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Kid-Friendly Gourmet Recipe on the Cheap with a Few Strategic Replacements

April 23, 2009 1 comment
French waiter simpson

“Omelette au fromage, but cheddar fromage!” said the American. “Oui, oui, omelette au fromage,” responded the French waiter.

_____________________________________

I found a recipe that sounded yummy, healthy, quick and easy, but fancy, in my Food & Wine 2008 annual cookbook: “Italian Tuna, Green Olive and Tangerine Salad on Grilled Bread.”

So I headed to Central Market, where they have almost anything under the sun, including run-of-the-mill items, to look for the ingredients. I was pretty sure I’d find everything I needed there.

I started out by looking for the prescribed jar — not can — of “Italian tuna in olive oil.”  Who knew there was such a thing? Sure enough, there it was, in fancy glass jars, next to the common man’s tuna in tin cans. It cost about $7 for an 8-ounce jar. That seemed a bit steep to me. The chef who created the recipe preserves his own tuna in olive oil. I wasn’t up for that either, so I opted for a couple of cans instead, for more tuna at less than half the price. I figured it was close enough.  We’d never know what we were missing.

Next on the list was “Picholine” olives. I’d never heard of them, either, but also found them in the bulk olive section. It would have cost over $6 to get the 32 olives for the recipe. They weren’t even pitted. I hesitated, but decided to use the plain old store-brand pimento-stuffed green olives already in my fridge.  Those are good.

I started to remind myself of the waiter we once saw in a Paris restaurant waiting on a couple of Americans. This couple ordered an omelette au fromage (cheese omelet), but insisted, asking him in every which way they knew how, that the fromage be cheddar fromage.

The waiter kept nodding his head dismissively as only Parisian waiters can, saying, “Oui, oui, omelette au fromage.”

Fromage au cheddar?” they ventured. It just had to be cheddar fromage.

Omelette au fromage,” he maintained. There are a hundreds of cheeses in France, but cheddar just really isn’t one of them. He knew what was good for them, and it wasn’t cheddar.

Like the waiter, I held my ground against the recipe’s fussy requirements while I found several more sub-gourmet substitutions for them.  I guess the difference being that the waiter had something better for the Americans, unbeknownst to them, while I wasn’t sure what I was settling for would be better, but it would have to do.

Instead of tangerines, I got a couple of mandarins, which were cheaper. They were perfect in the recipe, peeling and separating easily, but I might try using even cheaper regular oranges next time.

Instead of buying fresh chives, since the ones in my garden are still too little to cut, I used some regular green onion tops out of the garden. Free! Instead of a shallot (small, delicately flavored pink onion) at $4 a pound, I used part of a regular onion, which I had paid 50¢ a pound for at the 99¢ Only Store.

We ate my own simplified version of “Tuna, Green Olive and Tangerine Salad on Toast” today for lunch, for the second time.  I can’t compare it to the original recipe, but it’s a toothsome, juicy mix of savory and sweet, thoroughly gourmet in flavor.

It’s also very forgiving: it’s going to be good even if you put in more or less of anything it calls for. I haven’t done it “right,” even according to my own recipe, either time I’ve made it.

Along with it today I served three different salads that I got free with this week’s Foodie coupon at Central Market’s deli: Israeli couscous, taboulleh, and edamame salad.  We all agreed my homemade salad was the easy winner among them. No surprise there, though.

This recipe is a super quick, no-cook, out-of the-ordinary main course for a light supper or quick lunch.  Ready to serve four in about 10 minutes.

Tuna, Green Olives and Mandarin Salad on Toast

2 mandarins, tangerines or oranges

2 or 3 5-oz cans of tuna in olive oil or water, drained

¼ to ½ C mayonnaise

32 pitted green olives, sliced

4 finely chopped chives or green onions

2 T minced onion or shallot

Salt and pepper

Bread to spread it on (I use Ezekiel Genesis bread)

Optional: olive oil, 1 garlic glove, peeled

Peel the mandarins and cut each section into thirds, discarding any seeds. Mix it with the tuna, mayonnaise, olives, green onion (or chives) and onion (or shallot). Season with salt and pepper.

