I used to have a backyard bursting with bunches of basil, parsley, lemon thyme and a plethora of other herbs. Whenever a recipe called for some, I’d just go and pluck a handful. Aside from the hot, balmy New York City summers when the plants required constant care, mother nature mostly did the work — sunshine during the day and the occasional rain once a week, which supplied enough water to make up for the days I forgot to give them a sprinkle with the hose.
The apartment I live in now doesn’t have a garden, so I rely on window boxes for growing fresh herbs. Indoor plants need more attention and due diligence, especially in the water department. When I went away for the Christmas holidays this past December, I forgot to set up my self-watering globes. It was no surprise that I came home to bone-dry plants.
As with all of life’s mistakes, though, there is a lesson to be learned. Ever since I accidentally killed all my plants, I’ve been relying on the farmers’ market for fresh herbs — luckily we have a hydroponic farmer at the Union Square market during the winter months. The problem with buying herbs versus growing them is that I don’t usually finish up the bunch before it wilts. Then one day, I glanced at the old containers of dried-up plants (I swear I’m going to empty them this week), and suddenly the light bulb went off. With a little planning, I could make my own dried herbs. I use the fresh-bought herbs as I would normally, but just before any leftovers hit the wilting stage, I pluck the leaves and set them on a baking sheet.
Recently, I was talking with a friend about Passover, which starts at sundown on April 6. I asked him how he navigated dinner since he doesn’t eat meat and brisket is the traditional main course. It turns out he’s not the only pescatarian and vegetarian in his family, but it still got me thinking about how other vegetarians handle family holiday dinners. The simple solution would be to bring a hearty side dish instead of dessert or wine, which is the usual go-to item.
Some of the classics are easy to give veggie makeovers. Matzo Ball Soup, a must-have at every Seder, is an easy fix — just use vegetable broth. Here are some more ideas for making sure everyone feels welcome at your Passover table this year.
Moroccan Carrot and Spinach Salad (I paired it with the quinoa recipe below for a filling meal)
Matzo Brei (This is a traditionally more of an appetizer, but it’s very filling and the eggs are a good protein boost, too.)
Quinoa Pilaf With Cremini Mushrooms
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I love a perfectly cooked bean — tender to the bite, yet toothsome. I’m also the first to admit that taste-wise, nothing compares to cooking up a pot of dried beans from scratch. My ideal strategy is to cook double the amount I need, and store leftovers in the fridge for the week ahead, or the freezer; I like to call this my secret stash.
This doesn’t mean I rule out recipes that call for beans when I find my fridge and freezer with nary a cooked one in sight. That’s when I dip into my other secret stash. Yes, that’s right, I keep canned beans in the pantry, too. First and foremost, beans are an inexpensive source of protein. They’re also high in iron, which is especially important for vegetarians since meat is the other main source of this necessary nutrient.
The trick is to test out different brands until you find one that isn’t mushy and overcooked. I usually keep a backup can or two of pintos, black beans and red kidney beans. They all help get a quick vegetarian meal ready in less than 30 minutes, add an extra boost of protein to breakfast or serve as a hearty side dish.
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I’m a hoarder and until recently I didn’t see this as being a problem. My habit is under the guise of eating locally and seasonally. You won’t see piles of junk around my apartment, but open the freezer and you’re likely to get pelted with frozen fruit spilling from the shelves. Freezing fruit to last beyond its normal season is a way to enjoy summer’s bounty all year long. Learning to use it all up is not my strong suit. I get nervous about dipping into it too soon, so I dole it out sparingly in smoothies to perk up gray winter days.
Suddenly, daylight-saving time snuck up on me and a look at the calendar reminded me the official start of spring is here, too. The days are getting longer, temperatures getting a little warmer, and that means in just about two months, the growing season will be here. Farmers’ markets will once again welcome old friends. And then the panic sets in: Come December I worry about using up my stock of frozen berries, cherries and peaches too fast. Right about now, I start wondering how I’ll manage to use it all up before the cycle of preserving starts all over again.
