Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The toughest food critic: your toddler

Does your daughter eat everything? How do you get her to do that?

That's the questions I've been asked an awful lot by other parents. I've even had a couple of requests for a "How to cook for kids" cooking class. I doubt the cooking class is going to happen because I don't believe in the idea of "kids' food." But I'd be happy to share my experience with feeding Samantha in the hopes that it helps someone else feed their bundle of joy.

If your 9 month old is spitting up the wonderful vegetable purees you so lovingly prepared, I want to tell you that I feel your pain. Feeding babies and toddlers is not unlike dealing with the toughest food critic. It's a very time consuming and emotional experience. Is she eating too little? Is she eating too much? Why won't she eat any meat? Is she getting a good variety of vegetables? She was eating sweet potatoes just fine last week; why won't she touch them now? She isn't eating anything besides bread -- what do I do?

Now that Sammy is 21 months (and ever since she turned 15 months), she's been the easiest kid to feed. She eats everything we eat, uses a spoon and a fork all by herself, and is a pleasure to have at our dining room table or take out to restaurants. But this was definitely not the case when we started with solids. The book that helped me a lot was Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense by Ellyn Satter. Not every piece of advice from that book worked for us, but many did. Here are some child feeding principles that I've learned in the past year.

Offer a food infinite number of times
You don't need to beg, trick, or cajole your kid into eating anything. All you have to do is offer the food. But that's an important task, and you need to not give up on it. How many tries will it take before your kid finally likes a particular food? No one knows. There are studies that show that it takes an average of 7 tries. My daughter loved green beans and broccoli the first time I offered then to her. She spit out bananas the first 10 times I offered them to her, and yogurt the first 15 times. Was I putting my poor child through some cruel and unusual punishment? You wouldn't think so from the way Sammy devours bowls of yogurt and granola these days.

Of course, offering the food you know your child disliked the first 5 times is an enormous trial. "How many times am I supposed to be throwing out the carrot puree?" you wonder. You put so much of yourself into preparing your baby's food, and it is so painful to see your kid reject it. But there is light in the end of the tunnel. If you go through these first 6-12 painful months without giving up on any food, you'll be rewarded with an omnivore toddler and feeding your little gourmet will become both easier and more enjoyable.

You think you know what you child likes and dislikes. Think again!

My mother-in-law asked me what Sammy eats and doesn't eat when we were coming to visit for Thanksgiving. I confidently told her that she eats everything except for orange vegetables (sweet potatoes, butternut squash, etc). Why was she suddenly boycotting them I didn't know. She used to love them when she was a baby, but around 12 months she wouldn't have anything to do with them. I kept offering them to her for almost 4 months. But all my efforts were to no avail! I told all the grandmas to not avoid anything just because Sammy doesn't eat it. Surely, there'll be plenty of food for her even without butternut squash. Well, guess what -- she gobbled up black bean soup with sweet potatoes at Grandma Louise's and roasted butternut squash at Grandma Tanya's. Why was the ban on orange vegetables suddenly lifted? I have no idea. Maybe a new location...

If you eat your broccoli, you can have a cookie...
If you were a marketing executive at a broccoli company and this was your marketing campaign slogan, you'd probably get fired. What makes a kid think that a cookie is special and broccoli is icky is your attitude. Never offer a food as a reward for eating another food. If she doesn't want broccoli, so be it. But don't tell her she can have a cookie if she suffers through eating broccoli. Eating should be a joy, not some painful experience that you get paid for with cookies.

How can I let my poor child go hungry!?
Parents' biggest concern with offering food their child didn't eat last time (or 5 or 10) is that their poor little tyke will be hungry. I have news for you my dear worried friends. Just because your kiddo won't eat carrots doesn't mean he needs to starve. How often do you serve a meal of just carrots? Not to often, right? There is probable some pasta, rice, or bread; some chicken, meat, or fish; and some fruit. Yes, I know. Eating just rice doesn't make for a very balanced meal. But you have to keep in mind that not every meal needs to be balanced. Occasionally, Sammy gets so excited about a food that she won't eat anything else in that meal. Last week, the strawberries stole the show and that's all she ate for dinner. Believe it or not, life went on. Now I know not to show her strawberries until she eats at least a bit of the other stuff. You can also use hunger to your advantage. Offer the most problematic foods first when your child is the hungriest.

