Napping with Ribs: Sunday Dinner Series #1

Please, someone call the weatherman and ask him to do something about the temperature, perhaps bring it up to at least 60 degrees, with sun, by the weekend? Pretty please? Once again, last weekend we were forced to spend the majority of time indoors, corralling an extremely active toddler, due to the brutal cold outside. Those who have had to do this will agree with me, keeping a toddler happy indoors for long periods ain't easy. It is on weekends like these I realize I have actually memorized the theme song to The Backyardigans and could sing it, backwards and forwards, in my sleep. The only upside I can find in this weather is that, during my daughter's naptime on Sunday, I enjoy the chance to roll up my sleeves and cook a large, stick-to-your-ribs kind of meal. These meals usually take a little longer to make, but they are heavy, delicious, and purposely made in large portions so that the leftovers can be eaten for the first part of the week. Cooking a big meal on Sunday is a common strategy in many households. It is generally more convenient to cook when there is someone else around to help with the kids, and starting off the week with a fridge full of leftovers is hugely convenient come Monday evening at six o'clock. I am going to explain to you how I approach Sunday cooking in my first entry for the Sunday Dinner Series. Like my other series, Emergency Meals, I will write ongoing entries with ideas for Sunday dinners, I hope you find it helpful for your weekend cooking.

On this particular cold and drizzly Sunday I decided to make a large pot of short ribs, the epitome of cold weather food. My father gave me this recipe a few years ago after he made them for us while we were visiting my parents. As a quick aside, I should note that I grew up in a household where both of my parent's are exceptional cooks. First of all, my father is a retired surgeon and I am pretty sure has better knife skills then any professional chef on television. Secondly, like any good scientist, he is very precise when he is following a recipe for the first time. Only after he has finished and tasted the final result of his first attempt will he sit down and give it an in-depth analysis. Then he will make notes for changes to try the next time he cooks the dish, often only making one change per attempt so as to test each "variable" (i.e. ingredient) independently. I often tease him that he approaches cooking like he did medical research. He concedes that this is true, but is quick to point out that, as a result, our whole family loves his recipes.

Luckily for me my father had already fully vetted this recipe before passing it on, so all I had to do was follow his instructions to a "T". I read the recipe thoroughly before I began and then followed each step very carefully, trying to replicate his exacting standards. The preparation of the meal was actually quite simple. There was lots of chopping vegetables, browning meat and adding liquids to a dutch oven. It took time, but as long as I kept an eye on everything it was hard to mess up. My favorite part came after I had put the pot in the oven and gorgeous smells of herbs and broth wafted through the apartment for most of the afternoon. Once the sauce was thickened and the short ribs complete I prepared a simple green salad and spooned the broth and meat over fresh egg noodles. The result was delicious. The sauce was a perfectly balanced blend of red wine, beef and vegetables. It tasted like a french minestrone, the olives lending a delicious salty touch to counteract the sweetness of the carrots. The ribs were so tender that the meat shredded at the touch of the fork tines and simply melted away in my mouth with each bite. In fact, it was so tender that our daughter, who only has four teeth, excitedly ate several fistfuls of meat and noodles with no trouble whatsoever.

Like all good Sunday dinners I am pleased to note that the leftovers were extremely easy to keep and we were able to eat them for dinner on Monday and Tuesday. On Monday I simply reheated the whole dutch oven in the stove and served the meal again, this time with mashed potatoes. Then, on Tuesday, we shredded the remaining meat and ate it on fresh slices of baguette with a side of cheese and a salad. In times like these I think it is also worth noting the smart economics of this meal. Short ribs are a relatively inexpensive cut of meat compared to, say, a tenderloin, and when prepared properly they can last you for at least three (!) dinners. So, thanks Dad, for sharing the recipe. And thank you also for all those winter weekends you had to keep me entertained indoors, I now have a whole new level of appreciation for your patience.

Dad's Short Ribs Pronvencale for Sunday Dinner - adapted from Bon Appetit, January 2002
Olive Oil

4 lbs. meaty beef short ribs (but I've used up to 6 lbs. with this recipe if you need to serve lots of people)

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 medium carrot, finely chopped

1 celery stalk, finely chopped

8 whole garlic cloves, peeled
2 T. all-purpose flour
1 T. dried Herbes de Provence

2 c. red wine
3 c. beef broth (I use bouillon cubes)

1 14 oz. can crushed tomatoes, with juices
1/2 c. water, if needed
16 oz. baby carrots

1/2 c. Nicois olives, pitted

1. Preheat the oven to 325.
2. Heat the oil in a large dutch oven. Sprinkle the ribs with Kosher salt and pepper, add ribs to the pot and brown well, turning often. About 8 minutes per batch. When complete, transfer ribs to a large bowl.
3. Add 2 T. olive oil to the pot, add onion, chopped carrot and celery and cook over medium-low heat until vegetables are soft. Stir frequently to prevent burning.
4. Add garlic, flour and herbes de Provence, stir for 1 minutes. Add wine and 2 c. of broth. Bring to boil over high heat and scrape the brown bits off the bottom of the pan.

