Asking friends to bring a dish from their cultural background is a great recipe for teaching about diversity.
It's not that I have anything against covered casseroles and layered salads, but when I started pulling together a potluck for a few close friends and their kids, I decided to get more ambitious with what could be on the menu.
The truth is, as a food writer I always feel a little guilty for not exposing my 20-month-old to a steady diet of gourmet tidbits. Instead, when cooking for Dahlia I tend to take the safe way with meatballs and pizza. No mom likes to have her homemade miso salmon or mushroom risotto flung from the high chair tray by a toddler, especially when buttered pasta gets devoured with a smile.
When I thought about the guest list for the potluck gathering, I realized that I had the opportunity both to broaden my daughter's palate and to enjoy some new taste experiences myself. I knew well enough that if Dahlia saw the bigger kids digging into what for her might be unusual foods, she would be far more likely to take a bite than if I served her the same thing for dinner.
The group happened to be made up of a diverse collection of friends, each one connected to a yummy edible tradition. So I asked the guests to supply dishes that reflected their diversity, hoping that a wide-ranging buffet would be a way for both parents and kids to get a taste of one another's culture.
Everyone was game. My cohosts were Francine Stephens and Andrew Feinberg, owners of Franny's, a Brooklyn restaurant, and the gourmet food store Bklyn Larder. They ladled out Francine's mother's matzoh-ball soup. To make it more kid-friendly, they scaled down the matzoh balls into bite-size orbs and served the soup in teacups. Their 3-year-old son, Marco, dove in, gobbling matzoh balls with toddlerish abandon.
Francine's best friend from childhood, Annie Fensterstock, and her husband, Mike Romero, came with their daughter, Luna, and brought pancit, a traditional Filipino rice-noodle stir-fry that Mike's mother is famous for. This was a lighter version of the dish, without the usual chicken, served on a bed of shredded cabbage and carrots to turn it into a salad (pasta salad in disguise!). Even though it had a gentle kick, the bigger kids adored dropping the skinny translucent noodles into their mouth by the fistful, which Dahlia emulated to the best of her still-uncoordinated ability. We parents showered it with hot sauce served on the side.
The most far-flung dish of the day came from Dulcy Israel and Mark Johnson: doro wat, a piquant Ethiopian chicken stew. They had eaten the dish in Ethiopia, where they adopted their 4-year-old twin girls, Terefech and Aster. The girls are big fans of their simplified recipe, which calls for boneless chicken cooked in an onion- and chili-scented gravy. We served it with flour tortillas, which stood in for the hard-to-find injera bread that is the dish's classic accompaniment.
On my end, I decided to start with my husband's side of the family because we both love the cuisine of Northern India, which is where his birth father is from. Daniel, having grown up in Denver eating the solid American fare of his adoptive parents, never tasted a curry until college, but he fell in love with the intense, pungent flavors. To highlight those, I made spiced chickpeas and cauliflower, which I hoped would be salty, savory, and crunchy enough to please my french fry-loving toddler.
But just to hedge my bets (and because no one else volunteered a dessert), I also made mini apple tarts Tatin. Not only were these sure to be a hit with the little ones (each kid got an individual pastry), they are also easy to make ahead of time. While it's true that I probably don't have a drop of Gallic blood in my Eastern European veins, I did spend several of my childhood summer vacations exchanging houses with families from Provence. So I figured that had to count.
To their credit and my relief, the kids, curious about the unfamiliar but festive-looking bowls of food, tasted and actually enjoyed everything. Even Dahlia gleefully joined the fray.
It was a rather hodgepodge selection of dishes. Then again, like most friends, we are a hodgepodge group. But children never notice these things -- they're just here for the food.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Parents magazine.