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Crunchy Baked French Fries

Caramel Corn

The quest for crunchy baked french fries ends here! Making fries at home should be something enjoyed regularly. Sadly, most online versions disappoint. Say good-bye to limp, floppy potatoes. Say hello to fries that have a longer table-life than the standard drive-through dash.

The secret to these fries is a quick boil in a baking soda bath. The edges of the fries get roughed up nicely, so when they bake in the oven they get the crunchy outside paired with a creamy inside.

Crunchy Baked French Fries

1½ pounds russet potatoes
Salted water
½ teaspoon baking soda
Butter and/or olive oil
Salt and pepper

Prep. Preheat oven to 525° F. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Peel potatoes. Slice lengthwise, divide into two stacks, then slice again into long strips. Try to cut the potatoes into the same thickness around, the skinnier the better.

Blanch the potatoes. When the water is boiling, add baking soda, then the potatoes. Baking soda is essential to final texture, do not skip! Boil for 3-4 minutes, then drain. Toss with some butter and olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and toss again. The more roughed up they get, the crunchier they’ll be.

Bake the fries. Spread the fries onto several baking sheets lined with parchment paper, arranged into single layers. Bake for 15-20 minutes, turning occasionally, until browned.

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Vietnamese Fried Pumpkin and Pork

Vietnamese Fried Pumpkin and Pork
Vietnamese Fried Pumpkin and Pork (Bí Đỏ Chiên Thịt)

I used to love my CSA box — that is, until I had children. Babies and toddlers are time vampires and barely eat anything, let alone a heap of vegetables, so it didn’t make sense to continue my subscription of getting farm-fresh boxes of vegetables regularly. But I do remember the years… Especially when I got loads of fall goodies, like pumpkin and squash.

I found this recipe for Fried Pumpkin and Pork (Bí Đỏ Chiên Thịt) on the VietnameseFood: Cuisine & Attractions website. From my days of living off Eat Street and eating Vietnamese food regularly, I never came across this on a menu. Or maybe I just never noticed, because I was too obsessed with bún bò noodle salads. But the site said fried pumpkin is extremely popular in Vietnam, and any time a native calls out how popular a dish is, I’m game to try it. (If it’s good for 89 million, it must be pretty good!) I’m happy to report that it IS that good!

There is something perfect about this food that is hard to describe. The sweetness of the squash and tang of onion, the richness of pork — all bound up in a little crunchy nugget. With chili sauce and mayo on top, it’s umami. A super quick sauté of cabbage and mushrooms on the side, along with white rice, make this an excellent meal for the cold weather blues.

FYI: There are plenty of versions of this recipe without the pork, so go 100% veggie if you prefer.

So this recipe is for all you CSA holders out there, just trying to find ONE MORE squash recipe to burn through that box! The only “special” ingredients in this recipe are the panko and fish sauce, otherwise this is standard pantry material. If you don’t have fish sauce, use soy sauce instead. The sriracha chili sauce and mayo make this great, so don’t skip them.

Little fried patties of squash, pork, red onion and garlic pair perfectly with sriracha and mayo.
Little fried patties of squash, pork, red onion and garlic pair perfectly with sriracha and mayo.

While start to finish is under 45 minutes, this recipe does dirty a lot of dishes. Be prepared.

Vietnamese Fried Pumpkin and Pork

Fried Pumpkin with Ground Pork
1 pound pumpkin or squash (about 2 small acorn squash, for instance)
1 small red onion
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon fish sauce
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon flour
½ pound ground pork
1½ cups panko
¼ cup vegetable oil
Stir-Fried Cabbage and Mushrooms
1¼ pounds cabbage (half a small head)
1 cup mushrooms
1 tablespoon oil
Salt, black pepper and a pinch of sugar, to taste
Splash of fish sauce or soy sauce, optional
1 cup jasmine rice
2 cups water
½ teaspoon salt
Mayonnaise, for serving
Chili sauce, for serving


1. Prep ingredients.
> Pumpkin or squash > Cut in half, scoop out seeds with a spoon and trim off ends. Peel the pumpkin and slice into 1/2-inch pieces.
> Cabbage > Cut out the core, then shred crosswise into thin slices.
> Mushrooms > Wash and trim off stems.

2. Steam the pumpkin. Bring about 3 inches of water to boil in a medium pan with a steam rack set inside. Add to steam rack, reduce heat to medium high, cover and steam until the pumpkin is fork-tender, about 15 minutes.

3. Cook the rice. Combine the rice, water and salt in a small saucepan and set over a small burner on high heat. Bring to a boil, then partially cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until the rice is done. Fluff with fork, remove from heat and cover.

4. Mix the pumpkin and pork. Combine the cooked pumpkin, red onion, garlic, fish sauce, black pepper, and flour in a blender or food processor. Process into a purée. Transfer to mixing bowl and add in the ground pork. Mix with a wooden spoon until well combined.

