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Growing Up Gourmet: December 2008

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Make a New Year's Kitchen Resolution!!!

For many kids, New Year’s Eve means chowing down on pizza and soda while watching movies with the babysitter.

But my childhood tradition on December 31st was very different. For me, New Year’s Eve meant driving 2 hours into New York City to shop at the specialty market, Zabars. It meant donning my fanciest dress-up clothes, costume jewelry, and experimenting with Mom’s make-up. New Year’s Eve had little to do with balls dropping or resolutions, but had everything to do with my favorite, once-a-year gourmet goodies from the Upper Westside “Epicurian Emporium”. We’re talking imported caviar on fancy rye toasts, smoked salmon with dill and marinated mushrooms, pickled herring, cured black olives, and (shhh) a few sips of champagne. Earlier in the day, I’d carefully prepare a hand-drawn menu of the evenings’ specialties and help my mom polish our proper silver and fine china. For our tiny crew (me, my mom, our dog Penny, and my stuffed animals) this was a very fancy occasion.

Admittedly I wasn’t the first child with such extravagant tastes (a six-year old in one of our after-school cooking classes lists escargot as her favorite food!). But today we tend to hear more about childhood obesity and picky eaters than kids who gorge on fancy fare.

Most American kids could use a few lessons on expanding their palate (and I don’t mean force feeding sushi to fish-hating first-graders). With busy schedules and over-worked parents, the temptation to serve chicken fingers instead of homemade pot-pie and frozen French fries as opposed to baked sweet potatoes is too great for many families. Family mealtime as Norman Rockwell would recognize it has become a long-forgotten American pastime. And in turn we are raising a generation of picky eaters who think peaches come from cans and have little interest in eating a nutritionally balanced meal.

The solution? Cook with your kids. It has been proven time and again that kids who help out in the kitchen are much more likely to become adventurous eaters. Kids with culinary instruction not only cultivate a more diverse palate, but also experience increased self-confidence, discover the important role nutrition plays in our physical and emotional wellbeing, and build the foundation for healthy life-long skills. Here are some other great reasons to cook with your kids.

In the spirit of the New Year, there’s no better time to change the way your family eats. This January, resolve to cook dinner with your family one night a week. If families that eat dinner together raise smarter, safer, and more secure kids, we can only imagine what will happen when families start cooking together! Regardless of your culinary prowess, or your tolerance for mess, this shouldn’t be as daunting as it sounds.

Here’s the plan:
Join me in making a New Year’s Kitchen Resolution! Commit to a Family Kitchen one night each week when soccer practice and PTO meetings won’t have you eating in the car. Earlier in the week, decide on a menu theme (Greek? Comfort food? No-silverware-required finger foods?) and plan and shop for the meal. On the night of Family Kitchen, make sure each family member lends a hand. Remember, this meal is much more about the process than the product. So take time, have fun, and enjoy your too-crowded kitchen. There are appropriate kitchen tasks for every family member, young and old.

With a happier, healthier family, Family Kitchen is one New Year’s resolution you’ll be grateful for well into spring. And maybe by next January when your kids watch the ball drop, they’ll trade roasted vegetables and baked salmon for those infamous chicken fingers and boxed mac and cheese.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

"Point, Blast, and... Cook!?"

Here's a perfect case of "just because it's organic, doesn't mean I want to eat it."

In a recent dedicated email, Daily Candy recommended the next time my kids offer to help make breakfast, I "get [my] brood involved sans hassle with Organic Batter Blaster Pancake and Waffle Mix."

I'm usually pretty favorable towards the products and services Daily Candy recommends. But just because this pancake batter is organic, doesn't mean I can endorse a food product whose marketing slogan is "just point, blast, and cook!"

The promotional video really says it all: "for years and years, people have made pancakes and waffles the same old-fashioned way. With milk, eggs, flour, mixing bowls, measuring cups, and all that mess..."

WAIT just a minute! Since when weren't pancakes made with milk, eggs, and flour? Isn't that what makes a pancake a pancake? Sure, our grocery stores are filled with fake foods -- non-dairy cheese. Meatless hamburger patties -- but I'm a pretty big proponent of the "real thing". (Sorry soy.)

I'll admit, it does look like fun to squirt the CO2 cartridge. And it's true that the potential for mess is non-existent. In fact, the simple ingredients probably taste better than other store-bought pancake mixes. But if a child asks to help make breakfast, chances are they want to break the eggs. They're eager to show off some math skills and measure 1/3 cup flour. And they're literally starving to whisk it all together until it's smooth. So what if you have to wipe a little flour off the counter. That is precisely what cooking's all about!
Thanks Organic Batter Blaster, but I'll save my pointing and blasting for other things. Like paintball, perhaps.

