At the Farmers' Market

When I got pregnant, everyone kept telling me that total strangers would touch my belly. Luckily this has only happened once so far. The woman who did it was coming out of a restaurant bathroom as I was going in, and she seemed a little tipsy so maybe her inhibitions were down. So, fortunately I've escaped the hands of strangers on my belly up to this point. The thing I wasn't prepared for was people staring at my belly and asking questions. I notice this the most when I'm at the Farmers' Market. There are a lot of older, retired folks shopping there, and they often want to ask me about my pregnancy. Some of the questions are silly, such as "Have you got a little one in there?" "Yes," I answer thinking "obviously I'm having a baby, either that or stealing a watermelon."  They want to know what I'm going to name the baby, when I am due, and whether or not this is my first child. Although they will sometimes talk to me for a while as I am quickly trying to do my shopping, I don't mind these little inquiries. There is excitement in their voices as they ask me these questions, and the questions are almost always followed by stories about when their children and grandchildren were born. The overarching theme in all of their stories is that time goes by too fast. They say things like, "It seems like only yesterday I had my daughter and now she has a daughter of her own." And they are right, time does go by too fast. The other day I cried at a wedding when the groom danced with his mom, thinking that will be me and my son one day. I know, I know that is still really far away. But, I appreciate the insight, concern, and joy on the faces of the older folks at the Farmers' Market. They serve as a good reminder to enjoy this stage of my life - the tiny kicks of my baby, preparing his room, daydreaming about what he will be like.

Speaking of the Farmers' Market, there were fabulous lemons there this week. They were a really good deal, so I bought a bunch. I also needed a dessert to take to my small group, so I decided to make lemon bars. These are my favorite lemon bars, my variation on a version I found in Bon Appetit Magazine a few years ago. They have toasted coconut in the crust. Yum! And I've found that even people who don't like coconut like these lemon bars.

Lemon Bars 

1 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut
6 tablespoons cold butter cut into 1/2 inch cubes 

1 cup and 2 tablespoons sugar
3 large eggs
5 teaspoons grated lemon zest
6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 2-3 lemons)
1 1/2 teaspoons all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt 

For serving
1/4 cup powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8 x 8 inch metal baking pan with parchment paper leaving an overhang (which will help you remove the lemon bars later). Butter pan and parchment. Toast coconut in a dry skillet over medium heat until lightly golden. Remove from pan and allow to cool. Place flour, sugar and salt in food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Add cooled coconut and butter and pulse until mixture begins to clump together (it will not form a ball). Place mixture into prepared pan and use fingers to press evenly over bottom of pan. Bake until crust is very lightly golden at edges, about 25 minutes.

While crust is baking, combine all filling ingredients in food processor and process until smooth. Once crust is baked remove from oven and pour filling over hot crust. Return to oven and bake an additional 30-35 minutes until edges are lightly golden and filling is just set and springy to the touch in the center. Transfer pan to rack to cool completely.

Using the parchment sling as an aid, transfer the bars to a cutting board. Gently remove the parchment and cut bars into 16 squares. Sift powdered sugar over bars. Can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several days.

Makes 16.

Note: The powdered sugar will be absorbed by the bars after a couple of hours. If not serving the same day, wait and dust with powdered sugar before serving.


Easy Cuban Favorites

I used to work for a Cuban woman who is still a close friend. Although I liked Cuban food before I met her, she brought my appreciation for it to a new level. When she traveled to Miami she brought me a small device to make Tostones (twice-fried plantains), special spice mixes loaded with garlic flavor, and robust Cuban coffee. When I got married, she gave me a Cuban cookbook entitled Memories of a Cuban Kitchen by Mary Urruita Randelman. This is a great cookbook filled hundreds of classic Cuban recipes that include Randelman's family's favorites, as well as stories about her family and life in Cuba as a small child. When I open this book, I feel like I have the chance to sit down with a Cuban family and learn more about the culture through its delicious food. I have enjoyed all the dishes that I have prepared using this cookbook, but the recipe I return to most often is one of the most simple. Crushed Potatoes. Potatoes are simply boiled until tender, then crushed and fried in olive oil to produce a golden crust on each side. Topped with parsley, red onions and coarse sea salt, they are delicious. They are great really with any meal in which you might want to have a potato side dish, so I encourage you to try them even if you are not making Cuban food.

