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School lunch

Some time ago, I got worried about school lunches, and immersed myself briefly in bento blogs.  Then stuff happened.  Then I got back from vacation, and realized I have very little time to figure this out!  Actually it’s not so bad as all that, because the Kindergarteners in my city ease into things, having half days until October.  I still need to send a snack, but that’s different.  Not only that, but I keep expecting to get rules of some kind.  No nuts, no peanuts, no chocolate milk, no soup, no… I don’t know what they would forbid, and that worries me.  So, I’m testing portable food.  And thinking very hard.  Here are some things I’m thinking.

  • Omelettes:  I saw in some bento lunches, very very thin omelettes rolled up tight.  Taste test = happy.  I can’t roll them as tightly, partly because I lack practice, and partly because I put in minced green pepper too.  Cheese helps the roll stick together, the shape makes it easy finger food, and I found that by using a pastry brush I can get enough butter for flavour in the pan without overwhelming it.  Slightly labor-intensive for a weekday morning, but if I keep the minced pepper and grated cheese on hand, it takes barely longer than a sandwich.  In my small pan, I think 2/3 egg per roll works perfectly, which looks like a reasonable size for a 5 year old, but we’ll see.  The pepper in this, by the way, is not a veggie serving, just a flavouring.
  • Sliced veggies:  This is obvious, of course, but I need to remember to cut things up as I buy them, so I can just grab them and dump them in the lunches.  Fruit is tougher, it mostly ought to be cut up that morning.  Oh, and cooking veggies too, and be steamed fast in small quantities if they’re already cut.
  • Sandwiches:  I hope they allow nut butters.  Combine with jam, or bananas.  Also cucumber/mint (if it’s in a cool box, I make those with mayo), hummus/red pepper, and various things I haven’t thought of yet.  Sandwiches are slightly complicated due to children deconstructing some types more than others.
  • Beans:  With Cynthia, I’m lucky.  She’ll just eat canned beans by the bowlful.  If I run out of protein ideas, there’s always that.  Nathaniel won’t, but he doesn’t need the lunches yet.
  • Jerky: I actually like making jerky, when I get to it, and the kids love it.  Definitely not an everyday thing, or even every week, but a reasonable thing to have in the rotation.
  • Marinated chicken:  My current theory is, freeze small containers in marinade, thaw and cook the day before.  I’ll need to cook several lunches’ worth at once though, I just can’t deal with piles of itty bitty containers in the freezer.
  • Frozen corn and peas:  Instant vegestarch.  They can keep other things cold while they’re thawing, too!
  • Pasta in parmesan:  Both kids love this.  Can be combined into pasta salad, or put in its own corner, it’s all good.
  • Bread of course:  In sandwiches, or just as bread & butter.  I sometimes freeze risen but uncooked buns, with cheese and meat and veggie filling.  Sort of like an instead calzone, except more bread than filling.  If I can find a filling combination which my kids will eat, that will rock. 😛  No matter how much they like what I put inside, once it’s inside they don’t seem to want it.
  • Cheese:  Again, this works if the box is cold.  I do have boxes with freeze-packs in the lids, but the boxes are a bit too tall and narrow to be convenient.  They work best for mixed things like pasta/quinoa salad, or stir-fry.

Then there are things I haven’t tested yet.

  • Quinoa Quiche:  You ought to be able to dump a bit of cooked quinoa into a quiche, making it slightly less unhealthy.  It’s also possible that you could take strips of quiche and roll them up in tortillas.
  • Burritos:  I haven’t made these in a while, not since Cynthia was able to eat them rolled up.  I should see whether she appreciates them.

Then there are the extras, which are mostly plots so I can eat sugar.

  • Thin pancakes, rolled up with or nutella or jam.
  • Fruit leather, cut with mini cookie cutters so that I can eat the extra.
  • Crispy treats, with brown rice puffs or 7-grain puffs and peanut butter.  (My husband laughs at me for trying to make rice krispie treats healthy.  But I can barely eat the normal ones, they’re sweeter than candy.  I’m just trying to make them taste better!)

This is the first time I tried to write down any of this, so obviously I haven’t gotten everything in my head, never mind all the stuff which ought to be in my head.  But I’d love other ideas!

