Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pesto Chicken Melts

When I first set out to teach my kids to cook, I immediately ruled out spaghetti and meatballs as one of the meals they would master.  Why would I rule out a super simple meal that is loved by children throughout the country?  It just seemed like a cop-out.  Besides, as one of the very few 15 minute meals I have in my repertoire, it has been over done at my house.  I still love the other kid-friendly meals in my mental recipe box, like tacos, macaroni and cheese, sausages and potatoes, and hamburgers and fries, but lately, spaghetti has been putting me in a dieting mood.  This growing distaste of spaghetti combined with my evaluation from last week caused me to take a slightly different tack when I went to ask Abby what she would like for dinner on Saturday.  Instead of asking her what she wanted to eat, I gave her one of my cooking magazines and told her to find something she would like to try to make.  Her eyes took on an unexpected sparkle and she opened up into a huge smile.  She didn't even sit down.  She opened up the magazine to the first page and said, "I want to make this!"  I was skeptical at first, wondering if this was laziness in disguise, but when I saw the picture I had to admit it did look really good.  It was settled, we would make Pesto Chicken Melts for dinner on Saturday.

By some great stroke of luck, she picked something that was going to be really easy to make.  The recipe came out of a Cuisine at Home magazine and they were basically open-faced sandwiches.  Shred some cooked chicken and mix it with sun-dried tomato pesto and slivered red onion.  Then, halve a ciabatta or kaiser roll, spread a little mayonnaise on it, layer a couple slices of tomato and bacon, top with the chicken mixture and broil for a few minutes until heated through.  Add a sprinkling of shredded swiss or gruyere cheese, broil again until melted, and serve.  Yummy!  Circumstances led us to make a few minor changes.  For one thing, the thought of heated mayonnaise sends shivers up and down my spine.  It just seems yucky.  Also, the only tomatoes we had were grape tomatoes.  I didn't want to deal with a whole bunch of grape sized tomato slices, so I just chopped them up and added them to the chicken.  Lastly, my kids prefer the mild taste of cheddar over gruyere.  For any cheese lover worth their salt, substituting cheddar cheese for gruyere seems wrong on many levels.  I can only apologize and hope that their tastes mature with time.

I discovered bread making during my third pregnancy and found what may turn out to be a life-long love affair.  Ciabatta is one of my favorite breads to make, so on Friday I made some ciabatta rolls for Abby's dinner debut.  There was shredded chicken left over from some enchiladas which will make their way into a future post, and since those little kiddie knives don't do well with the delicate layers of an onion, I slivered one for her.   So, when the time came to bring her in to prepare her dinner, there wasn't much left to do.  I took a moment to explain how all of the measuring cups in my drawer are related; pointing out that the lower number of the fraction indicated the number of times that particular cup could dump something into the 1 cup measuring cup.  I'm not sure if the information sunk in, but at least I felt like I was teaching her something mathish.  I then guided her through the directions of the recipe, gave her a 1/4 cup for the pesto, crossed my fingers and stood back and watched.    She very carefully spooned the pesto into the measuring cup and leveled it off and then dumped it into the bowl with the chicken and onion.  Once it was all mixed together, we both decided that another hefty spoonful of pesto was required.

Quite awhile back, I learned from Eric that making bacon in the oven rather than on a griddle or in a pan is easier and less messy.  There is no safe way for a kid to make bacon.  It would be like asking my six year old to man a fryer at a shady diner.  Hot grease splatters and can burn severely.  So, in the spirit of keeping my daughter safe and burn free, I only had her lay out the bacon on the baking sheet and then gave her a little narrative on the rest of the process.  I could tell that, "400 degree oven" and, "pour off the excess rendered fat" pretty much flew right over her head, since she had that look of sleeping with her eyes open when I turned around to see if she was paying attention.  Oh well.  While the bacon was cooking, I pulled out the cheese and grater.  I gave her a quick tutorial on how to properly use a grater, informed her that no one likes finger nails, skin or blood in their cheese, and then handed her a small block of cheddar.  I was so afraid she was going to grate her knuckles I just pretended to do dishes instead of watch.  I shouldn't have worried.  She grated that little block of cheese all the way down to nothing without even a scratch.  Once the bacon was ready, the only thing left to do was assemble the sandwiches and put them under the broiler. 

