Monthly Archives: July 2010

Sweet Little Lies

I’m feeling angry.  It’s about the folks who give advice on children’s diets and nutrition.  I didn’t realize it right away, but now it’s clear. They haven’t been telling the truth.

I’m talking about the government authorities, doctors, TV personalities, special reporters and school nutritionists.  You haven’t been leveling with us.  All that talk about healthy diet, and the food pyramid – you just happened to leave out the little part about the kids themselves.  Why does nobody mention that youngsters are basically cute little appetites on legs, automatically set to hunt down sweets and fats to eat or hide under the mattress? It’s a known fact.  Babies are born craving sugar. They can’t help it.

Keeping this vital information from parents makes no sense.  If I drove out of the dealership and my new car had an automatic and natural tendency to steer towards cliff edges, deep water and heavy immovable objects, I’d want to know about it BEFORE we were moving at speed down Suicide Mountain.  I’d want a warning, flashing right up there on the dashboard in big red letters.  Not some pretty colored signs halfway down the grade, suggesting that I use sensible driving tips to try and persuade it not to fly, smoking, off into the void.

And I’d have something to say to the folks making money selling them.

I don’t normally take all four kids at the same time to the grocery store.  Or promise them on the drive that they can each pick out one small treat.  I’m now up to speed why it’s a really bad idea.

We hit the aisles with one basket, and they split up chittering, happy as birds.  My idea was, they’d go find some favorite snack or food not usually allowed as part of the house menu.  Their idea was to inventory the food mart, and come up with the largest, lowest nutrient content, processed, food-like calorie bombs they could find.  The one’s with the big “Mom Would Never Let This In The House” stickers.  They set up a relay and proudly dragged their prizes to the cart.

‘Wait’, I’d say.  ‘What’s this?’

Through the bag I can make out colors I’ve never seen in nature before.  Before I get an answer, another box flies in.  It looks like a month’s supply of sprinkle covered, chocolate coated, fudge filled, artificial ice cream stuffed cones with nuts on top.

‘That’s not small,’ I say.

‘Look, Dad, they’re really, really small,” she says.  All fifty of them.

‘This is what I want’, I hear behind me.  My son with a cart of his own. I didn’t know they sold chip assortments in 30 bag family sizes.

‘Hang on, everybody’, I say, holding up my hands.  ‘Huddle up.  The deal was, one little snack or treat, not the biggest thing you can carry. Take all these back and we’ll go check this out together.’  They roll their eyes and slowly, painfully, unload the basket.

I deliberately steer to the fruit.  ‘Look, ripe mangos!’ They exchange looks, and I can see we’re in for a tough negotiation. Before long we start attracting attention from moms, who look at the kids, look at me, turn away with a hidden smile and shake their heads.  They can see I’m out of my league.

‘Can I…’, ‘No’, ‘How about…’ ‘No’.

Without thinking I turn into the cookie aisle, and instantly realize I’ve made a huge tactical blunder.  It’s the longest aisle in the store.  Spilling boxes from floor to ceiling.  You can smell the sugar.  The kids bolt like horses at a desert oasis.

Now, it’s a marvel of modern engineering that you can put just the same few ingredients together, and make endless varieties of products.  And it’s a testament to how skilled and expert companies have become in knowing what kids are wired to want to eat.  Let’s just say, they have it down to a fine science.  A very profitable science.  If the health and nutrition groups were half as good, we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic.

I won’t go into the details of how this little expedition turned out.  There was upset, threats, and a shouting tantrum.  The kids stayed calm and polite, I was proud of them.  We compromised and took some vitamin fortified treats home and weathered mom’s disapproval.

But I’m still angry.

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The Trouble With Breakfast

I have a problem with breakfast.  I need trained professionals with paddles who shout ‘clear’ in order to wake up before the kids.  Early morning is not my best time of day.  So, I find a big heaping bowl of ice cold milk and wet flakes first thing about as appealing as finding  our labrador had an accident in the living room.

Don’t get me wrong.  Should anyone from Kelloggs, General Mills, Post or any other cereal company stumble over here and find me comparing their products to dog poo:  I’m sure you good folks make very fine breakfast foods, which are enjoyed by hundreds of millions daily.  In fact, I believe breakfast cereals are the fourth most common item purchased at supermarkets in the US.  So, I’m also sure, you don’t miss having me for a customer.

