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 Epicurious.com, 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!