Cutest Review

My seven year old son had to write a review or critique of something in his first grade class.  He chose to write about the restaurant that’s just opened near us (and I’m actually bartending at a couple of times a week).  I had to share the review because in my thoroughly biased opinion, it is adorable.  

7 year old's opinion

7 year old’s opinion

My eldest son, who is now 12, said that it should’ve read “if you like high quality food” instead of “chicken fingers”, but everyone’s a critic.

Some people might see this and may think, “Vanessa allows her kids chicken fingers?” but that is often a misconception on my food views.  Yes, I do allow chicken fingers and fries and other stuff, just not all the time. Plus The Spinning Wheel’s chicken fingers are whole pieces of breast meat with their own breading.  It’s not made of mechanically separated parts mixed with who-knows-what.  

I have a couple of recipes for those who’d like to make their own at home. My original one is here and another one has a crunchy coating. They’re much, much healthier than the majority of prepared chicken fingers/nuggets/popcorn you’ll find in the stores or fast food places. 

One thing I find I often need to do if we eat out and they order from the children’s menu, is to order a side of vegetables or a salad, because too commonly, restaurants don’t serve vegetables with the kids’ meals.  

If you take your kids out to eat, do they share their opinions on the food?  Do they get a balanced meal? 

The Fruit & Vegetable Pusher

Our kids’ school year just began the other day and I have decided to try something different to help our elementary school students eat more fruits and vegetables.  At the last school year’s PTA meeting I had been given the idea to get some parent volunteers to come in to help the first graders get through the lunch lines on those first few days of school.  Although they’d had a run-though of what to do/expect at the end of their Kindergarten year, it could be overwhelming for the wee ones when returning after their long summer break.  I decided to use the opportunity to do a little coaxing when it came to the fruits and vegetables.  Unfortunately our school lunch provider doesn’t automatically give the kids those, they usually just offer them.  And not only are they just offered, they are in small plastic containers (except a couple of whole apples, oranges or bananas) that are set in a bin the kids have to reach to get (which can be tough for the smaller ones). 

So, I organized my volunteers to gently persuade all the kids (grades1 through 4) to take as many of the small containers as they’d like by telling them what’s in them and to say, “which one would you like sweet red peppers or coleslaw… or both?” instead of just saying “would you like some vegetables?” And if they refused try to convince them they needed their vegetables and fruits for a well-rounded meal, to be strong, to be smart, to be healthy.  Whatever they could think of that would work.

Interestingly I found that the lunch ladies hadn’t planned on the kids taking so many of these containers of vegetables and fruits as we’d run out during service for each grade every time in the first week (they were prepared but in the walk-in inside the kitchen — where I wasn’t allowed to go).  Continue reading

Crying is not the end of the world.

I recently received a complimentary copy of a book from a publisher. It was about getting kids to eat without crying. I don’t know if they expected me to blog about it, but much of what I read in there was against my own methods/beliefs. I’m not naming the book because I don’t want to put the author down (after all, she is trying to get kids to eat well) or say that there aren’t many valid points, but I just don’t see what’s so awful about crying occasionally.

Of course, we don’t want our kids to cry. For one it grates on our nerves, but also we don’t like having our kids distressed. I just won’t give in to the cries over a dish just to make them stop. It sets a precedent—they’ll learn to cry to get out of things they don’t want to do or like, even if it’s good for them. I don’t try to make my kids cry (remember, I don’t like to hear it) but I just don’t avoid it. I want them to eat well. If they cry because they don’t like what they’re served without even trying it— well, sorry, that’s the meal and that’s what we’re eating. It’s not like I’m a hard ass all the time. I will often make them meals that they love and do try to please them. I want my kids to be happy. I just think sometimes people are so afraid of crying that they’ll do anything to avoid it— similarly giving in to the food battles just to get them to eat. If they’re really hungry they will eat. If they would just stop crying and try the food, they might find that they like it.

Now what I do do is make healthy and tasty foods. I know most of the time that they will enjoy it if given a chance to taste it. It happens most often with my middle son. I don’t know why he continues to cry when he sees a dish that is new to him and he thinks he won’t like, but he does. He will cry for a little time, realize that we’re not budging (as in making him an alternative meal) and then eat. So often to the bottom of the bowl or until his plate is clean. And when he’s eaten— he’s happy. No signs of having been upset left over from the beginning. I love it when they enjoy their meal.

