French Lentils with Poached Eggs

My. Child. Ate. Lentils.

There. I said it, and it feels good.

Normally, I’m not quite so smug. Because normally, whatever it is that I’m being smug about has a way of coming back to bite me. And this may yet. But, for now you’ll all have to indulge my happy dance because, well, my child* ate lentils.

Lentils are not only one of the oldest food sources on the planet, but also one of the healthiest. They are protein-packed, iron-rich and have plenty of vitamin B1, folate, and fiber. And for those of you whose lentil knowledge begins and ends at the failed casseroles Neil cooked on the British sitcom The Young Ones (please tell me I’m not the only one who gets that 1980s reference), I’m here to change your mind…and hopefully your supper plans, too.

A perfect vegetarian brunch, lunch or dinner - French Lentils with Poached Eggs

A perfect vegetarian brunch, lunch or dinner – French Lentils with Poached Eggs

Click here for our recipe for French Lentils with Poached Eggs…and a little bit more bragging from this lentil-loving mom.

Crostini with Ricotta and Assorted Veggie Toppings

These little toasts have a lot going for them, starting with their name. As if “crostini” weren’t inviting enough — roll that “r” and you’ll even sound Italian — few kids I know would pass up toast. And little toasts…well, I hardly have to say more.

Anyone who has ordered a bruschetta appetizer is familiar with this concept: toast up a slice of bread and top it with something yummy. True peasant fare, which is probably how these tidbits became popular in the first place. Economizing with meat or vegetables piled on leftover toasted bread in the absence of elaborate place settings. In the middle ages, after all, you were lucky if you owned a fork and knife, let alone a bowl or plate.

Suffice it to say that the concept of crostini have been around for a very long time. I, however, credit the Italians for elevating this dish by improving upon the toppings (see the afore-mentioned bruschetta as an example) and serving it, frequently enough, with a glass or two of wine.

Now, the kids in the house will have to substitute their favorite non-alcoholic beverage for that wine, but they can easily partake in both the crostini making and eating. And here’s an observation: you may even persuade a non-veggie eater to try something new if you pile it on top of toasted bread smeared with a healthy dollop of creamy ricotta cheese.

The ricotta is a star ingredient, and this ricotta from Fulper Family Farmstead is fresh and fantastic

The ricotta is a star ingredient, and this ricotta from Fulper Family Farmstead is fresh and fantastic

You can’t go wrong with ricotta! Keep reading for our recipe for Crostini with Ricotta and Assorted Vegetables….

Homemade Chicken or Turkey Stock

Admittedly, this isn’t the sexiest of posts. There’s no chocolate-glazing or honey-drizzling or hickory-smoking of anything. But this is something that we make at least once if not twice a month. I think of it in two ways: a bridge between one meal and another, and an invaluable building block in many of our recipes.

I often feel somewhat sanctimonious when I make homemade stock because 1) it’s easy, 2) it tastes so much better than anything out of a can or box, and 3) it’s a frugal way to use up and extend ingredients that are on hand. It takes a little bit of time, sure, but almost all of that time is completely hands-off, and the reward is great.

This is also a wonderful blueprint recipe to have going into the holiday season…or just the winter season, really. It’s a rich base for other soups (like this chicken and rice one), gumbosrisottos, stuffing, scalloped potatoes, pot pies…you name it.

There is something almost magical about taking the bare bones — the things most often thrown away — of a chicken or turkey, adding a couple of vegetables and several cups of water, and ending up with what some cooks call liquid gold. Like spinning gold from hay, really.

Some of the essentials: Onion, carrot, celery, parsley, thyme

Some of the essentials: Onion, carrot, celery, parsley, thyme

Our most recent batch of homemade stock used the bones from our Thanksgiving turkey, but more frequently we make it with a chicken carcass after baking a chicken or two — even after enjoying a grilled chicken. You’ll also need carrots, celery, and either onions or leeks — those are the other must-haves. I always throw in a handful of black peppercorns and a couple of bay leaves as well. If you have parsley or thyme on hand (as we did after Thanksgiving), put those in too.

We make this so often that I keep a plastic zip-lock bag in the freezer, to which I add random vegetable trimmings or extras that are still usable as I cook throughout the month. Things like scallion or leek greens, celery tops, onion quarters, mushroom bottoms, broccoli stems, chard stems, etc. I pull the bag out and dump it into the stock pot when we make a batch, and it helps round out the flavor.

