Archive for September, 2013

Greek Mac and Cheese

September 23, 2013

Five years ago this month, I went to the first BlogHer Food in San Francisco.  It was an amazing experience.  I didn’t really learn anything about blogging, but I finally got to meet so many people whose blogs I read then (and still read now) and people I knew only from Twitter.  A group of us bonded quickly and many of those people are now friends who I treasure.  One of those people is Allison, who used to write the blog Local Lemons and now is the co-owner of Homeroom in Oakland.

Here is a little story.  Four years ago, while still living in Seattle, Randy and I stole away to San Francisco for a weekend away from our kids.  He had to work one of the days and Allison, one of my favorite blogging friends, met me at the Ferry Building for a day of exploring.  She lives in Oakland, a place that, at the time, I knew next to nothing about.  I wasn’t even quite sure where it was.  Maybe kind of “over there”.  Bay Bridge?  Golden Gate Bridge?  Not sure.  We shared an amazing day of wandering.  We had terrific pizza and shared a bottle of wine at Delfina and I bought my copy of Plenty, then only available in the British version and costing $65, at Omnivore Books.  Along the way, Allison mentioned to me that might be opening a restaurant.  She went on to tell me the incredible story of meeting a like minded person while waiting for a table in a coffee shop, and they were thinking of doing a restaurant serving mac and cheese.  I listened to and supported her.  And in my head I kept thinking, “There are restaurants in Oakland?”

I often think of that day with Allison for many reasons.  One is that she did open that restaurant and they have been incredibly successful from day one.  Another is that Allison is still a close friend of mine and now that we live close to one another, we love spending time with her, her awesome husband Alejandro and their beautiful baby Nico.  And another is how amazing it is to me that I had no perception of Oakland, other than it was “over there”, and now I live here.  And yes, there are lots of restaurants in Oakland!

Recently, Allison and her partner Erin came out with a cookbook and I was lucky enough to get a review copy.  We have enjoyed eating at the restaurant many times and have been to parties where their stellar mac and cheese was on the menu.  I wondered how the restaurant recipes would translate to the home cook.  I am here to tell you this is a winner of a book.  It totally captures the sweet spirit of the restaurant and all the favorite dishes, mac and cheese and sides alike, are in there.  You get a feeling for what it is like to eat at Homeroom and you also get to read about their unlikely partnership.  I never really thought that I had passionate feelings about whether mac and cheese should be served creamy from the pot, or topped with crunchy breadcrumbs from the oven, but in fact I do have extremely strong feelings about this important distinction.  (The latter.  And the book allows you to make most of the macs both ways.)  I made two of the mac and cheese recipes and they were, dare I say it?, better than the restaurant.  Mac and cheese is special, of course.  It is comfort food at its highest level.  Some people would say that there is no reason to get fancy.  That plain ol’ regular mac and cheese is perfect.  I challenge those people to make the Macximus.

This is deliciousness comes from the “International Relations” chapter of the book where you will find other stunners like Croque Madame Mac and Shepherd’s Mac.  In this one, we have spinach, artichoke hearts, and three cheeses (feta! Pecorino! Jack!) that go so well together that the end result might stun you a bit.  I love mac and cheese as much as the next person but sometimes I find it can get a bit monotonous.  All that creaminess in one dish and my palate gets kind of tired.  This dish gave my taste buds something else to think about with the added vegetables and the tangyness of the cheese.  This is not to say that the Basic Baked Mac and Cheese, which I made for, ahem, the kids, was not amazing.  I may have dipped my fork into that dish a time or two.  Or three.

(The anything-but-basic version.)

Two Years Ago:  Yogurt and Oregano Pesto Soup, Chocolate Dipped Ice Cream Sandwiches, Corn with Tons of Herbs, Heirloom Tomato Tart
Three Years Ago:  Savory Scones, Stuffed Summer Squash with Goat Cheese and Mint, Tomato, Semolina, and Cilantro Soup, Double Layer Chocolate Cake
Four Years Ago:  Mint Filled Brownie Cupcakes, Corn and Zucchini Timbale, Nectarine and Mascarpone Tart, Chickpeas and Chard with Cilantro and Cumin, Nutella Pound Cake,
Five Years Ago:  Summer Rolls (I make these all the time), Chocolate Peanut Toffee (ditto), Pomodori Al Forno (double ditto), Pissaladière

Macximus
Adapted from The Mac and Cheese Cookbook
Serves 6-8

I made a couple of small changes.  I added twice the amount of spinach in the original recipe, more shallots, and more artichoke hearts.  I also quartered those hearts.  The recipe says this serves 4 but we got almost 8 servings out of it.  It is rich!

