Making do

Sometimes circumstances come together in a way that make a certain dish a necessity. This particular dish was motivated most of all by my flourishing pot of Thai basil. This being the first year I’ve grown Thai basil, I was anxious to try it out. I also want to make the most of it before I move out of the country in two weeks, leaving my pots of herbs behind. The impending move is also motivating The Great Cupboard and Freezer Clean Out of ‘11. In this case, an underused bag of cornmeal screamed out at me.

fresh from my deck

I also gave into the siren call of Monforte Dairy’s “Spadina” cheese at the Waterloo market. Spadina is a soft goat cheese mixed with burnt honey. The goat cheese is slightly sweet, but a plain variety also works for this recipe.

herb-flecked polenta

And, so given these contingencies: flourishing basil, screaming cornmeal, and alluring goat cheese, I concocted a dish suitable for Keira.

These polenta bites work as part of meal, as a snack, or even as an appetizer for dinner guests. You can top them in ways other than what I’ve done. A tomato or onion jam would be nice. You could cut them into fingers and dip them in a thick tomato sauce. You could change up the herbs completely – replace the basil with a smaller amount of rosemary. Think of this recipe as a template for what is in season, what you have on hand, and what is screaming to be used up.

Herbed Polenta Bites

Ingredients

500ml homemade vegetable broth

80g quick-cooking cornmeal/polenta (you can use the traditional kind, but it takes longer to cook)

10g unsalted butter

1/8tsp sea salt

a few grinds of pepper

about 10g basil, minced (I used Thai, but other varieties are fine)

 

80g soft goat cheese

40g plain yogurt

small basil leaves for garnish (I used purple to contrast with the green in the polenta)

Method

Lightly grease a 20cm pan.

In a medium pot, bring the broth to a boil. Slowly whisk in the cornmeal, turn the heat down to a simmer, and use a spoon to constantly stir the mixture. The polenta is cooked when it starts to pull away from the sides of the pot, but is still runny. This will take only a few minutes.

Take the pot off the heat, stir in the butter, salt, pepper, and basil. Pour the mixture into your prepared pan and smooth the top. Once the polenta has cooled a bit, cover it and refrigerate until completely cold (a few hours or overnight).

Once the polenta is cold and solid, cut it into 16 pieces. In a small bowl, mix the goat cheese and yogurt together to make a mixture that can be dolloped, but won’t run off. Adjust the amount of cheese and/or yogurt as necessary.

Arrange the squares of polenta on a platter. Dollop about a teaspoon of the goat/yogurt mixture on top of each square, and then garnish each with a small basil leaf. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 as an appetizer

Posted in basil, dinner, gluten-free, lunch, polenta, Recipes, snacks, yoghurt, yogurt | Leave a comment

Eating the season

The only asparagus I remember from my childhood came from those thin jars that contained only a half dozen spears or so. Those spears probably grew in Peru, where most of North America’s imported asparagus comes from. They would have been shipped to a processing plant, where they were cooked until limp, a putrid shade of green. No wonder I never had any interest in asparagus.

Not until I started eating with the seasons, that is. When I committed to eating only in-season produce, I started keeping a mental calendar of what was available when and for how long.

In Ontario, asparagus season typically starts the first week of May, lasting 6 weeks or so. Every Saturday during that period, I visit the Kitchener market and buy 3 bunches (300-400 grams each) for $6. I live by myself, so that means I consume nearly 3 pounds of asparagus every week. I can eat it at every meal and I never tire of it. It is the truest harbinger of the new growing season, but I also happen to love its flavour.

Usually, I refuse to do anything more than lightly steam it. But I’ve grown interested in new preparations that lend themselves to having dinner guests. I don’t expect a lot of enthusiasm in response to invitations to eat nothing but steamed vegetables in my company. So, I started with sauces. First, walnut crema, then sauce gribiche. Neither of those is appropriate for Keira, who is meant to avoid nuts and uncooked eggs until she’s older.

