Vegan Get-Well Muffins

It’s well and truly winter in the Blue Mountains, and our whole family has been struck with the flu the last couple of weeks. First me, then Miss M, then Mark, and finally Mr. A fell ill as well. It sure sucks to be sick, but I count it lucky that by the time my little ones came down with a fever, I was reasonably recovered enough to look after them.

Today I felt even better, so I made these healthy muffins as a treat for my kids. For days, they have been just managing with milk, strawberries, and ice cream. It’s time I try to get them to eat something a little more food-like, I thought. These muffins are full of wholesome goodness, and accidentally vegan to boot. Well, I just couldn’t find any eggs in the fridge, so I went without, and they still came out wonderfully. 

Vegan fruit and veggie muffins

I threw all the ingredients together without following a recipe, but noted the amounts just in case the muffins came out well and I wanted to make them again. And they did! So, lucky for you and me, I have a winning recipe to share.

Ingredients

1/2 cup apple sauce (cooked and pureed apples with a tiny bit of sugar)

1/2 large carrot, grated

1/2 large ripe banana, mashed

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup coconut oil, melted

1 1/2 cup wholemeal plain flour

2 teaspoon cinnamon

2 teaspoons baking powder

How to make

1) Melt coconut oil in a small pan with olive oil.

2) Using a wooden spoon or spatula, mix grated carrots, apple sauce, mashed banana, maple syrup, and melted oils together. Add the flour, baking powder, and cinnamon and gently mix the whole thing together.

3) spoon the mixture into silicon moulds or paper muffin moulds. Top with slices of strawberries and bananas for decoration. 

4) Bake at 200C until baked – about 20 minutes or so.

This recipe makes about 9 small muffins. The cute silicon moulds are from IKEA. These muffins are not very sweet, but just sweet enough to feel like a special treat – or so I hope.

Enjoy!

Vegan fruit and veggie muffins

 

Easy sushi (or, how to turn boring ingredients into an exciting kids’ meal)

Being Japanese and all, I love sushi. Western people tend to equate sushi with raw fish, but that sort of sushi (called “nigiri”) constitutes only a small portion of the wonderful world of sushi. Besides, seafood is expensive, and sushi-grade fish even more so, so it’s not something we can afford to eat all the time. Which is fine, because other, more humble versions of sushi are just as delicious, and easy to make at home. And you know what? Kids love them.

Like these mini sushi rolls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the most humble of all sushi rolls, with nothing but cheese in it. But doesn’t it look fun and special, what with its mini size (yes I do like everything in mini size) with a little presentation going on with steamed carrot sticks and snow peas? My children, who keenly observed me plating the dish, actually started singing the “happy birthday” song, saying it looked like a cake.

And the best thing about it is that you can make it from boring pantry and fridge staples or leftovers. I always have rice, nori sheets and rice vinegar around in the pantry. I almost always have cheese and carrots in the fridge. The snow peas are from my little veggie patch in the backyard, which is handy to have when you tend to fear grocery shopping with two toddlers.

But isn’t it hard to roll up a sushi roll, you ask? Well, not if you practice a few times. It helps if you have the bamboo rolling mat you can buy at any Asian market. But even if you don’t have it, you can use a plastic wrap and a tea towel instead. Would you like to have a go? Here’s how I do it:

Step 1: cook some rice

For sushi, you want to use white, medium-grain rice. You don’t need an expensive packet of “sushi rice”; any normal medium-grain rice will do. But not long-grain, jasmine, arborio or basmati. You need the high moisture content of cooked medium-grain rice to make a nice, firm roll that doesn’t fall apart in your hands. Brown rice is also tricky, so it’s best to avoid it unless you are a sushi master. Which I am not.

Cooking rice is a no-brainer if you have a rice cooker. But don’t worry if you don’t, because you can still cook rice on stovetop easily. Here’s how: In a small pot with a lid, wash some rice (say, 2.5 cups for a family of four), changing water several times until the water is nearly transparent. Drain water.

