"Bacon is the candy of meat."

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Spring Forward

A rainbow of eggs. Putting the extra "u" in colour.
I would like to begin today's update with a little rant. Probably the six people reading this have already heard me go off about this numerous times, but I shall not let that dissuade me. I promise, it will be relevant later on, when we start talking about the food.

So, basically it's this. There are a lot of expectations and assumptions about how kids should and will eat (as there are with any subject touching on kids and parenting). They essentially break down into two camps. First, there are those who expect kids to be very limited eaters who will turn their noses up at anything more challenging than a French fry. These are the people who will say "Don't tell me your kids actually ate that!" when shown something more flavorful than a plate of plain chicken. In the opposing camp are those who insist that back in their day, or in France, or in a household that isn't frightfully dominated by bratty children, kids should eat whatever is put before them or go hungry. This is the "This is dinner! If you don't like it, the kitchen is closed!" school of thought, and it's home to the subcategory of people who insist that their two year old's favorite food is octopus, that their child begged for more natto at the sushi restaurant, and who can't conceive that a child might not be a fervent fan of shaved Brussels sprouts. Extra points if your kid has no idea what a Dorito tastes like. All sides in this are just off-base. Some kids are extremely limited, some are very adventurous, but most of them are a mixture and there is no one-size solution that will fit all kids, even within a single family.

To tell you the truth, when I was pregnant with my first child, I was certain I was going to have a little gourmet. Tasting new, exciting, and exotic foods was a favorite pastime when I was a kid. I couldn't wait to visit my father at his office, because in addition to being allowed to play with the Xerox machine and hang out while he and his colleagues ended the day with a bourbon in the office, my dad would take me out to interesting restaurants so I could try new things. I became a sushi fanatic when I was nine, and this was in the 1970s when sushi was still an exotic and expensive treat. To this day, he and I like to meet up for a fancy sushi lunch (my mom is not a fan) and enjoy the tradition of our "Father-Daughter Bonding Lunches." I ate all kinds of spice when I was pregnant and nursing, to make sure that my son got exposed to those flavors. I went into labor the morning after a spicy Thai dinner.

The kid turned out to eat nothing. Despite the volumes of homemade baby food, feeding him off my plate, and taking him to a variety of restaurants, the only foods he'd eat with gusto were the tried-and-true beige kid foods. (In fact, though he's gotten much broader in his eating now, in his early teens, he still will not eat a single fruit.) And his brothers were little better. It was very disappointing for me, because I wanted to share this love of food in all its varieties with my kids (and if I'm honest, enjoy a little of the bragging rights), but I look around the family and see plenty of people on both sides who didn't make peace with vegetables until they were in their 20s. It was a very good lesson in how you can have all kinds of notions about what kind of kids you're going to have and what kind of parent you will be, and it all flies out the window when you are faced with your real-life child.

Nor did the commonly-offered advice work, to let the kids help cook so they'll take an interest in what they're eating. My kids all love helping in the kitchen, and Lucas in particular is very keen to gain independence in that realm (he makes killer scrambled eggs with cream). But they're quite content to help chop and measure and stir and then eat nothing of the finished dish. 

This all probably explains why I vacillate so much about, on the one hand, dedicating myself to finding dishes everyone in the family will want to eat, and then on the other hand feeling like I should just make what I want to make and let the kids manage through it. So far this spring I've gone on wild swings from one end of the spectrum to the other, but with some interesting surprises along the way.

Here's an example of a kid-focused dish that also happened to be delicious and got the boys involved in the kitchen. We amped up our usual quick weeknight Spaghetti Carbonara by making it with rainbow spaghetti. This preparation requires a high tolerance of food coloring, but you can't argue with the results. (It was actually brighter until I remembered that for the egg sauce to work correctly, the pasta needed to be piping hot, so I stuck it back in the boiling water briefly, which grayed it out a little.)
I can't believe it's not boeuf bourgignon!
We did pretty well with a vegan take on a classic family favorite, beef stew. Isa Chandra Moskowitz's recipe for a stew with seitan sausage is one of the best stew recipes I've found -- the sauce is the silkiest and most balanced in flavor I've ever made. The seitan was flavored with smoked paprika and fennel seeds, and the stew also contained little potatoes and carrots. We served it with a little heirloom tomato salad, a loaf of homemade artisan no-knead bread from a batch of dough Teen Gateau mixed up and stored in the fridge (a revelation -- we are now having home-baked crusty loaves whenever we feel like it) with some garlic confit I store in the fridge for sipping. The kids have been pretty willing to eat these seitan experiments. I think the familiar flavorings coupled with the meaty texture have made it fairly easy for them to adjust.

