Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Cleaner Plate Club: More Than 100 Recipes for Real Food Your Kids Will Love

The Cleaner Plate Club: More Than 100 Recipes for Real Food Your Kids Will Love
Publisher: Storey Publishing (2010)
“Additive and preservative free!” When was the last time you saw anything marketed to children with that label on it? More common are the phrases “99-cent BIG BAG” and “now with more chocolate!” when it comes to the labels of “kid-friendly” fare. At the top 13 restaurant franchises in the US, perusing the “kids” menu found 93% over the acceptable calories and 86 % over the appropriate sodium intakes for their target clientele (p. 29)! There’s no wonder that the Western world is ballooning, given our shameful manner of feeding ourselves as adults – but the sad part is that the next generation is picking up all our bad habit crumbs, and without drastic changes to everyone’s diet, has no chance at all. Food lovers and moms Beth Bader and Ali Benjamin are on a quest to make that fate turn tail and run – for both us and our kids. After putting their heads together (and their families through multiple taste tests), the two penned The Cleaner Plate Club: More Than 100 Recipes for Real Food Your Kids Will Love.

Getting kids to adore their veggies is lofty goal for sure, especially when the issue is compounded by a foreign and occasionally “scary” looking produce section in the supermarket. Bader and Benjamin have done your homework for you, though – the first 153 artfully illustrated pages of the work read like a passionate encyclopedia on everything from portion control, shopping both grocery stores and farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture and information of almost every vegetable under the sun. To me, as a certified veggie-lover after years of steak-and-potato adoration, it was certainly enough to make me want to run to the nearest farm stand (too bad it’s the middle of a snowy February!). What I really loved was the huge amount of trivia “bites” (forgive the pun) included in these beginning sections. Lots of statistical comparisons and revelations of the common marketing ploys used in the industry are included in a fun-to-read format that only slightly borders on “preachy”. I’m sure that if a parent is picking up this book in the first place, they know the Standard American Diet is shameful – while extra information is interesting the lack of control most parents feel over their child’s eating habits doesn’t need to be crammed down their proverbial throats. Thankfully, the bulk of the “Meet Your Vegetables” pages are more food than fear, and there certainly are a basketful of colourful recipes to make.

I have to say that while the recipes in this book are certainly nutritious and tasty, any parent of a typical, modern-day child will have great difficulty incorporating most of them into their daily dinners. Kale soup? Delicata squash and Swiss chard sauce?  Even all but the most “health foodie” adults out there will likely still balk at some of the recipes – Lima Bean Hummus (p. 239) with Salt and Vinegar Kale Chips (p. 241) and a dessert of Rhubarb Crumble with Rosemary and Thyme (p. 252) are probably not going to be hits at the next dinner party. While I’m no kale-hater, the fact that Bader and Benjamin claim to be catering to the “everyday adult / parent” out there means the majority of foods included in Cleaner Plate are simply impractical to suggest.

Of question for me as a nutritionist (both conventional and holistic) were the recipes Bader and Benjamin include in their vegetarian section. While I applaud the authors for including one at all, I was expecting both more and more varied options. With a few exceptions (Carrot-Quinoa Biryani (p. 229), Curried Eggplant and Long Beans (p. 226), and Potato Salad (p. 228)) it seems that if you are vegetarian, pasta is the only thing you can dish up that’s both full of nutrition and kid-friendly. The problem here is that these pasta recipes are not even balanced from a macro-nutrient perspective: aside from a handful of cheese here and there, protein is absent from the pages. Given that growing evidence continually promotes the meat-restricted eating plan as a prime practice for longevity and the avoidance of disease, I was disappointed that a greater effort to include a variety of delicious, kid-appealing vegetarian and vegan meals in Cleaner Plate was not made. Considering that the authors include and promote ingredients like artichokes, fennel, lamb and capers, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to include a sweet-and-sour tofu stir-fry or “crispy breaded tofu sticks” in the childhood diet.
The fault with The Cleaner Plate Club is certainly not in its thoroughness, charm, or good intentions. For the well-schooled home cook who has the time, money and willingness to scope out the farmers’ markets every Saturday while joining a CSA, and who hasn’t yet introduced their family to the occasional alluring call of the drive-thu, it’s a great anthology of vegetable recipes. The problem lies in the marketing – like so many of the common “convenience” foods on the store shelves, it looks like a book your kids will grow up loving food from. For many busy families, though, getting kids to start eating (and enjoying) a healthier diet will be more successful by reducing the junk in the house, offering a few baby carrots and grapes after school and tossing in green peas with that night’s mac and cheese.
Available on Amazon

