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… better late than never …

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Weekending: Milestones and Change

I need a weekend to recover from this weekend. We seemed to have gotten into the spirit of spring cleaning and checked quite a few items off of our lists. There was that leaky faucet to replace in the kitchen and of course my garden needed to be plowed and readied for planting in a few days. Then, we continued celebrating my birthday from last Monday — now that Evan had un-mired himself from work. There was cooking to be done and I couldn’t keep my hands off of Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem book so most of the things we made were from my new cooking volume. Last, but not least, there was a room make-over for Sophia and… more cake. Let’s start with what matters most to everyone — dessert. The cake was a strawberries and cream cake from an old Cooks Illustrated recipe. I must admit, that I had to make the cake twice having forgotten to put butter in the first one and accidentally making it a Russian Biskvit. Apr12_2 The cake itself wasn’t very tall and I impressed myself by managing to split it into three layers. The assembly is deceptively simple needing only strawberries, sugar, cream cheese and cream to finish. Apr12_3That is what it looked like when it was assembled and before it was devoured. The strawberries are halved and arranged with the hull sides out on the perimeter of each layer. Inside are chopped macerated strawberries with a reduced strawberry syrup. All that is topped with a cream cheese and whipped cream frosting and the very top is just frosted. Okay, okay, I am sure you need to see the inside shot as well… Apr12_6   Mmm… it was good. Good thing too because it was a dessert that followed a meal of Middle Eastern-spiced cod cakes in minty tomato sauce. They were a cinch to make if you don’t mind a bit of herb chopping. In fact, I knew they were going to be pretty amazing because what dish that has a whole bunch of cilantro and parsley isn’t good? The dish was the epitome of spring, summer and healthy, too. Apr12_1 Since the cod cakes required  a bit of chopping, we decided to make the rest of the weekend’s meals a little easier. I had chicken stock making in the slow cooker which, by definition, cooks itself and an amazing roasted chicken leg recipe. This one is also from Yottam Ottolenghi and just absolutely gorgeous. It is easy to make provided you’re motivated to marinade a day or two in advance. All you need to do is toss some olives, capers, caper juice, red wine vinegar, dates, bay leaves, olive oil and well… chicken legs together and let sit in your fridge for a bit. Then roast and serve with plain cous cous. I had never cooked anything savory with dates before and was very surprised how their intense sweetness balanced the brininess of the olives and capers. Mmmmm… there may have been oregano too, but truthfully, Evan marinated this one so I am not quite sure. Apr12_8     A meal such as this one was just what was necessary to satisfy at the end of a very busy weekend where in addition to cooking up a storm and fixing leaky kitchen fixtures, we also transitioned Sophia to a big girl room. She’s outgrown her crib and we thought it was time she got a big-girl bed what with her being a big girl now. Shh, but don’t tell her that she’s a big girl. According to her, she’s apparently not ready to be one. We managed to turn over a new room between breakfast and lunch on Sunday which required a plan of action and fast execution. After cleaning out the closet to ready it for her clothes, I can honestly say that I shall never become a hoarder… ever, ever, ever. Apr12_9   Here she is in her new digs. As you can see, I did splurge for three photo prints from the animal shop but framed them myself with some neon colored frames from Michaels that I got on a great sale. I also framed a Sophia original in a metallic blue frame and that is hanging to the right of the lamp. The basket housing Minnie is one that Grammie (my mother-in-law) made for us as a gift for my bridal shower. Perhaps the most unique aspects of the new big girl bed are Sophia’s pillows; I selected two pillows stuffed with buckwheat hulls that are typical in Japan and are supposed to be much more breathable and comfortable for your neck and back. They are definitely unique and we’ll see if they will work out. Lastly, there was of course plenty of fun and play going on at our house… and we did enjoy the great outdoors in the evenings. Whew… when’s next weekend again?Apr12_5

Another Year, Another Feast

Monday was my birthday and because Evan was mired nose-deep in work, I resurrected a much beloved tradition of getting the day to myself. The tradition has evolved and changed over the years, but I like keeping it and even a very rainy birthday couldn’t keep me away from a date with … myself. I don’t remember the last time I had time for myself, to wander about, do what I fancy and be left alone with my own thoughts for any prolonged period of time. I am not complaining because in effect, the lack of time had made Monday that much more special.