Mark Bittman's Everyday Pancakes
(nb. I chose this recipe because he writes, "pancakes are made from a simple, forgiving batter...everyday pancake batter whips up in no time and can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days..." Preservative-free, it sounds like a better Batter Blaster to me.)
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2-2 cups milk
2 tbsp melted butter, + more un-melted butter for pan
mix-ins (frozen blueberries, ripe bananas, chocolate chips, etc)
And, you guessed it, REAL maple syrup. (Even organic Aunt Jemima belongs with the Batter Blaster.)

Heat non-stick griddle or skillet over medium heat. Mix together dry ingredients. Beat eggs into 1 1/2 cups milk. Stir in melted butter. Combine dry ingredients with milk mixture. Mix gently until flour is just moistened, adding more milk if batter seems too thick. Add desired mix-ins. Place a little butter on the skillet, and when it foams add a spoonful of pancake batter. Cook about 2-4 minutes each side, flipping when small bubbles appear in the center of the pancakes. Serve warm with syrup.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Weather Report: Soup's On

It's raining in LA.
In fact, it's been raining in LA since about Friday. Wet. Cold. Rain. As a New England-er I shouldn't be so put out by this. (Especially since my in-laws are on day 5 without electricity toughing-out New Hampshire's ice storm.) But let me assure you it is quite easy to get accustomed to 70 degree sunshine 12-months of the year.

In truth, I love the rain. But I prefer the kind that comes in the depths of summer, that stirs-up the musty smell of dirt and just-mowed grass, that makes you want to run through puddles barefoot. Today's kind of rain -- the windy, damp kind that brings 45 degree temps to my coastal street, and heavy snow at 2000 feet -- is the kind of rain that makes you want to pull on your favorite sweats, curl up on the couch with a good (cook)book, and make soup.
So, I did just that. The best thing about making soup is that you really don't need a recipe at all.

1. Grab a nice big pot.

2. Saute some onions and maybe some carrots in a bit of olive oil.
3. Throw in whatever you've got hanging out in the pantry-- beans, potatoes, pasta, squash. (I was recently delighted by the variety of Trader Joe's 17 Bean and Barley mix.)

4. Now see what's lying around the fridge-- tomatoes, zucchini, greens, some herbs.

5. Add some liquid -- stock's nice, but water will do.

6. Let it simmer.
7. Depending on the ingredients, smooth it out with an immersion blender -- but only if you wish.

8. Serve it up in deep bowls, maybe topped with a little olive oil and some nice grated Parmesan.

9. Dust off an old movie, a favorite book, or round up your kids and re-tell the tale of the two beggars in Stone Soup.

10. Savor every moment of the comfort and warmth this little bowl provides you and your family. And don't be surprised to discover it's even better tomorrow.

And when the rain stops, soup may still be your family's security blanket. As Ad Age reports, selling soup is the number 1 recession-proof marketing strategy.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

And the Economist Says...

...Wake up your kitchen!! Plug in the blender, dust-off the mixing bowls, and GET COOKING!

Today's lead story in at least two of the nation's best food sections is enough to make restaurateurs, butchers, and gourmet artisans cringe:

"From Dining Out to Cold Turkey", headlines the New York Times. "Food Lessons from the Great Depression," writes Mary MacVean for the LA Times.

In the LA Times, we read about depression-era recipes that encouraged families to make do with the little they had. Nothing says government bailout like sour grass soup and water cocoa. In the NY Times, we learn that 60% of Americans are cooking at home more and dining out less. And Ball canning supplies are up a whopping 92% from this time last year. It was also bleak a month ago, when the Times reported that the packers at a Minnesota Spam factory were practically working 8-days a week to keep up with demand for the infamous recession meat. Meanwhile, grocery stores continue to see double-digit increases in sales of inexpensive mainstays like rice and beans.

Okay, so Americans might have made some mistakes when they signed up for those variable rate loans, but it seems like they might be on the right track when it comes to nourishment. The one glaring difference between the Great Depression (1.0) and our current economic crisis? The role children play in the family meal.

Take, for example, Hattie Adkins, now 76, who recalls being a locavore before it was cool. Her family ate whatever was cheapest and closest, including wild rabbits from the nearby woods. As MacVean reminds us, this was a few generations back when "cooking was a family affair, with children sent to pick food from the garden or shell peas. With SAT prep classes or soccer or ballet, many families are lucky to get their kids to the dinner table at all."

(AGH. PLEASE don't get me started.)

