My boys have a new favorite food–Jamaican Rice and Peas!  This is a staple from my vegetarian days that I haven’t made in years, but I had one of those crazy cravings and gave in.  It also seemed like a good learning opportunity for the boys.  What better way to introduce new cultures than through their food?

Yummy Jamaican Rice and Peas

Aidan loves his rice and peas (here made with kidney beans)

Rice and peas is an everyday staple in Jamaica.  Its subtle coconut flavor and creamy texture are a perfect complement to Jamaican Jerk Chicken and other spicy island treats (try it with salsa chicken and pineapple for an easy, Caribbean-inspired family meal).  It is traditionally made with pigeon peas, but black-eyed peas or kidney beans are often substituted.  I make it with canned peas because it’s so easy, but you can prepare  the raw peas yourself if you can’t find canned pigeon peas and want to make the traditional dish (use one cup raw peas with three cups water).  I sometimes use the  pepper and sometimes don’t.  Since you use a whole pepper and remove it before cooking, it doesn’t make the rice hot, but adds a nice, subtle pepper flavor.

The night I introduced Jamaican Rice and Peas to my boys, I talked with them about Jamaica and tropical islands.  They were fascinated and asked lots of questions and repeated the things I was telling them over and over.  I think it was the first time it had started to make sense to them that people live in many different places, and that people in different places eat different foods than we do.  It was fun watching them learn, and  it was a very pleasant way to make dinner conversation with soon-t0-be-three-year-olds.  I plan to buy a good map to keep in the kitchen, so as we cook and learn together I can point out where the different foods we eat come from.  I hope this will also make cooking and eating together as a family more fun.  It sure was fun last week.  And it was even more fun when Aidan requested “Island rice and beans” again for dinner a few nights later (we ate it as our main meal the second night since I already knew they liked it).

Jamaican Rice and Peas

1 can kidney beans, pigeon peas or black-eyed peas (15 ounces) (see note)
1 can unsweetened coconut milk (13.5 ounces)
1 cup water
2 cups brown rice (or substitute long or short grain white rice–not instant!)
1 habanero pepper (can substitute a Scotch bonnet or chili pepper or omit)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2-4 cloves garlic, crushed
salt to taste (start with 1/4 teaspoon)

Put all of the ingredients into a saucepan, including the liquid from the beans.  Bring to a boil, then simmer until most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender (about 50 minutes for brown rice or 30 minutes for white rice).  Remove the habanero pepper and serve.

Makes 4 main dish or 8 side dish servings.

Note:  Most Jamaican chefs cook raw beans first (which are soupy like non-drained canned beans) which is why I use the canned bean “juice” in my recipe. It keeps things easy and more authentic tasting.  You may like the texture of this dish better, however, if you drain and rinse the beans first, then add an extra 1/2 -3/4 cup water to dish.  (I find that I need more water when I use white rice instead of brown rice.)

Picky Eater Pleaser:  Try leaving out the pepper, thyme, garlic and beans at first, so you just have coconut rice (you will have to add 1/2-3/4 cup water).  If your picky eater likes this, try adding back in the beans first, then add each “spice” one at a time each time you make the dish.  Alternately, make “coconut rice” and let family members add their own beans at the table.  You can also use 2-3 fresh thyme sprigs instead of the dried thyme and remove them before serving.

Menu Planner:  Rice and beans makes a filling vegetarian meal by itself, but it is also really good with spicy meat dishes like jerk chicken.  Try it as a side dish with salsa chicken and pineapple or as a main dish with a tropical fruit salad on the side (mango, banana and pineapple with coconut sprinkles-yum!).

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This is good, Mommy.

What could be more comforting on a cold, spring day than a warm bowl of cauliflower soup?  It’s sweet, mild and nourishing, and it gives the kids something fun to do as the rain pours down.  Many child nutrition experts claim that kids who help pick out, prepare or cook a food are much more likely to eat it.  I agree.  My sons and I started making soup together this winter, shortly after their second birthday, and they’re hooked.  They love pouring in the ingredients, stirring the pot and pureeing the vegetables with the “magic soup wand.”  Best of all, their faces glow with pride when we invite Grammy and Grandpa over to eat the dinner they’ve cooked.

The Proud and Happy Cooks.

My boys aren’t mature enough to add ingredients to a hot pot on the stove, so I invented the following recipe with fun and safety in mind.  It can be cooked all at once using a food processor or blender to purée the soup, or it may be cooled down and puréed using a soup wand.  We usually do the latter because it’s easier for me and because soup wands are A LOT of fun.  Just don’t pull it out of the pot while it’s twirling!

Cauliflower Soup

1 pound cauliflower, chopped (about one medium head or you can use frozen)
1 onion, chopped
2 ½ cups skim or low-fat milk
¼ – ½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
2 – 4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (optional)

Step 1: Let the kids put the cauliflower and the onion in a medium soup pot or a large sauce pan.  Add about 1 – 1 ½ cups of water (should be about an inch deep), then let the kids stir a little (although it’s not really necessary.)  Cover the pot and cook over medium heat about 25-30 minutes until the cauliflower is tender, checking occasionally to make sure there’s enough water in the bottom so the vegetables don’t burn.

Soup wands are fun!

Step 2: If you choose to purée hot soup, transfer the cauliflower mixture into a food processor or blender (you may have to do this in batches).  If more than ½ cup of the water remains, pour some out; otherwise keep the remaining water.  Let the kids add the milk and seasonings to the soup while it’s in the food processor.  They can also turn the processor on and stop it to stir occasionally if some of the cauliflower is sticking. Transfer the puree back to the soup pot.

If you use a soup wand with young children, you must either transfer the soup to a cold soup pot or you must set the pot on a cool burner and let it cool for 1 – 2 hours (we usually do Step 1 after nap, then go outside and play for an hour).  After checking the pots’ temperature, let your kids add the milk and the seasonings.  Purée the soup directly in the pot using the soup wand on a low setting.

Step 3: Simmer the soup until it is warm (10-15 minutes).  Do not let it boil or it will curdle.  Let the kids garnish their own soup at the table with shredded cheese if desired.

Makes:  5-6 cups of soup.

Variations:  Substitute broccoli or asparagus for the cauliflower.  If using broccoli, add 1 cup of cheese (8 ounces) directly to the soup, then let family members add cheese as wanted at the table for broccoli cheese soup.

Time-Saver: In Step 1 you may microwave the vegetables in a glass dish with about ½ cup water on high for 5-6 minutes instead of boiling on the stove.

Aidan loves to eat the soup he made.

Picky Eater Pleaser: Let family members pepper their own bowls of soup at the table instead of adding it to the pot.  You may also add a larger portion of cheese to a smaller amount of soup to introduce the soup to a cheese lover.

Menu Planner:  I keep this one simple with whole wheat bread or crackers and sliced fruit on the side.