Last night, my youngest thanked God for broccoli as part of her nighttime prayers. The kid has food on the brain constantly. Her two-year-old tummy works on a schedule you could set your clocks by. She’s a walking, talking dinner bell, and she knows when it’s feeding time.
She’s also not shy when giving her opinion about what you’ve placed before her.
“But, I don’t like that!” she’ll groan loudly.
Or, “That’s my favorite,” she’ll squeal with delight.
It’s not too difficult to persuade her to try new things. She’s quite adventurous, especially if you catch her when she’s hungry, which was my tactic with last night’s dinner.
I’ll just come out and say, I’m not a chef by any stretch of the word. I’d consider myself a barely above average home cook. I’m pretty good with flavors, but I rarely consider presentation. Even still, I learned years ago it was cheaper and healthier to eat in, and that was motivation enough to take up the task more regularly. Now, I cook or prepare almost every meal we eat.
I’m always shooting for a balanced diet by sneaking in veggies wherever I can. Spinach in breakfast smoothies and mac and cheese; peppers, onions and garlic in spaghetti sauce and meatloaf; every vegetable under the sun in my shepherd’s pie and tourtière.
I’ve been searching for ways to get more broccoli into our diet. I like the vegetable, but the rest of the family is not too keen. I usually make it as the very occasional side dish that nobody else eats, or I boil it into a bacon, bean, and broccoli soup of which the kids approve.
Last night, I had some very thin steaks that were about to go bad, and I felt just brave enough to attempt an Asian inspired Beef and Broccoli. You see, I’m never the one to cook the steaks. I have a bad habit of overcooking nearly all meats, and it would hurt my heart (and budget) to mess up the only fine meat I let myself splurge on during my twice-monthly shopping trip.
The steaks come marinated in a vacuum-sealed pack. Of all the meats I buy, they are the last to expire, but I had put off cooking them till the last minute out of fear more than anything.
Since Sunday dinner usually rested on my partner’s shoulders—I was studying for my Master’s and had assignments to turn in by midnight—Sunday steak night has become somewhat of a biweekly tradition. I had been dreading cooking the steaks since buying them on my last shopping trip, and they’ve stared at me from their fridge position in the back of the bottom shelf all week.
I was positive my youngest wouldn’t make it past the first bite if I overcooked the filets. I could almost hear the “I no like it, Mommy!” that would follow the sound of her spitting the tough meat back onto her brightly-colored plastic plate.
Just in case I screwed it up, I needed something more than our usual side of oven-baked French fries to back up the beef. I tossed around a few ideas and remembered about the broccoli. Surely, rice and broccoli with a tasty sauce could entice both kids to tough it out with the steak. My oldest would eat the beef either way, even if she turned her nose up at the broccoli like she usually did. The real worry was getting something of anything into the little one.
It’s not that she’s a picky eater. The kid eats gnocchi drenched in pesto, red pepper hummus, chicken korma, every kind of Mexican food I throw at her, and various American and Spanish dishes. She just has high standards!
One time, she refused to eat a burrito bowl simply for the presentation. When I layered up the exact same ingredients (meat with peppers and onions, refried beans, Mexican rice, and shredded cheese) and made it look pretty, she scarfed it down.
If I mess up one of our regular meals in the slightest way, you bet she’ll be the one who notices and won’t eat it that time around. If I make a dish sing, she’ll be completely silent throughout the meal, stuffing her face and leaving traces from her chin to her hairline, because she decided to lick the plate. She’s like a mini quality assurance officer at my table. It sucks… in the most adorable way.
And, it’s nothing new.
My youngest has always been enthusiastic about her food. Whereas her older sister kept breastfeeding till I weened her at 13 months, the baby gave up breastfeeding at only seven months old. She wanted what we were having. It was clear, early on, my younger daughter craved more than milk.
She sprouted teeth at five-and-a-half months old to prove it, and she continued to do so (two at a time) till she had an impressive set of eight chompers by her first birthday. Her sister, by comparison, had only four and a half teeth by the time she turned one and mostly stuck to homemade purees.
Not the little one, though, she ate EVERYTHING—even if she wasn’t quite ready. I remember the terror she struck in me during those early months.
Without properly chewing the food she insisted on sharing with us, she would attempt to swallow. She would begin to gag, and we would freak out. Then, she would simply hawk it back up into her mouth and continue chewing till it was time to give it another go down the esophagus.
Chew. Choke. Chew some more. Swallow.
It was a terrible habit, but one that we all adapted to, eventually. It created a hilarious show when we ate with others, and they jumped out of their seats to save her. Bottom line, she refused to slow down, and she refused to eat baby food. Don’t worry, I went through Heimlich maneuver and CPR training multiple times in the Navy.
My baby is also a flavor junkie. She has to put everything in her mouth. She’s one of those kids you need to watch every minute for fear she might pick up something nasty off the floor and give it a taste. One day on a walk when she was about eighteen months, she tried tree bark.
You’re probably thinking, if she’ll eat tree bark, she’ll eat overcooked steak. I’m sorry to report her standards are higher these days.
She even smacks her little lips a few times just before she drifts off to sleep. It’s a new development I’ve started to notice at naptime. She’ll toss and yawn, like usual, then comes the lip smacking. She’s either searching for evidence of her last meal or preparing for a delicious dream. In either case, I don’t want my cooking to be the cause of disappointment.
After two YouTube videos on how to pan-sear very thin steaks, I held my breath and gave it a go. With the broccoli steaming and the rice boiling, I put the frying pan over high heat. I tossed in two of the three filets, and the steak gave a lovely sizzle when it hit the olive oil. After what I hoped was the appropriate amount of time, I pulled them from the pan, and let them rest on the cutting board, before throwing the third steak in the pan.
I cut the meat into small strips, mixed it with the broccoli, rice, and sauce, and served it up. To my great surprise the steak was extremely tender, and both my kids ate everything in their bowls—broccoli and all.
I know the dish will make a repeat appearance on our menu, and not just because there are leftovers in the refrigerator.
My youngest often thanks God for food—since she’s only two years old and food ranks very high on her list of things to be grateful for—but I was shocked when she thanked Him for broccoli. It was a proud mom moment for sure.
I’ll continue to improve my cooking game to please her. If not to see a clean plate and a healthy kid sitting next to me at the dinner table, than to ensure the next time she smacks her lips before bed, the food I make leaves a smile on her face and creates material for her dreams.
Who knows, maybe she’ll be the chef in the family.