It's hard to say which of us was more terrified when my future stepson and I first met. He was 10 at the time, a sweet-faced boy in a baseball cap, accustomed to having his dad all to himself on weekends for unlimited bowling, sushi and dumb-guy movies. Right away, the kid endeared himself to me forever by admitting to his dad, in private, that I seemed OK but "kind of young." Still, at that point, I was clearly an interloper.
Naturally, I was eager to make friends. But with no offspring of my own and nary a baby-sitting gig in my teenage past, I was sorely lacking in child-relation skills. So I did what I always do when I'm at a loss--I cook.
Matt had been raised as an adventurous eater and was schooled in the politesse of the "no-thank-you" helping (that is, he would take a tiny bit of even the grossest-seeming food and at least taste it). So, slyly, I courted him with steamed artichokes, an appealingly tactile yet grown-up food, and outdid myself with lasagna. Condiments let children express themselves, I realized as I saw Matt pour steak sauce on roast turkey and other meals deemed OK but boring. I bought him his own salsas and mustards.
Over the years, I learned other basic truths about the adolescent boy's palate. For example, any vegetable that's grilled--peppers, zucchini, even the dread gray eggplant--is more palatable than a vegetable that's not. Similarly, any loose-textured substance, from scrambled eggs to boeuf bourguignon, will be happily eaten if it's wrapped in a warm tortilla like a burrito. Other foreign foodstuffs, such as Swiss chard, may be cleverly secreted in the chamber of a stuffed mushroom. As for fresh herbs, given the pervasiveness of pesto, basil is acceptable, but cilantro, strangely, bad. And if all else fails, melt cheese on top.
Yes, I know America's increasingly sedentary children are more prone to being overweight than my generation was. All I'm saying is that cheese, in judicious amounts, helped cement my relationship with Matt. And I did maintain some standards: I never resorted to deep-frying, even in the name of tempura.
Like most kids, Matt was more than happy to eat lobster, steamed clams or shrimp, as well as anything remotely Tex-Mex or Chinese--ergo this recipe, in which raw cabbage is transformed by fresh ginger, soy, peanut butter and black tea. Never mind that he's always turned up his nose at coleslaw; he's barely aware that there's cabbage in this dish at all. What he responds to is the soft comfort of cold pasta and the toddler solace of peanut butter. But he has an adult's appreciation of fresh ginger, with its bright tang. In fact, while he hasn't yet shown great interest in the hands-on preparation of food, he did ask what made the delicious taste he recognized from Japanese restaurants. I took a knob of ginger from the freezer and grated it, still frozen, into snowy flakes. The dipping sauce, I demonstrated, was as simple as soaking the flakes in a small bowl of tamari.
If I never teach my stepson anything else about food, I like to think I've contributed this special flavor to his palate--and like our relationship since the day we met, it's complicated, sweet-and-sour and savory, all at the same time.
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COLD NOODLES AND CABBAGE IN PEANUT SAUCE
Makes 8 servings
6 tablespoons natural peanut butter
2 1/2 teaspoons sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons ginger, grated
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
6 tablespoons brewed black tea
1/2 pound dried linguine, cooked and drained
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 pound green cabbage, julienned
1 red or yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded and julienned
4 scallions (the greens and 1 inch of the white), sliced
1 large jalapeno pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup unsalted peanuts, coarsely chopped
In medium bowl, combine sauce ingredients and whisk until smooth.
While linguine is still in colander, toss with olive oil to coat well. Transfer to large bowl and add cabbage, bell pepper, scallions and jalapeno. Toss gently. Add peanut sauce and toss to combine. Taste for seasoning. Sprinkle with peanuts. Cover and chill for up to 36 hours. Toss again and let come to room temperature before serving.
Food stylist: Norman Stewart; plates and place mat from Maison et Cafe, Los Angeles