5. Add tomatoes with juices. Return ribs with accumulated juices to the pot, and, if needed, add enough water to the pot to just cover the ribs.

6. Cover pot tightly and transfer to oven. Bake until ribs are very tender, about 2 hours 20 minutes. You'll see how tender they are when the bones fall out of the meat.
7. When this is complete add remaining 1 c. broth, baby carrots and olives to the pot. Continue cooking for 15 minutes, until carrots are very tender.
8. Remove from oven. If you want to, remove the ribs and carrots, and boil the sauce a little longer on the stove to thicken it slightly. Season it all with salt and pepper.
9. Pour sauce over freshly cooked egg noodles, add ribs to each plate and serve.

Naptime Notes:
Naptime Recipe Props:
A Sunday dinner that will last for three nights is well worth the effort. This is a tried and true recipe that you could even serve at a dinner party if you wanted to.
Naptime Stopwatch: This recipe takes about 2 1/2 hours or more to prepare. It is not hard, but it takes a lot of chopping, browning and stirring. I watched it very carefully while it was in the oven, not wanting the meat to come uncovered at any point. Set aside a lot of time on the weekend to make this and you will be glad you did.
Naptime Reviews: To find a meat dish that both a husband and toddler will eat is no small feat. Our daughter at the meat and noodles by the fistful and my husband, well, he could have eaten the entire thing by himself!


Napping with a Spud

When I was a junior in college I chose to attend the University of St. Andrews for a semester abroad. I assure you that this choice was not entirely due to my love of "Braveheart" and its images of burly men warring around the countryside in kilts. I was, in fact, well versed in Scotland's history since my father had spent many hours teaching my brother and I about our Scottish family roots. In the months prior to my trip I dutifully studied up on the country and simply couldn't wait to board the plane to the land of dress tartans, lake monsters and, of course, a new cuisine. I'll admit, when it came to the Scotland's culinary offerings I was not anticipating haggis, I was mostly excited about the idea of warm scones with clotted cream, jars of jam and piping hot pots of earl grey, served daily(!) at high tea.

Though the scones and tea were delicious
, I soon realized that there was one thing I hadn't anticipated about the Scottish cuisine, the ubiquity of the potato. Though I had always liked potatoes I was amazed that they were served everywhere, and was more than a little worried that all of the preparations I encountered were soggy, cheesy and very fatty. In the University town there were entire take-away food shops dedicated to serving only potatoes prepared a dozen different ways. Since these were the least expensive restaurants, given my meager student budget, I ate at them quite often. Have you ever had a baked potato topped with a heaping spoonful of mac-n-cheese, accompanied by a heavy beer, as your dinner? I have, several times. Unfortunately the dining halls weren't much better since, like most institutions, the chefs were given very little to work with in terms of fresh ingredients. Therefore, potatoes were served at all meals either fried, boiled, or baked and always heaped with cheese and cream. As a result, like after you eat too much of any particular food item, by the end of the semester I was a little tired of them.

When I returned from abroad, though I missed Scotland terribly, I was happy that the "Semester O' the Potato" was over. I remained wary of potatoes for quite a few years and, I have to be honest, if I hadn't married a classic "meat and potatoes" guy I might have never really gotten into cooking them at all. But, early in our marriage, my husband politely asked that a potato dish accompany the chicken I was preparing. I reluctantly agreed since I knew he loved potatoes and I couldn't keep them at bay forever. So, I started flipping through my usual haunts - the internet, cookbooks and magazines - until I came across a recipe I hoped would not lead me to produce a dull, soggy potato dish like the ones from my old Scottish dorm.

When I found this recipe I was hopeful that it would lead me to turn the corner on potatoes, the herb salt seemed the perfect blend to enliven the mellow buttery flavor of a potato and reawaken my palate. I held my breath and gave the recipe a try, and, thankfully, it did not disappoint. The lemon herb salt is the perfect anecdote to a potato, giving it a lovely spring-like flavor that bounces on your tongue. I have made this recipe a dozen times now and always play with the flavors depending on what herbs are in season. The best part is that this is very easy to prepare during naptime, it really takes extremely little effort. You just put all the ingredients for the herb salt into your mini-chopper, then hit the pulse button about half a dozen times, and the hardest part is complete. Needless to say this has become one of my go-to potato recipes and I hope you like it, too. I don't know if I will ever love potatoes like I love scones, but this recipe has definitely restored my faith in the spud.

Lemon Herb Salt-Roasted Potatoes - Adapted from Food & Wine November 2006
2 large sage leaves, chopped
1 t. fresh rosemary

1 t. fresh thyme leaves

1 t. finely grated lemon zest (use Meyer if you can!)

