Ten Easy Tips for Hosting a Greener, Healthier Kid’s Birthday Party

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I like parties. I always invite most everyone I know, and find it a wonderous thing to get invited to them as well (hint, hint).

Nonetheless, for the first two years of Maya’s existence, I thought a birthday party was unnecessary, given that she wouldn’t really notice one way or the other. But by the ripe old age of three, well, she’d already attended a bunch, and she was quite specific about her desires for a cake in the shape of a bunny. (As luck would have it, my always-helpful Mom happened to have just such a cake mold on hand, left over from some ’70s baking adventures. It’s aluminum, but I let it go, just this once…I did use raspberries to color some of the frosting, which ended up a light pink.)

IMG_1580So this year, a party it was. And for the first time I had to tackle the problem of hosting a gathering that met my newly adopted standards for organic most-everything. In the end, we definitely blew our budget, but it was delightful. I really enjoyed the from-scratch but low-key nature of the gathering. Most importantly, Maya had a wonderful time, and so did the people who delighted us by coming to celebrate.

IMG_2064So here’s a summary of lessons learned, tips and links for hosting your own greener gathering!

Top Ten Tips for Hosting a Greener Kid’s Birthday Party

Given the higher cost of hosting with organic and nicer foods, I’ll start with a few ways to keep the budget lower on other items:

1) Pick an affordable spot to have it, which may require some searching. We would have hosted it at home, but felt compelled to invite too many people for our wee abode. So we comparison priced local spots at parks. While County parks where we live wanted $100 for a picnic area, the National Rock Creek Park was $8 for a grove. Hosting it in a spot where we didn’t pay per-child also was a relief when extra kids wanted to come, and we could accommodate anyone we needed to.

2) Use seasonal decorations that you can eat or enjoy later. We ditched the plastic decor and kid themes and put squashes, pumpkins, and pomegranates on the table instead, along with a fall-colored orchid. We stuck dried colorful leaves and acorns in a pumpkin vase, and brought out serving plates we use for the holidays, which fit the autumnal theme perfectly. We’ll carve the pumpkins, cook the squash into soup, and enjoy the plants over the next weeks and months.

3) Find some of what you need for entertaining at the thrift store. I hit a local thrift store’s Labor Day sale and found great items for cheaper than you would pay for disposable tableware, including a punch bowl with 14 cups for $5 and a large serving platter for $7. For a tea party theme, mismatched plates from delicate sets work great, and if you pick up these kinds of things, they can be used year after year, or even for playtime with little concern given their affordability.

4) Keep the menu simple, and make it from scratch. For an early afternoon event, I made only four things: mostly-organic hummus, some homemade pickles, guacamole, lemonade and cake. For the rest, I put out fresh fruits and vegetables, sliced or chopped as needed, a few chips and nuts, crackers, olives and cheese. It was plenty! Simple menus allow you to shop for nicer ingredients, and to put care into what you prepare. The biggest hits were the lemonade mixed on-site from organic sugar, water and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. In keeping with the DIY theme, for future parties, I would consider letting the kids decorate their own cupcakes with icing tips on (PVC-free) plastic baggies of frosting, or having guests mash up their own guacamole from a table with all the prepped ingredients and a molcajete.

IMG_20685) Use toys you already own for amusements. Last year, I scored a bunch of costumes and dress-ups at a yard sale for a only a few bucks, and they made the perfect side activity in a corner of the grove. The kids enjoyed messing around with those and a box of puppets I’ve collected from thrift stores and yard sales.

6) Make the crafts part of the favors, and let the kids decorate the favor bags. We used simple brown lunch bags for decorating at the craft table, along with wooden eggs and doo-dads I ordered directly from a great low-cost supplier in the woods of Maine. The kids had a ball painting the eggs, gluing feathers to them, and building items out of the wood. Their creativity was amazing!

7) Pick simple games from your own childhood. There are a ton of simple games, depending on the ages involved — like boiled or raw eggs on a spoon races, gunnysack races, three-legged races, musical stepping stones, water balloon toss or horseshoes and bean bag toss. You can use craft store felt squares to mark out spaces on the grass if needed, and then keep them for felt crafts like these. Some games, like Mother May I, Red Light, Green Light, Duck, Duck Goose and Simon Says require no props at all. If you want to take it up a notch, Green Planet Parties has a number of lovely game options and birthday favors that can work well, especially for smaller parties. (Just allow plenty of time for it clear customs if in the U.S., as the mostly handmade goodies ship from Canada.)