I keep this in my freezer and add to it when I have useable veggie peelings

I keep this in my freezer and add to it when I have useable veggie peelings

Speaking of freezing, that trick works just as well for the chicken carcasses too. After we finish carving a baked or grilled chicken, I immediately plunk the carcass into a zip lock, label it with the date, and put it in the freezer. That way, if I’m not ready to immediately make stock, I can pull a couple of carcasses out of the freezer at a later date and make stock then.

I said earlier that this is both a bridge and a building block. For us, it’s getting us from Thanksgiving dinner to a nice cream of turkey soup, where it will be a great base along with other ingredients. The recipe for this stock, however, is a pretty flexible one — the ingredients, and even the amount of time it takes to cook, can vary batch by batch. I’m going to tell you how we made our stock, but you should tinker and figure out whether you like more or less of certain flavors. I’m a big celery fan, so I add at least three ribs — often more. I also like a lot of vegetable flavor in our stocks so my ratio of veggies to chicken is a little higher than other recipes. If you prefer a stronger chicken flavor, use multiple chicken carcasses or even a whole, uncooked bird and include things like the wings as well.

Fresh veggies and chicken combine to make a rich stock

Fresh veggies and chicken combine to make a rich stock

There are a couple more tricks to making a good stock:

  • Unless you’re a big salt fan, hold back on the salt until you’ve strained the stock, and even then it might not be necessary. You can always add salt to taste in the final dish you’re making with the stock. You can’t take salt away once it’s there.
  • Likewise, you probably don’t want to use a brined bird to make stock (although, full confession, I sometimes do). Brined turkeys and chickens have soaked in a salt/sugar mixture and can be quite salty. If you do use a brined bird as the base for a stock, be aware and adjust accordingly.
  • When simmering your stock, do so over a low flame. It should never come to a full rolling boil for any length of time or it will become cloudy. Again, full confession, half the time my stocks turn out cloudy and they taste just fine. This is more of an aesthetic thing.
  • Taste, taste, taste. I’ve made batches of stock that come together with a rich flavor in two hours. Likewise, I’ve made other batches that were somewhat watery until they had cooked down for three or four hours. Your stock will be ready when it has a full-flavored taste…not when a timer says it’s ready. A good portion of the water needs to evaporate in order to have a condensed, rich flavor.
  • If using stronger herbs like sage or marjoram, keep your final dishes in mind. Some herbs can make a lovely stock, but have flavor profiles that just don’t work with certain things.
  • Stock is NOT the place to use produce that is just about to spoil or which has been previously cooked (unless you’re talking about veggies you’ve roasted specifically for the stock, which can be terrific). Tempting though it may be, the best stock uses fresh veggies along with the chicken or turkey carcass.
  • Always be wary of kitchen hygiene and food safety. Chicken — even baked — can spoil quickly if not handled correctly. Don’t use a carcass that has been sitting for a prolonged period of time. And once your stock has finished simmering, the best practice is to stain it, cool it quickly in an ice bath, and store it in the refrigerator. It should be used within a couple of days, or frozen for up to three months.

If you’ve never made your own homemade stock I hope this post inspires you to try it. And yes, I do have boxes of packaged chicken stock on hand in the pantry, but always prefer to use a homemade stock when I can. It really tastes that much better…plus I know everything that went into it, which is important. After all, when you’re fighting your way through a winter cold and nothing but a big bowl of chicken noodle soup will do, wouldn’t you feel better knowing that fresh ingredients, and not chemicals or stabilizers, are nursing you back to health? I thought so.

To your health!

Homemade Chicken or Turkey Stock

1 turkey carcass or 2 – 3 chicken carcasses (it’s OK, and even preferable, to have a little bit of meat left on the bones)
4 – 6 ribs of celery, roughly broken into 3 – 4 inch pieces
3 – 5 unpeeled carrots
1 onion, unpeeled but cut in half through the core or 1 – 2 washed leeks, split down the center (I prefer the flavor of leeks, but onions are often easier and on-hand)
A handful or two of any available vegetable trimmings, like broccoli stems, mushroom stems, chard stems, etc.
2 tablespoons back peppercorns
3 bay leaves
Very generous handful (or two!) of fresh parsley sprigs
1 – 2 large sprigs of fresh thyme
12 cups cold water (or enough water to cover carcass and other ingredients once in the pot)

In a large stockpot, combine all ingredients and water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat and immediately reduce heat to a low simmer. Simmer stock for several hours, tasting every 30 minutes or so after the first hour. Stock will likely simmer for 3 – 4 hours before it is done.

Just waiting for water

Just waiting for water

When the stock tastes rich and full of flavor, take it off the heat and allow it to cool slightly.

