Black Friday Yogurt Fruit Melange

What is with this whole DIY/Etsy/make sauerkraut in your bathtub movement that seems to have washed over our nation’s hipster enclaves in a tidal wave of smug? I find it so annoying. First of all, it makes those of us who are happy to pay someone else to make our alcohol, condiments, cured meats and honey feel like lazy bums. Second of all, it’s unsanitary. If you’re someone who is open to using your bathroom as a kitchen you’re probably not on very familiar terms with Scrubbing Bubbles. I prefer buying things I plan on ingesting at a facility that is held to some kind of official standard, albeit a standard riddled with greasy palms I’m sure. Years ago my boss at the time worked with an oily haired client whose idea of a Christmas gift was a few bottles of stout he’d brewed in his tub. (Um, no thanks). It’s all kind of arrogant, no? Did he really think his bathroom brew was going to be better than, say, the King of Beers? Not likely. But, like most things one starts off deriding, I found myself a little curious about all this make- your-own business.
Spending habits are a funny thing. I am simultaneously a spend thrift and a cheap-o. On the one hand, I would sooner wear rags (and if you surprise me in the middle of the night you will see my pajamas are perilously close to falling into that category) than give up the transformative power of the hair salon. At the same time, I will walk a ½ a mile out of my way to save $.50 on a roll of Bounty. Once I was visiting a friend and her new baby when the babysitter informed my friend that the house was out of paper towels, Diet Coke and whole milk. Without so much as a split-second of a thought my friend picked up the phone, pressed a number programmed into her speed dial and placed an order with the corner deli for the three items she had just learned needed replacing. I was in shock. Do you have any idea how much a roll of Bounty would be at the deli? No, neither do I because I know it’s way more than the $1.19 I pay at the Love drugstore.
I have always been this way but with my most recent wave of belt tightening I find myself examining my spending even more closely and have become one of those crazy supermarket shoppers. I clip coupons and thoroughly review the circulars. I compare prices online before hitting the various neighborhood grocery stores and I use my Food Emporium card when necessity takes me there. If the creepy Pioneer market is having a special on Almond Breeze Almond Milk this week I prepare myself to make the sacrifice, forego my preferred brand (Silk), and pocket the $1.00 difference.

So the other day at Fairway I flinched when I picked up my weekly 32 ounce container of Stonyfield Farm Plain Fat-Free Yogurt and saw it cost $3.99. Oh, I am so nostalgic for the salad days of yore when I bought Fage Greek Yogurt without a care in the world! At $4.79 for 16 ounces I would never buy it now. Stonyfield had been what I’d been settling for and all of a sudden it was turning on me? How long had it cost this much? What had happened to my hyper-vigilance? This is crazy! And then I remembered having seen a recipe in Food and Wine for Greek yogurt and got to thinking, “hmmmn.” I was ready to embark on my very own Zoom-do.
The instructions looked easy enough and promised me 32 ounces of thick, creamy yogurt for the price of a quart of milk ($1.09). Well, that plus the two tablespoons from the remaining Stonyfield I had in the house which served as a sort of starter/fermenting encourager and the package of cheesecloth ($2.99) I’d need to strain out the whey. But even taking all of that into consideration I’d still come out on top in the long run—or so I thought.

My first attempt was, simply put, a disaster. After bringing the milk to what I thought was a boil, adding the yogurt/milk mixture and letting it sit for the prescribed 16 hours (in my unheated oven with the light on) I was left with a meal Miss Muffet would have been very happy to eat on her tuffet. I now know what curds and whey look like. Yuck.
In reviewing what may have gone wrong I decided I hadn’t really let the milk come to a full boil and I had used skim milk despite being told to use whole. So for my second attempt I compromised and bought 1% organic milk (on special at Food Emporium $2.79). This time we had a good boil and, as per the recipe’s promise, a skin formed on the milk’s surface. I had a good feeling—until I didn’t. After another 16 hours of supposed yogurt formation in my oven I removed the dish towel covering the pot and my heart sank. Can I interest you in a scant quart of sour milk? I continued to follow the recipe through to the end (just to see if some yogurt miracle was coming around the corner) and strained the pot’s contents through the cheesecloth and a sieve. You know what it yielded? The two tablespoons of yogurt I had used as a starter.
I should probably explain that in addition to my cheapskate motivation I also wanted to offer up a recipe sure to offset the gluttonous Thursday we are all about to surrender to. What’s better than something light and healthy for breakfast the day after Thanksgiving—with enough oomph to keep you in fighting shape for black Friday? Well friends, you’ll have to go to the store to buy your yogurt which is exactly what I did after wasting $6.87 and losing 32 hours of oven usage. The good news for me? Fairway was having a special that, due to my DIY craziness, I almost missed. $2.99 for 32 ounces of Horizon Organic Non-Fat Plain Yogurt. Some things are better left to the professionals.

