The Dredging Process

In Making Food on January 12, 2015 at 10:21 pm

We’ve taken a break from cooking together.

One reason is that The Husband and I both work in retail grocery, which means that for the last six weeks of the calendar year, we’re completely entrenched in daily store operations, making sure that we don’t ruin anyone’s holiday by not having stuff like stuffing, candy canes, eggnog and sparkling wine in ample supply. One of us is usually gone by six a.m., the other’s not home til ten p.m. Family dinner turns into Lord of the Flies, but with more hot dogs and frozen broccoli.

The other reason we haven’t been cooking/blogging much lately is that The Burger is decidedly: Over It.

Do you want to help me make dinner? I’ll ask.

No! she’ll shout.

Why not?

Because, she’ll say, sounding for all the world like an aggrieved sixteen-year-old who’s been asked one too many times why she doesn’t want to have family board game night anymore. I’m not a chef anymore! I’m just a kid now!

But there are still a few things I can coax her into the kitchen for. Baking is always met with Olympic-level enthusiasm — and because of that, we went through a record amount of flour, sugar and butter in December, churning out everything from Rice Krispy Treats (super fun to make, mostly because of the spiderwebby look that melted marshmallows get when you stir them), banana bread, sugar cookies, French yogurt cake (which is truly so easy your almost-four-year-old can do it herself; stay tuned for recipe), magic cookie bars, saltine toffee, cupcakes, you name it.

However, lest you think all we eat are baked goods, The Burger is also a devotee of Chicken Smash — or what, in a fancier life, I might’ve called Chicken Scaloppine. The recipe’s adapted from Jenny Rosenstrach’s excellent-for-working-parents cookbook Dinner: A Love Story, and whenever I get out the mallets, The Burger comes running. She loves making it and also (usually) eating it.

A word here about expectations.

Don’t expect your kids to want to help you. If they do help, don’t expect them to eat whatever you make. The Burger once happily spent two hours with me making dozens and dozens of meatballs. She mixed the ingredients, patiently rolled out zillions of meatballs, poured the marinara sauce over them, helped me turn them as they simmered — then flatly refused to eat any of them on the pretext that she only likes brown meatballs with brown sauce, “like the ones at school.” (I felt like Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer when his fiancée informs him, after leaving him at the altar, that she’d fallen out of love with him a long time ago. Information that would’ve been helpful to me YESTERDAY!) Not to sound too faux-Zen about it, but it’s about the process, man.

* Don’t expect your kids to work neatly. “A dropcloth the size of Texas” is what Matthew Amster-Burton, in his excellent book Hungry Monkey (the only book on parenting I’ve actually read), recommends you use when cooking with a toddler or preschooler. Be prepared for your kitchen to get destroyed. (If you’re a neat freak, cooking with kids may not be for you. Or, it may be exactly for you, as you’ll have no choice but to learn to deal with disarray.) Much to my mother’s dismay, The Burger and I actually sit on the floor and cook. It’s easier for her to reach ingredients — if we’re sitting at the table, everything gets knocked over when she tries to grab what she need. If we’re on the floor, she can just scoot or walk over and grab whatever she’s after, and it’s easier for her to leverage herself for tasks like rolling dough, cutting fruit or mixing things in bowls. And it makes cleanup a snap. Frankly, I’d rather just sweep and mop the floors than wipe down and wash the table, then sweep and mop the floor anyway. We work right next to the sink, so as we’re done with dishes I can just reach up and toss them in to get ‘em out of the way. A stack of side towels is also key.

Be prepared for dinner to take approximately six times longer to prepare together than it would if you were flying solo. (This is another reason why I bake a lot with Lulu — making a batch of banana bread is something that can be done mid-morning or post-afternoon nap, and its emergence from the oven isn’t usually something that’s a linchpin of your family’s day. Conversely, if you start making meatballs with your preschooler at 5:30 p.m., odds are pretty good that you won’t be eating until 7:30 at best.) So either start dinner prep as early as possible, or be prepared to eat a little later than usual, and lay out some healthy pre-dinner snacks like cheese, cherry tomatoes or sliced pears.

*Don’t assume your kid can’t work safely or smartly — but make sure you explain the ground rules first. We bought The Burger an adorable little kid’s knife from Kuhn Rikon —it’s got a dog painted it, so you know when it’s right side up and when it’s upside down — but first we taught her how to put a damp towel underneath her cutting board so it doesn’t slide around, and how to hold her non-knife hand with the fingers tucked under so she doesn’t nick them when cutting. (Now when she sees people prepping food on TV, she’ll shout, “Cat’s paw, Mama!”) Likewise, we let her handle raw ground beef, pork, fish and chicken — but explained that she’s not allowed to taste any of those before they’ve been cooked*, and that she’s not to get her hands anywhere near her mouth while she’s got meat juice on them.

