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.
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.