Monday, October 29, 2007


Sushi is the one thing I never minded if my kids liked it or not. You don't want your maki? That's okay, sweetie, Mommy will take care of it. Naturally, they figured out they were missing out on something delicious, and now they love maki rolls filled with avocado or cucumber.

Since I am already a sushi addict, this is a bit much. I can barely afford to feed my own sushi habit. Now I'm supposed to feed theirs, too? The only option was to start making sushi at home. But since I am not Martha Stewart, I don't have the time or patience to roll up the one thousand makis my whole family would require.

Last year a Japanese mom was a guest teacher in my cooking class, and she taught me how to make hand rolls. They are the deal, and they work perfectly for the Mothership Meals method: a main vehicle (the nori), plus lots of stuff to put on it, and then you just roll it up. It's a perfect family meal, because it is infinitely flexible, and especially because most of the work can be done ahead of time.

If you are on the ball, you will pickle your vegetables (if you are using them) and make (or buy) your sushi vinegar early in the day. You can make extra pickles, too, and keep them in the fridge for small snacks and meals of your own.

(If you are pickle-type of person, as I am, you will find it utterly fascinating that in Japan a traditional breakfast is a bowl of rice and a few pickled vegetables. Every time you read about this your mouth will water, and eventually you will try it and love it. If any of your children are pickly-types of people, they will find this breakfast fascinating as well, and you may find yourself, as I did, sending your three-year-old to preschool with a macro-biotic lunch of brown rice and pickled daikon radish. This is a really cute thing and almost makes up for the following year in which the same child may only want plain salami and pink yogurt, every day, for lunch.)

Another thing: brown rice is great in sushi. The only challenge is making it sticky. I use short-grain brown rice, and soak it for an hour beforehand. Then I cook it in my rice cooker as usual, and toss it with the sushi vinegar. (You can also make the rolls without the rice -- not because you are anti-carb, please, but because you already scarfed down all the rice and still have fillings left, as we did when taking the picture above.)

Remember, you don't have to force your kids to do it your way. If they want to just eat rice and cucumbers, that's their business, just like it's your business if you want to spike your soy sauce with so much wasabi that each bite is an exercise in pain endurance. To each her own. It's the mothership way.

1 cup short-grain brown rice, soaked in water for one hour.
Sushi vinegar: 1/3 cup brown rice vinegar, 3 tbs sugar, 1 tsp salt, heated gently to dissolve, and cooled
Many sheets of nori, cut into halves
1/4 lb smoked salmon, sliced into strips (or seasoned tofu, seared shrimp, grilled chicken, or any other kind of protein)
1 cucumber, peeled and seeded, and cut into 1/4" strips
1 red or yellow pepper, seeded and cut into 1/4" strips
1 avocado, peeled, pitted and cut into 1/4" strips

Optional: Pickled Vegetables
1 carrot, cut into 1/4" strips
1/2 daikon radish, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch strips
1/4 cup brown rice vinegar
2 tsps sugar (preferably less processed, such as palm, turbinado, demarra, etc)
2 tsps sea salt

Soy sauce and wasabi

1. Put rice on to cook.
2. Make pickled vegetables: Mix vinegar, sugar and salt in a small sauce pan until sugar and salt are dissolved. Cut vegetables for quick-pickling. Combine in a bowl with the pickling mixture and let sit in the fridge for 20 minutes or longer. (This can be done ahead of time, or done in larger quantities and kept in the fridge for a week, either in the pickling solution for a more heavily pickled vegetables, or drained; it's purely a matter of pickle preference.)
3. When rice is cooked, turn out into a wide plate. Sprinkle with sushi vinegar and fan to cool, as you turn the rice over to mix in the vinegar.
4. Lay out all the ingredients. Each diner takes a piece of nori in hand. Add a spoonful of rice and smooth out. Make a groove into the rice to make room for the filling. Lay a piece of salmon and a piece of cucumber (or whatever combination strikes your fancy) onto the rice, and roll up into a tube or into a cone shape. Dip into soy sauce and enjoy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bad Beef

Yech, here's one more reason to either not eat industrially-produced beef, or to stick to grass-fed locally raised beef.

Last summer Topps Meat had to recall almost 22 million pounds of beef after more than 40 people got sick from eating e coli hamburgers. Mmm, uninspected meat. Now it turns out the company was only testing its meat 3 times a year, and, according to the NY Times, "untested meat boxes from the freezer were tossed in with the daily grind, as were untested scraps from the plant's steak line."