*Choose your words carefully. “Just throw it in the bowl” is a phrase you’ll only utter once. Likewise, think ahead when giving directions and try to avert any bogies. Say stuff like “pour it in as slowly as you can” or “just one tiny tiny tiny pinch of salt” or “that measuring cup is super full/heavy/tippy/etc” or “make sure you get all of the milk into the bowl.”

Let your kid do absolutely as much of the work as you can possibly stand.

Back to Chicken Smash:

Set out three shallow bowls, pie plates or baking dishes.

Into the first pie plate, scoop some flour, and season it with salt and pepper.

In the second, crack two or three eggs. Let your kid do this! He’s dying to do it! Explain how beforehand. Tap it on the edge. See that hole? Stick your thumbs in there and pull them away from each other. You’ll have undoubtedly have to fish out some shell fragments — incidentally, the best way to chase an eggshell is with an eggshell — but he’ll get better and better at it each time, and the look on his face when the egg cracks and comes gushing out will be one of: horror, then amazement, then delight. Whisk the eggs up with a fork, adding a couple tablespoons water.

In the third, throw a bunch of bread crumbs (we use unseasoned panko, but you can certainly use regular old seasoned or unseasoned breadcrumbs), and season liberally with salt, pepper and shredded or grated parmesan or pecorino, stirring until (relatively) evenly mixed.

On a cutting board, lay out a sheet of plastic wrap, then center a boneless skinless chicken breast on it, then cover with another sheet of plastic wrap. Give your kid a mallet or meat tenderizer and have them go to town. You’re looking for even thickness of about a half-inch — take turns with your kid to get there. It’s okay if it’s thicker, or thinner, or even if it tears. Pile up the flattened chicken pieces on a plate, replacing the plastic wrap periodically.

Once your chicken’s all smashed, start The Dredging Process. This is a fancy term for dragging your chicken through the flour/egg/breadcrumb cycle, and one that I never get tired of hearing The Burger say. Dada! We totally dredged this chicken.

Hand a flattened chicken piece to your kid and ask her to completely cover it in flour. You don’t want to see any pink on there; get both sides covered in white.

When when that’s done, shake off the extra (over the flour dish!), and place it (gently! slowly!) into the egg dish. Same thing here — you don’t want to see any white on there. Get both sides completely covered in yellow.

Then move it to the breadcrumb dish. Same thing here — cover it totally in crumbs. No yellow peeking through.

Pile up the completed chicken breasts on a plate, then when you’re done, send your kid off to wash her hands and watch an episode of Team UmiZoomi while you cook the chicken. (It helps immensely to have someone around to sweep and mop the floor at this point — but if you’re doing this alone, make sure you’ve put on a double episode.)

Preheat the oven to 200, and line a baking pan with paper towels; you’ll use this to keep the chicken warm while you cook it in batches.

Put the largest pan you’ve got over medium-high heat, and liberally coat the pan with olive oil. (This is where Jenny Rosenstrach and I part ways on this recipe — she uses a lot more oil than I do, describing the process as “not deep frying, but pretty close.” I tried it that way a couple times but wasn’t patient enough to let the oil heat up enough, and found that for me, it works better to use less. But do whatever works best for you.)

When the oil’s ripplingly hot, carefully put a couple of pieces of chicken at a time in the pan, leaving plenty of space — don’t crowd it, or it’ll steam rather than fry. (As JR says [and I’m paraphrasing here], “sometimes I crowd the pan, then I spend the entire dinner wishing I’d sucked it up and waited the extra six minutes.”)

One of the great things about evenly pounded chicken breast is that it cooks, well, evenly. Your days of poking that stupid piece of chicken with a paring knife, wondering if it’s actually cooked, are gone. And the thinner you’ve pounded it, the faster it’ll cook. Ours are usually done in about six to eight minutes, which is three to four minutes of cooking per side. Flip carefully, then when the chicken’s fully cooked and firm to the touch, with crust as golden and crunchy as you like it, remove to the paper-towel lined baking sheet standing at attention in your oven, add more oil to the skillet if necessary, and continue cooking the rest of your breaded cutlets.

You can eat these in any number of ways — cut into strips and dipped in various sauces — but my favorite way is to use the chicken as an edible salad plate. I’ll pile a bunch of mixed baby greens on top of it, dot with cherry tomatoes and thinly sliced red onions, use a carrot peeler to shave some parm, and drizzle balsamic reduction or vinaigrette over the whole shebang. You could top with marinara sauce and a slice of provolone cheese, then run under the broiler. You could make a quick pan sauce of lemon, capers and parsley. There are a zillion different things you can do. Just don’t expect any of your kids to eat any of them.