I treated myself to a very large cup of coffee, my e-reader firmly in my lap and a bit of people watching. I headed to a few of my favorite shopping haunts eyeing beautiful pieces and decided that by lunchtime, I was refreshed and sated, ready to celebrate and spend time with my family. Of course celebrating usually involves some cooking and prepping and who wants to do any of that on their birthday?! Not I! Coincidentally, April 7th is National No Housework Day :-) and having recently uncovered this very fact, I made sure to cook this weekend so that we could enjoy a lovely dinner and even dessert almost prep-free.

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First up was a polenta topped with a rich eggplant-tomato sauce – a very satisfying recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi that I had been looking forward to trying. This satisfying main accompanied a last-minute, spur-of-the-moment panzanella salad that Evan and I whipped up together. Coincidentally, or perhaps because I’ve been mentioning this for quite a few months, Evan got me Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook as a present. After putting Sophia to bed, I spent a few minutes perusing the recipes and scanning the stories that he writes about Jerusalem, Israel and the cultures that are reflected in Israeli cooking. I was happy to see some Armenian, Georgian, Syrian, Iranian and even Indian dishes represented.

I fell in love with Israel when Evan and I visited on a Birthright trip in 2009. The food, its variability and vibrancy played such a huge part in the seduction. Of course the people, the culture or the melding of the cultures, the antiquity of it all played a significant role as well. Never have I seen people, especially the youth, live life so fully, embracing every moment as if it were their last. Because a trip to Israel is not in our plans for the next few years, I’ll settle for being momentarily transported to this wonderful corner of the earth through food.

But I digress — this was a birthday meal and as such, a dessert or more specifically, a cake was absolutely required. I didn’t want to bake my own cake and didn’t think that I wanted something with layers and a rich, sugary frosting. I ended up making a pavlova dressed with lemon curd, whipped cream and berries. It was … it was just spectacular. Light, airy, sweet and yet tangy, not rich but decadent. It was spring personified and so beautiful.

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Weekending: Lighter, Brighter and Greener

I am pretty sure I won’t jinx it when I say that Spring is finally here. Our daffodils are in full bloom and the weather was spectacularly glorious this weekend. We took full advantage of the outdoors knowing that it will be too hot and humid in just one short month. As such, a trip to a flower nursery and a new playground were a must on Saturday. Sophia loved all the flowers and helped us with seed selections for planting in our  little vegetable garden. We will be gardening again, albeit on a smaller scale and with produce that requires little maintenance (think peas and lettuces).

WeekendingLight2As usual we cooked a bit, but made lighter, easier dishes than those that have been de rigueur over the last few, cold months. Something about the glorious sunshine, warmer temperatures and overall better moods stipulated fresh, brighter and spicier flavors. So… there were coconut-lime tacos and this dry-seared shrimp with an orange, cucumber salad dressed with a touch of mint and cilantro. So fresh and so flavorful.

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Relating to Little Failure

Among my many accomplishments this past weekend, most of which were culinary, was the completion of Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure. I heard about this book while listening to Terry Gross interview Shteynart on Fresh Air and realized that I just had to read it. This is new for me of course, because if you ask my mother, I hated reading as a child and the fact that my sister is one of the best read persons I know, may or may not have had something to do with that. Among my earliest memories are my mother’s blintzes and her nagging words that I will never succeed at anything in life as I am so poorly read. In fact, I picked up reading on my own at around age 9 after falling in love with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

