Monday, September 27, 2010

One Down. Nine to Go!

Phew! Made it through Challenge #1 (thanks to all who voted for me!). Now on to challenge #2: The Classics. There are close to 400 talented bloggers stretching themselves beyond their comfort zone to tackle unfamiliar territory, myself included. Check out my blog entry about how my kids and I "traveled" to N. Africa and discovered a new dish that has become a family favorite.

Click here (or the fancy widget to the right or at the top) to vote for me! I would love to make it to the next round (put together a fancy dinner party). PFB has really pushed me to be a better blogger and hope this jouney of blog discovery continues!

- umommy

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Project Food Blog Challenge #2: Discovering The Butter Man and Tagines

First, a BIG thanks to all who voted for my blog in challenge #1! The competition was stiff and it is only going to get tougher as the pool of bloggers get whittled down to the best and most creative. Knives (and keyboards) are sharpened, ready for challenge #2:

Ready to tackle a classic dish from another culture? Pick an ethnic classic that is outside your comfort zone or are not as familiar with.

One of the key goals of this blog was to do just that – discover new dishes from other cultures with the hopes of expanding my family’s palate.  French and Italian cuisines are excluded (no-brainers). And for our home, that would also exclude Asian standards (something that typically appears as a weeknight meal). What to make? Hmmm…

Would it be an Indian dish? Filipino sounded intriguing. I’ve always wanted to try making Cornish Pasties. I decided to go with a classic Moroccan dish – a tagine. Named after the cooking vessel in which the dish is cooked (a wide shallow pan covered by a tall, conical lid), a tagine is a Moroccan stew usually consisting of meat, vegetables, dried fruit and spices. I’ve never tried a tagine, never mind try to make one. So what made me decide to make this dish?

The Butter Man

My boys love books. And finding food-related picture books we all love is especially pleasurable (helps when your kids ask you to read it twenty-times a day). We love to read Yum Yum Dim Sum by Amy Wilson Sanger before a trip to our favorite dim sum parlor. I like to read Big Jimmy’s Kum Kau Chinese Take Out by Ted Lewin to show them what its like to grow up in a Chinese restaurant. I wanted to find a children’s book about an ethnic cuisine to involve my boys in this challenge in a special way.

A Moroccan story of patience and hope

That’s when I found The Butter Man, by Elizabeth Alalou and Ali Alalou. It’s a story about a young girl, Nora, who has to wait hungrily for her mother to come home from work while her father is preparing a couscous meal. To pass the time, her father tells her about his childhood in Morocco and how he had a much longer and hungrier wait for his father to bring food for the family during a famine.

Reading about couscous

I love the lesson about patience (which my boys have so little of!) and hope, but I especially love how in this story a Saturday ritual of preparing a meal with your family can fill a home with amazing smells and memories. So it was after reading The Butter Man with my son that I decided to make a chicken tagine with couscous.

Follow along below to see how I tackled this dish along with some interesting facts I learned along the way.

Chicken and Chickpea Tagine with Apricots
Inspired by Gourmet (Feb 2008) & Cooking Know-How, by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarborough

  • 2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • A pinch of safron
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoons salt
  • 4 skinless chicken thighs
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 medium red onion, halved, then sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 5 fresh cilantro
  • 5 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/2 cup chopped dried Turkish apricots
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 cup canned chickpeas
  • 1 medium carrot, sliced into ½ inch rounds
  • 1/3 cup whole blanched almonds (optional)


Step 1: Stir together ground coriander, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, safron, pepper, salt in a large bowl. Add chicken and turn to coat well.

Chicken thighs and other less-expensive cuts of meat are great for stews

Did you know? Like curry, there is no one Moroccan spice blend? (I went with a more standard, pantry-friendly blend. Adjust to your liking.) Before refrigeration, spices were added to meat to cover up the smell of bad meat. Adding the spice to the meat (rather than warming them later) infuses the meat with flavor.

Step 2: Heat butter and 1 tablespoon oil in base of tagine (or in a dutch oven in my case), uncovered, over moderate heat until hot but not smoking, then brown chicken, turning over once, 8 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

To brown or not to brown?