*certain kinds of fish being the obvious exception here. Homegirl loves seafood and sushi, and is always asking to taste raw salmon or tuna. Usually she’ll just sneak off pinches, but the last time we made salmon en papillote (or envelope fish, as it’s known in our household), she picked up the entire filet in her fist and ate it like an apple.


How It All Began, and How It’s All Changed

In Making Food, Thinking About Food on November 24, 2014 at 5:35 pm

New name! New concept! In marketing-speak, I guess you’d call it a rebranding. Or a relaunch. Or a repositioning. Whatever you want to call it, it’s truer and better.

The whole thing started years ago when I made a New Year’s Resolution — the only one that ever stuck, incidentally — to try a new food every week. Whether it was eating or drinking something foreign or unfamiliar, working with a new ingredient, or attempting a preparation I’d never tried before, it just had to be new, and it had to be weekly.

And it worked, mostly, for a while. I tried all kinds of new junk. I cooked goat and mutton. I made mayonnaise and Caesar dressing. I baked pitas and English muffins. I called the cops and ate creamed herring. (These two events were entirely unrelated to each other.)

But then I had a kid, and everything changed. I no longer had entire days, empty, free to fill with yeasted bread and elaborate, multi-step preparations. My ability to concentrate on complicated recipes evaporated. Frankly, my ability to remember that I’d put something — anything — on the stove completely disappeared. I can’t even tell you how many times I put water on to boil or shoved something in the oven, walked away to check on The Burger, then jumped in terror an hour later when the smoke detector went off, bolted into the kitchen, and stared at the smoking pan thinking what the hell was I doing in here, anyway?

People, I cannot stress to you enough the importance of batteries in a working fire detector.

Trying to pick out a new food every week — trying to do anything every week — became an unwelcome burden, something I resented rather than enjoyed. Even the few-and-far-between times I did manage to bang out a blog entry after The Burger came on the scene bothered me, since I’d strayed so far from the blog’s original conceit. I’d think: This isn’t new. This isn’t weekly. This is dumb.

But I continued to cook, and eventually The Burger joined me.

Now we make stuff that isn’t necessarily new to me, but is new to her, and exciting and joyful and sometimes terrifying to both of us. (You really haven’t lived until you’ve taught a three-year-old how to toss pizza dough.) We sit on the kitchen floor together. She wears her apron and an enormous, ridiculous, glittery, sequined tutu. Sometimes she eats the finished product, sometimes she doesn’t; she almost always tastes the raw ingredients, down to the flour. We both always get messy. And while sweeping up after our breaded chicken cutlet adventure last week (details coming soon!), I looked down at the dustpan and saw that it was full of breadcrumbs and glitter.

And there it was: the essence of cooking with my daughter. And the blog was reborn. As we say in Wisconsin: Forward.

Cutout Sugar Cookies

In Making Food on November 9, 2014 at 8:18 am

I read an article a while ago about a guy who used his computer password to reinforce intentions or resolutions. He had to type his password dozens of times a day, so figured he might as well make it something purposeful, meaningful. He started out with something like “forgive her,” as he was trying to work through a breakup, then moved to topics like exercise, save for travel, eat less, call mom.

This seemed like a good idea, but I didn’t have any reason to change my password. The one I’d been using since freshman year of college — skanking, a relic from my not-so-brief, all-too-intense rude girl phase of ska worship — had reliably proven hackproof since the mid-90s.

Then, like a week after reading the article, my email got hacked.

I was a glass or two into a bottle of wine when I discovered the breach, so promptly changed every single password to everything I could think of — Etsy, my bank account, Netflix, my email accounts, our iPass — picking memorable catchphrases and quips, mixed with meaningful numbers. None of which I could remember the next morning. So I changed everything again to something boring and memorable: my work address.

But typing that in to dozens of accounts, including my personal ones, rapidly wore thin. I hated thinking about work when I was trying to request a book on my library’s website, check my email, buy something on Amazon.

So I changed them all again, this time to something meaningful: Dig Deep.

I have (as those of you who know me personally can attest) a finite amount of patience. It’s a shallow pool, and it’s often dry. I’ve become much, much more patient since having a kid — but I know my limits, which is why we’re stopping at one.

So, when I feel the rage coursing through my veins at work (like when a vendor e-replies to a statement like “I can meet you at our corporate office on X day at X time; address is below my signature” with something like “great! when and where would you like to meet?”) or when I feel overwhelmed by daily-chore-despair (like when I can’t move a load from the washer to the dryer because I haven’t folded the dried clothes yet, and there’s also a huge pile of dry-but-unfolded clothes on the living room floor), I say to myself: Dig Deep.

