Monkey business

Posted by Anita on 05.14.09 6:26 AM

(c)2009 AEC *all rights reserved*Despite our enduring love for our nieces and pint-sized friends, this blog will never feature the sort of recipes that usually pass for kid-friendly meals. With high-octane cocktails, labor-intensive recipes, and frequent bouts of profanity, no sane reader would ever mistake me for a mommy blogger. And yet, one of the best food books I’ve read in quite some time — one I actually forked over cash to buy — is Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater. A title that’s shelved not with the cookbooks, but in the heretofore unexplored Baby & Toddler section of my local bookstore.

I doubt Hungry Monkey would have found its way to our house if we weren’t already friends with the book’s author, Matthew Amster-Burton, and his daughter Iris. But that surely would have been my loss, because once I picked it up, I couldn’t stop reading. Or laughing. Matthew’s a pretty funny guy, something you may already know if you read his blog, Roots & Grubs, or his witty writings on Culinate,, or pretty much anywhere else you go for clever, thoughtful food writing these days. And even if you couldn’t give a fig for the intricacies of raising a little fresser, you can’t help but be drawn in by Matthew’s no-nonsense ideas about food.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I think it’s only fair to admit that I’m friends not only with Matthew, his wife Laurie, and little Iris, but also with grandma Judy, and many of the other characters in the book — Tea, Shauna, Molly, and the gang — so reading a chapter is like old home week for me. Some of my favorite memories from our Seattle days involve the dinner parties we used to throw. Every New Year’s Day, we’d make an enormous pot of cassoulet and invite our friends to polish it off; the Amster-Burtons were among the 50 or so food-obsessed friends who came to the second-annual fête.

I don’t remember much else from that day, but I do remember Iris — who had just turned one — sitting on our kitchen floor and calmly polishing off an adult-sized plate of braised pork, beans, and duck confit. Reading the book, I was tickled that Matthew remembered, too: The cassoulet-gobbling tale is but one of dozens of spot-on anecdotes he uses to illustrate his theories. (In this case, the point is: “Stew is the ultimate in baby food. It’s easy to make. It’s easy to eat: you don’t even need teeth.”)

But aside from personal affection, Matthew’s stories of cooking for Iris are universal, whether you’re a parent, a proud aunt, or even kid-agnostic. In a way, my feelings about Hungry Monkey are similar to Matthew’s own enthusiasm for his daughter’s culinary education:

“I was gung-ho about sharing our food with Iris for the same reason people share food with each other everywhere: it’s fun. It was the first opportunity for Iris and me to share an experience and enjoy it for the same reasons. I mean, I liked playing peek-a-boo (I called it “peekytoe”) because it made Iris laugh, but it’s not like it’s something Laurie and I played before Iris was born — or, at least, I wouldn’t admit to it. But I like enchiladas. Iris likes enchiladas. We can agree on enchiladas.”

On the surface, I may not have a lot in common with a stay-at-home dad. But our mutual love of food — and a fondness for belly laughs — makes Hungry Monkey worth a read, even if you have no experience with the tribulations of breastfeeding, or coaxing a toddler to the dinner table. With the exception of a couple of purees, there’s hardly a recipe in the book that looks or tastes like kid chow. Last winter, Cameron and I tested a dozen or so of the recipes during the book’s development, and we’ll personally vouch for Matthew’s stacked enchiladas, Cornish pasties, and bibimbap, not to mention a recipe for carnitas that’s so quick and simple we didn’t believe it would work. (It did, deliciously.)

If you need further convincing, plan to pop by one of Matthew’s readings in the Bay Area the week of May 24 (check the schedule here). Photographic evidence indicates that Hungry Monkey is even more hilarious when read aloud by its author.

If you can’t get to one of Matthew’s book-signings, there’s still a chance to have your own brush with fame: I’ve got an extra copy of the book — there is some payoff for being a recipe-tester! — and it just so happens that Matthew will be visiting us on his swing through town. So, if you’d like to win an autographed copy of Hungry Monkey, leave a comment below telling us about your favorite food when you were little. Next weekend, I’ll pick a comment at random and get in touch with the lucky winner to ask how they’d like the book inscribed.

In the meantime, here’s a little proof that not all kid-friendly food has to look like stewed prunes and taste like mush.

(c)2009 AEC *all rights reserved*(c)2009 AEC *all rights reserved*Hungry Monkey(c)2009 AEC *all rights reserved*(c)2009 AEC *all rights reserved*

Beer-Braised Short Ribs with Wheat Berries
- from Hungry Monkey by Matthew Amster-Burton, reprinted with permission

3 to 4 pounds beef short ribs (flanken or English-style)
salt and pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 large onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 cup wheat berries (see note)
2 bottles (2-1/4 cups) porter-style beer
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes, not drained
1-1/2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons minced parsley

Preheat oven to 450°F.

