What a Baby Taught Me about Food
One of my food gurus is a baby. My son's baby announcements should have read, "We are pleased to welcome another foodie into the house." Our 10-month-old, Ian, loves a healthy variety of food. For a variety of reasons, I have prepared his baby food myself ever since the spoon of goo passed his lips. It was, incidentally, a puree of avocados, a food that remains his favorite six months later.
Smooth and Silky
When was the last time you made a puree? Not just a quick whir of some ingredients in a blender, but an artful, peak-of-flavor puree? A silky smooth explosion of fruit or vegetable flavor that washed over your tongue like the sun of harvest season itself? When was the last time such a puree had a starring role at your table?
Purees of fruit become granitas, chilled soups, and all manner of summery dishes. Purees of vegetables make marvelous lowfat sauces, chilly weather soups, and if treated with care and dosed with vodka, hearty breakfast beverages. I had all but forgotten the usefulness of purees, and then I started cooking for my budding gourmet.
Puree Makes the Day
The other day I was making a nice red bell pepper puree for Ian (he had rejected the diced version of the steamed peppers, and I wasn't giving up). It was still a couple of hours before dinner; a busy parent cooks when he or she can. When I took a moment to appreciate the tang, the silkiness, and the robustness of the brilliant red puree, I tossed out the menu I had planned for the adults at my table that evening. I wasn’t sure what dinner was going to be yet, but it was going to feature this puree.
I surveyed the larder. I was several ingredients and at least one hour short of an elaborate stuffed eggplant, roasted on the grill and smothered with a garlicy version of the puree. The fish I had queued up for the evening would vanish under the red peppers. It just wouldn’t be fair to the fish, which could be frozen and resurrected when I had the proper adjuncts for it. Outside, my herb garden was bushy with Italian flavors. Now we were talking. I had some wonderful four-cheese ravioli in the freezer. Dinner for the fork-and-knife crowd would be pasta with a red pepper cream sauce.
I selected a chilly Pinot Grigio. The weather was hot—too hot—for a cream sauce, but a crisp, chilled wine might distract people from the mismatch. A romaine salad, dressed simply a la my Italian mother-in-law, could stand at its side. My husband could pick up fresh bread, and for dessert, I had a huge watermelon in the fridge that had survived the great melon-carving contest on a recent camping trip. Don't ask.
Preparing Ian’s meal had reminded me how much I enjoy purees, and as a result I was winging it. I wing it more often than not, but typically, not when I have guests coming over. It felt great. As I warmed the garlic, and some herbs, I thought about the other beneficial nudges that cooking for a baby had made to my culinary habits—reminders regarding techniques and tools that I had been neglecting. They weren’t major changes, just minor, positive shifts in my cooking vibe.
When caring for an infant full time, you must cook with a "catch as catch can" philosophy. If your youthful kitchen companion takes a long nap, you can prepare gourmet entrees with twenty ingredients. If, on the other hand, he crawls around the kitchen testing the thoroughness of your childproofing every moment, your menu choices are more constrained. You must prep and cook when he's otherwise safely entertained. Sometimes dinner needs to be takeout.
My son gives me windows of time with which to work. While he's enjoying a leisurely lunch of finger food, for example, I practice dicing, another technique I had all but abandoned. I dice many foods for him; the cube shapes are easy for his little fingers to pick up and the uniformly small size of the pieces minimizes the possibility of him choking on one.
I love of rustic foods, and as a result, my knife work had tended away from precision over the years. Why dice the onions, when chopping will do? It’s faster that way. Now, my refrigerator always contains little containers of diced this-or-that. Having diced veggies on hand is great; it gives you a step up on the mirepoix, readies you for an appealing omelet, and equips you to jazz up stews or make a bowl of ramen noodles much more interesting. Ditto for the diced tofu—so many uses!
Diced fruits are a little more, um, dicey in that they spoil quickly. A little lemon juice prevents them from browning, though, and Ian appreciates some nice cool fruit pieces in the afternoons, especially when he’s teething. So, I dice him up some seedless grapes, nectarines, or bananas about every other day.
