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The right buttons

Before we get started: thank you for your comments on my previous post, and for sharing so many good tips and ideas about feeding families. May I say that you all seem like great parents? You seem so sane. (Sanity! Sometimes I think it’s the highest goal.) I’m going to get unbecomingly sappy for a minute and say, yet again, how happy I am to have this space, this community of sorts. I know I’ve said it before, but I think about it even more often than I say it.

I also think about leftover oatmeal muffins. I think about leftover oatmeal muffins even more often than I think about oatmeal, which is inconvenient, because you obviously have to have oatmeal before you can have leftover oatmeal muffins.  Annnnd now you know why I make oatmeal. I’ve been keeping it from you all this time.

Of course, good oatmeal, like Megan’s oatmeal in the link up there, reheats so well that there’s no reason not to eat it on the second day. By all means, eat your leftover oatmeal.  But should you ever find yourself with not-as-good-as-Megan’s oatmeal, or should you be bored with eating oatmeal as oatmeal, or should you be only human in that you would rather have a muffin (which some people like to remind us, wanh wanh WAAAH, is basically cake) than hot cereal, you should laminate this recipe and stick it to the fridge. I first heard about it from Lisa, who (I think) heard about it from Amanda Soule, who quietly slipped her recipe into the end of a blog post a couple of years ago. And now I am here to shout about it.

I’ve made these muffins many times, many different ways.  At some point, I discovered that there’s also a recipe for leftover oatmeal muffins in The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, and the way I make mine is a hybrid of that one and Amanda’s.  I use more butter than Amanda does - though there’s still not much; you could certainly try more - and I use less baking powder.  As muffins go, these are not sweet, not heavy, and they’re also not especially cake-like. They’re just cake-like enough to push the right buttons, but not to set off any alarms.  They have a wonderful chew, the way most baked goods involving oats do, and if you use steel-cut oatmeal, it’s especially nice. The steel-cut oats almost seem to crackle - don’t know how that could be, but they do - in your mouth. And it’s a handy recipe, too, because in addition to taking care of your leftover oatmeal, it will also absorb any flavorings you want to add: nuts (ding ding!), seeds, dried fruit, fresh fruit, chunks of chocolate (ding ding!), spices, whatnot. I call this recipe a keeper.

The one thing I should say: because these muffins don’t have a great abundance of butter, they really are best on the first day.  I know a lot of recipes say that, and I don’t always agree, but here I do.  That said, the recipe does make a good number of muffins, and if you have some left over, all is not lost. I’ve eaten them after two or three days on the counter, and not unhappily.  Just throw them in a toaster oven (or regular oven) to warm them and recrisp the edges.

Leftover Oatmeal Muffins
Adapted from Amanda Soule and The Fannie Farmer Cookbook

These muffins come together quickly, especially if you mix up the dry ingredients the night before. I once managed to make them at 7:30 am while wearing a wiggly 14-month-old in a sling. FIST BUMP! (Or, TERRORIST FIST JAB!  Uggghhhhh.)

Also, for the record, I like these best with walnuts and bittersweet chocolate as my add-ins.  I used a ¼ cup of each: that’s about 30 grams of walnuts, chopped, and 45 grams of Valrhona 64% Manjari chocolate discs, chopped.

1 ½ cups (210 grams) all-purpose flour
¼ cup (50 grams) sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
½ cup add-ins (such as nuts, chopped chocolate, coconut flakes, fruit, etc.)
1 large egg
1 cup (185 grams) cooked oatmeal, preferably steel-cut
½ cup (120 ml) whole milk
2 tablespoons (28 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

Preheat the oven to 400°F, and grease a 12-cup muffin tin.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and add-ins.

In another bowl, lightly beat the egg. Add the oatmeal to the egg, and mash with a fork to break up clumps. Add the milk and the butter, and stir or whisk to combine.

Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture, and stir briefly to just combine. Divide the batter evenly between the wells of the prepared muffin tin. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of one of the muffins comes out clean. The muffins won’t brown much on top and might even look a little anemic, but that’s okay. Serve warm, ideally.

Note: These muffins are best when they’re fresh from the oven, or on the day that they’re made.

Yield: 12 smallish muffins


In it together

First things first: if you don’t want to read about kid stuff, you should skip this post. I won’t mind.  A few years ago, I totally would have skipped it. You have my permission, and my sympathy.

But if you, on the other hand, spent part of yesterday as I did, sitting on the floor with a sparkly child-size tulle skirt on your head, singing "Your Personal Penguin" to a small person while she sucked on a hank of her own hair, you might be at least somewhat interested in this post.

A few of you have written to ask if I would share my perspective on and approach to feeding kids. I’ve hemmed and hawed, mostly because the topic is fraught with mines and quicksand and very, very strong opinions. I am a new parent with a child who has only been eating solids for about six months. I am not an expert.  No noooo NOOOOOOO.  I am also keenly aware that my perspective would be different if my child or I had a food allergy or intolerance, or if my child were very picky. What I’m trying to say is: my perspective doesn’t mean much.

