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.