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.