Serve it on toast. If you’re feeling really gourmet, lightly brush the toasted bread with olive oil, then cut the garlic clove open and rub it on the oiled side of the toasted bread.

© Sacred Appetite  / Anna Migeon / 23 April 2009 / All rights reserved

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It’s National Turn Off the TV Week: Do It For Healthy Eating’s Sake

April 23, 2009 1 comment

Campaign_DigitalDetoxWeek Turning off the TV, not just this week but every week, is one of the best moves parents can make if they hope to get their children in the habit of healthy eating. For a child who watches more than an infinitesimal amount of TV, efforts to build healthy eating habits may well be futile.

Of course we all know, whether we act on that knowledge or not, that the more we sit in front of the TV, the higher our risk of being overweight.

But the problem is not simply that we are physically inactive as we sit there, when we could be playing outdoors. Passive TV viewing, instead of working up our healthy appetite through activity, also gives us an unhealthy urge to mindlessly snack. But it’s still much bigger than that.

TV and its sponsors are truly out to get us concerning our children’s eating habits. TV is an all-out, direct attack on health and good eating. It counteracts all our attempts to teach a love of healthy foods.

Food ads on TV are “gastronomic pornography,” says Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat.  It “makes one think about eating and gets one’s gastric juices flowing, triggering the release of insulin, lowering one’s blood sugar, and stimulating food cravings.”

These cravings are not just for any foods, mind you. The ads on TV entice us to the idol worship of fast foods, junk foods, soda, sugary breakfast cereals and snacks, all manner of over-processed, manufactured, industrial, empty, imitation edibles.  When was the last time you saw a commercial about fresh fruit or vegetables or other Real Foods?

 And boy, those junk foods sure do look good. Even stalwart me, my mouth waters when I see those ads. A steady diet of TV advertising feeds a child’s cravings for harmful junk (which isn’t even near as tasty as they make it appear). Like conventional porn, it tends to ruin us for the real thing. In just 30 seconds, the emotional effects of weeks of good home cooking and happy vegetable eating can be undone. Vulnerable to advertisers’ claims, kids tend to believe what they see.  They’re sitting ducks for the exploitation of junk food advertisers.  Young kids need to be protected until they’re old enough to understand the lies they’re being fed. We all need to minimize our exposure, at least I do.

A double-edged sword, TV not only stimulates our appetite for bad foods, but it also distracts us from good eating and robs us of quality of life. Time spent in front of the TV in the evenings is time that would be better spent cooking and then together eating as a family around the table. TV drains our energy, while the creativity of cooking and interacting with our family can energize and refresh us.

TV not only works against our best efforts to feed our children (and ourselves) well, but it also takes our daily opportunity to live actively and get to know our children down the tubes.

© French Kids Don’t Get Fat / Anna Migeon  / 21 April 2009 / All rights reserved

How To Relieve Your Stress by Cooking Dinner

April 18, 2009 4 comments

Mom serving dinner happy

“How do you have something different to eat every day?” my daughter’s school friends asked her at lunch one day.  The answer to the mystery:  her mom cooks every day, unless we are eating leftovers cooked previously.  While I do have numerous other personal shortcomings, I do cook. My daughter usually takes something homemade in her lunch. Today, for example, she took a colorful, flavorful salad of raw fennel, roasted beets, oranges and kalamata olives with a dressing of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fennel seeds and orange peel.

Most of the other girls’ moms “don’t cook,” they reported. Or they cook about once a week.  A lot of the girls buy lunch at the cafeteria—institutional food—every day.  One of her friends said that every day for many years, she’d had a ham sandwich, a piece of fruit and a packaged rice Krispie treat in her lunch.  She finally told her mom recently that she didn’t want ham sandwiches anymore, and now she gets a daily Lunchable: a plastic package of ultra-processed, manufactured, so-called food.

If no one cooks at home, I can only guess that a family goes to restaurants or eats take-out, fast food, frozen meals, sandwiches or cold cereal, or worse, to keep bodies and souls together.  All those options seem either too expensive, too unhealthy or too dreary, or all of the above.  I can’t imagine that people who live this way are happy about it.

