Little Bites

little chinese dumplings
Gung Hay Fat Choy!

 

We make a point of eating dinner as a family most nights. It’s the way I grew up, and it’s still the time of day when getting everyone together works. We all seem to get up at different times and no one has the same idea of what constitutes a delicious breakfast, everyone is scattered to the four winds at lunchtime, so that leaves dinner as our family meal. I hope when the kids get older we will still be able to get together  around the table regularly, it’s one of the few rituals we have going for us.

Making halusky

Making halusky

When the kids were babies, I read Ellyn Satter’s book Child of Mine, which counsels against preparing separate foods or meals for your children, but rather to present them with the same food the adults eat and let them choose how much they want. We do aim for this approach — I admit to relying heavily on the corollary that you should include at least one thing the kids like in each meal — but I also have a few tactics for getting dinner on the table for everyone without doing too much short-order cooking.

1. Break it up!

This is a time honored one. Our kids don’t belong to the “no foods may touch” school of thought, but they’re also not subscribers to the “anything is better with ketchup/ranch dressing/sauce” school. So when I have a dish that mixes a lot of things together, or includes a spicy or other  strong-flavored sauce, I often plate up the kids’ portions first, with the components separate so there is less chance one less favored item will be the kiss of death for the whole meal. I also try to put the grown-up version on the table in a serving dish so if the kids are feeling daring, they can try the finished version. This has actually worked on several occasions!

2. Put it together

DIY counts for a lot with our kids. It incorporates a bit of the former tactic, which is putting everything out in separate dishes and letting the kids choose what they want to add. Several of our dinners on repeat fall into this category:

  • Pizza

This one you probably know. Make or buy dough, heat up the oven, give each kid a blob of the dough and let them go to it. Use a pizza stone if you have one, I have the kids make their individual pizzas on parchment paper to make it easier to transfer them — you can slide the paper out from under the pizza after 3 minutes or so to get the crust crispy. Toppings you might try:

  • sauce: just open a can of crushed tomatoes, maybe add some oregano, and you’re good to go!
  • cheese: no need to stick to mozzarella, try something smoky or a blue cheese for fans of the stink.
  • sausage or pepperoni
  • any sliced deli meat
  • canned or frozen artichokes
  • sliced peppers
  • mushrooms
  • olives
  • pineapple
  • spinach or broccoli (blanch the brocc for a minute or two, or cut into very small florets)
  • Spring Rolls

I first offered these assuming the kids would fill the  rice wrappers with rice noodles, but they surprised me by using plenty of veggies. It’s a lot of chopping/grating but almost no cooking, so a good one on a hot day. Put out on the table:

  • Shredded cooked chicken, cooked shrimp, or tofu cut into matchsticks
  • small lettuce, separated into  leaves
  • Grated/julienned carrot
  • thin-sliced cucumber
  • Grated/julienned radish
  • cooked rice vermicelli (boil until  soft, then  keep in cold water  until just before serving so they don’t  clump)
  • sliced green onions
  • cilantro
  • dipping sauce:  soy sauce, or try a mixture of soy sauce, peanut butter, rice vinegar and  a little sugar

Have the  rice paper wrappers ready, and a dish of  water big enough to dip the wrappers in. At the table, just dip one wrapper at a time so it  gets coated with water.  Put it on your plate, pile up your choice of fillings (lettuce leaf usually goes first as a kind of inner wrapper), and by the time that’s done, the wrapper should be soft enough to fold and roll.

  • Bibimbap

Same principle as spring rolls, really: everyone gets some rice, then piles up the toppings. I’ll let Bon Appetit explain.

3. The Last Resort

Make it fun. My first standby is Breakfast for Dinner, which isn’t so bad if the kids will eat an egg or some bacon along with their pancakes or waffles. French Toast is a pretty decent dinner, actually, if you don’t float it in syrup. A new favorite is the “toothpick dinner”: kids like bite-sized stuff, they like poking things with sticks, what’s not to love? I usually put out some combination of the following, with fancy toothpicks for serving:

  • Chunks of cheese
  • Chunks of apple
  • Rolled up cold-cuts
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Tortellini
  • Hard-boiled egg
  • Beans or chickpeas
  • Orange segments

I’d love to hear what works at your house. Do you let your kids choose dinner some nights? Or even help make it? That’s the next frontier here, I think.

