Tuesday, February 25, 2014

You've Been Chopped: Organizing a Kids' Cooking Contest

Final plating: Spinach Salad with Cranberry Croutons, Coriander Vinaigrette, and, inexplicably, Whole Coriander Seeds
I am returning with recipes, I am, I swear. (For scrambled eggs? A glass of beer? Three Finn Crisp crackers with cheddar and yellow mustard on them? I will have to try and make some actual food.) But I keep wanting to tell you this: you have to set up a Chopped contest for your kids. It's a lot like the Iron Chef Lunch that I have written about, but it is less open-ended and more contestish. If you haven't seen the Food Network show Chopped, it works like this: competitors are judged by famous chefs on the dishes they prepare, but they have to use all the ingredients in a specially presented basket. So, you're making an appetizer, only you have to make it with spelt vinegar and fresh tobacco leaves and Froot Loops. You can use other ingredients too, but you have to include the designated ones. Then you cry and tell the judges that your cousin's pet hedgehog is dying and you really need to win so that you can help pay the vet bills. And the judges scowl and tell you that you really didn't capture the essence of the Froot Loops in your raw-tuna carpaccio, which is why (sorry about your little paw, Mr. Curly) they have to "chop" you. If you try this at home, you can skip these last two elements.

However, for a pair of kids or a small group of kids or a large group of kids, playing Chopped is extremely fun, on the one hand, and, on the other, gets all or some of your dinner made. We've now done it loads of times (birthday parties, sleepovers, play dates, summer "camp") and kids get totally psyched, even if they're teenagers and you'd think they'd be too cool to get excited about celery seeds or almond extract. They'll surprise you.
An unretouched photograph of enthusiastic teenagers competing at salad. Bonus Ava sighting!
Here's what you do.

1) Come up with a game plan. For kids with limited or unknown cooking skills, plan for them to make just a salad or dessert (more experienced cooks can do more courses and/or an entree, but make sure you have enough time). Gather or buy the 3 or 4 special ingredients that the cooks will have to use, and make sure that you have others that they'll likely want or need. So, say you're doing a salad: put the weird or fun ingredients in the basket (we've done raw cranberries, dill pickles, bread, coriander seeds, pomegranate molasses, shallots, hearts of palm, dates, turmeric and vanilla extract, among others) and then make sure you have some basic salad stuff (greens, cukes, carrots) on-hand. (We did a dessert one on New Year's Eve with a huge group of kids, and I think they had to use baguette, cocoa powder, navel oranges, and heavy cream. Tofu is a great ingredient for entrees, since it's safe to eat even if it's cooked improperly). I usually put a small amount of each required ingredient in a shopping bag for each team, so they can grab-and-go when the contest starts.

Edited to add a comment from below: "LOVE IT!! Just think that my kids and the kids we know wouldn't be as adventurous as yours. We might need to use Cream cheese, peanut butter, mini chocolate chips and apples in order to get them to produce anything eatable. Thanks for the tip!" Of course! That's a great idea. Rice cakes or toast could be a great base for an easier assembly-type project.
A mortar and pestle is so great to have. Here, cranberries are getting shown what's what.
2) Gather the rest of the supplies. Each team will need a plate for each chef, plus an extra one for the judges to share. I put out cutting boards and knives, dish towels, and the mortar and pestle, but I'm always available to help them find whatever they need.

Shallots getting chopped, before being sauteed and added to a cranberry vinaigrette.
3) Divide the kids into teams. (This is easy if there are only two children.) We usually make sure to have at least one big kid and/or experienced cook on each team. We try to split up the littlest and rowdiest kids.
The littlest AND rowdiest kid, all rolled into one sharp-knife-wielding contestant! But look at that concentrating face. Those cranberries weren't going to cut themselves in half, after all.
4) Explain the ground rules. "You will be making a salad. You will have 30 minutes. You will need to use the ingredients in the basket. You can also use other ingredients, but you must use all the ingredients in the basket. You will need to 'plate' the dish, which means arranging it nicely on a plate. You will be judged on the presentation of your dish, as well as on its flavor and the successful incorporation of required elements. Nobody may cut themselves with a knife or burn themselves at the stove."
It is fine to make a "no heat" rule! There have definitely been some alarums, if you know what I mean. And what I mean is the smoke alarm going off.
5) Present the basket. Now, as you know if you've ever, say, played Candyland, this activity will be only as much fun as the energy you put into it. That means you have to take each ingredient out of the basket with a great deal of dramatic and/or comedic flourish. Think: Will Ferrel playing Liberace unpacking his weird groceries narratingly.

