Category Archives: food

Saucy

God bless my third child, because that girl will eat anything.  Well, almost anything.  When the time came to switch from breast milk to whole milk, she spit that crap right out.  Only when we started putting skim milk in her cup did she agree to drink the stuff.  A girl has to watch her figure.

Other than whole milk and ice cream, however, Lilah will eat whatever is put in front of her.  Lentils, eggplant, spinach, chicken… you name it, she eats it.  Unlike Benjamin, who gorges himself on giant fistfuls of victuals like a cross between a caveman and Henry VIII, Lilah is a lady with table manners.  She deliberately picks up one morsel at a time, content to spend forty-five minutes on a twelve-course meal.  To be completely honest, all her delicate manners do nothing to prevent her from getting soup in her ears and cheese on her head.

I have earned this baby.  Feeding Zachary has the potential to become a full-time obsession, what with his constantly shifting sensitivities to textures and smells.  One day he cannot handle skin on his fruit, the next day he eats only the skin.  This week he likes grapes, next week he’ll declare them disgusting.  Every food has to be vetted for offensive odors or sauces that might inadvertently slip onto the plate.  After five years of this shit, I deserve a kid who doesn’t make me think too hard about what I feed her, damn it.

Lilah almost turned out to be the one.

Unfortunately, it turns out that everything she eats makes her break out into hives.  It started with squashes, but quickly grew.  Eggs.  Lentils.  Beans.  Chicken.  Tofu.  Pizza.  Pasta.  At every meal, she would happily dip into the creamed spinach soup or paint herself black with beans.  And by the end, her face was covered in hives.

We decided to test her for food allergies.  Maybe it was tomatoes, beans, and dairy that gave her the eczema.  Or perhaps she was sensitive to meat proteins.  Maybe it was gluten, whatever the fuck that is.  The doctor and I discussed some possibilities, and she ticked off the choices on her little referral form.  It wasn’t until I got the thing home that I realized there was one common denominator in all the foods Lilah was eating.  I called the doctor and had her add one more item to the list for the blood screening.

And that’s how we came to find that our daughter is allergic to garlic.  Mildly allergic, mind you, but since she was getting it in everything, she was pretty much constantly exposed to an irritant.  Hence the blotchy skin and scaly elbows.

I panicked.  How the hell was I supposed to cook?  I use garlic in pretty much everything.  Short of chocolate chip cookies, there isn’t a dish out there that doesn’t get its best start in life from olive oil, onions, and garlic.  Although I was already cooking most of our food from scratch, I liked to know I had the option of ordering in.  I rarely would, but I need that escape hatch for weeks when everyone had didn’t have swine flu and the oven door fell off.  I defy you to think of a single food one can order in that does not have garlic in it.

Just listen to that escape hatch swing shut.

What I quickly have come to realize, however, is that adding more onions allows me to remove the garlic without any catastrophic effects.  The taste is milder usually, but equally good.  Contrary to popular opinion, pasta sauce made without garlic does not cause your rigatoni to shrivel up into a ball and beg for mercy.  It can be quite good.

So, here’s how I made Lilah’s Garlicless Red Sauce:

6 to 10 tomatoes, deseeded and diced

2 medium sized onions, diced

olive oil

bay leaf

one bunch spinach, washed well and chopped

fresh basil, oregano and parsley (or dried)

salt and pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large pot.  Let me spill a little secret about olive oil: it doesn’t really matter how much you put in.  The onions will cook well no matter what amount you use.  If you really need a measurement, let’s go with two tablespoons, but I won’t tell anyone if you just dump some in.  Cook the onions for about ten minutes until translucent.  Toss in the tomatoes and cook until well stewed, maybe five to ten minutes.

Oh, wait, I forgot to tell you to put in the bay leaf, too.  Cook the bay leaf with the tomatoes.

Then throw in the spinach and the herbs.  Fresh is always better, and you cannot possibly have too much fresh basil.  However, dried also works fine, and in that case stick to a teaspoon or less of each herb.  When the spinach has wilted into the sauce, add salt (sparingly) and lots of pepper.

I didn’t have any cooked white beans, but if I had, I would have tossed those in, too.

Puree it all (except the bay leaf.  For the love of God, take that out).  It’s a little dark for a red sauce, but that spinach packs a nice punch.  I used it for a lasagna last night and the two children who actually eat loved it.  The other one sat on the floor across the room from the offending food and muttered to himself.  Every now and then I caught words like “disgusting” and “horrible.”