Feel free to adopt this as your own. Because let me tell you: when baking with a toddler, you’re gonna need it as a mantra.

When your kid sticks her hand directly in the butter: dig deep.

When she dumps flour all over the counter instead of into the mixer: dig deep.

When she pours half a bottle of vanilla into the cookie dough: dig deep.

When you realize that the awesome cookie cutters the two of you picked out on vacation — an octopus! a unicorn! a flamingo! Wisconsin! — are actually too intricate and multifaceted to make actual, recognizable sugar cookies: dig deep.

When you have to explain, for the seventh time, which side of the cookie cutter to use: dig deep.

When you reach into the fridge to grab the eggs and knock over the poorly sealed tupperware of pancake batter: dig deep.

When you hear, from the bathroom (where you were foolishly counting on 30 seconds of peace), the sound of sprinkles being spilled all over the kitchen floor: dig deep.

When you emerge from the bathroom to find that the sprinkles are now commingled with the 10,000-piece Milton Bradley Cootie game your child dragged into the kitchen: dig deep.

When the oven timer starts going off as you’re sorting the Cooties from the sprinkles: dig deep

When the towel you use to pull the sheet pan out of the oven turns out to be wet: dig deep.

When, in your burned-hand haste, you set the pan on the counter and accidentally burn a hole in the ziploc bread bag: dig deep.

Because in parenting, as with life, for every one annoying thing that happens, approximately/at least ten more awesome things happen.

Like when your kid sees a sugar cookie removed from the cutter for the first time.

Or when she hears the opening strains of “Call Me” on Pandora and shrieks at the top of her lungs, “Mama! It’s Blondie!” then sprints out into the living room to dance.

Or when she makes small talk confessions — “One time, at school, someone bit me. Well, actually, it was me.” — while piling hot pink sprinkles on top of a cow-shaped cookie.

Or when she pokes her head into the bathroom, post-sprinkle-spilling, to annouce, “um, something terrible just happened in the kitchen.”

Or when you discover that she’s awesome at holding the dustpan while you sweep, and can actually dump it into the trashcan without spilling the contents everywhere.

Or when the two of you sit down, for the first time, to a snack of milk and homemade cookies.

Or when she suggests that, because the homemade sugar cookies are “so delectable,” that the two of you go door-to-door to sell them to the neighbors.

Rich Rolled Sugar Cookies (adapted* from The Joy of Cooking)

In a stand mixer, beat on medium speed until fluffy and well blended:

  • 1/2 pound (two sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup sugar

Add and beat until well combined:

  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (or one-half bottle, if you’d like to replicate our variation) vanilla

Stir in until well blended and smooth:

  • 2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

Divide the dough in half. Place each half between two large sheets of waxed or parchment paper, then roll out to 1/4-inch thickness**. Keeping the papers in place, stack the dough onto a cookie sheet and refrigerate until cold and firm, about 42 minutes or the length of two Yo Gabba Gabba! episodes.

Preheat the oven to 375, and line a couple of cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Working with one portion of dough at a time, carefully peel off one of the parchment sheets and replace with a new one. (This’ll make it easier to lift the cookies off.) Flip over, peel off the other piece, and start cutting out the cookies. Place them on the baking sheets about an inch apart, and continue cutting until the dough’s used up.***

Crucial decision point: you can either put these into the oven now, if you’re planning to ice-then-decorate them, or just put the sprinkles on directly and skip the icing step. I’d bought a jar of Amoretti neutral icing, but was already exhausted — and we’d already used up all the vanilla — so I just hid it in the cabinet and told The Burger to put the sprinkles on the unbaked cookies.

Bake for 6 minutes and check. The cookies should be lightly colored on top with just a hint of golden brown at the edges. You can keep baking, checking every two minutes, to the desired color/level of doneness.

Remove from the cookie sheet and let cool on a wire rack, but be sure to eat a couple while they’re still warm. Let your kid decide which shapes you both get to eat. The Burger chose a unicorn and a star for herself, and assigned me Wisconsin and a heart. She’s no dummy.

* Adapted mostly because I let a toddler do the measuring. This was a mistake. My suggestion would be to pre-measure the ingredients into small bowls, then just let your kid dump the bowls into the mixer.

**next time I’d do 1/2″, because I like them a little chewier, plus I think they’d be easier to work with.

*** You can gather up all the scraps and re-roll them, and go through the whole process all over again — or do what I did, which was smash them together into a ball, flatten it slightly, wrap it in parchment, put it in a labeled baggie, and shove it in the freezer for another day.