5. Bread the pumpkin mix. (You can begin warming the oil, as directed in Step 6, now.) In wide mixing bowl or plate, dump the panko. Doing a couple at a time, shape pieces of the pumpkin mix into 2-inch balls. Place them in the panko, roll around, then flatten into disks. Transfer to plate and continue until all the mix is used up.

6. Fry the pumpkin. Heat a medium or large non-stick fry pan over medium high heat, add enough oil to coat the pan completely. When the oil is shimmering, add as many of the pumpkin disks will fit. Cook each side for about 3 minutes, gently pressing them down then flipping with a fork, until a crust forms and they are nicely browned. Transfer to paper towel-lined plate and continue with remaining pumpkin disks.

7. Stir fry the cabbage and mushrooms. Add a little oil to a wide sauté pan or wok and heat over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the cabbage and mushrooms and cook until both are softened, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and add a pinch of sugar. Toss to combine then set aside.

8. Serve. Scoop rice onto each plate along with a heaping pile of the stir-fried cabbage and mushrooms. Add some of the fried pumpkin and drizzle mayonnaise and chili sauce over top. Serve immediately.


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Dinner Hacks for Wholesome Meals in Less Than 15 Minutes

The wind is a’ changin’ and with it comes new schedules to go with the weather. Seems like the perfect time to review some dinners that are done in 15 minutes or less — you know, the kind that may leverage a jarred sauce or spice mix for a super short grocery list. Serve some mixed greens or shredded cabbage on the side and your crazy fast dinner is ready.


Fish Sandwiches

[threecol_one]You’ll Need
Skinless boneless cod (about 4 ounces per person)
Old Bay or other fish seasoning
Hamburger Buns
Remoulade or Tarter Sauce
Toppings like tomatoes and lettuce

[/threecol_one][threecol_two_last]To Make
Heat some oil in a non-stick pan. Lightly oil the fish then rub the seasoning all over it (sprinkle with salt if there isn’t any in the seasoning). When hot, add the fish and cook until it is opaque about 2/3rds up, then flip the fish and cook the other side. Meanwhile, butter the insides of the buns and toast or broil them until light brown. Layer the bottom of the bun with lettuce, tomato, and the cooked fish. Spread remoulade on the top bun and top the sandwich. [/threecol_two_last]

Potstickers with Sauce

[threecol_one]You’ll Need
Frozen potstickers
Soy Sauce
Chili Sauce
Chinese Hot Mustard*

[/threecol_one][threecol_two_last]To Make
Steam the potstickers as directed on the package. Meanwhile, whisk together equal amounts of soy sauce, chili sauce and mustard together. Dip the potstickers in the sauce before eating.
*Regular mustard works, too. Chinese-style is just better.[/threecol_two_last]

Chinese Dumpling Soup

[threecol_one]You’ll Need
Frozen potstickers
Chicken broth

[/threecol_one][threecol_two_last]To Make
Boil the potstickers in the chicken broth. When the potstickers are cooked through, the soup is done. Add the spinach to the hot soup just before serving. [/threecol_two_last]

Mushroom & Broccoli Alfredo

[threecol_one]You’ll Need
Jar of alfredo sauce
Linguine noodles
8 ounces sliced mushrooms and/or one crown broccoli, broken into florets
Optional: One chicken breast, sliced thinly

[/threecol_one][threecol_two_last]To Make
Warm up the alfredo sauce in a small saucepan while you are boiling the noodles. (If you are using sliced chicken, add it to the sauce to cook it.) Drain the noodles when they are done, and return to the warm pan and cover with lid. In a saucepan, heat some butter and add the veggies and cook until the mushrooms are softened and juicy. Combine with the sauce and stir, then add to pot with noodles and coat to stir.[/threecol_two_last]

Egg Sandwiches with Mixed Greens

[threecol_one]You’ll Need
English muffins
Gruyère cheese, sliced
One egg per person
Mixed greens
Optional: Cooked ham

[/threecol_one][threecol_two_last]To Make
Heat some oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Meanwhile, open the English muffins and toast them in a toaster oven. Crack the eggs into the pan and fry sunny-side up until the bottoms are set. Flip the eggs, top with Gruyère cheese, sprinkle with some salt and pepper and cook for another couple of minutes until the cheese is melty. Butter the insides of the English muffin and place the egg with cheese inside. (If using ham, add under egg.) Grind some black pepper and top with lid and serve with mixed greens on the side.[/threecol_two_last]

Polish Sausage and Veggies

[threecol_one]You’ll Need
Polish sausage
Veggies to your liking — like halved Brussels sprouts or thinly sliced onions and red pepper
Dinner rolls

