Sunday, January 30, 2011

Quick and Easy Ways to Serve Carrots

Everyone knows that carrots are super good for you. They are packed with vitamins A and C, so they’re good for your eyes and immune system.  They also have calcium and iron, helping build strong bones and enriching your blood.  They have a wonderful sweet taste yet for some reason I have struggled to get my little girl to eat them. So, in addition to incorporating them into more elaborate recipes, here are a few fast ways I have found to get her to gobble them up.  What I love about these is the first two options are very simple and allow the flavor of the carrot to really sing.  The third option is a little sneaky but sometimes you just have to be a little underhanded when it comes to picky eaters. 

1)      Carrot apple slaw: Finely grate some carrots, then mix in a roughly grated apple (a finely grated apple will be too mushy). For added flavor you can add a tbs or two of orange juice and a handful of raisins.

2)      Quick carrot soup: Peel and dice 2 or 3 carrots (or more for larger amounts of soup), place in microwave safe bowl and add desired amount of low sodium chicken or vegetable stock (the less liquid, the thicker the soup).  Cook in microwave until carrots are soft. Puree with immersion blender, add salt and pepper to taste (and any other seasonings you like). 

3)      Carrot Bolognese (well, not really but you catch my drift, right?): Finely grate some carrots into spaghetti sauce. If you have carrot puree, you can use that too.  An added bonus is the carrots will cut the acidity of the tomato sauce. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Of Fast Food and Mommy Bloggers, the Things That Make us Sane and Drive us Crazy

The February 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine states that 60% of kids eat fast food every day. It is a statistic in the sidebar of an article about a program that teaches kids how to grow and cook fresh, healthy meals.  The article didn’t refer to or explain the statistic so it’s not clear whether it’s the same 60% of kids eating fast food every day of their lives or that on any given day 60% of all kids eat fast food.  The former would be pretty tragic, but the latter isn’t all that good either.  No wonder we have a childhood obesity epidemic in our country.  If you are ever curious about the nutritional “value” of the fast food you eat, check out (it’s a fee-based diet website but you can look up nutritional values of tons of restaurant menu items, processed food items, and fresh foods without joining or paying).  It’s pretty shocking.  

I think we all try to provide the best foods for our families but sometimes it gets challenging, if not overwhelming.  Whether we have one child or several, whether we work or stay at home, as moms we are juggling so many balls that the Martha Stewart from scratch approach to cooking is simply not an option.  Through blogs, magazines, and TV shows we’re bombarded with examples of fabulous moms who cook beautiful healthy meals for their families and are seemingly perfect in all other arenas of life too.  Yes, we wish we could be like these moms; we buy their books and religiously follow their blogs. But I think we all secretly hate them for their perfection and for making us feel, well, not perfect.  A friend of mine recently mentioned she was thinking of “unliking” a mommy food blogger’s facebook page simply because she felt she could not keep up with this superwoman’s constant posts about the fantastic food her kids were eating.  It was a tongue in cheek remark but it was followed by a very interesting discussion about the reality of our hectic lives and the food we actually manage to serve our kids.  Yes, we’d all love to make our own panko breaded fish sticks (after making breadcrumbs from homemade bread, of course) but we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for getting help from the freezer aisle once in a while.  After all, we’re just trying to stay sane!

Getting back to the fast food issue, I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times my two year old has eaten junk food in her life, and it’s just as often as I’ve eaten junk food in the last two years.  I’m not a junk food junkie, but that’s not to say I cook from scratch every day. I’m definitely a devotee of the semi-homemade/30-minute meal/quick fix etc. concepts. And I do on occasion serve chicken nuggets and frozen French fries, but I still try to make sure the products I buy are natural, free of antibiotics and preservatives, and generally have as few ingredients as possible.  What bugs me though is you still can’t escape the sugars, sodium and other additives when you do this, but making soup using frozen veggies and canned or boxed broth is still better than serving up canned soup or, God forbid picking up dinner at the drive through.  So, if we use the fast food statistic as a yardstick, I think I’m doing OK, and so probably are you. As convenient as the store bought prepared foods are, I am slowly cutting them out of rotation and replacing them with healthier homemade alternatives but I probably will never make my own fish sticks!

What about you?  How much help do you get from the store and how do you feel about it?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Spinach Pancakes… Veggies Hidden in Plain Sight!

One of the TV shows I watched as a kid was Popeye, so I needed no convincing to eat spinach. I actually believed the leafy vegetables had special powers.  I guess with all the recent talk about antioxidants, there was some truth to that belief.  Well, my little girl is not so easily fooled and spinach has been a tricky vegetable to get her to accept. When she was around a year old, she loved spinach and cheese omelets but when she became a picky toddler, she stopped eating spinach altogether.  I’ve had some success with mixing spinach into spaghetti sauce and store bought spinach quiche (provided it’s slathered with ketchup). I’ve also had some major flops, most recently with a macaroni and cheese Florentine.  I definitely want to widen the spinach repertoire and find something that the Little Miss can feed herself.  One of my favorite spinach dishes as a kid was spinach pancakes so I decided to give them a go, especially since I had some sour cream left from a recent enchilada dinner. When my two year old saw the pancakes, she said, “Cookie!” I wasn’t about to correct her especially if it meant a difference between her trying the pancakes and not.  Thankfully she liked them and even exclaimed, “Is gooooood!” That’s like getting a Michelin Star! 