8) Having a “no gifts” rule is a nice touch, if your kid can cope. It’s kinder to other parents and also ensures you won’t be dealing with unwanted items that aren’t as green as the things you prefer for your home.

9) Keep it on the small side — or at least, don’t sweat the small stuff. File this one under “do as I say” but of course the recommended size for children’s parties is modest, and many folks follow a rule to invite the number of children that corresponds to the age of the child. This reduces costs, as well as the number of pricey biodegradable or green tableware items you might have to buy.

We’ll aim for this in future years, as this year’s was a bit ridonculous (though great fun). I did manage to shrug it off when the much-coveted bunny cake actually was dropped into the dirt and obliterated en route to the picnic table. This helped Maya move on as well. It appeared to make some sense to her when I said the bunny had returned to the woods from which it came. It’s always nice when a child’s capacity for magical thinking can help save the day…

10) Pick up the right stuff for entertaining that you can use again and again. In keeping with the greener kitchen list I posted earlier, here are some (un-commissioned) links to greener items for entertaining I found:

IMG_2066On the cake, which is always the most fun thing to think about, if you are as timid a baker as I am, you can’t go wrong with any of the dozens of wonderful cake recipes from Smitten Kitchen. That is, you can’t unless you ignore Deb’s careful and detailed instructions as I once did to my profound sorrow. I’ve made her scrumptious apple cake before, and for the birthday I loved the vanilla-buttermilk cake from her new cookbook.

Ms. Smitten is far more meticulous about stacking layers and the like (mine happened to both be lop-sided in ways that perfectly mirrored each other, so it turned out alright), but she does have sound advice on this score if you need it. If you run out of time to decorate more inventively, as I did, I also recommend having some nice-ish fresh fruit on hand, as a few thinly sliced kiwis and some berries are a great cheat and dress up a cake with little fuss.

For gluten-free cake, I did use a mix, and found that Pamela’s Chocolate Cake Mix (which I found at Whole Foods) worked well when I substituted coconut oil (using a little less than called for) for vegetable oil. The cake was very moist and slightly coconut-y, which was appealing with the chocolate.

A few notes on things you may want to avoid:

1) Most bouncy huts and the like are made of PVC, a poison plastic, and some are even likely contaminated with lead. There’s no need to put kids inside these for any real length of time, particularly indoors. Balloons are also PVC, as are many “party store” decorations like banners, etc., so keeping these outdoors is a good idea to the extent you may want to use them. The mani-pedi party one 5-year-old girl I know got invited to is also just a terrible idea for all sorts of reasons.

2) In a 2009 study, 100 percent of the face paints tested came up positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin that is now thought to be harmful in much smaller amounts. We use Giotto Face Pencils, which the company claims are lead-free, but they are no longer available from any vendor I’ve found in the U.S. (you can get it shipped through ebay from Europe). MightyNest also sells Glob, another lead-free brand, but it contains phenoxyethanol, which gets a 4 on Skin Deep, as a preservative.

Most of all, do try to enjoy it as much as you possibly can! This time is so fleeting, really, and nothing marks time for all of us like a birthday!

If you have tips from your party hosting (or party-going) experiences, please share!

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Big Mama Pig: Oinking Back at Ag Gag Rules

Free the pigsThis enormous sow just had 17 piglets. We met her on a visit to a real farm, where animals like pigs breathe outdoor air.

But I really think the picture says it all. She was quite the pig.

Across the U.S. the past legislative session, states debated whether to pass “ag gag” laws that make it a crime to take a picture or video of a farming operation or slaughterhouse. Thankfully, all 11 of the proposed bills failed — some, like in California, after a major public fight. The purpose of these laws is to shield industrial agriculture from public scrutiny and to keep industry whistle-blowers from documenting how poorly animals are treated. I can’t think of anything less democratic, transparent, or cruel when it comes to our food supply. What we need is more sunlight on farms, not less.

