The Empty Nester Food Project

This past August my husband and I helped our youngest daughter move into her college dorm for her freshman year. While we did this, our older son moved by himself into his apartment for his sophomore year. And just like that we were officially “empty nesters”.

When we got home I left to the kennel immediately to pick up our two labs, Maya and Jessie. And thank goodness for them because they fill up an otherwise very empty house. The next day my husband and I were sitting by the pool, enjoying a drink, and perusing though our cookbooks.

Reading cookbooks from our 200+ collection has been a favorite pastime. It is one of the ways we discover new recipes to cook. Feeling a little sad about no longer having the children to cook for, my husband and I were wondering what we were going to do with regard to food. And that is when my husband proposed that we each pick a cookbook and cook our way through it as a fun positive distraction. I raised my glass to that!

So here is the project in a nutshell.

  1. We each pick a favorite cookbook. Curt’s Choice: “Dinner – Changing the Game” by Melissa Clark and Ariadne’s Choice: “The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook 2001-2014
  2. We are each responsible for selecting and cooking a new recipe for one of the weekend days.
  3. The weekend cooking yields leftovers for part of the week.
  4. I select and cook a new recipe for one day of the week.
  5. Fridays are now called “Tapas Fridays”. Tapas Fridays will not be restricted to Spanish tapas but to finger foods, snack foods, or party foods from around the world.
  6. We are using the app Evernote to journal the recipe selection, dates, and reviews.
  7. Lastly, I am using my other blog to share our food journal. The Kitchen Blackboard.

Project Update:

September marked the official beginning of our project. Our first Tapas Friday menu included a delicious puff pastry with roasted tomatoes. We accompanied the pastry with roasted parmesan-crusted zucchini rounds. Both the tomatoes and zucchini were from my husband’s garden. We accompanied our fun foods with wine and movies. The weekend’s meals are highlighted in my other blog:  The Kitchen Blackboard. We are very excited with our new project. It certainly has given us new culinary adventures to look forward to and redirected our emotions in a positive way.

Saturday Night’s Spatchcocked Chili-Rubbed Chicken with Avocado Buttermilk dressing, roasted Brussel sprouts and carrots.

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Our Culinary Thanksgiving

A kitchen blackboard shows our daily menus.  I like to add a quote at the bottom of the board.

Our kitchen blackboard shows our daily dinner menus.
I like to add a quote at the bottom of the board.

To say that our family loves food would be an understatement. So when a special occasion like Thanksgiving comes around it is a major project of entertainment and culinary delight for all. It all begins with the menu selection. Then come days of what I like to call hunting and gathering, a.k.a. food shopping. And finally the fun begins with the preparation. Both my husband and I enjoy cooking so we make an excellent team in the kitchen. Our children also participate in the cooking.

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Let the games begin!

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Maya Supervising

And after a full day of culinary orchestration comes the moment when all of the dishes are completed and arranged for serving. We gather around with anticipation and excitement waiting to serve and savor our delicious Thanksgiving meal.

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I hope you and your families enjoyed your Thanksgiving traditions and celebrations as much as we enjoyed ours. And of course, what makes these celebrations special is being able to share them with our loved ones. “Happy Thanksgiving”

I found a wonderful Oprah Winfrey quote that I would like to share with you:

Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.

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Then after all the fun comes even more fun, the cleanup!

Enjoying the Christmas Holiday Preparations

My Winter Wonderland Village

My Winter Wonderland Village

The most exciting part of the Christmas holiday for me is the preparation leading up to it. So I really try to enjoy and make the most of all the aspects of the preparation: decorating, sending out cards, the gift shopping and wrapping, making Christmas cookies, the food shopping and cooking, watching Christmas movies, sharing time with friends and family, and my absolute favorite, listening to Christmas music 24/7 beginning the day after Thanksgiving. However, the preparations actually begin somewhere around the middle of November when I set up two catering tables and the groundwork for my Winter Wonderland Village. This officially begins my Christmas Holiday preparations. I always feel like I’m so on top of things when I start the process. However, here we are with 4 days before Christmas Eve and I’m still running around busily finishing up items on my to-do list.

