Thursday, October 27, 2011

Is That a Vegetable Under All Those Condiments?

I am slowly coming to the conclusion that children are genetically disposed to hate vegetables.

I never thought I would be the mother who said that. I was certain that our great love of food would pass cleanly into our offspring's DNA, and if we presented our children with a variety of vegetables from birth, surely they would grow up preaching to their little preschool friends about the wonders of kale and broccoli.

This is, at least thus far, not the truth at all. I remember watching our daughter and older son slurp up their squash, much as our little guy does now, and proudly determine that we were raising uncomplaining vegetable-eaters. A few years later, I think it will come down to complete deprivation of any other food except vegetables to make them eat anything but peas.

And oh, how we have tried to make vegetables exciting. We cook every kind imaginable, especially considering our community-sponsored agriculture share this summer, as well as the friendly staples of corn and carrots. We (and when I say we, I mean me and Chef Matt) eat a lot of asparagus, green beans and peppers, and we have a newfound love of turnips, beets and kohlrabi, and in many cases, we make every attempt to hide the "vegetable-ness" of these delicious foods so they will actually get past our kids' mouths and into their stomachs.

My first tries were amateur. Butter and garlic, butter and garlic, butter and garlic. But when that failed to entice them, I tried cheese, heavy cream, lemon juice, and bread crumbs. When that did not work, I pureed carrots and layered them in lasagna, and I hid finely chopped Brussels sprouts in pasta. Finally, I pulled out the big guns and cooked gratins and fritters and even disguised various root vegetables as French fries.

It was during the kohlrabi-as-French-fries episode that I found victory in its most unsophisticated form: ketchup. If I allow the kids to douse their vegetables in ketchup, they will almost always try whatever is on their plate. They might try one, kind of swallow, and not eat any more, but maybe the veggies' close proximity to their faces emits enough nutrients to actually get in their resistant little selves. Last night, I hit a new low when I gave in and allowed our son to use ketchup on his salad.

Someday, the lightbulb might go off and they will suddenly decide that they just cannot get enough spinach. I take heart in the fact that they are fruit-lovers, so vegetables cannot be far behind. If all our efforts fail, and they grow up to be adults who eat ketchup on their salads, I guess I can take solace in the fact that in their formative years, the fumes of all kinds of vegetables (if not the veggies themselves) were ever-present in the house and they caught at least passing whiffs of nutritious leafy greens.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Fondly Remembering Lunchlady Land

I have a confession to make. Some of you may never respect anything I say about food ever again, but this blog is all about honesty, so here goes: I really enjoy school lunch.

When you have finished scoffing at my confession, consider my justification. At school, you can go through the lunch line with your nicely sectioned-off tray and receive representation from each of the food groups (or food pyramid or whatever the current form is), choose your white or chocolate milk, douse it all in ketchup if you want, and have a mini-restaurant experience at the lunch table.

I was a brown-bag luncher for most of my school career, but every month when the new lunch menu came out, my mom would let us choose a few days that we could eat "hot lunch," and it was always supremely exciting. Do I want turkey and gravy day, or fiestada pizza day? The shoo-in was always Italian dunker day, arguably the best school-lunch day of the month, when the lines in the cafeteria stretched around the room as students clamored to get their cheesy bread and marinara sauce.

And I was the student that the lunch ladies liked to see coming: unless it was chow mein day, I swept through the lunch line with enthusiasm, took one of everything, and always brought an empty tray to the return window.

School lunch has changed dramatically since I was in junior high; many schools now have several choices or a salad bar or brand-name fast foods, and some are trying very hard to make lunches healthier. Maybe I am just a traditionalist, but I liked the days of chicken nuggets and french fries, with a scoop of canned corn, a roll and a cookie. In the first few years at my current job, I spent a lot of time at schools around the state, and thus a lot of time eating school lunch in teachers' lounges. I happily ate things I had not in years, like fruit cocktail and tater tots, and just like in junior high, I was a charter member of the clean plate club.

Earlier this week, I made Italian dunkers for my kids, and as my son used his cheesy bread as a vehicle for drinking the marinara sauce, I could not help but reminisce fondly about running from class at top speed to make it into the lunch line before the rest of the school so I could get my own dunkers. I loved Lunchlady Land, for where else could I get a chicken patty on a bun with as much mayonnaise as I wanted, an ice-cream scoop of mashed potatoes and pink applesauce for the bargain-basement price of two dollars? Nowhere else on earth.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ships Passing in the Night Anchor in the Harbor

I was reading a blog of another chef's wife recently, and she said something about her husband that I thought was funny and true: "I love him. Where is he?"

