Friday Food Post: Toddlers and Other Challenges
Today’s food column will be crowd-sourced from Twitter. That is to say, I periodically broadcast my thoughts on food to all y’all, but I like to think of this space as a conversation. So I asked my Twitter followers for questions, and they asked me for answers.
From @Popehat: “Best method of wrapping pierogies (or Chinese dumplings) to prevent fall-apart during the cooking.”
My response: Dumplings and pierogies are something I leave to the professionals. Partly that’s because my culinary heritage (Midwestern farmer, New England Irish, and a smattering of Craig Claiborne-era New York foodie) does not include the filled dumpling as one of its staples. And partly that’s because making filled dumplings is a huge pain. The one time I tried it, the results were delicious, but my guests had to stand around swilling wine for an hour and a half while I got all the dumplings made. Lesson learned. There are many top-notch professional vendors who will sell me delicious filled dumplings, and I rely on them for all my dumpling needs.
However, I can suggest some broad principles for making any filled product, such as filled pastry, which is a (slightly excessive) part of my family food tradition. The first is that you want a good coating of starch (potato, corn, flour) on your edges. When brushed with a small amount of water, this will turn into the glue which holds your filling inside its delightful packaging. Always do this before you seal any standalone filled pastry product (pies are more forgiving, but it doesn’t hurt them, either).
The second is that you should not overfill. Every novice turnover maker succumbs to the same dark thought process. “There’s barely any filling on there at all!” they think. “I need at least double that!” Not so, my friend. Stick to the recipe. If it says a little spoonful, use a little spoonful, no more. If you consistently find that your pastries leak, and your dumplings burst at the seams, you are using too much. Cut back by a tenth, and repeat until you arrive at a satisfactory amount.
And the third is to make sure you’ve got the right amount of heat, and cook for as little time as possible. Your oil should be as hot as the recipe calls for, your water boiling briskly and well salted, your oven thoroughly preheated. Anything else is a recipe for soggy morsels with overcooked filling that leaks everywhere.
@blighter asks: what can I feed my 21-month-old each morning that's as fast & easy and she will like as much as toaster waffles?
The answer is, obviously, toaster waffles. However, in a follow-up tweet, friend Blighter specifies that he would like an easy, healthy food that a toddler might eat.
This is actually a very challenging question. For example: define “healthy.” I’m a big fan of gaslight eggs made with 100 percent whole wheat bread, or poached eggs, which can be made in egg cups if you doubt your poaching skills. Many nutritionists, however, would blanche at all that fat.
So with the caveat that I am not a parent, and actual parents may well laugh, my suggestion is to exploit the fact that your kids don’t know what “breakfast” is. That is, they know that they like to eat in the mornings. But they have not yet absorbed social conventions about what should be eaten at that time of day. For all they know, tuna fish made the night before and slapped onto a Ryvita cracker is a breakfast food. So are sliced cucumbers or celery spread with Greek yogurt dip, or leftovers from last night’s dinner. If you get them early enough, you can even convince them that Muesli soaked in milk or mashed with Greek yogurt is a delicious breakfast food, a fact they will otherwise not discover until they are old enough to take an interest in Metamucil commercials. But even before the Metamucil demographic, your child will soak up some marketing and start to demand Power Warrior Extra Crispy Honey-Sugar Pops. But in the meantime, you can feed them minute meals that are heavy on fiber and protein, light on sugar and other empty calories.
@uncle_jak asks for “Menu planning for busy folks who like to cook.”
Normally, what I’m asked for is recipes for busy folks who don’t like to cook, or don’t know how. This is the post for those people. But what about the folks who do like to cook, but simply don’t have hours on hand to gather their fresh ingredients daily?
My answer consists of two appliances, and one tip you already know.
First, the appliances. If you like to cook, but are pressed for time, I cannot over-recommend a combination slow-cooker/pressure cooker like the Instant Pot or the Breville Fast Slow Cooker. Things that you might like to make, but simply can’t fit into your evening routine, become easy when you have one of these on hand. Either slow-braise all day, for something like pulled pork, or whip up a chickpea tagine in under half an hour using the pressure setting.
The second appliance I highly recommend is a deep freezer if you have any space at all to hold one. My personal preference is for an upright model, which is less energy efficient and won’t keep the food as long, but also will not leave frozen things lying untouched for decades at the bottom of your freezer, because the pain in your hands reached “incipient frostbite” long before you found those steaks you knew were in there somewhere. However, opinions vary, and others make a very strong case for chest freezers.
Why a freezer? Because it helps solve the two worst problems facing avid cooks with little time: “Leftover Fatigue” and “I thought I would have time to stop at the store, and then I didn’t.”
The temptation when you’re busy is to try to make a few big ingredients do for the whole week. In theory, you can do marvelous things with a large and well-cooked roast that successively becomes sandwiches, hash, little pot pies, and so forth. In practice, by Day 3, even the chef is drearily thinking “Chicken again?” So instead of trying to figure out a way to spread a little bit of shopping and cooking over a week’s worth of meals, double up whatever you do have time to cook, then pop half of it in the freezer for another meal.
A deep freezer will also make it easy to store those frozen shortcuts — vegetables like little onions and artichoke hearts, raw shrimp and thin sliced chicken breasts that can be quickly thawed, frozen cubes of basil and garlic, Minute Maid bottled lemon juice — that protect you from suddenly realizing that you’re out of garlic and have no vegetables in the house. With a few of those on hand, you will always have something delicious that you can make in under 30 minutes. My list of basic kitchen staples covers the shelf-and-freezer products that I consider (along with a block of parmesan and a container of heavy cream) to be essential for the time-pressed cook. In the summer, I also like my little herb garden, which means I don’t have to remember to buy fresh mint.
And the tip (which you already know), is that if you’re really pressed for time, you need to plan for the whole week, shop for those menus, and then stick to the plan. Perishable produce goes toward the beginning of the week, while your zucchinis, mushrooms and stewed-tomato dishes are for Thursdays and Fridays. If you don’t make the plan and stick to the plan, you will end up throwing a lot of food away, or realize halfway through your recipe that you’re missing a key ingredient. But it’s okay to schedule one evening as a takeout night, or not schedule it but keep that option in mind for whatever day you really don’t feel like cooking.
Oh, and here’s a bonus tip: the "Best Simple Recipes" cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen. I don’t cook out of it all the time, but I do find it useful for those days when I’m staring at the fridge and coming up dry.
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