Friday, September 28, 2012

So...Just How Picky Are Your Kids?

Part 2 of my thoughts on French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon.

People. My kids are p.i.c.k.y. My girls are actually what I would call normal picky--they don't love trying new foods, they prefer sweets and meats to vegetables and soups, they have a strong radar for scoping out anybody else's negative reaction to food and if anybody doesn't like it, they follow suit. 

My oldest, however, is P.I.C.K.Y. He is like no other child I have ever met. He does not eat meat or cheese. He does not eat most vegetables. He does not eat foods with unusual textures. Even if he generally likes a food, he is picky about the form in which it is served (for example, tomato soup from a can he loves, but homemade tomato soup, he won't even try). He is uninfluenced by peer eating. Sometimes when he is at a friend's house over the lunch hour and he doesn't like the lunch, he will skip it, even if it means that he comes home and crashes into sleep for 2 hours because he is hungry and exhausted. When most people speak of picky kids, they speak of kids who like hamburgers and sweets and potato chips, but won't try other foods. Mark is just as picky with his junk food as he is with his other food (this is a type of pickiness silver lining, but it only brings me a little comfort). He won't eat many kinds of chips or cakes or ice cream. He will often drop foods off of his very small list of things he likes for reasons I do not understand. He just doesn't want them anymore. He is picky to the point that I spend time worrying about his health because of it. 

Yeah, I know that you're already judging me for this. You have some room to do so. I was not perfect in training my oldest to eat. He actually ate just about everything (and I fed him a very wide variety of foods) until about 18 months and then started getting picky. Instead of holding firm, I worried that he would starve to death and made him other foods if he wouldn't eat what we did. To complicate things, he got fairly sick for about 2 weeks when we had just moved and our insurance hadn't kicked in. Even though he only vomited for about a day, he didn't want to eat much of anything for several weeks and it was a little scary, especially for a first time parent. I was willing to let him eat ice cream if that's what I could get him to eat. After that, it was hard to go back to being even a little strict. In addition to Mark's food resistance I was trying very hard to make meals and food pleasant for my kids. I didn't want a bunch of power struggles over dinner. I wanted it to be a time we were all together and enjoying things. Due to this, I figured it was just better to let him have cereal or a PBJ if that's what he'd eat. I was permissive like this until he was about 4 and I started to realize that I was creating bigger problems than I was solving--our meal times were a constant flow of demand and complaint (not the pleasant, conversation laden times I'd been trying to create). Nothing was ever good enough for the kids. Mark's little sister was following his lead, only her picky list was almost opposite his (she liked meat and cheese; he liked bread and fruit). I couldn't keep up and I knew that if I wished to feel happy, appreciated, and just basically satisfied at meal times, something would have to change.

However, when I tried to change, it was really really frustrating. I still didn't want my (very skinny) kids starving, and following American parenting advice was not working for me. In addition to this I was married to a fairly picky husband. He's made some huge changes for us in the last couple of years, and it has been very helpful, but he is definitely a naturally picky person. Because of this and other reasons, I believe there's actually a strong genetic component to how my son eats. I just think some kids are naturally pickier than others. And as a final nail in the pickiness coffin, Mark has the strongest will of any kid I've ever met. I know that I should be grateful for this and one day I expect I will be. But in matters of food, it's not so great. He decides he doesn't want to try something or like something and he does not deviate from that decision. I have tried not to pressure him too much about food because pressure only seems to make him dig his heels in deeper, but that has left me a little lost about what exactly I should be doing. If arguing, cajoling, bribing, and reasoning don't work, what does. 

