Monday, May 30, 2011

Real Home Cooking

Happy Memorial Day everyone! When I think of Memorial Day I think of cook-outs, family picnics, and the start of summer. As a Mom, I am the chef of my own restaurant, a 24 hour short order kitchen that has to satisfy the finicky needs of 4 hungry people. I think every Mom has fear of the words: "Honey, what's for dinner?" . But working Moms who come home after a long day of work to 8 eyes staring up wondering what exciting meal you have planned for them tonight???? Well that's just plain terrifying!

I love to cook. Its something I have developed a passion for over the years. I have always chalked it up to my Polish heritage. In case you don't know someone of Polish decent, I can sum up the Polish cooking mind with two rules: (1) When in doubt, just feed them and (2) Everything tastes better when fried in butter.

But the problem for me is that although I love to cook, I face two large hurdles to my passion. First, I have absolutely no time to cook. In addition to being a busy JD Mom, most nights of the week my husband is gone when I get home from work and cooking an elaborate meal with 3 young children in tow is an adventure to say the least.

Second,  I cook for 4 extremely challenging "customers".  The most savvy of New York dining critic has nothing on these 4. My husband is the pickiest eater I have ever met (although admittedly he has gotten worlds better over the years). He hates all vegetables, onions, and tomato sauce. He also hates two of my most favorite things in the world: (1) Mushrooms and (2) Italian food. Before I met Todd I never even knew it was possible to hate pasta! J unfortunatly got her father's picky eating skills. She hates all vegetables, including corn which I am pretty sure is against the law here in Iowa. H will eat any vegetable you put in front of him, but he is not a huge fan of meat. And L, well he's a texture eater and refuses to try a lot of new foods.

Like most Moms, I am very big on healthy eating for my kids. We have fruits and  veggies every meal, hit the 100 calorie snack pack aisle for snack time, opt for apple dippers instead of fries. I try everything in my power to make sure I am instilling healthy eating habits. But healthy eating is nearly impossible when you are dealing with finicky eaters, neighborhood kids that walk around with pop in one hand and a Kit Kat in the other, and sheer lack of time.

But to be honest, although I want my kids to eat healthy food, I also really want to make GOOD food. I want to be the Mom whose kids can't wait to come home from college so they can eat. I want to cook like a Mom who has all the time in the world, instead of a busy working Mom.

I love reading cook books and absolutely adore watching Food Network, but I sometimes wish there was a show or a book about "REAL" home cooking. I mean, seriously, spend the day watching Food Network, each recipe you see will be full of onions, or other food my picky eaters won't eat. I swoop up every "Cooking for Kids" magazine or book in the grocery store check out only to give up after page 3: Salmon Cakes. I mean come on, Salmon cakes? Really?

And if you notice cooking shows and cookbooks really aren't geared for the working Mom no matter what title their creative creators give them. I have yet to find a 30 minute meal that takes 30 minutes.  I don't have a magic refridgerator full of perfectly chopped parsley or hand shredded cabbage. And if I brown my chicken for the 3-5 minutes they say, my food would be better suited for the Sushi Bar than my table.  In my house the 30 minute meal may be started at 5:30 but doesn't come out of the oven until 7:30 p.m.

So, I've had to go rogue on the journey of "Real" Home Cooking, and come up with strategies on my own to keep my family fed, my kids healthy, and my sanity in check. Here's a few tips I've learned over the years:

(1) Ask Moms, not Rachel Rays: A lot of people just focus on getting their recipes or cooking tips from the professionals, the Rachel Rays of the world. And yes, I do this too with good results. But, the best recipes I get for my family come from fellow Moms, especially fellow career Moms. These Moms understand cooking for little people that would be perfectly content to eat Mac and Cheese 365 days a year. Start or join Recipe Exchanges on Facebook, ask co-workers or friends for their favorite recipes.

