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Photographs by Meadow Linn

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Changing Your Culinary Beliefs One Bite at a Time


"You're serving beets?!" I couldn't help blurting this out when I saw that my friend had made a beet salad for his five year-old's birthday party. He responded, "Of course, we love beets." It wasn't more than a few moments later that the little boy ran up to the buffet table and dove into the bowl of beets with his bare hands. As I stood there, munching on chips and vegetables, I noticed many children putting the beet salad on their plate alongside cheese, grapes, cupcakes and other more common kid fare.

Taste has a lot to do with conditioning. These children had been raised eating beets: raw, boiled, and roasted. They had learned to appreciate their rich, vibrant color and their earthy sweet flavor. Since the parents liked beets and their friends too, it was only natural that the children would also eat them. A young Masai warrior drinks animal blood with the same gusto that an American child drinks milk and a child raised in Oaxaca, Mexico eats chapulines (dried and salted grasshoppers) in the same manner we eat potato chips. The things we eat are a product of necessity and culture, be it the culture of our entire society or just our family.

There are, of course, other factors that lead to food preferences. An allergy to a particular food can lead one to either crave it or abhor it, and sometimes there is just no good reason why we like one thing and not another. However, many of the decisions we make about food start at a very young age. Some studies have even shown that babies can pick up facial cues about food preferences from parents and caretakers. Associations and emotional connection play an important role in the foods we enjoy and those we avoid. So, when trying new foods, make it fun and exciting. And of course, it helps to have an open mind if stepping way beyond one's culinary comfort zone.


Harvesting Beets in my Garden
A friend of mine founded a culinary school for children (www.kitchenkid.com). She teaches them not only how to prepare delicious recipes, but also to better understand the ingredients, health benefits, and cultural importance of the dishes they create. In one lesson, the students make "butterfly pasta" using fresh beets to color butterfly shaped farfalle. The children, who an hour before declared beets public enemy #1, ravenously devour bowls of the bright pink pasta. When the young chefs put time and energy into creating something beautiful, they discover the rich flavor of beets and at the same time create positive associations that will hopefully last a lifetime.


Are there foods you passionately dislike? Why? What formed this belief? Did your parents feel the same way about the food? Your friends? Is it a belief about health? A cultural or religious belief? Most people will respond that it's the taste or the texture that they don't like, which is a valid response, but what's at the root? What is it about the taste or the texture that doesn't work for you? Once you discover the reason for disliking the food, you might want to consider thinking of creative ways to try it again. For instance, if you don't like tomatoes because of the seeds, remove the seeds, dice the tomato, and make a salsa for a Mexican fiesta. Or, if you have an aversion to Brussels sprouts because the nuns at your school boiled them until they were brown and mushy. Create a new memory. Cook them in a different way. Share them with people you love. Throw a party. I can't guarantee you'll change your mind, but it's never to late to reinvent your palate and change your beliefs.

 Sunshine Salad
In the heart of winter, it's still possible to eat fresh salads and use produce that's in season. The following salad is for those who love beets and for those who want to love beets. I encourage you try it, and allow yourself to be immersed in the flavor. You may be surprised by what you discover.

Salad:
3 or 4 medium red beets
4 navel oranges (reserve one for the dressing)
1 small fennel bulb

Dressing:
1/4 cup fresh juice from one orange
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tbs. white balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. sugar

Wash the beets and chop off the ends. Boil until tender when pierced with a knife. Be patient; this may take up to an hour. In the mean time, prepare the dressing by mixing all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Set aside. With a sharp knife, remove the peel and all the white pith from the oranges. Slice the oranges into thin rounds. When the beets are soft, drain and run cold water over them. When they are cool enough to handle, remove the skin by rubbing the beets with your fingers. This is a messy job but satisfying too! Slice the beets into thin rounds. Alternately lay the beets and oranges on a platter. Using a vegetable peeler, shave the fennel bulb into "ribbons" and decorate the edge of the platter with the fennel. Drizzle with the dressing, and enjoy a taste of sunshine.