Position a fine mesh strainer over a second large pot or large measuring cup. Line the strainer with cheesecloth or several layers of clean paper towel, or even a coffee filter. Begin to carefully ladle stock through strainer, allowing it to strain into the container beneath. Change the cheesecloth or paper towels if they become clogged with veggie debris and fat.

Straining the stock

Straining the stock

Once all stock has been strained, fill your largest mixing bowl (or the kitchen sink) with ice and place the container with the strained stock on the ice to quickly cool it (it’s probably obvious, but don’t put ice in the stock…that will water it down). At this point, you can put your finished stock into a lidded container and refrigerate. If you will not be using the stock within a couple of days, freeze the stock for up to 3 months.

You should note that you may get a layer of fat on top of your stock, which will solidify once refrigerated. You should be able to lift it off the top if you wish, though this is sometimes tricky. Also, it is pretty common for long-simmered poultry stocks to gel up once refrigerated — you’ll think you have a giant block of jello. This is because of the collagen in the connective tissue and skin of the poultry. Once heated, the stock will liquefy. Don’t freak out. It’s actually a pretty cool trick and means that the stock is densely packed with good flavor.

Makes: 8 – 10 cups of broth

Parent AND Kid Rating: Five stars. It’s hard NOT to give this five stars, though really, the stars are reserved for the final dish. This is the pre-star starter, and the reason Daughter 1 and Daughter 2 enjoy their risotto and chicken soup as much as they do!

The Mighty Rice Bowl: Brown Rice with Oven-Roasted Vegetables

It’s back to school week in New Jersey and time seems to be at a premium. Backpacks to be packed, teachers to meet, and, thankfully, end-of-summer play dates squeezed between it all to take our minds off the colder seasons ahead (not that we’re complaining…I love autumn in the Northeast!).

This week’s CSA pick-up got squeezed in around all of that. Daughter 1 and daughter 2 followed me around the farm this week for pick-your-own cherry tomatoes (Sun Golds, red, and grape varieties), okra, peppers, herbs and flowers. We also came home with onions, squash, scallions, lettuce, beets…made me almost want to find an actual cornucopia and fill it. Almost. But, pulling in the garage at 6:00 PM without a dinner plan could have spelled disaster. I was thinking on my feet by that time and, wanting to avoid a total evening meltdown, turned to the ever-popular but sometimes forgotten rice bowl.

Pick-your-own at Cherry Grove Organic Farm. Does that include clover?

Pick-your-own at Cherry Grove Organic Farm. Does that include clover?

Looking back, the day daughter 1 actually agreed to eat rice was a turning point in our dinner preparations. I should be able to remember exactly when that was but it was probably the frustration of serving chicken nuggets and tater tots one too many times combined with far too many “please just try it” moments that has somehow blotted that memory from my mind (kind of like childbirth, I suppose…which, though more painful, certainly ended sooner).

We now have no fewer than five varieties of rice in the pantry and our Zojirushi rice cooker spends more time on the counter than on the shelf. (Don’t have one? Go splurge for one right now and thank me later!)

For our rice bowl dinner we choose short grain brown rice, ready in under an hour (just enough time to get the kids in and out of the bath — I was multitasking here and made good use of the “down time” while things cooked). And with all those super fresh veggies our plan came together pretty quickly.

This is a great meal to have in the repertoire because you can tailor it to suit any given food whim or craving. At its most simple, it’s just a bowl of rice topped with, well, stuff. Our stuff this week was roasted veggies — and I had a portion that was completely vegetarian. You could just as easily cut up some cucumbers, carrots and tomatoes and have a kind of hot/cold salad combo. Or, stir fry broccoli, carrots, ginger and scallions and top with a fried egg. Add meat. Or don’t. The rice is just a blank canvas — add whatever you like!

Roasted eggplant, peppers, carrots and onions atop a bed of brown rice

Roasted eggplant, peppers, carrots and onions atop a bed of brown rice

Here’s what went into ours:

The Mighty Rice Bowl: Short Grain Brown Rice with Oven-Roasted Vegetables

2 cups short grain brown rice
2 medium eggplants, trimmed and cut into 2 inch cubes
4 carrots, peeled and cut into 2 inch sections
1  red bell pepper, cut into 2 inch cubes
1 green bell pepper, cut into 2 inch cubes
1 onion, sliced top-to-bottom into 1/2 inch strips (not rounds)
1 large handful — about a cup — of cherry tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Several grinds pepper
1/4 teaspoon thyme leaves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon basil chiffonade
A drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for serving
Protein of choice…I used 2 ounces of feta cheese, crumbled, but you could also top with several ounces of poached and seared shrimp, or several links of Italian sausage, cooked and cut into rings (or some combination of any of those ingredients)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cook the rice according to directions and, when finished, keep warm.

