One kid's adventures in gastronomy

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Break out the Grill

First, let me wish all the mamas out there a belated Happy Mama’s Day. We had a fun day, as the sun finally decided to grace us with its presence. We even wore shorts!

It was such a nice day that we took out our kayak for the first time.

Mama’s Day was such a nice day that we took out our kayak for the first time.

If you haven’t already, you should bring your grill out from wherever you’ve stored it for the winter. Please don’t wait until Memorial Day. Your grill deserves better than that.

Mama brought home some Idaho-caught rainbow trout from the fish market. Here’s what it looked like: fish heads/ We’ve done whole fish on the grill before. Don’t fear it just because it has a head and eyes. If I can touch the fish, you can, too. Preparation is super simple: stuffed fish/ Salt and pepper the flesh, add a few slices of organic lemon and whatever herbs you have on hand. We used dill, but tarragon, basil, or chives would have been equally good. Mama stuck a couple toothpicks through the bellies to help keep them closed, then she rubbed a little bit of olive oil on their bodies. Ready to go:

Up in the corner you can see Brussels sprouts in their cute little cages.

Up in the corner you can see Brussels sprouts in their cute little cages.

Set them on a hot grill and close the lid. Mama used medium to medium-high heat. It took about 10 minutes, turning them over once. The flesh will be opaque and flaky. easy grilled fish/ The fish should slide out from the skin quite easily, but be careful of the bones. We enjoyed this fresh-tasting fish with grilled Brussels sprouts, chickpea salad, and cucumber salad (which I did not eat—no matter how often Mama tells me it’s “like pickles,” I know that’s just not true). So treat your grill to the way it wants to be treated, and put a fish on it tonight.

Love, Jude

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More than one way to skin a fish

Last night, Papa made pecan-crusted rainbow trout with citrus butter from one of his and Mama’s favorite restaurants. (It was really yummy. You could taste the citrus, and the fish had a delicate crust.) Mama brought home fillets with the skin on, and I thought I’d show you how simple it is to remove, in case that sort of thing makes you squeamish. You can always ask the fishmonger (isn’t that a funny word?) to do it for you, or choose skinless varieties, but don’t let a little skin on a fish keep you from trying it!

Start with a cutting board and a sharp knife—not a serrated one. A boning knife is ideal, but Mama likes using her chef’s knife for most things. If your fillet is really thick, like from a fat old salmon, lay an edge of the fillet flush with the edge of the cutting board closest to you. This is less important if you have a skinny fillet, but Mama still likes to line them up. Position the tail (narrow) end toward your non-dominant hand. Mama’s left handed, so the tail is toward her right.

About ½” from the tail, take your knife and put a little notch in the tail, in the direction of the tail’s tip. Mama’s cutting a wee tab, heading toward the right, or the tip.

making a notch/

Now pivot your knife so it’s headed in the opposite direction. Keep it in that notch you just made. You made it just for this purpose! Because fish are slippery, use a paper towel (or kitchen towel if you don’t mind) and grip the tail (the tip on the other side of your freshly made notch) between your thumb and first finger. Mama uses the side of her knuckle, but do whatever feels most comfortable. You need to get a good grip. Her knife is now facing left, toward the body of the fillet.

preparing to cut/

Now comes the amazing part. With the tail gripped in your non-dominant hand, and your knife’s blade at an angle (think of a shovel moving snow), pull the tail in one direction while pushing your knife in the other.

starting to skin fish/littlejudeonfood

For Mama, she’s pulling the tail toward her right and pushing her knife toward her left, while skimming her knife along the inside of the skin. She’s basically scraping the flesh off the skin, but really, it’s the pulling of the tail that’s doing most of the work.

skin be gone/

And that’s it! It took longer to take these pictures than it did to skin the remaining fillets. Those bits of silver don’t amount to much and will essentially cook off. (They’re not hunks of scales, if that’s what you’re worried about.)

skinned fillet/

This method works on any size fillet. If you try this technique and you find that it’s just not working, Mama suggests a sawing, back-and-forth motion with your knife instead of pulling. This is where you’ll want your fillet and cutting board edges lined up so you can see where your knife is going—you want it to remain as parallel to the cutting board as possible so you’re not leaving unfortunate chunks of fish on the skin.

Incidentally, Mama grilled asparagus (love it!), sweet peppers (yucky!), and fresh peaches picked from a local farm (wow!) to serve with the buttery fish. I liked this dinner very much.

eating a grilled peach/

Love, Jude

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The Apple Doesn’t Fall Very Far…

There are many food preferences I have in common with my folks. On the Mama side, I like olives (even as Papa cries, “Yucky!”), yogurt, and eggs. On the Papa side, I like hot dogs, chicken piccata, sausage pizza, and pork chops. (I once told Papa, “JuJu like pork chop.”) And all three of us love fish.