Ten minutes later, we sat down to dinner with anticipation.  The first bite took my breath away.  I don't know if it was pride or the pesto, but those sandwiches were delicious!  As I was telling my daughter how much I loved them, my heart sank.  I saw her struggling to take her first bite.  It never occured to me that these sandwiches would be hard to eat if you didn't have your two front teeth.  She did manage to eat hers by mostly picking it apart and said that she really liked them.  The real testiment came from her brothers, who silently devoured every last crumb.  I'm thrilled to be able to add another 15 minute meal to my recipe box, but I'll wait for those teeth to come in before making it again.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Time is on my side......Or is it?

March is winding down to a close, and I am far from reaching my goal for the year.  One of life's cruelest ironies is that time seems to move ultra slow when you are waiting for it, and when you're not it moves at lightening speed.  It seems like just yesterday that I took on this challenge and already 3 months have passed with my barely even noticing.  One quarter of my self-alotted time is gone.  What do I have to show for it?  Or better yet, what do my kids have to show for it?  I had to sit down this week and take stock.  I needed to evaluate how far we had come and how much further we had to go.  While I was a bit over-whelmed by the monstrous task still ahead of me, I was able to recognize some definate progress.

Abby has a great deal of patience and peacefulness about her, which makes her a good listener.  Her eagerness to learn makes her easy to work with.  She is still a bit intimidated by the long words and small print of the recipes in some of my books, but she bravely forges on and gains more and more confidence with each success.  I've begun to try and teach her meal planning by asking her, "What should we have for dinner on Saturday?"  I try to make a point of asking her on Tuesday or Wednesday so she can get a sense of planning a few days in advance.  I can tell she is really thinking about it because she doesn't just automatically say "Spaghetti!"  She's also asked for tacos.  She's also beginning to understand that certain meals require certain ingredients.  The last time she asked for tacos, I informed her that we did not have any ground beef.  Looking very confused, she took a moment to process this information and then, with hands on hips, said, "So we can't have tacos?"  Her confusion kind of took me by surprise until I was standing in front of the refrigerator staring at some left over pork roast, trying to figure out what to make for dinner.  It hit me that she was probably confused for a couple of reasons: One, I almost never make tacos with ground beef, and two, Saturday was still four days away.  I'm sure she was wondering why we couldn't just go to the store and get the necessary supplies.  Budgeting is a necessary component to living an independent life, and I do plan on teaching my kids the fine art of money management, but probably not this year.  She had no way of knowing that a trip to the store was not in my budget that week.  My time spent with her so far has produced dozens of precious memories.  Some of the rough edges of our relationship have begun to soften and I am sensing a greater calm and ease between us.  When I think of how far she has come in just 3 short months, I know that teaching her the rest will be a joy, if not a breeze.

