Spring!

I cannot believe Passover is almost here. I can’t say it’s my favorite food holiday, but there are some delicious dishes we make for it, including a flourless chocolate cake that rivals any full-on flour brownie. Seriously! More on that this week.

On a side note, the Target ads running right now feature this amazing song Sail into the Sun by Gentleman Hall. Does anyone know this band? Bubble gum pop at it’s very best. Every time the commercial comes on I have no choice but to stand up and shake it! It’s such a great reminder that spring is right around the corner.

Procrastination for Lunch

Spicy Meatballs at Digg Inn Seasonal Market

Some days I’m starving way before lunchtime. I don’t know if it’s because I recently started going to the gym again, or if it’s because my active, getting into everything  nineteen-month-old really keeps me on my toes.

Either way, on days I’m this hungry, I become completely overwhelmed by the choices nearby. There are salad places, a falafel place, a Malaysian restaurant that has great specials (even if the chicken is a little rubbery), a health food spot, and a sandwich shop that claims to be all natural (but when I brought my mother in one day she swore she could smell the preservatives, and she truly has the nose for that sort of thing, so I don’t go there much).

My inability to decide what to eat is compounded by my hunger, which makes it even harder to decide what to eat, and the whole thing becomes this vicious cycle. By then I am past the point of needing a sandwich and ready to skip right to the chocolate.

That’s when I go downstairs, look in each restaurant to determine which line is shortest, and my decision is made.

Today I went to Digg Inn Seasonal Market. It’s one of my favorite neighborhood places. It used to be The Pump, and it’s still run by the same company, but they took the concept of healthy food a step further by making it healthy fast food.

Everything is already prepared when you walk in. The magic of Digg Inn is that the food never looks like it’s been sitting there all afternoon. You choose a starch, an entree and three sides. The line moves quickly, and the staff is very pleasant.

For lunch I usually get the braised beef on top of vegetable brown rice. The rice has big chunks of carrot in it, which add a nice flavor. Growing up, the brisket from my grandfather’s deli was famous in our town. He cooked it with big chunks of carrots. When I get the braised beef at Digg Inn I ask for extra gravy, and I have a dish that’s somewhat reminiscent of my childhood.

Today I felt adventurous, and got the spicy meatballs. When I order something spicy, I like it to be spicy. I’m happy to say these meatballs don’t disappoint.

For the sides, there are a ton of choices, and this indecisive girl tries to pick before going in so I don’t hold up the line. Today I had roasted winter vegetables, sweet potatoes, and cabbage slaw with coconut milk (and yes, you can really taste the coconut).

I wish they had better desserts, but let’s face it, it’s probably better they don’t.

Which brings me to my next point. I think snacking is a bigger problem for me than what to have for lunch. Even after a good meal, there are still some afternoons when three hours later I’m famished again. It’s the snacking that kills me. It’s always the snacking.

So once again I go downstairs and try to find something that’s not the equivalent of a second lunch. I also don’t want to undo all my good work by getting a brownie from Pret or Chop’t, so I usually grab an apple and some almonds. It seems to do the trick. But I often wonder, does writing about food make me hungrier? Or is snacking just another word for procrastination?

Cooking for a Toddler and Keeping Your Sanity

Toddler meals that are easy to prepare

It wasn’t long after Luci started solids that I realized there is no better word in the English language than convenience. Yup, I LOVE convenience. The convenience of buying premade jars and pouches of baby food is an especially nice luxury.

I think it took all of two days before I announced I would not be spending time in the kitchen daily to prepare Luci’s baby food, and that I would, in fact, be buying the majority of it. I was relived that no one seemed to care. It might also be that no one was paying attention.

Browsing the aisles of my local grocery, I came to learn there are some amazing baby food brands out there. Happy Baby makes pouches of some of the most sophisticated mixes of ingredients. It’s stuff that I never would have eaten as a baby, like chicken, vegetables and quinoa. Luci also went crazy for their breakfast smoothie, consisting of banana and mangosteen. Um, I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know a mangosteen was a tropical fruit all its own. I thought it was just the longer version of the word mango.

I’m also embarrassed to admit that jars of Earth’s Best Chicken Soup still make me nostalgic when I walk by them at the store. All those little bits of carrot and pea just take me back to Luci’s days as a baby. Pea was the first food she asked for by name.

But her baby days are over, and as toddlerhood approached, I got my mom groove on a little better, a little straighter. I actually began getting some rest, and once my daughter hit the one-year mark, I was almost feeling like my old self again.

