Friday, June 10, 2011

Sense and Sensibility: A Guide to Feeding Children in a Literary Manner

A lingering shoulder injury has left me feeling less than creative in the kitchen and I've relied on my old standards for feeding my family in the past month.  We've eaten lots of spinach lasagna, broccoli pasta, "grandma potatoes" and homemade fish sticks.  I've also emptied the freezer of all the tupperware-encased meals I stashed away "in case of emergency".  Now that the "emergency" and the homemade meatballs are both gone, I've found myself left with a handful of hard-core anti-inflammatories and an urge to start cooking again.

Our garden and the local farmer's market is bursting with amazing produce and I usually start my meal planning with a trip to the backyard and then to the Sunday market.  I get $25 worth of anything that looks good.  Sometimes I go with a plan-- green beans are still in season, don't forget the corn on the cob--- but mostly I wander around and buy the food that calls out to me.  This works pretty well, especially because my children like their food "plain" and my husband is happily supportive of my strange culinary experiments.

We've used up most of our produce from the market so we'll be having spinach lasagna for dinner--AGAIN-- so that I have a little time to think ahead.

When I realized that I might be getting strong enough to lift my cast-iron skillet, I took the girls to the library and looked through the kids' cooking section.  They were going a little crazy so I scooped up a handful of books that looked promising (plus one book on princess cake-making by request) and headed for the door.

I ended up with the following selection:

1.  The Wind in the Willows Country Cookbook by Arabella Boxer
2.  Honest Pretzels by Mollie Katzen
3.  The Secret Garden Cookbook by Amy Cotler
4.  Fanny at Chez Panisse by Alice Waters
5.  The Princess caking-making book requested by my eldest daughter

I also picked up Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair, which I'd put on hold when I knew I'd be going to the library.

I started with Feeding the Whole Family and after tagging lots of delicious sounding recipes, I realized that my kids wouldn't like any of them.  Like many young children, my girls like their food simple.  They'll happily eat corn, green beans, brown rice, and many other foods, but if I try to mix any of these components together they are NOT pleased.  I've struggle against this phenomenon for some time now without success so I've decided to take a step back and try a new approach.

Instead of looking for recipes that I think sounded "good" for my family, I sat down with the pile of children's cookbooks and turned on the television.  That's right-- I turned on the tv.  I happily gave myself a break from thinking about healthy eating and watched the second half of Sense and Sensibility (the Emma Thompson/Ang Lee version) while drifting through the stack of books I'd collected.  The first thing I realized when I laid all the books out on the bed was that there was a theme... a literary theme.

I am charmed by period drama, especially the British Regency and Victorian varieties, so I decided to give in to it.  If I loved these Romantic fantasies so much (as many girls and women do), why wouldn't my two daughters?  And if my girls loved simple foods, why not start there?   I had my two criteria: simple foods with good stories.  But what to do next?

Against my initial impulse, I went with Fanny at Chez Panisse.  Because of the cult of food that's developed around Alice Waters I was almost tempted to throw this book out the window, but the truth is that Waters has an excellent point.  Fresh foods simply prepared are the best.  So I decided to have an open mind, soothed by the language of Jane Austen playing in the background, and jump in with two feet.  It sounds almost cloying to say it, but this book is delightful.  My girls are too young to actually sit through the story of Fanny, but it was a pleasure for me to read and I found some really solid recipes.  Some of them are things I already know and haven't made in a while--- simple recipes for corn bread, pizza dough, and 1, 2, 3, 4 Cake (I'll be checking out my grandmother's Inglenook Cookbook for that one).  But I also found a nice simple recipe for Carrot and Parsley Salad and two great desserts-- candied orange peel (which I've been dying to make for over a month now) and chocolate kisses with no preservatives or extraneous ingredients.  I'll be sure to report back on the recipes once I've tried them, but this book is a fun way to start thinking about cooking with children again.

Excited by my initial success, I dove into a second book-- The Secret Garden Cookbook.  I loved the book The Secret Garden when I was young so this was an easy sell.  Thanks to this book I also discovered Amy Cotler as a committed local food advocate and writer for grown-ups who read cookbooks like novels.  The Secret Garden Cookbook discusses the kinds of food that the characters in the story might have eaten.  It also tells a very gentle (read: not scary or overly informative) story about the difference between "cottage life" and "manor life" and separates recipes by these influences.  In the end, The Secret Garden Cookbook was a lovely blast from my childhood literary past.  I was once again reminded of the great pleasures of simple foods that I ate as a child.  The funny thing is that although I ate these foods, I haven't cooked them before so in a weird way they're familiar and foreign at the same time.  We'll be trying Cheese Muffins, Welsh Rabbit, Potato Snow, Little Sausage Cakes, Fresh Spring Peas with Mint, and Glazed Carrots.  I love this book and may end up buying a copy if we haven't finished trying the recipes before the library book is due.

At this point in my research, I was feeling a little peckish, so I took a break and ate a turkey meatloaf sandwich for lunch.  Delicious.  Then I launched back into my cookbook project.  Honest Pretzels was up next.  I like Mollie Katzen as a chef and a cookbook author so I was excited about this book.  It's a good book for older children to read and once again, I felt that my girls were too young to really get into reading and following the instructions.  They certainly aren't too young to enjoy making and eating the food.  In coming weeks, we'll be trying her Giant Baked Pancake Puff, Smart Cookies, Little Pizzas, Made in the Pan Chocolate Cake (which I find very intriguing), Crunchy Zucchini Circles, Maple Yogurt Fruit Dip, and of course, Honest Pretzels.  Suddenly this all started feeling like a lot of work.

I was really losing steam by this point, but with only two books to go I felt like I couldn't stop.  I forged ahead with The Wind in the Willows Country Cookbook by Arabella Boxer.  Sighing, I opened the book to the first chapter to find that Chapter One was entitled "Food for Staying at Home".  Just my style.  I was ready to head to the kitchen to make the first three recipes in the book-- Eggy Bread, Fried Marmalade Sandwich, and Fried Cheese Sandwiches.  Yum.  Not especially healthy for a middle-aged woman looking to lose a few pounds, but delicious nonetheless.  And after all, wasn't this project about getting my kids into the kitchen and to try something new?  I flipped through the book again, starting at the back this time.  We already had too many dessert recipes to try so I didn't mark of any of these, but it was interesting to note that this book, like The Secret Garden Cookbook, also has a recipe for a "Fool". I marked it after all.  This one looked really good.  I also marked recipes for Sausage Rolls, Tomato Chutney, and Wayfarers' Easy Pizza (certainly not authentic, but you don't have to take time to let the dough rise, so I'm in.)  I think I may have gotten off track if my goal is to get the kids to eat these foods.  I can't imagine convincing my oldest daughter to eat tomato chutney, but I know the little one will go for it.  She'll eat tomatoes straight off the vine and beg for more.  Time to stop.


Oh, wait.  That damned princess cake book is still here.  Demanding to be read.  My daughter had chosen it so I gave it a shot in spite of the horrid tiara on the cover.  Not that I have anything against princesses... or tiaras... but I couldn't imagine how this slim pink volume would have anything to add to my project.  Maybe I'm being ungenerous, but after reading a few pages I packed it up in my library bag and am now getting ready to return it to the library before my daughter remembers it's missing.  With so many delicious recipes to try, who needs flowerpot ice cream?  My daughter might disagree but I hope to distract her with a Giant Baked Pancake Puff and homemade chocolate kisses.  How can I go wrong?