2 T. Kosher salt

2 lbs. small Yukon gold potatoes, halved

3 T. extra-virgin olive oil
2 T. melted, unsalted butter
Freshly ground pepper

1. Preheat oven to 425. In mini-chopper pulse the sage, rosemary and thyme until finely chopped. Add lemon zest and pulse some more. Add salt and pulse until whole mixture is finally ground.
2. Wash potatoes and cut them in half. Place them in a large glass bowl and toss with olive oil and butter. Then season generously with pepper. Spread potatoes in a single layer on a large baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Roast for 25 minutes.
3. At the 25 minute mark, take the pan out of the oven and, very carefully, season the potatoes generously with herb salt. Toss well and continue roasting for 8-10 more minutes or until potatoes are tender and golden brown.

Naptime Notes:
Naptime Recipe Props: The fun part about this recipe is you can play with the herbs you use. You could add almost anything you want to suit your taste. In the summer, when fresh herbs are bountiful, it might be fun to play with different flavors depending on the dish you are serving. Also, another thing I love about this recipe is that the leftovers are just as good the next day as they are on the first.
Naptime Stopwatch: If you can handle pressing the 'pulse' button on your chopper you can prepare this dish. It takes about two minutes to make the herb salt and another two minutes to halve the potatoes. The rest is essentially a lot of peeking at the oven from time to time and the dish is complete.
Naptime Reviews:
The toddler LOVES this dish. Potatoes are an extremely kid-friendly food and this preparation is ideal because the kids can pick it up themselves and the potato is soft, yielding easily to their little teeth and gums. I have also served this with roast chicken when entertaining and they are a big hit.


Napping with my Valentine

I've come to realize that, the more I cook, the fewer kitchen tools I really need. My kitchen is equipped with all the basics and I stand my ground on the notion that buying kitchen equipment made for only one purpose is a waste of money. I've made the mistake before, buying a pumpkin shaped cake pan, and felt so guilty about the money I spent I ended up baking pumpkin cakes for two straight years just to feel like I'd gotten my money's worth. Sure, there is always a time and place for a novelty item, like I'm quite sure I will get a request for a homemade Barbie cake someday soon and I will definitely find a pan for that. But I keep the indulges to a minimum since the guilt, and kitchen clutter, is hardly ever worth the money.

However, despite my own self-control in buying only what I deem necessary, I still manage to acquire unnecessary, but really fun, pans and such from time to time. This usually happens when a thoughtful and generous friend, with my love of baking in mind, gives me something she knows I would never buy for myself. For example, last September I was given a mini-bundt cake pan for my birthday. I'll admit, I was a little perplexed by it since I have always used a regular bundt pan. When on earth, I wondered, would I ever need to produce six mini-bundt cakes? At that time I didn't have the foggiest idea. However, since it was a gift and I hadn't made the investment, I did not have the least bit of guilt about putting it in the cabinet for a few months while I looked for a reason to use it.

Luckily, last weekend, the perfect opportunity for mini-bundt cakes finally presented itself, Valentine's Day. It has become tradition in our house that we eat in for Valentine's Day, mostly due to the severe lack of available babysitters and decent restaurant reservations. Prior to the holiday it usually takes me a few days to form the perfect Valentine's menu. I flip through cookbooks, ponder different recipes, and let the weather and seasonal offerings influence my choices. This year, due to the deep cold weather and lack of fresh produce, I decided to make my father's favorite short ribs recipe with noodles, a green salad and rich chocolate mini-bundt cakes. On this particular occasion
the thought of having our favorite chocolate cake in personalized portions was very appealing. It meant that I could replicate the feeling of those indulgent individual desserts usually only had at fancy expensive restaurants, in my own home. Also, I was thrilled to finally have a reason to try my new pan and promptly added the dessert to our menu.

When it comes to making mini-bundt cakes having the the perfect recipe is equally as important as owning the proper pan. My friend Hilary gave me this recipe many years ago and it is my go-to chocolate cake recipe - everyone should have at least one. I have made it into an iced layer cake, cupcakes, a large bundt, and now, mini-bundts. I prefer to cover it with a thin vanilla glaze (which I turned pink on this particular holiday), but Hilary usually covers it in a rich cream cheese frosting which is pretty amazing. When I make this I always make sure to use a good Dutch cocoa, a true dark brewed coffee and whole milk, it makes all the difference. When you take the first bite of this cake you will understand why, the deep chocolate flavor is ratcheted up a few notches by the coffee, and the milk gives the cake it's moist, almost spongy consistency. The best part is that the assembly is a total snap, you essentially stand there with the mixer on low and add ingredients until everything is smoothed together in the bowl. How could it get simpler than that? The best news is that, though my husband had tasted this cake on many other occasions, he was a huge fan of the geometric mini-bundt shapes, which, somehow, made the dessert appear more sophisticated and decadent. While we ate it we wondered what Jack Donaghy would think, had we made our version of Lover's Delight? At the end of the evening I washed the pan and put it back in the cabinet to settle under the salad spinner. I think I'll find a reason to use it again, very soon.

