Reader questions are one of the best parts of my job, right up there with opening my mail and having chocolate fall out.
Sometimes when people call, I hear the mixer running in the background. I can hear the skillet sizzling. When they say they have a stupid question, I challenge them to prove it, just for fun. A great goofy question makes my day.
But there are cooking problems that can’t be solved. It happened recently with a reader who wrote to ask for help with onions. She had agreed to do the cooking for a family beach trip, but one member of the family doesn’t eat onions.
The cook who wrote to me admitted she had frozen up at the very thought. How could she cook without onions?
I understood her panic. One of the best cooking tips I’ve ever heard is that when you don’t know what to cook, you should chop an onion and start sauteing it. Just the sound and smell of an onion starting to cook is enough to give you some inspiration.
I could also relate to her predicament from my own experience. For 18 years, I had a young eater in my house who had convinced himself he didn’t like onions.
It was my fault, actually. When he was very tiny, I used to park his infant carrier on the kitchen counter and amuse us both by presenting bits of food for him to smell. I’d wave something random – an apple slice, an orange wedge – under his nose and watch him react with wonder.
It worked great until the day I got carried away and waved an onion slice under his nose. He screwed his face so tight, I could see his little brain clamp shut. It stayed closed to onions for years.
Sometimes, I would cook with onions anyway, leaving them in big pieces he could pick out. Sometimes, I’d sneak in a little caramelized onion. And yes, sometimes, I just gave in and skipped the onions.
I didn’t fuss, because fussing turns into fights and fights make permanently picky eaters. But I did learn a few tricks, like boosting the herbs and making sure the dish has a hit of acidity, like vinegar, lemon juice or dry wine, to make the other ingredients stand out. I replaced the crunchiness of onions with celery, pickles or green olives.
Apparently, it worked. This summer, on a break from college, he set himself a goal of learning to cook. One night, after sauteing summer squash, he mused out loud, “Is there anything that doesn’t taste better with onions and garlic?”
I kept my mouth shut and did the happy-dance way down inside, where he couldn’t see.
So yes, poor reader, I understand the onion problem. After checking to make sure the issue with onions wasn’t an allergy, I gave my standard response to all teenage eating issues: Hand the picky eater a cookbook and point them toward the kitchen.
That’s when my reader sent a reply that shocked me: The picky eater in question is 43.
You know, there are some cooking problems you just can’t solve. But if you have a 43-year-old who refuses to eat what you cook, I think the solution is simple:
Car keys. And a wave goodbye.