cooking with kids

Surviving First Grade

by Lisa

Or:  Surviving 3 months of Migraines.

Or: Surviving Afterschool without Insanity.

Or: Getting Dinner on the Table. Fast.

Or: What to Do About Dinner When You and/or Your Children Just Can’t Cope.

The adjustment to first grade was hard for us.  Ella loved school–more than ever, really–but she was also completely exhausted by it.  She’d emerge onto the blacktop each day looking about as disheveled and worn down as it’s possible for a child to look without having a 103 degree fever.  Then she had to do homework–not a lot, mind you, it was truly a very small amount–but early on, anything that involved sitting upright was, well, rough.  This situation was compounded by the fact that during these months I was beset by several migraines a week, for which I was prescribed heavy doses of medication which made thinking impossible, cooking difficult, and any amount of added stress nearly unbearable.  It was not a good time for our family.  My husband had started a new position, too, which required longer hours, so help at and with dinner and bed wasn’t forthcoming either.

In the clear-headed, quiet moments (there were a very few),  I had to figure out how to feed my very tired, very hungry children with a minimum of stress and preparation. The difficult part was that my daughter especially needed the most attention and care and supervision during the witching hours, between 3 and 5 pm, when I would normally prep  dinner.  But back then, spending more than 15 minutes on dinner was pretty much out of the question.

And while we do have some good places for take-out (delivery, not so much), that would have involved piling the kids in & out of the car and driving–which was out of the question.   If you can imagine back to how you felt during those first days of bringing your newborn home from the hospital, when even defrosting the meals you & your friends had painstakingly stockpiled in the freezer, you can get a pretty good idea of my exhaustion during this time.

I knew that part of surviving these early days and adjusting to the new routine would involve keeping Ella rested and well-fed, and developing a calm routine. Devising how to do this was a major part of feeding my family in the last months of ’08.  Now that my health has returned, and Ella manages school swimmingly, I can still use the general principles I developed back then on those days when things run late, or spin out of control, or the best laid plans run amuck. Which, of course, they sometimes do. So, for what it’s worth, here are my emergency strategies and plans for those busiest, terrible days.

My first strategy:  The Snack.  Right after school, I sat Ella & brother down for a good snack. Sometimes this would be a cookie or two & milk. Sometimes it would be whatever fresh fruit we had from the farmer’s market. Sometimes it was fresh almonds or pistachios, which we also get from the farmers market in all sorts of great savory and sweet flavors. Sometimes it was fresh popcorn.  I pretty much let her eat a small amount of whatever made her happy.  Happiness is good and so, I believe, are most things, in moderation.

For dinner, planning is essential.

1. Many side dishes can all be prepped and ready to go hours ahead:

I work from home, so it’s possible for me to get one or two things started at lunchtime, or right after lunch.  I still do this all the time. I can wash and prep vegetables and set them in their pots to simmer/steam. This might involve broccoli, spinach, green beans–whatever is in season.  I left little pots of carrots or radish or celery in the refrigerator to set out before dinner. If I’ve made a batch of homemade Thousand Island dressing, I throw that on the table too. It’s delicious, and it keeps. The principle is to get as much done when a) I’m not so tired and b) my kids aren’t both home and tired and doing homework and cranky.  Getting side dishes ready to get frees me up to be with them and cook a really simple main dish right when it’s time to eat.

  • Since we eat whatever is seasonal and fresh from our farmer’s market, digging into my vegetable bin for a side dish or two is really, really simple.  Vegetables can be simmered or steamed in a matter of minutes, or very quickly sauteed with garlic, add olive oil, salt. I add a squeeze of lemon juice or drizzle a balsamic or red vinegar, and we’re all very happy.
  • Use canned white beans, add olive oil, maybe a small amount of garlic (you can even crush a clove and let it sit, it will flavor just as well; just take it out after a few hours),  sage, a sprinkling of salt. You don’t even have to heat them up.
  • If you can remember to put potatoes in the oven, there’s not much simpler than a baked one. But I often forget even to do this.
  • Rice. Prep and start the rice cooker early. In a pinch, I have been known to rely on TJ frozen, precooked rice. It’s fast and good.
  • Nothing beats a good loaf of bread.  I always keep some in the freezer to heat up with dinner if nothing else inspires.