Elijah loves helping me in the kitchen.  Anytime I am working with him on skills that require control and a little finesse, I know I am watching a natural athlete in the making.  He is not only extraordinarily active, but also extraordinarily agile.  He's not graceful by any means, but his movements are efficient and purposeful.  It took him only one try before he was able to break an egg apart without getting any shell in the mix, and so far he has a perfect record.  He can beat an egg with a fork without spilling and he can measure out a cup of flour and transfer it to the bowl in relatively swift and easy movements.  As he settles into being four instead of three, some of the spastic parts of his personality are also starting to settle.  Among other things, this means there is less of a chance he will toss a cup of flour across the room in frustration.  I cannot accurately express what a relief this is for me.  I've made the mistake of leaving the flour container out on the kitchen table before, and I can tell you I never want to clean up that kind of a mess again!  Eli and I have been working on making scrambled eggs at least two times a week.  He has mastered getting the eggs out of their shells and into a bowl as well as mixing them up with a little salt, pepper and milk.  I think he must be very fascinated with the way the eggs start to firm up as they cook since he tends to stir them just a little in the pan and then stop and stare for a moment.  He'll continue to nudge the eggs a little with the spatula and then watch for a second, and then another little nudge and so on until I remind him that he's got to keep stirring or they will burn.  So far I've had to eventually swoop in and save breakfast, but I have high hopes for future eggs.  Circumstances have put cake making in our path twice in as many months, and he has been my main helper.  I was impressed by how much of the process he remembered from the heart cake project, and how much more he was able to do independently when making the birthday cupcakes.  I plan to make a few more cakes in the near future to see just how far he can go on his own.  I've always known that the more time I spend with him, the less clingy and whiny he gets, but putting that knowledge into practice is a lot harder than you might think.  He requires a disproportionate amount of attention to the other two and seems to have an insatiable appetite for snuggling and being held.  This cooking challenge has really helped me make the extra time for him which, in turn, has made him easier to be around.  I know working with him over the coming months will be exciting and hopefully not too messy.

On the surface it may seem that I have spent very little time working with Jonah.  While his involvement in our individual projects has been minimal to date, he has been very present in our day to day kitchen activities.  For now, he shares a stool with Eli most of the time and is a constant observer.  You may remember he recently learned to crack an egg.  He hasn't quite mastered the technique, but he's no longer creating little egg explosions all over the counter.  Jonah has a quiet confidence about him that makes him less eager for help and instruction than the others.  He just knows that he can do it, even when I know that he can't.  He's still really young and barely has enough coordination to walk straight let alone beat eggs with a fork.  I had thought to get him a little kid-sized whisk, but instead just gave him a bigger bowl.  It looks a little ridiculous putting two eggs in a huge mixing bowl, but he's able to practice without wasting all of my eggs.  Less mess equals less stress!  Judging from our progress so far, taking the whole year to teach him to make just one dish was a wise choice.  I'm pretty sure he will pick up many more skills this year as he loves to be right in the middle of the action.  Being the third in a group of kids that are fairly close in age has made him pretty adept at making his voice heard and his presence known, and closing in on two has brought forth the more demanding and obstinate parts of his personality.  His little body in the kitchen adds an element of chaos that can be hard to deal with at times, but I am enjoying watching the relationships between him and his siblings grow in love and tolerance instead of  frustration and fighting. 

When I first sat down to evaluate our progression and determine what areas need more attention, I felt completely weighted down by the enormity of what was left to teach.  I thought for sure I had bitten off far more than I could chew.  I have felt this way so many times in my life; trying to add one more task, one more responsibility, one more agenda to a plate that already seemed overly full.  Past experience has taught me over and over again, that my plate is never as full as it seems.  Careful planning and prioritizing clear away spots on that plate that are bigger than I would have expected.  Suddenly, without realizing how, I end up with more time than I had before.  I said in the beginning my kids are the center of my world, and they are even more so now than they were three months ago.  Looking back and taking stock has helped me to see that we have accomplished a lot in a short period of time.  My kids are well on their way to independence in the kitchen, but more importantly, our bonds and unity as a family have strengthened tremendously.  It occured to me while writing this post that my kids are learning so much more than how to cook.  They are learning about communication, patience and teamwork along with many other virtues that are helping them to be well rounded, confident individuals.  Our time in the kitchen doesn't always go they way I expect or plan, but I'm always glad that we spent the time together.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cupcakes and Scrambled Eggs

We had a birthday in the house this week.  My sweet Eli turned 4.  If you know him personally you are now saying the same thing I said, "Halellujah!  It's a miracle!"  And it's true, I can't believe he made it!  If you don't know him personally, he is extraordinarily active, has a penchant for trouble, and like Houdini, cannot be locked in.  Every single one of our doors has a hook and eye lock near the top, and he still gets out without my knowing about twice a week.  Fortunately, we have very understanding neighbors.

