Monday, July 29, 2013

A sweet custard, a verrine, & our weekly menu

"How was your week?", people ask. But are they ready for an honest, full answer? 

Because for me, it was...

A busy week. Made of work deadlines, toddler activities, juggling writing, cooking, photographing between bath times, meal times and nap times. 

A grateful week, for the precious help of my mother and support of good friends. 

A stressful, anxious week, with the anticipation of big life changes and all the daunting effort, work and energy they require.

A flavorful week, rich with the bounty of summer produce and local farmers.

A hopeful week, with faith in the fruits of difficult decisions and doing our best in the present.

A sad week, for the helplessness felt in the face of the struggle, pain and suffering of loved ones.

An inspiring week, with lots of ideas and connections, things to express, to explore.

A tired, humbling week, longing for sleep and rest, a reality check that my brain and body cannot function non-stop. 

A joyful week, of reaping other fruits, the things Pablo has learned without my teaching, the awe and wonder of watching grow what I sowed. A spontaneous thank you, or gesture to share food, a rythm or a song, a new skill, a desire to help, a willingness to try new things, a wish to connect with others, and sprouts of empathy in his demeanor. 

Such are our weeks and lives, aren't they? Never just one thing. They are in our image, complex, mixed, impossible to define. Therein lies their beauty. They can't be labeled, or dismissed for being one thing, these nuggets, these increments of our lives. 

So with the acknowledgement of last week, ready or not, we begin a new one. With a sweet treat, and a menu, to get us on our way...


It has been a while since I've shared our weekly menu, and a while since I shared a dessert recipe, so I shall fix that with one post. Crème Caramel, which is basically a cold caramel custard, is a classic dessert in France. You can easily find it already-made in the yogurt section of any supermarket. All schools offer it once in a while for dessert to children (you know, French schools serving a daily four course lunch to children and all). It is a combination of such simple ingredients (milk, eggs, sugar), makes a great sweet treat.

I had made this incredible Lapsang Souchong tea caramel some months ago for an ice cream, and had been looking for a way to use what was leftover. Since 99.9% of the time, our desserts consist of cheese and/or yogurt and fruit, it had been sitting in my fridge. Well, it has now found its purpose!

And then I came across the photo of a verrine (pretty edible things presented in a glass, basically) on a French website, and decided to simplify it greatly to create an easy, yet delicious and crowd-pleasing dessert perfect for a summer (or any season really) afternoon, or for a dinner party. 

Smoked tea infused crème caramel, & a verrine of shortbread cookie, stone fruit, yogurt, and smoked caramel custard

For the crème caramel:

Makes 4-6 ramekins, depending on size (lower, shallow ramekins tend to set better)

Age for babies: 12 months and up with the honey, in very small quantity.  I gave this to Pablo for the first time at 27 months (and it was love at first taste!)

2 cups of whole milk
1 vanilla bean (or 1/2 tsp vanilla extract)
3 eggs
3 tbsp honey (heat it up to make it liquidy if needed)
This awesome Lapsang Souchong caramel from Local Milk blog (of course, plain caramel will do as well.)

First, make the caramel (recipe here).

In a pan, combine the milk and vanilla (if using a bean, scrape the seeds off into the milk, and put the bean in the milk as well). Bring to a slow boil, cover, and remove from heat. Let the vanilla infuse for 5-10 minutes.

Preheat the oven at 400°F.

Pour the hot caramel into the bottom of the ramekins, just enough to coat the bottom. It will harden and cool quickly. (*Note that I was able to keep this caramel covered in the fridge for a couple of months. I just reheated in the microwave to liquify).

Then, whisk the eggs in a bowl, add the honey and whisk until combined.

Remove the vanilla bean from the milk, (strain the milk through a fine mesh if desired), and pour the hot milk over the eggs, all at once, and whisk vigorously for a minute or so.

Pour the milk/egg mixture over the caramel in the ramekins.

Place the ramekins in a baking dish, and pour some hot water in the dish, so it goes up about 3/4 of the way up the sides of the ramekins.

Place in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until set. You will know when you tap on your baking dish, and the middle of the custards is no longer liquid (though it will giggle a little.) 

Remove from the oven and the hot water bath, and let cool. Then place in the fridge for 1 hour or more.

When ready to serve, place a plate on top of the ramekins, hold on to both and turn the plate over, shaking gently until you hear the soft "schlug" of the custard coming off the ramekin. Lift the ramekin, and pour the leftover caramel at the bottom of the ramekin over the custard. 

For the verrine:

Age for babies: Omitting the crème caramel, I would give this as an afternoon snack for example from 8-10 months (yogurt, cookie, fruit mixed together and set to rest for 1 hr, so the yogurt softens the cookie).

