Plainclothes Feast

A weekly peek at one dinner table, in the heart of one home, in the center of the country


Tomato-Basil Bread (Panera-style)


Warning: This is a (long, rambling) story about my family in the spring of 2016. My future self will enjoy it, as will my husband, my mom and maybe some other people who like us well enough. If you’re just here for the bread recipe, please, feel free skip to the bottom.

My husband has resolved to teach our boys to be boys by teaching them how to taunt each other…and us. If you know my husband, you’re probably thinking Seriously? He doesn’t seem like that kind of guy. And it’s true that he is, generally, pretty soft-hearted and generous–not the taunting type–but his sense of humor tends toward the antagonistic. I know: I’m a lucky woman.

His current schtick involves saying to our younger son, “You sure are a little sucker” or “I see a wimpy sucker,” to which Little Guy replies, “No, you’re the wimpy sucker around here. I’m a tough guy!” An assertion which he follows up by ramming his substantial cranium into his father’s thighs while roaring like a furious swamp dragon…or something.

Hunky Hubby has also taught this same sweet, big-eyed, sensitive boy to tease his siblings by saying, “You loooove <insert the most hated thing here>!” as in “You looove omega-3 pills!” or “You loooove raw onions!” or “You loooove long division!”

He’s a quick study: If taunting is his lightsaber, then the force is strong in this one…and Darth Vader is a dead man walking.

To his father, Little Guy now intones: “Daddy loooves making decisions!” or “Daddy loooves it when people get hurt!” or “Daddy loooves it when we wake up super early!”

But even I am not spared…at least not entirely. His favorite way to taunt me is to chant, “Mommy looooves things dropping on her nice clean floor!”

And here, I am forced to admit that a big part of his comedic genius derives from his keen sensitivity to those around him. He sees us all clearly, and he uses his insights against us!

He’s so right: I do “loooove” dirty floors. I don’t know when this happened to me. I was never a fussy housekeeper. I never even aspired to be a fussy housekeeper. I’ve often said that, when it comes to keeping house, I am satisfied with a C+ (whereas in most aspects of parenting, I aim for a solid B-). And yet, over the last ten years, I’ve slowly but steadily discovered a great many things I cannot abide–glitter, sprinkles (a.k.a. “sticky glitter”), powdered donuts, pixie stix (WHY??), play-doh, and magic goo, just to name a few–and most share a pair of traits: It’s as though they are, more than other substances, vulnerable to the effects of gravity and, simultaneously, highly adhesive. So, once they find their way from the table to the floor (which happens almost instantly), they easily burrow into the cracks between the floorboards and/or, chigger-like, hitch rides on the bare feet and ankles of the children, turning up on the upholstered furniture or in the fibers of the rug.

I would like to be very zen about the whole thing and think, “Well, someday my floors will be sparkly and un-sticky and I’ll miss these grabby little hands and hungry little mouths and all the mess surrounding them,” but that would require more wisdom than I can muster.

So, it’s really saying something that I have not yet added one particular item to the verboten list: streusel topping. I mean, it really belongs on the list. It should probably even top the list. It’s greasy and sticky and crumbly. It hits the floor, wanders off, and leaves a trail behind it. And yet I keep it around.

At least once every couple of weekends, I am persuaded to prepare big, beautiful blueberry muffins with lemony streusel on top. And, yes, it winds up everywhere, and I spend the next several hours sweeping it up and swearing that from now on I will force them to eat the muffins outdoors on the picnic table, even when it rains, and even when it snows. And then I make the darn things again a couple weeks later and, of course, allow everyone to shred them inside the house. They’re good enough that I have self-induced amnesia regarding their crumbly mess.  Probably, right here, I should tell you how to make them, but, sorry: that’s not where I’m heading. Because streusel is too good to limit it to blueberry muffins–or even to sweet treats. Obviously.