So, I delved into the world of risotto, which I tend to think of as The Opposite of Minimal Preparation, but in reality just involves some stirring. My major challenge in developing a risotto for Keira is that babies are not supposed to have much sodium. I addressed this by making my own broth to control the amount of added salt, and adding fresh mint to brighten the final dish.

Asparagus Risotto (adapted from Amanda Hesser’s The Cook and the Gardener)

For the broth

Whenever I cook a bunch of asparagus, I put the woody ends in a bag in the freezer. I then use them to make the broth, but you could use other vegetables, such as pea pods or carrot peelings. Try to use only one or two different vegetables so you don’t end up with a weird-tasting broth.

About 250g asparagus ends

1 small onion, peeled and cut in half

About 6 woody thyme or parsley stalks

¼ tsp sea salt

Place all of the ingredients in a pot, add 1.5 litres of water, and cover. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Simmer, with the cover on, for about 25 minutes. Pour through a sieve and compost the spent vegetables. Keep the broth warm or room temperature while making the risotto.

For the risotto

Ingredients

1 batch of broth (see above)

30g unsalted butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

200g Arborio rice

About 350g bunch of asparagus (a little less or more is fine)

40g parmesan, finely grated

2-3 tablespoons of fresh mint, finely chopped (plus more, to serve)

Method

Prepare the asparagus by cutting off the woody stems (keep these in the freezer to make more stock in the future). Slice the stalks into 5mm thick circles. Set aside.

In a medium pot, melt 15g of the butter with the olive oil. Add the onion and cook at medium-low until soft, but not brown. Add the rice, and stir until the tips of the grains start to appear translucent (2-3 minutes).

Add about 100mL of broth. Stir until the broth is almost entirely absorbed. Keep adding broth in this manner, stirring constantly and keeping the rice at a steady simmer. Allow the rice to absorb each addition before adding more broth.

After about 5 minutes, add the asparagus.

The whole process should take 20-25 minutes. Taste the rice at about 20 minutes. It’s done when it’s tender, but not mushy. You will probably use about a litre of the broth.

When the rice is done, take it off the heat, cover, and let it rest 1 minute.

Now add the remaining 15g of butter, the parmesan, and the mint. The risotto will likely be quite thick, making it ideal for babies to grab. Remove the baby’s portion.

Now, if you adhere to the gospel of Jamie Oliver (and I do), then you should probably add more broth to make the risotto somewhat loose, rather than gloppy. Now that you’ve removed the baby’s portion, you may also want to add a bit more salt to taste.

Serve the adults’ portions with a garnish of small mint leaves and freshly ground pepper.

Serves 4-6 adults.

 

Posted in asparagus, cheese, dinner, gluten-free, lunch, Recipes, rice | 1 Comment

Carrots any time

Carrots are frequently the topic of conversation that travels on the telephone wire from my apartment in Ontario to Keira’s nanny in Nova Scotia. She often expresses surprise that I buy carrots at the market most weekends – be it January or June. “Are they local?” Yes, always local. At our grocery store in Nova Scotia, local carrots disappear by mid-winter, even though I assure Keira’s nanny that farmers in the province are storing them in root cellars.

I'm a sucker for the way carrots look when freshly pulled

Big business doesn’t want to deal with hard-working, local farmers. It’s easier for the Loblaws corporation to deal with large distributors, so they import carrots from the southern US. (Their advertisements about “grown to close to home” are rubbish.) I understand that the only way to obtain avocadoes and citrus fruits any time of the year in Canada is to ship them thousands of miles. Our climate is too harsh to sustain those fruits. But carrots?! One of the few vegetables that is actually improved by a cold snap, and we’re importing them from places that rarely ever see snow? Never mind the difference in taste between a carrot freshly pulled from the soil and one that has spent weeks in a plastic bag, making the long trek on an exhaust-spewing truck. Never mind the importance of the supporting local farmers.