I think my distaste for cold cereals started when I was a young boy.  In those days my father would only allow the family to eat the kind of cereal HE liked.  And he liked corn flakes.  Every single day.  My brothers and sister and I would watch television commercials with creatures shouting about exotic, unbelievably sweet and shaped cereals, eye-popping with colors, and could only imagine what it would be like to live in a country that served them.  Like, just next door.

I discovered my ideal breakfast on an extended work stay in a bed and breakfast outside Aberdeen,  Scotland.  Let’s just say, the breakfast was bigger than the bed.  The gracious family who ran the place would suggest what I might like to have, without restriction, and then serve it.  Not ‘either / or’, but, altogether.  Meats, eggs, fried tomatoes, and potatoes, black pudding, baked beans, whole grain breads and marmalade, on the plate, early every morning.  And in the center of my table, arranged by variety, stood little boxes of different types of dry cereal, which I deliberately ignored.  With a start like that, I ran all the way til dinner and skipped lunch.

Now, its clear, if I ate that way each day of my life, I would actually require those professionals with paddles, to manage heart attacks.  So, at home, it’s just a fond memory.

But every couple of weeks, I like to take a weekend morning and give the kids a small taste of what they’re missing.  They’d choke on my Scots menu, so I do a special hash brown potatoes with eggs or french toast, and they’re always happy.

The hash browns are a big hit because of a little cooking secret.  Here’s how it works.  Plants that have bulbs or tubers in the ground are actually using them to store up sugar, so they can get through a deadly winter, and have enough spark to put up leaves in spring.  You may not know it right off, but onions, garlic, and potatoes have the sweet stuff in abundance.  The trick is to get them to come out so you can taste them.

Slow, long cooking is the key.  I start with two good-sized onions and three garlic cloves and eight medium potatoes, to feed six.  That may leave you with leftovers, but they’re just as good as fresh.

Chop the onions into pieces about the size of your thumbnail, and the garlic as fine as you can.  Margarine or butter, about a tablespoon or one and a half, in a cast iron skillet.  Use another pan at your own risk, you want to brown things, not blacken, and the trusty skillet is a master at doing that.

Start the onion and garlic over medium heat.  Meanwhile, microwave or boil the whole potatoes til they’re firm enough to still resist a fork, but less so than raw.  Cut that into pieces about twice the size of your thumbnail, or any size you prefer.  Smaller cooks best.

Then turn the flame down to medium low, still sizzling but gently, and put in the potatoes, with some salt, a bit of pepper, a little shake of dry dill if you have it, and a couple good shakes of paprika. You can also add another tablespoon of margarine or butter if the mix looks really dry.  The ingredients should look like they have a little on them.

The layer of pieces in contact with the skillet bottom cook, and as they do, they’ll want to stick.  So, your job for the next hour or so is to use a metal spatula and keep them scraped off and turned over, so everything gets evenly done.

As they cook, the onion, garlic and potatoes are losing water, and the sugars in them are browning.  Medium dark brown is good, close to cherry wood, but not walnut, or stop before things start to get crunchy.

A proper breakfast, if I say so myself.

The old saw is, you are what you eat, and I like the idea I’m feeding the kids something good, straight from the earth.  My wife says, I’m flaky enough as it is.

Dad’s Diet Crises

Dad's cure for snack food dietQue sera, quesadilla.

It’s swimsuit weather, the kids are all summering, and I learned I’ve been letting the family down in the diet department.  The children lined up to bring this to my attention.  Apparently, there is NO FOOD in the house.  They are united on this point, and vocal, and the neighbors are now convinced we are starving them on purpose.

This comes as something of a surprise.  Our grocery bills haven’t gone down, and you have to put a shoulder to the door of the fridge to get it shut.  True, I haven’t got round to cleaning it out recently.  It’s on my list.  After ‘learn power napping’, and ‘schedule in-home insurance check-up’  I think.

But anyway, I quickly discover the problem.  Dad has NO CLUE what EVERYBODY knows, namely, what ALL OTHER children ALL get to eat ALL THE TIME, except at OUR house.

