February is the time of year I start to dream about a family vacation. I imagine us going somewhere exotic, beautiful and, of course, warm. My dream destinations are almost always to countries I’ve never visited, usually located on the other side of the planet. I can get lost in these visions until the thought of buying five round-trip airfares snaps me back into reality.
Although heading out of the country may not be in the cards for my family at the moment, food can transport us anywhere we want to go. The cuisine of a country is an incredible way to introduce your kids to distant lands from the comfort of your own kitchen.
Better yet, I’d encourage you to get out of that comfort zone and take a family field trip to a local ethnic market. The Twin Cities has a number of markets that offer endless opportunities for exploration. I could wander the aisles of United Noodles or El Burrito Mercado for hours.
When my kids were younger, I would let them pick out one ingredient we’d never cooked with before. We’d take it home, do a little research and figure out how to use it in a dish. Sometimes we liked it. (That’s how we included togarashi, a Japanese blend of chile peppers and other ingredients, used as a condiment, as a staple in my pantry.) Sometimes we didn’t. (You won’t find durian, a big fruit with a, well, strong fragrance and sharp thorns, anywhere near my pantry.)
Now I take my older kids there because they find it fascinating, whether or not we buy something mysterious. Sometimes it’s worth the trip just to buy a different type of soy or hoisin sauce. Yes, I can find both of these things at my local grocery store, but they often differ from the more authentic imported versions at the Asian market.
My family loves ethnic foods of all types, so they find their way onto our dinner table as much as possible. Sometimes it’s a complex Mexican mole; sometimes it’s a simple stir-fry, as in this version of Easy Moo Shu Pork.
While Moo Shu Pork is traditionally served with homemade Mandarin pancakes, on a Tuesday night, that’s not likely to happen in my house. Instead, I serve a lighter version with lettuce cups standing in for the pancakes. Flour tortillas also make a nice substitute.
With the Lunar New Year upon us, now is the perfect time to find a local Asian market, buy some frozen dumplings and maybe even take a chance on a new ingredient or two.
Meredith Deeds of Edina is the author of “Everyday to Entertaining” and “The Big Book of Appetizers.” Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @meredithdeeds.