Culture + Food
“Holidays” are a great excuse to introduce your kids to new foods. Yes, I’m using air quotes as I type. Cinco de Mayo–literally, the 5th of May–is an American invention (granted, there was a battle in Puebla, Mexico, in 1862 where the much smaller Mexican army defeated a large French force). But you won’t find any big celebrations in Mexico, outside of Puebla, to honor Cinco de Mayo. Nope, as a couple of writers recently put it: “Cinco is as American as apple pie. So is the U.S. Hispanic melting pot.”
Whew, with that out of the way, it’s time to move on to the good stuff–getting your would-be picky eaters to sample something new.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Swap the cheese
Queso fresco, a fresh Mexican cheese (I know, that’s pretty much a direct translation, but it’s true), tastes like a cross between feta and mozzarella with a hint of ricotta thrown in. The cheese usually comes in a solid circle that you crumble up to put on enchiladas, nachos, tacos, tostadas…you get the idea.
Picky eater tip: We call this ‘crumble cheese’ at our house for good reason–you have to crumble it before you use it. Perfect. Kid. Job. Ask your child to be the official crumbler and when she wants to sample what’s all over her fingers, say, Yes!
Bag the regular tortilla chips
My all-time favorite tortilla chips are El Milagro tortilla chips. No Tostitos. No Santitas. Not even Xochitl come close. Ahem, yes, I get a bit particular about my tortilla chips. Get this, there are all of four ingredients in El Milagro tortilla chips–stone ground corn, corn oil, sea salt, calcium hydroxide (it helps glue the corn together according to the all-knowing folks at Wikipedia). And the chips are thicker, heartier than your standard “restaurant-style” chip. Admittedly, El Milagro can be hard to find–I see them most often in Mexican grocers, but they’re starting to pop up in larger grocery chains too. Look for them!
Picky eater tip: Dip it! Give your kids some salsa for their chips and let them dip away.
Use corn tortillas
Toast them! Please. Corn tortillas are bland and caulk-like until you toast them and then something magical happens–they become entirely different in flavor, texture, aroma. It only takes a few minutes to toast up a stack of corn tortillas. Then try out your favorite taco fixins’ in the toasted corn tortillas instead of the stale, hard-shelled kind.
Picky eater tip: Break out the cookie cutters. You can make small shapes in the corn tortillas (before or after toasting). Granted, your filling may fall out of the tortillas with too many openings, so you might want to keep the cookie cutting to a few conveniently placed shapes. I use my linzer cookie cutters from King Arthur Flour.
Make your salsa
Homemade salsa is simple to make, really. You can keep it basic and just chop up tomatoes, onions, fresh jalapeno chiles, and cilantro for a pico de gallo. If you want more of a authentic salsa consistency, put all of the pico de gallo fixins’ into a blender with a little lime juice for a thinner salsa.
Picky eater tip: Have your kids help you make the salsa. When my kids have friends over, we often whip up salsa together. I let them cut up the ingredients and adjust the seasonings.
Bring on the cumin
Add something new to your standard Tex-Mex recipes–ground cumin. You can find cumin in pretty much any grocery store. Sprinkle in cumin with your taco fillings, guacamole, salsa.
Picky eater tip: Your kids aren’t likely to notice this subtle seasoning added in. But it will give your Mexican dishes and added depth and more authentic flavor.
Your turn: Are you planning a special meal for Cinco de Mayo?
Burgers get boring, fast. So I’m always up for experimenting with new burger ideas. And now’s the time: It’s National Hamburger Month. But don’t you think calling it National Burger Month, would inspire far more creativity. Let’s just leave the ground beef out it entirely, shall we?
This recipe goes sans ground beef. Instead, Mr. Squid picked up Italian sausage for the patties for half our crew and ground turkey for me and my teen (we like lite burgers). You could also use portobello mushrooms.
3 things make this burger a stand-out:
- Baste it with marinara at the very end of the grill time.
- Broil cheese on the burger after grilling.
- Add a caprese-inspired topping
1 pound Italian sausage or ground turkey
Salt and pepper
4 slices of mozzarella or provolone cheese
1/4 cup marinara, divided
4 burger buns
1 Tbsp. chopped pepperoncinis (opt. but oh so tasty)
1/4 cup shredded mozzarella or Asiago (preferred)
2 Roma tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup basil, chopped into thin strips
- Shape meat into four patties. Sprinkle liberally with Italian seasoning, garlic and onion powders, and salt and pepper.