1 plain shortbread cookie
1 spoonful of plain (full fat if possible) Greek yogurt (this one is by far the best I've had in the US, by the way)
1 spoonful of European style, plain yogurt, with cream on top preferably
Seasonal fruit of choice: here I used plum and nectarine 
1 bite or two of crème caramel

In a small bowl, mix together the Greek yogurt and regular yogurt with some of the cream on top. 

At the bottom of a glass, break/crumble the shortbread cookie.
Add the yogurt, the cut up fruit on top, and then a spoonful of the crème caramel.

Note: You can make these ahead and leave them in the fridge until ready to serve. It gives the yogurt time to imbibe the cookie, which makes the whole thing even more scrumptious!!

And now, on to the week's menu:

Cheeses of the week: Following French tradition, I always offer a little bit of cheese at the end of every meal, between the main course and dessert. Rotation this week: Comté, Port Salut (cow cheese), and a lot of goat cheese these days, thanks to my collaboration with Vermont Creamery and the Kids & Kids campaign. (Have you been following the "Summer Goat Cheese Series"?)

DessertsAt lunch, I offer a fruit yogurt (or plain yogurt with fresh fruit), but at night, I prefer sticking to plain yogurt (regular homemade* whole milk, sheep’s milk, goat's milk and Greek yogurt for extra protein) to avoid too much sugar before bedtime.

If you would like a particular recipe on the menu, feel free to contact me! (I marked with a * the recipes that will be the topic of upcoming posts).


Lunch - Picnic at the park
Boiled leeks and potato salad, cherry tomatoes and cucumber sticks, hard boiled egg, Babybel cheese & plum

Goûter (4pm snack) – Crème Caramel (recipe above!) and lychees

Appetizer / Finger FoodsGolden beet warm goat cheese salad
Main course: Oven-roasted pork ribs, grilled eggplant


Lunch - Picnic out again
Spring pea & herb salad, cherry tomatoes, avocado, roast beef, cheese and plum or peach

Goûter - Lychees

Appetizer / Finger Foods: White asparagus with tarragon yogurt cream sauce
Main course: Duck breasts with braised radishes and cherries*


Lunch at the park 
Grated carrots French-style, sardine cottage cheese pea sandwich, cheese, fruit

Goûter – Nectarine

Appetizer / Finger Foods: Authentic Greek salad
Main courseQuails eggs en cocotte with smoked salmon, leek and zucchini from La Tartine Gourmande


Appetizer / Finger Foods: Cold zucchini with mint vinaigrette
Main course: Bison patty with endive blue cheese salad

Goûter - Grapes

Appetizer / Finger Foods: Trying this Yellow Tomato Corn Gazpacho from What's Cooking Good Looking blog
Main course: Pan-fried Dover sole, broccoli spinach puree



Appetizer / Finger Foods: Cucumber fennel slaw
Main course: Mushroom prosciutto tartine

Goûter - Peach

Appetizer / Finger Foods: Artichoke custard
Main course: Lamb chops with the herbed roasted carrots and pesto from Food Loves Writing


Appetizer / Finger Foods: Choice of leftover appetizers: grated carrots, zucchini, and/or cucumber fennel slaw
Main course: Soft boiled egg, simple ratatouille

Goûter - Plum

Appetizer / Finger Foods: Grilled avocado with cherry tomatoes and herbs from Minimally Invasive blog
Main course: Clams in fennel shallot broth from Cannelle & Vanille


Lunch OUT

Goûter - Cherries

Appetizer / Finger Foods: Green beans cauliflower herb salad
Main course: Slow-cooker chicken thighs with endive, yam, goat cheese gratin*

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

A warm goat cheese salad, & 8 tips for an enjoyable restaurant meal with your kids

Life can be such a whirlwind, even if that whirlwind is made of lots of in-the-moment moments and exciting new collaborations. Such was this past week for me, with a few days camping in the wilderness completely offline (will share more on that soon). Also I was thrilled to have a couple of guest posts on two of my favorite (albeit completely different in theme!) blogs. If you haven't already seen them and are inclined to do so, there's one on parenting on Janet Lansbury's blog, and another about writing on Shanna and Tim's Food Loves Writing. Very grateful, for these posts brought in a lot of new followers, so if that's you, welcome!

For this new installment of my Summer Goat Cheese Series in collaboration with Vermont Creamery's Kids & Kids Campaign, I wanted to share a version of the French restaurant classic: the salade de chèvre chaud (warm goat cheese salad). Most restaurants, cafés and brasseries in France have it on their menu, it is what the French would consider a "run-of-the-mill" first course (or main course for lunch). This is also a dish Pablo LOVES, and which I would order for him in a heartbeat in a restaurant, as I think would a lot of French parents for their kids (or themselves for that matter.)

This is giving me an opportunity to write a somewhat practical post on taking kids (including infants and toddlers) to the restaurant.