6) Start the timer. Then retire helpfully to some comfortable nearby corner, ideally where you have installed a kitchen couch, like I am always reminding you to do. The kids will need to know where things are, especially if there are kids who aren't your kids. Also, they might want advice about ratios of oil to vinegar, and you can give it to them or not, depending on the ground rules you've laid out. Do be sure to give them time alerts in a dramatic and threatening way. Address them continually and menacingly as "Chefs!"
The final plating.
7) When the time is up, each team should bring one plate over to the judging table. Now you (and the other judges, if there are any) will taste each dish, making encouraging and damning announcements as you see fit, and disagreeing extravagantly about whether whole scallions, say, or minced prunes are or aren't a pleasing addition to a salad. Now you can go in one of two directions: Theatrically announce a tie (which is what I personally wish we could do) or know that you have the kinds of kids on hand who will kill you if you do this, and announce a winner, first shaming all the other teams by recapping the flaws of their pathetic attempts at a winning dish and telling them, with woeful schadenfreude, "I'm sorry. The vinaigrette was nicely tart, and that was a compelling usage of torn salami, but you've been chopped."

8) Now the kids can each pick a plate from another team or their own and eat their amazing creations! Before cleaning up.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Loving Heart T-Shirt (+ freezer paper stencil tutorial)

Is this a nice or disturbing valentine for a child? Now that is an excellent question, which the post below will not be addressing.
Before I forget: my helmet enthusiasm is over at the NYT Motherlode blog, here.

Okay. Now. I am renaming this post "Aorta Be Your Valentine," after my brilliant friend Moira. (The best I could come up with was "Won't you be my atrioventricular valve?") If you want lots of different ideas for Valentine's Day, I mentioned a bunch in my post here. Today I'm going to tell you about one thing, and one thing only, and that's how to make a simple freezer-paper stencil to embellish a t-shirt. I did this project yesterday, start-to-finish, in an hour and a half, and that included both making a second shirt and my run to the shop in town to buy new x-acto knife blades. If your blade isn't sharp? You will end up lying on the floor in tears, cursing Saint Valentine and wishing you had just bought the Hallmark card with the singing potato. Get new blades! They only cost $1.99.

Okay, the tutorial. Or, should I say "cute-orial"? I should not. (Directions are expanded and summarized at the bottom, if you want to skip the pictures.) Start by getting some nice cotton t-shirts from the Salvation Army, and wash and dry them. Now find an image you want to use, one that can easily resolve into a simple outline. Think: stencil. I knew that I wanted to do an anatomical heart, so I did a Google image search for "anatomical heart stencil." I did not find a perfect one, so I widened my search to "anatomical heart," and found this amazing series of cards at this etsy shop. You should just buy one of those, and skip this whole thing! UNLESS YOU ARE GOING TO GET NEW X-ACTO KNIFE BLADES.

Print out the design you want to use, re-sizing as necessary. (Easier said than done! And I couldn't even ask Ben for help!) If your outline is not already very dark, go over it in black pen, as shown here.

Ben would have been able to help me turn this into an outline before I even printed it, thus saving me all that red ink. But I could not ask him for help, because SECRET PROJECT.
Now tape a piece of freezer paper over your image, matte-side up, and use a pencil or a permanent marker to trace the image onto the freezer paper. 
If you are new to cutting stencils, a shape with more straight than curved lines is easier. A nice, romantic rectangle, for example. Or, "Happy Valentine's Day. I think you're square!" (Note: this is not a permanent marker! A fact which I lived to regret mildly.)
Now tape down the freezer paper again, and use your very sharp x-acto knife to cut out the image. This is painstaking but not unpleasant, if you ask me. Which you implicitly did.
I added the little thought bubble to make the design both less gruesome and more visually baffling. Notice that I needed to keep the heart I'd cut out, and then I needed to remember to iron it down inside the bubble, which I did, thank goodness.
Now use your iron set to high to press the freezer paper, shiny-side down, to the shirt. (See the expanded instructions below.) I find this strangely fun. But then again, the iron and I don't get a lot of opportunities to spend time together.

There is no mystery here: as soon as it seems stuck down, it's stuck down.
Now dab acrylic paint onto your design (stuff something in the shirt to prevent bleed-through), until it is all filled in. I use acrylic craft paint (the kind that comes in 2-ounce bottles in a million colors) because it's cheap and I hate heat-setting fabric paint and I have had some bad experiences involving heat-setting improperly. Acrylic paint will just dry and be good to go. But it will feel always feel a little dried-paint-ish, rather than getting nice and soft like fabric paint can. Your call. 

I mixed black and red for the heart, and used a kind of dreamy pearlized white for the thought bubble. I used a bristle brush, but a sponge brush works just fine.
Even though you have to do this very carefully, so as not to smear wet paint everywhere, peel the freezer paper off while the paint is still wet. This is not consistent with many freezer-paper stencil instructions, I know, if you are a connoisseur of freezer-paper stencil instructions. But I find that if I let the paint dry, then the stencil will end up lifting some of it off at the edges. Now let the paint dry, and done.

