One kid's adventures in gastronomy

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Marshmallows and Hot Cocoa

Now that I’ve completely forgotten what it’s like to ever be warm while outdoors, Mama decided to bring back a little bit of summer in the form of marshmallows. She’s made these many times before, but not with me. And because it’s so cold outside, they make the perfect accompaniment to hot chocolate or hot cocoa.

And what’s the difference between these two chocolaty libations?

Hot cocoa is made with unsweetened cocoa powder mixed with milk and some sort of sweetener. The beauty of it—and why Mama tends to make it for me—is that you can control the amount of sugar. She brings the milk to a simmer, then whisks in the cocoa powder, brown sugar, and a splash of vanilla. She tastes it and adjusts the flavor to her liking. If you need a formula, however, The Joy of Cooking pairs 1 Tbsp cocoa with 1 tsp sugar and ¾ cup milk.

Hot chocolate, as its name implies, is melted chocolate, mixed with a bit of hot milk. It’s much richer and silkier than hot cocoa. You can add more sugar or other flavorings to it, but that’s basically all there is to it. When Mama makes it, she brings milk to a simmer and tosses in a combination of finely chopped dark and milk chocolates and whisks it until the chocolate melts. Then she adds a splash of vanilla, and she’s done. This is another one of those recipes that you throw together by taste, and if all you have on hand is chocolate chips, by all means, they’ll work, too.

I'm snacking on marshmallows while sipping my "warm cocoa."

I’m snacking on marshmallows while sipping my “warm cocoa.”

As for the marshmallows, they take a little longer than either hot chocolate or hot cocoa to make. There are many recipes for marshmallows, and the one Mama uses starts with gelatin. We’ve used this before in our panna cottas.

'mallow 'stache

‘mallow ‘stache

While the gelatin is blooming in the bowl of the stand mixer, Mama heats up a mixture of water, sugar, and something called invert sugar, which she says is similar to light corn syrup. It takes a long time for that mixture to get to 240°F, or “soft ball” stage, which Mama says is a candy-making term for when a bit of melted sugar turns into a soft gel-like ball when dropped into water.

The red line of the thermometer is really close to "soft ball." It takes a while to get there, but once it's close, you have to be ready for it!

The red line of the thermometer is really close to “soft ball.” It takes a while to get there, but once it’s close, you have to be ready for it!

What’s left is mixing the hot syrup into the gelatin. It takes about 15 minutes, which is 15 minutes too many!

Once the mallow is properly whipped, all that’s left to do is spread it in a pan to set.

Marshmallow is really sticky. I had to work hard to get it off this spatula.

Marshmallow is really sticky. I had to work hard to get it off this spatula.

We of course had marshmallows in our hot cocoa, but even better: Mama made graham crackers over the weekend, so we had s’mores after all. Toasted marshmallows are the best!

You can't see it, but there's melted chocolate on that graham cracker.

You can’t see it, but there’s melted chocolate on that graham cracker.

Love, Jude

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Happy Pi Day!

I’m told this post is supposed to be punny, but as I don’t know what that word means, I can’t comment on it. I’ll just tell you that today, March 14, or 3/14, or 3.14 (depending on how you write your dates) is “pi” day. And because my mathematical zenith  rests at double-digit counting and basic addition, my thoughts naturally turn to pie. Pie, pie, pie.

Mama intended on showing me a new kind of pie today, something called a quiche. Let’s just say I’m still waiting. In the meantime, I’m taking a look back at a few of the pies we have done: cherry pie, blueberry pie, mixed berry pieapple pie, and even tomato pie and pot pies. (I won’t mention the absurd thing she called a pie earlier in the week.)

If you make a pie today in celebration of Pi Day, let us know! What’s your favorite?

Love, Jude

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Chilly? Make Chili!

