What, No Light Salad Dressing?

When my husband and I moved to Brussels in 1997 many things changed in our lives. There were the obvious things like switching countries, homes, job, leaving career (for me), having babies overseas, making new friends and so forth and so on.

 

The Early Days in Brussels

The Early Days in Brussels – 1998

One of the most impactful changes for us was how we viewed food and the preparation of food. Before moving to Europe, my husband and I prided ourselves in being foodies and good cooks. We enjoyed cooking and had even gone to a weeklong cooking program in Tuscany in 1996. It was in the Florence food markets that we got an appreciation for the “farm to table” concept and for learning what it was to eat foods that were in season. However, back in the states because of our busy work schedules we relied more on processed foods. During the weekdays there were many Marie Callender potpies, Prego spaghetti sauce, and Hamburger Helper. It was only on the weekends that my husband and I had the time to prepare food from scratch. We loved cooking for family and friends.

The farm to table concept in the US in the mid-nineties was more regional and not as commonly accepted as it is today. Little did we know that living in Europe would explode our palates and enlighten our attitudes about food and its preparation.

We did not set out to be food enlightened. It just happened. We found some very different cultural practices in Brussels. For starters, all stores were closed on Sunday, even food stores. Belgians spent Sundays at home with their families and not at a mall.  During the weekdays food stores closed at 6 p.m. At first we felt this was such an inconvenience but we quickly adjusted. We found ourselves cooking even more and spending time at home on the weekends. Belgium is a foodie country where people enjoy their food, wine, and beer. We had access to an amazing array of farmer’s markets. Any bread you bought was delicious freshly baked bread. There was no such thing as processed Wonder Bread or light bread. In time my husband and I gave up drinking diet sodas which had been a staple in our US diets. As any expat will tell you, you need to adjust to the local offerings. We found ourselves trying new foods. We also did a lot of traveling throughout Europe exposing us to an even greater variety of food. In 2001 both my husband and I attended The Cordon Bleu Cooking school in London. He did a cooking program and I did a pâtisserie course thus furthering our passion for cooking.

 

Two babies and Two Yellow Labs

Two babies and Two Yellow Labs

I was a successful graduate of Weight Watchers 35 years ago and have maintained my weight to this date. Before moving to Belgium, I had relied heavily on low-calorie and low-fat processed foods. I was especially dependent on light dressings. When I showed up at the Belgian supermarket I looked for the dressing section only to discover they had ONE kind. It was mustard vinaigrette and it was not even a low-fat version. Oh my, what is a girl to do!! For the first year of living in Belgium, anyone who visited us from the United States was instructed to bring light dressings and Pop-Tarts. OK, I must confess, I still like Pop-Tarts. I did try the local Belgian dressing but it was boring and I was still hung up on the calorie count. Then one day I decided to make my own vinaigrette from scratch. Sure, it was a full calorie dressing, but it was devoid of all the artificial stuff you find in a processed bottle of salad dressing and tasted much better. Gone from my salad dressing were all those unknown food additives. By 1999 I started making my own salad dressings and have never looked back. And guess what? I did not gain weight! My husband and I found ourselves making other things from scratch, like the cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving dinner because you could not find Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. We started reading labels carefully, mainly because they were in Flemish and we needed to translate them to make sure we knew what we were buying. In general, we became more mindful of our food quality and its preparation.

My husband making fresh pasta with our son.

My husband making fresh pasta with our son.

In Brussels, I had become a full-time parent, which allowed me to cook more during the weekdays. However, the reality was that with 2 small babies 18 months apart, 2 labs, and a husband who traveled frequently, I felt somewhat overwhelmed and was not as creative with cooking as I had hoped to be. Furthermore our children were picky eaters and I found myself cooking two meals every night, one for the children and one for the adults. Expeditious cooking was the name of the game. In some ways I fell into the trap of feeding my children what they preferred because it was easier: Kraft macaroni-n-cheese, white sauce pasta, and frozen chicken nuggets. I continued experimenting with food and over time my children’s palates evolved. It took until 2007, when the children were 10 and 9, for me to finally be able to prepare one meal for the whole family. In general as a family we started  preparing more food from scratch.

What started out as the need to make certain foods from scratch because they were not available turned into making food from scratch because it was the healthiest and most delicious way to prepare it. I still have a little voice in my head that keeps me on track with my weight. My husband and I prepare food without cutting corners. We may occasionally cut back a little on the butter and cream but we try to stay true to the recipes. We do balance our meals and eat in moderation (well except for Thanksgiving). I love my chocolate cakes as you will read in the link below. We know that we have to exercise to stay in shape. In many ways, exercising is our motivation to continue cooking and enjoying delicious food.

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My homemade dressing

When you make homemade dressing the key is to reach emulsification. Emulsification is when the oil and the vinegar blend into one liquid. There are two ways to achieve emulsification. One is to use the correct ratios between oil and vinegar. Typically, the ratio is 1 part vinegar or other acid such as lemon to 3 parts oil. A second way to enhance emulsification is to use an emulsifying agent such as mustard. There a hundreds of recipes on-line but below I give you my guidelines for my mustard vinaigrette. Buy yourself a salad dressing container that will allow you to blend the ingredients well and store the remaining dressing in the refrigerator.

Classic mustard vinaigrette:

  • 1 cup canola oil
  • cup red wine vinegar
  • About a tsp. of Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground Black Pepper: several turns on the grinder
  • 1 Tbs. of dried Herbes de Provence
  • 1 Tbs. of honey (the honey softens the flavor of the vinegar)
  • 1 Tbs. of Dijon Mustard

Variations on this recipe: You can use olive oil or grape seed oil. When I use olive oil I like to use balsamic vinegar. You can also add freshly cut herbs or shallots. Have fun with it and try different ingredients.

Why I like to Run: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2016/10/25/why-i-like-to-run/

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