Kid-made dumplings

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Making up for lost time?

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Hey, long time no see! What have you been up to? This space has been empty for an awfully long time, and we’re sorry about that. I’d like to say we’ll be reformed bloggers this year, but you know how it goes. We do have a few recipes to share, so don’t abandon this space!

Despite the lack of evidence here, we have been cooking steadily, if unimaginatively. And so, we give you… another year of dinner plans, which I hope will be useful or inspirational, or at least a nudge to go check out some of the many awesome recipes other people are cooking up. It was again a fun way to look back on the past year, especially since I was pretty good about keeping an accurate record of what we had for dinner each night. A lot of pea soup, apparently.

Glad you’re still here, and we’ll do our best to be here too.

Click here to download EC Dinners 2012

My Darling Miláčik

sour cream cream

While I was growing up eating Jell-O pudding cups,* halfway across the world Valerian was snacking on miláčik. Now, miláčik means “darling” or “dear” in Slovak, so if you run a search on it, you’ll get a rather surprising selection of results, particularly pet photos.

Last time he was back in the Old Country, Valerian noticed that miláčik is basically sweetened, flavored sour cream, and so when he returned to California, he decided to whip us up a batch himself. It’s not quite as firm as the kind you buy in the store, which sometimes is called tvarohový miláčik because it’s made with tvaroh, the local cheese that’s similar to ricotta. Valerian’s recipe here couldn’t be simpler, though, and while the vanilla bean gives you those authentic little speckles, just bump up the amount of good quality vanilla extract if that’s what you have. Sour cream makes a perfect consistency to top or fill crepes, or, honestly, just slurping it up all on its own. Good thing I’m wearing these elastic-waist pants.

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*These days I’m more partial to Kozy Shack. Terrible name, ridiculous website, but that is some good pudding.

Miláčik

This creamy delight falls somewhere between a pudding and a sauce. If vanilla seems, well, too vanilla, sift in a tablespoon of cocoa powder and make a chocolate version instead. Could you use yogurt instead of sour cream? Sure, but then you’ll have flavored yogurt.

Ingredients

  • 1 16 oz. container sour cream
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract

Method

  • Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds and their surrounding paste.
  • Whisk together the sour cream, sugar, and vanillas in a medium bowl.
  • Serve in small bowls, as a topping or filling for crepes or pound cake.

The Emperor’s Rolls

Kaiser Roll
We had a first blaze of summery weather here last weekend, and our thoughts turned towards the delights of summer eating, of course. Back in Slovakia, the fruit trees are blooming and the cherries will soon start to form; here we’ve got strawberries still green and rock-hard, but strawberries! growing in our garden!

When it comes down to it, sometimes the very best meal is the simplest. “Use the very best ingredients you can find” is the rule here, and in this case, it involved a little DIY to get the best. At the end of a warm afternoon, a dinner of sliced tomatoes, a little salt, maybe some mayonnaise or avocado balanced on a kaiser roll is all you need. Well, a cold beer can’t hurt, either.

For whatever reason, we haven’t really seen kaiser rolls in store here – I know you can get one when you order a deli sandwich, but where are they, among the mini-bagels and pocket-less pitas and artisanal ciabatta at the grocery? But never fear. The fearless bloggers over at The Fresh Loaf have a recipe that is straightforward and gets great results. We should know, we have tried it several times by now!

Have you ever resorted to making something when you couldn’t buy just what you wanted? It’s what got us cooking, how about you?

Roasted kale & cauliflower with gnocchi

This is one of those odd combinations that just works. It sounds like a recipe I threw together based on whatever’s in the fridge, and in fact you really could try using different elements here if that’s what you have. Cauliflower always seemed like such a dull vegetable, it’s colorless for heaven’s sake! But roasted, it’s transformed – when it’s just a bit burned along the edges, that’s when it’s best. And kale, well, everyone and his dog knows how good kale chips are by now, right?