I know part of the appeal of hamburgers is that they are a huge convenience -- especially if you are just taking the patties out of the freezer and throwing them on the grill -- but, it's pretty disgusting to think about a patty that might contain bits of meat from hundreds of cows, which were raised and slaughtered until filthy conditions. Which is not to say that I don't love burgers. I just want the meat to be well-raised and properly-processed.

If you want to be really safe, it's not that hard to grind the meat yourself, and it's much safer.

Here's what you do: buy a sirloin steak, or London broil, or some other cut that is not that expensive, but from a grass-fed farm. (Yeah, they won't be a buck-a-patty, but that's what sets you and your famous hamburgers apart from everything that is gross about McDonald's.)

Cut the meat into chunks. Put it in the food processor and press pulse. When it's just barely ground, form into patties and cook. Based on everything I have ever read, your chances of getting e coli poisoning and mad cow disease just dropped drastically. And, they will be the best burgers you've ever had. And the safest.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Dinner Stories

In France the average family dinner lasts something like 60 minutes. When I first heard this, I started keeping my eye on the clock. Could we even make it to 30 minutes? Could we be maybe 1/2 of the way toward being like French people?

It's hard, especially when you have young Ann-Margret-in-the-making, standing up in her chair, rocking the house instead of focusing on eating her beans. I don't keep my eye on the clock anymore, but I do always try to make dinner last longer. It's like, this is it. This is our time together. One of the best ways to keep my kids focused on the table is to tell stories, and one of the best kinds of stories to tell at dinnertime are food stories.

This is our parsley story: When my mom was little, her neighbors had a parsley patch. When she was a little girl, she used to sneak through the hedge and sit in the neighbors' parsley patch, nibbling on parsley. Sometimes she sat there for so long and so quietly, rabbits came up to her. Rabbits love parsley! And it makes your breath smell good!

That's it, that's the parsley story. My son loves this story and wants to hear it every time we have parsley on the table, which he likes to nibble raw, like a rabbit. I swear it was the story that made him love parsley.

Food stories are a great way to make the acquaintence of a new food, and just to keep kids at the table for longer. Plus, times have changed. We're the old fogies now, who used to go fishing for food, and get mussells for dinner at the beach, and buy Grape Ne-Hi's for a nickel out of old-fashioned soda machines that had the glass door that opened up and you pulled the soda bottle out of the shelf (we really did, in North Carolina, with my grandfather). Everyone has some kind of obsolete food story by now.

Make dinner last longer! Tell Food Stories!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

That Salad

Years ago Chris and I used to go to this restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, called Seasons. This is right when Williamsburg was just about to become super-hip. People couldn't believe there was something so bourgeois as a bistro in a gritty industrial cesspool like Williamsburg. But, there it was. And we displayed our lack of gritty industrial hipster credentials by loving it.

Even in daylight you couldn't really get good vegetables in Williamsburg then, and if you came home from the city after 6 pm and didn't have dinner planned, you were kind of screwed. There was just nowhere to go. Except Seasons.

So we would go there and get chicken liver toasts and hanger steaks and grilled figs and a bottle of Rhone wine and then stumble home to our enormous run down tenement apartment with its 12-foot ceilings that only cost $800/month (which for many disgusting reasons was a fair price).

The thing we loved at Seasons, the thing we started doing at home, was the arugula salad with lardons and chewy crunchy croutons. Lardons, we learned the first time we went, meant big fat chunks of salty bacon. I forget what part of the salad we make now was from Seasons, and what part we added. Through the years it became one of those "that thing"s. "Let's have that thing with the bacon. The arugula thing. With the lentils."

We added lots of things, and took things away, depending on our mood. Grilled fennel. Feta cheese. Then ricotta salata. Sauteed kale in the dead of winter instead of arugula. Croutons in bacon fat instead of butter. Onions quick-pickled in red wine vinegar and sea salt.

By now we have it down to basics, and we serve it broken down, and the kids love it. Bacon, what are you kidding? Plus my son loves lentils with lemon squeezed on them (and my daughter eats exactly one and then crows proudly about it for the rest of the meal). I make sure to serve a few extra vegetables on the side and everybody comes out extremely happy.


