Articles in Family

My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna - egg curry - as a picnic treat for Bengali's New Year. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

In mid-April, the people of Bengal — a region straddling Bangladesh and parts of India, including my hometown in West Bengal — celebrate the Bengali New Year.

Bengalis of all religious persuasions celebrate this secular holiday with music, song and, of course, plenty of good food. So today I share with you food. Lots of it. Twenty-six Bengali dishes, to be precise

It’s only appropriate to go all out, food-wise, on naba barsha, as Bengalis call the holiday. Food in Bengali is synonymous with all events and happenings. But for festivals like the one for the new year, Bengalis go the whole nine yards on the dinner table.

People also buy new clothes and other new items with the belief that something done at the beginning of the year repeats itself year-round. Bengali traders crack open fresh new account books called the haal khata on this day.

A new year ahead, with taxes behind us

Ironically, the Bengali New Year, which falls during a season when the U.S. tax deadline looms, originated in the Mughal Empire, when it marked a fresh beginning after the collection of taxes.

So, celebrate the end of tax season with me by delving into this regional cuisine.

Bengal, with its west monsoon climate and proximity to rivers, offers a diet rich in fish, greens, rice and vegetables. Its seasonings are distinct and prominent with the use of mustard, poppy seeds, ginger and a Bengali Five Spice Blend consisting of mustard, cumin, nigella, fenugreek and fennel. This seasoning is called panch phoron: panch means five and phoron means tempering.

The Bengali meal ranges from light to heavy courses, with a sweet and sour chutney to cleanse the palate before dessert.

This slideshow offers an insight into some of the most traditional dishes on the Bengali table.

Starting the new year with a family recipe that travels well

The fact that the holiday lands midweek this year puts a wrinkle on food celebrations.

This year, however I’ve resurrected a well-seasoned egg dish that my grandmother used to call her “picnic dimer dalna” or picnic egg curry.

Our “picnics” consisted usually of multilayered lunch boxes, filled with puffy fried breads known as luchi and drier curries like alur dom. In our family’s case, it included these eggs, since my grandmother felt that we should get our protein as growing children.

This dish travels very well, and actually improves as leftovers. My children now love this as a special breakfast treat and it can be enjoyed with toasted bread almost as much as the luchi, which can be difficult to pull off on a school-day morning. The eggs, however, can be made the night before.

This particular recipe is also known as Kosha Dimer Dalna. The word kosha in Bengali refers to slow-cooked and refers to the slow-cooked onions in the dish.

This year, if you feel that you just might need an excuse for a new beginning and an opportunity to revisit your New Year’s resolutions, join the Bengalis in celebrating our Bengali New Year.

Kosha Dimer Dalna (Egg Curry with Clingy Caramelized Onion Sauce)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 45 to 50 minutes

Total time: 65 to 70 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons oil

3 medium-sized onions, sliced

1 tablespoon grated ginger

2 to 3 cardamoms

2 medium-sized tomatoes

1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper, or to taste

8 eggs, hard-boiled and shelled

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

Chopped cilantro to garnish

Directions

1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil and add in the sliced onions. Cook the onions on low heat, until they gradually wilt, soften and turn golden brown. This process will take about 30 to 35 minutes, but should not be rushed.

2. Add in the ginger and stir well.

3. Add in the cardamoms, tomatoes and red cayenne pepper. Cook for about five minutes until the mixture thickens and the tomatoes begin to soften.

4. In the meantime, make slits on the sides of the eggs and rub them with the salt and the turmeric.

5. Mix the eggs into the tomato mixture and cook for about 5 minutes, until the eggs are well-coated with the onion base.

6. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve.

Main photo: My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna or egg curry as a picnic treat for us when I was growing up in Kolkata in India’s West Bengal province. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

Read More
By keeping legumes and grains on hand in your pantry, you can create quick, healthy weeknight dinners like this Tomato Rice with Peanuts. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

I am a culinary instructor, a cookbook author, a food blogger. And yet, despite my ability to plan very well all the other aspects of my life, I have a confession to make: I am meal-planning challenged.

For those of us who view with rose-colored glasses those who can successfully execute a weekly meal plan, I have often attempted this feat, and, finally, given up. I’ve realized that it’s perfectly fine to embrace a daily practice of winging it when it comes to dinner. And you can, too.

Here’s my secret. With lentils or dal as the cornerstone of my family table — and of many Indian tables — the possibilities are endless for a quick, easy and healthy dinner, with the addition of vegetables into the mix. As long as I have a variety of legumes and grains stocked in my pantry, I’m good.

Despite my meal-planning-challenged self, I often produce a balanced meal on short notice. I have 10 examples here in the slideshow.

Winging it runs in the family

There’s a history of that in my family. As a child of a mother who worked outside the home, I never saw my mother poring over menus or meal plans. Our meals were simple to elaborate – depending on the day and the time available to cook. And while my mother didn’t obsess over food groups, somehow, her meals always ended up being well-balanced.