Here, the roasted veggies’ slight bitterness pairs up with a bright lemony-parmesan dressing and some gnocchi for heft, that’s a perfect dinner for early spring, just before all the best new crops start rolling in. If you feel the need for some protein, add some beans (you know I’m going to say chickpeas. I have such a thing for chickpeas!) or bacon.

There’s some chopping involved here, but once that’s done, it’s a very low-maintenance project. You could do some of it on the stovetop, but I think that’s more work, really. This past week I prepped the kale and cauliflower the night before, so all I had to do was pop them in the oven and boil the water for gnocchi while I made the dressing. Toss it all together and you’re ready to eat!

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Roasted kale & cauliflower with gnocchi

I usually use two baking sheets, one for the cauliflower and one for the kale, but you can squeeze them onto one. Your kale may not get as crispy that way but you’ll still get that great roasted flavor. I generally prefer “dinosaur” or Tuscan/lacinato kale, but any type works here, even a combination!

Ingredients

Serves 4

  • 1 large head cauliflower
  • 2 bunches kale
  • 1 package (500 grams) store-bought gnocchi
  • 2 Tbs plus 2 tsp good quality olive oil, separated
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • zest and juice of one lemon
  • ½ cup or so grated Parmesan cheese
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • Additional parmesan cheese for sprinkling over the top

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  • Cut the stem off the cauliflower and cut/separate the florets into bite-size pieces. Toss with 1 teaspoon olive oil (or spray with olive or cooking oil if you have it) and spread on a baking sheet in a single layer; sprinkle with a little salt. Roast for 20-25 minutes, occasionally shaking the pan to move things around, until the cauliflower is nicely browned.
  • Meanwhile, cut the thick center stem from the kale and tear the leaves into large pieces. Toss with a teaspoon of olive oil (or again, spray) and spread on another pan, or make room on the cauliflower pan. The kale needs only about ten minutes in the oven, so keep an eye on it or put it in when there are just ten or so minutes left for the cauliflower. You want it to get crisp but not burn.
  • Put a pot of water on to boil for the gnocchi.
  • Whisk together the oil, mustard and garlic; whisk in the lemon zest and juice, and then stir in the Parmesan. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.
  • Boil the gnocchi according to directions, drain, and put it in a large bowl. When the cauliflower and kale look appealingly browned, add them to the bowl, reserving a few of the crispier kale leaves. Add the dressing and toss gently.
  • Serve with the reserved kale leaves and Parmesan sprinkled on top.

Slovak Classic Reloaded – Bryndzove Halusky made with Pecorino

I love bryndzové halušky – little dumplings with cheese.  I already blogged about them when still living in Slovakia, but they are  something I really miss from my homeland. They are pretty straightforward to make them, except that you need bryndza. Bryndza is sheep cheese, which looks like ricotta but with a distinctive sheepy tangy flavor. Since I’ve never found bryndza here, making this dish in the US seemed impossible until I came across Pecorino Romano in the infamous Trader Joe’s.

Pecorino is a sheep cheese, which looks very much like young Grana Padano. It had been a long time since I tasted it, and although Pecorino is a harder cheese than bryndza, I decided to give it a try. I made halušky, which is a Slovak version of gnocchi and very very generously grated Pecorino over them. Then I added  rendered bacon fat and fried bacon and I felt like I’d gone to heaven. It worked. It is not exactly the same as making it with bryndza, mostly because bryndza would make the halušky creamy. If you feel like it, you can add 1 or 2 tablespoons of sour cream, that should do the trick. In other improvements from the last time we posted this recipe,  I made the halušky dough better with more potato flavor.

 

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Bryndzove halusky

Improved recipe based on ingredients bought and available in the US. This feeds 2 adults and 2 kids with leftovers for a tiny mouse.

Making the halušky requires a special tool – a halušky maker (like a colander with extra-large holes). A colander, or even a grater with large holes can be a decent substitute. If you don’t have any of the above, buy packaged gnocchi (cut them in half) or spaetzle and cook them as directed.