Annoyingly, you will need to cut a new stencil to make a second shirt.
Freezer Paper Stencil How-To
This is easy, thrilling, and slightly addictive.

Materials and Gadgetry
Plastic-coated freezer paper (sold with the other food wraps; don’t try this with regular waxed paper)
Masking Tape
Acrylic craft paint (or fabric paint, though then you’ll have to heat-set it)
Pencil or permanent marker, x-acto knife, cutting surface, iron, paint brush, cotton t-shirt

  1. Begin by drawing or tracing your design onto the non-shiny side of a piece of freezer paper. Use a permanent marker so the ink won't later bleed when it comes into contact with the paint.
  2. Tape the freezer paper to a cutting board, and use the x-acto knife to cut out the shape to leave the open stencil behind. This takes patience but is not difficult; if anything tears or gets cut away by accident, patch it with masking tape. If there are little pieces you'll need later, such as the heart I cut out of the thought bubble, be sure to save them.
  3. Position the stencil on the t-shirt shiny side down, and, with the iron set to high, press straight down for a few seconds until the stencil sticks. Lift the iron and press back down as needed, rather than sweeping the iron back and forth. Don't iron down all the outside parts of the stencil, as this will only make it more difficult to remove later.
  4. Stuff a piece of cardboard or paper into the t-shirt to prevent paint bleed-through. Now use the brush to fill in your design, dabbing paint from the outer edges inward, and using an up-and-down motion rather than a back-and-forth one (you want to keep paint from leaking under the edges of the stencil).
  5. Peel off and discard the stencil (it’s not reusable) and allow the paint to dry before wearing.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Clean Truffles

Are you following Sochi YogurtGate? No? American athletes have lost access to their rightful yogurt, and an international diplomatic crisis has ensued. The proper paperwork was not filled out, it seems, and while the undelivered yogurt languishes in a storage facility, the heavens rain down a plague of locusts. Also the Obama administration has asked for special dispensation from the Russian agency Rosselkhoznadzor, which is the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance. (Western Mass. locals: is this the Russian-government branch of Dave’s Soda and Pet City?) Those American athletes really need their yogurt really badly! Because they can’t just live on the chicken fingers and plain buttered spaghetti they’re ordering off the children’s menu. You can hardly blame the Russians for rolling their eyes. (“We khev yogurt. Flavor borscht. Very nice, very healthy.”) The cold war is alive and well.

But oooh, we love the Olympics. Every two years we get cable TV for two weeks, and we all stay up every night, binge-watching. But how can the Olympics parents take it? I went to Birdy’s LEGO Robotics championship in December and had a pride-induced stroke just watching a bunch of geeky kids program their dorkmobiles.
Be my raw-foods valentine.
Anyhoo. (Transition alert.) Speaking of healthy snacks! Clean Truffles are simply a version of these raw energy bars, with a flavor profile a little more like Misery Bars. But they’re bite-sized. Because I’m a firm believer in portion psychology. Haul me up a "snack-size" portion in the dipper of a back hoe, and I will eat the whole thing with a shovel; likewise, show me one through the eyepiece of a microscope, and I will pop it in my mouth and rub my belly, satisfied. These truffles are, for me, the happy medium. A little burst of protein, with a nice, low glycemic index so you don’t get any of the spiking blood sugar. Plus, they're ridiculously tasty: fudgy and rich, with a little tart cherry relief from the date-y sweetness. It’s not the Patriotic American Greek Yogurt of Democracy. But it makes a pretty perfect snack for regular schoolkids.

Clean Truffles
Makes 15-20

You can vary the nuts and/or the fruit here (I have some combo ideas here), just keep the proportions more or less the same. Also, you could roll them in chopped nuts or more cocoa powder or nothing at all. If you choose the latter, then call them “Naked Raw Truffles” and see what happens.

3/4 cup raw almonds
1/3 cup dried unsweetened coconut
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
3/4 cup pitted dates
1/2 cup dried cherries
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon coconut oil, or as necessary (optional)
More dried coconut for rolling

In a food processor fitted with the steel blade, grind the almonds with the coconut and cocoa powder until it’s all nice and finely ground, then tip it into a bowl. Now grind the dates and cherries until they turns into small clumps, then add the nut mixture back in with the extract and salt and process again until a small handful of the mixture holds together when you squeeze it. If this never happens, then add in a few more dates and/or the optional tablespoon of coconut oil; conversely, if the mixture seems too damp, add more almonds and/or dried coconut.

Now pull tablespoon-sized clumps of the mixture out of the bowl and roll them into balls. Then roll them in the coconut. This process more like building a sand castle than like, say, breading scallops. You will need to pick up the truffle inside a handful of coconut and really kind of roll and squeeze it to get the coconut to stick. Unless your truffles are supremely moist, and then maybe it will be more like breading scallops after all. (Mmmm. Scallops.)

Store the truffles airtight in the refrigerator.