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Pancetta starts with P

This month’s Charcutepalooza challenge was curing bacon or pancetta. I split the difference and chose the pancetta recipe but without the rolling. The fresh bacon / belly I had in my freezer was a pretty small amount – the wrong shape to roll it up into a pretty spiral. It’ll taste the same anyway. And it wound up fairly pretty and round:

pancetta slice

Apparently I should have removed the skin before curing – at least if I was going to roll it up into a cylinder which now has a curved, hard, skin on the end. Oh well. Lesson learned for next time. And there will be a next time. YUM.

I was saving my last few parsnips from the winter farmshare this season for one of my favorite dishes starring parsnips. Conveniently, it also needs pancetta. I first found a version of this recipe from Martha Stewart. (I know, I know.. but it’s tasty, and simple.) Martha obviously doesn’t serve this to kids in pre-k, or have the same sense of humor as I do, though, so she ignores the great alliteration potential – Pasta with Parsnips, Parmesan, Pancetta, Pepper, and Parsley. I made both the 5 year old and the other grownup laugh by pairing it with Pink grapefruit juice. “Mommy, why did you make grapefruit juice? That doesn’t start with P.” “Ah. But what color grapefruit did it come from?”

pasta with parsnips, parmesan, pancetta, pepper, and parsley

The first project in Charcutepalooza, the one I read about just as it was happening, was duck prosciutto. Take a duck breast, cover it in salt for a day, then hang it to dry for a week, and you’re done. So I headed to Sherman Market, picked up a duck breast from New York State, and gave it a try.

I wasn’t particularly afraid to start making the duck prosciutto. After all, I’ve tried salting cod before, and this wasn’t so different, plus the weather cooperated. I didn’t even check that I knew where our cheesecloth was before I stuck the duck breast into the salt in the fridge overnight. (And then I didn’t. Know where it was, that is. Did you know that a “turkey stuffing kit” from the supermarket contains a cheesecloth bag, twine, and bits of metal that make adequate hooks to hang up a piece of meat to dry?)

What it turned out I was somewhat afraid of was eating the duck prosciutto. You see, it’s supposed to turn firmer after a day dehydrating in the salt, and then firm up as it turns into a cured meat product hanging in a cool space for a week. And it *seemed* different – but I’ve never eaten duck prosciutto, nor have I eaten anything I’ve cured that wasn’t also meant to be cooked before eating.

Then I decided that it looked a bit like bacon, with the nice red color, the gorgeous strip of fat on one side..the not-so-thin slices I was able to make… So our first taste of the duck prosciutto was fried up bacon-style, to go along with a little french toast. Tasty, and cured-tasting like bacon. Not too crispy because I like my bacon to taste meaty anyway. But still, not the most exciting texture, and not worth buying a duck breast and then watching it cure for a week, either.

So. I had to convince myself it was really cured. A little more poking, a little more prodding, a small nibble from my husband and I , and we proclaimed it safe to eat. (Also, tasty. Pretty intense flavor, and very smooth and silky.)

For lunch I ate this salad, with some generous slices of duck proscuitto without further cooking, beets, potatoes, and tiny greens grown in a greenhouse in Westport MA, and a little vinaigrette.

I’m still here.

duck pancetta salad

Fat and Salt

I’ve stumbled upon a monthly blogging project that will get me to use a bit more of my favorite new cookbook, Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie, and now in addition to pondering it I’ve bought ingredients and gotten started.
The project is called Charcutepalooza, and a number of bloggers will be making cured meat, sausages, and whatnot once a month and blogging about it throughout 2011.

”CharcutePalooza”

Today I started duck breast prosciutto by putting a large raw duck breasts into a containerful of salt. (This project should have happened and been finished by 15 January, but I hadn’t heard about it yet.) February’s project is pancetta, which is cured and tightly rolled up bacon. I am making a smaller quantity of both of them than the recipes call for – if they turn out great I will perhaps feel silly, but if they’re a disaster I will be glad not to have ruined quite as much expensive meat.

My counter in January

No, I don’t mean to talk about the crumbs, the rubber bands, the empty lunch containers, or even the assorted bits of plastic associated with having a baby who has required his mom to produce some of his food with a breast pump. We’re not so great at keeping our kitchen clean and uncluttered. (Did I mention the baby? Who also requires some additional and time consuming help getting his food into him?)

but this bit of clutter has been staying on the counter in the past 2 weeks on purpose:
the salad spinner living on the counter

That’s because I keep getting the opportunity to buy *this* fresh salad. In January. Grown in a greenhouse in Westport, MA.

Northstar farm salad

Thank you, Northstar Farms and Somerville Winter Farmer’s Market!