I don't claim to know, but I will say this, when I read Le Billon's book French Kids Eat Everything, I actually got some ideas. I said yesterday the book sometimes went directly the opposite of standard American advice. This was really helpful for me. I realized--often for the first time--some of the ways I'd been going wrong. It is the very best book about getting picky kids to eat that I have EVER read. EVER. And I have read a lot. Not only have I read books, I have tried out their advice. I have made my food look "fun." I have let my kids help prepare the menu. I have let them choose a meal a week (so boring because they always picked the same thing, and the other kids still complained). I have let them pick food at the store. I have bribed with both money and dessert. I have threatened. I have plead. I have made them go hungry. I have provided options (not cooked a whole different meal, but provided a picky option--like a PB burrito instead of the beef one the grown ups were eating.) I have tried reverse psychology and told them they couldn't have grown-up food that Kip and I were eating. I have asked questions and tried reasoning. I have tried other parents' tried and true suggestions. I have never made anyone sit at the table all night until they ate something or made them eat it for breakfast if they didn't eat it for dinner because I had to do it a couple times as a kid and it didn't make me love food (or anything else for that matter). I have considered taking my oldest and pickiest child in for some food therapy (and am still considering it, but hoping to not have to). At the beginning of the summer, I followed a friend's (very good) advice. She'd had her kids make a list of foods they liked. She'd been surprised at how many were normal. She'd gone out and bought those foods. And then she'd served them. I thought, "Okay, maybe I'm overcomplicating things. Maybe I'm being too adventurous with my foods and if I give them a chance, they'll come up with several normal things we can eat several times a week." This was kind of true for my girls, but not with Mark. 

This was Mark's list. 

Spaghetti with plain, smooth marinara sauce
Tomato soup (from a can only)
pancakes/waffles (yeah, not really a dinner, but sometimes around here)
mac and cheese (from a box, no other)
pizza (without the toppings; that's right; Mark peels them off and gives them to his sisters)

Side dishes:
Mashed potatoes
Rice (this has since been removed from the list as he's decided he doesn't like it anymore)
Home fries with ketchup

Cucumbers with Ranch dip
Tomato sauce
black olives from a can

Almost all, except bananas, which he will only eat slathered in PB. 
Also, since the making of the list, he's taken a few things off his list: apple sauce, oranges. 
Some that he hasn't taken off the list he's still kind of come and go with--like apples or fresh peaches
He loves mangoes and pineapple. 

The list was helpful to me in only one way. I was able to point out to Mark that even if I made all his favorite dinners every week (mostly variations on the same foods in case you didn't notice), we still wouldn't have enough meals to fill the week. (Mark would sometimes complain that I always put the same foods in his lunch box, but when I asked him what else he would like, he couldn't come up with anything. This helped him see why.)

You're probably wondering how I've kept my child alive. Two words. Peanut Butter. And two more. Whole wheat. He also eats fruit. And cereal. Also he is picky about sweets, so he doesn't usually eat too many. And, frankly, I give him vitamins. 

But even though the list had brought Mark to some self awareness, it I hadn't solved my problem of what to feed us. 

You're judging me again, aren't you? It's okay. I'd judge me too. 

I'm not sure that French Kids will solve my problem either. Sometimes I wonder if it's bigger than myself, and if Mark has some kind of physical or psychological eating issue that needs some kind of professional help. (After all, there are plenty of parents who have messed up as much or more than me and still turned out normal-eating children.) But I decided that for six months I would very firmly (but kindly) try out several of the ideas from this book and see if they got us anywhere. I would take control of our food. 

Tune in next time to see what we're trying and how it's working.   

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Book Review: French Kids Eat Everything

I read the book French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon almost a month ago now and have been eager to blog about it--so eager that I have too much to say about it. I have way too much to say about many things, but with picky kids, this is especially true. Because of that, I plan to write my review and experiences with this book in increments

Today, I'll post a basic overview (it's still long; this is why I don't tweet).

Le Billon is a Canandian woman who married a French man. They spent the first few years together in Canada and then, when their children were 5 and 3, moved to France for a year. Their children were quite picky (even Le Billon admits to being a bit picky) and they struggled at first with the strong and strict food culture that they experienced in small town France--a food culture that was supported by the local schools and jobs in a way an American could never even imagine. Over time, both Le Billon and the children came around and began eating a much wider variety of foods. They also ate fresher foods, spent more time eating their food, and ate it together. Frankly, any one of those things is kind of ground-breaking to real American culture (although we give our fair share of lip service to all those ideas).

