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We’re talking squash again this week. Two weeks in a row, I hope this isn’t a fireable offense. What can I say, I’m passionate about squash. As if last week’s post didn’t convince you…

We stayed in New York this weekend since we had a few activities planned. One of which was the highly-anticipated feedfeed Market Day at the Union Square Greenmarket.

I first linked up with feedfeed on Instagram where they’re building a strong community of like-minded people who love to cook. Their website is growing, and is quickly becoming a go-to source for inspiration on a broad range of topics, from pies and soups to pancakes and smoothies. As the website evolves and becomes more searchable, its curated content will surely rival some of the biggest food websites today. I’m just happy to be a part of it all – as both observer and occasional contributor.

I was finally able to meet the founders of feedfeed – Julie and Dan Resnick – in person this weekend. Their Market Day event at the farmer’s market brought together a number of chefs, nutritionists, stylists and food bloggers and it was fun to chat with everyone about the changing food landscape.

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Social media and social platforms such as feedfeed are no doubt improving the way that food is cooked at home. Restaurant-quality food is making its way into home kitchens as home cooks become more innovative and experimental.

My food has changed immensely since I’ve become part of a community who cooks and then shares the output online. I’ve become more confident, and have started to take risks with my cooking. I’ve become intrigued by unique flavors and textures, influenced in large part by the global accounts that I follow – from home cooks in the Middle East to UK-based naturopaths, and minimalist-minded Scandinavian food stylists. Like a sponge, I’ve soaked it all in, eyes wide open.

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If I’m famous for anything in the kitchen, it’s my track record for that most heroic of tasks: Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a beast, but someone’s gotta do it. Best assign it to the person who once claimed ownership of a pre-Pinterest era Thanksgiving binder that housed every T-day recipe from Gourmet to Saveur, classified, naturally, in order of appearance, from cocktails to desserts.

That person would be me.

Last year I cooked two dinners – Canadian Thanksgiving in October, and American Thanksgiving in November. Twice I wrote out long lists ingredients to source; twice I stood on my feet for two days solid, peeling, mashing, squeezing, rubbing, brining and basting until I gave myself a simultaneous episode of tennis elbow and carpal tunnel. Twice I had that foreboding sense that I might not make it to the finish line. Twice I managed to pull it off, poured myself an immense glass of red, and melted, silently, into my leather-backed chair between cheerful dining companions.

This year, we travel. It’s the least we can do – to share our part of the responsibility of getting one’s family, preferably intact, to a home that’s not our own. To brave the two busiest travel days of the year, crossing fingers for no delays, no lost baggage, and most important – no issues with the in-flight wine supply.

But that’s how it goes. You can’t always be the ones to stay at home. To sit back and put your feet up on the sofa, enveloped in the comfort of candlelight and your Frank Sinatra Pandora station, while others brave trains, planes and automobiles to land in this exact place.

But a travel year doesn’t mean that you have to put your excitement about Thanksgiving dishes on hold. There should be a law – let’s call it Jessica’s Law because nobody will pronounce my last name correctly, which could be summarized by the following equation:

TH Factor = (TMT-DTD)/3.14TMT2

In layman’s terms, your TH factor (that’s your Thanksgiving Hunger factor) = (Thanksgiving Miles Traveled – Days until Thanksgiving Dinner), divided by (Pie x Thanksgiving Miles Traveled) squared.

It just made sense to have pie in the equation – make it pecan, pumpkin, it doesn’t really matter.

The gist is that the closer you get to Thanksgiving, and the farther you have to travel, the hungrier you are for these kinds of foods at home.

Lately, my TH Factor has been stratospheric. And it doesn’t help that I’ve found a favorite new squash.

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OK, maybe I haven’t found a favorite new squash. Everyone, their brothers, their uncles, and their kids’ elementary school teachers have discovered it this year. That would be delicata. Do you hear the angels sing when I mention the name?

Not only does the name “delicata” conjure loveliness on its own, but it also follows up its name with a silky, almost custard-like texture that will have you questioning whether you’re eating dinner or dessert. And I’m saving the best part for last….you don’t have to peel the skin.