There’s no denying that home-cooked meals, made with love and in not-too-massive quantities, are generally superior to industrial or commercial food made by strangers in huge vats—where government inspectors come to look for and often find toxins or poor quality ingredients—all for the purpose of making money.

Don’t all families want to have a good cook in their midst to feed their children well?  In their heart of hearts, doesn’t everybody want to eat delicious, nutritious homemade food at their tables with their families? Parents have their own reasons why they don’t manage to do it. Many are stressed, stretched too far already without trying to cook.

I’m here to suggest that you can do it, though, especially when you realize that cooking at home for your kids will lessen your stress, rather than add to your burden of care.

Cooking dinner can be a welcome change of pace at the end of the day. A change is as good as a rest, so unless you cook for your job, coming home in the evening and doing something different is refreshing—especially if you are making something real, valuable and beneficial, not to mention enticing. Especially if you can get some help, for the clean-up in particular.

Using your hands and your five senses in a creatively, beautifully and deliciously productive way that expresses love and care is daily recreation. At the same time we are helping our kids getting familiar with Real Food, and conditioning them to like what’s good for them.

“It is our love of real processes… that keeps us sane,” writes Robert Farrar Capon in The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection. “What [our children] need most of all in this vale of sorrows is the sight of men who relish reality.”

Cooking from scratch with fresh vegetables and real meat is meant to be satisfying, not drudgery.  It’s not meant to make your life more difficult, but rather more real.  Home cooking is authentic life in a way that heating up frozen entrees or take-out food in soggy containers and then sitting in front of the TV can never be.

So replace a little TV watching with cooking something exciting. See if you don’t feel more alive and energized for being able to make something appealing and healthy to eat and to offer to your family.

Baby steps are good. One more home cooked meal per week than you’re doing now is a worthwhile, positive move.  The more you cook, the better you can feel about what they’re eating. And, I predict, the more you’ll enjoy it and want to do more. I’m sure you’ll all feel healthier, too.

And next time the kids talk at the lunch table, you and your child can be the proud ones.

Related Post:

Ratatouille: Everybody Can Cook

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 18 April 2009 / All rights reserved

Ratatouille for Picky Kids

April 18, 2009 4 comments

Ratatouille In France, ratatouille is one of those standard dishes that just about everybody is familiar with and has had at home some time or other.  Its equivalent in America might be meatloaf or macaroni and cheese, or hamburgers.

As with meatloaf, there are endless variations and preferred ways to fix this Mediterranean- style summer vegetable stew. The foundational ingredients of a ratatouille are eggplants, zucchini and tomatoes.

It’s great served with plain couscous (a coarsely ground semolina pasta, a staple of North African cooking, which is ready to eat in minutes. Kids love it), or plain meat or fish.

The best ratatouille I’ve ever tried actually comes from a Texas cookbook: Fredericksburg’s Peach Tree Tea Room Cookbook by Cynthia Pedregon.  I think what makes it so special are the black olives and the white wine (yes, even for kids. The alcohol cooks off). It’s even better not right out of the oven, but warm, or best of all, warmed up the next day. It has a rather long list of ingredients and does require a little chopping but is completely fool proof, requiring no precise measuring or tricky techniques.  It makes enough for two meals for a family of four. At least it used to, before my kids got so big and ravenous. It’s supposed to serve ten.  I find myself using more and more generous amounts for it, though. A double recipe would give me a couple of meals to put in the freezer for later.

How to get your picky child to eat ratatouille? If she saw the movie about the rat, that might be a nice point of introduction.

Otherwise, follow these directions precisely, with no variation. Make sure she doesn’t eat anything for at least a couple of hours (depending on age).  Preferably after playing outside for awhile, let her come into the kitchen for dinner (with no other food in sight), contrive to let her catch a whiff while showing no interest in her eating it and nonchalantly wait until she asks for some. Refrain from any attempts to get her to try it.