To make the lasagna, by the way, cook some noodles.  Put just a little sauce on the bottom of 9x 13 pan.  Put down a layer of noodles.  Ricotta cheese in splotches (or, if your ricotta has gone bad, use cottage cheese).  Lots of grated mozzarella.  Sauce.  Noodles.  Sauce.  Cottage cheese/ricotta.  Mozzarella.  Noodles.  Sauce.  Cottage cheese/ricotta.  Mozzarella.  Noodles.  Sauce.  Mozzarella.  Parmesan cheese.

Serve hot, then after the meal cut up a pear so that the picky one eats something before bed.

The key is to go very, very easy on the sauce each layer.  It is easy to go overboard and then you get a mushy lasagna.  But remember, there is no such thing as too much mozzarella.

Of course, I used to think that about garlic, too.

Food

Lilah, who just rounded a year old, is an elegant eater.  She prefers to dine, picking up one pea at a time, as her older brothers storm through the meal beside her.  Benjamin eats like a caveman and Zachary eats like a compulsive dieter.  Their baby sister eats like a girl who realizes her mother has enough drama without more dinnertime histrionics.

She eats what we give her, selecting from amongst the morsels with measured enthusiasm.  While she prefers beans to chicken, she doesn’t whine or cry if the dinner is not her first choice.  She just eats it.  Then, when she is finished, she looks at me and starts talking as she clears off her placemat.

She is asking for dessert.

I bring in fruit, and she eats that for awhile, too.  Meanwhile, Tweedledum and Tweedledee have left the table twenty minutes ago and are pummeling one another in the living room.  J and I sit at the table, deflated, trying to pretend for a few minutes that Lilah is an only child.

It is a pleasure to feed this little girl, truly it is.  Except.  And here’s the big except.

The hives.

Oh, my god, the hives.  Everything she eats seems to make her break out in hives.  First, it was just all forms of squash.  OK, we can avoid squash.  Then it was eggs.  Fine.  Daddy and Zachary are allergic to eggs – we can handle that.  But then we noticed a few other things seemed to trigger the problem.  Like lentils.  And possibly other beans.  And tomatoes.  And chicken.

Who the fuck is allergic to chicken?

How exactly are we supposed to get protein into a child who has only one tooth but is allergic to everything?  I would prefer to limit her soy exposure, as I don’t want her getting bosoms before she leaves preschool, yet a (hormome-free) t-bone is out of the question.  She doesn’t even have enough teeth for hamburgers.  Plus, of course, I need to be cooking food for the entire family, which means that it has to be something that suits Benjamin’s tastes, Daddy’s peculiarities, and my rather high health standards.  Since Zachary doesn’t actually eat, he gets no vote.

(By the way, don’t even try to suggest things to feed her.  Please trust me when I tell you that I have thought of every possible permutation and there is some problem with every conceivable meal.  Either Benjamin doesn’t like it or J won’t eat it or it makes Lilah’s head spin around and sprout horns.)

We need to figure out to what she is allergic, as baby Zyrtec is currently her third biggest source of calories.  When Zachary got his allergy tests, they poked his back with a series of plastic prongs and then looked for the reaction, a procedure that he is in no hurry to repeat, allow me to add.  They decided he was severely allergic to eggs, which we could have told them.  He has always had a reaction to anything made with eggs unless it involves baking them with lots of grains to absorb whatever proteins make him ill.  There also seems to be a tree nut allergy, which is fine, as I cannot imagine him requesting something like a handful of walnuts or a bowl of toasted almonds.  Thank god there was no reaction to peanuts.

They prescribed an epipen, a nifty little device that his exemplary parents manage to forget to bring with them about 92% of the time.  Fortunately, Zach promptly vomits up all egg products, so we will probably never need the thing.

Lilah, however, seems to be a lot more sensitive and she is still tiny.  She needed blood tests to determine exactly what she can safely consume.  We were able to narrow the possibilities down.  I rarely feed her processed foods, so I know all the ingredients in everything she eats, but it still involved a very long line of little vials they needed to fill.

So, I was assigned the task of holding her down with my body while three technicians sucked seven vials of blood from her arm.  Baby girl did her job, too.  That consisted of screaming with fury as she vainly attempted to get to her right thumb, which was tragically the same arm out of which they were removing a third of her blood.

As soon as the technicians were finished, she stuck that thumb in her mouth and then sat on my lap and whimpered.  Eventually, when I felt strong enough to walk, I took her out to the parking lot and managed to get her to the car without hyperventilating.

