Fact: Cooking With Kids Is A Ball

monkey bread cooking with kids

Most Fattening Thing Ever

As the little people (not short, but younger) in your life age, they become much more creative, interesting and culinarily challenging.

I’ve just returned from a weekend of kids-cooking in Cincinnati with my niece and nephew (oldest brother’s kids). I used to get away with simple recipes like pancakes and cupcakes and fried chicken… But, now the kids are older and demand more from our kitchen creations.

When my middle brother visits my niece and nephew, he entertains the kids with movie making, science experimentation, Harry Potter regaling and intellectual conversations. He’s a Potter Scholar, Science Junkie and PHD in Philosophy – please address him as ‘Dr. James’.

My visits, though, involve intricate meal planning, grocery list organization, food procurement, inspired baking and cooking.

It starts weeks in advance of my arrival. The kids are old now – 14 and 13. So, I email them proposed menus and we go back and forth via text and email in the days leading up to my visit to solidify a weekend’s worth of kitchen entertainment.

Several criteria for each creation must be met.

Firstly, the culinary endeavors must include an element of artistry.

The Hunger Games Katniss drawing

Katniss by Meggie

anniesdishlist icon

Colored in Post

My niece is an amazing artist – like really good. She gets it from my brother – actually, both brothers draw. I, on the other hand, can barely scratch out a stick figure.

In addition to my niece’s inspired cartoon characters – the AnniesDishList icon – she does incredible portraits.

Secondly…we must satisfy their yen for all things scientific.

nasa john glenn jim lovell astronauts

Real Astronauts

My nephew has been fascinated with science and space since birth. At 14 he has met John Glenn, been to Cape Canaveral, experienced Zero G and has already targeted three universities. Cal-Tech has a partnership with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (he’s visited) and preps students to join this elite group of scientists. Stanford has the leading research lab for his rare skin condition. And… MIT…because, well, it’s MIT.

dramatic dog cooking with kids

Broken Paw Act

Lastly, we like to layer in a hint of the dramatic. My people are a dramatic people. It’s genetic and inescapable. In my brother’s family, even the dog is dramatic. Unlike most dogs, their dog, Fred, hates going outside. The tiny hypo-allergenic pooch starts to shake with terror the moment he catches a glimpse of his harness and leash. Here’s a pic of the dog trying to avoid a trip out into the snow and cold by faking, yes faking, a paw injury. Apparently, the dog does this every time he’s confronted with the terror of venturing outdoors. Oy!

So the weekend kitchen challenges had to incorporate art, science and drama.

For snacks, we selected a spherical theme. (Everything below is like OTT fattening…don’t judge. They’re very thin, active kids).

Monkey Bread: artistic abilities tapped as we strategically placed dough balls in a pie plate.

monkey bread cooking with kids

Monkey Bread: Most Fattening Thing Ever

I’m not sure why it’s called monkey bread…It should maybe be called super fattening, sugary, buttery bread balls of gooey goodness. We carefully melted an entire stick of butter and then stirred in brown and white sugars and cinnamon. Once the sugars disolve, the resulting gooeyness is creatively poured over every inch of the dough balls before the entire thing is baked in the oven.

Next….Not too dramatic or scientific…but, creative and relatively goodish for the kids and satisfying our spherical theme…We made spinach party poppers. One might argue that the spinach element balanced out our not so healthy Super Bowl weekend indulgences of guac and chips, monkey bread, pancake breakfast etc. One might argue that for sure.

spinach balls appetizers

Parmesan Spinach Balls

Spinach Party Poppers. may be the best way to get kids to eat spinach. And, represented the vegetable portion of our weekend food fest.

Satisfying the scientific challenge was probably the toughest part. In advance of my arrival, my nephew had proposed a series of molecular gastronomy recipes (damn Internet). All of the recipes included ingredients you just can’t get at the local Kroger like Sodium Alginate, Agar-Agar and Calcium Lactate. Some of the recipes included tools not found in most kitchens like an ISI Whip or a Flux Capacitor…at least it may as well have called for one.

