Before Lu was born, I didn’t realize that cookbooks are great toddler reading material.
Our friend Matthew, in his book Hungry Monkey, told us that his daughter Iris loved looking at Martha Stewart’s Cookies. Eventually, she had all the cookies memorized and could point out each kind: milk-chocolate cookies, hazelnut jam thumbprints, and ginger cheesecake bars. This is a useful sort of skill if Iris ever decides to become a baker. But who says knowing the names of different cookies isn’t as important as knowing all the different farm animals? It’s sorting and naming and memorizing. And, if she was lucky, Iris might have convinced Matthew to make a homemade cookie or two.
For a few weeks, Lu was besotted by Jamie’s Food Revolution cookbook. Filled with vivid photographs for each recipe, this book is useful and beautiful both. Lu likes turning the pages and pointing to the pictures of people cooking. “Dada!” she says, because she knows her dad works in a restaurant. She points out cauliflower cheese and chopped cilantro and braised cabbage and asks for the names. She is particularly fascinated by the page with small photos of fixings for good salads: fresh basil; Belgian endive; toasted pine nuts. That girl is a salad fiend. Put a bowl in front of her and she will chew and chew until that bowl is empty. No wonder she loves that page in the cookbook.
She also loves this Vegetables book, by the lovely Sara Anderson. When we talk about the celery and onions, she nods. After we ate the first rhubarb-strawberry pie of the season, with frozen strawberries and rhubarb from the farm down the street, she pointed at that page with particular energy. “Rhu!!!!” But really, she asks for the book again and again because the potato page means she can ask us to sing The Wiggles’ “Hot Potato” to her for the 4,732nd time. (I will be able to sing the Wiggles well into my 80s.)
Now I have to say that Lu is interested in far more than food. She pulls dozens of books from her bookshelf and sits among them, ensconced for 30 minutes and turning the pages. When I pull weeds in the garden, she wanders the yard babbling to herself, then comes over to see the worm wiggling on the palm of my hand. She loves the kids at the playspace, her grandparents, kicking a ball down the hallway, chanting the ABCs with the 10 letters or so that she knows by heart, running, trying to jump, and hugging 3 stuffed animals to her chest. Food is a big part of her life, but only a part.
In fact, I think that food plays a shadow role in Lu’s life in comparison to Elmo.
Oh my goodness, she loves Elmo. Sometimes she says his name with this tender longing in the middle of the afternoon, just remembering the morning episode of Sesame Street. In the middle of the night, if she can’t sleep, she’ll say his name as a comfort against the darkness. Elmo is her first true love.
So when C is for Cooking arrived in the mail, courtesy of Wiley, our little one lost her mind.
(We understand. We love Elmo and Sesame Street too. Watching it with her and talking about what is going on is one of the best parts of our day.)
We had no choice but to cook out of it for the last week.
There’s a lot of talk lately about what children in this country are eating. It’s an important conversation, and more voices are joining in. Have you been watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on television? Danny and I have watched together, in horror and fascination. When the hard-working lunch ladies in the school he is visiting could not understand why he wanted to give the kids forks and knives for their lunch? I nearly cried. Nuggets, breakfast pizza, chocolate milk hyped up with sugar — this isn’t real food.
Have you seen Fed Up with Lunch: The School Lunch Project? This blog by a teacher, writing anonymously, chronicles the school lunch she eats every day with the kids. Her photographs are horrifying. Beef patties, tater tots, and ketchup. She wrote recently: “I’m just worn out. I don’t want to eat any more school lunches. I’ve lost the pleasure of eating lunch, the little respite in the middle of the day. I’m tired of the food. I wish I had more control over what I’m eating.”
Those lunches look just like the ones I ate in elementary school. Not much has changed. It feels like it has only grown worse.
When did we stop eating real food?