One of my favorite connecting time with Pablo is when the both of us go out to lunch once in a while. We have taken him out to eat with us since he was a couple of months old, and continued to do so every so often since then. Between 6 and 12 months, I would bring his food with me (I would pack some vegetable finger food as a first course, a puree for the main course, some cheese and a yogurt for dessert) and give him a taste of what we were having depending on what it was. After 12 months, Pablo started to eat pretty much the same as us, I could easily just order for him from the menu.

Probably one of the greatest unspoken French rules of eating, is that a meal should be thoroughly enjoyable. If it is stressful or rushed, it feels like a waste. On recent trips, and as Pablo is at the height of toddlerhood (27 months now), I have been very grateful and so happy to see how great he is when we take him out to eat. He loves it, he stays at the table and is fairly well-mannered (the walls usually remain clean when we leave!), he eats heartily and with interest. I can relax and enjoy the meal with minor adjustments here and there.

A lot of people have witnessed this and expressed great surprise, and have asked me what my secret is. I never thought of it as a secret, but thinking back on it, that thoroughly enjoyable meal with our children has a few preconditions. Here are eight strategies and tips that have worked for us:

1 - We eat together as a family on a daily basis

So sitting down together for a meal, and eating the same (real) foods as us is nothing out of the ordinary for Pablo. It makes sense that children that are most often fed alone, before the grown-ups, wouldn't do too well sitting at the table in a restaurant for a while. I'm really big on the family meal for many reasons, this one included. Plus, when children are fed separately, their meal is usually much faster than a family meal would be. (I've actually noticed on a couple of occasions where I ate a meal without Pablo, how much faster I eat then. Eating with him, encouraging him to eat slowly and mindfully, and being engaged with him during our family meals has helped me to slow down my eating greatly too.)

I should add also that thanks to a few strategies practised over time, our meals, at home or at the restaurant, are mostly sans power struggles or boundary testings, which is a blessing.

2 - We eat in courses at home

Just like at a restaurant. Pablo is used to eating a first course, then wait a little bit before the main course, then cheese and fruit or yogurt for dessert if desired. I've talked about the many benefits of eating in courses in this very popular post. This is definitely an added benefit. When we go out to eat, the waiting factor is a non-issue. While we wait for the food, we have a nice little conversation about what we ordered and how the chef in the kitchen is preparing it, that usually gets his imagination going. Or we people watch, Pablo loves that too :-)

3 - We engage him as an integral member of the meal

If we go out with Pablo, it is to have a nice meal with him. Otherwise, we go out without him, which we sometimes need to do and that's fine. So I always make sure he's part of the conversation, like any person you would have dinner with. This is definitely a time to connect. (When you think of it, how rude would it be to go out with someone to then proceed to have private conversations that exclude them?)

4 - He's used to real food, and a wide variety of it

Forget kids' menus. In most restaurants I've been to, they are a crying shame (as is the idea of kids' food, in my opinion...) So I always order on the regular menu for him, and we share some of our dishes with him. The portions are often so big anyway, it works out perfectly. For example, recently at The Black Cat in Cambria, I ordered the celery root cilantro soup (which inspired this post) to share with him along with a couple of appetizers for us, and we shared our entrees with him, so he could get a taste of everything (which he loves).

The fact that he eats just about everything is a big factor as well, due to the fact that he's been exposed to a wide variety of foods (vegetables, meat, fish) since 5 months old and especially during that golden window 6-18 months roughly where infants are so willing to try new foods and put just about anything in their mouth (a crucial period to steer away from kids' foods). Even if he were to reject anything new now (which is not the case), he's already tried so many different things these past two years of life that I would be hard pressed to find a (real) food he hasn't already had. So no matter where we eat, there will always be something he will enjoy eating.

5 - He's used to mindful eating

I usually avoid distractions at the table, so the meal is an end in itself and a pleasurable experience deserving of our full attention. Same goes at the restaurant. I definitely avoid all screens across the board (I will admit seeing kids or adults focused on their phones or other screens at the table drives me crazy). If there are television screens in the restaurant, I try to ask for a table away from them (or better, choose screen-free restaurants!)  I might bring a small book or a crayon or two if the meal or the wait get a bit long.

6 - We go at the right time

I try to have realistic expectations, i.e. make sure Pablo's not too tired, that he's had a good afternoon nap or good night sleep if it's lunch out. Also I try to make sure he's had plenty of independent, self-directed play prior to the meal so he's relaxed and ready to connect (but not overtired). And we go early enough so he doesn't start to fade mid-meal. At home, we usually sit down for dinner between 6:45 and 7p, when we go out, we try for 6:30-6:45 to have plenty of time to enjoy the meal. I also make sure he's bathed and in his pajamas when we go (or for a fancier meal, I bring his pajamas with me and change him at the restaurant after the meal). Thus the meal is the last, relaxing event of the day for everyone.

