Flash in the Pan 

Mush to my liking

Some months after my new baby is born, it will be ready to expand its culinary horizons beyond the breast. The inexplicable yet inevitable switch from milk-filled boob to bland mush has inspired me to begin researching the ways of baby food cookery.

Cooking for an important person you haven't yet met has its challenges, but at the same time, the process is an introduction of sorts. You learn things about baby anatomy, like how their little mouths and throats and bellies can't handle food that's sharp, spicy or long-fibered.

For some, thoughts of baby food don't extend beyond semi-informed decisions and store-bought Gerber. Looking back on the baby steps I've taken so far along this culinary adventure, my baby's food is the cheapest of them all, but my choices have been informed less by what's for sale and more by what's about to rot in the fridge and garden.

A bunch of swiss chard from the farmers' market, two days old and already wilting, was my first ingredient. While a big pot of salted water rose to a boil I sliced away the chard stems from the leaves, and then cut the bottom stubs off the stems. I boiled the stems for 10 minutes, added the leaves, and cooked another five. I removed all chard from the water and tossed it with ice cubes in a ceramic bowl until it all cooled down. Finally, I pureed my chard leaves and stems.

I had two thoughts when I tasted it: "This baby is going to eat well," and "I need to make a batch of chard pesto, pronto." I was already halfway there.

I mixed some of my dark green cuisine pour baby with pressed garlic, crushed pine nuts, grated Parmesan and olive oil, and tossed it into some hot pasta that itself had just been tossed with raw garlic and olive oil. It's somewhat like basil pesto, but with more bass and less treble. Chard packs almost as much chlorophyll as spinach.

A baby food chef needs at least one pureeing tool, like a food mill, blender or food processor. I have an old Champion juicer that has a "homogenize" function that re-blends juice and pulp.

My next batch of baby food was made from calabacita, a bulbous and beloved summer squash in New Mexico that turns up in many dishes. And somehow, three calabacita plants turned up in our garden. Like their prolific cousin the zucchini, these plants pump out massive amounts of fast-growing squash, and we quickly got behind on them. Luckily, my new line of research is helping us catch up.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

With a dozen calabacitas, each a bit larger than a softball, we had about 50 pounds. After trimming and cooking off water, I figured we had maybe 25 pounds of baby food, worth a couple hundred bucks retail.

I trimmed the ends off a calabacita and cut it like a pie into eight pieces, which I dropped into boiling salted water (for drawing water from the squash). After 15 minutes at a boil, I tossed the squash wedges with ice cubes, and homogenized them when they were cool enough.

The result was a bright, almost neon-green slurry with an oyster aroma and mild creamy flavor, altogether stunning in the mouth. Conveniently, inspector Baby Mama was quick to fail this batch of baby food because not all the fiber from the calabacita rind had been adequately shredded. Now I have to peel the calabacitas for future batches, and we had to eat that first test batch ourselves. We poured it into a hot greasy pan in which we had just broiled meat with garlic. We stirred it around and ate from the pan like soup.

Most commercial baby foods that contain zucchini tend to mix it with other vegetables, as in the "vegetable medley" produced by Earth's Best. Their medley also contains corn, green beans, garbanzo beans, brown rice and carrots.

I'm not going there, yet. Instead, I've been making single-ingredient purees of whatever produce I can get my hands on, and freezing the resulting purees in thin sheets. The sheets are thin enough—an inch or less—to allow me to break off a small piece, even when it's completely frozen. That way I can thaw only what's needed.

This way I can figure out which ingredients and medleys are worth trying, thaw the appropriate chunks of frozen puree, then whip up custom batches of mixed-and-matched mush.

I freeze my baby mush in freezer bags by filling them halfway, sucking out the air, and sealing. I lay these bags on their sides on a hard surface like a cookie sheet, so their contents spread out into a thick square pancake.

Thanks to my new line of research, I began feeling sorry for my chickens. Much of the fridge and garden surplus that used to go to them is now going to the baby. For a moment I wondered if we even needed chickens anymore.

But no, they still perform valuable, garden fertilizing defecations.

No sooner had I thought this did I begin speculating on the possibility of transferring the responsibility of creating manure fertilizer to the baby as well. "Put it to work," said Baby Mama. If only I could find some biodegradable diapers, I thought, I could compost them, fully soiled, and turn baby poop into garden fertilizer.

If you can imagine it, you can find it online, and compostable diapers are no exception. Our new gDiapers are supposed to decompose in 45 days. Sounds hard to believe, but if it's true we should have lots of garden-ready compost for next year.

At least my baby won't be laying any eggs. That would really put the chickens out of business.

Ask Ari: Tree Troubles

Q: Dear Flash,

About seven years ago my partner talked me into driving a hundred miles to some amazing garden warehouse to buy a bunch of trees on the cheap—we're talking young, skinny fruit trees full of promise. We planted those trees and today they still look young and skinny and not so full of promise anymore. They're not dead—just not much bigger than before, and certainly not bearing any fruit. It's been so long I don't even know what fruit is supposed to be on them. Peaches, maybe? Anyway, what are we doing wrong?

—In Search of Tree Steroids

A: My mama always told me that a $2 tree deserves a $20 hole, wide enough that the roots can fit in without bending. Make and pat down a mound a few inches high at the center of the bottom of the hole, and spread the roots of your little tree around the mound, and gently fill in the hole. There's no need to plant your tree heroically deep—as long as the roots are covered, that's enough. Use any excess fill dirt to landscape around the tree so water will pool at the base.

Assuming you did in fact plant the trees correctly, the other most likely sources of your problem are that it's not getting enough light, water or nutrients. If light is the issue, there isn't much you can do about that, because it's a result of where you planted the trees. If water is the issue, making sure the trees are never thirsty will remedy that. You might want to test your soil—a cheap kit from the hardware store will test for pH and the important nutrients. If you discover that your soil is deficient in some way, the missing nutrient in question will be the equivalent of the tree steroids you seek.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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