Fast forward to 2008. Meet Tracey Gist, the Pennsylvania resident quoted in the NY Times article. She used to take her family to restaurants for dinner most nights of the week. But with the economy as it is, she's cutting back. And her kids are not pleased. In fact, they actually complained about a recent home-cooked roast chicken their mom served, and opted for canned ravioli instead! (I'm sure Ms. Adkins would have been delighted at the mere prospect of such a feast.) Ms. Gist mimics her daughters' fickle tastes: "it doesn’t matter what it is [I make] if it doesn’t come on a menu." Well you know what I have to say to this mom? TOO BAD. Get a menu. Put dinner on it. And if they don't eat it, well, that's what we call depression-era cutbacks.

In these uncertain economic times, it seems one thing is certain. Your kids will probably starve before they skin a wild rabbit or eat sour grass soup. ("Is that real grass? EWWW!!!")

But cooking at home is healthier, and it is cheaper than going out. (Barbara Kingsolver proves it on every page in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.) And does it really take that much more time? Many say no. Before economists turn cooking into a depression-era-only activity, let's also remember all the joys that come from a home-cooked meal. And it gets even better when kids actually help with the cooking. Schedule cooking dinner into your kids' lives -- right before SAT class and after soccer practice -- and teach them the kitchen skills they need.

That way, when they are parents themselves, and Depression 3.0 hits, they won't be one of the millions trading take-out for a nice can of Spam.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

DeeDee, Meet Nintendo DS

My great-grandmother DeeDee was born over a century ago. In the 90+ years of her life, she witnessed everything from the Great Depression (that'd be 1.0), and the golden years of Ford (not 2008), to the proliferation of telecommunications and the personal computer. She nearly saw Al Gore invent the Internet.

But if there was one thing in the 21st century that would have really surprised her -- I mean blown her out of the water -- it'd be the Nintendo DS Personal Trainer: Cooking.

You see, before Nintendo, DeeDee was the original "personal trainer of cooking". DeeDee was an unbelievable cook. Her apple pie was the kind of dessert that could bring a dueling family together. She spent decades coaching my mom on the secrets of perfect pie dough, buttery ruggelah, moist roast chicken -- and there was nothing she cherished more. Some of my earliest kitchen memories are of DeeDee, my mom, and my cousins, gathered in her yellow kitchen tasting and laughing away. She embraced the true spirit of the kitchen, sharing the love and adventure that went into each recipe, and it showed in her food and in the memories that were created. It's been over 15 years since DeeDee passed away, and the smell of a perfect apple pie can still bring my mom to tears.

The problem of course, is that Nintendo-generated cooking "lessons" (and in fact there are others -- over 30 cooking apps on the iPhone alone!) are actually setting out to eliminate the priceless moments I shared with DeeDee in her kitchen -- the very human experience that is cooking! The conversations, the friendships, the tasting, the sharing, the mistakes -- the highly cherished passing down of family recipes from generation to generation!!! Can a computer take this away?

I can almost hear it now:

"So, Chef, where did you learn to cook?"
"Well, my first "real experience" was playing Cooking Mama, the absurdly popular cartoon game that pre-dated Personal Trainer, when I first used a chefs' knife. Next, I learned to use a can-opener in that very same game! Before I knew it, I was working with real knives, and I stir-fried some chicken with my GameBoy guiding me every step of the way. I scored a thumbs-up, moved onto quiche 101, and I've been the executive chef at Le Cirque ever since."


It's as if the makers of Nintendo have already heard my complaints and have their defense ready. A page on the website for Personal Trainer: Cooking, features 3 different videos showing 2 friends, a family, and a couple, all cooking together with their Nintendo DS coaching their every step. (And I mean literally, Every. Single. Step.) The videos are painful to watch. The young couple acts like they've never been to a grocery store or made a grocery list, never held a knife, never boiled rice. (Which, by the way, they do with a rice cooker, so we're not exactly talking brain surgery here.) It takes them 6 long and slow steps just to cut a cucumber.

While I realize not everyone has a DeeDee to help coach them through the basics of cooking, I just can't accept that learning from Nintendo is a substitute. There are neighbors and grandmas, uncles and aunts, who are eager to share their love for homemade goodness. Families who cook together share experiences that can't always be had outside of the kitchen. DeeDee passed on her passion and enthusiasm for cooking to my mom. And my mom gave me that very same gift. Would I really be excited about cooking dinner 7 nights a week if I had learned to cook from an electronic machine?

My favorite line of the video is when the young man remarks, "Wow, I can't believe Nintendo is going to tell us what to eat for dinner!"

Me neither.

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Video Insight: Edible Schoolyard

If you've ever wondered how Alice Waters' Schoolyard really works, watch these kids transform seeds into dinner.

Read the full story that appeared in edutopia, or visit the Edible Schoolyard's website, here.

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