the grub street diet

Greta Caruso Is Making Up for Her No-Candy Childhood

“No matter how good the cake is, my preferred dessert is always some kind of Haribo sour candy.”

Caruso with her popcorn and Twin Snakes. Illustration: Maanvi Kapur
Caruso with her popcorn and Twin Snakes. Illustration: Maanvi Kapur

When Greta Caruso launched her Substack, The Green Spoon, with Fanny Singer in November, the two friends, who both have backgrounds in the worlds of cooking and sustainable food (Caruso co-founded the delivery service Good Eggs and is a board member at the Edible Schoolyard Project), had been swapping family-oriented recipes for months. “We had kids within a month of each other in 2022,” Caruso says. “It initially started as a long text message where we would ask, like, ‘What are you making today? This worked; this didn’t work.’” Now, the two co-test recipes that are geared to family eating. “Not every recipe we make works for the toothless,” she says, “but we really try to make sure each recipe can at least be smooshed easily.”

Friday, March 8
With six mouths to feed in my Brooklyn household — my 1-and-a-half-year-old daughter, my partner’s two teenage sons, and our three dogs — my own breakfast is scraps from other breakfasts (not the dogs’) and two soft-boiled eggs choked down while standing in front of the open refrigerator. I try to make a dozen soft-boiled eggs once a week so I have them around for desperate moments like these — but I probably do it once a month.

On recipe-testing days, the fruits of my labor also double as lunch or dinner for my daughter, and I always eat as I cook. (Cooking is also sacred “audiobook time” for me. All praise Juliet Stevenson, the queen of narrators.) Today, I’m working on a recipe for green rice: rice cooked in a blended slurry of Swiss chard, water, scallions, and garlic. Although I have worked with food for most of my professional life, making rice still stresses me out — shameful and problematic for a food person, but especially shameful and problematic for a food person of Puerto Rican descent. Over time it’s gotten better, and by better I mean I ponied up for a Zojirushi rice cooker (the one without all the bells and whistles).

Speaking of essential gadgets: Lunch today — and many days — is popcorn that I make with my air popper. (For the uninitiated, air poppers are basically a hair dryer that you direct at popcorn kernels. They cost about $20.) After a morning of cooking and tasting and eating, it’s really the only thing I want. Yes, stovetop popcorn is full of folksy charm. However, I like that the air popper gives you full control of “dressing” your popcorn, because you don’t have to worry about burning your oil or using too much. Eating popcorn is the holy marriage of quality and quantity, so it’s important to get the flavor exactly right because the bowl is big and I absolutely will be eating the whole thing. Today I just want olive oil and salt, but most days I do finely ground nutritional yeast in order to approximate the greatest commercially available popcorn known to man: BjornQorn.

The afternoon is spent working on various other irons in the fire, puttering, getting popcorn residue on my already disgusting computer keyboard, and eating a very large handful of frozen Guittard milk-chocolate chips around 3 p.m. Guittard chips — the baking wafers, Akoma chips, or milk-chocolate chips — are the king of chocolate chips. They are insanely delicious, and they’re made by a 156-year-old family-run company in the Bay Area, which only adds to their perfection. I always have them in the freezer.

This is not a moment in my life during which I’m awash in chic dinner plans, but my looming Grub Street Diet inspired me to scare one up. I tag along with my friend Elizabeth for the menu at Corima. The dessert features passion fruit — my eternal siren song — in a sorbet with coconut-milk ice cream, which is especially delicious.

Saturday, March 9
On Saturday mornings, we go to a café and bakery in Kensington called Der Pioneer. It has great coffee, pastries, frittatas, and a very competitive bagel that they only make on weekends. Our kid spends the majority of this meal showing a patient and generous fellow diner how good she is at chewing. I eat the other half of her bagel, some honey-cinnamon scone, and the frittata, making sure to avoid the bell peppers because I think they’re gross, no matter the context. Please don’t try to convince me otherwise.

I am still getting used to the circus that is weekends with small children, which is why my partner and I make the same mistake we’ve made three weekends in a row: that is, planning to do two things during a weekend outing with our small daughter and then realizing we can only do one thing before needing to go home. The “second thing” never happens, unless it is reincarnated as the “first thing” on a subsequent weekend morning.

Our first (and only) plan is to grab lunch with my dear friend at ABCv. My partner is a vegetarian, I don’t eat meat, and my friend eats everything, so ABCv is a win-win-win. It’s not a particularly cozy space, and it is on the expensive side, but there’s no denying that it is a truly stellar vegetarian restaurant, and there aren’t many of those these days. (Love you, Superiority Burger.)