From what I can tell, I am too young to become embroiled in chili-making madness. Meaty or vegetarian, spicy or tame, saucy or dry? Any way you serve it, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to eat it. I was all about participating in the cooking of it—can openers are fascinating! But have you seen what chili looks like when it comes together? No thank you. I ate 1 bean so I could be excused from the table, and that’s the last I want to think about it.

Love, Jude

Mama’s Vegetarian Chili

Olive oil
½ sweet onion, chopped (if your onion is smallish, use the whole thing)
1 or 2 colorful bell peppers, chopped
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ pounds sliced mushrooms (variety of choice)
1 quart home-canned tomatoes or 1 can (28 oz) fire-roasted diced tomatoes, both with juice (regular diced tomatoes work too)*
2 cans (15 oz) chili beans or red kidney beans, rinsed and drained*
1 can (15 oz) lentils, rinsed and drained
Chili powder
Salt and pepper

In a large pot, pour a generous swirl of olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the peppers, if you have them (Mama forgot them.), and cook another 5 minutes. Add the garlic and stir for another minute or so. Add the mushrooms and allow to cook until very soft and the moisture they let off is nearly evaporated, say 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes. Once it starts bubbling, reduce the heat a smidge and allow to simmer. Stir in the beans and lentils, then add the spices to taste.

You don’t need the oregano if you don’t like it, and you can certainly use fresh, if you have it. Toss in a bay leaf if you’ve got it, or chili pepper flakes or thyme. Chili powder and cumin are pretty sure bets, though, as are s&p. Simmer until you’re ready to eat it. If you’re looking for a long simmer, then hold off on adding the lentils until you’re almost ready to eat. They just need to be warmed through.

Serve with pasta, mac-n-cheese, or rice; sour cream; chives; shredded Cheddar, cornbread… you get the idea. You can also serve with meat, as Mama did for Papa and me. She used a grill pan and cooked up some country ribs while the chili simmered. (Now those were good.)

Makes about 3 quarts, which freeze well

Note: If using home-canned tomatoes that are whole, chop them, reserving their juice, or simply reach into the pot once you add them and gently squish them. Be prepared for some splatter, though. Look for beans in BPA-free cans (or cook your own from scratch).

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Just don’t call them “arancini”

…because then I will not want to eat them. Now, “rice balls,” on the other hand, is so much more appealing. After all, we enjoy the idea of a food before the first bite ever reaches our mouths. Or so I’m told.

Take the little rice ball, for example. What 3-year-old worth his salt wouldn’t want to make one of those? As the name implies, arancini (Italian for “little oranges”) are little balls of rice that are breaded then fried or baked. (Often they’re made with saffron, and that, coupled with their orangish hue once breaded & fried, lends them their name.)

We happened to have leftover squash risotto, and Mama thought I might enjoy making the little balls with her. First, we set up our breading station, which includes a dish of flour, a beaten egg, and a dish of bread crumbs. I crack all the eggs in this house now.

"I didn't even break the yolk."

“I didn’t even break the yolk.”

The flour helps the egg stick to the rice ball, and the egg helps the bread crumbs stay put.

The flour helps the egg stick to the rice ball, and the egg helps the bread crumbs stay put.

And I also insist on beating the egg with a fork.

I took this photo myself.

I took this picture myself.

After this, I lost interest. I didn’t want to messy my hands in the cold risotto. Instead of helping, I raided the fridge.

Papa bough contraband strawberries out of season, much to my delight!

Papa bought contraband strawberries out of season, much to my delight!

Mama said we have to get all the balls formed before we begin the breading process, because we’re just going to get our fingers even messier once that starts.

Now we're set to start covering up those naked little rice balls with crunchy bread crumbs.

Now we’re set to start covering up those naked little rice balls with crispy bread crumbs.

To bread a ball, gently roll it in the flour, then roll it in the egg (allowing excess to drip off), then roll it in the bread crumbs. Set aside. (You don’t want to start putting them in the hot oil as you make them because they’ll cook unevenly.) Once Mama set the frying pan of oil over medium heat, she shooed me from the kitchen. But I could hear those rice balls sizzling, and the house smelled good.