Black Friday Yogurt Fruit Melange
1/2 cup fat-free or low fat plain yogurt (if you’re rich, splurge for the Greek)
1/2 cup chopped favorite mixed fruit
1 Tablespoon chopped toasted favorite nuts or ground flax seeds
Drizzle of honey or maple syrup (optional)

Put the fruit in a bowl, top with yogurt, nuts and optional sweetener. Mix. Eat.

Yield: One serving


New Tradition Butternut Squash Lasagna

Whenever my food magazines arrive in the mail I am always happy to see them and this time of year is the best. Each November and December issue is chock full of holiday sweets for me to pore over, sift through and ultimately tackle. So it was with relish that I opened the most recent Food & Wine and happened upon the page, “Readers Share Their Best Holiday Memories.” I was sure that nestled among the “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go” treacle there’d be some biting anecdote about a fist fight over the last turkey leg or the time Uncle Inappropriate drank all the Andre Cold Duck and said something X-rated to an underage guest. But no— earnest, sepia tinged nostalgia prevailed. Oh come on people, haven’t we all had holiday disasters? Hasn’t everyone spent a way too long weekend in close quarters with extended family barely resisting the urge to shove Cousin Jerk into the chestnuts roasting on an open fire?
Well, I know I have started many holidays with the best of intentions only to win the regression medal of honor. Although, what do you expect when you add adult siblings and their respective partners and children to high expectations and put them all under the roof of parents who are too happy to have the brood together again? That cocktail is bound to combust. This Thanksgiving I will not be doing a five day mega weekend away, rather just eating the one meal with the family.

Anyway, the warm and fuzzy memories of the Food & Wine readers were filled with annual ritual, something I’ve never really had. There were no regular pick-up football games against the cousins (we have neither a football nor local cousins) and no pilgrimage to a local soup kitchen (something I am not proud of). When I was really little my father took me to the Macy’s parade (not because he likes parades but because we lived four blocks from the starting point) and then we’d all get on the train and go to my grandmother’s on Long Island for Thanksgiving dinner. It took me a few years to realize this was somewhat fraught. Nana would make a big deal over the meal despite the fact that she didn’t cook any of it. Her housekeeper, the previously mentioned Ethel, did it all and served it in a way that made me so uncomfortable; she insisted on calling my father and grandfather “Monsieur” which was kind of weird since she wasn’t French and neither were they. Also, I felt terrible that she was working on a holiday. And to top it off she rubbed the turkey with garlic, which I hate, and so the only thing I liked were the marshmallow topped sweet potatoes.
After Nana moved to Florida (without Ethel—I’m not sure how she ate) we tried a variety of ways to deal with Turkey Day. I remember going to dinner at the home of family friends whom I didn’t like very much. They had creepy sons and creepier guests. There was a pair of sisters, around my age, who looked like those twins from The Shining—all under-eye shadows and sinister sneers. Plus, my mother made we wear a party dress that was ten times fancier than the corduroys the other kids got to wear so I felt like a nerd.
Then there was the year we went out to dinner with the family of my best friend to the restaurant in an Upper East Side hotel. I was happy because I felt like I was on All My Children celebrating Thanksgiving at the Pine Valley Inn. However, the actual meal was a bit of a problem. Deciding to break out of the turkey obligation I ordered “Buffalo Rib Eye Steak.” When the meat came I thought it tasted a little off and told the waiter. He obligingly brought me another order and I said the same thing. He remarked, “Miss, I’m afraid that is the way buffalo is supposed to taste.” What?! I had thought Buffalo Rib Eye was a cut of beef (that’s what you get when you’re a snotty teenager who refuses to sit at the end of the table with the parents who could have corrected that misperception before you tortured a waiter) not the actual meat from a buffalo. I changed my order to turkey and got a well-deserved eye-roll from the server.
After all these unpleasant experiences the next year my father and I spent the week before Thanksgiving trying to convince my mother that it would be more fun to go out for Chinese food. We lost that argument and learned that in fact Thanksgiving is my mother’s favorite holiday. She spent the ensuing years tweaking her dishes and despite a few stumbles (like when the smoke condition resulting from the high-heat technique she’d read about in the Times caused the parakeet of an upstairs neighbor to suffer respiratory distress), she had just settled on her annual menu when my sister married a vegetarian with whom she produced vegetarian daughters. This resulted in doubling up on the vegetables and making a meat-free, chicken broth-free stuffing. (Or is it dressing when it’s not cooked in the bird?) Frankly, we’re all trying to eat more vegetables and chill out with the animal protein so this year I decided to make a butternut squash lasagna to serve as a side dish for the turkey eaters and a main course for the brother-in-law and the nieces. I am putting it in the In Sweet Treatment category because the recipe calls for amaretti cookies, butternut squash is sweet, and I feel like it. The orange of the squash and flecks of green from the basil make this cheesy, sweet and salty dish perfectly autumnal. I hope this tasty addition becomes part of a new annual tradition and we all play nicely together. And if not, the liquor store is just around the corner. I wonder if they still make Andre Cold Duck?

