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We’re driving our final hours after several weeks far from home, and I am thinking of arriving to an empty house, with a list of things that need to be taken care of—first of all, dinner.

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I am a grown up now. I have my own family, and no one has spent all afternoon making me a hearty soup, waiting for my return from a long trip. But I am not going to repeat past mistakes. I’m not going to start, before even paying a visit to the bathroom, running to the grocery store, running back to the kitchen, and sucking the last drops of energy from my tank, all for the sake of a meal that will revive everyone, perhaps, except me. It’s too late anyways, I already reminded the boys about their favorite burger place in our nearby downtown.

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And then finally, we are home. As soon as the car engine shuts off, there is a silence that, in a strange way, as in a TV ad, suddenly fills with something like a melody coming from our garden. Almost like a welcome, a warm welcome – warm like a hug.

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A colorful sight bursting with joy.

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You can almost hear the garden’s heartbeat as you come closer.

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And the sweet breath of life.

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Look at you, Garden! You’ve grown so much in just a few weeks!

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I feel revitalized with a new energy, and I call the kids to pick the gifts of nature.

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With a handful of gems, I make a quick and simple meal.

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To my surprise, no one even mentions the burger joint.

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Rather, we let the joy of reunion carry the conversation.

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We make Moroccan tea and tell summer stories.

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We say good night, and we make sure to be thankful for a hearty welcome back home.

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Young Farmers Camp

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There is something about being on a farm that connects us to life in its most ancient, natural, and authentic form. It makes kids at lunch ask for more vegetables, like the beets (yes, beets!) that they harvested earlier. It makes them stand sober at the scene of a chicken slaughtering, and go to bed earlier than ever before.

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I spent this week at the Young Farmers camp at the family-owned Rocklands Farm teaching kids how to use farm-fresh produce to make simple, healthy, and delicious recipes.

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The overall program, under the guidance of Education Manager Anna Glenn, aimed at showing children what it takes to make the ingredients for those recipes from the ground up, by enlisting their participation in the different stages of farm production, from seeding, transplanting, caring, and harvesting, to storing, processing, packaging, and selling.

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Unlike classroom-based educational experiences, at this camp, kids partake in real farm life, entering into working and living places on the 34-acre farm where Anna’s family and friends raise crops and livestock, grow flowers for weddings, and make their home together.

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Being on the farm made me notice how many great picture books for children are inspired by farm life. One of them is The Little Red Hen. The little red hen grows grain, threshes wheat, and bakes bread, all by herself, without any help from her lazy friends.

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The story, which carries a great lesson about teamwork, was delightfully performed as a play for the kids at the camp, in a setting packed with plenty of charming details and blooming with the bounties of the Earth.

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For pictures of activities at the Young Farmers camp, check out Silly Apron on Facebook.  Click “Like” to keep up with my work on youth education through food!

 

 

Family Picnic

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Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is the story of a young donkey who goes out and doesn’t return home. His parents believe he is lost forever. Surprisingly, everything turns out well in the end… thanks to a picnic. This is a simple story by William Steig, but it has all the elements of a masterpiece. It captures the internal experiences and emotions of all the characters in a way that few books for children do, and it teaches some important lessons, like how strong the bond between parents and children is, and how all the magic and treasure in the world can’t match the value of a beloved family member. Sometimes you need to go through trials to realize that.

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I returned to this book recently while looking for recipes for a Father’s Day picnic. I remembered that the picnic menu in the book was really well thought out, a nice composition of sandwiches, pickles, salads, and desserts that is well balanced in nutrition and taste. When I looked up the exact names, however, I laughed out loud when I realized the menu consists of made-up dishes for fictional farm animals: alfalfa sandwiches, pickled oats, sassafras salad, timothy compote. But I decided to stay as close to the core of the menu as possible for our outing.

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I made sandwiches of toasted homemade brioche layered with mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, and bacon.

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Sandwiches of brie, toasted walnuts, and lavender flowers that just bloomed in our garden last week. (This sandwich is perfect when you add fig jam and prosciutto).

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A fresh salad with shredded baby fennel pickled in lemon juice and olive oil. Some sweet and juicy baby tomatoes from our outdoor market.