So, don’t worry about an occasional tear. Do the right thing by them and teach them to eat healthfully. They’ll be better for it than if they’re given whatever they want to eat. Look at these statistics. And, they will learn to stop crying (eventually) and just try other means of getting out of things.

I wanna help!

My two youngest sons are the most enthusiastic of the three about helping in the kitchen.  The other night while I was preparing dinner, my youngest came in and shouted, “I want to help!”.  Now often if I try to help him help me, he often shouts, “I can do it!” (He’s a loud boy and really wants the independence of accomplishing it on his own.)  Well, since I’d done most of the prepping/cooking already, but my husband just got home and said he’d help by shucking the corn (local white corn, so delicious!), my son joined him out on the back deck to shuck.  It was the cutest sight, especially since the wee man was in his hot-weather-comfortable (lack of) clothes. 
My husband showed him how to remove the silk from the corn by rubbing a tea towel along the ears. 

The next night my husband made crab cakes and salad for dinner.  The chorus of “I want to help!” resounded before he’d finished processing the bread for bread crumbs. So this time they helped in making the crab cakes (“Form balls then smush flat.”),
peel carrots (“Turn them around so you’re not peeling it away to nothing.”)
and grating the carrots and beets (“Careful when it gets small so you don’t cut your fingers.”).
  They loved their dinners both nights and my youngest said “It tastes even better when I help make it!”  One of my girlfriends said that’s because you put love in as an ingredient.

Getting them to help in the preparing of the meals, especially the vegetables, might be the trick if you have reluctant eaters. 

Meatless Meals

I often make meals without meat, but it’s usually when my husband isn’t here.  He just seems to think you need protein in each meal, but I don’t think it has to be animal-based.  After reading Mark Bittman’s recent article in the NY Times I guess I’m not the only one who thinks that way and my husband’s not the only who eats his way.

How much meat/protein is too much?  I’ve noticed often parents will be happy if their kids get protein through chocolate milk and yogurt but not give as much consideration to the kids’ vegetable (especially green veggies) or even sugar intake.  “At least they’re getting their protein.” is a common mantra.  But is it right?

Milk, yogurt, chicken, beef, eggs, cheese, and protein-fortified food and drinks.  I think my generation got a little obsessed with protein and overlooked the vegetables. 

We don’t need more than a few ounces of protein a day.  An 8 oz. burger is 4 or 5 oz. too many and especially if that’s not the only protein that person has had that day…  And that’s the recommended amount (around 3 to 4 oz or about 100 grams) per day for an adult. 

We are told we should be giving kids about 5 to 9 servings of whole* vegetables and fruits (*I just mean with the fiber of it; not just juice) daily.  So, the fruit flavored yogurt, fruit snacks or juice don’t count.  I found the best way to figure out what a “serving” is, is it’s about a fist-full.  A child’s fist is their serving size and an adult’s fist is our serving size. 


So, following in the footsteps of Meatless Monday, I’ve decided to serve some Meatless Meals (Whatever the Day).  And also try to pay some attention to how much protein we’re taking in during a day or week.

One was meal was Eggplant Parmigiana that I totally cheated on and lied about.  Cheating part was that I got frozen eggplant cutlets from Trader Joe’s which I baked first (according to package directions) then placed in oven-proof dish topped with their Organic Tomato Basil Sauce and shredded mozzarella.  Baked it until cheese was melted and sauce hot.  Served with roasted cauliflower and tri-colored radiatore tossed with olive oil, butter, sea salt and a little garlic powder.

My kids have never been big fans of eggplant unless it’s in ratatouille or a similar dish.  So I lied.  I had one try it first and when he said “Yum, what is it?”  I lied.  I can’t believe I did it, but I knew the others wouldn’t even try it if they knew it was eggplant.  So, I said chicken.  CHICKEN!?!  Later on I let them know it was eggplant, but that was after they’d eaten most of it. They kind of noticed when the breading was off that it didn’t look like chicken.  Hey, I never said I was perfect or that I don’t resort to tricks at times.  I got them to eat it and most amazingly my youngest liked it the most.  Now I can make it and tell them what it really is.

