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Mother’s Day Tip: Mama Mia, Please Pass The Pastina

Alphabet pastina soup. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce

Alphabet pastina soup. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce

With Mother’s Day almost upon us, I can’t help but muse over what a challenge it has become to feed children. I wasn’t aware of ordeals surrounding food when I was growing up. I ate the same food the rest of the family did and devoured it gratefully.

On the rare occasions when we ate in restaurants (I say rare because my father didn’t think most restaurant food could match up to my mother’s cooking and he was probably right), we ordered from the main menu, not the so-called children’s menu that offered nutritionally worthless items.

I won’t dignify most of the fare on these menus by calling it junk food because that implies it is food of some kind. According to the Oxford dictionary, food means “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth.” Simply put, we are feeding our kids substances that humans are not meant to eat.

Teaching kids what to eat

The kind of children’s food I’m talking about is standard in most restaurants, particularly those touted as family friendly. I was recently in such an establishment, and watched incredulously as a mother and grandmother ordered chicken and vegetable stir-fry for themselves, and a processed cheese melt on white bread, French fries on the side, for the toddler.

Envision if you can the nutrition profile embedded in that food wreck, and whether it can be considered good nourishment for a child old enough to be sitting in a high chair?

I have to stop here and say that I believe parents simply must take matters in hand and teach their children what is good to eat and what isn’t. David Ludwig, the widely respected endocrinologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Boston Children’s Hospital — who I first met at a nutrition think-tank in Rome dubbed “Pasta Fights Back,” organized to debunk the low-carb phobia that took the nation by storm in 2004 — has gone so far as to say that kids can’t survive unless their parents teach them how to eat.

In a book titled “Ending the Food Fight,” considered by his peers to have brought together the best available scientific evidence on childhood obesity, he argues, “…no species of mammal in nature allows its young to eat whatever they want. What would happen if a bear mother didn’t teach its cub what and how to eat? The cub wouldn’t survive the winter. Our modern nutritional environment can be as dangerous to children as an arctic winter is to the bear cubs.”

Think of the adorable cartoon rabbit dreamed up by marketers to sell Trix, the psychedelic-colored cereal made of 46% sugar that debuted in 1955 and is still going strong. The rabbit has spent more than half a century trying to steal Trix away from kids for himself, only to be thwarted every time. The slogan is the stuff of American childhood: “Silly rabbit, Trix is for kids.” It is?

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Gael Lizarraga eating alphabet pastina. Credit: Rolando Ruiz Beramendi

While I look back longingly on my own daughters’ early years when I would entice them to the breakfast table with the smell of baking bread and spend the days simmering ragù or stirring polenta, recipes usually destined not just for the dinner table but also for cookbooks I was writing, I know that few parents have the luxury to be able to stay at home and cook such meals the way I or my own mother did. Besides, the Mad Men entice children more than ever with clever commercials and the most well-intentioned parent faces an uphill battle trying to feed their kids decent food.

Kid food the Italian way

Having climbed onto my soapbox, and being painfully aware that my standpoint is not popular in certain circles, let me close with a suggestion for a wholesome and easy dish that can please anyone. These are the whimsical stars, alphabets, and other tiny pastas that Italian children eat as their first solid food, and which have a place in broths and light soups as well.

Pastina in broth. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce

Pastina in broth. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce

With it you can feed anyone from the age of, say 6 months, until at least 100 years old. I ate it from infancy. Not only did I feed it to my own tribe, I cooked it regularly for hundreds of fussy school children in an experimental lunch program that you may hear more about someday. No child I’ve ever known has ever said no to pastina.

Everyone knows that our first foods form our palate, and we forevermore crave them. My pastina habit continued into my adult life. I was so enthusiastic about this pablum that as a young mother sitting in baby-and-me support groups with other dazed young parents, I enthusiastically spread the word.

Realizing that most had never heard of it despite its presence in virtually any supermarket, I got into the habit of bringing a backpack filled with little boxes of pastina to pass out to the group. They would bring it home and make it for their babies, simply following the package directions and without fail, come back the following week, raving about the newfound simple and easy solution to otherwise stressful mealtimes.

This is so simple, in fact, that it didn’t occur to me until recently to write about it. Whether you are feeding kids or just yourself, and haven’t yet discovered its charms, this recipe is for you.