These carrot muffins have a dense, moist crumb

So, after some gentle nudging, Keira’s nanny started visiting Halifax’s new Seaport farmers’ market. There, she discovered the rainbow bags of local carrots from Noggins farm. It’s not difficult to store last season’s carrots to sell until the spring crop is ready.  The lack of those carrots in the grocery store is attributable only to the fact that large corporations are unwilling to partner with smaller producers. No wonder I get cranky any time I’m forced to buy from a grocery store instead of a farmers’ market.

The upside is that Keira’s nanny and grampy became so addicted to those sweet carrots that they make the effort to visit the market every week or two to stock up. As for those American impostors? I didn’t see a single one upon my last visit home.

Homely, healthy

Now that I have that rant out of my system, I’ll tell you about the genesis of these muffins. Kim said she wanted a healthy snack she could freeze and then have at the ready when she goes out with Keira. Baked goods don’t have much redeeming value, but I packed these full of carrots, and replaced all of the sugar with a healthier puree of prunes. These are dense muffins, and much healthier than anything you can buy.

Thick, sweet prune puree means there's no need for added sugar

On-the-go muffins (adapted from Gluten-Free Girl)

Makes about 8 muffins.

Ingredients

100g prunes

175g carrots

175g gluten-free flour mix

1/4tsp baking soda

1/8tsp baking powder

1/2tsp salt

1/2tsp cinnamon

1 large egg

130g yogurt

50g vegetable oil (I use sunflower)

Method

Make the prune puree. It’s best to do this at least an hour before you’re ready to make the muffins. You could even do it a day or so ahead of time.

Put the prunes and about 100mL of water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Don’t use a large saucepan because the prunes might scorch if not covered by enough water.

Let simmer gently for about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the prunes cool completely. Once cool, you can puree them with the remaining liquid in a food processor. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350F/177C. Grease a muffin tin.

Scrub your carrots, and top and tail them. Grate them either with a box grater or in a food processor.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon.

In another bowl, whisk together the prune puree, egg, yogurt, and vegetable oil. Add this to the dry ingredients and combine thoroughly. Fold in the grated carrots.

Fill the muffin cups to nearly full. Bake them until a tester comes out mostly clean. This took only 18 minutes in my oven, but may take longer in yours.

Let the pan rest on a cooling rack for about a minute and then gently dislodge the muffins. Allow them to cool completely on the rack before storing them.

Posted in breakfast, carrots, gluten-free, muffin, Recipes, snacks, yoghurt, yogurt | Leave a comment

Ode to runny yolks

When I learned that babies are only supposed to eat eggs that are fully cooked, the gag-inducing hard-boiled eggs of my childhood leapt to mind. Those eggs that were so overdone, their yolks reminded me of a foggy day in Halifax – a glimmer of sun, tinged in grey.

The only other eggs that graced my early years were in egg salad, spread on white bread with Cheez Whiz. I still love Keira’s Nanny’s egg salad, though I no longer marry it to plastic cheese.

That was the extent of my egg eating. People, I didn’t eat runny yolks! I didn’t even know about them until my mid-twenties when I started reading more about food. After watching Julie & Julia, I conquered the poached egg. I eat them to the exclusion of almost all other forms of cooked egg. It seems a sin to scramble an egg, forever crushing its runny-yolked potential.

Omelette, accompanied by a salad of greens from my deck

Some day, Keira will try runny yolks, perhaps sopping them up with her Nanny’s crusty sourdough. For now, though, Keira’s eggs must be fully cooked. There are, of course, delightful ways of preparing eggs beyond soft-poaching. My new goal is to master the fluffy omelette, and so I prepared one with new asparagus and aged cheese. I used a local Parmesan-style cheese, but an old cheddar or gouda would be excellent.