(2) Plan Plan Plan - The key to having healthy and wholesome dinners all week long is to plan, plan, and plan some more. Every weekend before I go grocery shopping I come up with our menu for the week. Then I write my grocery list. If I get lazy and don't plan the menu, then it never fails that we eat out most of the week. This of course is just as bad on our financial bottom line as it is on our waistlines.

(3) You don't have to cook dinner at dinner time. This is the number one tip I have learned over the past year: Just because you are cooking dinner does not mean you have to cook it after you come home from a busy work day. I cook at odd times: a lasagna at midnight, a lunch time browning of hamburger for a casserole. Get a head start on cooking, cook on the weekends or the night before and freeze the meals.

(4) Crock Pots are not just for Pot Roast. I am a self-proclaimed crock pot chef. I use my crock pot all the time. I used to think that you could only make pot roast in the crock pot. Now, I use it to make everything from bar-b-que chicken to lasagna.

(5) Sometimes you can't take the high road. Okay, so I know the doctors will tell you that its important to put veggies on your kids plates so they learn to like veggies. Yeah, that might work in a Parents Magazine, but it doesn't work in my house. I have to hide veggies all the time in my kids' food. My favorite cookbook on how to do this comes from Jessica Seinfeld (love her). Yes, I am a sneaky veggie person... but it works. The easiest veggies to hide in things are: carrots, red peppers, and broccoli.

(6) Go off the card. After I married the world's pickiest eater I learned that you can't follow a recipe card to the T. I can never find recipes without at least one of the foods he refuses to eat. So I improvise a lot. I follow the general idea of the recipe, but I always go off the card.

(7) Learn your spices. I still am not a pro at this but I have learned over the years that a spice rack is not just something you can put on your counter so people think you cook (oh come on you know you have done that before). Learn about spices and what spice to use where. My favorite spice of all time is garlic powder. I use it in almost everything. I also use a lot of cumin and spice blends like "poultry seasoning". Experiment with the flavors as I cannot tell you how many recipes I have saved from disaster by adding some seasoning.

(8) Don't forget to KISS your food.  Another one of my favorite cooking tips is to always remember to use simple cooking...i.e. follow the KISS method in the kitchen (Keep it Simple Stupid)! Let me give you an example. I love Goulash. I have always searched for the perfect goulash recipe. I found recipes that spanned two pages of complicated steps and off the wall spices, recipes with 20 ingredients and long simmer times. But every time I'd make these complicated recipes they disappointed me. Then I discovered I could make Goulash with a box of Deluxe Mac n Cheese, Ground Beef, and a Jar of Spaghetti Sauce. I was shocked that such a simple recipe tasted so good. Another example, I always look for veggie side dishes with tons of ingredients and creamy sauces that I think my kids will eat.  Then my brother gave me a recipe to roast broccoli with just some garlic and olive oil. That's it.  You can imagine my shock to watch even my husband eat the broccoli that night.  Simple Cooking is best!

(9) Experiment. I don't think I became a relatively good cook until I learned how to experiment in the kitchen. I used to beat myself up when a recipe went wrong. But now I just learn from the mistakes of a recipe. It took my literally a year to make enchiladas my family loves, several months to master hamburgers. The best part of just trying new things in the kitchen is that you learn the ingredients that can "save" every dish. For example, I add Honey Dijon Mustard to almost every recipe if I think its bland. I know if I make something Mexican and it just tastes off, I need to add cumin. If a bbq or other sauce tastes wrong, I add in brown sugar. I think meat should be browned with onions, my husband hates onions, so onion flakes are the perfect compromise. So just try new things. I try and cook a new recipe every week or every other week. The more recipes you have in your arsenal, the easier it is to answer the "What's for Dinner" question.

(10) Cook with Sous Chefs - I always let me kids cook with me. Whether they are sprinkling cheese on enchiladas, or tossing lettuce, I try and let them get involved. When I do this, I find they eat more. For example, I'll serve cheeseburger chowder, but I'll let them "decorate it". It works as they always seem to eat what they create.

So, Mommies, good luck in your kitchens! And if you have any other strategies for REAL home cooking, I'd love to hear them!


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