Anatomy of a Pseudo-Foodie Family

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My go-to cookbooks are personal compilations.

Our go-to cookbooks are personal compilations. Bottom: main dishes, Italian family recipes, and desserts. Top: Appetizers, vegetables, starches, breakfast, sandwiches. We also keep the laundry detergent recipe in here. (You can see it peeking out from behind the tenderloin recipe.)

Item: one of Alex’s first words was “creme brulee.”

Item: when our kids go over to other people’s houses and get asked what they want for dinner, they have been known to ask for “crab quiche.”

Item: we’ve started doing cheese tastings with the kids.

We love food in our house. And over the years, Christian & I have gotten a number of chuckles out of the un-kid-like way our kids look at it. We’re not hard-core foodies, mostly because we have four kids and we’re too cheap to be. (Because, yanno, we have to be.) But as I’ve noted before, it’s all about the food.

I like to cook. For a time, as a preteen/teen, my mom paid me $5 a week to make dinner for the family. We had a set repertoire of meals, perhaps because she’d learned we would all eat them. I remember her teaching me: bacon grease in the skillet to fry the pork steaks/pork chops/round steaks/T-bones (though we might also broil or grill those), then pour some water in and cover them up to cook. There was also fried chicken, chili, spaghetti, “Aunt Jo’s hamburger dish,” burgers, barbecued chicken, and hash (which is soup bones cooked & separated and served as a stew with potatoes over bread). And of course a handful of fishy recipes for Fridays. Tuna casserole, tuna gravy over rice, microwaved perch.

I have to credit that period of time, however long or short it was, with setting me and my family on a trajectory toward cooking. Even at that time I wanted to experiment with recipes, although my experiments were pretty innocuous (chopped mushrooms in the spaghetti, anyone?).

These days, Christian jokes that I’ll say I’m making baked chicken but I’ll end up with fish tacos instead. If I don’t have an ingredient, or I know I don’t like it (hello, tarragon), I’ll substitute something else. (Anything sweet is better with cinnamon in it.) And, being on a healthy eating kick the last few years, I’m constantly trying to work super vegetables into things. Spinach is my go-to. It gets chopped up and put in every stew we eat, including chili.

But one thing I don’t do is lie to my kids about it. I made a decision early on to be straight with them. If they ask if it has onions in it, I tell them, “Yes.” Spinach? “Yes.” Mushrooms? “Yes.” Always followed by the words, “Eat it anyway.”

All my kids are really good eaters, who are not scared of spinach, because we insisted on a healthy, balanced diet when they were little and they got used to it. I don’t make anyone eat starches if they don’t want them (Alex used to gag on mashed potatoes), and there are times when we’ll compromise. The cubanos were a little exotic for them, for example. But by and large, they are very good eaters.

There are many things about myself as a parent about which I feel insecure, but this is not one of them. We endured the battles when they were little. We had budding picky eaters; we just refused to coddle them. I was not going to make separate meals for kids, and I want to eat widely and with great variety. Ergo, so will they. Every one of them went through a phase (around age 3) where dinner was a battle. I had almost given up hope on getting through it with Nicholas when he finally came around. Julianna scavenges broccoli scraps from people’s plates. (Broccoli!) Michael is the last holdout, and has been known to sit at the table for forty minutes to finish his meat (oddly, it’s not usually the vegetables.)

We’re not perfect. I’ve never been able to develop a taste for the beans and legumes that would allow us more variety in our meatless meals. But I love that our kids have a taste for a variety of food and that they’re not scared of trying new things. Last week at the zoo in Omaha we had them try sambusa, for instance. They were lukewarm about it, but nobody objected to trying it. And all our food conversations involve discussion of protein, vegetable, fruit, and starch. I feel like I’m growing kids who are going to take their food seriously—in the best possible way.