I haven't seen too many emaciated American children. If anything, I've seen too many plump ones. If your child is truly hungry, they'll eat. If they refuse to eat every single food that you put in front of them, they are probably not all that hungry. I know how much a parent enjoys watching their kid happily shovel the food into their mouth. But try to avoid the temptation to open a box of mac n' cheese or chicken nuggets. Your child will not starve to death without them.

It has to taste good

Kids are not polite. Think Anton Ego from Ratatouille. "If I don't like it, I.... don't.... swallow!" So, take of that but-it's-good-for-you hat, and put on your please-the-food-critic hat. Why do your kids like chicken nuggets and Kraft mac 'n cheese? Two magic words: salt and fat. Add salt and fat to your food, and kids will like it too. Won't it defeat all the health benefits of making your own food? Hardly. Buckwheat dressed with salt and butter still has a ton of fiber, protein, and iron. Besides, your children need fat and cholesterol. Those are the building blocks of their growing bodies. Just because your doctor might have told you to go easy on the butter, doesn't mean the same applies to your toddler. Another thing you can do to greatly improve your little gourmet's acceptance of different fruits and veggies is take a knife skills class. If you learn to cut veggies into small dice, not only will they cook more evenly, but your child might be more accepting of them. It always surprised me that my daughter would eat zucchini cut into brunoise (1/8 inch dice) and lightly browned in olive oil, but wouldn't eat it if I cut it into bigger dice. She is also a huge fan of sectioned oranges, but not very receptive to them if I keep the membranes.

Kids' food
The concept of kids' food doesn't exist in all countries. Sure, there is baby food for babies who don't have teeth yet, but there is no such thing as special food for kids in most of the world. I am not sure how this concept came about in the US. Waiters always ask us if we'd like the kids menu when we eat out with Sammy. We never even look at it and just give her bites from our plates. I have once ordered a salad with roasted beets hoping to give some to Sammy. When I saw 5 lonely little beet pieces on top of baby greens, I asked the waiter for a side dish of just roasted beets for Sammy so that I don't have to deal with her screaming "more" in 30 seconds. He looked at me like I was nuts, but brought me a bowl of beets anyway. He looked even more perplexed when he returned in 20 minutes to find Sammy's happy magenta face and an empty bowl. "How could she eat them all?" he said in bewilderment. "Kids don't like beets!" Well, sure. If you tell them that they don't like beets, but like brownies, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Neither Jason, nor I have a sweet tooth, so there are normally no sweets found in our house. We don't have a ban on sweets. Once in a while, I'll bake cookies and Sammy is usually the first in line, but sometimes not. A few weeks ago, I gave her a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie for a snack. She took a few bites and then noticed me putting prunes into a stew. She started pointing at the prune box and making demanding noises. I gave her a prune, and then another, and she ended up eating 5 of them. She forgot about the cookie! Even my mouth dropped.

This reminds me of another good trick to get your kid to try a new food. Make it just slightly out of their reach. The forbidden fruit is always the sweetest :) Put this food on your plate during the meal, but not theirs. You'll be surprised how quickly they notice that you have something they don't. Of course, it has to be very special if Mommy and Daddy are eating it! Before you know it, they'll be begging you to try it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

How to season ground meat "to taste"

The bloody mixture kept whirling and splattering against the walls of my food processor. For some reason, I found it deeply disturbing. I am not easily disturbed in the kitchen. It doesn't bother me when bugs crawl out of zucchini blossoms, or when a branzino stares at me while I savor its cheeks, or when a worm uncoils out of a founder. I never thought that innocent little chicken livers would remind me of a horror movie. But then again, I've never pureed them raw. Normally I poach them first and then puree them into a pâté. That doesn't look disturbing to me at all. When the recipe from Gourmet told me to throw them into a food processor raw as one of the steps of making a Rustic French Meatloaf, I didn't think twice about it. But as I saw them disintegrate, all I could think was "What a bloody mess!"

Eventually, I got over the ick factor, dumped the bloody mess into a bowl, added ground pork and veal, milk soaked bread crumbs, sweated onions and garlic, and a very generous amount of chopped prunes (that was the ingredient that drew me to this recipe in the first place, and I thought there was no harm done by really going to town with it). Then came the hard part: seasoning.

The recipe called for 1/2 tsp salt. I always have to double the salt measurement to account for the fact that I use Diamond Crystal Kosher salt, not the table salt assumed by most magazines. Still, 1 tsp for 2 Lb of meat? I was sure I needed more. The question was how much more.