Abby's birthday is in the summer, as is mine, so this was my first time dealing with a birthday during the school year.  I always suspected, but can now safely say, that I was cheated out of dozens of double birthdays.  That's right, I just discovered that if your birthday happens to be during the school year, you get a party at school and at home, which means double duty for mom!  My mother always made us whatever cake we wanted for our birthdays, which I loved and wanted to do for my own children as well.  I asked for a Boston Creme Pie nearly every year, and I know that my mom secretly groaned inside every time I made the request.  She doesn't know how easy she had it.  The first time I asked Abby what kind of cake she wanted she answered back, "A dinosaur cake."  Being the slight over-achiever that I am, I went on-line and found instructions for a 3-D dinosaur cake.  I didn't think it would take that long to make, but I had to stay up way past my bedtime decorating that cake.  Eli was an infant at the time, so I was exhausted the next day and probably didn't enjoy her party as much as I could have.  Since then, my kids have actually requested cakes from the store and ice cream cakes.  So, when Eli said he wanted cupcakes for school and a dinosaur cake for his party, I secretly groaned inside wondering how I was going to accomplish it all.

I recently learned that because of nut allergies you should either use Pillsbury mixes or make your baked goods for school parties from scratch.  Since I'm not interested in teaching my kids to cook from a box, we opted for cupcakes made from scratch.  You might remember the heart cake from a few weeks ago.  It was very yummy, but a bit dry.  I needed to try and redeem myself.  Instead of buttermilk cake batter, I decided to go with a yellow cake instead.  This cake used 4 egg yolks, surely that would help combat the dryness!  Jonah has been watching his siblings crack eggs for months and chose this project to let his voice be heard.  He insisted on cracking the eggs.  I know I've said that little kids are surprisingly good at this, and they are, but not the first time.  Jonah is big for his age and a typical kid, which is to say that he tries to do something first and then asks for help later.  Before I had even finished saying, "Yes, you can crack the eggs this time," he had snatched an egg from the carton and "cracked" it into about a thousand pieces of shell and slimy egg mess.  It all happened so fast I could only stand and watch in horror.  Without giving any more graphic details, I am sad to say it took 7 eggs to get 4 egg yolks.  I don't have an egg separator and I only had 10 eggs, so I didn't try to teach either of the boys the delicate art of separating eggs.

Eli helped make the heart cake batter, so much of what we did was a repeat for him.  This repetition is good, especially since there wasn't much time between the two projects.  He remembered a lot, and so required a little less supervision and instruction.  For instance, he remembered that we needed to beat the butter until it was light and fluffy.  Without my telling him, he slowly increased the speed of the mixer and reported to me about every 10 seconds, "It's getting bigger mom!  It's getting even bigger mom!  It's really big now mom!"  And then came the inevitable question, "Can I taste it?"  My heartbeat still creeps up a bit when I think of him sticking his finger in the bowl with the paddle still furiously rotating.  Everybody has a different reaction when they see their kids about to do something that could really injur them.  Mine is to lunge toward them while bellowing "NOOOOOOOO!!!!" at the top of my lungs.  This has happened to Eli so much it doesn't even phase him anymore.  It's not so much that I've over used it, as that he regularly does stuff that warrents such a reaction.

Believe it or not, these cooking sessions are a learning opportunity for me too.  For the most part I'm learning to relax a bit and let my kids explore and discover their own abilities in the kitchen instead of being so controlling.  It is very difficult for me to let my kids try to do things I'm not entirely sure they are capable of doing.  So every time Eli asks me if he can dump the cup of sugar in the bowl, I can feel my whole body tense up as I envision an entire cup of sugar being dumped all over the counter and floor.  I literally have to force myself to breathe, keep my eyes open and say with a smile, "Of course, go ahead!"  We all know that part of learning is making mistakes, but it's almost physically painful for me to let my kids make a mistake that is as messy as sugar all over the place.  In the end I could only relenquish a little control.  I let him dump the sugar, but I stood right next to him with my hand up against the bowl blocking any possible spills.  Of course this made him angry, but he quickly got over it when I reminded him that we needed to start the mixer to mix the sugar and butter together.  I let him report to me again while I got the flour and milk ready.  We had another round of "Can I taste it?" and "NOOOOO!!!" before we could move on to alternating adding the flour and milk.  Once the batter was finally mixed and ready to be made into cupcakes Eli finally got his taste.  I remember watching with dismay as my mother would practically clean all of the batter off the spoon and the beaters before she handed them to my brother and I.  It seemed like such a tease to only allow enough for one little taste, so I'm always sure to not be too thorough when scraping the spatula and mixing paddle.  Besides, it keeps him and his brother occupied long enough for me to get the batter spooned into those little paper cups.  I feel like I should be trying to teach them to do this too, but I'm just not yet ready to relenquish that much control.

