Soft Eggs and Avocado on Toast with Cauliflower Soup

Like most people, soups are on heavy rotation at our house in the winter.Soft Eggs and Avocado on Toast with Cauliflower Soup I made this Cauliflower Soup with Toasted Garlic from a recipe in a recent Real Simple Magazine and a loaf of Jim Lahey’s wonderful No Knead Bread last Sunday.  We had a few people over on Sunday night, so most of the bread was eaten up.  I needed some inspiration for a quick side dish to make the leftovers into a square meal for supper on Monday night.  P1070723Fortunately, the latest issue of Martha Stewart Living just arrived.  I paged through it, and landed on a quick, simple and still luscious side dish, that  made our cauliflower soup a satisfying meal–Sesame Toasts with Poached Egg and Avocado.Egg and Avocado on Toast up Close

To the extent possible, I followed Martha Stewart’s recipe for Sesame Toasts with Poached Egg and Avocado, but for the arugula I subbed spinach, very lightly dressed with tarragon vinegar and olive oil and I subbed crunchy, toasted slices of No Knead Bread instead for Sesame Toast.  I was able to duplicate the rest of the preparation using ingredients we had on hand.  Yes, I treat our household to the purchase of fresh avocados almost every week.  Tasty Supper of Cauliflower Soup and Toast with Poached Egg and Spinach SaladThis is more of a reminder than a recipe, really.  I occasionally need a reminder that eggs and avocado in their natural form are only a few minutes preparation away from becoming a sublimely luxurious, simple supper.Cauliflower Soup - Toast with Avocado and Poached EggsThis meal was on the table in minutes, was tasty and brought a little light into a dark winter evening.  It works well with soup,  or on its own, and it would also be wonderful for breakfast or lunch.


My Year in Meals by Rachael Ray and The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman – Split Second Review on a Trip Through Barnes and Noble

It will come as no surprise that I am a sucker for a beautiful, photograph-filled cookbook.  Cookbooks line more that one shelf in the living room as well as bookshelves upstairs.  I have old ones, such as my Grandma’s 1956 edition Betty Crocker Cookbook.  There are a few spiral-bound volumes of recipes assembled by church ladies and sold for a fundraiser and a nice assortment of 1960’s and 1970’s Better Homes and Gardens and Woman’s Day editions Baby Showers, Salads and Dinners for Two collected from garage sales.  I also have three times as many recent volumes written by chefs and culinary notables that I purchased used.  

General reference cookbooks like the Betty Crocker Cookbook provide a wealth of knowledge of the basics and a broad range of skills.  I wouldn’t make our family’s favorite Thanksgiving dressing or bake a blueberry muffin looking at any other cookbook.  I have also learned so much from recent Martha Stewart, Ina Garten and Lidia Bastianich cookbooks.  These three culinary celebrities are well-marketed, but their cookbooks have earned their place on my bookshelf because they produce reliable results and share usable wisdom and expertise.

If you are Christmas shopping for a cook of any kind, I am sure that the beautiful, clearly written, photograph-filled cookbook from the “Big Three”–Martha, Ina and Lidia will not disappoint.   

I am not much of a shopper, but of all places to browse for Christmas present ideas, bookstores are my favorite.  I wandered into Barnes and Noble and took a peek at new cookbooks by Rachael Ray, who is primarily known for cooking on television, and Deb Perelman, who authors the blog Smitten Kitchen, and has just released a cookbook under the same name.  

Above is a peek inside at My Year in Meals by Rachael Ray.  This book is exactly as it sounds–a tour through Rachael Ray’s meals in the last year, recipes and snapshots of meals she prepares at home and eats around the world.  I like the concept.  This is the basis of the majority of my blog posts–what we eat, recipes, a glimpse of our lives, my thoughts and memories.  My observations about this book relate to the way the cookbook is styled.  First, the photos look like instagram snapshots.  The color scheme bears resemblance to my Mom’s 1969 edition of the Betty Crocker cookbook–lots of red, orange and yellow and lots of retro cookware.  When you have your own cookware line, there darn well better be some product placement in your latest cookbook.  Second, there are hand-drawn lines and arrows here and there which give you the feeling that Rachael or her marketing team wanted the book to invoke a blog assembled on an Ipad.  So, with instagrammed pics and Ipad-esque scribbles  Rachael Ray’s My Year in Meals is in essence, a cookbook styled to have the look and feel of a blog.  If you like Rachael Ray’s style and want a voyeuristic tour of the food she eats, you will probably like this cookbook.  