When you season smaller pieces of protein (steaks, fish fillets, etc), you get used to how thick a layer of salt to put on them considering their thickness. But when you are seasoning a shapeless pile of meat in a bowl, it's much harder to trust your eyes. That's when I remembered a wonderful trick I learned from chef Ruth-Anne Adams when I worked in Casablanca (the restaurant, not the city :). You cook a tiny bit and taste it. In the restaurant, we always had the grill running, so it was easy to cook a little piece on the grill before tasting. For obvious reasons, this doesn't work at home. Dirtying a skillet just to taste a teaspoon of this mixture seemed like an overkill to me too. So I put a teaspoon of the meat mixture on a plate, and popped it in the microwave for 15-20 seconds. It didn't taste good since no browning happens in the microwave and the cooking was uneven. But even in this unappetizing state, I could taste it for salt.

I kept adding more salt, cooking little pieces, and tasting until the mix was seasoned well. The final amount was somewhere between 3-4 teaspoons of Diamond Crystal Kosher salt. To make sure I wasn't totally off my rocker, I checked Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She normally uses 1 tsp table salt for 1 Lb of meat, which is exactly what I ended up with. Hmm, I wonder if it's not politically correct to ask for this much salt in a recipe these days. But politics aside, wouldn't it at least be helpful if Gourmet gave you instructions on how to adjust the salt to your taste? Hank Sawtelle recently mentioned in his article on blanching that following the recipes blindly can lead to disaster. I couldn't agree with him more. It's good to learn when to step in and take the matters into your own hands.

How did this meatloaf taste? The judges (that's Jason and I) couldn't agree about its merits in the warm state. Jason really liked it, I thought it was just ok. But when we tasted it the next day cold (sliced like a pâté), the raves were unanimous. This dish would make a fabulous hors d'oeuvre, so I guess I'll have to get over my fear of pureeing raw liver in a food processor.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Barley Almond Salad

Some dishes are so expressive of their creator's cooking style that if I told you the dish, you could probably guess which blog they came from (can you guess the creators of Maple Yogurt Cake, Thai Scallops Ceviche, or Potato Nests with Crab and Apple Topping). And no cheating with Google please. As I was taking a picture of this barley salad, I couldn't help thinking how uncharacteristic a dish this was for me. Most of the things I cook and write about had parents, involve a good bit of technique to prepare correctly, and don't travel well. This salad is a complete opposite. It's vegan, packs beautifully for lunch, and requires no other technique than good knife skills.

Over the last month, I've been trying to buy a different grain each week, cook a big batch of it, and then turn it into easy lunches for my daughter Samantha and me on Mondays and Wednesdays (the days she is not in daycare). So far, we've tried buckwheat, quinoa, and barley. All were great hits with Sammy.

As most good things to eat, this salad came partially out of necessity to clean out the fridge. Students often ask me how to improvise in the kitchen successfully. Improvisation in any field (cooking, music, art) is hard to teach. But seeing someone else go through this process can help. So instead of a recipe, I thought I'll describe my thought process for putting together this dish.

First you need to choose a theme. Since it was a nice spring day, I wanted my barley dish to be cold. Middle eastern wheat salad came to mind, and I decided to go with the south eastern Mediterranean theme (think Morocco, Turkey, Israel). Narrowing things down like that can be very helpful for basic decisions like lemon juice and olive oil should go into this salad, but soy sauce and sesame seed oil should stay in the cabinet. Now the cleaning out the fridge part. The options were zucchini, red peppers, apples, and olives. I decided to go with zucchini and peppers. I didn't want the vegetables to steal the show, so I diced them very finely (1/8 inch) to let barley still be the star. To dice zucchini, first slice it on the diagonal on a mandoline, then cut it with a knife into skinny french fry type strips, and then perpendicular into dice.

It seemed like my salad had all the vegetables it needed, but not the necessary savoriness and kick that only an onion can provide. Red onion, shallot, or scallions would all do the trick, but shallot was what I had on hand. I minced it finely and added it to my salad. Some delicate aromatic herb (parsley, cilantro, mint, tarragon, basil) would not hurt either. I had cilantro, so in it went.

