Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Chicken and dumplings

This looks horrible but honestly it was delicious

I have been asked to do a bit more on the feeding of small children and I do, as it happens, have some new things to say on this fabulously tricky subject.

So the situation is this: Sam will be one next week, (which is staggering considering he's still such a massive, fat, melon-bummed baby who can't crawl or anything), and will no longer eat puree and isn't especially terrific at feeding himself. Or so I thought.

Because I am not terribly bright, I have always thought that one day babies go from being spoon-fed puree, to sitting down and eating giant Sunday roasts totally competently, on their own, with a knife and fork.

I thought there was something wrong with Kitty when she failed to do this. In fact, I now see that there is a torturous in-between stage where you have to put aside your bourgeoise expectations of keeping your children and their terrifying barbarism at arm's length and get your hands dirty.

It has always struck me as bizarre that although as a species we live entirely unnatural lives - we fly in airplanes, have central heating, electric lights - when it comes to babies people go wild about everything being natural. You must co-sleep because it is natural, you must breastfeed exclusively because it is natural, you must chew up your kids' food and spit it out of your mouth into theirs because it is natural. I'll tell you what else is natural - dying of diphtheria, headlice and being murdered by Vikings.

But in this instance, I concede that if Sam is going to eat, I have to drop the fucking attitude.

So feeding Sam is now a three-pronged attack. I give him something large to hang on to and gnaw at, like a corner of bread, a triangle of hamburger, a ball of sausage; other small pieces of stuff are placed on his highchair tray, a bit of potato, pinches of chicken, pre-chewed (hurp) bits of serious meat like stewed beef or spare rib or whatever. Then from a bowl of meat, veg and carb I pinch together little combinations of food and feed him by hand.

For example, at lunchtime today I bought a chicken and avocado sandwich from Pret and gave him that; I tossed away the salady leaves, gave him some of the bread to chew on, pinched tiny bits of chicken up and put them on his tray and then mashed up marble-sized combinations of chicken, avocado and bread to post into his gob with my fingers.

It's a very slow, rather messy process but the fact that he's eating it, (and with the sandwich meaning I haven't had to bloody cook anything), outweighs everything.

I also find that most mealtimes have a sort of arc of speed that you have to respect and have patience with. It takes Sam a while to get going and warm up - he spat out the avocado a few times and turned his head away from the offered chicken for a few minutes - then he decides he's hungry and things descend into a sort of orgy of gobbling, finger sucking, licking, gaping mouths, trembling tongues. He wants to feed me, jamming things into my mouth and going "maaaah", (just to check, I suspect, that I am not trying to poison him).

yes the bib is from Ikea. yes I know you have the exact same one

Then he slows down and starts launching things off his tray onto the floor, hanging his head over to see where it has gone. I usually take this as an indication that the savoury part of lunch is over. Today he got for his pudding half a slice of Pret banana cake (no icing), which he poked down with a speed and alacrity I haven't seen since his father left for America. Then a yoghurt, then a 5oz bottle, then bed.

All this might seem obvious to everyone else, but I would never have believed you when Kitty was Sam's age that I could have bought a sandwich and fed that to her for lunch. It would have halved my blood pressure. Or she might have refused to eat that, too.

A great success last night was a meal of chicken and dumplings, inspired by the song She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain ("Oh, we'll all have chicken and dumplings when she coooooomes…") Sam liked it a lot. He likes especially to hold on to a chicken bone like Bam-Bam and chew on it. Kitty was more reluctant about the dumplings, but she ate the chicken and I provided on the side some chopped cucumber and carrots for her to have with it.

Chicken and dumplings with gravy

6 chicken wings or 3 chicken thighs
85g self raising flour
40g beef suet
parsley if you have it
about 150ml chicken stock
1 tsp plain flour

1 Roast the chicken pieces at 180 for 40min in a small tin that can also go on the hob.

2 Meanwhile make the dumplings - mix together the flour and suet with a large pinch of salt (if you want) and a sprinkling of parsley - then add some dribbles of water and bring this dough together until you get a soft consistency, not too dry. Shape them into four or six balls.

3 Steam these in a steamer or in a sieve over a pan of boiling water for about 20 minutes. They can sit in the steamer to keep warm until you're ready for them (just turn the heat down).

4 Take the chicken out of the oven and put the pieces aside to cool. Sprinkle a teaspoon of plain flour over any juice or grease in the tin (there won't be much, don't worry about this) and mash it about until there is sort of a paste. Then pour over a splash of the chicken stock and mix this in. The pour over the rest of the stock and whisk over a medium heat until you get a gravy. You can add a dash of soy to this for a bit of extra flavour.

If you are thinking that this seems to be an awful lot of hassle for kids tea then you are right, it is. But once you've done it once, it will seem less of a hassle the next time - and the dumpling dough can be made in advance.

