Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Homemade Granola

Throughout my life, I have always, naturally, been among the most well-read in any group. I have spent nearly all of my free time since third grade reading novels/magazines/newspapers, and that is probably one of my greatest accomplishments. But really, it is only an accomplishment for yourself. You can never claim that you are "well read," because you will always be one upped, even by a non-reader ("Did you read the latest J.D. Robb?" "No, I did not." Inwardly seething).  If I find out that a dear (also well-read) friend has read a long, well-regarded book that I have not read, I MUST READ IT. This is the reason I slogged through The Executioner's Song, as well as recently became torn up  by A Little Life.

This is also the same reason I started making homemade granola. I was at a teacher's "retreat" at Princeton University, and my fellow teachers and I were discussing cooking, our go to meals, and how often we cook. Among NYC teachers, the most popular answer was "I store sweater's in my oven," so I was feeling smug. Then, my friend Samantha said that she made homemade granola, and that it was "so easy," and that "really, I wouldn't do it if it wasn't so easy, and it's so much cheaper than buying it."  She kept on saying it over and over, and I started inwardly seething as people started asking her about her favorite recipe, and which ingredients she liked.  Nobody was asking me anything! I had to make it.

I went home and googled the Mark Bittman recipe she referenced.  The boyfriend (now husband) and I hit Sahadi's, and we made our first batch using dried dates.  We never looked back.

Now, six years later, I am still keeping a jar of homemade granola on the counter. My husband adds it to his yogurt in the morning. I love the smell from the oven on a crisp autumn day.  When I peruse a cookbook/food blog, I brake for granola recipes.  Since the recipe is extremely flexible, and it really is "so easy," I will just post a few recipes and tips to get you started.

- Stock up at Trader Joe's, or a similar store with inexpensive nuts, dried fruits, and the like. I would avoid flavored nuts and fruits, but to each their own.

- Mix together the ingredients right on the sheet pan. Why clean another bowl?

- Keep on experimenting with different blends and recipes.  For this past granola batch, I used coconut oil for the first time as a binder. I also threw in some honey.

- If you can remember, move the granola around halfway through baking. But, you don't HAVE to remember.

- Add the dried fruit after baking.  My favorite is dried cherries.

This is my favorite recipe, but it is "more" labor intensive:
Eleven Madison Park Granola 

My friend Lisa swears by Smitten Kitchen's recipe.

Samantha, you changed my daily life, and it really is "so easy."

Friday, September 25, 2015

Food Web Sites

Even though this web site is called "Putnam Dinners," I have not wanted to define this blog as technically a "food blog."  I have no end goal of becoming a great "food blogger."  Also, most of my favorite food bloggers mix in other topics and stories of their personal lives.  Here are some of of my favorite food blogs, and why I like them.

1) Dinner a Love Story - Jenny Rosenstrach writes/provides accessible recipes for the working family. She also provides strategies for families with picky eaters and different appetites.  I own her cook book, and gift it at many a baby/wedding shower.  Even before I read her blog, an article she wrote in some magazine (Real Simple?) inspired me to write down all of the dinners I have ever made. I now keep a record from November 2011, one month after R was born, in a dinner journal
My favorite recipes include the Salmon Salad, Tortilla Soup, Baked Chicken with Tomatoes and Marscapone, Salad Pizza, and her Bourbon Pork Tenderloin (only in her cook book, and I never use Bourbon). Click on her Recipes link and explore!

2) Smitten Kitchen - More complicated recipes. Deb Pearlman is hilarious and realistic and really knows food. You know it's a good food blog when you read it and rarely use the recipes.  I try one every once in a while, most recently this Zucchini Casserole.  I didn't leave enough time to make it, and it came out too salty with excess liquid.  I also have made  her cucumber and avocado salad a few times.

3) Amateur Gourmet - Adam Roberts is a former professional food blogger who now writes for television. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading his journey from Park Slope, to Manhattan, and eventually to Los Angeles, with his now husband Craig.  He tries multiple recipes, has fun dinner parties, makes useful videos (I have found the "How to Cook Fish" and "How to Cook Steak" videos extremely useful), and has taken me to many amazing restaurants with his photo journals.  Recipes from his blog I have loved are Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies, Slow Roasted Salmon with Yogurt Cucumbers and Preserved Lemon,  While visiting his blog to write this paragraph, I just learned that he is starting a new, personal, no advertising blog called

4) Food 52.  Some good recipes, but not enough content. There articles have interesting titles and ideas, but are never longer than a paragraph.  Is this site meant for a phone?  I especially like their cookbook reviews, which seem to be longer than their other articles.