[/threecol_one][threecol_two_last]To Make
Heat a very large fry pan over medium-high heat. Slice the Polish sausage into 1/2-inch to 2-inch slices. Add to the pan and begin to fry them. When the fat begins to render, push the sausage to one side to continue cooking and add the veggies to the pan. Cook until the veggies are bright and tender, about 5 minutes. Serve with dinner rolls or mashed potatoes.[/threecol_two_last]

Peanut Soba Noodles with Veggies and Egg

[threecol_one]You’ll Need
One jar of Asian peanut sauce
Mixed veggies, like red pepper, broccoli, snap peas, etc. — cut into bite-sized pieces
Soba or rice noodles
One egg per person
Roasted peanuts (optional)
Hot sauce (optional)

[/threecol_one][threecol_two_last]To Make
Boil the noodles according to the package instructions. Meanwhile, heat some oil in a large fry pan. Add the veggies and stir fry until they are bright and tender, about 5 minutes, then remove from heat. Cook the egg how you’d like: either scrambled or sunny side up. When the noodles are drained, return them to the pot. Add the peanut sauce and veggies, and stir to combine. Add in scrambled egg, too, otherwise top the bowls with the sunny-side up egg. Serve topped with chopped peanuts and hot sauce.[/threecol_two_last]

Cheesy Pasta

[threecol_one]You’ll Need
Pasta, any kind
Any cheese like cheddar, mozzarella, blue cheese, etc. (Get creative, use several!)
Mixed greens
Optional: Cooked hot dog or shrimp, chopped

[/threecol_one][threecol_two_last]To Make
Boil the noodles as directed in the recipe, in salted water. (If using hot dogs or shrimp, cook in the boiling water, then chop.) Grate any firm or semi-firm cheeses. Set a mug or measuring cup next to the colander in the sink and fill with pasta water before drain the noodles. Add the noodles back to the warm pan and add the cheese(s). Stir, adding reserved pasta water to thin the sauce, until smooth. (Fold in chopped hot dog or shrimp, if using.) Serve with mixed greens on the side.[/threecol_two_last]

Tomato-Mozzarella Open-Faced Bagels

[threecol_one]You’ll Need
Fresh Mozzarella
Olive oil

[/threecol_one][threecol_two_last]To Make
Slice the bagels into halves. Layer each slice with mozzarella, a slice of tomato, and a leaf of basil. Place on a foil-lined pan and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt. Toast or broil for several minutes, until the mozzarella is melting. Let cool for a minute before eating.[/threecol_two_last]

Spicy Ramen with Egg

[threecol_one]You’ll Need
One package of spicy ramen*
One egg per person
Veggies to your liking — like oriental mushrooms, scallions, or spinach — chopped

[/threecol_one][threecol_two_last]To Make
Begin to cook the noodles according to package instructions. When the noodles start to soften and you can tease them apart, crack the eggs into the pot, so the noodles create a cushion for the egg. Add any vegetables and cook until the noodles are a firm al dente. Remove from heat and let the noodles continue cooking while the soup cools for about five minutes. Divide between bowls.
*I like the Shin Ramyun Hot Spicy Noodle in the large, red and black package. Available at most grocery stores with a respectable ethnic section.[/threecol_two_last]

Butternut Squash and Basil Gnocchi

[threecol_one]You’ll Need
Gnocchi, frozen or dried
Butternut squash, frozen, cubed
Basil leaves, sliced thinly
Optional: Mild Italian sausage

[/threecol_one][threecol_two_last]To Make
Cook the gnocchi according to the package instructions, then drain and return to warm pan and cover with lid. In a large non-stick frying pan, heat up some butter and cook the butternut squash until it is cooked through. (If using sausage, open the casing and cook in the same pan, breaking it apart with a spoon until it is cooked through. Add the gnocchi to the pan and toss gently until the gnocchi is coated, adding olive oil if needed. Sprinkle with basil, coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper before serving.[/threecol_two_last]

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No-Mayo Creamy Potato Salad

No Mayo Creamy Potato Salad

I love mayonnaise on my sandwiches, but I always shy away from putting heaps of it in salads. This is a no-mayo potato salad recipe, leveraging hard-boiled eggs and olive oil as a mayo replacement. Picnic-style potato salad (aka best served cold) can be prone to dryness, so sour cream is added for creaminess, though plain yogurt would work just as well. The capers add little pops of salt which is addicting. Dill and shredded spinach is added for extra flavor, though any dark green leaf vegetable — kale, mustard greens, collard greens, etc. — would work just as well. Just mix it all together after the potatoes have cooled off.

Potato Salad

1½ pounds small potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 eggs, hard-boiled and chopped
1 cup spinach, sliced thinly
¼ cup sour cream
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons capers
1 tablespoon dill, minced
1 tablespoon minced shallots
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Boil the eggs. Place eggs in a small saucepan and fill with water until the eggs are covered by an inch. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat; when water is at a rolling boil turn the heat off, keeping the lid on. Let sit for 12 minutes. Fill a bowl with ice and water, and move the eggs to the ice bath. Let sit for a couple minutes then remove shell. Chop the eggs and place in a salad bowl.

