Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.
Today: How to make family dinner feel a little more like adult dinner.
There is a long list of foods no child would ever eat that this column has told you to feed your children. Let’s not relive all the failures right now. Let’s just acknowledge it is possible that your children now live at a separate address with an intercom system. Or that they have installed parental controls that prevent your computer from accessing this site. Or that they now distrust everything you put before them and eat nothing but cereal without milk, because who knows what you have done to the milk.
But if all members of the family are still on speaking terms, then it is time for shellfish.
Because I am exceptionally dense, I have always thought that shellfish should be on the kids' menu. Right after grilled cheese and spaghetti and meatballs, the menu should read: a dozen mussels. If the kids eat the whole dozen, they get the shells to take home for the sandbox.
As far as I can tell, after an exhaustively non-scientific survey, there are a couple of objections to this plan:
Reason #1: Kids will think eating meat out of the shell is sort of weird.
It is sort of weird! This is not how people eat other fish and animals. When we make pork for dinner, we rarely spilt open the carcass and then eat the meat inside it with a fork. (Only on special occasions.) But this weirdness is as likely as not to be appealing to children. Always remember, parents: children are monsters.
Reason #2: Kids will think shellfish taste icky.
Well, yes: for oysters. Oysters are sort of icky.
That said, it is important your child be exposed to oysters before leaving childhood, because if he is not, it is possible that the first time he tastes an oyster it will be on Valentine’s Day and that oyster will be in his mouth and then suddenly it will not be in his mouth anymore but it will not be in his stomach either. The heart wants what it wants, but sometimes it fails to inform the body.
It is unlikely something this inept and humiliating would happen to someone else too, but still. Think of introducing your child to oysters as a down payment on your future grandchildren.
But you have to work up to oysters. This is why there are the starter shellfish, mussels and clams, which come with almost zero ickiness. If anything, clams suffer from the opposite problem -- not too icky, but too tough.
There are dinners with your children when, even if you genuinely like your three-cheese macaroni with cauliflower, it is hard not to wish that the dinner was more, you know, Mission Chinese-y. (Where are the Szechuan peppercorns on these chicken fingers?)
Having shellfish for family dinner never feels like this. It feels like having adult dinner, even when there’s a member of the family employing a clamshell to snap off the nose of another member. It especially feels like adult dinner when you serve The Slanted Door’s clams with butter and lime, which is a simple, elegant, delicate shellfish dish. (The original is with clams, but it happily adapts to mussels.)
Admittedly, it feels less like adult dinner when each member of the family speaks through a shellfish for the entire dinner -- but a lot of adult dinners could really use more of that sort of thing.
Plus, if the dinner goes downhill, the shellfish-puppet trick can be very useful at couples therapy. Try not to relive the oyster incident.
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/4 cup onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon garlic, chopped
2 pounds clams, scrubbed and purged (or the same of mussels)
1/4 cup rice wine
3 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon fish sauce
4 Thai chiles, halved lengthwise (optional)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 or 5 Thai basil leaves, coarsely chopped
See the full recipe (and save it and print it) here.
Photos by Mark Weinberg