As I was strapping her in, a man walked by with his child in a wheelchair.  It was clear this little boy was severely disabled, both physically and mentally.  He and his family face enormous challenges every single day.  What ails that child will not be healed with a few tubes of blood and some Zyrtec.

Lilah’s blood tests haven’t come back yet.  Yesterday, baked beans gave her hives.   I suspect there are a few more epipens in our future.

Daily bread

Hi, I’m Emily, and I’m a compulsive cook.

On Sunday, I baked bread and cinnamon rolls for the week, cooked black beans for dinner, and prepared the dough for the tortillas, which my husband graciously rolled.  We also went to the farmer’s market, where I bought assorted fruits and vegetables for the week to come, including the spinach that the next day I turned into a soup.

Yet, somehow, I felt as though I was slacking on Monday because I wasn’t baking anything.  No muffins – I’d be doing those on Tuesday.  No bread, which I’ll probably need to do on Wednesday.  No zucchini bread, which I’ll make on Thursday in anticipation of Zachary’s belated birthday celebration at school, which is Friday.

My weeks are organized around food, which is getting increasingly complicated, I must add.  Lilah seems to be allergic to, well, everything.  So far, the foods that have made her break out in hives include lentils, chicken, tomatoes, eggs, and all forms of squash.  Given that she has only one tooth, it’s a bit of a challenge coming up with food for her, although thanks to the food gods, she’ll eat anything I put in front of her.

Unlike Zachary, who refuses to eat anything.  Every day is Yom Kippur for this child.

And my husband, oh King of the Processed Foods.

Fuck if I know what to cook anymore.  But, somehow I persevere, partly by making bread for most dinners, so that if nothing else there is something The Pickiest Boy on the Block will eat.  And I cannot stop myself.  I want to cook, to feel in control of my world by chopping onions.  Article rejected?  Knead dough.  Au pair fired?  Bake beans.

Food seems to be my cure-all these days.  It is real, concrete, and under my control.  I want to be in my kitchen, where good smells and nourishing food are achievable, since so much else feels far beyond my grasp.

So, forgive me as I neglect to read your blogs and let weeks pass without a post.  I am in my kitchen dissolving yeast.

Slow down, you move too fast

Once, in the days when my hair was less brittle and gravity had not had it’s way with my bosoms, I liked to think of myself as a cook.  I made homemade tomato sauce and baked bread and did equally astonishing feats of turning raw materials into identifiable meals.  I still bought plenty of sliced bread, of course, as cooking was more a cross between a science experiment and performance art than it was a way of life.  As a newly-minted adult, I liked the self-reliance I put on display every time I conquered phyllo dough or showed up at a pot-luck with a homemade bowtie pasta salad, rather than something sporting a grocery store price sticker.

Cooking trumped baking because I liked the creativity of wandering into my kitchen and thinking, “Hmmm.  What do I have and what can I do with it?”  Baking was too precise for my taste, too paint-by-number.  I liked to think of myself as a food artist of sorts.  Long before it was popular to blog about Julia Child, I spent many a long hour alone with my Moosewood Cookbook, playing with recipes.

By child number three, that conceit was knocked right out of me.  I was still throwing together dinners, but most days it was about minimizing my time in the kitchen.  I just didn’t have the time to putter about the kitchen, skinning garlic and whatnot.

A lot of meals come pre-done, you know.  I tell you this in case you haven’t been in a grocery store in the last seven decades.

I was “mom cooking,” as a relative described it, which consisted of a lot of opening various jars of this and cans of that.  The problem is that when you buy something in a can, they slip in a lot of things I don’t really want my family eating, like extra salt, sugar, partially hydrogenated something or another, sundry chemicals with complicated names that I vaguely suspect are not actual food items, and the ever-popular bisphenol-A.

So, I have been finding myself more frequently making stuff from scratch.  Baking muffins and that sort of thing.  But, I was getting resentful of the time it takes, because baking muffins from scratch is a whole hell of a lot more time consuming than buying them at Starbucks.

Where I cannot control the ingredients.

I decided the change that I needed was not to buy more or different ready made foods.  What I needed was a change in my attitude.  I needed to remember that food preparation can be an organic part of my day, not something to be alternately shown off or rushed through.  Just a pleasant part of my day.  Bread can be set out to rise after lunch, punched down after Zachary’s karate, re-kneaded in the early evening, and put in to bake during dinner.  And we will have fresh, sugar-free bread for lunches the couple of days.

