Sunday, June 30, 2013

Happy Half Birthday!

Do you celebrate half-birthdays? I never had. But that is until Allie came along and I heard of a tradition of celebrating half birthdays from my colleague, who has 3 children and they have always celebrated everyone's half birthdays! The minute I heard that story, I decided we are going to do that for Allie! We celebrated her 1.5 years old last year and this month we celebrated her 2.5! She got her half a cupcake (Ina Garten's Red velvet, amazing!) for her half birthday and we sang "Happy half birthday to you" song. We don't give Allie a gift for the occasion, but she seems to be pretty happy with just the cupcake and a Happy Birthday song all for her! Hopefully those will do the trick when she gets older too. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

As Russian as it gets: little pies

When I was growing up, one of my favorite things to do was helping in the kitchen. The food tastes better for kids when they help making it, and in addition, being in the kitchen always involved listening the conversations of grown-ups, which I always loved. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mom and with my grandma “babushka”, whom I went to spend every single summer vacation with, along with my sister and cousins. One of my favorite memories of those summers is making pirozhki with babushka.  Everybody participated! 

The literal translation of “pirozhki” is little pies. It’s one of the most versatile dishes you can make. All it is -  dough and filling. Filling could be sweet or savory. Some of the most traditional filings are braised cabbage, potatoes and scallions, mushrooms, apples or berries. Since my favorite is pirozhki with cabbage, that’s the recipe I share.

Little pies (Pirozhki) with cabbage filling 

For the dough
1 C milk
2 1/4 C flour
5 Tbsp vegetable or sunflower oil
2 eggs + 1 egg for brushing
1 Tbsp dry yeast
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 Tsp salt

For the filling
1 small cabbage
1 Tbsp butter
1 tsp salt

In a bowl mix 1/2 C flour, 1/2 C milk, 1/2 Tbsp sugar and yeast. Mix well until there are no longer flour lumps. Place in a dry warm spot and let stand for about 30 minutes. In a separate bowl, warm the rest of the milk, add oil and salt, mix well and add into bowl #1. Then separate yolks from the whites. Mix the egg yolks with the sugar and add them into the dough. Beat the egg whites well and add into the dough. Add in the remaining flour. Mix the dough well with your hands for about 5 -10 minutes. It's ready when it stops sticking to your hands. Cover with a clean towel and let sit for about 2 hours in a warm spot.

In the meantime, prepare the cabbage filling. Shred the cabbage, add it into a pan with the butter, season it, cover with a lid and let cook for about 30 minutes stirring occasionally. 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

When the dough rises, it's ready. Roll out the dough to about 1/2 inch thickness. Using a glass as your cutter, cut circles of dough. Take one of them stretch into a size comfortable to work with. Fill it with about 1 Tbsp of cabbage filling, bring the sides of the dough together and with your fingers stick them together. Place a prepared pirozhok on an oiled baking sheet seam side down. Continue with the rest. Let pirozhki stand on a baking sheet for about 15 minutes. Whisk an egg and brush each pirozhok with an egg. Transfer into the oven. Let bake for 20-25 minutes until pirozhki are lightly browned.

Enjoy with a glass of cold milk.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

To 'B' or not to 'B'

This post is for my pregnant friends out there, if you are still undecided to “B” or not to “B” (“B” being “Breastfeed”). “B” sounds less conspicuous and more private, so it seems better for a title.  I want to share my very personal experience and maybe make your decision easier. I can’t compare breastfeeding with formula feeding (or “artificial feeding” as it’s called in Russian) accurately, since I’ve only had one child so far and I breastfed her, but I’ll try.  I hope you will accept this post for what it is “a story of a mother who breastfed”. I am certainly biased due to my experience, but I know plenty of mothers who formula fed and they and their kids are just as healthy and happy, so I respect both choices. Also worth mentioning that sometimes there are certain circumstances and even health related reasons why a mother cannot breastfeed. But if you have the option, you may as well consider it at least.
Now having made this disclaimer let me tell you why I endorse breastfeeding:
1.       Why don’t we start right with this point: any baby related literature, books, magazines, different studies, research, and many doctors recommend breastfeeding.  I don’t think I've seen anywhere a statement suggesting that formula feeding is better for your child. As mothers, we all want what’s best for our children, so why not to start from the very early age and do what we can? Volumes of studies have been done and there is plenty of scientific evidence of the benefits for your baby. I won’t get into the details of studies, because I don’t feel confident using medical terms in English (or Russian for that matter) having no medical or scientific background, but I do understand from all the studies I’ve read that breastfeeding is good for your baby (nice and clear!). It can help preventing numerous diseases, such as asthma, diabetes, different infections, etc. And yes, yes I know the statement “it can help…” always sounds so vague and doesn't even sound very confident and real, but from my own experience I can say that Allie only had one ear infection since she was born and it was very minor.