New Tradition Butternut Squash Lasagna
from Giada's Family Dinners, Giada De Laurentiis 2006
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1 tablespoon olive oil
1 (1 1/2 to 2-pound) butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup water
3 amaretti cookies, crumbled
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups whole milk
Pinch nutmeg
3/4 cup (lightly packed) fresh basil leaves
12 no-boil lasagna noodles
2 1/2 cups shredded whole-milk mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup grated Parmesan


Heat the oil in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the squash and toss to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Pour the water into the skillet and then cover and simmer over medium heat until the squash is tender, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes.

Cool slightly and then transfer the squash to a food processor. Add the amaretti cookies and blend until smooth.
Season the squash puree, to taste, with more salt and pepper.

Melt the butter in a heavy medium-size saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk for 1 minute.
Gradually whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, whisking often, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the nutmeg. Cool for at least 5 minutes. Transfer half of the sauce to a blender. Add the basil and blend, pulsing on low a few times before going up to high and blending until smooth. Return the basil sauce to the sauce in the pan and stir to blend. Season the sauce with salt and pepper, to taste.

Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees F.

Lightly butter a 13 by 9 by 2-inch glass baking dish. Spread 3/4 cup of the sauce over the prepared baking dish. Arrange 3 lasagna noodles on the bottom of the pan. Spread 1/3 of the squash puree over the noodles. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup of mozzarella cheese. Drizzle 1/2 cup of sauce over the noodles. Repeat layering 3 more times.

Tightly cover the baking dish with foil and bake the lasagna for 40 minutes. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses over the lasagna.
Continue baking uncovered until the sauce bubbles and the top is golden, 15 minutes longer. Let the lasagna stand for 15 minutes before serving.
Yield: 8-10 servings


Waste Not Want Not Pumpkin Cranberry Walnut Bread

When I was a kid milk was a big deal in our house. “Three glasses a day!” my father would bark, determined not to have hump-backed kids with brittle bones and terrible teeth. Every night at the end of dinner one of my siblings or I would be responsible for exchanging our glasses of water for glasses of milk. Whenever the task fell to my brother my sister and I knew we were in for it. It became a running joke that he’d fill the drinking glass literally to the brim with whole milk, carefully walking from the kitchen to the dining room hoping not to slosh it onto the floor. I don’t know about you but after a large meal, drinking 10 ounces of whole milk is truly painful. I also think I have a swallowing problem because I’ve always gotten incredibly full whenever I drink a big glass of anything. And my parents being my parents insisted that every drop was drained from the glass before we could clear the table and start the dishes.
At the time I found it so annoying and one of the many reasons I preferred to dine with my friends and their more laid-back parents. However, now I see why they were so focused on complete consumption—sure it had something to do with nutrition but it also was a lesson in ‘waste not, want not.’ Although they never played the children-in-Africa-are-starving card they did insist that we finish everything on our plates; we did not waste food.

By now I’ve been paying for my own food for the same number of years my parents were responsible for feeding me and I value the lesson I was taught. And because I live alone it is easy for me not to waste anything—even if I don’t finish everything on my plate I can wrap up my half-eaten dinner to throw in a salad the next day. And yes, I’ve been known to pour a few remaining ounces of OJ from my breakfast back into the Tropicana container. Okay, that sounds a little gross but what does it matter if I’m the only one drinking it? The point is I’m not pouring the juice (and the $3.69 price tag) down the drain.
Of course the commitment to saving food can cross over into truly disgusting. Many years ago I was on a fake-date with a rising film/TV writer-producer-director.