Did you know? Chicken and lamb are traditional meats in a tagine. You can also make a vegetarian tagine using root vegetables. Browning the meat is not traditional in a tagine. I have to agree with Weinstein and Scarborough however that browning is worth the compromise in authenticity in order to enrich the sauce and balance the flavors.

Step 3: Add onion and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt to tagine and cook, uncovered, stirring frequently, until soft, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, 3 minutes. 

(my son loves kitchen gadgets. use little hands to peel carrots or chop garlic thanks to chef'n)

Tie cilantro and parsley into a bundle with kitchen string and add to tagine along with 1/2 cup water or chicken broth, chicken, and any juices accumulated on plate. Stir in ½ cup dried Turkish apricots and tablespoon honey.

Now we wait

Step 4: Scatter chickpeas and carrots over the meat mixture. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, approximately 1 ½  hours.

Did you know? Laying the chickpeas and carrots over the top of the stew helps leach the flavors into the sauce and keep them from getting overpowered by the other ingredients.

Step 5: Discard herbs then serve chicken sprinkled with blanched almonds (optional) on top. Serve over couscous.

The aromas are out of this world

The Good:  An easy to make one-pot meal (minus the couscous). The smells are heavenly! The boys loved it (except the youngest picked out the chickpeas).

The Bad: This isn’t a quick weeknight meal. Because of the 2+ hours of prep and cooking time, this is best reserved for a weekend dish.

Grade: A+! The chicken was tender and fell off the bone. The spice combination with the chickpeas and carrots were uniquely flavorful. The apricots melted in your mouth. We’ll be practicing a little patience in our home next time we make this. 

What are some of your favorite food-related books? Do you have any weekend meals that have become a family tradition?

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Next Food Blog Star

As you contemplate who will get your vote in the upcoming mid-term elections, I humbly ask for your vote for an entirely different title. I'm competing in Project Food Blog - the first-ever interactive competition where thousands of food bloggers compete in a series of culinary blogging challenges for the chance to win $10,000 and the title of Food Blog Star.

When I started this blog, I had no idea I would be rated by a panel of judges (Dana Cowin, Editor-in-Chief of FOOD & WINE Magazine, Nancy Silverton, Founder La Brea Bakery, Co-owner Mozza, and Pim Techamuanvivit, Author of and The Foodie Handbook), never mind competing with thousands of well-established food bloggers. But I love a challenge and hope you will come along for the ride.

Even if I don't become the next food blog star, I really, truly, deeply appreciate all the support and kind words I've received from friends, family, foodies and fellow bloggers. Thank you!

So get out the vote - the food vote - and click here (or the widget at the top and right of the post) to vote for me!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Project Food Blog - Challenge #1: Ready, Set, Blog!

2000 bloggers | 10 challenges | 1 winner

So here we are. I’m throwing my “hat” in the Project Food Blog ring, where close to 2,000 food bloggers compete in a series of culinary blogging challenges for the chance to win $10,000 and feature on for a year. Think Top Chef, but for foodies turned bloggers.

So what is the first “elimination challenge”?

Challenge #1: Create a blog post that defines you as a food blogger and why should you be the next food blog star?

A challenge so broad it feels like a college essay question. Well thankfully SAT scores are not needed to enter. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to answer these questions and like many time-starved moms, I’ve created a list. So here it is - Top 5 Things That Sets Umommy Blog Apart:

1.    Growing up in the restaurant business
To me, food is family – literally. I grew up in my family’s Chinese restaurant. When I wasn’t in school, I was at the restaurant, watched under the careful eyes of my parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. I learned how to make wontons before I learned how to tell time. I could work the fry station before I could drive. I learned all about food and the restaurant business from my family. 

As I grew older, I also learned to despise the restaurant business for its long hours and zero vacation days. But if it weren’t for the family business, I would not have learned that food is what brings a family together. From huge family gatherings over a 10-course meal on Chinese New Year to sharing stories about happy and loyal customers, food was what brought my family together – no matter the miles or differences between us.