Hilary's Go-To Naptime Chocolate Cake - based on a recipe from my friend Hilary
2 c. sugar

1 3/4 c. flour

3/4 c. good Dutch process cocoa
1/2 t. salt

1 t. baking powder

2 t. baking soda
1 c. sour milk (whole milk with 2 T. vinegar)
1 c. strong black coffee, brewed

1/2 c. vegetable oil

2 eggs

1 t. vanilla

Simple Vanilla Glaze Whisk together: 1 c. Confectioners' Sugar, 1 t. vanilla, 1-2 T. milk

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Grease and flour bundt pan, or mini-bundt pan.

3. Sift together dry ingredients in a mixing bowl.

4. Add wet ingredients, one at a time, into dry ingredients while mixing on low speed.
5. Mix all ingredients for a full four minutes until completely smooth.

6. Pour ingredients into pan and bake for 45 minutes or until knife comes out clean.

7. Let cake cool in pan before unmolding.

8. Once cool cover with glaze, powdered sugar, or frosting.
Yield 8 mini-bundt cakes or one large bundt cake.

Naptime Notes:
Naptime Recipe Props: This is a tried and true no-fail chocolate cake that has been passed around to all of my friends. I can guarantee that once you try it you will never go back. It is a total cinch to assemble. I prepared the batter during naptime and put it in the fridge. Then, when I was ready to bake, I pour it into the pan and popped it in the oven.
Naptime Stopwatch: Preparing the batter for this takes about 10 minutes. I have rarely met a cake that takes so little time to prepare. When it is baking your kitchen will yield the most terrific smells, you'll want to dive right in with your fork when it comes out of the oven.
Naptime Reviews: Everyone who has ever tasted this cake loves it. I will warn you though, giving a toddler even a small portion of this cake will cause her to become quite hyper, it is best to give her a taste prior to a full hour on the playground!


Napping with Mr. Cold: Emergency Meal #2

Every parent knows that it is impossible to make it through the winter without Mr. Common Cold paying a visit to your home. Sometimes Mr. Cold brings with him Mrs. Fever and Aunt Ear Infection, both unwelcome guests, but alas, Mr. Cold rarely travels alone. Two weeks ago this threesome visited my house and, frankly, it totally sucked. Not only did they sneak in during the night and meet up with my daughter, over the next few days they also paid a visit to me and my husband. In turn, we paid visits to the pediatrician, prime care doctor, and pharmacy, entrusting them to cure the horrible headache, runny nose fog we were experiencing. As you all know, the last thing you want to do when you are feeling under the weather is hang out in the kitchen. You need to expend all of your energy taking care of the baby and trying to heal yourself. In my case, when I am sick, I nap when the baby naps, end of story. Thus, leaving me zero desire or time to cook. As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures, which is why I am now introducing Emergency Meal #2.

This meal fits the emergency, it is a soup that is quick, nutritious, warm and bubbly, all the right elements for sick-bed comfort food. Sure, it is quite easy to heat up canned soup, but in this case you are taking one tiny extra step by combining the ingredients yourself. This nominal effort produces a far superior taste to that of any canned soup I have ever tasted. To assemble the soup it really only takes the laziest of stirring for a few minutes here and there. Then you simply gaze at the pot while it simmers for a while - feel free to make yourself a cup of Lemon Zinger while you are waiting - and finally, voila, and you have a wholesome, healing meal for your family. Plus, this recipe is a big portion, it lasted us for two days - for both lunch and dinner.

The beauty of this recipe is its flexibility, you can add almost any ingredients you want. For example, I prefer sun-dried tomato chicken sausage, but I've used regular sliced chicken breasts or even, in a pinch, pork sausage. Or, if you are a vegetarian feel free to use vegetable broth and omit the chicken altogether. I like to use fresh fluffy cheese tortellini, but my mother has used frozen ravioli and it served the same purpose. The flavors of this soup really come out during the last few minutes when it is simmering away. The broth thickens and yields a terrific simple, yet satisfying, tomato base with a clear herbaceous flavor. If you have access to fresh herbs I recommend using them in lieu of the italian seasoning. I usually serve this with bread and cheese, the classic soup accompaniments. Although, in this case I served it with a side of tissues followed by a dropper of cherry-flavored medicine for dessert. At least all is well that ends well, after four days with Mr. Cold, we kicked him and his entourage to the curb, and booked our tickets to Florida.

Naptime Chicken & Tortellini Soup
- inspired by an old sick-day recipe from Mom
2 T. olive oil
12 oz. chicken sausage, sliced (I prefer sun-dried tomato flavor for this soup)

3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped

4 c. chicken broth
2 t. italian seasoning

9 oz. fresh cheese tortellini

28 oz. can crushed tomatoes with juice

8 oz. baby spinach, roughly chopped

Salt & Pepper
Parmesan Cheese

1. In a deep heavy bottom pot heat olive oil. Add garlic, onion and chicken sausage. Cook until onion is wilted and sausage is cooked through.

