Participatory Eating

This evening we had our Sunday dinner family friends over to enjoy baked macaroni and cheese (I included my recipe below). I had made a double batch of cheesy buttery goodness – one to serve and one to drop with new friends we had met through a craigslist purchase who are also expecting twins. Aside: if you know someone expecting multiples, and want to help – please make them a dinner before the babies come. Being pregnant with more than one baby at a time is extraordinarily difficult. And you get peckish. And you can’t stand upright long enough to make something like baked macaroni and cheese.

Anyway … To balance out this heavy dish I wanted to add something bright. I found just the thing as I was lusting my way through the green grocer section: two-for-one artichokes. After tossing the best looking ones into my cart, I snagged a lemon to make a simple citrus butter. And then of course ended up in a checkout line conversation with another customer about this beautiful vegetable about how much fun it is to eat.

And it was so much fun to eat. We crowded around the steaming olive-toned globes plucking leaves, assiduously inspecting each one for artichoke meat, working our way to the over sized hearts (these were definitely not organic veggies), carefully removing the hairy choke on each one and divvying up the prizes. It was a delightful and delicious experience.

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What is it about food that requires some level of participation? Why is it so much more satisfying to be involved with what we eat?

Like navigating through a good drumstick, thigh, or wing.

Or preparing a grapefruit half using those clever albeit threateningly-designed knives.

Or salting a bowlful of edemame ahead of the splitting and popping into your mouth that our family loves to do.

Or I guess at it’s core why it’s more fun eating tapas style, or out of a bento box?

What foods do you like to play with?


 Storm Family Favorite: Baked Macaroni and Cheese

  • 6 tablespoons butter – use all the butter, it’s worth it
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1 medium onion, chopped  – this is essential to get the right flavor (if I’m making for another family I chop in large pieces to be removed easily)
  • 3 cups milk – we use whole milk, it’s also worth it
  • 5 cups uncooked macaroni
  • 1 cup shredded Monterrey Jack – about half a block 
  • 4 cups shredded sharp cheddar – about 2 blocks
  • 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar – this is for the top, keep aside, about 1 block
  • 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese – we use the real stuff, it’s worth it

Cook pasta according to directions on packet. Shock with cold water until completely cold. Drain, set aside. Pour your 3 cups of milk and set aside (this allows it to lose a little of its refrigerator chill to avoid hampering the melting process later on).

In a large saucepan melt the butter on medium heat. While it melts, chop your onion and set aside. Add flour to melted butter, whisking often, cooking until roux turns light yellow. Add onion and continue to whisk. At this point, while the onions are doing their thing (a.k.a. sauteing in the roux) I just chop the cheese. I don’t bother with shredding anymore, after all who ever complained about getting a wodge of melty cheese on your fork? Keep a cautious eye out for a burning pan, you might need to reduce your heat.

When the cheese is piled up on a separate dish, the onions and roux should be ready. Now is a good time to turn the oven to 375 and pull out your glass 9×13 pan.

Slowly pour the milk into the roux/onion mix in your pan. Whisk constantly and carefully. You’ll see the gluten bind up and thicken the milk. Turn your heat to low and stir occasionally. Slide your pile of cheese in and let it sit and warm and melt. I found that too much stirring can separate the cheese ending with a soupy disaster.

Pour in your cooked elbows, stir, then pour into your pan (really no point in greasing ahead of time – melted cheese will stick regardless). Cover with your remaining cheese (I do shred this last bit) and pop into the oven. Bake for about 20 minutes, then crank up the broiler and watch to get the right amount of brown that your family likes.

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Kale in the Raw

Over the past year we have developed a truly lovely weekend ritual with friends we met at the playground. Every Sunday we are able to, we take turns hosting the other family for playtime and dinner. All of our children love frolicking about together, and the Mummies and Daddies love chitchatting and a night off from cooking/cleaning.

As I was prepping our turn for dinner while the girls were napping, I realized that my menu planning had been done too early that morning. In my drowsy state, I had concocted a meal with ingredients that I didn’t actually have. Kale as it turns out, though it shares its hue with baby broccoli, is most certainly not baby broccoli.

I’ve already written about my affinity for kale, but I’ll be honest – I’m a one trick pony with this leafy green having honed my kale chip skills quite sharply. They’re pretty tasty. But since we were serving linguini alla carbonara (it’s not just for winter anymore) it made more sense to have a fresh veggie or salad rather than a salty, slightly warm chip … even if they are pretty tasty.

As I was patting dry the curlicue, verdant leaves riddled with purple veins, I tapped away on Google hoping to save the dinner by finding a raw application of kale. My plan b included serving personal ramekins of Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies.

