two batches. While it’s running, carefully scrap down the sides of the blender with a thin spatula to ensure an even smoothness (this will also give the blender a hand with the processing of the somewhat dense mixture)
  • Add the final tablespoon of butter, blend through.
  • Taste and add a touch more salt and pepper if you desire.
  • Place the mixture into the dishes you will serve it in. I typically hold it in two ramekins. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. This pate can be eaten as soon as it cools and sets. However, it tastes even better the next day.