We tried to find what we needed. We even called every Brookstone in a 25 mile radius looking for the Molecular Gastronomy kit…And, some super gourmet organic-y food specialty store in Kentucky in hopes of finding any one of the necessary ingredients or tools. But, no go.

So…as we had no ISI Whip we improvised and used a medical syringe to create mozzarella balloons. In the end, the cheesy balloons were as simple as heating up the mozzarella in simmering water. Then wrapping the malleable cheese around the tip of a syringe and inflating the cheese with air. My nephew initially wanted to use my brother’s bike pump – but, if you’ve seen ‘This is 40’, you know no self-respecting 40-something biking enthusiast father would allow that.

molecular gastronomy

Mozzarella Balloon – syringe technique

These were pretty cool. In the Molecular Gastronomy recipe, one can fill the balloons with herbs, spices or other tantalizing aromas by infusing them through the ISI Whip….We were just happy to inflate the cheese and then proudly display the inflated cheese creation.

Meggie ItalyShane ItalyI like that the little people are like real people now. I’m a little biased, and they really are challenging, interesting, interested, funny, smart, creative great kids. In total over the course of three days, we made over 10 culinary creations. And, even though every dish might not have met the artistic, scientific, dramatic challenge, cooking with these two was really a ball.

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Bacon Makes It Better: Bacon-Y Bean Bundles

french green beans bacon evoo

Nestled and Oven Ready

Everyone’s family has different rules about what and how much a child must eat at any given meal. Some families go with praise cheering their kids who are members of the ‘clean your plate club’. Others threaten punishment if kids didn’t finish every morsel on their plates.

Salisbury steak

Salisbury Steak ’70’s Style

In our house, we just had to try what was served. I’m not saying that if we hated it that something else would be served. I’m just saying that even the most detestable of dishes had to be at least sampled. Once taste tested, we could decide whether to eat on or go hungry. There were a few key dishes in the dinner rotation at our house – your basic chicken, fancier chicken and dumplings, Salisbury steak, breakfast for dinner – all easy and kind to the pickiest of kids. But, for the most part, we were pretty easy to feed. OK my type-A brother had to change forks and plates between courses, cuz like one food can’t touch another – but that was probably the biggest challenge.

There was really only one staple in my mother’s dinner table rotation that killed us….Liver. Like pan fried liver ’70’s style. It was dry and sorta smelly and chewy and….Hated it.

So, charged with having ‘at least one bite’, my brothers and I had a strategy. Cut the tiniest of tiny pieces of the stuff, wrap it in 4-5 pieces of bacon, fill a large cup with water and swallow the bacon wrapped ickiness whole.

Since then I’ve known that I can eat almost anything if it’s wrapped in bacon. Bacon makes the worst things tolerable and the best things even better. I like green beans and have noticed that they tend to go unfinished when served alongside other sides like potatoes. One way to ensure that your beans are consumed is to wrap them in bacon.

Bacon-Y French Bean Bundles (Serves 6)

Ingredients:

  • green beans pricechopper

    Pre-Washed is the way to go

    1 bag of prewashed french beans – yes, you can use regular green beans, but I like the smaller more delicate taste of the French beans – they sell these bags everywhere now. Ours were from Price Chopper upstate.

  • 9-10 pieces of bacon cut in half
  • 2 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 TSP of freshly grated parmesan cheese

You can also sub out the EVOO + Parmesan Cheese and use an Italian Parmesan Salad Dressing instead….