Crushed Potatoes

6 medium size new potatoes
1/4 cup finely chopped flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
Olive oil
Coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

In a saucepan over medium-high heat boil the potatoes in salted water until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes and place on a clean kitchen towel. Pour enough olive oil to coat the bottom of a large skillet (preferably cast-iron to achieve a great crust) by about 1/4 inch, and heat over medium heat. While the oil heats, cover a potato with a second kitchen towel and press gently with the palm of your hand until you hear the potato crush and it has flattened a bit. Repeat with remaining potatoes. Using a spatula, transfer the potatoes to the skillet and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 4-5 minutes per side. (Don't worry if some pieces of potato fall off; it will all get golden and crispy, so it won't really matter how intact they remain). Remove and place on serving platter. Sprinkle potatoes with parsley, onion, salt, and pepper. Serve immediately. Serves 2-3.

Since I'm in the Cuban mood, I also want to include the Avocado Salad that I make quite often. This recipe does not appear in the book, but I order it everytime I go to Versailles in L.A. It's simply an avocado dressed with vinegar and thin onion slices. You hardly need a recipe, but here's how I make it:

Avocado Salad

1 ripe avocado, sliced
1/4 red or white onion very thinly sliced
Red wine vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Lay the avocado slices on a plate. Top with onion. Drizzle with a little bit of vinegar and oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Serves 2.


Game Day

Roy always requests this dip. So, on Super Bowl Sunday, he of course asked that I make it. Good thing that I love this dip too. Think of it as a creamier version of hummus. It only takes a few minutes to make, and I usually have most of the ingredients on hand. I especially like it with Giada DeLaurentiis' version of pita chips, which is included in the recipe below.

White Bean Dip with Pita Chips

1 15 oz can cannellini beans
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup lightly packed basil leaves
1/3 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 white or whole wheat pita breads (I used whole wheat in the photo)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut each pita into 8 wedges. Place in single layer on baking sheet. Brush one side of the pita with 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Sprinkle with oregano and season generously with salt and pepper. Bake for 8 minutes, turn pitas over and bake another 8 minutes until they are golden and crisp. Set aside to cool. 

Drain and rinse the cannellini beans. Combine the beans, basil, lemon juice, and garlic in food processor and pulse to combine. With machine running, slowly add the 1/3 cup olive oil. Season to taste with salt (about 1/2 teaspoon) and pepper (about 1/4 teaspoon).

Makes 4-6 appetizer servings.

Note: Once you've made this dip a few times you won't even need to refer to the recipe. Basically, you just need to throw in some beans, lemon juice, an herb, and garlic. I often replace the basil with flat leaf parsley which is also delicious. You can replace the cannellini beans with garbanzo beans. You can adjust the garlic and lemon to your liking. This dip can be made one day ahead and refrigerated. The pita chips can be made one day ahead and stored in an airtight container at room temperature.


For Dinner This Week

My pregnancy progresses. My energy level is getting a little lower each day, so I haven't been planning out a lot of meals ahead the way I normally do. However, I was watching a rerun of Barefoot Contessa the other day and saw her make this amazing looking butternut squash salad. I knew I had to make it soon, so I picked up a butternut squash at the farmer's market earlier this week. It turned out to be very tasty, so I thought I would share it with all of you. I know I will definitely be making this again.

Butternut Squash and Arugula Salad

3/4 lb butternut squash, peeled and cut into 3/4 inch dice
2 teaspoons maple syrup
1/4 cup plus two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons dried cranberries
6 tablespoons apple juice
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 small shallot minced
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
2 cups lightly packed baby arugula
1/4 cup toasted pecan halves (Ina Garten used walnuts, but I had pecans on hand. Both will work well.)
1/4 cup freshly shredded parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Place butternut squash on sheet pan. Drizzle with two tablespoons of olive oil and maple syrup. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss to coat the squash evenly. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until squash is tender and lightly browned, turning once. During the last 5 minutes of baking, scatter the cranberries on the baking sheet. Set aside to cool slightly while you make the vinaigrette.

In a small saucepan over medium-high heat combine the apple juice, vinegar and shallots. Bring to a boil and cook until mixture is reduced to 3 or 4 tablespoons, about 6-8 minutes. Off heat whisk in mustard, 1/4 cup of olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper.

Place the arugula in a large bowl, and add the squash and cranberry mixture and pecans. Drizzle with the warm vinaigrette to coat. Toss and divide between two shallow bowls or plates. Top each serving with half of the parmesan cheese, and serve immediately.

Serves two as a substantial side salad.