Friday, November 12, 2010

A Modest Proposal


"I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasse or a ragout."
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), “A Modest Proposal”

Kids. Bless their little souls.  Unless you have a picky eater.  And then you are truly doomed, because there’s nothing more exasperating to any parent (or any adult for that matter) than a fussy eater.  Fortunately or not, my daughter takes after me and will eat almost anything.  Tofu (she calls it “toad-food”), sushi, broccoli, peas, soft-shell crabs - they all go down the hatch.  My niece, on the other hand, is another story. She claims that she will only eat of ice cream, surfboard soup (chicken soup with Korean rice cakes), and fruit – the expensive kind. Hell hath no fury like a child with vegetables.
What do you do?  For every mechanism you may have devised to get your picky eater to eat something “nutritious,” your kid has developed at least ten more ways of outfoxing you, and the parent/advice industry has developed a hundred more theories as to why you failed as a parent (and why your child will have $30,000 worth of therapist bills). Although I am not even remotely qualified with respect to child psychology, I do have a theory about this peculiarity.   I think it’s because we force our children to eat disgusting food.
Think about it.  Who says that children must eat “children’s” food? And who says that kids have no taste?  ADULTS!  I’ve seen my daughter eat $20 dollars worth of Brie de Meaux samples at grocery store.  I have also seen my niece scarf down grilled lamb chops like they were the last food on earth.  What I am suggesting is that if you feed children food that actually tasted like food, maybe they wouldn’t whine so much about the “food” they are forced to eat.
I know what you are thinking.  If kids had a choice in determining their own food choices they would be living off of cookies, French fries and the occasional juice box to ward off scurvy.  Part of the blame, of course, goes towards the food industry.  Kids are constantly bombarded with advertisements for food items that only have polysyllabic ingredients in them. I could also start a diatribe against parents, but I think solutions are more in order.  The crux of the problem is how does one eat well, in both senses of the word.  Kids do have a point when they say they want food that is yummy.   Would you want to eat vegetables boiled to a pulp?  I don’t and I don’t think kids should either.
            Then, what to eat?  Some parents sneak pureed vegetables into their kids’ brownies, but should your kid be eating ten brownies to eat one beet?  Tail wagging the dog.  Instead, I think you sincerely ask your child what they like or not like to eat and why.  You might be surprised at their answers, because they are the same reasons why adults like or don’t like certain foods. Ice Cream? Smelty.  Chicken? Crispy skin.  Blueberries?  Blue.  Cilantro?  Soapy.  Endive?  Bitter.  Mushrooms.  Slimy.  Eggplant?  I won’t even go there.  We all want to eat well, including your kids.  Start feeding yourself better and maybe you will find that they will as well.

Bolognese Sauce
            Fancy word for spaghetti sauce with meat.  If you’re going to hide vegetables from your kid, at least put them where they belong. As a parent it is so easy to buy the jarred sauce – but at least 10-20% of commercial sauce is plain sugar.  You might as well be feeding your kid Skittles for dinner. Making it from scratch is a lot of work, but it is the type of work that children love doing – hacking stuff into smithereens.  Most importantly, this sauce tastes great and even can be frozen for an easy meal on the weekday.  Add some whole wheat pasta (I am partial the ones made by DeCecco and BioNaturae), and you can pat yourself on the back for being one of those “healthy” parents.  I won’t tell your kids.

Serves 6-8
1/2 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
1/2 c. water, boiling temperature
13/4 c. sweet white wine (Riesling, etc.)
3 large carrots, peeled and chopped finely
1 large onion, peeled and minced
3 celery stalks, minced
4 oz. or pancetta, cut into small cubes (see note)
3 cans (14 oz.) crushed tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
2 tbs. unsalted butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. sugar
2 pd. of meatloaf mix (equal parts, ground beef, veal and pork)
2 c. whole milk
3 tbs. tomato paste
salt and pepper to taste
24 oz. pasta (see note)
Parmesan for serving

1.     Rinse porcini mushrooms briefly to release any dirt or other foreign matter. In a small bowl, take porcini mushrooms and pour hot water over them to soak.  Soak for 10-15 minutes, until mushrooms have reconstituted themselves.  Strain and take out mushrooms, reserving both soaking liquid and mushrooms separately.
2.     Take a small saucepan, and simmer wine until it is reduced to about 2-3 tbs.  Reserve.
3.     Meanwhile, place carrots, celery and onion in a bowl. (If you don’t care to do the knife work, feel free to do all the vegetable prep in a food processor)  Take reserved porcini mushroom and place in a food processor, and pulse until well ground.  Combine ground mushrooms with vegetables.
4.     Take pancetta and place into cleaned food processor.  Pulse until pancetta is finely minced.
5.     Heat butter over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven.  When foaming subsides, add pancetta and cook until browned, stirring often.  Add vegetables, and sauté until the vegetables are softened but not browned, about 6-7 minutes.  Add garlic and sugar and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Add the ground meat, and using a wooden spoon, break up meat into small chunks. (Don’t worry if the meat does not completely break apart, it will do so as the sauce simmers.) Sauté briefly, about a minute, and then add milk to the pot.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat and simmer until almost all the milk has evaporated and the meat starts to sizzle, about 30 minutes.  
6.     Stir in tomato paste and cook until combined, about a minute.  Add tomatoes, porcini soaking liquid, a pinch of salt and ground pepper, and simmer until it reaches a sauce-like consistency, about 20-30 minutes.  (If it takes longer, that is OK.  Just continue simmering until it becomes a sauce-like consistency.)  Stir in reserved reduced wine and simmer another 5 minutes, to blend flavors.  Add salt to taste.
7.     In the meanwhile, cook pasta until ad dente.  Reserve 1 cup of pasta cooking water.  Toss pasta with sauce, using reserved pasta water to loosen sauce if too thick.  Serve immediately with grated Parmesan cheese.
Note:  Pancetta is a type of non-smoked Italian bacon, found at specialty stores.  If you can’t find it, just use thick cut bacon.  Also, use any pasta shape that will hold a sturdy sauce well, such as spaghetti, penne or linguini.

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