Archive for April, 2008

When plates fly

I’d like to debunk a couple of myths circulating out there in Mommyland. Myth Number One: if you raise kids on so-called grown-up foods, they won’t complain. They’ll always eat what you put in front of them. They’ll dig in with gusto.

Myth Number Two: If you let kids cook with you, if they’re involved in making what they’re going to be served, they will eat it gladly.

Yeah, right, I huff, I, the mother of Quinn, who has perfected the sport of pushing plates of unwanted dinners across the table. She’s working on besting her own record, the speed with which her plate reaches the other end of the table and goes crashing to the floor, untouched food and all. There we have it: in-my-face evidence that the myths are just that.

Take any given night, and you’ll find me bemused, at best, trying to shake it off, to refuse to be offended by my five-year-old. The other day, in fact, she was five-for-five, five nights in a row of absolutely refusing to try even a bite of the dinner I’d made for her, dinners that she contributed to making.

I believe she may have grasped her fork at one point, but I’m fairly positive its willing prongs never came within stabbing proximity of any of the dishes presented this past week, including soba noodles with carrots, chicken with couscous and corn, and tonight’s offering of lentils with more carrots, mint and goat cheese. Not exactly chicken nuggets posing suspiciously as T-Rexes, but then my kid’s never so much as gazed upon such an undesirable feat of processed protein (do they even make those anymore?).

It’s not that she’s been starving herself. If bread is part of the meal, she will reach hungrily for a portion. And she did in fact eat a slice of ham off her panino from two nights ago, a panino she insisted on making herself and to her exacting specifications, which meant dismissing its turn in the panini press. Which rendered it more plain ham and cheese on a par-baked roll. But perhaps she meant the bread and the cheddar to act as aromatics, imparting a few moist crumbs and a bit of salty agey-ness to the ham slice in the few moments the three were joined together before she whisked the floppy piece of meat from its nesting place. What remained was a cold, dry and rejected sandwich alone on her plastic flower-shaped plate.

At any rate, I’m contemplating tonight’s pasta plan, and wondering why I, of all parents, have a picky eater. They say that if you give children so-called grown-up food from the get-go, that will set their palates accordingly. I’ve duly followed that doctrine. I don’t dumb down food for my kids. So if Quinn’s been eating this way her whole life, what is behind this sudden rash of dinnertime revolts?

I suppose it’s typical of motherhood that my efforts to ply my children with flavor and variety would fall flat in certain stages. Maybe it’s a call to humility, a reproof from the Spirits of the United Motherhood. Because last month I cast a mental rolling of the eyes in the direction of a certain mom at gymnastics when I overheard her give dinner instructions to her husband regarding their toddler- and preschool-aged girls. “I don’t know what they want yet. I might call you to put something in the oven,” she said. As it was nearing 6 p.m. and her two had just exhausted themselves with an hour of somersaults and trampoline jumping, her “something in the oven” could only mean something frozen and shrink wrapped.

And I almost felt my eyebrows visibly arch in disapproval when a couple of weeks later another fellow gymnastics mom told her husband that “we have snacks, didja get my message? We’re not gonna have a full-fledged dinner but you have plenty of fro-yo and whatever else if ya feel like it.” I had planned ahead and had all the trappings of a full-fledged dinner waiting to be pieced together when we got home from gymnastics and yes, I felt smug about it.

So while I suppose Quinn is just acting her age in exerting picky-ness at her pleasure, her decidedly non-diplomatic way of pushing plates across the table has brought me back to earth a little – to an earth populated by busy kids driving their moms to look for easy meal solutions. To an earth where little ones handily refuse to eat a food for reasons that seem completely random, despite our best efforts to school their delicate taste buds from infancy.

But I’m not caving. Weary gymnastics moms and their frozen stashes, Quinn and her untouched fork and flying plates be darned. Around here, there’s no such thing as “kid food.”

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The heart grows fonder

Oh, my big ideas. I am triumphantly not Martha, and I swear I wasn’t trying to be. I wasn’t even trying to emulate her. But she — or her celestial conglomerate, that is — wouldn’t put all those recipes out there into the cosmos if they weren’t intended for regular people to attempt, would she? Or is it all there just to trip us up, to put us in our place, my place definitely not being the land of candy making. A candy maker I’m not. A candy lover, yeah, that describes me. But I’m not a maker, a producer, a fashioner of fine confections. I probably shouldn’t apologize for this particular lack of talent, but there it is anyhow: the trace of failure, the shadow of self-inflicted guilt.

They looked deceptively simple, those truffles. The ganache method sounded facile enough, chopped bittersweet and heavy cream joined together, a smooth, melting pool that beckons one to just go ahead and dive in, head first. Then just toss in a stick of butter and let it sit in the fridge for a while. But later, trying to coerce gobs of the buttery chocolate mixture – pliable yes, willing, no – into perfect truffle shapes à la Martha, it hit me. How impossibly gauche am I that I can’t produce a truffle as lovely as those peering at me from the web page?