Travelogue, Day 4: Gumbo Recipe

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Thursday:

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All tuckered out

All tuckered out

Today about half of the cousins go up the Estes aerial tram while most of the rest go horseback riding. Initially I’m worried that it’s a tourist trap, but it turns out to be a great place: rocks to climb, a breathtaking view, even a trail we don’t end up having time for. Then we head down to the Alluvial Fan for our last excursion in the Rockies, and spend the evening laughing, chatting and playing corn hole (bean bag toss) and Nerts (um, that one defies definition).

Today’s featured recipe: Agatha’s Gumbo, provided by her grandchildren Russ and Eric.

(with variations and comments from the boys, who grew up in Louisiana, to confuse clarify the matter.)

Roux:

  • 4 large onions, white or yellow, chopped
  • 1-2 bulbs of garlic, minced
  • 4 bunches green onion, chopped
  • 4 bell peppers, any color, chopped
  • 3-4 stalks celery, chopped
  • 4 sticks margarine (Imperial, Rusty says)
  • 2 c. flour (non-rising)–sift so it’s super-fine. “You don’t want lumpy roux,” says Eric. “It goes faster,” says Russ.
  • 3-4 bunches flat-leaf parsley. (Eric likes cilantro, but only 1/2-1 bunch. He also puts cinnamon sticks in his. “Dear God! says Rusty. “You’re messed up!”)

Instructions to make the roux:

Rusty: The parsley, you chop up fine and put it in a bowl off to the side. The garlic you chop up and put in a bowl as well.

All the other vegetables, you put them in one big-ass bowl by themselves, and you melt the margarine down over high heat and slowly add the flour while stirring swiftly with a whisk. You have to stir and stir and stir for about 45 minutes. As it gets hot enough it turns to a liquid. When it gets to the layer of darkness you want, you dump all the vegetables in and turn it down to simmer. (Eric: it’s close to the color of chocolate syrup. Rusty: careful, you go too damned dark, it’s too damned dark! Eric: It starts turning very, very quickly.)

Russ: Dump the vegetables in about a third at a time and stir it up. After you’ve stirred all that, then you add your garlic, let that simmer down until they all release their liquid, and then in the last 5 minutes of cooking, you add the parsley and garlic. Then you use as much as you want. It’s a thickener, a base, with the vegetable seasoning.

Finished roux

Finished roux

Stock:

Eric: Simultaneously, you want to be starting your stock. You boil your chicken, one bouillon cube to every two pieces of chicken. (For our group of around twenty-five, they used 10 chicken thighs, 6 bouillon cubes, and enough water to submerge it, plus 4 pounds of Andouille sausage.)

Rusty: I cut up half the Andouille into slices and cook it with the chicken. The other half I kept chopped up to add later. You can’t have too much water. Once the chicken’s tender, I fish them out, strip the skin, and the grease comes to the top and you skim it off. What you can’t skim, put paper towels down to soak up the oil. Put in the second half of the Andouille then.

Then you put it all together: meat, broth, roux. We used about 2/3 of the roux. You salt and pepper to taste. Use Cajun seasoning if you can find it. (They used both black and red pepper.) Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer and let it cook for 5 hours. If you want you can throw eggs in, too. Eric: “I wouldn’t do that.” Russ: “Well, I wouldn’t put cinnamon in it!”

Kate’s comments: In the end, it makes a stew in which you remove the bones. The chicken should pull apart. You can serve it with rice–Rusty pulled some of the broth to cook the rice in–and with crackers.

Gumbo, mixed with rice in the bowl

Gumbo, ready to serve

Travelogue, Day 2: Overlook Ranch and Rocky Mountain National Park

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Sunday-Monday, June 23-24, 2013:

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Alex zipline-small

After Alex falls off the zipline and sprains (jams?) his wrist, and after a “.6”-mile trail to Alberta Falls (so notated because, for reasons I can’t fathom, they don’t count the .3 miles from the trailhead to the official start of the trail in the distance) spent dragging a 6-year-old child by the arm as she whines the entire way up and down, I’m ready for some down time. We didn’t expect that “easy” trail to take more than an hour round trip, so we didn’t pack lunch. Eating lunch two hours late always makes me cranky, and hoo-boy, does Michael need a nap. So I stay behind in the cabin and send the rest of the family up to the lodge, currently devoid of cousins. When Michael falls asleep I take myself to a rocky outcropping above the cabin, where aspen and ponderosa pine quake and sigh beneath a gorgeous blue sky studded with puffy clouds. Whenever vehicles go by on the highway, it’s really noisy, but in the gaps between? Absolute silence. Almost uncanny silence. There aren’t even any insects.