I realize that I have this luxury because I am not working out of my home.  Even if I were, there would still be some things I could do to reduce our reliance on processed foods, but time moves at a different pace for me, even when I am writing, because I am at home.  So, I can start things the night before that turn into dinner 22 hours later.

Anyone who breaks into our house in the middle of the night is likely to find beans soaking in a bowl on the counter.

Don’t get me wrong – I know the time involved in this is coming from somewhere, and since I already don’t watch TV, it’s coming from time with my kids.  Yes, they’ll help me roll out tortillas, but let’s be honest, no three-year-old cares to spend two hours a day cooking and no five-year-old ought to be chopping onions.  I am hoping the baby gets better at deseeding tomatoes, because she made a mess of the last batch.

My progeny play about and fight and do art and otherwise entertain themselves while I spread food preparation out through the day.  I believe this is good.  They are forming their relationship with food, and I want them to know that food does not come individually wrapped in plastic with microwave instructions.  Since my change of attitude, Zachary has learned why it is that the Hebrews ended up with matzah because they didn’t let the bread rise.  The Exodus story suddenly made sense as he took his first peak at our rising dough.

We are not purists.  While our produce has been about 95% local all spring and summer, we are not locavores.  Winter will test our mettle, even here in California.  While I am working to reduce our meat intake, as the obscene amount of resources required to produce meat makes me feel dirty, we still are having some sort of flesh two nights a week.  I just try to make sure none is wasted and it is all raised as sustainably as possible.  While I like the idea of approaching food slowly, we’re still buying our pasta pre-made.  Come to mention it, since my tomato plants fell victim to the blight, we are also buying our sauce pre-made.  And, while I myself am more or less a Real Foodie, my husband will never get off the sauce.

But, I am making changes.* We are getting a waffle iron so that Zachary’s addiction Kashi waffles can be broken.  I feel torn about the non-stick surface, but life cannot be perfect, and I figure whatever machinery the Kashi folks use to make their waffles has its own issues.  There are other purchases I would like – a non-plastic container that keeps bread fresh and another for freezing loaves, jars for preserving beans – but they will have to wait.  Right now, I need to get myself a dutch oven.

It’s time for Benjamin to learn that baked beans actually get baked in an oven.


* Any suggestions on which types of dutch ovens, jars, or waffle makers to buy are much appreciated, here.

Down the rabbit hole

            Calcium is the bane of my existence.  For over two and a half years, I consoled myself about Zachary’s picky eating by saying, “At least he gets plenty of milk.”  All that matters, I told myself, is calcium, and he was a milkaholic.

            And then he went on the wagon.  It was sudden and it was complete.  One day, he just stopped drinking milk. 

            Sure, he’ll drink chocolate milk.  And he’ll eat Trix yogurt.  And chocolate pudding.  In other words, he’ll take milk products that are cleverly disguised with hills of sugar.

            Orange juice with calcium is not an option because he needs to get his iron supplement in his orange juice and calcium and iron inhibit one another’s absorption. 

            His brother is not much better.  He’ll drink a little milk, but for a two-year-old, he’s pretty unmotivated by dairy products.  He has only about eight things he does not like to eat, but included among them are yogurt and cream cheese.  He gets enough calcium through broccoli and tofu – if he were an adult.  For a toddler, he’s not doing such a great job on feeding those bones.

            Thank heaven at least Benjamin likes macaroni and cheese.  Zachary, on the other hand, will eat the cheese at school but informs us that the cheese at home is different.

            We are down to Kraft singles in grilled cheese about once a week.  We’ve been giving Zachary calcium supplements and praying to the cheese gods.

            Who apparently heard our prayers.

            In the last five minutes of our drive back from Family Camp, Zachary began to give me instructions.  Detailed instructions.

            “Mommy,” he said.  “You need to get me cheese like the cheese they have at school.”

            Dazed from five hours in the car, I responded, “OK, Zachary.”

            “It needs to be the square kind, not the flat kind.  You can get it at the grocery store near our apartment,” referring to the temporary housing we moved out of a few months ago.

            “Yes, sweetie.”

            “And you have to cut it in squares.”

            “What color would you like this cheese to be?” I enquired.

            “White.  No, orange.  No, can you please get the white cheese and the orange cheese?”

            Now, I have been fooled before.  I have gone to the store and I have purchased something I thought he wanted, only to find out it differed in some imperceptible way from the item that had been requested.  So, I suggested that perhaps he could join me for this shopping trip for the specific cheese he required.

            Big mistake.  For the rest of the afternoon, all he could talk about was going to the store to buy cheese.  Finally, the next morning, J made it to the store with him.  They bought the cheddar.  They brought it home.