Happy Exploring!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What I have learned from Open Houses

There is a combined feeling of relaxation and excitement that comes upon you when you enter an open house. It doesn't have to be a great house, in fact looking at a ratty house just makes yours look better. This feeling never gets old, even after the fifty open houses I have been to in the past two years (and we are not moving, folks).

You might not consider going to open houses extremely adventurous, but on the contrary I have learned some tidbits over the years, about myself and real estate.
 Here they are: (in no particular order)

1)  The cookies don't help. You either want the house, or you don't. But, I will take one!
2) The one slip of paper flier is appreciated. I don't want a $5 print- out of contracts and deeds, especially when I skipped out on signing in.
3) I remind myself not to display my dirty flip flops and well-used Steve Madden flats when I have people in my walk-in closet for an open house.
4) The older the house, the more I want to see it, and the more I want to live in it.
5) The more nicely framed photos and paintings you have in your home, the more I want it. Ditto for wooden furniture. And books.
6) People who buy a home just for granite counter tops are idiots.
7) An Ikea rug is the cheapest, most temporary, and most obvious "fix" in history.
8) All roaches should be picked up before the open house.
9) An open house can only help a house sell.  There have been some houses on the market for months that have never had an open house. They have not sold either.
10) Move with the times, and have the open house posted online.
11) A balloon identifier on the sign is actually helpful.
12) FLUSH people.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


NYC has been the home of many ( mostly defunct) aspiring French Bistros. From the Upper East Side down to Murray Hill, there has been one on at least every other block.  Among my favorites were Jacques on 85th and 3rd, which features a Mussel Special almost every night, and the former Bateau Ivre on 52nd and 2nd, where my boyfriend (now husband) and I watched Obama win the presidential election on a chilly November evening while eating Sole Menuiere. By the time I moved from NYC in 2012, most of the bistros were being turned into trendier "wine bars" or "tapas" restaurants.

They all varied in quality and after trying out a few in your neighborhood, you knew which had the best roast chicken or your favorite steak frites, but they all had bad Vichyssoise.  It was a standard on the every menu, and was usually served extremely watery and with about three chives, forcing you to sip it with lots of "le pain".  And who knows how long it had been stored in their walk-in.  So when my grandmother (the same one who makes potato salad), made Vichyssoise once, I only ate some to be polite. But, it was good!

Homemade, fresh, Vichyssoise, is completely different.  It's actually savory (rather than liquid salt) and refreshing on a hot day. She mailed me her recipe (out of the Joy of Cooking).

My grandmother's Joy of Cooking recipe is pretty standard Vichyssoise, which calls for three leeks, one white onion, and four medium-sized potatoes.  The recipe calls for you to put the sauteed, softened ingredients through a very fine sieve, food mill, or blender. The recipe also calls for chives, which my grandmother states she "usually does not have."

I have also often used Mark Bittman's recipe. His calls for only leeks and potatoes (Yukon gold or russet), garlic, and for the cream to be optional. His suggested garnish is parsley or chervil (which is....?).  The end result is that cream is not "optional." But, I do use Yukon gold potatoes now.

I have found the best recipe to be by Simon Hopkinson, British chef and author of Roast Chicken and Other Stories. It's extremely simple, and requires cream and chives, along with the standard leeks (6) and potatoes (2). He also writes, "it really is worth passing the (blended) soup through a very fine sieve to achieve a wonderfully smooth result." While I wholeheartedly agree, I have two kids under four and won't be doing that anytime soon.

Bon Appetite!

from Simon Hopkinson

6 leeks, white parts only, trimmed and sliced
3 cups light chicken stock
2 russet potatoes, peeled and chopped
Salt and white pepper
1 cup heavy cream
Small bunch chives

Simmer the leeks in chicken stock, covered, for 20 minutes. Add the potatoes, salt, and pepper and cook, covered, for another 20 minutes. Blend in batches until smooth, then strain if needed through a fine mesh sieve, cool, and add the cream. Correct the seasoning and chill thoroughly. Serve in ice cold bowls and garnish with chives. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Dinner Challenge - What to make with what's left?

