So I have this baby. He is now a toddler. And he is very good. But he does not like meat.
When I serve it to him, he wrinkles his nose, and pokes at it and then jettisons it off the side of the tray. Fine. Not uncommon in babies and children. The doc says just keep trying it when we can.
So of course I focused on making sure he was getting a very balanced diet otherwise, all whole foods: fruits, vegetables, grains and plenty of dairy for the protein. He eats very well. He makes merry as he feasts.
Then it occurred to me: isn't this the way we are all supposed to eat? Meat or no, Americans are notorious for treating potatoes like the cardinal vegetable, salt like the only seasoning ever invented and fat like, well, candy. (I apologize. Fatcandy is troubling indeed.) So I decided that we would eat like our baby. I would try removing what little meat we were already consuming and focus on trying, instead of just one or two simple vegetables, to eat a larger variety of vegetables in each dish, and to make a more varied selection of grains and start adding beans and peas to our diet.
Gentle reader - I have had the Most Fun Ever. This is one of the most fun and rewarding cooking projects I've ever undertaken and it has lead us to some very new places philosophically as well as nutritionally. But more in that in Part II. This is about the nuts and bolts of the changeover.
The first thing that really helped, apart from warning my husband what was about to happen, was to receive his support in the form of the gift of Deborah Madison's gorgeous and encyclopedic cookbook Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. What a wonderful book. I started with her chapters on dried beans since these would be cheap and nourishing and totally new for me. I was always a big fan of canned chickpeas, cannellinis, and so forth but I figured I could more cheaply and healthily (and fun-ly) make our own.
We went to the local organic-ish market and got a bunch of dried bulk things: chickpeas, pinto beans (which I was not usually a fan of), cannellinis, red and green French lentils, black (turtle) beans, short grain brown rice (which we love and is much more affordable in bulk anyway).
That weekend, I decided to make a spicy pinto beans in broth with cornbread. At night, after the baby was in bed, I measured out and sorted through the beans. This has turned out to be one of my favorite parts of cooking dried beans. I had not given attention to beans before; they're surprisingly lovely, little painted stones, and patiently looking through the handfuls for the odd inedible ort or blighted bean was more like a craft than cooking. I sorted them into a heavy ceramic bowl, filled it with water and left them to soak until the next afternoon.
We ended up with a brothy bowl of spicy, earthy beans that were totally unlike the pintos beans found in childhood school chili and we lapped them up with hunks of hot buttermilk cornbread. From there, I went on to chickpeas, which were not only delicious in there own right but the chickpea broth turned out to be a great stock and improved the various soups I used it in. And while the homemade black beans were far better than the canned, Madison also tipped me off to using the broth from those to make an amazing black rice using basmati, chopped tomatoes and sauteed onions. This we ate with stewed black-eyed peas made tender with the Lousiana "holy trinity" of onions, green bell pepper and celery, and herbs.
Since then, I've gone on to explore brown rice further as a main dish; we tried Wehani, a nutty fragrant long grain whole rice wholly unlike basmati; we've returned to whole wheat and Israeli couscous; made an amazing ginger stew from French lentils. But we've hardly scratched the surface of things I want to try.
The only big fail has been toasted buckwheat kasha. We tried it one night with a vegetable curry. It smelled a little odd to both of us, but naturally no one said anything. It turned out to have the oddest flavor and we ended up sheepishly scraping it off of our curry to try to finish dinner. We were both relieved at the mutual confession that we didn't like it. We decided that since I had got it in a box at the grocery store, it likely was a bit rancid. But when faced with the fresh stuff in bulk the next weekend, well. We passed it by. We might try it again in a few months, but for now the memory of the rancid version lingers unhappily.
Now I must admit that Mr Tumnus, our child, doesn't eat of everything I cook - some of it is still too highly flavored for a 15-monther; children take time to be able to sort out lots of flavors and are easily overwhelmed by complex dishes. But he eats very healthily and grows strong on our diet. And my husband and I are lighter and brighter-eyed for it all.
This week I'm planning to bake eggs on top of stewed mushrooms, make a ricotta pie with braised Swiss chard, stew lentils and potatoes with a spicy topping, steam asparagus with a Korean dressing and top with fried polenta. And a few other things I've forgotten. I make a menu for the whole week and Tum and I do the grocery shopping on Mondays and every day my husband says he looks forward with great anticipation to see what's cooking when he gets home. I look forward to it to. What will I make next week? I'm already thinking about dal with the thickest part of coconut milk stirred in, our favorite brown rice and red lentil soup, maybe spicy black bean cakes.
And just wait until our Farmer's Market reopens!