Devilled eggs a la Lucas.
Easter came along, and with it the culinary moment I yearn for each year -- turning the hardboiled colored Easter eggs (at top) into delicious devilled eggs. I've taken to combining these with our Passover celebrations, which also require hardboiled eggs, thus bringing our family's Jewish side together with its WASP side. Martinis or Manhattans are perfect with these, though this year we went for chilled rose. Lucas had helped me make these last year, and had taken a few exploratory nibbles. This year, after we peeled them together (you can see a few splotches of leftover color), Lucas made the rest of the dish, with me adding seasonings to his specifications. The result was super creamy, and mild but with a well-seasoned tang. And here is where the kids managed to surprise me -- they have all suddenly become big devilled egg fans, and we polished them off in no time. So there you go -- kids, they evolve in their tastes after all.

Meat and potatoes, plus optional veg.
 After a first course of those eggs, we sat down to a spring menu from Bon Appetit that typified my attempts to make dishes that at least contain something the kids might want to pick out and eat, while still incorporating flavors and ingredients I want to eat. I didn't even try making the suggested carrot tart with ricotta and puff pastry (though I really want to next time we have a bigger crowd), but the other dishes worked well. Lucas helped with the shopping but couldn't sustain a lot of interest in seeing the cooking through (a little noted stumbling block to the "just let them help" suggestion). The main dish was duck breast seasoned just with salt and pepper and cooked in a pan until crispy-skinned, then finished in the oven, placed on top of a salad of kale and thinly-sliced radishes and turnips in an oil and vinegar dressing. I spooned the pan juices over the salad as well, and served with a strong mustard sauce on the side. The side dish was Yukon gold potatoes, first steamed and smashed, and then pan-fried until crispy with leeks and thinly-sliced garlic, dressed with lemon zest and juice and a little olive oil. The adults ate both dishes with gusto -- and I discovered that I might actually like turnips when they're paper-thin and tossed with oil and vinegar -- and the kids ate duck and potatoes and seemed satisfied. The greens should have included mustard greens, but I couldn't find any. If I make this again, I think I will try to wilt the greens a little more before serving, and really, there is no good reason I can think of that the recipe didn't suggest using the rendered duck fat in the potato dish.

Beans 'n' greens, you can't beat 'em.
 The leftover salad, though, did furnish me with a very good lunch. I was going to restart my warm weather smoothie habit, but wasn't really in the mood for fruity and sweet. I had half a can of pinto beans in the fridge left over from making the seitan sausage, which I heated up with a little vegetable stock, a spoonful of oil from my garlic confit jar, and a pinch each of kosher salt and hot smoked paprika. I poured this with the delicious cooking liquid over the salad, which hadn't softened much after another day and a half in the fridge, and enjoyed the strong flavors and good mix of textures.

In addition to some very lavish tea dinners recently (I have finally FINALLY depleted most of the leftovers), we also hosted a couple of gatherings. One evening we had a sort of pan-Mediterranean dinner party, which I really should write up separately because the cooking was quite fun and the leftovers were epic. The other was an afternoon tea at our place so we could get our friends with a newborn out of their house without the pressure of having to deal with a sit-down dinner. It was a beautiful day, and the kids had no school for the end of the Easter long weekend, so we all got on our bikes and rode to Granville Island along the Seaside bike route. The kids assisted in choosing some cheese and charcuterie (Teen Gateau is a fan of Manchego, while Lucas took a keen interest in the cured meats and really wanted to try the smoked bison -- next time). We added condiments, including one of my jars of Boozy Cherries, some grapes, apples, and dried apricots, a loaf of artisan bread fresh out of the oven, halvah, toffee-chocolate-covered matzah with pistachios and Maldon salt, and of course a platter of remaining devilled eggs. The food was all delicious, of course, but most scrumptious was the little baby we all got to pass around the table.

Finally, I wish to share what the inside of my cabinets looked like for about ten minutes after my husband and I did a little spring cleaning while the kids were visiting their grandparents. These are the containers in which the Tea Dinners reside. We also reworked our pantry and spice cabinets, and transferred our dry goods into sealed glass and plastic containers because I have the Fear of Bugs. I got to justify my obsessive saving of old peanut butter jars and bust out my label maker, which made for about a fine a weekend as a girl could ask for. Also, we discovered that we have enough tea to last us until the turn of the century, so please, people, never give us the gift of tea if you are coming to visit. We might just make you take some home with you.