7 - We make sure he's hungry

Snacking is very limited in our household, so the family meals are enjoyed fully and eaten with good appetite. Pablo has an afternoon snack (usually pretty light, he doesn't seem to get that hungry) between 4:30 and 5pm. If we go out to dinner, I might offer it a bit earlier to insure he has a good appetite.

When we get to the restaurant, we also try to limit eating too much bread before the food arrives. (Bread is never served first in a French restaurant typically, but to accompany the meal in reasonable quantity, definitely not the thing to get full on when you're most hungry.)

8 - Choosing the right restaurant

We don't necessarily go for the typical "family-friendly", as it can mean a loud environment. So first we choose a restaurant where we enjoy the food (seems obvious, but my point is that that takes priority over being "kid-friendly".) We also try to go to restaurants that do have high-chairs or boosters: Toddlers tend to get fidgety and expecting them to sit still in a booth bench for example, is unrealistic, they're bound to want to slide around, jump etc.

Also we choose restaurants that are not too loud. I found that Pablo gets tired and over-excited and stimulated fast with a very loud place (as we do.) So a place that lends itself to conversation is best (though since we usually go earlier than the crowds would, that often works out).

There you have it! I hope this is helpful. Would love to hear your tips and feedback!

In the meantime, enjoy this warm goat cheese salad, and if you want more information about Vermont Creamery and the Kids & Kids Campaign, check out their Facebook Page and Pinterest page too. As good as this salad was, their cheeses are so scrumptious I always enjoy them most pure, from the tip of my fingers :-)

Golden Beet Warm Goat Cheese Salad, with Sorrel Almond Pesto

Serves 2/3

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 45-60 minutes

Age for babies: 8-10 months, the pieces of beet topped with warm goat cheese make a great finger food.

1 Coupole goat cheese from Vermont Creamery (or firm, aged goat cheese, like bûche) (fridge cold)
Lamb's lettuce (mâche) (or other lettuce of choice, watercress would do nicely too)
2-3 golden beets

For the pesto dressing:
20-25 leaves of sorrel (or other herb of choice, or use the beet greens - see note below)
2-3 tbsp sliced almonds
Olive oil (I used 1/2 cup here)
Juice of half a lemon
Salt & pepper

Preheat the oven at 450°F. Cut the greens off the beets, give the beets a wash and wrap them individually in foil. Place in a baking pan and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until tender when you prick them with a knife. 

(I recommend you keep the greens and bake some extra beets to try these incredible tartlets and the beet greens pesto from Vanilla Bean blog, which were a big hit at our Mother's day lunch this year.)

When done, remove the foil and let them cool. (You can do this a few days ahead and just have the cooked beets in the fridge, ready for salads etc.)

Make the pesto: Combine the sorrel leaves and almonds in a food processor, and add the olive oil progressively until you obtain a thick but pourable dressing. Then add the lemon juice and season to taste. (You will probably have leftover dressing, which can be used on any salad).

(*Note that you can make any other kind of pesto dressing of choice here, check out this awesome one from Food Loves Writing)

Peel the beets and cut medium thick slices lengthwise. 

Preheat your broiler at 500°F, and place the tray at the top position, close to the heat.

Prepare your plates: put some mâche in each plate, add a little dressing on top (alternatively, you can put all the mâche in a bowl and toss it with some dressing prior to plating).  Place a few slices of beet on top of the mâche.

Then take the cheese out of the fridge and cut thick slices lengthwise with a knife or cheese wire cutter if you have one (one Coupole makes 3 to 4 thick slices).

Place the slices of goat cheese on a non-stick baking pan, or on parchment paper in a baking pan, and broil for a few minutes, until it starts to get golden. (Watch this carefully, it melts fast! It should only take a couple of minutes).

Place the warm goat cheese slices on top of beet slices in each plate, top with a little pesto dressing, and serve immediately.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Polenta-crusted lamb chops... because cooking is good for the brain

I am a big fan of Dr Dan Siegel when it comes to child psychology. His book, Parenting from the Inside Out, was the first parenting book I read (before I got pregnant), and the foundation for everything else. He has a series of short videos online, and in one of them (you can watch it here), he describes the daily elements of a healthy mind for a child, which also apply to adults. Here they are in no particular order:

  • Sleep
  • Focus time
  • Play time, experience novelty and fun
  • Down time, calm/quiet, to recharge the mind
  • Connection time (with others and the earth, with generosity and gratitude)
  • Physical time, where we move our bodies
  • Time in, or reflection time, where we reflect on our whole emotional state, on how we feel inside ourselves.

It struck me as I jotted down this list, how a few of those get chucked out the window or neglected in our adult lives. I have often found myself with a few minutes of down time, feeling like I should be doing something, as if that time was wasted (and as a result of this antsiness, it is in fact wasted. Instead of letting my mind recharge, I burden it further with guilt and anxiety.)