- Grill at medium high heat for about 6 minutes on each side. During the final minutes of grilling, baste with 1/8 cup of the marinara.
- Place the patties onto a baking sheet. Add 1 tablespoon marinara onto each patty along with a slice of cheese.
- Broil the patties for about 3 minutes or until the cheese is melted.
- Meanwhile mix together the caprese toppings and add a heaping tablespoon (or more!) to each burger.
- Serve on lightly toasted buns.
Kids’ reactions: My teen added extras of the caprese topping to her burger. My younger two kids tried the caprese topping but didn’t want it on their burgers. Ah well, the pepperoncinis can get a little spicy.
I’m intrigued by this aluminum pot that’s the perfect size for my youngest to hold in her arms. And yet, it’s not big enough for sauting or small enough for sauces. My aunt tells me this was my great grandmother’s prized pot for boiling potatoes.
Recently, my aunt has been sending me care packages of cookware from my grandmother’s kitchens. Included among the boxes was this pot. It looks to me like it was made to fit onto another part.
So I’m wondering, does anyone know what exactly this pot might have been used for–besides boiling potatoes? Right now, I’m just enjoying having something of my great grandmother’s to use in my own kitchen.
My kids know that I like to “fancify” meals. I’m sure there’s some sort of French word for our made up one. The idea: to present your food in a fun way. Make it a little fancy. Our fancifying comes from different places: sometimes we try making something we ate at restaurant, sometimes it’s a creative way to get my kids to try something new. But this time, it was all about using up an ingredient I didn’t want to go bad in the fridge.
I made Asian Mex avocado egg rolls earlier this week so I still have a few wrappers on hand. So when I was making a stir fry the other day, I wanted a cool way to put the rice on the plate–enter the egg roll bowl. I found a recipe for mini morning quiches from Nasoya, which I still want to try, but I thought I could use the same technique. These bowls were so simple and fun to make my kids kept brainstorming during dinner other ways we could fill them. I’m thinking a dessert egg roll bowl would be good–wouldn’t it? Maybe a bananas foster egg roll bowl…
Servings: As many as you want!
Prep time: 10 minutes + baking for 10
Large egg roll wrappers (Nasoya wonton wrappers work well)
Fillings–let your kids decide
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Spray the underside of your muffin pan with cooking oil.
- Working with one wrapper at a time, drape the egg roll over the inverted muffin cup to form a cup. For folds, I brushed a little water on the wrapper to help them stick together when baking.
- Bake for 5-8 minutes. Watch carefully! These bowls will burn easily.
- Gently pop the bowls off of the muffin pan.
My tween has been on a pistachio kick lately. And I’ve been encouraging it. She shuns peanuts and peanut butter–a childhood staple for me. So if pistachios are the closest thing I can get her to like besides peanuts, I’ll take it. With all the extra pistachios around, I’ve been putting them in just about everything, spinach pesto last week and salsa now.
Servings: 2- 2 1/2 cups
Prep time: 20 minutes
7 guajillo chiles (dried)
1 small onion, cut into wedges
1/2 serrano pepper
1/2 clove garlic (or throw in the whole thing if you’re a garlic lover)
1/4 cup pistachios (roasted, shelled)
1 26-oz can whole tomatillos, drained (or 6-8 fresh tomatillos)
1 tbsp. fresh lime juice or white vinegar
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
Salt to taste
- Cut the ends off of the guajillo chiles and remove as many of the seeds as possible.
- Bring a non-stick or cast-iron pan to medium-high heat. Place the chiles and onion wedges on the pan just until fragrant, about 2 minutes. You’ll notice that the chile skin becomes softer as it’s toasted. Watch the chiles carefully; they burn easily.
- Fill a large mixing bowl with hot water. Put the chiles and onion into the water while preparing the other ingredients (about 5 minutes).
- Cut the top off of the serrano chile and then cut it lengthwise. Carefully remove the seeds and ribs (you might want to wear gloves).
- In a blender, process the tomatillos, chiles, onion, cumin, lime juice, serrano, garlic, pistachios, and salt until smooth.
Plenty of uses beyond chip dipping:
- Saute chicken with the salsa
- Mix salsa and ranch dressing for salad
- Make quesadillas with cheese and salsa tucked inside the flour tortillas
In February, we went to New Year’s celebration at our favorite Chinese restaurant and I’ve had avocado egg rolls on the brain ever since. I wasn’t expecting to like warm avocado–let alone the green, creamy vegetable smeared into an egg roll wrapper, then fried. But hey, it was the special so we had to try them out. Avocado egg rolls rock!