Through her experience, Le Billon came up with 10 unspoken "French Food Rules."

1. Parents are in charge of food education (Le Billon said it's just as important to the French as teaching a child to read is to an American; even if it's tough, we don't just give up).
2. Avoid emotional eating and no food rewards, bribes, etc.
3. Parents schedule meals and menus. Kids eat what adults eat.
4. Eat family meals together without distractions
5. Eat your veggies (think 'variety')
6. You don't have to like it, but you do have to taste it.
7. No snacking. It's okay to be hungry between meals.
8. Slow food is happy food.
9. Eat mostly real food.
10. Remember: eating is joyful.

I would add one more thing that is strongly addressed in the book: French food is pretty and French eaters eat neatly. Le Billon went to great pains to describe how much care (care, not necessarily time) the French took to dress a table and make foods attractive. She also discussed at length how neat the children were when they ate. Messiness and finger eating was not tolerated, except with the very youngest children.

Yes, groundbreaking.

Le Billon was beautifully honest in the book, even introspective. She allowed the reader to see how embarrassingly picky her children were and how she herself was a bit picky as well as resistant to the idea that people not have more of a choice when it comes to food. In France, you eat what you're given. Unless you have a deadly allergy, it's very rude not to. This is true in the schools where there is only one lunch choice given (and kids don't take their lunches) and it was true in the homes. She allowed the reader a look into her own change of heart and she allowed the reader to see her struggle to change many of her North American habits. She also let us see how difficult it was when they moved back to North America to keep up some of their newfound food habits, as those habits were constantly undermined by the North American food culture.

I really appreciated this honesty. I've read a lot of articles about picky kids. I've gotten cookbooks for picky kids. Any parenting advice about picky kids I could get my hands on, I would read. Often--in fact almost always--I found myself under the distinct impression that the writer either didn't have a truly picky kid, or that the writer had no kids at all (or no kids he/she actually spent any eating time with) and that they were just spouting off somebody else's advice for some parenting magazine for which they were trying to freelance. Because of this, the American articles almost always offered the exact same advice and, even worse, tended to make the solutions seem really simple--as they would be if you were dealing with a theory instead of an actual kid who might tantrum, skip a meal, or even throw up. Because of this, you felt kind of like a failure (a hopeless failure since all the advice was the same, and why couldn't you make it work) when something didn't work. It's like another parent was standing there saying, "Oh, you mean your child didn't eat his broccoli even though you made it look like little trees in a forest." Nope, he told me just looking at it made his tummy hurt and then stood up and left the table.

Le Billon, on the other hand, struck me as absolutely sincere and as a fellow soldier on the front lines of the picky kid war.

Personal experience and honesty, however, did not mean there were no facts. This wasn't like a casual observation of her friends' kids. She throws in plenty of statistics about how well and varied French children eat as well as how much is spent on food, how many vegetables are consumed, that whole thing. I appreciated the facts and statistics.

Of all that the book was, there was one thing that was absolutely striking to me. Several bits of French advice are in direct opposition to the advice given in any North American parenting magazine. Whenever I read an article about how to help picky kids, I'm told (by some freelance writer I'm positively convinced has never actually met a picky kid in her life) to do several things: let your kids choose foods at grocery stores, let them have a say in what's on the menu or even plan what to have for dinner one night a week, let them experiment with their food--touch, smear, or whatever it, and make their food look fun (only by 'fun' they mean 'elaborate'--let's make a salad that looks like a clown; and with all due respect to all those pinterest pictures out there of people's elaborate and gorgeous food creations, that's just not something you can throw on the table any old Tuesday night. Especially if you yourself wish to eat).

The French tell you that food should be eaten neatly (no smearing experiments). If it is not, the dish is taken from the young child until they are willing to eat it neatly. Le Billon was in awe of the neat French children.

The French tell you that parents are in charge of the meals and that the children eat what the parents do. The even eat it on similar serving dishes (no Elmo plate and bowl sets). Kids don't choose food at grocery stores and they don't get to plan meals.