2.       Breastfeeding is good for you, too! First things first: it allows you get rid of loooots of calories. Let’s face it, what other activity will let you burn so many calories while sitting comfortably on the couch and watching your favorite TV show?  So your “baby fat” will go away faster if you breastfeed. Besides, studies have also shown that breastfeeding lowers a woman's risks of getting certain types of cancers and even heart disease.

3.       It’s so convenient! When you go anywhere with your baby, you don’t need to bring any bottles or any formula. All the “tools” are with you! That actually might have been my favorite part about breastfeeding. You always ready to go! Especially it came in handy during doctor’s visits when Allie was getting shots. The shots, of course, always ended in tears, but Allie was then immediately soothed by mama’s milk, without me having to spend any time preparing a bottle.

4.       And that brings us to another important benefit of soothing! It's soothing for both mother and baby. Nothing was as soothing to Allie as breastfeeding. It always, always, always helped. Whether her belly bothered her, or she was teething, or she was restless, or sleepy, whatever it was – boob to the rescue!

5.       It is inexpensive. Breastfeeding is so much cheaper than buying formula, which adds up to a lot. The longer you breastfeed, the more money you save! A pump can be fairly expensive, but actually many insurances cover its purchase, and in any case once you’ve bought it – you’re done. That, a couple bottles and freezer containers are all you need.

6.       It’s also empowering! You can actually say that you are giving something to your baby that no one else can. And yes, of course, you can also give your baby mother’s love like no one else, but breastfeeding is way more concrete and true.

7.       That raved about bonding experience. It’s just between you and your baby; it’s your private moment. It really creates that great bond from the very start. Besides, after the first few weeks of getting used to it, it actually feels very pleasant.

8.       I think there also has to be something said about the whole “organic” aspect and feel of breastfeeding. It is how the nature intended for a baby's early feeding to happen.

9.       “Bragging rights”! Nothing like casually mentioning that “oh yeah, no big deal, but I did breastfeed for over 2 years” (or even more in some cases!). That’s not something I can say, as I didn’t go that long, but I always have so much respect for mothers who did it! The longer you breastfeed, the more health benefits your baby gets.

10.  Easy night time feedings. How about the fact that in the middle of the night, when your baby wakes up to eat, all you need to do is move her to your bed, get her in a comfortable feeding position and continue sleeping. Of course, you need to be careful with your baby next to you, but I found that “ a mother’s instinct” is a very real thing and you don’t sleep the same with your baby next to you. Still you have to be careful, of course.  So no need to get up (given your baby sleeps in a  co-sleeper or cradle next you to), no need to deal with preparation of bottles, warming anything up… Everything is cooked, warmed up and ready to go!

Now since I set out to compare the two feeding options, I have to bring up a few points why I can totally understand mothers who choose to formula feed.
1.     The looks.  Well, let’s get very frank here and admit that breastfeeding does not make your breasts look any prettier when you’re finally done. How important it is for you – you decide.  I mean you will look just fine, but definitely not the same as pre-breastfeeding (I told you I’d be very frank) 

2.       The reason that actually matters a lot and that made me consider several times to stop breastfeeding is this  - it’s all on you! So in a sense, it’s a positive of breastfeeding (you know, oh I am so cool, I make my baby’s food!) but when you are completely exhausted and the last thing you want to do in the middle of the night is get your sleep interrupted and breastfeed, because, you know, it’s always your turn, you really consider switching to formula, as soon as the morning comes and you can go to the store and buy gallons of formula.