Here’s a description of the laws from Food Safety News:

  • In North Dakota, it is a class B misdemeanor to enter an animal facility and use or attempt to use a camera, video recorder, or any other video or audio recording device. It is defined as “unlawful interference with animal facilities” and as “prohibited activity.”  Violators face jail terms of 30 days.

  • Kansas’s law makes it a class A, nonperson misdemeanor to enter an animal facility that is not open to the public and take pictures or video. The law is part of the state’s “Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act.”

  • Montana’s measure makes it unlawful to enter an animal facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means with intent to commit criminal defamation, and to enter an animal facility if the person knows entry is forbidden.

All three of these laws were passed in 1990 and 1991. Now, after a 20-year lull,  there’s been a surge in the introduction of ag-gag bills and Iowa and Utah enacted new laws, meaning five states have imposed these restrictions.

What are they trying to hide? Well, in the past few years alone, whistle-blowers have been essential in uncovering abuses. Here’s one story from an undercover reporter:

Millions of haggard, featherless hens languished in crowded, microwave-sized wire cages. Unable to even spread their wings, many were forced to pile atop their dead and rotting cage mates as they laid their eggs.

And another, related to a videotape made in 2007, drawing an upsetting connection to the poor monitoring of beef given to kids in school:

The answer begins at the Hallmark/Westland slaughterhouse in Chino, California. In 2007, a Humane Society investigator went undercover there and filmed “downers,” cows too sick or injured to walk, dragged by chains and pushed by forklifts to the kill floor. (The Obama administration has since banned the slaughter of downer cows, which pose a higher risk of having mad cow disease.)

The footage aired on network news and spurred the U.S. Department of Agriculture to announce what was at the time the largest meat recall in U.S. history. But by then it was too late – most of the meat had already been consumed, much of it through the National School Lunch Program.

This has to do, obviously, with the safety of our food supply. But understanding more fully what goes on at industrial farms would also lead to far greater public demand for a return to a more sustainable and humane form of agriculture, which is just what the industrial food giants fear most. As Marc Bittman put it:

The biggest problem of all is that we’ve created a system in which standard factory-farming practices are inhumane, and the kinds of abuses documented [by whistleblowers] are really just reminders of that.

Until this situation changes, we will continue at my house to source our meats from animal-friendly, sustainable local and organic farms, farms where, as Michael Pollan recently said on his book tour, the animals had “one bad day.”

We’re fortunate where we live to have these sources. We get our pork from Babes in the Woods, a family farm where the rare Tamworth pigs forage outdoors for acorns all year round, or Polyface Farms, the gold standard in sustainable, bio-dynamic farming. To check if farmers like these are in your area, you can always look on EatWild, a terrific resource.

More reading:

pigletsOink, oink.

Simple, Delicious Maple Apple Crisp (Optional: Gluten-Free)

Apple crisp

Just in time for the holidays, here’s a wonderfully simple and tasty apple crisp. We’re fully gluten-free at home these days, so we used a flour substitute, but regular flour would work just as well, of course.

If you are also gluten-free, be sure to use both vanilla extract and oats marked as gluten-free as well. Bob’s Red Mill makes some of the oats, though, disappointingly, they are not organic.

Overall, this desert is easy and comforting winter food, and is relatively healthy on that scale. The apples get a wonderful gooey-ness to them, and the oat crisp is just enough texture to keep things interesting. I’ll say that I was initially skeptical of the lemon-maple-vanilla flavor pile-on experiment I cooked up, but it works as well. I’ve made this twice now, and would venture to say that you can’t really mess it up. And you’ll want some ice cream for over top — we used a ginger-flavored local ice cream last night, which was out of this world.

I think I’ll go and eat some of the leftovers from last night right now!

IMG_5651Ingredients:

Filling:

  • 4-5 cups organic apples (no need to peel; and you really want organic as apples have the highest levels of pesticide residues out there)
  • 1/2 cup (organic, unsulphured) raisins (or cranberries)
  • 1/4 cup (organic) maple syrup
  • juice from 1/2 of a fresh (organic) lemon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg or 8 scrapes of a fresh nutmeg (far more potent!)
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract (check to be sure it’s gluten-free if so desired)

IMG_5665Topping:

  • 1 cup (organic, or gluten-free) oats
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar (optional, but nice)
  • 1/3 cup (organic) flour or gluten-free substitute (we used gluten-free pancake mix, which worked well)
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • Generous pinch salt
  • 2-3 Tbsp. melted (organic, grassfed) butter, as you prefer

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large baking dish, toss the apple slices with the ingredients for the filling.