1 bunch arugula, washed and dried
1 cup green lentils, cooked and cooled
3 to 5 slices of thick-cut bacon (or more if you like)
About 1/3 cup of salty white cheese like goat cheese, feta, or ricotta salatta (more if not using bacon)
1/2 yellow onion, sliced paper thin
1/2 loaf of crusty French bread
1 tbs butter
Extra virgin olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Sea salt
Black pepper
Assorted crudite, like carrot, snap peas or cherry tomatoes

1. Soak the onion slices in enough red wine vinegar to cover, with a dash of sea salt, for about 15 minutes. This will mellow them out.

2. Cut the bacon crossways into 1/4-inch-wide strips. Cook in a pan until just crisp; drain on paper towels. Pour the rendered bacon fat into a glass jar and let the solids settle (if there are any).

3. Cut the French bread into 1-inch squares. Throw a knob of butter and a dash of the clarified bacon fat into a pan, and sauté the bread until just beginning to brown. Season with salt and black pepper. Set aside.

4. Toss the arugula thoroughly with a couple dashes of olive oil, followed by a dash of red wine vinegar. Serve with the lentils, the bacon, the goat cheese, and the croutons. Put out the extra vegetables too. Let each diner assemble his or her own dish.

TV Dinners: Good or Bad?

One of my many guilty pleasures is watching TV while I fold laundry. So one night right before dinner I had some laundry to get through and I started flipping around. Of course, the second my kids see the laundry basket they immediately crowd around to see if I will settle on some boring news show, or something that is actually good. (The night I found "King Kong" right at the beginning of the dinosaur stampede gave them eternal hope.)

On this night I came across a semi-reality show that took these unwanted dogs and placed them with dog trainers who specialized in training that particular breed. So the border collie who had been kicked out of three homes cause it was so crazy went to a real sheep farm, and the bloodhound who had dug through a chair to get to the bone it could smell underneath the chair went to a detective who trained bloodhounds. My entire family, ages 4-40, was hooked. We love dogs.

I'm getting to the food part.

We ended up eating dinner around the show, all of us agog and thrilled at watching these dogs get rehabilitated. It was so great.

But was this bad? So much for my family dinner fixation, right? Around the TV?

According to a piece in yesterday's Science Times, we're okay. We're still on track with the family dinner brigade. Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that whether you're watching "The Simpsons' or sitting around a candlelit table, as long as you're eating together, the kids are more likely to eat more vegetables and other good food, and less likely to become drug addicts, cigarette smokers, potheads, surly teenagers or devil worshippers. Okay that's not exactly how they put it, but you get the point.

According to the article, by Tara Parker-Pope, "While many parents worry about what their kids are eating — vegetables versus junk — a voluminous body of research suggests that the best strategy for improving a child’s diet is simply putting food on the table and sitting down together to eat it."

Hey, that's my line.

It's all good to know, and I will keep it in the back of my mind for the day when a new and improved "Man vs Wild" comes back on the air. And we will keep eating together.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Why Won't They Just EAT IT Already??

I always think I have made peace with the fact that children -- and more to the point, MY children -- are picky freaks about food. They are just not going to eat the things I want them to eat, and certainly not WHEN I want them to eat them.

And yet, eight years into this business, I am still completely annoyed and offended to open up a lunchbox in the evening and find -- oh right, that again: most of my son's lunch, looking just as lovingly packed and arranged as it did when I zipped the box shut in the morning.

My four-year-old daughter tends to eat her entire lunch, and yet still shrieks at the injustice of a piece of lettuce on her plate, or a basil leaf on her pizza. I can only imagine the horror.

It's an irritating conundrum, this pickiness thing, made even more irritating by the complete inanity of the kids' aversions. In my house: carrots, guacamole, extra sharp cheddar cheese, toasted whole grain bread: okay. Celery, diced avocados, meunster cheese, untoasted whole grain bread: not okay. Can't they at least make an appearance of logic in their choices?

But at least now it's been confirmed: it's not our fault. According to an article by Kim Severson in the New York Times today, picky eating is about 78% genetically related, and 22% environmental. Phew. The author of this study about picky eaters, led by Dr. Lucy Cooke at University College London, says we're basically genetically coded to become extremely food-avoidant around the time we become mobile. As the doctor puts it, "If we just went running out of the cave as little cave babies and stuck anything in our mouths, that would have been potentially very dangerous."

The solution? The experts in the article suggest:
- Family-style meals
- No separate foods for children
- Preparing foods the parents like, with new foods served next to at least 2 things the child likes
- "If you make a stew, separate components into separate dishes"
- Don't use rewards, bribes, punishments or nags.

Hmm, sounds familiar. My sentiments exactly.