I love cooking with our daughter. She’s only 20 months old, so she doesn’t participate in much of the actual cooking yet. But when I roasted the red pepper for this wild rice salad, I invited her to put her nose into the paper bag before I closed it up. She smelled for quite awhile, then smiled. “Yummm!” She draws while I weigh flours on the scale. We talk about the food in front of us, the morning behind us. She looks at me with an impish grin and sticks her finger into the food for a taste. (She thinks she’s not supposed to. I like playing this game.)
It just seems to me that making food together is one of the best ways to know a kid. It might take more time than popping something in the microwave, but no one remembers that, in the end.
Watching Lu gobble this wild rice salad from C is for Cooking, recipe by Jamie Oliver, made me happy. Roasted red peppers, wild rice, basmati rice, jalapenos (seeds gone), mint, parsley, and basil. It didn’t take long to cook. It tasted vibrant. The wild rice still had a chew to it. It’s pretty healthy. She didn’t care. She ate an entire bowl. Then she pointed to the picture of Elmo with a chef’s hat on the cover and asked for more.
We’re lucky. We have the time to do this every afternoon. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are certainly days when I wouldn’t mind putting something in the microwave (even though we don’t own one).
Last week, it was nearly 70 degrees outside. Lu and I spent hours in the garden. After I had planted lettuce seeds, I walked toward the hoses to grab some water. Without thinking, I stepped on the hoe leaning against the wall. That’s right — I actually did the Three Stooges trick unintentionally. I stepped on the wrong end of the hoe and whacked myself in the head with the handle. I actually saw stars.
When we went inside, Lu and I started a baking project. She found a picture of yogurt in one of her little word books and began her chant: “Yo yo yo yo!” I mixed some of last summer’s strawberry jam with plain yogurt and slid the bowl to her. While I worked, I noticed that she kept turning the spoon upside down before it reached her mouth. Quickly, the front of her looked like the Quentin Tarantino of yogurt movies. Bibs can only do so much.
Turning toward her quickly, I tripped a bit. The Cambro full of cornstarch in my hands tripped too and flew across the room. All over the floor, the cupboards, the refrigerator. I found smudges of cornstarch on everything, for days.
It was at this moment that the teething toddler started crying.
For a beat, I really, really wanted a microwave so I wouldn’t have to cook dinner.
But I took a breath. Cleaned off the front of the kid. Gave her a big hug, something to gnaw on for her teeth, and her favorite book. I cleaned up the cornstarch (after taking a photo), wiped the yogurt off the counter, and started laughing.
And then I put a sauté pan on the stove. Heated it up, poured in some oil, threw in some spinach and listened to it sizzle. Pulled some tofu out of the refrigerator and seared it in a separate pan. Poured Lu some water, put the food in front of her. Took a deep breath, and then shared dinner with my daughter.
Then I had to sing Hot Potato again.
C is for Cooking made my week of cooking easy. There are a number of books on the market about cooking for children and with children, many great books. (I’d love to know your favorites.) But this is the only one with recipes for dried cherry-toasted almond rice krispie treats, pumpkin muffins with oats (which I turned into banana bread with oats and raisins when I realized we didn’t have any pumpkin), and savory waffles with cheddar and provolone.
(All the recipes were easy to convert to gluten-free. I used 5 ounces of flours for every cup of AP flour. There’s the secret. You can do it too.)
We don’t make kid food in this house. We don’t make separate meals for us and another for our daughter. This book was only going to get our recommendation if Elmo’s Baby Turkey Burgers worked for our dinner too.
Danny, who loves sour cream, approved of the twice-baked potatoes with yogurt instead. The Mark Bittman recipe for lentil soup — dead simple — made three meals, including homemade pasta with lentils and chicken sausage. We ate well and we ate happy.
Lu looked at the stickers of asparagus and fresh carrots and named off all her favorite characters in the book. (I love that her word for Cookie Monster is “Ahek;gehaAH,” imitating the sound of him eating cookies. The Count is “Ah ah ah!” for his little devilish laugh.) She pointed to the foods she wanted to eat and then she ate them for dinner.