This rang especially true for me last week, when in the course of five days, I had four hours of face time with Chef Matt. We crossed paths briefly in the morning before I left for work, and for a few hours on the weekend as we dodged work meetings and kids' gymnastics. This sort of "ships passing in the night" is nothing new, but for some reason last week was particularly crunched for husband-wife time. And suddenly my mother's pre-marital advice glowed before me like a neon sign: Do not forget to go on dates with your husband.

At the time, before we got married, that advice seemed unbelievable. Why in the world would I need to schedule dates with someone I live with? But I think any married person would tell you that work and kids and life grow into thorny brambles, leaving you on one side and your spouse on the other. I first knew that my mother was right in the year after our daughter was born and we had gone on a total of two dates the entire year, and one of those was someone else's wedding.

We vowed to try harder. We called upon grandmas and snuck out to dinner every couple of months, and on one very memorable occasion, actually went to a movie together. Even when we just cannot find the time to leave home, we try to watch movies together on the couch or I kick his butt in Scrabble.

Something that is much more difficult to do, but is equally important, is to get away together. This weekend, we spent the night downtown Minneapolis, and it was just what the marriage-doctor ordered. We watched businessmen try to pick up businesswomen in a steakhouse bar, had another drink down the street at an Irish pub (our version of "bar-hopping"), slept in (which means 8:30), and breakfasted on eggs and a caramel roll at a funky live-music restaurant.

Our not-quite-24-hours away will hold us for a while. In a perfect world, I would "date" my husband every week, but something Kitchen Widowhood has taught me is how to be grateful for every minute I have with him. If our "time together" consists of brushing our teeth at the same sink in the morning, I will take it and look forward to the next outing where I get to wear something other than pajama pants.

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Great Smell is a Thing of Beauty

There are few moments I love more than walking into a house that smells like something good is cooking. For that brief moment, nasty weather and a bad day at work and a long commute disappear under delicious aromas, and I feel instantly soothed, like I am going to walk into the kitchen and my grandma will be there with cookies and milk, a hug, and a blanket fresh out of the dryer.

Smell is just as important to eating as taste; when foods smell good, it makes them even more appetizing. Sometimes our wires are crossed and we love the smell of something but not the taste -- I think the classic example is coffee -- or vice versa. To me, the smell of cooking and baking has a monumentally pleasurable attribute: anticipation. When I catch a whiff of something aromatic in a kitchen, I feel a bit like I am counting down the minutes to Christmas.

Everyone has their favorite cooking smells, the ones that trigger memories or make us instantly ravenous. If I had to construct a list of my top five, it would be a close race, but here is how I would rank:

5. Bacon. The perfume of frying bacon, sizzling away on a griddle, is full of guilt and satisfaction. I can envision it with thick slices of tomato, next to scrambled eggs, or all by itself, each greasy bite savored while the scent still hangs heavy in the air.

4. Cinnamon rolls. Anything baked with cinnamon brings me instantly to the holiday season, but cinnamon rolls in particular, their sweet, spicy flavor permeating the air, are divine. The smell of fresh rolls out of the oven always make me long for a snowfall, Bing Crosby, and a warm sweater.

3. Lasagna. Nothing but the word "bouquet" is sufficient to describe the smell of tomato sauce, meat and cheese slathered over slender noodles. It is a friendly smell, meant to be shared around a full table, and perhaps that is part of the allure.

2. Garlic. Chef Matt often says that if he found out he were allergic to garlic, he would eat it anyway and deal with the consequences. When I breathe in the sharp, flavorful smell of garlic sauteeing in butter, I cannot help but concur. I sometimes find myself leaning too far over the pan and coming away a little dizzy from that intense, invigorating aroma.

1. Bread. The smell of bread baking, to me, says "peace." It is soft and warm and reassuring, reminiscent of childhood and long Saturday afternoons and thick slices with melted butter. I always want to cozy up on the couch with that smell, taking deep breaths to inhale as much of that vaporous comfort as I can. Everyone has their favorites, but I think bread is universally endearing, one of the foods that almost compels us to take huge, appreciative lungfuls to prolong the joy.