Eating Nature

My kids ate hibiscus flowers last night.  No joke.

Someone recently told me that my kids are adventurous eaters and I’m lucky and something like this would never work in their house.  I totally disagree; I think they’re more complacent than adventurous.  When the food on the table is dinner and they know it might contain weird stuff and they know they don’t have the option of complaining until after they’ve tried it and they know I’m not going to give in and start cooking macaroni and cheese from a box just because they demand it, I really think they sort of gave up, gave in, and just went along for the ride.  Somewhere along the way they secretly began to like “weird” food; but admitting it has been a very, very recent phenomenon.

Therefore, I was more surprised than anyone when they actually ate the hibiscus flowers last night.  Not only did they eat them, but my 18-year old Hamburger Helper Lover volunteered that they were “actually pretty good.”  Of course I didn’t tell them what they were before they tasted the flowers, or at least 50% of them would have freaked.  But by now, they know the rules — I don’t lie about what they’re eating, but they know they have to taste it before they decide it’s gross and before I’ll come clean.  I am totally using their own laziness against them, and why they haven’t figured this out yet is beyond me…if they stepped up and helped out in the kitchen before dinner, they could see what is going into their food.  But as long as they prefer napping/watching six-year old basketball game reruns on TV/playing with the dog, I have free and unfettered reign in the kitchen, able to throw into their dinners whatever the heck I choose.  The arrangement is working out for everyone, most of all for me.

So my husband and I had a very rare night alone this week, and I cooked a rather complicated hibiscus flower enchilada plate, preceeded by a new take on ham and eggs — an appetizer of a coddled egg, which is then rolled in herbs and panko and cooked in olive oil til browned; served aside a hash of pancetta, roasted piquillo peppers, garlic and herbs, with a topping of beurre blanc.  I got the idea from Chef Nancy Oakes of Boulevard in San Francisco (no, we’ve never been there) and tweaked it to our tastes a bit, adding the beurre blanc and adjusting the herb mixtures.  Both were fabulous, so rather than throw the remaining gigantic bag of hibiscus flowers into our bottomless pit of a pantry where things go in but then get forgotten, I decided to try a very simplified version out on the kids last night.

Granted, hibiscus flowers look weird.  Weirdness isn’t necessarily something I worry about with these kids, since they’re used to us planting weird stuff in the yard and then making them eat it.  They’re used to eating (or being told that other people eat) various forms of nature that would make my mother cringe — flowers mostly, but also roots, stalks, stems, bark, seeds and leaves.  Of course we all eat this stuff all the time, but rarely do we really think about it.  Having it all growing in the yard (or pointing it out when we go camping) is a nice in-your-face sort of way of reminding them where their food comes from and that eating flowers and roots does not a caveman make.

The main issue with hibiscus flowers is their color.  When dried, they’re a nice, pinky-mauvey-brown, sort of tea-like.  But when reconstituted, they’re a shockingly bright burgundy, turning their soaking liquid nearly a neon pink color.  I think this is cool; my 13-year old thinks pink food is for sissies.  Getting him to eat this was a feat, but he did it, and he liked it.

The other issue you may face is the shape of a hibiscus flower.  My boys thought it was super cool, but not everyone (adults included) will find the pseudo-octopus-looking shape appetizing.  You can take a hibiscus flower and wrap it around your finger and suddenly it becomes a fairy skirt; but if you put a few on your hand then you look like you’re being eaten by alien leeches.  I guess you need to know your own kid to decide which approach would work the best.  When all else fails, you can chop them up and no one would ever know they used to resemble bloody raccoon toes.

Now, this enchilada recipe calls for lots of different vegetables and ingredients, including mushrooms.  I do still have one mushroom hater in the family, but I get around this by leaving shrooms large so that she can pick them out ahead of time.  If you have a non-beet-eater, then leave out the beets; if you have a non-zucchini-eater, then leave out the zucchini.  I happened to have one zucchini left from the summer’s garden bounty, so that’s why it’s in this recipe.  However, I have to admit that even I, a bona fide non-cooked-carrot-eater, love this dish.  All the vegetables meld together so nicely that except for the shrooms and hibiscus flowers, it’s difficult to pick out specific unloved tastes or textures.

The spiciness can be adjusted to suit your taste, too.  We prefer spicy food, so the chipotles don’t bother us.  The kids know they can always cut the spice with the sour cream, so this dish easily made it onto The List.  But if spicy food isn’t a staple at your house, skip the chipotles.