I can’t wait to cook out of this book with her when she’s older, and she can crush up the crackers and crack the eggs. Each recipe has tasks marked for the kids, in age-appropriate fashion. This one will be on our shelves for a long time. It’s real food.
And there’s Elmo on the cover. Lu would like to say: “Come on. What else do you need?”
p.s. Some of you may have noticed that I stopped using Little Bean in this post. We still call her Little Bean sometimes. She points to herself when we reach the beans in the vegetables book. She’s so much her own person now that using her nickname here feels forced, artificial. Hi, Lu!
p.p.s. We’re giving away a copy of C is for Cooking. We think you’ll like it too. Tell us a story about cooking with your kids, or a memory of cooking with your parents, or how you think we can help more people to start cooking real food.
Grover’s Little and Adorable Chicken Nuggets, Gluten-Free, adapted from C is for Cooking
The words chicken nugget give me a little shudder. My mind jumps to that fast food place when I was a kid, looking down at fried chicken bits, shriveled into themselves, in a paper container. You know the ones. Back then, I thought they were genuinely delicious: hot, salty, greasy. Plus, they came with honey-mustard dipping sauce. Or BBQ. I ate more than my fair share of them as a kid.
Now, however, I can only think: what the heck is in a nugget? As you can probably guess, most fast-food nuggets contain ingredients we can’t pronounce and wouldn’t eat if they were offered to us on a spoon. But they’re familiar. Watching the Jamie Oliver show, I was shocked at how many chicken nuggets a school kid was eating every day. No thanks.
These “chicken nuggets” however are nothing but chicken, mayonnaise, mustard, an egg, salt, pepper, and crushed crackers. You could use homemade mayonnaise (we did) and crush homemade crackers (I have, but not this time). Does that sound complicated? I made up this batch with Lu standing on a chair next to me. While she drew squiggles with her crayons (sometimes on the paper), I sliced up pieces of chicken, dipped them in the mayonnaise mixture, and rolled them around the crackers. While they baked, she and I read Cowboy Small, about 12 more times. Then, it was time to eat.
Making these took maybe ten more minutes than it would to rip open a package and put them in a microwave. I’m pretty certain they tasted better. And the wait meant I heard Lu say “Whoa! Cactus!” again and again.
The next day, I fried up some chicken nuggets instead. I used the same mayonnaise mixture, dredged them in some gluten-free flours, and fried them in an inch of safflower oil. They looked good. Essentially, they were little pieces of fried chicken. Lu, however, wanted nothing to do with them. She took a bite and spit it out. She did this three or four times in a row and I stopped offering. The baked ones she gobbled.
I’m sticking with these.
24 multi-grain gluten-free crackers (I used these and I also love these)
1 pound thin-sliced chicken breast meat
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 egg white
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Preparing to bake. Preheat the oven to 400°. Put parchment paper on a baking sheet and lightly grease it.
Crushing the crackers. Put the crackers in a plastic bag. Bash them up, gently, with a rolling pin or your fist. (I bet the kids would like this job.) Put them on a large plate and set aside.
Preparing the chicken breast meat. Cut the breasts into 1 1/2-inch squares, about 1/2 inch thick. (You can decide your own desired thickness, of course.) Season with the salt and pepper.
Coating the chicken. Stir up the mayonnaise, egg white, and mustard in a large bowl. Put the chicken pieces into the mixture and toss them about until they are evenly coated.
Press each piece of chicken into the cracker crumbs, tossing them about a bit until each piece is well coated.
Baking the chicken. Put the chicken nuggets onto the baking sheet. Bake until the chicken is cooked clean through, about 15 minutes. (You’ll know the chicken is done when you can cut a nugget in half and see gleaming white meat.)
Feeds 4 to 6, depending on the size of the kid, really.