At breakfast the other day, Lucy put down her fork to make a declaration. “Here are the foods I don’t like, right now,” she said, starting to count on her fingers. Danny and I looked at each other across the table and smiled at each other’s eyes.
“Okay,” I said, putting down my fork. “I’d love to hear.”
“I don’t like mustard.” We knew that. She’s a mayonnaise girl. Mustard is too tangy for her taste. It puckers at the lips and makes you sit up straight. Mayonnaise is smooth, sliding in without much need for attention. We haven’t given her mustard in awhile. Next?
She leaned in toward us, picking up speed now. “I don’t like cabbage.”
For months, we were all eating our tacos on fresh cabbage leaves instead of tortillas. As much as I love a warm corn tortilla, there’s something enticing about a crisp cold cabbage leaf curled around a tangle of hot slow-braised pork with melted cheese and guacamole. (In fact, I’m hungry for one right now.) We started eating our tacos this way last year, when a friend of ours from Mexico told us her family always eats cabbage tacos. The first time we tried them, Lucy looked at me and shouted, “I love cabbage! This is my favorite food.” But her interest in those tacos has been dwindling.
She is six.
“Okay, Lu. No cabbage.” Desmond banged on the white plane of his highchair with a spoon, picking up on her eagerness and wanting to share too.
“Also,” Lu continued. “I don’t like broccoli or chard or cauliflower or kale.” She sat back in her chair with a big exhale, clearly done orating for a bit.
Danny and I looked at each other and shrugged. “You got it, kiddo,” he said. “We’ll keep those off your plate for now.”
I have to admit this: I really don’t get why some parents insist on kids eating certain vegetables.
Don’t get me wrong. We eat a lot of vegetables around here. Every meal has arugula salads or homemade tomato sauce or spiralized zucchini or roasted potatoes with crackling skins. Asparagus looks beautiful to me this time of the year. After a couple of years of playing with my diet, eliminating certain foods and leaning a bit toward dogmatic systems then veering away, I’ve relaxed into a lovely place. I eat when I’m hungry. I appreciate everything on my plate. I eat mostly what’s in season. I eat together with people I like, laughing. And I eat a lot of vegetables.
I flip through the pages of Yotam Ottelenghi’s Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London’s Ottolenghiwith a hunger that’s more than an empty stomach. I dream of all those roasts and braises and flavor combinations that make me tilt my head when I look at the page. “Huh. I never thought of making eggplant with black garlic and dill,” and then I’m up from the chair and off to the kitchen to rummage in the refrigerator.
We’re big geeky fans of vegetables here.
However, I certainly wasn’t a vegetable fan when I was a kid.
I didn’t like tomatoes until the year we lived in England when I was 16. This cracks me up now. I wanted nothing to do with the ripe-at-the-bursting-red tomatoes in our Southern California home. In England that winter, the pale, out-of-season tomatoes mushed against the fork. But I looked down at my white plate in a little tea shop in Sussex, and the muted red slices looked far more enticing than the cucumber sandwiches and dainty scones. My brain switched onto tomatoes without any coaxing.
When I look at what I hope are the long lives of my kids, I’m assuming at some point I won’t have to help them clean their rooms. And they’re going to eat mushrooms without being asked. So why ask now? Danny and I don’t want the feeling of control associated with food at our table. I certainly wouldn’t want Danny telling me I have to eat up all my broccoli.
So we offer. We don’t make separate meals for the kids. We share red lentil daal or meatloaf or quinoa salad with pea shoots and roasted asparagus at our table. Whatever Lucy and Desmond want to eat is their choice. We still expect Lucy to try new things. (She briefly watched Daniel Tiger, a lovely little show based on Mister Rogers Neighborhood, for a few months before she outgrew it. Still, every day, we sing a little ditty from it: “You’ve got to try new things ’cause they might taste good!”) And then we stop talking about the food and eat together.
Lu used to raise her fist in the air when I put a plate of sautéed chard down in front of her, then yell, “Chard!” That was before she was 3, when she ate everything. (Desmond is there now.) When she became herself more fully, and her tastebuds developed, she started becoming specific in every way. Vegetables, too.
