This summer marks the third year of our blended family adventure. The family dinner has been the locus of both frustration and joy. In our case, we negotiate complex fluctuating schedules that involve cooking for three half the time during the school year, for five the other half and occasionally six (when my college kid visits). We have yet to cook for each other on the rare occasions when its just the two of us. That topic may be a future series entitled, “The Raw and Well Preserved.” Complicating the logistics of groceries and preparation, we also bring with us two very different cooking traditions. mine, South Asian (Bengali) and Jim’s, Southern. Which means, I crave spice and he craves sweet. This basic difference only begins to map the gastronomic battleground that is our dinner table that also includes four daughters with divergent taste profiles. What is a cook to do?
Here is my developing three-pronged strategy. I’d love to hear yours.
- Do not take any food preferences as a judgment and respect each member’s flavor profile.
- Deconstructed dinners are your friend. Fajitas, burgers, pasta…anything that can have multiple toppings. Similarly, condiments are required to personalize each dish.
- Left-overs can make a wonderful buffet or the basis for a recreated and re-purposed dish.
Despite these efforts there are dinners that fail to satisfy everyone. I’ve accepted the inevitability and the evenings of resignation that involve the phrase “let’s just eat out.” My efforts have not been futile. There have been a few good meals that we all shared and enjoyed together. Most importantly, I learned a lot about each of my loved ones. Learning their flavor profiles help me anticipate their reactions and makes my cooking deliberate. Gastronomic profiling certainly has the potential of being abused. Like, telling my 19 year old…”but you loved chicken nuggets and baked potatoes when you were 4.” On the other hand, it can be a working guideline, just like recipes. When judging recipes, I look at which flavor profiles are met or not met and change the recipe accordingly. Cooking becomes a form of user centered design and object oriented attention to ingredients. Let me explain what I mean by flavor profiles and preferences. My family consists of the following profiles: milk, eggs, bread, meat, eggplant and calamari. (of course, there are lot of cross overs and blending of preferences)
Jim (aka MILK) enjoys anything with the smooth rounded umami feel of cream. His preferences lean towards the salty and sweet. Oreo shakes, steaks, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, lemon bars, barbeque sauce on anything. To “Jimmify” a recipe, I add cream. Cream for Jim has the power to transform a curry from a foreign adventure to familiar comfort. Thai curries with coconut milk, alfredo sauce (no pesto for Jim), chicken marsala with mashed potatotes, Indian butter chicken all these have the common denominator of a smooth silky taste.
I have always had a deep love of eggs, whether scrambled, fried, made into a custard, salty, spicy or sweet. After a hard day, I console myself with a fried egg on buttered toast with guava jelly. I enjoy bright lemony flavors. Vegetables. Broccoli is my friend. Spice and heat make me feel alive. Three days of bland food leaves me depressed. I have a love/hate relationship with desserts. I prefer the last bites of my meal to be spicy.
Calamari is one of the last things I ate with my eldest daughter home from college. She sets a very high bar. Every bite for her should aspire to contain a rainbow of flavors. She’s a fan of the refreshing and hearty combo. Burgers with layers of flavors. Tapas style dinners. Dinner plates that offer a range of taste from salty, crunchy, acidic, creamy etc. Aiming for diversity and choice, she is my most adventurous eater. When she visits, I try to have a mix of new and familiar dishes, a mix of cultures, a mix of flavors. Fried Calamari with a dipping sauce, has the elements of chewy, savory, crunchy, creamy, lemony that befits her.
Eggplant represents my second daughter who is the only kid I know who really and honestly enjoys vegetables. Eggplant, broccoli and green beans are her favorite. I’m so in awe of her. She will eat eggplant cooked any style, Indian, Italian, Greek, Thai….Her flavor profile includes clean bright flavors of vegetables, sushi, lentils, as well as savory lamb, goat, eggs, shrimp, lobster, all Asian flavors, Indian food. She will try anything as long as I describe it to her first. Like me, she tires of bland food and left overs.
Meat represents my daughter from another mother. She is my simple eater. Chicken, steak, shrimp, pasta, rice with no spice, no sauce or gravy. Her major food groups are burgers, bacon, cinnamon rolls, Bertolli’s Chicken Florentine and peanut butter sandwiches. She likes her meals to be predictable and consistent. For her, I deconstruct meals by leaving off the sauces and gravies. She’s our minimalist.
Bread represents my youngest daughter from another mother. She will eat or at least try anything if accompanied by bread (and butter). She happily tried beef curry and butter chicken dipped in porota (Indian flat bread). In the past three years she has absorbed the most of our culinary blending.
Everyone LOVES desserts. Brownies, cookies, cakes, lemon bars, magic bars, pecan pie, coconut pie……..anything.
As long as I have something new, something familiar, something starchy, something meaty, something creamy, something spicy and something sweet on our chopped and blended dinner table……….. all is well. It doesn’t happen everyday but on the few occasions when it does….the silence around the table is magic.
This Chopped and Blended Series will be devoted to recipes for deconstructed meals. Look for the first installment soon.