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Bagna Cauda: Dressing for Dinner

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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: Nicholas proposes that the only reason children don't like vegetables is because they don't have enough anchovy.

bagna cauda

This is going to sound high-brow. This is going to sound like a parody of how the food cognoscenti feed their children. So go ahead. Hit me with your best shot: bagna cauda.

Have I lost you already? Why are you setting the table with four jars of peanut butter and four knives?

This isn’t high-brow. This is desperation. This is lowest-common denominator. This is pandering. Don’t think bagna cauda. Think Piedmontese hummus.


Bagna cauda, of course, is the warm bath of garlic-anchovy oil that Italians dip vegetables in. (Also, some New Yorkers at dinner parties.) For kid-feeding purposes, though, it has three strikes against it: garlic, anchovy, vegetables.

So let’s try a word-substitution game: for garlic, think cream (seriously: the garlic here is boiled and then mashed). For anchovy, think salt. For vegetables—well, OK, think vegetables.

bagna cauda

The idea of bagna cauda for kids came about because the pleasures of raw spring and summer vegetables are the hardest thing to communicate to a child. They’re very grown-up pleasures. (Unless you’re in the garden picking said vegetables, in which case you win.) Let’s face it: salad is usually a non-starter. Bagna cauda is an attempt to rethink seasonal vegetables for the youngest generation. It’s a new frame around an old problem. It’s not a solution, but it isn’t a stunt either.

Of course, if you are feeling uncharitable, you may be tempted to point out that once, when we were desperate to entertain Isaiah while grocery shopping, we gave him a head of garlic to play with in his stroller and when we looked down a minute later, he’d eaten half the head. But that was years ago now and the garlic for this bagna cauda is poached until tame. (The recipe’s from Jessica Theroux’s Cooking with Italian Grandmothers.)

You might also point out that I have a known fixation with small fish. This is true, too.

finger food

But my predispositions aside, I have an air-tight, alliterative case for why bagna cauda works:

1) Dressing.

Bagna cauda is basically dressing. Children like dressing. Deductive reasoning tells us that children like bagna cauda. How much do children like dressing? Have you ever seen a dog try to clean out the far corners of a peanut butter jar? Like that, but with opposable thumbs.

2) Dipping

Children are incorrigible dippers. Despite our best attempts to stop him, Isaiah is no different. By the end of his dinner, his plate sometimes looks like the Jell-O I grew up eating as a side-dish in Wisconsin, with various unlikely vegetables suspended in it. Like fondue, bagna cauda legitimizes dipping. It’s like getting to eat dinner on backwards day.

For ours, we used beets, cut thin and blanched; asparagus, also blanched; and some sugar snap peas and carrots, the latter cut into sticks. But use the best raw (or blanched) vegetables you have or the ones your children are most likely to eat. (These aren’t always the same thing, of course.)

And if it fails as part of dinner, think of it as entertainment.

Bagna Cauda (Piedmontese Warm Garlic-Anchovy Dip)

Serves 6 as an appetizer

3 whole heads garlic, broken into cloves and peeled
1 cup olive oil
5 anchovy fillets, rinsed if salted and finely chopped
Blanched or raw vegetables for serving
Freshly ground black pepper

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

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Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Dinner, Finger Food, Weeknight Cooking, Vegetarian, Long Reads, Ingredients, Kids, Everyday Cooking, Parenting