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And finally, some baked donuts dipped in brown butter, sugar, and cinnamon that our neighbors shared with us for breakfast that morning.

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Our Father’s Day picnic reminded me so much of my childhood, when my parents took us to the nearby countryside. I remember my experience as a child, running around freely, oblivious to the world and its concerns. This isn’t my picnic experience anymore (don’t be fooled by the pictures). My husband and I were able to relax a bit, but we were constantly aware of our kids, especially after we saw a copperhead snake in the water.

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That’s one more reason why Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is a great book for children. It shows them that there is a reason why parents are constantly supervising them, that parents’ protection is essential to their freedom, that if something bad happens to them, a picnic meal will never be the same again.

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In the Night Kitchen

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Like Max in Where The Wild Things Are, in this book Mickey escapes reality to enter his dream, a night kitchen where bakers bake, all night long, to make the morning cake. And like in dreams, things can be out of proportion. The kitchen looks like a beautiful city built with giant food containers that make you feel small, like a kid in a grown-up’s kitchen.

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In the book In the Night Kitchen, the bakers have a problem and Mickey is able to come to the rescue, and thanks to him, there will be cake in the morning. The story is a great example of how you can make kids feel important through food. Give them a small part to play that makes them proud, and they will come back. Like when you race with a child and you let them win.

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There are many other things I like about In the Night Kitchen. Maurice Sendak doesn’t make a big deal of the final cake. You actually never see it done, or if there is something that looks like a steaming cake coming out of the oven, it looks very similar to the cake before it entered the oven. The story is more about the process, the ‘making of,’ the fun, the busy-ness, and the emergencies in the kitchen. The kitchen is where things happen – just like the big city after all.

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I think about this book at least once a year, when I stay up late baking for a fundraiser. It’s been a busy weekend, but what it was, really, is a dream come true!

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That’s Disgusting!

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There is croque madame, and then there is croque crotte (literally “crunch dung”), which is what I like to call the chocolate coated grapes featured in Michel Richard’s Happy in the Kitchen cookbook. They are absolutely delicious!

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I thought of chocolate truffles this summer while watching my steps to avoid camel droppings along the shore of Yasmina Club Med resort, one of the rare spots you can find camels in the Moroccan north region, where they are brought specifically for the leisure of tourists. Croque crotte might sound gross, improper perhaps? Not if you don’t speak French, or if it’s… April Fools!

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What is ‘proper’ is something that kids hear all too often, because they naturally do some unpleasant things. April Fools and its icky food tricks can be amusing but also confusing for kids, unless revolting things are explained calmly and maybe with humor, which of course parents never do when revolting things happen. Kids love to play with food, for example. The last time my kids were snacking on pomegranates, they started squeezing the seeds and shooting juice on each others face, then ducking under our heavy wooden dining table. It took some time for my son to realize that what was dripping from his forehead was not pomegranate juice but blood, after ducking and hitting the edge of the table, breaking through his skin. That was not the time to counsel with dignity on what is or is not proper to do with food. In fact, it was time to run to the closest emergency room. He had four stitches, by the way.

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That’s why I like That’s Disgusting!. The picture book That’s Disgusting! by Francesco Pittau and Bernadette Gervais is a brilliant project. It’s nice for parents wanting to teach their children about where things belong. It might be effective, just because it is one of the only opportunities for parents to counsel their kids on repulsive things without scaring the hell of them.

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Now back to Michel Richard. Though he doesn’t suggest in his book to make his chocolate grapes for April Fools, he thinks of them as a nice way to trick satiated guests at the end of a copious diner. They are also a great snack for kids, who usually love both grapes and chocolate. There is an incredible balance between the fleshy fruit and the chocolate candy, the sweetness of the grapes and the tart of the chocolate, the juiciness of the grapes and the dryness of the cocoa powder. It’s a genius combination and ridiculously simple to make. All you need is:

• 1 pound firm seedless sweet grapes, stems removed
• 4 ounces 60% semisweet chocolate, melted
• 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

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Place the grapes in a large bowl so you can toss them easily. Make sure the grapes are completely dry. They also need to be cold, which keeps them firm and easy to toss. The cold also speeds up the chocolate setting. So, I suggest you wash them, dry them, and then keep them in the fridge until you are ready to proceed with the rest of the recipe. Pour the melted chocolate on the grapes while stirring with a spatula, carefully folding through the center of the grapes to coat all of them evenly.