A little scrambling in the pan produces fluffy eggs

Asparagus Omelette (adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian)

Serves 2

Ingredients

130g asparagus

20g aged cheese, grated (you can use more, but be wary of sodium levels)

1 tsp vegetable oil

4 large eggs

A few grinds of pepper

Method

Start by trimming and steaming the asparagus. To do so, cut off the woody ends of the asparagus – usually a centimetre or two from the bottom (wherever your knife meets resistance). Save these ends to make an asparagus stock for future use (wink wink).

Cut the asparagus into shapes and lengths appropriate for your baby. I cut mine into 2-centimetre lengths, which I think Keira could manage. Cut off the asparagus tips and be sure to give these an extra wash, as the grit likes to hide in them.

Steam the asparagus stems for about 5 minutes, then add the tips. Continue steaming until the asparagus is somewhat soft. My thin spears took about 8 minutes. Ultimately, you need to decide what is appropriate for your baby.

Take the asparagus off the heat and set aside.

In a bowl, crack the eggs and add the pepper. Whisk just a few times with a fork – it’s best to have strands of white and yolk, rather than a homogeneous mass.

Put the vegetable oil in a large cast iron or non-stick skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the eggs. After a second, use a fork to lightly scramble the eggs. Don’t skip this step – it’s what will make the omelette pillowy and textured.

Turn down the heat to medium-low, and allow the eggs to cook. As the eggs set, sprinkle the cheese over the top. Lay the asparagus over one half. When the eggs are almost completely set, use a spatula to fold the non-asparagus side over the asparagus. Turn off the heat, and let the eggs finish cooking.

Before serving, make sure the eggs are entirely cooked and cooled a bit (if serving to a baby).

Posted in asparagus, breakfast, cheese, dinner, eggs, gluten-free, iron, lunch, Recipes | 1 Comment

Family Food

When I first started to think about feeding Keira (feeding her something other than milk, that is), I had this lovely picture in my mind of what mealtimes would look like. I imagined Jeff, Keira and I hanging out in the kitchen with the garden doors swung wide open to let the fresh air in; me dorkily singing along to some good tunes on the stereo as Jeff and I chopped and prepped (I can rarely resist singing along to good music); and over time, Keira developing a greater and greater interest in food, cooking, and health.  I probably shouldn’t admit this, but when I really let my mind wander I sometimes even pictured her as a 12 year old foodie entering a Junior Masterchef competition (sorry Keira, no pressure!).

Like her dad, Keira likes to suck on the lemon rind after we squeeze the juice into whatever we're cooking. She definitely doesn't get that from me!

A major part of this mealtime vision (aside from developing our budding chef) was that we would prepare a single meal that both little Keira and we could enjoy, rather than always preparing separate ‘baby’ meals and ‘grown up’ meals.  There are many reasons I wanted to start a family meal tradition with Keira from the very beginning:

  • Making baby-friendly meals means cooking with no added salt, sugar or other junk, and using fresh, local ingredients whenever possible – which we can all benefit from
  • Sitting down to eat together is much easier when all of the food is ready at the same time
  • It’s always less work to make one meal than to make two

One other benefit that I appear to have grossly underestimated when we started our journey of feeding Keira, was that there would come a time when she was more interested in eating what was on our plates than what was on her own.  This is a stage we recently entered, and when she’s in the mood she’ll even refuse to eat off her own spoon but will gladly eat off my ‘grown up’ one.  This is one thing if the food on each plate is exactly the same, but it would be a whole different thing if mom and dad’s plates were full of fried, processed, salty, or otherwise bad-for-baby food!

Apple pancakes are a regular weekend breakfast for our family

One of our absolute favourite family meals these days is Jillian’s apple pancakes.  As Canadians, we have been making pancakes for about as long as we have been cooking, although usually just as a vessel for a good lug of maple syrup.  But no word of a lie, these apple pancakes are the best I have ever made.  And they don’t even need a drop of syrup.  Fresh out of the pan, without a lick of butter or syrup, is how Keira and I enjoy them nearly every weekend.  Jeff, on the other hand, still sneaks a bit of that maple goodness on the plate when Miss Keen Eyes isn’t looking.