They take me to the kitchen to look into it.

And what I discover is, our home has become dangerously low on a whole cornucopia of sweet, salty, fat filled, factory processed munch that is essential to the development of modern preteens and adolescents.

The pantry has no frosted or creme filled anything.  Apart from a packet of stale ginger crisps, cookie stockpiles have gone to zero.  One half bag of white corn tortilla chips sits alone, as if potato chips had never been invented. And there’s no sign of any kind of ” -itos” whatsoever.  No candies, no frozen pops, chocolate, sweet rolls, toaster whatsits, mini cakes, sodas, or bags of sugar coated anything. It’s a crises.  We need to get to the bottom of this.

I blame my wife.

‘The house is full of food’, she says when I call.  Eggs, she tells me, and I repeat it to the kids.  They shake their heads.  Salad, rice cakes, popcorn, cheese, turkey, tuna, tortillas, carrots, tomatoes, avocado, fruits, whole wheat crackers, chicken, nuts.

‘Nuts!?’ they shout.

I try to reason with their mother.  ‘They’re not buying it’, I say.

‘There’s plenty of food’, she says, ‘and when they really get hungry they’ll eat it.  They just figure you’re a pushover and will go buy them junk.’

‘Your mother thinks you’re fat’, I tell them.  Not the thing to say to three girls, but I realize it a split second too late.  My son’s so skinny he knows I’m just blowing smoke.

‘You have to go to the store, NOW!’   They’re starting to get that wide-eyed ‘remember the time you left the sliding door open and Herby the hamster got out, permanently’ look.

‘I tell you what’, I say. ‘I’ll make you all a quesadilla’.

‘OK,’ they say, like maybe that was really the plan all along.

I fry up some onion til it’s just starting to get transparent, still crunchy. Then I melt a little butter in a pan, coat one side of a wide flour tortilla, and set it aside on a plate.  A little more butter, low medium heat, melted and the second tortilla goes in.  Spread on a layer of cheese, some chopped tomato, the onion, a little shake of cumin spice, some chopped up chicken, and the second tortilla goes on top, fast as I can.  I put a lid on, and lift it every minute or two to check the underside of the bottom tortilla. It needs to get light brown and flaky crisp, which it does just shy of four minutes. Then,  big spatula, hand on top, flip the whole thing in one smooth motion, cook the other side til it’s light brown, flaky crisp.  Hot and melted inside, done.

It takes two, but they polish them off and are gone.

Later I check again whether there’s any missed sweets,  behind the vases in the top cupboard.  Just to be sure.  Nada.  Well, that spared me having to get rid of them.  For the good of the kids, of course.

Winner By A Nose

It seems about the Homemade bread cooking Dadonly way for a Dad to succeed with kids today is to grab them by the nose, sit them down at the kitchen table, and put your money where their mouth is.  Let me explain.

Being a father’s always been a challenge.  Some of us spend a lot of time out of the house, so we have to wear the name tag and introduce ourselves on a regular basis.  But I don’t think men ever had to compete for kid’s attention the way we do today.  When I come home and say, ‘let’s go play’, I hear ‘I’m busy’.  What ever happened to kids being bored stiff and wishing somebody’d want to go do something?

The problem, it turns out, is we’re now sharing the house.  With a whole crowd of visiting families.  Cosby started it. Now we’ve also got Homer and Bernie Mack, George Lopez, Billy Ray Cyrus, Peter from Family Guy, and the list just goes on.  And all day long there’s this stream of tweeters and facebooking fans, inhabitants of farmville, and busloads of characters from gameland all tramping through.  Getting elbowed aside by Shrek and the whole Hollywood universe.  It’s a miracle to get a word in edgewise.

My brood was becoming a bit like snow leopards, rumored to exist but only occasionally spotted.  They still dished out hugs and smiles when they saw me, but sightings were rare.  And, it occurred to me, if I wanted to protect them, I was only one voice in a very big and noisy wilderness.  When it came to having an influence on what they think, and how they saw things, some food corporations managed to get in more messages a day than I did.

I decided it was time to compete.  Time to tag and track.  Rebuild the pride.