As for the water-rice ratio, here’s what I do: Cover the rice with cold water and evenly spread the rice underneath. Gently insert your index finger straight into the water (90 degrees to the water surface), until your fingertip just touches the surface of the rice. The water should come up to the first finger joint, or a little less. This is the trick I learned — no, not from my Japanese mother or grandmother– but from a teacher at a French cooking school. Strange, I know, but it works every single time.

Cook the rice on medium heat, with the lid on. When the water boils, reduce heat to low, and cook gently for about 20 minutes, until the rice is cooked when you taste it. No need to stir the rice while cooking. Turn the heat off, and leave the pot there with the lid on for another 10 minutes or so.

Step 2: Flavour the rice with rice vinegar

When the rice is done, bring to the boil about 1/2 cup of rice vinegar (Mitsukan brand is good, available at most supermarkets now in Sydney) for 2-3 cups of uncooked rice. Transfer the cooked rice to a big bowl, pour the hot vinegar over the rice, and immediately start gently turning the rice over and over with a flat wooden spatula (or a large wooden spoon or kitchen spoon), while at the same time, using your other hand, vigorously fanning the hot rice with something like an A4-sized booklet (sewing machine instruction manual is good). You can also ask someone else to do the fanning. The point is to evaporate the vinegar liquid quickly while the rice is hot, so the rice will have the nice vinegar flavour without being soggy. You want a nice, fluffy, and shiny sushi rice.

I promise, it’s not as difficult as it may sound. If you feel a little intimidated, just use plain cooked rice. It’ll still be fun and tasty.

Step 3: roll it up!

For mini sushi rolls, cut a sheet of nori (again, available in most supermarkets in Sydney) in half with scissors. Place the sheet in the middle of your bamboo mat (or on a plastic wrap spread over a tea towel folded in half), and spread rice over it evenly. You only need a very thin layer of rice, and you want to avoid rice at the edges. As you spread the rice, gently squish it, because you are aiming for tightly packed rice. Then in the middle, lay long sticks of cheese. Like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other quick and easy fillings are: steamed carrot sticks, avocado, cucumber sticks, omelette cut into long sticks, and tuna flakes (even better mixed with mayonnaise). It’s best if you don’t use multiple fillings for the mini version. The most common mistake people make is to overstuff a roll.

Then you roll it up. First, you roll the nori just over the filling, a little more than half way, and then you squeeze the roll evenly to tightly pack the rice. Sorry, this photo doesn’t help at all, but here it is anyway:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then you roll it all the way to the end (there is a little overlap of nori). Squeeze the roll again to shape it and to make sure it’s all nice and packed. Ta-da.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then you cut it gently with a very sharp knife. Or serrated knives like bread knife work well here. And again, have fun with presentation!

Why do kids love mini rolls? Because they can pop the entire piece in their mouth. If the piece is too big, moist nori sheet can be a little tricky for little ones to chew off.

Happy cooking, and I promise the next post will be craft related….

Mini vegetable fritters

It took me a while to realize that my children, like us adults, enjoyed a bit of presentation with food. When making things to entice my picky eaters, it wasn’t quite enough to make a delicious dish – it helps to present it nicely, too. Like these yummy, nutritious, baby-sized veggie fritters.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I make these veggie fritters all the time. They are easy and you can pack all the veggies in one bite. They are perfect for daycare / preschool lunch.  You can put it together from pantry and fridge staples, so it’s great when you don’t have anything interesting in the fridge. The fritter has always been a hit with my kids, but of late, I noticed that they are getting a little bored…

Time to spruce up the presentation – same old fritters, but this time in baby size! Accompanied by steamed carrot flowers! Sour cream quenelle, and a bit of dill for the finishing touch! Sometimes I enjoy reliving my student days at Le Cordon Bleu. Miss M’s eyes suddenly sparkle with joy – “Is this for me?” She carefully carries the plate to the dining table and digs in.

Please don’t get me wrong, my kids don’t eat like this every day. I am no domestic goddess by any account. In fact, it’s particularly on days when I feel like my whole little castle is crumbling down – the house is in a terrible mess, my two uncontrollable devils are busy doing more damage to the house, and the laundry is piling up high…. that I start doing something a little time-consuming like this.

