Taking a wrong turn in the grocery store a couple of days ago, I stumbled into the baby care aisle and discovered a brand new fluorescently-lit world there. It's a world full of strange and unfamiliar products and shelves lined with brightly-colored artifacts. In short: it's Baby World.
By shopping regularly at this particular store, I've developed a reliable mental map of its layout. I know its idiosyncrasies and its shortcuts. And yet I've never been to Baby World before, neither intentionally nor by mistake. Not on a 2 a.m. beer run, and not even as a shortcut to the toothpaste. But it was there all along.
And on this occasion, more by chance than design, I have walked right into it, straight into Baby World. Like an explorer in the Amazon basin who parts a thick green curtain of vines to find a well-tended jungle clearing, I take tentative steps down the aisle, past diapers, bottles and juice.
For a food writer, the baby care aisle is something of an epiphany. We're always looking for new ingredients and flavors to cook with, for foods with unusual colors and textures. We crave novel culinary experiences. In search of the new, I've eaten roasted crickets in Cambodian markets, tried servings of thick goulash and dumplings in the Czech Republic and sampled Sunday morning dim sum in Hong Kong. I've eaten haggis, eel, kangaroo, alligator, buffalo, shark, ostrich and frogs legs.
And now I am faced with shelves of baby food, stacked in little glass jars and more closely resembling the contents of an apothecary's cabinet than items on a grocery store shelf. The first thing I learn is that baby food is surprisingly cheap, costing about 40 cents per 4-ounce jar. The second thing I learn is that baby foods are some of the most unadulterated food products available. In most cases, whatever is written on the label is exactly what sits in the jar -- the only additives it needs are a spoon, a little pink mouth and a parent who is willing to make airplane noises.
For instance, the ingredients listed on a jar of Gerber's prunes with apples read as follows: prune puree and apples. In other words, baby food is both cheap and wholesome.
So, what's not to like? I work quickly, filling my basket with jars of green beans and spinach and potatoes, plastic containers of prunes with apples and bananas and mixed berries. I pile jars of rust-colored squash and carrots on top of them. The selection is extensive enough that I won't have to eat the same thing twice for at least a month.
I add a dubious-looking jar labeled, "Ham and Ham Gravy," to the top of the pile, and then pick it back up to take a closer look at the homogenous creamy-pink awfulness inside. I shake it. It's watery. I'm suddenly reminded of a show I watched on The Learning Channel about lung diseases, so I put it back on the shelf. I replace it with plastic tubs of Dutch apple dessert and apples and cherries, adding them to the jars already clinking in the basket. I add a jar labeled, "Turkey, Rice and Garden Vegetables Dinner" -- and think to myself: an entire meal in a single jar, just like astronaut food! -- and a couple of jars of blueberry buckler. And then, reconsidering once more, I pick the jar of ham and ham gravy up again, place it in the basket and quickly exit Baby World before I change my mind.
Back at home, I unpack my jars of baby food and line them up neatly on the kitchen counter, contemplating precisely what to do with them. They look more like jars of paint: blueberry purple, spinach green and the stomach-churning pale foamy pink of the ham and ham gravy. I consult a cooking friend, who helpfully suggests making a blueberry cobbler, using the jars of blueberry buckler as filling.
In a large bowl, we mix together Quaker oats, flour, butter, sugar and raisins to make our cobbler topping, before emptying jars of purple blueberry buckler into two ovenproof bowls and covering them with topping. Roughly 20 minutes at 425 degrees Fahrenheit later, two individual blueberry cobblers are bubbling cheerfully on the work surface, covered with a crisp oatmeal crust. After leaving it to cool, I cautiously taste one, not sure what to expect. It is delicious, full of bold blueberry flavors with a nice tart finish.
The following night, emboldened by our success with blueberry baby food cobbler, we decide to attempt a main course using baby food. In the kitchen, we return to the jars of baby food: spinach and potatoes; vegetable bacon dinner; Dutch apple dessert. Finally, after some debate, we select mushroom saag, a basic and satisfying spinach-based Indian dish.
First, I finely chop a large yellow onion, a small cube of fresh ginger and a couple of cloves of garlic and boil some water. I blanch a pound of spinach for a minute, drain it in a colander, leave it to cool a little before squeezing as much remaining water from it as I can. Next, I sauté the onions, garlic, mushrooms and ginger in butter ghee, adding two generous spoonfuls of curry powder and a pinch of crushed red pepper. After folding the spinach into this aromatic and colorful mixture, I add a couple of tablespoons of buttermilk and plain yogurt, before adding a whole jar of Earth's Best spinach and potato baby food. The creamy bulk of the baby food is a welcome addition, thickening the ingredients already in the pan. The result is a simple and wonderful dish with a robust flavor. It's on the table in less than 20 minutes and tastes as good as any other Indian recipe I've attempted before.
The next day, I buy a box of frozen puff pastry sheets, cut them into little squares and place a spoonful of Dutch apple dessert baby food in the middle of a few of them to make apple turnovers. I fill a couple more with prunes and apples and bananas and mixed berries, brushing them with egg white before baking them at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes. I sit by the oven, watching them slowly brown and swell. I dust them with powdered sugar and bite into one: another success. Chewing on a mouthful of prune and apple turnover, I marvel at the versatility of baby food, the range of flavors.
Next week, I plan to make a thick and creamy soup by mixing a jar of turkey, rice and garden vegetables baby food with some buttermilk. I'm already thinking about trying a pear baby food cobbler, served still bubbling hot from the oven and cooled with a couple of scoops of chilled vanilla custard dessert baby food on top. And I want to try vegetables and bacon baby food on toast, and maybe a pheasant slowly roasted in a prune with apple baby food sauce.
I'm starting to wonder if I'll ever eat solids again. Then, with a jolt, I remember the jar of ham and ham gravy on the kitchen counter, in all of its watery and too-pink glory, and I reach instead for the potato chips.