I have a soft spot for Moroccan preserved lemons when it comes to cold non-leafy salads (tuna, bean, lentil). If you are in the Boston area, Formaggio's kitchen carries them and they can live happily in your fridge for almost a year as long as they are covered in brine. I usually discard the inside of the lemon, then rinse and use the skin (both the yellow and white parts). So in went the minced lemon.

Now it was time to dress the salad, taste, and adjust. I added a generous squirt of fresh lemon, 2-3 Tbsp olive oil, and some black pepper. Hmm, not bad. When you use a grain to make a stand alone vs. a side dish, you want each bite to be interesting. It should be like a choir singing with 3-4 voices all coming together into harmonious total. Zucchini and peppers gave my salad juiciness, barley gave it a nice toothsome bite, now if only we had a crunch here. My first instinct was to toast some pine nuts, but after opening my freezer and finding some already toasted almonds I decided to save myself a toasting step and just use those. Mmm -- much better. As soon as I tasted the salad with the almonds, I just had to reach for golden raisins. It's one of those duets that's just too good to pass up.

The salt level was good since I cooked the barley in salted water and added preserved lemons (a very salty ingredient), but my salad needed a bit more richness, so in went another small splash of olive oil. Now, everything was in perfect harmony. I could have left it as is, but something was pulling me to the spice drawer. Since there was some Moroccan influence there already, I thought why not underscore it with a little coriander and cardamom.

When I finished this salad, I had a strange impulse to pack it for someone's lunch. It's the one kitchen chore I absolutely hate since most of my food doesn't pack well or reheat well. But this salad was a complete meal (loaded with protein and fiber, might I add) that could easily be packed and didn't require any reheating.

So, there you have it. We've improvised a lunch. Here are some things to remember about kitchen improv:

1) decide on a theme and stick with it
2) if making a dish that requires dressing (like this salad), dress early on so that you know what it will roughly taste like in the end
3) taste after each new ingredient goes in and decide where to go from there
4) remember that less is more
5) if it's missing something, are you sure it's not salt or acidity? no matter what interesting combination you come up with, if it's bland, it won't taste good.

I guess I will write this salad in the recipe form after all. Just in case, you decide to make it, it will be easier to follow this than my ramblings above. Remember that this recipe is intended as inspiration, and it's a great opportunity to improvise and make this salad your own.

Barley Almond Salad

Serves 2-3 as main course, 4-6 as appetizer

1 cup barley
1 zucchini cut into 1/8 inch dice
1/2 red pepper cut into 1/8 inch dice
1 large or 2 small shallots, finely minced
skin from 1/4 preserved lemon, rinsed and finely minced
1/2 cup toasted almonds, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, mint, basil, or parsley
Juice from 1/2 lemon (plus more as needed)
1/4 cup olive oil (plus more as needed)
1/2 tsp corriander
1/4 tsp cardamom
  1. Bring 2 quarts of salted water to a boil, add barley and simmer until cooked to your liking, about 30-40 minutes. Drain in a colander and cool completely.
  2. Toss with all the other ingredients, taste and correct seasoning (adding more salt, lemon juice, and olive oil as necessary).
It just occurred to me that if you don't want to wait for barley to cool, you can turn this into a hot dish. Cook the shallots and peppers in olive oil until tender, then toss with hot barley and the rest of the ingredients. I would probaby omit the zucchini in this preparation since it will get mushy when combined with hot ingredients.

I think I should end this post before I turn this into a dessert.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

When to feel guilty about not making stocks

There are 3 types of cooks in this world:

1) Those who use store bought stocks without a smidgen of remorse. Is chicken stock something you can actually make at home? Who knew?

2) Those who have made their own stock at least once in their life and realize that the store bought stuff is not up to snuff. But let's face it -- who has the time to make their own on regular basis. So in goes the boxed stuff with a generous dollop of guilt.

3) Those who think that the stock is the foundation of cuisine, and if you can't make it, you should get out of the kitchen (or at least stick to dishes that don't require stock).

Today, I'd like to address the second group. Those guilty home cooks who know that there is more to life than bouillon cubes, but don't always have the home-made stock on hand.

I know there are a lot of opinions on the subject already. According to Mark Bittman and Michael Ruhlman water is an acceptable substitute for home-made stock. On another hand, Cook's Illustrated suggests that some store bought stocks are significantly better than others, and as long as you avoid the really disgusting ones, your dish will come out well. The brands they recommend are Swanson Organic for Chicken Broth and Pacific for Beef Broth.