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook is the opposite concept–it is a blog turned cookbook.  Above is the Mushroom Bourguignon that I will definitely be cooking out of Deb Perelman’s inaugural printed tome.  Boeuf Bourguignon was so romanticized in the movie Julie and Julia that I’ve made it; and ever since wanted a legit vegetarian version so that I could get in on the fun.  Thank you Deb for delivering the probable answer to my vegetarian-foodie prayers.  

On first glance, I found the double-page spread containing photos and instructions for plump gnocchi with trapped white space right in the middle of the page.  I know she worked obsessively on this book, because I follow her blog.  I don’t blame her–the question I raise is, after working very hard on testing and photographing your recipes and writing sweetly, humorously and wittily about them, while also producing a high-caliber food blog and raising a child, can’t you count on your editor at Knopf to alert you to these minor, fixable glitches?  I guess not?  Perelman’s photos are beautiful, her recipes are adventurous but usable and she conveys her warmth and wit.  Trapped white space aside, this much-anticipated cookbook looked like one I’d want to own.

The bookshelves are bursting, but there seems always to be room for another cookbook on the shelf.

 I paused at the “Wine and Spirits” aisle to notice without surprise that beer brewing has becoming a prominent subject on the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble.  Have I mentioned that as of November 25th, we have a friend’s old fridge, re-engineered into a keg-o-rater in our basement that we just love?  I took some notes and think I will be shopping at the used bookstore in our neighbourhood for books on this subject for my sweetheart this Christmas.

As I exited Barnes and Noble, a nice array of bargain cookbooks bade me farewell.  At $7.98, the price can’t be beat, but I managed not to buy any, since I was there to shop for ideas.


Cooking for the Kids

At some point this year, we turned a corner.  Without any warning or fanfare, we found ourselves rested enough, organized enough, with enough time, and with our home and our finances in enough order to allow us to commit more than the most minimal effort to trying to do something good.  It comes naturally to some at a younger age, and I truly admire those people.  I have found that I am a one-thing-at a-time type who needs to have their own ducks in a row before signing on for an ongoing commitment.  Better late than never, I hope.   We found the first volunteer experience that suited our combined abilities in an email circulated around Bjorn’s office.  The option that jumped out at us was the opportunity to prepare a dinner for 8 in our own kitchen at home and deliver it to an emergency safe house for homeless youth, ages 16-21 in our neighbourhood operated by Lutheran Social Services.  The guidelines are minimal.  Arrive at 7.  Bring a main dish (no pork) and a few sides; no mysterious looking casseroles, please.  Including a gallon of 2% milk and a bottle of juice is suggested.  Dessert is appreciated but not required.  We signed up for a few dates to give it a try.  I had to ask right away about accommodating special diets:  vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, etc.  We were told they didn’t currently have anyone with those needs.  We still tried to come up with enough variety and flexibility in the menu so that a person who doesn’t eat meat, or a person who doesn’t tolerate gluten could still eat a decent plate of food.

1.  This is the array of groceries and supplies we used for the first meal we prepared.  We spent about $40 on groceries at Target.  At my request, Lunds Grocery Store donated 3 disposable aluminum containers with lids for delivering the food.  We didn’t shop for this meal at Lunds, but we do almost all of our grocery shopping there.

2.  We packed a salad of iceberg and romaine lettuce with sliced cucumbers and julienned carrots.  We bought a package of parmesan croutons and a bottle of Ranch Dressing for the salad.

3.  This fall, Bjorn’s parents stocked our freezer with a generous supply of ground beef, steaks and a few roasts from cows raised on the family farm by Bjorn’s Uncle Stan.  I cannot begin to emphasize how wonderful it is to have a supply of beef raised by a farmer we know and trust.  We absolutely love to cook with this beef.

4.  I taped the typed-out dinner menu on paper grocery bags we used to deliver the food.  Our first meal consisted of Beef Meatballs in Spaghetti Sauce to be served on Hoagie Buns with Provolone Cheese, Roasted Potatoes seasoned with Hidden Valley Ranch Southwest Seasoning and ketchup, A Salad of Iceberg and Romaine Lettuce, Carrots and Cukes, Juice, Milk and Chocolate Chip Cookies.

