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Saturday, June 05, 2010

Ratatouille! (a serious issue for Mom's with young kids who don't like dinner)

First of all...I'm kicking myself for not taking any pictures this week to go with this story...I didn't know I would be blogging about it at the end of the week.

Many of you Moms with younger kids may be able to relate to the issue that dinner brings every night, and "food ruts" you can't seem to escape. About a year and a half ago, I came to the realization that in our house, dinnertime in general, had turned into a disaster. With my husband being gone 4 nights out of the week, I had pretty much given up on making "real" food for dinner anymore, as no one would eat or appreciate it. Why spend hours planning and making good food, just to have the kids shove their plates back at me screaming how much they hated what they hadn't even tried? "Real" dinner would often be thrown down the drain, fed to the dog (at least he liked it), or frantically eaten by myself over the next few days for each meal just so I didn't feel I wasted my time making it--I found that by eating out of obligation it's really easy to gain a weight!

It was really depressing, so I gave up making dinner, and we ate most things out of a box (like mac and cheese) or hot dogs, or cold cereal (it was a good thing I had been couponing in the months prior to this decision, because my cupboards were already stocked full of that kind of ready-made food. ) Much of it was yucky "kids stuff" with hardly any nutritional value, and they LOVED it, I hated it, but at least dinner wasn't being thrown down the drain anymore. I had pretty much resorted to this method of dinner making, which is really quite a shame if any of you know me, as I am a dang good cook, if I do say so myself. Well I know that this lack of cooking was starting to get old and probably pretty unhealthy too (anyone watch the American Food Revolution on TV...that will get you thinking about what you put into your body.) We were no longer in a food rut...we had dug ourselves into a deep canyon with walls seemingly so high that there was no chance of escape. Or was there?

With the end of school last Friday, and the new routine change, I had an epiphany of sorts.. The last day of school brought about much celebration. Talon had several parties he attended that afternoon, and I took the two little kids on an afternoon adventure like no other...all the festivities ended in one big slumber party in Mom's bed that night as we piled on pillows, snuggled up together and watched the movie, Ratatouille--a great kids movie about the art of fine cooking. The kids loved the movie...Talon went on and on about how yummy all the food looked, and that someday he would like to cook fancy stuff like that. This shocked me as when I would cook fancy stuff he'd often end up shoving his plate to the center of the table declaring that I was trying to poison him or something like that.

The next day, my kids were being hyper and pushing each other's buttons as usual, and I quickly put Sydney on dishes duty with me to break up what was happening in the living room. To my surprise, she LOVED helping me. I was shocked, I was sure she'd put up a fight. She took so much pride in her task, and when Daddy called, she told him all about how she helped me. The next day Talon said he was craving some "really good food" like the movie Ratatouille and that he wanted to learn how to cook. Without going to the store, we pulled out some crazy vegetable combinations, and threw together what I consider leftover fridge hash, and made it into something fancy. I sliced off the molding part of an onion and used the good part, I chopped up the bulb end of a bunch of fennel that I had used in a dish at least 3 weeks ago ( was at least 4 weeks old, but I had it stored in a green bag), and put in a few bags of baby carrots, a can of cream of mushroom soup, some apple juice, and some frozen chicken breasts. I would have stopped there, but then Talon said, "What spices are we going to add to make it like Ratatouille?" So I pulled out some poultry seasoning, some celery salt and some onion powder and we added them to the pot. I tightened up the top of my Kuhn Rikon pressure cooker (as I said, I was a good cook back in the day .) and while we waited for the flavors to marry together, we prepared some baked sweet potatoes. Then in the spirit of having fun with Ratatouille, I got out the fancy china, and set up some Caesar salad on a small white plate arranging the croutons and parmesan cheese just so, then we sliced the sweet potatoes into rounds and fanned them out onto the plate then placed a few chicken chunks on top of the sweet potatoes and drizzled it with the "fridge hash" gravy in a fancy swirl. The kids loved the "fancy" dinner creations I made on each of their plates. I said the prayer and prayed that they would try it and like it. They all tried it...I can't say that they all liked it...but they tried it. It actually tasted pretty good! Talon did like it. Colin liked the chicken and ate a second and third helping of the chicken. Sydney at least told me it looked pretty. To me, this was a small victory.

