Friday, December 21, 2007

Kids are Full of Surprises

I'm a member of my town's chapter of the MOMS Club and we just had our kiddie Christmas (oops, I mean "holiday") party. I brought finger sandwiches to munch on, mainly because I didn't want to have to feed Jack a big lunch when we came home; I wanted him to eat at the party.

I made two plates of sandwiches. I figured I couldn't go wrong with PBJ, but I also wanted to have an adult-friendly choice. So I made turkey salad sandwiches, using a chicken salad recipe I learned about 17 years ago from a really cool jeweler in Jamaica Plain, a Boston neighborhood. Since the recipe incorporates ginger and scallions I figured the little ankle-biters would avoid them like the plague.

Guess what? Everybody gobbled up the turkey sandwiches (geddit?) and I had half a platter of PBJs to take home. So my advice to anybody preparing a meal for a kid—make what you'd like to eat. If you set the bar high then people will strive to meet it.

At least that's how it worked out this time.

JP Chicken (or Turkey) Salad
2 c. cooked chicken or turkey, diced
2 scallions, chopped
1" piece of fresh ginger*, peeled and grated
3/4 c. mayonnaise
salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Ta-da!

*The fresh ginger adds an indefinable *yum* to this dish; don't substitute powdered ginger.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

It Was a Passing Fancy...

On Thursday and Friday Henry, my five-year-old, had big bowls of homemade granola. This morning, after I had gotten up super-early to make some more granola, he ate a couple of bites before confessing that he didn't like granola because of the nuts.

Last night he informed me that he didn't like asparagus anymore. Later, he asked for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, after telling me on numerous occasions that he didn't like those anymore, either.

And today I gave Jack, my two-year-old, some steamed carrot sticks and chicken bits for lunch. After consuming all of the chicken, he shoved the plate across the table, leaving the carrots untouched. He used to love carrots!

What is it about the immature palate that causes these sea changes? I wish I knew before I made my shopping list, because it would make mealtime a heck of a lot less frustrating. I liked it much better when they were both learning how to eat. I could lay a steaming bowl of tripe before them and they would have chowed down gratefully. Well...maybe not tripe. But they were willing to try a bigger variety of foods.

Oh well. I guess I'll just keep on trying. Who knows? Maybe one day they'll surprise me by asking for zucchini fritters or moussaka.

Yeah, right.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Bringing My Marketing Experience to Bear on Dinner

Following a series of disappointing setbacks at the dinner table, I decided to approach the dinner-rejection problem from a different tack. I realized that there wasn't any excitement, any sizzle at the dinnertime. "Lunchables" aren't called "Highly Processed Food Conveniently Packaged in a Single Serving" for a very good reason: "Lunchables" is catchier--it's cool, it's hip, it's, as Henry puts it, sick. What I needed to do was to disguise the nutritious meals I've been flogging as a fun mealtime experience. Taking a cue from marketing, I transformed "blah" into "Bravo!" in a single stroke.

Everyone knows what chicken pot pie is. But do you know what "Volcano Chicken" is? It's chicken pot pie served in a puff pastry shell. And it was a shovel-it-in unqualified hit at my house the other night. Why Volcano Chicken? Because when it spills out over the sides of the puff pastry shell it resembles an erupting volcano. Well, not really, but the kiddos bought it hook, line, and sinker.

The following recipe is highly adaptable depending on your kids' tastes. Frozen vegetables are perfect for this recipe, since they thaw/cook at the same time. Badda-bing!

Volcano Chicken (or Turkey)
1 package of puff pastry shells
3 T unsalted butter
2 T flour
4 c. chicken or turkey broth
Salt and pepper to taste
1-2 T soy sauce
2 c. chopped cooked chicken or turkey
1 c. frozen peas

Optional Add-ins:
Mushrooms, sliced and sautéed until all liquid has been released
Diced carrots, steamed
Diced potatoes, boiled (or frozen hash browns)
Chopped onion, sautéed until golden
Chopped parsley

Cook the puff pastry shells according to package directions. While they're in the oven, prepare the "lava."

Make a roux by melting the butter in a saucepan, then adding the flour. Cook the roux for a couple of minutes to eliminate the taste of raw flour, then add the broth (slowly at first so you don't end up with lumps). When the gravy thickens, season it with salt, pepper, and soy sauce (go easy on the soy sauce--you're going for umami, a savory flavor, not salty).

Add the chicken or turkey, frozen peas, and any other add-ins you think your kids will eat. After the meat and vegetables are heated through, spoon it into the puff pastry shells.

This meal is good with rice and a steamed vegetable. Chow down!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Cream of Yuck Soup

I should know better than to serve vegan dishes to my family and expect them to like it. But, ever the optimist, I'll keep trying until I find something they like.

