Cooking for Hugo: Avocado Cucumber Salad

Avocado cucumber salad

Hugo turns five this summer. Five! Wasn't he just born? Sunrise! Sunset! Sigh.

A silly little story: We still wake Hugo before we go to bed to take him to the bathroom one last time for the night, even though he doesn't need it anymore, even though he gets up by himself in the middle of the night if necessary and puts himself back to bed too. We can't bring ourselves to stop, I guess. Old habits die hard.

This has been Max's job since the early stages of my pregnancy with Bruno, but the other night, Max was away on a business trip so it fell to me to do it. A year ago, I could still lift Hugo easily into my arms. His legs still clamped easily around my waist and his head fell into my shoulder just perfectly. He was heavy and I wouldn't have been able to take a leisurely stroll holding him, but it wasn't ridiculous for me to pick him up. The other night, though, was a wholly different story. I was trying to pick up a boy, not a toddler, and I couldn't get a handle on his lanky limbs or his weight. It suddenly felt like I was trying to lift a horse. I awkwardly staggered to the bathroom with him and back, practically grunting with effort, rather than doing that cozy, capable, motherly nighttime glide. It was both funny and heartbreaking.

And not for the first time since January I found myself thinking, thank God I still have another baby.

But onto the matter at hand: I've long stopped cooking specifically for this practically teenaged Hugo, unless he's feeling out of sorts and in need of a steadying bowl of pastina before bedtime. (Whenever this happens, Max comes home from work, sniffs the broth in the air and promptly proclaims he'd like some too, go figure.) And Hugo's mostly a good eater. Left to his own devices, of course, he'd eat a diet consisting solely of cookies and chocolate, with Tic-Tacs thrown in for good measure (he's obsessed with them). He likes to complain about weird things like lentil soup and tomato sauce. And a few months ago, he specifically and solemnly asked me never to make polenta again. (Huh?) (I feel the need to clarify: I'd only fed it to him twice in his short life! But I guess when you hate something, you hate it.) But when I make Swiss chard* or salad with romaine hearts or boiled spinach with olive oil and lemon for dinner, Hugo proclaims that that's the food he'd like to eat every day for the rest of his life and devours three portions. (Not. Even. Kidding.) So largely we're in a good place.

The biggest slam dunk in recent months, though, has been the discovery of this little salad - a mixture of cubed avocado and cucumber, dressed with plain yogurt, lemon juice, dried mint and salt. It recently joined Hugo's other favorite vegetables in the hallowed three-portions-in-one-sitting pantheon. Actually, he can work his way through almost an entire bowl of this stuff. I found the original recipe, which includes mayo and scallions and Sriracha for a far more "grown-up" concoction, on Deb's site, and she, in turn, got it from Julia Turshen's Instagram. One night, when we had little in the house in the way of green vegetables besides a cucumber and an avocado, the reminder of that salad flitted across the nether regions of my brain. That night, I left out the Sriracha due to Hugo and the scallions due to Max and the mayo due to myself, plus I added the dried mint, because I'm having a love affair with it right now (more on that in another post!) and upped the yogurt, which, when you give the salad several good stirs, turns a gorgeous celadon hue. And lo and behold, we all went nuts for it.

Since then, it's graced our table weekly, even with the dire avocados us poor Berliners are subjected to (the rule seems to be that for every good avocado you get, you've thrown at least three rotten ones out), and Hugo and Max regularly battle over who gets to eat the last spoonfuls. It's funny, because I would have been deeply suspicious of this salad as a child, due to the creamy dressing, but all the elements really are very child-friendly - and the combination of them is pleasing to both grown-ups and little ones.

You hardly need a recipe, but here goes:

Avocado-Cucumber Salad
Serves 2-3

Take one firm-ripe avocado and cube. Cube half a peeled English cucumber. Combine both in a bowl. Add several large spoonfuls of whole-milk plain yogurt, the creamier, the better. Add a healthy pinch of salt, 1/2 to 1 teaspoon dried mint and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Stir well and serve.

*European Swiss chard seems to be, on the whole, sweeter and tastier than U.S. grown Swiss chard, so keep that in mind. Also, besides tasting good, the ritual of dousing boiled green vegetables in good olive oil (we decant it into a pretty glass cruet) and freshly squeezed lemon juice seems to add to the appeal to children.


Melissa Clark's Curried Coconut Tomato Soup

Melissa Clark's tomato coconut soup

A nice little recipe to have in your back pocket for those days when dinner needs to be cozy and comforting, but also quick. It comes from Melissa Clark's Cook This Now, which is not just a great collection of recipes that manage to be both (mostly) simple and yet also sophisticated, exactly like her NYT column, but also makes me nostalgic for the good old days of cookbooks, when they were printed with regular fonts on normal paper, with a few glossy pages of photos gathered together in bunches. The Internetization of cookbooks has tired me out a little. Look at me, out on my lawn with a broom.