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Prepare the topping by mixing the dry ingredients together, and adding the melted butter. Spread over the apples and bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the apples are soft.

IMG_5670Top with ice cream or whipped cream. Serve to delighted young (and old!) fans.

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A Green Thanksgiving with Sorrel Soup

Green options at Thanksgiving are always a bit less exciting than the orange and brown delectables. I do love brussels sprouts, roasted, or braised in white wine and topped with gorgonzola, but they are not for everyone. And the green salad we always dutifully prep up is usually intact at the end of the meal, faring poorly against the competition.

So why not kick off the meal with a lovely green soup? While sorrel is typically thought of in the spring, when it’s tender and new, autumn sorrel retains a wonderful lemony flavor, and can still be found in the farmer’s markets, at least where we live in Maryland.

This easy soup is adapted from the mistress of gardens, Alice Waters, and her Chez Panisse cookbook. It can be prepared ahead, and finished at the last minute with a quick reheating and immersion (stick) blender. It has great flavor, and would make a remarkable — and elegant — way to open the feast. It goes without saying that this soup would also be wonderful chilled in the high heat of summer.

You will want some really lovely fresh cream, so if you can obtain the grassfed, organic kind from a farm share or market, that’s the way to go.

Ingredients:

1 Tbl (organic, grassfed) butter

1 medium (organic) boiling potato or several smaller ones, diced

1 cup (organic) chicken stock or vegetable stock (do not use plain water, as there will be insufficient flavor, and if using vegetable stock, you may want more cream and salt)

1 medium (organic) yellow onion, diced

1 1/2 large bunches (organic or near-organic) sorrel (about 1.5 lbs.) (I have added sorrel to punch up the flavor a bit)

1 (organic) carrot or 7 small ones, diced

1 1/2 cup (grassfed, organic) cream (I also added a lot more cream than Ms. Waters — up to a pint is just fine with me)

3 sprigs (organic) thyme, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

2 1/3 cup water

2 Tbls crumbled (happy pig) bacon, for garnish (optional)

Directions:

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the thyme, diced potato, onion, and carrot.

Pour in 1/3 cup of the water, cover, and stew gently for 15 minutes, with the lid ajar. Add the rest of the water (2 cups), salt and pepper, and stock, and bring to a simmer. Stew this for another 15 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and easily mashed.

Meanwhile, chop sorrel leaves into thin strips. When the potatoes are finished, add the sorrel, and return soup to a simmer, then turn off and let it stand for 5 minutes. (You can reserve some finely chopped sorrel for garnish. And if you are serving this later, you can let this sit in the fridge or on the back of the stove until ready to serve.)

Purée the soup in a blender (glass is best) or use an immersion blender in the pot, then stir in the cream. Taste (and add more cream). Garnish with bacon and/or chopped sorrel. Serve and enjoy!

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Let’s Get Pickled!

When Hurricane Sandy was still looming, I checked out the bottom of my veggie drawer and the more dubious corners of the fridge, and decided, then and there, to put up some lovely and super-easy vegetable pickles.

This simple preparation is actually a wonderful way to deal with the stubby tail-ends of veggies that are still hanging around (but not actually spoiled). You can also thinly slice and pickle stems, like those on broccoli or cauliflower, that you would otherwise throw away, which is a nice way to use the whole kaboodle.

As a side-benefit, they are surprisingly (and unduly) impressive to guests. I recently served them at a small brunch with friends, and they made a tasty giardiniera (or, less pompously, chow chow) to accompany our fritatta. Maya will occasionally eat them as well, though sour is still a taste category under acquisition.

Since most jars — including the Ball and Kerr jars (now all made by the same company) — evidently have BPA under the lids, I used wonderful Weck jars, which are nothing but glass with a rubber gasket and metal clamps. These are the 1-liter cylindrical jars, which come in a set of 6 (for $21) that is ideal for other kitchen storage, or even making canned goods into gifts. There are loads of other sizes and shapes available as well.