It is this very important lesson that I hope to pass on to my own family and what the crux of this blog is about. Good food = happy family.

2.    Marketer by day, mom food blogger by night… sometimes late night
As a marketing and advertising professional, I understand how important it is to connect with your audience, to stand apart from the competition, and how to tell a story that people will remember. In other words, how to build a brand.

I try to keep these immutable laws of marketing in mind with every blog post. I’m my own demanding client, and building umommy brand is crucial. For more, check out the umommy facebook page:
(every brand must have a social media strategy, right?)

3.    Kid-tested recipes
When my oldest son was an infant, I kept a diary of what he ate.  I thought a food diary might come in handy when I have more kids and can refer back to this diary and learn from my mistakes when it was time to feed kid #2. Here’s what one entry looked like:

March 5
2 oz oatmeal and prunes
2 oz applesauce and blueberries
Cheerios and blueberries
8 oz formula (7/9:30am)
2 oz Apple/Sweet potato puree
2 oz vanilla yogurt
Puffs and melon
7 oz formula (12/3pm)
2oz pea puree
2 oz apples and blueberry puree
tablespoon tofu

I started this blog as my own personal food diary, chronicling new recipes I’ve tried, new products I’ve tested, and new restaurants I’ve dined in. I have one criterion before it makes it in my blog – my kids have to try it. I hope one day my kids can refer back to umommy and say “Oh yeah. That was a good. I’ll try that with my kids.”
4.    Sharing nuggets
And no, not necessarily chicken nuggets. Not only has umommy become a creative outlet for me, it has given me a chance to share nuggets of wisdom when it comes to feeding a family. Like so many parents, it can be a challenge to get your kids to eat at all, much less a wholesome meal. With everyone sitting. At the same table.
Just as I turn to other knowledgeable moms and dads, I hope to share some ideas, ways to save time, and commiserate with other parents when mealtimes are not going so well.

5.    Discovering umami

U-ma-mi (noun) |oo’m√§mee|
A category of taste in food besides sweet, sour, salt and bitter. Taste sensation that is meaty or savory.
ORIGIN Japanese, literally “deliciousness”

I started this blog as a way to chronicle my “quest” to find great food that my entire family would enjoy.

What parent wouldn’t want their kids to eat a balanced, nutritious meal? But if I’m going to take the time to prepare a meal, I need to be excited about eating it too. Since I was exposed to ethnic foods when I was a kid, I want to do the same with my own family. I am determined not to get into the vicious cycle of ordering chicken fingers and french fries for the kids every time we dine out so that the boys will expect that’s what they order when we go out to eat.

For me, there are few greater joys than sharing food that I love with my family.  My heart just smiles when we go out to dim sum and my boys are inhaling haw gow and shu mai faster than I can pick them up. And just the other day, I took my son to SOFRA for lunch, and while I enjoyed my falafel sandwich, he gobbled up his savory tart.  I was beaming. It’s about sharing an experience with your kids. And for me, that’s discovering and sharing umami.

Friday, September 17, 2010

It's Fall - Time for Stone Soup (a.k.a Pasta, Sausage and Bean Soup)

As much as I hate to see Summer come to an end, it is hard to deny the pleasures of Fall: school (if you're a parent to school-aged kids), apple cider, pumpkin picking, fall foliage to name a few. My oldest son associates Fall with Halloween (naturally), his younger brother's birthday and Stone Soup.

My son's preschool would serve Stone Soup once a week for snack. Based on the old tale of hungry soldiers tricking a village into donating ingredients to make soup, each child is encouraged to bring a vegetable to be added to the school's version of Stone Soup (vegetable soup). Cute, huh? Even the pickiest preschooler enjoyed Stone Soup.

As soon as the temperatures dip below 60 degrees and the leaves show a tinge of red, soup is often a meal during the week at our house. I recently came across a Blue Ribbon Recipe (top-ranked recipe of all time) on epicurious for Pasta, Sausage, and Bean Soup (click here for the recipe). I adapted this recipe a bit using more veggies and white kidney beans. Staying true to our preschool's tradition, I had my son help prep and add the vegetables into the soup pot.