But, never fear, today’s story is a success story, after all. Lucky for my ego (and lucky for my chocolate craving), I had a redemption plan, one involving more melted chocolate – but melted chocolate that doesn’t have to conform to picture-perfectness, chocolate that requires nothing but deft scooping and a shiny, happy bowl to look deserving of its deliciousness.

In the wake of the Great Truffle Frustration of 2008, I decided it wasn’t truffle season anyhow, but gelato season. I know, for many of you, it’s still hot chocolate season, but down in these sunny parts, we’ve approached the months of the air conditioner. It’s time, then, to give you all a head start on this tastiest of refreshments so that when you’re ready for it, you’ll know just where to turn.

We have gelaterias popping up all over the place, and their prevalence has turned us into gelato geeks. I grew up on lots of ice cream, but after tasting the Italian version, I now save myself almost exclusively for it. You can eat the smallest scoop and be satisfied because the flavors are so pure and because the concoction is so dense.

We loudly proclaim, to anyone who wants to listen, the authenticity of just one gelateria in town, the one whose gelato leaves me scraping – and scraping – the bowl with my little spoon. Arlecchino is this tiny outfit run by a couple from Trieste, Italy, and the flavors are true-to-form phenomenal, as they use no mixes or anything remotely fake (go figure). The strawberry tastes like strawberries, the banana like bananas, but ones that have undergone this fascinating, freezing metamorphosis. Needless to say, we are regular partakers of this proprietor, and there is one flavor they make only on weekends that I’m always hankering for come Friday. But as it’s a good twenty minutes from my house (a little distance in this case is actually a good thing) and this autentico stuff is pricey stuff, I decided I needed to try to make my own.

I’m growing ever more comfortable with making custards, and it’s a threshold I’m relieved to finally cross. I cobbled together ingredients from two recipes in trying to replicate my favorite chocolate-hazelnut-orange flavor, and froze it in my Rival ice cream maker. It was, as I said earlier, a success (yay!) on all the necessary levels involving texture and flavor. I won’t be making this enough to skip our now-and-again stops for the real stuff, but this has to be a close second.

Chocolate-Hazelnut Gelato with Orange

Adapted from Food Network and

2 oz. bittersweet chocolate

2 ¼ C whole milk

1/3 C heavy cream

¾ C minus 2 tbsp granulated sugar

1 C unsweetened cocoa powder

4 large egg yolks

½ tsp vanilla extract

½ C Nutella chocolate-hazelnut spread

Orange oil

Coarsely chop chocolate. In medium heavy saucepan, bring milk, cream and half of sugar just to a simmer, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat and add cocoa powder and chocolate, whisking until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.

Prepare an ice bath (large bowl of ice and cold water). Beat yolks and remaining sugar with an electric mixer until thick and pale. Add chocolate mixture in a slow stream, whisking the entire time, and pour into a saucepan. Cook custard over moderately low heat, stirring constantly, until it becomes thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, about 7 to 10 minutes. Pour custard through a sieve into a bowl set in the ice bath. Stir in the vanilla, Nutella, and the tiniest drop of orange oil (a little goes a very long way). Continue stirring until Nutella dissolves. Chill custard in the refrigerator completely.

Freeze custard in an ice-cream maker, following manufacturer’s instructions.

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Good for something

My intentions had been really, really good. They’d bordered on festive, even. And now – I shake my head that it’s come to this – but I don’t want to even so much as glance in the direction of my kitchen. I don’t want to look at the lying-through-their-pages cookbooks, at the KitchenAid that’s not living up to its promise, at the flour-doused countertops (it’s such a practical joke, isn’t it? Trying to clean up flour).

It’s supposed to be pizza night. Pizza and the college championship basketball game, because the two are old buddies, regular BFFs. We hold pizza night regularly around here, and always it’s a gleeful hit. We make our own dough, roll it into several individual circles (who can resist the precious factor of a mini, personalized pizza?), prep an astounding array of toppings that make for countless combinations (ham and olive! Olive and roasted pepper! Roasted pepper and carmelized onion and chèvre!). The kids go to town. They’re happy, we’re happy. Happy, happy, joy, joy.

Only on this day I had to get ambitious, had to decide today of all days to try a brand new pizza dough recipe. Or maybe it’s that I got reverse-ambitious, because my old standby recipe, while it is tasty, requires somewhat more attention and handling than this new one. It’s Mark Bittman that got me, I say through gritted teeth. It’s the way he’s all, “You won’t believe how simple it is…” blah, blah, about his pizza dough recipe. So of course I let him, with his hand-waving-away-doubt rhetoric, convince me to give it a go. Admittedly, on paper, his recipe sounds a whole lot easier than my usual: Three cups of flour, a couple teaspoons each of yeast and kosher salt, a cup or so of water, all mixed together in a food processor.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Mark Bittman and his recipes and his methods and, usually, his emboldening way. Really I do. I’m sure this is all my fault, sure that this sticky, spready dough is the result of some error on my part, but I can’t figure out where I went wrong. The whole thing seemed like the easy road to triumph.

