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Archive for the ‘Cooking With Kids’ Category

Never underestimate the power of the sprinkle.

No.  I don’t mean the colored candy kind.  Although if they are chocolate, and called Jimmies, I can’t quite resist those either…  but that’s another post.

What I mean to say is, sprinkle, as in sprinkling seasoning.

Part of getting a kid to try different food is engaging them in preparation.  Something as simple as seasoning is enough to make a kid proud of cooking.

Sometimes in our kitchen, The Child is involved throughout the preparation, and those are substantial experiences.  But more often, she’s playing or reading somewhere and I call out, “Do you want to sprinkle the salt and pepper?”

She pops out of whatever she was doing, grabs a pinch of salt or a shaker of spice, and holds it up high.  Sometimes there is a quick dramatic flourish, and she’s gone in a flash.  Other times it is a focused and slow shower of flavor, watching carefully to see where the individual grains land.

Fresh cut chives sprinkled on breakfast eggs and tomatoes.

Credit, as for so many things in our kitchen, goes to Alton Brown.  Good Eats on the DVR was kid programming in our house.  No freakin’ Barney here.  And as a toddler she started learning from AB.  (Belching yeasty puppets!  Definitely children’s programming!)

In various episodes he points out why he holds his hand so high when seasoning.  Hold it low and all your salt lands in the same place.  Yuck!  Hold it high and you get a wide dispersal area.  Any kid who has played with glitter knows this.  The light went on, and since she was always strapped into her chair at the counter when we cooked anyway, we let her start seasoning things as a young toddler.

A good place to start is roasted fingerling potatoes.  The potatoes, simply cut in half on a tray and roasted skin side up, can take a little over-seasoning on their skins as the kid learns even application.

I do not know if this will help a kid venture to try something new, we make ours try everything.  But it always seemed to help her look forward to sitting down to a meal.  Watching someone else partake of what she made tapped into the pride as well.

Basic Roasted Potatoes

The first cookbook I ever bought for myself was Jacques Pépin’s Cooking With Claudine, and the first recipe is for a steak with roasted potatoes and onions.  He roasted large potatoes, and my preparation has evolved over many years to use fingerling potatoes instead.  Roast just a few for a small dinner, or prep a whole bag for a party.  We have them alongside everything from salads to stews to steak, or even dipped into chili or salsa.

Preheat oven to 400 deg.  Slice potatoes in half, selecting those which are roughly the same size.  Prep a half-sheet pan by pouring some olive oil in the center of the pan.  Use a silicone baking sheet if you have one, but it is not necessary.  Having a quality half-sheet pan that heats evenly is far more important.

Plunk a potato, cut side down into the puddle of olive oil and slide it over toward a corner of the pan, leaving some space around it for air circulation.  In succession plunk and slide each potato.

This is an excellent job for kids, even very small ones.  As you slice potatoes in half, the kid puts them in the oil and slides them into place and patterns emerge.  Sometimes they are in neat little rows, sometimes abstract polka dots, and sometimes a giant smiley face on the tray.  *grin*

The tops of the potatoes will need some oil.  Using your fingers, or those of the child labor, transfer some oil from the pan onto the tops of the potatoes.  They do not need to be coated, but if you let your kid do it, trust me, there will be olive oil on every bit of surface area of both potato and hands.  Kids take this job very seriously.  Handing The Child a pastry brush also works well for this.   “Okay kid, paint the potato tops.”

Then comes the seasoning.  With kosher salt from a ramekin, The Child takes a pinch and holds it high to sprinkle.  The pepper grinder is so much fun The Child loves that too.  BUT, there is the necessary admonishment here…  you season it, you eat it.  There is no getting carried away with the pepper grinder and throwing food away.  That’s a mistake a kid makes only once.

Roast the potatoes for anywhere from 20-45 minutes depending on your oven, size of potatoes and preferred doneness.  Once you can easily stick a knife in them from the top, they are done.  Let cool enough to handle and serve hot.  Leftovers are easily nuked.

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Well, it’s official. I am close enough to the end of our remodeling to start thinking like a rational human again. Or at least thinking about my future rational thinking.