Incidentally, that little scarecrow on the plate is me!

That’s a side of balsamic-roasted asparagus and portabella mushrooms.

I was eager to try one of those little guys. I really was. But to Mama’s dismay, I did not love them. I took my “no thank you” bite, said, “They are not bad,” and passed on any more. They had a nice crunch with a warm, soft center, but what can I say? I told Mama to stop calling them arancini.

Love, Jude

Arancini (“Rice Balls”)
(You totally don’t need a recipe for this, but here’s something to get you started.)

Cold risotto (plain or with “stuff” in it; we had about 1 or 2 servings left over)
2 eggs, divided (1 optional)
Bread crumbs (we tend to use panko, but use whatever you have on hand)
Canola or olive oil

Make the arancini whatever size you like, from Ping-Pong to a bit larger than golf ball size. Press the mixture into your palms, and gently form a ball. (If you’re finding that your mixture isn’t holding together well enough, lightly beat an egg and thoroughly mix it in to the rice, then try again.) Set balls aside.

Prepare 3 bowls or shallow dishes for a breading station: 1 with flour, 1 with a lightly beaten egg, and 1 with bread crumbs. Season each with salt and pepper.

Roll a ball completely in the flour, then the egg (allowing excess to drip off), then the bread crumbs. Set aside and repeat until all balls are crumbed.

Heat enough oil to cover the bottom of a large skillet over medium heat. Toss a few flecks of flour into it—if they sizzle, it’s ready. Carefully add the arancini. Do not overcrowd. (Work in batches, if necessary.) Fry until golden, then turn until golden on all sides (just a couple minutes). If they’re getting overly dark, lower the heat slightly. Remove to a plate lined with paper towel. They’re hot, so be careful!

Note: Mama says some people press a tiny bit of filling inside the little ball, whether that’s ham or cooked sausage or chopped mushrooms. Experiment and have fun. (On this Mardi Gras Tuesday, maybe you can make a play on king cake and hide a petite plastic baby in one. That would be so silly!)

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Reflections on year 2

So here I am, wrapping the second year of writing my blog. What do you think of that?

If I’m being honest with myself, I would have to say that I’ve enjoyed experiencing all the different foods I get to eat (or push around my plate) each and every day. And though I may be a fickle fellow, liking something one day but not the next, I certainly have my fair share of unusual favorites: grilled asparagus, pan-seared scallops, eggs with runny yolks…

The best part is that I often want to help in the kitchen. It doesn’t matter what mama is making, but I’ll drag over a chair and say, “I want to help!” Mama once came upon me in the kitchen, rooting through the cupboards and saying, “what can I make?” And that, right there, makes it all worth it.

Thank you for being part of this journey. Here’s to another year!
Love, Jude

We didn't have any jam  or jelly for my sandwich, so Mama and I made blueberry jam!

We didn’t have any jam or jelly for my sandwich, so Mama and I made a quick blueberry jam!

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Sloppy Judes

Mama surprised Papa with a cow share. If, like me, you had an image of a group of cows sharing their toys with one another, allow me to clarify: Mama and a group of other people paid for a pasture-raised, organically fed cow (apparently named Charlie), whose meat they then divided amongst themselves.

I’m still confused, as I thought “hamburger” came from chickens.

At any rate, she made what she called “Sloppy Judes,” loosely based on a Sloppy Joes recipe she found online.  She thought I would enjoy eating these because they have my name in them and because I could get all sloppy without fallout.

Meat mixture simmering in one skillet, buns toasting in another.

Meat mixture simmering in one skillet, buns toasting in another.

Not so. I wanted to eat the bun—and not any part that touched the meat mixture, a little of which I ate with a fork.

I'm debating whether I should try this as a sandwich.