Try not to worry, if you too are at this stage of weaning, about waste. It's just one of those things with kids, it's impossible to get amounts exactly right. It's also difficult to cook very tiny amounts of things, so compost and use leftovers where you can but beyond that, just put it in the bin and forget about it and make a donation to Oxfam to assuage your guilt.

Don't not try out new things because your heart sinks at the idea of waste (as mine did with Kitty, which is why her meal repertoire is a bit thin). Children obviously have things that they'd rather eat than not and no child should be expected to eat everything - or, some days, to eat anything - but at the same time they will just eventually eat things if they come across them often enough.

For example Kitty and Sam eat toast with quite bitter marmalade because that's what we eat; Kitty will drain the dregs of your espresso if you look the other way for a millisecond, because that's what there is lying about the house. She will even, one time in three that it is offered, eat an entire floret of broccoli. I've always put it in front of her and not said a word about whether she eats it or not. Not like I'm so fucking brilliant, but it does work. Sometimes she'll fancy it and nosh it down, other times not. I'm the same really.

Other things:

- To save time I will quite often cook a batch of rice up at either breakfast or during Sam's lunchtime naps, which can then later be quickly fried off in a pan with some butter and frozen peas.

- New potatoes will cook in 20 min in an oven at top whack, and they can then be roughly mashed with butter and you don't have to bugger about boiling anything. NO SAUCEPAN TO WASH UP.

- I hammered a nail in to the wall next to my sink and hang on it a special j-cloth, to be kept chemical-free, to wipe small faces and hands so that we don't go through 40,000 wet wipes every mealtime.

- I always keep handy for Sam a lot of yoghurt, Ella's fruity pouches and rusks in case dinner is a total disaster and he needs to eat something else just for my own neurotic peace of mind.  I personally don't think that a child under about 18 months will be canny enough to reject food because they "know" that you will give them something else. It is hard with your first child to understand that, but they are terribly dim - if they can't see it, they don't know it's there. Or rather, they can't be sure enough to hold out for it.

- Now Sam isn't eating mainly pureed veg and is drinking cow's milk, I give him Abidec vitamin drops every day. Kitty has chewable vitamins, like a fortified Haribo. The "sweetie fairy" leaves it for her on her Trip Trapp every morning and she gobbles it down. Sucker.

-I read to my children at teatime. Pretty much the only thing Kitty is not allowed to do is eat her lunch or tea in front of the telly. If I let her she would sit and eat everything on her plate, but I just can't do it. Everyone's got a line they don't cross and that's mine. So instead we read and it means that she will keep eating after she has satisfied her basic hunger, rather than running off, and also she will distractedly stuff things in her gob that she might otherwise be suspicious of.

On an entirely separate point, it's my birthday today. I know how you all like to keep up to date with important events in the Rifle Calendar.

Since you didn't ask, I am 34. I don't feel at all old. The oldest I've ever felt was when I was 25 and although at times it hasn't felt like it, life has improved every year since.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Ham and cheese croquettes

You know those times when you actually feel, despite everything, quite organised? When the house seems reasonably tidy - old sandwiches do not fall out of jigsaw boxes etc - babysitters have been booked in advance for important events, everyone has enough clothes of the right size, one's phone is charged and you know what everyone is having for tea tonight. That feeling?

I am having the opposite of that feeling. I feel like I am in a vortex of vague, a fog of ummmmm. I look at the clock and I am baffled as to how it's that time already, or Oh Fucking Christ it's only 8.20am. I look in the freezer for food for Sam and realise it's all gone. But didn't I only just cook up a massive batch of thingy to put in here? I sit down to do an Ocado order and realise I didn't bring my shopping list to the computer. So I get up to go and find it but then the doorbell rings, and I deal with whoever it is and then I shut the door and turn and I find myself in the hallway wondering what to do next.

So I stand about humming a bit, eyeing some cobwebs in high, far corners and then remember "The Ocado!" and dash to my computer and sit down… now *pat pat pat* where is my little list…. it's like this all the time. I feel drunk, unsteady on my feet - what is that bloody pile of junk doing there, still? - I feel like I am slurring my words but I'm not. I can't describe where things are, I forget what month we are in, what day it is. I'm like Johnny 5, but not alive. Show me a rorschach and I will say "Who's going to clean up that fucking mess, then? Me?!"

Meanwhile Kitty, on holiday from nursery, sits in a corner with no pants on "doing stickers" with a painless nosebleed that has gone unnoticed by everyone including her and she has smeared a scarlet streak across her face from nose to ear. My stomach lurches as I pluck out wet wipes to dab at her face while she claws me away. Tiny sticky ballerinas, flowers, bumblebees are scrunched in the crevices of her tense restless grubby hands; a pirate swings crazily about, scaling the rigging of her fringe - a bear holding a briefcase is plastered to her vest.