Ingredients

Makes 4 portions.

  • 2½ cups finely grated and juiced potatoes
  • same amount of flour as potatoes (about 2 cups)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 egg
  • 1-2 cups finely grated pecorino cheese
  • 1 or 2 (or more) strips of bacon per person
  • 1-2 Tbs sour cream (optional)

Method

  • Grate the potatoes, and add the flour, salt, egg and the water. You should get a goopy dough. That’s ok.
  • Set a large pot of water to boil. When it has come to a boil, using a rubber spatula or board scraper (or the scraper that came with your halušky maker), quickly press the dough through the holes of the halušky maker/colander/grater into the water, scraping back and forth until all the dough has gone through. When the halušky float to the surface, in 2-3 minutes, they are ready. Drain, reserving ¼ cup of the cooking water.
  • In a bowl mix halušky, pecorino and sour cream (optional).
  • Fry the bacon until the fat is rendered. Add some of the fat to the halušky and top them with the crumbled bacon.
  • Enjoy

 

A salad of convenience

Here in California, you could easily assemble a meal from prepacked components almost every night of the week. There are pre-formed hamburger patties, sure to please our six-year-old; par-baked loaves of artisanal bread, even packages of coleslaw with squeezable pouches of dressing to toss together. While we haven’t used too many of these shortcuts, knowing they’re out there is reassuring. Sure it’s cheaper to buy a bunch of green beans and top and tail them yourself, but sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day and you can throw together some pretty impressive meals in a short time using pre-prepared ingredients.

Case in point: this salad. Trader Joe’s sells steamed beets and pre-cut butternut squash right next to its bags of salad mix. A little farther down the aisle are the cheeses, I grabbed smoked mozzarella because the kids love it. Nab some bread (oh, and maybe some of the chocolate-covered almonds, them’s healthy fats) and head home to your new favorite salad.

Arugula salad with roasted squash and beets
adapted from Five and Spice

 

If you are using pre-cooked beets, you only need to roast them for 5-10 minutes at the end of the squash’s cooking time.

Ingredients

Makes 4 servings

  • 3 medium beets
  • 1 medium (1-2 lb.) butternut squash, or one package of pre-cut squash
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 4 ounces (115 grams) smoked mozzarella cheese, diced
  • 6 ounces (170 grams) arugula, three or four big handfuls
  • salt and pepper

For the dressing:

  • 1 Tbs + 1 tsp good-quality olive oil
  • 1 Tbs + 1 tsp whole-grain Dijon mustard
  • ½ clove garlic, crushed
  • 2 tsp maple syrup
  • 2 Tbs red wine vinegar
  • salt to taste

Method

  • Prepare a pot with a steamer insert. Remove the tops and scrub the beets so they’re nice and clean, then chop them into about ½-inch cubes, and steam for 10-12 minutes or until they are just beginning to get tender (stick a fork one in to check).
  • Preheat the oven to 400° F (200° C) and lightly coat/spray a baking sheet with vegetable oil. While the beets are cooking, prepare your squash: if you have a whole squash, cut off the “neck”, peel it and dice it into ½-inch cubes. (You can also peel and cut up the bulbous part and clean out the seeds, but I usually save that for another time.) If you’re using pre-cut squash, just make sure the pieces are all about the same size as the beets. Toss with the teaspoon of olive oil to coat, and spread on the prepared baking sheet.
  • When the beets have steamed, put them on the baking sheet with the squash. They’ll color the squash where they touch, but I consider that a feature, not a bug. Sprinkle everything with salt and pepper, and slide into the oven to bake for about 20 minutes, tossing once halfway through.
  • While the vegetables are cooking, prepare the dressing: whisk together the mustard and oil, and stir in the garlic. Add the maple syrup, and then the vinegar, tasting to see that the proportions are as you like. Add salt as needed.
  • Rinse and dry the arugula.
  • When the vegetables are tender and starting to brown, take them out of the oven and let them cool for 5 minutes.
  • In the biggest bowl you have, toss the vegetables, arugula, and mozzarella with the dressing and serve.