2. Cook the potatoes. Fill a large saucepan with several inches of water and bring to a boil. Scrub the potatoes and cut into 1-inch chunks. When the water is boiling, add the potatoes and partially cover. Cook until potatoes are fork-tender, 15-20 minutes. Drain the potatoes and transfer them to a sheet pan to cool, then add to the salad bowl with eggs.

3. Mix the salad. Add the sliced spinach, sour cream, olive oil, capers, minced dill, minced shallots, salt and pepper to the potatoes and chopped egg. Stir gently until all of the ingredients are well combined.

4. Store and serve. You can serve this right away or, even better, make it ahead and store up to several days ahead so it is completely chilled.


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Getting Kids into the Clean Plate Club

Yes, actually, turning the food into a smiley face works sometimes!
Yes, actually, turning the food into a smiley face works sometimes!

For a little more than a year, my family has hardly eaten a dinner that wasn’t for a reason: recipe testing, retesting, testing a different cook method, finding a replacement meal for the one I originally planned, needing a photo of a dinner, needing to use up remnant ingredients, etc.

I gotta say, my kids are awesome. I am basically writing this simply to commend them. At the writing of this post, they are 14 months, 3 years and 4-1/2 years old. For the first two-thirds of this journey, I swear they were never served the same meal twice. Poor kids, all they wanted was a hot dog. Instead they were my unwitting world-travelers and culinary adventurers.

Without starting Homegrown Foods, I would have cooked dinner from scratch any way. But probably more like three meals per night and we probably would have rotated in our favorites more frequently. I’d like to style myself an expert on the topic now, here is my list of top moves:

1. Smiley face. I must admit, for my young children, turning the food on their plate into a smiley face actually does work to get them to try new foods.

2. Food equality for all. We treat all foods as equals—to be as excited about vegetables as chocolate chip cookies. Don’t make it sound like a punishment to eat vegetables, or a threat of no dessert if they don’t.

3. Bribery. When they absolutely refuse to try something new I am not above bribing them: “I’ll give you an M&M if you take a bite of this.” The goal is to get them to try new foods so they get used to the flavors. If I can avoid a dinner stand-off and get the food in their mouth for the mere price of an M&M, so be it. More often than not, they realize that there isn’t anything to be afraid of on their plate (and, if I may say so myself, they learn that their mom is a rock-star who cooks fabulous food!).

4. Grouping vs Combining. Deconstructed dinners often have more success than a fully plated dinner. (Surprise, surprise, kids will not eat something if a food they don’t like isn’t touching it.) On the opposite end of the spectrum, if there are a bunch of ingredients they are not used to they are more likely to eat it if the pieces are super tiny or puréed.

5. Give them the whole dinner. I always put everything on their plates, even when they screech that they don’t like it. I want them to get used to the look, smell, and hopefully taste of all the food we eat. They don’t have to eat it, but they have to look at it.

I don’t pretend to have the answers to kids eating wholesome foods. I try to remind myself that they probably won’t eat like we do until they are 25 years old. But I will say, I am amazed at the way my kids eat today. Last week, I tried a recipe from a new cookbook and I warned them, “Everything in this dinner is new. There is nothing on your plate you will have tasted before. You may like all of it, some of it, or none of it but I expect you to try it.” It was chicken stewed in a coconut-lime broth hotly spiced with curry paste along with a plantain-sweet potato mash seasoned with turmeric, and curried chickpea rosti (like thick, dense pancakes). My kitchen smelled like a foreign city. These were all new flavors and some new textures, and the kids were incredibly good sports and tried all of it, and each enjoyed different components of that meal.

Don’t get me wrong. My 14 month old still earnestly picks up every food from his tray that he doesn’t want to eat and deliberately drops it, watching it as it goes overboard and plunks to the floor. He is probably my pickiest eater but has no system to speak of it. One day that food is “in,” the next it hits the floor. My 3 year old periodically reminds me, “I don’t like butter!” (he actually does, he just likes to say that) if I deign to mention that butter was involved in the cooking process.

The other night I made miso-marinated black cod with seaweed salad and black rice. While delicious, none of it was a hit with the kids. Though, I was so impressed that my daughter actually grabbed a handful of the seaweed salad and popped it right into her mouth (then saying, “Mmm, this is good but I don’t really want any more.”) After a certain amount of effort, my husband and I got the kids to try everything.

They still didn’t like it so I said, “How about some hot dogs, guys?”

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Triple Vanilla Sugar Cookies

‘Tis the holiday season and everyone who plans on making Christmas cookies (including me) is searching for cookie recipes that will impress. Sometimes it’s about putting a twist on a good thing, and sometimes it’s just about making a good thing better. You know, like amping up the special.