Don’t ask me why. Well, maybe it’s because when I feel overwhelmed and out of control, I like to do one little thing that I can control and do well – while totally giving up on other stuff. So I feel satisfied about at least that one thing.

Anyway, here’s a recipe for the fritters.

Veggie Fritters

1 medium sweet potato
1 medium carrot
1 zucchini
1/2 small onion
2 or 3 eggs
1/2 cup plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2/3 cup shredded cheese (cheddar, swiss, any yellow melty kind)

Grate the sweet potato, carrot, and zucchini. Finely chop onion. Or if you are lazy like me, shred everything in a food processor. Mix with the rest of the ingredients. Heat oil in a frying pan – medium heat. Drop a tablespoon of the fritter mix in the pan, shape into nice little rounds, and cook 4-5 minutes on each side.

You can use any veggies — corn, potato, mushroom, capsicum, etc. I like to use some sort of potato because it gives a nice structure. Sometimes I use curry powder or herbs like oregano and parsley for a different flavour.

Then go crazy with the presentation! Your kids will love it and thank you…. and it might well be the highlight of your day when everything else is going down the toilet.

Perfect porridge

Before I had children, I’d never dreamed of eating porridge for breakfast. I mean, it’s all gooey, soft, and bland-looking. Old people’s food, was my impression. I much preferred good old toast with lots of butter and jam. When I first started making porridge to feed my children (as everyone does in Australia), sometimes I’d have a little taste, and still found the taste bland and texture unpleasant. My kids didn’t care for it much, either. We all ended up eating toast most of the time.

But everything changed when I was browsing one of my favourite cookbooks, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything one day. He recommended that we should always choose normal rolled oats, not the instant kind. He also suggested throwing a bit of butter at the end to enhance flavour. Intrigued, I gave it a try.

And oh my, what a difference real porridge was from the instant kind. It had beautiful, soft-but-chewy texture, like al dante pasta or rice. It only took 5 minutes or so on stovetop to cook, I don’t know why people bother selling the instant version in the first place. And butter! Who knew butter in porridge would be so lovely (well, I should have known because butter in everything is lovely – we Japanese people even put butter in a warm bowl of rice and eat it with soy sauce when there is nothing else to eat – and it’s delicious).

Encouraged, I started adding more goodies to the porridge mix bit by bit – more for my enjoyment, but also to entice my reluctant little eater Miss M. A handful of coconut here, cinnamon and brown sugar on top, yoghurt…. And now I have perfected it.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An unbelievably yummy, steamy bowl of porridge on cold winter mornings!

For me and my kids, I cook about 1 cup of rolled oats with 1/3 of dried desiccated coconut and dried mango strips (so nice!), with about 2 cups of water. When cooked, add about a tablespoon of butter. Serve in a bowl, with sprinkles of cinnamon and brown sugar (don’t need much because of the sweet dried fruit), top with (dreadfully expensive) banana slices, and a quenelle of yoghurt on top.

I eat it faster than my kids, but surprise, surprise, my kids now totally eat this up. A nice big bowl each. Do you know how precious this is? That porridge fills their tummies up so well, they don’t come back an hour later begging for unhealthy snack. If you are the kind of person who equates butter with guilt, I assure you, these benefits far outweigh the cost.


Rainy day (mini) pizza

It’s been raining like mad here for days. Now I like rain. I used to love it in fact – there is nothing better than curling up inside your home on a cold rainy day with a good book and a hot cup of tea. But that was before I had children.

Children – well, my 3 and 1 year olds at least – just can’t seem to sit back on a sofa, relax, sip their babychinos and browse picture books for hours. Why not, is beyond my comprehension. The destruction that goes on inside my house when the kids are cooped up on a rainy day? It’s too painful for me to describe.

So I need to think of activities. Activities that would pin the kids to the table so that they don’t go destroy my sewing machines or spill milk on my precious fabrics. It’s not easy, but I found a good one yesterday just when I was on the verge of losing sanity.

 

Mini pizzas! Which you can make with your children!

