Baby steps

It appears, much to my chagrin, that I am raising a picky eater.

As a self-professed gourmet cook, I’ve always harbored visions of raising appreciative little diners who would boast great palates from an early age and happily slurp up whatever I put down on the plate in front of them. I pledged I would never be one of those moms who make two separate dinners a night – one for the grown-ups and one for the kids. Then I had a baby and realized that, as with every other facet of life after you have a child, I am no longer the one calling the shots.

I read an article in (the sadly, now defunct) Gourmet magazine awhile back about the dumbing down of children’s cuisine and how it’s up to the parents not to always cop-out with a Happy Meal. The writer referenced a young boy who loved Chinese food and got upset when, assuming he was finished, a waitress once took his plate away before he could enjoy his duck tongues or some such delicacy. Like most two-year-olds, I’m afraid mine seems destined for a life of mac and cheese.

My two eldest nieces in Ireland are championship eaters, the kind I hope my own child will one day become. When they came to visit us about two months after my son was born (ages 5 and 7 at the time, if memory holds), they scarfed down mussels marinara at the Broad Ripple Brew Pub, and Bazbeaux pizza topped with shrimp and snow peas. During a more recent visit in Ireland, I noted that they partook of a cheese platter with the same gusto as the adults did, preferring the pungent blue to the milder Brie. I’m telling ya, these girls know good food. I pity the poor guys who are going to come calling in about ten years – they’d better pick their dinner date destinations carefully if they hope to impress.

This side of the pond, we are stuck in something of a culinary rut. Every day, I find myself preparing the same menus for Michael with only the slightest variations. Breakfast – Dora the Explorer yogurt (and ONLY the pink Dora yogurt will do), milk and perhaps a few bites of a muffin or a pancake. For lunch, he eats fruit, crackers or pretzels, and maybe some peanut butter. Snacks consist of animal crackers, a Nutri-grain bar or Gummi-bearish juice treats. Dinner is whatever I can get down his little gullet. Veggies and dip, pizza, French fries, a cheese stick, toast, maybe a scrambled egg if he’s feeling really edgy. Surely, Michael’s getting as bored with these meals as I am. I suppose he figures if it isn’t broken, then why taste it?

I don’t pretend to understand what goes on with a toddler’s taste buds during these formative years. How can Michael love kalamata olives, for God’s sake, but soundly refuse to put even a sliver of roast chicken in his mouth? Are we raising a vegetarian? The only meat he will deign to ingest is the occasional tiniest bit of crispy bacon. Cheeseburgers? Nope. Chicken nuggets? Uh uh. He even turned down peppermint stick ice cream the other night — what kid DOES that?

Even more mind-boggling, how can the little guy be sooooo into something one week, and then completely shun it the next? I really thought we were onto something with the pasta. Over the holidays, both he and his stepbrother made short work of my homemade angel hair pasta pomodoro like nobody’s business, but last week when I dished up a serving of fettuccine alfredo? No dice. Not even a taste. Just a sniff of the nose and a resoundingly whiny “No, mommy, I don’t WIKE that!”

I know I’m probably expecting too much too soon. After all, I seem to recall my own Cocoa Krispies breakfast habit that lasted well into junior high, and I didn’t really start digging fresh vegetables until college. Heck, I still sometimes eat a sleeve of Pop Tarts with a spoonful or two of peanut butter and call it dinner.

And things have improved some since the dark stretch last year that I refer to as the Ritz-cracker-and-Cheerio period. My son is perfectly healthy. He eats fruit like a champ. He gets enough protein and plenty of whole grains. He only receives fast food once in a great while. I’ll just have to persevere, giving him tastes of entrees, sides and sauces from my plate before resorting to the old standbys. With luck, one day a sense of dining diversity will catch on. He has recently started requesting “sparkling water with orange juice and a slice of lemon, please,” so maybe there’s still hope for him yet.

Home sweet home

Have spent the past few days reacclimating to the old homestead, and fighting off a pesky cold/flu bug that’s infiltrated my sinuses. Funny that we’ve been on the go in Europe for three weeks, out and about in cold rainy weather, navigating transatlantic flights, and when do I get sick? Only after I get back to the comfort and safety of my own home. Hmph.