I smell, again, that faint but unholy stink in the air that everyone has decided is a dead mouse under the floorboards. They look at me accusingly. Why have I allowed the mouse to die and decompose under the floorboards? What am I doing to rectify this situation?

What have I been doing? What it feels like I have been doing for the last three years is tidying up the kitchen only for it to be a total fucking dump the next time I look at it. WHO IS MAKING ALL THIS MESS???? Is it me? Is it Sam who now wants to feed himself with a spoon and is actually quite good at it but also dumps a reasonable amount on the floor, too? Is it my husband, who is back from America briefly before he goes again on some day in the future, the distance away from now a thing I cannot possibly compute? Who is it? WHAT IS HAPPENING???

I think it is a combination of my husband being back from America and Kitty being at home from nursery. Neither of them are particularly troublesome on their own but I am the lightning rod, the buck stops with me. The tiny cogs that turn and make up their lives - that's me, too. Loo roll, toothpaste, lunch, clean pyjamas, clean pants, shoes in the right place, a rucksack with water, snacks and spare pants to take to the zoo. Me. Enough detergent to wash the pants. Me. Dinner tonight, me. So one extra person around during the day, let alone two, means about 4,000 more cogs to attend to.

I don't want to sound like a martyr, it's fine, I don't mind doing it, but I don't seem to be able to do it properly. The thing is that when you spend your life dealing in tiny details, ("are there anymore bulldog clips so I can close this just-opened packet of pasta?", "mum can I have another sticker page?", "could you post these letters if you're going up the road?", "can I have some water?", "we need a babysitter for Thursday"), you live your life in five minute chunks. And when you do have an hour alone, you so expect to be interrupted any second now with a request, an emergency, a doorbell, a phonecall, that you cannot settle to anything. You rack your brains to think of what you ought to be doing right now and you cannot think. You just cannot think. You stare out of the window at the sunshine and then turn back to the clock and it is fifteen minutes later. Fuck!

Then just as your husband walks in the door with your three year old a cold hand squeezes your heart as you remember that you forgot, on your little sally up the road for a few things, to get anything for lunch.

My husband comes off worst at times like this, as husbands tend to, and while he was back briefly from America I have him a series of panicked dinners that were so terrible that I really felt quite sorry for him and guilty, even though my husband will eat anything.

Then he went away again and Kitty went back to nursery and Sam, sensing that it was his role, now, as man of the house, to shake things up a bit, decided to go from slurping down any sort of puree you danced in front of his nose to eating only an assortment of exciting and complex finger food, the catch being that he is not especially brilliant at eating it.

I have ended up making for him the sort of dainty dinners that Giles would fall and weep with gratitude to receive from my cirrhotic hand. The other catch is that Sam will only eat it if I have fucking chewed it once first. Yes you heard me. Any challenging mouthful he points at me like "fucking chew it you mother then give it to me". He looks at me intently, flaring his nostrils, the tips of his fingers quivering in anticipation, high on power, while I chew his bloody food and then hand it to him.

Anyway I don't care. It goes against my entire parenting facade to do this, but there's no-one to see.

The other thing that I have been doing while my husband is away again is trying to get both kids to eat the same bloody thing, which is harder than it sounds. But tonight they had ham and cheese croquettes with broccoli on the side, which went down really well and I recommend them to you.

I am grateful to Becky B for suggesting this to me.

Ham and cheese croquettas
makes about 6

(I've got no idea how echt a recipe this is, I just made it up. It works fine but the croquettes come out quite fragile - there might be a trick to making them a bit more solid but I don't care what it is so don't tell me.)

here we go

2 potatoes smaller than your closed fist
a handful of cheddar, grated
2 slices cheap ham, diced
garlic granules (if you like) or a very tiny amount of freshly squeezed garlic
about 25g butter
fresh breadcrumbs or medium Matzoh meal
1 egg, beaten
oil for frying

1 Chop, boil and drain your potatoes for 20 mins. Pass through a masher or a potato ricer. My husband got me a potato ricer for Christmas but I only used it for the first time yesterday and it's AMAZING.

2 Mix the potato immediately with the butter, cheese and ham, season with the garlic and salt and pepper (depending on how you feel about giving this to kids) and then leave to cool down a bit.

3 When cool enough to handle, shape into sausage shapes, roll in the beaten egg, then in the breadcrumbs then fry for a bit each side until golden brown. There is nothing raw here that needs to be cooked, except the egg but, really, come on, so just until they're brown will do.

Give them to your kids and watch them VANISH like a magic trick. No pre-chewing required. Then stop starting every sentence with "Has anyone seen my….?" because it's annoying.