This balance, which thankfully I am able to nurture fairly successfully in Pablo's life, has been harder to find for myself, but having this list written out in my office, and on the fridge, is a great reminder. I noticed some of these can happen simultaneously, such as connection time and down time, or play and physical time, or play and focus time.

Of course, being the food lover and blogger that I am, I couldn't help but think of the many many opportunities the kitchen and the table give us to practice these on a daily basis (sleep aside ;-)

Looking at a recipe, separating an egg yolk from the white, thickening a sauce, shelling peas... focus.

Kneading bread, making butter, planting and picking... physical.

Having a picnic, dipping a piece of bread in a soft boiled egg, making watermelon balls with a scooper, experimenting with new flavors... play.

Washing dishes, peeling carrots, chopping rosemary and garlic... brain recharge, and time in.

Sitting down for a meal with loved ones, eating outside with the smells and sounds of nature, cooking over a fire, talking about the food we eat, eat mindfully and slowly... connection, and time in.

I suppose you get my drift here: cook good food and have family meals. It's good for the body. And it's good for the brain too. :-)

So about this meal I'm sharing here...

... it starts with a morning of foraging (physical time, connection with nature) and learning to make wild mustard (more on that very soon!) and picking some sweet white clover (play time), which our foraging guide Pascal tells me will "rock my world" with sauteed potatoes. O how I love world-rocking food tips!

I stop at the store with Pablo and we bond with our favorite butcher Jamel who knows Pablo on a first name basis. Pablo chooses the orange cherry tomatoes he likes. We secretly taste an olive at the olive bar together. Love. Connection.

I get home and review my recipe. My mom starts the potatoes, I start the polenta. Connection, focus. Mix the flour, beat the egg. "This was a good day", I think to myself. "I feel grounded, in the moment." Quick time in. Dipping the chops, play; frying the chops, focus; photographing the chops, focus, play, physical given the odd contortions ;-) Pablo wants to take pictures too, and does a mini-puppet show while I take some shots, connection.

Sitting down in the backyard to eat a great meal together. Watching Pablo gnaw on the bone, freely dance around the backyard after the meal. Breathing. Connection. Down time. Recharge.

Writing this post at my laptop, thinking of how humanly rich,beautiful (and dare I say, cerebrally nutritious?) this day was, and how perfectly balanced, how I need more days like this, and less days of deadlines, exhaustion and stress. Time in. 

Even when I struggle to post to this blog as often as I plan (which may just have to happen this week again as we're going camping this weekend...), this space gives me this precious time which otherwise falls by the wayside in the face of busy life, time to reflect, to check in with myself. That those reflections should interest other souls such as yourselves, kind readers, is a gift I had never expected. Reading and perhaps at times, relating to my ramblings, hopefully gives you a little time in, too.

I always knew cooking, eating and food blogging were good for my body and soul. But if it's good for my brain too then... I shall keep coming back.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this very balanced meal, in more ways than one.

Polenta-crusted lamb chops with herbed potatoes

(Inspired by Idées futées pour inviter by Larousse Cuisine & Cie)

4 servings

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes

Age for babies: You could crust ground lamb patty with polenta for a 8-10 months old, potatoes and polenta are also great for 8-10 months old. A great way to introduce the flavor of rosemary, as it gets nicely absorbed by the polenta.

8 small double lamb chops (2 chops together, especially if you like them rare or pink, take individual chops if you like more well done)
4 tbsp spelt flour
salt & pepper
2 sprigs of rosemary
1 cup of polenta (I used this one which cooks very quickly)
4 cups of vegetable broth
1 cu p light coconut milk (You could just use 5 cups of broth, or mix broth and water, or regular milk. The coconut milk adds a nice subtle flavor though)
1 egg
3-4 tbsp olive oil

6-7 medium pink potatoes
3 tbsp duck fat (coconut oil and butter would do great too here)
Fresh rosemary, parsley or other fresh herb of choice (we used some wild sweet white clover I foraged that day, delicious!)

Start with the potatoes:

Wash and slice the potatoes (being organic, we left the skin on). Dry them well to avoid splattering.

Heat the duck fat over medium high, and add the potatoes. Cook, stirring often, until they turn golden. When they do, add salt, pepper, and the chopped herbs, and stir.

Lower heat to medium and cover. Cook until tender, about 10-15 minutes, shaking the pan or stirring once in a while. When done, keep covered and warm until ready to serve.

Then the polenta: 

(Check cook times depending on the kind you get).
In a medium pot, heat the broth and coconut milk over medium heat.

Meanwhile, remove the stems from the rosemary leaves and chop them finely.

When it barely simmers, add the polenta gradually while stirring until it thickens a bit. With the polenta I used, it was about 1-2 minutes.

Remove from heat, and stir in the rosemary. Taste the polenta and add salt so it tastes just right to your tastebuds. Cover and set aside.

