Carla M Cruzoni
Most parents and experts agree: Making baby food at home is a great thing to do for your child. First, you control the quality and content of the ingredients, which can be critical for nutritional issues like allergies. It's also a priceless opportunity to guide taste and appreciation of healthy eating right from the start. Throw in the added bonus of saving money and the satisfaction of hearing your child ask for broccoli instead of cheesy pops, and it's hard to imagine why anyone wouldn't do it. One trip to the bookstore or the Internet later, however, and all good intentions can go right out the window. Hundreds of recipes are out there, and the process seems downright daunting. What sleep-deprived parent wants to add another item to the "to-do" list?
Forget the recipes! Work around your busy schedule -- and baby's. These recipe-free steps will show how to freeze large batches of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats in single-serving portions that can be served up in three minutes or less, at home or at daycare. More importantly, preparation can be broken up at several stages along the way and picked up again later -- say, at the next naptime.
No mistake about it -- this will require some organization on your part, but sticking with it is easy if you don't get crazy with it. There will be times when using packaged ingredients might be the best way to go. More low-sodium and no-sugar-added choices are available in supermarkets than ever before, and using them for convenience is not "cheating" (but do get into the habit of reading labels -- you might be shocked at how much salt, sugar and preservatives lurk in packaged foods). So relax, read your labels and make the most of this very satisfying labor of love.
Start with fruits and veggies
1. Peel/core/seed and cut into 1" cubes. You'll need enough to fill a 3-quart saucepan about halfway. Add water to cover the bottom of the pan and bring quickly to a boil. Turn down heat immediately and cook, covered over low heat. Steam rather than boil, to retain vitamins, flavor and color. Drain excess cooking liquid. If you have time, continue. If not, transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate.
2. Puree in food processor until as smooth as possible. For babies just off cereal alone, strain the puree. Freeze as directed below.
When it's time to add meats to baby's repertoire, braising is the way to go. The technique is slow but very forgiving: exact measurements are unnecessary, and overcooking is nearly impossible as long as you keep the pan moist. Start with chicken or pork: buy large family or value packs of chicken thighs or breasts, or a mix of both. Using boneless, skinless parts is a real timesaver. Pork value packs are usually available in chunky cuts suitable for braising -- for example, boneless country-style ribs. Later, you can try braising beef, lamb and turkey thighs, too.
To begin, gather some ingredients: onions, celery, carrots, garlic, at least 2 quarts chicken or vegetable stock (homemade or low-salt cartons), and olive or canola oil.
1. In food processor, finely chop one or two each of peeled onions, carrots, celery and garlic cloves. If you have time, continue. If not, cover the food processor bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The next step will take the most time: Allow 3/4 hour for prep and at least an hour for simmering.
2. Heat 2�3 tablespoons oil in a large roasting or braising pan on medium high. Lightly salt/pepper meat, Brown on all sides and transfer to a bowl. If using skinless chicken pieces, dredge them with a little flour first. When all meat is browned, reduce heat, drain excess fat and sweat vegetables until onions are translucent, 5�7 minutes. Add 2 quarts stock and bring to boil, scraping up any flavorful brown bits. Return meat and juices to the pan, adding more stock or water to just barely cover. Bring back up to a boil briefly, then reduce heat and simmer at least an hour. Meat is done when fork-tender. Transfer meat to a bowl, turn up the heat and reduce liquid by half. Puree liquid, either in a blender or using a hand-held blending stick. For older babies, leave vegetables chunky. If you have time, continue. If not, refrigerate meat and liquid separately.
3. Remove any skin and bones, and pulse meat in batches in food processor, adding liquid a cup or so at a time. The consistency should be finely ground, with liquids and solids integrated (neither a gluey paste nor runny). If you have time, continue. If not, refrigerate, covered.
Freeze, heat and serve
Spoon cooled purees into ice cube trays. Tap trays lightly on the counter to remove air bubbles, freeze until solid, then pack cubes into labeled/dated freezer bags.
Cubes can be warmed in the microwave straight from the freezer for 1�2 minutes. Mix in a couple of teaspoons baby cereal to thicken. You may need to add a little water to balance temperature and texture to a warm, soft-solid consistency. Experiment with different grains for variety � for instance, wheat cereal with spinach produces "creamed spinach." Pureed prunes with oat cereal make a yummy breakfast treat.
- Large, heavy bottomed roasting or braising pan
- 3-quart covered saucepan
- Food processor
- Blender or hand "buzzer"
- Cone-shaped, perforated stainless strainer and ladle to push thick purees through it
- Quart-size freezer bags
- Ice cube trays