Other than pasta, fish nights are the one dinner we can all eat together. You might remember that Mama is vegetarian, but she does eat some sustainable, wild-caught fish. (She feels they have a fighting chance, but also, she grew up eating it a few times a week, and you can’t just turn your back on history.) Probably the best fish we eat, however, is the kind my GeeGee catches. He lives near the ocean! (Mama says it’s really a Great Lake, but to me, it may as well be the ocean.)

See what I mean? That sure looks like an ocean.

See what I mean? That sure looks like an ocean.

When we visit GeeGee and Grandma Rita, like we did last week, we eat almost as much salmon, walleye, rainbow or brown trout, perch, crappie (“crah-pee”), whitefish, and bluegills as can fit in our bellies. (But not every night because poor Grandma doesn’t like it.) I could spend the next few weeks telling you all the different ways we eat it, but our favorite way is breaded and panfried. I didn’t watch Grandma make it, but Mama makes it quite often (and I can tell you it’s not as good).

Jude on Food: Some fish contain dangerous levels of mercury and other toxins. Some fish take years and years to reach maturity. And some are simply overfished. I can’t read yet, but you can easily learn about which seafood are your best options.

The key is in the breading. Grandma’s always favored Saltine cracker crumbs, but Mama says you can use anything you prefer. And the way to get that yummy breading to stick to your fish is to coat the fish with a beaten egg. You would think that slimy egg would slip right off the fish, but it doesn’t. You can even coat your fish in flour first (Mama says this is called “standard breading procedure.”) When you bread your fish, Mama suggests using one hand to do the “dirty work,” rather than using one hand for the egg and one hand for the cracker. Why dirty two hands?

When you cook fish this way, the coating gets crispy and the fish doesn’t dry out. It also doesn’t mask the fish’s flavor. It’s win-win.

Love, Jude

I'm about to dig in to my fish (but I'm waiting for my Auntie to put lemon juice on it). Sweet potato fries are waiting in the wings.

I’m about to dig in to my fish (but I’m pausing for my Auntie to put lemon juice on it). Sweet potato fries are waiting in the wings.

Grandma Rita’s Butter-Fried Crappie

1 egg
1 cup Saltine or Ritz cracker crumbs (or panko breadcrumbs) + more as needed
A few hefty pats of butter
1 pound crappie fillets (or other small lake fish), patted dry if necessary
Salt and pepper
A few shakes of bottled lemon juice (or lemon wedges) and/or white vinegar

In a pie plate or bowl, lightly beat the egg with a fork. Grandma doesn’t season the egg, but Mama tosses in some salt & pepper. (She also seasons her fish, but Grandma waits until it’s all in the pan.) Set cracker crumbs on a plate. In a large skillet, over medium-low to medium heat, melt the butter. (Grandma uses a large electric frying pan so she can do it all at once, and she doesn’t have to clean the stove afterward.)

Dip the fillets in the egg, shake off the excess, then dredge in the cracker crumbs. Lay the coated fillets in the pan of melted butter. Repeat until all the fillets are in the pan, or the pan is full. (Mama warns not to overcrowd, but Grandma puts them pretty close without touching.) Season liberally. Fry the fish until they’re tantalizingly golden brown, then flip. Add more butter, if needed, and watch your heat. If they’re overbrowning or browning too quickly, lower it a tad. These aren’t done quickly, so take your time. Trust me, they’re worth it.

Serve with a sprinkle of lemon juice and/or vinegar. Grandma and GeeGee usually serve these with homemade coleslaw and/or oven fries. And if you happen to have any leftover (because maybe Grandma made a lot), these little fillets are great in a bun for lunch the next day.

Note: Mama says it’s easy to make cracker crumbs—just put a few crackers in a ziptop plastic bag, seal it, then roll a rolling pin over it a few times. You can also use a meat mallet to crush them. They don’t have to be powder-fine, but they should be crumb-y enough to give an even, thorough coating.

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Papa Does Dinner

Though Mama’s a vegetarian, she does eat some seafood—and Papa’s become pretty adept at cooking it for us. For starters tonight, he sautéed some yummy bay scallops. They’re creamy white, firm, and fleshy. They can be as big as my hand or as tiny as my toes. Papa chose bite-size scallops for him and Mama (they were three-biters for me) as appetizers. I haven’t had many chances to pick up seashells on the shore, but Mama tells me that if you think of a “traditional” shell pattern, that’s what a scallop comes in! And because this round fleshy disk is attached to a shell, it sometimes comes with the connective muscle still on it. You can see it looking like a small flap alongside the muscle, and it’s very easy to peel off. If won’t hurt you if you eat it, but it is rather chewy.