½ pound dried elbow pasta
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
½ cup grated Jack cheese
½ cup grated Pecorino cheese
2 small shallots, minced
1 cup thawed frozen chopped spinach, thoroughly drained
¾ cup canned artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
2 cups Mac Sauce (recipe follows)
½ cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)

1.  Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until a little less than al dente.  Drain, rinse with cold water, and drain the pasta again.

2.  Preheat the oven to 400ºF.  Add the feta, Jack, Pecorino, shallots, spinach, artichokes, and sauce to a large, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat.  Stir until the cheeses begin to melt, about 4 minutes (the feta will not melt, so you are just looking for the Pecorino and Jack to melt and the mixture to get hot).

3.  Slowly add the cooked pasta and stir until hot.  Pour into a 12-inch baking dish and top with the panko.  Bake until bubbly, 10 to 15 minutes.

4.  Spoon into bowls and serve hot.

Mac Sauce
Makes 3 cups

Note that this recipe makes 3 cups of sauce but you only need 2 for the Macximus recipe.  Allison and Erin suggest using the leftover cup to make biscuits and gravy or chicken à la king.

3 cups whole milk
½ cup unsalted butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. table salt

1.  Heat the milk in a pot over medium heat until it just starts to bubble, but is not boiling, 3 to 4 minutes.  Remove from the heat.

2.  Heat the butter over medium heat in a separate, heavy-bottomed pot.  When the butter has just melted, add the flour and whisk constantly until the mixture turns light brown, about 3 minutes.  Remove from the heat.

3.  Slowly pour the warm milk, about 1 cup at a time, into the butter-flour mixture, whisking constantly.  It will get very thick when you first add the milk, and thinner as you slowly pour in the entire three cups.  This is normal.

4.  Once all the milk has been added, set the pot back over medium-high heat, and continue to whisk constantly.  In the next 2 to 3 minutes the sauce should come together and become silky and thick.  Dip a metal spoon int the sauce – if the sauce coats the spoon and doesn’t slide off like milk, you’ll know the sauce is ready.  You should be able to run your finger along the spoon and have the impression remain.  Add the salt.

5.  The Mac Sauce is ready to use immediately and does not need to cool.  Store in the fridge for a day or two if you want to make it ahead of time – it will get a lot thicker when you put it in the fridge, so it may need a little milk to thin it out a bit when it comes time to melt in the cheese.  Try melting the cheese into the sauce first, and if it is too thick then add milk as needed.



Eight and Six and Family Vacation

September 17, 2013

(I know I’ve been gone a while.  Apologies.  I’ve got a long post below for you to read.  I quickly want to announce that I have new classes listed on my the site – go to the “classes” tab or just click here.  Some really good things coming your way!)

Three years ago, I wrote a post called Five and Three in an effort to try and capture the sweetness of my children.  Also to tell the story of why I have two of them.  The year after that, I wrote a post called First Grade and Pre-K.  Last year, I intended to write something called Seven and Five or Second Grade and Kindergarten, but I just never did.  I now feel this call to write about them.  I know I always do around their birthdays and I know I’ve written quite a bit about Graham, and I know they appear frequently on my Slice of Life posts.  I guess I feel this sweet sweet age that they are now, Eight and Six – or really Eight-and-Three-Quarters and Six-and-a-Half – is fleeting.  I watch them grow and mature practically before my eyes.  These kids (kids!) are really mine?  Where did the babies go?

(First Slurpees!)

We’ve been living in Oakland for a year now (!) and my boys have just started their second year at our sweet school – third and first grades.  They have adjusted to our new life amazingly well.  They love the sunshine and have made some nice friends.  Our community is so friendly and we love being able to just drive home from somewhere and pull over to buy lemonade from a schoolmate’s stand.  They spent the summer in camps and swimming at the community pool.  They have gone from being sort of confident in the water to really being able to swim in the space of the summer.  We traveled a bit, to Delaware with Randy’s family and to Seattle to visit mine (more on that in a minute).  On both of those trips they were terrific travelers.  We had long delays and long car rides and they took it all in stride.  I can put them in a strange bed and they will just pass out without anxiety or nightmares.

(First day of school.)

How to describe who these boys are right now?  I think six and eight is a bit magical.  People often smile at me when I walk down the street with them.  I know they are cute boys but I also think this age exudes sweetness and yet they are far from babies.  They are old enough to be a bit independent but young enough to still need their mommy.  And they still call me mommy.  They remember (most of the time) to pull their lunch boxes (Spider Man and Batman) out of their backpacks (ditto), but I still need to pack those lunch boxes.  They listen to me when I tell them they don’t get a treat if they don’t finish their fruit.  They don’t question my rules.  They are quick to say, “Sorry Mommy” if they cross a line.  They play well together, usually with the millions of Legos we seem to have acquired.  Sometimes the games involve multiple sheets of paper taped together with masking tape and require pens to be scattered across the living room floor.  Their imaginations inspire and amaze me.  I love hearing them using pretend voices.  I giggle when they play “restaurant”.

