Welcome to, uh, I dunno, let’s call it Ask A Chefector, the column in which your internet food buddy (me) answers all of your questions about cooking and eating and food and pretty much anything else. Got questions about any of those things? Send me an email.
I hated spicy food as a kid. When I was in high school, and became dissatisfied with the long list of too-spicy foods that were unavailable to me, I made a plan to fix that. Every time I ordered a meal with a spicy option, I ordered it one click spicier than I actually liked it, then just forced it down. After a year or two, my spiciness baseline increased appreciably, and today I demand a moderate amount of heat in any appropriate dish. I’m glad put in the effort, and now have new foods and new dimensions of various dishes to enjoy.
Now that I cook for my own kids (aged 5-12), I want to help them get over that same hump. So, for each meal, I prepare the food a tad spicier than they would like. In practice, this means I put about a quarter of the cayenne, red pepper, or other heat source called for by a normal recipe into the pot. But even this very moderate amount of heat is always received with immense grief, causing meal time to be generally unenjoyable for everyone. This is all in addition to the usual misery involved in trying to get kids to eat any vegetables. I keep telling myself that it’ll be worth it, and we will all be able to happily eat a meal out of the same pot in the near future. But part of me thinks that forcing your kids to eat their vegetables is a good and righteous fight because there are tangible health benefits to vegetable eating, whereas spiciness is a matter of taste, and I shouldn’t subject all of us to additional misery just to force my tastes on my kids. So, what do you think: keep trying to get my kids to enjoy some heat in the food, or just allow the kids to discover an appreciation for spicy foods outside of my kitchen?
So, this is a type of (generally) well-intentioned thing that parents often do with/to their kids, usually with stuff like church, or a sport you really want them to like, or giving Aunt Susan a kiss when she comes over, or whatever: Give the kids basically no choice in the matter, in hopes that if that thing is just a normal part of daily life for them, they will not grow to have an aversion to it. I’ve made fitful efforts along these lines myself, sometimes only belatedly recognizing that I’d been doing it at all; often, I think, we parents slip into this mode without thinking about it at all.
Elliott, I submit to you that the impulse to introduce your kids to spicy food this way indicates—rightly or wrongly!—something important about how you yourself view spiciness: That it is not something yummy and good, to the delights of which one can be awakened, thereby making one’s life richer and more fulfilling, but rather something bad and unpleasant, to the miseries of which one must be desensitized, thereby making one passably Normal. That what’s natural is for a person to be averse to spiciness, unless one swims upstream against that nature for the sake of not being excluded from normal restaurant experiences. That is the basic idea you are conveying to your kids—not on purpose!—through this method, and they are picking up on it. After all, if spicy food were good, all on its own, no one would need to force it on them. Hell, if it were that good, you’d be hoarding it all for yourself!
But like, who cares. Maybe they won’t like spicy food! The more worrisome thing they can learn from this is that their parent will force them through unpleasant-bordering-on-painful experiences in service to an abstract idea evidently more important than the discomfort it’s causing them. That’s bad. That’s not what you want your kids to learn.
The basic rubric, as I have learned through humbling trial and error, is this: The things you make your kids do even when they have no interest in doing them are the things your kids will associate with arbitrary, unfair rules and the feeling of powerlessness; they are the things your kids will grow to regard as chores, and will hate doing. The things you help them discover and enjoy through their own natural curiosity, or hunger, or impulse to share good times with you are the things they will love.
The advantage you have, as the parent, is that kids get bored, or hungry, and don’t have all that much agency in deciding what to do about it. The things you make conveniently available to them to address those feelings are things they will come to have good relationships with. If, when they are bored or looking for some imaginative outlet, the easiest and most available form of entertainment is a good age-appropriate book, they will read the book, and the book will light up their brain like a pinball machine, and that will be thrilling and intensely rewarding, and will help them learn to like reading. Repeat this enough times and they will make a habit of reading; reading will be what they like to do to light up their brain. If, when they are hungry—not when It Is Mealtime Now, but when they are actually hungry—what satisfies that hunger is a plate of fresh crunchy veggies, eating the fresh crunchy veggies will feel very good, immediately, and will make them very happy; if they get used to that experience of eating vegetables, they will like to eat vegetables.
This applies to spicy food—within reason, of course: A chemical burn is a chemical burn, and ghost peppers at any level of hunger will simply traumatize a child—but also to mushrooms and to mayonnaise and to raw fish and to pretty much all the other foods that people sometimes get all the way into adulthood fearing. Kids who grow up refreshing themselves on brutally hot days by licking frosty durian popsicles will like the taste of durian. That’s really all there is to it. In this one way if in no others, we humans are not very complicated.