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

1. Wrap 5-6 beans in one half-slice of bacon and lay in a baking dish

green beans and bacon

Wrapped and Ready

2. Repeat until 2-3 bundles per person are created and the bundles are nestled in the pan

3. Sprinkle the bacon-y bean bundles with the olive oil and parmesan cheese

side dish bacon wrapped beans

Gently Sprinkled with EVOO and Parm

4. Bake for :45 mins to 1 hour – until beans are well roasted and bacon is fully cooked

french beans in bacon recipe

Beans & Bacon Well Crisped

5. Serve 2 – 3 bundles per person

That’s really it.

In my own apartment, I do subscribe to the ‘just try one bite’ philosophy. Doesn’t always work. But if I can eat ’70’s style pan fried liver, the toughest of taste buds can certainly give bundles of bacon-y beans a try.

Appropriately Sized and Served on the Side: Lil’ Savory Cheddar Dill Scones

ina garten cheddar dill scones

Savory Smaller Cheddar Dill Scones

One of the things that drives me most crazy is the size of portions at restaurants. And, I’m not just talking about at The Cheesecake Factory. I’m not averse to the giant drinks at the bar there – but, that’s a different story.

The other night I was out to dinner at one of my fave Mexican restaurants in the West Village. I ordered the Baja (read ‘fried’) fish tacos. In a totally wrong way in my head, ordering the fish tacos vs the chicken chimichangas, would be ‘better’ for me. I realize that’s wrong.

mole fish taco

Giant Portion

When the tacos arrived, the plate – probably 10 inches in diameter – was completely covered. It was literally a portion that could serve a family of four if Melissa D’Arabian had anything to say about it. Seriously, there were no fewer than 8 big pieces of Baja fried fish smothered in tomatoes, onions, cilantro, topped with avocado slices and sitting atop 7, yes 7, soft tacos. Ridiculous. Delicious, but ridiculous.

It’s just too much. I mean, does the restaurant think that food for four should be served to just one? And, are they promoting eating that much just by serving it? Does the restaurant have a responsibility for controlling the portions they serve? I think so. And….Don’t get me started on giant sodas, because, sorry, I agree with the mayor here.

In a city where space is at a premium – and our kitchens are tiny – the giant restaurant portions amaze me.

sur la table nyc

It’s like crack for a cook

My niece and nephew sent me a gift certificate to Sur La Table for Christmas. Whenever I shop for kitchen stuff, I have to take into account my tiny kitchen. I have to make choices – I want, but don’t need, another 6qt Le Creuset pot, another All-Clad grill pan, 7 more spatulas, the pasta attachment to my KitchenAid mixer, more wine glasses etc etc etc, ….And, I sort of do want a Scone cutter….But, where would I put any of these things?

Bottom line, is there isn’t room. And, a scone cutter, cuts out big scones. As the boss of my test kitchen, I have a responsibility to serve reasonably sized portions. So instead of a scone cutter, I bought a set of biscuit cutters. Better choice for a few reasons:

  1. They nest like Russian Dolls – one inside the other
  2. You get 5 sizes, not just one – more versatile
  3. They’re a lot smaller than a single scone cutter – controlling your portions and saving you space
  4. They come with a ring that connects them to one another – don’t throw out the ring as it will help you keep them organized in your tiny kitchen

I’m a savory, not a sweet eater. I heart savory scones – rarely a breakfast entree like their sugary cousins, but rather a side dish, an accoutrement to the main course. So, why should we make giant ones?

Lil’ Savory Cheddar Dill Scones (makes 24 baby scones)

Ingredients

  • scones recipe ina garten

    Scone Mise En Place

    2 Cups + 1TBSP Gold Medal all purpose flour

  • 1 TBSP baking powder
  • 1 TSP Salt
  • 1 1/2 sticks (12 TBSP) unsalted COLD butter, diced – dice the butter, then put it in the freezer for :10mins
  • 2 large eggs + 1 egg for egg wash
  • 1/2 Cup heavy cream chilled – measure out the cream and then put it back in the fridge until you’re ready to add it
  • 1/4lb extra-sharp Irish Cheddar cheese – small dice
  • 1/2 Cup minced fresh Dill

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees

1. In the bowl of a KitchenAid mixer, combine 2 Cups of flour, the baking powder and salt

kitchenAid mixer scones

Use the Paddle Attachment – and just mix :05

2. Add the cold butter dices and mix on low until the butter is in pea sized pieces

3. In a separate bowl (or, I used a water glass, whatever works) mix together the eggs and heavy cream

4. Add the creamy-egg mix to the buttery flour mix and combine until just blended and a dough forms

cheddar dill scones

Don’t Over Mix!