I’m debating whether I should try this as a sandwich. I think not.

Even though I ate some of it, it was begrudgingly, so I’m going to give this dinner a “miss.” I just didn’t like the chopped up pepper and onions mixed in with the soft meat, and I think ketchup should be saved for hot dogs. But I like meat very much, so Papa and I are looking forward to seeing what else Charlie will provide for us.

Love, Jude


Breakfast in Bed

Some folks call this “toad in a hole.” Others, like my GeeGee, call it a “bird’s nest.” Either way, I think it’s a funny name for “egg in toast.” Mama keeps my yolk a little runny, so it perfectly soaks into the surrounding toast. Complete with a smoothie and some sausage, this was a terrific way to start the day.

Even better, Mama served it to me in bed. But just so you know, if you give a kid breakfast in bed, he’s going to ask for it the next day. And the day after that.

I was able to keep watching a show on the iPad AND eat my breakfast. Win-win.

I was able to keep watching a show on the iPad AND eat my breakfast. Win-win.

Love, Jude

Toad in a Hole/Bird’s Nest

Slices of bread
1 egg per slice of bread
Butter, room temperature
Salt and pepper

Tear out a piece of bread from the center of the slice. (The larger the hole, the more the egg will spread.) Butter the bread, on both sides if desired. Heat a skillet over medium heat. (Mama used a nonstick, just because.) When hot, lay the bread in the skillet, butter-side down, and then crack an egg into the center hole. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, or other seasonings, if desired.

The eggs fit nicely in their little bread nests.

The eggs fit nicely in their little bread nests.

Cook until egg is of desired doneness—break the yolk if you like yours over hard, or “stepped on,” as Mama calls it. Carefully turn over and  finish cooking on the other side. Enjoy!

The buttery bread gets good and toasty.

The buttery bread gets good and toasty.

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Panna cotta? Why notta?

If you looked in our fridge, you’d see sundry dairy products: milk for me and Papa, milk for Mama, milk for mama’s coffee, buttermilk for pancakes… Clearly, we have a yen for the stuff. So when Mama decided to show me how to turn the milk into something you can eat with a spoon, I was intrigued.

Panna cotta, in its simplest explanation, is eggless Italian custard. It’s cream that’s been cooked with a smidge of sugar, combined with gelatin, and allowed to set. What could be simpler? And the “formula” is easy enough for a kid like me to remember:

3 cups liquid to 1 package gelatin

That’s it! Mama chooses to divide the liquid equally between heavy cream and half-and-half. She could divvy it up differently or use regular milk, goat’s milk, or even nondairy creamer. She noted that non-milks such as coconut milk and almond milk don’t have enough fat in them to properly set without further tweaks to the recipe. They’ll come together, but they won’t have the proper texture, which Mama says should be solid enough to sit on a spoon but soft enough to wobble like the backs of her arms when she waves.

Panna cotta, two ways

Panna cotta, two ways

Mama says there’s little reason to fear gelatin (unless you’re talking about those neon-hued sugar-laden varieties or this; then be afraid, be very afraid). While it’s true that gelatin is an animal product, it’s highly processed. So, much like the wasp in a fig, it’s not like you’re eating an actual bone. There are more natural varieties (such as Jensen’s) available, and a vegetarian alternative is agar agar, which is fun to say. Gelatin also comes in sheets, but we’re sticking with the powdered kind. Either variety basically has an indefinite shelf-life, so scrounge in your cupboards for a box tucked away in the back.

Working with gelatin requires a two-step process. First it needs to be bloomed, which has nothing to do with James Joyce and everything to do with coating it with cool liquid.

It starts to get all wrinkly immediately.

It starts to form a skin and get all wrinkly immediately.

Then it needs to be melted by either heating it over a low heat or combining it with a hot (not boiling) liquid. Using a hot liquid to bloom gelatin will impede the blooming process, whereas boiling the gelatin at any point will deactivate its gelling properties. (Though isn’t it interesting that you could melt a batch of finished gelatin and reset it several times?)

