Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Soup Kitchen

Every fall, my husband and I open what we have come to call “The Soup Kitchen.” It started out as just making a few extra quarts, okay nine or so, of favorite soups and taking them to friends who were sick, or busy, or just in need of some comfort food.

This past fall, the Soup Kitchen adopted a very busy friend who tends to burn the candle at both ends, and another friend who, at 60, is going through an unpleasant divorce and a battle with prostate cancer. He is winning and currently cancer-free.

The success of the Soup Kitchen has been overwhelming. Over time, we even started getting requests for certain soups that were favorites. I also had to impose the Tupperware law; you must return your empty, clean containers or “No soup for you!”

With the arrival of the holidays, we decided the best way to celebrate would be to open up the Soup Kitchen to all. Last count, we have around 20 people showing up at some time Christmas Eve to join us for a warm bowl of holiday cheer.

The following is the most requested Soup Kitchen recipe. One I have guarded carefully, okay, well, I couldn’t give it out as I lost the recipe I created and have had to recreate it. It feeds a lot of people. Don’t worry, it freezes well, and it’s so good, you’ll want to have a lot of it. This is the first recipe I thought of when I started Taute Cuisine and logging recipes to hand down to my daughter.

Wedding Soup
Looking for this recipe? It will be part of an upcoming book with Ali at Cleaner Plate Club.

Enjoy. Wishing you all the comfort and joy of the holiday season.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Martha-free Christmas

Warning, the following will expose the truth about me. I am just into food and not actually a Domestic Goddess. It's all about the food, the hell with matching placemats.

I have to admit that I am suffering Christmas guilt. This comes from years of being raised by a woman who makes Martha Stewart look laid back. Each of the first day-after-Thanksgivings meant a complete makeover of the entire house right down to color-coordinated hand towels, soap and candles in each bathroom. The packages were matching with perfect hand-made bows, the Christmas tree had its own theme, the stockings weren’t just hung by the chimney with care, they were most likely dry-cleaned and pressed as well. In short, The Perfect Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, the formal dinner was served using the 150-year-old china and eggshell-thin crystal. After serving, waiting-on and clearing the table for our guests (family), it was time to handwash heirlooms for a couple hours. I'd had more relaxing evenings working as a banquet server at country club.

This is not a tradition that has slowed with time, either. Only now, as my sister and I have homes and families of our own, it has just spread. Last weekend, we decorated cookies at my sister’s house. While my child was pouring all the sprinkles out onto the table and randomly licking every third finished cookie, my sister and her entire family whipped out individual pastry bags to precisely decorate each cookie (even the ones that my child licked). Upstairs in the “wrapping area” was laid out matching paper, cloth ribbon, coordinated jingle bells, and a hot glue gun — not tape — for assembly. Yet, my sister is the least artistic of the group.

Sadly, I used to rank right up in the Holiday Domestic Goddess realm. I had a grouping of three Christmas trees. My stocking hangers matched my tree ornaments. I created lavish bows. One year, I even had color copies made of family photos to use as gift tags, each a special memory. And the food, oh the food. I spent an entire week preparing New Year’s appetizers.

But all that is no more.

While I hear “Martha’s” voice in my head chastising me, “WHAT?! You’re tree is not up yet? I am coming over NOW!” my poor tree sits outside, unassembled and undecorated. Yeah, I think, I'll be sure to get right on that decorating thing in my 15-minutes of free time each day before I keel over exhausted.

Our gifts will be wrapped in unmatched paper; skiing Santas, sledding snowmen, or dogs and cats dressed in elf suits. IF I have an extra moment, there is non-coordinating "curly ribbon" or a pre-made bow from Target to slap on top.

My husband put green flood lights on the garage as the extent of our outdoor extravaganza. An attempt so pitiful, our neighbors and friends snuck over to put lights on our front bushes. We have a mass of friends coming over, and the house is still bare. I am a Fa-La-La-La-Failure.

I wonder, as I sit here, recovering from the stomach flu and a cold, how I am going to handle full-time work, full-time mom, and full-time Domestic Goddess status in the less than a week left. And then, I realized. It doesn’t matter. Come this holiday, the soup will be on, the door will be open. I will worry about whether there is enough good food and good wine, if we get my child’s gift put together on time, and keeping her off a sprinkle-induced sugar rush. Beyond that, I will just enjoy my family and friends being happy, well and together.

That’s really all that matters, isn’t it? Although, that hot glue gun looked like a good time ...

Holidays in "The Kitchen"

What's cookin' in the kitchen for Christmas ... well, with a toddler running around, our first bout of the season with stomach flu and head colds, not much. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas kind of exploded in a few places around the house, but that's about it.

Never fear, I'll get there. I'm good with deadlines. With a formal dinner, soup party for nearly 20 and a brunch less than a week away, I am going to have to be. Coughing all the way.

The good news is that Battle Orange has been won. To celebrate, a few of my favorite orange dishes will grace the table. The first is Carrot Souffle. I love this, you can find it on the Cooking Light web site. The other dish I first started working on with the Eat Local challenge, you can read more on that in the posts "Beeten into Submission," and "The Beet Goes On." I was looking for an option to green salads when fresh lettuces went out of season. And, the spinach contamination issue was still going on, so bagged lettuce was off the menu.

I know, many people are not beet fans. But this dish is different. These are not canned pickled beets. Besides, with a traditional table landscape of turkey, stuffing, gravy and potatoes, this dish is a veritable island of color in a sea of brown. Remember, Santa is watching. You should eat your vegetables.

Red, Gold and Orange Festive Salad
Looking for this recipe? It will be included in my upcoming book co-authored with Ali of Cleaner Plate Club!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Taute Cuisine 7: Indian-spiced meat pies

I spend over an hour each weekend in my pantry. It’s a strange place to spend one’s time, but then, it’s my own fault. You see, I started this game with my toddler called “What’s the Spice?” It basically involver her taking each little jar (and there are over 100 of them) out of the cabinet, hold it out to me, and demand, “Open!” I then open it, and we both smell the spice and I tell her what it is. Sometimes with the blends I close my eyes, inhale and try to guess what all the spices are in the mix.

We started this game at the spice store next to our farmer’s market. There they have hundreds of spices and blends with smelling jars placed in front of each. It’s amazing. It started out as fun and a way to expand my child’s taste since smell and taste are so connected, but then I remembered a handout I got in culinary school on the importance of sensory education in early childhood. While pre-school offers many sensory experiences, smell and taste are not exactly topping the agenda.

“Sure, the kiddos are going to see and learn colors and pictures at school, they are going to be presented with different textures to touch, tools to handle and music to make and listen to. But taste and smell? The only unique tastes on the menu at toddler school include things like Hot Dog Tacos, Tater Tot Casserole. And an occasional bite of crayon or paste. Both of which probably taste better than the casserole. As for smells, chances are the most exotic thing you are going to find there is coming from someone else’s diaper.”

(You can read the rest of this rant and a longer post on this theory — one of the tenets of the Montessori method — here in The Kitchen.)

Thus, here I sit, in my pantry smelling jar after jar, relearning each spice. Who would have guessed my little one would be my best teacher, too? Not only did I get a sensory refresher, but I also learned which spices she responds to most and what her favorites are. It makes it easier to cook dishes she will like.

The following recipe was drafted from a meat pie I saw in “Gourmet.” I modified the recipe a lot, and cut the saturated fat and the prep time by more than half, swapped out a healthier sweet potato for the white potato and used grass-fed, low-fat ground bison in place of the high-fat ground chuck and doubled the meat quantity. I also changed the spice profile from my little one’s less favorite curry to a mix of Garam Masala and Tandoori. She loved the end result.

Indian-spiced Beef Pies

1 lb ground bison
1 tablespoon Tamari soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped (1 cup)
¾ tablespoon Garam Masala
¼ tablespoon Tandoori
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch pieces (1 cup)
6 tablespoons water
1/4 cup frozen peas, thawed
1 (17 1/4-oz) packages frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed
1 large egg, lightly beaten

Special equipment: parchment paper;

Heat olive oil in skillet over moderately high heat, add onion and sauté until transluscent. Add beef and cook, stirring occasionally and breaking up beef into small pieces, until browned, and cooked through. Add soy sauce, sugar, and salt.