(*Note that I've also obtained good results just adding the polenta and cold liquids to the pan at the same time, and heating on medium, stirring often. Also, for the crusting of the lamb chops, you will need fairly thin polenta, so this is double the amount of liquid recommended for "regular" polenta as indicated on the package. It should be the consistency of a cream of mushroom type soup, or slightly thicker. You could also use the prepackaged organic polenta - in the shape of a fat sausage - that I've seen available at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. Then heat over medium with enough liquid to obtain desired consistency.)

Now the chops:

In a shallow plate, combine the flour with a pinch of salt and pepper.

In another, pour about half the polenta (reserve the rest to serve as a side, use more if needed). In another, lightly beat the egg.

Take each lamb chop, dip them first in the flour on all sides, then in the egg, then in the polenta.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan, and pan-fry the lamb chops on medium high, until crust is crispy golden on all sides. You may want to use a splatter screen, as the wet polenta will make the oil splatter quite a bit. We like them on the rare side, so it only took about 5-7 minutes for us. (Lower to medium-low once the crust is golden and continue cooking if you like it more done.)

Serve on a plate with some potatoes, a side of polenta, and romaine or butter lettuce in vinaigrette for some greens.

I love to wrap a bite of potato inside a lettuce leaf! The perfect bite :-) Pablo agrees.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Creating a new normal, one bite of eggplant leek pizza at a time

What a hard week this was, and as I finally sit down to write these words, I do it with a deep sigh
of relief and contentment. Of finally being back in this space, with you, and share what's been on my mind (and at our table).

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a mom friend, and somehow I mentioned that Pablo loved radishes. She was slightly surprised, and told me that even though she loved radishes, it had never occurred to her to give them to her toddler.

The other day, at a barbecue, another mom told me she felt absolutely certain her daughter would never try eggplant.

Recently, there was an article in the New York Times’Motherlode column where a mom vowed for one whole week to forgo processed foods and home cook. As journalist Maryn McKenna pointed out, is home cooking really the Mount Everest of parenthood?

Some time ago, I found a blog who had kindly linked back to my blog, and found a thread of comments where some moms, while marveling at Pablo’s menus, seemed to find them simply unachievable. A week without pasta? Six kinds of vegetables in one meal? Unthinkable, apparently.

You see the common theme here. Eating mostly real foods, home cooking, eating as a family on a daily basis, exposing infants and young children to a wide variety of foods... appears to be far from mainstream. And I’m always slightly puzzled by the surprise reaction I often get (“Pablo really eats all this stuff? You really cook every day?”), because I was fortunate enough to grow up in an environment and a culture where there’s nothing extraordinary about feeding young children radishes, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, duck or aged goat cheese, about cooking meals with real food (is there any other kind?) and eating in courses on a daily basis. In many places and for millions of families around the world, this is completely normal and feeding oneself any other way would be considered very strange.

Sure, there are financial factors and the lack of time, but mostly, I noticed the barrier is in the mind. And that’s one of my goals with this blog, to show it can be done. Not effortlessly (what is?), but reasonably easily.

As I was watching Pablo happily macking asparagus (sans vinaigrette no less!) today at lunch, it struck me again how very normal this is to him. And scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, it is obvious there's a whole community, a movement out there (Michael Pollan being one of its most famous proponents), and more and more resources and education, working to normalize real food and home-cooking. 

And I've never been much of a "movement" gal, but I am happy, and proud, to be a tiny part of this one. It seems like a tall order to change mentalities of a whole generation. What we can do though, is normalize flavorful, real food for our children (from the very first foods they eat), have them grow up in an environment where good, real food, variety and enjoyable family meals are just the norm. And they will come to expect, and seek, these things as they grow up. These foods will become the comfort foods of their childhood.

I realize I might just be preaching to the choir here, as most of you reading this blog are probably reading it because you’re already sold on this idea. I guess my point is that by practicing this in your home with your family, by giving thought to mindful eating, making it a parenting priority to give your children a lifelong love of a good meal, by embracing the process of cooking as something that ultimately, and in many different ways, makes our lives and that of our families better, by not giving up in the face of societal pressures, you are part of this movement as well. Your children might just consider any other way to nourish oneself an abnormality. 

Speaking of abnormal, for this new installment of the Summer Goat Cheese series in collaboration with Vermont Creamery and the Kids &Kids Campaign, I am sharing this “pizza”, of sorts. See, I have a confession to make: I actually do not like pizza. It does nothing for me. Call me a French snob, but I would have to be pretty desperate to eat a Domino’s pizza or the like. I don’t get the excitement around it, I don’t get why it is pitched to kids as the best food ever, I don’t get why a kid’s birthday party without it seems unthinkable to so many people. Perhaps a trip to Naples, Italy to the birth place of pizza would change my mind, and that’s definitely on my bucket list, but for the time being, I remain a pizza skeptic.

