I can get my kids to eat lots of things, as long as I say the right thing while handing them the plate. The introduction, the lead-in, the setting of the scene, is everything.
Lucy, for instance, likes her pasta "plain". Plain really means pasta finished in a cast iron pan with olive oil, sauteed garlic and if I have some on hand, shallots, maybe a little knob of butter, salt and pepper, a few flecks of basil. Not too heavy-handed with the basil, lest she feel compelled to have me pick out the green pieces by hand.
But if Lucy comes to your house and you tell her you are serving her pasta with shallots and garlic, she will tell you she likes it plain and only plain, and she will ignore your dish into near oblivion. She will not care if this crushes your spirit or your will to cook again.
Edie is the same way. She will eat almost any cream-based soup, as long as I call it "chowder". I recently made Amanda Hesser's Cream of Roasted Tomato Soup, and she looked at me, looked at the soup, considered whether all this was true, and then, happily lapped it up, sure she was eating "chowder". Had I described it as it was, with the super-icky word "tomato" and the questionable "cream" in the title, well, that would've caused a sullen boycott.
And she would've eaten cashews and cottage cheese for dinner. This has happened before.
I often feel guilty about this trickery. I do it a lot and have lots of examples ...my favorite, and the one that makes me chuckle,is when I stupidly thought I could convince the children that kale chips were exactly the same as potato chips - junk food, just greener. They thought I had gone mad.
I've always wanted to be able to say that I don't lie to my kids. That we are equals of sorts, that we all respect each other enough to just say it plain. I want them to be this way with me, so I feel I should lead by example. I want to have that relationship where we tell each other everything, where no one is afraid to be themselves, or give their opinion for fear that it won't be accepted and understood.
I want that. In theory.
But in the everyday, I'm a raging Jessica Seinfeld - you know what I mean, a little pea puree in the cupcake and no one is the wiser - a little fib here, a little fib there to set my mind at ease that they have eaten well, that their teeth won't fall out from the scurvy. As a mother, it is my duty to worry about such things and if occasionally convincing Edie that sweet potato fries are actually pink princess fries, well, then, so be it, as long as she never gets rickets from a vitamin D deficiency.
Still, I have guilt.
I felt even worse about my little indiscretions after reading Melissa Clark's new cookbook, In the Kitchen With A Good Appetite, a book that compels me to cook from it, beckons me to stretch myself with recipes and stories that are a beautiful mix of the surprising and the familar - flavors I know and love, mixed with an unexpected ingredient or two, that knocks me off my feet and makes me wonder why I'm not as brilliant as she is.
Here, intermingled with stories of family and childhood, Melissa talks about the moment she realized her parents were lying to her about food - the chicken that was really rabbit (bunny), the steak that was really horse meat. Although Melissa writes about this with affection and humor, I'm convinced my kids will not see the humor. I can see Lucy angrily writing a cookbook someday and talking about how I stunted them with my lies and deception. Thanks to Melissa, I vowed to change my ways.
I made Melissa's "Really Easy Duck Confit", which was truly very easy and did not require a 25 mile jaunt to the nearest gourmet food store to find 6 tubs of duck fat. I really thought this was a no-brainer for the kids. The girls love any kind of bird. The favors were rich, but not spicy, (even a hint of "the spicey" can ruin a meal for Lucy) and there's nothing my kids love more than to hold the leg in the air and tear into the meat. Really, duck was gonna rock the meal.
Until we sat at the table, outside on the deck, in the cool country air, and Lucy asked, "Is this chicken?"
Silence. Should I? Shouldn't I? I saw Edie looking at me.
I pretended I was about to sneeze and mumbled something into my sleeve about duck that sounded more like "durack...kerumf...ack"
It's duck?, she asked. I nodded. Edie dropped the leg.
I saw it all going to hell right then and there. Lucy made a terrible face. I was going to have to cook a whole new dinner just for them. Shit.
I started talking. I could still recover this, I told myself. It wasn't like we took them out of the pond down the road, I told them. These ducks were raised for eating, just like chicken. It's exactly the same as chicken. I kept repeating chicken as if that was going to save it. I was scrambling. Their faces were blank.
And that's when she said it. Clarified it all. Lucy said, I would've eaten this if you had told me it was chicken.
And the door shut on duck confit, just as simple as that. And it was clear that lying was good. That our relationship could handle a few fibs, a little indiscretion here and there. I had been given permission. We were complicit. partners in deception. Everyone content with the lie. My guilt was gone.
And then, they spent the rest of the dinner holding the duck leg up in different positions begging me to photograph them making weird faces at the duck leg, which I did because at least if they were going to develop a goiter, I was going to get a blog post out of it.
And then, they just laughed themselves silly over my duck confit and how horrible it was to actually EAT a duck.
Next, I'm making Melissa's Coconut Fish Stew with Basil and Lemongrass (See? Surprising, yet familiar) But I'm telling Edie it's chowder.
What I love about Melissa's recipe is how stupidly simple this is. And impressive. And cheap. It will take you 3 and 1/4 hours to do this, plus an overnight of refrigeration, but almost all of that is cooking and marinating, not fussing. And you can make this up to a week in advance and just let the duck hang around soaking up all that fat in the fridge. If you want to save some fridge space, Melissa suggests shredding the cooled duck meat, covering it in fat and later using it on pasta, salads or as an hors d'oeuvre on toasts. Or you can serve it whole like we did and eat your meat straight off the bone. When you're ready to serve it, simply re-heat it at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.
Whatever you do, for the love of Mary, don't discard the duck fat. There is nothing better than eggs fried in duck fat or, as Melissa suggests, you can use it to saute potatoes, shrimp, fish or latkes. If you aren't using it right away, you can freeze little zip lock bags of it for later use. But seriously, everything is better in duck fat. It might change your life. Enjoy!
Melissa Clark's Really Easy (And Not Expensive) Duck Confit
Makes 4 servings
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf, crumbled
8 moulard duck legs (about 4 pounds total), rinsed and patted dry but not trimmed
1. In a small bowl, combine salt, pepper, thyme and bay leaf pieces. Sprinkle duck generously with mixture. Place duck legs in a pan in one layer. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.
2. The next day, heat oven to 325 degrees.Place duck legs, fat side down, in a large ovenproof skillet, with legs fitting snugly in a single layer (you may have to use two skillets or cook them in batches). Heat duck legs over medium-high heat until fat starts to render. When there is about 1/4 inch of rendered fat in pan, about 20 minutes, flip duck legs, cover pan with foil, and place it in oven. If you have used two pans, transfer duck and fat to a roasting pan, cover with foil and place in oven.
3. Roast legs for 2 hours, then remove foil and continue roasting until duck is golden brown, about 1 hour more. Remove duck from fat; reserve fat for other uses.
4. Serve duck hot or warm, over roasted potatoes or noodles or sturdy salad greens.