Feed the babies

Yesterday’s post was on the heavy side, so this one will deal with a topic I hope to return to many more times on this blog: food. I love food. I love it so much I learned to cook just so I could eat exactly what I want, when I want it. During the early days of our marriage, Janie used to do quite a bit of the cooking. She could do it, but it wasn’t really her favorite thing. Over time, I elbowed her out the kitchen and made that my zone of the house, and she seemed happy enough to oblige.

Over the years, Janie became my main audience, the one for whom I cooked. I needed her opinions and input. She helped me with suggestions, ideas and honest feedback. Not everything I’ve ever made was good. A recent calamari tempura springs to mind (think of rubber bands dipped in wallpaper paste). But other things were uproarious successes, like her 30th birthday lobster feast. We had some epic times eating what I made, it was a daily expression of my creative interests and she took it as a little token of my love for her. We had fun.

Since her death, cooking has changed a little. That audience is now gone. Now my audience consists of two blonde babies with somewhat different tastes. This is a challenge, as the food now not only must be closer to their tastes but must have the necessary energy in it to keep these little monkeys growing. However, I am proud to say that the kids eat what I make for them, and I don’t make mac and cheese every night. Even the mac and cheese itself is not plain ol’ mac n’ cheese. It’s daddy’s mac n’cheese.

What you see to the left there is zucchini leaves stuffed with prosciutto and blue cheese that are dipped in batter and fried. They are accompanied with homemade pasta and red sauce. As the caption implies, this is not your average meal here at our house, in fact this one was made before Janie passed away. I add it because I served this rather fussy meal to the kids, who ate EVERY scrap of it and bayed for more. There was no complaining, no whining, just happy babies housing mad quantities of deep fried veg gie happiness.

I mentioned the calamari tempura above. On that same night, we also had tempura veggies. Again, something about that particular procedure suddenly makes veggies an all time favorite. Makes ya wonder.

These are beans. Beans feature frequently on the menu for two reasons: they’re loaded with good stuff like fiber, folic acid and protein, and they’re dirt cheap. Black beans are sometimes hard to source here in South Africa, but there are other varieties such as kidney, butter and cannelloni beans that are available in both dried and canned varieties. If I make one of these (usually the cannelloni), I’ll fry some garlic in olive oil and pancetta, add diced onions, a sprig of rosemary and toss in the beans until they start to simmer. Make some rice to go with it, and bam, perfect accompaniment to any braai (translation of braai to my American friends: like a barbecue, but better).

Did I just say braai? Yes, this is something that even in the post Janie era is done with an almost weekly regularity here at casa de Jones. Those are chicken hearts in the photo. To all my friends with high blood pressure and cholesterol problems, this Bud is not for you. However, if you feel adventurous enough to try them, here’s what I do: blitz up half of an onion, three or four cloves of garlic and a whole bunch of dhania (coriander, cilantro) in a food processor or blender. Take this mixture, decant into a large bowl and add about three tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and the juice of two limes (or one lemon, but lime is better). Give it a mix, add a punnet of chicken hearts, cover with cling wrap and leave it in the fridge to marinate for at least two hours, no more than five. Skewer them on soaked bamboo sticks and throw them on the braai. Yumminess. Seanie eats these by the fistful at a time. He nearly gagged himself the one time, it was a bit scary. Sophie loves these too, screeching “chicken!” as she noshes one after other.

The kids aren’t wild about chicken livers peri-peri (a very common dish here in South Africa), but I don’t think it’s the livers part of it. I made fegatini a finanzieri (translation: banker’s chicken livers) with a wicked risotto once, and Sean ate them as if it were his last meal. So there is something about the preparation. Liver, even chicken livers, have a somewhat metallic undertone that needs to balanced out with a bit of sweetness to appeal to a child’s palette, I think. The fegatini is made with a fat dose of marsala wine, which provides ample sweetness that is tempered through a longer cooking process. So you pick up the sweetness, but it’s not cloying.

Now, it’s not all fancy shmancy here either. There are the old standbys, like good ol’ pizza. And of course there’s daddy’s mac n’ cheese. I like mac n’ cheese as much as the next guy, but I figure my mac n’ cheese is more like a pasta bake, really. I like to toss in onions, garlic (lots of it), ham, bacon, green peppers, shallots, whatever, and make the white sauce with one of Chrissy the Cheese Lady’s wonderfully bizarre cheeses (find her at the Shongweni Farmers Market. If you live too far away from here to go, then move out this way. It’s simple, folks).

But there is a point to what I am writing here, and it’s not only to make you hungry: as a parent, don’t end up being your child’s short order cook. The kids eat what I eat. Sometimes I make them something fun like chicken goujons (basically chicken strips, but it sounds cooler to say the other), but if I’m making fish in a parcel with lemongrass and loads of garlic, then that’s what’s for dinner. And if they don’t eat it, awesome, more for me. But I won’t get up and make them something else. Kids need to know that they are expected to eat what’s in front of them, and hopefully be grateful for it.

But there is also an ulterior motive for this approach. My hope is to frustrate them to such a degree that they’ll take up cooking themselves, and that in perhaps ten years or so, I can retire from the kitchen and just let them make me yummy things. See folks, you gotta plan for the future.

But I’m not going to push their palettes too hard. I might add a little spicy goodness to a meal, but I’m not going to feed the kids atomic curry, although I’ve made a few of those in my day. I’m not going to ask them to try sushi just yet, although they’ve eaten a little in the past. The trick is to do things in stages, get them used to something others might find unusual, and then not tell them it is. If they don’t know the difference, then why inform them of it? If they develop adventurous little palettes now, it will stand them in good stead later in life.

Anthony Bourdain, the chef and host of Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” stated that his goal was to always be the perfect guest. No matter if someone slapped down yak tongue boiled in the beast’s uncleaned entrails and served with a tall glass of pitxo, he was going to clean his plate and have seconds. For one, things that seem unappetizing to us are so because of our cultural limitations. Some folks coming to the West would find a McDonald’s burger to be pretty hard to stomach. So when at the house of a friend, neighbor or total stranger, be grateful for what’s in front of you and chow down. You never know if the weird thing in front of you might just be delicious. Try things.

I want those kinds of kids. So we eat interesting stuff, as often as humanly possible.

This is my first official parenting post. I picked food because I passionately love to cook and eat, but also because you might bathe your kids once a day, you hopefully only dress them once a day, you’ll only take them to the park perhaps once a week, but you’ll feed them every day, three times a day if you live in the West. Something done so often ought to be given precedence in any talk about child rearing, in my estimation.

What’s for dinner at your house tonight?

Originally published August 18, 2011