One more thing about this recipe — though I think it needs creme fraiche, and though we love creme fraiche, I’ve substituted sour cream.  Creme fraiche can be rather expensive, and unless I’ve got buttermilk laying around and the time and inclination to make it fresh, it’s a rarity in this house.  Also, whenever we do have it I have to listen to the entire recitation of the South Park episode where this dude decides he wants to be on Food Network and gets a job as the cafeteria guy at the elementary school, and his fake cooking show is called Creme Fraiche.  My kids adore that episode (no, they don’t get to watch South Park unless I’ve seen the episode first, so don’t write to me telling me what a horrible mother I am) because he gets all caught up in plating his food, just like mom.  And he makes one hell of a mess when he cooks and then leaves the mess for his wife to clean up.  No comment.  But I am getting better.

Get the recipe for #14: Hibiscus Flower Enchiladas on my site, here.

The list currently sits at 14…

When Time Does Not Heal Food Wounds

Memory is a funny thing. 

Like the time I caught the boys marching through the house sporting superman underoos on their heads chanting “WE ARE KLINGON! WE ARE KLINGON!” probably intent on offering their newborn baby sister up as a Romulan (Vulcan?) sacrifice or something.  Seriously, you just can’t make this stuff up.  But would I remember it so clearly now if not for the 4×6 print tacked to my bulletin board of them in various Klingon-esque poses wearing their footie pajamas and diapers, ready to fling their Toy Story underwear slingshot-style at the camera?  (And no, I will not post it, since they know where I sleep and since their friends read this blog.  I may be old and uncool but at this point my existence does not embarrass them and I plan to keep it that way).  Probably not. 

But I do not need a photo of certain foods from my past to remind me how much I hated them.  Hate isn’t even a strong enough word, and that’s just the point; the details of most memories fade with time, but food memories, at least in my head, seem to intensify.

Anyone who knows me fairly well has already learned about my anti-relationship to hotdogs.  However, hotdogs aren’t even a food, so I won’t deal with them here.

I’m talking about what other people do consider to be food, things that, for some reason, scarred me for life.  My mother used to make this dish she called “Chicken Spaghetti.”  Just typing that title makes me throw up a little.  It consisted of a casserole (“casserole”=dirty word #1) full of cooked spaghetti, coated in some weird mix of cream of something soups (dirty word #2), chicken pieces and some form of nasty pseudo-curry powder, topped with what the Velveeta people were somehow permitted to call “cheese,” and baked until the Velveeta slices turned inky black (sorry, cheese just doesn’t do that) and the whole house smelled like Eau de Singed Athletic Sock.  My mother tells me the only time she was sick when she was pregnant with me was when she ate Chicken Spaghetti.  How poetic. 

I cannot begin to describe how that dish stunted my culinary growth for over 30 years.  Thanks to Chicken Spaghetti, I was led to believe I hated curry, and therefore avoided it entirely until my mid-30’s when my now-husband accidentally ordered us Indian food and I was too embarrassed to tell him I’d rather brew us up some nice kitty litter tea than eat curry. 

The thing is, it didn’t smell like Chicken Spaghetti.  I gathered up all the anti-nausea strength I had and tasted it.  Funny, it didn’t taste like Chicken Spaghetti either.  It slowly dawned on me that maybe what I’d always thought of as curry really wasn’t curry at all.  My elation over suddenly discovering I had a whole new cuisine to explore quickly gave way to exasperation over having missed out on 30+ years of really, really good food, all on account of one horribly disgusting (ok, more than one, because she cooked that dish all the time) food experience from my youth.

This is what I hope to avoid in my own kids. I constantly worry that one bad food experience at my hands will close doors they may never be fortunate enough to have opened for them in the future by some knight in shining armor bearing a Sher E Punjab takeout box.  I mean, I know it’s not my mother’s fault that I avoided all curry in every form possible for 3o years.  And now that I think about it, I avoided all cream of something canned soup and Velveeta too, but in those cases I don’t think I missed anything.  It was my choice, and mine alone.

So while some scoff at my strange (I prefer to call it “passionate”) approach to feeding my kids, the bottom line is that we all want our kids to grow up and go forth with the ability to make good choices for themselves.  I just want to make sure those choices don’t include opting for Hamburger Helper or macaroni & cheese because that’s what they remember best.