Time to pour a hot cup of something and get comfy–you’re not going to want to get up until you’ve finished savoring this fantastic interview with Dana Talusani of the inspiring foodie-slash-family blog, The Kitchen Witch. I love Dana’s blog because it isn’t just a collection of recipes (though there are plenty of those, too)–she weaves together childhood memories and stories about her three children, family, friends and food in a way that leaves readers–pardon the pun–hungry for more.
This is a lengthy read, but so worth settling in for. And, bonus–you’ll find links to five of Dana’s most family-friendly recipes at the end.
Meagan: First, tell me a little about your background as it relates to food, motherhood, the intersection of food and motherhood…
Dana: I didn’t really plan to grow up in the kitchen, but I did. My early years were spent in North Dakota, in a very small house. We often were snowbound, and there wasn’t much else to do but muck around in the kitchen, punching down dough and whipping egg whites. My father travelled a lot, so often it was just my mother and two small girls at home.
My mother was overburdened and often rather preoccupied, but in the kitchen, she softened. Something about rolling up her sleeves and searching for the cinnamon made her relax, and she’d tell me stories about her childhood. I never realized that my mother had a sense of humor–that she was funny!–until I spent time next to her with a spoon in a mixing bowl.
I’m not sure how cooking relates to motherhood (particularly now, when so few people actually spend time in the kitchen) but when I think about it, what my mother taught me was: Food is Love. It sounds cliche, but it’s true. I knew that when the giant roasting pan came down from the shelf, Daddy was coming home; we always welcomed him with his favorite roast dinner. If we were snowbound, out came the yeast–nothing makes time pass like babysitting dough, watching it rise and manhandling it into something magical. If Mama was feeling melancholy, we’d bake something sweet–a little slice of comfort in a cold landscape.
I was a shy and awkward child, but I learned that you could communicate through food almost as well as you could through words. Maybe it’s crazy, but I never felt more loved than when I sat down to a bowl of spaghetti, after watching my mother nurture that pot of sauce all afternoon long. The entire day, that pot would bubble and pop, and she’d wander by, lifting the lid, inhaling steam, coaxing it into something delicious. That stove was the heart of our house.
Meagan: You used to be a personal chef. How is cooking for kids different than cooking for clients?
Dana: Dear God. As hard as it was to cook for clients, kids are, by far, a tougher nut to crack. At least my clients liked vegetables and ethnic food! Actually, when I was a personal chef, I only took on two clients/families at the most; it’s the only way I could maintain sanity. We live in the Rocky Mountains, and people are very, very conscious of fitness and nutrition. Most of my clients had very particular needs; they turned to personal chefs because they couldn’t get what they needed (vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, organic) if they ate out.
That said, I did have to turn down a few people who were just too high maintenance. One family I interviewed didn’t eat any vegetables except corn. Really? I got the willies just thinking about it. I guess that’s the difference–I could turn down clients who weren’t a good fit; alas, I’m stuck with my finicky children!
Cooking for kids isn’t necessarily a fun enterprise; they’re often operating within a very strict framework of tastes and textures. And while I was perfectly happy to cook for clients according to their tastes, I refuse to limit what my family eats depending on my kids’ preferences. I try to make a few meals a week that I *hope* my kids will eat, and we operate on the “one bite” rule. But honestly, my kids arrive home from school ravenous; they usually have eaten before my husband even graces the door (he often works late). My mother cringes a bit, but it’s our reality.
Weekends are different–more relaxed. It’s then that I open the kitchen doors, rally the troops, and we make something great together. My girls love to help in the kitchen, and I love having them there, and on weekends we have the time to experiment.
Meagan: So many moms these days just don’t feel comfortable in the kitchen–we never learned the basic skills we need and now, faced with a plenthora of tools, appliances, and cable cook-off shows…we just don’t know where to start. If you could pick five basic cooking skills you think are the MOST important to being able to put dinner on the table, what would they be?
Dana: That’s a really good question. I think people watch the Food Network and get completely intimidated. No offense to Rachael Ray–I see what she’s trying to do–but most people cannot do, in 30 minutes, what she can. And on a weeknight, nobody wants to spend more time than 30 minutes getting dinner on the table.
So, my five basic cooking skills:
1. Ability to plan ahead. I know, this isn’t really a “cooking” skill, but it’s actually the most important skill a busy parent needs. Too many people don’t think about dinner until late in the day, when they’ve been working and/or are tired. Hate to say it, but then it’s game over. I actually sit down on weekends and plan at least three meals for the week and write out a grocery list. Other meals can be go-to’s: omelets, sandwiches, pizza, but I make sure I have ingredients for those things on hand. It sounds like a lot of time and effort, but believe me, it will save your butt in the end.