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One of the interesting takeaways from our weekly efforts to try new foods is the fact that my kids prefer to eat foods in as close to their natural state as possible.

Carrots? Raw…

Squash like zucchini, yellow squash and pattypan? You guessed it.

Potatoes? Now that might be stretching it.

We’ve been able to try a host of new foods together simply by peeling and eating. Which on the one hand is great – introducing new foods into my kids’ diets has never been easier. But on the other hand, my adult palette is craving more mature foods…foods that actually have sauces, and garnishes.

I know that we’ll get there. One day we’ll sit down as a family and heap our plates full of lasagna or pearl barley risotto. I’ll be able to sauce, dip, smother and otherwise complicate food to my heart’s content.

Until then, we’ll move ahead in baby steps, which means connecting with my kids at their level: recognizing that meals with a more complex set of flavors can be intimidating, and developing recipes that are both easy for me and appealing to them. It’s hard to take rejection in the kitchen, so keeping things simple is always the goal. If they don’t like it, so be it, at least I haven’t spent a huge amount of time on the dish.

As part of my work in the food world over the past year and a half, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting others who are on a similar mission to eliminate (or at least reduce) kids’ pickiness at mealtimes.

And what a time to be picky! Our farmer’s markets have grown in size and stature, CSA delivery boxes have become the norm, and businesses offering home-delivery of artisanal food products are sprouting faster than asparagus in April.

This is a time to embrace food, to get back to our roots, and to teach our kids about the availability of beautiful, healthy foods that can both nourish and satisfy hungry bellies.

Today I’m introducing you to someone who I consider to be an ally in my effort to educate kids about healthy food. 

Jennifer Tyler Lee is also a Mom and Entrepreneur who has written a book called The 52 New Foods Challenge.

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After struggling with her own kids’ picky eating, she came to a similar conclusion: that by making things fun, and encouraging kids to eat a new food each week, she could encourage her kids to accept a healthier range of meal options.

While my blog focuses more on a weekly exploration of a single food independently, Jennifer offers a roadmap for exploring 52 new foods over the course of a year, and has some healthy recipe suggestions to help you along.

I loved reading through her book. Although I’m a voracious home cook, I admit that I still sometimes struggle with mealtime ideas for the kids. Grain salad with spicy Hatch chiles and radishes? Not a favorite of theirs. And they were not pleased to find me inserting lobster and tarragon into their mac ‘n cheese.

I thought that I’d take a cue from Jennifer and create some recipes at home inspired by the 52 New Foods Challenge book, yet still within the confines of my own food philosophy which is summed up by this: all food – even kid food – should appeal to the whole family, even if it means bringing the kids along for the ride.

In other words, I should want to dig into the meal just as much as they do.

Back to my earlier comment about sauces, given my kids’ reluctance to try them, I figured that I’d make a dish out of flavors that they recognize (e.g. carrots, pears, ketchup) along with a set of flavors that are completely new to them (e.g. ginger, soy sauce).

One of the foods on the list of 52 New Foods in Jennifer’s book is Asian pears. We tried Asian pears last year as part of our weekly mystery food challenge and the results were iffy. But with a little persistence, we’ve tried them a few more times (remember, repeating foods with kids is key) and they’ve become a family favorite. In fact we were recently at the Farmer’s market and picked up a basket of Asian pears. To my shock (and glee), my kids ate through the whole lot within the first few days. Scrambling over to Whole Foods to pick up an extra ingredient for the recipe shared in this post has never been so satisfying!

Pears are great for eating out of hand, for baking, and they cook down beautifully to lend a subtle sweetness to sauces for any kind of meat or vegetable dish.

Pears are often a key component in Asian cooking, so I thought that I’d create an Asian-style sauce with pears and use it to glaze tender baby back ribs.