That turned me into a very practical mother who views the weeknight dinner as a ritual that is not up for a lot of discussion or drama. I have found that by doing my own cooking, it saves me the hassle of worrying over details such as sodium content, whether something’s organic or the meal is well-balanced. Since I’m doing the cooking, I pretty much control what’s happening in those departments.

There’s plenty of peer pressure to do it the hard way.

Keeping up with the meal-planning warriors

We seem to have a battle of the parents – often mothers — who tout their ability to produce multidimensional, unprocessed meals every day for their weeknight dinners. They wage that war armed with apps on everything from meal planners to calorie counters and recipe trackers. These well-armed planners are pitted against the seemingly meal-planning-challenged parents, who feel they should follow suit.

Instead, busy, working parents often find it easier to pick up a pizza or Chinese takeout – and then feel chagrined when they analyze the nutritional content of those meals.

At a recent event, I was asked about the good old family dinner. I flippantly mentioned that most people would say I raise my children on rice and beans.

I mention lentils as an extended example. I am sure most people have favorite dishes in mind and a culinary repertoire that are relatively simple, full of childhood nostalgia and lacking any artificial trappings of flavor or processed ingredients. My lentils can be someone else’s chicken noodle soup – or whatever your pantry offers.

My favorite comfort food will always be red lentils. So, depending on my mood, I can make a meal of red lentils by adding anything from kale to carrots to chicken. It brings back memories of warmth, simplicity and family time.

My son often feels the same way about his morning eggs, which I scramble simply for him. He tells me that they start his day right. Once again, it is sometimes the simple, unplanned things that resonate with us most at the meal table.

So embrace your meal-planning-challenged self. I can get you started with 10 one-dish meals that range from light and lively to elaborate, comforting and elegant. Dishes like khichuri or a biryani are always nourishing and they can do the trick in your household, just as they do in mine.

You can get started with this recipe from my cookbook, “Spices and Seasons,” for Bulgur or Cracked Wheat Pilaf.

Bulgur or Cracked Wheat Pilaf

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

For the pilaf:

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 red onion, thinly sliced

1 tomato, chopped

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

3/4 cup bulgur or cracked wheat

3/4 cup cooked red kidney beans or chick peas

1/2 teaspoon red cayenne pepper powder (optional)

1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick, broken

2 cups water

For the garnish:

Juice of 1 lime or lemon

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Directions

1. Heat the oil in a pot on medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and when they begin to sizzle, add the onion and sauté for about 6 minutes, until it wilts and begins to turn gently golden.

2. Add the tomato, salt, and bulgur and mix well.

3. Stir in the red kidney beans, cayenne pepper powder (if using), and the cinnamon stick. Mix in 2 cups of water and gently bring to a simmer.

4. Cover and cook on low heat for about 25 minutes, until the water is absorbed and the bulgur is soft and cooked through.

5. Squeeze in the lime or lemon juice, stir in the cilantro and serve.

Note: This recipe also can be made with quinoa or faro, depending on your preference, and you can add in vegetables such as mushrooms or zucchini to modify.

 Main photo: By keeping legumes and grains on hand in your pantry, you can create quick, healthy weeknight dinners like this Tomato Rice With Peanuts. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

Read More
Quarter-sized deviled eggs made with Italian parsley, anchovies and capers. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

What’s Easter without Easter eggs? Hide them. Roll them. And, best of all, eat them. Of the many dishes associated with Easter, deviled eggs have always been high on the list. Traditional deviled eggs are delicious but with some adventuresome spices, hardboiled Easter eggs become devilishly delicious.

Our fingers stained blue, red and yellow, my sister and I loved dyeing and decorating Easter eggs. Ultimately our mother turned our colored eggs into deviled eggs with a simple recipe: peel and slice open the eggs, chop up the yolks, add a bit of mayonnaise and season with salt and pepper, then spoon the mixture back onto the egg white halves.

When we were kids that seemed good enough. But for my adult palate, deviled eggs needed spicing up. With experimentation, I discovered that hard-boiled eggs are a great flavor delivery system because they provide a solid, neutral base of flavor to which exciting flavors can be added.

Doing something as simple as adding cayenne or Mexican chili ancho powder gives the mild-mannered eggs a mouth-pleasing heat. Sweeten the flavor up a notch by stirring in finely chopped currants or borrow from Indian cuisine and mix in curry powder that has first been dry roasted in a sauté pan.

Turn the eggs into an entrée by mixing in freshly cooked shellfish. Grill shrimp or steam a few Dungeness crab legs, finely chop the savory meat and add to the yolk mixture. The result is elegantly flavorful.

This year I’m using a Mediterranean approach. Capers add saltiness and Italian parsley adds freshness. Finely chopped and sautéed anchovy filets are the secret ingredient that takes deviled eggs to another level.