Today I made a vegan vegetable soup, starting with the basic aromatics (celery, carrots, and onions). My husband came over and asked, "Is there any meat in this?" and I said, "No, ha-ha!" Then he saw all the celery and said that he wouldn't eat it. I told him that he'd eaten lots of dishes I'd cooked using celery and he'd never even known it. He retorted that he was just being polite. Touché.

After the aromatics were cooked, I added other vegetables and a broth that came from boiling some lentils a while back. After it was done, I puréed it with an immersion blender.

To counter the whole vegan thing I made toasted ham sandwiches on a focaccia I had made two days earlier. Something for everyone, right?

Wrong. While Mike, my husband, ate his sandwich, the boys, Henry and Jack, both hardly touched their food.

Once again, I thought my cooking was dynamite. I'll keep trying to bring my family around.

Cream of Yuck Soup
2 T olive oil
2 stalks celery, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
4 c. broth (I used water left over after boiling some lentils)
1 can cannellini, drained and rinsed
1 can diced tomatoes and liquid
1 tomato can water
1 T. dried basil
salt and pepper

Heat olive oil in a large soup pot or Dutch oven. When it is hot, add the celery, carrot, onion, and garlic. After the onions become translucent, add the bell pepper. Let that cook for a couple of minutes until the pepper softens. Then add the broth, cannellini, tomatoes and liquid, water, basil, salt, and pepper. Turn off the heat when it comes to a boil, then use an immersion blender to purée the soup. If you don't have an immersion blender, then you can purée it in batches in a regular blender. Serve with a smile and let those compliments roll in!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Cornflakes for Dinner

Every so often I throw in a vegetarian recipe just to mix up the menu at our house. I'm not a vegetarian, but a friend of mine and my cousin are, so I like to have a few good veggie recipes on hand in case they come to visit. Besides, I think it's more healthful not to eat meat all the time.

In Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home there was a recipe for Broiled Tofu that sounded innocuous enough. All I had to do was to press the extra water out of a block of firm tofu, brush it with a marinade of soy sauce, canola oil, sesame oil, and a dash of Tabasco, then broil it until done. The recipe stated that these are "delicious and satisfying, and might instantly become a family favorite." Since the boys both like tofu, I figured it would be OK. I served it with Asian Cabbage Slaw, which used a vinaigrette of oil, rice vinegar, and soy sauce rather than the traditional mayonnaise-based dressing.

But I did have my doubts about the meal, so I made sure to prepare it on a night when my husband was going out after work with some friends.

As meal flops go in the Foley house, this was classic. Both boys literally shoved their plates across the table, Jack bellowing "NO!" and Henry starting to tear up. Usually at this point I would stick to my guns and tell them both that this was supper, I'm not a short-order cook, blah, blah, blah. That night, however, I just told them they could have corn flakes instead, which they did.

I, on the other hand, thought it was great!

From now on I'm going to stick with the more traditional definition of "burger" when I'm serving something in a bun. At least for a while, anyway...

Monday, November 5, 2007

Early Cooking Memories

First Attempt at Soup
I remember one of my first made-up recipes was for soup. I filled a small saucepan with water, added coarsely chopped celery and carrots, dumped in a bunch of dried herbs from the spice rack, and heated it up. I think I cooked it long enough for the vegetables to soften, but I'm not sure. All I know is that my mom put on her game face after tasting it and proclaimed it "Great!" That's what moms are for.

Vegetable Pie

I decided to create a savory vegetable pie one day. I made a pie crust and loaded the pan with sliced zucchini, onions, tomatoes, and herbs. I added a top crust and baked it until the vegetables were tender. It came out great, but pretty soggy. My mom still raves about it to this day.

Trailer Duck à l'Orange
Around 1981 or so we moved to a house under construction about 200 yards away from the house where I grew up. It wasn't easy, since the only finished part of the house was the cellar and the floor above, which served as our roof. It was kind of like camping, except it was real life and at times it was pretty dismal. Like the time it rained all night and when I woke up the next morning and swung my legs out of bed I landed up to my ankles in water.

To provide heat and hot water we used an old woodburning cook stove. After a bunch of red dust had been blown out of the water pipes (I guess it must have been sediment from the water that it had heated for its former owners) it proved to be a wonderful stove that also yielded boiling-hot water at the opening of a valve and heated the whole place. You could bake cookies in about a minute and a decent-sized turkey took only an hour and a half. Eggs would fry in 30 seconds. But of course the stove's main drawback was that it took a long time to heat up.

We got ahold of an old camping trailer, a really tiny one, which we parked right outside the cellar door. It had a gas stove, which we used when we wanted to eat quickly and didn't want to wait for the wood stove to get up to cooking temperature. Apart from the gas stove the trailer was pretty gross, so we never slept in it used it for any other purpose than to shelter the stove.

One day I was getting pretty fed up with cellar-hole living and wanted to elevate myself and my family to a higher way of life. So I found a recipe for Duck à l'Orange in Joy of Cooking and cooked it up right there in the trailer. As I recall, it came out perfectly.