This recipe is not necessarily a twist on a classic. Rather a long pause — like making the dough on Wednesday and baking the cookies on Saturday. Or just a technical improvement — like rolling out the dough just after mixing, and letting it refrigerate in a thin sheet, which makes it easier to cut and helps keeps their shape.  What you will get is vanilla-packed flavor with easy cookie-cutter precision.

The trick to these rolled sugar cookies is to barely mix the dough to prevent spreading (no fluffing the butter and sugar!). Also, you will make your own vanilla sugar for coating the cookies and refrigerate the dough for a couple days so the vanilla bean aroma can thoroughly infuse the dough.


Triple Vanilla Sugar Cookies

1 cup sugar
1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs
2 vanilla beans
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
3 cups flour
1 additional cup sugar*
1 container with air-tight lid


Blend butter and sugar until just mixed. On medium-low speed, mix butter and sugar until just combined, about 30 seconds.

Mix remaining ingredients. Carefully slit the vanilla beans and scrape the seeds into the mixing bowl, reserving the pods. Add the baking soda, eggs, vanilla extract and almond extract. Mix until just blended, about 3 minutes. Then, 1 cup at a time, add the flour until completely mixed.

Roll out dough and refrigerate up to 4 days. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Gather the dough into a ball and set onto a lightly floured surface. Using a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick. Transfer dough to baking sheet, cover in plastic and store in refrigerator.

Make vanilla sugar. Pour about a cup of sugar into a jar or container. Add reserved vanilla beans. Seal and store until ready to use. (Shake periodically.)
*You can make colored sugar by adding a couple drops of food coloring. Or if you plan on frosting the cookies, use powdered sugar.

Preheat oven to 350° F then bake. Line another baking sheet with parchment paper. Use the cutter of your choice to make shapes. Transfer cookies to baking sheet and sprinkle with vanilla sugar. Bake for 10–12 minutes, until edges are light brown.

P.S. Make sure there isn’t anything strong-smelling in the fridge, like bowls of chopped onions.

Makes about 3 dozen standard-size cookies, or 8 dozen mini cookies.

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Anti-Squirrel Hand Pies with Apples

Don't let the squirrels eat your apples.
Don’t let the squirrels eat your apples.

Editor’s Note: This post is not about getting rid of squirrels. If that is what you are looking for, you’re in the wrong place. Though if you find a good method, be sure to let me know.

I don’t know which story to start with first: the one about the State Fair or the one about the squirrels. Let’s start with the squirrels, because that is really where my endeavor begins.

We live in the lovely city of Minneapolis. I have lived in several other states, and have come to realize that Minnesotans live in the forest. Great emphasis is placed on keeping a diversity of tree species maintained on our boulevards and lots. Because of this, there is also an abundance of woodland creatures who have urban lifestyles. Sometimes I come home and it is like a scene from Bambi: rabbits all over the yard, squirrels scampering off, birds taking flight. Even foxes and the occasional deer. But it is the squirrels who are particularly frustrating, because their adaptation to city life is disturbing. Besides the fact that they eat our garbage and make it very difficult to compost, they also raid gardens and fruit trees.

We planted an apple tree several years back. The squirrels have always eaten the apple or two that the tree fruited. But this year was different and held much promise: there were at least three dozen apples! But as summer marched on, we noticed the numbers dwindling and half-eaten apples strewn on our yard. Last week there were ten left. Yes, it was early, but if we didn’t intervene there’d be none. So the kids and I picked the apples with plans to make apple pies with them.

Now for the State Fair part of the story. Like all good Minnesotans we spent a day at Minnesota’s Great Get Together. For the 10 days that the fair is open, all you hear about is the food. Typically, I just binge on salty and sweet foods like beer-battered deep-fried cheese curds and the real-milk milkshakes. But there are stands that sell actual food, and we wanted the kids to eat real food, so we tried some out.

While eating, what rang through my skull was the obvious challenge it must be to feed hundreds of thousands of people (quickly), and how premium ingredients are not important. Vendors produce wonderful-sounding creations, but when you take a bite there is no magic. Honestly, it’s like at weddings where they use elaborate phrases to describe green beans and an overcooked chicken breast.

So when I decided to make my apple hand-pies (which are very trendy now…though this is my first time making them), I piled on the premium ingredients: starting with the Honey-Crisp apples picked from the tree in our yard (organic, of course), Rochdale hand-rolled butter, vanilla bean and Ceylon cinnamon, with a touch of cardamom. I even used Meyer lemons for the juice. I thank goodness for The Wedge Co-op, where getting a real vanilla bean and Ceylon cinnamon from their bulk section is hardly an investment (maybe $3 for both?) and the hand-rolled butter costs the same as regular butter.