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After only a few minutes, when the chocolate begins to set, use a small strainer and sprinkle cocoa powder over the chocolate coated grapes. If the chocolate is still wet, the cocoa will soak into the chocolate and will create lumps. Gently stir and toss the grapes as you sift, continuing to add the cocoa until all of the grapes are well coated and separated. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time (up to 3 days).

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For less disgusting April Fools’ food ideas, check Silly Apron’s April Fools’ project from 2013.

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Weather-Inspired Delights (Part 3)

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I am keeping the series going until I convince everyone to try these cookies! Actually, I decided to write on this topic again because I had dreamed up this version of chocolate cookies and speculated about them in my previous post, but now I really made them for the first time. And I am happy I did. Basically, the process of making these cookies is the same as the sablés, in that you shape the dough into a log, freeze it, then slice it before baking. There are a few differences from the original sablés recipe. This version calls for baking soda, and in contrast to what I expected, the sparkles around the cookies stayed nice and round despite the leavening agent. And, this version incorporates chocolate chunks in the dough, exactly like in chocolate chip cookies, but the taste is even better, mainly thanks to the salt that enhances the chocolate flavor.

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Ingredients for two logs – Makes about 36 cookies:

  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 stick plus 3 tablespoons (11 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2/3 cups (packed) light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel (or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt)
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chips; or, a generous 3/4 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips (I use half of each, as bittersweet chocolate contains cocoa butter and melts in your mouth, whereas mini chocolate chips keep their shape after baking and are much cheaper!)
  • 1 egg yolk
  • Sugar, for coating

Click here to see the step-by-step recipe with images from the Food52 website. This recipe is attributed to Pierre Hermé and Dorie Greenspan, and the cookies are known as World Peace Cookies. These cookies are not sugar coated, so the recipe doesn’t show that step. So, just after you remove your log-shaped dough from the fridge or the freezer, you will need to brush it lightly with a tiny amount of the egg yolk and roll it in the sugar. If there are some irregularities in the log’s shape and the sugar doesn’t stick everywhere, just sprinkle the sugar over the gaps. Then slice and bake. And of course, share and enjoy!

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Weather-Inspired Delights (Part 2)

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In my previous post about Pierre Hermé’s chocolate sparklers, I mentioned how these cookies could be used as a Valentine’s Day treat. In fact, they are adaptable to any special occasion. If you don’t have colorful crystallized sugar, just put some white sugar in a zip lock bag, add one drop of food coloring to the sugar, and shake the bag for a few seconds until the white sugar is entirely tinted (see my King’s Day post).

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Pierre Hermé’s cookies look sophisticated; it’s hard to believe that so little effort goes into making them. Kids can be involved in the process, especially in rolling the log of dough in sugar.

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If you’re trying this recipe for the first time, it might be easier to get them involved in the packaging phase. My kids love to share homemade sweets with their teachers, current and past. They’re excited to deliver these cookies to their school for Valentine’s Day.

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Here is a link to the original recipe. The ingredients and process are simple, almost as if you were making chocolate chip cookies: flour, salt, cocoa powder, and cinnamon, blended and added to a mixture of butter, sugar, and vanilla. Next the chocolate chips are incorporated. The difference is that there are no eggs and no baking powder or baking soda. The dough is easily formed into log, chilled, coated in sugar, sliced, then baked. If you don’t like cinnamon, don’t worry – you don’t really taste it. Instead, the cinnamon enhances the chocolate flavor, like a little coffee does in some other chocolate recipes.

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If you like to compare recipes, here is a link to another very popular Pierre Hermé recipe for chocolate cookies that do not use sparkles. This recipe uses baking powder, which makes the dough puff a little, so it doesn’t really work if you’re seeking neat circles of sparkles bundled together.

