So much has happened in the nine months since my son Zachary was born. He learned to sing ee-i-ee-i-o. He grew two inches and six teeth. He began to walk, always holding onto something, his chubby legs still wobbly. As for me, I’ve done quite a bit of growing myself. And there’s been no more important lesson than the one I’d like to share today: learning to trust my instincts, both as a mom and as a chef.
In the beginning, I read everything there was to read about what to feed my baby. I read about steaming vegetables with nothing but water. About boiling ingredients into oblivion to make them soft and mushy and easy to digest. About not using onions or olive oil or salt or anything that had a hint of flavor. Once, I bought a can of baby food at the market to taste it and was amazed to discover…it tasted like nothing! But ever the anxious new mami, fearful of screwing up something so vital, I followed the rules. The result wasn’t good. Zachary pursed his lips, spit things out and wouldn’t eat. He was disinterested and, frankly, who could blame him? The food wasn’t very inspiring. I’d put that spoon in front of him without a lot of enthusiasm because it wasn’t my food, my sabor. In my heart I knew Zachary could tell.
Then one day something clicked. I reminded myself that I know a thing or two about food and nutrition and cooking things people enjoy eating. I told myself that, after 22 years of cooking, I needed to trust my experience and my gut. Most important, this was the moment I realized, in my mind and in my soul: I am Zachary’s mom and no one knows what he needs more than I do.
I began to experiment and have fun cooking for him: I made an avocado smoothie and mixed it into his formula. He loved it! I whipped cream cheese into mashed calabaza, spinach and quinoa and created one of his favorites, which he announces with a certain joyous leg kicking, head bobbing thing that ensues when something delicious is happening in his mouth. Once, after he spit out peas at me, offended I’d given him something he didn’t like, I figured out a way to sneak them into his next meal—this time folded into cooked plátanos drizzled with olive oil and a tiny pinch of salt. It worked! Soon enough, I discarded the advice books and instead tapped into a more powerful source: my mother’s intuition.
Cooking for my baby is one of the most important and meaningful things I do. I could easily bring home things like chicken stock or steamed vegetables from one of my restaurants. But I don’t. I come home and make the chicken stock I use for many of his meals from scratch. I simmer vegetables. I mash, puree, fold and portion a couple of times a week, leaving fresh food prepared in the fridge. There’s nothing like the feeling of making something with your hands for someone you adore. There’s nothing like nourishing a body and a soul, like cooking food that brings about a smile, or in Zachary’s case a leg kick and a head bob. Food isn’t the only way I express my complete adoration for my son, but it is the most gratifying. I want to say to my fellow mamis: Cook for your baby, even if you’re not a chef. In my opinion, few things will bring you as much satisfaction. And always remember: no one knows more about what your child needs…than you.
Below are two of my most recent recipes that Zachary loves. When shopping for any of the ingredients listed, try to purchase organic products in order ensure they are free of unhealthy chemicals.
Beef with boniato and potato
1 tsp vegetable oil
1 T yellow onion, minced
3 ounces filet of beef, diced very, very small
4 1/2 ounces of boniato (about ½ of a large boniato), peeled and diced
1. In a small saucepan place, the boniato with water to cover. Cook over on high heat, for about 10 minutes or until very tender. Drain all but ½ cup of the cooking liquid.
2. Place oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat. When oil has heated, add the onion and cook until tender. Add the meat and cook for only 1-2 minutes to cook through.
3. Season the meat with the tiniest pinch of salt.
4. Place the cooked boniato and beef with onions in a food processor. Run until smooth, drizzling in the liquid little by little.
5. Cool to room temperature.
1 cup calabaza or butternut squash, diced into ½-inch pieces
1 cup homemade organic chicken broth or organic “no salt” chicken broth
¾ cup spinach
2 T cooked quinoa
1 tsp cream cheese
Tiny pinch of salt
1. Place the squash in the chicken stock with the tiniest pinch of salt in a small pan on high.
2. Allow it to come to a boil. Reduce to a simmer for 12-15 minutes or until tender.
3. Add the spinach, stirring. Remove immediately from the heat.
4. Pour into a blender. Add the cooked quinoa, cream cheese and puree until smooth.
5. Cool to room temperature.
NBC Latino contributor Michelle Bernstein is a James Beard Foundation Award-winning Miami chef known for her Latin-style flavors and various acclaimed restaurants, including Sra. Martinez and Michy’s. Michelle, a new mamá, writes regularly about her experience in cooking for children.