5. In a separate bowl, toss the dill and cheddar dices with 1 TBSP of flour just to coat

cheddar dill scones

Tossed with Flour

6. Add the coated cheddar and dill to the dough and mix to combine

cheddar dill scones recipe

Mix for just :05 seconds

7. Put the dough on a well-floured surface and knead for about a minute to get all of the cheddar dices and dill-iness well incorporated

8. Roll out the dough to about 1/4-1/2 inch thick – if you were making a traditional scone, you might want them thicker…but again, too much food!

cheddar dill scones

Don’t roll too thin…

9. Using the two inch biscuit cutter I just got from Sur La Table – cut into circles

sur la table biscuit cutters

Space Saving Nesting Biscuit Cutters

10. Place the savory scone circles onto a rimmed baking sheet lined with Reynold’s Wrap Pan Lining Paper and brush them with egg wash (1 egg whisked with 1 TBSP water)

cheddar dill scones

Oven Ready Lil’ Scones

11. Into the oven for :16-:18 mins if you used the 2 inch biscuit cutter, :20 – :25 mins if you used a traditional scone cutter. Just watch the scones – when the outside is browned and crusty and the inside is fully baked, they’re done

scones ina garten recipe

Lil’ Cheddar Dill Scones

These scones are good. Like really good. And, my tiny apartment still smells a little like butter from the baking process. They are in no way low-cal….But, rather a more responsible way to give my guests a little savory delicious indulgence appropriately sized and served on the side.

Emergency Go-Soup: Cream of Tomato

amore tomato paste cream of tomato soup

Creamy and Delicious

My friends who live in LA sleep at night with an Earthquake Go-Bag under their beds. This includes heavy bottomed shoes (I think because LA gals sleep in stilettos), water, cash, canned food, flashlight etc. Everything they might need to evacuate quickly and survive for a few days following a devastating quake.

henri bendel emergency kit

Henri Bendel-Prepared for the NYC Emergency

Over the holidays at Henri Bendel they were selling NYC emergency kits. Similar to the California quake kit…only very different. Instead of canned beans and a flashlight, it includes a metro card, hair bands, breath freshener, bandages, deodorant towelettes, pain relievers and some other girl stuff…

I’m not really sure what our emergency kit vs the CA one says. Maybe in New York waking up smelly, gently wounded and needing to take the subway constitutes an ’emergency’. It might. It’s no earthquake, but it is an emergency and Henri Bendel has the solution.

For people who cook, that go-bag or emergency kit translates to a go-meal; one that is ready to serve with very little notice…

At about 6pm on New Year’s Eve after a champagne boozy lunch, my friends decided that they would come over to my apartment for dinner. OK. I had :65 minutes to prepare for the arrival of hungry guests.

dinner party main course chicken

Chicken Milanese

I went to my go-to’s and quickly shopped for what I would need to prepare Chicken Milanese, salad, garlic bread, pasta…

And, luckily, I had a go-soup in my fridge. The day before I tweaked an Ina Garten recipe and made…

Cream of Tomato Soup (serves 6-7)

Ingredients

  • whole foods vegetables

    Chopped Veggie Mise En Place

    3 TBSP olive oil

  • 1 Red Onion Diced
  • 2 large Carrots Peeled and Diced
  • 1 Sweet Potato – peeled, diced and roasted
  • 2 Cloves Garlic Minced
  • 6-7 Medium vine-ripened tomatoes Chopped
  • 1 TSP Sugar
  • 1/2 TBSP Amore Tomato Paste
  • Ina garten tomato soup