Ninety percent of my days are hectic and over-scheduled.  More often than not, I feel like I am about two steps behind.  I was able to get the first batch of cupcakes in the oven, but then I had to leave the rest for my mom to finish.  I finally returned home that evening to 24 cupcakes waiting to be frosted and no frosting.  There was no time to make a frosting from scratch, so I asked Eric to get some on his way home from work.  Everytime I ask him to stop at the store for me, he never sighs or does an eye-roll that I can hear in his voice or feel through the phone, he always says, "Sure" and I'm very grateful for that.  I had grand plans of making little bugs on the top of each cupcake from assorted candies, but time ran short so they each got a quick sprinkle of blue sugar instead.  Never the less, Eli was very proud to present these cupcakes to his class the next day, and from what I hear he had a great party at school.

The longer I am a mother, the less I try to be super-mom.  A few years ago I would have not only stayed up into the wee hours of the night making those little candy bugs, but I also would have practically killed myself making a fantastic 3-D dinosaur cake for his birthday party at home.  As luck would have it, we went to Dairy Queen the night after Eli's school party, and the open page of their cake book showed a great looking T-Rex with a volcano in the background.  I figured it was a sign and ordered one right on the spot!  Eli didn't even miss the cake I didn't make.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Pizza Night!

Everybody has their family routines and traditions.  I know of a family that has pizza every Friday, tacos every Saturday and spaghetti every Sunday.  I can see how this kind of menu would be attractive in that it would make meal planning and grocery shopping very easy, but that kind of a schedule is way too regimented for me.  Besides, I would finally recover from the heartburn on Thursday only to have to start all over again!  How do these little family traditions start, and what keeps them going?  I remember a period during my childhood in which my father had started a movie night for my brother and I, complete with Dad's root beer, popcorn, and the latest 007 flick.  I don't know why we started.  Perhaps my mom needed some time to herself or my dad was just looking for something to do with the two of us that didn't involve rough housing.  Regardless of why it started, I loved it and greeted each Saturday with excitement and anticipation.  The time spent with my dad and my brother was exclusive and special and I drank up every moment.  All too quickly, our movie nights ended.  Was it the fighting over the popcorn?  Had we watched all the James Bond movies?  Maybe it was just that summer vacation started and we were too busy outdoors.  I don't know why we stopped, but I've always mourned its passing.

Several small things converged to make the creation of our make-ur-own pizza/movie night possible.  The first of which was the immergence of Redbox.  Once these fabulous ATM style movie dispensers popped up at our Walgreens and grocery store, one of my greatest needs was filled.  That would be the need to not go into a Blockbuster by myself with all 3 kids in tow.  The truth of the matter is, I hate running any errands with my kids.  Most of the time I just grit my teeth, steel my nerves and try to make the best of it, but there are a few places I refuse to visit unless I am alone.  I will not take my kids into a Halmark, craft supply shop, or movie rental place.  Period!  I'm aware that I've left out places like china and crystal shops, but seriously, I have no reason to ever go into those places, with or without children.

About the same time Redbox came out, my kids finally got old enough to sit through a movie.  Prior to this past year, I've had an infant to care for and little kids who were better entertained with activities and crafts.  They are also now old enough to actually participate in make-ur-own pizzas.  I've tried to do them in the past, and it was just too stressful trying to keep them from mixing the cheese with the sauce and sticking pepperoni to the fridge and basically turning my kitchen into one big pizza.  Any family activity needs to be fun for everyone if it is to be repeated, even something as simple as making pizza.