In any event, I am currently on a reading bend and am swallowing books at an alarming rate. The reason I wanted to read Little Failure is because I haven’t been exposed to too many immigrant stories and wanted to see how my own experience and that of my family compared to Shteyngart’s. The book itself is an incredibly well-written, funny memoir that is not filtered through rosy colored glasses but not subject to guilting the reader either. In other words, the author uses humor to make the reader more comfortable during more difficult passages of the story. There were many parts of the book that made me feel as if I were reading my own memoir and overall, the experience felt cathartic because it showed that you can talk about an incredibly difficult time of your life without feeling shame and that many others have had difficult lives and difficult experience that have molded and shaped them into the individuals they are today.

Most importantly, in a strange and unexpected way, reading this novel helped me understand my own parents even better. By American standards, my parents are incredibly strict, very demanding, and highly opinionated. I see that they are not the only ones like that and that these qualities are perhaps brought out by the process of immigration, of starting over and building a new life once again, long after you have done it before elsewhere.

I recently revealed to my parents that I wish they spent more time with me or put me into more activities during the first few years of being here. There was quite a lot of alone time for me with few instances of hand-holding. More than I care to admit and more than I would ever excuse for my own children or my nephew. My mother became upset and told me how difficult it was for them during those first few years. I understood, of course, but I also told her how impossibly difficult it was for me those first few years. Shteyngart sums it up very well in his book when he excuses the lack of photographs of his family from the early 80ies due to the fact that they “were too busy suffering”. This, and many other sentiments of the sort have kept me from recounting my and my family’s own first few years in America. Like the stories of so many other immigrant families, Gary Shteyngart’s journey is successful and he becomes a well-received author and a well-respected professor of writing at Columbia University.

Once again, stories like the one told in Little Failure and even like this one are great reasons to ponder why immigrant children, or children of immigrants are statistically so much more successful? Something tells me that it has everything to do with fulfilling your parents’ dream of making something of yourself because you were brought here to have the opportunity. More mysterious is the fact that this obligation dissipates quickly and is all but forgotten by the next generation. Even more surprising is the lack of empathy regarding the immigrant experience. I may never truly understand my parents, their sentiments and the decisions the faced, but I empathize with their plight.

Weekending: Like a Thespian

Rain, rain go away, come again another day weekend. We prayed for the end of winter and the start of spring. Spring, however, has decided to come holding winter’s hand; It has been pouring non-stop for three days. Winter is blowing us one last snow-filled kiss as a grand, final goodbye. We were looking forward to entertaining our cousins from out-of-town, but decided to reschedule for a time when the weather is better. Poor Sophia had gotten a mean case of cabin fever and we decided nothing less but a big event would cure such an affliction. So, we decided to take her to her very first theater performance. Not just any theater, but a puppet theater at the famed Glen Echo Park. The Puppet Company had an Old McDonald’s Farm performance on the Tiny Tots Stage and we were delighted to get some tickets. The 30 minute performance was spot on and Sophia was enthralled during the entire show. Having enjoyed the performance ourselves, we are looking forward to returning to the park, to the Puppet Company and checking out the several artists in residence when the weather is better and the carousel is running. The park is only a 20 minute ride from home.

There was of course plenty of cooking at the house filling the dreary days with warm aromas. We made a meat, spinach and potato au gratin which was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. It boasted unparalleled flavors and textures due to the very crispy browned beefy bits flavored with Worcestershire sauce and the cream steeped with thyme and garlic. I must admit that we didn’t have Gruyere cheese or sage. We used Mozzarella as a substitute but will probably try the Gruyere next time. This is also a one-pot wonder which will last several days — my favorite kind of a dish!

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The au gratin was balancing a very healthy meal we cooked up on friday night. Seared trout, salmon’s less flashy cousin, with oven-roasted sweet potato fries and garlic-y asparagus. The season for asparagus is now and so why not use something that is seasonal and local?!