Plating the eggs adds more fun

Cut into quarters or halves, the deviled eggs make a visually arresting presentation. The eggs can also be served whole, the savory filling added to two halves, which are then put back together. Plate the reconstituted whole eggs on a bed of Italian parsley or arugula and they reference the Easter eggs my parents used to hide for us to find when we were kids.

Caper and Anchovy Deviled Eggs

Always worth mentioning, using quality ingredients improves any dish. Nowhere is that more true than with deviled eggs. Use farmers market fresh eggs, quality capers preserved in brine and good anchovy filets.

The easiest way to fill the egg white sections is with a disposable pastry bag. If one is not available, use a spoon to scoop up filling and a fork to distribute it into each egg white half.

The eggs and filling can be prepared the day before or in the morning. To keep them fresh, the eggs should not be filled until just before serving.

If desired, add a touch of heat with a pinch of cayenne.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Assembly time: 15 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

6 farm fresh eggs, large or extra large, washed

4 anchovy filets, finely chopped

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, washed, pat dried, finely chopped

1 teaspoon capers, finely chopped

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch cayenne (optional)

Directions

1. Submerge the eggs in an uncovered saucepan of cold water. Heat the uncovered pot on a medium-high flame. Bring to a simmer and boil five minutes. Turn off the flame, cover and leave the eggs in the hot water 10 minutes. Drain the hot water. Add cold water to cool the eggs.

2. While the eggs are cooking, heat a small sauté or nonstick frying pan over a medium flame. No need to add oil. Sauté the anchovy filets until lightly brown. Set aside.

3. Peel the eggs. Discard the shells. Wash and dry the eggs to remove any bits of shell. Using a sharp paring knife, carefully slice the eggs in half, lengthwise. Remove the yolks and place into a bowl. Set aside the egg white halves.

4. Using a fork, finely crumble the yolks. Add the Italian parsley, capers and sautéed anchovy bits. Stir together all the ingredients. Add mayonnaise and mix well until creamy.

5. Spoon the filling into a disposable pastry bag. If serving the next day or later in the morning, place the egg white halves into an air-tight container and the filled pastry bag into the refrigerator.

6. Prepare a serving dish. The deviled eggs can be served as quarters, halves or reformed as whole. If quarters, cut each halve in two lengthwise. Just before serving the eggs, cut off the tip of the pastry bag. Have a paring knife or folk in hand. Carefully squeeze a generous amount of the filling into each egg white piece. If needed, use the knife or folk to tidy up the filling on each egg. Any leftover filling should be eaten on crackers as a chef’s treat.

7. As the eggs are filled, place them on the serving dish and garnish with Italian parsley or arugula. Serve cold.

Note: If the eggs are to be served whole, place the two filled halves together. Either avoid showing any of the filling along the cut edge to create a surprise or make the decorative choice to have a thin line of filling visible around the middle.

Main photo: Quarter-sized deviled eggs made with Italian parsley, anchovies and capers. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Read More
Fried eggs in olive oil. Credit: iStockphoto / Aleksandar Georgiev

Once in a great while I stumble across a new way of doing things in the kitchen, sometimes as the result of carelessness. For instance, I was boiling some small unpeeled potatoes recently, having salted the water as usual, then wandered off, only to return to the kitchen where I caught a slight whiff of food on the verge of burning.

When I checked my pot I saw that all of the water had boiled off. What remained were potatoes that had crunchy skins and, as it turned out, tender and delicious interiors. When I tasted them I realized that the salt in the water had penetrated so that every bite of the potato was perfectly flavored and the crusty skins delectable. They reminded me of potatoes that had been cooked on the grill, but without the fuss of lighting fires and dealing with charcoal and its accompanying gray dust.

I am thinking about cooking this dish again, but have no idea how long it will take for the water to boil away. So I have devised a plan: I will situate myself in the kitchen along with a good novel — “War and Peace,” perhaps — and be sure to stay put while the potatoes cook, and I will pay attention to how much time goes by before the potatoes turn into the delicious dish on which I stumbled. I want to avoid ruining the potatoes and wrecking my pot.

Hot dogs, beyond the long bun

Another time, when preparing lunch for my husband, I found in my freezer one lone hot dog bun that was scheduled to hold two hot dogs. (He prefers that combination while I would be happier with one hot dog and two buns, being the bread-lover that I am.)

Hot dogs on a round bun. Credit: Barbara Haber

Hot dogs on a round bun. Credit: Barbara Haber

While I usually avoid putting any sort of bread into the microwave, I popped in the frozen bun thinking I would retrieve it in seconds and then toast it before squeezing in the hot dogs. I must have been distracted and set the microwave time in minutes rather than seconds because when I finally retrieved the roll, it had the look and texture of a block of wood, and I instantly dispatched it to the garbage can.

