Betsy Block, a Boston-based freelance writer, is a regular contributor to Kitchen Window and the voice of the blog Mama Cooks. Her book, The Dinner Diaries: Raising Whole Wheat Kids in a White Bread World, about parenting, food and the meaning of life (not necessarily in that order), will be published by Algonquin Books in spring 2008.
We always start the school year so hopeful, so energetic and upbeat: For the next nine months, we vow in late August, the kids' lunches will be packed the night before. They will be colorful and healthful and every last bite will get eaten, thereby nourishing the bodies and minds of our beloved children, Zack, 11, and Maya, 6.
But all too soon, reality, with its fevers and fights and over-the-top homework assignments, sets in, so that even when it's still just early fall, the fun has already gone out of packing school lunches — to put it mildly. The containers aren't even washed the night before, never mind packed.
I'd send the kids off with money for the cafeteria, but only if I could rewrite the menu from scratch. I'd let them bring whatever their little hearts desired, but then I'd have to be Easygoing Mom, which I'm so not.
"But all da udder kids get to bring dessert in dere lunches," Maya wails. "Why can't I?"
It's not that I'm hard to please; it's just that I want something fast, easy, cheap, pretty, high-fiber, low-fat and delicious.
Tuna salad would seem perfect, except I take the "less is more" approach when it comes to mercury in my kids' food. So tuna's out.
How about salmon? It seems like a great alternative to tuna. It, too, is high in omega-3s, plus it's delicious. Yes, there's a "but" coming. If the canned salmon has been farmed (often called "Atlantic salmon"), there's trouble in paradise, according to Environmental Defense, a science-based environmental advocacy group that warns of relatively high levels of PCBs, dioxins and pesticides. Not to mention that farmed salmon raises a lot of as-yet unanswered environmental questions.
Wild salmon, however, gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from KidSafe Seafood, a program of the nonprofit organization SeaWeb, which specifically focuses on clean, safe, sustainable seafood options for families and children. (So far, it has identified a grand total of six seafood species that fit the bill for kids; in addition to wild salmon, the other five are tilapia from the U.S. and Central America, farmed blue mussels, northern U.S. and Canadian shrimp, U.S. farmed crayfish and farmed bay scallops.)
There's more good news: Canned wild salmon contains up to four times as many omega-3s as chunk light tuna, according to the USDA's nutrient database for standard reference. And depending on where you live, canned wild salmon is even said to be more environmentally sound than fresh because it hasn't been flown across the country. This is great news for the lunchbox.
If I were feeling bold, I'd crack open a can of fish containing skin and bones, because the bones are a great source of calcium. But the one time I did buy salmon that way (by accident), I gasped when I opened the can: The sharp pieces of bone and black bits of skin made it look like something had gone terribly awry at the cannery.
Luckily, for wimps like me, prettified, citified wild canned salmon is available at co-ops, online or at specialty stores. (If you want to avoid the hardcore stuff, make sure the label says "boneless" and "skinless" along with "wild.")
As I serve up this delicious lunch, I'm happy — but not nearly as happy as I'd be if Maya were to try even one tiny bite of wild salmon, whether fresh, canned, frozen, smoked or in a jerky, because even though it may be clean, sustainable and — best of all — pink, it's all just fish to her.
Typical. One 40-pound child has foiled my grand lunchtime plans yet again. I grab the cheddar cheese from the fridge with a sigh. But as I've learned, if we keep making it, eventually the kids will come around.
This recipe is adapted from one by Michel Nischan, chef at Dressing Room in Westport, Conn., and consultant to KidSafe Seafood. Some people find canned wild salmon fishier tasting than canned tuna. Adding a few generous squeezes of fresh lemon to the following recipes cuts the fishiness.
Makes 2 servings
1 7.5-ounce can boneless, skinless wild salmon, drained
2 tablespoons chopped dried cranberries
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chervil, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 1/2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
In a medium bowl, break up salmon, add cranberries and chervil, and mix to combine.
In another medium bowl, whisk together vinegar, zest, mustard, salt and pepper. Add oil in a steady stream, whisking until blended.
Add vinaigrette to salmon mixture and toss to combine.
One Saturday afternoon, I wrestled the remote control from the kids' hands and tuned into PBS, where I saw chef Lidia Bastianich making a dish featuring tuna and spelt, which I was inspired to adapt. Any dinner that includes both the whole grain spelt and wild canned salmon is both living to eat and eating to live, all in one appealing bowl. True, 6-year-old Maya wouldn't try this, but Zack, 11, asked for seconds.
Makes 2-4 servings
For the Spelt
3/4 cup spelt grain (whole)
2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf
For the Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
Red pepper flakes to taste
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons capers
1 7.5-ounce can boneless, skinless wild salmon, drained (but not squeezed dry)
1 lemon cut into wedges
Rinse spelt under running water. Put the spelt, water, salt and bay leaf in a pot; bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer, covered, for 45 minutes to an hour or until cooked. (It will still be firm, but tender enough to eat.) Drain any extra water left in the pot.
While the spelt is cooking, heat the olive oil and add the garlic, cooking for 30 seconds to a minute, until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, red pepper flakes, bay leaf and capers and simmer for about 5 minutes. Add the salmon, gently flaking it as you stir. Keep at a low simmer or take off the heat until you're ready to add the spelt.
When the spelt is cooked, add it to the sauce, stir gently, and squeeze fresh lemon juice on top to taste.
There are more recipes using canned wild salmon available at KidSafe Seafood, including ones for salmon burgers and penne with salmon and peas.