Saturday, February 5, 2011

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto
Editor: Joan Reardon
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2010)

The art of writing is a dwindling one these days. Memos, newspapers, family updates and even wedding invitations have become electronic – fragments of data firing at light speed across the globe to any number of recipients... all of whom can reply just as fast. Pen pals in the traditional sense are a rare breed now, almost like mankind has forgotten how to put pen to paper unless it’s to endorse or write a cheque. I’m proud to say that I do, for the most part, handwrite my notes in class, jot rough drafts of papers on good old Hilroy lined sheets, and physically mail my Christmas cards. I also have a conventional pen pal out in England, and let me tell you, nothing beats the excitement of opening the mailbox to find a triple-stamped air mail envelope from her. I can only imagine the elation Julia Child must have felt during her correspondence with Avis DeVoto as an American ex-pat. Readers can get an inkling, however, by paging through the anthology As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto compiled by biographer and editor Joan Reardon.
The beginnings of this story of the two women’s correspondence will be known to anyone who has read My Life in France or seen the film Julie & Julia – an accidental fall of fortune to be sure. But what readers of As Always will gain that is impossible to glean from the words of other authors is the unbridled emotion and connection exhibited by the personal words of the women. The book spans the creation of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, right from Child’s initial writing in France (where she opines on her “moral obligation” to the small publisher Ives Washburn and the possibility of recipe stealing, p. 18). Fascinating, too, as an aspiring cookbook author myself, was DeVoto’s original take on the book’s wording and general style as both a literary agent and, most importantly, an American home cook (p. 24). This little diatribe included notes from both Avis herself and the author Dorothy Canfield Fisher (via DeVoto) and provides a type of “inside peek” at the world of publishing. Imbedded in the letters, too, are bits of fascinating trivia about the art of cooking as a whole – that aluminum in the cooking liquid can cause eggs to turn green just as much as too much iron can, that frozen elk can be thawed and re-frozen without incident, and even a list of the “basic” fish to be included in a true Bouillabaisse (p. 99). Avis DeVoto even supplies Child with a recipe herself, for a five-hour-long pasta sauce concoction originally from John Ciardi (p. 61). The only shock came from the early history of their letters, where Julia defends the use of canned soup in cooking – a very un-French (and un-Julia!) notation.
When not cooking, it was obvious that the woman known to most as the Queen of the Kitchen still adored food, from shopping for it to dining out in the many countries the Childs moved to. After Paul Child was finished in France (known for lavish and well-executed meals) they were relocated to Germany, Norway and finally “home” to the United States, where Julia explored both the native cuisine and some of the more “outlandish” fare such as fledgling Chinese fare in Berlin.
It is clear that the letters in As Always were written by not only food lovers, but food writers. The subtle, yet distinct flair the two use in their language and understanding of each other rings of the exacting standards of classic English teachers... and not just due to the era of their penning. The style of their writing, however, does make for a book that is rather “chewy”. While filled with good information and certainly not lacking in emotion, the book is also packed with anachronistic political talk and sayings which often warrant a footnote for explanation. It is more confusing for those readers who did not grow up in the 1950’s and never “caught up” on the general gossip of the time, especially if they do not hail from the U.S. Admittedly, that confusion coupled with the sheer length of each letter (admitted in passing by both of them to be excessive!) does lead to dryness in As Always, and most readers will find their attention straying out of boredom. Granted, the letters were picked out of what must have been an extensive array for their content, but the “food-minded” audience this book would appeal to will find the political satire lost on them.
It is a shame that Avis DeVoto’s story and true gifts to the concoction of Mastering the Art of French Cooking are not widely known. Had she been in France at the beginning of the Trois Gourmandes, the trio would have undoubtedly been a foursome. DeVoto was an excellent cook and writer in her own right, and easily could have written an “American cook’s” cookbook even before her introduction to the world of Julia Child’s cuisine. However, Julia Child is Julia Child, and her infectious personality and energy even in the depths of misery (following the Houghton Mifflin rejection) is one of the driving forces of the compilation. In As Always, Julia, the combination of the two women create a recipe for letter writing as wonderfully emulsified as a perfect Caesar dressing – it’s just tart enough, full of zip and goes down easy.
Available on Amazon