Add spices, water and sweet potato and cook, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are tender. Stir in peas, then cool filling, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.

Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 400°F. Line a large baking sheets with parchment.

Roll out one sheet of dough into a 12-inch square on a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin. Put half of filling on one side of dough, leaving a ½ inch border at edges. Brush edges lightly with egg and fold over gently stretching to cover filling completely. Gently press edges with tines of a fork to seal.

Repeat with other sheet of dough and remaining filling. Transfer pies to baking sheet. Brush tops of pastry lightly with egg and bake in upper third of oven, switching position of baking sheet to lower third of oven halfway through cooking, until pies are deep golden brown and puffed, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool pies to warm, about 10 minutes, or room temperature.

These can be made one day ahead and chilled, covered, or 1 week ahead and frozen, wrapped well. Bake frozen pies (do not thaw) an additional 5-10 minutes.

Pies can also be fully assembled and baked one day ahead, cooled and chilled. Reheat on a baking sheet in middle of a 350°F oven until filling is hot, about 15 minutes.

Monday, November 20, 2006

What's Cooking in "The Kitchen" for Thanksgiving

Hey, we’re cooking! In a surprise move, the big family dinner will be on Friday due to a football game, so The Kitchen is open on Thursday and we are having friends to dinner who have no other family in town and are stuck with us! Lucky them. Here’s what’s on the menu with links to recipes, some are my own:

Roast Turkey

Cranberry-Balsamic Reduction Sauce (recipe not yet created, I wing it a lot in the kitchen)

Sweet Potato Gratin with Aged Gouda, Sage and Thyme

Mashed New Potatoes with Parmesean (3 lbs. potatoes, ½ cup cream, ½ cup parm)

Fresh Green Beans sautéed with Shallots and Roasted Tomatoes
(you don't really need this one written down, do you? Let me know if you do)

Carrot Souffle


French Bread Stuffing with Sausage, Apples, Cranberries and Sage
(adapted from Gourmet, use local sausage already made, add cranberries)

Biscuits with Local Honey

Vanilla Sweet Potato Pie with Butter Pecan Crust

Local ingredients to be used include: sweet potatoes, thyme, sage, rosemary, cream, milk, eggs, sausage, pecans, honey, and butter.

Have a happy and safe holiday!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The 100-Mile Pie, Well, Almost

Just when I thought the Eat Local Challenge was over, I got an email from our local paper’s food editor. I had offered any assistance from our site, if needed, and I also wanted to compliment her on the eating local series of articles that were recently published. They were great articles, just what you would expect from a food section that had won a James Beard award. She inquired what local foods would be part of my Thanksgiving. I told her I planned on creating a sweet potato pie recipe.

Wondering why not pumpkin? Well, if you have ever tried to peel and cook down one of those, it is not easy. I cooked one Mexican-style. After six hours, the pulp was still very fibrous. With 10 other dishes to cook, sweet potatoes are easy and fast. Besides, pie would just about put me into complete victory in Battle Orange.

Next thing I know, the editor wanted me in the Thanksgiving 100-mile diet section with the pie — the pie that had not yet been created. And they needed said pie in a few days for a photo. Nothing like a little heat to get the oven going.

The first worry was the crust. My pastry is edible, often tasty, but rarely a thing of beauty worth gracing James Beard award-winning pages. Try as I might, I can never make those nice little fluted edges work. What to do? I cheated. I bought one of those fluted-edge pie pans, ceramic and expensive. I highly recommend these for others who are crust-deficient. Now, how in the world am I going to get pies made in the middle of a work week and full-time parenting in the evenings?

Fortunately, I have an understanding boss. Unfortunately, I have a demanding job. I found myself trying to create and prepare a new recipe while on a conference call defining “content type items” with web site developers. This is not advisable. Multi-tasking is much easier when at least one of the tasks can be performed on autopilot. Otherwise it can go like this:

Uh, yeah, in the, uh, main section template, you would have the title item, subtitle … OUCH! (actually, it was an expletive, not an ouch, and a very unprofessional one at that).


“No, it’s okay, I just shoved the food processor blade into my hand … it’ll be fine once I stop bleeding, don’t think it needs a stitch … so, the subtitle item and then of course, on this template you would have … Oh [expletive] … can I put you on hold a moment?

“Uh, you still bleeding?”

“No, but there are eggs and cream running out of the food processor and down the cabinets. Give me a moment here.”

Crashing sounds. Food processor running. A few more expletives.

“Okay, back now, where were we?”

It was not pretty. When I hung up, I had to recount the eggshells, sure enough, I had missed one egg. I took one more look at my hand-scratched out recipe. Let’s see … brown sugar? Did I put that in? Oh, man … how do you miss a whole cup of sugar?

Somehow the pies made it into the oven, and one of them even looked good enough to photograph. I was VERY worried about how they would taste. Fortunately, they tasted great and the recipe actually tested well when the food editor tried it. I’ll be making this recipe again for the holiday. I just hope it will turn out half as well when I have a whole brain devoted to it! Well, as much of a brain as I have left, anyway.

I can't say my photo turned out well in the article, but Jill Silva's Thanksgiving feast is absolutely beautiful and inspiring. For anyone looking to go local for the holiday, this is a great source of recipes and ideas:

Happy, Local Thanksgiving!

Recipe follows, local ingredients sourced were pecans, butter, cream, sweet potatoes, and eggs.

Vanilla-Sweet Potato Pie with Pecan-Brown Sugar Crust

For Crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup pecans
3 tbs. Brown sugar
1 stick butter
1/3 cup cake flour (not self-rising)
1/2 tsp. Salt
4-5 tbs. Ice water

For Filling:
1 and 3/4 lbs. Sweet potatoes (2 large, red-skinned with dark orange flesh)
1 cup whipping cream
3 eggs
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp. Ceylon cinnamon (Ceylon has a softer, fruitier flavor without harsh bite)
1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out with back of knife
1/4 tsp. Salt

1 egg white beaten for crust

For the crust, put the pecans in food processor and pulse to chop fine. Add the flours, salt and sugar to the food processor next and pulse to combine. Add cold butter one tablespoon at a time and pulse a few times until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add ice water one tablespoon at a time and pulse just until dough starts to come together. You may not need all the ice water. Less water is best. Try not to overmix. Gather dough into a ball and flatten into a flat disk. Cover in plastic wrap and chill for at least one hour and up to a day.

Roll the dough out between sheets of plastic wrap to about a 14-inch round. Peel off top layer of wrap and then invert dough into pie dish, remove wrap. Trim the edges to 3/4 inch overhang and crimp. Cover crust with plastic wrap. Place dish with crust in the refrigerator to chill while you make filling.

Place rack in bottom third of the oven. Preheat oven to 400°F.

Peel sweet potatoes and cut into 1-inch cubes. Steam potatoes for about 20-30 minutes until fork tender. Allow to cool a bit and mash with potato masher until smooth. (You can also use a food processor and pulse a few times). Measure one and one-half cups of puree for the pie, placing this into the food processor. Add brown sugar and pulse to combine. Add three eggs pulsing to combine, drizzle in cream while blade is running to mix in. Add salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and the seeds from the half of vanilla bean, reserving the pod for other use. Pulse to combine well.

Remove crust from fridge, remove wrap and brush with beaten egg white. Add filling. Cover crust edges with foil to prevent over-browning for the first 30 minutes of baking. Bake until the center is set and the edges puff up, about 40-45 minutes. Remove the foil from the crust halfway through baking so the crust will brown.

A few notes:
The dairy, eggs, sweet potatoes and pecans can all be sourced locally.

Don’t panic. The crust will be browner than a normal piecrust because of the brown sugar and pecans.

You can find the Expat Chef in her kitchen. Or, just for this holiday, in the newspaper along with the eatlocalchallenge information.

More dessert ideas from other Crazy Hip Blog Mamas can be found here.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Taute Cuisine: Holiday Treats

I was standing in the kitchen calmly watching as my toddler threw herself, lion costume and all, face down onto the floor and began screaming over, well, I can’t even remember what now. Although this is not out of the ordinary behavior for most toddlers, it is for mine.

