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Last weekend, Kiddo #2 helped me make dinner. She was helpful and engaged. She stirred the sauce, poured and mixed ingredients and pressed up right.next.to.me. while I chopped and diced. I did my best to breathe deeply, let her have fun and not micro manage her when she sploshed sauce over the side of the sauce pan. She did great, and I twitched a lot, forced myself to refrain from making snappy comments and just let her be a part of my kitchen.

I am trying to cultivate more patience with my kids when they help me cook. I wish I didn’t care when floors and clothes got wet, or dirty or covered in paint or tomato sauce, but the wiring in my brain that gives me the patience to be crafty and focused with children is faulty. I have a tendency to short circuit and get bossy easily and say things like, “give me that,” and “let me do it.” I like my cupcakes to look pretty instead of smooshed, I hate picking up bits of paper and glitter off the floor, and I don’t like cleaning paint or glue off my or my kids’ fingers. I avoid most art projects that involve moisture and colors that stain and schedule activities that don’t involve scrubbing hands and faces afterward.

My aversion to messes doesn’t spill over into other areas of the house. I don’t seem to have a problem with piles of papers or clothes. I am not even all that bothered by clutter although I am definitely neater now that we have kids. But I can’t seem to handle wet gloppy kid messes. Even as a kid I didn’t like getting my hands sticky, though I did love to play with flour. I love how soft and cool flour feels while sifting through my fingers–until it turns into a wet gummy paste and then flour is quickly added to the icky list.

I want to let the kids slop on the frosting when decorating cupcakes and not feel my body tense up when they accidentally dump glittery sprinkles onto the floor. My kids have aprons they can wear, and I have a powerful vacuum and a Costco supply of sponges. We spend a lot of time in our kitchen, so I need to be able to teach my kids to cook while refraining from snatching items from their hands when they threaten to pour the entire contents into a dish. How bad could three extra tablespoons of oregano be in a pasta sauce? Apparently, we won’t be finding out because no matter how hard I try to contain my mild obsessive compulsive perfectionist tendencies, I end up hovering over my children, futzing and clucking while I attempt to keep spills to a minimum.

Scott has much more patience with the kids in the kitchen than I. I could leave the impromptu kiddo kitchen classes to him, but that just feels like I am giving up on my kids and myself. I don’t want to miss out on helping them grow up around the chopping block and stove. It would be easier to shoo my kids out of the kitchen and cook by myself instead of slowing down and taking the time to teach them how to chop vegetables and create meals. With limited time to wedge chores, fun, classes, homework, baths, sports and dinner into an already packed evening or weekend, I find it hard to slow my brain down to the speed of my five-year-old. I like to be quick, precise, efficient and focused when attempting to get a meal on the table in under 30 minutes. That said, it isn’t fair of me to deny them the opportunity to experience cooking and make mistakes in the kitchen.

Despite my desire to cook by myself last weekend, I worked really hard at maintaining patience so Kiddo #2 could enjoy herself and feel welcomed. I had to quietly tell myself to slow down a few times, which definitely helped me keep focused on her experience and remain calm. I had to remind myself that a spill can be wiped up easily and hands are super easy to rinse off. And even a less than tasty meal is only a minor inconvenience. I am trying to keep my kids’ kitchen failures in perspective. I expect as my kids grow older and maintain better control of their hands and are less likely to push half of dinner out of the pan and onto the stove, I will feel more comfortable cooking with them. In the meantime, I plan to keep inviting them into the kitchen no matter how much my body involuntarily lunges forward to prevent potential mistakes. I will cut myself a break though, and let them do the gloppy art projects at school.

Below is my stuffed shells recipe. The vegan ricotta involves smooshing your hands into the tofu to get it the right consistency. It’s a great recipe for kids to help make– and a task I much prefer to let them handle.

Stuffed Shells
Directions:
-Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
-Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Once the water starts boiling, add in an entire box of jumbo pasta shells.
-While you are waiting for the water to boil and shells to cook, begin making the tomato sauce and tofu ricotta.

Tomato sauce ingredients:
2 large cans of crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon of olive oil
5-6 cloves of minced garlic
1 tablespoon of oregano
1 tablespoon of dried basil or a small handful of fresh leaves that your kiddo harvested from your garden
6-7 good cranks of the pepper grinder
Salt to taste

Armed with her trusty pair of kid-friendly craft scissors…

…there was no reason she couldn’t tame the bolting basil herself.