So here is what I think you should do. First of all, you should say to your kids (editing as needed to suit however old they are): “I’m sorry for making the food spicier than you like it. I was hoping you would like spicy food as much as I do, but I got too excited thinking I could make it happen and it was a mistake. Everybody is different and it’s OK if you don’t like spicy food at all; I won’t make you eat anything spicier than you like anymore. And if you ever do decide that you would like to try out some spicy stuff, I’d love it if we could do that together!” The thing to convey (other than that you’re sorry for having forced them to eat food that made them feel bad) is that you’re not going to put any pressure on them; that it’s OK for them to like what they like and to try new things at their own pace.
And then, go right on enjoying spicy food in front of them. Hose your dinner down with hot sauce. When you’re at a restaurant where everybody can order a different dish, order something spicy—better yet, ask the server to identify the spiciest thing on the menu, and order it—and enjoy the hell out of eating it. Not out of some strategic motive, but because you like spicy food and it’s what you want to eat. There’s a very good chance that at some point their natural curiosity will start itching at them: Spicy food will start to look exciting and appealing and they’ll at least want to try it. And then you can help them take some steps in that direction, always with the assurance that if it’s not for them, it won’t make you feel any type of way other than glad to have been able to go exploring together.
Because ultimately, who gives a frig! It’s totally fine if they never come around on spicy heat. People have much dumber food aversions than that.
When you dream about your ideal kitchen, what’s in it? What’s the set-up? Do you have a drawer of just spices? Is your counter space the same square footage as a small country?
Hm. My home’s kitchen is pretty rockin’, I must say. I am fine with an overall normal kitchen. One way I’d improve it, if I could, would be to give it some type of shape even remotely compatible with hanging my many pots and pans from hooks, or from a hanging rack, rather than jamming all but the two fanciest of them into a cabinet. Looking for the right pot or pan in there is a drag, and putting a heavy pan back in there after use and cleaning doubly so, involving disassembling and reassembling a nested-doll type of situation to get said pan into the right part of it. So I guess my ideal kitchen would have some plausible method for hanging pots and pans in the open air.
Other things would also be suspended, rather than jammed into drawers and cupboards: Chef’s knives, on a magnetic bar; and oven mitts, on hooks on the backsplash next to the stove.
What else. The spice situation in my kitchen is kind of disastrous: There’s a corner cupboard that opens to a three-level spinny uh spinner type of deal, which is great, but the spinner thing is absolutely buried under the least organized junkyard of spice bottles and bags and jars ever to exist. So if I’m enlisting the Ideal Kitchen Elves to set this whole thing up for me, I am happy to keep the spinner thing, but I want the Elves to organize the spices, neatly, into labeled airtight resealable jars of uniform size and shape. And then it would be nice if the Elves would return fortnightly to tidy the spices up again.
I like a lot of counter space. But what I like even more than a lot of counter space is not having to have a lot of shit just kind of live on the counter: small appliances, cooking implements, too-tall bottles of olive oil and red wine vinegar, that kind of thing. I don’t want that stuff just loitering on the otherwise lovely countertop! I do not ever want to have to move things around to make space for a cutting board. I will trade back some counter space, happily, for enough cabinet space to store all of the countertop derelicts. But then the extra cabinet space naturally will result in more countertop, so I get the best of both demands.
But some things can live on the countertop. It is fine for there to be, for example, a nice-looking bread box on the countertop, and a bowl for onions and garlic, and another one for lemons and limes, and a nice thick butcher-block type of cutting board, and a drying rack for hand-washed dishes. It is very normal for a toaster to live on the countertop, but that is bullshit.
I am a fan of Analog Coffee Devices. My ideal kitchen has a Chemex pourover and a moka pot in it, and a hand-cranked coffee grinder. Also my ideal kitchen has a skylight. My ideal of basically any type of room has a skylight.
I’ll tell you what my ideal kitchen doesn’t have in it: People who don’t like spicy food! They can all burn in hell!!!
After reading the Uncleanliness post of 4.18.23, I’m curious if you apply these same standards to garlic. Is there any scenario in which a rogue clove of garlic has enough brown mushiness for you to discard it?
How about the green stem growing from the center of a garlic clove that maybe has sat around longer than usual? Do you chop those up or remove them? Do you have a favorite method of finely chopping garlic (I use the smash-and dice)?
I generally don’t consider myself as prudish when it comes to most foods, but I do try to be discerning with my garlic somewhat.
Give me a hot garlic take!
