“Worst Cooks” and a Fishy Meal Makeover

You know you’re a food geek when you experience a sense of relief mixed with jubilation upon discovering that the Food Network has moved “Worst Cooks in America” to 10 p.m. on the night of the Super Bowl.

Either that, or you’ve got a food blog and you have to do a Monday morning “Worst Cooks in America” post with a kids’ meal makeover, but you’re not willing to miss the last half of the big game.  At any rate, I WAS relieved, and as soon as the Packers secured their win, I dashed upstairs to the other TV and clicked over to Food Network.  I only missed the set-up of the skill drill.  Phew.  (I know, I know.  Sad.  Don’t judge.)

Last night’s “Worst Cooks” episode was surprisingly tame, considering how much of a train wreck the contestants still manage to be from time to time; however, the show is getting down to the last few episodes, so I suppose the handful of contestants who have managed to survive this long have probably learned enough to at least fake some level of competence by now.  I even had a few cheering moments, such as when one of the recruits (an avowed seafood hater who also grew up in a kosher household — no shellfish allowed) swore that he would not allow his learning experience on the show to be compromised by the food experiences of his upbringing.  He almost let the experience of cleaning, stuffing, cooking, and tasting the calamari (stuffed with shrimp, no less) get the better of him, but he hung in there and chewed and swallowed, albeit about as quickly as Chef Ann Burrell could open her mouth to chastise him for not getting the full flavor experience.  Baby steps, Chef Ann.

The whole challenge was devoted to seafood, with one team cooking the calamari dish and the other learning to filet and cook a whole sea bass.  It was also a “Face Your Fears” challenge, so not only did the contestants have to deal with some pretty daunting seafood prep, but they were each given a specific side dish to prepare — featuring the one food they had each professed to hate the most.  Brussels Sprouts showed up more than once.  Cauliflower, raw figs, eggs, and okra were the other contenders.  And here’s where things really got interesting.

The measure of the recruits, I think, was really evident by the reaction of each individual to his or her chosen ingredient.  Yes, they all had a moment of groaning, eye-rolling, and good-natured grumbling; but some recovered better than others and approached the challenge with a can-do attitude.  While one contestant decided to throw the given recipe basically out the window (“I REFERRED to it but didn’t really FOLLOW it”), another not only buckled down and carefully made the assigned dish, but tasted it and said “This actually doesn’t taste bad at all.”

Open-mindedness.  Overcoming preconceived notions.  Getting past the food training of one’s childhood.  These were the prevailing themes of last night’s episode, and the contestants faced them with varying degrees of success.  So I, of course, got thinking about all of this in the context of the Monday meal makeover, and it occurred to me that for a kids’ meal challenge based on food phobias and ingrained dislikes, seafood is actually the perfect choice.

It doesn’t seem to me, as I look at the adults I know, that there’s anybody with a sort of middle-of-the-road attitude towards fish and seafood.  They’re all either people who will eat almost anything that swims, or people who will not touch anything that came from a body of water.  There is a bit of a divide when you get down to the distinction between fish and shellfish and all of that, but basically, the grown folks I know either like seafood or they don’t.  And the kids are like that, too.  I think one of the biggest surprises for me, as a parent, was realizing that babies like salmon.  Really — they do — if you feed it to them early enough in life.  A shocking number of babies and young children I’ve known have liked salmon, regardless of their other food preferences.  But the ones who haven’t liked it are mainly the ones whose parents didn’t let them try it until they were old enough to have developed that legendary kid aversion to fish.

“Don’t feed him fish sticks — feed him FISH,” our pediatrician once warned, when L. was very small and we were still discussing the introduction of various solids.  And when I think about that advice, I understand it from two perspectives: 1) Fish sticks are not very healthy, no matter how you look at them; and 2) Fish sticks don’t actually taste much like fish.  Even the mildest white fish, like cod or sole, has a more distinctive flavor than the mashed-up pollock bits or whatever happens to be in a commercially processed fish stick.  Why?  Because the breading is formulated to be crunchy and salty and overwhelm the taste of the fish, and because fish sticks just sort of beg to be dipped in something — ketchup, cocktail sauce, tartar sauce, whatever — so they end up tasting more like condiment than anything else.

Fish has a pronounced smell and flavor, it’s true; and many adults think that distinctive flavors are a no-go for feeding kids.  That’s probably why so many of us are programmed to believe that kids and any fish other than a stick are a total mismatch.  But it’s time for us all to face our fears and proclaim that kids and fish can be good friends, as long as we make sure that the childhood messaging our kids receive is pesci-positive.  And we can start with this meal makeover of the Kid Cuisine “Deep Sea Adventure” Fish Stick meal — which includes, just for fun, gummy hammerhead sharks along with the fish sticks, macaroni and cheese, and corn (I’m starting to realize that the K.C. people don’t believe children can eat any vegetable other than corn).  I promise, fellow parents –it is safe, at least by culinary standards, to go back in the water.