The two other fabulous components of this recipe are the crust and the quick-cooking tapioca. If you follow the instructions exactly, the crust will be beautiful and crumbly. The quick-cooking tapioca sets the filling better than any cornstarch or flour I’ve ever used.

Making Apples Hand Pies

Apples Hand Pies

2 cups flour
2 sticks butter (1 cup)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 tablespoons ice-cold water
1-1/2 tablespoons high-proof vodka, cold
1-1/2 pounds apples, peeled and diced
1 vanilla bean, scraped and beans reserved
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon quick-cooking tapioca or cornstarch
2 teaspoons Ceylon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 egg, lightly beaten
Sugar, for sprinkling

Make the crust. Mix the flour and salt in a bowl. Cut or shave the butter into tiny pieces. Place the butter in the flour and roll the bits with your fingertips until the butter is all broken up and the mix is uniformly crumbled. Add the water and vodka and, again, mix with your fingertips until it is evenly distributed. At this point, you should be able to push the dough into a ball and it should stay packed. (If not add another tablespoon of ice-cold water, mix to distribute, and try again.) Cover tightly with plastic and pound into a disk. Let it rest for an hour on the countertop if making the pies right away, store in the refrigerator if you need it later. Let the dough come to room temperature before rolling it.

Cook the apple filling, then let cool. Place all the filling ingredients in a saucepan, including the reserved vanilla beans (but not including the egg, fyi). Cook over medium heat. Using a wooden spoon, mix with effort so that the vanilla bean and spices get distributed evenly. Cook until the apples are softened, about 15 minutes. Let cool completely before using.

Preheat oven to 400° F and roll out the dough. Roll out the dough to about 1/8-inch thickness. Cut the dough out into 4- or 5-inch disks (the size of a teacup saucer). Put a spoonful of filling on one half each disk. Make sure there is at least a half-inch margin of dough on the outside. Then fold the remaining half over the top, so you have a semi-circle. Gently press the edges of the disk together and use your fingers or a fork to smoosh the edges together. Basically, you want to seal it tight. Brush the beaten egg on top and sprinkle with sugar.

Bake. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Space the pies evenly apart on the baking sheets and set in the upper and lower third of the oven. Bake for 35 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown and the filling is bubbling. Place the pies on cooling racks and let rest for at least 15 minutes.

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Cooking with (Small) Kids is Crazy

Cooking with Small Kids is Crazy
Kids in the kitchen while making a five-piece chicken dinner.
My working conditions while making a five-piece chicken dinner.

This is the truth about cooking with kids: it is a pain in the butt. Despite lofty articles about letting the kids help or making dinner in 15 minutes or less, the reality is that cooking involves sharp objects, hot things and critical timing. And nothing takes 15 minutes when young’uns are around. Kids aren’t known for their attention spans, awareness, listening, or neatness. Combine it all and it’s easy to see how the stress levels ratchet up when you are trying to get dinner on the table.

I love my kids and have loved cooking my whole life. But I do not love cooking with kids… It’s crazy!

Granted I have a lot of patience, but staying undistracted through constant interruptions, staving Pavlovian responses to the open refrigerator or pantry door, or working around projects that sprout from mimicking imaginations…the challenges surmount. And when I actually am enlisting their help, their hair is everywhere, they stick their fingers in the bowl (I think they like “helping” just so they can lick things), and they make messes. And they don’t listen. Man, how they don’t listen! I find myself repeating instructions with rapid succession and increasing volume as we nearly avoid imminent disasters.

Why do we put up with it? We press on because we know that our mothers and their mothers did*, as did generations before them. Heck, people had even more kids then.

Plus there really isn’t much choice besides figuring it out. Especially if you have to get dinner on the table solo. The urge to give in to frozen dinners comes now and then, but I believe too strongly in home-cooked dinner to cave in. Plus some days are better than others. My consolation is that I hope one day my kids will cook. I don’t shoo them from the kitchen because I like that they are creating. It is music to my ears to hear my kids ask, “How do you make that, Mommy?” or declare (as they are packing toys in the salad spinner) that they are making ice cream.

I also get satisfaction from their unbiased love of food from all walks of life, whether sweet or spicy, fresh or fried. My daughter has a new thrill, which is begging me for real ingredients. I protest, because I hate to see food wasted. But she is SO HAPPY to be playing and making Apples Sandwiches, Mushy-Mushy-Banana Pie or Squishy Grape Treats.


Learning about whole foods from an early age.
Learning about whole foods from an early age.

So now, after five years and three kids, I consider myself experienced enough to give advice on how to survive the early years with your kitchen skills intact.


Advice for cooking with kids:

Expect it to be hard. It just is. Unless you are making pizza, anything you make for dinner is going to require time at the stove (including boxed dinners, which we are trying to avoid anyway). It is difficult to keep hungry kids at bay while they beg for a snack. Perhaps there are toys or babies on the floor, never mind competing for utensils with tiny scientists, the list goes on.

