When “Greater than the Sum of its Parts” Works for Me. Or Not.

I am notorious for letting my gas tank get as far below empty as possible.  I don’t know why, and it drives my husband crazy, but I do.  So this morning I was in a desperate state of affairs, knowing that unless I filled up immediately, I probably wouldn’t make it home.  Between two of my three school drop-offs I begrudgingly pulled into the gas station, and as I was unenthusiastically filling the tank, I realized how completely hideous I looked.

Many mornings I go to work, so I leave the house at least looking like a mentally stable grown-up.  However, on my now-rare days off, I try to squeeze in a few extra minutes of sleep between the puppy’s 5am trip outdoors and the Rousing of the Natives.  Fortunately, they can all fend for themselves now (except the puppy) and I don’t have to do things like remind them to brush their teeth or find two shoes that match, so I do have the luxury of going back to bed for a little while after they show signs of life.  Eventually I get up, make sandwiches for the lunches they’ve already assembled, and we’re off.

Of course, this leaves about 57 seconds to get dressed, and since I know I’m coming straight home, I don’t think much about it at all.  So as I stood there filling my gas tank, I realized I looked like an oreo cookie — class on both ends, with crap squeezed in the middle.  A UCLA alumni sweatshirt on top, a pair of nice patent flats on the bottom left in the car from work the day before (don’t even ask about my Shoes in the Car thing), but hideous microfleece sweatpants that I made specifically for snow camping, meaning no one was ever supposed to see their blue and yellow plaid-ness, ever, since we wear several layers when backpacking in snow and this particular layer was designed to be covered by at least one more at all times.  Yet here I was, thankfully without any high school kids left in the car to remind me how embarrassing I was to them, flaunting my complete trade-in of self-respect for comfort, for all the world to see.

I’m frankly too old to really care, but it did make me think about food, of course.  Sometimes three nice-on-their-own parts, with their own purposes, can be complete crap when combined.  The first example that comes to mind really should have its own post entirely, but I’ll preview it here.  Once my husband and I were treated to a very expensive dinner in a very trendy restaurant — but it was honestly the very worst dinner either of us had ever experienced.  The other nauseating details will have to wait, but if you take a nicely glazed fish, seared on a very hot griddle, and then without cleaning that griddle you brown homemade marshmallows upon it, you get barf-inducing Fishmallows.  This is what the restaurant (hopefully accidentally) served us that night.

In this same category of Foods Not To Be Mixed fit some of my teenage backpacking memories of being the last one out of the sleeping bag in the morning only to find all the flavored oatmeal gone.  An inventive leader, dead-set on making me, a verified plain oatmeal hater, eat something, made it his 11-day mission to come up with some concoction of oatmeal and backpacking leftovers that seemed palatable.  Why we didn’t just add hot chocolate or apple cider mix, I don’t know; but instead I tried oatmeal mixed with dehydrated red beans, bits of beef jerky, the dry sauce mix from some sort of backpacking lasagna nightmare, etc.  But I think the worst mixture was plain oatmeal, squeeze cheese (EZ Cheez, I think it was called, thus making it about as Un Cheese as tire rubber) and dry butterscotch pudding mix, three things acceptable on their own (though EZ Cheez is questionable as technically a food, but on the trail and in the right context I suppose it can qualify here, if nowhere else) but meant never to come in contact with one another, ever.  Despite this daily culinary adventure, the prospect of facing a new and always inventive precursory version of the Denny’s Skillet (so I’ve heard) wasn’t enough to rouse me out of my warm-ish bag in time for the coveted blueberry or maple brown sugar oatmeal, so I suppose it serves me right.

On the other hand, just the opposite can be true, too.  This obviously does not apply to my fashion statement sort of morning, but often rather mediocre beginnings can have a profound effect if combined properly.  Take gelatine, for example.  Cooks have a choice — one may either turn plain gelatine into, say, some sort of nasty blue jello mold seated atop wilted lettuce with sugared fruit suspended inside and pink-tinted Cool Whip on top (yes, I’ve seen this…people do make this stuff), or one may use it to make a beautiful buttermilk eggnog panna cotta with caramelized rum sauce (our dessert this weekend).  There are only three ingredients to my buttermilk eggnog panna cotta, and each taken alone is really nothing to shout about.  Yet combined they become a dessert with the silkiest, smoothest texture you’ve ever experienced, definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Buttermilk Eggnog Panna Cotta

I originally used a version of this buttermilk panna cotta for a large celebratory dinner for 100 that I recently catered.  That dessert included a luscious lemon curd and rosemary lavender shortbread, too.  However, panna cotta was designed as Italian comfort food, akin to Jell-O Instant Pudding these days here (ick, by the way).  The original version included the addition of sugar, vanilla and lemon zest; however, the eggnog already contains sugar and vanilla, so I omitted it here — thus the three ingredient dessert, perfect for everyday but easily spiced up for a very formal affair.  I like to add caramelized sugar ornaments or spun sugar tiaras (depending on the weather, as spun sugar doesn’t tend to work properly in high humidity), or preserves or curds or… Really, we’ve had this so many ways that I can’t even begin to list the variations.