That said, I know that I really enjoy reading about other parents’ approaches to feeding their kids. I find it helpful. Sometimes stressful, but often helpful, insightful, and even galvanizing. Maybe you find it helpful, too?  So, maybe, if I do write a bit about my approach to feeding June, we can all agree to stay cool about it and understand that I do not claim to know anything about any child but my own?

To be honest, I try not to think too hard.  I assume that if June is getting some fruits, some vegetables, some fat, and some protein most days, she’s going to be all right. Ever since she was born, I’ve had this sense - I can’t explain it without sounding all new-age-y and annoying; get out your crystals, folks! - that June is going to be okay. That goes generally, across the board. I hope I never have to second-guess it. When it comes to feeding her, I try to avoid any guidelines or quantities, because they keep me up at night.  The way I see it, my job is to offer a reasonable variety of foods, the kind of stuff that Brandon and I eat, and June’s job is to choose which parts to eat and how much. I don’t cajole when she doesn’t want to eat, and I don’t praise her when she does. Sometimes she eats like a pack of wild dogs, and sometimes, like tonight, she eats only a few bites. I’m sure that there are many picky moments to come, and maybe even picky weeks, months, or years. If there is one thing that I am trying to remember in my young career as a parent, it’s that whatever is true today may not be true tomorrow. And I want food to be something fun that we can share, not a source of strife.  I have to lay the foundations for that.

My approach to feeding June has been shaped in large part by two people: my friend Matthew Amster-Burton, author of Hungry Monkey, and Nina Planck, author of Real Food for Mother and Baby. (I read the latter while I was pregnant, and it also had a big impact on how I decided to eat during pregnancy, and how I eat now.)  For me, the big take-away from Matthew’s book is this: there is no such thing as baby food. And that dovetails nicely, I think, with Nina Planck’s viewpoint, which is roughly this: Whole foods are best. Cereals are not great first foods, because babies’ bodies aren’t able to break down complex starches. Babies need fat and protein. And mostly, babies - and mothers - need good, simple food.

June tasted her first solid food around five months, when I let her suck on some raw apple that I had sliced for myself. I also gave her tastes of my favorite whole-milk plain yogurt, parsnip soup, split pea soup, avocado, pizza crust, chana masala, and a bunch of other foods from our plates. Neither Brandon nor I have food allergies, and our doctor was pretty laid-back on the topic of first foods. He suggested that we be careful with citrus and strawberries, which apparently can cause reactions, but otherwise, he explained that the guidelines for first foods change so often that it’s hard for him to get strongly behind any of them. As it happened, June wasn’t really interested in solids until she was about 10 months old, at which point she had teeth and could handle a decent variety of textures. Over a couple of months, she started eating more "real" meals and nursing less. I introduced her to whole cow’s milk when she was just under a year old, and I weaned her from the breast completely about a month ago, at 15 months.

I salt June’s food as we salt our own.  I try not to give her a lot of sweet things - not because I think I can mold her into a non-sweets-craving person (haa haaaa, RIIIIIIIIIGHT), but mostly because I know she will want to eat the living crap out of them, and I want her to save room for other things. I would like her to grow up understanding that there is no such thing as bad food: that some foods are better for our bodies, yes, and some food isn’t food at all (like Nerds and sour gummies, both of which I would currently kill for), but that there is time enough for all of it. I want her to know that food is about pleasure and connection and sustenance.

Sometimes she eats everything we give her. Other times, she won’t touch something that she loved only the day before. Sometimes she throws her food on the floor. Sometimes she feeds it to Alice. Sometimes she feeds it to us. Sometimes she spits it out and plays with it and then puts it back in her mouth and eats it. In any case, I try not to respond. I don’t try to make her eat. If she can feed herself, I let her.  She’s in charge of how much she eats. She knows a few signs - food, water, milk, more, please - and she can tell me when she is hungry or thirsty. I try not to hover or push or freak out. I try. I really try.

So far, June’s favorite foods are milk, fruit, and meat.  She would probably drink milk and eat bananas and brisket all day, if I let her.  But she also loves Hugo’s pastina, any meat that’s fall-apart tender, scrambled eggs, cold pepperoni, Brandon’s pizza, pasta with our friend Francis Lam’s eggplant sauce, Cafe Lago meatballs, ham bone soup, pasta with Bolognese, French fries, prosciutto, a cannellini bean and lamb soup that Lecia made, and Ed Fretwell Soup from my first book. I try to always keep peas in the freezer and a roasted sweet potato in the fridge, and when I can, I make a big batch of homemade applesauce. At the end of summer, she was way into berries, and somewhat into roasted zucchini. Lately, she’s into roasted Brussels sprouts, slightly mushy steamed broccoli, and oranges.  She likes rice and beans, and pho. Most mornings, she eats whole-milk plain yogurt and fruit, or some oatmeal. Yesterday, we had oatmeal pancakes - which, when cold, also make a good midday snack with a slice of cheddar cheese. For dessert, she’s a big fan of graham crackers, or half a banana and some peanut butter. We offer her water with every meal - from a cup, a cup with a straw, or a bottle; whatever is around - and we save milk for first thing in the morning, naptime, and bedtime, or else she fills up. I think June would want me to add, just for the sake of completeness, that she is not a fan of avocado, fish, or seafood. And she refuses to swallow any kind of winter squash. She likes bread, but so far only as a toy. And that is the truth according to June on this day, January 15, 2014.