2. Main Dish.

Eggs are your friend. Especially if you buy excellent eggs directly from a farmer, there’s not much better or faster than a good omelet or plate of scrambled eggs.  My kids both love to make/eat eggs, and when eggs are freshest (right now) they’re a real treat. Even if you pay $7/dozen, it’s still one of the cheapest sources of protein you can find.  For the grown-ups, pair it with a salad, crusty bread, and a glass of wine.  You can also fry them in a mix olive oil/butter +garlic + herbs and serve over pasta. It’s delicious.  Right now, eggs are coming into markets and if you’re lucky, you’ll find the ones from Happy Quail Farms whose yolks can be nearly red.  They’re amazing.

Simple Spaghetti. Many of these exist. We like canned tuna + olive oil + capers + lemon zest. Cacio e pepe=spaghetti + lots of finely shaved grana padano + pepper.  Fresh tomatoes (though they weren’t in season most of the fall, so this didn’t work) + black beans + olive oil + balsamic + basil + fresh mozzerella (a raw sauce). The list goes on.

Quiche. You can make this hours ahead and reheat or serve room temperature.

Precooked sausages.  You can do a lot with many of the “natural”, uncured sausages & kielbasas available these days.  They can be heated in your convection/regular oven in a matter of minutes, paired with white beans, added in the final minutes to a roast of apples & onions.   I use a very small amount of meat, and add sides.

Ham steaks. Niman ranch makes an excellent uncured hamsteak that cooks in about 5 minutes.  After you cook it, you can deglaze the pan with hard cider or beer or or just water, add some honey, mustard, shallots if you’re inspired, and you have a nice sauce. Ham is great with a baked potato and salad.

Fish tacos. For these, you can use frozen, breaded tilapia or cod filets, or, better, use an inexpensive fresh fish from your fishmonger, like red snapper. Salt the fresh fish, drizzle with lemon & olive oil, & broil in about ten minutes.  Salsa, sour cream, cilantro, mayo, and lime make a good baja-style sauce, and you buy fresh or precut cabbage, avocado/guacamole, etc. The kids can assemble their own with some help.

Frozen Tamales. There are several great, organic brands on the market these days. Keep them and some prepared guacamole in your freezer. Always

Trader Joes Maryland Crabcakes. Like tamales, we always have some of these on hand. They’re really, really good. Serve Sponge-Bob Style on a roll, with lettuce and tomatoes, or naked with faux aioli made with smashed up garlic, salt, lemon and mayo.

Roast Chicken. For me, this is one of the easiest things to cook. If I’m home, I prep & start it roasting at lunch or late afternoon, then it’s ready to serve for an early dinner.  OR–I’ll roast a larger chicken on the weekend, with extra potatoes, carrots, onions.  Then, with the help of a frozen pie crust & a quick bechamel I can make chicken pot pies.  These can be made in about 20 minutes prep time at lunch: divide the ingredients, make the bechamel, top with crust. Then you can refrigerate until it’s time to cook or bake right away and reheat.  I use individual serving dishes for the kids, and to the already cooked chicken and vegetables, you can add a handful of frozen peas, frozen green beans, fresh spinach–these days, Ella & Finn decide what they want.  The kids adore these, and like to put action figures and princesses on top of their crusts for presentation.  Or the kids can just eat leftovers, reheated in the pan sauce, and my husband and I can eat a composed salad, with the dressing made from the drippings.

Shrimp. Fresh, frozen, fresh frozen from my fisherman. Nothing cooks more quickly.  Add rice + vegetable+ soy based dipping sauce=easy Japanese style bowl. Or sautee in butter + lemon + wine for a scampi, server with bread and salad.  There’s also this Grilled New Orleans Style Shrimp (you don’t actually have to turn on your grill, just pan sautee)  if you like hot–not for most kids.

Fresh fish. Petrale sole can be cooked a la meuniere (dredged in flour and pan fried in butter) in a matter of minutes then topped with lemon/caper butter.    I can sometimes get fresh albacore tuna from my fisherman and it can can be grilled or broiled or pan seared and served with a Korean soy dipping sauce and rice. Very, very fast, clean cooking.  Scallops, same thing, but served with caper/butter/lemon sauce.  But they’re not cheap.

Pancakes. I was not above serving pancakes and fruit for dinner. Not the good kind. The kind from a box.  Of course, a big, big hit.

A good meatloaf can be made ahead–at lunchtime or even the night before.   Mine is never the same, but maybe I’ll blog this soon.

Pesto. I made, during the summer, in the height of basil season, dozens of batches of pesto and froze them, enough in each bag to dress pasta for one family dinner. This saved me many, many times.   It’s still saving me.

3.  Use your freezer. I also learned to rely on a few decent, frozen prepared foods that my kids loved, and we kept these in the freezer.  I have never in my life done this, and it does sort of horrify me, but many times these things saved me.