I am, however, a long way from cooking. Our three month project turned into the inevitable 4+ month project due to the realities of construction.

In the course of that time, I discovered I really ought not live amidst construction and hold concurrent expectations. I didn’t write well. And I certainly didn’t cook much surrounded by the dusty, crowded counters.

I managed to get a kid to school and back each day without completely losing my mind. Full stop.

But tonight, I see hope.

I see a patio door installed. The culprit of the several week back up, it is now in place and the remaining details can finally move forward.

And, I see a radish.

Yeah, that’s right, a gorgeous radish.

I love radishes. When attempting to cut back on calories, my husband and I find them a very satisfying salt conveyance. The Child, however, merely tolerates radishes. She endures them sliced sparingly in a pasta salad, and moderately condones them chopped and drenched in balsamic vinegar. But she has never had that “Oooo! More!” reaction.

Until now.

My friend, Stephany, posted the following in her Facebook status yesterday, “Let’s see how many raw radishes with salt and farm-made butter I can eat for dinner outside in this stupid beautiful weather…” I remembered seeing Jacques Pépin do a Fast Food My Way segment on raw radishes and butter. And I had just picked some up at the store.

The Child and I just had our first warm evening on the porch, with radishes stuffed with butter for dinner. She preferred hers with salted butter but no additional salt. I am a big fan of the extra salt dip. Maybe it’s not a complete dinner, but it is close enough to justify moving directly to dessert.

And why not? I have a radish-loving kid and a new patio door. Cheers!

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On Thursday last, Shauna James Ahern at Gluten-Free Girl tweeted an idea.

“What’s the first dish you ever learned to cook? How did it make you feel to cook it?”

Milestone meals started popping into my head, and in reverse chronological order I worked my way back to the first thing.  Okay…  perhaps not the first thing.  That would be Roast Beef with Pickle Gravy, lovingly prepared in Imagination Land as a very small child.  My dad made me a yellow toy stove in his basement woodshop, complete with real stovetop dials, electric burners painted on, handles leftover from their kitchen remodel, and one door which opened the same way an oven would (with a sliding rack inside too!).  I remember playing with that stove all the time.

My first proper independent cooking was breakfast.  Eggs to be precise.  I started with scrambled.  Maybe sautéing some onions in some butter before pouring in the beaten egg and chives, then mixing in some cheese or cut up salami.  My parents had a white, glass-topped, electric stove, and it was awful.  The breakfast preparation process involved putting the pan on the stovetop, turning on the burner, tossing a pat of butter in the pan, and walking away.  Only then would I bother with prep work;  cutting up onions, harvesting chives, cubing cheese, getting a plate, etc., because it seemed a full 15 minutes before that butter even started to melt.  But in any case, that routine became a rhythm and many mornings before school I got up to make my own breakfast.

It was not long before scrambled eggs became omelets.  To me, omelets feel like the first real dish I ever learned to cook.  I think I was around 12-years old, and it was utterly empowering!

Omelets were the first dish I made for someone else.  The scrambled eggs were always for me.  I cannot remember if my little sister ever ate the scrambled eggs, but the omelets were for everyone.  As if the act of sharing food with others is the last real step in preparing anything.  I remember getting praise from my parents, and being brave enough to cook breakfast in other people’s kitchens after an overnight.  I remember my mistakes in judging how much filling was too full to fold without cracking, which fillings got too runny, and how to get all the egg to cook without scorching the bottom too badly.  In point of fact, these omelets were more like a folded and stuffed frittata than a proper omelet, but they were tasty and very close to what my father made on the weekends.

Not long after, say 7th or 8th grade, my parents had me get dinner started once in a while.  I have few memories of being confident in middle school (who does?), but yet I have clear recollections of standing at the kitchen counter after school and enjoying these tasks.  I felt comfortable in my own skin.  It was never anything challenging.  These were uncomplicated assignments with clear direction.  My father is always one planned meal ahead.  He wakes up contemplating dinner, and he goes to bed thinking lunch.  But even without being complex cooking, these chores built an underlying ease with simple routines:  adding marinade to meat and getting it in the fridge, peeling potatoes, forming hamburger patties so they were ready for the grill as soon as the folks got home.  One frequent recipe in particular was simple baked chicken with a combination of garlic salt and brown sugar.  In college I asked my dad for the recipe, and he humbly sent a scrawled recipe entitled Dad’s Incredible Chicken.  It was met with acclaim by the roommates, and The Spouse and I still regularly make it, lo these many years later.

