Sunday, July 23, 2006

What To Give a New Mother

A friend recently told me that she had made a meal for a friend who had just had a baby. It was, it seems, the fifth child, so my friend felt a complete meal would be welcomed. Of course, all new mothers appreciate a meal, but I would have to say that a woman with four other children to feed would appreciate it at least four times as much as the mother of a first baby.

So my friend had made her a meal. What precipitated her telling me this was that she had just made two batches of Rice Krispies Treats to serve as dessert. She felt that children numbers 2, 3 and 4 probably felt progressively more neglected in the area of dessert, since as each subsequent child was born, the mother probably had less and less time for making desserts on a regular basis.

But, I asked her, what did you make for an entrée? Oh please, I thought, don’t say some version of pasta, red sauce and cheese.

“Lasagna!” she exclaimed joyfully.

Ugh. Oh, I’m sure her lasagna was tasty, but I had twins (and already had a two year old), and I belonged to a babysitting co-op, so I was provided with many, many meals. With one lone exception, they were all some combination of pasta and red sauce.

I understand the driving force behind this. I can’t think of anyone I know who can’t or won’t eat pasta with red sauce in some form or other. It is universally accepted and can be consumed by pretty much everyone on every diet (with the possible exception of a hard core no carbs devotee—and even then, South Beach adherents can eat it if the pasta is whole wheat).

But it’s so boring. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful—certainly in the early days of parenthood any meal that lands on your doorstep and requires minimal (if any) preparation is to be welcomed. I just wish people would be a little more creative.

The new mom meal that I favor for giving is one that can be served more than once and can be transformed into something slightly different the second (or third) time around. Roast chicken fills the requirements admirably. Donna Hay (an Australian cookbook author whom I worship—if you’ve never heard of her, get in your car now, drive to your nearest bookstore and buy all of her cookbooks—you won’t be sorry) suggests using a 3 to 3 ½ pound bird and cutting through the back of it. It then gets propped in a sitting position in a roasting pan lined with parchment paper (for ease of cleanup—aluminum foil would also work), tuck some thyme and sliced lemons around it and bake at 390 for about 45 minutes. And the joy is, it really does take about 45 minutes when you cut it up and sprawl it out like that.

Having roasted the bird, you can deliver it to the new mom with some traditional sides—mashed potatoes and a steamed vegetable (perhaps slightly underdone so they don’t turn to mush when they’re heated up in the microwave) work fine—and a loaf of bread. Then the next day, mom and dad can use the rest of the loaf of bread and the chicken to make sandwiches. Same food, slightly different taste. Not just reheated baked ziti just like last night. Deliver a head of lettuce (washed is nice, but it won’t last as long in their fridge) and a bottle of salad dressing and there will be lettuce for the sandwiches, and any chicken left over after the other two meals can be served shredded on a salad with the dressing.

Another meal that could lend itself to variations is barbequed pork sandwiches. The pork is easily made in a crock pot. Bottled sauce works fine, although I like the root beer sauce that was so popular a few years ago. I find the ratio that works best is two cans of root beer (not diet) to one bottle of chili sauce (I recommend Heinz—I used another brand once and it was full of weird chunks of unidentifiable vegetables and made a lumpy sauce). The sauce needs to reduce for a long time (several hours is best), but it cooks over low heat until it’s thick and…well, saucy, and then it gets poured over the cooked shredded pork. But you can just put it on the stove over low heat and go off and do your own thing, checking on it periodically to see how it’s coming along.
For the pork you can use pretty much any cut you like—shoulder is good. If you choose a fatty cut, you should trim off the excess fat to the best of your ability because otherwise the fat melts and, if it’s mixed with the sauce, makes it greasy. In fact, one of the joys of this dish is that the cheaper the pork, the better the sandwiches.

Cook the pork for 8 or 10 hours (crock pots are so forgiving) and then shred the meat into the sauce. The original recipe I had called for resting the pork on a bed of sliced onions prior to cooking. I stopped doing this because the onions just absorbed any fat from the pork and turned out sort of grey and nasty.

Deliver the pork along with a basic coleslaw (shredded cabbage and carrot, mayonnaise, a splash of cider vinegar and a little celery seed) and a package of rolls. For a second meal, the pork could be put on nachos, so a bag of chips and some nacho fixings would be useful. Cheese, chopped tomatoes, chopped onion, sliced jalapenos, sour cream, salsa—whatever the recipients might like.

For those who can’t or won’t eat pork this recipe also works well with any fairly cheap cut of beef, or even chicken. With chicken I’d recommend using a whole chicken cut up, and take the skin off of the pieces prior to cooking. Then you’ll need to be a little careful shredding, as chicken has far more tiny bones that could find their way into the sauce than beef or pork. But any of the three meats would work fine.

However, perhaps you don’t feel like roasting a chicken or shredding pork or beef. Perhaps you want to give a casserole. If so, then I highly recommend enchiladas of some kind. They can be made ahead and either cooked, or delivered to the recipient uncooked for them to heat up as convenient. They can be made with meat (chicken, beef or pork), or vegetarian (with vegetarian refried beans and cheese), or even vegan (vegetarian refried beans and soy cheese would work, even if it wouldn’t be my combination of choice).

Enchiladas are simple to make but no one ever does, it seems. They can be somewhat messy to assemble, but they’re easy and good. Start with the large tortillas (I prefer flour—or rather, my husband does—but it’s a matter of choice, and the large ones are easier to roll up than the small ones) and pick your fillings. Sauteed onions and peppers with cheese are good, as is shredded chicken with sautéed mushrooms and onions (not a terribly traditional enchilada filling, but it’s delicious). For vegetarians, as I said, vegetarian refried beans with shredded cheese would work, and if your recipient is a vegan you can switch to soy cheese.

Place a line of filing down the center of the tortilla and roll it up. Then place it seam side down in a baking pan sprayed with cooking spray. Once you’ve got all the enchiladas made, they need some kind of sauce poured over them prior to baking. Although I’ve heard it derided, I think canned enchilada sauce is one of the most wonderful products ever invented. Who in their right mind would bother to make enchilada sauce from scratch? (Well, Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy for two.) I wouldn’t even know where to begin. A can or two poured over the enchiladas prior to baking makes a pretty authentic tasting meal. Sprinkle with a little shredded cheese for appearance. If you’re squeamish about canned enchilada sauce, a jarred salsa verde (or a homemade one, if you insist) is also good.

If you don’t put vegetables in the enchiladas you need some little salad on the side. While not the most nutrient-dense food in the world, shredded iceberg just seems to go with Mexican food. A salad of shredded iceberg, chopped tomato and a little shredded cheese (possibly with the addition of a few kidney beans, depending on your audience and what’s in your enchiladas) dressed with a combination of sour cream and salsa in a one to one ratio is a nice accompaniment. Your vegan friends won’t necessarily be able to eat this, but the vegetarians and the meat eaters should be fine with it.

Although the enchiladas don’t lend themselves to any kind of leftover variant, they’re different enough from the standard baked ziti that they can be eaten for a second meal without too much feeling of tedium.

And if you’re feeling really ambitious, you can make all three things for the new mom and you’ll be her best friend forever for providing what is potentially a weeks’ worth of dinners with some lunches tossed in. But really, in this world of lasagna, penne casserole and spaghetti with meatballs, even a single variation would be welcomed, and you may wind up as her best friend anyway, just for providing it.

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