This recipe for Spinach Pancakes comes from a book called Natural Cooking the Finnish Way by Ulla Kakonen, published in 1974 by Quadrangle. 

¾ - 1 lb spinach (I used a 10 oz. box of frozen spinach)
1 cup water (for cooking the spinach)
1 egg
1 ¾ cups unbleached white flour
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp sea salt
½ tsp raw sugar (I use regular granulated sugar)
2 tbs melted butter or oil plus additional for frying

·         Wash the spinach leaves, put into a saucepan and cover with water. Cover the pan, bring to a boil, and simmer about 5 minutes, or until the spinach is limp. Drain the spinach and reserve the liquid. Chop Spinach fine. (If using frozen spinach, put it in a microwave safe bowl, cover with damp paper towel and thaw in microwave, about 2 minutes. After 2 minutes, break apart with a fork and add about ½ cup water. Return to microwave for 3-4 more minutes to finish cooking. Drain spinach in a sieve, pressing to extract as much liquid as you can. Reserve 1 cup of the liquid. Puree spinach in a food processor/mini chopper, using some of the reserved spinach cooking water to help puree. I used about ½ a cup.)
·         Beat the egg lightly and add the spinach cooking liquid. (Note: if you are using frozen spinach you will have less liquid to add at this stage because some was used in the puree.)
·         Beat in the flour and sour cream in turns.
·         Add salt, sugar, and melted butter or oil.
·         Stir in spinach. The dough should be nicely green.
·         In a small-ring pancake pan or a crepe pan, fry rather thick pancakes on both sides, until crisp and brown. Keep warm until serving time. (I made smallish “silver dollar” pancakes using a rounded tablespoonful of the batter per pancake. Because it’s a thick batter you need to spread it out a bit after placing it on the pan. I got 26 pancakes out of this batter.)
·         Serve as a main course, with melted butter, and cranberry or lingonberry preserves. (This is a very Finnish thing and the tartness of the cranberries or lingonberries is a nice contrast to the mild flavor of the spinach. Of course you can also serve these as a side dish with a meat or other vegetarian main course. A couple of pancakes also make a great kid’s snack.)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Mac-n-Cheese Cakes

My daughter doesn’t need any trickery to get her to eat macaroni and cheese, but that’s no reason to not make her food a little more interesting and what’s more, her love of the stuff makes it an ideal vehicle for the goodness of hidden veggies.  Plus, the little munchkin is obsessed with cake, so anything that even remotely resembles cake should at least get one bite.  Considering she turns her nose up at most food I offer her without so much as a taste, one bite is a success.  Another bonus is these mac-n-cheese cakes make self feeding much cleaner than just straight up goopy, sticky macaroni and cheese.  For this recipe I used a boxed macaroni and cheese mix, but if you have a favorite from scratch recipe, then by all means use that and use whole grain pasta too.  These mac-n-cheese cakes have hidden lentils and carrots all wrapped up in one cute package. 

  • 1 box macaroni and cheese mix (plus any ingredients needed to make it)
  • ½ cup red lentils
  • 1 cup grated cheese of your choice
  • 2-3 finely grated carrots

  • Cooking spray
  • Bread crumbs

  • Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to instructions. When cooking the pasta, add ½ cup red lentils to the pasta water at the same time as you add the pasta. The small elbow pasta I use takes 7-8 minutes to cook and this is just enough time for the lentils to cook. Time your lentil cooking accordingly depending on your pasta.  Red lentils are a perfect addition to macaroni and cheese as they don’t require any presoaking, cook quickly, and soften and disappear into the cheese mix. 
  • As the pasta and lentils cook, grate carrots using a fine grater. The finer you grate them the more easily the carrots will disappear into the cheese mix.
  • Place the grated carrots into a microwave safe bowl and add ¼ to 1/3 cups of the pasta water, enough to moisten but not so much that the carrots are swimming (1 or 2 ladlefuls). Cover bowl with a damp paper towel and microwave at 1 minute intervals 2 minutes or until soft. Stir the carrots during cooking to avoid drying them out. 
  • When the macaroni and cheese is complete, mix in the softened carrots and 1 cup of shredded cheese.  The carrots will have some liquid in them but this small amount of moisture is OK. 
  • Spoon the mixture into muffin tins, just shy of filling them. Lightly press down the mixture with the back of a spoon to pack it in and make it firm. If you have non-stick muffin tins you can use them as is, if not, spray them with cooking spray and coat with a thin layer of bread crumbs (of course you can do this with non-stick pans too for a little added texture).
  • Bake at 375 for 20 minutes or until lightly browned on top and the cakes are firm to the touch (you don’t want them to fall apart after all that work).  If you use mini muffin tins, they will cook faster. You can also choose to make thinner patties by using less of the mix in each muffin cup and cooking them for a shorter time.  
  • When your cakes are done, remove them carefully from the muffin tin and allow to cool a little and set up before serving. 

I may have mentioned before that my official little taste tester is not too keen on carrots so I braced myself for rejection at dinner time.  However, these little cakes were a success and she did indeed think she was eating cake. She didn’t even miss smearing cheese sauce all over her face.