Colorado Cousins Trip 091 smallThere seem to be a ridiculous number of Harleys coming up the “low-gear” hill beyond the ranch this afternoon. Finally I realize they’re trying to get someone to take a picture of them driving down the hill toward the mountain vista that gives Overlook Ranch its name. So they keep going up…and down…and up…and down….

After an hour or so, Christian calls; the cousins are returning from their rambles and assembling for the evening up at the lodge. I wake Michael, and we head up the hill.

Colorado Cousins Trip 211In the course of the evening, Rusty and Allen build a blaze in the fire pit. Paije and Cassie go to town for s’mores, and after the kids go to bed, the adults enjoy the rapidly-cooling evening around the campfire. I’m kind of surprised we’re allowed, as dry as it is, but Cassie says the owners told her the fire ban doesn’t start until Tuesday. A joke goes around the family: imagine if we accidentally started a wildfire, and for the rest of our family history everybody would say, “Remember that time Rusty burned down Rocky Mountain National Park?”

Fortunately it doesn’t come to that, either Sunday or Monday, when Rusty puts a piece of copper wire he found on his morning rambles in the wild country above the lodge into the fire, and it turns blue and green and purple.

Colorado Cousins Trip 206 smallHowever, there is adventure: Sunday night Allen plays the mother of all practical jokes after Christian and I go to bed. He buys a “bear growl” app, climbs on the roof of the stable, and hits “play.” It scares everyone half out of their mind. (Have to say I’m glad I missed that one.😉 )

Colorado Cousins Trip 215Monday we caravan with my bestest cousin along Trail Ridge Road as far as Medicine Bow Curve. It’s very, very cold, and the wind is brutal. We go out on the Alpine Tundra walk, and once again, the little kids are whining the whole time–until the ranger decides to have everyone sit down on the lee side of a tundra tree, also known as krummholz, where it’s twenty degrees warmer. Afterward, we go back up to the Alpine visitor center for lunch, after which Julianna promptly throws up. Since Nicholas also feels pretty bad, we assume it’s altitude sickness. Everyone goes to sleep, so Christian parks at Rock Cut on the way down and offers Alex and I the chance to climb that trail on our own. Walking back down, we are going into one heck of a wind.

Monday’s featured recipe: Paije’s honey-glazed sweet potato and peaches, adapted from “Fine Cooking: Cooking fresh.”

  • 1 medium sweet potato (about 3/4 lb.), peeled & cut into 1 1/2-inch sections
  • 1 c. sherry vinegar
  • 1/2 c. plus 1 T. honey
  • 2 T. canola oil plus some for the grill
  • kosher salt & fresh pepper
  • 1/2 small sweet onion, cut into 1 1/2-in. chunks, layers separated (about 4 oz.)
  • 4 small ripe but firm peaches, quartered & pitted (about 1 1/2 lb.)
  • 1/2 c. pecans, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice

Steam the sweet potatoes until almost cooked, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool slightly.

Put vinegar, 1/2 c. honey, 1 T. oil, 2 tsp salt, and 3/4 tsp. pepper in a 3-qt. saucepan. Simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally until reduced to 2/3 c., 13-15 min. Brush/toss with peaches and sweet potatoes. Paije, Cassie and Terri also used this to glaze the chicken we had for dinner.

Grill vegetables for 4-5 minutes.

Meanwhile, toss pecans in a small bowl with remaining 1 T. honey and 1 T. oil, cumin, pumpkin pie spice, 1/2 tsp. salt, and a pinch of pepper. Put a large piece of foil on the other side of the grill & scatter nuts on the foil. Grill until nuts are bubbling, 3-5 min. Toss with peaches & potatoes and serve.