Roast Cauliflower

½ head cauliflower, broken/cut into small pieces

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tsp olive oil

1-2 Tbsp parsley, chopped

sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Bring ½ cup of water to boil and add cauliflower, cover.  Steam/boil for several minutes until cauliflower has softened slightly.  Shock with cold water. Drain and toss with oil, garlic, salt and pepper.  Place in preheated oven at 375ºF for at least 20 minutes until cauliflower has golden brown crispy top.  Toss with parsley to finish.

Only my middle son and I loved the cauliflower.  He told his friend’s mom last night that cauliflower was his favorite vegetable.  My eldest said it was “Good.” but he didn’t want more than one piece. My youngest refused to try it.  It was so good, maybe next time.

What to do with all these tomatoes!

When my left over uncooked tuna wasn’t smelling fresh I had to come up with another last minute dinner plan.  I was going to cook an Indian Tomato Sauce recipe I saw in Mark Bittman’s, How to Cook Everything, but realized I didn’t have 2 key ingredients.  Yikes, the dinner hour was fast approaching and I still was unsure of what to cook.  I had so many ideas but too little time and not always all the ingredients.  But what I did have was an overabundance of tomatoes (in different colors and sizes) so I knew I wanted to do something with them.  Since I had so many, I thought I could prep some for cooking before they get bad, so I removed the skins and seeds then crushed them. 

An easy way of removing tomato skins is to blanch them for a minute in boiling water.  First slit the skin then pop into the water.  Remove and place in ice bath.  Once cool enough to handle, take a paring knife and peel the skin off… it’ll come right off.  You’re not cooking the tomatoes, just softening the skin so it peels off like paper.  After cutting out the center core around where the stem base meets the tomato, I put them in a sieve and removed the meat; letting the juices drip into a bowl beneath.  I push remaining juice/pulp through the sieve with a spatula and put all the meat into the bowl with juices.  Now you can finish with a potato masher or an immersion blender to crush or purée the tomatoes, I used a masher. 

Finally after much contemplation I decided on a pasta with tomatoes, chickpeas and  beet greens.  I had steamed the beet greens a couple of days ahead because they were starting to wilt and I didn’t want to miss their peak freshness. I did this with kale and bok choy too.  Just steam or boil and cool immediately when just done.  Put in fridge and when you’re ready for dinner, this can come out of the fridge, plopped into a pan and reheated with desired seasoning.  You can freeze vegetables this way too. 

Pasta with Tomatoes, Chickpeas and Beet Greens

  • 1 can chickpeas (or equivalent)
  • 1 bunch of beet greens
  • 3-4 tomatoes- peeled, seeded and chopped or crushed
  • 1 shallot- chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves- minced
  • Handful of fresh basil- chopped
  • Handful of fresh parsley- chopped
  • Olive oil

 Prepare pasta according to directions.  Prep beet greens— clean, remove stems, cut into 1 inch wide strips and either steam or keep raw. Sauté garlic and shallot in olive oil.  Mix in crushed tomatoes, chickpeas and beet greens.  If the beet greens are raw, cover and steam for a couple of minutes.  Add herbs.  Cook for 5 minutes.  Mix together with pasta.  Salt and Pepper to taste.  Add parmesan cheese if you wish. 


I used farfalle (bowtie pasta) that my youngest picked out at the supermarket.  On the side I gave them corn on the cob.  This can be taken off the cob and put into pasta as well.

I wasn’t sure how they’d like it.  My 3 year old didn’t want to eat the chickpeas even though he loves hummus and I explained that’s what it’s made from.  The middle son whined and said he wasn’t going to eat it but proceeded to eat it anyway.  My 8 year old loved it. 

If you notice that’s sort of the pattern with our family.  It shows that persevering will give the intended results (not all of the time, but usually).  Keep giving it to them even when they complain or say they won’t eat it.  Have them try it and eventually the may eat it and love it too!