5.  I tried to think like a caterer when I packed up the meal.  Disposable containers aren’t ideal for food presentation visually, but I think when food is packed neatly, containers are spatter-free and the contents and serving suggestions thoughtfully labeled, it helps a lot.  If this is the best meal or the only meal some of these kids are eating today, I want it to be a great meal.

6.  Bjorn’s meatballs, ready to bake.

7.  Bjorn’s meatballs out of the oven.  They smelled good.

We prepared and delivered our second meal on November 29.  This time when we arrived, we were offered a tour of the house.  It was fun and rewarding to see the safe house and some of the people who will eat our meal.  The house is large and very clean.  We enter through the backyard and after being cleared as “friendly visitors” on the security camera, we enter into the kitchen.  After setting up the meal on the large counter, we were led through the dining room which has a large dining table and shelves stacked with board games.  The next room is a is a livingroom with a huge, flat screen TV.  Upstairs was warm.  There were brightly lit bedrooms  that were already full of people having a boisterous conversation. The safe house has the atmosphere you would hope:  positive, clean, safe and welcoming.  We were told that the house is filled to capacity every night.  The staff also told us that they appreciate having a meal delivered because they don’t have to cook or go out and buy anything.  It saves the program money too, obviously.  Judging by our ease in finding workable dates, they are not at capacity for volunteers.  They report having a meal provided 4-5 nights a week.  They expressed relief that we did not prepare a Thanksgiving meal.  Apparently, they had quite a few of those in the past month and were getting a little tired of Turkey and Stuffing.

We hope our second meal was tasty and satisfying.  Here goes nothing:

1.  We shopped for most of the ingredients for meal number 2 at Trader Joe’s.  Again, we spent around $40.  This wasn’t planned, apparently, it is the price-point of the hearty meals we conceive of for 8.  The cost would be higher if we had to purchase meat.

2.  These are the ingredients to prepare tonight’s meal of Baked Potatoes, Sour Cream, Chili, Mac & Cheese, Roasted Broccoli, Baguette and Butter.

3.  I thought the well-labeled meal looked good the first time we delivered it, so I printed a menu and labels with serving suggestions for the second meal as well.  This time when we walked in the door with our labeled bags and containers we got a “wow!” from one of the staff.  I’m taking that as feedback to indicate that we’re doing okay.

4.  We thought Baked Potatoes would be a hearty side, so we scrubbed some russets to bake in the oven.  I love russets for baking because their peels gets meaty,chewy and crunchy, and their interior stays fluffy and light.   I like to oil the peels and salt them lightly with Kosher salt.

5.  When we have Macaroni and Cheese ourselves, which we do often, it is usually Kraft Dinner.  We decided to bump the Mac & Cheese up a few notches and followed Martha Stewart’s recipe for Perfect Macaroni and Cheese.  Here, Bjorn is stirring a roux that will become the cheese sauce.

6.  We baked the potatoes wrapped in foil which worked well for keeping them warm for delivery in a small paper bag.

7.  We stirred the cheese sauce into Al Dente pasta, it looked like it was creamy and delicious.

9.  Disposable food containers were easy to come by for this meal on the cheap at Walgreens because it was just after Thanksgiving.  We had to fashion a make-shift divider out of aluminum foil to separate the Macaroni and Cheese from the Roasted Broccoli.

10.  My parents gave us a container of frozen Oatmeal Raisin cookie dough, so we made cookies again this week.  My parents also purchase the milk and juice that we bring for each meal.

11.  Tonight’s meal is packed, labeled and ready to go.

12.  This week, we had the sense to save ourselves a serving a macaroni and cheese.  We had it with a salad topped with hard-boiled eggs.  Home made macaroni & cheese is so yummy.  We have set “we’d prepare it for guests in our home” as the standard for the meals we prepare for the safe house, and so far, I think we’ve been consistently able to pull it off.

Meal Number 3, December 21, 2011.

1.  For our third meal we had most of the ingredients and supplies on hand.  What we didn’t have, we bought at Target.

2.  Bjorn made beef meatballs again.  It helps make a substantial meal and keep our costs at a reasonable level when we use our beef.  Bjorn has perfected his meatball recipe.  He seasons the meat with Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salut and mixes in Egg, Breadcrumbs and grated parmesan, and as I said, they smell great when he bakes them.

3.  Meatballs are also convenient because  they can be baked a day ahead.  After baking the meatballs, Bjorn put them into the crock pot with spaghetti sauce.  I take the crock of meatballs out of the fridge and turn it on when I got home from work the night that we deliver the food.