What’s a fake-date you ask? A fake-date is when you think you’ve been asked on a date by a very funny, charming single guy only to learn after the fake-date that he has a girlfriend living in California and just wanted someone to talk at, I mean talk to, over a meal in New York. This guy was fond of Shopsin’s, a much discussed restaurant then located in the West Village. (Note—Calvin Trillin wrote a great piece about it in the New Yorker on the eve of the closing of its original location. Click here to enjoy.) Chef-owner/author Kenny Shopsin is quite a character and was prone to kitchen rantings and outbursts that were easily overheard by his customers sitting in the general store-like cafe. Much like the Soup Nazi, Shopsin’s had a whole set of undisclosed rules that, if broken, got you banned from the place for life. I may be over stating but the evil eye would accompany you if you tried to dine with a party larger than four. I have to say the charm of the place eluded me; I don’t usually choose fear and anxiety as a side dish to my main course.
Kenny's wife Eve worked the front and in fact their whole family lived in the apartment above the restaurant. When I entered with said fake-date Eve began to fawn all over him. Apparently, he was such an appreciative and frequent customer that a sandwich had been named after him. Anyway, after my fake-date told me, sorry, recommended to me, what I had to order I found myself confronted with enough food to feed me for two days: a big bowl of some kind of tomato-y soup and a huge sandwich on a baguette. I knew I had to pace myself so, in order to have room for the sandwich, I abandoned the soup half-way through the bowl.

“Don’t like your soup?” Eve asked pointedly.

“No, no. It’s delicious! I just want to save room for this fantastic looking sandwich!” I hoped that would be enough and she’d walk away.

“No problem,” she said. “I’ll just bring the rest up to my kids.”

And with that she brought over one of those coated, round cardboard take-out boxes, picked up my half eaten bowl of soup, poured it into the container, smiled and strolled off with it to feed it to her children.

Needless to say while fake-date was laughing I lost my appetite and barely made it through the sandwich, comfortably resigned to the fact that I’d never be eating at Shopsin’s again.

So it was with wasting food on my mind that I was haunted by the leftover buttermilk and pumpkin puree twiddling their thumbs in my fridge only after being half used for my Halloween whoopie pies. What to do? A quick-bread came to mind and I whipped up this sweet tea cake in no time. There’s some whole-wheat flour to add a little wholesomeness, some walnuts for your omega-3’s and crunch, and the sour-sweet of the chewy cranberries. This bread keeps well and freezes even better. Make some now and have it on Thanksgiving with a cup of tea (or a big glass of milk). Just don’t let it go to waste.
Waste Not Want Not Pumpkin Cranberry-Walnut
Adapted from Bon Appétit, October 2003
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1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup canned pure pumpkin
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup dried sweetened cranberries
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter 9 1/4x5 1/4x3-inch loaf pan. Line bottom and 2 long sides with waxed paper. Whisk flours, spices, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in medium bowl to blend.
Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until fluffy. Gradually add 1 cup sugar, beating until blended. Beat in eggs, 1 at a time. Beat in pumpkin, then vanilla. Beat in dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk in 2 additions each.

Fold in cranberries and nuts. Transfer batter to pan. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar.Bake bread until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes. Cool bread in pan on rack 15 minutes. Cut around bread at short ends to loosen from pan. Turn bread out onto rack; peel off waxed paper. Cool bread completely.