It’s an extension of the bread-making idea really, but it is more elaborate than just play dough, and thus keeps the kids busy for a longer period of time. First there is the usual play dough (this time with rolling pins!), then there is “helping mommy” shred cheese in a food processor, then decorating the dough with tomato sauce, the toppings, and then cheese. You can really stretch the activity time if you are a little creative. And even after the pizza-making is over and the children are reverting back to their natural destructive / whiney state, you can effectively distract them with: “Oh hey, do you want to come see how those pizzas are doing in the oven?” etc.

Then, when the horror hours of the evening descends on you, and your sanity is really being tested, you can pull out your final card: “let’s sit down and eat the pizza you made for dinner!” I guarantee, your bewitched children will turn into angels of compliance. My children adore eating what they made. Even Miss M, who is normally finicky with food and doesn’t eat much at all, devoured the pizza, vegetables and all.

You might think pizza isn’t healthy. But I disagree completely. Here’s a basic recipe that is very healthy, wholesome, and unbelievably tasty as well. And if you have never made a pizza dough from scratch, it’s really the easiest thing.

Wholemeal Pizza (from scratch)

Pizza dough
Adapted from Marcella Hazan, Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking

  • 1 cup wholemeal flour
  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • about 1 cup water (you may need a bit more or less)

Put all the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl of a stand mixer, add olive oil and most but not all of the water. Start mixing on low speed with a dough hook. If you see dry stuff left at the bottom of the bowl, gradually add a little more water, until all the dry stuff is absorbed. Again you are looking for the consistency of play dough. Knead at low speed for 7-8 minutes. If you don’t have a stand mixer, you can mix and knead on a table top. When done, cover the dough with a little olive oil, cover the bowl with a plastic wrap, and let it sit somewhere warm for a couple of hours (or more) till it roughly doubles in size.

Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce (for the pizza base).

Easy tomato sauce

  • 1 large onion, or 2 small onions, finely chopped
  • 3-5 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 cans of diced tomato
  • a handful of (preferably) fresh mixed herbs (oregano, rosemary, thyme, parsley, and bay leaves are great), finely chopped (leave bay leaves whole, and remove after cooking)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat a little olive oil in a pot on medium heat. When hot, toss the onion and garlic, and stir for a few minutes until they are transparent but not burned. Add the tomato and the herbs. Add some salt. Cover, bring to the boil, and simmer on low heat for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens up nicely. Leave it to cool.

The key to this recipe is fresh herbs. Please use a lot of them, like a good handful. It makes such a big difference. But if you don’t have fresh herbs, dried ones are okay, too.

Note this recipe makes a lot of tomato sauce. You only need half of it for making pizza, but the leftover is delicious, and you can use it the next day to make lasagne or other pasta dish.

Toppings

The beautiful thing about pizza is that you can pretty much use any topping you can think of, or whatever you have left in the pantry and fridge. The only essential thing is cheese. Yesterday for example, I only used vegetarian sausages, chopped mushrooms and red capsicum.

Assembly

When the pizza dough has risen, bring the children in and have them sit at a table. Sprinkle a bit of flour in front of them, give them a handful of the dough, and show them how to roll them thin with a rolling pin. My children completely ignored my instructions and did their own thing (which, for Mr. A, involved a lot of eating and licking the dough – I know, yucky, but do you know the most useful thing I learned at cooking school? That bacteria dies at about 80 degrees Celsius.). The main thing is they had fun. In the end I made sure all the dough pieces were more or less flat and round, and placed them on a baking tray.

At this point, turn the oven on to preheat at 220 degrees Celsius (to kill off that bacteria!).

Now into the second activity phase – topping the pizza. Let your children spoon the sauce on the dough, put toppings on, and sprinkle the cheese over each pizza. Again the mantra is, “if it’s messy, it doesn’t matter.”

When it’s done, you can put it in the oven straight away. Unlike proper bread, pizza dough doesn’t need a second proofing. Bake until the dough is golden around the edges and the cheese is bubbling.

