Parents Who Cook: Aria Beth Sloss

Aria Beth Sloss is a writer, and the author of the novel Autobiography of Us, which has just come out in paperback.

She also happens to married to Dan Barber, a hero of mine and the iconic chef of Blue Hill in NYC, where they both live. I’ve been in touch with Aria ever since I published this fridge Q&A with Dan: I had mentioned her novel was about to be published, and she thanked me and offered to send me an advance copy, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Dan and Aria had a little girl last year, and of course, as part of my Parents Who Cook series, I had to ask how the household’s cooking life has changed since then. Aria shared her approach and tips with great generosity, and I hope you enjoy delving into it — and trying the two recipes she provided — as much as I did.

Clotilde Dusoulier

Can you tell us a few words about your daughter? Age, name, temperament?

Edith turned one last month. As divine retribution for all the times I scoffed at parents who ascribed real, complex temperaments to their infants, Edith has been the person she is now since the day she was born — cheerful, opinionated, determined, and hilarious. I never dreamed someone so small could make me laugh so hard.

Clotilde Dusoulier

Did having a child change the way you cook?

I’m embarrassed to answer this, because the change has less to do with the way I cook than the fact that I find myself cooking at all. I’ve always been a baker; my husband is a chef, so for many years, we had the perfect arrangement. Then we found ourselves with this new member of the household, who couldn’t, turns out, survive on cake and cookies.

When Edith started eating solids, around six months, we took what felt like a huge leap in faith by deciding to forgo purees (my heart was in my mouth for most of the first month’s meals) and give her modified versions (less salt, no windpipe-sized beans, etc) of what we ate instead. [Note from Clotilde: this is an approach often referred to as baby-led weaning.] Anxieties aside, it seems to have suited us all very well.

We found ourselves with this new member of the household, who couldn’t, turns out, survive on cake and cookies.

When my husband is home for dinner, he makes dishes very similar to those he made before our daughter was born — beautiful omelets, grain and roasted vegetable salads, tartines with a soft cheese, a lacing of vinegar, and a sprinkling of herbs — and we all eat them together.

On the nights he’s at the restaurant, I’ve developed a few fail-safe recipes: lentil soup (who knew babies like soup?), less aesthetically-pleasing but acceptable omelets, avocado mash on toast, baked sweet potato with miso butter [recipe below!], and a few simple pasta dishes like soba with toasted sesame oil and broccoli. Plus, I’ve started experimenting with sprouted wheat flour, which makes baked goods a lot more nutritious.

Aria and Edith in the kitchen at Blue Hill.

Aria and Edith in the kitchen at Blue Hill.

Clotilde Dusoulier

Do you remember what it was like to cook with a newborn? Any tips or saving grace for new parents going through that phase?

One tip would be: “don’t marry a chef!” If you do, everyone you know will be too intimidated to bring you homemade meals, which is, of course, what every family with a newborn desperately needs.

A friend of mine with a one year-old brought over a package of store-bought mini-cinnamon rolls a few weeks after Edith was born. “You probably won’t eat these,” he said, “but they saved our lives.” He was right; we didn’t eat them, but I was so moved by the gesture I kept them on the counter for two weeks before throwing them away. Point being, if you can enlist friends and family members to pitch in — now is the time!

One tip would be: "don’t marry a chef!" If you do, everyone you know will be too intimidated to bring you the homemade meals you so desperately need.

Otherwise, be kind to yourselves. I’m a big believer in the half-made meal. If you can manage to put a pot of beans to simmer on the stove for a few hours but can’t deal with cooking up a batch of rice, order some from the nearest Chinese take-out (this is when living in NYC is a godsend), chop up a little tomato, and sprinkle on some cilantro.

If you never finished the sandwiches from lunch because you were too busy _____ (insert time-sucking activity here — washing onesies, scrubbing out bottles, setting up the inexplicably complicated bouncy chair), cut them into nice, tea sandwich-sized rectangles and supplement with some quick sauteed spinach or bok choy.

We rarely eat meat in our house, which is probably advantageous when speed and simplicity are called for. You’re so exhausted with a newborn, but you need your wits about you; eating lightly, yet nutritiously, is the greatest gift you can give yourself.

Clotilde Dusoulier

Over time, have you developed staple dishes or strategies that make it possible to prepare a meal and keep the kid happy at the same time?

As it is with most of parenting, I imagine, the key is thinking ahead. What you don’t want is to be faced with a slew of ingredients that require extensive prep work, which you will inevitably realize only at the exact moment your child begins to howl with hunger.

Baked sweet potatoes — the dense, white Japanese variety is our favorite — are fantastic and can be kept in the fridge a few days and reheated quickly, as can soups and stews.

We have the extra benefit of having a restaurant kitchen to take her to. She could watch the Blue Hill cooks for hours.