“What’s wrong with her?!” my husband asked.

“Uh, let’s see, apple juice, oatmeal cookie, rice crispy treat, fruit salad …” I replied. “Are you done yet, Honey?”

Finally, she was. I gave her some edamame and dinner to get some complex carbs and protein in to help level off the sugar rush. And that was considered a healthy party menu because it had fruit and cheese. The fruit was just in heavy syrup and the juice had sugar along with two adult-sized dessert treats. It could have been worse, but I prevented that. I signed up for the treat bags. As tempted as I was to just hand out bags of frozen organic mixed veggies, I refrained from being the complete Wicked Witch of Halloween Treats. Yet the following recipe contains absolutely NO sugar at all.

Holiday Treat Bags (can be adapted for any holiday):
10 child-safe, food-safe holiday containers (look in the dollar section at Target)
80-100 non-toxic markers and crayons (buy in bulk, saves costs)
5 coloring pages (see below)

Coloring pages: use clip art CD to create your own holiday color pages. No creativity required.

Special equipment:
Clip Art CD and Computer with printer
Copier if you have access to one

Assemble each treat bag with 10 markers or crayons. Crayons only for the younger toddlers. Yes, they may eat them. The crayons, however, are healthier when ingested than candy. It also makes for an interesting surprise later for parents, especially the neon colors. Add the five coloring pages. Add any note to parents about the treat bag contents if required. Enjoy. Serves 10, don’t expect leftovers.

I know, it doesn’t contain any food. That’s the point. It’s time to rethink “treats.” I took the whole thing a step farther and bought bags of pretzels and fruit snacks for our trick-or-treaters at home. This was vetoed by my husband, partially in fear that our house would be egged, but mostly because he wanted the chocolate. I think he understood my point a bit later in the evening when the doorbell rang one last time.

Standing on the porch was a man and his son in a superhero outfit. “Trick or treat!” exclaimed the boy, holding his full bag wide open under the candy bowl. My husband, being polite, says, “Nice costume. You’re out kinda late.”

“I know,” said the father, “we like it because we find a lot of people are ready to unload their inventory.”

At this point, the son pulls back his mask, gives my husband a knowing smile and opens his bag a bit wider.

My husband dropped in a couple small candy bars from the still-full bowl, said, “Happy Halloween.” And closed the door. He was pretty disgusted by the sheer greed and attempt at manipulation. I was pretty disgusted at a father who would encourage his child to acquire as much junk food as possible. Happy Halloween.

Next year, it’s pretzels for sure.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Is it over?

I woke up Saturday feeling a bit lost. The feeling continued even as I took my little one to the park to play. Across the lot, the children’s farmstead and petting zoo was empty and locked up tight for the winter.

She looked longingly across the way. “I want farm,” said the sad little voice.

“So do I, honey, so do I,” I said.

You see, last weekend was the last of the farmer’s market days for the season, and the last of the children’s farmstead days as well. Both of these things had been a huge part of our weekends for months now. Seems like nothing went right the whole rest of the weekend. Life just wasn’t normal. How could all this be over?

You can read the rest of my "end of challenge" post at the site. The experience has been amazing. It changed the way I cook and think about food. Though the challenge is over, I know I will continue to eat local and source local. You will see this theme continue here in The Kitchen.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Taute Cuisine 6: Battle Orange Continues

“Hello, Poison Control, how can I help you?”
“Please don’t laugh.”
“I was letting my toddler try the herbs I am growing. She ate a sage leaf, and some rosemary, and that was okay. But then she ate a big scoop of dirt. And it was that potting soil with plant food in it that you have to wear gloves to handle?”
“Uh, how long ago did you pot the herbs?”
“About two months.”
“Oh, that fertilizer will have been gone by now, it’s just Styrofoam beads left. Those will come right through.”
“Oh, great, thanks.”
“You know, the average kid eats about five pounds of dirt by the age of five.”
“Wow, really? I guess she’ll get at least that much just by eating off my kitchen floor.”

True story. The things that kids eat, and what they won’t, are truly mystifying. Often, I am finding, it has less to do with taste than it does a battle of wills. That, and a general trend toward putting anything non-food into their mouths that clearly goes against all survival instincts.

As I wrote earlier, we’re currently engaged in the Battle of Orange Food. A battle, I find, I am winning, as long as it seems like I am not looking or my little one forgets about the battle and lets slip a few bites of Butternut Squash soup or Carrot Souffle. She even requested “Pie” with none in sight after sampling my Sweet Potato Pie.

Victory is mine inevitably, and I am well-stocked with ammunition; two sugar pumpkins, three acorn squash, three butternut squash, and no less than 20 lbs. of sweet potatoes. All fresh and seasonal, and locally-grown. I also have the inside knowledge that she loves herbs, almost more than dirt.

In fact, the way she zeroes in on anything potted on the back porch makes me glad for once that I kill every houseplant I come near. God knows what she’d be eating when I break down and have to go to the bathroom for a moment. Maybe I should just leave orange food on the floor around the house …

The latest culinary weapon is my Holiday Dish, Sweet Potato Gratin. I don’t ever see sugarplums when I think holidays, I have visions of butterfat. So, this is not light, at all. It is not an everyday dish. It also contains Five-year-aged Farmhouse Gouda at $20.00 per pound which my child loves regardless of the fact that it is orangish in color. No doubt because it is $20.00 a pound.

I tried to be exact with the measurements, but we were having a trying day, thus I ended up cooking with a 30-pound child strapped in a backpack, shouting, “I WANT CHEESE!” every few seconds while I was grating as fast as I could.

Happy Holidays!

Sweet Potato, Gouda and Herb Gratin

4 lb sweet potatoes

1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup whole milk

3 tbs. unsalted butter, softened

6 oz finely grated five-year aged gouda

2 oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1 tbs. chopped fresh sage

4 sprigs thyme, leaves only, stems removed

Put oven rack in lower third of the oven and preheat 350°F.

Peel potatoes and cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices. This is easiest using a mandoline (as long as you use the handguard. Ouch, hurts to type right now). You should have enough potatoes for about five layers. Stir together cream and milk.

Spray 9 x 13 baking dish with cooking spray and dot with half of butter. Pour in 1/3 cup milk and cream mixture.

Place one layer of potatoes in baking dish. Pour 1/3 cup cream mixture and sprinkle one fourth of cheese between layers. On the fourth layer, sprinkle the herbs, before topping with the final layer. Otherwise the herbs will burn if placed on top. You can garnish the top later with a few additional herbs if desired. Easy on the sage.

Pour remaining cream mixture over potatoes and dot with rest of butter. You can optionally sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs, too. But the top layer gets dark golden and crisp, so this is not required.

Bake, uncovered, until potatoes are very tender and top is browned, about 2 hours. Let stand at room temperature 10 minutes before serving. This should serve 10 people with some degree of self-control.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Taute Cuisine 5: It's not Casserole, it's Cassoulet

While it is rightfully illegal to subject a child to physical abuse, and immoral to subject them to verbal abuse, there is a more minor form of abuse that is commonly forced upon our children that goes without even a good, old-fashioned rap on the knuckles with a ruler. I am talking, of course, about culture abuse.

This is sadly, a wide-spread phenomenon in which innocent toddlers are rigorouly subjected to some of the most inane and irritating blights of American culture. Consider Barney. Baby Einstein. Bratz. And possibly, the worst of all, Beanie Weenies.

In France, when the most obscure and seemingly inedible parts of the pig or cow are prepared and served it is called charcuterie and regarded as a culinary art. In America, they is heavily processed, salted and called hot dogs. Mix those with beans in a sugary, bland tomato base with a lump of lard afloat in the center, and you have, yes, Beanie Weenies.

The worst punishment for "lunch ladies" serving this dish would be for them to have to eat it themselves. Unfortunately, my child is supposed to eat this instead. And, given that two of her favorite foods are beans and sausage, I must act quickly to defend her unsuspecting taste buds.