Sidebar: If you’re really into canning per se, about midway down this page is great information about BPA-free options, including how to source vintage glass lids and gaskets on Ebay. In addition to Weck’s jars, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars, though the shapes are more difficult to work with and the price is generally higher.

There are also reusable canning lids, here, that are BPA-free, but are still plastic, and even contain some formaldehyde that the company claims doesn’t get into the food. Er, no thanks! If you know of other options, please let me know!

Anyhoo, back to pickling. Fermented foods, because they contain digestion-friendly microbes and enzymes, are helpful to the health of the gut. There’s almost no limit to the health claims folks will make these days on behalf of ample gut flora, and it’s sometimes hard to sort it all out. Still, what seems indisputable is that most traditional cultures included pickles as a significant part of meals — think kimchi, sauerkraut, kosher condiments, kefir, even the mighty dill spear — yet pickled and fermented foods have largely now disappeared from the Western diet. It also appears that vinegar, when consumed as part of a meal, helps to lower blood sugar levels.

So, we’ve added probiotics (buy the refrigerated kind that boasts about containing millions of live bugs) to our diets, as well as plain kefir, kombucha, lots of yogurt (sometimes homemade), and, when we really put it together, pickles!

Sorry, but those sugary ball park pickles and relishes don’t count. You need fresh pickles without a ton of sugar or heat pasteurization. The good news is that these live foods are easy to make.

There are obviously many options for recipes, but my stand-by is from the always-incredible Jacques Pepin, whose minimal approach still retains the basics of what’s needed for healthy and delicious pickle-y goodness. As adapted from Pepin’s Simple and Healthy Cooking:

Ingredients:

Assorted vegetables, sliced thin as appropriate: this can include (organic) carrots, green beans, fennel (a favorite of mine), red bell pepper, cauliflower (love), turnips, zucchini, turnips, broccoli, and whole or half cloves of garlic, depending on size. Beets are also lovely of course, but will turn the whole thing pink, and so should really be pickled unto themselves.

Fresh dill is optional. (For my pickles, I just stuck the fennel fronds along the sides while layering the vegetables.)

1 cup distilled white vinegar to 2 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 Tablespoon salt

Generous pinch of sugar (optional)

1 Tablespoon Pickling Spice blend, or as much as you have on hand to make same of: cloves, allspice berries, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, dill seeds, and bay leaves.

Directions:

Figure out how much liquid you will need for your jars and the right ratio based on the above. But note that it’s not picky, really.

Pack the vegetables 1/3 of the way in, layering them in the jar.

Bring water, vinegar, salt, sugar, and spices, to a boil and boil gently for five minutes. Pour liquid to barely cover the vegetables in the jar, and, using a spoon or strainer, add a few of the spices floating about in the liquid. Add 1/3 more vegetables and more spices and liquid, packing it all down with the spoon. Repeat these steps one more time. (This slightly elaborate process is to address the issue I’ve found that if you pour the liquid all at once, the spices just sit on the top.)

Ensure that the vegetables are below the liquid and let the jars cool, and even sit out a bit. You can then store them in the back of the fridge. After a week or so, they will be somewhat pickled, and after two weeks, even more so. You can also reuse the pickling water, which becomes more flavorful with repeated use.

You like? Then here’s another post on pickling from me, and another from Men’s Journal:

And do tell, what do you pickle?

Purple Pancakes! Or Johnny Cakes, If You Prefer

We’re kinda, sorta’ gluten minimalists around my house these days. It just seems like wheat (or the kind of wheat we all mostly eat) is getting a much-deserved hard look, and the picture isn’t pretty.

Cutting out wheat (mainly) also happens to rid us of some, though not all, of the empty, low-value calories in our diet, so that works nicely. In addition to ordering some Einkorn wheat flour (which is a varietal of wheat most folks ate before the new, easier to grow and less healthy, kind became the norm), I’ve been experimenting with alternatives.