2. Add chicken broth and italian seasoning.
3. Bring contents to a boil and add tortellini.

4. Boil until tortellini is cooked through.

5. Lower heat, stir in tomatoes and simmer for about 10-15 minutes.

6. Add spinach and cook until wilted.

7. Season soup with salt and pepper to our taste.

8. Serve hot with a generous handful or parmesan on top and a crusty baguette on the side.

Naptime Notes:
Naptime Recipe Props: This soup is extremely easy to store, making it ideal for making ahead, or saving a portion for a later date. When I prepare it during naptime I
leave it on the stove and re-heat it at dinnertime. Then, to store overnight I pop the whole pot in the fridge and scoop out ladle fulls when I want more the next day. On occasion I have also frozen the soup, it works well, so feel free to pour some into the plastic container to freeze for another week.
Naptime Stopwatch: This soup is a cinch to assemble, you just add the ingredients as instructed until you build up a nice soup. The whole thing about 30 minutes for me to make and then I had a soothing lunch and dinner for two days. What could be easier?
Naptime Reviews: This soup has proven to appeal to both children and adults. My daughter adored the sweet tomato taste along with the cheesey tortellini. My husband slurped down bowls and bowls, grateful for the warm soup after a long day at work with a box of cold medicine to sustain him.


Napping in Molasses

I come from a family of cookie fanatics, so it is no surprise to me that, as my baby book notes,"cookie" was one of my first words. From as far back as I can remember there were always fresh baked cookies in our house. My mother took great pride in her exceptional baking skills and was never one to rely on the back of chip bags for standard recipes, no sir. Instead, in our house, recipe collecting was a detailed, tightly controlled procedure. As children, my brother and I were taught to approach cookie tasting with an almost scientific mindset, like each recipe was our personal family experiment. It would start with Mom clipping a new recipe to try, following it to a "T", and then setting out the fresh cookies for us to analyze. She would request that we taste them carefully, consider various details like texture and flavor with each bite, and then ask for a review of the recipe. We found this process was an excellent way to vet recipes, dozens were tossed and a select assortment were kept in a special file. Before Mom filed the keepers she would write notes on them like "crispy & thin," or "shorten bake time" and "add chopped pecans?" Then there were the recipes with the note "So Good." These were the recipes that, in our opinion, were the best of the best.

Luckily for my husband and daughter, I strongly believe in carrying on our family tradition of cookie baking and now possess a copy of my mother's file. I will also proudly note that my daughter can pronounce "cookie" and it was among one of her first words. I am constantly supplying my household with fresh baked cookies and, in fact, am hard pressed to remember the last time I actually purchased a package of cookies at the grocery store. On occasion I will pick up some Tate's Chocolate Chip, but that is usually in the case of extreme circumstances like when I return from a long trip, or am sick, or have broken both legs and can't possibly stand in front of the oven. I am constantly on the hunt for new and exciting cookie variations - scouring the internet, clipping from magazines and swapping recipes with friends. However, when I am in the mood for something comforting and familiar, I pull an old favorite out of the file and happily get to work.

Nobody is exactly sure of the origin of our family's molasses cookie recipe since Mom's copy is written on a yellowed index card with the note "So Good. From magazine, 1982." She remembers impulsively ripping out the magazine page,
probably because of a sugar craving, while in the waiting room at the obstetrician's office during her pregnancy with my younger brother. Mom has been making them ever since that year, and though we have sampled several other molasses cookie recipes, we always come back to these. They have a deep molasses flavor with a generous dose of spice which lend the cookies notes of toffee and gingersnap. These cookies are meant to be made small so they are like silver-dollar size bites of sugar and spice, the ideal companions for afternoon tea or coffee. Additionally, I find that they are perfect for serving to almost any group of people. I've made them into ice-cream sandwiches after summer barbecues, taken them to the office for meetings, and served them warm with big bowls of vanilla ice cream to dinner guests. Just this week I served them at playgroup and received several compliments. Whenever I am asked for the recipe I always smile inwardly, write it down on a recipe card and hand it over. In short, these cookies have stood the test of time for all the right reasons. I promise I would never give you a 26 year-old recipe if I didn't think it was so good.

Naptime So Good Molasses Cookies - adapted from a magazine recipe, circa 1982.
2 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1/4 c. unsulphured molasses
1 c. sugar
1 egg
1 t. baking soda
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ground cloves
1/2 t. ground ginger
White sugar for rolling

1. Melt butter in microwave and set aside to cool slightly.
2. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
3. In mixer or large glass bowl combine molasses, cooled butter, egg and sugar. Stir until completely combined.
4. Add dry ingredients to molasses mixture. Stir until completely combined.
5. Chill dough in refrigerator for 2 hours - AT LEAST!
6. When ready to bake preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
7. Roll dough into 1 t. balls and roll in sugar. (Remember, these cookies are supposed to be small!)
8. Place 2 inches apart on cookie sheet lined with a silpat and bake for 8-10 minutes, until slightly browned around the edges.
Yields approx. 4 dozen cookies.