I still needed something for the hot dogs and could only find a plump-but-frozen hamburger bun. This time I was careful to let it thaw on its own before toasting. Then I was delighted to find that, with a bit of surgery, two hot dogs fit perfectly into one round bun. On the surface, you wouldn’t think that such a discovery would require a couple of advanced degrees, but this story does have a moral. Sometimes we are so conditioned to go along with conventional thinking when preparing a dish that we can miss a tasty or useful variation. Just because hot dogs are traditionally served in a long bun, why can’t they be served in a round one? And must we always fry our eggs in butter? How about olive oil? Speaking of which, the best boiled lobster I ever tasted was provided by a friend in Maine who served it with a fabulous warmed olive oil instead of the conventional melted butter.

Meatloaf, with whole allspice

I experienced another kitchen error years ago when preparing a meatloaf for a weekday family meal. My recipe involves a pound of ground beef, a grated raw potato, a grated raw onion, an egg, salt and pepper, and I was in the habit of studding the top of the dish with whole black peppercorns before it went into the oven. But one time I mistakenly reached for a jar of whole allspice instead of the peppercorns, and, unaware of this error, lightly tapped in six or seven over the top of the loaf before starting the cooking process. When a delicate fragrance soon filled my kitchen, I became mystified, for it was a subtle aroma not usually associated with meatloaf, which, after all, is hardly an exotic dish. When we sat down to dinner, everyone loved the new taste that had transformed my old standby recipe into something a little unusual, and ever since I have been using allspice whenever I make meatloaf.

Young chefs cross the invisible line in the kitchen

While I find such innovations delightful, in part because of their accidental origin, I am dubious about the deliberate attempt, especially by young chefs these days, to create new dishes by throwing all sorts of ingredients together.

Bacon, kale and salted caramel are the latest trendy foods to pop up with alarming regularity. In thumbing through new cookbooks, I spotted recipes for bacon in caramel corn, in s’mores, and sneaked into the streusel for an apple pie, all of which struck me as unappetizing. I found a kale recipe for what was dubbed a “green bloody Mary” because instead of tomato juice, it contained pulverized kale. A better name would have been “vampire bloody Mary,” since I like to think that vampire blood is green. All of these treatments are novelties that do not necessarily add to the taste of an altered dish. I must say, though, that I am more forgiving about the liberal use of salted caramel as long as it’s being added to a dessert and not to mashed potatoes.

To be sure, many deliberate innovations are delectable. Delicate pizzas made with bits of tender chicken and a touch of pesto, instead of gloppy red sauce and greasy melted cheese, come to mind. So does the combination of chocolate and hazelnuts, discovered by an ingenious Italian whose country makes the delectable gianduja, one of my all-time favorite confections.

Still, I like best my happy accidents, and do hope there will be more to come.

Main photo: Fried eggs in olive oil. Credit: iStockphoto / Aleksandar Georgiev

Read More
Dress up your New Year's feast with Beef Tenderloin en Croute With Mustard Sauce. Credit: Carole Murko

What does New Year’s Eve mean to you? Do you feel the need to party like it’s 1999? Or do you prefer an intimate gathering with friends? I have always looked at New Year’s Eve as amateur night. Somewhat of a forced party. I suppose that bias came from my parents’ attitude about New Year’s Eve. So, I seemed to avoid it like the plague.

But, admittedly, I always thought, maybe, just maybe I was missing out. Turns out the enjoyment quotient has less to do with the event and more to do with the people and your attitude. So with attitude adjustment in hand and a great group of friends, New Year’s Eve can be a splendid holiday to celebrate. What with the optimism of resolutions, or word of the year, or mapping out one’s desired feelings, it is indeed a time to embrace all that is new in 2015.

A New Year’s Eve get-together is a party or event that begins much later than most dinner parties. One of the things I learned from my mom was how to entertain simply and elegantly. For New Year’s Eve, a simple, yet sophisticated, do-ahead menu will allow you to enjoy your guests and ring in the new year with style. And in keeping with Heirloom Meals, I am sharing recipes that my mom, sister Jen and I have used, developed and refined over the years for various parties that we throw.

Easy Guac and Chips

Easy Guac and Chips
Picture 1 of 3

What's easier than Easy Guacamole, served with your choice of chips. Credit: Carole Murko

 Creative cheese platter — use several local cheeses, as well as olives, sliced fruit and nuts

Guacamole and chips

Beef Tenderloin en Croute With Mustard Sauce

Savory Sautéed Shrimp a la Jen

Arugula Salad With Mustard Vinaigrette

Mom’s Mystery Dessert

Prosecco

 

Easy Guacamole

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: none

Total time: 10 to 15 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6, as a snack

Ingredients

1/2 jar of your favorite or homemade salsa

2 avocados, smashed

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons cilantro, minced

Juice of 1/2 lime

1 or 2 drops of Tabasco sauce, optional

Directions

Mix ingredients together and enjoy with chips of your choice.