Season the ribs liberally with salt and pepper and place them on a foil-lined baking sheet (bone-side down if you’re using English style ribs). Roast 45 minutes or until they’re nicely browned and have rendered plenty of fat. Reduce oven temperature to 275°F.

While the ribs are roasting, heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or other large pot over medium heat. Add the garlic, onion, carrot, and celery. Cook until vegetables are limp but not browned, 5 to 10 minutes.

Add the wheat berries, beer, tomatoes, and chicken stock, and stir to mix. Add the browned ribs, raise the heat to medium-high, and cover. When the pot is boiling, transfer it to the oven (you did remember to turn it down to 275°F, right?). Braise for 2-1/2 to 3 hours, or until meat is very tender. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.

If serving immediately, remove the meat and strain the sauce, then skim off the fat with a spoon or gravy separator. Otherwise, cool to room temperature and refrigerate everything together, skimming off the solidified fat before reheating. Give each person one or two ribs (remove the bones before serving if you like), a ladleful of wheat berries and sauce, and a sprinkling of parsley.

Note: Wheat berries are available in the bulk section at any health food store. Mine has sometimes managed to run out, so I’ve substituted pearl barley to good effect. Hard or soft wheat berries will work. For another variation, substitute French green lentils for the wheat berries.

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Comment by Michele Morris

This sounds like a FABOULOUS gift for any foodies who are new parents! Thanks for sharing. My favorite food as a kid was cooked spinach with butter and salt. I was actually secretly pleased when my mom was hospitalized overnight for minor surgery when I was about 10 so I could eat the entire package myself (I had only been served frozen spinach then – glad to say I’ve graduated to fresh).

Posted on 05.14.09 at 8:42AM

Comment by PK

What a great idea! I always wonder if it is nature or nurture when little ones will only eat a handful of things – I have always sincerely hoped it was nature and that I could raise kids who would taste anything – at least once! I wish I could say that my first word wasn’t cookie… it was… but I also had a fondness for octopus at a very young age!

Posted on 05.14.09 at 9:41AM

Comment by SarahMZ

What a clever book! Just reading the excerpt made me laugh out loud quite a few times. As a child I was made to try everything on my plate before deciding what I liked, but my favorite was always tuna salad with fresh mashed potatoes. The combination of hot and cold, easy to eat, with some salt and pepper was my ultimate comfort food from early on. It was passed on from my dad who as a child would eat tuna and potatoes out of the deli counter of his parents’ grocery store!

Posted on 05.14.09 at 11:04AM

Comment by Joy

I’m DYING to read this, but have held off on buying it due to our move. It sounds like Matt had much the same approach that we’ve had to raising our son: feed him everything we eat and then some. I think it really leads to having children with an open palate, who are excited about food and it’s possibilities.

Posted on 05.14.09 at 12:10PM

Comment by Tess

This book sounds great, and although I don’t have children, I’ve done my fair share of babysitting. My biggest accomplishment in that area was disguising a big pile of kale one night in a macaroni and cheese like dish. When I was a kid though, I was lucky enough to have grandparents who would never miss the five o’clock happy hour, with all the accoutriments. They had their gin and tonics, and then little plates that varied day to day, usually running along the lines of pretzels, maraschino cherries, or pistachios. Sure, I liked the cherries. But what I always asked for was the pickled herring. Don’t ask me why, but a piece of pickled fish on a saltine cracker was exactly what I wanted every afternoon with the grandparents.

Posted on 05.14.09 at 1:31PM

Comment by Ryan

My favorite food was artichokes, my parents still brag about me eating an entire artichoke including stem at a restaurant in Monterey, CA when I was 2

Posted on 05.14.09 at 1:42PM

Comment by Lee Hatcher

My mother wasn’t a great cook and I hated vegetables and most everything else until I started to cook for myself. My kids will eat anything. I roasted a chicken once and picked off the good meat, saving the scraps (cartilage, fat, etc.) for the dogs. My silly husband thought it was safe in the fridge, until my 20-year old son came home late and it was gone in the morning. Hey, I told him my kids would eat anything! I’d love to have this book for my husband’s daughters, the pickiest eaters on the planet.

Posted on 05.14.09 at 2:57PM

Comment by Justine

As a child, I loved lasagna. It was my request for every special occasion. That and cuban food, which was the other half of my heritage. But I’m so glad that I became a more adventurous eater … and we now have a 2 year old whose favorite foods include curry, bulghur, feta, and brussel sprouts. !!

Posted on 05.14.09 at 6:57PM

Comment by Tartelette

I got the book yesterday and could not put it down last night. I laughed and smiled and laughed. Without being a parent I could see a lot of my parents, brothers and myself in there. You write the best reviews, hands down.

Favorite food from childhood would be the skin of the raw milk forming after my dad was done boiling it. He would let it cool a bit, spread it on toast and drizzle acacia honey over it. Heaven.