I read somewhere recently that small children may have a natural dislike of cruciferous vegetables because they are so full of fiber. All that broccoli, kale, chard, and cabbage can be hard on a digestive system that’s still developing. As Lucy described it, “I don’t like all those green vegetables that need a lot of chewing.”
Us old farts? We need our fiber. Kids? Not as much. Maybe most kids don’t like broccoli because their bodies don’t like broccoli. And their parents keep insisting, “Eat your broccoli! “
Sometimes Lu drives us crazy with how little she’s eating because she needs to get up to dance. Sometimes she eats two full plates of food. Sometimes she eats seven bites and she is done, then hungry 90 minutes later. We ask her to sit with us until we’re done, then we all clean up afterwards. (Desmond is watching, absorbing all of this.)
Our kids eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. We’re laughing at the table.
More vegetables can come later.
gluten-free cauliflower cake, adapted from Yotam Ottelenghi’s Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London’s Ottolenghi
It may seem a little funny to offer a cauliflower cake recipe after talking about how Lucy doesn’t like cauliflower. But that’s the thing — we keep offering. We made this savory cake, full of surprises, unlike anything we had eaten before, at our studio for our Monday meeting with the team of people we work with now. (The lunches are the best benefit we can offer at the moment.) The adults loved it. We had a few slices leftover, so we took them home and put them on the dinner table, along with the rest of what we planned. Maybe it’s because I referenced cauliflower cheese, which is mentioned sometimes in Angelina Ballerina? Or maybe it’s because the cauliflower here tasted like potatoes after being blanched and baked? Whatever it was, Lucy ate two slices of this.
Yotam Ottelenghi understands vegetables. He treats them with great respect. At the same time, he’s always playing. This cauliflower cake perplexes at first: who makes cake with cauliflower? It’s a little like a frittata with all the eggs but it has the soft fine crumb of a cake. The oil and Parmesan lend the cake an unctuousness that means it’s not dry, not one bit. And that topping of concentric slices of red onion, which shift into a muted dark purple upon baking, remind you that you’re not eating dessert. As one of our friends said, “I’ve certainly never eaten anything like this before. I’ll certainly be making it at home.”
1 medium red onion, peeled
1 medium-sized cauliflower, outer leaves removed, broken into florets (about 4 cups)
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
7 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup chopped basil leaves
140 grams (1 cup) gluten-free all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
cracked black pepper
Prepare to bake. Heat the oven to 400°. Line the bottom and sides of a 10-inch springform pan with parchment paper. (We put two on top of each other, crosswise, to make sure every surface was covered.) Brush the parchment with melted butter or oil, if you prefer. Cut 4 slices (about 1/4-inch thick) from the red onion. Each slice will have several rings inside. Separate them and set aside.
Blanch the cauliflower. Set a large saucepan on medium-high heat. Put the cauliflower florets into the pan, along with 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Cover the cauliflower with water. Blanch the cauliflower until they are soft enough to cut with a fork, about 15 minutes. Drain the cauliflower and set it aside.
Cook the aromatics. Chop the remaining red onion. Set a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Pour in the olive oil, then add the onion. Cook and stir until the onion is soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the rosemary and cook for 1 minute more. Turn off the heat. Allow the onion to cool.
Make the batter. Put the cooked onions in a large bowl. Add the eggs and chopped basil and whisk them together. Add the gluten-free flour, baking powder, turmeric, Parmesan, and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Whisk everything together. Add the blanched cauliflower. Pour the batter into the prepared springform pan. Nestle the red onion slices onto the top of the batter.
Bake the cake. Put the cauliflower cake into the oven and bake until it is golden brown along the edges and the top is firm, 45 to 60 minutes. (You can also use the knife-inserted-into-the-center-of-the-cake trick.) Let the cake cook on the counter for 20 minutes, then remove the sides of the springform pan and let cool for another 10 minutes before slicing the cake.
Serve warm. Or, save the cake for the next day, when it’s even better, at room temperature.
Feel like playing? We’d love to play with the tastes of this cake by using Pecorino or even a sharp feta instead of the Parmesan. I’d like dill or marjoram instead of the basil. And if you want, you could try par-boiled potato pieces instead of the cauliflower here.