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The yogurt and maple syrup loaf that I made on Friday evening delivered as much lusciousness as a pound cake without all the sugar and fat. In fact, the loaf is made with a cup of yogurt and only a quarter cup of refined sugar!

Mar30_2Indulge we must, especially when the weather outside is so dreadful and so there are chocolate-walnut cookies upstairs in the kitchen. They are best with a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt.

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Quite the productive weekend around these parts. Besides our jaunt to the theater, I also finished Little Failure — a story recapping a Soviet immigrant’s tale of coming to and growing up in America. It was a spectacular read. My reaction and review of the book deserves and will rightly get its own post in the near future. Lastly, I believe I have, on my 5th try, perfected a recipe for farmer’s cheese blintzes and will share my version in the next week or so. We are ready for the work week knowing our fridge is full of delicious foods and our minds are sated with literary delights.

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Playing Catch-Up

Our weekend shenanigans caught up with us sooner rather than later. My parents’ care package wasn’t elastic but did sustain us long enough to make a mid-week trip to the grocery store for some necessities. Because I’ve been on a baking binge as of late, I decided to give this French apple cake a try and must admit that it turned out wonderfully. I always get melancholy when we leave our wonderful families and there is nothing better to lift my spirits then the aroma of something baking in the house. And so, I made the cake on Sunday, shortly after we returned to our abode and unpacked. As a side-note: if you do try the recipe, use three large apples or four medium ones. I used three large ones instead and thought they were plenty.

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Then, and because cake is by no means a meal, we had to come up with dinner. This is where Evan stepped in and treated Sophia and me to a home-made, wok-stir-fried chicken with broccoli and red peppers. I think the recipe is his own, though he uses a marinade from this book. Paired with some sticky japanese rice, this meal was divine and not just because it was cooked for me, but because it was green and light.

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After this type of a meal, a slice of apple cake is definitely a must!

 

Weekending: Elsewhere with Goodies

Having entertained quite a few weeks in a row, we’ve decided to be entertained ourselves and gladly accepted my parents’ generous offer to host us. They always ask us to visit with them offering up amazing food — there and to-go –, free babysitting and general fun as incentives.

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As is customary, I couldn’t just show up without anything delicious and so, I brought Chewy Apricot Bars for Friday. The recipe is my own and posted here, based on one I saw a while back on Yammie’s Noshery. They couldn’t be easier to make or more delicious — packing even a bit of healthfulness via the use of oatmeal.

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There was all manner of everything home-made, fresh and delicious at mom and dad’s house and we were glad to give our own kitchen and tired hands a break. As much as we wanted to sit around and lounge noshing on blintzes, we also had a few house-calls to make namely visiting with Evan’s family including his grandmothers. It is a bit difficult for Grandmom and Bubbie to travel to Maryland and see us, so we gladly made plans to see them.

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And of course, of course, you didn’t think a visit to the Philadelphia area would be complete without a visit to the city of brotherly love itself, right?

We slipped out on Saturday right after the start of Sophia’s nap and ventured into the city to take in some of our favorite neighborhoods and haunts as well as try some new things. The city, like most others, is alive and ever-changing always ready to surprise us with its new secrets. I am quite certain that we haven’t seen temperatures in the high sixties and low seventies since last October!

We visited Northern Liberties to see how much that neighborhood has gentrified and were surprised to find so many new townhouses and condominiums being built. Then, we drove past our old residence in Olde City and into Washington Square West. Society Hill and Washington Square West were bathed in the late afternoon sunlight showcasing their stately homes with great pride. As you stroll, you feel yourself walking in the footprints of history. Perhaps it was the fact that we had time all to ourselves, or maybe the good weather helped uplift our spirits. You couldn’t ask for anything better. I know many of my readers prefer the calm and quiet of suburbia and the countryside but having lived that and having lived in the city, I crave the vibrancy, liveliness and all that Philadelphia has to offer. It is true — you never forget your first [city] love.