The French do believe in making food beautiful, but they do not make it quite so over the top kid-friendly as we sometimes try to do.

If French children are rude or complain about the food, it is removed from them. There isn't a big guilt trippy, cajoling tado about it. The plate is simply removed. (Groundbreaking.)

And, you know what, I think the French are on to something. I have tried just about every bit of American piece of advice there is. Most of it has backfired. Just so you know, backfiring is worse than failing. Backfiring is not a gun that didn't go off; it's a gun that went and shot you in the face. Letting my kids have choices in their food has only made things worse for us. When they've realized they've had a choice, it's like they've realized they've had a choice. A choice to reject something if they wish. A choice to demand something else. A choice to say, "I like tomato soup, but only this kind and only this consistency and color and only with these crackers. Nothing else will do. I will not eat homemade soup. I will not eat orange-ish soup. I will not eat tomato soup with the tiniest little chunk. I will not eat a brand of soup I dislike or have not tried. I will not. I will not. I will not." Yeah, will. It's a powerful thing. And a thing that, for the record, I'm usually all for. But it hasn't worked in the training of our children to eat food. (Also giving my kids too much freedom to choose has limited my choices and ability to enjoy foods.) And it highlights one of the fundamental differences between French parenting and values and American parenting and values. As Le Billon put it, we Americans value our autonomy. Pretty much above all else. We are individuals, darn it. Usually, I think this is a really good thing. Usually, I think that this is what makes America great. But when it comes to food and your five-year-old, well I'm coming to believe that if you want your kid to wind up with more than spaghetti, fries, and chocolate cake on his I-guess-I-can-eat-this list, then you'd best just kindly remove the plate when they make barfing noises at your perfectly good food. Remove it people. And smile. And don't give it back later. Because, guess what, you're in charge. And eating is a life lesson that kids need to learn that is just as important--if not more so--than algebra.

Tune in next time to see just how picky my children are and what I'm trying to do about it.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Katie's Chocolate Chip Cookies

I think I have found my soul cookie. That's right. If you're a regular follower of this blog, you may pass out from the shockingness of this announcement (though, frankly, if your life and heart revolve so closely around my cookie infidelities, perhaps you need to find a hobby of some sort, or part time work, or maybe introduce yourself to reality TV; I don't know; something). Anyway, I've had some trouble committing to a chocolate chip recipe. I've got several on here and they're all good. I even have another with cinnamon that I've been meaning to add but haven't gotten to yet. But this, this--I think--is it.

The funny thing is that this is a cookie I've known for a long long time. In fact, it's the first chocolate chip cookie I ever really met. It was the cookie of my childhood and young adulthood.

So, why, you may be asking, did I ever leave such monogamous bliss. Well, this cookie contains something I don't generally stock in my pantry, something I have self-righteous feelings towards, something that is touted as evil by pretty much everyone in the health field (and we all know that we eat chocolate chip cookies to be healthy, right). It contains shortening. Generally speaking, unless you're going to be making emergency candles from it, I really really don't like shortening. Oh, there are exceptions to be sure. But usually if I can find a recipe without shortening, that is the one I will use. As I grew into cooking, this is how I felt about all my baked goods. I still feel that way about most of my baked goods. Seriously, don't even start putting shortening in your cakes or I might throw up in my mouth. But cookies with shortening I've always been a little more lenient towards. Maybe it's because I grew up with my mom and sister making such cookies. Maybe it's because I've always known that Katie's cookies have been some of the best. Shortening keeps cookies soft and chewy longer than using all butter does. And it often can keep your cookies from going flat if that's a problem you have with your cookies. It adds density to cookies without making them bricks. It adds body to cookies without making them airy or cakey. But it's definitely not as flavorful as butter and if you use all shortening (as opposed to part shortening, part butter), your cookies will not turn golden as I believe all the best chocolate chip cookies ought to.