3.       Schedule. When you formula feed, then the only schedule you need to watch is your baby’s.  When you breastfeed, you still need to watch your baby’s feeding schedule, but in addition you have to watch yours. Read between the lines: PUMP. You must get the milk out whether your baby ate or not. You can’t fool yourself, you can’t pretend baby had enough milk, you can’t be hoping baby will be up soon to feed, or especially you absolutely cannot go a full work day without 2-3 pumping breaks.  You are on a tight schedule with pumping.

4.       If you have to travel during your baby’s first year or 2 and you are a breastfeeding mother, that’s another situation where you’ll want to stop.  Pumping every 3 hours around the clock while travelling is no picnic. Trust me, I’ve been there… Especially if you are travelling for work! Especially if you are travelling to Europe, where the outlets are different and guess what, the regular plug adapter doesn’t work and burns and ruins your pump charger and you need a plug converter, and you try to explain to a salesman at a local supermarket what you need the adapter for, because surprise, surprise, they don’t normally learn how to say “breast pump” in English classes at school (well, at least it’s not something I learned at my school). Anyway, that’s another story…

5.       It’s a fact that babies who breastfeed, feed more frequently than those who are formula fed. So if you don’t breastfeed, you get longer breaks in between, and more importantly longer stretches of sleep at night!

The conclusion: breasfeeding - 10 points, formula - 5 points. You see which one wins in my book! :)

Here are a few more great resources on breastfeeding:
American Academy of Pediatrics
La Leche Leage International 
National Women's Health Information Center
Baby Center

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Delicious pizza out of nothing

On my way home from work today I realized that I hadn't taken any meat out of a freezer, which was a disappointment because there wasn't much else to cook. Take-out was not an option either, because MJ and I both went out for lunch, so a take out just didn't seem economically appropriate. As I was walking to the garage, I was trying to figure out what I was going to feed my family with having a pretty poor grocery selection, as it often happens on Thursday nights. 

Pizza! Perfect. All you need for pizza is make a dough, which is very easy if you have a mixer or a food processor (or better yet, if you have frozen dough in your fridge, which is a good thing to have at all times, for cases like that) and a bunch of leftovers. If you're making it from scratch, remember to plan accordingly, because it takes about an hour to rise. I had half a jar of tomato sauce, some peppers, definitely onions, because I always have them, Swiss cheese that noone wanted to eat anymore and some leftover bacon that didn't fit into a baking sheet when I cooked it for breakfast the othermorning, so I had to store it. The leftover collection was shaping up into a pretty decent pizza!

I am posting this recipe because, like many recipes go, this one turned out to be such a pleasant surprise, when all I was trying to do is put together something out of nothing. It was delicious! Especially the caramelized onions part. Keep it vegetarian and hold the bacon or do what I did and crumble some right on top of cooked pizza.

Pizza with caramelized onions and bell peppers.

About a pound of any pizza dough you like. Store bough is fine or if you are making your own, I usually use Ree Drummond's recipe, only instead of 4 cups of while flour, I use 2 cups white and 2 cups wheat flour.

1 1/2 C tomato sauce 
1 1/2 C shredded cheese (most cheeses will work. Tonight I used Swiss)
1 1/2 bell peppers, sliced 
1 onion, sliced
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp butter
3 garlic cloves, minced or put through a garlic press
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
4-5 strips of bacon
olive oil
salt and pepper

Get the onions started first because they take quite a while to cook, about 30 to 40 minutes. Heat some olive oil and butter and add all of your onions. Season them with sugar, salt and pepper, stir, turn the heat down to low and leave them cooking, while stirring occasionally.

Next get the bacon into the oven, I like to season it with ground pepper.

Now get your toppings ready. In my case it was slicing peppers and shredding cheese. Depending on what you have, you may be dealing with eggplants, zucchinis, mushrooms, etc.

By now your onions (that you remembered to stir once in a while) are about half way cooked. Add in some garlic and balsamic vinegar. Stir together.

The smells that all this stuff is producing: bacon in the oven, onions, fresh garlic and balsamic vinegar getting heated are AMAZING!

Now get your pizza dough ready. You can just stretch it right in your hands or in the baking sheet, but this time I gave it a little roll first to make it a bit easier.

Make sure you check on your bacon and take it out of the oven when it gets crispy.

Increase the oven temperature to 450 degrees.
Start placing toppings on pizza. Spread the tomato sauce in an even layer. Top with cheese, peppers and caramelized onions that are definitely ready by now.

