I Like That. I Make That. I Eat That.

I have a lot of cookbooks.  In the built-in bookshelves in our living room, there’s a shelf crammed with Nigella Lawson, Tyler Florence, Giada DeLaurentiis, Ina Garten, and more.  I love them; I love reading them, looking at the pictures, and thinking about the recipes.  L. even went through a phase where every night, he’d bring me an illustrated book entitled (I think) just “Baking” and ask to look at the pictures and talk about the pies and cakes and breads, in lieu of a bedtime story.  But cooking from the books?  It almost never happens.

I know, I know.  Why have all these cookbooks, from chefs who are FAR more talented than I, if I’m not going to take advantage of their true purpose and actually try out some of the recipes?  I can’t explain it.  I mean, occasionally I’ll pull something out and try it, and I’m rarely disappointed; sometimes, it even becomes a family favorite (case in point: Tyler Florence’s Spaghetti with Peas and Pancetta. Mmmmm).  It’s just not my style to work from somebody else’s recipe and spend my time in the kitchen constantly having to dance back over to the counter and find my place in a book so I can look up the next step.

I think I got this from my mother, at least partially.  My mom’s a great cook.  She does, in fact, cook from recipes when she wants to try new things, but most often, like the majority of great home cooks, she just knows how to make what she wants to make.  It was rare, in my childhood, to see Mom poring over a recipe book when she was making dinner; she’d just put together a bit of this, a bit of that, and there it was.  The older I got, and the more years of dinner-making experience she had under her belt, the more common it was for her to really branch out and start experimenting.  And one day, Pasta Poulet was born.

Any francophiles out there will realize instantly that “pasta poulet” is a fairly stupid name — basically, it’s Franglais for “chicken noodles.”  We didn’t coin it, though.  There was a restaurant in our Upstate New York hometown that our family frequented, and on their menu were a fair number of relatively simple (but sort of upscale and radical, for the late 80’s/early 90’s) pasta dishes.  My sister and I were in our preteen years, and D. was not at that time a particularly adventurous eater.  However, she loved this silly dish on the menu, the “pasta poulet” (which, as memory serves me, was placed right above an offering called “pasta madagascar” — it must not have been nearly as memorable, because I know I ordered it once and could not tell you what was in it).  Anyway, Pasta Poulet was her standard order, something she looked forward to each time we went out to eat.  And then the restaurant closed down.

My mother was undaunted; the loss of D.’s favorite restaurant dish would not be permanent.  We’d all eaten it quite a few times at that point, and Mom was confident that she could make it at home; what’s more, she was sure she could make it a more healthy dish than what was offered up at the restaurant (which, I’m sure, was swimming in butter and oil and all kinds of yummy heart-attack stuff).  Her consultation of D.’s and my flavor memories, as well as her own keen observations of the dish over time, served to produce something that became not only an improved version of the heavy pasta we remembered, but has been a family staple ever since.  Friends of mine from childhood, who probably ate the stuff at my house too many times to count, have called me over the years to ask for “the recipe for that chicken thing your mom makes, with the pasta — remember?”  She fed the entire Speech and Debate team with a giant crock of Pasta Poulet before a big tournament.  And Pasta Poulet was the first dish I ever cooked for J., when we were dating in college; I got myself a couple of little pots and pans, and we used the communal stove (on which I think one burner worked) in the dorm kitchen, then ate the results sitting on my bed with the pot between us.  J. called his family afterwards and bragged about what a great cook his girlfriend was.  I remember thinking, “But it’s just Pasta Poulet!”

However, I realize now that there is no such thing as “just Pasta Poulet.”  It’s a ridiculously simple dish, but it’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts.  I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like it.  And for a busy family, it’s a fantastic weeknight dinner that always manages to feel relatively easy, get on the table fast, and pull everybody to their seats with smiles on their faces.  Every time I make it, I remember the first time my Mom tried to assemble this dish for my poor, starving sister.  And it’s no surprise to me, remembering that, that I’ve grown into a cook who thinks along the same lines: I like that.  I make that.  I eat that.

It seems so logical to me: I eat something I like, or see something made on television that looks good to me, and I figure out what the component parts might be, then put them together to produce something tasty.  At another hometown restaurant, there was a dish called “Cape Cod Chicken and Shrimp” that my friends and I liked in high school.  Years later, that memory became my Cranberry Chicken with Pecan Rice.  On my honeymoon, I ate a grilled salmon sandwich with a side salad of fennel and oranges; later, in my own kitchen, I made pan-seared orange salmon on a bed of caramelized fennel and onions.  But I realize not everyone cooks this way; not everyone experiences food as something malleable, changeable, and forgiving, that can be played with at will.

It’s genetic, I suppose, and also a learned behavior from the days of Pasta Poulet in my mother’s kitchen.  But it’s an important behavior, I think, when it comes to feeding my kids.  As I consider the “I Like, I Make, I Eat” approach, it strikes me that not only does it mean that my kids are treated to (or subjected to, depending on your point of view) a variety of ever-changing flavors and combinations, but they’re growing up in an environment in which food is a friend.  Not in a bad, scary, run-to-it-for-comfort kind of way, I hope; just in the sense that cooking and eating are part of the natural rhythm of things.  We don’t talk about low-fat and count calories and restrict foods; we talk about what things taste like, what different family members like to eat, and how vegetables and chicken and whole-wheat pasta are good body foods that help all your different parts work, but brownies are just fun foods that we all like to eat.  We don’t get stressed out about what to eat, or simply shove something down because we have to eat to live; we look forward to our food, and even on busy nights, we plan to eat well.  When my kids don’t like something, it’s not a big deal to them; they (and we, to a certain extent — I’m getting better about this) can choose not to eat with minimal fussing, because they realize on some level that tomorrow there will be more things to eat and more things to try and probably plenty of food around that they do enjoy.  The flexibility and freedom I feel about cooking frames a bigger picture of food attitudes in our house, and as I step back to view it, I can start to see those rewards.  But even if you’re not a mad kitchen scientist like me, knowing that you’ve got a plan to cook tonight, and tomorrow, and the next thousand nights after, whether from recipes or from inspiration, can create that atmosphere of calm and assurance around food for your kids.  So I offer you the recipe for the Pasta Poulet, in the hope that you’ll make it.  And eat it.  And like it.