On Tuesday, I had a typical "busy Mom" quandary - that being "What to make for dinner with no food?"  I usually schedule grocery time with my girls, as they enjoy going and are USUALLY well behaved. But, a last minute meeting with the grandparents, and a spontaneous play date prevented me from even darkening the door of the Teeter. Therefore, I took the challenge happily.

I have come to understand that one of the challenges that chefs partake on in cooking shows is to look in the pantry/refrigerator of someone's kitchen, and cook a gourmet meal from the ingredients they find.  I pretended to be one of those chefs as I sifted through my sparse cupboards.  All we needed was a main, as we still had the potato salad as a side (and we will be having it again tonight).
We had a quarter of a box of pasta, but no Parmesan. We had tomatoes. We had bread and turkey, but I really didn't want sandwiches for dinner. We had beans, cheese and tomatoes, and corn tortillas, but that really didn't go with potato salad.
I pondered for a few hours.
Frittata! We had eggs, feta, and frozen spinach. I googled the ingredients and came up with this recipe:
William-Sonoma's Spinach, Red Pepper, and Feta Frittata

And I even had the red pepper left over from last week's unused Blue Apron dinner!
The husband was skeptical, but it filled him up, and I was even able to have the other half for lunch the next day.  The recipe uses William Sonoma's Frittata maker, but you don't need one. I used my cast iron skillet, and finished it off under the broiler. Also, I only used six eggs instead of ten, and lowered the amount of the other ingredients to taste.
I think I won a small chef's challenge!    

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

My Grandmother's Potato Salad: A Labor of Love

This weekend, I had no kids in the house. They were at my in laws, and as a result I was able to rearrange rooms and sift through neglected piles.  My husband and I went to the baseball game and out to dinner every night. And, I was able to make my Grandmother's Potato Salad, a labor of love (especially since I made it on Labor Day!).  

When a family member first thinks of my grandmother, people think about her wit, her beauty, her loyalty to her family, and her generosity. They do not think about her cooking.  She really has had three or four good dishes she has depended on over the years (you only need a few!), and this potato salad is one of them. My family would arrive in Ohio from our twelve hour car trip and be greeted by this potato salad, the best one in the world. It had bacon, and was filled with egg, and I could even tolerate the celery.  

In my twenties, after stuffing a few scoops into my mouth, I finally asked for the recipe.  As customary, she mailed it to me in a card. She had carefully copied it down in blue marker in her clear, precise, signature penmanship, with her own notes. I folded it carefully in my recipe book. My Brooklyn "kitchen" could not tolerate potato salad for ten, and my apartment could not fit ten people.

My first attempt to make it was for my husband's (then fiancee's) thirtieth birthday party. In honor of his southern roots, I made southern dishes, thus potato salad (I also had a new kitchen!).  It took me hours and about twenty dollars worth of ingredients.  But it tasted the same, and people raved. 

Well, five years, three moves, and two babies later, I finally made it again. Assigned to make potato salad for the family's Labor Day picnic, I had the time and the kitchen space to attempt it again. Since I had a stocked pantry, I also had many of the ingredients (still didn't have "savory", but Mammo said she never used it either. What is "savory"?).  After peeling the potatoes and chopping the vegetables, it actually didn't take as long as I remembered. And the results were the same. Perfect potato salad that has just enough of everything.  

Mammo's Potato Salad (in her words)

6 medium potatoes

1 tsp mustard
1 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
1/2 tsp Savory [I never have this ingredient]
salt and pepper
1/4 cup salad oil
1/4 cup vinegar  

2 eggs
4 strips of bacon [I probably make it six]
1 small onion
2 large stalks of celery
2 tomatoes [skin them by dipping in boiling water briefly] 
1 small cucumber
1/4 cup salad dressing - I use Miracle Whip
3 Tlbs pepper relish
lettuce [ washed and dried]

Boil potatoes, slice into a large bowl.
Place all seasoning in a jar with oil and vinegar. Shake well. Pour over the potatoes and let them mellow. Hard boil the eggs, put them in as you boil the potatoes. Cut onion, celery and cucumber. Slice all the cucumber peel and core [taking out all seeds].
Drain excess dressing from potatoes and add the rest of the ingredients and toss lightly. Refrigerate and when ready to serve place on a bed of lettuce. 