A long time ago, Mama taught Papa how to sear scallops, and now he’s able to show me! There are two secrets: start with a dry scallop and a hot pan. You might be wondering how you dry your scallops since they come from the sea! If they’re very fresh, you just set them out on a paper towel, lay another paper towel on top, and let them sit for a couple minutes. If they’ve been previously frozen, it’s going to be difficult to get that crisp, golden restaurant-quality sear—but you can come close if you dust the scallops lightly with flour. Either way, be sure you salt and pepper your scallops before putting them in the pan.

Start with medium-high heat, melt a pat of butter, and add your scallops. (If your scallops are very small, they’ll cook quickly and can take a higher heat.) Now don’t move them! Leave them alone for 1–2 minutes. And if you don’t have a pair of kitchen tongs, don’t make these until you get a pair. They’re really the only way you can turn over the scallops without losing that yummy crust of deliciousness you just developed. You can very gently lift up an edge of a scallop with the tongs to check on its color, but that’s it. When ready, turn them and cook for just another minute or so, again without disturbing them. Be careful not to overcook them, or you’ll be eating rubber (though I don’t quite understand why this is a bad thing, considering all the toys I put in my mouth). This isn’t the time to be setting the table. Stay right there and man your scallops. Act like a chef and give them a gentle squeeze around the middle. If they’re supersoft, they’re not quite done. There should be a firmness with just the slightest bit of give. Scallops will continue to cook once you remove them from the pan, so you really want them to be oh-so-slightly underdone. Actually, a perfectly cooked scallop with have a small blush in its very center when you cut into it—which you should be able to do with child’s spoon.

Papa did a great job! The scallops were golden on the outside and supple on the inside. They tasted buttery and like an afternoon at the beach. I ate three of them.

Then, because it’s still halibut season, Papa decided to cook up a favorite dish of ours, something along the lines of this one. Mama apologizes for not having a picture of me eating this, but she was too busy scarfing it down herself. Of course I ate the oranges (even with all the green on it), and I had a few bites of the halibut—Papa got a good sear on it, as well—but I really took to the fennel. Did you know that it takes on a very different flavor when it’s cooked? It’s much sweeter. Mama tells me this is what licorice tastes like, and I hope I get to have some soon. What do you think my chances are?

Love, Jude

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Brown bagging it

Boy, this daycare thing is really getting in the way of my blogging. Between all the playing with cars and the taking of 2-hour naps, I can’t get a word in. Sigh… It’s not like I haven’t been eating. Take, for example, what Mama sends with me to daycare. She found out some of the typical foods they feed us for lunch and decided to make her own versions for me to eat. One thing is cheesy macaroni, which I eat much better at Miss Rose’s house than I do at home. (Don’t tell Mama.)

Then there’s the fish sticks and chicken nuggets. Mama says she wrestled with this one because she feels “chicken” nuggets are the go-to choice of not just parents, but of restaurants everywhere. Have a kid? Give him a nugget. (She’s judging restaurants here, not parents.) She doesn’t want me to get used to this sort of “cuisine,” and she worries about what’s actually in said nuggets. Her compromise: control everything.

Unfortunately, we haven’t had a lot of time to cook together lately, so Mama made these while I slept. I can only share her recipe, but note that I did not witness the making-of moments. I can, however, attest to their yumminess.

Love, Jude

Chicken Nuggets/Fish Sticks
1 cup (more or less) flour (whatever you have on hand)
1 egg, lightly beaten (add a splash of milk, if you like)
1 cup (more or less) breadcrumbs (make your own with the heels of loaves and a food processor, or use the canned stuff)
1–3 chicken breasts or 1–2 firm white fish fillets (haddock, flounder, cod), cut into appropriate-size pieces
Coconut oil for frying
Sea salt and pepper for seasoning

First things first: Season everything! Set the flour, egg, and breadcrumbs in separate shallow containers, and add salt & pepper to each one. Salt and pepper your chicken or fish, too. Melt about a tablespoon of coconut oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Toss a few pieces of chicken (or fish) into the flour and toss them to coat. Then dip them into the egg, coating entirely. Then toss them into the breadcrumbs, making sure they’re completely covered. Set onto a clean plate while the oil heats and you do a couple more; this also gives the coating some time to adhere. (If you do all this with one hand, it keeps your other hand clean to add more flour or breadcrumbs, if needed, or to scratch your nose.) When the oil is hot, add the pieces, one by one, until the bottom of the pan is covered, but the pieces aren’t touching. (You need to give them space.) Coconut oil burns quickly, so as the pan starts to dry, don’t be stingy about adding more. (It’s good for babies!) When the pieces are dark golden on one side, turn them over, silly, and cook the other. Remove them to a paper towel–lined plate while you cook the rest. Give one to a non-vegetarian in the house to be sure they’re cooked through. If you make lots, you can freeze some for later. Just reheat and serve.