 

Beef Tenderloin en Croute With Mustard Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 35 to 40 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

For the beef:

4 to 5 pound whole beef tenderloin, trimmed

1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 500 F.

2. We like to oven sear our tenderloin, but you can also sear it on top of the stove. Rub tenderloin with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place on baking sheet and sear about 5 minutes per side, then reduce temperature to 350 F and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes. This should produce a spectrum of doneness from medium-rare in the middle to well-done on the ends.

3. Remove from pan, tent with foil, and let rest for about 20 minutes. Keep in mind: The beef will continue to cook. Once the filet is rested, you can slice it to desired thickness, about 1/2-inch thick for the en croute.

For en croute:

Loaf of french bread, sliced 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick

Extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Brush slices with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet in the middle of the oven for about 5 minutes until lightly toasted. Remove to a rack, cool and store until ready to use.

For the mustard sauce:

1/2 cup dry mustard

3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

3 tablespoons water

6 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces

3 tablespoons fresh chives

Directions

1. Mix the mustard, vinegar, sugar, salt and water until it forms a smooth paste. Cover and let stand for about 10 minutes.

2. Put mixture into a double-boiler over simmering water and whisk in the butter until combined and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in the chives.

Note: Can be served warm or at room temperature. We put a small dollop on each beef en croute.

 

Savory Sautéed Shrimp a la Jen

Prep time: 30 to 35 minutes

Cook time: 5 to 10 minutes

Total time: 35 to 45 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

2 pounds shrimp, peeled, deveined, cleaned and dried

2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon rosemary, minced

1/4 cup parsley, minced

1 to 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper, to taste

1/4 cup capers

1/4 cup olive oil

Zest of one lemon

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons butter

Juice of one lemon

1/4 cup parsley, for garnish

Directions

1. Toss the shrimp with the garlic, rosemary, parsley, crushed red pepper, capers, olive oil, lemon zest, and salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.

2. Heat butter until foaming in a large skillet, add the shrimp and saute until cooked, about five minutes. Pour into your serving bowl, toss with lemon juice and parsley for garnish, if you’re using it. Can be served hot off the stove or at room temperature.

 

Mustard Vinaigrette

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: none

Total time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Whisk together the vinegar and mustard until smooth and then add the olive oil, pouring in a stream to incorporate slowly, whisk until smooth.

Note: This dressing goes particularly well with a baby arugula salad.

 

Mom’s Mystery Dessert

Prep time: 10 to 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 35 to 40 minutes, plus time to freeze (4+ hours)

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

2 cups packed brown sugar

2 eggs

2/3 cup of flour

1 cup chopped pecans

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons brandy

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with vegetable oil.

3. Mix together the brown sugar, eggs, flour, pecans and baking soda. Spoon the batter into the baking dish.

4. Bake for about 25 minute or until the tester comes out clean. Cool for about 2 hours.

5. Whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form and fold in the brandy.

6. Break the cake into small pieces and fold into the cream. Spoon the mixture into a clean 9-by-13-inch pan and spread evenly. Freeze until firm, about 4 hours or overnight. When ready to serve, spoon into goblets and serve.

Main photo: Beef Tenderloin en Croute With Mustard Sauce. Credit: Carole Murko

Read More
Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette is a specialty of teen cook Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans. Credit: Dreamstime

“It must be so easy for you!”

That’s what I hear from fellow moms several times a week. They’re talking about one of the biggest bugaboos of the working parent: the home-cooked family dinner. Because I’m a professionally trained chef, they think I’m immune to that end-of-the-day hustle to think up a new meal and get it on the table.

In many ways, it’s true. My professional training is a boon, but just as often I, too, am stumped after a long day working to figure out what my family might eat with minimal fuss or complaint.

The dinnertime crunch is a very real issue for many working parents. So much so that in September, Slate published an article reviewing the findings of a pair of sociologists who determined the home-cooked meal is a source of stress and angst for families — particularly for moms.

They came to this conclusion after studying 150 moms for 250 hours, focusing on 12 families in particular. In the end, they concluded home-cooked meals were under-appreciated and caused stress, especially for low-income moms who can’t afford fresh produce and have poor kitchen setups. Even those who could afford better were stymied by the ingratitude of their families.

In short, the study concluded the home-cooked meal as an idealized goal is nothing short of tyranny — particularly for the mothers who attempt to produce it.

A spate of responses to the Slate article came swiftly. The New York Times quickly published replies, as did a variety of culinary luminaries. The commentary ranged from disbelief to admonishment that cooking shouldn’t be — isn’t — so hard.

Family dinner should be a family effort

But I have a different take on the issue. I won’t quibble that cooking can be hard after a long and tiring day — especially when lack of skill or resources make it difficult to even begin thinking about what’s for dinner.