As Panera knows, streusel is even good on top of otherwise savory baked goods, like their tomato-basil bread. (Tonight, my older son invented a new word for the flavor of this bread: “swicy.” Feel free to hashtag it. This word may go viral.) I don’t know if you know this bread: It’s what the folks at Panera use to make their mediterranean veggie sandwiches. It’s really wonderful stuff. I’ve tried a couple of knock-off recipes that I found online, and they were very meh. I don’t think they had enough sugar or fat in them. That Panera bread is tender and sweet–and it didn’t get that way without some sugar and fat.

So the other day, I had half a can of tomato paste sitting around, and I found myself thinking–maybe because this has been the coolest, rainiest May I can remember– how lovely it would be to have some nice loaves of bread puffing up in a warm oven, and the need to use the tomato paste converged with the need to bake and suddenly I realized this: If I used my favorite cinnamon-swirl bread recipe but added tomato paste and basil puree instead of all the cinnamon and sugar and then topped it with a little (or big) smear of streusel, I might just have a tender, savory, sweet loaf of bread that would be very like the bread I love on my favorite Panera sandwich.

I am not going to declare that I’ve cracked the original recipe or that I’ve improved upon it or that you’ll never need to go to Panera again. But I will say that baking your own has some fringe benefits: the smell of the dough rising (yeasty, sweet, basily), the smell of the bread baking (warm, toasty, buttery), and the experience of slicing a piece and eating it when it’s still warm, smeared with salty butter (adjectives fail me).  If you make this recipe, in any case, I promise it will be worth the discursive, winding tale of taunting and crumbling that has led you to here.

Sweet Tomato-Basil Bread


1/2 cup water

1/2 cup whole milk

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 large eggs

5 tablespoons tomato paste

3 tablespoons basil puree or prepared pesto

2 teaspoons yeast

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/4 cup sugar

3 3/4 cups flour + ~2 tablespoons for flouring surface

Streusel topping

1 tablespoon room-temperature butter

2 tablespoons flour

1 tablespoons brown sugar

pinch of coarse salt


  1. Melt your butter on the stovetop and then add the milk, water, tomato paste, and basil puree (or prepared pesto). Mix and heat until warm to the touch but not hot. (You should be able to submerge your fingertip in it comfortably.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  2. Meanwhile, in the bowl of your stand mixer (fitted with a dough hook), combine 3 1/4 cups of the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast. Mix together just to combine.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  3. Whisk in the eggs with the warmed liquid ingredients in the pan. Then add the whole dark, lovely mixture into the dry ingredients in your mixer bowl.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  4. Slowly crank up your stand mixer to beat the dough until it holds together and looks homogenous. Slow the mixer and add the remaining 1/2 cup of flour, a little at a time, just until it forms a loose, sticky ball.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  5. Let the dough rise in a warm spot for 2-4 hours, until doubled. It will smooth out and become more elastic during this time.



  6. Turn it out onto a clean, lightly floured surface and knead for 3-5 minutes, just until the dough feels smooth and un-sticky. (My mom has always said that bread dough will tell you when it has had enough because it will develop a smooth, powdery skin. Some kinds of bread–the ones that don’t include fat–need a sticky, wet dough in order to produce a moist, chewy center when they are baked. But this one is like the bread my mom has always made insofar as it has plenty of sugar and fat in it. So follow Mom’s advice: Knead it until it’s not sticky. Shoot for the thin, powdery skin. It will still be moist and lovely inside. I promise.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  7. Divide it into two parts and place the parts into two lightly buttered loaf pans. Cover the pans loosely with plastic wrap or a clean tea towel and allow it to rise for another 60-90 minutes.
  8. Just before baking, use a fork to mix together the streusel ingredients in a small bowl. Sprinkle the streusel over the unbaked bread dough.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  9. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 35-45 minutes or until the bread is golden brown and the interior temperature reaches 200 degrees.
  10. Allow to cool very slightly before slicing. Then go ahead: butter it. Why the heck not? OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Have your broom at the ready: the streusel, like all good streusel, will shatter into a million pieces as soon as you look at it…but it’ll be worth it. Sheesh.