When I think of beans and charcuterie in the same pot, my taste buds dance in happy memory of the cassoulet at Bistro 110 in Chicago. This is an amazing dish that features a few, plump white beans, fresh thyme, and a boatload of sausage, duck confit and duck fat. It’s a tasty bit of heaven well-worth raising my cholesterol a few points. It is not, however, Taute Cuisine. Unless your nanny and your personal chef don’t mind cleaning duck fat off the Italian tile floor.

Happily, there are versions of cassoulet far more affordable and far less artery-clogging for the rest of us, toddlers included. My bastardization, uh, version, of one follows. Julia Child, please forgive me …

Acorn Squash and Chicken Sausage Cassoulet
Looking for this recipe? It will be part of an upcoming book co-authored with Ali at Cleaner Plate Club.

It is important to note that a cassoulet is NOT a casserole. A casserole is mainly an American dish that is cooked in a French pan. A cassoulet is a French dish usually cooked in a Dutch oven. Makes perfect sense, right?

Actually, the French have taken things much further. The ingredients of a cassoulet are mandated, yes mandated to be 70 percent duck and pork, which can be sausage, but cannot be chicken, ever, and 30 percent of vegetables and other ingredients that must include primarily white beans. It must also have seven layers of browned bread crumb topping. Unlike American casserole, it never, ever, includes cream of something soup or crushed cornflake topping. Okay, the last part was my mandate. But I am sure the French would agree.

Go figure. We can’t even get soda banned from schools, and the French have exact rules for the content of a casserole — sorry — cassoulet. By now, you have noted that not only does my recipe contain chicken (sausage), it also contains lentils in addition to white beans. Mon Dieu! Qu’elle faux pas!

Look, it's healthy, it tastes good, and if you have a French family over and serve this, just don’t call it cassoulet. Just for fun, call it Beanie Weenies.

This page now links to more recipes at "Crazy Hip Blog Mamas."

Friday, October 20, 2006

Taute Cuisine 4: The Casserole Conspiracy

When we put our child into preschool, being good parents, we asked about the quality of the school meals. What we were told is that each day the meal would include a fruit, a vegetable, and some type of main dish, you know, a casserole, that kids eat.

When I asked exactly what the casserole thing was, it was explained that the casserole usually meant a meat, a starch and some kind of soup base. All of this was phrased in such as way as to justify said casserole as something kids will eat.

Now. This is a private preschool, and fairly expensive at that. Kids can start there as young as infants. I know for a fact that my infant, now pre-schooler, never saw anything like a casserole prior to starting at the school. In fact, it took three weeks for her to adapt to said casserole meals and actually eat at noon, instead of going on a Hunger Strike in search of something recognizable on the plate.

And, what about public schools? I mean, how many of us whipped up a batch of corn dogs and tater tots lately? No, be honest, you didn’t make that, you got it out of the freezer. It doesn’t count, but serving it does count against you.

It all kind of begs a “chicken and egg” question. Does the school serve casseroles because that is what kids eat, or do the kids eat casseroles because that is what the school serves?

C’mon, casseroles went out in the 70s. I just did a search for “casserole” on, a site that tracks over 22,000 recipes from the last 15 years. I got exactly 69 results, and many of them were not actual casseroles. Given that, how many kids are getting a steady supply of Mystery Mash on the home table?

Of course, according to my post on Eat Better, Eat Together month, most kids aren’t getting much of anything on the home table, casserole or not.

Now that TaterTot casserole, Hot Dog tacos, and Ham and Noodle casserole have found their way in front of my child, what’s a food-loving parent to do?

The simplest thing is to hold your ground. Refuse to serve nothing that remotely resembles fast food or Mystery Mush. Your window of influence is closing, serve the good stuff while you can.

And then, there is also The Stealth Casserole approach. This is a tactic that has been used by moms since even before the casserole was invented. I’d even venture a guess that this was HOW the casserole was invented. While producing a casserole yourself does not constitute sleeping with the enemy, it’s definitely flirting, and thus, should only be used in the most desperate of situations. Situations like Broccoli.

It’s a challenging vegetable in all aspects; flavor, color and texture. And yet, extremely good for you. Parents have been smothering it in cheese for years in the hope of passing it off. So, it’s no surprise that one of the classic casseroles of all time is Broccoli Casserole.

The gist of this classic dish involves taking a small amount of the “offending” green stuff and then smothering it in an entire stick of butter, three cups of cheese, eighteen cups of rice and two cans of saturated fat and salt laded condensed mushroom soup. Voila! They’ll never taste the vegetable now!

The problem is, at this point, the dish’s nutritional blight outweighs any good the minor amount of broccoli contributes. The broccoli is more of a garnish floating in saturated fat.

Enter the Stealth Casserole. I took the old classic and revised it, heavily, or rather lightly, to make it a much healthier dish as below:

1 medium onion finely chopped
1 clove garlic minced
2 small heads broccoli, florets only, steamed for 10 minutes, then chopped fine
1 cup brown and wild rice, cooked in 2 cups low salt chicken broth (3 cups total yield)
1 15 oz. can/box of low fat Portobello mushroom soup, organic is optional
1-1/2 cups shredded cheese, Jack and Cheddar work well, but Parmesean is great and would lower the fat content more.
1 tbs. olive oil

Preheat oven to 350F.

Saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil, set aside to cool.
Steam the broccoli, drain and cool, and chop fine.
Cook rice in broth.

When ingredients are cooled, mix all but 1/2 cup of cheese together in a casserole dish. Bake for 20 minutes with foil over the top, remove foil and bake another 15 minutes to melt cheese on top and brown slightly.

Note: Why chop the broccoli fine, it looks better as florets? Good question. Remember this is the STEALTH casserole, so it is important that the flavor of the broccoli blends with the other ingredients and does not present a texture challenge to your little one.

When this first stealth mission launched successfully, I considered attacking another veggie casserole classic: The Green Bean casserole. But my little one likes fresh green beans from the farmers’ market, steamed, no butter, no salt, nothing. She eats them like snacks. Why wage war on a battle already won?

Well, Parents, good luck on your mission. Remember, stealth rhymes with health.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Taute Cuisine 3

Once upon a time, when dinner was served as jars of puree, sweet potatoes ranked as my little one’s favorite. These days, should a scoop of the bright orange veggie appear on her plate, all I get is “Nasty!”

I have no idea where this came from. She normally reserves this word for bugs, bad smells, and anything related to the diaper pail contents. The idea that the one vegetable she used to love above all others is now relegated to that level is a mystery on the same par as Area 51, Stonehenge, and the popularity of body piercings.

Rather than try and figure it out, I just try new recipes. Some of them are so simple that I wonder why I did not think of it before. Like Orange-Basil Sweet Potatoes. I found this dish at the Whole Foods hot bar. It sounded so good, and when I read the ingredients, it was just what it sounded like; sweet potatoes, orange juice, basil and some salt. Period. Sometimes the best recipes just are what they are. Even better if they are healthy. The betacarotene and Vitamin C here really offer a lot of good stuff without the dairy and butter that mashed potatoes have. This one goes well with spicy foods like a Barbecue chicken.

Orange-Basil Sweet Potatoes

Looking for these recipes? They will be included in my upcoming book co-authored with Ali of Cleaner Plate Club!

If you want more orange flavor, you can add 1/2 tsp. of orange flavor (natural) or orange zest to bump up the citrus. You can also serve it garnished with mandarin orange slices to help entice your toddler — if they still eat sweet potatoes. Chances are you won't hear "Nasty!" if you can get them to just try it.

I also created a nice Butternut Squash lasagne, which I will post after I experiment a bit more to reduce the fat.

An update to Taute Cuisine 2 (Apple-Cider-Sauce):
You can skip peeling the apples for this recipe. Omit the anise and just stick with the cinnamon and cardamom. User a stick blender at the end to incorporate the peels. From what I have read, most of the apple’s nutrition is just under the peel, so this variation will bump the fiber, nutrition and flavor of the applesauce. Both versions are good. The stick blender approach is quicker than a food mill, though you can use one of those. However, if you go with the stick blender in the hot applesauce, keep it immersed. Or else. Ouch.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Taute Cuisine 2

My mom used to make homemade applesauce every year with the fall harvest. Her recipe is a bit of an ordeal, and requires running the apples through a food mill. She left skins on to give it a pink color, and added quite a bit of sugar. Still it tasted fresh and amazing compared to the jar variety.