The remarkably addictive thing about learning to cook is that the learning feels good.  The process of diving into something new.  Deciding to try.  Learning how to fail.  If we succeed in passing these skills onto The Child, this already gutsy and resilient kid just might feel empowered too.  The Spouse commented last night that it is his hope The Child will find herself heading off on her own already “just knowing” how to cook.  I taught myself technique in my mid-twenties, but I already just knew how to cook.  Thanks Dad!

Dad’s Incredible Chicken

1 chicken, quartered
Garlic salt
¼ – ⅓  cup brown sugar

Arrange chicken skin side up in lightly oiled baking pan.
Season fairly heavily with garlic salt.
Sprinkle generously with brown sugar.
Bake at 375°F for one hour.
Cover with foil after 30-40 minutes if chicken appears too dry.
May be served hot or cold.
Share with friends and gloat.

***************************

Updated 6/15/2010:

I have so enjoyed reading the memories of the other contributors to the project.  Check out Shauna’s post to read more: http://glutenfreegirl.blogspot.com/2010/06/first-meal-i-ever-cooked.html

What was the first thing you ever cooked?

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Our family talks about where our food comes from every single day.  Now that The Child is seven we have started in on the enlightened environmental sustainability speak… but when she was teeny-tiny we skipped over that and stuck to the basics.

What I mean specifically is setting down a pulled pork sandwich and announcing, “Mmm…  Pig.”  Or having a platter full of sausages become an impromptu quiz for a three-year old:

Us:    “What do beef and pork mean?”
Her:    “Cow and pig.”
Us:    “What’s in the bockwurst.”
Her:    “Baby cow.”
Us:    “Excellent!  Dig in.”

It got a lot of laughs from guests when she was wee, but it is a serious attempt to instill respect for what we are eating, how it gets to us, as well as the obvious basic identification about what it is.  I want The Child to know what she is eating and still have to try it.

This also applies to where it comes from on the animal.  Alton Brown does an excellent job of conveying this information on Good Eats in a manner even tiny kids can grasp.  Every time The Child asks for TV and I want to say no, but still desperately want to plug her in for my own sanity, I offer Good Eats off the DVR and sit down with her.  Frankly watching Alton break down a chicken using a dinosaur skeleton as a useful illustration is entertaining!  While The Child did not retain the details as a toddler, it fostered an environment for these discussions to become legitimate and regular dinner conversation.  And at a very young age, roasting a whole chicken became a lesson in anatomy, providing a launch point for discussions of dinosaurs and birds.  Adaptation and evolution.

No one should be thought too young for an anatomy lesson.  Most people purchase their meat cut and wrapped and ready to cook, and in the case of poultry, it is shrink-wrapped and presented such that it is not obvious to a little kid which end the head was on.  The Child was typically plunked in her Easy Diner as a baby, a safe distance from raw meat preparations, and became used to engaging in cooking interest even then.

Ever noticed how kids gravitate to drumsticks?  (Even big kids like drumsticks!)  Knowing a drumstick is a leg, and showing a kid how it goes together, is really just a fascinating puzzle.  But on a more basic level it reinforces that our dinner is muscle, bone, fat, and in the case of the humble chicken, the skin.  Put a dried out, boneless, skinless, chicken breast in front of a kid, and I cannot blame them for deciding they don’t like chicken anymore.  The more we learn about micro-nutrients inherent in every component of what we eat, the more important it is to leave that skin on, enjoy that wee bit of crispy fat, and discover the marrow in those bones.  Assuming appropriate portion control, the science of nutrition is indicating more and more that every little edible bit of an animal has a role to play in a truly balanced diet.  Akin to the micro-nutrients of leaving some of the bran intact on whole grains like farro or eating the peel on your apple.