The result?

The Good: Easy to make, hearty, tastes better the next day. Both boys enjoyed it (and asked for seconds).

The Bad: If you don't drain the grease from the sausage, it can be very greasy.

Grade: A. Fall favorite!

Friday, September 10, 2010

"Packing School Lunch" Cheat Sheet

One of my all-time favorite commercials is the classic "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" from Staples. I love how giddy the father is for back-to-school shopping and how miserable the kids look. The voice over is perfect too - exuding over-the-top enthusiasm. This commercial always comes to mind at the start of every school year (maybe that's the geeky advertising side of me).

Except for the first time, I've become empathetic with the kids. I am dreading the chore of packing lunch for my Kindergartner... and for the next 17 years?! He's not a terribly picky eater, so I'm not worried that he'll go hungry because he didn't like what I packed for lunch. But because I'm the one packing his lunch, I want it to be enjoyable and satisfying. And hopefully that will carry-over to the food when my kid opens his lunchbox.

I'm sure there will be days he'll ask to buy lunch. Being a new mom and someone who truly values wholesome food, I am leery of the processed foods that is being served in our public schools. Thanks to organizations like Whole Foods and its Great American Salad Bar Project and Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, there is a push to bring fresh food into local schools. Until significant progress is made, I'll be packing lunch most days of the week.

So I've done some homework and found some great sites and blogs that truly inspire when it comes to lunch ideas. I don't have any delusions of creating mini works of art with bento boxes (if only I had the time). Here are some sites I will be coming back to often: - everything from lunch recipes to snack ideas
Whole Story - Whole Foods blog with great lunch and snack lists and tips
Weelicious - helpful and realistic tips and recipes for busy parents
Babble's The Family Kitchen - round-up of fun and tasty posts from great food bloggers
Wendolonia - Wendy's Week in Bentos look amazing and totally doable
Cooking with My Kid - you will want to try all her recipes, not just lunch ones

So what did I pack for my kid on his first full day of Kindergarten you ask?

almond butter with apples and honey, sliced apples, banana yogurt, nuts and dried cranberries

What are some other great lunch links? What are some things to avoid? What are some go-to lunches you pack for your kids or yourself?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Zucchini Raisin Bran Muffins

My oldest really despises zucchini. And more often than not he will scowl if there's a hint of zucchini in a dish. I think it's the texture of cooked zucchini - a little squishy, mild and soggy.  He will actually gag if he takes a bite. Please. It was if I was poisoning him! And my youngest won't eat anything unless it is the color white. It's hard not to use zucchini in the summer. They are so abundant around these parts. And pretty versatile too.

It recently dawned on me that my boys have never tried zucchini bread. Who doesn't like zucchini bread? Sugar, butter, cinnamon, vanilla? It really is a dessert than bread, right? I thought I'd try to make it a bit more healthy by testing out a recipe from the now defunct Gourmet Magazine for Zucchini Raisin Bran Muffins.

Zucchini Raisin Bran Muffins
Adapted from Gourmet, 1993
Makes 12 muffins

2/3 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup whole-wheat flour
2/3 cup miller's bran
2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup milk
1 cup raisins
2 cups coarsely grated zucchini


1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. In a bowl whisk together the flours, the bran, the baking powder, the salt, the cinnamon, and the cloves. 

2. In a large bowl with an electric mixer cream the butter with the sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy, add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, and beat in the vanilla. 

3. Beat the flour mixture into the butter mixture, beat in the milk, and stir in the raisins and the zucchini. 

4. Divide the batter among 12 well-buttered or paper-lined 1/2-cup muffin tins and bake the muffins in the middle of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Turn the muffins out onto a rack and let them cool.
Is there anything better than the smell of fresh baked muffins in the morning?
The Good: Tasty and pretty filling thanks to the bran and whole wheat flour. Both boys loved them. Great for little hands (grating zucchini, measuring, and mixing) too.

The Bad: Came out on the dry side. Will try adding more milk next time.

Grade: B+. A healthy and delicious way to use up some of that summer bounty.


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