I won’t burden you with the details of our experiment gone awry in attempting tempura with chickpea batter, which just has to work, but didn’t despite the implied promise of our favorite late-night Japanese cooking show…

More successful were these wonderfully vibrant sprouted blue corn pancakes, loosely resembling southern Johnny Cakes, and based on this simple pancake recipe. They fluffed up for a breakfast worthy of royalty, in shades almost too purple to eat. We doused them in maple syrup, and then nibbled the leftovers as snacks all day long.

One more thing: most pancakes, at least for me, leave me feeling both overstuffed and under-nourished by the fluff factor. In contrast, these were really filling and provided lots of good energy for the morning.

If your kids are older, these definitely beg for funny Grover or Cookie Monster faces on top, using bananas, blueberries, strawberries or grapes. Blueberries are great inside as well, for maximum purple effect.

For grown-ups, they’d also be nice blini-sized, with creme fraiche, greek yogurt or goat cheese smeared on them (though you’d want to thin the batter out a bit).

I also tried making polenta with this unique sprouted flour, using my stand-by recipe. It took longer to set up, but was delicious that way as well (next time I’d skip the rosemary, as it crowded the flavors a bit). It was worth all the stirring just to have this bubbling, belching purple cauldron on the stove.

This flour also makes awesome speckled purple playdough, per this recipe. I substituted the purple flour for 1/4 of the flour called for in the recipe, and it was still very Tyrian:

Ingredients:

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose blue corn flour (I used Flour of Life Raw Sprouted Purple Corn Flour)
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar (optional: you could reduce, eliminate or sub in a natural alternative)
  • 1 1/4 cups (organic, grassfed) milk
  • 1 (organic, pasture-raised) egg
  • 3 tablespoons (organic, grassfed) butter, melted

Directions:

Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl, and add the eggs, melted butter and milk.

This is the fun part, as you watch it turn purple. Really purple. Adjust the consistency with more flour as needed.

Like Julia Child, we’re not afraid of butter ’round here. Melt it up and ladle them in. (These were, notably, too large, but also like Julia, we just went with it.)

Just like regular old brown pancakes, these do bubble. But they brown quickly as well, so check the edges and flip when those have firmed up a bit instead of waiting for bubbles throughout the middle.

Douse in maple syrup (optional: decorate with silly faces), and serve!

Beef Tagine with Oil-Cured Olives, Almonds and Quince

I love my tagine. Why such gooey affection for crockery cookery, you ask, in a calm and reasonable tone?

Tagines, the Moroccan style of steam-boiling sauces and meats using a hat-shaped piece of pottery, allow me to have a really delicious and hearty dinner on the table in just over an hour, with minimal fuss and feathers. And mine has proven remarkably tolerant to my whatevs-in-the-fridge-and/or-cupboard approach to recipes, as the title for this post attests.

I already presented you with this delicious chicken dish with lemon. In fact, I probably use our stove-top tagine at least once a week, which is way more than I anticipated when I first boldly acquired yet another large new piece of specialized cookware.

One trick has been a side-investment in the most wonderful spice mix I’ve found — Ras el Hanout. It includes more than 20 spices: turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, fennel seed, anise seed, cardamom, star anise, cayenne pepper, garlic, nigella, paprika, ajwan seeds (marjoram), kalajeera (black cumin), ginger, lavender, galangal (a close relative of ginger), oris root, rose buds, monk’s pepper, Grain of Paradise, and mace.

The blend is mild enough to be acceptable to Maya and me, while also interesting enough to add enough depth to foods so that my husband, who prefers it very spicy, doesn’t drown the result of my modest efforts in sriracha. It’s a magical middle that had eluded me for years, and, as a bonus, it smells heavenly.

And, although the flavor variations are endless, the method for this style of cooking is fairly simple: heat the tagine over low heat, add oil, aromatics and spices, then the meat until it browns, then water or stock to about half an inch below the edge. Bubble until falling apart and delicious.

Lacking a tagine, you could try this combination in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, like my (almost) equally beloved enamel ones. If you do this, please let us know how your venture into uncharted territory turned out…

Ingredients:

(Grass-fed, organic) Beef, cut into bite-sized pieces (I tried to use a full roast at first, as you’ll see, which, er, didn’t work at all)

2 Tbl ras el hanout or as many of those spices as you can muster

2/3 cups oil-cured black olives (I know, these use intense chemical processing. But I can’t help it! If you know things I should know about these, please share.)