Is there something on my face?

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Finding time for food

I submitted my dissertation  a couple of weeks ago. I still have to defend it – in June, I will spend 2 hours being grilled about my theory and data. But finishing this version of the dissertation is a huge step… which I celebrated by going back to my office and tackling the next project on my to-do list.

I have spent years on this research project, conducting many studies, many of which were unsuccessful. At the time, though, it didn’t feel like much of an accomplishment to submit my dissertation. The truth is that it’s quite short – only 60 pages. I don’t have tales of late nights, caffeine-fuelled writing sessions, or even a clean bathroom. Keira’s nanny assured me I would procrastinate by cleaning. If only!

Despite the anti-climactic finish, I am excited to get back to my food-related hobbies. When we were home together in April, Kim and I bounced around ideas about the food we can make for the blog. And I continue to borrow far too many food-related books from the library. (I recently spent a week engrossed in Tender: Volume 1, followed by Toast). I soon have to start preparing for my dissertation defence, but as spring produce starts to arrive, I’ll have trouble tearing myself away from the kitchen.

A happy lunch of hummus and carrots

The hummus recipe I’m sharing today really didn’t need to wait until my dissertation was done. It took about 5 minutes from start to finish. It’s also an easy way to get some protein into Keira (and me!). I imagine Keira could enjoy the hummus on pre-loaded, steamed carrot sticks, or even just a spoon.

I’ve kept the hummus on the thick side so that it will adhere to carrots for Keira. If you like thinner hummus, add a bit more water (but not too much). I also provide some suggestions for flavour variations. If you choose to use any of them, just throw them in the food processor with everything else.

As fussy as I get with presentation - a bit of flare in the form of parsley

Lemony Hummus

Ingredients

Approximately 350g chickpeas (equivalent to one 540mL can)

50g tahini

1/2 a lemon (juice and zest)

1 clove garlic

Approximately 75mL water (or cooking liquid from home-cooked chickpeas)

1/8 tsp salt

Flavour variations

Ground cumin (about 1/2 tsp)

Roasted head of garlic, instead of the raw clove

Big handful of fresh, flat-leaf parsley

One dried chilli

Method

If using a can of chickpeas, drain and rinse them. If using home-cooked chickpeas, drain but reserve the cooking liquid. Don’t use the liquid from the can of chickpeas, as it tends to be high in sodium.

To a food processor, add the chickpeas, tahini, lemon zest and juice, garlic, water (or cooking liquid), and salt. Whiz until smooth (you may need to stop and scrape down the sides). If the hummus seems too thick, add a little water – about a tablespoon at a time – until you’re happy.

Keep in a covered jar in the fridge.

Posted in chickpeas, diy, gluten-free, lunch, protein, Recipes | 1 Comment

Baby-Led Weaning and Nutritionism

I had the pleasure of traveling home to Nova Scotia for a week this month. Kim and Keira also flew in from London. So there we were – three generations under that roof that sheltered us from the inevitable rain of springtime in Nova Scotia. Quite apart from the excitement of being en famille, I was happy to watch Keira eat. And eat and eat.

Keira, puckering up her blueberry-coated lips

Her arms and legs would flail as soon as she was strapped into her nearly full-body bib. A smile burst forth as food was proffered from Kim’s plate to her high chair table. She ate apple pancakes, blueberries, porridge, an omelette, avocado, steamed broccoli, plain tofu from Acadiana Soy Products, banana, sweet potato mash, steamed salmon, and aged cheddar cheese. She was less enthusiastic about plain yogurt and a lentil stew, but ate them nonetheless. Her legs kicked most vigorously when she saw dessert coming – lightly cooked pear or apple.

