Tuesday, May 13, 2008

mark bittman=my hero

If you've been reading this blog for a while, or if you've clicked around a bit, you'll know that while many aspects of my crazy new unscheduled homeschooling life suit me to a T, I have really struggled with the unending requirement that I provide my family with reasonable things to eat at reasonable times. I don't mind keeping the house clean (probably because I've noticed that I can do it when I feel like it, and no harm done if I don't) and I enjoy reading books, making music, going for walks, and doing projects with my kids.

But I can't stand having to make food all the time. It just drives me crazy that no matter how many times I feed them, the kids keep wanting to be fed. If I were just taking care of myself, I'd probably skip cooking altogether and subsist on rice cakes, peanut butter, and salad, but the children protest. For a lot of families, this would translate into a dependence on prepared foods, but our budgetary restrictions (can't spend money on gardening, yarn, or roving if I'm spending it all on Amy's frozen foods) combined with our dietary restrictions (no wheat, no dairy) make this pretty much out of the question.

So cook I must. In my journey down this path, I have served some pretty lame dinners. Tortilla chips and smoothies is a good example. The kids have asked for repeats on that one. But I can't do that every night. Toast and eggs is also good, but again: can't do it every night. I've also discovered that while I have no objection to eating meat in most forms and from most sources, I am completely grossed out by the handling of meat that is required before it can be cooked.

Enter Mark Bittman. Most of the rest of the world already knows about him, but my first exposure was three weeks ago, in the book section of a WholeFoods in Philadelphia. I was there with friends, but I didn't need to shop, so after I'd exhausted the entertainment options of the lotions and potions section, I settled in with this book:

I liked it a lot. The recipes were simple, and arranged by ingredient. This is a brilliant innovation to me, because of the way I shop. I don't plan meals (this might be a big part of my problem, I know, but I just can't bring myself to plan, most of the time) so I shop according to what looks good. And I don't plan meals around a big piece of meat, as many do, because of the aforementioned gross-out factor. So I tend to bring home several bags of assorted produce, and imagine that somehow, this week, inspiration will strike and I'll be able to magically pull together some interesting dinners. Totally unreasonable, I know, except that with this book, it looked like this "strategy" might actually work.

Only problem: $35 price tag. No way. So I got home and checked half.com, and found it for a lot less. Then I dithered for a while, wondering if what I really needed to do was just get off my butt, plan ahead, make some dinners. Did I really need this book? So I dithered a little longer, and then I just ordered it. It came over the weekend, and I've used it twice, and folks, let me tell you, this book is the answer to my particular conundrum.

Both times I've started with an ingredient: shiitake mushrooms on Saturday, green beans last night, and both times I've been able to make something delicious without fussing over it. The recipes are simple, quick, and easy, and didn't call for anything we didn't already have in the house. Last night I was happy about what I'd cooked for dinner, for the first time in longer than I care to really think about.
That's herbed rice with chopped red pepper in the foreground. This is my own recipe, and possibly the only thing I still make from my many years making food in restaurants. Just saute a finely-chopped onion with some herbs, add leftover rice and mush it around.

The oval dish contains green beans with miso-walnut sauce, recipe from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Delicious. And I'm serving salad in my salad spinner (why waste a dish?) but that's homemade salad dressing in the peanut butter jar to the left.

Big One and I enjoyed this meal very much, and Papa enjoyed it too, when he got home. Here's how Little felt about it:
'Nothing to eat, Mama.'


'Okay, I'll have some salad, but then I want a glass of soy milk.'

But people, I was excited about this meal. I was invested in this meal. I am happy to respect his desires to eat a very bland diet (I remember exactly what this felt like) but I also know that one of these days, his palate will change, and I want him to keep trying things until it does.

So I insisted. I didn't insist he eat an entire serving, but I told him he would have to take a tiny taste of both the rice and the beans before he could have some soy milk. Much negotiation ensued, but I held firm. The rice went down easy, but the one tiny slice of a single bean he was obligated to eat before he got his soy milk, that went a little like this:

He's goofing a bit in that last one. He is well aware that he is not only cute, but charming and hilarious, even when he's refusing to eat his dinner. In the end, the bean went down, the universe was saved, and he got his soy milk.


Tara said...

I may have to get this cookbook from the library. I'm in the middle of my Integrative Nutrition counseling and my goal now is meal planning. I thrive off seeing how long and I can hold out between grocery store trips (I can live off of brown rice and stir-fried whatever is in the fridge or salad with avocado for a long, long time and for any meal; unfortunately my family does not share in my excitement here) so this whole planning business is gigantic for me. I, too, prefer to meander through the produce section and just pick up whatever looks good at the time. And even though I only eat chicken, I can hardly cope with preparing it. I used to wear disposable medical gloves it grossed me out so much. Environmental issues got me over that quickly but I'm still pretty yucked out.
Thanks for the great review.

Anonymous said...

I've never heard of that chef or the book, but you certainly make it sound intriguing! We do eat meat, but even with that as the foundation of the meal, I still don't plan ahead very well either. And we don't eat many prepared foods (we're splurging right now on some Amy's pizzas we got from a friend who was moving away), so I'm often stuck at 4:30 or 5:00 with no idea what to do. I'll have to check this out.

Little might eat vegetarian, but he is a ham!

Anonymous said...

Little, SillyBilly and Napoleona should get together and open a broadway show...

I'm really enjoying your blog!

Maria said...

Oh, those pictures were priceless!! I think every single parent on the face of the earth (and every child) can relate to that "Not another thing until you've eaten another bite!" The face said it all!!

Beth said...

Meal preparation has been the bane of my existence for years. I'm not vegetarian but I just might buy this book to help me out. Any recipe book that enables you to prepare a meal with the ingredients that are on hand (no extra shopping!) sounds wonderful.
(Very cute pictures of the little guy!)

Mrs. G. said...

With that face, I'm not sure I could get angry. Sweet.

Theresa said...

Hmmm...I may have to add that book to my list. My kids are getting a little tired of my winging it for dinner. It happens way too often, and I have to admit to plenty of those "smoothie and chips" nights, too. What I can't figure out is why I have such a great time planning school stuff, but am such a poor, poor meal planner.
Anyway, thanks for the tip!

Sandy said...

I was officially complained at last week for cooking the same thing all the time. The complainer was told off by her step dad because there are hungry children in the world (country, town where we live) who'd be more than happy to have burritos on Wednesday, Mac and cheese with brocolli on Thursday, baked potatoes and green beans on Friday...
However, I sort of see the complainer's point so I'm going to start working on it.
Can Big cook? For a while as a child, my family had every person cook one meal per week. Although, since my brother only ever made sausages with sweet and sour sauce, I'm not sure it was an entirely successful policy. But still, kids will eat the craziest stuff if they've had a hand in making it. Even, perhaps, your Little One?

Sandy said...

ps, i'm with you on the tiny taste. The plate doesn't have to be clean, but each thing does have to be politely tried. Although, no dessert unless the plate is clean. (and we are not one of those families where you're allowed bread or cereal after dinner to make up for stuff), I mean, its not like I'll loading her plate with stewed mushrooms and spinach.
I once sat through the most excruciating Easter dinner where my nephew had been allowed to eat candy all day, understandably wasn't interested in vegetables, but was made to stay at the table until he'd eaten everything. Just horrible in many ways.