The soup, made with canned tomatoes and an array of warm spices, is made creamy with coconut milk instead of cream, so it's good for the vegans or lactose-intolerants in your life (use coconut oil instead of butter to begin with if it's a dietary necessity). We are neither vegan nor lactose-intolerant, but found this soup almost compulsively good. The balance of flavors was so perfect that it was hard not to go back for thirds. ("We", that night, was me and Hugo, so it is child-friendly - just leave out the chile powder if necessary or use a not-too-spicy curry powder). Sometimes cumin can get a bit much, you know? But here, smoothed out by the coconut, and balanced by the coriander and curry powder (I use this one, which is excellent), it was just right.

Tomato coconut soup

I was feeling ambitious the night I cooked the soup, so I also made Melissa's suggested accompaniment of whole wheat parathas, but they were a little fussy. Next time, I'd make grilled cheese, as I usually do with tomato soup, and call it a day.

Oh and next time, I'd also do what Melissa suggests as an alternative topping to the chopped herbs (missing from our plates because as soon as the soup was ready I suddenly got very hungry and needed to sit down and eat rather than chop anything else) and toast some coconut chips, mix them with sea salt and drop them on top of the soup for a crunchy contrast. You should definitely try that.

NB: This is not a thick tomato soup; it's meant to be thin, but not watery. The original recipe calls for 1/2 cup coconut cream, which I left out when I made it. You can add that if you'd like, for a richer soup, or you can add less water (3 cups instead of 4) if you prefer.

Note: This post includes affiliate links and I may earn a commission if you purchase through these links, at no cost to you. I use affiliate links only for products I love and companies I trust. Thank you.

Melissa Clark's Curried Coconut Tomato Soup
Adapted from Cook This Now
Serves 2 to 4

2 tablespoons unsalted butter or coconut oil
1 yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch chile powder
1 large can (28-oz) diced tomatoes
1 regular can (13.5 oz) coconut milk
1/2 cup coconut cream, optional
Chopped fresh cilantro, mint or basil, for garnish

1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is very tender, about 10 minutes.

2. Stir in the curry powder, coriander, cumin and chile. Cook for 1 minute. Stir in the diced tomatoes and 4 cups of water (3 cups, for a slightly thicker soup) and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, then reduce to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes.

3. Using an immersion blender, purée the soup until smooth. Whisk in the coconut milk (and coconut cream, if using) and check for seasoning. Let the soup simmer for another 10 minutes. Ladle into bowls and garnish with chopped herbs.



Rice and Peas and Broth and Cheese


I've just returned from a week in Sicily, where Rachel and I taught our food writing workshop at the splendidly picturesque Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School. I have so much to tell you, but the words and impressions and images are still swirling around in my head and haven't had a chance to settle yet. While I was away, Hugo and Max went to visit Max's grandparents in deepest Bavaria. They communed with sheep, cows and chickens, wore rain boots all week, and generally had the best vacation a little boy could hope for.

We all got home this past weekend, to an empty fridge and an uninspiring larder. Even the bread box was bare. And since stores in Germany are closed on Sundays, shopping was out. Mercifully, my mother had us over for lunch on Sunday. There were oven-baked polpette encrusted with breadcrumbs, roast potatoes, salad, and gratineed eggplant. After a week of being cooked for at breakfast, lunch and dinner, I thought I might feel like cooking again once I got home. But no, actually, being fed by someone else still felt pretty good.

At dinnertime, though, we were on our own. I picked up and considered a can of baked beans, a jar of millet, some carrots asleep in the fridge. I thought about doing a bit of tinkering. Roasting nuts, cooking lentils, trying to make something fresh out of the drabness staring back at me from the pantry. But after all that Sicilian home cooking - the expertly balanced menus, richly flavorful sauces, the vegetables that tasted so deeply of themselves and the earth, and crisp fritti - culinary experimentation felt a little sacrilegious. And after a week of not seeing my loves, the last thing I felt like doing was sequestering myself in the kitchen for an hour.

Instead, I went all the way back to the most basic of basics with the things I always always always have around: rice and peas and a little bit of broth; an abbreviated, simplifed risi e bisi. You could go elsewhere for more complicated versions of that classic Italian dish (David Tanis' with pancetta and pea shoots and lemon zest, oh my, or Rachel's via Marcella Hazan, with homemade stock, fresh peas and Italian rice). But in a pinch, it's good to know that cutting corners works just fine too. This is how I cook when I don't want to cook.