4.  We cut up and steamed carrots, broccoli and cauliflower and made a creamy-cheesy sauce with grated cheese, sour cream and mushroom soup, a little pepper and a crunchy panko bread crumb topping.  It is creamy and delicious, but really, quite light.  After my Mom made the same dish at Christmas with frozen vegetables, I think I would go that route in the future.  It was just as tasty, it was probably cheaper and was definitely less work.

5.  For dessert I made chocolate cupcakes with cream cheese frosting and Christmas M&M’s.  They were yummy.

6.  Again, we made a make-shift divider in the aluminum container between the cheesy vegetables and slices of ciabatta bread.

7.  We boiled farfalle pasta to go along with the meatballs this week.  I made a last-minute call to Kowalski’s on Grand Avenue in Saint Paul to see if they would be willing to donate some disposable containers for us to deliver the meal in this week.  I barely had to finish my sentence explaining what we were doing and what we needed before the manager agreed to set out several nice, durable aluminum containers for me to pick up.  Those really aren’t cheap, so it helps us a lot.  It has been amazing to discover how generous store managers in our neighbourhood are when we just ask.

Not pictured with this meal are the Christmas cards that we brought along with our meal this week for the kids and the staff, each containing a $5 Subway gift card that we bought and a free 6 inch sub donated by the owners of Subway on Grand and Fairview Avenues and Selby Avenue and Victoria Street in Saint Paul.  This was another example of how people are ready to help and be generous when all we do is ask.  We thought our first 3 meals were a success, so we signed up to prepare and deliver 2 more in January.  We are enjoying the new experience of giving a little time, and at the same time getting to be creative and engaged in a favorite hobby:  cooking!

Amélie and a Simple Pasta with Butter and Cheese

One of my favorite films with a memorable food-moment is Amélie, a simple and joyful French film from 2001.  [Spoiler alert…] Amélie is a solitary character with a wonderful internal life.  She observes the world exactingly.  She appreciates simple pleasures and amusing oddities in the goings-on around her with her eyes open, and her mouth closed.  Amélie finds joy in her private life, but also experiences a lack human closeness.  Throughout the movie she launches a series of secret undertakings that bring beauty, life, love and joy to her father, her neighbours, her co-workers and the man who helps her at the vegetable stand.  Her mischievous initiatives become a catalyst for change, new possibilities and happiness.  Waging her secret campaigns for improvement in the lives of others brings Amélie vicarious joy, but she experiences isolation on her own.  One evening, Amélie stands in the kitchen of her darling little apartment, making herself a bowl of noodles, clearly on auto-pilot.   She drains the pot of pasta, and uses a rotary grater to top the noodles with cheese, all the while staring in apparent contemplation of the state of her life.  The quiet evening in her safe haven ends in lonely and frustrated tears at the realization that she is living outside, without meaningful connections of her own.  I love so many things about this film, and I watch it now and then and discover more that I enjoy.  What I have enjoyed since the first viewing is that simple bowl of noodles.  You can do so many things with food, and especially pasta, but so often, the simplest are the most perfect and enjoyable.  Boiled noodles, a little butter, salt, pepper and sometimes, some grated cheese served as simply as possible is a plate of food that manages to nudge on sublime.

Here is my most recent bowl of buttered noodles with cheese.  We had only lasagna noodles in the cupboard, so I boiled them in an ample amount of water, lightly salted.  Once they were cooked al dente, I drained them and used a pizza cutter to slice the broad noodles to an imperfect approximation of papardelle.  I thank Martha Stewart for including  broken and jagged shards of lasagna noodles in a pasta recipe in the cookbook Dinner at Home for inspiring the use of spare and broken lasagna noodles in a non-lasagna dish.  I stirred a little butter thinned with a splash of warmed vegetable stock to allow the noodles a thin coating.  I topped the bowl with finely grated white cheddar, ground pepper and a tiny shake of salt.  It was delicious.  No further elaboration is required.  As for Amélie, she finally succeeds at taking the joyful leap into living her life  when she  removes a literal and figurative mask of protection and reveals her identify to a man whom she secretly admires.  In opening herself up to the possibility of success or failure at love, a life that Amélie has previously observed as an outsider begins to unfold.  Our moments of real pleasure in this life are so precious-they are best enjoyed through attention and fully and openly savoring every delicious experience, no matter how simple.