I hope this is helpful?  Or, at least, I hope this didn’t make you feel like I feel, which is to say, totally preoccupied with getting your hands on some sour gummies?  Either way, I guess we’re in it together. xx


A good person to know

I first met Megan at a conference, I think? I’m a real loser when it comes to conferences - crowds make me feel like hiding under furniture, and my brain is a wide-mesh sieve for faces and names - but I think that’s how it happened. We met at a conference, and at some point down the line, she happened to hire our friend Sam to do the website for her granola company Marge, and at some point further down the line, Megan and Sam started dating, and at some point down the line from there, she became Our Friend Megan. I hope she will still be Our Friend Megan after I post this picture of her and Sam being pummeled by wind on Puget Sound.

If you like to eat, she’s a good person to know, especially if you like to eat breakfast, and particularly if you like to eat things involving oats. When I run out of homemade granola, hers is the only one I buy. In recent years, she’s done a lot of playing around with other grains, too, grains that tend to intimidate me but luckily not Megan, and about ten days ago, her first cookbook, Whole-Grain Mornings, was published by Ten Speed Press. You might have already heard of it - Heidi, for one, just mentioned Megan’s California Barley Bowl - but as soon as I tried her method for making steel-cut oatmeal, I knew I had to write about it.

I’ve been making oatmeal the same way forever: boiling three cups of water and half a teaspoon of kosher salt, stirring in a cup of steel cut oats, lowering the heat so that the pot just simmers, and letting it go like that until the cereal has thickened. It gets the job done, and it also has the benefit of being easy to make with one hand while I have a 25-pound person wrapped around my hip like a monkey. My oatmeal is good - I originally typed "my oatmeal is food," and that’s also true - but Megan’s oatmeal is better.

It starts with an ingenious (ingenious!) idea: you toast the oats in butter. (!) This is, admittedly, somewhat difficult to do with one hand while you have a 25-pound person wrapped around your hip like a monkey, and if you saw me on my first time attempting it, you would also have heard a lot of cussing (me) and whining (me and June). But if you have two hands, it’s no big deal. It’s no more difficult than boiling water - about three parts water and one part milk, to be specific - which is what you do while the oats are toasting. You’ll know the oats are ready when the kitchen smells like you’re baking shortbread, and then you scrape the toasted oats into the pot of simmering water and milk and let the mixture roll slowly along for about half an hour, until the oats are plump and you’ve got soft, creamy porridge. I recommend that you top it with maple syrup.

I don’t know whether it’s the oat-toasting or the ratio of water to milk, or both, but Megan’s is a very special oatmeal.  It’s velvety, velvet punched up with chewy oats. It’s perfectly salted and perfectly not-sweet. The entire recipe, which feeds four, has only a tablespoon of butter and a cup of milk, which I consider very reasonable, but it feels rich, satisfying. I might even call it luxurious, a word that was never intended for oatmeal. As soon as we’d finished our first batch, I made a second - this time at night, after June was in bed, so that I had full use of my limbs - and I can report that it reheats very well. It’s even good at room temperature, which probably sounds revolting, but I like it, so be nice.  I made my third batch last night, and June and I took down half of it this morning.  June likes hers with applesauce and plain yogurt, eats a full adult-size portion, and then mooches from my bowl when hers is gone.

Megan, it’s a keeper. xx

Megan’s Steel-Cut Oatmeal
Adapted from Whole-Grain Mornings, by Megan Gordon

The original version of this recipe includes vanilla extract and raisins, but I’m a plain-oatmeal person, so what follows is the basic portion of the recipe.  I hope Megan will forgive me for being boring.

I should note that both Megan and I use Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt, which tastes less salty than Morton brand. And as far as natural cane sugar goes, I use unbleached and unrefined cane sugar - bought in bulk at my local supermarket - but you could also use demerara, turbinado, or muscovado.

1 tablespoon (14 grams) unsalted butter
1 cup (175 grams) steel-cut oats
3 ¼ cups (780 ml) water
1 cup (240 ml) whole milk
1 tablespoon (12 grams) natural cane sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Maple syrup, brown sugar, or honey for serving

In a heavy skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the oats, and cook, stirring occasionally, until quite fragrant, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

In a 2 ½- to 3-quart saucepan, bring the water, milk, sugar, and salt to a simmer. (Be careful: I find that this mixture goes quickly from zero to boiling and has a tendency to boil over.) Stir in the toasted oats. Adjust the heat to maintain a slow simmer, and partially cover the saucepan.  Cook, stirring occasionally to prevent clumping and scorching, until the mixture has thickened and the oats are soft, 25 to 30 minutes. The cereal will still be quite loose at this point, but don’t worry; it will continue to thicken. Remove the pan from the heat, allow it to rest for a few minutes (still partially covered), and then serve hot, with maple syrup, brown sugar, or honey.

Yield: 4 servings