The next day when the kids started pushing each other's buttons before dinner (yes this is a regular pastime in my house) I decided that I would give them something constructive to do. I was desperate trying to distract the kids from their current argument with my usual tricks, none of them were I pulled my dusty cookbooks out of the cupboard, and laid them out all over the living room floor. I told them to pick one or two things from the pictures of what they would like me to make that coming week, "as Summer was going to be different, and we were going to start to eat REAL food again so that we could pretend we were chefs like in the movie Ratatouille" You know what...they poured through those cookbooks. I kid you not...those kids were mesmerized by the pictures, and it seriously was one of my favorite activities with them this week.

"Oh, Mom, look at THIS...doesn't that look so good?"

I'd reply, "Yes, it does!"

"Mom, hand me another bookmark, I want to mark this page too."

"Mom, you should just cook from this cookbook every night, I want to eat everything in it!" Talon said about the Mexican food cookbook.

Two hours and more than 100 bookmarks later, I made a plan for the week with the kids involving a few new dinner recipes (several back-up recipes) and two dessert recipes that we were going to try, and they were going to help me make. This is the result: Talon planned a BBQ family party menu on Memorial day...Potato Salad, Baked Beans, Frog Eye salad (no real frogs were harmed to make it), elk burgers (can't say the same for the elk), homemade ice cream and brownies. The party went over successfully, and we ate leftovers over the next couple days. The kids actually loved the potato salad. I don't know if it was because they were involved in the planning, or they were getting sick of mac and cheese too, but they loved it!

Our next recipe to try was Chile Verde Tacos with Pinto Beans. Much more risky than traditional American BBQ fair. We are talking a dish that involved tomatoes and onions and "green stuff " like tomatillos, chilies, avocados, and cilantro. I had to put my stamp on the recipe as well by adding some extras. Seriously, that meal was to DIE for--possibly the best meal I had made all year. The kids all ate well...okay, at least Sydney and Talon did. Colin kind of picked around...but two out of three ain't bad. We even made our own corn tortillas out of Masa (that's because we accidently made too many quesadillas out of the tortillas I had originally bought for this meal.) We were able to eat the meal as leftovers over the next two days, then recreate it into a soup on Friday night, which was almost equally as good as the original meal.

For breakfast one morning (we were so full from the yummy dinner that we couldn't eat it that night) we made Sydney's dessert which I would have never chosen out of the cook book as it was a rather daring choice, Pavlova. What is it you ask? It's a whipped sugary meringue shell that is cooked until it is completely dried out and crunchy...then filled with whipped cream and fresh fruit. It was to die a French pastry in my opinion...and certainly appropriate for breakfast--after all it's made out of eggs and fresh fruit. Definitely, something I would make again and bring to a party to impress friends.

So our experiments with food this week have been very successful. This is so encouraging to me, as I think if we make a game of it this summer to try two new recipes each week, my kids are going to benefit by broadening their taste repertoire and eating healthier. I'll benefit too as long as they don't start throwing their plates across the table, and if they do, I'll just have to remind them, "you chose this meal, and what a nice choice you made!"

Our inspiration for our variation of the Chile Verde Tacos with Beans came from the Cookbook What's Cooking: Mexican.

Homemade tortillas:
2 cups Maseca (Masa Harina)
1 1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon chili powder (this is my a little extra flavor)

Mix all ingredients in a tortilla press (didn't have one we just rolled them out with a rolling pin on a masa-floured surface.) Cook on heated iron skillet 1 minute each side, keep covered with a cloth to keep them soft.

Pinto Beans (the recipe says to use a can of ready-made pinto beans.) Since we have a huge food storage of dry goods, I just used hard pinto beans, and cooked two cups of them in a pressure cooker with a good amount of salt for 25 to 30 minutes. I did them in the afternoon when I was already doing something else in the kitchen so that they would be ready around dinner without creating too much extra effort .

