The Peanut Gallery Eats

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

I miss me. Ever since my life was divided into two halves, B.B. and A.B., I miss my B.B. self. B.B.–Before Baxter–I was a happening cook. I am hip in almost no other ways, but my cooking kept up with (and sometimes preceded, in ways of which I was inordinately proud) the latest food trends. I could make good food conversation, because I knew interesting tidbits, and I had the energy and curiosity to learn more.

Then we had Baxter, a joy of a child, curious about almost everything. Everything, that is, except food.

Three years into After Baxter, I fear that soon we will be eating the same rotation of meals for the next 18 years: Mondays, it’s peanut-butter pasta; Tuesdays, pesto pasta; Wednesdays, cheese pasta.

If Baxter gets his way, it won’t be long before all the rest of the nights are cheese pasta nights, which is to say corkscrew pasta with cheddar cheese microwaved onto it.

Mind you, it wasn’t going to be this way. I was going to have the kind of child the late Laurie Colwin had. Colwin, a joy of a food writer, had a daughter who was delightedly eating foie gras at 4 months, or at least that’s how I recall it now, in my cheese pasta depths.

There are a few other things Baxter will eat, including much fruit, but mostly they involve peanut butter or cheese–or chocolate.

For this I take most of the blame. During my pregnancy with him, I couldn’t even look at meat, instead getting most of my protein from milk and cheese, and what had been a pretty mild sweet tooth grew fierce. Now, Baxter refuses to look at meat (and if I hide it in the food, he can usually find it), and he loves sweets. (I also ate lots of vegetables and salads, so if this theory held up, Baxter would, too–but that discounts the influence of his father’s stubborn gene.)

Child-rearing “experts,” most of whom I have steadfastly refused to read for the past two years, would say just to feed Baxter whatever we eat, and if he’s hungry enough, he’ll eat it.

That may be true, although see the aforementioned stubborn gene. Problem is, that turns the supper table into a battlefield, and I’m just not ready to go there. I want food to be something we eat for sustenance and for pleasure, but I don’t want it to carry any more weight than that. Food should just be food–not comfort, not punishment.

So I’m on what may be a 15-year quest to find foods that satisfy all our needs: Baxter’s need to eat food that looks totally familiar and child-friendly, my husband’s requests for salad every night, and my need to stay current with food trends and put my cooking school education to vague use. (Of course, if the burgeoning trend of raw food builds–that is, restaurants that sell nothing but food that is truly, totally raw–I may join Baxter for a large platter of cheese pasta.)

Meanwhile, it’s more nights of the most grown-up of Baxter’s favorites, peanut-butter pasta. That’s the inelegant name we use at home; for a dinner party, you can change the name to Thai pasta and impress your guests. I don’t think a Thai peanut sauce counts as trendy anymore, but this dish seems to still surprise many people–and yet it can suit all ages and animal preferences. For children, keep it vegetarian and leave out the red pepper; for omnivores, add sauteed chicken cubes, or cooked shrimp, or even small chunks of a leftover steak or pork roast. Add garlic if you like, at the same time as the ginger. Sprinkle the pasta with peanuts, toasted sesame seeds, or chopped cilantro for a garnish (or make an Elvis version and sprinkle it with diced bacon). Whether you’re a new or experienced cook, this recipe is ripe for experimentation.

Serve it with my mother’s simple, wildly popular cucumber salad, which is so easy you don’t need a real recipe. Whisk together mayonnaise (or a salad dressing such as Miracle Whip), a pinch each of sugar and salt, and just enough white vinegar to make a medium-thick sauce (about 2 tablespoons vinegar per cup of mayo.) Peel and thinly slice a cucumber or two into the sauce and stir to coat. This can be made and chilled several hours ahead.

And to make it a perfect kids’ or pregnant woman’s meal, finish with more peanut butter, in some of the best cookies I’ve ever had. This recipe comes from Gourmet magazine, and no, the lack of flour is no typo. These slightly crumbly, chewy, purely peanutty cookies are also perfect for cooking with children.

And that, I think, is the best way to get a cheese-pasta kid to expand his horizons. Baxter’s willing to at least try anything he’s helped make, and he’s been in the kitchen with me since he was about 15 months old, “doing dumping” into the mixing bowl. I don’t expect him to declare a sudden liking for foie gras (it’s been 34 years and I still hate it, after all), but there’s hope.

Cook’s notes: Peanut-butter pasta is a great last-minute supper from the pantry, except for the need for fresh ginger. I keep chunks of peeled ginger in a jar of sherry in the fridge; the ginger lasts indefinitely (I’ve never had it go bad), and the hint of sherry doesn’t hurt the pasta. If you use natural peanut butter, add about a tablespoon of sugar to the sauce; you may also need salt. If you don’t have rice vinegar, white-wine vinegar will work, but reduce it to 2 tablespoons. If you make cookies with any frequency, it’s worth investing in a cookie scoop or two. These are mini ice-cream scoops; I use one that scoops about a teaspoon of dough, and another that does about 1 ? tablespoons. I can’t imagine going back to the days of rolling out balls of dough by hand. These cookies work fine on greased sheets, but for ease of clean-up and guaranteed cookie removal, use parchment paper. After years of catering, it’s another tool I can’t imagine going without.

Recipes: Peanut Butter Cookies, Thai Pasta

First published in the Independent Weekly, October 16, 2002

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