Setting up my winter village

Setting up my winter village

I will admit there are moments in the overall process in which I may become a little overwhelmed. But I remind myself of my mantra, “It will all get done”. And when people ask me how far along I am in my preparations, I always respond with an upbeat comment like “I’m almost there!” This response seems to surprise the person and then they enthusiastically offer a positive and congratulatory comment, which in turn inspires me to continue on.

Finishing Touches

Finishing Touches

I started collecting these Department 56 houses in the early 90’s. One Christmas, my husband gave me the train set as a gift. The backdrop is an oil painting that my father commissioned from a Colombian artist named Deisy Varela. She used a photo I had taken in the Rocky Mountains of Crested Butte, Colorado.

A View From the East

A View From the East

I love to turn off the room lights, turn on the village lights, and sit near the village. I can feel the magic of the season as I transport myself to my miniature winter wonderland. I can almost feel the winter chill in the air and the shimmering snowflakes falling. I can sense the tranquility of the snow-covered mountains with deer and moose roaming. I envision the people in the village’s main square caroling and shopping. The skaters and skiers provide entertainment. The train makes its rounds sounding its bell and whistle. The lights on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree twinkle. Then I look to the warm hue of the lit houses. I can almost hear the crackling fires roaring in the stone fireplaces and feel the coziness of a home in the winter. Oh, and if you look real closely you’ll see Santa making toys in his North Pole workshop.

A View from the West

A View from the West

So happy holiday preparations to all! Take time to enjoy the season. Take a break, eat a Christmas cookie, do an act of kindness, sit in front of your Christmas tree or village (I recommend squinting your eyes – it makes the lights shimmer), and turn up the volume of the holiday music! And remember if you are feeling a little overwhelmed repeat “It will all get done.” Besides you still have 4 more days to enjoy. Remember, this is the fun part!

Colombian Kheema Matar

 

Kheema Matar – Ground (Minced) Meat and Peas

A Story of Food, Friendship, and Finicky Eaters

When we lived in Westport, CT one of our dearest and closest friends were from India. We spent countless evenings talking, laughing, dancing, drinking, and mainly eating. Some gatherings were planned and others were very spontaneous. We would telephone each other and the next thing we knew we would have planned a feast of Indian, Colombian, and/or American foods with whatever ingredients were in our houses. The beauty of having friends from different cultures is that as we get to know each other we come to the realization that we have much more in common than we think. As my girlfriend and I cooked together we realized how similar Colombian and Indian food was. Sure, there were differences, but more often than not, she would identify a Colombian dish I’d make with an equivalent Indian dish and visa versa.

My children were finicky eaters when they were young. There was a New York Times Article in 2007 that explained how being a picky eater was a “genetic” trait. My children took after my husband who had also been a picky eater as a child and had outgrown this trait. At the time, my children’s main diet consisted of pasta with white sauce (no red sauce), chicken nuggets, and mac-n-cheese with a limited selection of vegetables. Being the foodies and cooks that both my husband and I are, we made countless attempts to try to get the children to sample new foods and to eat what we cooked for the adults at home but these efforts were in vain. Then one day my friend made Kheema matar, which is an Indian ground meat and pea dish. It is typically made with ground lamb but she had used ground beef that evening. She used beef because she knew I was not very fond of lamb. (who’s the finicky eater now!) The dish is beautifully seasoned with onion, garlic, ginger, hot pepper, cumin, ground coriander, cayenne pepper, and garam masala (more on this later).