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8 Responses to “Worst Cooks” and a Fishy Meal Makeover

  1. Donna says:

    I am so glad you’re doing these kids’ meal makeovers… I have been trying to pass them on as “hey, check out this great recipe–your kids will love it!” to the folks buying the frozen dinners. We’ll see how that goes; have to make sure I don’t get too preachy.

    Meanwhile, quick anecdote: I was at a party over the weekend where there was a huge bowl of strawberries for dessert (yum!), and I heard someone complain that there was no chocolate for dipping. Now, I like chocolate dipped strawberries as much as the next person, but are we really unable to eat them plain? It reminded me of someone’s comment the other day about always having ranch dressing for veggies.

    • So glad you’re enjoying the meal makeovers, Donna, and hopeful that some of those people will try the recipes! 🙂 So strange about the strawberries. I am a COMPLETE chocolate-covered strawberry addict, but if they’re served plain, I certainly wouldn’t automatically default to thinking “why is there no chocolate?” I sort of view strawberries as a food in and of themselves; chocolate-covered strawberries are another food; and they can exist separately and happily in the universe. Can’t believe people are unhappy with the real, unadulterated thing! (And, as a side note, how rude to complain about a host’s graciousness!) You’re exactly right that this is part of the ranch-ification of American food. Sigh.

  2. Renee says:

    I’m one of those adults who HATE fish. I can’t stand it, even though it was served regularly to me as a kid. My mom loves it. I don’t like the flavor, and she probably cemented my dislike by serving fish where I had to carefully smash every small bit in order to extract every single poky bone before I ate it. I don’t care about shellfish, so I don’t eat it –to me it’s pretty tasteless, but rather expensively so. My poor, suffering, husband –fish and shellfish are one of his favorite foods. Early in our marriage I would steam shrimp for him, but now I just don’t buy or cook any seafood. (He never learned to cook, and obviously he doesn’t care that much, or he’d learn 🙂

    I do, however, like smoked salmon –but only when it comes served on a cracker full of cream cheese, or mixed into a cream sauce. I’m not sure that counts?

    Because our daughter is allergic to peanuts and tree-nuts, we’ve never introduced her to any shellfish. Some day, when she’s an adult, she’ll have to try fish somewhere other than home. Maybe some boyfriend will introduce her to it 🙂

    • Renee, that’s such a good point about the bones! I always think about that when I’m serving fish to my kids, because I can remember so many meals when my mom would say “now be careful when you’re eating that — you don’t want to swallow a bone.”
      Smoked salmon counts, but it IS sort of its own thing…it has such a unique flavor. I think it’s sort of like the bacon of the seafood world — salty, smoky, yummy goodness. 😉 Can’t blame you for liking it, and who cares HOW you like it? Me, I’ll eat it by the truckload if you give me the chance. L. is the same way.
      Has your daughter ever had any kind of fish (non-shellfish, obviously) outside your home, or is she strictly a landlubber?

      • Renee says:

        She’s had fish sticks, but I agree that those don’t really count as fish. She doesn’t like those either, but I think it has more to do with their general grossness, not any fishy flavor 🙂

        Other than that, I don’t think she’s had fish anywhere –it’s not the kind of meal people normally plan for elementary-age kids at play dates and parties, and she’s never mentioned having fish. At restaurants, where her dad might order fish, she tends to stay away from things she’s not at least somewhat familiar with.

        BTW, I used to like salmon, but I found out that the only salmon I’d had was farm-raised. Since that’s got both health and environmental issues, I bought some real salmon –and hated it! It tasted so fishy compared to the farmed stuff. That makes me think there’s quite a difference health-wise between those two. (Smoked salmon is completely different 🙂 )

      • I love that: “it’s not the kind of meal people normally plan for elementary-age kids at play dates and parties.” Understatement of the year! 🙂 Can you IMAGINE the birthday party where the kids are served grilled salmon or shrimp skewers instead of pizza or burgers? Mutiny! Ha ha ha.
        Yeah, farm-raised and wild salmon do have distinctly different tastes. The wild is oilier and richer, for sure. The color is different as well, which I’m sure you noticed, and that’s a huge indicator of the health properties of the fish; the color of wild salmon is directly related to the richness and variance of its diet, as well as its greater activity level, I’ve heard. It’s sort of like the difference between corn-fed meat and pastured meat. But it’s funny that you like the smoked salmon, because to me that has a very pronounced (albeit FABULOUS) flavor. Must be, like I said yesterday, the “bacon-iness” of it! 🙂

  3. Claire says:

    Question about you recipe today: did inmiss where input something in the oven after I preheat?

    • Did that overwrite again? Gack! Thanks for the good catch — I’ll try to fix it. I was having trouble with the recipe loading properly and there was another thing that I’d deleted that kept magically reappearing!

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