Our son Nicholas is almost seven years old and has three possible careers in mind: railroad engineer, teacher, and waiter. This last interest has increased in the past year, and at dinnertime he sometimes wants to pretend our home is a restaurant. He got particularly elaborate during my mother’s summer visit and named his restaurant The Purple Tulip after a ballpoint pen with duct-tape flower that she brought him.
It’s an elegant sort of restaurant where the customers wait on a sofa until led to a table by a very polite waiter with a towel over his arm. The menu varies from day to day; the waiter always recommends the special, and we always enjoy it. The waiter brings in the dishes from the kitchen. Sometimes we dine by candlelight or with music. Daniel and I enjoy going to The Purple Tulip for a romantic date. Funny how Nicholas always joins us a bit late, sliding into his seat after the waiter has brought the food! 🙂
Last Friday, Daniel told me that weeknight dinners had been stressful for him lately because Nicholas always refused to help him cook the meals I planned and often resisted eating whatever we were having, demanding something different. I also was unhappy with the way Nicholas had been turning every dinner conversation into complaints about foods he normally likes! I wanted a better experience during the weekend, when I do the cooking. I realized that for several weeks I’d been planning the menu late at night, without Nick’s help, and I know that he’s more enthusiastic about meals he helped plan. So on Saturday morning, I asked him what he wanted to cook in the next few days.
To my surprise, for Saturday’s dinner he wanted “honey roasted tofu” in “tacos” with red pepper and apple slices. That isn’t something we’ve ever eaten before! Normally he complains about all our tofu recipes except Tangy Honey-Apricot Tofu, so I asked if that was what he meant. No, not soft like that, but well-cooked and chewy. “Not tangy, and no apricots because we will have apples instead, but with honey and more like a Chinese food flavor.” I told him I had a poor track record with baked tofu (it always came out too wet) but I was willing to try again. We looked up some recipes online, more for the baking technique than for the sauce ingredients, which we could figure out by taste.
Now, about the “tacos”–I knew that Nicholas prefers soft tacos to crunchy ones. Could we just use the large multi-grain tortillas we already had, making something more like a burrito or “wrap”? Yes.
I agreed to buy a red pepper while out Christmas shopping. We already had apples and lettuce (from winter share in Kretschmann Farm–they have a salad greenhouse) and Nicholas agreed that lettuce would be good. As we went on planning the menu, he decided this meal should include beans as well.
I wrote down estimates of the ingredients we put into the sauce, but I can’t call it a recipe until we try actually measuring stuff! (UPDATE: Here is the recipe!) We made sort of a teriyaki sauce plus lots of honey, a little chili powder and paprika, and some bottled hoisin sauce; I mixed in 2 tsp cornstarch to help it thicken and stick to the tofu. We sliced the tofu about 3/8″ thick (Nicholas did pretty well at this!), dipped it in the sauce so that it was thoroughly coated, spread it in a single layer in a pan greased with sesame oil, and then spooned only a little of the sauce on top and kept the rest for dressing. 15 minutes at 375F gave it a satisfying texture and made the thinnest parts wonderfully crisp. I think the thin slices, not-too-much sauce, and cornstarch must be key to getting that chewy baked-tofu texture I’d never before been able to achieve!
When I asked what preparation Nicholas had in mind for the black beans, he asked me what “sauteed” means and confirmed that they should be sauteed with onion. That is similar to our usual Bean Burrito preparation, but he wanted “just a touch of chili powder” and no tomato or other seasoning except sea salt; he did the seasoning. He peeled and cut the onion after I cut it in half and removed the ends; he similarly finished the cutting of the red pepper.
Everything went into serving dishes (such elegance! We usually serve from the stove onto plates, to minimize dishes) and we put the tortillas on plates in the still-warm oven while I invited Daniel for a date at The Purple Tulip. When seated, we found the red pepper strips already on the table, along with a bowl of hummus, for our appetizer.
It turned out to be a delicious meal! I did not put beans in my taco/burrito, but I thought the tofu was perfect with the red pepper, apples, and lettuce. It tasted like something you’d get (for about $8!) in a really good vegan cafe. It was not a combination of foods I would have thought to put together. I wonder how Nicholas thought of it?! “Just what I felt like eating,” he said casually.
Not only did he help extensively with preparing the meal, not only did he eat everything without complaint, not only did he use his waiter manners, but also, when he said he wanted to use serving dishes and I pointed out that this would mean clearing off the clutter from the middle of the dining table to make space for them, he hopped right to it!!! Not a bit of, “You do it!” or, “I’ll just push it over like this,” or, “You have to help me…. What? I am doing some! Well, I’m going to in just a minute!” or, “That’s all Daddy’s mess; I didn’t put my robot stickers there,” or any of the other things he usually says to get out of dealing with his clutter!
Furthermore, on Sunday night Nicholas cheerfully helped me make a salmon tetrazzini and salad, and it was his idea to have an appetizer of canned plums served in fancy dishes. The elegance of that meal was, I must admit, diminished by the fact that we stayed out too late shopping so dinner wasn’t ready until 8:00 and therefore was eaten while watching “The Simpsons” (my favorite TV show, but it really sucks the elegance out of a room!)–but if it had not been a “restaurant” meal, Nicholas would’ve wanted to eat sitting on a picnic cloth on the floor in front of the TV. His desire to have a classy meal without missing “The Simpsons” was satisfied by moving our placemats to the other end of the table (normally the homework, crafts, and guest seating area) from which we can see the TV. At least we all sat together at the table!
Both nights, I know I behaved better during dinner preparation than I would have if I’d treated it as yet another chore that I have to do, that Nicholas could help with if he weren’t being such an ungrateful slacker. It is so tempting, when I’m tired from a day of errands and chores, to want him “out of my way” so I can do the cooking as efficiently as possible–but then he’s underfoot anyway (“Mama, look at this picture! Mama, can you get these Legos apart?”) and I am actually distracted by my own desire for rest and comfort (“I’ll wrap my hands around this coffee and gaze out the window for just a moment….”) and we wind up at odds and feeling very stressed. The extra effort involved in sharing the tasks with him is outweighed by the positive feeling of working together on a project that helps both of us focus. Even on Sunday, when we were tired and frustrated (part of the shopping went badly) and the tetrazzini took longer than expected (UPDATE: I rewrote that recipe so that the steps are in the correct order!!) and I did wind up yelling at Nicholas a few times, still we wound up with a really good meal that he ate instead of whining for crackers!
Dining at The Purple Tulip works for me! I was inspired to write about it after reading Hobo Mama’s review of a book on family mealtimes–I share many of her feelings about finding it difficult to eat in an organized, civilized way, but sometimes it does pay off!
UPDATE: After reading this article, my cousin gave Nicholas a Christmas present of a chef’s hat and an apron on which she had painted The Purple Tulip and a picture of a purple tulip! Now our chef/waiter wears a uniform! And I discovered that, when Nicholas asks for some food that requires more work than I really feel like doing at that moment (but not so much more that I feel reasonable saying he can’t have it), if I put on the chef’s hat then I enjoy the job more. 🙂