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I hope you try this Weather-Inspired Valentine’s Delights. If you are looking for more ideas, make sure to check Silly Apron’s Valentine’s Day project from last year. And whatever you do, I would love to know about it!

Weather-Inspired Delights

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Today’s icy weather was a great inspiration to try Pierre Hermé’s chocolate sparklers. I thought about this recipe because the sugar around the cookies reminds me of the ice outside my home.

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Pierre Hermé’s cookies are called sablés, which derives from the French word sable, meaning “sand.” Sablés are round French shortbread biscuits with a crumbly, ‘sandy’ texture and a golden color. They can be flavored with nuts, citrus zest, dried fruits, teas, or chocolate.

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Hermé has several chocolate sablé recipes. The one I use calls for Dutch-processed cocoa powder, which has a dark color.

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When shopping for chocolate cocoa powder, keep in mind that there are two kinds of unsweetened cocoa powder: natural and Dutch-processed (also called alkalized). Here is a link that explains the difference between the two as well as when to use which kind.

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I added the mini chocolate chip cookies from another recipe of his. You can also use bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small chips (about 1/3 inch). The pieces of chocolate bring another layer of texture to the sandy feel of the cookies and the crunch of the crystallized sugar. Also, the dough calls for white sugar, but other recipes use light brown sugar or a mix of the two, so it’s really up to you.

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The sablé dough is very quick and easy to assemble. Once you shape it into a log form, it needs to be chilled, so that you can slice it neatly. This recipe calls for a couple hours in the refrigerator, but I freeze the log for 15 minutes, then transfer to the fridge for only 15 minutes more, and the process works just fine.

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Here’s a video of Pierre Hermé himself making another recipe of chocolate sablé. It’s a different recipe and in French, but the process is the same and the video will give you an idea of how easy making sablés is.

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Sablés are a great treat for Valentine’s Day. You could swap white sugar with pink or red and make a nice gift. The recipe I use makes two logs, and each log makes about 15 cookies. I have one leftover log in my freezer from this time, so I think I’ll use it to make Valentine’s chocolate sablés with the kids for their teachers. The kids can brush the log all over with egg yolk and then roll the log in crystallized sugar. I’ll take over for the slicing and baking part.

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These cookies do not have a leavening agent, so you don’t need to leave a lot of space between them on the baking sheet– just enough so hot air will have room to circulate and cook them. Once the cookies are cool, have the kids help with taste testing and packaging!

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Re-discovering my Favorite Childhood Snack

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Fatna was her name. We called her Me Fatna, meaning “Mother Fatna.” She was covered from head to toe, like conservative young Moroccan women today and like my grandmother. I was in elementary school, and I thought she must be in her 40s.. or maybe her 80s? My parents recently told me on Skype that they saw her near my elementary school, still with her cart selling chickpeas, so she probably wasn’t all that old during my school years after all.

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As soon as the big metal gate of the school opens, I would run to her. “Me Fatna, 20 cents please.” She would uncover the pot and a big cloud of steam would cover what little was left visible of her face. She would scoop warm chickpeas into a paper cone, sprinkle them with cumin and salt, cover the cone with the palm of her hand, and then give the whole thing a good shake to coat the chickpeas evenly with the spices. That was my regular snack on the walk back home from school. After years of this daily routine, I thought I knew something about chickpeas. Then one day at the supermarket, I spotted an unrecognizable green vegetable. The label read “fresh chickpeas.” I was shocked – happily shocked!

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It took five minutes to cook the fresh chickpeas in the steamer. To my surprise, they didn’t taste like the usual chickpeas boiled or straight from the can. They had an unbelievable flavor, a kind of fusion of regular chickpeas, nuts, and some unnameable vegetable.

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I Googled “fresh chickpeas” and was intrigued to find them used in hummus and guacamole, fried or charred in their pods – Yum! But for the first time I made fresh chickpeas, I wanted to keep things familiar: chickpeas with cumin and salt. I am not sure why, but I decided to finish them with olive oil. Maybe because that’s how I figured my grandmother – may God rest her soul – would have completed the dish.

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