Not every family is brimming with science geeks like our little threesome.  But just as food is science, food is also culture, and respect for food is foundational to respect of other cultures.  Religious food traditions are a common way of approaching food discussion with reverence.  Maybe your family likes to travel?  You don’t have to travel far to find varied food traditions.  Perhaps there are farmers, fishermen, or hunters in your extended family or social circle.  If history or literature is what excites you, bring that conversation to the table, especially about the foods they already love.  Just find comfortable, matter-of-fact ways to relate what you are eating to what it once was without “Ewww!” or “That’s gross!” being considered an appropriate reaction from anyone.

Kids cannot learn to respect their food unless they know what it is.  And frankly, that goes for adults too.  If your family has made the decision to consume animals, give your kids a little credit and be honest and straightforward about what is on their plate.  They just might surprise you.

Taking The Child (2 yrs old, orange pants) to The Oakland Zoo with friends in July 2005

When The Child was two years old we went to the brand spankin’ new Children’s Zoo at The Oakland Zoo.   The Oakland Zoo succeeds better than most zoos in teaching conservation and science while providing for the health, welfare, and habitats of their animals.  The Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo is no exception, and we were there in July 2005 when they opened.  They include farm animals amidst the exhibits there, and my two-year old sprinted up to the pig exhibit with a huge smile, sighed in awe, and said, “Mmmm… Bacon.”  Some folks within earshot cracked up.  And amidst the stress of keeping up with her that day I thought, “Okay, I’m doing something right.”

Pot-Bellied Pig at The Oakland Zoo's Children's Zoo. One man's pet is another man's food.

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My recent post about nutrition myths inspired one of the best blog post titles ever…  I Bought a Vat of Oil.  It says it all, doesn’t it?  I am looking forward to reading about how it turned out for Maya and her mom.  It took us a few practice rounds to figure out the timing.

Basically when the food hits the oil, the water molecules inside start to boil and push their way out of the food.  This creates a vapor barrier for the oil.  But if the frying goes too long, you run out of steam.  Then the chemistry flips, and the food becomes an instant oil sponge.  This is why healthy frying can really only happen at home, or at a good restaurant under the watchful eye of a careful chef.  Most franchise restaurants pre-fry food before shipping it to locations, they don’t change the oil often enough, and they don’t monitor oil temperature.  Yuck.

"As certain as my heart is ticking, I'm certain no living chicken Has ever so clearly commanded a living cook before With an utterance so clear and shocking that even I could not ignore. Quoth the chicken, Fry some more."

We were turned on to frying after watching Alton Brown’s Good Eats.  If you have not seen AB’s show by now, it is pure genius of television production, witty writing, food science, and of course Good Eats.  The episode which really talks the beginner through how to deep fry safely is Fry Hard, wherein he demonstrates Fish & Chips.  Fry Hard II is a now classic episode all about pan-fried chicken.  But we found Alton’s hush puppy recipe was the best way to practice getting the timing just right with deep frying.  Not to mention they are a fabulously tasty little experiment!  It is really his corn dog recipe from The Man Show episode, but taking a disher to the leftover batter and frying it leads to scrumptious results.

The Food Network folks irritatingly only publish Good Eats as tiny thematic collections rather than by season.  I would have purchased many seasons worth by now, and have recently gone looking for particular episodes to buy.  Only to give up out of frustration.  They are not available on Amazon, so third party sellers have jacked up the prices as if they were out of print.  They are instead available on the Food Network Website, and I provide links below, but neither Food Network nor Amazon provide a clear indication of which episodes are included in which volume.  Not until researching this post did I find a fan website providing a cheat sheet to keep track of which episode is in which volume, I have realized I am too irritated with Food Network for wasting my time to give them any hard earned cash.  Besides, my DVR now cycles through old episodes quite regularly, and Food Network has missed the boat.  *stepping off disgruntled soapbox now*

Fish & Chips on Fry Hard on Volume 14

This is the episode which runs through what deep frying is all about, from selecting equipment, to oil, to technique.  It is available on YouTube in two parts with some quality issues, but would be worth seeking out as a real reference.