    365 Brand Chicken Stock

    1/4 Cup Chopped Fresh Basil Leaves

  • 3 Cups Chicken Stock – I used Whole Foods 365 Brand – I know I know, I should make my own…but didn’t
  • 1/2 TBSP Kosher Salt
  • 1 TSP Freshly Ground Pepper
  • 3/4 Cup Heavy Cream at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees

1. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium/low heat. I used my Le Creuset 6 qt one – it’s just so pretty and so easy to clean!

2. Add the onions and carrots and saute until very tender – be patient, this takes a while – :15-:17 mins.

– In hindsight, I would have chopped the carrots smaller so that they might soften more quickly.

whole foods vegetables

Patiently Sauteing

3. While that’s happening…Place the diced sweet potatoes on a sheet pan lined with Reynold’s Wrap Pan Lining Paper in one layer and sprinkle with olive oil. DO NOT SALT.

sweet potatoes super food

Super Sweet Potatoes

4. Put in the oven and roast for :10mins – Toss and then roast an additional :05-:07 mins until tender. Remove from the oven and set aside.

whole foods sweet potatoes

Roasted – but not browned

5. Into the Le Creuset – Add the minced garlic to the softened onion and carrots and saute until fragrant – about 1 minute

6. Add the tomatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, sugar, tomato paste, basil, chicken stock, salt and pepper and stir well.

whole foods vegetarian

And the soup becomes soupy

7. Bring the soup to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook uncovered for :40mins – until the tomatoes are very tender

cream of tomato soup

Simmering Simmering Simmering

8. Add the cream to the soup and stir

9. If you have an immersion blender…great…But since I don’t – I set up a blending station by the stove on my counter

NOTE: Ina used her food mill…but, seriously, in my apt – no room for a food mill.

cream of tomato ina garten

Soup Blending Station

10. Most importantly…LET THE SOUP COOL before blending. Cuz like if you put hot soup in a blender and turn it on, it will blow the top off and there will be quasi blended hot soup everywhere…

11. In stages, ladle some of the soup into the blender and puree until smooth.

kitchenAid blender

Pre-Puree

12. Transfer the pureed soup into a second soup pot and keep warm

cream of tomato soup ina garten

A few ladles at a time

13. Repeat until all of the soup is smooth and creamy

cream of tomato soup

Kick it up a bit…

NOTE: If you like it spicy….Add a dash or two of Gindo’s Spice of Life Fresh and Spicy Pepper Sauce.

The soup was a great intro to the Chicken Milanese. And, with my ‘stick your head out the window-view’ of the Central Park fireworks and the impromptu late night dance party…The last-minute dinner party was a success.

I don’t have much of a need for the Henri Bendel NYC Emergency Kit because – and I’m not judging – I don’t tend to wake up slightly wounded, smelly and not at home…but a good batch of emergency go-soup in the fridge does come in handy.

New Year’s Resolution – Finish What You Start: Bleu Cheese Mashed and Potato Pancakes

whole foods yukon gold potatoes

Light Fluffy and Bleu Cheesy

Some people have a hard time finishing things. I, myself, have added ‘finish the books I start’ to my list of New Year’s Resolutions. It just happens – maybe you grew bored of the thing you’ve started or maybe you think it’s taking too long to get to the good parts of 50 Shades of Grey – whatever the reason, certain tasks just aren’t completed.

It’s hard to believe that this could happen with something as delectable as mashed potatoes. But it does. You made too much of the stuff. You didn’t know that some of your dinner guests are strict carnivores or veggie-free. They don’t eat side dishes. They didn’t show. Or, God forbid, they just don’t like potatoes!

Regardless of how it happened, you might find yourself left with a bowlful of cold, rapidly aging mashed potatoes in your fridge following such a party.