Because this recipe involves a lot of hot liquid, Mama did most of the work. She made it just before she cooked dinner (chicken piccata, steamed green beans with toasted almonds, and mushroom rice pilaf), and by the time we cleaned up the dinner mess, it was ready. I love how it jiggles but even more, I love how velvety this is. It’s creamy and subtly sweet. What’s more, it looks fancypants but isn’t.

I especially liked going "Boing! Boing!" on top of the panna cotta.

I especially liked going “Boing! Boing!” on top of the panna cotta.

Love, Jude

Basic Panna Cotta

1 ½ cups heavy cream
1 ½ cups half-and-half, divided
¼ cup sugar (or more, to taste)
1 package gelatin (or 2 ¼ tsp)
Vanilla bean/vanilla extract/other flavorings, to taste

In a medium saucepan, combine the heavy cream, 1 cup of the half-and-half, and the sugar. Set over medium-low heat and gently warm, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is hot and the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Do not boil. (Remove from the heat, if necessary, or turn the heat down to low.)

Meanwhile, pour the remaining half-and-half in a shallow bowl, then sprinkle the packet of gelatin over the top in an even layer. Set aside to bloom the gelatin, about 5 minutes. When the surface looks wrinkly and there’s no dry powder remaining, it’s ready. (If there’s a lot of dry powder, then gently stir to get it wet.)

Ready to combine. You can see a bit of dry gelatin powder at 12 o'clock. Mama mixed it in before adding it to the hot cream.

Ready to combine. You can see a bit of dry gelatin powder at 12 o’clock. Mama mixed it in before adding it to the hot cream.

Once the cream mixture is hot, stir in any extracts for flavor,* off-heat. Start with ½ tsp and go from there. Taste it. See if it needs more flavor or more sweetness to your liking. Stir in the gelatin mixture with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. Stir and stir until all the gelatin is dissolved. (Check the back of the spoon/spatula—you’ll see little globs of unmelted gelatin if they’re there.)

To serve panna cotta in glasses, jars, or dishes, simply pour it into the appropriate vessel. (You might want to pour the finished mixture into a glass measure for easier and neater pouring first.) Do this carefully so it doesn’t splash all up the sides of the glass, which you’ll see once it’s set. Cover with plastic wrap (not touching the surface of the panna cotta) and chill in the fridge until set, 1 to 2 hours. (If your glasses have already been in the fridge, it’ll set a little faster.)

Mama topped this with some leftover pear-poaching syrup. If the panna cotta weren't properly set, the liquid would never sit on top like that.

Mama topped this with some leftover pear-poaching syrup. If the panna cotta weren’t properly set, the liquid would never sit on top like that.

To unmold the panna cotta for a fancier presentation, lightly coat or spray custard cups or ramekins with a neutral-flavored oil (e.g., grapeseed or canola). Divide the finished mixture among them, cover, and chill as above. To serve, dip each mold in hot water for 10 seconds, run a knife around the edge, and invert onto a plate. (It helps to put the plate on the ramekin, and then invert.) If the panna cotta doesn’t easily slip out of the mold, then dip it in the hot water again, making sure the water comes up as high as the panna cotta.

It's just another way to eat it.

It’s just another way to eat it.

Either way, serve it topped with fresh berries, berries made into a sauce, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, crumbled gingersnap or thin-mint cookies, etc. The possibilities are really endless.

Makes 6 1/2-cup servings

*Note: If using whole spices as flavoring, such as the seeds and pod of a vanilla bean or cardamom pods or cinnamon sticks, etc., steep them in the cream as it heats. Remove before adding the gelatin mixture. Also, alternatives to sugar seem to work as well as the white stuff: stevia, honey, agave, even those ghastly fake sugars (but you didn’t hear that from me).