Below is my easier, healthier, lower sugar, recipe.

Looking for this recipe? It will be part of an upcoming book co-authored with Ali at Cleaner Plate Club.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Happy Eat Better, Eat Together Month

On my way into school to pick up my kiddo, I overheard a father, learning in the car, buckling the car seat, saying, “Okay, we can do that, but first we have to go to McDonald’s.”


Just a few minutes later, on our way back out to the car, we walked by a mom and daughter discussing their dinner plans as well:

“How about Boston Market, that sounds better to me than McDonald’s,” Mom said.

“No, Pizza Hut,” replied the four-year-old, in the tired voice of one who is well aware of what eat of these restaurants offers on the menu.

Heavy sigh.

Obviously, they haven’t heard. October is Eat Better, Eat Together month. They have the together part down, but not the better. Still, does eating in the car count as together?

I don’t think so. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that Eating Together not only requires a table and chairs, in one’s home, but also requires an absence of TV and cell phones. I know, unthinkable, and yet I dare to go there. Nightly. While recent studies () show a positive trend back to the table, still, nearly 30 percent of families seldom eat together.

Efforts at improving this situation include many studies and awareness campaigns to help the American public realize that eating dinner together is linked with better nutrition, and a tendency for kids to make better grades and be less likely to try drugs and alcohol. Thus, you could say that just saying no to fast food, helps your kids just say no to worse addictions.

So, celebrate! Say yes to Eat Better, Eat Together!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Spice of Life

The following is an excerpt from the article, “The Education of the Senses” by Maria Montessori:

Sensory education must begin in the formative period, if we want to perfect it. Thus, the education of the senses should be begun methodically in infancy and should be continued during the entire time of schooling, so that it may prepare the individual for life in his world.

Aesthetic and moral education are tightly tied to sensory education. Multiplying sensations and developing the capacity to appreciate small differences between stimuli sharpens our sensibility and increases our pleasures. Beauty is in harmony, not contrasts, and harmony is enhanced when there is the sensory delicacy needed to perceive it. The aesthetic harmonies of nature and of art flee those who have coarse senses — their world is limited and rough.

Now, this sounds like any one of the hundreds of pages I have lying around on childhood development in my pursuit to try and grasp this Mom-thing. Especially when you note that the author is the one and same creator of the Montessori education method. The truth is, I got this handout on my first night of culinary school, long before I cooked up a bun in the oven at home.

If you read the whole article it makes references to being a chef, particularly the idea that if you do not know what it tastes or smells like, how are you going to cook with it? But the early education of the senses part stuck with me.

Sure, the kiddos are going to see and learn colors and pictures at school, they are going to be presented with different textures to touch, tools to handle and music to make and listen to. But taste and smell? The only unique tastes on the menu at toddler school include things like Hot Dog Tacos, Tater Tot Casserole. And an occasional bite of crayon or paste. Both of which probably taste better than the casserole.

As for smells, chances are the most exotic thing you are going to find there is coming from someone else’s diaper. I know this from experience. I have developed the Mom Nose, which can pinpoint the exact source even when he or she is moving rapidly away from me at a distance of 20 feet. It is not a gift.

What this means is, parents, the whole taste and smell edification is up to us. Because smell and taste are so intertwined, it would only make sense that developing one would enhance the other.

I put this theory to the test. For any of you who read my work on the site, you already know that I head to the farmer’s market every weekend. What you don’t know is that right in that market is a spice store. That’s all they sell. Literally, every spice and variation of that spice from everywhere imaginable. The best part is that each variety is arranged around the store with a little “smelling jar” on the shelf in front of each spice and herb and blend.

It is heaven. A veritable culinary encyclopedia for the olfactory glands. For example, you can compare Ceylon cinnamon to Korintje Cassia and Vietnamese Cassia. All qualify as “cinnamon” but the Ceylon is soft, complex and fruity without a hint of harshness. The Vietnamese Cassia is a heavy hit of crisp, sweet and hot cinnamon, Korintje is the softer spiciness you normally think of. Each totally different. There’s 15 kinds of Chili powder plus whole dried chilies, 12 Indian blends, three of which are curries, plus salts, blends, rubs and even sausage spices. I could spend a day in there savoring each and comparing.

It’s incredibly embarrassing, but my spice cabinet at home looks like a small-scale version of the store. I have things in jars most people have never heard of much less heard of using on food. Someday, maybe, even I will figure out what to cook with them.

And yet, overstocked as I am, I go in the store often for no reason other than to sniff stuff. I don’t go alone, either. Strapped on my back is my little one. She’s right up where she can see everything and smell everything right along with me. As we go through the jars, I talk to her about them, how to use each spice, what it is, ask if she likes it.

What amazes me is how much she enjoys this. I see a little hand come over my shoulder finger pointing at the next jar, “More! More!” she shouts. She nearly dives into some of the jars like the baking spices and oddly enough, the sweet curry.

I wondered what would happen when she would taste each of these in a prepared dish. I should have known the answer to this the day I caught her licking the insides of an empty chili powder. We were at a party last weekend with beef and chicken curry kabobs. She devoured it. And had some black licorice to top it off. Pretty shocking for a toddler.

But does sniffing saffron really make my child more sage? If you believe in the Montessori method, it does. And perhaps, Maria herself would even give me a gold star and ten extra minutes of recess. But it doesn’t really matter.

As long as I see the huge smile after smelling a particularly fragrant jar, and hear those happy shouts of “More! More!” I know that regardless of any education theory text, I am definitely helping develop two of her greatest senses; adventure and fun.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Want a Cracker?

One my my child's favorite words is "cracker." Most often she is referring to the little organic graham sticks I give her as "cookies." But she is not opposed to a good gourmet cracker either. Who can blame her? I've blown an embarrasing amount of money on those exotic flatbreads; crackers, crisps, and crostinis. And then I found out how easy it is to make them. You can buy the lavash flatbread for about $2.00US, enough to make a couple $5.00 boxes of gourmet crackers at least.

I just used the things I had on hand and made these two basic types:

Parmesean, Rosemary and Sea Salt

Aged Gouda, Three-herb cracker
Looking for this recipe? It will be part of an upcoming book with Ali at Cleaner Plate Club.

For those of you following the toddler recipes (Taute Cuisine) the kid eats this recipe as well. In fact, she loved the gouda one and requested "More! More! More!" You wouldn't think of this as "kid food" but you need to get out of that mind set and just serve FOOD. Outside of a few allergy rules and rules on using pasteurized dairy and well-cooked meats, kids pretty much eat what you do.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Few Good Links

Some good reading in this week's issue of "The Nation" for those of you (us) interested in the Slow Food movement and the Eat Local movement. The Forum article as well as Alice Water's essay are both great reading.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Of Mollusks and Men

A friend once asked me, "Why Expatriate?" In another lifetime, or at least 15 years ago, I lived on a few different islands and traveled as much of the globe as I could with limited funds and great journalistic ambitions of saving the world's oceans.

Ah, youth. Maybe I made dent somewhere. I hope. The following was an article I wrote for fun, food-related. Little did I know that what I was witness to was a dying trade. The end of centuries of tradition. The conch fishery on South Caicos has since closed and is now a farmed fishery on Provo. Most small fisheries like this are gone due to decline in conch populations. The world moves forward, and too often, these traditional practices are lost, the species themselves decline and are lost. Maybe it is a small blip on the world's radar, but when you sum all of these tiny losses, it is a very significant issue indeed. (Ironically, the publication this originally appeared in, Dive Travel, is now extinct as well).

Of Mollusks and Men

Conch Fritters. Conch Salad. Fried Conch. Steamed Conch. Marinated Conch. Conch Chowder. Conch Burgers. Conch Pizza. Strombus gigas. Queen conch. Conch.

Every time I looked down that inevitable edible mollusk had managed to creep on my plate in one form or another. Having been in Turks and Caicos for three months I had seen conch in about every dish imaginable.

Caribbean inhabitants have been eating conch as a diet staple since Pre-Columbian times. I felt as if I had been too.