Let other ski and have snowball fights and skate. Not for me the windswept rush of snowboarding or the hushed solitude of cross country skiing. While I enjoy walking in winter, I don’t like anything that requires major exertion if it’s cold out — not even shoveling. My favorite winter sport is drinking hot chocolate.

As such, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy considering my hot chocolate recipe. I’ve tried the austere and very French <Ichocolat, made with much cocoa, a little sugar, and water, for the purest chocolate kick. I’ve tried full-fledged cocoa, sweet and light, with lots of milk and billows of whipped cream. I’ve tried everything in between. This is the combination I’ve finally settled on.

Chocolate syrup
1 cup dutched cocoa (preferably Callebaut)
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
big pinch of salt
3 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped finely (preferably Valrhona or Scharffen Berger)
splorch of corn syrup

Mix everything except the chopped chocolate in a big pot, whisking until combined. Add a splash of water and stir into a paste. Turn the heat on and stir until the whole paste is thinned out and smooth. Stir in the chopped chocolate, and keep stirring until it’s melted and whole thing is smooth.

This is your chocolate syrup. It can store well in the fridge, sealed in a jar.

When you’re ready to make hot chocolate, add a full 1/3 of a cup of syrup to a mug and stir in either boiling water or very hot milk. Which you prefer depends on whether you prefer a high-octane chocolate kick or a richer, more mellow drink. You can also combine the two — half milk and half water. It’s up to you. Either way, top with a generous dollop of real whipped cream, slightly sweetened.

You can feel free to add caramel syrup, peppermint extract, or a big splash of Grand Marnier.

Now, you may think that 1/3 of a cup of syrup is too much. It’s not. Trust me on this. This is how you get the really good flavor.

You may also holler at me for using corn syrup. Let me explain. When you put that much sugar into solution and then heat it up, the sugar dissolves into a syrup. If you then let it cool, the sugar molecules want, very badly, to form giant crunchy nasty crystals. You can prevent this by carefully monitoring the syrup and never agitating it or stirring it and hovering over the flame to maintain the liquid at exactly the right stage, poking and prodding with your digital thermometer. OR, you can add a teaspoon of corn syrup, which has slightly different sugar molecules, and will prevent the molecules from crystallizing.

It’s your choice.

There’s a big nor’easter barreling down on New England today and my malaise has left me with a fridge that is largely empty. The city feels gray and empty, the sun is sulking behind a pile of clouds, and the chill is bone deep. I had lunch plans with one of May’s classmates and his mom, but they didn’t show today, I assume because of an illness. So instead of grabbing lunch and then going grocery shopping, I was going to go shopping on the way home, with the car, then eat lunch.

This had several advantages, mostly being that I could buy two gallons of milk at once. But the disadvantage was that May and I both get really nasty when we’re hungry. And we were hungry.

Now, there’s a whole calculus when it comes to shopping with a five year old in a car in Somerville and the variables are too many to detail here but I decided to stop at Whole Foods on my way home. I had my list — shopping with a list is one of my rules — and I had a plan. My plan involved eating some of the snacks I keep in my purse to tide me and May over until we could get home after shopping. Usually it’s GORP or Vermont Smoke House Meat Sticks or something else high-octane with a long shelf life. But then I reached into my purse and… no food. I’d forgotten to restock.

So I arrived at Whole Foods cold, starving, and cranky. May was less cranky than I was because I fed her the one snack I did have — a clementine.

So, the first thing I did was decide that I was going to eat lunch at Whole Foods rather than at home. And, looking at the long lines, I decided to do my shopping all at once, including lunch, and then eat. Better than standing in line twice, right?

Of course you know I bought way too much stuff. I deviated from my list and everything I bought that wasn’t on the list was expensive, high-calorie, and mostly pre-made. Stomach rumbling, I grabbed a luscious looking local mozzarella that was carefully displayed in a quaint little woven basket. Rushing to get a gallon of milk, I decided that those individual cartons of chocolate milk were just the thing to drink with lunch. The prepared salads at the salad bar looked like a just thing to have for lunch, too! And didn’t I deserve a Lake Champlain chocolate bar for dessert? Sure did!

Because I forgot to restock my GORP, I went shopping hungry. Because I went shopping hungry, I doubled my bill. Literally. Looking at the receipt, half of what I spent was on my quick lunch — salad bar, chocolate milk, and a candy bar. Add in the $9 block of cheese that I bought merely because it was well displayed and I blew close to $30 that I didn’t really need.