Find the recipe for Buttermilk Eggnog Panna Cotta here.

The List currently sits at 18…

Genetic Persistence

Think about it.  We generally feed our kids what we like to eat.  We generally don’t feed our kids what we don’t like to eat.  It’s a nasty cycle.

Take our house, for instance.  I hate hot dogs and cooked peas.  Setting aside the bare and basic truth that hot dogs aren’t even really a food, it follows that I probably wouldn’t serve my kids these things anyway.  I don’t.  Three out of my four kids claim to hate hot dogs too, though I know from my ancient and as-yet-unused UCLA degree in psychology that their hatred is most likely perceived and not real, thanks to mom’s years of conditioning them with my gagging noises and barfing charades whenever either food is mentioned.

My hatred of these two things is so well known that every year the cooks at the camp I run manage to slip some form of both into some dish or craft or other, served especially for me.  I’ve been served hot dog chimichangas with pea salsa (even grosser than it sounds, believe me); I’ve returned to my tent to find it decorated with very, very carefully dried and hand-strung pea strings, like tiny little disgusting Christmas lights (in Bear Country, no less); once I found a giant pea sculpture hanging from the trees over my bed (a “pee-nata” instead of a pinata.  Awesome, and it’s still hanging in my garage); I’ve even been awarded an honest to goodness Miss America-style Pea Queen sash and tiara, made of peas, of course.  One year they made hot dog men and hung them from the trees, welcoming me into camp.  One especially crafty cook took a hotdog, dressed it up to look like a Hawaiian hula dancer, and left it in my mailbox.  I perched it in the kitchen (the only real Bear-proof building in camp) and we watched it sort of dry out a bit but remain rather unchanged over the course of the summer.  I accidentally left it there when we closed camp for the season, only to find it the following summer in exactly the same condition we left it ten months earlier.  If anyone ever had any lingering beliefs that hot dogs are truly a food, they were dispelled that July when we opened the kitchen door to find Hula Hot Dog smiling happily back at us.  Even the winter mice left her alone.  Winter mice will eat other winter mice poop.  They’ll also eat each other.  But not hot dogs.

So of course it’s natural for us to want to spare our children the horrors of the foods we have grown to loathe.  This is fine when it comes to hot dogs, but can be extremely troublesome when a parent’s palate is not very evolved or varied.  I figure my kids will survive if the only vegetable I refuse to serve is cooked, nasty, squishy, smelly peas; but what about the kids whose parents are truly vegetable haters?  It must be quite a drag to have to constantly respond to the question “but if you don’t have to eat it, why do I have to eat it?” with the answer “because I said so” or some other such nonsense.  I have three kids who swear they hate hot dogs, though I’ve never, never served them.  I’m actually sickly (and now publicly) proud of their choice, but I know it’s my own dislike of hot dogs that has made them believe they, too, hate the things.    What if (heaven forbid) I hated something, or many things, that would actually enrich their palates or health?

Fortunately, this is a recipe that can turn a vegetable-hating-parent into someone who can actually serve vegetables to a kid and eat them too.  Of course it includes bacon, my own personal form of Kid MSG and the very best way to get kid #1 to try absolutely anything.  It also uses one of the coolest looking vegetable creations ever — Brussels sprouts, especially if you can get them in their natural state — still attached to the stalk.  Trader Joe’s carries huge stalks for $2.99 this time of year, and they’re fantastic.  Stick the stalks into a bowl of cool water and they’ll stay fresh and alien-looking on the counter for a week or more.  Then when you snap off the little sprouts, speaking from recent experience, the kids can use the stalk as a light saber.

I know several people who will automatically ignore this recipe because they think they hate Brussels sprouts.  You know who you are…just add more white wine to the recipe and get over it.  Try it before you decide they’re gross — and especially before you convince your kids they’re gross, before they even get a chance to decide for themselves.  Find the recipe here, on my site.

The List currently sits at 16…

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…