1/2 cup slivered almonds

Generous Tbl or 2 of quince paste (also called membrillo)

1 cup (organic) peas, fresh or frozen

1 good-sized (organic) chopped tomato

1 C-shaped piece of ginger, chopped (JK, yours could also be L-shaped)

1 (organic) onion, chopped finely

3 TBL butter, grapeseed or coconut oil

Sufficient water or (organic) stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Brown rice or cous-cous for serving

Directions:

Heat oil, ginger, onions and eventually, the spices, including salt and pepper, on low until the onions are translucent. (If you don’t have ras el hanout, use your best approximation from what’s on hand. And then order some… it’s truly worth a try!)

Add the olives, almonds and peas, and stir.

Next, add the meat and brown on all sides. Do not make my mistake and foolishly think the tagine can conquer a roast, unaided by humans. Duh. Tagines are great. They’re not that great.

This…

…eventually became the more sensible stew format that the universe intended.

When the meat is well browned, add water or stock to about 1/2 inch below the edge and put the hat on.

Keep it at a high simmer for an hour or so, depending on the texture desired. Serve the stew over rice or cous-cous and enjoy for several days, until you feel compelled to tango with your tagine again.

Channa Masala (Simple Chickpea Tomato Curry)

Chickpeas or (less elegantly) garbanzo beans, rock. They are high in folate (which is key during pregnancy, as we all know), zinc and protein. For protein-lovers like my family, chickpeas are satisfying enough to make a complete meal, especially when accompanied by this rich mix of spices.

So if you love chickpeas and want to look beyond the ubiquitous hummus, you might give this wonderful, savory dish of India a try. (Bemusing side-note: an oldish, peevish David Brooks column actually called wielding hummus a telltale sign of “hipster” parenting. Um, how can a substance present at every single party I’ve attended since 1992 be the least bit hip? David, dear, haven’t you ever been to a gathering of the humans?)

A few notes:

One) If you don’t have all the spices listed below on hand, just do what ya’ can.

Two) The Weston A. Price folks don’t like pressure cookers, which I think is loopy. Pressure cooking tends to retain the nutrients and texture of food better than slow cooking does, and makes it possible to cook beans on a far more regular basis, which has got to be good for health.

Whether it’s my beloved Moroccan tagine or the Indian-style dishes we make in the pressure cooker, steam cooking has been a major part of these and other traditional cuisines for a long time (the tagine, at least, goes back hundreds of years). And the limited liquid you add becomes a flavorful part of the dish, so if the nutrients end up there, you get all that goodness included.

Just be sure your cooker is stainless steel, and not aluminum, to reduce exposure to aluminum where you can, particularly if cooking for children.

Ingredients

2 cups (when dried) soaked (organic) chickpeas (we favor soaking them for 24 hours in salty water and find them far more toothsome than canned ones area; if you are using canned, try Eden brand for their BPA-free-ness)

Spices galore: Cayenne pepper, Turmeric, Brown Mustard Seeds, Fennel Seeds, Cinnamon, Thyme, Coriander Seeds, Fenugreek Seeds, Cumin, Ground Cardamom, Garam Marsala (I just put a good shake of each, except I was more stinting on the Cayenne), plus salt and pepper to taste

Fresh (organic) tomatoes (found these heirloomy ones at the farmer’s market — what great flavor!)

4 cloves chopped (organic) garlic

1/2 thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and chopped

1 chopped (organic) onion (I love how noble this one looks)

3 Tbl Olive oil, grassfed butter, or ghee (what I used)

Directions:

Warm up the pan and add the oil, butter or ghee. When heated, saute the garlic and onion over low to medium heat until the onions are translucent. Add the spices and stir.

After a few minutes, add the tomatoes and stir.

Finally, drain and add the chickpeas and give it a good stir, then add fresh water up to 2/3 of the cooker.

Bring the cooker up to 15 psi, and then slightly lower the heat. (Follow directions for your pressure cooker on the time allotted for cooking chickpeas, likely around 20 minutes or so.)

Serve over brown (organic) rice or wholewheat (organic) couscous. Also lovely with a little plain yogurt. Serves 4.