Sauce directions:
-Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large sauce pan
-Add the garlic
-Saute until the garlic has turned golden
-Add the two cans of tomatoes to the garlic (give the can opener to your kid and see if he/she can open it on their own) and the rest of the ingredients and simmer on low

While the sauce is simmering, start making the tofu ricotta. This can also be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge.

She started off thinking it would be fun to stick her hands into a bowl of squishy tofu.

But her face quickly proved that she loves sticky, messy fingers about as much as I do.

Tofu ricotta ingredients:
1 block of firm tofu, mashed by little hands if you have an extra pair living in the house
½ to ⅔ cups of Veganaise
2 tablespoons dried or fresh dill
2 teaspoons fresh basil (leftover from the earlier harvest)
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder
½ teaspoon pepper
salt to taste

Ricotta directions:
-Mash the tofu into a large bowl until it is a crumbly and mushy
-Add all the ricotta ingredients and stir well until it begins to resemble the consistency of ricotta
-Adjust seasonings to taste

Assemble:
-Once everything is ready, take a large casserole dish and scoop a few heaping spoonfuls of sauce into the bottom and spread evenly.
-Take a large soup spoon and stuff each shell full of the tofu ricotta.
-When you have snuggly filled the casserole dish with stuffed shells, cover the shells with the remaining tomato sauce.
-Bake in the oven for 25 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling up on the sides and the filling is heated through.
-Serve with homemade garlic bread and a huge tossed salad.

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Potato Comfort

I need some comfort food. Now. I need to sit in a pair of soft pants on my squishy couch with a plate of twice-baked potatoes in front of some brain-cell-destroying TV. The personal and political drama of October spilled into the first week of November.  I think it is okay to just say goodbye to 2010 now and check out until January. The year is like a bad container of leftovers left on the counter to fester and rot. We need to let out the gas, dump all the contents, and start over with a new menu. Fortunately, for my little family, we were only forced to eat a small portion of the 2010 meal, but unfortunately, our family and friends were served much larger platefuls.

So, a few days ago I sent out a call on Facebook for new 2011 menu ideas, and my friends came up with some suggestions. I think they’ve helped to create a lovely meal—one in which we could all enjoy. I only hope that next year’s chef  (God, Obama, the universe, fate, destiny, Oprah, whoever you put your faith in, etc.) will actually deliver.

Proposed 2011 Menu

Cocktail

A warm snifter of justice topped with a sprinkling of organic grassroots activism.

Appetizer

Freshly harvested blessings peppered with economic upturn and paired with a fine vintage of full-bodied health.

Entrées

Grilled sense and reason with a side of unbiased information

or

Pizza*

Dessert

A triple-layer cake of compassion, patience and mindfulness drizzled with a love and tranquility sauce.

Until our sumptuous meal is served, or the pizza arrives in a comforting box at your door, please feel free to join me on the couch for some salty, stuffed potatoes.

Vegan Twice-Baked Potatoes

Ingredients

4-6 Russet potatoes scrubbed clean and pierced for baking

3 bunches of broccoli, including stems

1 package of smoky tempeh strips (They have a bacon-y flavor. Check your natural food store.)

1-1 ½ cups (or as much as needed to reach desired flavor and consistency) of Real Food Daily’s cashew cheddar cheese sauce (We use this versatile, smooth and creamy sauce for casseroles, nachos, pizzas, tamales, etc.)

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

–Heat the oven to 400 degrees and bake potatoes until soft (approx. 45 minutes to an hour).

–Make the cashew cheese sauce.

–While potatoes are baking, chop broccoli into very small pieces and steam until soft and bright green. For added texture, chop and steam the stem as well.

–Cut tempeh into small pieces and heat in a skillet.

–Once potatoes are cool enough to handle, slice in half and scoop the insides into a large bowl. Don’t tear the skins. Set them aside as you will need them later to hold the stuffing.

–Add the broccoli, tempeh, cheese sauce, salt and pepper to the bowl of potatoes  and mix well.

–Heap the potato skins full of the potato mixture and put back into the oven for another 20 minutes or until the tops are crispy and golden and the mixture is heated through.

–Serve with a salad and/or beer and your favorite show.

*Special thanks to Dina for keeping it real.

