Food Network Chef Alex Guarnaschelli
Celebrity chef Alex Guarnaschelli "gets it."
In addition to being executive chef at NYC's Butter and having two shows on the Food Network, she's also has a daughter, Ava, 18 months. So she gets what it's like to be a busy mom, and as she says, "not wanting to cook dinner sometimes."
Last week she shared some frugal but delicious rice recipes. Today she chats about one of her favorite budget-friendly foods as well as the challenges of feeding picky toddlers.
CM: A lot of families are on a tight budget these days. What is an inexpensive staple besides rice that can make great meals but is still healthy and budget-friendly?
I love lentils because they are delicious and so good with other flavors. Plus, they don't take a long time to cook, and you can make them with so many different textures: You can cook them al dente and make salad, or you can cook them mushy and make puree or soup. Lentils are the cheap date of the legume world.
Also, having one bottle of good vinegar can make so many meals taste better. Splurge on one nice thing in your pantry—like a bottle of sherry vinegar -- that you can drizzle or add a couple drops to a meal. When you think about it, yes, a bottle of nice vinegar costs $6, but if you use it to make 30 meals taste good, well that's you spending 5 cents a meal to treat yourself. It's similar to when you are on a diet and you treat yourself to one cookie and it gets you through the whole day. In the same way, you get one feel-good pantry item to get through this recession.
Your restaurant Butter is centered around local, seasonal fare. How can moms look for whole foods that are fresh and seasonal but don't cost a ton?
I don't think it's about the money, because I pay the same amount at farmer's markets than I do at the supermarket. Rather, I think the real issue is that eating like this takes a lot of time, and moms don't have a lot of time. You have to go to the market and buy it and cook it. I empathize: I have a kid, and I'm a professional chef and there are nights when even I don't want to cook a whole meal. But if I go to the farmer's market and buy a head of lettuce, well then I have to do something with that lettuce immediately so that it doesn't go bad. That's why I recommend buying foods like leeks, onions, potatoes, and squash. They're great, fresh ingredients but they keep for a little while.
What are your daughter's favorite foods?
Ava eats everything. She's obsessed with pizza and pasta. The first thing she says when she wakes up in the morning is "pizza." She loves kiwis. Cantaloupe. Cheese. French fries ... here's a perfect way to re-invent the French fry: Take a couple of potatoes, bake them in the oven, and drizzle with olive oil.
Ava eats what we eat. If we sit down to eat and she doesn't like it, I tell her, "This is dinner, babe." I do believe in the power of overcoming the chicken finger syndrome. With that said, there are some things she used to eat (raisins and avocados are examples) that she doesn't anymore. Changing tastes can be confusing for parents.
Do you have any dishes you would recommend for picky eaters?
Actually, I have a prescription for moms of picky eaters: Instead of running around and fretting about what you are going to serve your picky eater, eat with your child and foster the idea that the ritual of eating can be more important than what is actually being eaten. Then, over time you can manage to sneak in some good stuff. The power of seduction works with kids. For example, I know Ava likes aromatic things like cinnamon and orange. So I'll bake chicken in the oven with a touch of cinnamon and orange on it. And I see her go in kitchen and sniffing around. Other things that work well like this are lemon zest, apples in the onion, molasses, and honey.
Be sure to check out Alex's recipe for Homemade Granola in Toddler Buzz!