At pretty much all times my kitchen has an absolutely absurd amount of garlic in it. This is because my brain is sawdust: When I go grocery shopping, if I foresee using garlic in the next week (this is the case 100 percent of the time), then I will buy three or four or five bulbs of garlic, because I can’t be totally sure that I have any at home, even though, as we have established, I definitely do have some at home.
You can see where this is going. I acquire garlic much more rapidly than I make use of it, so naturally there will end up being some sprouted cloves, or some that have turned brown and soft. But also I will never exactly have to cook with those, because I always have a preposterous number of other cloves of garlic waiting to be used. So although I have never really formalized this in any type of way, my general practice is to use the sprouted ones (I’ll hack off the green, uh, tentacle or whatever, if it’s more than like a quarter-inch long), and, when I encounter a mushy brown one, to chuck it. I do not have time for mushy loser garlic cloves! I demand robust, hearty garlic cloves in my kitchen, and I apparently demand a billion of them.
I don’t really have a hot garlic take. Garlic is good and I like it. I will transform this non-advice into thoughtful advice by saying, sagely: You should use some garlic in your cooking sometimes, where appropriate.
I am single and live alone in a 700-square-foot apartment, and even though I generally like to cook and bake, I struggle to do so for myself on a regular basis. Sometimes I feel like it’s not worth the effort of cooking a meal/baking a dessert when it’s just for me and there’s no one to share it with, sometimes I just really hate having to clean up after cooking/baking and that will deter me, and sometimes I don’t want to eat the same leftovers for four meals in a row. Any tips or go-to meals for solo home cooks out there like me that need to avoid defaulting to, say, a bowl of cereal or cheese and crackers for dinner? (Note that I’m about 95-percent of the way to being strictly vegetarian but have not yet shaken my love of perfectly crisp bacon.)
Sarah I think that you are doing fine. Not being in the mood to cook, not wanting to clean, and not wanting to eat the same leftovers four meals in a row are all perfectly cromulent reasons not to bother cooking. I think that you can treat yourself a little better than eating a bowl of cereal or cheese and crackers for dinner, but, like, it’s fine not to cook. It’s fine!
I have not been a solo home cook in … pretty much forever, now that I think of it. So maybe my advice is not the best, here. (Will that stop me from offering it? Reader, it will not.) I would like for you to consider the Dinner Salad as a possible option: With no actual cooking whatsoever, and in a matter of minutes, you can throw together something vivid and delicious and nourishing, with lots of colors and textures, that will make you feel good where the bowl of cereal would make you feel merely full and otherwise bad.
I have written more words about how to make a dang salad than anyone should ever have to read, so I’m not going to put you through all that again. By Dinner Salad I am just talking about a normal-ass salad—raw leafy stuff, other assorted flora, some olive oil, some acid—made a little heartier by the addition of, well, heartier stuff, like canned beans, nuts, cheese, croutons, hard-boiled egg. You get the idea. Some or all of that stuff.
If your diet permits fish, here is one to try: Chop up, oh, I dunno, enough romaine lettuce to fill a big cereal bowl, and toss it (in an even bigger bowl, naturally) with thin-sliced onion and cucumber, pitted olives, garbanzo beans out of a can, fresh-ground black pepper, extra-virgin olive oil, and the squeeze of half a lemon. Then gently add some tinned fish or the kind of fancy tuna that comes in a glass jar and do one or two more very gentle tosses. A good salad! Also pretty much a whole meal. It’s going to taste great. It came together in like five minutes, tops. And, crucially, the romaine and the cucumber were literally the only ingredients that you have to have bought more recently than like a month ago.
If your diet does not permit fish, leave the fish out of it. Maybe swap in some goat cheese! Why not. Sounds delicious to me.
(It’s also fine to have a bowl of cereal or some cheese and crackers sometimes. It’s also fine to cook a cup of rice in a rice cooker, nuke some frozen veggies, and eat that with some good seaweed seasoning out of a jar and some hot chili oil out of a bottle. It’s fine! It’s fine.)
What is the cooking task you imagined being extremely difficult to get the hang of that turned out to come much easier than you thought, and which thing did you expect would be easy but still somehow haven’t mastered to your liking? For example, every instructional I read on making roux made it sound like a harrowing process you’ll inevitably screw up, but I’ve still never burned one, even though I try to get it as dark as possible and even speed the process along by getting the oil hot before I add the flour. Meanwhile, I still can’t chop an onion in a way that doesn’t look like an 8-year-old did it with the side of a fork.
Tony. Buddy. You need a sharper knife!