My First Date with Date Bars

Growing up in New York I always assumed everyone I saw on the streets grew up here too. When I learned that the majority of grown-ups had moved to my city from other places I was completely surprised. That kind of myopia informs a lot of New Yorkers. There’s the swagger that comes from living in “the city that never sleeps,” believing we’re at the center of the universe. But that thinking is also a small mindedness. Living in the same place for an entire lifetime, even the biggest city in the world, is in many ways as provincial as spending your life in Small Town, USA. It’s important to remember it takes more than a Big Apple to make a fruit salad.
A few weeks ago I was reminded of my limited appreciation of the rest of the country when the Times ran a piece on the publication of The Sunset Cookbook: a compendium of recipes from the 102 year old Sunset magazine, a fixture in America’s western living rooms. I remember seeing the magazine fanned out on someone’s coffee table although I can’t think of whose. Maybe an aunt or uncle in California? Or am I conflating it with Highlights for Children at my dentist’s office? Anyway, I know I’ve seen it and have always been curious about it.
One of the things that surprised me the most about the article was just how long western food has had its own character—again, a completely New York or eastern point of view. Among other things, the climate and demographic are totally different and specific so why should I be surprised? Did you know that in 1922 the magazine published a recipe for enchiladas? Although it makes complete sense that Mexican flavors would impact the cuisine of border states I don’t think I realized they had infiltrated the mainstream back when women bobbed their hair and New Yorkers were suffering through jellied consommés.
From their all-access pass to fresh, local produce you actually want to eat (as opposed to easterners who pretend we are really excited to eat a rutabaga in December. Who are we kidding? We want edible tomatoes year-round please!) to the absorption of Mexican and Vietnamese flavors in everyday cooking, it doesn’t take Alice Waters to teach us that Californians are lucky. All this talk is making me crave guacamole so I need to move on to the sweeter things.
One of the recipes that accompanied this article was for a “Date Shake.” No, not a two-strawed milk shake you sip while on a date with your sweetie at the malt shop but a frosty smoothie-esque drink made from vanilla ice cream and dates. I was intrigued. One, because I love the soothing simplicity of vanilla ice cream and two, I’ve never had a date…of the Medjool variety.

And then the weirdest thing happened. I went grocery shopping at Fairway and all I saw were dates. They were everywhere: dates on stems outside, dates with pits in plastic containers piled near the door, cardboard boxes of pitted dates stacked under the apples, and jumbo dates ready to be scooped in the bulk section. This was a sign from the date god. Scooping the bulk dates into my baggie I remembered seeing way too many customers sticking their hands into the open bin. I didn’t want my first date with dates to be marred by food poisoning so I abandoned the scoop, grabbed a hygienically sealed container and started making plans.
First step was the shake. I chopped up the four dates (I am so tempted to make a snide remark), added the milk and got the blender whirring. Okay, small problem. The dates were so sticky they literally gummed up the works; a lot of noise but not a lot of action. Loosening them from the blades of the blender required much manipulation with my spatula and the end result was a somewhat creepy looking tan drink speckled with dark brown date skin. But the taste? Delicious. Imagine a vanilla milk shake heightened with a just a hint of a deeper, toffee flavor. (Click here for recipe) I’m not used to flakes of fruit skin in my beverages so the texture took a little getting used to but it was totally worth it. Although there was no way I could finish the whole thing. Give it a try but split it with someone. You can split your date shake with your date!
Meanwhile, I still had ¾ of a box of dates left and, given my slight lactose intolerance, was not looking to blend any additional ice cream concoctions. So, a little surfing on epicurious and I came upon “Classic Date Bars.” Wait a minute, I’ve never even heard of a date bar and they're considered a “classic?” What is going on here? As my mother would say upon hearing a piece of celebrity gossip a week after the rest of the world, “why was I not told?” And speaking of mothers, the recipe had tons of reviews from readers all over the country waxing on about how the bars reminded them of baking with their moms or how they’d just made them with their daughters and were brought back to their memories of their youth. Was this an example of my deprived childhood? All the other little girls had mothers who were busy making date bars with them while mine refused to even consider baking anything that didn’t revolve around chocolate?

Obviously I had to make this supposed classic if I wanted to continue to call myself a baker. They are super easy, nutty and toasty, both soft and chewy, with a nice contrast between the hint of cinnamon in the crumbly crust and the sweet, sticky fruity center. And then I noticed something in the online reviews; of the 54 comments only two were from New York, and both had tweaked the recipe so much they clearly had no nostalgic attachment to this supposedly ubiquitous treat. So maybe this was a regional thing. Maybe I did need to look outside of New York to open my eyes to the rest of the country and, for once, a good date.
My First Date with Date Bars adapted from Bon Appétit, February 2004
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1 cup water
1/2 cup orange juice
1 1/2 cups chopped pitted dates
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, diced, room temperature
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter 8x8-inch metal baking pan. Bring water and orange juice to simmer in medium saucepan. Add dates;
simmer until very soft and thick, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Stir in vanilla.
Combine flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt in food processor and pulse to mix. Add butter and pulse until moist clumps form.

Add oatmeal and pulse on and off until oats are evenly incorporated. Press half of oat mixture evenly over bottom of prepared pan.
Spread date mixture over oat mixture. Sprinkle with remaining oat mixture and chopped walnuts if using, gently to adhere.

Bake until brown at edges and golden brown and set in center, about 40 minutes. Cool completely in pan on rack. Cut into 2"x2" squares.
Yield: 16 squares