Notes: I know Mama would say, if you’re doing chicken and fish at the same time, to cook two entirely separate batches. Don’t use any of the chickeny flour/egg/breadcrumbs for the fish. She would also point out that all of these ingredients are organic/free-range/wild caught, but I think you know that by now.


Friday Night Fish Fry

After a cold, rainy day caring for a sick baby (I’ve been barking like a seal), Mama had a hankering for a good old fashioned fish fry, like the kind her Wisconsin hometown is known for. There, they dip fresh lake perch in beer batter and deep fry it to a golden brown and serve it on the town’s famous hard rolls with a schmear of tartar sauce. (I ate lots of GeeGee’s perch when we visited last summer.) Well, we didn’t have perch, but we did have cod. And Kaiser rolls. “Close enough,” Mama said with excitement.

First she made the beer batter because, she explained, it needs to rest. (Incidentally, she happened to have Wisconsin beer on hand. I don’t understand what all the fuss is.) Once the batter was underway, she moved on to the rest of the dinner. Emboldened by her recent vichyssoise victory, Mama felt confident that I would eat oven fries. She sliced a few organic red bliss potatoes and tossed them with olive oil and spices such as cumin and dill and of course lots of salt and pepper. Into the 350° oven they went, and she turned her attention to the tartar sauce. (At this time, she also poured a whole bottle of canola oil into a large frying pan and turned up the heat.)

Because I still can’t eat homemade mayonnaise, she used the kind from the store, added a bit of chopped relish and capers, a splash of Worcestershire sauce (holy cow, is that a word!), and salt and pepper (all to taste). And that was it. My oatmeal takes longer to make.

What came next I could only see from afar, in Papa’s arms. Mama stirred the potatoes on the baking sheet and closed the oven again. (“It’s hot!” she warned.) She sprinkled a few flecks of flour into the oil to see if it sizzled—that means it’s ready. Then, one by one, she dredged the pieces of cod in a bit of whole wheat flour and then dipped them in the rested beer batter before very carefully slipping them into the hot oil. Boy, did they sizzle! We all made the sizzle noise—pa-dop, pa-dop, pa-dop!

While the fish cooked, and because we “needed” a vegetable, Mama sliced half a red cabbage (they have more nutrients, in case you were wondering), shaved a carrot, and mixed up some slaw dressing—mayo, cider vinegar, celery salt, and salt and pepper (again, all to taste). By the time she was done, it was time to turn the fish over. It was golden and puffed, and even I could tell it was crispy. The kitchen smelled kind of funny, to be honest, but Mama was very pleased.

When the fish was done, Mama removed it from the oil with a strange looking spoon—it was wide and flat with all kinds of holes in it—and put the pieces on a paper towel to drain. The fries were done, and all that remained to be done was to set the table. Dinner in no time at all.

Mama and Papa ate that dinner so fast, I think they rivaled the dog. As for me, I wouldn’t take one bite. Not a one. Of anything. What can I say? I’m a baby.

Love, Jude

Fried cod with tartar sauce, slaw, and oven fries with vinegar

Though I didn't eat any of it, I could probably have pulled any of it off the table. I'm getting really tall, you know.

Beer Batter

2 Tbsp cornstarch
2/3 tsp baking powder (roughly)
salt and pepper
A few tablespoons flour + more
2 eggs
1 cup room temperature beer
Flour for dredging whatever you’re going to dip in the batter

Whisk together the cornstarch, baking powder, salt and pepper, and a few tablespoons of flour in a large bowl. Add the eggs, and whisk to blend it all together. Add the beer and blend again. Then add enough flour to reach your desired consistency. Some people like a thicker batter, others a thinner one. Whisk it really well to get out all the lumps, then just set it out on the counter until you’re ready to use it.

Note: Mama says this makes a lot of batter, so if you’re only making a small amount of fish, pour some of it into a smaller bowl. That way you can save the remaining batter for something else—such as onion rings and other veggies, shrimp, or chicken strips. She also says you can add dried herbs and spices to the batter.