But the flour and water, etc., are not coalescing into that tidy little ball promised by the cookbook, so I add tablespoon upon tablespoon of flour (just as the recipe recommends). Many plural tablespoons later, I’m about ready to start dumping flour by the cupful into the KitchenAid bowl. Without even using a spoon to lift the flour in order to prevent packing. Go ahead, call me rash, call me irresponsible, I don’t give a fig right now.

Then my KitchenAid becomes really hot, and consequently the dough – if you can indeed call it that – gets hot. And this worries me. Could the heat kill the yeast? Because I know they say that yeast doesn’t give up so easily, but this yeast has been through a fairly fatal-seeming spin. I think it might just be good and dead by now, which does not bode well for my dough. Or for my pizza. Or for my mood, for that matter.

In fact, as I scoop hot dough out onto the flour-flecked counter, half with a spatula, half with my hands, (I’m thinking I’ll just try and see if I can coerce it into a ball-like form), my mood is anything but optimistic. There’s more dough on my hands than there is on the counter. I’m a foul-mouthed, as-yet-undiscovered sea creature, what with my webbed, sticky hands. I’m hollering for Emmy to please come and get me a bowl from the bottom-most drawer for the dough, because I don’t want to inflict this dough on the drawer handles, on other bowls that might happen to be in the way.

I make my way over to where Emmy is, on the couch, in the family room, with my wad of dough stuck between my hands (will it have to be surgically removed?). She’s home with the flu today, and has just fallen asleep on the couch. I doubt she’s even going to want any pizza.


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Are we classy yet?

So, let’s start with irony: Just as every single magazine arriving in my mailbox is proclaiming April the official month of being green, things here in the desert are on their way to a discouraging shade of brown. Still, I can get into this whole save-the-earth thing. I can, I can.

A few years ago we pulled the light bulb switcheroo, then last year I discovered reusable bags, SIGG bottles and Wrap-N-Mats (the red-checked ones are like a picnic in a lunchbox!).

This year, I’m going boldly where I haven’t gone before: I’m swapping paper for cloth napkins, and not just because it might be better for the environment. I know it sounds recklessly inconvenient, this pairing of fabric napkins and sticky children. It’s true that paper napkins are handy, but they’re a little discordant with my whole food philosophy, anyway, that of my own personal backlash against convenience eating.

Truth is, I’ve had it scrutinizing the offerings in the disposable paper product aisles of Target, waiting for the paper napkin fairy to descend with the perfect paper napkin. I’m done spending money on packages upon packages of napkins and finding that, not only do we wipe and toss our way through them as though they grow on trees (ha! they kind of do, poor trees), but there is not a reasonably priced brand that lives up to its promise. There’s not a one that diligently does its duty, that stands up to fish taco drippings and jam overflow and soup-dribbled chins. Our post-dinnertime table whispers of too much napkin carnage, a scene of soiled, crumpled napkins left behind or dropped to the floor, hastily and carelessly abandoned without thanks.

Cloth, on the other hand, obliges the user to fold it, even if not in perfect neatness. Fabric brings a little civility to the dinner situation that otherwise consists of the five-year-old’s constant interruptions and the ten-year-old’s incessant, if inadvertent, feet swinging into my shins.

But fabric doesn’t mean formality. Oh, no (I will not ever wear pantyhose and you can’t make me!). My napkins, I willingly admit, are not the pressed kind. I’m strictly a dryer-to-table kind of girl. I don’t even care about the here-and-there stain. I believe that a stained napkin doesn’t have to be a compromised napkin.

Getting back to the whole environmental aspect, there’s actually some controversy riddling the whole paper/cloth thing, but I’ve done the reading, and I think, for our little family of four, cloth is actually a green choice, and an economic one. There are all sorts of calculations that can go into these decisions, and I know it’s worthwhile not to oversimplify. But in this case, I figure I’m not buying paper-napkin packaging that will contribute to a trash pile somewhere, and I know my modest stash of napkins will have a far longer lifecycle than those in a restaurant. We’ll use them repeatedly throughout the day and then they can be tossed in with any of the several loads of laundry I’m already doing during the week. And, like I said before, I will not be expending any extra energy making them look pretty. Those napkins are hardly for show, existing expressly for face-blotting and finger-wiping purposes.

So, summing up with irony, then: My cloth napkins, cost-conscious, utilitarian, earth-kind as they are, are nevertheless poshing things up a bit around here. (But will the heightened levels of poshness encourage posh-loving Quinn to eat her dinner? Another post for another time…)

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