Putnam Dinner notes:  I only used four slices of bacon, I did not skin the tomatoes. I used Hellman's. and I used sweet pickle relish because I could not find pepper relish at the Harris Teeter. Does that exist?  We served the potato salad with burgers.  

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Accidental Blue Apron Dinners

After being away from home for two weeks, and only being able to prepare vacation menus apropos to a rental house, I took pleasure in reviewing my saved recipes from the summer and choosing the ones I have loved but haven't made yet. I also scoured my summer magazines for recipes I tagged, but have not yet made/saved.  I chose the perfect weekly menu and shopped for the grocery store ingredients that day (I shop almost daily for fresh ingredients), for the week.  When I returned home from round two, I found an email from Blue Apron reminding me that my dinners would arrive the next next day. I CHECK MY EMAIL EVERY HOUR OF EVERY DAY, FOLKS.  How could I miss this? 
Well, how great is that? I can afford to get three meals of gourmet ingredients sent to my home. Good thing the only fresh, un-freezable ingredient I got was cilantro.  

The next day, come 5:00, the Blue Apron box is still not here. I track the package. It is in WADESBORO? I call Lasership. I wait 15 minutes on hold before I am told that I am the 30th caller in line, "But my call is VERY IMPORTANT to them."  

7:00:  The kids are in bed, still no box.  Husband and I are hungry. We decide to start the earlier planned dinner, knowing that if we don't start it, the package will not arrive. 

7:35:  As planned, the moment my Pork Milanese and Panzenella Salad hit the table, the Blue Apron Box arrives. I grab it, open it, and leave it on the floor. I am too hungry to load up the fridge. My husband states, "You're just going to leave it open on the floor!"  Dude, it's been in WADESBORO all day. Ten more minutes on our floor won't hurt it. 

So, tonight we will have the Catfish.

And now my in laws are taking the kids for the weekend and we are hitting the baseball game, Kindred, and Del Frisco's. The steaks and chicken burgers will have to wait for next week. That's what freezers are for!  

Other goals besides trying to menu meals will have to suffice!  (Is it weird that I am secretly annoyed that I don't get to cook my planned menu?)  And I will be thinking about that cilantro all week.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Reflections on Vacation

I haven't seen this in a while. So many bloggers (am I a blogger? - we sill have to see) go on vacation and never return. Since I am not advertising this (or advertising), then it doesn't matter. Too much pressure.  Anyway, a few reflections on my recent "trip with kids" to my parents' homes in Cohasset, MA and Martha's Vineyard, in no real order of significance.
1) When you start to write on a regular basis (ie, the three weeks before the trip), you actually start to miss writing. Maybe because I am new at this.  I started thinking of many new topics to write about, and I didn't have (or make) opportunities to write.
2) I didn't have much opportunity to read as well. I am a voracious reader and it is also my means of escape. Pre-Kids, I read War and Peace in one week on MVY. I read East of Eden another week (Oh how I loved that book, and oh, how I cannot recall one sentence).  This vacation I managed to skim the last chapters of Candice Bergan's autobiography A Fine Romance (there will be more on that later), and I did manage to read H is for Hawk for Preschool Moms book club while the kids were in front of the TV at my grandmother's.
3) I don't live for beach days. I never really have. I like the essence of all things Vineyard, the salty air, the G&T at 5, driving to the fish market, grassy views with red barns, the white houses with views of the harbor. I like the beach, but it won't make or break a Vineyard stay.
4) My younger daughter really dislikes the beach.  This does not even have to be reflected upon. It just is, and hopefully she will put her toes on the sand next summer.
5) For some reason, the fact that the Banana Stand does not have a dishwasher did not bother me in the least. Go figure.
6) Central air has gotten into my bones. I can never go back.
7) Kids wake up extremely early on vacation. This is always a surprise. They woke us up at 7:45 today, for the first day of school.
8) I liked being among my Yankee people, but it was nice to return to the friendliness in the south, which was immediately noticed at the Charlotte airport.
9) People pretended to be happily ignorant of my screaming daughter on the flight home. It was a flight with TV and only two hours long, but it is still nice to be reminded that there is hope for humanity.
10) Watching your parents with your kids is wonderful!  So much love and cuteness. We miss Mimi and Grandad terribly.  

I should probably put these in a more artistic order, and I should also start trying to write without using lists.  We will see how that goes!