Lemon-Garlic-Herb Roast Chicken

The really nice people that sell the grass-fed organic meat we pick up for a small fortune most weeks at the farmer’s market evidently don’t have the technology to break down a chicken.

So we end up with a whole chicken a lot more often than I have menus that would, er, require a whole chicken. And while I once helped slaughter chickens on a real farm in South Dakota (which is a story for another day), I don’t myself feeling like hacking away until it ends up in pieces, most days.

So I’ve played around a little bit with James McNair’s roast chicken recipe, which is the best one I’ve found. Below is an adaptation with some variations on a theme. No matter how you cut it, lemon, garlic, butter and herbs slathered all over a hunk of chicken is really a no-miss proposition.

Ingredients:

Whole chicken (we like organic, pasture-raised; here’s why)

Fresh herbs: basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, tarragon or whatever compatible mix you have, chopped finely

3 Tbls (grass-fed organic) butter

3 cloves (organic) garlic, chopped fine

1 lemon (organic is best, since you will stick the whole thing in the chicken); halved, juiced and partially zested

Salt and pepper

3 cups (organic) chicken stock or water

3 good-sized (organic) potatoes, cubed

2-3 (organic) carrots, sliced in rounds

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Mix the garlic, zest, salt, lemon juice, pepper and herbs into the butter and put the chicken in a roasting pan.

Decide whether you will take the high road or low road — here are your choices, in that order:

1) Get all up in it by following Mr. McNair’s directions to carefully use your fingers to slip the buttery mixture between the skin and meat of the chicken. This is wonderful when you have the time and inclination to bother, as it seals in the flavors. But it is time-consuming and brings you into very close and messy contact with the bird.

2) Take the easy road by melting the butter mixture a bit in the microwave and pour over the chicken, spreading it around a bit. I’ll admit this is what I do most days and it turns out pretty tasty.

Stick the lemon and any additional fresh herbs you’d like into the cavity. Add the water or stock to the pan and throw in the carrots and potatoes. Put the chicken in the oven for 15 minutes.

Lower the heat to 350 degrees and cook for an additional hour and a half, or until done. Mr. McNair roasts it uncovered, basting every 15 minutes. As I always want to hang out with Maya instead of basting something, I cover it instead and just leave it more or less undisturbed until done. (If you do leave it uncovered, be sure the potatoes and carrots are submerged in liquid or they will dry out.)

Let it rest for ten minutes or so after removing from the oven. Enjoy with brown rice if you wish.

Salmon Burgers with Basil and Orange

It’s summer, and the real question most evenings is what easy, healthy meal I can throw together right after work that we can pack up for a short evening excursion to the pool.

These simple, Omega-3 rich salmon burgers certainly fit the bill. They take only 5 minutes to mix and another 10 at most to cook, and can be packed up on top of some fresh spinach and diced tomatoes and eaten with a fork, or thrown unceremoniously into a sliced wholegrain bun with a smear of mayo or tartar sauce.

I do pan-fry them, because they would be a little delicate to grill unless you used a (stainless steel) grill pan. Once they cook a little, they tend to hold together decently well.

As a bonus, Maya loves these, and it’s not easy to get a toddler to eat fish!

Ingredients:

1 can (wild-caught) salmon (the BPA-free brands are: Oregon’s Choice, Wild Planet, Vital Choice and Eco-fish)

2 (organic, pastured) eggs

1 Tbl (organic) dijon mustard

6 Tbls (organic) Panko bread crumbs (these do exist; I found them in the organic specialty section at Whole Foods)

1 (organic) orange, sliced in half and one-half juiced

2 Tbls chopped fresh (organic) basil

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Balsamic vinegar for finishing

Directions:

Empty the can of salmon into a bowl and pick out the small bones. Add mustard, basil, orange juice, bread crumbs, and salt and pepper. Let the mixture sit while you warm the pan with a generous amount of olive oil.

Form into patties and fry in the oil, turning infrequently. Makes about 8 patties.

Serve over bed of greens, such as fresh spinach, topped with a squeeze of the other side of the orange, and a dribble of balsamic vinegar, with a side of (organic) tartar sauce, or on a bun.