Tuesday, October 30, 2012

White asparagus soup: Cooking for a three year old

I'll let you in on a little secret. I love cooking for kids. And I love kids who enjoy their food. Let me make that a bit clearer; I don't love gluttonous kids, or the kind who just eat indiscriminately and gorge themselves into little piggies on char kuay teow and Coke. (I love those as much as I love adults who do). But I love kids who have a good appetite and who are discerning about food. Extra points if they have been well-trained to sit at the dinner table for mealtimes and participate in a civilized meal.

Little K is definitely one such child. Her appetite is fantastic and her ability to differentiate between foods and tastes, even more so. I suppose we should have known it early, this was a child who, before she could speak in full sentences, could name all the produce in the supermarkets. She could also ask for duck confit, konbu pasta and in this instance, white asparagus.

Ok, so part of that, as the procurer of duck confit and konbu pasta, was arguably my fault. And so too I guess was the white asparagus, as she had followed me to the store and helped to pick out field mushrooms and white asparagus. When she discovered they were for me and not for her, she was understandably, slightly disappointed. She asked her mother for white asparagus soup, not the Chinese clear kind but the kind with Cream. How to say no to something so after my own heart? So I went back to fix that.

I love introducing children to food, to the variety and depth of vegetables, eaten raw, or sauted and lightly flecked with sesame seeds, or stewed into a deep meaty goodness. Because their palettes are so clean, I like to show them the difference between sage and cilantro, between garlic minced and garlic roasted. And I find it a wonderful challenge to prepare food in a way that is tasty, but also healthy and salt-free. Most of all, I am amused by the tiny portions they eat. When you cook for adults, you frequently have to think, are 12 potatoes enough? Or 16? But for a child, you have leftovers from two miniature fingerling potatoes.

To make the soup, I boiled the white asparagus with fresh chicken stock, mushrooms and sweet white onions, then blended the lot as they softened (the onions and mushrooms will give you the thick smoothness without the addition of cream or milk, which I'm not a big fan of for kids). I left some whole pieces of mushroom and asparagus in the soup, so that she would have something to munch (too many parents, I find, blend their kid's food so thoroughly, even until a mature age, that I suspect they become very lazy eaters and possibly under-develops their coordination). I chopped some cilantro and dry roasted small shards of back bacon (not streaky bacon!), for their natural salt. If roasted, instead of fried, these become stringy and crispier (they snap when bent, instead of becoming soft and flubby fat)

I knew I would have to keep her interested, so I cubed wholewheat bread and toasted them into crunchy bread cubes for the soup. In case you are wondering, the bread crust does not roast evenly, so luckily, I made two batches because the first burnt quickly and I had to do it over. The cubes look large in the photo but they were actually really tiny, about 1/2 a centimeter across and just to impart a crisp bready taste.

The last little indulgence was slicing fingerling potatoes thinly (I chose fingerlings for their paper thin skin), dredging them with a small amount of flour and then baking them in the oven with a small sprinkling of salt and oil. K was particularly excited about these and helped me peel them off the roasting tray when cooled. The world would be a better place if all kids thought this is what crisps were and learnt to eat them in small treat portions!

This is the finished product, which she made short work of and slyly complimented me on, "this is the best dinner ever!" (way to ensure another one, little girl!) The best thing about cooking for kids is that because of the small quantities, it's like a miniature of a restaurant, you can have some staples and then some mix-ins. You can also do really fancy little flourishes, like blanching and removing the skin from momotaro cherry tomatoes (have you tried tomatoes with their skin off? It is a completely different taste sensation). You can mix cold tastes and hot tastes. You can surprise them, educate them and amaze them about food and nutrition, just as they should be.

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