Archive for the 'tips' Category

on making baby food

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

Evan and his duck á l'orange.

This isn’t a mommy blog. Really, it’s not. And I don’t intend to make it one. But this is the place where I write what I write, and what I write is often a reflection of what I’m doing and thinking about. Having had a baby nearly seven months ago, it’s inevitable that baby-related posts would show up here.

I’ve been experimenting with making my own baby food for the little guy’s consumption, and I thought I’d set down some basic principles about how to do it. It’s really not that daunting, as I’ve discovered, particularly if you let go of a few outdated ideas about what babies “should” eat.

  • Would you eat it? The most important factor to consider. Taste it. Does it need salt? Pepper? A bit of cumin? Don’t be afraid to add a little spice. There’s really no reason for babies to eat bland food. Indeed, societies in which people eat spicy food don’t tend to shy away from feeding their infants the same foods they eat in pulverized form.
  • What food groups do you want to include in a given dish? Carbohydrate? Protein? Fat? A combination? The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby & Child Care claims that the enzymes required to properly digest grains are not present in infants until around one year of age, so I am putting off grains until my guy is a year old. Babies aged nine months and older may be at risk for anemia, so including liver and egg yolks in their food might be a good idea. I have been combining all carbohydrates with fat or protein so as to avoid any spikes in blood sugar. It is my belief that fats used by traditional cultures are the best ones to eat, so I use coconut oil, butter, ghee, schmaltz, and olive oil in my baby food.
  • Equipment and utensils. You don’t need any special equipment to make your own baby food. I’ve been using a good coffee grinder that I bought at a yard sale and some four ounce mason jars to store the food I make. Make sure to use a separate bowl for feeding, so as to keep the rest of the food in the jar clean of bacteria and baby saliva. I use a small sterling silver espresso spoon or a small bamboo spoon for feeding. The silver is mildly anti-bacterial, and therefore, not simply cosmetic, or, er, a symbol of being spoiled rotten. I use small, sturdy cube-shaped porcelain bowls to feed Evan, and will eventually graduate to a sturdy bamboo bowl when he starts eating solid foods in larger amounts. Silicone bibs are very convenient, as they are easily washed in the sink after meal time.
  • Make a little at a time. You don’t know what your little one will like until you try, and even if he likes it, a jarful can easily last a few meals and keep for a few days. I always taste the food first before feeding Evan, to make sure it’s still fresh.
  • Use the ingredients from your own meal. Watermelon is in season at the moment, such that when I make watermelon feta cheese salad, Evan gets chilled watermelon soup. There’s no need to prepare a special tiny pureed meal if you don’t have the time.
  • Be adventurous. The cheese shop I go to was sampling some soft goat cheese recently. I took a disposable spoon and gave Evan a little taste. He made the most amusing face, an expression of surprise, curiosity, maybe a hint of disgust. I think the tangy, goaty flavor threw him for a loop. That’s OK. The taste was completely new to him, and he was discovering the flavors and texture of the cheese. When he finished his taste, I offered him a small taste of a slightly less pungent soft cheese. Guess what? He was curious about it and opened his mouth immediately when I showed him the spoon. Your infant may surprise you if you offer him something new and unexpected.
  • Allergens and unsafe foods. Initially, I was very cautious about the foods I fed Evan. I began with one food at a time, mixed with a fat or some yogurt. I would switch to a different food after 3 or 4 days to be sure he had no reaction. This is a prudent course of action at first, I think. But there is a whole world of foods to savor, and he didn’t appear to be allergic to anything, so I began combining more than two foods, and adding in spices in moderation. I am, however, avoiding all nuts and any foods that cannot be sufficiently pulverized so as not to be a choking hazard. I am also going on the recommendation to avoid honey (even though traditional cultures feed it to babies, or so says my local Yemeni apiarist) and raw milk. I do suggest doing your own research in this area and drawing your own conclusions. The research on food allergies and first foods is still very open-ended.
  • Keep at it. Your baby may not like the first bite or two of something new, but she may take to it with gusto a few tentative bites in. If she doesn’t like something you’ve made, take it in stride. She is developing her palate, and is becoming discerning, which is fun to observe.
  • Offer a choice. Sometimes a baby just wants the comfort of his bottle, rather than a strange new mashed food on a spoon. My friend Quan taught me a trick: when your baby seems a bit fussy about his solid food, offer him a choice. Put his bottle on one side and his bowl of solid food on the other. Then ask him which he’d prefer. He will examine each option and grab at the one he wants. It’s perfectly OK to switch to his bottle if he wants it.
  • The joy of eating. It is indescribably satisfying to watch your infant discover the joy of eating. Savor and encourage it. I like Evan to tell me when he wants more and when he is done. This allows him to discover his palate, his sense of hunger, and satiety. When he wants more, he bangs on the tray of his high chair. When he is done, he purses his lips and turns his head away. He can always eat more later, or the next day, if he wants. And I can finish his food if he can’t.
  • Have fun. I like to eat my meal along with Evan if I can, so that he learns to have routine meal times, and enjoy the conviviality of shared meals. I love seeing him smile in delight when he eats.