When you work full time, it’s hard enough to want to make your own meal, much less come home and prepare food for other people. I spoke with one mom recently who said she had the “luxury” of a caregiver to help with her young children after school while she was still at work. The best helper she could find could barely cook, and the best cook was hardly a caregiver. The end result was that she came home after a long day and began preparing a meal for her already-starving school-age youngsters.

And she counted herself among the lucky ones because she could afford the help.

So what’s the solution to the tyranny of home cooking for working parents?

Don’t do it.

That’s right, I said it: Don’t do it. Don’t make it only your responsibility to pick the food, decide on the meal and then cook it, because right under your very noses you may have the best kitchen helpers you could find — and they won’t charge you a cent.

They’re your kids.

Now, I’m not suggesting pressing your youngsters into child labor or giving them full responsibility for making the meals at home. What I am suggesting is giving them credit for being able to pick out good food and having the willingness to prepare it.

I heard this loud and clear in the three years I worked on “FutureChefs: Recipes From Tomorrow’s Cooks Across the Nation and the World (Rodale, 2014).” Over and over again I heard from parents who weren’t cooks themselves, who struggled in the kitchen, but had kids who had a passion for cooking born from living in our food-obsessed world.

One young man, Tyler Trainer, not only began cooking for his family but started a small catering business when he was in his early teens — much to his parents shock. “We don’t know where he got it from,” his mom told me.

This was true whether or not the kids were from affluent families. Among many great examples is Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans, who is from what she calls a “low-income” family. She got involved with cooking watching her father use what he had in the kitchen to create great meals. As a middle-school student, she joined an activist group that engaged young people in the future of New Orleans — particularly school food and food justice issues.

Working with kids such as Arieanna and the other 100 or so kids in the book, I realized that often the “tyranny” of the scratch meal is one self-imposed by parents, especially those with older kids who are willing and able to help.

Of course, in the end, every parent and every family has to figure out what works for them. Time and money constraints are not to be taken lightly. But programs exist to teach kids to cook and make great choices and even help families buy fresh produce at limited cost, although they continue to be an overlooked resource in winning the battle for home-cooked meals.

In my opinion, these programs are the forward flank of an American movement back to the home kitchen — a movement based on strength, knowledge, pride and joy.

Is there a FutureChef hiding in your house?

Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette

Yield: 6 servings

This recipe first appeared in on “FutureChefs: Recipes From Tomorrow’s Cooks Across the Nation and the World” and was created by Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans.

Arieanna teaches cooking classes at Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, or “The Rethinkers,” a program created in 2006 to help low-income kids be part of the discussion about how to rebuild the city’s schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The program focuses on everything from school safety to building architecture to school food reform and has been able to overhaul school lunch programs to be healthier and fresher using a school lunch report card, which assesses the quality of school food.

“I started out as a middle-schooler at the program and now I’m teaching other kids,” said Arieanna, 17. She said learning about and becoming an advocate for food justice is one of the most important aspects of her education with the program. Last year, the teen cooked with Taste of the NFL in New Orleans, a nonprofit that creates “parties” around National Football League events, with proceeds going to fight hunger in the community.

Arieanna said her greatest influence is her father, who works as a chef in New Orleans’ French Quarter. “I live in a low-income family and we don’t always have as many things to work with,” she said. “I’ve watched my father always make us something good to eat, even if he didn’t have regular ingredients. It’s taught me to be creative with what I have.”

Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette is her unique take on a classic New Orleans shrimp pasta salad. She uses crab boil to give the shrimp an intense flavor. Because local and seasonal eating is an important part of how she has come to rethink food, she uses Gulf shrimp for this recipe.

Ingredients

For the vinaigrette:

2 cloves minced garlic

2 teaspoons minced shallots

2 teaspoons minced fresh parsley

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons coarse-grain mustard

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the pasta:

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 pound pasta of your choice

For the shrimp:

1 pound large Gulf shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 tablespoon crab boil seasoning (such as Old Bay)

For the garnish:

1 large tomato, diced

6 fresh basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade, for garnish (optional; see note below for directions)

Directions

1. Make the vinaigrette by whisking all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Set aside.

2. In a large pot, bring 4 cups of water to a boil over medium heat. Add the salt and olive oil. Add the pasta and cook to al dente according to package directions. (The time will vary depending on the type of pasta you choose.) Drain and transfer to a large, deep platter or pasta bowl.

3. Meanwhile, cook the shrimp by placing them in a medium saucepan with just enough water to cover them. Stir in the crab boil seasoning and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook until the shrimp turn pink, 3 to 4 minutes.

4. Drain the shrimp and add to the pasta.

5. Add the vinaigrette to the pasta and shrimp and toss well. Add the diced tomato, toss again and garnish with basil leaves, if desired.

Note: To make a chiffonade, stack the leaves of fleshy herbs (such as basil) or other greens on top of one another and then tightly roll them into a small cylinder. Using a sharp knife, cut the cylinder crosswise into narrow slices. When the slices are unfurled, you will have thin slivers of herbs or greens.