Chocolate spice cake cookies

Right around the time I stopped eating meat as a teenager, I spent a summer working at a local wildlife care clinic. If squeamishness about meat had played any role in my decision to become vegetarian, that would have been the shortest internship ever. Without going into detail, let’s just say that the recipes for a raccoon’s lunch or a hawk’s afternoon snack have no place on a food blog. At least not this one.

I stopped eating meat mainly because I was 14 and it seemed like a cool thing to do, but then found I didn’t miss it and haven’t really missed it  in the [redacted] years since. While I believe that it makes sense to reduce the number of animal products we use, I have never had much of a rationale for vegetarianism, and never felt much inclined towards being vegan. I’m way too lazy to monitor my diet that closely – living with three committed omnivores, I am okay with picking the sausage out of my favorite lentil soup. I’ll cook meat for everyone else, although they have to make their peace with the fact that I won’t taste it to check how it is. What about your family? Do you have a pescatarian in your midst? Or lurking lactose intolerance? How do you handle multiple dietary needs around the table?

So back to the subject of this post. Despite being happily ovo-lacto myself, my most beloved cake recipe is, by chance, vegan. It’s a Bundt cake and pretty much my stock answer to “what should your birthday cake be?” Although it’s extremely easy to make, it falls into the category of a special occasion cake so it’s not a one I make or eat too often, and that’s not right. When I started seeing cookies baked from cake mix around the internet, a little light  went off over my head. Could this be a way to get a dose of chocolate spice deliciousness whether it’s a birthday or not?

Indeed. Baked for ten minutes, these cookies are delightful puffy, pillowy little cakelets, gooey with chocolate chips and perked up with cinnamon and cloves. But try underbaking them by a minute or two, and you will get what I consider the ideal consistency, which is amazing, almost pudding-y. And  what with them being vegan and all, no worries about raw eggs – go ahead and eat a spoonful or two of the dough, you have my permission.

The canonical version of the cake does not include raisins, although they are in the recipe as written on an index card in my mother’s file. These are to be soaked in brandy or other liquid, and while I scornfully cast out the raisins, I do include that liquid; coffee (what else?) in our household. Feel free to booze it up if you have some handy.

Chocolate spice cookies

Since the original cake is by nature a bit heavy, I used some whole wheat flour in the cookies to give them some heft. You could use all all-purpose, but add the coffee/liquid gradually to see that the mixture doesn’t get too thin. It will thicken some if you refrigerate it for a few hours or overnight.

Ingredients

Makes about 3 dozen smallish cookies

  • 1 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 3 Tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ¾ cup applesauce
  • ⅓ cup canola oil
  • ¼ cup brewed coffee, cooled (or brandy, or other liquid of your choice)
  • 1 cup chocolate chips

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 350° F and line a baking pan with parchment paper.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, spices, baking soda, salt and cornstarch. Add the sugars. Stir in the applesauce and oil, then add the coffee and mix until fully combined. The dough will be soft.
  • Scoop the dough out in rounded teaspoons on the baking sheet.
  • Bake for about 8-10 minutes or until just puffed – leave them to set for 5 minutes on the baking sheet before moving them to a plate to be gobbled immediately cool.

Adieu to 2011

This year has seen some changes at Emperor’s Crumbs; in our first full year in California, we have been posting more recipes that reflect what we eat day-to-day, not only the classics from Central Europe. I do wish we had time to post more recipes overall – one of my resolutions for 2012, definitely!

As a little sendoff for this year, I’ve compiled our weekly menus into a year-long calendar of dinners. It was interesting to see which ones were repeated most often (can you tell we have a kid who loves burgers?), and how often we cooked versus going to a restaurant or getting takeout (although the meal plans are a little unreliable there, since they’re done in advance and if we end up at our favorite pizza place at the last minute it isn’t reflected in the plan). I have included links to the recipes that have them, and I hope you’ll find some useful ideas for your own dinners in the year ahead.

A big thank you for reading here, and I hope the new year is more delicious than ever!

2011 Year in Menus

Recipes from Central Europe to California