Green pancakes, before I converted them for Keira

I would venture that Keira’s diet is more varied than the average adult in North America. And yet, our family had many conversations about what Keira was eating. Kim expressed worries about whether Keira is eating the right things in the right quantities. It’s not easy to know how much babies should be eating. Kim has consulted guidelines and is careful to make sure that Keira gets enough iron, for example.

Feeding Keira jars of baby food might make things seem simpler. Parents might find comfort in ensuring their baby eats a whole jar of mashed (insert fruit or vegetable), but I’m not sure that’s the right approach.

About to take her first bite of the green pancake

It all smacks a bit of nutritionism – the idea that foods are simply the sum of their nutrients. Michael Pollan discusses this concept at length in his illuminating In Defense of Food. According to Pollan, because of food lobby groups (like the cattle farmers who sued Oprah), the government is forced to give dietary guidelines that reduce foods to their component parts. They can’t single out particular foods as healthy or unhealthy. But the trouble is that most of the food science is done with the whole foods. That means that researchers don’t really know if broccoli is good for you because of a specific vitamin it contains, or because of something else about its broccoli nature. And these discussions of individual nutrients reduce our relationship with food to a scientific exercise. We may as well be taking all of our meals in pill form.

Don’t get me wrong – it is important to ensure that babies get enough fruits, vegetables, protein, etc. But look at that list of the type of food that Keira ate in one week. She was presented with a great variety of foods with a huge diversity of nutrients. She ate some of each, and she drank a couple of bottles each day. I am a social scientist with no training in nutrition, but it seems to me that there is little reason to think that Keira is undernourished.

Nothing like cooking pancakes in front of a roaring fire

That said, I know that Kim is particularly concerned about Keira’s intake of iron. So, one morning, I whipped up some spinach pancakes adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. I have been steadily cooking my way through this beautiful book, so I relished the opportunity to convert one of the recipes for Keira. To add more protein, I used a bit of quinoa flour in my gluten-free flour mix. I’ve also included the recipe for Yotam’s lime butter, which really guilds the lily of these pancakes but is not intended for babies.

Green pancakes with lime butter (adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi)

Makes about 10 medium-sized pancakes

For the pancakes

Ingredients

250g spinach or swiss chard

110g gluten-free flour mix

1 tbsp baking powder

1 large egg, separated

30g butter, melted (or oil)

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 tsp cumin

150ml plain yogurt

1 small onion, finely diced

Method

If your spinach has tough stalks, pinch them off and dump them in the compost. If using swiss chard, I recommend reserving the stalks for another use, like a stir-fry. You may need to wash the leaves in a few changes of water to make sure all of the dirt is gone.

Wilt the spinach by putting it in a large pan over low heat. Drain the spinach, and when cool squeeze as much liquid out as possible. Roughly chop and set aside.

To make the pancake batter: whisk the flour, baking powder, egg yolk, butter, salt, cumin, milk in large bowl. Add onion and spinach, and mix. In a separate bowl, whisk or beat the egg white to soft peaks and gently fold into batter with a spatula.

When your skillet or griddle is greased and hot, drop the batter by approximately 1/4 cupfuls.

Spread the batter a bit when it first hits the pan. Cook the pancakes about 3 minutes on the first side (till slightly brown on the bottom) and then flip, cooking for 3 minutes more.

I find these pancakes pretty killer on their own, but adults might enjoy the extra decadence of the lime butter:

For the lime butter

Ingredients

100g unsalted butter

Zest of one lime

Approximately half the juice of one lime

1 small clove of garlic, crushed

1/4 tsp red chilli flakes

1/4 tsp salt

Method

Allow the butter to come to room temperature. Dump everything in a food processor and whiz until well incorporated. Store in a clean jar in the fridge. The butter can be used on pancakes, but other applications are welcome – think baked sweet potato, fish, etc.