 Get it into the oven for about 15 minutes. When it comes out, all the toppings are nicely melted into the crust together. Delicious! Crumble some bacon on top, if using it.

I also added some fresh arugula drizzled with some olive oil and salt for a little fresh and peppery flavor (I only did it on a half, since Allie is not so much into arugula these days).

For such an occasion (pizza outside) we broke out our fancy paper plates!

This is easy, quick and requires just some basic ingredients. I hope you'll enjoy! 
Check out my other pizza recipes
Whole-wheat pizza with chicken, veggies and white sauce
While-wheat spinach and mushroom pizza

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Steamed artichokes with Lemon Butter Sauce

I haven't blogged in a long time now. For those of you who read my blog, I feel like I need to explain my absence, as it seems like this is what a normal blogger would do. I was away on a 2 week-long work trip, and afterwards I was just enjoying being back and spending every minute I could with my family. I was in a totally different mode and focused on things like enjoying strong delicious European coffee, easy reading during the trip, exploring new places, having fun with awesome colleagues, meeting new people and what else... oh right, working hard (I have the best job).  But seriously, my theory about being away from MJ and Allie was confirmed once again: being gone for a week is bearable and doable, but the 2nd week is where an hourly count-down starts... I just can't wait to be back!

Since I've been back the weather has been truly summery and it's so enjoyable to spend lots of time  outside, especially having dinners out on a patio that MJ built last year (and if anyone is interested, I can have him write a guest post on his experience while building it, it was quite a project). Our  menu has changed quite a bit with the arrival of summer, I am sure you understand: you want lighter foods, more veggies,dishes that are served cold, etc. I'll post what we're making through the summer, but how about I'll start with this one - the one to enjoy on a warm summer night with a cold glass of wine or beer while really taking your time with it and having long great conversations with your love/friend(s) - artichokes with lemon butter sauce. That's what we had for an appetizer tonight and, as MJ correctly pointed out, it takes forever to eat them, but I think that's the beauty of it! Artichokes are in season now, so they are inexpensive and taste great. They are also very easy to prepare and eating them always feels so fancy! I like fancy when it comes to food! This dish is also great, because it uses the whole artichoke, as opposed to just the hearts, so no waste of products, as my dad likes to say. The sauce recipe is straight out of Julia Child's book, why mess with perfection?! But frankly, if I wasn't going for fancy, I would be just as happy dipping artichoke leaves into mayo (I am a big mayo fan).

Steamed artichokes with Lemon Butter Sauce

4 medium sized artichokes

For the sauce:
1/4 C fresh lemon juice
1 stick chilled butter, cut into 8 pieces
salt and pepper to taste

Select a pan that all of your artichokes would fit, fill it with about 2 cups of water (enough to cover artichokes halfway) and bring to a boil. In the meantime prep the artichokes. A good knife and a pair of kitchen shears is all you need.

Start by cutting off the stems off the artichokes to make their bottoms flat, so they can easily sit in the pan while cooking.

 Next take  off the very tops,so you can see the insides of the artichokes

And lastly, with kitchen shears snap off the top of each leaf.

Ok, they are ready! Beauties...

 By now the water must've boiled. Salt is liberally and add a splash of vinegar if you wish, it's supposed to keep artichokes greener while they cook. Artichokes don't have to be submerged, they will steam nicely!

Cover with a lid and let them cook for about 35-40 minutes (depending on the size).
The sauce will take about 10 minutes to cook, so start cooking it accordingly.You want it to be ready right when artichokes are ready, so the sauce is nice, hot and fresh then.
Start by juicing your lemons to get 1/4 C of juice (usually 2 lemons)

Boil the juice (along with salt and pepper) down to about 1 tablespoon, take the pan off the heat and add 2 pieces of cold butter into the juice. Now you're supposed to whisk the butter into the juice, but I use electric mixer and it works just fine (gets a bit messy though, so it's not a bad idea to do this in a sink, actually)

 Once it's incorporated, return the saucepan to a low heat and mix (or whisk) in the remaining butter.

Remove the artichokes from the water and place them on a platter whole along with the sauce. To eat, you just snap off leaves one a time, dip into the sauce and eat the "meaty" part of the leaf. Discard the rest (so when serving those, remember to have an empty dish for those parts).

 Enjoy and I hope you're having a great weather wherever you are!