However, when my siblings and I were hanging out with Mom in her very last few days with us all together, my sister Katie made her famous cookies. They were insanely good, and she was sitting there complaining that they weren't as good as usual. They were dense and chewy, but had that lovely just barely crispy edgy part that gives you something to bite into. They use half butter and, as such, are still very flavorful and get a lovely brown edge. They were just perfect, and as I sat there eating more than I intended to, I realized that I'd been living in denial for a very long time. Cookies with all butter are very good. Some of them even divinely good. Every cookie on this site is incredible. But these, these were better than the rest. Miraculously, some of these cookies made it to the next day. They were insanely good too. In fact, they were nearly as good as they'd been the first day.

I came home and bought my first tub of shortening in years. And then I made Katie's cookies. And they weren't good. They looked like Kip's cookies (Kip's are not quite as dense or thick as Katie's), but tasted worse. It was a sad day. I was about to chalk it up to being one of those things that only people with the cookie gift can manage, but first I called my sister and asked a few questions about her method. Kip and I nearly always melt or significantly soften the butter. Katie does not. So I made them again with barely softened butter and I'll be geewhizzed if they didn't turn out perfect in every way. Then I made a batch of all-butter cookies just to be sure. Then, just to be extra fair and extra sure, I made a batch of all-butter cookies and didn't melt the butter. Nope. Katie's still won hands down. My son Mark accused me of betraying Kip's cookies (yes, 'betray' is the word he used) and I'm just going to have to live with that because these are the best there is.

(From left to right: Katie's cookie, Kip's with melted butter, Kip's with softened butter. And yes, that middle one did need more chocolate chips, but still, the cookie batter couldn't quite hold its own.)

So, while I still don't embrace shortening in the way that our mothers and grandmothers of the '50s did, I'm going to allow it this little place in my life. Although there is one caveat: The all-butter dough is way better. If you plan to use the dough in something like ice cream or just to eat it shamelessly in blobs out of the refrigerator, then go for the all butter.

(Katie's cookie batter was slightly crumblier and less flavorful than the all butter. It's pictured bottom right.)

If however, you plan to make the best cookies of your life, buy yourself some shortening, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that cookies weren't meant to be a health food anyway. Happy eating.

Katie's Chocolate Chip Cookies
makes 24
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes per batch
Cost: $3.60
butter: .55, shortening: .10, sugar: .15, brown sugar: .35, eggs: .20, flour: .45, chocolate chips: 1.80

1/2 C (1 stick butter), just barely softened
1/2 C shortening
1 C white sugar
1 C brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
3 C flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 C chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375.

Combine butter and shortening. I like to mix mine with a spoon, but a mixer will work too. Add sugars and mix well. Add eggs and vanilla and mix until fully incorporated. Add dry ingredients and mix into wetter ingredients until all in combined. Add chocolate chips and mix. If you have the time, let your cookies rest for 15 minutes or so.

Bake for 8-10 minutes until just beginning to brown (Note: The edges and perhaps a rouge spot on the top of some of the cookies should be just barely beginning to brown. Learning when to take these cookies out is half the batter. Remember they'll continue to cook after you take them out, so don't wait too long to take them out.)


Thursday, September 20, 2012

Basic Carrot Soup

Soon after Mom died, a friend brought me lunch. In that lunch was carrot soup. I hadn't had carrot soup for a long time. Now, I can't quite get enough of it.

Below is my go-to carrot soup recipe. It's very good even in its most basic form (especially if you use homemade chicken broth--yum). But if you want to dress it up a bit, you can season it with ginger, curry, dill,  smoked paprika, roasted garlic, Italian seasonings, or even nutmeg or cardamom. (Note: I haven't tried all of those, but they all sound great. I've done curry, dill, and ginger--curry is my favorite of the three, but I like them all.)

It's nice for this time of year because, not only are carrots in season, but that little vitamin boost (you wind up eating quite a few carrots in a bowl of soup) does a body good as the weather starts to cool.

Basic Carrot Soup
adapted from some children's book I once got from the library for my kids; I love trying recipes from children's books
Makes 4 servings
Prep time: 5-10 minutes
Cook time: 20-30 minutes

1 lb carrots, peeled and chopped
1/2 onion, diced
1 generous Tbsp butter
28 oz. chicken broth
salt and pepper to taste.