Even worse, if it wasn't on my plate, it appeared somewhere else. Conch shells lined the tops of fences and walls. The two-room airport's gift shop at one time featured carved conch shell lamps. Huge mounds ten-foot high and 30-foot long of the "juked" shells made islands in the shallow waters surrounding South Caicos, my temporary home. Cuts on my feet testified to the presence of juveniles under the sand where they couldn't be seen. They were everywhere. And I was becoming "conched" out, no excusing the pun.

Yet I still had much to discover about conch. My opportunity came the day I went out to observe conch fishermen at work.

I was excited at the prospect of going, and made a tremendously expensive phone call to a friend in the States to tell him I would be "conch fishing," hoping he would be amazed. He was amused.

"What are you going to do?" he said, "put the hook down and wait for it to jump on?"

I was not amused. Conch fishing, or conching, is done one of two ways: Either a "conch bucket," a glass-bottomed tube for viewing is used to located the conchs from a boat and then they are scooped up with a long-handled fork, or a free diver swims down and collects them. The former method is the oldest and most traditional, but diving for conchs is faster and is used by almost all the younger fishermen in the area.

We left mid-morning to join the two fishermen who were kind enough to allow us to watch them. They had left early, just as the light of day began and had been working for some time before we arrived.

As one man steered the small boat, the other dived below to gather conch. It looked simple enough to me, but, like most of my dates, looks are deceiving.

I put on my mask and fins and slipped into the water with camera. The diver tucked and went under as fluid as the element in which we were immersed. Graceful. Years of practice, time in the water, work carried the diver to the bottom in one smooth gesture. Immediately, he went to several conch lying on the bottom. I suspected he had some type of "conch radar" because I could see nothing on the sandy bottom that resembled a mollusk. Soon his arms were full; my lungs were empty. He kicked up to the surface in an effortless glide. There he treaded water and tossed the conchs into the boat while I panted.

At one point I picked up one of the mollusks off the bottom and turned it over. Two little eyes perched on a funny "nose-like" proboscis peeked shyly at me from around the inner curve of the shell. Good Lord, I thought, it's cute and I've been eating it.

What looked like a simple job for the fishermen was very difficult. On one breath of air, the diver must locate, gather, and carry the conchs back to the surface. Conchs are not light. The animal has one of the largest, heaviest shells in the world. Total weight market-size is about one and half to two pounds each. Those "effortless" dives were the equivalent of an already neutrally buoyant diver putting on a 12-pound weight belt. This man carried seven conch easily.

Again and again he dived. The rays of light spiraled around him when he approached the surface. I was struck by the perfection and "rightness" of the image. He belonged to the ocean around him.

For a moment, I thought of life just a few hundred miles away, where there were people sitting at desks doing their job under fluorescent sun, their skin taking on a green cast and their life ruled by paper and computer terminals. It was so far removed from this beautiful, natural human. I wondered how two such diverse worlds could be home to the same species.

I tried my awkward best to follow every dive and hold my breath as long as the diver. After less than two hours I was exhausted. I pulled myself back into our skiff.

The fishermen did not stop for lunch. The pile of conch grew rapidly in their boat. Good divers can get up to 800 pounds of conch -- not including shell -- per day.

We thanked the men and left them still fishing. They would not be in to the fishery dock until long after I had an afternoon nap and dinner.

I fell asleep, feeling a bit of a wimp, in the hot sun as the boat bounced over the shallow waters of the Caicos Bank. In my mind remained the image of a diver enveloped in a sunburst of light.

Unfortunately, this image may remain only in my mind if measures are not taken to help restock the conch population. Up until the 1960's 16 Caribbean countries were major exporters of conch. Due to depleted populations and overfishing, only two of the 16 countries still export conch, Belize and the Turks and Caicos.

Although most of the conch dishes to be had in Florida once were content little sea snails grazing across the sand flats of the Turks and Caicos, the TCI export is a comparatively marginal amount.

To make the situation worse, conch have an estimated larval death rate of 99% and take three years to reach sexual maturity. Queen conch also reach market size prior to sexual maturity. This all can add up to bad news down the road for conch fishermen in the Turks and Caicos where conching is the second largest fishery.

One solution is being researched in TCI by The Foundation for the Protection of Reefs and Islands from Degradation and Exploitation, or PRIDE.

PRIDE set up Trade Winds Industries, Inc. in 1984 as a possible profit-making adjunct. TWI works on developing and testing the feasibility of "conch farming," a means of protecting and supporting S. gigas larvae through development.

Today, according to the Tradewinds web site, current inventory stands at 5.5 million conch. 1 million units exported per year, but this is limited by a CITES quota in order to regulate the fishery and keep is sustainable. The conchs are all produced from 10 acres of land and 60 acres of sub sea pastures.

Conch farming can be used for two different purposes: the conch can be raised to maturity, then sold for meat and shell; or the conch larvae can be supported until they reach juvenile size and used to replenish natural stocks. If this technique works well, "farmed" juvenile conch could be used to replace natural stocks not only in Turks and Caicos, but throughout the Caribbean.

This doesn't necessarily mean conch Macnuggets for all of us, a conch lamp to read by or conch supreme pizza delivered to our door. We probably won't turn on the TV to see a cartoon of an undesirable marine snail imploring us to eat canned "Slug of the Sea." But for the people who rely on the fishery, conch farming could mean the survival and growth of a profitable industry.

As for myself, I will wait anxiously and hope for the success of "conch farming" and of the hard working people of TCI. I can wait for the conch platter. I've eaten about all the mollusk I can manage for some years to come.

Taute Cuisine

Taute Cuisine, Recipe 1

Ever see those frozen “Kid Cuisine” dinners at the grocery store? They all contain the same bland fast food items that are linked to an increase in childhood obesity. Tater tots, mac and cheese, pizza, chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers. You are supposed to feed this to your growing child while you have a regular dinner. Niiiiice. Nothing says love like trans fats and starch. Toddlers do NOT need special junk food meals. Yes, they are picky creatures. But not impossible.

With this in mind, I have begun creating recipes that toddlers and the whole family can enjoy together. Healthier options with a lot of flavor. This is the first post in the series, though you can find my Vegetable Parmigiano recipe (toddler tested) at my other blog site, The sum of all these will be a book of recipes that I give my child when she grows up. Not being rich, this is the legacy I have to offer.

Getting toddlers to eat is probably the world’s greatest culinary challenge. Genetically, I know, mine has the advantage. Two hard-core foodies can only beget another. Add the abundance of top notch noshes in the household and you get, well, you get a little one that won’t eat very well at the school cafeteria.

She has a definite preference for artisan bread, and will turn up her button nose at the regular old white stuff that passes for American bread. She eats aged Gouda and Parmesean, fresh-made mozzarella, even the more exotic goat cheeses. The cheese guys at Whole Foods dote on her and offer up exotic samples. She loves it. But the one thing that is the hardest sell to all toddlers, even mine, seems to be meats. Even steak and prime rib. Just the flavor of it takes getting used to.

So, I just had to try everything I could and see what worked. It was a bit of a shock. Sausage, go figure. Chicken scallopini, barbecue, Italian sausage, turkey pastrami … in other words, meat, but with a lot of flavor. The filet migon served bleu, with port wine reduction and blue cheese is a long way off still. A long way.

Intent on trying to create healthy meals that kids will actually eat and adults like as well, I set to work to build the perfect toddler meat dish beginning with an American classic and adding all of our favorite flavors. The recipe follows. If you are wondering if it worked, my kiddo will out eat any adult at the table when I serve this. Plus, you can over bake it and it will stay moist, but holds it shape when cut. When I tested it on a two, five and seven-year-old, it went over well.


Meatloaf Florentine
Looking for this recipe? It will be part of an upcoming book co-authored with Ali at Cleaner Plate.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Gimme what?

This post is from my blog. It's been a couple weeks, but I am still laughing about the incident.

Okay, okay. It's a proud mom story. Bear with me, please.

So, we're at this petting zoo, like an educational farm. We go there often. The kiddo gets to walk a lot and see lots of animals and plants that you find on farms, feed baby goats, drive little tractors ... It's fun, actually. Alright, I am a bit too tall for the tractors, but I get to push and make engine noises at least. The baby goats like me.