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I cook the ribs in the slow cooker – they require no browning at all, just a light seasoning, and then they cook until meltingly tender for 8-10 hours. It’s easy to start them the morning that you plan to serve them, but you can always cook them overnight. The sauce is made by blending pears with a few other vegetables and condiments (let the kids push the button, it always helps!) and then is used to baste the ribs in the oven before serving. If you have a little toaster-style oven on the counter, you can use this here too for the final glaze, depending on how many ribs you’re cooking.

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Mondays are usually reserved for CSA posts, but out of town last week and with a failed attempt at arranging an alternative pick-up, I was left with no vegetable share.

Which was a blessing in disguise because, especially on weeks that involve travel, my share gives me cold sweats when I get back to a mound of vegetables only to pick up another mound a few days later. So I luxuriated in a week free of obligations, even ordered pepperoni pizza one night, and made the best of it. I was happily reunited with my Week #12 box on Saturday, so friends, you will be seeing a new CSA post in all of its glory up on the site next week.

Until then, let’s talk grains…

One of my first posts on the blog was about sad desk lunches and my efforts to end them. Sadly, I experienced my last desk lunch only weeks after I wrote the post, after deciding that an office environment was no longer for me. Or “happily” I should say, because it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I can’t put a price on the family time I’ve gained, and the happiness I’ve found from building a career on my own terms.  That being said, splurging on prescription sunglasses owns a close second place on the best-decisions-list because, well…vision is important too.

One of the best meals to make for portability (aka the desk job) is a grain salad. I make these salads with increasing frequency as the weather starts to chill because they’re a perfect vessel for whatever vegetables that you have on hand – light and summery to use up the last remaining crops from August, or rich and hearty for all of the beautiful squash and root vegetables that are about to hit the markets.

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If I were to characterize my style of cooking, I’d say that it’s influenced by the Mediterranean, from Italy, France, and Spain in the West, as well as Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, and Lebanon in the East. Although I love Asian food, I admit that I’m still intimidated by the ingredients. But I did recently buy my first tub of Korean Gochujang paste, so don’t count me out just yet.

Having traveled through Western Europe, I’ve been fortunate enough to eat an authentic Pan Bagnat in Nice, fresh lemon gelato in Amalfi, and a spicy chorizo tortilla in Southern Spain, but for those countries in Eastern parts of the Mediterranean, I’ve had to make do with restaurant meals, or tried to replicate the flavors at home.

Someday I’ll visit in person, but until then, I have a decent selection of Middle Eastern-themed cookbooks that have shared the ingredients and tools essential to this region’s cuisine. Some of my favorites include “Falling Cloudberies” by Tessa Kiros, Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Plenty”, and Claudia Roden’s “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food”. I could fall asleep reading them every night; they’re the kind of books that take me to another world and send me off to sleep with dreams of rosewater, almond cakes and baklava.

Although I’ve grown to love Middle Eastern food, it wasn’t a food I grew up eating. There was a time in my life when my knowledge of Middle Eastern cuisine extended to two items: hummus and pita.

While I’d eaten the occasional falafel, I’d never actually tasted hummus until I got to college. In retrospect it was a pretty horrible version, but like pizza, even bad hummus is still decent.

In our campus’s main dining hall The Ratty, my girlfriends and I would eat it every night for dessert, thick chalky lumps scooped onto plates and attacked with a army of baby carrots. We’d wander up to the salad bar en masse, once prompting group of guys to yell out “FRESHMEN!!!” Those frat boys, ever the pranksters. Yes, we were Freshmen and highly identifiable as such, but I’d like to see what those guys are up to now. Sitting in basements with thinning hair and watching ESPN.

It’s possible that some of them are making hummus too. A friend’s husband once made me Smitten Kitchen’s ethereally smooth hummus, removing the skin from every last chickpea. I was thankful. And for the record, he doesn’t have thinning hair.

When I started to cook, I realized how easy it is to make hummus at home, and began to make it often, flavoring it with various spices, pickled jalapenos, or even vegetable purees.

As I became more comfortable with hummus, I extended my reach, venturing into the world of Middle Eastern salads, including tabbouleh, and one of my favorites, fattoush, made with bits of fried pita. The recipes differ, some versions are made mostly with chopped herbs, and others use torn greens as I did here:

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