Summer (Grilled) Ratatouille

One of my favorite movie scenes is from Ratatouille when the hardened hard-to-please food critic tastes Remy the rat’s ratatouille and the scene quickly shifts to him as a young boy coming home upset and his mama putting a plate of ratatouille in front of him.  I love how it shows how a taste brought him back in time to a fond memory.  Food smells and tastes can have a strong effect upon us and seemingly transport us in time.

I love ratatouille (the vegetable medley) and first learnt how to cook it from a James Beard cookbook my mother had owned.  I used to add mushrooms though.  Maybe that’s where my youngest gets his mushroom genes from. It was these thoughts running through my head as I attempted a different way of cooking ratatouille. 

To me ratatouille is a fall dish.  A cold evening warm-you-up dish.  But, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers are in season right now.  Seemed like the perfect time to make it.  Since it’s summer, I thought grilling the vegetables made better sense.  I was planning to grill some chicken anyway.  I found this recipe I liked by Emeril Lagasse and only changed it a little to accommodate what I had in the fridge or garden.  This recipe is time consuming, so beware.

Grilled Vegetable Ratatouille

  • Ÿ        2 Eggplants- peeled and cut into lengthwise ½ inch pieces.  Sprinkle with salt and let stand in bowl for 20 minutes.
  • Ÿ        2 Zucchinis- cut lengthwise into ½ inch thick strips
  • Ÿ       2-3  Squash- (don’t advise you to use crook neck like I had, unless you peel it as it’s skin was too tough) cut lengthwise into ½ inch thick strips
  • Ÿ         2 large ripe tomatoes- cubed
  • Ÿ         2 bell peppers (I used green and purple, but any color is good)
  • Ÿ         Red onion- peeled and cut onion into ½ inch  rings (yellow onion would work too)
  • Ÿ         Basil- large handful, chopped
  • Ÿ         Parsley- handful, chopped
  • Ÿ         Hungarian hot peppers- cut top and take out seeds and white ribs
  • Ÿ         4 garlic cloves- peeled
  • Ÿ         Olive oil
  • Ÿ         1-2 Tbsp Balsamic vinegar
  • Ÿ         Sea salt & fresh ground pepper

Coat the garlic with olive oil and roast in foil boats on grill until soft. Coat each vegetable (not tomatoes) with olive oil, salt and pepper and grill, turning several times, until soft.  Peel the bell peppers (if you put over flame to blister outside then pop it in a paper bag, the skin comes off easier).  Once vegetables are cooked cut into ½ inch pieces. Crush garlic and toss with tomatoes and all the vegetables (except Hungarian hot peppers).  Add herbs.  Drizzle a little vinegar over vegetable mix and separate into two bowls. In one bowl add the chopped Hungarian hot pepper.  This way you can control the heat factor for the kids.  Mine like some hot things (wasabi, chili) but not all.  The grilled pepper sweetens and loses some of its heat when it’s grilled, but not enough for all my little ones’ palates. 

I served it with a grilled half chicken (coated in olive oil, s&p, chopped sage and rosemary).  Since the bones were still on the chicken it took at least 30 minutes.  I kind of lost track of time with refereeing kids’ squabbles and the ratatouille making.    I also made some just-picked Swiss chard about which my 3 year old declared “I love it!”.

The ratatouille was deemed “delicious” by my 8 year old.  When I asked my 6 year old if he liked it he humorously responded “red” by which I eventually understood to mean “no”.  My 3 year old refused to try it.  Since he had seconds of Swiss chard, I didn’t make him taste it.  It was still on his plate and one day, he might even say it was “delicious“ and remember the dish fondly as an adult.  Until then he will get served a small amount and soon will be made to try just one bite.  No dessert for any of them since they didn’t finish— it’s my way of ensuring the healthier foods get eaten: eventually. 

BTW, I served a soft tortilla and some ate it whole but my eldest made the chicken, brown rice and Swiss chard into a burrito; which my middle son soon followed suit.  It’s a great trick to make food fun.