The prep work can be fun for an older baby to watch — we’ve always kept Edith in the kitchen while we cook, and she’s generally very happy to sit on someone’s hip and watch the sauteeing and stirring. Cooking implements are great baby toys, too — pots and pans, spatulas, measuring cups.

When she was very little, I did a lot with her in a sling, where she seemed more than content to drift in and out of consciousness. In the meanwhile, I figured she was getting used to the sounds and smells of cooking.

In our case, we have the extra benefit of having a restaurant kitchen to take her to. She could watch the Blue Hill cooks for hours. Clanging pots, energetic young strangers whirling around and making bizarre hand motions, heaps of brightly colored vegetables and fruits. I have to drag her out.

Clotilde Dusoulier

Have you found ways to involve your daughter in the cooking process? If it’s too early to do that, how and when do you envision getting her involved?

I think of kitchen involvement as a question of proximity: even if your child isn’t directly engaging in cooking, being close to the activity is probably enough to spark interest and lay the groundwork for at least a passing curiosity. I credit my own love of food to the many, many afternoons I spent sitting in my highchair while my mother chopped and pureed and sauteed.

I credit my own love of food to the many afternoons I spent sitting in my highchair while my mother chopped and pureed and sauteed.

All that activity is exciting to watch, and a smell or a taste makes it about ten thousand times more interesting than TV. At the restaurant, I figure she’s getting triple the exposure — dozens more people, ingredients, smells, sights, and the general whirl of energy a restaurant kitchen brings. I can’t wait to put her in a chef’s coat and get her in on the action.

Meanwhile, I try to have an ingredient on hand that she can snack on — a piece of avocado if I’m making avocado mash toasts, a stick of sweet potato if I’m making a little stew, some ripe pear that might end up as dessert. I taste everything while I’m cooking, so it only seems fair.

Clotilde Dusoulier

As someone who’s passionate about food, can you talk about the joys and challenges of feeding your child, and how you plan to go about teaching her to be a happy, adventurous eater?

I’ve been amazed by how gratifying it is to watch Edith eat. It speaks to something very basic about the nature of parenthood, I think, that there’s such pleasure to be had in watching your child happily consume something you’ve made.

To that end, I hope I can maintain what’s felt like a pretty easygoing approach to her dining habits. We made a decision early on to never a) push her into eating anything, or b) organize meals around her predilections, and I think that ranks pretty high on my list of ways to keep mealtime happy and enjoyable for everyone involved.

We’ve made a habit of trying to incorporate a wide range of ingredients and flavors in even the simplest dishes.

I also made the executive decision to let her feed herself from the very beginning, which I knew I believed in on an intellectual/pseudo-psychological level — why shouldn’t she feel from the start that eating is something she participates in actively rather than passively? — but which I figured might turn out to be a monumental disaster. But it’s been terrific! Messy, sure, but I found a few bibs that are really more like Hazmat suits — full-coverage, sleeves and all — and we just go for it. It might sound a little out there, but my husband and I both came away from these last six months feeling like the best thing we’d done for Edith’s eating was putting her in control of it.

We’ve also made a habit of trying to incorporate a wide range of ingredients and flavors in even the simplest dishes. I make a big batch of steel-cut oats every few days, for example, which will last through a couple of breakfasts for all of us. Reheating it, I add a splash of almond milk, a pinch of cinnamon, and a few gratings of fresh ginger. My husband’s restaurant makes a brand of savory yoghurts, and I add a spoonful of one of those — parsnip is the current favorite. Those are strong flavors, but she loves them.

I put a little curry and coconut milk in the lentil soup I give her [recipe below!], a pinch of paprika in the avocado mash, chopped-up parsley on a ricotta toast. Another example might be grains. I’ve traded in white flour for sprouted whole wheat for a few muffin recipes from this book, which she loves, and my husband brings home buckwheat and emmer, which we put in soups.

I tend to think kids are a lot more open-minded than we give them credit for. If we don’t represent the world of flavors that exist in the foods we make, how can we expect our kids to grasp how enormous and exciting that world is?


Aria’s Lentil Soup

I like to use the tiny black beluga lentils, but obviously any lentil will do. I use stock when we have it, and otherwise just well-salted water — roughly a 2:1 ration, liquid to lentil. Because I’m not crazy about onions, I quarter one yellow onion and cook it in the pot with the lentils, then remove when the lentils are tender. At the end of cooking, I add one of the following: a pinch of cinnamon [sc:cinnamon_link] and a pinch of curry, or a small spoon of very good harissa, or a spoonful of coconut milk and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes.

Aria’s Miso Sweet Potatoes

Oven-roast Japanese sweet potatoes until tender. Peel and slice. For Edith, I cut them into rectangular batons, so she can hold onto them easily. In a small saute pan, swirl a pat of butter until it begins to foam, and add a spoonful of white (mild) miso. Stir gently until miso has dissolved, then quickly saute sweet potatoes in miso butter, turning until well coated.

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