I heated olive oil in a pan, then cooked the rice (regular long-grain, nothing fancy) in the oil until it was toasty and fragrant. In went a lot of water, enough to cook the rice and still have a bit pooling in each plate after serving. The water sizzled as it hit the hot pan. Then a few spoonfuls of Better than Bouillon's vegetable base were stirred in. (You could also use a bouillon cube. I often do.) When the rice was halfway cooked, tiny droplets of oil pooling at the surface of the water, I added twice as many frozen peas, then let the whole mixture cook together until the rice was finished.


I spooned the rice and peas into our bowls, the broth pooling just slightly at the edges, put grated Parmesan on top to shrivel in the heat and melt. It felt like the truest nursery food, calming and nourishing, piping hot and agreeably savory.

You don't actually need a recipe for this, I think. But sometimes it's nice to know about the simplest, silliest meals, how we feed ourselves when we must make do. Knowing how to make a little thing that will fill you up and taste like home is just as important as knowing how to make a feast. These are the dishes that end up making up the fabric of flavors of your life.

Rice and Peas and Broth and Cheese
Serves 2 adults and one toddler

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup long-grain rice
2-3 teaspoons Better Than Bouillon vegetable base (or a bouillon cube)
2 cups frozen peas
Grated Parmesan, for serving

1. Heat the olive oil in a medium sauce pan, then add the rice and cook, stirring, until the rice is fragrant and slightly toasted. Pour in 3 cups of cold water and add the bouillon base. Bring to a boil, then reduce to the heat to a simmer, with the lid on and slightly askew.

2. After about 7 minutes, add the frozen peas and stir well. Raise the heat to bring the water back to a boil, then reduce to a simmer again and finish cooking, with the lid on and slightly askew, another 7-10 minutes. The rice should be soft but not mushy. There should still be some liquid in the pan.

3. Ladle the mixture into bowls and top with freshly grated Parmesan. Serve immediately.

Cooking for Hugo: Corinne Trang's Korean Barbecued Chicken


Dearest readers, I did not mean to leave you hanging for, uh, almost three weeks. Please accept my apologies and my offering: a recipe for "barbecued" Korean chicken that I discovered in this cookbook that's been on my shelf since 2002 when I found it in the giveaway pile of an old job, but never actually cracked until a few months ago.

I don't know how I landed on this one recipe seeing as there far too many to count in this book (it's sort of overwhelming, actually), but somehow I did and the first time I made it, Hugo ate almost the entire panful of chicken while Max and I desperately tried to pick off pieces for ourselves, fending off the screeching wild animal each time, and every time I've made it since then it's been nothing sort of a roaring success. So. You need to know about this. Consider it my penance.

Continue reading "Cooking for Hugo: Corinne Trang's Korean Barbecued Chicken" »

Cooking for Hugo: Healthy Muffins


Our mornings go a little something like this: Either Max's alarm goes off first or Hugo wakes up chirping like the recently-returned bird who perches in the chestnut tree outside his window at the ungodly hour of 4:30 am and starts singing only to stop an hour later, the jerk, after our child has awoken and will not return to sleep come hell or high water.

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Cooking for Hugo: Teriyaki Salmon

Hugo and teriyaki salmon

Helloooo, fellow cooking-for-small-children-ites! It's been a long, long, long, long time, hasn't it? I'm going to be that mother and place the blame for this unintended hiatus directly at my beloved child's feet. Those sweet little feet attached to the, er, obstinate son I seem to have birthed who sometime around 15 months decided that he wasn't going to eat anything but pasta, boiled rice and, maybe, on some days, yogurt anymore.

Those scrambled eggs he used to hoover up like a pro? NO. The bananas he used to eat, slice by slice? NO. The little cubes of cheddar cheese he used to delicately pluck from my fingers and then eat like a gourmand? NO. The bowls of blueberry oatmeal he used to down in an instant? NO. Steamed broccoli he used to gobble like it was going out of style? NO! Segments of sweet juicy clementines he used to eat like candy? NO NO AND NO.

And for good measure, to all of it: NO.

Continue reading "Cooking for Hugo: Teriyaki Salmon" »

Cooking for Hugo: Debbie Koenig's Barbecued Brisket

Parents Need to Eat Too
Way back in the early days of food blogging, when there were only about six people doing it, a woman named Debbie Koenig started a blog called Words to Eat By. Long before I started this site, I read hers and loved it. Debbie lived in New York, like me, had worked in publishing, like me, plus her recipe for chocolate chip cookies really was so good. It's not a big leap to say that she certainly helped inspire my own jump into food blogging.

When Debbie and her husband had their son in 2006, she realized, as most of us then do, that cooking with a baby is a whole new universe to navigate. Where once you thought nothing of spending an afternoon in the kitchen to make an elaborate dinner, you now have a screaming baby attached to your body, in desperate need of your full attention, to the detriment of your ability to shower, pee or even just make a sandwich. Bit by bit, Debbie figured out her way back into the kitchen and was inspired to help other mothers get their sea legs cooking again.