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I don’t make friends easily in new situations. Every time I start a new job, place my kids in a new school or move to a different town, my ability to engage people in meaningful discussions or even hold something resembling a conversation diminishes. I can’t even manage small talk. My vocabulary dwindles down to one syllable words, I struggle with thinking up questions to ask, and my tendency to make snarky, inappropriate jokes about my children increases monumentally. If my first impression doesn’t offend or frighten people away, I eventually start making friends, but only after a lengthy period of time has passed and I have had a chance to redeem myself of that first encounter. My friend Erin on the other hand, is the Pied Piper of friendships. She could coax an agoraphobic recluse out a cave if given the opportunity. The community that has taken me three years to create, Erin can replicate in a foreign country with a language barrier in about six weeks. She is charming, extroverted, feisty, and funny. She walks into a room and people love her, almost instantly.

I would not have survived my six months of stay-at-home status without Erin. Only she could welcome and appreciate a desperate, “my child awoke at the crack of dark and if I don’t get out of the house, someone is going to die” 6:30 am phone call and request to meet at the park. Especially because she herself had most likely already been woken up by 5:00 am. I can always count on Erin to be up for a bit of spontaneity, just as long as it is before the sun sets, which is fine because really, at this point in my life, late night outings cramp the little sleep I get, and I am not going to sacrifice the precious bits of rest I do get for a cheap drink on the town.

Over the last few years, we’ve taken to gathering our friends and their kids together for spontaneous Friday night dinners. They are spontaneous because we generally don’t start inviting each other over for dinner until about an hour before mealtime. We’ve nicknamed these evenings “Noodle Nights” because after a full day of work, pasta and a sauce bar (vegan alfredo, pesto or marinara) is about all we can throw together in the 20 minutes between arriving at home and receiving hungry children and parents at the front door.

But lately, Erin has been rocking the homemade pizza dough and creating calzones. Vegan calzones. And now I want to eat those. all.the.time.

I had never really understood the point of the calzone while growing up. Who wanted pizza fillings wrapped in dough when you could just eat the pizza? So I skipped the calzone section of the menu and chose its cheesier, greasier, more popular cousin. But for the past 13 years, that popular cousin has shunned me. Most pizza, when you omit the cheese, becomes a dry, cardboard-like meal. I always end up eating copious amounts of vegan pizza in hopes that the more I eat, the more flavor I will taste. Oddly enough, that strategy never works.

Oh how I love vegan calzones. They keep the veggies hot, flavorful and moist all wrapped up in a blanket of soft dough. And the steam inside that tasty pocket of goodness actually melts vegan cheese. When you add grilled zucchini, caramelized onions, homemade pesto, and mushrooms, well, I could continue to gush annoyingly or you could just make one yourself. After a long week of work, nothing tastes better than a calzone (vegan or not) with a seasonal salad tossed with a rich, local olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and a cold beer with your best friends. Really.


The Best Pizza Dough

Ingredients
3 1/2 cups flour
1 cup warm water
2T honey
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
2 1/4 tsp yeast (1 package)

Directions
Combine water, honey, salt and yeast. Leave it to rest for five minutes until it gets foamy. Add to the flour and oil and mix until fully moistened. Knead two or three times and then cover. Let rise for 45 minutes.

At this point you can either start creating pizza or calzones, or if you have more time and people aren’t clamoring at your door, you can punch down the dough and let it rise again for another 45 minutes. Erin says punching down the dough makes an even better pizza dough, but I say it is fabulous either way. She also recommends using this recipe for foccacia.

Vegan Calzones

Ingredients (makes enough for four adult-sized calzones and four kid-sized)
One batch of “The Best Pizza Dough”
One jar of marinara (or make your own with a can of tomatoes, 3-4 cloves of minced garlic, salt, pepper and a dash of dried basil and oregano if you are feeling chef-y)
Pesto (one bunch of fresh basil without the stems, 3-4 cloves of garlic, salt and pepper to taste, a handful of pine nuts and about 1/4 cup of olive oil thrown into a food processor and blended to a moist paste. Add more olive oil if it seems too dry.)
St. Ives Vegan Pepperoni (should be able to find this in the deli section of your local Whole Foods or natural food store)
Grilled zucchini
Caramelized onions
Kalamata olives
Mushrooms
Whatever else you like on your pizza or in your calzone

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Take a fist size of pizza dough and roll out into a flat circle similar to a small pizza. Load up one side with sauce and yummy stuff (I like to do a pesto/marinara combo). Fold the other half of the dough over the ingredients to make a pocket and cinch the edges so that they are closed together (almost like folding a pie crust).
Lay on an oiled pizza pan that is sprinkled with a little corn meal and place in the oven for 12-15 minutes or until the dough is golden brown and baked completely.
Once baked, sit down to a nice homey meal and give thanks for your friends.

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