Serves 4.

First World Problems

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English: Photo showing some of the aspects of ...

English: Photo showing some of the aspects of a traditional US Thanksgiving day dinner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was pulling into Macy’s yesterday afternoon when a story came on NPR about the food supply, or more accurately the lack thereof, in North Korea. When I think of North Korea, I think of world security, nuclear weapons and a hostile dictator–but I’ve never thought of starvation. Until now.

“I saw one family, a couple with two kids, who committed suicide. Life was too hard, and they had nothing to sell in their house. They made rice porridge, and added rat poison,” he recalls. “White rice is very precious, so the kids ate a lot. They died after 30 minutes. Then the parents ate. The whole family died.”

I sat in a parking place, preparing to go into Macy’s and buy a pricey gift for someone who doesn’t need it, and my stomach flipped over. I started thinking about the things I was worrying about. A missing cell phone that I hardly ever use. The noise the car was making.

Eating few enough calories to allow me to have gingerbread for dessert.

I don’t even know what hunger is.

When I was twenty weeks pregnant with Alex, I woke up on the floor of the bathtub, Christian bending over me. I had been on metformin (to treat polycystic ovaries) for two years, and it was a new enough treatment that there wasn’t an established protocol for how long into pregnancy to continue use. Well, now we knew. For the next six weeks, my body went crazy as it tried to return to regulating sugar on its own. I felt horrible all the time, and learned to dread low blood sugar to the point where I never allow myself to get very hungry–I grab a slice of cheese, or some carrots, or a cracker or two.

The process of slimming my caloric intake has made that more complicated, but I realize now I can’t tell the difference between “hungry” and “sugar imbalanced,” and I’m too scared of the second to risk the first.

"Famine"

“Famine” (Photo credit: Anosmia)

So the voice coming out of the radio yesterday was like a mirror. I suddenly saw my family’s life, modest (even miserly) by cultural expectations, as wanton–our Thanksgiving feasts and Christmas cookies, the plethora of gifts growing under the tree, golf and scrapbooking. I thought of the five homeless men I’ve passed by lately because I was in the far lane, and the one to whom I gave a dollar. They’re all the face of Christ; how far does my responsibility extend? How do we strike a balance between enjoying the bounty we’ve been given and being wasteful, immorally profligate at the expense of others starving to death because we won’t simply give our excess to save them–because we think we need Thanksgiving feasts and new cars and acid-free scrapbooks?

The existence of poverty stretches so many fingers in so many directions, inserting uncertainty and questions into so many other issues. Half the population objects to genetically modified food, but the industry insists it’s necessary to increase yields to feed the world–that natural and organic is a path to world starvation. Is that true? Or is the real reason we need those kinds of high yields the fact that we’re a nation of gluttons? We ate at the Olive Garden on Sunday, and I scoured the menu for calorie counts ahead of time. You could easily–easily–consume 2500 calories in one meal, and not even be aware you’d done it. I ate half an entree, two fried zucchini medallions, one bowl of salad, and half a breadstick, and I consumed over 750. And was still hungry, mind you.

Last night, our Advent calendar activity was to take coffee and cereal to a local homeless shelter. It was the first really cold night of the year, and the place was full. The director invited us to stay and visit a while, but we were too uncomfortable. In the car on the way home, we talked about it. We need to do that, I said. We need to spend time with them, not just sail in like benevolent aristocrats and drop our tiny donation and escape. There were men in that room I recognize after three years of Advent visits.

What is the answer to these conundrums? I’m not claiming an answer–I’m only struggling with the questions. What is the Gospel-driven response to poverty, to hunger around the world? How far does my responsibility and yours extend? Are any of us meeting it, or are we all hoarding most of what was given to us to ease others’ suffering? Where is the line between saving to prepare a stable future for us and our children, and simply being greedy by not passing on what we aren’t using to those who have nothing?