Naptime Recipe Notes:
Naptime Recipe Props: These cookies are always a huge hit and are very easy to make. Since they are so moist they freeze well, making them perfect to stash away until you host playgroup.
Naptime Stopwatch: This dough took about 7 minutes to make, no joke. It is essential to chil the dough for two hours, but when they are ready to bake it takes only a few minutes to get your dough in balls and rolled in sugar.
Naptime Reviews: From my most recent batch I fed four mom's at playgroup, one husband and four toddlers. Everyone loved them!


Napping in a Lasagna

About nine years ago I met a really great guy. He was smart, sweet, handsome and funny, and I couldn't stop gushing about him to all my family and friends. Our initial courtship activities included the usual trips to museums, walks in the park, coffee houses on Sunday morning, and restaurant reservations. Lots of reservations. I didn't see the need to cook for him since Jean-George and Mr. Meyer were doing a bang-up job for us. I figured, if all went according to plan, we would probably just eat out for the rest of our natural lives. At the time it didn't seem important that I impress him with my own, somewhat limited, culinary skills. However, I shared this strategy with my mother one night and she became very concerned, pointing out that I would indeed have to start cooking for him at some point. I didn't quite understand what she was getting at, encouraging me to start feeding him, so the time came for her to teach me a very important life lesson. It is the lesson known as "The Way to a Man's Heart is Through His Stomach." It is a lesson I hold very dear to this day because, boy, she was right. I don't think it is a coincidence that my parents have been happily married for over 35 years.

Armed with this valuable knowledge, it was clearly time for me to stop making reservations and start cooking. So, I began my newest adventure, learning how to cook. Really cook. Not the kind where I would add hot water to noodles, throw in some extra veggies and call it innovative. Mom started clipping and sending me recipes for simple but flavorful dishes like Roasted Lemon Chicken, Green Beans with Slivered Almonds, Vegetable Ratatouille, and Prosciutto wrapped Pork Tenderloin. These were all the right things to teach a budding cook how to build a "no-fail" recipe repertoire whilst romancing a man who loved to eat. Once I started this cooking quest our relationship went from "dating" to "serious couple" practically overnight. I was lucky that this man was a willing taste-tester. He always applauded my efforts and supported the idea of letting me try whatever recipe I had received in the mail that week. In the end I think that romancing his stomach was definitely the right strategy, to this day he is my biggest fan.

This lasagna was one of our all-time favorites right from the start. It also was a milestone of sorts for me because it was my first recipe adaptation. I received a recipe for lasagna with roasted mushrooms and pancetta. But I don't really like mushrooms and I purchased prosciutto by accident. Thus, I made some substitutions and came up with a recipe for roasted eggplant and prosciutto lasagna. It was a little scary at first, substituting ingredients, but it also felt kind of rebellious and exciting. I made the dish with great care and served it to him with a little bit of trepidation. However, I needn't have worried, the result was a wonderful, deeply flavored lasagna that left us full and happy. To this day, every time I make it we remark that the eggplant and prosciutto give the dish an excellent balance of salty and sweet. Plus, the herb and shallots mixture, which really give it that deep warm flavor, are all covered in a decadent, silky bechamel sauce. Everyone likes a good bechamel sauce. So, after all the restaurant reservations and cooking experiments, the rest is history. Following several more successes in the kitchen, including a particularly decadent chocolate souffle, we got married and had a baby. I guess, in the end, some couples will always have Paris, and we'll always have a great lasagna.

Naptime Courtship Eggplant and Prosciutto Lasagna - inspired by a recipe from Bon Appetit a while back
1 lb Lasagna noodles (Use the "No Boil" to save yourself valuable time)
3 large eggplants, cubed

2 T. olive oil
2 T. Kosher salt

1 1/2 c. prosciutto, chopped

2 large shallots

1 t. chopped fresh rosemary

4 c. whole milk

1 1/2 c. chicken broth

1 stick unsalted butter

2/3 c. all-purpose unbleached flour

2 c. Gruyere, shredded

1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese (I used Pecorino-Romano once in a pinch and that tasted fine, too)

Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg

1. Preheat oven to 425. Cut eggplants in 1 1/2" cubes and toss them with oil and salt until evenly coated. Spread eggplant in one even layer on baking sheet. Roast for 25-30 minutes or until eggplant is evening brown and soft.

2. In a medium saute pan add 1 T. olive oil over medium heat. Add prosciutto and saute until browned, about 3 minutes. Add shallots and rosemary, saute until shallots are tender. About 4 minutes. Remove from heat and save.
3. Make the Bechamel Sauce: Bring milk and broth to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer for 3 minutes and then remove from heat.

4. Melt butter in a heavy medium sauce pan over low heat. Whisk in flour, stir carefully to make sure there are no lumps. Stir for 2 minutes to thicken. Whisk in hot milk mixture and take care to make sure there are no lumps. Bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. The sauce will thicken and reduce. After 5 minutes remove the sauce from the heat. Quickly add the grated Gruyere, Parmesan and nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper to your taste.
5. I am a big fan of "No Boil" lasagna noodles - they save a lot of table. So, no matter what you are using, add some sauce to the bottom of a 13x9x2 inch pan. Spread sauce evenly so it coats the whole bottom. Add one layer of noodles. Add more sauce. Then put a layer of roasted eggplant and top that with the prosciutto mixture. Follow with a second layer of noodles. Repeat the sauce, eggplant, prosciutto layering pattern. Finally, top with a last layer of noodles and top with the remaining sauce.

6. Finally, at the end, sprinkle the top with grated Parmesan cheese.

7. Preheat oven to 350 and bake until the top of the lasagna is golden and the sauce is bubbling, about 45 minutes. It may need to bake for up to an hour if it was refrigerated. Let stand for 15 minutes before serving.

Naptime Notes:

Naptime Recipe Props: Lasagna's can be a Mom's best friend because the portion is often large enough so you can eat it for 2 days. The great news about this dish is that the flavors marry after 24 hours so the flavor is actually even better the second day.
Naptime Stopwatch:
This recipe takes the entire naptime to make, about 1 1/2 hours. However, if you can stretch the dish over two days then technically you saved yourself a full naptime to watch TV. I promise this is well worth the time it takes to make, the longest part is roasting the eggplants and composing the bechamel sauce.

Naptime Reviews:
Needless to say my husband loves this. However, our toddler gives it mixed reviews. She likes the noodles and bechamel sauce, but isn't too keen on the eggplant and prosciutto. Oh well.


Napping with a Lemon

In the past week the temperature in my neighborhood has averaged 22 degrees, without the wind chill. These days getting out of the house is a hideous affair involving wrestling a toddler into several layers of wool, zipping her into a fleece sleeping bag and enveloping the entire stroller in a plastic bubble, which has a small vent for air circulation. She is essentially rendered immobile by all of her layers and doesn't understand why we won't take her to Florida to visit her grandparents, toute suite! I am not keen on this weather whatsoever, and neither is she. The only shred of silver lining I can find at this time of year is that it is finally Meyer lemon season. The moment Meyer lemons first appear in the store I purchase as many as I can carry (or afford) and run to my kitchen to begin work.

To say I'm slightly enthusiastic about Meyer lemons is like saying Julia Child kind of liked french food, or Giada seems to enjoy cooking with mascarpone cheese.
Since Meyer lemons are, in fact, a cross between a mandarin orange and regular lemon their juice is sweeter than that of a ho-hum regular lemon. When cooking they add a deeper, more intense flavor to any dish, making them perfect for squeezing over seafood, adding to baked goods, and even stirring into cocktails. Also, as an added bonus, when I am zesting away with the microplane, my kitchen becomes filled with a delicious uplifting lemon scent, conjuring up images of warm beaches, sunny days and fruity summer sangria.

Unfortunately, however, Meyer lemon season is criminally short, so it is important to act fast from when the first crate arrives in the store. So far this winter I've made pasta with Meyer lemon zest, cream fraiche, arugula and pine nuts, creamy Meyer lemon risotto, and Meyer lemon poundcake. I have squeezed it over fish, chicken and even added the zest to a herb salt I made for a potato dish. This week, during naptime, I whipped up a batch of Lemon Sables. These are the most delicious, crumbly, sandy lemon cookies I have ever tasted. The lemon flavor is distinct but delicate and couples nicely with the rich butter content and sugar coating. The best part is that these cookies get better with age, the flavor deepening with each day you keep them in the container. These cookies do a lot for my frame of mind as well. Their bright citrus flavor continually makes me "think summer", helping me look forward to the day when we can shed our winter layers, put away the fleece and wave good-bye to frostbite. At this point, those days can't come soon enough. Pass the sangria, please.

Lemon Sables for Winter Weather, adapted from Cooking for Mr. Latte, by Amanda Hesser
2 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour

2 t. baking powder

2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 c. confectioner's sugar

1/2 c. sugar, plus more for rolling

2. T. grated Meyer lemon zest
1 t. Kosher salt

4 egg yolks

1. Combine flour and baking powder together in a small bowl and combine.

2. Beat the butter in a mixer until pale and creamy. Add confectioner's sugar and beat for one minute. Add regular sugar and beat for another minute. Add lemon zest and salt, mix until just combined.
3. Drop in egg yolks one at time. Mix each for just a few moments until combined.
4. While the mixer is on low speed add the flour mixture slowly until just combined.

5. Remove dough from mixer and shape it into a log about 1 1/2inches round. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours and up to overnight.