2. Prep things ahead. Again, not a “cooking” thing, but crucial. This is one area where I have to give Rachael Ray credit–she’s right about going to the grocery store once a week, coming home and immediately washing/drying produce and chopping it, if necessary, and then storing those items in containers in the refrigerator. Making a healthy stir fry at 6:30 pm looks very different if you have ready ingredients vs. an unwashed head of broccoli, a whole bell pepper, snap peas that need de-stringing…you get my point. What if all you had to do was slice up some chicken and put some rice on the stove?
3. Stock the pantry. See where I’m going with this? Sounds basic, but it makes a difference when you’ve got half an hour and hungry bellies. The things I am never without: pasta, rice, canned beans/tomatoes, Boboli pizza shells, salsa, chicken broth, olive oil, white wine, tomato sauce, tortillas, jarred roasted red peppers, good quality canned tuna. In the refrigerator: minced garlic, onions, fresh parsley, at least 2 kinds of yummy cheese, bacon, eggs. In the freezer: peas, broccoli, chicken, frozen ravioli.
4. Learn how to make a few quick pan sauces. Boring chicken problem solved. Once you learn the basic technique, you can branch out and experiment; it’s more a method than a recipe.
5. Conjure some veggie love. My husband always says that he didn’t like salads until he met me. Why? Because I make a kick-butt salad–my salads have lots of goodies in them. This doesn’t even necessarily require cooking, just planning. Have a jar of marinated artichokes on hand, a good salty cheese, some toasted nuts, something fresh for crunch and…done. I do often make my own salad dressing and keep it in a jar in the refrigerator–a lot of the bottled stuff is drek–they use crummy olive oil. And as for cooked vegetables, I never met a vegetable that you couldn’t liven up with some butter, a little garlic salt and a dash of Parmesan. It takes maybe 3 minutes extra to make that veggie sing–why not do it?
Meagan: Likewise, what do you think are the five most important kitchen tools (appliances excepted!)
1. A heavy, large (12-14-inch) saute pan. Not non-stick. This is your kitchen workhorse; don’t skimp on it. A proper one will cost you a bit, but it’s worth it. This pan is for searing meat at high heat, making pan sauces, stir-frys.
2. A 10-inch, non-stick skillet. This is for omelets, scrambled eggs, vegetables–things you cook on medium or medium-high flame. It’s not for high heat–use the saute pan for that–but the non-stick surface is easy to clean and allows you to cut down on butter and oil.
3. A cast-iron grill pan. This one won’t come cheap either, but again, worth it. We have some long winters here; I don’t have access to a grill year-round. This pan lets me sear burgers and kabobs in the dead of winter; all I have to do is crack a window.
4. A set of stainless steel kitchen tongs. I cooked for years without tongs and now I can’t imagine how I did it. I use tongs for everything–handling meat, tossing salads, coating pasta with sauce. I like OXO brand.
5. A glass of wine. And maybe some Lyle Lovett on the cd player. I’m serious. Try to make that half hour of cooking time less of a chore. Breathe, relax your shoulders a bit. The best part of the day is about to begin.
Meagan: Do you have a philosophy about food or a specific approach to the way you feed your family?
Dana: My kids are all over the place in age. My stepson heads to college next year and my youngest has yet to start Kindergarten. Our lives are crazy, stressful. Still, I don’t want dinner to be a hassle. Mealtimes should be pleasant, there should be healthy things offered, but I don’t beat myself up about it. The little ones are picky eaters. I don’t sweat it. They’ll grow out of it–I don’t want to be the food Nazi.
I know there are a lot of experts advocating the return of the family dinner, and I respect that, but I think it puts a lot of pressure on families. During the week, my kids come home starving; they often eat at the kitchen counter around 4:30. I’m in the kitchen prepping dinner, we talk about their day, we enjoy each other. If they want to eat again with us later, that’s great. Sometimes my stepson doesn’t get home until late; he’s got a sandwich in the refrigerator. We are able to slow down and eat together on weekends; we cook together or fire up the grill.
What counts is that every day, I touch base with each of my kids. It doesn’t have to be over a casserole at 6pm sharp.
But I do believe that food matters; it connects us, grounds us, gives us roots. We have a garden; the kids know where food comes from, what an avocado tastes like. They’re encouraged to try new things, and that sense of adventure will come. For now, they just know that dinner is waiting for them, that I want to hear what they have to say, and that there’s love behind it.
Meagan: Will you please share links to five of your most kid-friendly, quick and easy recipes?
Thank you, Dana. Food is love indeed–I believe it when I read your stories. Is anyone else feeling as inspired by Dana’s attitude toward food, family, and life as I am? (Oh, and these delicious-looking recipes…)
Have a great weekend! We’ll be in Florida all next week, so expect intermittent postings from the road. If you haven’t already, don’t forget to enter my giveaway for a copy of Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life AND a KitchenAid immersion blender.