All of these posts are always about feeding animals, of course, but today I’m not writing about the one who complains about quesadillas again or about whom I wonder if he’ll ever eat a cooked vegetable again.
Today, I am writing about my favorite creature of habit, our hamster, Waffle, a sweet, fluffy little critter that has become a quiet and unobtrusive member of the family. She eats like a bird — literally, a mixture of nuts and seeds (although her habit of stuffing them, six or seven at a time into her furry, elastic cheeks is not very bird-like.) We augment with fresh vegetable scraps –apple peelings and the ends of carrots — and she holds them delicately between her paws and nibbles them, a tiny compost machine.
It never occurred to any of us to do more for her (and honestly, I might have shot down any requests for more elaborate hamster meals, given the energy it takes just to feed the other animals in the family) but then a friend gave the boys this:
And we were all so charmed, we did this:
Making one raw vegetable pizza and one parsley bouquet:
And Waffle took it all apart and ate it like this:
Marion Cunningham’s death last month has had me thinking about the importance of voice in cookbooks. Her voice was the best combination of brisk and encouraging. Reading her cookbooks filled you with confidence that you could make the recipe at hand. The cookbook of hers that I use most, The Baker’s Dozen Cookbook, offers step-by-step instructions for some of the most daunting tasks in the kitchen (pie crust, meringue, buttercream) and makes them all seem eminently doable. Her cookbooks are not, like Elizabeth David’s or Julia Child’s, ones with which I curl up to read on a foggy day, they are ones that push me into the kitchen to cook.
That’s the welcoming tone in Top Chef finalist Antonia Lofaso’s new The Busy Mom’s Cookbook. Her goal is to get families together for meals, and her unpretentious but satisfying recipes work well to achieve that goal. As she writes in her introduction, “It could’ve been Rice-A-Roni with scrambled eggs, or a big dinner I helped my mom or my dad make. Either way, it was very important to my parents that we all sit togethr and share meals when I was growing up. They demonstrated to me how people learn about family and community through food.” It sounds like somehow Chef Antonia has already read Lisa’s and my book!
There’s not much I need to say about the recipes except that they work and they taste good, from coriander roasted cauliflower to caramel-almond popcorn. There’s a good range of recipes for vegetarian dishes (veggie sushi rolls; quinoa-corn salad; lasagna) and recipes kids can make (lemon crepes; mini frittatas; hummus). I love the movie night section (which offers that popcorn recipe, fondue, smoothies, chicken wings and more) and especially the section titled Multi-Meals, in which each dish (roasted chicken; oven-roasted broccoli; brisket) connects to another dish you can make out of the leftovers. All of it is written in the kind of warm, approachable tone that reminds me of Marion Cunningham’s writing, which is about the highest compliment I can offer.
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I was delighted when Lisa’s and my friend, fellow anthology editor Nicki Richesin, invited me to write up my family’s five favorite picture books for The Children’s Book Review. I quickly realized I needed to narrow the topic even further. Five favorite train books? Five favorite bear books? No, it had to be five favorite food books.
I could have written about ten or more, and at one point I had a teetering pile of books on my desk, but I managed to winnow it down; take a look at my list, and then come back to let me know about your favorite food picture books!
A couple weeks ago, Ben and I spotted some Key limes at the market and it occurred to me that he — a fan of all things citrus — might like Key lime pie for his birthday dessert. I have to admit I was also trying to manufacture a desire: I was going to be out of town at a conference the entire week before his birthday, and pie is a whole lot quicker to produce than a layer cake (like last year’s lemon extravaganza).
It worked. We researched recipes. We talked about meringue topping vs. whipped cream, crumb crust vs. pastry. We decided to use this Epicurious recipe as our starting point, with this almond crumb crust. I got home from the airport the night before his birthday, finally read the recipe closely enough, after dinner, to notice it wanted to chill overnight, and had the cooled pie in the fridge well before my jetlagged self collapsed into bed at 10.
The only very slight problem with the dessert is that the whipped cream doesn’t really support the sweet candle holders a friend made for Ben when he was a baby. They settled deeply into the cream while we sang, Ben blew out his candles, and then I fished them out before we all dug happily into our pie.
As anyone who follows me on Twitter or Facebook is aware, I have started 2012 not in the kitchen, but in my garage. Like any family, we store plenty of things that we won’t need ever again but can’t quite bear to part with (my wedding dress; the boys’ knit hats from the hospitals in which they were born). We also store things that we only need a couple of times a year (ski clothes; camping equipment); emergency kits; and sports equipment. All of that, I have to say, is fairly well organized in labelled boxes.
Like many families, too, we store things we’ve inherited. My late father-in-law’s paintings and sketch books; catalogues from his shows; artwork by his friends. Also, bottles and bottles of the wine he made. Tony built racks for the paintings and periodically culls the wine, and this part of the garage doesn’t make me too anxious. It’s my late mother-in-law’s things, her address books and photo albums and stock notes and newspaper clippings and jewelry and correspondence, that are, frankly, a mess. She saved everything (I wrote a whole essay once about the abundant supplies in her kitchen) and organized nothing. My own grandmother was known for “filling a desk” and then sending it up to the attic for her descendants to deal with, and Nancy operated somewhat similarly. Anything special was saved in a pile, and then eventually scooped into a box, which ultimately went into her garage. When she died, we were too shocked and sad to do anything but move all her crazy boxes into our garage until we could cope.
Every year or so, I dive in and unearth treasures: one box might hold a string of pearls, a menu from Harry’s Bar (circa 1962), newspaper clippings about artist friends’ shows, a few postcards (some blank, some addressed to Nancy), a baby rattle, a pile of Italian stamps. But the way her garage became inserted in mine, it’s like excavating layers of an ancient city. I can only do so much before I need to retreat and gear up for another dig.
This dig, like earlier expeditions, has also unearthed cookbooks. Nancy was a fabulous cook, known for her dinner parties, and among all the letters I’ve found, I’m starting to make a separate file for the “thank you for the wonderful meal” notes. The cookbooks — Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking (1952), The Perfect Hostess Cook Book (1950), The Brown Derby Cookbook (1949), “Master Chef” Louis P. De Gouy’s Gold Cookbook — with an introduction credited simply to “Oscar of the Waldorf-Astoria” — (1947) — these get to come upstairs. I may never cook from them, but they are fabulous reading, a sweet glimpse back at a different time in American cooking and an insight into another generation.
The cookbook I’m currently loving the most, just for its title, is Mary Hill and Irene Radcliffe’s Food to Make You Famous. I’ve just never thought about food this way. Food to fuel you through the day, sure; food to make your family happy, food to use up leftovers or the new vegetables in your CSA share, but food to make you famous? Maybe I should be thinking about food this way! I’ve paged through to see if I can tell what Nancy cooked from this book. Many recipes have check marks, like Clam Chowder, Hungarian Goulash, Glazed Carrots, Oatmeal Bread (Oatmeal Bread can make you famous?), Chicken Marco Polo and most of the beef recipes (except, thankfully, Epicurean Baked Beef Tongue Stuffed with Sweetbreads, Olives and Mushrooms) and the page with Maitre d’Hotel Butter (COLD) and Maitre d’Hotel Sauce (HOT) is splattered with some of that sauce. Aside from that one bread recipe, there’s not a single mark in any of the baking sections, but as this book leads me from the garage back to the kitchen, that’s where I think I’ll start, and I’ll report back. English Yeast Crumpets? Sweetheart Rolls? Maybe the food will make me famous.