Posted in breakfast, dinner, food writer, gluten-free, iron, Keira, lunch, pancakes, protein, Recipes, spinach | 2 Comments

Oat and About

I’m always a little surprised when people abroad identify me as Canadian in mid conversation. It happens with taxi drivers, store clerks, service reps, and colleagues. It happens in person, and over the phone.

“Is my accent really that strong?” I always ask.
“Well, you pronounced out as oat, instead of owt.”

Aha. I often forget that we Canadians go oatside instead of owtside, and walk aboat instead of walking abowt. So why is it that we Canadians are so focused on our “oats”? Perhaps because we’re proud of being one of the leading oat producing countries in the world, so we secretly slip it into conversation as a subtle reminder to those less productive in the oat department…

While Keira can’t quite say the word yet, she certainly enjoys her oats as a meal. She has graduated from baby oatmeal in the mornings and is now regularly enjoying full-fledged, grown-up oatmeal. Her first taste of this fine breakfast cereal was in the form of Jillian’s Porridge you can cut with a knife.


When it came out of the oven it looked so pretty that I was hesitant to actually cut it with a knife, but when Keira gets hungry and starts wiggling her little arms around in demand of food, I know there is no time to hesitate. I cut her a wedge and let her explore it. She picked it up and examined it, sampled it, and then got to work on eating it. When she was full, she also had lots of fun squishing it between her fingers and grinding it into the highchair tray.

Keira takes a bite of her oatmeal wedge

For the adults, the porridge slices were great with a little jam spread on them, and I suspect they would be tasty with a little bit of nut butter too!

When I made the porridge I didn’t have any dried fruit in the house that didn’t have added sugar, so I added some banana chunks instead. This worked ok, but next time I think I’ll try to use something that will add a little more flavour.

From this fine start, Keira has gone on to enjoy a good old-fashioned bowl of oatmeal on many a morning. I mix in a little bit of her normal milk, and sometimes mash in some banana, stewed apple, or other soft fruit. Pre-load a spoon with some of this delicious concoction, and she’s happy as a bug in a rug.

I think she enjoyed it...

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Baby-Led Weaning and (Self-)Control

I’ve had a rough month or so. Without over-sharing, let me say that a few health snafus have seriously cut into my ability to test food for Keira. Actually, in a twist of fate, I found myself subsisting on heavily cooked carrots and parsnips, which I then pureed into classic baby food-like gruel. Not that I don’t love carrots and parsnips, but that is not how they are meant to be eaten. That experience did re-affirm my belief that baby-led weaning is really the way to go. If we don’t want to eat what the babies are eating, how can we expect them to enjoy it?

I’m back to eating some better food, including Kim Boyce’s steel-cut oatmeal, which I also parlayed into some pancakes. But you already know how to make baby-friendly pancakes.

I hope to test some new recipes soon, but let me tell you what I’ve been doing with my time. Primarily, writing my dissertation. But I’ve also been catching up on required foodie reading in the form of MFK Fisher. I lugged home a copy of The Art of Eating from the library so that I could read some of the first modern food writing.

To my surprise, MFK Fisher espoused some beliefs about eating that jibe well with BLW principles. In How to Cook a Wolf, she laments the way Americans thoughtlessly eat whatever is placed in front of them. She wants children to think about what they eat and to make choices about their food. She goes on to make bold claims that choosing one’s food has much broader implications:

“The ability to choose what food you must eat, and knowingly, will make you able to choose other less transitory things with courage and finesse. A child should be encouraged, not discouraged as so many are, to look at what he eats, and think about it: the juxtapositions of color and flavour and texture… and indirectly the reasons why he is eating it and the results it will have on him, if he is an introspective widgin.”

As a social scientist, I am wary of such claims (nevermind that I don’t know what a widgin is!). But social psychological data actually suggests MFK Fisher may be right. Specifically, a body of research indicates that the more people do exercise control, the more they can. Self-control is like a muscle. It has also been associated with myriad life outcomes, like educational attainment (if you’d like a good summary of self-control research, check out this recent article by Dan Ariely).