And the one guaranteed place I knew I could catch them was where they came to feed.  The kitchen.

The question was, what to use for bait? Candy, chips, fast food they could find anywhere, and shouldn’t.  I needed something they’d come out of hiding for, and come back for, and keep them purring while we spent time getting comfortable together.

It didn’t come to me til I was out in the garage one afternoon, feeling low.  I came across a bread machine, still boxed.  I couldn’t remember where it came from.  But, for some reason, I decided to give it a go. Instructions didn’t look hard at all.  It looked like something I could do.

I can tell you, if you haven’t experienced it yourself in a while, there’s nothing quite like the warm, wafting scent of fresh baking bread in the nostrils to grab attention.  It’s a primal thing.  A raise-the-head-up and wonder where that smell’s coming from kind of thing.  And no loaf in a wrapper from the chain store has it.

I lit the thing up one evening after dinner and in an hour had a crowd standing around waiting for a slice.

In the end, I’m not sure what the best thing about it was.  Everybody chatting around the warm oven like long-lost relatives around a campfire.  Mouth watering homemade bread.  Dad holding court and doling out slices for toast and jam.  Or, over the years we’ve been doing it since, the things we’ve learned about each other, and the memories we’ve made. With something truly special, they can’t get anywhere else.

I do know this.  In my family, we have a tradition.  One that’s stood through good times and teary nights.  A simple loaf and a little time in the kitchen. And Dad, a part of it.

How To Cook Her That Very Special Dinner

How To Cook Her A Special DinnerIt’s Valentines Day, her birthday, Mother’s Day, or your Anniversary coming up, and you’re thinking about cooking her a special dinner.  Something she’d really like.  Romance on the menu.  And you’re smart enough to figure pancakes or BBQ aren’t going to cut it.  In fact, you’ve spent hours on the net looking for advice and ideas.  And you haven’t got it sorted out yet.

We’ve all found ourselves in this situation.  Usually the night before.

You could take her out, that’s always an option. If you can line up the sitter. Hopefully the neighbor girl is free last minute, and not still dating the dude who was real interested in what you like to drink when you’re home.  If you take your wife someplace nice, you should probably let her know so she can get dressed.  But then, that would ruin the surprise.  And, will she want to go out?  Should you ask her?  Or would she really appreciate you going that extra mile, putting your heart and soul into making her a meal to remember with your own two hands?

This will fly in the face of conventional romantic thinking, and upset both my fans, but if you decide to DIY, here’s my expert advice.  Don’t.

I know you’re thinking, ‘Dad, WTF, that right there is a bait and switch blog post, now what am I supposed to do?’   Stay with me, and let me explain. Your solution is right here, and it’s a keeper.  Let’s put down the Cosmo girl glasses and think this through like guys.

First off, I am firmly dedicated to the notion of men claiming a place in the kitchen.  And no matter how many thumbs we have, I believe any man can do a reasonable job of cooking, with the right information and attitude.  And a whole lot better, with just a little effort.

But unless your friends and strangers call you chef before your last name, there’s a good chance that whatever you make for your sweetheart is going to be long on sentimental and short of what she’d consider a gourmet experience.  I’m just telling you the facts.

Most really fine meals take one or two practice fixings to get right, for anybody but the pros.  And you’ve never even seen the recipe before this afternoon.  If she’s half the woman you think she is she’ll ooh and aah when you put it in front of her, but in the back of her mind – she can’t help it, it’s her domain – she’ll be thinking how she’d have done it, and likely, done it better.

Let me put it this way.  What would be going through your mind if for Father’s Day the missus personally customized your car, or made you a new wall-to-wall built-in tool rack in the garage?

Next, and this may come as a shock, she likely is not living with you primarily because of your culinary skills.  For reasons we will never fathom, there’s something about you she likes, and likes to be with.  She enjoys your attention.  A lot.  And the longer you spend in the kitchen doing she knows not what, the less of that attention she is getting.  You may be cooking your way through five whole courses of dinner surprise, but she’s out on the couch on her special day flipping for hours through old magazines, privately fuming, or minding the kids so you can do your best Alton Brown impersonation.  Now there’s a recipe for happiness.

And you know she’s wondering the entire time, whether you’re going to settle back when dinner’s done in front of the TV and leave the tornado-meets-trailer-park mess you just made in the kitchen sit.  Or worse, expect her to just clean it up in gratitude.  Admit it, that thought had crossed your mind.

So, what should you do?

Instead of taking her out, or trashing the kitchen, here’s the plan.

Find a really nice restaurant with great food.  Pick out a wonderful meal from the menu. Then take out or have them deliver it.  You set the place or table, flowers, wine.  And then, out of sight in the kitchen, unpack and plate a real gourmet treat, and bring it out for her dining pleasure.

Not only will she be completely surprised by what she sees,  she’ll wonder for just a split second whether you cooked it yourself.  And if you have half a brain, you’ll tell her you would have, but you thought it was better to spend the time with her instead of fussing in the kitchen.

Then, you tell her the special dinner you’ll be cooking is the three meals for the family this coming week that she won’t have to.  Those are the dinners she’ll REALLY appreciate you making.

So, you’ve now fixed her a special dinner, with no cooking disasters or mess in the kitchen, you’ve (hopefully) spent the time giving her some proper attention, and you eat like royalty, with no clean up.  Plus, you’re giving her three meals she won’t have to cook when it counts, during the week.

You’ve also dodged that special dinner bullet, having to come up with and pull off cooking a big deal meal last minute with the pressure on.

My wife still talks about the first time I did this for her, ten years later.  And she can’t remember a single one of those  special dinners I cooked for her myself.  I’m sure that’s because all the gourmet treats I’ve whipped up have just become rolled into one long happy memory.

Let me know how this works out for you, or if you’re still bound and determined to show off, drop by my website for some meal ideas.

Easy Dinner Recipe Online Dating Nightmares

These days, men who want to cook, or anybody with a modem and two fingers, can find a so-called easy dinner recipe.  They are as plentiful as singles sites, and there’s  something for any taste, from the best darned chile con veggie in West Texas to a Cambodian tarantula fry.  There are recipes for dummies, diabetics, divorcees, dogs, and darn near everyone else on the planet.  Finding a recipe is not a problem.

The problem is, a new recipe is actually a blind date. Until you sit looking at each other across the table you will have no idea whether they are what they promised they’d be.  Or whether you’ll be up half the night wishing you hadn’t let your appetite get the better of your good sense.

Some recipes have really been around. Others are missing important little details they’re hoping you won’t notice, til you’re in too deep.      Some you will never figure out, no matter how long you try.   And there’s a whole lot of recipes that think really highly of themselves, but the reason they’re spread all over the net is because they’re really just interested in being popular. They’re only looking for attention, and they’ll leave you hungry.

So, how do you tell a good recipe from one you should run, not walk, away from?

First, it goes without saying, don’t pay any attention to the picture.  Really. You know everything’s photoshopped these days, right? All pink and perky healthy on the preview, but at dinner, fatty, grey and can’t even sit up.

And don’t be afraid to check, are we talking natural here, or artificial enhancements?  Is it really ‘beouf en croute’ or just hot dogs rolled in doughboy pastry?  If there’s any ingredient you don’t like, give it a pass. It may seem like just a little thing now, but later on that wart will be the only thing you’ll notice.

Next, consider who introduced you. Do they have any taste at all? If they don’t, why would you even think about getting this anywhere near your mouth?

Does the recipe look like it’s going to take a whole lot of time and effort, with complications and special handling?  Are you going to have to shell out and spend all day running around just for one night’s quick disappointing dinner?

And beware the recipes that look too good to be true. Some folks I have personally known will sabotage a favorite recipe before they give it out, just to keep their big cooking secret to themselves. You think you’ve got a winner for the school potluck.  Then the principal waves the science teacher over to take a look at it.

The best recipes are dishes you’ve met and liked, introduced by someone you know.  Having them come from a friend let’s you call for help, if you hit a snag or question. That’s a big advantage right there.  Say you were trying to do a recipe you were watching on the Food Channel, and you need some help with parts you missed while you were in the fridge.  Don’t expect anyone you call there to have the slightest idea what you’re talking about, or to know what you should do next.

The best way to know a good easy dinner recipe from a one night mistake is to get to know what tastes you and the family like, and then look for the ingredients and dishes that have those tastes. You’ll still have some flops and experiments, but you won’t waste your time hoping fishcakes are gonna show up looking like steak.

Top 10 Reasons Men Won’t Cook

Dinner is a tad overdone tonightWomen wonder why guys stay away from the stove, and leave them to do all the heavy kitchen lifting.  And after my last post, my wife hinted I should take a look. Why won’t men cook?  Well, what she said was more like, why don’t take your own advice and help out more in the kitchen and put out the garbage while you’re at it.  So, I took the suggestion to head over to the laptop and come up with this list.  Throw in your own ideas.

1.  Taking Directions I can count on one hand the number of men on the planet who like being told what to do, and how to do it.  We put up with it at work or home when we have to.  But the natural tendency when facing a list of steps that need to be followed in some order, is to ignore the directions and try and figure it out on our own, or, skip as many steps as possible.

2.  Learning Curve The average guy believes that cooking is basically magic, and he’s the audience.  Cow parts go in, beef stroganoff comes out.  Bulbs and leaves are transformed into flavors.  Pastry.  I mean, tell me that pastry isn’t magic.  So, when the magician pulls us from the audience and says we need to fill in for the evening performance, that blank look isn’t faked.

3.  Epic Fail Nothing motivates a man less than the opportunity to publicly jump a motorcycle just about half way across the Grand Canyon.  Or spend mealtime trying to explain how dinner was supposed to have turned out. And tasted.

4.  Cleanup Most modern recipes will tell you right up front how long it will take to prepare a dish.  And keep absolutely silent about the time you’ll need to clean up the mess you just made.  The fact is, after all the trouble to make something, you’re only halfway done in the kitchen.  And men love kitchen cleaning the same way we love periodontal cleaning.  Any surprise that Teflon was invented by a guy?

5.  Getting Out of Trouble There’s a certain confidence men have, that we can get out of most trouble we get into.  But when a cooking expedition starts to go bad, it’s a lot like doing the black diamond ski run backwards.  This thing is only headed one direction, stopping is not an option, and you are just along for the ride.  Yeah, let’s do this every night.

6.  Payoffs Somewhere along the line women get that domestic activities, like cooking and caring for kids, go on day after day, in an endless cycle of repetition.  Guys, more tuned to crossing a finish line, catching something, or earning an atta-boy, are disoriented and mystified by having to cook again as a daily reward for doing it yesterday.  It takes years of hard and dedicated monastic training to accept that the doing IS the payoff.

7. King of the Hill Who set up the cupboards and drawers in your kitchen? And decides what goes where?  What would happen if you had a mind to re-arrange things the way you think is best?  If you’re sharing a kitchen, odds are you’re sharing her kitchen. With her.  And while you may have guest privileges, when it comes to what’s on the menu, what’s in the fridge, and what’s healthy or not, chances are you’re still on probation for the number two slot.

8.  Patience Many of the finest tasting foods take time to cook, and get better from all that cooking time.  Waiting while food cooks takes patience.  Knowing this, men have invented TV dinners (Gerry Thomas), the microwave oven (Percy L. Spencer), Hot Pockets (the Merage brothers, Paul and David), and fast food (1921, Walter A. Anderson and cook Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram, White Castle).  Any questions?

9.  Mom Face it, we learned early that food came from her.  For at least a decade and a half we were conditioned to expect she would make food appear whenever we got hungry.  We’re hungry now.  And last time we checked in the mirror, we didn’t look anything like mom.

10.  Just Too Feminine Probably thanks to number 9, it’s impossible to shake the deep-set notion that the kitchen is a female clubhouse, and what we’d look like in a pink apron.  Men who want to cook have to go open a restaurant business, or call themselves Iron Chefs, to compensate.  Doesn’t everybody pause just a moment to wonder why George Foreman hung up the gloves and made a kitchen appliance?

I have to ask myself, writing this, when it comes right down to it, are any of these good reasons? Maybe all the reasons men won’t cook are really just excuses, or fears to overcome.  You’ve probably got your own list, so feel free to share, here or at the forum on my companion, how-to site, Dad’s In the Kitchen!.