Success! Tom Philpott wrote a fantastic and engaging piece about using raw kale in a salad – explaining among other things, possible origins and why it needs to be chopped as fine as “confetti” as he so vividly puts it. I LOVE getting the back-story and understanding mechanics … center that around food and I’m done *swoon*. He also included a truly delicious Ceaser-salad-style recipe. Since I was lacking every critical ingredient other than kale, I employed his suggested technique and threw together a hearty yet surprisingly light salad. And no, it wasn’t bitter it was bright!

Raw Kale Salad

Wash and pat dry small bundle of kale (we used purple kale), cutting out ribs. Roll leaves tightly and chop chiffonade style, place in large bowl. Pour over the kale a simple vinaigrette (I used what was left in the bottle of my red wine vinegar, and threw in a little less olive oil, whisked in a dash of sugar and a bit more than that dried basil). Probably about 1 cup worth of dressing. Toss and let sit for a good long while to macerate (ours sat for 2 hours covered in fridge). Add chopped celery (for crunch and color) and halved grape tomatoes (for sweetness and color), toss and serve.

Tom was right, it keeps well … behold leftovers the next day:

Omega-3 Cookies

Saturday mornings we herd the two little ones post-pancake breakfast into the stroller and we hit the road to visit our neighborhood Farmer’s Market. After I ogle the heirloom tomatoes to see if one is worthy for my lunch, we hit the mini doughnut stand (that’s a vegetable, right?), loop around the road wishing I had bought less at the grocers and then head for the nearby park rife with mulch and giggling children.

Today however there was a stand toppling with peaches at a reduced price. Cobbler I thought … and it was pretty much downhill from there. This is what our kitchen looked like this evening after one round of cleaning:

So it turned out to be a peach crumble – thanks Ina! – and what’s left of it is hiding under two bowls and spoons. Yup, we ate all of it.

Because the oven was already at temperature and the crumble needed a while to bake, I decided to make walnut biscuits (aka cookies in our multicultural household). Walnuts are perfect for our girls to bulk up on, and while they are crazy about eating almonds as a snack they look at me like I’ve played a dirty trick on them when I try to get them to eat walnuts.

I adapted a recipe for Vanilla Crescents (in Philippa Vanstone’s 500 Cookies) – replacing almonds with walnuts, doubling the quantity of nuts and halving the sugar. The girls adore these just sweet enough biscuits that crumble with omega-3 goodness.

Cut 1 stick softened butter into 1 cup of flour making. Grind 2 cups walnuts, using fork to incorporate walnut meal into butter/flour mix. Add 1/2 cup powdered sugar and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract, using fork to incorporate. Form large ball (should be slightly sticky), divide evenly into 16 mini balls, shape as desired making each biscuit 1/4-1/2 inch thick. Bake at 350 for 20 mins or until light golden color. Can spend a week in the fridge if they survive that long!

Neuroplasticity and Kale

Like most of us I enjoy hearing a clever tip or listening to a great story. But here is where the problem begins – where my constructive compulsion begins. I often take this new-found information, become temporarily absorbed in it and end up incorporating parts of it into my life. I just can’t help it. But regardless of what it is or how much I adopt, it always stems from a relationship. From brain science to snack foods, I’m easily intrigued.

My fascination with how our brain works was sparked by a bit of cool-kid awe. A friend of mine sent me an article about neuroscience following a conversation I can’t quite recall anymore. What I do recall was that I couldn’t believe that this intellectually cool, highly successful woman would want to be chitchat buddies with me! Having spent enough solo lunches in the computer lab during middle school, I’m still a little surprised when folks want to be friends. To be honest reading the lengthy piece made me blurry-eyed, but what I learned about the brain blew my mind. Several TED talks and NPR pieces later, I was able to hold a conversation about neuroplasticity with two old friends, both PhD candidates in the cognitive sciences. It was bliss. Self adulation aside, I’ve also seen how loved ones have overcome hurdles by applying the latest findings on how to re-map their thoughts. It’s a hopeful study indeed.

I belong to a family of grazers – none of us can handle going a couple hours without eating something. I think my coworkers call it being hangry – whatever it is, we like to avoid it. We have a preschooler and a toddler so I am always hunting for more diverse and nutrition dense snacks. One Monday morning on my trip past the front desk to the kitchen to get a coffee, a dear colleague stopped me to try some kale chips she had made while we caught up on the past weekend’s events. The explosion in my mouth of crunchy, salty super-food had me hooked. She shared the recipe with me and now my family has a new favorite snack and I have a new go-to foodie blog that sends me brilliant ideas weekly.

So many people around us have so much to teach us about so very many things. I will keep listening, and learning, and look forward to sharing here on Niche Envy.

Disclaimer: there are some happy realities about my demographic that will inevitably keep these posts infrequent. Between my lovely two little girls and my husband [read: best friend], work and quotidian life … we’ll see what I’ll actually be able to post. My writing is rusty and likely interesting to only a few, but I’m excited about it! I think that gets a gold star for effort, right?