½ C olive oil

4 C peeled and cubed eggplant

4 C sliced or cubed zucchini

½ C green pepper strips

½ C red pepper strips

½ C sliced or chopped onion

2 T minced garlic

½ C white wine

4 C chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned

1 t thyme

1 t rosemary

1 t basil

4 bay leaves

1 T salt

1 t pepper

1 C black olives (kalamatas are the best), cut in halves

1/c C chopped parsley

1.  In a large skillet or pot, sauté eggplant and zucchini in olive oil for 8 minutes

2. Add red and green peppers, onion and garlic. Sauté for six minutes.

3. Add remaining ingredients, except the parsley. Place in oven-proof dish and bake in a pre-heated 350

oven for 45 minutes. Sprinkle with the parsley.

Related Post:

Ratatouille: Everybody Can Cook

Feeding Children Made Easy: Parenting Sun-Style Instead of North Wind-Style

April 13, 2009 10 comments

North wind At the dinner table, are you more like the North Wind or more like the Sun?

One of Aesop’s fables tells of an argument between the North Wind and the Sun about which was the more powerful. When a traveler passes by, the two decide that whichever one can strip him of his cloak will be declared the victor.

The North Wind blasts the man with all his strength, trying to forcibly remove his clothing, but the more the wind blows, the closer the traveler wraps his cloak around him. Finally the North Wind gives up and the Sun takes its turn. The Sun shines on the man with all his warmth. As soon as the traveler feels the heat, he begins to take off one layer after another. He ends up stripping down to bathe in a stream that crosses his path.

Sun and wind

Like a parent who wants her child to eat vegetables, the North Wind and the Sun in the parable each has his own agenda in wanting the man to take off his clothes.  Their motives mean nothing to the man (who cares only about his own comfort), any more than a young child cares about vitamins, trans fats, IQ, diabetes or cancer. The difference in results is that one approach works in conflict with human nature, and the other understands and leverages it.

Some parents work very hard, like the North Wind, to make sure their kids eat certain things. Some parents who highly value control and compliance may require a child to eat what they’re told to eat because “I said so,” or any number of other reasons they might give.

Once when I got my kids to eat something simply by acting like I didn’t want to give them any, a relative cautioned me, “But they’re not learning to obey.”  That stance that places little faith in the child’s appetite and ability to feed himself without constant intervention.

Other parents may work equally hard to feed their children well, but put their effort rather into making healthy meals appealing and enjoyable. They do not try to compel them to go against their will, like the North Wind, but they just make them willing to go, like the Sun.

Dinner time becomes a cooperative venture when the parent gently but consistently exploits a child’s hunger. From behind the scenes, the parent prepares a wide range of healthy foods that smell, look and taste great. Matter-of-factly offering no other options, she keeps a positive atmosphere at the table. This wisely passive parent lets nature take its course to reach her goal. She knows that a child’s inborn appetite and need for nourishment, unimpeded, can be a force in her favor as strong as gravity, or sun or wind.

Eating is a natural act, neither praise- or blame-worthy, nor a question of obedience and respect of parents. There is no more virtue or vice in eating or not than in wearing a coat or not, if a body is allowed to do its job of taking care of itself, and the parent does her job of providing delicious, nutritious meals.

“The art of standing aside,” as educator and educational philosopher Charlotte Mason called it, is often the better part of the job of a parent who respects the child as a person, values her feelings and trusts her appetite to play its part.

The moral of the story? Don’t battle your child’s appetites and feelings, like the North Wind, but put them to work for you, like the Sun.

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 13 April 2009 / All rights reserved

This post was featured on the Charlotte Mason blog carnival on Aug. 30, 2010.

Food Forethought: How to Make a Grocery List

April 7, 2009 1 comment

Grocery basket woman

I once asked my French mother-in-law, Lucienne, how she managed to cook for the crowds when large numbers of her five children’s families descend on the old farmhouse for days or even weeks at a time. Her answer applies equally to managing daily dinners for one’s own little family: “Il suffit de prévoir”: it just takes some planning ahead.

Traditionally, French women, unlike my mother-in-law, are said to make almost-daily trips, on foot, a little basket on her arm, to the corner grocery store, or better yet, to an outdoor farmer’s market where local growers are displaying their just-picked produce, sparkling with dew. This ideal woman is supposed to know how to choose what’s freshest and most appealing, and visualize then and there how she will prepare it that evening. I figure she must have innumerable recipes memorized, along with the current contents of her pantry and fridge.