Ian has a strong preference for ripe fruits. His perfect peach, it turns out, is perfectly ripe. Too firm, and his six front teeth can't handle it. Too ripe, and his little fingers squish it hopelessly and he struggles to pick it up. While I can always puree the overripe specimens, or whiz them into a tropical drink, I find it more rewarding to ripen my fruit carefully and use it when it's just right.
Our previous home, built in 1938, had a ripening cabinet in the kitchen. This lovely original detail was cleverly vented to the outside and had wire mesh shelves. This dark, warm cubby provided a splendid place in which to produce mouth-watering peaches, juicy pears, and luscious avocados. After all, the quote of the week in a seventies-style co-op I lived in was once, “To make the killer guac, you’ve got to have the ripe avos.” Hm--perhaps that statement’s deeper meaning is lost upon those (of any decade) who have never lived a seventies lifestyle.
For the rest of you, just think of the difference it makes to use homegrown tomatoes with vine-ripened flavor. Imagine all of your produce tasting that good. In the summer, when my garden is overflowing, we simply stand by the plants or trees and eat, letting the juices run down our arms. If you have no garden, or in winter, or for those times that you can’t shop daily at a farm stand, you may have to put a little effort into ripening. It doesn’t just happen. You can help it happen, but you can’t force it to happen quickly. Mellow yourself out a bit and let your produce do its own thing for a little while.
I no longer have the ripening cabinet, so I fill paper bags and baskets with purchased produce, and let them mature with twice-a-day monitoring. I have found that my bamboo steamer also makes an effective ripening cabinet. I just set it on the counter and it can handle several pears and avos at a time. When I get to know the lady down the street, the one with the pear tree, I will try my grandmother’s technique, and spread the pears on a screen door, placed horizontally on sawhorses in the shed. I wonder if she knew how many of her pears I snuck during the week they were there.
The two secrets to ripening are persistence and patience. You must check your produce frequently, so that you have adequate opportunity to anticipate its peak flavor, but you must wait until it’s done. Don’t blow it, or you’ll end up making more tropical drinks than perhaps you should. I always say, invite Captain Morgan to your parties, but know when it’s time for him to leave.
Prepping your dinner in advance, it is well known, is an excellent way to ease stress and afford you more time to spend with Captain Morgan and all of your other guests. I have rediscovered my slow cooker now that my premium dinner prep time often comes in the middle of the day. When Ian is napping, eating, or busing banging on some pans, I can toss a pot full of hearty ingredients together and have sumptuous slow food ready in the evening. Lately, I’ve been tweaking a green chili stew recipe and searching empirically for the secret to Grandma’s marinara sauce.
Every Bite Counts
Possibly the greatest contribution my little son has made to my enjoyment of cooking is simply by being another mouth to feed. Not just any mouth. His, filled with few teeth and a decidedly unschooled palette, has almost nothing but new food experiences in front of it.
I have kept a list of the foods Ian eats. Each food was carefully vetted to be appropriate for his age, (with the exception of the olives and tomatoes that he grabbed and shoved into his mouth). For the first several months, the introduction of his foods came at three-day intervals, to help in identifying potential allergies. His list is already over 50 items long, and I have the precious memory of watching the expression on his little face as he tried each new food.
He slurped down purees of pears, peas, and sweet potatoes with smiling gusto. He rolled the grilled onions around on his tongue and grinned like a tailgating football fan on brats day. He had a happy, surprised look as he smacked his lips on the goat cheese. He wrinkled his nose at that first taste of the green olives, and then opened his mouth eagerly for more. I’m a lucky mother.
Do you remember the first time you tasted the everyday foods in your life? When, for example, did you first try cheddar cheese, and what did you think? I don’t remember those moments in my past, but I have the privilege of sharing them anew with my little one. It’s huge.
We sometimes need reminders of the adventure that food can be. An infant taught me this, but you can give your own self that poke with a spoon. Refresh those forgotten techniques. Blow the dust off your unused tools and let them invigorate your cooking experience. When you can’t control the unexpected turn in your day, let it be the inspiration for a special, unconventional meal. Most importantly, slow down and recall the simple wonder of tasting your food. If you’re already going to eat, this bit of entertainment is completely free and simple. Close your eyes, roll your tongue around it, and taste everything as if it’s the first time.