Fried Chicken on Fry Hard II on Volume 3

While the clip on the Food Network recipe page and on hulu are both fabulously instructional, the opening bit of witty writing is well worth appreciating again and again.  Thanks again to the fan site for providing a transcript!  Quoth the chicken, “Fry some more!”  In addition, this episode uses an excellent comparison to a wooden dinosaur skeleton to relay the best way to break down a bird, as well as explanations for why cast iron is just so darn awesome.

Corn Dogs on The Man Show on Volume 7

Here Food Network has provided some useful information.  On the recipe page is a video clip from the show detailing how he makes corn dogs, and the episode page indicates it should re-air on June 17th and 18th.  Set your DVRs people!

Getting back on topic…  Why do these recipes appeal to kids?  And why is it okay to consider them part of a healthy meal?

Fried food appeals to kids because it tastes good.  It’s not called GB&D (golden brown and delicious) for nothing.  It will recalibrate what a corn dog or fish stick or french fry really should taste like.  It contributed to The Child being a three-year old who wouldn’t eat fast food.  Sure, she would beg her grandparents to take her so she could get the latest toy, but during the annual power outage when I brought home Burger King for dinner, she chose to nibble and go to bed hungry.

Most kids have heard of corn dogs and are willing to try them.   This recipe even made jalapeño peppers less scary.  And healthy frying subsequently made zucchini and eggplant and sweet potatoes accessible ingredients The Child looked forward to as well.  But the fat content you say?!?!?  Remember that vapor barrier.  In his Fish & Chips preparation, AB makes enough food to feed four people.  Measuring the oil before and after frying, only 1.5 Tbsp of oil were unaccounted for, either having drained away or remained on the Fish & Chips.  One Tbsp of any fat = 100 calories.  Split four ways and rounding up, that’s 38 calories from oil per person.  Once you factor in portion control and pair it with a variety of sides, my layperson’s opinion is that correctly fried food can easily be part of a healthy meal.

Still Learning

We recently had a Good Eats inspired weekend frying extravaganza ourselves.  Saturday was our second success making AB’s fried catfish.  After watching his recent episode outlining the sustainability of US farmed catfish, as well as advice on how to purchase it (still frozen and vacuum sealed to thaw at home), we felt brave enough to try the unfamiliar.  Our only tweak of the recipe is to slice the fish into smaller pieces for a higher crust to fish ratio.  This gorgeous plate of GB&D combined with some beautiful weather spawning an impromptu block party.  Nothing like sharing with half a dozen people to ensure the best portion control around.

Fried catfish and hush puppies to share with the neighborhood

Sunday I left for an afternoon appointment, and came home to a fabulous surprise.  Daddy Daughter Doughnut Day™.  They had braved making doughnuts together.  Maple-Bacon Glazed Apple Doughnuts.  While doughnuts are obviously not health food,  the experience of making them with her dad only comes around once in a while.  They both took a huge sense of accomplishment away from the venture as well (the dough is super sticky and presented challenges), but The Child helped roll and cut out over four dozen doughnuts, and The Spouse managed to keep his plans under wraps until the literally jaw-dropping reveal.

Never-ending doughnuts... Next time, a single batch.

We had friends over, we all gathered round the kitchen counter eating our dessert first, and The Child had an epic sugar crash later.  And it was so worth it.  The time, effort, and learning which went into them made it all the more fun to enjoy her hard work with others.  And given said time and effort, these will not become a regular addition to our diet.  Plus, it’s important that The Child see the benefits of eating well most of the time.  Once in a special while it’s okay to have 3 doughnuts and spoil your appetite!

Yes, we all hope our kids eat healthy all the time.  But that’s not realistic.  So I define eating well for The Child as trying anything and everything without being rude.  She needs to eat variety, and learn portion control.  That may be very different than eating healthy, as is the case with a bacon-maple glazed apple doughnut.  But that being said, frying at home as a cooking method ought not be vilified.  And when the target food is a healthy one, healthy frying is not an oxymoron.

Maple and Bacon-Glazed Apple Doughnuts

Prepare 3 strips of bacon, dice, and reserve rendered fat.
Finely chop one apple, and saute in bacon fat.
Add sauteed apple and half the diced bacon to AB’s Yeast Doughnut dough.