It took me over a year to figure out where I stand on this issue. I tried a number of soups, braises, and pan sauces with home-made stock, water, and the winners of Cook's Illustrated store bought stock taste tests. I don't need to tell you that the dishes made with home-made stocks always won the taste tests. The question is by how much and what's the best alternative.

Clear Soups
When it comes to clear soups (chicken noodle, french onion, etc), home-made stocks make all the difference. Unfortunately, using water or store bought stock defeats the purpose of these soups for me, so I can't recommend any substitutions.

Pureed Soups (cream of asparagus, butternut squash, celery root, etc)
To my surprise and delight, home-made vegetable stock (see the end of this post for a recipe) works wonders for these soups and it's much faster and easier to make than chicken stock. Water is the next best thing. There is a noticeable flavor trade off, but these soups are still worth making with water. Using a store bought stock gives these soups more intensity than water, but not in a good way.

I made 3 batches of short ribs braised in red wine -- one with home-made beef stock, one with Pacific store bought beef stock, and one with water. The ratio of wine to stock (or water) for all batches was 2:1. Originally, there was going to be a fourth batch made with More than gourmet (that's the brand name) demi-glace. But after tasting that thing and having to spit it out, I decided against it. I'd describe it as tomato paste and flour dissolved in water with some artificial flavorings. Calling it demi-glace is a travesty in my opinion.

Back to my three batches. To my amazement, there was barely any difference in taste between them! After a little thought, it made a lot of sense. During the 5 hour braising process, the short ribs infused the liquid with their flavor making a sort of stock. I found this finding particularly useful. If home-made stock is a rare commodity in your kitchen, save it for a soup. It is also good news for people who don't have time to make different types of home-made stock (chicken, beef, veal, etc). Chicken stock is perfectly usable even for a beef braise. During the long braise, it will turn into a beef stock :)

Of course, the differences between my batches might have been much more striking if I were to use stock as the only braising liquid instead of only 1/3 of the liquid. But most of the braises that I enjoy use wine, beer, soy sauce+balsamic vinegar, and other flavorful liquids besides stock.

Pan sauces
This is a tricky category. After searing your protein, you'll have a very flavorful fond left in your skillet (that's the French term for sticky brown bits), so you are half way there in terms of flavor. If you add home-made stock (normally it's unsalted, thus lended itself nicely to reducing without getting too salty) and a splash of wine, you'll create a heavenly dish. Without home-made stock, "heavenly" might be a hard thing to achieve. But the good news is that if you proceed carefully, and deal with these sauces on a case by case basis, you can find liquids besides home-made stock that can produce a good sauce.
  • Chicken dishes. Even Swanson Organic (the least scary store bought chicken stock) tastes awful to me when reduced -- too salty and ramen noodle like. When deglazing a pan after searing or roasting chicken, I prefer to use porcini reconstituting liquid. You can make it in a pinch by soaking 0.75 oz of dry porcini (if possible imported) in 1 cup boiling water for at least 30 minutes. Strain through a damp paper towel lined sieve to catch grit before using. Don't let the price of dry porcini scare you. It might be as high as $70/Lb, but you only need 1 - 2 oz for most dishes. Home-made vegetable stock also works well, but porcini liquid is faster to make and tastier.
  • Beef, lamb, and duck. If you don't mind your sauce on the slightly sweet side, using port can cover up all sorts of stock deficiencies. You don't need anything fancy. Trader Joe's port for $7-10 will do fine. When reduced, it becomes more syrupy than red wine giving your sauce the body (syrupiness) it would be missing without home-made stock. Of course, one can't make sauce with port alone. This is one of the few cases where I would argue in favor of a store bought Pacific beef broth. It's lower in sodium than most commercial beef stocks so it reduces better. While it doesn't have the intensity of a home-made beef stock, it actually has a reasonable roasted flavor and no unpleasant aftertaste. Even though I found one completely unsalted stock made by Kitchen Basics, I don't like it as much as Pacific due to its artificiality and lack of beef flavor.
  • Pork and veal. If you are going the savory route, try porcini liquid and white wine. If you are going the sweet route, try port and Pacific beef broth.
One thing to keep in mind for all pan sauces, is that wine is not an acceptable substitution for stock. Sure, all these sauces include some wine, but using it as the only deglazing liquid will yield an unpleasant sauce that is too acidic or too tannic or both.