            And the children ate it.  A lot of it.  Till we were almost out of cheese.  “I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole,” I told my husband.

            Yesterday, Zach ate more cheese.  So, I returned to the store.  I bought more of the exact same cheese.  I am skeptical about whether it will actually pass muster, but I figure I have to try.

            For the children.

I wrote this last week but didn’t get to post it for one reason or another.  No one will be shocked to hear that Zachary has ceased to express any interest in cheese.

And the Indian food

            I have never been what you’d call a heavy drinker, but for most of my twenties I did know my way around the inside of a shot glass.  I am a fun drunk (I think – anyone want to comment on that?), although I do tend towards the literary when I have imbibed too much.  It is safe to say I was fun to party with, not the least because my already low levels of modesty plummet when I am inebriated. 

            However, the past five years have been spent: trying to conceive, pregnant, breastfeeding, trying to conceive, pregnant, breastfeeding, tired from two small children and working on a book, and then (whoopsie) pregnant again.  Not a whole lotta drinking going on.

            I do, however, recognize that other people like to drink, especially on festive occasions.  The small sixty-fifth birthday party I am throwing tomorrow for my father-in-law seems to qualify.  (I would say “we” are throwing it to maintain a polite veneer of fiction, but I am pretty sure that my in-laws and all invited guests know that J hasn’t had time to sneeze in three months, let alone plan a party.)  It is an intimate event, just a few friends and relatives, and it is midday, so I know we do not need a vast array of bottles with unpronounceable Russian names or worms in the bottom.  We have settled on classy – a couple bottles of champagne so we can raise a toast.

            I went to the store to buy said bottles.  Because I don’t know much yet about the area, I simply went to the upscale grocery store, which did have a lot of bubbly stuff.  Unfortunately, even when I did drink, champagne was not my beverage of choice.  I had no idea what I was looking at.

            I stood in front of the bottles for a good ten minutes, perhaps hoping that if I stood there long enough, I would learn something about champagne.  All I learned, however, is that the cheap stuff – something called “sparkling wine” – lives on the bottom shelf; the middle shelves are dedicated to a mixture of the more expensive California sparkling wines and the cheaper champagnes; and the top shelf has, well, the top shelf champagne that costs about the same per ounce as good cocaine. 

            Finally, I decided to ask for help.  I flagged down a scruffy yet clearly prosperous man.  “Do you know anything about champagne?” I asked him.

            Did he know anything about champagne?  Turns out, the dude was French.  He had the kind of French accent and impeccable English grammar that immediately marked him as a man who never lost his French roots but has spent many years in the U.S. 

Score.

            We talked for a few minutes about the varying types of mid-level champagne.  I knew I was not going for the one that made me gasp every time I looked at the price, but there was a wide variety on the middle shelves.  “What about this one?” I asked.

            “That one is very nice,” he said.  “And a pretty good price for it.  You won’t be unhappy with that one.”

            Perfect, but just to be sure… “And these down here?” as I pointed to the bottom shelf.

            “You are better off just drinking something else,” he declared.

            As I picked up two bottles of the one we had chosen and said goodbye, I realized that I do miss a few things about London: our neighbors, a few expat friends, and, of course, all the French people.

Salmonella be damned

            Normally, I ignore food scares.  Life is scary enough without running around purging my house of spinach every time three people in Idaho get ecoli.  The odds are so slim that I will get fisteria from a chicken that I continue on my merry way, smugly above the hysteria.

            But the latest scare over tomatoes and salmonella – well, that one seems big enough to actually pay some attention to.  I don’t have to worry about my children, since they think tomatoes are a Communist plot to poison them.  And I don’t have to worry about my husband, who has had such bad (and still undiagnosed) stomach problems for almost five months that he cannot eat any fruits or vegetables.  But, for once, I sort of have to worry about myself. 

            I love tomatoes.  I live for tomatoes.  And when I am pregnant, they rank just under peaches as the ideal food.  Suddenly, I am supposed to stop eating them?  What the hell will I eat in their place?  Chocolate is a poor substitute.

            And, then, I took a closer look.  There is a whole list of “safe” states, with tomatoes the FDA has deemed salmonella-free – 27 states to be exact.  And, on that list, you will find New Jersey and California.  Now, since I have never had a tomato worth the eating that was not grown in New Jersey or California, I am just not too concerned.  And, with all due respect to my newly adopted state, let’s be honest.  If a tomato ain’t grown in New Jersey, it’s really just taking up space.