While this scenario is neither realistic nor necessary or even desirable for the typical American mom (or probably most French ones) today, we Americans are, in contrast, building a justifiable reputation for a very different sort of daily sortie for provisions.

A friend recently admitted that she is at the grocery store pretty much everyday, “trying to figure out what’s for dinner.” This friend clearly was not bragging about her ability to whip up fresh delicacies nightly, but rather confessing to a breakdown in planning ahead, in managing the task as she felt she should be managing it. For the same reason, working moms, especially, may find themselves resorting to carry-out or fastfood.

Il suffit de prévoir. Going to the store every day is a waste of time unless you just enjoy it that much. Even in that case, I’m sure there must be better uses of your time. Even buying for two days at a time is an improvement over daily trips by default, following a lack of planning ahead. Twice a week is enough to provide a diet of plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s a nice frequency to keep things neither boring nor burdensome.

Let’s say we go to the grocery store on Monday mornings after seeing the kids off to school, or after work that day. Before shopping, sometime over the weekend, we must make our shopping list.

The store is not the place to figure out what’s for dinner. We have to start at home, where we have our recipes and where we can take stock of what’s already in the fridge or the pantry. Unless we want to find ourselves back at the grocery store before we planned, that is.

In tranquility, start with a cookbook to see what sounds good.  The more you try out recipes and take note of the winners and losers, the easier (and more enjoyable) this task becomes. Recipes abound on the internet. I have put some of my very favorite finds (easy, quick, delicious, nutritious) on this blog.

List what you will fix each day. You can be flexible in what you actually end up doing, but at least there is a plan. The idea is to have enough food to get through the three or four days ahead. I list my menus at the bottom of the page, with the cookbook reference (see my grocery list, below).

Before proceeding to the next recipe, list what you will need to buy for that recipe.

To make it easier not to forget anything, I list all the produce items in the middle of my list page. All the dairy aisle items go together, as do any frozen. Everything from the center aisles (packaged or processed foods, etc.) I list along the right side.

I’ll be the first to admit that making home-cooked, healthy meals for the family does take some effort. But it is absolutely feasible, actually enjoyable, and thoroughly worthwhile in its benefits to the whole family. It’s also so much easier than being under pressure and feeling inadequate. Mainly, il suffit de prévoir: it just takes a little planning ahead.

Grocerylistscan

Also see “How to Plan Menus”© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 7 April 2009 / All rights reserved

Do- It-Yourself Sublime Crème Fraîche

April 2, 2009 1 comment

Creme fraiche Crème fraîche is a perfect example of French ingenuity with dairy products.  A cultured cream, it’s thicker, heavier, smoother and sweeter than sour cream, with a lovely, velvety texture. It’s delicious on plain fruit, especially bananas, mangoes or berries, or other desserts (I think of crêpes or pie), as well as in soups, stews or sauces, which it thickens without curdling as sour cream tends to do.  

We have no parallel product here in the U.S., though you can find crème fraîche in some grocery stores. It’s quite expensive. I make my own for much less. It’s something so simple, yet extremely satisfying to make yourself.  Very young children could make it, except it requires a lot of patience. My son used to make it to sell at the tiny local farmer’s market when he was about 13.

You need a glass jar with a lid. Pour in about 2 C heavy cream, then 1-2 T buttermilk (well shaken first). Amounts are of little importance.  I do not measure.  I just fill the jar mostly with cream and then splash in some buttermilk on top. Close the lid tightly and set the jar in a quiet spot on the kitchen counter.  If the weather is cold, I put it near, but not too near, the toaster, where it will get a little warmth. Leave it undisturbed for at least 24 hours.  Depending on the temperature, it can need up to 48 hours.  Check it after one day, and if it’s fairly well set, stir it gently but thoroughly, put the cap back on, and put it in the fridge for another 24 hours.  I’ve tried various proportions of cream to buttermilk, and have discovered that all that matters is the stirring step: the one essential ingredient to getting a crème fraîche with the proper firm, smooth texture.  

© French Kids Don’t Get Fat / Anna Migeon  / 2 April 2009 / all rights reserved