Popsicle Ribs

Country Pork Ribs have lots of meat, unlike spare ribs.  My husband made some with a glaze that my middle son said tasted like popsicles.  So these are now called “Popsicle Ribs”.   Salt and pepper them before putting them on the grill toward the edges (on “indirect heat”: not over the flaming coals) for 20 minutes turning occasionally.   Coat with the glaze and cook for another 5-10 minutes.  These were very thick, so you might need to adjust cooking time according to thickness.


Apricot Orange Soy Glaze (“Popsicle Sauce”) for Country Ribs

1/2 cup apricot jam

1 tsp fish sauce

1 Tbsp Tamari soy sauce

1 Tbsp orange zest

Mix together.  If you want to kick it up a notch add some hot pepper. 


Baste meat after it’s almost done and keep it on indirect heat.  That way it won’t burn because of the sugar.

We also grilled some calamari (squid) that I put in olive oil, salt and pepper before putting them on the grill.  These take just a couple of minutes.  So we put them on when everything else was done.  Squeeze of lemon is perfect on top. 


Only my middle son would taste the calamari, but before he went to bed, my eldest said he’d wished he had tasted them.  Luckily we bought 8 tubes and had only 4 that night and the other half the following night. 


We served them with a cucumber and onion salad; green beans; tomato basil goat cheese salad; corn on the cob and also some eel sushi for a side dish per request of my 8 year old.  Too much food for only five of us, but thoroughly enjoyed.

Grilled Duck Breast

One of my favorite foods is duck.  I love it done so many different ways- seared breast, braised leg, confit, you name it.  I saw a D’Artagnan Magret Duck breast at our local store so I picked it up.  It’s fairly expensive, but since it was just the boys and me, I got one to share.  The kids haven’t had it in a while, but I was fairly certain they’d enjoy it.  I looked through several recipes to see how I should prepare it and I noticed many with oranges or Chinese Five Spice, but I didn’t want it done either way.  I remembered once having a confit salad with a cumin scented dressing and loving it, but crème fraiche was the underlying ingredient — I didn’t have any.  Since one of the recipes I glanced at was just sprinkled with 5 Spice before cooking, I figured I’d just sprinkle some ground cumin, plus salt and pepper, on the breast and grill it.  I trimmed some of the fat and scored what I had remaining, then threw it fat side down first.  I don’t like my duck overdone but not totally rare either (I’m more cautious with kids) so it took about 7-8 minutes each side.   

We’d picked up our CSA bin and had a beautiful eggplant (which I forgot to photograph before I cut it) and a large green zucchini (looked like a different type of squash— could have cross-polinated) that I decided to grill as well.   I have never had much success with eggplant with my kids, but I keep trying.  I figure one day they’ll like it. I cut both lengthwise and salted the eggplant first, which helps remove bitterness, then coated with olive oil and pepper.   I got a little bit of rainbow chard this week, so I steamed that as I’ve posted before. 

I also cooked up some cannelinni beans (white kidney beans) I’d soaked earlier in the day.  I boiled them with salt, 2 bay leaves and a Penzey’s Shrimp/Crab Boil Spice Mix (peppercorns, a small piece of dried chili, cloves, mustard seeds and few coriander seeds).  Great flavor! Unfortunately my timing was off and we were sitting down to dinner by the time the beans were soft enough.  I’ve usually been a canned bean girl, so I’ve got more to learn on using dried beans. Since the beans weren’t ready, I used up some brown rice we’d had the other night.  That worked well anyway, since I used up left-overs and my youngest wouldn’t eat a single bean.  

Complete success with the duck.  The boys and I loved it.  We could have eaten another breast, actually.  The cumin was a perfect spice for it.  My youngest asked if he could have the left-overs for snack the next day, but I had to tell him we’d eaten all and there were no left-overs! Eggplant, not much of a success.  Not one enjoyed it (well, I thought it was delicious).  I made my youngest try “just one tiny piece” in order to get dessert and he was not too happy about it.  He ate it and quickly downed some milk.  The chard is usually always a winner (nobody fighting over it, luckily, this time).  And the zucchini was tasted but only a few pieces eaten by my middle son.  Tonight I’ve got to think of something they’ll all enjoy.  Oh yea, I have some magic beans and corn from the CSA.  Now, for lunch alone— sandwich of grilled eggplant and zucchini, sundried tomatoes and mozzarella.