Pastina ‘Stars’ With Butter and Milk

Serves 4 children or 2 adults

Nothing is more emblematic of an Italian childhood than pastina (literally, “little pasta”) with butter and milk. It is baby’s first solid food, remembered in adulthood with great nostalgia. Stelline (“little stars”), acini di pepe (“peppercorns”), alfabetti (“alphabets”), tubettini (“little tubes”), orzo (“barley grains”), and farfalline (“little buttterflies”) are the most common. My favorites are the first two — and yes, somehow, different cuts do “taste” differently. Use tasty organic butter for the most wholesome and flavorful results.

Ingredients

1 cup “little stars” pastina or other tiny pasta shapes

3 teaspoons salt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

½ cup warm milk, plus more if desired

Directions

Bring 3 quarts water to a boil. Stir in the pastina and salt. Cook according to package directions. Drain and transfer to a bowl. While it is still piping hot, add butter to the pasta, burying it in the pasta to melt. Stir in a little of the warm milk and serve at once. Add a little more warm milk for a looser texture if desired. Serve at once.

Variations: For added nutrition for babies, stir a teaspoon, or to taste, freshly puréed carrots, spinach, or other puréed cooked vegetable(s) or a touch of tomato sauce into a portion of hot buttered pastina before serving. A classic is to stir the yolk of a small fresh egg, butter, and grated parmigiano cheese into piping hot pastina. The heat will cook it through. You might try it if you have a trusted source for fresh eggs.

Main photo: Alphabet pastina soup. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce



Zester Daily contributor Julia della Croce is the author of  "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul" (Kyle Books), "Pasta Classica" (Chronicle) and 12 other cookbooks.

6 COMMENTS
  • Adri BarrCrocetti 5·4·14

    Thanks for the memories and for the reasonable talk about feeding today’s children. I am of the age that, put simply, I ate what my parents, brothers and sister ate or I did not eat. Either way was alright with my mom. There were never two menus at dinner, nor was there a second choice. My mom, known to her friends as Jeff, was an exquisite cook and a sensible woman. If I was not keen on the menu selection, she knew that missing a meal would not harm me. She also knew that catering to the neighborhood’s pickiest eater (that would be me) would only serve to amplify my behavior. My mom, they would say, rolled with it.

    But did i ever love pastina. Whether it was just tossed with butter and perhaps some cheese, or added to broth or soup, I never turned it down. It was most often stelline in our home, and even today there is a bag of Marella brand stelline nestled in a corner of my pantry. As I was reading your article I thought “Pastina is like Pablum for Italian kids.” And sure enough you used the word too. That made me smile.

  • Agnes McGrail 5·5·14

    Thank you for this empowering article that also was sentimental personally. I also grew up with pastina as a staple in my early years and in soups there after. I am in my late forties now and a mother of four children. When I became a mother, I fondly remember my mother lovingly making the pastina and patiently feeding it to her grandchildren. In doing so she passed along to me the importance in feeding your children simple nutritious food and showed me how to do so. My mother is no longer alive but I did share this article with my mother’s sister. She loved it and thanked me for the memories. Thank you Julia.

  • Julia della Croce 5·5·14

    Adri and Agnes, we are fortunate to have those traditions. So many children grow up with such treasured food traditions–traditions rooted in a peasant way of life that naturally created intimacy with nature. We are such a long way from that with our gimmicky “childre’s food,” created my advertising people to sell printable junk to kids. Thanks so much for weighing in.

  • Julia della Croce 5·5·14

    Apologies for the mistakes above. I’m on the road but wanted to answer. I meant to say that so few children are fortunate to have those kinds of tradition.

  • Lea Bergen 5·6·14

    I’m still eating pastina; it’s the first food I ask for if I’m not feeling well. Burro e parmigiano or in brodo with parmigiano. A non-Italian friend told me that one of my greatest gifts to her was the concept of parmigiano and stelline in her traditional chicken soup. But don’t forget zabaglione! My mother made it for me for breakfast when I wouldn’t eat cooked eggs. Her recipe was one egg yolk, a half egg shell of sugar and either Marsala or cocoa. Beat until all the sugar grains have dissolved and it is smooth as satin. Cosí buono!

  • Julia della Croce 5·6·14

    It’s a wonderful gift to have these traditions!

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