Parents Need to Eat Too, her book and the name her blog has since taken over, is a compendium of all the wisdom she gained over the years since then. By teaching cooking classes to new mothers and keeping the conversation alive on her website, Debbie found herself with scores of recipes and tips to share with other sleep-deprived, harried and hungry new mothers. Parents Need to Eat Too holds all of them, plus a glut of information on freezing big batches of food, foods to promote milk production and soothing reassurances that one day things will feel normal again, even if right now your world is one big mess of burp clothes, peanut butter eaten out of a jar and multi-night wakeups.

I first read Parents Need to Eat Too when Hugo was a few weeks old. I hadn't though it possible before, but just like they tell you, in those days I couldn't figure out how to do anything but nurse Hugo. I barely found time to shower and dress and fixing myself a bowl of yogurt (as in, open fridge, get yogurt, find bowl, pour yogurt into bowl, get spoon and eat) seemed so remote and difficult that the one time I managed to do so I felt a level of achievement I hadn't had since learning how to tell time in the third grade. Oh, early motherhood! You are a kick in the teeth.

Debbie's book was a breath of fresh air. The few parenting books I had scattered around the apartment filled me with dread (nap schedules? infant character profiles?), but reading Parents Need to Eat Too was the soothing distraction I really needed. It didn't matter that I actually was in no position to cook again just yet. Debbie was telling me that I would be again, in time, and that it was just a matter of being patient and resourceful until then. At a time when everything I knew about my old life was gone, it was deeply comforting to know that.

I've, of course, long found my way back to the kitchen, but these days I find myself reaching for Debbie's book all the time. Because now is the time that I'm really cooking for my family. Max is living at home again (praise be!), Hugo no longer needs his little pots of puréed veg (glory be!) and getting food on the table for all of us is my job. Along with everything else I do. So what I'm looking for these days is help in preparing dishes that all of us will eat, as well as stocking the freezer for those days when I just don't have the time to cook and finding recipes I can make with one hand tied behind my back.

Parents Need to Eat Too has all of that, but is tailor-made for those of us who love to cook anyway and don't want Hamburger Helper to get dinner on the table. The recipes are relatively sophisticated despite their supreme easiness and there are lots of delicious things to get excited about. (Big-Batch Adobo Chicken is next on my to-do list.) Currently, I'm having a delightful love affair with the slow cooker chapter even though I don't own a slow cooker. (Debbie says that a cast-iron pot with a lid in a low oven mimics the heat of a slow cooker pretty well.) So the other day I decided to try my hand at brisket.

I bought a big slab of brisket meat after a hilarious back-and-forth with the German butcher who, despite my having researched this exhaustively online beforehand, had no idea what I was talking about and a bottle of apple juice (I already had barbecue sauce in my fridge leftover from this).The prep was almost comically simple: First, I preheated the oven to 200 degrees F (about 90 degrees C) and put the slab of meat in my biggest cast-iron pot. Then I poured in a cup of apple juice and a cup of barbecue sauce. Then I put the lid on the pan and put it in the oven for about 6 hours. And That Was It.

Sliced brisket

When I removed the pot from the oven and took off the lid, the brisket - shrunken from its impressive girth in its raw state - was dark brown and fragrant, swimming in a pool of mahogany cooking liquid. I sliced it thinly and spooned the liquid over each portion. The meat was wonderfully lean and flavorful, pleasing both Hugo and his daddy. (Hugo loves chomping away on the meat for a while, then spitting it out once he's leached all the good stuff out, so while I can't guarantee that your child will have quite the same delightful table manners as mine does, the recipe is definitely kid-friendly.) We had a big dinner, the three of us, and I packed the freezer full of leftovers, my biggest thrill these days.

Along with Dinner: A Love Story for people with children over 3 and which I wrote about here, Parents Need to Eat Too is the best parenting resource for cooks.

Barbecued Brisket
Serves 6 to 8
From Parents Need to Eat Too

1 3-4-pound brisket, trimmed of as much fat as possible
1 cup barbecue sauce (if store-bought, then as natural as possible)
1 cup apple juice

1. Put the brisket in the slow cooker or a large cast-iron pot (if using the pot, preheat the oven to 200 degrees F). Pour the sauce and juice on top, making sure some of the liquid ends up underneath the meat. The meat should not be fully submerged.

2. Cook on LOW for 6 to 8 hours or, if using the pot, for 6, checking once at the 5-hour-mark. The brisket is done when a fork pierces the meat easily. Slice the meat against the grain thinly, then serve with the cooking liquid. Debbie suggests rounding out the meal with these beans and cornbread.