Melt butter in a pot on medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until somewhat soft. Add carrots and cook a couple minutes more. Add broth. Cover pot and simmer gently for 20-30 minutes or until the carrots are very tender.

Let cool just a bit and put in a blender. Process until smooth.

Taste for salt and pepper and add additional seasonings if desired (I like to add a different sprinkle of something to my bowl each day at lunch. It keeps life interesting.)


Monday, September 17, 2012

A Few of My Mother's Favorite Things

My mother had a sweet tooth. Or several.

Two weeks ago, my siblings and I all went to see her and to say our good-byes. Mom had not had an appetite for several months and had been eating very very little (but still managed to joke that she wasn't losing weight). While we were there, I made spaghetti alfredo, my sister made chocolate chip cookies, my brother made cookies and cream and pretzel bark. Mom ate it all, sometimes with especial pleasure. I can still see her on her bed, enjoying every bite of that cookies and cream and then asking for more. It was good to feel we could bring her some small pleasure through the foods we made--foods that she had taught us to make and made for us in our own times of celebration or heartache.

Below, you'll find four of Mom's favorites:

1. Cookies and Cream. This was a family recipe. We made it whenever we could find the elusive Nabisco Chocolate Wafers. I'm kind of glad they weren't easier to find. It kept it so that this treat was always a really special one.

2. Chocolate Chip Cookies (her favorite is my sister's recipe; it's close to this one and I'm still perfecting it, but I'll get it up here when I do). These were our go-to sweet growing up.

3. Cinnamon Rolls. Mom made these on special occasions, like Christmas. She also tended to make them when her grown children would come back home to visit.

4. Alfredo. This was something my mother absolutely loved, but often felt guilty eating because of its high fat content. I remember watching her eat it occasionally when we went out to eat (which was very occasionally when I was younger). It always seemed so fancy and indulgent when I was a kid. You'll notice, if you care to look at such things, that of the 12 things listed under the label 'pasta,' on this blog, four of them are spins on Alfredo recipes.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Peach Pie with My Mother

I made my first peach pie several years ago. It's crust was approximately 1/2 inch thick, maybe more. Yup. My mom was here helping me. All I had was this dinky little rolling pin that was about 6 inches long and was kind of like rolling out pie crust with a glass cup. Other mothers would have run out and bought me a decent rolling pin. My mom, being plenty cheapskate just like me, just went with it and smiled about it. She probably also said "Geesh." My mom was always saying "Geesh."

Since then, I've learned a few things about making pie. Since then, my mother has suffered from a brain tumor and this past weekend she passed away.

Life is short, my friends.

Make ugly (or not) homemade cakes for your children.
Roll out pie crusts with your daughter's crazily insufficient kitchen tools.
Have dinner together, especially on Sunday nights. And don't worry too much if a can of mushroom soup went into it.
It'll give you something to smile about when the need for smiling comes around.
It'll give you pictures to laugh at and memories to sigh at.
It'll give you life that can't be got back once it's gone.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Scottish Oatcakes (aka Gluten-free Crackers)

It's time for this month's Secret Recipe Club contribution. This month I had Shelley at C Mom Cook. She had plenty of recipes that were family-friendly, but still interesting. That's right up my alley. One that caught my eye was these Scottish Oatcakes. They are not a cake or even a cookie, but a cracker. A cracker made almost entirely from oats.

Which is why it seems almost magical to me how good they are. Now, don't get me wrong, I didn't expect them to be bad or I wouldn't have made them, but I was surprised by how very tasty and flavorful something could be that was basically grain and water with a pat of butter and maple syrup. Now I have to tell you something. As I made these, I wasn't sure how they were going to turn out. To look at the dough (a grey blob of oatmeal) and expect it to turn into a cracker that was not only edible, but enjoyable was a small stretch of faith. And then as they were cooking, I was a bit like, "These are never going to harden up." But taste good, they did. And harden up, they did. They're the best homemade cracker I've ever made. And super simple to boot. Also, my girls and I had a great time cutting them into different shapes. We ate them with hummus (me and Savannah) and peanut butter (everybody else). Delightful.