Glaze:
Heat 1/2 cup maple syrup with 2 cups icing sugar.
Add a bit of apple juice until it is the correct consistency and add the remaining diced bacon.

Yeast Doughnuts
Recipe courtesy Alton Brown, 2004

Prep Time:25 min
Inactive Prep Time:1 hr 50 min
Cook Time:12 min
Serves:20 to 25 doughnuts

Ingredients

•    1 1/2 cups milk
•    2 1/2 ounces vegetable shortening, approximately 1/3 cup
•    2 packages instant yeast
•    1/3 cup warm water (95 to 105 degrees F)
•    2 eggs, beaten
•    1/4 cup sugar
•    1 1/2 teaspoons salt
•    1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
•    23 ounces all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting surface
•    Peanut or vegetable oil, for frying (1 to 1/2 gallons, depending on fryer)

Directions

Place the milk in a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat just until warm enough to melt the shortening. Place the shortening in a bowl and pour warmed milk over. Set aside.

In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and let dissolve for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, pour the yeast mixture into the large bowl of a stand mixer and add the milk and shortening mixture, first making sure the milk and shortening mixture has cooled to lukewarm. Add the eggs, sugar, salt, nutmeg, and half of the flour. Using the paddle attachment, combine the ingredients on low speed until flour is incorporated and then turn the speed up to medium and beat until well combined. Add the remaining flour, combining on low speed at first, and then increase the speed to medium and beat well. Change to the dough hook attachment of the mixer and beat on medium speed until the dough pulls away from the bowl and becomes smooth, approximately 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a well-oiled bowl, cover, and let rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size.

On a well-floured surface, roll out dough to 3/8-inch thick. Cut out dough using a 2 1/2-inch doughnut cutter or pastry ring and using a 7/8-inch ring for the center whole. Set on floured baking sheet, cover lightly with a tea towel, and let rise for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oil in a deep fryer or Dutch oven to 365 degrees F. Gently place the doughnuts into the oil, 3 to 4 at a time. Cook for 1 minute per side. Transfer to a cooling rack placed in baking pan. Allow to cool for 15 to 20 minutes prior to glazing, if desired.

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I have to sing the praises of the Baby Björn Safe Step.  It should be on the registry list for every expecting mom.  There is a long list of reasons why seven years later I now own, hmmm…  count ‘em, FOUR of these step stools.  Mind you I did not purchase all four at once, but they are so versatile for our family that it is still a functioning item around the house.  Just today I used one to put groceries away in the pantry and save my blown-out back from the strain of reaching high shelves.  But I am getting ahead of myself.


Baby Björn Step Stool Progression of Usefulness

When I was pregnant, I was obsessed with ensuring successful breastfeeding.  While I still think nursing was the right choice for us, after watching intelligent women I care about driven to drastic measures and worked into a frenzy over what to do when it doesn’t work, I question how much of an advantage nursing is when compared to a devastated mom.  The process of bringing an infant home is already fraught with so much stress and sleep-deprivation, do we really need to string parents out more and assign blame when it simply isn’t working?  But that’s another post.

I read somewhere that having a step stool to prop up feet while nursing would help, and it really did.  Independent from the foot-rest that came with our nursing chair, I used the step stool a lot.  It provided a variation of positions, and when I got tired of walking The Child to sleep I could sit down with my toes upon the step and gently bounce the swaddled bundle to sleep on my knees.  I justified the purchase at the time with the knowledge that toddlers need a step in the bathroom at some point, so worst case I was just planning way ahead.

The Child at 16 months showing off the bottom grippy bits of the Safe Step.

For bathroom use, it is awesome.  The rubber strip in contact with the floor on the Baby Björn Safe Step ensures it stays put, and the tread provides traction regardless of bare feet, socks, spilled water, or the inevitable jostling with other kids.  Toddlers are wobbly on their own feet.  Climbing onto some cutesy, personalized, slippery wooden step stool seemed precarious at best.