  • Instant Miso. Add tofu, a side of rice (fresh or frozen), and potstickers.
  • TJ Potstickers
  • TJ (frozen) Organic Jasmine Rice
  • TJ Teryaki Chicken  (This comes in a bag, and I sort of think it’s gross, but for a few months, my kids loved it. Now they’ve gone off it, but if you can bear to buy non-organic chicken, it’s worth trying as an emergency supply)
  • TJ Frozen, Cooked Edamame, makes a terrific side dish
  • TJ Maryland Crabcakes. See above.
  • Tofu + premade simmer sauce
  • Tamales (see above)
  • Pesto (made fresh in the summer and stockpiled….)

Generally speaking the trick is to get the freshest produce you can find, which you can cook very simply.  Stock up on canned beans and rice and freeze a really good baguette or two. Decide on a few main dishes that you know your family really loves that you know can be cooked very, very quickly.  Keep a few things in your freezer for emergencies–not what I keep, necessarily, but things like these that your whole family will like.  Let me know, too, what you’ve found that’s uber fast and (mostly) fresh.

De Gustibus: Kumquat Marmalade & Veggie Bacon Sandwich

by Caroline

Sometimes I think about this phrase, “learning to eat” quite literally: who first learned how to break through all the artichoke plant’s thorny defenses and found the fleshy ends of the leaves, and the sweet, tender heart? How many people became ill from eating rhubarb leaves before someone learned that the stems are the edible part of that plant?

Then I think of the various food combinations that delight me, and I wonder about their origins. Did someone sprinkle salt, instead of sugar, on their caramel by accident one day? Who first thought to pair figs with cheese, and then hit on the particularly transcendent match of fig jam and manchego? Did two people, one nibbling a chocolate bar, one with a jar of peanut butter, really collide, as the old commercial would have it, to discover the happy  marriage of chocolate and peanut butter?

Marketing and eating with kids has me think about these questions all the time. Although at dinner we make one meal and sit down together to eat it, at breakfast and lunch I tend just to list a few of the available options and let the kids decide what combination of foods will make the meal. Their palates are different from mine, and also changing much more rapidly, so they need to learn what they like. For awhile this meant Ben’s breakfast was a bowl of yogurt with some graham crackers and sun dried tomatoes on the side. Eli’s lunch today was edamame and yogurt. A little weird, but perfectly nutritious. We don’t really aim for balanced meals around here (except at dinner); we aim for a balanced day.

Today at the market, Ben spied kumquat marmalade; he’s been on a bit of a kumquat kick lately, and loved the marmalade taste he was offered. On the drive home from the market, we talked about ways to incorporate the new jar of marmalade into his lunch, since I wasn’t going to let him just spread jam on bread and call it a meal (a mom I do lunch duty with at Ben’s school goes so far as to call jam on bread “cake.” I’m not that tough, I just suggest my kids eat some carrots on the side).  “Peanut butter,” I suggested, “some slices of cheese, veggie bacon…” I was tired, and sort of forgetting the main player in the sandwich. “Veggie bacon!” called Ben from the back seat; “Kumquat marmalade and veggie bacon sandwich!” Well, I thought, maybe this would be the new fig jam and manchego.

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The combination of salty and sweet, crunchy and sticky, has some definite appeal. I’m not sure we’re setting a new food trend here, but you won’t know until you try it.

Birthday Cakes

For all the baking I do, you’d think I would have one, standard, go-to birthday cake.

But I don’t. I have dozens of cookbooks, and I want to explore them. I baked most of the way through Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Cake Hall of Fame (in Feast) and found many excellent cakes to add to the repertoire (Chocolate Guinness cake, anybody?) before losing interest when I arrived at the tropical chocolate cake. Then of course my friends and family members suggest recipes, and magazines arrive with others. Plus, every year brings new  requirements.  Sometimes we want cupcakes for a party:

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And sometimes we just want a simple layer cake for family:

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Sometimes the birthday boy participates in the baking:

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And sometimes he just draws me a diagram:

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This year, we haven’t talked about his birthday cake at all, so I am planning for the first time to make a cake with a picture on it: of an airplane (of course) for my aviation-obsessed boy. I’ll make crazy cake (since we’re baking vegan for my niece these days), and plan to use a vegan vanilla frosting (and various food colorings) to create the airplane. As it turned out, Tony did the decorating (our first birthday cake division of labor!), and the birthday boy was well pleased:

note the fab sprinkle jet trails...

note the fab sprinkle jet trails...


Kumquat Popsicles: A Dessert/Craft Project

by Caroline

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A couple years ago, an Amanda Hesser food column in the Sunday Times Magazine inspired me to do a little popsicle/craft project with kumquats.