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Every week I find myself flooded with overripe bananas since everyone in the house prefers to eat firm, barely ripe ones. The first sign of a brown spot, and they’re left to languish on the counter, eventually becoming so ripe the only purpose they serve is as incentive to bake some banana bread. I know, this doesn’t seem like a problem. Banana bread has a lot going for it. It’s easy to make because it’s a quick bread — it uses baking powder to rise, not yeast. It’s also the ultimate “waste not, want not” use of ingredients past their prime. But best of all, it can be a breakfast on the go, a tasty snack for school lunch and even play a pinch hitter come dessert time.
The real problem with having too many overripe bananas is I feel guilty making my favorite banana bread recipe twice a week. The recipe is great, but with one stick of butter in it, I decided my weekly banana bread infatuation needed some lightening up. The Brown Butter Bourbon Pecan Banana Bread has been relegated to a once a month treat. What I needed was an “everyday” banana bread recipe, one I could feel better about making, and eating on a regular basis.
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I love the ritual behind a big meal, but some nights I want to make dinner fun and less structured. A well-balanced meal doesn’t always mean serving an entrée, vegetable and a side dish. On those nights when I want something in between yet filling, I go with small bites like tapas or crostini. It’s a great option for picky eaters, as you can make a few of everyone’s favorite. By making a variety, you can also get a good amount of protein, vegetables and even fruit into your kids’ diets, too.
Make it interactive and set the toppings out family-style: Serve them with a basket of toasted bread for a build-your-own crostini bar. Put a Mexican twist on the theme and create a taco bar spread, swapping in mini tortilla chips for the toasted bread. To make your own homemade tortilla chips, cut flour tortillas into triangles or use a cookie cutter to form them into fun shapes. Place the shapes onto an ungreased, rimmed baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350 degree F oven until golden, 12 to 15 minutes, turning once halfway through.
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The early days of becoming a new parent felt like a blur. Life was on fast-forward, and faced with sleep deprivation, well, it’s no wonder my memories are far from vivid regarding that “breaking in” period. What I do clearly remember, though, is that by the end of the first month, I craved a home-cooked meal. No kidding — my husband and I ate takeout for the first four weeks as Mom and Dad.
Even ordering the healthiest to-go meals took its toll on me mentally. I missed the scent of onions browning in a skillet and marinara sauce bubbling away on the stovetop. By the time our second daughter was born five years later, I had a better idea of what to expect and easily jumped back into my normal cooking routines.
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Sweet potatoes get lots of love during the holidays, but there’s good reason to be thankful for them year round: They’re an excellent source of vitamin C, beta carotene and fiber. Their naturally sweet, candy-like flavor also makes them a favorite among kids — or so I hear. Truth be told, my oldest is potato-phobic. I recently tried making oven-fried sweet potatoes and even those garnered thumbs down. I didn’t take this personally. It’s not me, it’s her — but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to give sweet potatoes a pink slip.
One thing I’ve always believed in is not dumbing down dinner just to get my daughters to eat it. I cook for my own enjoyment as much as their nourishment, which is why we have a one-bite policy: You can’t have an opinion about what’s served unless you actually taste it. That rule is usually my wild card and gives me license to keep playing with different sweet potato recipes in hopes I’ll come across one she eventually likes. Bacon being among her favorite foods, this recipe for Sweet Potato and Beet Hash is one I can’t wait to try. And since she loves guacamole, maybe there’s hope for Sweet Potato Fries With Avocado Dip, too.
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Come cold weather, praises abound for slow cookers. I never got on that bandwagon. While I love low-and-slow cooking, when it comes to barbecue, I prefer my meals to come together more quickly on a daily basis. Why wait that long for a tender, melt-in-your-mouth beef stew when a pressure cooker can do the same job in less than an hour?
Back when I was a personal chef, I only had four to five hours to spend at each client’s house, to get five meals for four prepared from start to finish. Using a pressure cooker allowed me to not only multitask, but to prepare short ribs, pot roast and even soups in record time. It was just the primer I needed for feeding my own family years later.
Forget all your fears and the stories you’ve heard about pressure cookers in the past. In the 15 years I’ve been using mine, there’s never been an explosion. I started with a stovetop pressure cooker in the beginning, and in the last few years my electric one has become my new best friend. Regardless of which one you choose, you’ll realize from the first bite that is one “fast food” busy parents can feel good about serving their kids.
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