It is small enough to tuck away easily when sharing a bathroom with grown-ups, and the plastic is very sanitary and easy to clean.  When combined with the Baby Björn Toilet Trainer, it meant there was no need for one of those little messy portable potty things.  The Child was adamant that if she was going to abandon what seemed like perfectly viable diaper technology, that she was going to only use the grown-up toilet.  One of these step stools in each bathroom made it easier to clamber up there safely.  Even now that toilet training is a distant memory, her smaller friends use the step to reach the faucet when washing up.

At a titch over a pound, it is light enough for small children to move it around as needed.  And while ours are all white, they now come in a variety of colors.

As toddler years progressed into big kid years, this step stool works well to help her stand at the kitchen counter and help cook.  It gives her more leverage when taking on chores requiring she reach the bottom of the kitchen sink, like washing veggies.  And at seven years old, she uses it to reach things in her bathroom medicine cabinet like nail clippers and lip balm.

The Child peeled some eggs over the sink and then made some egg salad for lunch.

Very early in this progression, we discovered an unexpected use.  The Dog loved it!  A medium-sized pooch, he first used it to peek into the bassinet to check on the coo-head.  But oh the possibilities!!  With only one window facing the street side of our condo, he could now look out the window comfortably to keep an eye on the neighborhood without putting his feet on the windowsill.  Clearly I had to invest in one just for him.

Admittedly, now that The Child is seven years old, I no longer have the need for so many.  But they do nest very well (in a stack at The Dog’s favorite window in fact), and kids use them to sit around the coffee table and play.

And now I find myself using it to reach pantry ingredients!  It handles my adult weight just fine, and it is light weight enough for me to fetch from the living room when I need it.  The more substantial step ladder we own is fabulous, but it is down a flight a stairs and heavier than my injured spine will allow right now.

Inevitably everything has some drawbacks.  It is only six inches tall, so be mindful of how much of a boost your kid is going to need for a given task.  The Child has always been tall for her age, and we have not yet updated the bathrooms to ADA compliant height toilets, so perhaps it is not enough of a step up for some.  There are a few complaints on Amazon about it being tippy;  however, in the seven years of use here we have never had a kid, ours or any other, fall off the thing.

Overall it has been a fabulous purchase for The Child, The Dog, and for us.  I highly recommend it to anyone who needs a little step up.

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While I have been stuck on the floor with my decrepit spine, The Spouse and The Child decided to experiment with making tortillas the last few months.  It has been a glorious surprise.

Not to say I lack faith in their abilities, for years the two of them have bravely attempted just about any kind of dough.  Typically with me oscillating between concern over the mess and utter gratitude at the break from parenting on my part.  It was his go-to activity when she was wee.  His solution for the seemingly never-ending question of how to entertain a toddler was to grocery shop and to cook.  On Saturday mornings when he was not traveling, he would scoop her up, head off to a zillion different errands, and come home to prepare food with the kid.  She would get plunked in her Easy Diner at the counter and watch him prep veggies, roast meats, and make stock.  And when just watching and nibbling was insufficient entertainment, they would make chocolate-chip cookies.  When they mastered that, they moved onto scones.  Biscuits.  Homemade pasta.  Fresh bread.  And now, tortillas.

The surprise however was that the tortillas worked far better than any of us expected, and on the first try too.  Given my preference for flour tortillas, when I saw the masa dough I was expecting a grainy and tasteless platform for fillings.  These had a smooth texture but with a firm bite.  They were salted just right, and I would have put money on their being some AP wheat flour and lard in there.  But nope.  Just masa harina and water, and no fat of any kind.  Wow.

The software:

My typical first question when sitting down to any new meal in the repertoire is, “Is this Alton’s recipe?”  We watch a lot of Good Eats, and AB has dedicated a generous amount of time to tortillas, tortilla chips, and what to do with a freezer full of leftover tortillas.  But no, my family informed me this was the recipe right off the side of the bag.

The hardware:

We did not have a tortilla press in our arsenal, but we did have a nearly 7-year old who is handy with a rolling pin.  Once the dough was prepped, The Spouse portioned out some dough and they set to work.