Notice that I am making a bit of a leap from having simple control over what one eats, to actively regulating one’s food choices. Most of the psychological research pertains to self-control: the ability to regulate behaviour, like working hard in school or resisting donuts.

My conjecture, though, is that if children learn to choose healthy foods and reject unhealthy ones, this may not only improve their eating habits, but they develop a much more general ability to regulate their behaviour. I should emphasise that this is purely speculation. No research that I have read has investigated the effect of using a BLW approach on children’s self-control. But this may be a worthy research question as the use of BLW increases in popularity.

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The Iron Baby

Strong willed she is, especially when it comes to resisting a nose wipe, preventing a toy from being pried from her grip, or chasing after the tiniest piece of dirt on the floor.

But Keira is an Iron Baby in the dietary sense as well these days, and not a moment too soon.  According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), iron deficiency is a concern even in healthy, term infants, as their fetal iron stores only last up to 4-6 months of age (for more information, see the AAP article on Diagnosis and Prevention of Iron Deficiency and Iron-Deficiency Anemia in Infants and Young Children).

There are a number of iron fortified, commercial baby foods on the market (particularly in North America, somewhat less so in the UK).  However, there are also plenty of ways to enrich your baby’s diet using good old-fashioned home cooking.

Keira enjoying her latest iron fix

Lean red meat is a great, natural source of iron, and it is even better when combined with leafy greens or foods rich in vitamin c.  Making sure Keira’s diet is full of that pesky iron is why I, a former vegetarian, tried and adapted Annabel Karmel’s recipe for Beef Casserole.  To my surprise, this is one of the few meals we have made for Keira that she actually gets excited about, pumping her little fists in quick succession after the first bite as if to say ‘more, more!’

Despite its appearance in a baby food cookbook, I wouldn’t in any way consider this a ‘baby food’ recipe – it is a meal that the whole family can, and our whole family does, enjoy.   It’s great for BLW too, as after 2.5 hrs of cooking, the meat is tender enough for baby to gum and the veggies still hold together against that developing pincer grip.

Little hands take on the stewed meat and vegetables

If you’re doing a combination feeding approach (i.e., some finger foods and some purees or mashes), just dish up a few tender pieces of the meat and veggies directly onto baby’s tray so she can practice feeding herself.  Then roughly mash (or puree, depending on your preference) the remainder of the serving so you can feed it from the spoon.

Beef Stew
(Adapted from Annabel Karmel)

Ingredients
1 ½ tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled, crushed, and chopped
1 ½ tbsp flour (I use gluten-free flour, but plain flour would work just fine)
1 tsp paprika
300g (11oz) lean stewing steak
350ml unsalted chicken stock or water
200g (7 oz) carrots, peeled and chopped
300g (11 oz) sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 stick of celery, trimmed and chopped
sprig of parsley, roughly chopped
sprig of thyme
110g (4oz) button mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

Method
Preheat your oven to 150 C/300 F.

In a medium bowl, mix the flour and paprika together.  Add the meat and toss until fully coated.  Set aside.

Heat the oil in an oven-safe pot or casserole dish, and sauté the onion and garlic for about 3 minutes.  Add the flavoured meat to the pan and sauté until it is brown on all sides.

Pour in the stock or water and stir for a minute.  Add all of the vegetables, the parsley, and the leaves from the thyme sprig, and stir.

Cover the pot and transfer to the pre-heated oven for 2 hours.  Add the mushrooms, and continue to cook for another 30-60 minutes, or until the meat and vegetables reach the desired level of tenderness.

It is really handy to freeze a few portions of this meal so you can pull them out if you’re ever in a rush for a meal (not that any of us are ever in a rush, right?), or if you want to make a separate, non-baby-friendly meal for the adults one night and still need something to nourish the munchkin.

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