Coriander, Cumin & Cayenne

To my surprise, my children ate the Kheema at her house that night. I don’t know why they ate it since it was so different to what they typically liked, was it that food always tastes better at other people’s houses, were they being polite and obedient and doing as they were told, or was it the magic combination of flavors that woke up their taste buds. Whatever it was, that Kheema dish was a turning point for our family. It marked the beginning of the changes in our home cooking and my children’s eating habits. I looked up my Madhur Jaffrey Indian cook book, made some adjustments to her Kheema Matar recipe, and made it a family staple. It opened up a whole new world of adventurous eating for my children and a gradual farewell to their culinary finickiness. It also made my life easier. I could now cook one meal for the whole family. And as many of you know, this is HUGE!! Sure, I initially hid some of the ingredients by blending or food processing them, something I no longer need to do. But even today, I have kept some of these techniques out of convenience. I prefer to food process a bunch of onion, garlic, and ginger than dice it.

We moved from Westport, CT to West Chester, PA and missed our friends terribly. We have visited each other over the years. We now live in London so it’s even harder to get together. The thing we missed the most was the spontaneity of our gatherings and the culinary experiences we shared.

So below I share my version of Kheema Matar. It is a recipe of delicious comfort food that brings back wonderful memories of our friends in Westport. It is a recipe of a meal that marked a pivotal moment for our family cooking and of the triumphant accomplishment of a mother who finally got her children to move beyond “white pasta”. Today, our 14 and 13-year-old children are foodies-in-training developing amazingly sophisticated palates. This makes my husband and I very happy because now the whole family can share and enjoy exciting culinary adventures together.

Kheema Matar by a Colombian

My cooking technique reflects more of an American/Colombian style. This dish is relatively mild but you can add more spice and more heat as you like. If you have never cooked “Indian”, this is a great introductory recipe.

Ingredients

Serves 6 – 8 (great as left overs)

  • ½ Large Onion (4 – 6 oz)
  • 7 – 8 garlic cloves
  • 1” – 1 ½“ of fresh ginger, peeled cut  into 4 pieces
  • ½  to 1 hot green or red pepper
  • 2 oz. of water
  • 2 Tbs Canola Oil
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • ⅛ to ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
  • 4 oz. of water
  • 2 lbs of Ground Meat (you can mix ground beef with ground chicken or turkey)
  • 10 oz. frozen peas defrosted ( I like to be generous with the peas)
  • ½ cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1 – 2 lemons juiced (or limes if that is all you have)

Method 

  • Begin by making a paste with the first five ingredients.

Make a Paste with:
Onion, Garlic, Ginger, Hot Red Pepper, and Water

  • Then heat the oil, and stir fry the paste for 2 – 3 minutes.
  • Add the ground coriander, cumin, cayenne pepper, and sauté for 1 -2 minutes.
  • Add the additional 4 oz. of water and the ground meat.  Stir, bring to a boil, lower the temperature, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.

The Paste with Ground Meat

  • Add the remaining ingredients, stir, and simmer for 10 more minutes.

Add peas, cilantro, garam masala, and salt.

Add the Lemon Juice

  • Adjust salt if needed.
  • Serve with white or Basmati rice.

Extra Tips

GingerI like to buy fresh ginger. With the skin on I cut the ginger into 1 ½ “ pieces. I wrap the individual pieces in plastic wrap, I place the pieces in a small freezer plastic bag and freeze them. When I am ready to use, I pull out however many pieces I need, I defrost them for a couple of minutes, peel, and prepare as needed. I always have fresh ginger available for use.

Cilantro: I buy a fresh bouquet of cilantro. I place it in a container with water as soon as I get home. I store it in the refrigerator. It keeps for up to two weeks. Remember to check the water level in the container.

SeasoningsYou should be able to find ground cumin, cayenne pepper, and ground coriander at a regular food store. However, garam masala is a special indian blend of spices that you may only find in an Indian store or specialty store. There are many types of garam masalas. A typical garam masala is a blend of spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cumin seeds, cloves, peppercorns, and nutmeg.  If you live in a big city you’ll have ample access to these more exotic ingredients. But do not fret, if you live in the US you can order spices from Penzey’s online.  http://www.penzeys.com/

RiceWe eat a lot of rice in our home. I love to use a rice cooker because I get perfect rice each time. I put the rice in the pot, add water, and salt and program the cooker for when I need my rice.

About picky eaters being a genetic trait:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/10/dining/10pick.html?pagewanted=all