6. To bake the cookies, preheat oven to 350F. Prepare a rimmed cookie sheet with a ridge of sugar.

7. Remove dough from refrigerator and roll it in the sugar, coating the log entirely.

8. Slice log into 1/4 inch slices and place on cookie sheet about 3 inches apart.

9. Bake 13-16 minutes, or until edges turn golden.

Naptime Notes:
Naptime Recipe Props: This cookie is one of the best ways to harness the Meyer lemon flavor, especially when you get a little tired of poundcake.
Naptime Stopwatch:
This recipe is fast and easy to prepare during naptime. Like earlier cookies I've made, I assembled the dough during naptime, put it in the fridge to chill in the log shape, then sliced and baked that evening after her bedtime.

Naptime Reviews: These were a huge hit with both the husband and toddler. Both washed their cookies down with glasses of milk!


Napping with No Nap: Emergency Meal Series #1

This is the first in a series of posts I'll make over the course of the year regarding what to do when faced with an unexpected obstacle during your day. This happens to all of us from time to time and it happened to me just this week. For example, the other day my daughter thought it was a great idea to skip her nap and spend the afternoon with me. Despite my best efforts she refused to go to sleep and skipped her nap entirely. Needless to say this made for a harried afternoon for both of us. There was lots of singing lullabies, extra bottles, reading books and even a few laps around the block in the stroller. But she didn't want to take her nap and when her mind is made up that is that, end of story.

Obviously when the she doesn't nap I lose my chance to do my Naptime Chef-ing. So, what am I to do? My answer is simple, when all hope is lost on preparing dinner in the afternoon I break the glass on one of my "emergency meals." Everyone has a few in their repertoire and so do I. The meal I produced on this particular day, spaghetti and meatballs, is numero uno on my list. It is not particularly inventive or exciting, but it works like a charm every time so I am keeping it around. In fact, even if I had several degrees from Le Cordon Bleu I would still make this meal for my family from time to time. It is easy to make, is healthy and filling, and I never get a hint of a protest from anyone when I put it on the table. Sure, I live in New York so I could easily call up one of the many restaurants in our area for delivery, but somehow this meal is much more satisfying and I don't feel like I am taking a slug of grease to the gut when I eat it.

Don't be under the impression that when I make this I am rolling together meatballs and cranking out homemade pasta either. My ingredients are all store-bought and I just give it little tweaks to make it my own. There is barely even a recipe here, but I thought I would tell you how I do it, just in case you need some ideas for freshening up your spaghetti and meatballs. We all need a little pick-me-up from time to time and so do our recipes. So, the next time your toddler decides to function on zero hours of sleep during the day I hope this helps you out.

Emergency Meal #1: Naptime Spaghetti & Meatballs - (inspired by my experience trying to get dinner on the table when my daughter skips her nap.)
1 lb. dry spaghetti, or any long pasta that you have on hand
Salt for water

1 Jar store-bought tomato sauce (my favorite is Newman's Own Cabernet Marinara)
1 Bag of pre-cooked meatballs (at least 12) from your butcher or grocer

Fresh Basil, chopped, if available
1 Baguette
1/2 stick unsalted butter

2 t. garlic salt from the spice drawer

Parmesan Cheese, grated - plenty of it!

1. Preheat the oven to 400.
2. Salt a pot of water for the pasta and bring it to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions.
3. In a saute pan with a lid add the meatballs and sauce. Simmer the meatballs in the sauce until they are hot all the way through.
4. Meanwhile, place butter and garlic salt in a glass bowl and stir together until completely combined. There is no need to whip the butter to get air in, you are just making garlic butter.
I usually soften the butter in the microwave for 15 seconds to make it easier to stir.
5. Cut the baguette lengthwise and spread both halves with the garlic butter.

6. Close baguette back up, wrap in aluminum foil and place in oven for 10 minutes.

7. Monitor your pasta and meatballs and perhaps have a sip of wine.

8. After 10 minutes remove the baguette, open it up and sprinkle it with parmesan cheese. Return it, open faced, to the oven for 3 more minutes to get the cheese to melt and the top to toast. Remove from oven, cut into pieces and serve.

9. When pasta is ready, drain it in a colander and reserve 1 cup of pasta water. Then return the pasta to the pot. Add cooked meatballs and sauce to the pot and combine completely. Add some pasta water to loosen up the tomato sauce if you need to.
10. To finish pasta add a generous handful or two of parmesan cheese and combine it with the spaghetti and meatballs.
11. Slide spaghetti and meatballs into a large pasta dish, top with chopped fresh basil, and serve!

Naptime Notes:

Naptime Recipe Props:
This dish is almost foolproof. It is as old as the day is long but it is a good one so never think that it isn't worth adding to your menu every so often. Don't forget to save the leftovers, they are great for lunch the next day!

Naptime Stopwatch: Start to finish this has about a 25 minute preparation time, max. The best part is that you end up with a complete meal on the table and it takes very little energy to make.
Naptime Reviews: This dish gets rave reviews every time. The meatballs are good toddler food. Cut them into small pieces, make sure they are not too hot, and serve them straight away!