Scottish Oatcakes (aka Gluten-free Crackers)
adapted from C Mom Cook
Makes about 20-24 largish crackers
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 20-30 minutes
Cost: $.35
oatmeal.25, butter: .06, syrup: .04

2 1/2 C oats (Shelley used old-fashioned; I used quick)
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 C water
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp maple syrup (I used the real stuff and recommend this or honey)

Preheat oven to 350.

Combine oatmeal, baking soda, and salt in bowl.

Heat water and butter until butter melts (this could be done in a saucepan or the microwave).

Pour liquid into the center of the oatmeal mix and stir it up (a bit quickly--you want to get the water well-incorporated before in is absorbed into the oats). If you're using quick oats, the water will get sucked up pretty quickly. If you're using old-fashioned, it will seem wet at first, but will absorb and make a dough-like blob.

Dust work surface with oat flour or wheat flour (depending on whether you need these gluten-free or not). Roll dough until it's about 1/4 inch thick. (This is thicker than a store-bought cracker will be. Go thinner if you wish to and can. I liked the thickness.) Cut into squares or if you're an exciting person, use cookie cutters to cut shapes. The advantage of the cookie cutters is funness. The advantage of the squares is that you don't have to re-roll the dough at all. I will confess that by the 3rd or 4th re-roll, my dough was starting to fall apart a bit. It still made tasty crackers though.

Place crackers on baking sheet. Bake for 20-30 minutes (I did 30), flipping them over every five minutes or so. I know that this seems like a pesky instruction, but it ensures that the crackers don't steam themselves and get nice and crisp. Also, this recipe is so simple a little extra flipping didn't seem too painful.

When cooked, they'll be crisp and just barely turning golden. (Note: They'll firm up even more as they cool.)


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Zuppa Toscana

If you've every been to The Olive Garden and ordered the soup, you know what this is. You also know that it is awesomeness incarnate. And while I'm not going to claim that it's health incarnate (sausage, bacon, potatoes, cream), it does pack a mighty kale punch. And a good dose of kale can cover a multitude of sins. At least I convince myself of that every time I eat this soup.

Zuppa Toscana Knock Off
Serves 4-6
Prep time:10 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Cost: $3.15
sausage: 2.00. bacon: .40, onion: .10, cream: .50, kale: .15

1 1/2 C spicy (or not so much) sausage
2 medium potatoes, cut into 1/2 inch cubes (we use red potatoes)
3/4 C onion, diced small
6 slices of bacon (you can totally get away with 2-3)
1 1/2 tsp minced garlic (2-3 cloves)
2-4 C kale leaves, cut into inch pieces
1 quart water
1/2 C heavy cream, or a bit more if you're feeling lucky
4 tsp chicken bouillon granules or Better than Bouillon

Note: You can sub chicken broth for the water and bouillon if you've got it.
Note: You can peel the potatoes or not. Olive Garden leaves the skins on.
Note: You'll notice a wide range in the kale amounts. I like kale. I usually add a bunch, but I think the more authentic recipe would use the lower amount of kale.
Note: I use 2-3 strips of bacon. I love the flavor it imparts, but don't much love bacon in soups. It's pretty good the first day, but I notice as the days go by that it gets kind of chewy and blah.
One last note: Leave that bacon fat in there folks. It adds a lot of flavor. If you are looking to lower your cholesterol, then simply omit all ingredients in this soup except kale and water. Thank you.

Cook sausage until it's no longer pink. Remove from skillet. Cook bacon and onion over medium heat. Take bacon out when it's crisp and keep cooking onion longer if it's not tender yet. Add garlic and cook a minute until it's fragrant. Add water, potatoes and chicken bouillon. (Note: If you've got tough or thick or extremely curly kale, put it in the pot here; if it's young and tender you can add it later.) Cook about 15 minutes or until potatoes are soft.

In the meantime, crumble your bacon.