Now this is a completely different topic for a completely different kind of post, but suffice to say, when you start remembering how your life used to be before the baby came along, you realize you’re coming out from under that newborn stupor and emerging back into the world. For me, it was like breathing new air. I felt real again.

And feeling like me again meant back into the kitchen I went.

I think my husband was relieved. I would say that when I got pregnant, he got a little bit pregnant with me. Now we’re both on track to lose our baby weight, helmed by the healthier meals I’m cooking at home.

One of our favorite dishes pre-baby, were my stir frys. On Sunday nights I used to chop and dice all kinds of meat and veggies, along with lots and lots of garlic and ginger. Then during the week, we’d pop our heads into the fridge Alton Brown style, choose which of the ingredients I’d prepped that we were in the mood for, and throw them into the wok. Add some steamed some brown rice, and you have a delicious meal on the table in about twenty minutes.

I’m starting to do that again, only now I use less oil. I also dice everything a bit finer for Luci’s tiny mouth. The quinoa and mangosteen opened the gateway for her to enjoy all kinds of flavors, including the garlic and ginger that are the foundation of every good stir fry.

It’s so much fun to put her in her high chair and let her watch the way the vegetables soften in the wok over the heat before we add chicken or beef. We turn up the flame, and we have the music up high too, making the atmosphere warm and inviting. I hope one day Luci will have even vague memories of her first experiences cooking with Mommy.

Making dinner has become a special time for us. One night as I was cooking, she asked for broccoli. I had already steamed string beans, but I took the broccoli out anyway and made her some as a side dish to the broiled chicken, loving how much Luci delighted in contributing to the meal. This gave me an idea.

As Luci’s food vocabulary develops, why not have her help prepare her own meals the way I used to prepare stir frys? So now on Sunday nights, in addition to whatever else I’m cooking, I make pasta, brown rice or quinoa, steamed veggies and broiled meats or fish. During the week I ask Luci what she wants for dinner, and she picks out a starch, a protein, and an unlimited array of veggies. We heat them up, put them in her special bowl, and dinner is ready.

I love how this gives Luci a hand in choosing her own meals, and an early start in picking what’s healthy and fresh. We make lunch and dinner like this several times a week. Other nights I’m inspired to cook something on the spot depending on a craving me or John might have, or we go out. It’s a good balance, and a good way to set up a lifetime for family meals together.

First Lunch

Butternut squash baby food

Before Luci was born, I had this fantasy I would prepare all her baby food. No jars or pouches for this mama! I was going full on hardcore, from selecting the best fruits, veggies and meats at the market, to steaming and pureeing them myself.

Then Luci arrived, and reality set in.

One day, right around her six-month birthday, we were visiting my family in Baltimore when she wouldn’t stop crying. This is very hard for a new mother, when your child is miserable and no matter what you do, she won’t calm down. It’s especially hard when this happens in front of your own mother, and you start to worry she thinks you are inept at the whole parenting thing.

“She’s hungry,” my mother finally said, in that voice that clearly meant she thought my doctor’s no solid food before six months rule was insane. This might be even truer when the baby is both Jewish and Italian. (On a side note, has anyone come up with a spaghetti-flavored bagel yet? Not that it sounds appealing. But they have blueberry bagels, and even green bagels on St. Patrick’s Day, which just look moldy and gross, so where are the Italian flavors, like genoa salami? Evolution people!)

Finally, we strapped a cranky Luci in her car seat, and off we drove to the store, where I purchased butternut squash. When beginning solids, yellow and orange foods are recommended first.

We brought the squash back to my mom’s, and amid Luci’s wailing, I proceeded to steam it. Do you know how long it takes for butternut squash to steam? Even when you cut it in little cubes, it takes forever.

I finally threw it in the pot and let it boil. When it was done, I mashed it with a fork, because my mother has few modern appliances, and the chances of finding a stick blender in her house are about the same as finding a genoa salami bagel at the kosher bagel shop in town.

Once the sticky orange mess cooled, Luci had her first bite of solid food. Watching her eat the butternut squash was one of my proudest moments of motherhood. She tasted it cautiously, making a funny face as the new texture rolled across her tongue. Then she swallowed, reached for the bowl with a chubby little hand, and smiled. Yes, my mother was right, Luci was hungry.

This was the moment I realized I too was swallowing something new. Like it or not raising my daughter was going to be a collaborative effort, and a mother really does know best, especially when it’s your own.

Eventually, months down the road I did start making all of Luci’s food. It takes a little effort and some planning, but it’s possible. Tomorrow I will post about how I got smart and simplified the process of cooking healthy, nutritious meals for a toddler.

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