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7 Responses to I Like That. I Make That. I Eat That.

  1. Megan says:

    Wow…wow. I made the Pasta Poulet last night for dinner (I’m currently munching on the leftovers for lunch), and it was FANTASTIC. Such simple (and cheap!) ingredients made such a delicious dinner. And I keep a well-stocked pantry/fridge, so I had all of the ingredients on hand (plus a few more). I substituted 1/2 cup of chicken stock for chardonnay (I had an open bottle in the fridge) and I added a scant 1/4 cup of heavy cream to the sauce (once again, already in my fridge and I wanted to use it up, but not healthy, I know). And if I hadn’t added those two extra ingredients, it would have been just as delicious, I’m sure! I also used whole wheat farfalle because we were out of spaghetti, but I think this shape was a better “match” for the chicken and veggie chunks.

    I am also a complete food geek and I cook the same way as you and your mom (like it, make it, eat it), but I also use a lot of recipes (and then memorize them and never have to use them again). One of the things I like most about re-inventing my favorite restaurant dishes is that I can improve upon the quality of ingredients used, and limit the not-so-good ingredients that are over-used in restaurant cooking, like butter, oil, and salt.

    My husband and I do not yet have children, but as lover of children and food, your blog has inspired us both to be more conscious about the food we eat and will eventually feed to our children. We already have better-than-most food habits, I think; we eat dinner together every night; and I cook and bake A LOT. I am excited to share these traditions and values with our children some day.

    Also, I am the director of a learning center for a nanny/tutor company, and it saddens and frustrates me to see the food that some parents choose to feed their children. I often nanny for families, and just this past weekend I nannied for a very wealthy family with 3 young boys. No joke, there was not a single fresh vegetable (or frozen, or canned, for that matter) in the house and there were only 2 bananas and pre-chopped watermelon for fruit, which 2 of the boys wouldn’t eat. Everything else in the giant Sub-Zero fridge/freezer and large walk-in-closet-sized pantry was processed and packaged. The 21-month toddler was eating pre-made frozen, microwaved, mini pancakes with syrup and orange juice for breakfast when I arrived. And the lunch choices were hot dogs, boxed mac & cheese, or frozen pizza. It absolutely pains me to feed that crap to children, but as a one-time, on-call nanny, I have to pick my battles and realize that making an issue of lunch is not appropriate, so I grin and bear it. Especially when the 6-year old, already on meds for ADHD, ate Pop-Tarts and orange juice for breakfast and a hot dog on a commercially baked white bun with mac & cheese and Gatorade for lunch. How drastically his life, and ADHD diagnosis, could change if his diet also changed.

    • Hi Megan! I’m so thrilled you loved the Pasta Poulet! It’s one of our absolute all-time favorites; now you can see why. Your additions/tweaks sound fantastic! I love putting white wine into pasta dishes, and this is a great one for it. Also, I’ve made it on occasion with farfalle or penne as well, and it is a nice change; I’m just so accustomed to it with the angel hair or spaghetti that to me, that’s what seems like home.
      I’m honored that this blog is inspiring some positive changes in your household and making you conscious about the kind of parents you want to be when it comes to feeding. It sounds a lot like you and your husband are very much like my husband and I were when we were first married and childless; I always cooked us dinner, every single night, and baked a ton, but our choices about what went into those foods and where we shopped and how we prepared things weren’t as conscious as they are now. It’s an evolution, I think, and as with anything else, you never stop learning and growing.
      How sad to hear about your experiences in your professional life (though I’m not surprised). It truly is a matter of priorities, the care and feeding of our children, and unfortunately too many families think that the only effort required is making sure nobody starves to death. There’s often not a lot of thought past that point. The point you make about ADHD/medications and the connection to the food that the child eats is an important one. I know that even with my own 4-year-old, whose sensory issues are relatively under control, I don’t feel comfortable giving him lots of food dyes and artificial ingredients; I just don’t think his system needs any help to be on “overload.” Even for typically developing children, this kind of poisonous quasi-food has major repercussions sometimes; how much more so for kids whose neurological development isn’t along the “typical” path?

  2. EJJ says:

    Pasta Poulet was definitely a delicious staple at your house. I think I had it for dinner with your family at least 8 times in highschool alone. I never knew its origins! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Erica says:

    I didn’t know that this is what it is called. In my recipe box, the stained and well-used card is just B.’s chicken pasta. I love it!

    • Erica, I’m willing to bet the recipe as it exists now on the blog is a slightly more precise version than what I garbled out to you on the phone those many years ago!

      • Erica says:

        It is. Which is nice. And the pasta is different too. I think originally you told me farfalle. Its pasta, who cares what kind you use? I do like knowing the background of this dish. It makes me feel good for some reason…like I’m following in the footsteps of you, your mother and a restaurant owner and my family still likes it.

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