When potatoes are soft, add bacon, sausage, cream, and kale (if it hasn't already been added).

Simmer 4 minutes and serve.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Pear Sauce

Boy, I've been out of town and have so very very many things to write about. There's pretzel bark and the truly perfect chocolate chip cookie (yes, you heard that from me; I've committed to a cookie; I'm still freaking out about it) and a book about French children eating everything, which I'm hoping will transform my life (I kind of sort of think it will, at least a little). There are thoughts on rolling pins and peach pie. But for today, we're doing a simple little gig involving pears.

Confession: Pears on not my favorite fruit. Every once in a while I come on one that is juicy and sweet and soft, but usually I find them too hard and dull-tasting and with a slightly woody mouth feel. But. Remember my cheapskate creed: If someone gives you something healthy and it's free, you should take it, even if using it up will take some thought or creativity. So when my friend Ronnie, who has a pear tree, offered to let my kids pick a "few" pears and when my kids (especially Mark) went just a little crazy in the "few" department and we ended up with a good 30 pounds of pears, I knew I wasn't just going to ignore the dears. I figured if I could make apple sauce, I could make pear sauce. And I did.

This is great to do if you have too many pears. But it's also a good way to salvage pears that weren't that great from the store, or to make them yummier to a picky child.

The pears I used are (I believe) green D'Angou pears--one of the most mild (read: not sweet) and firm varieties, which--for me--meant that I needed to use a little sugar to sweeten the pears. Also, these needed to cook longer than the apples before they were mashable. Finally, I made a big ol' batch, which took a bit of time. To spare yourself some time, do a small batch or throw the lot into the crock pot and go read a book.

Pear Sauce
Adapted from smitten kitchen
Prep and cook times depend on how big your batch is. For the below recipe it would probably take an hour or two (if not using crock pot), but I can't say for sure since I probably tripled it.
Cost: For me, it was about $.16 for the sugar, so you'll have to figure it according to the cost of your pears.

10 lb pears, peeled and cut into cubes (or cut into whatevers as is the case with me)
1/2-1 C sugar
1-2 tsp vanilla
2-3 C water
cinnamon, opt. (I didn't use)

Note and Confession: I kind of sort of didn't write down how much water I used. Consequently the above amounts are a guess. This I can tell you: You need less than you think and you can always add more (unless you've burned your pears to the bottom of the pot; don't do that). You need just enough water to keep your pears from burning. The pears will release water as they cook so you'll get more and more moisture in the pot. Start with 1 C and then after they've cooked for a while, add more if necessary.

Peel and cut your pears. With those super firm pears, this was the peskiest step. Once peeled, here's the easiest way I know to cut a firm fruit (maybe it seems silly to talk about this, but after peeling 70,000 pears, I really cared about how fast I was moving).

Cut of the top and bottom of the pear.

Then stand your pear up.

And cut the sides off.

You'll be left with a little square core. Throw that away unless you lived through the Depression, in which case I'm sure you'll find something else to do with it.

Okay, so now that you've got your pot of cubed pear pieces, add them to a big pot (or your crock pot) . Then add your water and your sugar. See the note above about water.

Put a lid on the pot and simmer gently for as long as it takes for those pears to get mashy. Mine took forever because I basically put so many in the pot that I had to cram the lid on. Ahem.

Stir the pears occasionally (as in every 30 minutes or so if you're doing a big pot full), doing your best to bring the ones from the bottom to the top. Check your water level to make sure you've got enough so your pears don't burn.

After they're mashable, mash them. (Rocket science.) I use a potato masher. If you'd like a really smooth puree, you can put them in the blender or use an immersion blender.

Add the vanilla extract and any other spices that float your boat. Taste a bit and add more sugar if you feel it's needed (it will be slightly sweeter after cooling, just so you know).

If you wish to can them, see here for instructions (yes, it is just the same as apples). Otherwise, put them in jars or Tupperware containers and let them cool off a bit before putting them in the refrigerator. If you'd like you can freeze it as well. The sauce will keep for a couple weeks in the refrigerator and a good year in the freezer.



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