We have the avocado lettuce cups, hummus, dosas, chicory salad, banana pancakes, and a Japanese yam covered in tahini, sesame seeds, scallions, and some other things that make it insanely tasty. Everything is delicious. As my kid starts to approach peak levels of toddler irrationality and unreasonableness, it becomes clear that we have to pull the rip cord and leave. One of the many wonderful things about sharing a meal with a very close friend at a restaurant is that you can interrupt them mid-sentence by saying, “We have to go right now and you have to pay for everything. Bye!” So that’s what we did.

That night, we go to my friend Elizabeth’s 40th-birthday bowling party at Melody Lanes in Sunset Park. Since it is a bunch of middle-age people, every conversation seems to start with something along the lines of, “I think I tweaked my elbow/strained my groin/pulled my Achilles on that last bowl.” Luckily, I’m able to cure my bowling-induced sciatica with one of the finest foods on God’s green earth: mozzarella sticks. At some point in college, I got the idea that mozzarella sticks were somehow more virtuous than, say, French fries, and I haven’t quite been able to shake that notion. In my head, I know it’s not true, but in my heart …

When we get home, I remember to soak the dried chickpeas, which I got from Rancho Gordo, for dinner the next night and am hugely proud of myself.

Sunday, March 10
I make doctored pancakes for my daughter using Bob’s Red Mill ten-grain pancake mix with a few shakes of chia and hemp seeds, because it makes me feel like a good parent. Then I eat some cold pancakes and a soft-boiled egg.

While my partner hangs with our daughter, I get organized for dinner since we have a few friends coming over. I am a two-to-three-trick pony when it comes to dinner-party menus, and I often end up making variations of the same crowd-pleasers over and over again. (I don’t love trying new recipes for a dinner party — I don’t want the whole experience to be about whether or not the recipe worked or what people think about it. I just want everyone fed and happy and free to talk about other things.) That usually means some version of rice and beans, whatever vegetables are in season and particularly handsome that week, Castelvetrano olives, and some cake I’ve had a hankering for. Sometimes there’s salmon with salsa verde, too.

Tonight, my favorite chickpeas are on the menu, so I get those going around 8 a.m. Once they’re cooking, I make Louisa’s Ricotta Cake, a recipe I found on Food52. This is a cake that entered my baking rotation as soon as I tasted it: It has a little crunchy sugar action on the outside, some pleasantly dense pound-cake action on the inside, it tastes great freshly baked, and it’s even better after a night in the fridge. But if I’m being really honest, no matter how good the cake is, my preferred dessert is always some kind of Haribo sour candy — Twin Snakes, Fizzy Cola, Sour Bears, and especially the Sauer Pommes that are only available in Europe. I special-order from Economy Candy like a psycho (or get an obliging friend to schlep them over international lines). I am the reason you shouldn’t entirely deprive your children of candy while they’re little, as was the case for me. This is what they become.

After about an hour, the chickpeas and cake are done, at which point I stop thinking about dinner until later in the day.

We spend the next couple of hours at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, a truly great institution, and we bring a lunch for our daughter that is three-day-old challah, steamed broccoli with Gotham Greens pesto, and some chickpeas from this morning’s batch that I smush to make them less choke-y. (Naturally, we forget to bring lunch for ourselves.) The adults enjoy some watery coffee that is so hot it removes the lining of our mouths entirely, some Pirate’s Booty from the café, and the sad, scooped-out challah skin that our daughter rejected. This is called love and sacrifice.

When we get home in the early afternoon, I have a bowl of Early Bird granola while standing in front of the open fridge, contemplating what vegetables to make for dinner. I have a weekly order with Farm to People, which is a wonderful NYC-based grocery-delivery service that stocks lots of local produce and products. I struggle a lot with my debilitating addiction to convenience, but ordering from Farm to People makes me feel kind of okay about it because they’re going out of their way to source stuff from companies and farms that are doing it right or, at the very least, better. Plus, my daughter’s morning nap falls right smack-dab in the middle of farmers’-market o’clock, which has made that activity almost impossible these days.

Food is a source of pleasure and community for me, obviously, but it’s also a major source of moral tension. I was first attracted to food as a line of work because it felt like the nexus of so many things I care about: community, history, ritual, agriculture, the environment, politics … But after 15 years of working in regional food systems — and learning about the inconceivably corrupt industrial food and agriculture system at large — matching my understanding to my day-to-day behaviors is a constant effort.