Main image: Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette is a specialty of teen cook Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans. Credit: Dreamstime

Read More
Khichuri, a soothing mélange of soft lentils, rice and vegetables, is the perfect Indian comfort food to accompany the arrival of cold weather.

Autumn in New York brings back memories — and the comfort food — of my monsoon childhood. A perfect evening for me is a walk in the rain or snow, finished off with a hot bowl of freshly made khichuri.

The bubbly one-dish meal is as comforting to me as hot mac and cheese to my children.

I grew up eating khichuri in the coconut palm and banana leaf-dotted landscape of eastern India. I fondly refer to it as the Bengali risotto, a soothing mélange of soft lentils, rice and vegetables.

When soup weather arrives, before I turn on the stockpot, I reach for the jars of colorful lentils. If you have not heard of or tasted khichuri, do not be surprised. Like most other classic Indian cooking, the true specialties are still the domain of the home cook. They are dishes that grace the everyday tables, beyond the boundaries of commercialization. Not party fare. But dishes to be savored with the family.

Food fit for the goddesses

For all its humble trappings, this dish is the complete balanced dish that is deemed to be the perfect offering for Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, and Durga, the multi-armed goddess who battles evil. The Hindu gods and goddesses demand a proper meal as a part of their prayer sequence and appropriate ayurvedic fare.

It is usually light and simple vegetarian fare. A mélange of rice and lentils replete with vegetables, finished with hot seasoned clarified butter, fits the bill.

The khichuri’s simple list of ingredients, however, should not suggest that this dish has no protocol. At the heart of Indian regional cuisine rests fastidious, yet practical, rules that remain the domain of the home cook. So khichuri is as nuanced as any other traditional Bengali offerings, which tend to be simple, wholesome and specific in their making.

The general concept of the dish is rice and lentils, with vegetables such as cauliflower, potatoes and peas. The two preferred lentils are yellow split lentils (moong dal) — or orange split lentils, also known as red split lentils (masoor dal or mushoor dal in Bengali). The final spice or flavor infusion for this dish rests in the finish or the tempering, and while the yellow split lentils use fragrant spices, the red lentils tend to be designated for a finish of crisp caramelized onions.

There is also a preferred proportion of two parts lentils to one part rice, with the rice usually being either parboiled or the delicate kala jeera variety that is native to the Bengali region. I tend to stay away from the fancier basmati rice when making khichuri, but you are welcome to use it, if that is what you have in your pantry.

An adaptable dish — in the way it is cooked and served

In spite of it being a traditionally slow cooked dish over the stove, it can be adapted — with some planning —  for the pressure cooker and is also a perfect natural for the slow-cooker aficionado.

Despite being deemed a complete meal, there are accompaniments, varied in textures and tastes, but usually something crisp and fried. These crisp accompaniments range from the well-fried seasonal fish to assorted chickpea flour-coated fritters. Our favorite varieties at home are eggplant or a red onion fritter called piyanjee. The fritter offers a crisp foil to the soft gooey consistency of the khichuri, offering a balance of indulgence and texture. Another popular accompaniment is a spicy omelet known as masala omelet.

My personal favorite khichuri is the red lentil version, which is simpler than the others and more forgiving to variation. With fresh peas scarce in the winter, I usually add some frozen peas, and I love to use a sweeter, softer onion such as the Vidalia to add a greater touch of sweetness to this rustic dish.

A hot bowl of Khichuri, the Bengali risotto, is a complete meal itself. But its soft texture is often accompanied by crisp fritters. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

A hot bowl of khichuri, the Bengali risotto, is a complete meal itself. But its soft texture is often accompanied by crisp fritters. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Bengali Red Lentil Risotto (Khichuri)

(Recipe adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”)

Ingredients
1 cup dried red split lentils (masoor dal)

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 cup short-grained rice (such as Arborio or kala jeera)

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 medium-sized tomato, finely chopped

1 medium-sized potato, peeled and cubed

1/2 small cauliflower head, cut into small florets

3 to 4 green chilies, slit halfway lengthwise

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup frozen peas

2 tablespoons oil

1 medium-sized onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 1/2 teaspoons ghee (clarified butter)

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 to 2 bay leaves

Directions

1. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan put the red lentils and about 4 cups water and bring to a simmer over medium heat.

2. Add the turmeric and simmer for about 10 minutes. The lentils should be partially cooked but not mushy at this point.

3. Add the rice, 3 more cups water, ginger, ground cumin and coriander, tomato, potato, cauliflower, green chilies, sugar and salt. Simmer for about 25 minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally. The rice and lentil mixture should be a porridge-like consistency (add more water if too thick). The texture is important. You do not want the rice to completely lose its integrity, however it should be softer than a regular well-made bowl of rice. Add in the greens peas and stir well.