Posted on 05.14.09 at 10:28PM

Comment by deucemom

My favorite memory of childhood food was warm, just baked bread with olive oil, parm cheese and black pepper (WAY before all the restaurants started serving it!). I would love to read this book, as I have twin sons and am challenged in the food dept with them! THANKS for the review!!

Posted on 05.16.09 at 2:26PM

Comment by Eugenia

OK, I don’t have kids, but have a vegan soon-to-be parent friend I’d like to ruin and a foodie parent friend who’d love a great, funny, kid+eating book as a gift.

My favorite food when I was little? I was really into chop suey. And I’d never say no to a stick of city chicken, a Polish pork strip kebab breaded in Corn Flakes. Now you see why I had to learn how to cook.

Posted on 05.16.09 at 2:39PM

Comment by Megan

What a lovely book! I believe my whole family raised me this way much ny accident, as out of all of my siblings and friends, it is often commented on that I am open to anything in the food world!
One of the formative places we lived was Illinois when I was younger. The produce was amazing and my family would take turns sharing their favorite part of it with me. Consequently, I love veggies and fruits as much as meats. Any style, any way. . . . I was always a tiny child with a huge appetite and I love that it has never gone away- It took me to so many wonderful places and experiences as an adult!

Thank you!

Posted on 05.17.09 at 1:42PM

Comment by Elyse

This book sounds so absolutely charming! I’m so glad you brought it to my attention, and I’m so tickled that your story made it into the book :) Sorry that I’ve been a bad commenter for the past couple of weeks; I just finished law school exams and am just now getting to my google reader!

Posted on 05.18.09 at 11:26AM

Comment by Tracy

I’ve got a kid who’s a pretty good eater, but she can use a nudge now and then. This book sounds fabulous!

When I was little, my favorite food was fresh corn on the cob. With lots and lots of butter and salt. My best friend’s grandparents had a farm, and getting to go with to visit was the best. They let me have as many ears of corn as I wanted. Even for BREAKFAST. Yum!

Posted on 05.18.09 at 8:34PM

Comment by Alice

Fresh Jersey tomatoes warm from the garden and eaten like apples was tops for me! I also adored Liver with bacon…and macaroni and cheese just wasn’t all it could be unless it was homemade and had cubed ham mixed in.

Posted on 05.19.09 at 4:00PM

Comment by Emily

I have to confess, my favorite food as a child was roasted chicken and my favorite dessert was apple pie. While my food tastes have definitely expanded, my favorite dessert is still apple pie! This book looks amazing, thanks for writing about it.

Posted on 05.19.09 at 7:48PM

Comment by Natalie

My mom’s homemade mac & cheese – nothing more than noodles, butter, cheese and milk – mmmm :) Looking forward to reading the book!

Posted on 05.20.09 at 3:47PM

Comment by Autumn

My favorite food as a child was homemade tapioca pudding that my brother and I would make for ourselves on the stovetop.

We colored it green, convinced it tasted better that way. (Also, no one else would eat it, so it was all ours!)

Posted on 05.20.09 at 11:34PM

Comment by EB

I’ve been hearing a lot about this book lately. I don’t have kids, but a certain brother of mine could certainly use this. My favorite food when I was little was my mom’s chicken stew with dumplings. Crock pot style. Oh yeah.

Posted on 05.21.09 at 9:47AM

Comment by Ulla

My parent’s did not believe in kid food, and I had to eat everything on my plate. Always, no questions. They were the best parents:)

Posted on 05.21.09 at 4:02PM

Comment by Jo B

My favorite food when I was young was pomagranates. I loved the taste and the color and little fingers are perfect for picking out all of the arils!

Posted on 05.21.09 at 7:03PM

Comment by Faine G

Sounds like a killer idea for a book. I certainly got encouraged to eat pretty much everything growing up, and I think that adoration for food helped me get through my chicken fingers stage more quickly then I might have otherwise! Any little gal who can polish off that much cassoulet deserves to have a book about her…

Posted on 05.21.09 at 8:40PM

Comment by Danny

My favorite treat as a kid was two slices of buttered Wonder Bread with lots of lettuce…and that was it. Back then Iceberg was about the only lettuce around, but something tells me I would have liked Romaine all the same!

Sometimes I think about buying a loaf of sandwich bread just so I can relive that favorite snack from 39 years ago, but I have no clue what I would do with the rest of the loaf.

Posted on 05.22.09 at 5:41AM

Comment by Anne

This is a book I really must get – I had my first baby ten days ago, and I really look forward to sharing food with him later on. My favorite food as a kid was my mom’s chicken curry. She didn’t cook a whole lot and never enjoyed it, but this dish was her real showstopper. Always perfect!

Posted on 05.24.09 at 2:03PM

Comment by Anita

Thanks everybody: The winner of the book (according to a random draw of numbers 1-24 on is #4, Joy!

Posted on 05.26.09 at 1:00PM

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