It’s hard because food is so emotional. We buy the brands our parents bought when we were kids, sitting in the grocery cart. We eat the things that make us feel good because life is hard enough and comfort food works. Climate change is palpably upon us, but adjusting our diets to decrease our climate footprint often feels too small to be worth the effort. We know that February strawberries travel thousands of miles to New York and are picked by employees that are treated terribly, but toddlers love berries and dissatisfied toddlers are scary. And finally, maintaining a commitment to “good, clean, and fair” food isn’t just inconvenient and prohibitively expensive, it can also be — as much as I hate to say it — downright annoying. Being the person to pass on the meat at dinner sucks. Asking a friend where the apple is from feels crappy and judgmental. I don’t bring any of this up because I have an answer. I mention it because I don’t. It’s a daily struggle, but I’m trying and failing all the time. Acknowledging it does help.

And yet, dinner is not made! I fill a pot with some salty water and turn the burner to high — the first step in making one of my favorite go-to recipes (coincidentally written by one of my favorite go-to people), Samin Nosrat’s Persian-ish Rice. Samin is an old friend of mine, so the first time I made this recipe, I FaceTimed her multiple times so she could coach me through the tricky moments. (Her answer to every question was “it’s fine.”) It’s the perfect thing for a dinner party: It feeds a crowd, is universally loved, and has a little bit of that va-va-voom showstopper quality when you bring it to the table.

While the rice cooks, I make the vegetables. I’m going to blanch the broccoli rabe (the GVOAT, in my opinion) in salted water and sauté it with a ton of garlic. I also have a few of those nice speckled chicories, some fennel, the aforementioned Castelvetrano olives, Cara Cara oranges, and some feta for a salad. I mince a shallot and let that sit in a mixture of white-wine vinegar and a bit of the juice from the orange, then I segment the orange, de-pit the olives, crumble the feta, and wash the chicories. I’ll assemble and dress everything when it’s go time. Somewhere in here, my daughter eats her dinner, which is a tortilla, more chickpeas, broccoli rabe, some olives, and as many oranges as she can con out of me.

After a brief intermission for bath and bedtime, I run back to the kitchen just in time to flip the rice out onto a round plate and dress the salad before our friends arrive. Once they’re here, we don’t waste time — we just light the candles and dig in.

Monday, March 11
One of the great gifts of making dinner on Sunday is that you can combat the anxiety of Monday with the knowledge that you have enough leftovers to spare you from figuring out what to eat in addition to facing the week. So after an oatmeal breakfast, my kid and I will both be eating the rice, chickpeas, and broccoli for lunch and probably dinner, too. I’m thrilled. I throw a handful of Satur Farms arugula in there for my dinner in order to make it a bizarre and delicious Salad With Stuff in It, and I chase it all with some Guittard chocolate chips and a few Sauer Pommes. Unfortunately, there are a few leftover skeptics in my home, so they’re on their own for dinner.

Tuesday March 12
I make a green omelet for my kid for breakfast: eggs blitzed with spinach and herbs and omeletized in a nonstick Green Pan. (Fanny introduced me to this omelet, and I have made it about 10,000 times since.) I black out for my own breakfast, but I think there’s a pretty good chance that it’s soft-boiled eggs.

While my daughter does her morning nap, I get organized for the recipe I’m testing later. We’re going to do an entire post dedicated to baked oatmeal — one sweet and one savory — and I’m focusing on the savory sister today.

At noonish, I give myself over to the whims of a Q-to-R-train journey to meet my brilliant friend Katie at the not-open-yet Montague Diner. My friend Ben is one of the brains behind it, and he asked me to come in for a friends-and-family lunch to share my thoughts. Free lunch and you want my opinion? With pleasure.

In the spirit of trying to be helpful, we order a lot of stuff: fries, a tuna melt, pickles, a chopped salad with salmon, and … mozzarella sticks. Before you roll your eyes at ordering a chopped salad in a diner, please know that I was raised in L.A. in the ’90s, an era in which carbs were vilified due to the pervasive insanity that was the Atkins Diet. Since both of my parents and my stepdad are actors, my household was hit particularly hard by this craze, so as a result, salads with a lot of stuff in it will always be a comfort food to me — and if diners aren’t about comfort food, what the hell are they about?

The food comes right on time, and it all tastes great. Katie and I agree that the mozzarella sticks are in a league of their own. Superb crust-to-cheese ratio. Perfect level of meltiness. Spot-on marinara. All in all, it was a great lunch, a 10/10 diner experience and major boon to the Brooklyn Heights community.

When I get home, I jump right into testing the baked oatmeal. It has miso, spinach, butternut squash, scallions, and feta and comes out pretty well the first time around. I tweak the instructions for Fanny’s round of testing, but it’s definitely good enough for my family to eat for dinner. My daughter is the first to dig in and gives it a firm thumbs-up. Then she asks for some strawberries.

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