I’m delighted to be back in my own kitchen and working again with my own knives, utensils and pots/pans; stocking groceries in my own roomy stainless steel fridge; and sitting down to eat at my own massive dining table. Needing a culinary break from continental fare, the first few meals I made this week were as decidedly anti-French/Italian/German as I could think up — chicken curry with sweet potatoes and chickpeas, Asian crusted tilapia with Thai peanut noodles (thanks for the recipe, Gillian!), and fluffy chocolate chip buttermilk pancakes. We did break down and order a quattro formaggio from Bazbeaux one night when I didn’t feel up to cooking, but American pizza is really nothing like true Italian pizza anyway.

Yesterday was the granddaddy of all American meals, the most comfortable of all comfort foods — Thanksgiving dinner. My family was sort of scattered to the winds this year and since my closest unit members and I are still recovering from our trip (did I mention I’ve been up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. every day this week?), we decided to play it very low key. Fortunately, our lovely friends/neighbors down the street invited us over. I was all prepared to cook a turkey breast with some scaled-down fixings at home, but feeling as under the weather as I do, was secretly thrilled not to for once.

Thanksgiving is always a bittersweet holiday for me, resurrecting memories of all the years I spent alongside my mom in the kitchen as she prepared a huge spread of her tried-and-true classics. Always the same stuffing recipe, always the scalloped corn casserole, always the cranberry ice that made my teeth ache. I was living in Los Angeles the last Thanksgiving my mom was alive, and it was the first year I didn’t make it home for the holiday. After a very nice dinner at my Uncle Dave’s house in Camarillo just northwest of L.A., I remember stealing a few moments to myself in a darkened bedroom to cry, somehow knowing that the unquestionable family tradition I’d enjoyed for 31 years was changing and would never be the same again.

And it hasn’t. The year my mom died, we went out to eat for Thanksgiving for the first time ever. It felt like a sacrilege, but the thought of even attempting to recreate her traditions in her kitchen without her there was more than I could bear. I don’t remember much about our dinner that year, other than the food seemed bland and tasteless and there was a gaping hole at the table where my mom should have been.

That was eight years ago. Time does heal wounds, but never eliminates them entirely. I’ll always think of my mom on Thanksgiving day, bustling around the kitchen like a fearless conductor of her own culinary symphony. I have cooked my own Thanksgiving dinners since then. One year, the “fresh” turkey I’d purchased the night before turned out to be completely frozen solid in the middle when I went to put it in the oven. Certain side dishes have met with varying degrees of success. I’ve learned some valuable trial-and-error lessons along the way. I know some people get totally flustered about the idea of cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, but at this point, preparing the big meal doesn’t freak me out. I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to turkey day, so I usually try to serve a combination of old favorites and maybe one or two new recipes thrown in to keep things fresh.

This year, though, Ron and Janet saved me the trouble, bless them. Their spread was a fabulous collection of all the best stuff — perfectly roasted turkey, creamy mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with yummy melty marshmallows on top, green bean casserole (which I always vow needs to be made much more often than just once a year), and a savory wild rice with mushrooms. As Janet so accurately summed up, Thanksgiving is all about the starches. True dat! I contributed a stuffing I made with apples, onions, celery, sage and rosemary (hubby already said he wasn’t going to eat any, so I made it to please myself!); and a bowl of vanilla orange cranberry sauce. All in all, it was a delicious and satisfying dinner shared with good friends. What more could a person ask for? I was truly thankful.

By the way, best use of Thanksgiving leftovers in my book? White meat turkey sandwich on white bread with Miracle Whip, a layer of stuffing and some cranberry sauce. Followed up by a piece of pumpkin pie doused with Cool Whip. Yeah, baby. Now you’re talking.

My thoughts are already turning ahead to the holidays. So many recipes, so little time. I’m already mentally running through lists of cookies I want to make, roasts I can put in the crockpot on the cold nights ahead, my mom’s brandy slush recipe, and a slew of seasonal side dishes. Every year, I have big plans to invite friends over for dinners, a cookie swap, maybe a brunch, and before I know it, Christmas has come and gone. I vow this year not to get so wrapped up in the shopping and stresses of the holiday season that I forget to just relax and spend some time with the people I care about. Spontaneous stolen moments are way better than no moments at all.

Today, we hope to venture out to get our Christmas tree while my adorable stepson is here to help decorate. Perhaps we’ll even follow up our tree-decorating efforts with some cookies and homemade hot chocolate… ah. I know many people loathe the long, cold winter, but I look at it as an opportunity to cuddle up with the ones you love and enjoy a bunch of heart- and tummy-warming dishes that don’t taste nearly as good any other time of year.

To that end… my nose is running again. I think it’s time for a cup of tea and my favorite afghan. Don’t forget to count your blessings.