May 16, 2012
I always tell folks that I love, love, love cooking.
By cooking, I mean working magic in a clean kitchen. Playing with ingredients..adding a little bit of this or that with Martini in hand and some fun Bhangara playing in the background. Being organized enough to clean as I go and sitting down to that meal with the only concern - tossing a coin to see who would wash dishes and who would dry.
But...if I had to be honest, I would admit that I HATE making dinner.
Fast forward furiously and you have my life now, post Neha (age 9) and Aria (age 7). I still love to cook - when I get the chance. But more often I'm the enforcer - making dinner and ensuring that my young girls appreciate it and eat enough of it to fuel their bodies and their little growing minds. There are days when I admit I positively hate this process.
Though my girls eat really well compared to most - they can be finicky in their own ways. Neha was born when I was a commodities reporter for Bloomberg News - rushing up and down two flights of stairs to pop myself in front of a camera affixed to a balcony at the top of The Chicago Board of Trade financial futures floor. Do you ever watch Rick Santelli on CNBC? Well, I was his neighbor on most hits and his Bloomberg counterpart (though could never love financial futures the way that man does!)
Needless to say, working early mornings meant Neha got quick, easy, fresh meals and ingredients. She got a ton of fruit and veggies. Very little prep, and the less complicated the better. That's how she eats to this day. Clean. Fresh. But not always available when we go out. She's the one that will fuss if pizza has too much sauce. She won't even try lasagna (even though she manifested herself into Garfield at age 3 for six months straight). On one visit to Oahu, Hawaii when she was an infant, she lived on sliced tomatoes for three days straight until she got a major diaper rash and I finally thought to take her to my favorite Indian restaurant down the street from the University of Hawaii campus. Dal was our savior that night.
Aria is the exact opposite. She loves sauces, dips, and ketchup on anything and everything.
Making a meal that they are both perfectly happy with takes work, patience, and a lot of tongue biting. But, I'm learning it can be done. In the coming weeks and months I'll tell you more about how you can do this with your own kids - teach them how to love fruits and veggies, without having the hide them in their favorite foods.
But first..let me clue you in on something that will help you immensely in the daily fight to get dinner on the table. Prep. Prep. Prep.
That's right. Something that the best chefs know about but that home cooks often overlook in their haste to get groceries put away and in their excitement to get right into a meal. I know to do this very thing whenever I host a party or cook in someone's home, but in my own home for the last year I have to admit we've been skating by. It's been quite frustrating having been in the middle of a major book project but still needing to feed a family at the end of the day (because the rule is always not to want to eat what mommy tested that day). And so the weekly battle of what to make and finding the time to actually make it would become one more burden to bear in my day.
Until I came across a recent Tribune article about how to effectively shop Farmer's Markets. In it, reporter Monica Eng gives one especially critical tip - prep! Take your groceries home and immediately get them ready to go. Don't put them in the fridge w/out trimming and cleaning. Because once they are stuffed in all the crevices in plastic bags, you'll either forget about them or get too overwhelmed after a busy day and just order take out anyway.
So, for the last 2 weeks I've been adhering to this advice religiously. Every time the organic shipment is delivered on a Wed. afternoon, and/or when I come home with groceries, I take all the cucumbers, cauliflower, celery, apples, oranges..etc. etc. out of their respective packaging, put them in big bowls of water for a wash and scrub down if needed, and then onto a large dish towel for drying.
A few tips on cleaning. You know all the lemon halves that you've squeezed the juice out of during the week? Keep them in a bowl in your fridge and then throw them in the bowl with your fruit and veggies. The small amounts of juice that is left will help cut through dirt without hurting a thing. Though there are vegetable washes out there, they've never been truly proven to work - so why spend the money?
Get yourself a veggie scrubber as well. Available about just about anywhere kitchen tools are sold, these bristly little brush will do wonders on carrots, daikon, and potatoes, getting the grime off and often eliminating the need to use a peeler. Though many folks say avoid washing items like strawberries and blueberries ahead of eating because they will spoil more quickly - I find that they are just fine if I dry everything first.
Do not put your produce back in your fridge wet. Take the time to let it sit out for an hour and dry out or take a dish towel and hand dry your items as best you can. Our berries are magically gone as soon as they are washed, trimmed, and put in the fridge. The alternative is that they sit and eventually spoil because everyone was too lazy to grab, wash, trim, and then eat them as they hurried out the door to start their day. Better yet, layer paper towels or a dish towel on the bottom of your crisper or containers before putting things into the fridge so that the small amount of dampness can continue to be absorbed.
This process that likely won't take you more than an hour --- will save you so much time and effort during your week you'll want to kiss me. I used to detest making my girls' lunches. Now, everything is prepped and washed, and putting together a salad take seconds...a seemingly simple carrot and celery stick snack actually is so simple, because I don't have to drag the veggies to the sink, then peel them, then cut up. Even going to pick up the kids from school is now a breeze. I just grab a few pieces of fruit, cut them up and throw them into a large container. The kids can then pick and choose whatever they want in the car on the way home.
A couple of tips that I've learned a long the way -- for fruit that has a thick peel, i.e. watermelon and pineapple, cut it into small triangles with the rind still attached to one side. So, instead of all the fruit going bad quickly - it seems to last a lot longer and stay fresher in lunch boxes. For bananas, just cut pieces with the skin intact. The kids can peel them at school or on the playground - it's much better than cutting the whole thing up and expecting it to hold up to lunchtime.
Eng, in her article, recommends putting some music on and making this a fun process. I recommend that AND enlisting the help of your little ones. Aria loves using the veggie scrubber, and Neha feels so grown up if I let her use a knife (supervised of course) to trim the carrots or daikon. Both, whenever I have them help, tend to dig into the produce, munching away while 'helping'.
Of course this process will take a tad longer than going it solo, but it gets your little ones thinking about and appreciating good food and the time and effort it takes to put their meals together. And who knows, it may just make you (the cook)...love, love, love to even make dinner.
I know I've almost been converted!