Another great thing about homemade pizza is that, you can turn leftover veggies, a block of cheese, and basic pantry staples into a most delicious, home-cooked meal. Perfect for rainy days when you really don’t want to go out there grocery shopping.

Good luck surviving the rainy spell, everyone.

Bread-making

Miss M goes to a Steiner preschool. One of the activities they do is make bread – wholemeal bread. It is one of Steiner’s “signature” activities for preschoolers. When I first heard it, I thought “how quaint!” and had this image of little children earnestly learning the lost art of traditional bread making, as families of generations past might have done together.

Then one day it occurred to me. Why, breadmaking isn’t particularly arty or anything – it’s just like play dough! It’s a perfect activity for preschoolers because, you have all the fun of play dough, and in the end you put your creations in the oven and voila, you can eat it for lunch, too. Two birds with one stone, what a clever idea. Plus it’s pretty hard to screw up a loaf of bread. Unlike cookies or scones, which can be ruined if over-handled, bread dough can withstand a lot of toddler abuse.

So I decided to do the same at home, too. I put together a batch of bread dough in the morning (takes no time with my beloved Kitchenaid mixer), leave it to rise till after the kids wake up from a nap, then it’s play dough time. Miss M and and Mr. A love this. (Well, Mr. A mostly loves eating the bread dough, but I turn a blind eye to such small transgressions these days.) After they’ve had enough, I clean up, bake the bread, and it’s ready to eat for dinner.

The great thing about making bread is that it’s incredibly easy. You don’t need to be precise with the ingredients as long as you are in the ballpark for the flour-yeast ratio, and you can eyeball the water amount as you knead the dough (you can’t blindly follow a recipe here anyway because the amount of water you need changes depending on the humidity, the weather, and the kind of flour you use). Even the rising and proofing time is flexible. If the dough is a little under- or over-risen, it doesn’t really matter. It’ll still taste far better than any bread you buy in a supermarket.

Here’s a simple recipe I’ve used and works well:

Easy Wholemeal Bread

  • 300g wholemeal flour (I use organic baker’s wholemeal flour, which, if you are in Australia you can order online in bulk here)
  • 300g plain flour (the same shop has the organic bakers flour here, but you can use any flour with a decent protein content – say, over 10%).
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1.5 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • about 380ml water (1.5 cups)

Place all dry ingredients and in a mixing bowl, add olive oil and about a cup of water, and start mixing at low speed with a dough hook (or you can do this by hand; it just takes a bit more effort). As the mixture is mixing, slowly add the remaining water, watching the dough consistency. Basically, you use enough water so all the dry stuff is absorbed, but not too wet. You are looking for the consistency of play dough. If there is any dry stuff left at the bottom of the bowl, slowly add more water till all the dry stuff is gone. If it gets too wet, just add more flour. Knead at low speed for about 7-8 minutes. Or longer if by hand.

Cover the dough with a little bit of olive oil, cover the top with plastic, and leave at room temperature for the dough to rise. You want the dough to rise to roughly twice the size. Wholemeal is heavier than white flour, and it takes longer to rise. In cold weather like it is now in Sydney, it takes longer yet than in warmer weather. In summer it might take less than 2 hours. The other day when it was particularly cold, I left the dough in the kitchen for nearly 5 hours, and it was still all right.

When the dough has risen, hand it over to your children and play away! In the end I encourage a semblance of a round bread roll, all of them in similar size to bake evenly, but a bit of variation doesn’t matter. Then, when it’s done, cover and leave the dough to proof – about 1 to 2 hours. This time it doesn’t have to double up in size. Just wait for it to puff up a little.

In a preheated oven at about 200 degrees Celcius, bake the bread till it’s done. Every oven is different and every bread has different size, so it’s impossible to say how long it’ll take. You know it’s ready when the top of the bread is golden, and the bottom has a nice hard feel. When you tap the bottom, it feels a little hollow inside. Leave it to cool for a while before eating (I know, this is the hardest part).

You’d be amazed how tasty a simple wholemeal bread is straight from the oven.  All you need is good butter. Your kids will love eating what they made. And it’s nutritious, too.

Happy breadmaking!