While the rice cooks combine all the cut vegetables in a large bowl and stir in the olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme, coating the veggies well. Spread the veggies into one layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for approximately 30 minutes, until the carrots, eggplant and tomatoes have softened and the peppers and onions have just barely started to brown. Don’t let the veggies burn though — you might have to keep your eyes on them during the last 10 minutes at 400 degrees.

Reduce oven to 350 degrees and roast for another 30 minutes until quite tender. You may want to stir the veggies slightly during this time to redistribute on the baking sheet and to make sure they cook evenly without scorching.

To serve, put approximately 1 cup of cooked rice into each serving bowl and top with equal amounts of the veggies. Drizzle with a little more olive oil and about 1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar. Top with some basil and a small amount of crumbled feta or whatever protein you choose to use (or not…the veggies are quite good on their own).

Serves: 4

Parent rating: five stars. I went for the all-vegitarian version with a little feta. The basil was the unsung hero of this dish, added at the end for a light, fresh note. Delicious, reasonably fast, and if you double the quantity it makes a great day 2 lunch. Also packs quite easily, so I sent daughter 2 to school with leftovers (she requested it, over a turkey and cheese sandwich offered as an option!).
Kid rating: four-and-a-half stars. I cheated a little bit and didn’t serve any eggplant or basil in their portions, which neither of them particularly like. I loaded up on the carrots for them though, and also put a couple of shrimp on top. Also, daughter 1 didn’t get any balsamic. I think that really talks to the versatility of this dish…add what you want, omit what you don’t like. It’s all good. Very, very good.

Risotto with Fresh Summer Corn and Herbs

I am a pressure-cooker risotto convert. Actually, advocate or evangelist might be a better description. Risotto wasn’t even in our regular menu rotation before I started cooking with a pressure cooker and now we make it several times a month, easily. I even packed the pressure cooker for our trip to the shore.

After all, what is not to like about risotto? Creamy, cheesy, and able to leap high buildings in a single bound (and by that I mean you can add just about any veggie or protein flavor combination with equally-stellar results), it’s a dinner-time super hero.

Jersey shore dinner of steamed clams, risotto and string beans

Jersey shore dinner of steamed clams, risotto and string beans

If you don’t have a pressure cooker, don’t be discouraged. There are several great — and easy — risotto recipes out there with techniques that prove you don’t need to constantly stir the rice pot to get good results. I recommend starting with the version for Basic Risotto on the Cook’s Illustrated web site if you have a subscription. As I’ve previously hinted, this is our go-to web site for reliable and proven recipes — the subscription is definitely worth it for a serious cook. Another great recipe for Laid-Back Risotto comes from Mark Bittman on the New York Times web site, translating a Mario Batali recipe that features spring asparagus.

Personally, it was the Cook’s Illustrated recipe for Pressure-Cooker Parmesan Risotto that started us down the pressure-cooker risotto path. The advantage to using the pressure cooker is that dinner can be on the table in 15 minutes, start to finish, and that is a lifesaver on a busy weeknight…or in our recent case, an evening at the shore where we didn’t want to spend too much time in the kitchen. It’s reliable and easy and, in our house, frequently requested as well.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. One of our favorite versions uses fresh (preferred) or frozen corn, but we have also used the techniques below to make:
– Butternut squash risotto (add cubes of butternut squash early, with the onions)
– Fresh baby spinach risotto (add baby spinach at the last moment)
– Ham and pea risotto
– Seared shrimp and scallop risotto (sear shrimp and/or sea scallops separately and incorporate at last moment)

Super hero indeed!

Fresh corn from the Ocean City farmer's market

Fresh corn from the Ocean City farmer’s market

A quick note about the white wine used to deglaze the pan and start the steaming process for the rice: use something dry that you’d normally drink. If you’re having wine with dinner, this is a great excuse to open the bottle early. But often enough I don’t feel like opening a full bottle of wine for this recipe alone, in which case I use the vermouth that is nearly always open in our liquor cabinet and doesn’t turn as easily as a regular bottle of wine. I prefer Noilly Prat Original Dry vermouth for this recipe. Vermouth is a fortified wine that incorporates other botanical flavors. The herbs and spices in Noilly Prat are mild and work well with risotto. There are some other wonderful vermouth’s out there that make a mean martini, but which I wouldn’t use for risotto because they are too full-flavored. Experiment a little to see what you like if you go this route.