For my version, I wanted to add in a dash of Mexican flavor–and spice. These egg rolls were easy to make and fried up beautifully.
Servings: 12 egg rolls
Prep time: 30 minutes
3 ripe avocados
1/2 white onion, diced small
1/3 cup red bell pepper, diced small (opt.)
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 serrano pepper, diced (opt.)
Salt to taste
12 egg roll wrappers
Oil for frying
Juice from 1 orange
1 tablespoon vinegar (I used orange vinegar, you could use any light vinegar, like white)
1 tsp. agave syrup
1/2 serrano pepper sliced in rings
2 green onions, white and green parts sliced into rings
Pinch of salt
- Mix together avocado, onion, serrano pepper, red pepper, cumin, garlic powder, and salt.
- Place about 1 1/2 tbsps. avocado mixture diagonally in the middle of one egg roll wrapper.
- Fold one corner of the egg roll toward the middle of the avocado mixture. Then fold the sides of the wrapper in toward the avocado mixture.
- Starting the place of your first corner fold, roll the egg roll toward the last end (dab that corner with water so the end sticks). You can follow the egg roll instructions here, too.
- Roll the remaining egg rolls.
- Fill a wok with about 1 1/2″ frying oil. Bring the oil to medium-high heat.
- Fry the egg rolls three at a time about 2-3 minutes a piece until golden.
- Drain on paper towels.
- To make the sauce: Whisk all of the sauce ingredients together.
- Serve hot.
Kids’ reactions: Big favorite with the teen. My youngest who has declared she “doesn’t like avocados” tried this recipe and liked it. She didn’t ask for seconds, but it’s a start. My tween tried a bit of her avocado egg roll and politely left the rest there.
Traditional gyros require hours of time and special equipment. Anyone have a vertical broiler handy? Yeah, me neither. Instead, I fake it with chicken marinated in Greek dressing. The better the dressing you can find, the better your gyros–Matsos is my favorite. If I have time, I’ll also grill the chicken breasts whole. But if I need dinner in a hurry, I’ll cut them into thin strips for fast cooking on the stove top.
Prep time: 30 minutes + marinating time
4 chicken breasts
1/2 cup Greek salad dressing
4-6 good pitas
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 fresh lemon
1 tomato, sliced in wedges
1/2 white onion, in slices
2 Tbsps. olive oil
Thinly sliced cucumbers (opt.)
- Cut the chicken breasts into thin strips and marinate in the Greek dressing at least 30 minutes. (I usually put the chicken strips in the marinade in the morning so there’s one less step come dinner time.)
- In a large saute pan, bring the olive oil to medium-high heat. Add the chicken strips and cook through. Squeeze the juice from 1/2 a lemon at the end of cooking along with salt and pepper.
- In a small bowl stir together the Greek yogurt and garlic cloves. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. I also like to add in some cayenne pepper. Mr. Squid adds a little bit of extra Greek dressing too–I like to keep mine with just a garlic zing.
- Warm up the pita bread in the microwave or on a heated nonstick pan.
- Prepare each pita by slathering it with Greek yogurt dressing, then add chicken strips, 2 tomato wedges, a few onion slices, and a bit of feta cheese (and cucumbers if you’re using them).
Yup, I cracked my tangine yesterday. And yes, it was my first time using it. Sigh. A tangine is a traditional Moroccan cooking dish that has a cone top that helps slow cook and steam the food inside. Well, I’m still working out the kinks with how exactly you cook using it. But for now my good ‘ol dutch oven seems to do the trick.
Prep time: 20 minutes + 15 minutes cooking
1 1/2 cups rice
1/4 cup oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup canned chopped tomatoes
1/3 cup yellow and/or red pepper, chopped
1/2 small onion
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 tsp. tumeric
1/4 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika (or regular)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 pinch of cinnamon (opt.)
Fresh cilantro and parsley
2 tbsp. golden raisins
Fresh lemon wedges
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- In a heavy-bottomed dutch oven, bring the oil up to medium-high heat.
- Rinse the rice in water to remove excess starch and then add it to the hot oil.
- Heat the rice for 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently, until golden.
- Meanwhile, in a blender, place the tomatoes, onions, garlic, spices, and pepper and pulse until pureed.
- Add the tomato mixture to the golden rice and cook for 4 minutes or until the color of the tomato deepens.
- Pour in chicken broth and bring to a boil.