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Roasted Carrot Ribbons


Gah. My kids are getting big. Or, maybe not “big”–as I predicted many years ago, my husband and I have produced very tiny little people–but old(er). Nine, seven, and five. No longer babies. Each one inching a little further into full-blown selfhood every day.

Here’s proof:

  1. Our big boy has begun to talk about who “like-likes” him and who “like-likes” other people. He declared last week that if Draven really like-likes Grace he should definitely stop doing everything he can think of to annoy her. “That,” he said, “is not a good way to get a girl to like-like you back.” If he can keep ahold of that insight for just a few more years, he’ll be the heartthrob he’s cut out to be. Seriously, these brown eyes are designed to break hearts.


2.  A couple of months ago, my daughter broke her arm while riding her scooter. I still remember breaking my arm when I was about her age. I even remember the sound of the saw they used to remove my grungy plaster cast. No doubt this realization sounds banal, but my mind keeps coming back to it: I was myself then, when I broke my arm, more than 30 years ago. I was making use of the very same assortment of axons and dendrites and synapses that I use today. And that means…she’s herself, too. Someday, her daughter will break an arm and she’ll remember this:

broken arm

And maybe even she’ll remember “the filling of” her own run-in with the rotary saw:


3. Our little guy is playing tee ball…and looking great doing it!

Little Marlin

This sport involves three of his favorite activities: running in circles, whacking things as hard as he can, and kicking around pea gravel.

On a slightly different note, yesterday afternoon, while my boys were outside playing, I noticed they were no longer digging in the backyard. I walked out front to look for them and saw that they were crouching side by side on the front steps, facing the street. “What you guys doing?” I asked. (I honestly don’t think I’d ever seen my boys sitting still unless they were strapped down, eating, and/or staring at a screen.)

“Talking,” our big boy said, seriously.

“Yeah, talking,” our little boy echoed.

“About what?” I asked.

“Oh,” said the older one, “about what would hurt more: tiger teeth or cactus spines.”

Older but still young, I guess. And I love it.

But the good news is this: Little Guy seems finally to be growing into vegetables…now and then…in certain forms.

This particular recipe knocked his socks off the first time I made it. The second time I made it, I used half carrots and half beets, turning the entire dish a gorgeous garnet color: I wanted to wear it, but Little Guy did not want to eat it.

Tonight, I went back  to the original vision. There is nothing fancy here. No expensive ingredients. No unusual equipment. Just this: Carrots, onions, olive oil, salt. A peeler. A cookie sheet. A smokin’ hot oven. And a little bit of elbow grease. Watch this…

Roasted Carrot Ribbons

1 pound of carrots

1/2 sweet onion

1-2 tablespoons olive oil


  1. Preheat your oven to 500 degrees.
  2. Peel your carrots…And then keep going. Turn the carrots into ribbons, rotating them as you work them with the peeler.

You will wind up with a huge bowl of carrots, a sinkful of vegetable waste, and some weird little nubby parts that you can’t quite ribbonize, unless you know some trick I don’t know. This takes some time, but it is a good task to do while hovering in a meditative trance or while listening to All Things Considered and the maniacal sounds of your growing-older children running crazily in the backyard.


2. Slice half an onion very thinly, into half moons, and add them to the bowl of carrot ribbons.


3. Toss with olive oil and then spread onto a cookie sheet. Then sprinkle generously with coarse salt.

4. Pop into a your blazing-hot oven. Stir them every couple of minutes until the carrots are tender and beginning to caramelize. Add salt to taste and serve.


Tonight, we ate ours as a part of a Friday afternoon picnic with grilled pizzas. They were even tasty on paper plates!


Then off to tee ball practice…

It’s a tough life, being the mother of three old(ish) kids, but somebody’s gotta do it.