I love to kiss their necks in the morning just after they have woken up, their skin so warm and smelling so sweet.  They are still very innocent in the ways of the world and very trusting.  Also so curious.  Spencer asks me about 60 questions a day ranging from the interesting to the hilarious.  (A recent favorite – If you were having a snowball fight and one of the snowballs got hit by lightening, what would happen?)  If I answer that I don’t know, he will suggest we ask Daddy or Boppa – my dad.

With a new school year just beginning, we have high hopes for the boys.  Spencer had a magical kindergarten year – a kind teacher, nice kids, involved parents and real! big boy! school!  He was so ready.  He thrived in his classroom, got invited to all the birthday parties, and had lots of play dates.  I called him the mayor of his classroom.  He got lucky again with another nice teacher and many of the same sweet children.  I have already gotten five emails saying he has had Outstanding Behavior from his teacher so it looks like we are off to a good start.

Second grade was a tough year for Graham.  Being the new kid and being a bit different turned out to be a bad combination at that age.  Throw in a few really mean boys and a teacher who yelled a lot and it is astonishing to me that he wanted to go to school at all.  But want he did and he got three good report cards with the surprise that he is advanced in math and the non-surprise that he excels in listening, being a team player, and being kind to his classmates.  Thankfully, the mean boys were split up this year and Graham has a much nicer teacher who seems to be really on the ball and to already “get” him.  With the help of an attorney, we have been pushing the school district to provide more help for him in the areas where he needs it and hopefully it will all be in place soon.  We just never stop fighting for this boy.

A little more about our trip to Seattle.  It was actually supposed to be trip to Sun Valley to celebrate my dad’s 70th birthday.  My whole family was set to meet up and stay in my parents’ time share condo but the terrible fires in Idaho kept us from doing so.  We were literally on the road, car packed up, friends in place to house- sit in Oakland, when my dad called and said the condo building was being evacuated.  I turned to Randy and asked, “Should we just go to Seattle?” and he said, “Sure!”  The boys were so ready for a road trip and so ready to see their cousins and to turn around just seemed sad.  So we tacked on an additional 400 miles to our trip and headed north and west.

Probably the most special part of the trip is that we got a chance to go to Lopez Island.  I was actually feeling a little stressed that this was going to be the first summer in 32 summers! that I wouldn’t spend a night on that island.  But with some frantic phone calls to find space to accommodate all of us, we squeezed in two nights there.  We got to visit Holly B’s and all of our favorite spots on the island, including the sweet church where we got married.  We had been planning to have a photographer take family shots in Sun Valley and Randy made some calls and somehow found us a wonderful photographer on Lopez to do the same.  We are all thrilled with the pictures he took and as soon as I can figure out how to share them, I will.  We got a picture at the more or less exact spot where we got engaged.

The sweet church.

The most beautiful beach in the world.

Madrona trees are my favorite.  They only grow in Northwest.

My dad, overwhelmed by choices at Holly B’s.

My parents.

My youngest brother Michael and Graham.  They look alike, don’t you think?

I made a decision that on road trips, long or short, we do them with no screens.  I am not *that* mom.  I let my kids watch tv and they play with our iPads after dinner.  But here is the thing.  When I was a kid, we drove to Sun Valley every winter and summer and I remember being bored but I also remember listening to my Walkman, looking out the window, napping, snacking, and just generally spacing out.  I don’t think kids get a lot of time to space out these days and I wanted to give them that chance.

As it turns out, they were busy on this trip.  The good kind of busy.  This was one of the keys.  I got lots of dot-to-dot books, coloring books, sticker books, comic books -  most of which we picked out together – and plenty of pens.  This contraption sat between them throughout the ride and they could dip into it whenever they wanted.  They also got plenty of snacks in their very own bin and they did not have to ask me whenever they wanted one.  The biggest time passer was listening to Harry Potter on CD.  Randy had read them the first one and we listened to the second one and all of us loved it.  The above photo of Graham is how he looked when we listened to it.  Just Zen.  It was a great trip.

Finally, randomly, this is a shot of us going out to celebrate our 11th anniversary.  That dress is my wedding dress.  Randy and I both been married before and had both had big weddings.  We decided to do something much smaller and more simple and I decided to wear a dress I liked, not a wedding dress.  It turned out that I fell in love with a white dress and I have worn it every anniversary since (except the pregnant and nursing years).  It doesn’t fit quite the same but it still fits!  Randy is wearing his wedding finery too.