I'm sure that duck wasn't authentically French and that it probably wouldn't have earned high marks from a food critic. But for me it was a slice of Heaven.

Friday, November 2, 2007

How the Mighty Have Fallen, a Culinary Tale

I have always loved good cooking and good food. When I was in high school, I dreamed about becoming a great chef. Of course, this was in the days before the Food Network and rock star chefs like Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto, and Rachel Ray. So my guidance counselor steered me away from this career path, deeming it a dead end. Instead, I became a graphic designer.

There are many similarities between a chef and a designer. Both take a range of ingredients and combine them in novel ways to create something new. Both are very creative. Good chefs can create their own mini-empires in the kitchen, commanding a staff who works with speed and precision to create masterpieces. A good designer can become a creative director and command a staff who...well, we designers aren't known for speed and precision. Still, we do create masterpieces.

Although I never became the professional chef I wanted to be, I still enjoy cooking very much. There's nothing I like more than spending an entire day preparing a feast for friends and family. In fact, there is a couch next to my kitchen where early arrivals may sit and converse with me while I work out the final details of the meal. And there was a time a couple of years ago when I seriously considered becoming a personal chef, traveling to people's homes and preparing meals for them to be reheated later. (It's a good gig, but the setup costs are daunting.)

I now have two children, and I'm sure you see where this is headed. When Jack and Henry were both young, just starting out on solid foods and before they could refuse it verbally, they'd eat just about anything. The only limitation I put on my cooking was no spicy ingredients--chili powder, jalapeños, raw onions, and the like. And they ate up my cooking like there was no tomorrow. But that was long ago. Now Jack and Henry have become really good at letting me know if the meal is a slam-dunk or a flop. Jack, the two-year-old, sticks with the classic "shoving the dish across the table" move to indicate his dislike of the meal, while five-year-old Henry prefers sampling a couple of molecules then declaring "I tried it but I didn't like it."

I haven't given up entirely on exposing my family to a wide range of cuisines. In fact, Homemade Sushi Night is still pretty popular, with everyone pitching in. However on work nights I don't start cooking until about 6:00. So time-consuming, complicated food prep is out of the question. But I don't just want to heat a frozen dinner or make mac 'n' cheese out of a box. Instead, I have developed a list of weeknight recipes that have all the characteristics of a successful meal:
  • It comes together quickly
  • It tastes good to children and grown-ups
  • It has at least a little nutritional value
  • I'm not embarrassed to admit I've served it to my family
Here are two of my more popular meals. These recipes have become my dependable allies, and I usually will bring them out after a string of flops to keep everyone happy.

WACKY MAC® with Meatballs
WACKY MAC is a colorful pasta that comes in four shapes – wheels, shells, spirals and tubes. I don't know if it's any better than other kinds of pasta, but it has the coolest name!

1/2 c. breadcrumbs, or 2 slices of bread
1 lb. ground turkey, chicken, pork, or beef
1 small onion, chopped
1 egg
1 t. Italian herbs or Herbes du Provence

Ideally, you should use a food processor for this recipe. If you don't, the texture of the meatballs won't be as uniform.

Preheat the oven to 350°.

If you're using bread slices rather than breadcrumbs, put these into the food processor first and pulverize them. Otherwise, put everything into the food processor at once and blend for a minute or two until it is really well mixed.

Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and coat it with cooking spray. Form small meatballs (about 1" in diameter) and arrange them on the cookie sheet. Bake for twenty minutes.

I usually use half the recipe for that night's meal and freeze the other half for later.

Cook one bag of WACKY MAC or other pasta according to directions and drain.

1 jar spaghetti sauce

Heat sauce in saucepan. Add meatballs. Dump on top of WACKY MAC. Ta-da! You are a culinary genius.

If you're feeling guilty because that was too easy and you'll be damned if your family is going to eat bottled pasta sauce and blah, blah, blah, you can add more nutrition by mixing in one or more of the following:
  • 2 puréed carrots (cook the sauce for a while so they'll soften up and not reveal themselves)
  • 1 small zucchini, finely grated (if they ask, tell 'em it's parsley)
  • chopped fresh tomatoes
  • chopped steamed broccoli
  • minced mushrooms, sautéed until all liquid is released before adding sauce
Chicken Chunks
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts (enough to feed everybody)
White, creamy salad dressing, such as ranch or Caesar
Panko (a type of Japanese breadcrumbs, available in the international aisle)

Preheat the oven to 350°. Cover a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and coat it with cooking spray.

Cut the chicken into chunks and put them into a bowl. Add enough salad dressing to coat the chicken and mix everything up until the dressing covers all the chunks. Put the panko in a separate bowl then add the chicken chunks, tossing to coat.

Put the chicken on the cookie sheet, being careful to space them out. Bake for about 20 minutes. Serve with dressing on the side as a dip.