Prep ahead. I am the last person who wants to give up my time when the kids are out of my hair, but sometimes just having the cutting board and vegetables out, I can chop a thing here and there and save myself 10 minutes during dinner crunch(crash?)-time.

Know it will take longer. Yes, you could probably work on three things at the same time when you had time to think straight. But now, in the midst of chaos, you probably can only focus on one. So don’t beat yourself up when things go off schedule. Doing as many steps as you can in advance really does help, but may mean starting a day or more ahead.

Make two. Double the recipe for more involved dishes (soup, lasagne, sauces, etc.) and freeze half, so you can have an easy dinner another night. If you can, change up the fillings (chicken vs. sausage, cheese vs. spinach) or key ingredients so you don’t have to eat the same thing twice.

Advice for feeding kids:

Don’t give in to bland and boring. It can be irritating when the kids don’t eat something I struggled to get on the table. Though I get to be smug when they don’t eat any more of the grilled cheese I make the following night. They simply aren’t that hungry. Don’t squash the opportunity for them to love new foods by deliberately avoiding them.

Ignore picky eating. Most kids will grow up to eat like their parents, so it doesn’t make sense to cement in their brains that they “always love” one food or “won’t eat” another. If not today, maybe they will learn to like it later. I always stick everything on my kids’ plates. They don’t have to eat everything, but the option is there.

The “One-Bite” rule. Encouraging them to try new foods is necessary since kids aren’t inclined on their own. Before saying they don’t like something, my kids need to try a bite (and they aren’t allowed to throw it off their plate!). Usually, one realizes it is good and the other stands their ground. C’est la vie, we move on.

Make good food. Never underestimate a bad apple. Or tomato. Sometimes my kids take two bites of something they usually enjoy and stop there. When I taste it, I realize it is yucky. Kids don’t want to eat food that has bad texture and color any more than we do.
And that’s it. Take heart and have faith. And reach out, if you need. I randomly wrote to the author of when newborn + small kids + Minnesota winter + husband with late hours hit me over the head like a cast-iron pan. She gave me the encouragement I really needed that day… and some good kid-friendly recipes, to boot.

*No offense to the fathers out there. You men-who-cook-dinner are awesome, and no doubt have also suffered mental fatigue from cooking with small children.

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Radish Hamburger Buns

Radish Hamburger Buns
Unpeeled radishes yield a bun with pink flecks in it like this one.

Typically I shy away from baking endeavors in the summer because it is too hot. But this year, it is what I would call a perfect summer. 70’s to 80’s, low humidity. The other week I made foccacia and was pleased to discover that my dough actually rose in the amount of time it was supposed to. Usually (making breads in the winter) I have to double the time for the dough to double.

My plan for dinner was to grill some beef tenderloin. Since the weather is so nice, I wanted to make homemade hamburger buns to go with it. I spied some radishes in the fridge from Fava Bean and Radish Bruschetta that I made the other week. (A winner recipe, by the way.)

I hate to admit this, but I am no lover of radishes. In fact, when I signed up for a CSA and got them in my box week after week, I puzzled over who the heck would ever want this volume of radishes. Since then, I am trying to find ways to love the radish, since it is grows in abundance locally. So I stare at the radishes, with beef sandwiches on my mind, and decided what the heck. Maybe they’ll enhance the bun like a horseradish would. I’ll throw them into the dough, see what happens.

Oh mama! Bingo! This is a marvelous sandwich! Squishy (soft, like store-bought) but with enough tang to complement the beef. It’s much more subtle than onion, and doesn’t affect the texture at all.

I did experiment with peeled versus unpeeled radishes. Upon grating my first radish I realized that unpeeled would make the dough have pink flecks in it. I guess that just announces you’ve added something unusual. I prefer going incognito and peeling the radishes first, then grating them.

Experimenting with peeled vs unpeeled grated radish.
Experimenting with peeled vs unpeeled grated radish.

By the way, this is a good recipe for regular hamburger buns if you want to minus the radishes. Just adjust for the moisture (i.e., add more water, like a half cup).

Making Radish Hamburger Buns

Radish Hamburger Buns

3 cups flour, plus more
1 cup warm water
1 tablespoon instant or dry yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 egg
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
A bunch of radishes (8 to 12)

Activate the yeast. Whisk together the yeast and sugar with warm water. Let it sit until a froth develops on the top (if froth doesn’t develop, your yeast may be too old…better go to the store to get new stuff rather than have dense buns).

Grate the radishes. If you don’t want pink flecks in your buns, peel the radishes. Then, grate them as finely as you can. I used a microplane zester. Keep in mind, here, that radishes vary in size. You may want to start with most of the radishes, leaving some aside. After mixing in the flour, taste the dough after and decide if you want it to radish it up some more. (I started with 8 small-size radishes and definitely wanted more flavor.)