Here is how we made this week’s batch, using Jersey Fresh produce we picked up at the farmer’s market:

Pressure-Cooker Risotto with Fresh Summer Corn and Herbs

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small onion, finely diced
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/4 cup dry white wine or vermouth
4 cups chicken broth (homemade if you have it)
Approximately 3 cups fresh corn kernels, cut from 3 ears of the freshest corn you can get (or use frozen corn…I do in the winter)
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup grated mild cheddar cheese
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon zest (optional…works well with some but not all flavor combos)
1/4 cup fresh parsley, basil, or sorrel, finely minced (or combination of herbs…a little thyme might be nice depending on what you’re adding)

Begin by heating the olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat in the pressure cooker (or pot on the stove top if you’re making a traditional version of risotto). Add the onion and sauté until softened. Add the rice and stir, allowing rice to sauté slightly for about 1 minute. The outer layer of the rice grains will take on a slightly translucent look – this is what you want. When all the rice gains looks uniformly translucent and ever so slightly browned, add the white wine or vermouth.

When the wine is nearly evaporated, add 3 cups of chicken stock and put the lid on the pressure cooker. Bring your pressure cooker to high pressure and cook risotto for 4 minutes before releasing the pressure. For a non-pressure cooker version, keep adding warmed chicken stock to your pot as needed until rice is cooked through.

Carefully remove the lid and stir the risotto, adding more chicken stock over medium heat as necessary until the rice is tender but al dente.

Add the corn, allow to cook for 1 minute, and remove from heat. Stir in the Parmesan cheese, cheddar cheese (a non-traditional addition, but something my kids really like that rounds out the creaminess), the lemon zest if using, and the remaining 1 tablespoon unsalted butter.

Stir in the herbs — or sprinkle over the top — and serve.

Serves: 4 as a main course, 6 as appetizer or side-dish portions

Fresh corn risotto

Fresh corn risotto

Kid rating: five stars – sometimes four-and-a-half depending on the various things I add. This is a reliable staple on our dinner table that both girls enjoy and request.
Parent rating: four-and-a-half stars. We tend to like stronger flavors than the girls, and I’ve been known to dish their portions and then “spice up” our portions with some spicy sausage or some veggies that might not be on the good list on any given week (for instance, peas). But this version, with fresh corn and sometimes some added cooked chicken, is a favorite for everyone.

Cucumber and Lemon Zest Tea Sandwiches

Let’s face it. Sick days are no fun. Especially when you’re three, and at home with a tummy ache.

Daughter 2 may have preferred following me around today to being at daycare, but sick is sick. She’s usually a good eater but I could tell nothing sounded good today. So when, after nap, she asked if we could have a little tea party I wholeheartedly endorsed the idea. Tea sandwiches (a sneaky way of getting food into the child) and a little watered-down orange juice were just the ticket.

Can we have a tea party? Can we?

Can we have a tea party? Can we?

We kept it simple but added a lemony twist. “I love lemon!” she told me as we made these.

Sick or not, our cucumber and lemon zest tea sandwiches are just the thing for a quick pick-me-up. And when made with a garden cucumber that has chilled in the refrigerator they really do taste like summer!

Assembling our sandwiches

Assembling our sandwiches

Serve on their own, or with some other quick sweet and savory goodies for a real tea party tower of treats.

Cucumber and Lemon Zest Tea Sandwiches

8 slices sandwich bread, crusts removed if you wish
2 – 3 tablespoons salted butter
Zest from 1 large lemon
1 cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced

Spread a thin coating of butter on one side of each bread slice. Zest the lemon over 4 bread slices so the zest is evenly distributed among the 4 slices. Arrange the cumber slices evenly among the other 4 bread slices and sprinkle with salt to taste. Pair one lemon-zest bread slice with a cumber-covered bread slice to make a sandwich. Cut diagonally to make 2 triangles, and then cut those triangles diagonally again so that each sandwich ends up in 4 triangles. (Hey — you can cut yours any way you’d like…squares, rectangles, or leave ’em whole!)

So summery

So summery

The real art is in the presentation. Daughter 2 asked for them on a pretty platter we use for tea parties and I was more than happy to oblige.

Serves: 4

A platter of cucumber and lemon zest tea sandwiches

A platter of cucumber and lemon zest tea sandwiches

Kid rating: four stars. The first bites were heaven, for daughter 2 and for me. But in the end her lack of appetite won out and she only ended up eating about half a sandwich. Daughter 1 will likely be jealous when she gets home though!
Parent rating: four stars. My idea of tea party fare leans toward smoked salmon (which would have been FANTASTIC on these, with a little dill!) or curried chicken. But these were just so fresh, and nibble-able, that I kind of wished we had reasons for tea parties more often.