Cheese and Crackers

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If you’re not a food person, you might not get it.

But we are food people, and it was the highlight of Thanksgiving weekend: getting to visit Cheese and Crackers, our brother (in-law/uncle)’s store in Champaign, Illinois.

Spice and yeast washed over us in ragged, hungry sniffs. Bart came out to meet us, and the kids got the first samples: chocolate, but not just any chocolate—pumpkin chocolates! They tore back and forth across the tile space while their uncle cut slices of cheese for us, whetting our appetites for the deli tray he was preparing to send us home with for dinner that night.

It was a short visit, because we had just arrived in town and everyone was hungry and tired. But on Thanksgiving Day, Bart took us back while the store was closed.

I thought I was a food person, but touring those amazing imported cheeses and meats taught me how little I know. Slice after slice came over top of the counter—some I had never heard of, some that sounded half familiar: cheeses covered with red-brown and blue-gray rinds (“it’s penicillin,” Bart said. “It’s actually very healthy to eat, it’s just some people don’t like the aesthetic”), cheeses dried and hard at the edge, meant to grate (“take the hard rind and drop it in your pasta sauce—it’ll give it a great flavor”), cheeses so soft and creamy that they nearly melted in the mouth. (We’re thinking we’ll order some to have shipped to us later–everyone who works in the store speaks the language and knows how to guide you through the selection process.)

“Alex, c’mere,” said his uncle Bart. “Come around the counter.”

And Alex’s adventure began. I’m only sorry for the poor quality of these cell phone pictures; we left the camera sitting at home.

He got to cut cheese…

…and vacuum-seal them for us.

He got to serve chocolates and watch his uncle run the meat slicer.

(Chocolates flavored like cinnamon, rum, mango, pumpkin, cheesecake, tiramisu, you name it…)

We packed the back of the van with packages of deliciousness that we have been enjoying all week. Which leads me to this most uncharacteristic “ad”-like conclusion: if you have any “foodies” you’re shopping for, take a peek at Cheese and Crackers. They can ship anywhere in the country, and man, it’s good stuff.

(Linked with Wordful Wednesday at Angie’s Seven Clown Circus)

Heaven on a Spoon

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I can go two days without. On the third, I start craving.

As dinner ends, I shoot puppy dog eyes the length of the table, broadcasting my desire, and my husband wilts, then gives in, because after all, it’s his addiction, too.

Taut nerve ends relax into the alchemy of butter and cream and sugar, poured over frozen, creamy decadence spackled with chewy dark yumminess.

There must be a penance to be paid for heaven on a spoon. It will come tomorrow morning, when I step on the scales.

Mac & Cheese, for Real

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Okay, my sister-in-law Michelle gave me this recipe, which we are trying tonight. For those who want to make the attempt alongside me.🙂

For topping

  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter
  • 2 cups panko (coarse Japanese bread crumbs) or 3 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs (from 6 slices firm white sandwich bread)
  • 1/4 pound coarsely grated extra-sharp Cheddar (1 1/2 cups)
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

For macaroni and sauce

  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 5 cups whole milk
  • 1 pound coarsely grated extra-sharp Cheddar (6 cups)
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1 pound elbow macaroni

Preparation

Make topping:
Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle.

Melt butter, then stir together with panko and topping cheeses in a bowl until combined well.

Make sauce:
Melt butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat and stir in flour. Cook roux, stirring, 3 minutes, then whisk in milk. Bring sauce to a boil, whisking constantly, then simmer, whisking occasionally, 3 minutes. Stir in cheeses, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper until smooth. Remove from heat and cover surface of sauce with wax paper.

Make Macaroni:
Cook macaroni in a pasta pot of boiling salted water (2 tablespoons salt for 4 quarts water) until al dente. Reserve 1 cup cooking water and drain macaroni in a colander. Stir together macaroni, reserved cooking water, and sauce in a large bowl. Transfer to 2 buttered 2-quart shallow baking dishes.

Sprinkle topping evenly over macaroni and bake until golden and bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes.