Authors’ rule: Don’t cook down to kids

(Wiley/Associated Press)
By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / October 7, 2009

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I’ve never really liked the label “foodie,’’ with its exclusive overtones, and I’ve tried to teach my kids to be enthusiastic about all foods rather than discerning about some. No matter, sometimes foodie-ism rears its exotic little head, like the day both kids were howling for pine-cone syrup on their ice cream.

I was afraid “The Gastrokid Cookbook: Feeding a Foodie Family in a Fast-Food World,’’ by Hugh Garvey, features editor at Bon Appétit magazine, and Matthew Yeomans, a food writer who lives in Wales, would be too much to bear. (The authors, both dads, also created a Gastrokid blog.) But for the most part, these are not pretentious, not condescending, simple recipes for weeknights that look very much like my regular rotation of dinner standbys. None of that nonsense about pureeing the squash and hiding it in a muffin, or hiding anything anywhere. Just plain food, and pretty good food at that.

In addition, “The Gastrokid Cookbook’’ has the most appealing photographs, many shot on old-fashioned blackboard, with white chalk spelling out the recipe name on the board. You’ll see a bowl of curry, for instance, with “Curry Up’’ written on top.

Among the authors’ 10 rules for “reclaiming the family dinner table,’’ are: “Don’t cook down to your kids,’’ which means you should not assume kids don’t like anchovies until they try them; “Don’t take it personally that your kids despise your cooking,’’ along with an explanation of how tastes change in an instant; and “Caramelize it,’’ in which the duo explain that searing, toasting, roasting, grilling, and browning are always welcome.

If you haven’t discovered the secret of roasting vegetables, which makes practically any vegetable taste delicious, roasted broccolini is a good place to start. The stalks are just sturdy enough to stand up to a 425-degree kiss in the oven, and when they start to brown, they stay sweet.

Yeomans and Garvey believe that there’s no such thing as food especially for kids, so they’re not shy about introducing ingredients that usually don’t make their way onto your children’s plates. Fierce Potatoes showcase smoked Spanish paprika, which lends earthy sweetness and ruddy color to crisp diced potatoes with garlic mayonnaise.

Accidental Agrodolce Chicken is merely chicken marinated in a balsamic vinaigrette, but it works. And if the kids are fine eating vinegar-infused chicken, you might as well go ahead and grill some baby octopus. It goes as well with lemon and garlic as does the more familiar squid, and it’s just as easy to prepare. Everyone liked it except the 3-year-old, who, thanks to some recipe-testing I did last month, claimed she was “sick of octopus.’’ But she liked the seared salmon with soy-honey-lime sauce, a version of the mirin-scented favorite of grown-up dinner parties everywhere.

A number of these recipes are revved-up and streamlined Italianate standards. Somewhat Fast Bolognese relies on a hefty helping of pancetta to bring the classic meat sauce up to flavor in one hour rather than four. Meet the Meatballs, a fairly standard recipe, gets high-voltage treatment thanks to generous doses of fresh herbs and Parmesan. A quick sauce of parsley and pine nuts, which is as simple as it sounds, makes a light, garlicky alternative to red sauce for ordinary cheese ravioli from the freezer case.

The only real disappointment is a well-intentioned attempt to make hummus by pulsing chickpeas and raw zucchini with some herbs in a blender. Like it or not, raw zucchini’s a watery vegetable, and zucchini hummus is a watery hummus. The kids didn’t buy it for a moment, and neither did I.

The authors’ recipe style is minimalist, rarely offering cooking times or detailed doneness guidelines (“Cook until chicken is done’’ is a typical instruction). You have to know your way around a stove, and be willing to pay attention to what’s going on in the pan no matter how many kids are raving in your kitchen.

But if your basic skills are sound, the authors’ portfolio of recipes can do much to relieve the mac-and-cheese monotony of picky eaters. Now, if only there were a recipe to make them go to sleep.

THE GASTROKID COOKBOOK By Hugh Garvey and Matthew Yeomans

Wiley, 160 pp., $22.95