If you’re like most Americans…You’ve probably had a mashed potato or two in the past four weeks. One way to avoid having leftover mashed potatoes is to doctor them up a bit – make something unexpected out of the expected.

Bleu Cheese Mashed Potatoes (Serves 8)

Ingredients:

  • 4 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes – washed and quartered…no need to peel
  • 1/2 Cup of Breakstone’s Sour Cream at room temperature
  • 1/2 Cup of heavy whipping cream
  • 6 TBSP of butter
  • 8 oz of crumbled bleu cheese
  • Salt and Pepper

1. Place the potatoes in a large stock pot and cover with water – enough water so that the water is at least two inches higher than the potatoes

Note: If, like most of us…You want to get ahead and cut the potatoes early…Just keep them in a large stock pot covered with ice water – this will keep them from turning an icky brown color

2. Bring the pot of potato filled water to a boil

Whole Foods yukon Gold potatoes

Bringing to a boil

3. Reduce to a simmer and cook until potatoes are fork tender – about 15 minutes

4. In a separate saucepan, heat the cream and butter

bleu cheese mashed potatoes

Heating the Cream and Butter

5. Drain the potatoes and then place them back into the still hot stock pot. This helps to steam the extra water out of the potatoes so you don’t get watery mashed potatoes

6. Using a masher, ricer or fork, mash the potatoes to your own desired consistency – I like ’em pretty smooth

Williams-Sonoma Potato Masher

This one’s from WS

Potato Ricer

From Wolfgang Puck

7. While mashing, ricing or forking, add the warmed milk/butter and whip in

8. Add in the sour cream and bleu cheese and mix until well combined

9. Add salt and pepper to taste

10. Serve immediately OR (thank you, Rachael Ray) you can put the mashed bleu cheese potato mixture in a separate bowl, cover and place over a bowl of simmering water on the stove top and keep warm for up to an hour or more. Shut the front door!

Now….In spite of how fab and different this potato dish was…it’s the next day and your lame non-mashed potato eating friends couldn’t finish this tasty side dish. Sure, you could toss the extra mashed potatoes…But in the spirit of the New Year and finishing what you start…Get creative and make…

Potato Pancakes (serves 4)

Ingredients:

  • Whatever left over mashed potatoes you have, but at least 2 1/2 cups with ratio of other ingredients below
  • 1/3 Cup of Breakstone’s Sour Cream
  • 1/4 Cup of Bisquick Baking Mix
  • 1 Egg
  • 1 TSP of sugar – you can leave this out, but it really helps to crisp up the edges of the pancakes
  • Butter for frying

1. Bring the mashed potatoes, Sour Cream and egg to room temperature

2. To the bowl of leftover mashed potatoes, add the sour cream, egg, sugar and Bisquick and mix to well combined.

bleu cheese potato pancakes

Just eyeball the ingredient amounts

NOTE: eyeball the consistency – you want it somewhat thick – not as thin as pancakes. Depending upon how much of the mashed potatoes you have left over, you may need to add a little more baking mix or another egg.

mashed potato left over pancakes

Not totally smooth, you want to taste the potatoes

3. Heat the butter in a large skillet over med/high heat – you can use vegetable oil/canola oil as well…just not olive oil

4. Drop pancake-y sized dollops of the mixture into the hot skillet and fry until lightly golden brown on one side

bleu cheese mash left over

Browning side one

5. Flip the pancakes and fry the second side

mash potato pancakes

See the crispy edges…that’s the sugar at work

6. Serve warm as a fab day two side dish….Or for breakfast – but, I wouldn’t put syrup on these…Just a little butter, maybe a chive or two would be great.

Some things prove harder to finish than others. But, you can get creative. For me, maybe that means finishing the books I start by watching the movie. Don’t judge, the end result is the same. To finish off your mashed potatoes, try whipping up a day two side dish of potato pancakes.