We're sitting in the garden area, near the vegetables. And, this family comes along, our kids end up sitting next to each other. The mom looks at my kid and holds her hand up in the classic "Gimme Five!" position, but says, get this, "Gimme a McDonald's Happy Meal!"

Blank stares from us both. Clearly the woman is insane, or Happy Meals now cost five bucks. Which is even more insane.

So, she ups the ante, "Gimme a Happy Meal with FRIES!!!"

I finally realize she is serious and talking to my child.

"Uh, she has NO idea what McDonald's is, or a Happy Meal," I said. "She thinks a slice of whole grain bread and edamame are a treat."

It was the other woman's turn to stare at me like I was from another planet. Here, we are surrounded by corn and okra, cabbages and tomatoes, and about twenty other veggies growing in the little farm patch. Surrounded by fresh meat, still on the hoof or claw, and eggs under the chickens in the chicken house.

"Oh," she finally says, "that's nice."

Then they quickly left. In case what we have is contagious, I suppose. I hope it is.

True story. Frightening, huh? No, not me. The Happy Meal lady. If you are not scared, perhaps you should be. According to the article "Rethinking First Foods" by Pamela Paul, published in Time magazine's June issue, French fries are the number one vegetable eaten by toddlers in America. In fact, according to the FITS study cited in the article, by age 12 months 13 percent of toddlers are eating French fries every day. FITS stands for Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study. This study tracked diets of over 3,000 kids.

My child has had fries exactly twice in her life. She actually likes roasted potatoes better, with rosemary and olive oil and shallots. In fact, she eats every vegetable I have ever put in front of her (or, I should say, us) except Brussels sprouts. Who can blame her there?

How is this possible? What is the amazing secret behind this culinary miracle? Are you ready for this? It's not exactly a huge revelation, certainly not the cover material for Parents magazine. No "Ten Easy Ways to Hide Healthy Food in Junk." Nope, nothing that fancy. Okay, here goes: You have to eat your vegetables, too.

Amazed? Astounded? Or disappointed? C'mon, they're good for you. You wouldn't be pushing them on your kid if they weren't, would you? It's that simple.

Think about it. They imitate everything you do. Right now, my little one thinks helping Mommy mop the floor is the most fun thing to do all day. The window of opportunity is open, but not for long. Food preferences are set in children as early as age two. They aren't born with a natural hunger for Happy Meals, either. It may seem like it when it comes to the control games at the table. You go with what works just to get something, anything, into them. It's an easy sell. But you end up selling out your own child.

Want to win the control game? Relax. It's not human nature to starve with food in front of you. You can win by not winning the control game. Turn the table, so to speak. When you place a new food in front of your child, make sure there are other favorites on the plate just in case. Let your child see you enjoying the new food. Let her feed you a bite of the new food first before she has to try it. See? Now, she feels like she is in control. New foods are fun. It may take a few tries to warm up to a new food or texture. If it doesn't work the first time, try it again another day.

The point is to enjoy the time together. Interact. And turn the TV off. You will be setting a lifetime precedent of bonding over the dinner table. It's an ancient art these social units called families used to practice in order to remember who belongs to the family unit.

I know, I know. Life is busy. Fast food is fast. Even stay-at-home moms have a rough time finding a moment to make dinner.

I work, too. By the time I get done at work, through traffic, make the pick up, and get home, I have a hungry child clinging to my hip. I've got fifteen minutes to produce a meal, one-handed and exhausted. And yet, my child has never had fast food.

You can do it. Leftovers are a Godsend. Make extra helpings on the weekends when you do get time to cook. Freeze individual portions. It is possible. Even if it is lunchmeat, frozen veggies, slices of fruit and a half slice of whole grain bread, it's a balanced meal. And tastes better then imitation-chicken-flavored lumps fried in old grease and trans fats. Read the ingredient lists. They are posted online at the food chain web sites.

Once you do, you'll realize maybe I am not the crazy one afterall.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Eat Local Challenge

For the occasional reader who wanders into the "kitchen," my apologies for not posting as much lately. I have been busy working on the Eat Local Challenge web site along with all the other authors there. You should stop by and see what's been cooking, and read some of the work by the talented authors there. Also check out one of my latest recipes for Vegetable Parmigiano. It uses a few pantry items and some of the best of the summer produce that is in season right now.

I am currently working on two more recipes that use some of the same fresh herbs, tomatoes, squash, onions, garlic ... I will post those soon. One is a Mediterranean Ratatouille with Saffron rice, the other is an "Italian meatloaf." Both are kid tested and crowd tested and passed muster. Look for those recipes as soon as I get the instructions written!

I am way behind on posts. There's a ton of content coming as soon as I get it all put down into coherent thoughts here.


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Time to get out the ice cream maker

You know, if you are going to eat ice cream. Eat ice cream. Not cloned fish protein. That's not ice cream. There is so much to be said for eating well, as well as in moderation. Below, from a NYT article:

"Almost all commercial ice creams contain industrial ingredients that mimic the luxurious effects of butterfat and egg yolks: some are natural, like carrageenan, extracted from algae plentiful in the Irish Sea; others are synthetic, like mono- and diglycerides.

But using new technologies can be risky for manufacturers. The other new method for making supercreamy ice cream was caught up last month in the global debate over genetically modified foods. In June, Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, applied to Britain’s Food Standards Agency for permission to use a new ingredient in its frozen desserts — a protein cloned from the blood of an eel-like Arctic Ocean fish, the ocean pout.

Instead of extracting the protein from the fish, which Unilever describes as “not sustainable or economically feasible” in its application, the company developed a process for making it, by altering the genetic structure of a strain of baker’s yeast so that it produces the protein during fermentation.

This ingredient, called an ice-structuring protein, has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and is used by Unilever to make some products in the United States, like some Popsicles and a new line of Breyers Light Double Churned ice cream bars."

Friday, May 19, 2006

Canned Chicken, Fresh Lesson

Note, this post appears as part of an Eat Local Challenge Web site. I will be posting here at least once monthly for the next year.

I found an old can of chicken in the pantry, a remnant from my misspent experiments of trying to find ways to pack a semi-healthy lunch for under three dollars and in 30 seconds or less. I knew better once I saw the pinkish chunks floating in semi-gelatinous liquid. But, I ate it anyway, or rather am, at the moment, forcing myself.

It sucks. But then I knew that going in. This is about as far as you can get from an organic, free-range chicken. In fact, the only range this bird’s ever seen had a skillet on top of it. By definition, meat is organic, being well, a living creature at one time. Isn’t it odd that we can develop chicken in such a way that it can be labeled organic or not? Sounds rather, uh, fowl, to use one of my spouse’s awful puns.

I don’t like thinking about how the canned chicken lived prior to processing. And even the ones that don’t end up in a can are a far cry from their locally farmed, organically-raised cousins. You can taste the difference. Apparently even without an experienced palate. I learned this from my then infant during our first forays into the world of table foods.

Gerber makes these little ravioli stuffed with, you got it, the same chicken that’s in the can in front of me. Going against my organic-loving instincts, I thought this would be a good, easy finger food. It was, but apparently only fun to push around the tray, and definitely not for eating. I tried one. Ironically, unlike every other generic white meat, it did NOT taste like chicken.

The next week I got a free-range bird, herb-roasted, straight off the rotisserie. It was devoured, and I learned the real reason my kid had refused meat up to that point. It was not meat.

At that point, I swore off the idea that Gerber knew better than I did. No more special infant finger foods. It was time to come to the table for the good stuff. Not an easy task for a working mom, but so far, we’re making it without any of the pre-packaged drive-thru moments.

Convinced that “start ‘em young, train ‘em right” was the higher road, I instituted the “Fruit and Vegetable of the Week” program. Every week I introduce a new and different fruit and vegetable into my toddler’s world. We’ve navigated our way through every color and texture I can find as well. It’s been amazing to watch her enjoy every new taste, well, not every one. Brussels sprouts have been eliminated. Who can blame the kid?