P.S. I find it necessary to mention that the above post is simply a reflection of my experience, research, trial and error. I am not a health professional of any sort, and wouldn’t dream of dispensing advice in such a capacity. Infants, like adults, are individuals, and what works for one may not work for another. YMMV.


Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

On a recent bright Saturday morning at the Ferry Plaza farmers’ market, I was pleasantly surprised to find large bouquets of za’atar. Star Route Farms grows the herb and sells large bunches of it at the market.

Za’atar is more commonly known as an herby spice mix spiked with sesame seeds. The mix is named after the plant, which is dried and mixed with a variety of ingredients such as sumac, cumin and salt. Traditionally, people in the Middle East have mixed their own za’atar according to family recipes and the local palate. The dried mix is sprinkled on labneh (a sour sheep’s milk yogurt cheese) and on small round flatbreads drizzled in peppery olive oil.

Fresh za’atar is a rare treat. I’ve never seen it in bay area farmers’ markets. It was hard to find the herb even in the markets of the greater Tel Aviv area. Once you get your hands on some, you can use it fresh and dry the rest in the sun. Store it in a tightly sealed jar.

Fresh za’atar has an aroma and flavor somewhat similar to wild oregano, but different. Za’atar has a little more attitude. It’s oregano’s hot-headed cousin. Its scent is a little more heady, its taste a little more powerful. Za’atar goes very nicely with soft cheeses, especially goat and sheep cheeses, as well as hummus. It spices up a roast chicken, along with a little lemon, sea salt, pepper and olive oil. Sprinkle some on sliced heirloom tomatoes in lieu of basil, or add it to cheese kreplach. Gently fry some leaves in olive oil as a sauce for pasta, then top with chunks of cooked chicken or fish and olives with a squeeze of lemon juice. I haven’t tried it, but I suspect it would go well with lamb kebab. It might also enliven a packet of shrimp or fish en papillote.

My favorite use of za’atar—dried or fresh—is on a round of traditional flatbread, warm and redolent with toasted sesame seeds and a thick layer of za’atar mix drenched in strong olive oil.

What do you like to do with za’atar?


Monday, March 3rd, 2008

nesting spoons

I was at Ikea yesterday, buying some odds and ends in an effort to make our new place home. Yes, I know. Ikea. Great design that disintegrates faster than it goes out of style. Still, they do carry some handy knick knacks.

Take these nesting spoons for example. As soon as I saw them wrapped in plastic fishnet, I was curious. These little lovelies have a magnet on the handle, allowing for easy stacking and keeping them together in your drawer by sheer magnetic force. No fiddly little key ring to corral your wayward measuring spoons. No searching for that one tiny Barbie-sized measuring spoon you never use but invariably need when you least expect it. These spoons stick together like diminutive stainless steel family. (I’m imagining these spoons lined up, largest to smallest, swaying on the kitchen counter, singing “We are family/I got all my sisters with me.” Is it completely bizarre that my kitchenware performs Sister Sledge songs?)

I tried pinning the set to the side of the fridge for storage—no luck. You could probably hang them on a magnetic knife rack—another goody from Ikea which I have yet to install. Meanwhile, these ladies are going in the cutlery drawer where they can sing their little hearts out to an audience of assorted flatware.


Monday, May 21st, 2007

Claravale Dairy is now selling milk, cream, and colostrum at the Berkeley Farmers Market every Saturday. They plan to set up a stall at the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers Market soon. I suggested they join the Sunday Temescal Farmers Market as well.

Claravale raw milk is sweet with grassy overtones, and deliciously rich. Try a couple tablespoons of their cream with strawberries—an ethereal experience.

* * *

I’ve recently received Clotilde Dusoulier’s new cookbook “Chocolate & Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen” from Amazon. If you haven’t done so already, buy this book! It’s full of creative recipes that don’t appear too difficult to prepare. It’s also full of Clotilde’s elegant photos and delightful prose you’ve grown to love. Most of all, her book is a source of inspiration—leaf through its pages for ten minutes and see if you don’t come up with a fabulous idea for dinner. Or lunch. Or breakfast.

pie dough with the eggbeater

Sunday, November 19th, 2006

Pies are all about the crust, which is to say they’re all about the dough. Well, not really. At least half the fun is eating the gooey sweet fruit that fills the buttery cavern of your pie. But the best filling in the world won’t save a poor crust, turning an otherwise tasty pie into an abject failure. Knowing this, and with Thanksgiving just around the corner, I signed up for Shuna’s pie dough class in Berkeley. Let me tell you, having been to that class, I now recognize all the horrible errors I had previously thought were standard pie-making protocol.

For example:

  • Fancy, high-fat, European style butter isn’t necessarily better. If you do use fancy butter, cut back a bit on the amount you use (six ounces rather than eight is a rule of thumb).
  • Processing the dough until it forms a ball is a very bad idea. If your dough has formed a ball, your crust will be be tough.
  • Roll your dough from the middle outwards, not from the edge.
  • Once a crack, always a crack. If your dough starts cracking as you begin to roll, the cracks will stay and grow. To fix the crack, gently mush together the cracked dough back together with the blade of your hand.
  • Rotate pie dough frequently when rolling so as to avoid it sticking to the work surface.
  • Lightly rolled dough produces a light crust. A large, fairly heavy rolling pin is preferable, and easier to use. It requires less physical effort on your part, resulting in a flakier crust.
  • Use a whole lotta beans. When baking blind, fill the entire shell with beans.

These are just a few salient points. By touching the dough at various stages of processing, listening to it (a dough that makes lip-smacking noises is not only rude, it’s way too wet), tasting it blind-baked and non-blind baked, I began to see pie dough as its own unique creature. A professional pastry chef is a dough psychologist, gently coaxing the dough to wellbeing while working through its potential for multi-faceted neuroses. Warm pie dough is insecure, resulting in a melted, self-conscious crust. Over-working the dough results in an aggressive, tough pastry. A dough might look perfectly well-adjusted in the mixing bowl, but do anti-social bits of flour and butter lurk at the bottom?

The ingredients themselves have their own unique personalities. Flour must be aerated and weighed. Butter must be kept as cold as possible and chopped coarsely. Water must be absolutely ice cold. Understanding the behavior of each ingredient—and why it behaves the way it does—is just as important as understanding the whole. A pastry chef is both scientist and artist.

After all you learn about pie-making, Shuna’s pie is magic. How can flour, butter, sugar, and water produce such ethereal flakiness? And how do crunchy apples become sweet, buttery velvet in your mouth? To me it’s alchemy.

down to the wire: thanksgiving menu

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

I’ve been collecting recipes over the past month or so, storing the links in an e-mail draft in my gmail account. This is standard practice for me before every big holiday meal. The process goes something like this:

  1. Think about seasonal ingredients that pique my interest for the holiday menu, such as cranberries, pecans, pumpkins, squash, chestnuts, sage, fennel, celery, beets.
  2. Scout the blogosphere and for recipes that sound good.
  3. Save links in an e-mail according to topic, for example, 15 pie recipes that all sound really good.
  4. Prepare certain staples in advance, such as ordering the most expensive turkey I’ve ever purchased and canning my own cranberry sauce.
  5. As the holiday hype snowballs in the media, search for and save links to yet more recipes.
  6. Consider the number of guests and their particular dietary requirements. Current estimates: thirteen people, including two vegetarians, two young children, two people who hate peppers and cilantro, 1 person who dislikes turkey, 1 hater of all things chocolate.
  7. Panic.
  8. Take a deep breath and thank the gods I don’t need to prepare a fat-free, sugar-free, salt-free, low-carb holiday meal.
  9. Look over the list of recipe links, realize I haven’t a clue which I will actually prepare, which I won’t, and which I will use as a springboard for my own recipes. I have no idea what items I need to buy and how much of them I need to get, let alone an actual shopping list.
  10. Panic.

That’s about where I’m at right now. I need to narrow down the menu by the end of this week, and fill out an order with Fatted Calf as well as my CSA/organic food delivery service. This involves printing out the most appealing menus and fleshing out a shopping list based on the ingredients. After that, I’ll have to plan the preparations down to the hour or so. I will begin by following the plan religiously, and then run dangerously late and panic again.

I’m not sure whether the key is planning too many dishes, and not managing to prepare them all, or planning just enough dishes, and making them all on time. On the other hand, I could print out one of those pre-planned menus with recipes developed by chefs and a to-do list with e-mail and cell phone reminders. But aside from the utter annoyance of being spammed by your own to-do list, a pre-planned menu means actually sticking to the recipes, and that’s just no fun. In the end, toying with the menu as I go is well worth the cost of driving myself just a little bit batty.