- Cover and bake for 15 minutes or until all of the liquid is absorbed.
- Add in the raisins, if using.
Kids’ reactions: This dish was a winner. My tween even took the leftovers to school for lunch. I made a wrap for my teen with some of the rice, avocado slices, deli turkey, and Sriracha sauce.
For my birthday, my hubby surprised me with a Moroccan tangine. It’s a baking dish with a high, cone-shaped lid (not pictured) that traps the cooking liquid and infuses the food inside with the flavor.
Yeah, I managed to crack it the first time I tried cooking with it. (In my defense, it didn’t come with any seasoning or cooking instructions.) Well, I’m now researching how to season and cook the right way with the tangine. But I still had all of my ingredients ready to go so I made this Moroccan shrimp dish in a skillet, instead of a tangine. I used a recipe I found on The Food Republic as a base and then tweaked it to mirror the flavors of a dish a Moroccan friend of mine made for me years ago.
Prep time: 20 minutes + 20 minutes cooking
1 1/2 pounds raw shrimp, tails and shells removed
2 tbsp. oil (I used grapeseed)
1/2 cup chopped canned tomatoes
1 raw tomato, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. tumeric
1 tsp. smoked paprika (or regular) + more for sprinkling
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
Salt to taste
2 tbsp. parsley, chopped
2 tbsp. cilantro, chopped
2 tbsp. chicken broth
1 lemon, sliced
- Puree the tomatoes, tumeric, paprika, and garlic in a blender.
- In a heavy-bottomed skillet (no idea yet if this would also work in a tangine), bring the oil to medium-high heat.
- Add the tomato mixture to the hot oil and cook until the tomato color begins to darken (from bright orange to red), about 4 minutes.
- Add the shrimp into the tomato mixture and sprinkle with cumin, cayenne, white pepper, and fresh herbs. Cook for 3 minutes or until shrimp just begins to turn pink.
- Place the lemon slices on top of the shrimp. Pour over the chicken broth, then cover the skillet.
- Cook for 5 minutes until the shrimp is heated through and tender.
- Add additional spices, if necessary (I like to add more smoked paprika and cayenne).
- Serve over plain rice or Moroccan rice (recipe coming tomorrow).
Kids’ reactions: Thumbs up and clean plates all around. I would definitely make this again EXCEPT Mr. Squid seems to be having bad reactions to shrimp lately so I’m not sure whether we’ll have to cut out shrimp for awhile or altogether:(.
There’s no better place to inspire your kids to try seafood that right where it’s caught. Sure, the Costco jumbo bags of shrimp are fine, but when you really want fresh fish, you’ve got to have an ocean nearby. So last week while visiting Northern California, I encouraged my kids to eat plenty of fish.
After spending the day at the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium we walked down to the Wharf for dinner. Seafood restaurants line both sides of the Wharf. They also compete for guests by claiming to have the best clam chowder. Each restaurant has a person posted outside during busy times to lure customers inside by giving them chowder samples. We must have sampled around five or six different chowders before settling on Albonetti’s.
While the creamy clam chowder at Albonetti’s quickly became my middle daughter’s favorite (seriously that’s all she had for dinner. The child who hates peanut butter loves clam chowder), their real specialty is squid. Albonetti’s uses squid caught in the Bay and then cleans them fresh daily. Albonetti’s is one of the few restaurants that cleans their own squid–some 1,000 pounds each week. Interestingly, much of the squid caught locally in Monterey Bay is sent overseas for cleaning and packaging before making their way back to area restaurants.
At Albonetti’s fresh squid is a passion (I didn’t realize until the waiter enlightened me that for many Italians, squid is comfort food). They have an entire section of the menu just for different varieties of calamari, from traditional to their own take on Buffalo-style squid.
But the best thing on the menu, and that we sampled during our week in No Cal, was Albonetti’s Marty’s Special. It’s been on the menu since the family-owned restaurant opened over 60 years ago. The waiter literally did a jump of excitement when my oldest daughter ordered it. The squid is prepared like veal Parmesan, breaded and fried and served along with eggplant in a rich marinara that simmers for 10 hours before topping this dish. The tender texture of the squid melds perfectly with the robust flavor of the red sauce and the smattering of melted mozzarella cheese. This is one dish I can’t even attempt to make at home. I did find one recipe for Albonetti’s Marty’s Special online.
Your turn–have you ever found a food that your kids were more willing to eat when you were on vacation? How do you find good places to eat while traveling?