This program has been so successful that I am running out of the “garden variety” fruits and veggies. But fortunately, spring has sprung and it has been off to the local farmer’s market for some new options. Ironic that you have to go to a small, local farmers market to get more options than a larger grocery store, but then, irony seems to abound in the food world.

We both loved the market. All the people, colors, smells, tastes. As I went through the herb plants, I stopped and made sure that my little one got to smell and touch each herb as I named them. We looked at flowers and plants, and scored some amazing veggies and some local strawberries — small, dark red and irregular in shape — but with a good hint of the sweet, deep flavor that will come with June’s harvest.

My child chose the berries. She gave me the sign language for “MORE” over and over again, pointing to the berries. She ate the nearly the whole pint of these as fast as my husband could clean and core them. Which is interesting because she had begun to turn up her nose at the huge, perfect and fairly tasteless ones we had been buying.

We came home with spring mix greens, purple lettuce (and heirloom variety), green and purple asparagus, wildflower honey, green onions, radishes, strawberries and herb plants for rosemary, Italian parsley, and Genovese basil. A feast. All local and fresh. That week’s new veggie, purple asparagus, was sweet and delicious and enjoyed by all.

This week’s new culinary explorations await us already. A Korean melon variety sits on the counter, and we tried Florentine cauliflower last night. But, my food dreams are not so global. Even as I eye these exotics, I am waiting for Saturday and another trip to the market.

In the meantime, I will force feed myself the “chicken.” Call it punishment for ever going that route in the first place.

For more asparagus tips on skinny stalks versus the fat ones, try this
NYTimes article.

Great tips on a trip to the farmers' market.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Choice is Elementary

With regard to a current post on my blog, “Toying with Nutrition,” I found these current statistics on the choices offered to ELEMENTARY students from a study on elementary school food programs at, a Kraft Foods-sponsored organization:

“Twenty-three percent of public elementary schools offered vending machine foods for sale, and 35 percent offered foods for sale at school stores or snack bars.
Most public elementary schools (94 percent) offered foods for sale outside of full school meals.”

The survey collected information on the types of food available at vending machines and school stores or snack bars in 2005, and the times when those foods were available. Information on the availability of foods at vending machines and school stores or snack bars was restricted to the following nondairy beverages and snack foods:

Nondairy beverages: 100% fruit or vegetable juice, sports drinks or fruit drinks that are not 100% juice, soft drinks, and bottled water; and

Snack foods: candy; low-fat salty snacks such as pretzels and baked or other low-fat chips; salty snacks that are not low in fat such as regular potato chips and cheese puffs; low-fat cookies, cakes, pastries, and other baked goods; and cookies, cakes, pastries, and other baked goods that are not low in fat.

Students are also offered other food choices instead of the regular meal. While the percentages favored offering healthier choices, one wonders why the junk food items are even offered at all.

Consider this, is your 6-year-old prepared to make good nutritional decisions? Probably not.

“For example, elementary schools were more likely to offer 100% juice (53 percent), bottled water (46 percent), and green salad or fruit (40 percent) than less nutritious items such as soft drinks (12 percent), candy (15 percent), and French-fried potatoes (17 percent).”

Information on this study can be found here:

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Toying with Nutrition

My child loves to push the grocery cart. Not the handy child-size one, but the big one. She started this around the age of 7 months, where strapped to my chest in a carrier, she would grab the cart handle and take over. The game even evolved over time in that she would pull the cart back toward me and push forward again if I was not going fast enough. Eventually, we ended up tearing through the aisles as I make car noises complete with revving engine at stops, screeching tires around turns … well, you get the picture. I am certain everyone at Target thinks I am psycho. Oh well.

So, no surprise that one fine Easter, I decided the best “basket” for my child would be a toy shopping basket complete with plastic grocery food. The cart was no problem, other than the hard to decipher pictogram assembly instructions. The food, on the other hand, presented some issues. More like a horrific revelation.

As I reached out, without thinking, for the bargain 120-piece plastic food set, I took a second look at the item. Then a third look. Then I looked again at the whole aisle. Of the 120 pieces of gourmet plastic, most of the pieces were junk or fast food. Pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream, cookies, French fries, donuts, candy, fried chicken, soda, and — way over in one corner — a few lonely vegetables and fruits.

I looked further down the aisle. Same thing. The “Just Like Home Food to Go” Play Set. Just like home? Now, you are likely to hear a lot of colorful phrases in my kitchen, but “You want fries with that?” is not one of them.

The whole aisle it seems was loaded with junk food, especially BRANDED fast food: The Pizza Hut Delivery Set; Subway Sandwich Shop; and that irritating rodent mascot of bad pizza, Chuck E. Cheese’s Party Play Kit. And McDonald’s kits, lots of McDonald’s kits; the McFlurry maker, the McD’s Food Cart, The McD’s Backpack to Go with Burger, Soda, Fries … Basically, the culinary equivalent of Candy Cigarettes.

See for yourself. Pull up your favorite online toy shop and search on “toy food.” 335 search results later, I am still not sure about the implications of items like “fart gum” and “surprise fish candy,” but I did notice a disturbing junk food bias for the most part.

There are, of course, a few items at the opposite end of the spectrum. Like the Food Network Chef outfit and Food Network “Plan a Dinner Party Play Set with matching dishes and place cards!” I have my own version of this last toy. It goes like this, “Here’s the dishes and silverware, please set the table for Mommy.” Except my dishes don’t match. And I am perfectly okay with place cards written in crayon.

Think I am over-reacting? Think again. When you purchase these items, you are telling your child that THIS is what goes into the grocery cart. THIS is what we EAT. For the fast food brands, this is better than a TV commercial during Sponge Bob hour. Children everywhere are engaged in daily interaction and play with your brand. Your brand is not just a household word, it is a toy in the household. And the parents are paying for it, too! For just $12.95 you can help McDonald’s acquire its next generation of consumers. Ages 3 and up.

At the very far end of the aisle were small individual plastic bags of fruit, vegetables and breads. The three kits, about 15 items in all, cost more than the 120-piece kit. I bought them. All three. Later, as my child was handing me each item and I was naming them for her, I knew I made the right choice. I hope that helps her make the right choice of food later on in life. Like grade school. Yeah, that soon.

Have you seen “SuperSize Me?” The fact that daily consumption of McDonald’s and the portion sizes had a negative effect on the documentary author was no shock. The expose on soda and junk food manufacturers subsidizing school lunch programs in exchange for selling their products scared me shhhii, uh, witless.

So, no, I am not over-reacting. I am reacting. And I am not crazy. Except maybe when I am running through Target with my super-charged cart.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Lost Palate?

I recently dined at Bluestem. I was pretty excited about the evening as this chef was hailed by "Food and Wine" as one of the country's top 10 new chefs. Now that is a lot to live up to.

I spent the money for the chef's tasting. Not a small amount for Midwest cost of living. It began with a trio of appetizers, one mussel in a saffron sauce, a chilled mint drink, a crab and sweet ice dish reminiscent of Iron Chef seafood desserts, and a shrimp panna cotta. The panna cotta was interesting and complex in flavor. The rest of the meal included seared fois gras, a lentil soup with roast duck, Seared Tuna, and Wagyu beef strip steak, and two chocolate desserts, one with grapefruit.

All the meats were precisely cooked. The server knew her wines well. The flavors of the sauces were all subtle. Hints of lemongrass, etc. Perhaps too subtle. Or maybe I just don't have the palate I thought I did. Maybe it has been killed by too many nights of Mac and Cheese with my toddler. I can judge a good Mac and Cheese let me tell you!

Overall, it was a good meal, but not what I would term one of the 10 best chef meals. Maybe it was a less sexy menu than normal. I think I should give it another shot, when I can afford it. However, given the rarity of nights out in that price range (for me) I will probably keep driving north to La Fou Frog instead.

I had an excellent elk medallion with a cranberry wine reduction sauce that still ranks as best meat dish I have ever had. And the mussels and pomme frites are always excellent.

Wine Blog

Just read the NYT wine critics startup of a blog. Good points about tasting versus drinking. Wine is very individual and from my novice view, wines are like people. A taste is just an introduction, but you have to get to know the wine to find out the true character.