Finally, winter happened.  In the middle of the winter it gets dark about an hour after Abby gets home from school.  During these months of very little sunlight, more patience and creativity is required to keep them occupied and out of trouble.  By the time we get to Friday, the tension is running pretty high; we're all a little frazzled and in need of a break.  So, to break the monotony and take some time to relax and enjoy each others company, we started our own movie night, complete with pizza, chocolate milk, and the latest G rated movie.  It started as something we did occasionally and has grown into a regular Friday night event.  Even though the Redbox selections can't support weekly visits, we have plenty of DVD's to fill in the gaps. 

Now that we have fallen into a routine for Friday, it has become the easiest and most enjoyable day of my week.  I always seem to have my pizza supplies on hand and I have a Wolfgang Puck pizza dough recipe that never lets me down.  As long as I get it started by 2 pm, it will be ready by 5.  It's so simple to make:  you just dissolve 1 packet of yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons) in 1 cup of warm water.  Add 1 teaspoon of honey and 1 tablespoon olive oil.  Once those are all mixed, stir in 3 cups of all purpose flour and then kneed the dough for about 5 minutes until it is smooth and elastic.  Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover.  Let it rise until doubled in size and then turn it out and divide it into 4 equal pieces.  Roll each piece into a tight ball and then cover again until doubled in size.  The recipe is perfect for 4 personal sized pizzas.

Once we get home from picking Abby up from school, the kids have a little time to play while I get everything ready and preheat the oven and my baking stone to 500 degrees F.  I form their dough for them on pieces of parchment paper, lay out the pizza sauce, cheese and pepperoni to let them create their own masterpieces.  I like to believe that the regularity of pizza and movie night has lulled them into being nice to each other.  Whatever the reason, it has become one of the few times they don't argue over who's going first and who's turn it is to use the cheese and whether or not they got the same amount of pepperoni.  They are surprisingly polite and loving towards each other.  For this reason alone I will keep our new tradition alive.

Each of them has their own unique signature pizza.  I find this amazing considering that they all only want pepperoni!  Abby likes to painstakingly spread a thin layer of sauce over the entire circle of dough.  She only likes a little sprinkling of cheese, and then she makes a happy face out of pepperoni.  Eli on the other hand glops spoonfulls of sauce all over his dough and then strategically drops handfuls of cheese.  He then covers every square inch of his pizza with pepperoni while sneaking a few raw pieces to tide him over until it's cooked.  Jonah still requires a lot of help and supervision, but he likes an even layer of sauce and an even layer of cheese and then just a few pieces of pepperoni.  As soon as they are done decorating their dough, I get their movie started and set about cooking their pizzas.  The parchment paper serves two purposes, it cuts down on the mess and makes it easy to get the pizza into the oven without any fancy equipment or wrist-work.  I just slide a cookie sheet under the paper, transport the whole thing to the oven and then slide the pizzas, paper and all, onto the baking stone.  At 500 degrees, they cook in less than 10 minutes.  Once they've cooled, I slice them and bring them to the coffee table for the kids to eat.  It's the only time I allow them to eat outside of the kitchen and they are under strict instructions to stay off the couch and to bring me their plates and crusts when they are done.  They don't follow those instructions yet, but we're working on it.

Kids find comfort in routines, as do many adults.  Knowing what to expect and what will happen next is less exciting, but it provides a feeling of safety and security.  My kids have come to expect our Friday night pizza and movie tradition and just knowing that it's coming keeps them calmer and happier at a time when we could all use a little less stress.  For now I do the lion's share of the cooking.  I have plenty of time to teach them to make pizza from start to finish.  Without any real guidance from me they are learning something far more important.  They are learning to be gracious with each other and I can see lifelong bonds forming between them.  I don't know how they will remember these days once they are grown and have families of their own.  I hope they will realize the value of traditions and routines no matter how great or small.