The process:

As I sit here writing this, I am parked in The Child’s room.  She is home from school with a mild cold and sometimes being the sentinel keeping her in bed is the easiest way to get a handle on the cold and avoid secondary infections.  This kid may eat well, but as I have mentioned before, sleeping without a stubborn fight has never been her thing.  Napping is apparently for losers.  And self-imposed rest is rare.  I said she eats.  I didn’t say she was easy!

The recipe she makes with her dad is right on the bag of Maseca masa harina.  But that seemed far away…  all the way downstairs…  so in a fit of laziness, I asked if she remembered off hand how to make tortillas.  She sat up straight in bed, cleared her throat with a snarfle, and said with authority, “Eh hem.  Step One!”  What follows is straight dictation:

Step 1

Get masa dough, big bowl, and the water.

Step 2

Mix the masa dough and the water together using a wooden spoon or your hands.

Step 3

Break masa dough into the size of a fist.  A little kid’s fist.  “Like a 7-year old’s.”

Step 4

Get two sheets of plastic wrap and put the dough ball between them.  WARNING! [This was declared with a gesture akin to stopping traffic.]  Do not push plastic wrap over ball!  Lay it loose on top, and using the bottom of your palm, just kinda push it out.  If you want to use a rolling pin you may, but start with the bottom of your palm.  It is done when it is about the size of a small plate.

Step 5

Take off the top sheet of plastic wrap and put your hand underneath the bottom piece of plastic wrap.  Flip over onto a grown-up hand, and remove the other piece of plastic.

Step 6

Flip onto griddle

Step 7

Take off of griddle when nice and warm and stack them on a plate.

Step 8

Then you eat them!!!!!  [“Mom,” she says, peering over my shoulder as I take dictation on the last step, “You need more exclamation points on that.”  This whole teaching her to read thing means I now have another critic.]

Apparently she paid attention.  Who knew?

The birthday party:

Tortilla making has become such a common occurrence over the last two months that when it came time to plan the traditional fancy birthday tea party The Child had been wanting, she opted last minute for an evening taco night instead.  She wanted to teach her friends how to make them, and then have Taco Night together.  No argument from me!

And she was right, it was fabulous.  On a weeknight after school, four friends (ages four through eight) were dropped off and stationed at the kitchen counter.  The Spouse made the dough and The Child showed all of them how to portion and roll them ready for flattening.

Of course we thought this was the perfect excuse to upgrade our flour and invest in a tortilla press.   Big mistake on both counts.  We thought we were getting fancy getting some Bob’s Red Mill Masa Harina.  It is entirely possible we screwed up the recipe given the chaos, but it didn’t seem as fine a grind as the mass-produced Maseco, and it was hard to get the tortillas thin enough.  They had a much less delicate and more grainy texture.

With all the kids, we knew rolling each one by hand would be impractical.  I investigated tortilla presses online before buying one.  It was not a big investment, but it seemed some were made of cheaper metal than others.  There were many complaints on Amazon of supposed “cast iron” presses arriving already broken inside their original packaging.  There did not appear to be a clear winner, so we shelled out a few extra bucks and went to the local Sur La Table store to pay the $20 premium for their product testing.  Or so we thought…

Broken tortilla press from Sur La Table

That sucker broke just a few tortillas into the party, and it is definitely not cast iron.  Thankfully another parent stepped in to help man the griddle while The Spouse rolled them all out by hand.  All the kids had fun helping to make them, and even the picky kids sprinkled their ingredients of choice and enjoyed a taco before gorging on cake.  It was a memorable and unique afternoon.

The frequency of tortillas has relaxed into a comfortable pace in our repertoire.  We have yet to make a sufficient batch to stock the fridge for my typical weekly quesadilla needs, and I have no idea yet how well or long they keep.  We have not yet tracked down a replacement press from the local Mexican market either.  I look forward to the day we fry some of these for proper chips.  So many experiments on the tortilla horizon!

We have subsequently stopped stocking our fridge with store-bought ones.  Now practiced, it takes 15 minutes from the time The Spouse and The Child decide they are going to make them to sitting down to dinner, and they are so much tastier than even the best store-bought flour ones.  So I imagine the plethora of tortillas will continue for further experiments.  If you try it with your kids or find the perfect tortilla press, we would love to hear about it!

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