Mix the dough together. If you are using a mixer, you are going to need a heavy-duty stand mixer with the dough hook. I usually start with the paddle, then switch to the dough hook after everything is mixed. Stir together the butter, egg and salt with the yeast and sugar water. Add the grated radishes. On low speed, incorporate the flour a cup at a time. Switch to the dough hook.

Adjust the flour. What you want to do now is get the moisture of the dough right. If it’s too dry, you’ll have dry bread, so we start with excessive water. Just a note, the tackiness of the dough will diminish after it’s mixed for 10 minutes, so don’t overdo the flour. Let it be a little too wet. Start the mixer on medium speed. See the dough sticking to the bottom of the bowl? That’s good. Get a scoop of flour and shake a tablespoon at a time into the mixer. Let it blend in, continue adding a little at a time. You want to adjust the flour so you have about a 4-inch diameter (about a teacup saucer-size) of dough sticking to the bottom while it mixes.

Develop the gluten. Beat the dough for 7-10 minutes. Longer is better. When the dough is done, it should be loose. I like hearing the dough slapping around. Hopefully, there is still some sticking to the bottom of the bowl. If not, you may want to add a little more water and mix it until it is completely incorporated.

Let the dough have a first rise. Form the dough into a ball and place it in a well-oiled bowl. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic and let the dough double. Depending on how much time you have, you can let it rise on the counter or in the fridge. About an hour for room temperature, enough time to go to two stores and get lunch for the fridge.

Deflate, shape and let it rise again. Punch the dough down and separate it into 10 equal(ish) pieces (use a scale if you are a perfectionist). Roll each piece into a ball, getting it as smooth as possible. Lay down a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet, and place each ball on the sheet with equal spacing. Personally, I like when they smoosh together a little after baking. But, again, if you are a perfectionist and want perfectly separated buns you may want to use two lined baking sheets. Dust the tops lightly with flour and cover loosely with plastic wrap or a tea towel, let rise for an hour.

Rise, butter, bake. When the buns have puffed up some but not quite doubled, preheat the oven to 375°. Melt a couple tablespoons of butter and brush the tops of the dough balls with it. Bake the buns for 12-15 minutes, or until the tops are browned. Cool them on a wire rack completely before cutting in half.


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The Best Way To Clean a Burned Pan

One time, when I was a teenager, I set off the house fire alarms from forgetting that I was boiling noodles on the stove. Yep, you heard that right. I completely forgot about it, so all the water boiled away and the noodles started smokin’. I’m better that that now…I never burn anything with a lot of liquid in the pan. But any dish that has me cook something thick—unsupervised—for longer than a half hour is likely to end up as a burned pan. I’m sorry, I am an active cook. I can fly around the kitchen like no one’s business. But if you say I can leave it for an hour, I probably will. Only when my nose catches a whiff of that burned smell do I realize that my “low” wasn’t low enough, and I’m too late to save the dish. (Hence, why I use a slow cooker.) The worst is when it is something precious, like Momofuku’s taré recipe involving roasted chicken bones, mirin and soy sauce. The kitchen goes from smelling glorious to singed in less than fifteen minutes. Precious ingredients wasted. Precious time wasted.

The fact that my expensive Le Creuset Dutch oven was at stake (a wedding present from my sister, no less), prompted me to do an online investigation. This is the very best way to remove burned food from an enameled pan or treated non-stick pan without scratching it.

This hydrogen-peroxide and baking soda solution was posted online and voted highly, so I gave it a try:

[quote]Add about a 1/2-inch of Hydrogen Peroxide, and 1-2 teaspoons of baking soda to the pot. Heat until it starts to bubble up. It needs the heat to start the reaction. Simmer about 10 mins … and brush with a green scrub brush and use a wooden spoon to scrape. Repeat as needed. It gets into the bond of the carbon and lifts it of the pan. It will bubble and stink, so turn on your vent. But it won’t harm the enamel. I’ve tried all the above for high sugar crusts/carbon burned on stuff. This is the ONLY thing that works 100 percent of the time without scratching your pan.[/quote]

Honestly, it is magic. A bit stinky, but within 15 minutes the solution was clear and the pan was clean.

Another time, after searing some marinated flank steak in my cast iron, I needed a trick for a seasoned pan. For cast-iron pans, method #1 is to add enough water to cover the bottom of the skillet, then put it right back on the stovetop and heat it until the water begins to boil. When the water cools, use a scrubber or wooden spatula to remove all of the crud. If the crud is impossibly stubborn, method #2 is to put the pan in the oven and turn the oven to the self-clean cycle (which does kill two birds with one stone). You will have to reseason the pan after the high-temperature method.