4. While this is cooking, heat the oil in a wok or skillet and add the onion and cook on medium heat until soft and pale golden. It is important to cook the onions low and slow to let them caramelize.

5. Stir the onions into the rice and lentil mixture and cook for about 2 minutes.

6. Turn off the heat and stir in the cilantro.

7. Heat the ghee in a small skillet and add the cumin seeds and the bay leaves. Cook for about 40 seconds until the cumin seeds darken and turn fragrant.

8. Pour the spice mixture over the rice and lentils.

9. Stir lightly and serve the mixture hot.

Main photo: Khichuri, a soothing mélange of soft lentils, rice and vegetables, is the perfect Indian comfort food to accompany the arrival of cold weather. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Read More
Cape cod cranberries. Credit: Barbara Haber

You may find yourself far from home on Thanksgiving, even out of the country, as your work calls you away or alluring travel opportunities arise. Since this holiday is distinctly American and celebrated with family and friends, being away can bring on loneliness, but these feelings can be overcome, especially if you throw yourself into cooking a Thanksgiving meal.

Even before getting into the kitchen, I love this holiday because it is just about food and people. I don’t have to run around stores in search of gifts or listen to “Jingle Bells” and other tiresome seasonal tunes being played over and over wherever I happen to be. Religious services related to specific creeds are not part of the tradition either. That is important because the holiday is deeply American and includes diverse citizens who may have on their menus lasagna or egg drop soup in addition to the usual turkey and trimmings that have come to symbolize the feast.

Suggestions to ward off Thanksgiving melancholy

When far from home, especially outside the country, Thanksgiving takes on even more meaning just because it is so essentially American and has little relevance elsewhere. Here are suggestions for heading off forlorn feelings on this special day, with food inevitably playing a central role.

If you are cooking, be sure to invite friends and neighbors who are most likely to appreciate your efforts. American acquaintances far from home will be thrilled to be invited and so will locals who may be curious about the holiday and eager to participate in it.

How to adapt to a Thanksgiving meal abroad

When planning the traditional meal, be flexible about your ingredients, as you think through what is available. Do not expect to find a huge and reasonably-priced turkey outside the U.S. An American friend living in northern France shelled out a fortune on turkeys one year because she was entertaining other displaced Americans and wanted to serve familiar dishes. My thought would be to avoid huge expenses by dolling up what you have at hand. Get local chickens or ducks, but serve them with the holiday stuffing you love. As far as I know, sweet potatoes will be available in markets around the world, so this mandatory side dish can be pulled off, though possibly without the marshmallows, if that is your custom.

The traditional cranberries may be difficult to find. They are native to New England where Thanksgiving had its origins. It is no accident that Ocean Spray, producers of all things cranberry, is located in southern Massachusetts not far from Cape Cod. If you can’t find cranberries abroad, you may have to make a sauce or relish with other tart berries — gooseberries in England, lingonberries in Scandinavia, currants in many other places, figure it out. No need to be literal-minded in preparing the meal, and you might even want to be thought of as ingenious. Your reality is that you are in a foreign country while preparing a quintessential American meal. Dig deeper into the meaning of the holiday by remembering that it celebrates the harvest, and by using available local produce you can bring out the symbolism as well as the spirit of Thanksgiving.

To some, attending a high school football game Thanksgiving morning is part of the tradition, but you are unlikely to find that outside of the U.S. Check out the availability of a local sporting match. A soccer game might be fun, or better yet, if you really want to include a traditional Thanksgiving Day ritual, call up the Macy’s parade on YouTube. A full three hours of the previous year’s parade slicked up and beautifully produced by NBC is at your fingertips, complete with gargantuan floats, massive cartoon balloons and Broadway hoofers. It is uniquely American.

Navigating family tradition

Not to be forgotten is that Thanksgiving is a family event, and family relationships are generally loaded. In my case, whenever I got together with an older brother, no matter how old we were, we would revert to being 8 and 13 years old again. It took me years to realize his customary teasing was his peculiar way of expressing love. Importing a special relative to join your Thanksgiving away from home is a sure-fire way to transplant a key part of your tradition.

Short of that, create dishes that will remind you of certain relatives. I had an aunt, now gone, who every year would bring a bowl of creamed onions nobody liked. I sometimes work up a small batch in her honor, and still nobody likes them, but that’s what tradition is all about.

Finally, video calls now allow us to hook up with the voices and images of family and friends no matter where we are. While this way of exchanging excited Thanksgiving Day greetings brings comfort and happiness to some, others may find that the sight of unavailable loved ones just brings on sadness. To offset this, have in view an array of Thanksgiving Day pies, for I have never known a thick apple pie bursting with fruit and juice that failed to bring cheer.

Main photo: Cranberries can be especially difficult to find for a Thanksgiving away from home. Credit: Barbara Haber

Read More