Here is my current, tentative menu:

heritage turkey preparation

vegetarian dressing baked on its own, one or a combination of the following

poultry alternatives for the turkey hater

sides and vegetarian staples



what to eat at the dallas airport

Friday, October 20th, 2006

On my way back from New York, I found myself wandering around aimlessly during a stopover at the Dallas airport. It was one of those stopovers that is long enough to drive a person to boredom but not quite long enough to actually exit the airport and walk around the city. Having experienced the hydrogenated plastic that is domestic US airline food—the pleasure of which you are often required to pay extra—I decided to look around the airport for something a little more appetizing that I could take with me on the flight. Sandwiches aren’t yet seen as a security threat in the world of airport security, so I figured I could safely carry on a little bite of something or other.

The Dallas Fort Worth International Airport is an interesting place. Every five minutes a stern, yet friendly recording announces that “any jokes about security may result in your arrest.” And nowhere, but nowhere, can you find a fresh vegetable of any kind. Sure, there is the prerequisite smoothie stand selling half gallon sugary fruit drinks that could sustain an African village for a month. But there is not a single leafy green to be found, and believe me, I checked the sandwiches at Starbuck’s. Nada.

So I looked over my options. Starbuck’s, Popeye’s, Chilli’s, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell. Given a choice of boring franchise food, what do you eat? Why, whatever’s local, of course! And what’s local in Texas? Barbecue! Off I went to Dickey’s BBQ, just left of Popeye’s in Terminal C.

In keeping with what I can only assume is a Texas tradition, Dickey’s offers no vegetables to speak of, unless they’re doused in mayonnaise, deep-fried, or battered and deep-fried. But then, you don’t go to a barbecue joint for a salad.

I bought two barbecue sandwiches: the slow-cooked brisket and the spare ribs. The brisket sandwich consisted of an ordinary hamburger bun with a big ol’ honkin’ slab of meat bathed in barbecue sauce. For the second sandwich, two large sets of ribs were placed in a bun, forming an enormous pork seesaw with a flimsy bun fulcrum. Eegads! Naturally, Dickey’s packs a substantial wad of napkins along with your foil-wrapped sandwich.

I ate the brisket sandwich on the plane. The sauce was pretty good, with a nice balance of sweetness, tanginess, and spice. The meat was tasty, and still somewhat red on the inside, but it was missing something. A little too dry, perhaps. Still, I was grateful to eat a decent lunch, considering that the airline’s “chicken BBQ” meal was pretty much inedible (and since when do Texans barbecue chicken?). I saved the rib sandwich for my arrival at home, to be shared with A. Naturally, A was pleased. The sandwich was very good, best enjoyed at home where you can eat large, messy barbecued ribs that leave your taste buds happy and your face shiny with fat and sauce. Barbecue is an impolite food by definition. You may as well embrace the chaos, just use the napkins when you’re done.

parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme

Wednesday, June 7th, 2006

I often bring home bags of beautiful, fresh herbs which I fully intend to use in dishes I imagine I’ll cook throughout the week. Who can say no to a crisp, bright green bunch of Italian parsley, or fragrant fresh oregano, or thyme? Sadly, the herbs often look better in my imaginary meals than they do in real life. A week later I wind up with a refrigerator plagued by bags of soggy, gray specimens for the compost pile. Surely, fresh herbs are destined for a tastier fate.

Rather than waste away in the refrigerator, I recently started drying unused herbs at home. It’s very simple to do, and I wonder why I hadn’t thought of it before. All you need is a sunny spot outside, or on the window sill, and some kitchen twine. Suspend the bouquet of herbs using the twine–make sure it’s high enough to be out of pet’s reach–and wait for the sun to do its work. In a day or two you should have a bunch of fragrant, dry herbs. Store them in a tightly covered, labeled jar for future use.

Dry herbs add a lot of flavor to slow-cooked foods, when added at the beginning of cooking. Drying your own herbs means less waste, and less money spent on commercially dried herbs. And eliminating the bags of weird gray stuff in the fridge is a nice perk too.

Home dried herbs

1 bunch fresh herbs
kitchen twine
sunny spot

  • Pick over the herbs and remove any blackened leaves and stems.
  • Cut some kitchen twine, say 6-10 inches for wrapping and more for hanging, depending on where you want to hang it.
  • Tie the twine around the stems, wrap it around the bouquet several times and tie again.
  • Suspend in a sunny spot for a day or two, or until dry.
  • Check for any bugs, then cut off the twine and pick off the leaves, storing them in a jar. If you’re drying thyme, just store the tiny little leaves along with the stalks.
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