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Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.
Today: A salty, hot condiment best confined to the adult table.
As longtime readers already know, this entire column is a bait and switch: I feed the children grown-up food and call it cooking for children. Because I am, technically.
It’s possible that this strategy may turn my desperate children into dumpster-diving freegans at a young age, not for environmental concerns, but because there have to be cheddar bunnies in there somewhere. On the other hand, dumpster diving must be great for gross motor development.
There are sophisticated justifications for my cooking this way -- there are sophisticated justifications for everything in my life, because have you seen my life lately? -- but my children know better. They know there are always sophisticated justifications for laziness.
But even I recognize that there are limits. There are things I never cook anymore, and they almost all involve chiles. The Thai curries, the Szechuan dishes -- they are gone. They are all too spicy. Even the toddler, who once used the word “spicy” as the Official Toddler Seal of Approval, now complains when things are too spicy.
Can we pause here to note how deeply inadequate English is for coping with the concept of spiciness? There’s the noun and the adjective, and the two have almost nothing to do with each other. You’d never call a dish with a lot of spices spicy. It’s almost as if the English language came into itself in a world in which these concepts weren’t relevant enough to bother distinguishing them. (Almost!) What this means, practically, is that there’s a period of time in which children are convinced that Herbes de Provence must make food inedibly spicy.
There is no good solution to the problem of chiles and children. (Aside from moving to Chiang Mai.) But aside from this chile oil, I have consoled myself with a condiment so simple it is hardly worth mentioning, except that so few people ever do: fish sauce plus bird chiles. That’s it. It’s a Thai staple (prik nam pla), which I first found in the extraordinary Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, and it is indeed salty and hot. It’s also the easiest condiment I know and it is marvelously versatile, both for livening up family dinner (spoon a little over grilled vegetables; add lime juice for extra credit) or midnight snack (I rarely eat a fried egg without it).
More: For slower mornings, a tart topping for fried eggs with less of a punch.
Here’s the recipe, which is hardly a recipe: Take a good handful of bird chiles, chop (wear gloves or be careful), dump in a jar, cover with fish sauce. Very roughly, that means one part chopped chiles to two parts fish sauce -- a half-cup chiles, a cup of fish sauce. (Your taste may vary.) In the fridge, it keeps pretty much forever.
Will it make the children happy? Maybe not. Will it make the adults happy? Quite possibly. Which matters a lot. After all, if the kids eat what the grown-ups eat, that means that the grown-ups eat what the kids eat. So file this under: Dinner vs. Adult.
Tell us: How do you make your dinners safe for adults?
Photos by Linda Pugliese