Kumquats are an odd little fruit — the peel is the sweet part, while the inner fruit is quite tart — and I lived over thirty years without ever eating one. But here in California, kumquats are one of the available fruits this time of year, and so we eat them.

Back when I first read the article, Ben had never heard of the fruit, so I started by manufacturing excitement; just saying “kumquat” a few times was all it took. Try it. We had a brief setback, the night before market day, when Ben fell prostrate to the floor, crying “But I want kumquats now!” But we got past that, and in fact, the interval between getting the fruit into the house and eating the finished product is quite short, which is always a bonus when you’re cooking with people for whom the phrase “delayed gratification” is a contradiction in terms.

So if you happen to see some kumquats in your market, try this with your kids.

Kumquat Popsicles

Note: the original recipe calls for dipping the kumquats in raw egg white to help the sugar stick, but that step’s unnecessary (and runs the very slight risk of exposing you to salmonella). The kumquat juice is enough to do the job.

You need kumquats, a dish of cinnamon sugar, and some toothpicks.

Slice the kumquats in half horizontally. Use the point of the knife to flick out any seeds.

Ben slicing the fruit

Ben slicing the fruit

Stick a toothpick into the stem end so that you’ve got a handle.

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Dip the cut end of the fruit into the sugar and cinnamon.

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Lay the fruit on a freezer-proof plate or tray, and then stick into the freezer for an hour or so.

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Or eat before they’re frozen.

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We might not have Paris…

by Lisa

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Not long ago, on a family trip to San Francisco, Ella, Finley, and I found ourselves staring at the counter of a French bakery, at a pile of croissants.  They didn’t know what they were, and as I explained to them the wonder that is a croissant, I found myself telling them not about croissant, exactly, and how good they can be, but about the summer I spent working in the French Alps at  a summer camp.  They know many stories from this time, including the fact that no one, not a soul, spoke even a word of English, so I was forced very quickly to abandon all pretense of speaking, looking, or acting even vaguely English-speaking.  They know that we ate baguette and cheese, or sugared candy or chocolate every day for afternoon snack.  They know that my first night, on the all night train, the youngest child, an adorable little 4-year old, looked up at me and said, “But you don’t speak French” (in French, of course), when I had uttered what I thought was a perfectly comprehenisble sentence in French.  Things changed quickly and by the end of the summer, I could enter the mountain village store and be served and local restaurant and be served without disdain; I dreamed in French, and upon my return to Paris functioned like a native speaker. Sadly, this is no longer true.

France was also the place where I learned to eat meat again, but that’s another story. The anecdote I found myself telling my children a we stared at that golden counter was about breakfast.

On the counselor’s mornings off, we got to order from the bakery, which meant croissant–plain, chocolate, etc.–and whatever we wanted would be brought to our room, with our choice of cafe au lait, chocolate chaud, etc…It was quite wonderful to wake up to perfect croissant and eat them and go right back to sleep while the French children screamed.

And every morning we drank big bowls of cafe au lait or chocolate, too, which Ella and Finn found really funny.

Not long after, as I was marketing I spied a box of frozen TJ chocolate croissants, so of course I bought them, and for some reason had the impulse to sneak them into my cart so Ella didn’t see.  Of course, Caroline and her family were fortunate enough to travel and eat in France last summer, and you can read about it all beginning here, but for the forseeable future, I’m going to have to recreate a little bit of France in our California home, so I bought the box.

We were in the midst of a rainy long weekend, and while many were away on ski weekends, I had been baking, and braising and nesting and so that night, I planned a petit dejeuner. The croissants are frozen, and you place them out on a cookie sheet overnight to proof, or rise.   I did this, set the table, boiled some eggs, set out bowls for the chocolate and coffee, prepped the espresso machine, and filled a bowl of fresh fruit.

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I also left a sign that said “Do Not Touch! Not Cooked!” on the croissants, since Ella and Finn are known to be curious when it comes to food, and they were bound to be up first.

The next morning, Ella was exuberant: “I can’t wait to taste my first croissant!” she said, and while they were baking, I made the chocolate and coffee and whipped some cream.  They thought the bowls of chocolate chaud were hysterical, but they happily slurped them up just like a child should on a cold, rainy holiday morning.

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When the croissant came out, Finn knew right away he was on to a good thing, because the moment he picked one up–before putting a single bite near his mouth– he exclaimed, “Mmmmm!  They’re so buttery and warm!”  And even though they are not the best croissant you will ever have, they were lovely, and that is all you really need to know.

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