I suppose I could have called this a flatbread rather than a pizza (though it’s not very flat, as I prefer pizza dough to be thick and a bit chewy), since it doesn’t really have any of the traditional pizza ingredients. But no matter what you call it, it has turned out to be one delectable experiment. 

It all started with the eggplant caviar I made for the Fourth of July. Slightly sweet and tangy. A delicious dip, which my mom couldn't get enough of with some savory thyme crackers.

We had a lot leftover, so after spotting the fresh pizza dough sold at Trader Joe’s, it gave me an idea. And when I imagined VermontCreamery’s beautiful goat cheese crottins melting over the top, I was sold. I hope you will be too. 

The tangy sweetness of the eggplant caviar is so nicely complemented by the burst of salty in the goat cheese and the subtle savory flavor of the leeks.

Think of it. As you and your family might enjoy a bite of this eggplant, leek, artisan goat cheese pizza, in a small way, you will help create a new normal for generations to come. Talk about two birds with one stone ;-)

Eggplant caviar, leeks & goat cheese pizza

For the eggplant caviar (yields about 2 cups)

Age for babies: 6-8 months, this is a great baby puree which you can freeze too.

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes

3 tbsp coconut oil (or olive oil)
1 medium eggplant
1 green apple
Juice of one lemon
3 medium tomatoes
4-5 sprigs of thyme (stems removed)
Just under 1/2 cup of apple juice
Sprinkle of piment d'Espelette (optional)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Meanwhile, start peeling and dicing the eggplant. Place in a large bowl and sprinkle with half the lemon juice. Then core, peel and dice the apple, add to the same bowl and sprinkle with the rest of the lemon juice.

When the water boils, place the 3 tomatoes in it for 2 minutes.

Run the tomatoes under cold water to stop the cooking, and peel them. Cut them in half, and gently squeeze the seeds out. Then dice them and set aside.

In a nonstick pan or Dutch oven, melt the coconut oil and add the eggplant and apple. Sauté over medium heat for about 3 minutes.

Then add the thyme, tomatoes and apple juice, sprinkle with salt and piment d'Espelette and cook until all soft and mushy, about 25 minutes.

Process in a food processor or blender until very smooth.

Can be kept in the fridge with a layer of olive oil on top for up to a week.

For the pizza: 

Age for babies: 10-12 months, cut up small as finger food.

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 22 minutes

1 pizza dough (I used Trader Joe's plain pizza dough, but will make this one, or this one next time)
1 cup of the eggplant caviar
3 goat crottins, either the aged Bijou, or fresh crottin (or mix and match!)
A few sprigs of thyme (stems removed)
3 leeks
2 tbsp olive oil or coconut oil

Preheat the oven at 450°F.

Prepare the pizza dough depending on the one you're using, roll it flat and as thin or thick as you like it.

Wash the leeks by making a lengthwise incision and running water through. Then slice in 1/2 inch pieces.

Melt the oil in a frying pan, and gently cook the leeks over medium low, stirring every so often, until they are soft, about 10 minutes.

Half the crottins transversely.

Spread the eggplant caviar all over the pizza dough. Add the leeks on top, the crottin halves and sprinkle with thyme leaves.

Bake for about 10-12 minutes, until dough is cooked and cheese is beginning to melt and color.

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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Here comes the s'more... with a twist!

Before proceeding to a new installment of the "Goat Cheese Summer Series", I'd like to wish you and your loved ones a wonderful holiday, hoping you celebrate America’s birthday with good food and good company.

This Fourth of July, I will have lived 16 years in the United States. And I think I have come to a good balance between my French and American cultures.  It’s not a linear balance (life just isn't linear, is it?). In some ways, I guess I am very French, and in others, very American. I never like being asked if I feel more French or more American, or being put in a position to chose between the two, because I really embrace both cultures. I owe a lot to both. They both make up who I am today. I have been in both places long enough to be aware of the limitations of each. So I embrace both cultures with open eyes, and somehow, it works.

What is culture, exactly, anyway? What does it consist of? It is such a complex concept, made up of so many impalpable things. That is what is so fascinating to explore and discover while traveling. Really, it is what is so fascinating about the human race. And no need to be an expat to experience multiculture. It's part of anyone who's lived in more than two places, or with family from different horizons. Such richness. And so much of it in America's "melting pot".

I think two major components of culture are language, and cuisine. I feel so blessed to be raising Pablo not only as bilingual, but as bicultural, and exploring what that means as he grows. Being so far away from France most of the year, cuisine is one of our strongest link to French culture.

Tonight at dinner in the backyard, when came time for the cheese course, sitting on his French grandmother’s lap, Pablo proceeded to go through our fromage box, checking each cheese one by one, asking which one is goat, and saying as he picks each one : “This is a good one” (this has just become his new ritual). Then his grandmother gave him a sample tasting of a few, some on bread, some pure. He couldn't be more delighted, savoring it on his tricycle (cringe... not eating at the table. Summer meals have definitely been laxer around here!). 

Then he put a ball in the basket, and high-fived and knuckle bumped his father.

I guess it doesn’t get more bicultural than that.

When Vermont Creamery contacted me for the Kids & Kids campaign to promote the nutritional and gastronomical benefits of goat cheese for children, I wanted to showcase not just their “kid-friendly” (there’s no such thing, in my opinion) creamy goat cheese or fresh chèvre, but also their wonderful aged cheeses, because there’s no reason not to introduce babies to them early on (8-9 months is when I started Pablo on all varieties of goat, sheep and cow cheeses, including blue).

Perhaps a perfect incarnation of our bicultural symbiosis is this s’more of sorts I'm sharing with you today. After all, what’s more American than this campfire favorite? 

Begrudgingly sharing with the family one of the Bonne Bouche ash-ripened goat cheese Vermont Creamery kindly sent me last week, we got to reading the label. Under “Pairing”, it listed the classic honey, figs, and... dark chocolate?

Now any French purist would call this sacrilegious. Because to be honest with you, even a piece of good bread doesn't do this incredible cheese justice. It is meant to be enjoyed pure, on finger tips, with perhaps a sip of Riesling. And Pablo has been doing just that (sans Riesling, that is), with great delight. So I admit, when I read that, I cringed a little.
But the idea of this goat cheese s’more was thrown in in a bout of family brainstorming, and I decided to give it a try, knowing it would be a perfectly symbiotic French-American Fourth of July treat. And a good excuse to try making these salty herb, walnut crackers adapted from Cannelle & Vanille’s cookbook, Small Plates & Sweet Treats (which I just love, by the way.)

The verdict: it’s pretty darn scrumptious. So much so that I started taking bites as I was taking the photos! Go easy on the chocolate so it doesn't overpower the cheese. Or if you’re a skeptic, substitute honey for the chocolate.

Either way, these s’mores make an original hors d’œuvre or a fun twist on the cheese course. And an awesome snack to get your kids hooked on real goat cheese!

Goat cheese, dark chocolate s'mores

First, the herb, walnut crackers
(Adapted from Small Plates & Sweet Treats by Aran Goyoaga)

This made 12 crackers for me.

(Fyi, these are gluten-free)

1/2 cup brown rice flour
1/3 cup quinoa flour
3 tbsp oat flour
2 tbsp tapioca starch
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1/2 stick of unsalted butter (room temp or 10 sec on microwave)
1 egg
1/4 cup walnuts
15-20 sprigs of Italian parsley
2 tbsp olive oil

In a medium bowl, whisk together all the flours, salt and pepper. 

Cut the softened butter into small pieces. Add the butter pieces to the flour mixture, and mix with your fingers until you obtain a crumbly, mealy texture.

Lightly beat the egg in a small bowl. Add it to the flour/butter mixture, and mix with your hands until you get a bowl of dough (it will be wet, but come together). Knead it a couple of times.

Place the ball on plastic wrap, flatten it a bit, wrap and place in the fridge for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven at 400°F. 

Finely chop the walnuts in a food processor. Place in a small circle at the center of a medium chopping board that can fit into your fridge. Then chop the parsley finely, and add to the walnuts.

Unwrap the dough and place it on top of the walnuts and parsley, and roll out with a dusted rolling pin to 1/4" thickness. (The dough will be firm, roll out delicately, and patch with fingers where it cracks).

Refrigerate the board with the dough on top of the walnut and parsley, for 15 minutes.

Use a cookie cutter or a small glass, as I did, to cut the crackers in the dough. Patch the leftover dough together as you go, to be able to cut more crackers.

Place the crackers (walnut/parsley side up) on a parchment paper lined baking sheet. 

Gently brush the top of the crackers with olive oil, and bake for 13-15 minutes, until just golden.

Let cool for 10 minutes, and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Keep in an airtight container in a cool place.

Now, the s'mores!

1 aged goat cheese, preferably Vermont's Bonne Bouche ash-ripened goat cheese
2-3 oz of dark chocolate (70% cocoa and up)
Honey to drizzle
12 savory crackers (the ones above, or any others of your choice)

Preheat your broiler.

Place the crackers on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cut portions of cheese and delicately place on top of each cracker.

Place under the broiler for approximately 4 minutes, until it just starts to melt and bubble.

Meanwhile, melt the chocolate over low heat or in the microwave, with 2-3 tbsp of water, for about 2 minutes. Check for consistency, and add more hot water to thin it and make it drizzlable! (I know it's not a word, but it really should be.)

As soon as the crackers are out of the oven, drizzle a bit of melted dark chocolate on top, and squeeze another cracker on top.  (Alternatively, you can drizzle honey on top, which you can also microwave for a minute to make it easier to drizzle).

Enjoy while it's hot and melty!

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