Chile Verde:
2 lbs. 4 oz pork cut into bite sized chunks.
1 onion (I bought a fresh one this time>.)
2 bay leaves
1 whole garlic bulb, cut in half (I didn't read this part clearly and ended up pressing a half a bulb of garlic cloves into the meat mixture.)
1 stock cube (didn't use it...figured I was already making a stock with the meat, onion, garlic, and salt.)
2 garlic cloves chopped
1 lb. fresh tomatillos, husks removed, cooked in a small amount of water until just tender, then chopped.
2 large fresh mild green chilies deseeded and chopped (I used 2 cans of mild green chilies and 1/3 can died jalapenos.)
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil.
1 cup pork stock (I used the stock that I made when I stewed the meat)
1/2 teaspoon chili powder (I used 1 full teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon is a little non-committal when it comes to chili powder...I wanted to make sure I could taste it.)
1/2 teaspoon cumin (once again...upped this amount to 1 full teaspoon.)
1/2 teaspoon salt (the original recipe doesn't call for any salt...I don't know about you...but dinner without salt is pretty bland. I just added enough salt until it tasted right...I'm guessing that it was about 1/2 a teaspoon.)
4-6 teaspoons chopped fresh cilantro.

I also added the following garnishes:
Lime wedges, diced tomatoes, diced avocado, diced green onion, sour cream, and fresh chunky salsa.

To make the Chile Verde, Place the pork in a large pan with the onion, bay leaves and garlic bulb, and 1 or 2 teaspoons salt (the salt will flavor the meat as it cooks, and most will be dumped with the water or reserved for soup later in the week like we don't throw out the water if you want soup.) Add water to cover the meat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a very low simmer and simmer gently for 1 and 1/2 hours. (I read this part and said, I want to eat way sooner than I just put all those ingredients into my pressure cooker and cooked on high pressure for 20 gave the exact same slow simmer effect in less than 1/3 the time. If you don't have a pressure cooker yet...I'm a huge advocate of them...go get one, then use it on everything that takes too much time to cook.)

Meanwhile, put the chopped garlic into a blender with the tomatillos and the green chilies, and peppers. Process to a puree. (I read this part and wondered why they had me simmer and chop the tomatillos prior to blending them into next time I will skip that step and just blend them without cooking, because you are going to cook it all together in the next step anyway.)

Heat the oil in a pan, add the tomatillo mixture and cook over a medium-high heat for about 10 minutes or until thickened. Add the cumin, and chili powder. It says to add stock cube here with a cup of water...but I just waited until my meat was done and added 1 cup of the stock that the meat produced. Hello! Wouldn't you want to do that anyway instead of using a bouillon cube?

When the meat is tender, remove from the pan and add to the sauce. Simmer gently to combine the flavors, then add enough salt until it tastes right...about 1/2 teaspoon, maybe more. Simmer for about 10 minutes.

Assemble the tortillas with a layer of the pinto beans, Chile Verde, squeeze of lime, cilantro, tomatoes, salsa, avocado, sour cream, green onion, and a sprinkle of chili powder just to make it pretty.)

Eat and enjoy.

To make soup a few days later...use any leftover beans and the water they cooked in, the water the meat cooked in (it has great flavor with the onion and garlic)...any leftover chili Verde, add more water depending upon how many leftover you have. Add 1/2 cup to 1 cup Masa Harina to the soup broth to make a nice tortilla soup base...add salt to taste. Simmer over low heat. Garnish with broken tortilla chips, tomato, avocado, cilantro, green onion, salsa, and a lime wedge. It tastes similar to Cafe Rio's soup if you have ever eaten there, but it is thicker and has a more tortilla like flavor from the Masa Harina.

Recipe for Pavlova:
4 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 and 1/4 cup sugar
dash of salt

Beat egg white until soft peaks form. Add sugar one tablespoon at a time until firm peaks form and sugar is almost all dissolved...about 7 minutes.

Spoon meringue onto baking paper in a circle building up the sides or use a pastry bag to pipe out meringue in a fancy shaped circle.

Heat oven to 300. Bake for 45 minutes, turn oven off and let dry in oven with door closed for 1 to 2 hours.

Pull out of oven, let cool partially, then pull off baking paper, and let dry overnight on cooling rack.

Fill with whipped cream, fresh strawberries, kiwi, pineapple, raspberries and any other fruit that sounds good.

Garnish with shavings of white chocolate if desired.


  1. i am in awe of your inspirations for meal time foods and the involvement of your kids with the planning, choices and help! Hurrah to you! Thanks for sharing your family's experiences and have a great summer enjoying all the new recipe choices your family chooses and participates in the preparation as well. loved the story and hope you get some pictures taken this summer as well. Aloha and Mahalo for sharing!!

  2. That was a good read! Lately I've tried having my 6 year old help cook dinner more often. She really enjoys helping. Lasagna is her favorite thing to help with!


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