Spring is in full swing and we’re dusting off our picnic baskets. Here’s a collection of some of our favorite mix and match, make-ahead, portable foods. They travel well, are easy to eat and taste especially good at the beach, under a shady tree, or on your favorite patch of grass. Plan a whole menu or just add a little something new to your family’s tride and true picnic favorites.
Make a checklist. There’s a lot to bring, so a list will help you get organized. Don’t worry if you forget something—as long as it’s not the food!
Make finger food. The fewer utensils you need, the better. Lay out containers of food on your picnic blanket and call it a “garden buffet” so children can pick and choose what they like. Kids love to just pick up and eat their food.
Let the Kids Help. Inviting little ones to help prepare and pack the picnic adds to the fun and will encourage even the pickiest of eaters to dig in when it’s lunchtime. Letting children carry their own food in a backpack offers a lesson in self-sufficiency and independence.
Buy food. If you don’t want to wake up and cook before you head out, stop at your favorite deli or supermarket, and pick up your picnic. Purchase prepared sandwiches or wraps, some fruit, cereal bars, nuts and water, and you’re set.
Bring plenty of cleanup supplies. You always need more of these than you think you will need. Bring a whole roll of paper towels or several dishcloths and some trusty wet wipes. Also, bring hand sanitizer if you are going to be somewhere you cannot wash hands. And don’t forget extra bags to collect your trash.
Bring safety items. Make sure you have a first-aid kit in the car or in your basket/backpack. Scrapes and cuts are inevitable, and it is best to be ready for them. Sunscreen is also essential, as are hats and bug repellant.
Bring games or toys. You can spend your time exploring nature, or bring some toys and games along. A travel-size board game or deck of cards will be easy to carry. Or bring a bat and a ball or football for some more active fun.
Select an enclosedspace. To reduce your stress level, find a park or area that is enclosed. That way you won’t have to spend your time chasing wandering children.
Store bought puff pastry is fast becoming something I swear by. We bought some from puff pastry from Royal Market and Bakery and transformed it into the crispy, savory and yummy farmer’s cheese, grated sharp cheddar and cooked mild Italian sausage puffs pictured below. These couldn’t be easier to make. Thaw puff pastry for 30-40 minutes stuff each square (this puff pastry was already cut into squares), fill with stuffing of choice, fold over and make a triangle, crimp edges with fork, brush with some egg wash and bake at 400F for 15-20 minutes till golden brown.
A good one to make with the little kids. You can lay out a variety of fillings (or any leftovers) and let the kids have some fun making their own puffs. Good way to use left over nubs of cheese that languish in our fridge forever. A handy portable lunch for little hands. Assemble and freeze individually and pull out in a pinch, bake for longer and serve with a side salad or steamed vegetables. How’s that for an easy dinner?
Cooked Italian Sausage, Caramelized Onions (optional) and Sharp Cheddar
Here’s what happens when you let kids design their own party cheese plate: they come up with some interesting combinations that you would have never thought of and they might find a little inspiration to try some new foods. Most importantly, they’ll have a great time letting their creativity flow. Over the years I have really come to appreciate how much kids enjoy the chance to make choices at mealtime. Just giving them options reduces how picky they are and makes eating together a lot more fun for everyone.
I would like to take credit for this brilliant cheese plate idea, but all the credit goes to Ria. I’m not exactly sure where she came up with the idea, but once she put it out there it wasn’t hard to sell me on it. We spent a good deal of time discussing, then shopping for what would go on her cheese plate which included some of her favorite cheeses (she is partial to the ooey-gooey creamy triple cream ones), crackers, salami, fruits, nuts, olives etc. Once the ingredients were procured she added her artistic flair and came up with this lovely design for a party that we hosted:
Our next adventure in junior cheese plate design came in the form of a dinner play date with Luca and Stacie. They brought over some of their own favorite bits and pieces to add to the mix and the kids got to work. They eagerly dove into the project first choosing their plates, then checking out all the goodies. It was delightful listening to Luca and Ria’s conversation and descriptions of what they were thinking as they worked on their designs — a rainy day-themed plate complete with raisin raindrops; artfully drizzled apple slices; sweet and salty dried fruit and salami bites — and a wonderful thing to hear them encourage each other to taste and sample. We made sure their plates were hearty enough to qualify as supper (giving us adults a night off from dinner duty) so Stacie and I sat back with a refreshing beverage, nibbled and chatted. Cheers to that!
We love this as a fun and fuss-free play date for kids of any age. Given the call for cheese plates this time of year, it’s also a perfect activity to keep little hands busy amidst all the holiday revelry.
Listen to the kids discuss their cheese plates:
Here are some ideas and tips for hosting Your own parti du fromage:
Involve your kids in the shopping and planning. We love any excuse to visit a specialty cheese store, but even a well-stocked market will do. Do some tasting and sampling to get the ball rolling.
Give the kids total free reign to pick some items, then suggest, nudge and supplement with others (and raid your pantry) so that you have a well-rounded assortment of things that will make a complete meal. You can still give kids a choice even in unfamiliar territory (“these olives or those?”, ‘”pick one of these”)
Keep it lively by tasting and sharing opinions. Consider taste, texture, aroma, presentation and encourage everyone to share the stories and ideas behind their creations.
For those who are less gung ho about the idea of cheese tasting, you could easily turn this from a cheese plate project into creative grilled cheese sandwich party. We recently hosted a grilled cheese party with a big bunch of kids and they had a blast experimenting with different combinations and coming up with crazy sandwich names. If you don’t have a panini press, you can toast your sandwiches up in a waffle iron which will make you the coolest play date host ever.
Have even more fun by letting kids create a menu, write a description or make a drawing to accompany their creation.
For all your Halloween festivities, it’s always nice to have a few less-sugary options up your sleeve. Here are two fun “spooky snacks” we tried out this year: Mimi’s creepy fingers and wiggly mango-orange tummy ticklers. These are so fun to bring to parties at school, to nibble on alongside a bubbling cauldron of of your favorite soup or stew before you head out for trick or treats, or even as an unexpected after school snack during the rest of the year. Both take almost no time to put together and, more importantly, are really fun to make. Do you have a favorite spooky Halloween snack? We’d love to hear about it!
Wiggly Mango-Orange Tummy Ticklers
This is a homemade, fruit finger jello recipe from the Meal Makeover Moms, from their “No Whine with Dinner” cookbook (but I actually heard it on the Halloween episode of their “Cooking with the Moms” podcast). The two moms behind all three of these great projects are registered dieticians and offer lots of recipes and suggestions for healthy food for the whole family. Their podcast is fun, informative and worth a listen — a good one to keep loaded up on your MP3 device to listen to when you have a few spare moments in your day. For these fruity, wigglers all you need is juice, pureed fruit and 2 packets of unflavored gelatin. Since you can swap any kind of juice and fruit you like, kids can play executive chef and create their own flavor combinations. Here we used orange juice and pureed mango. Yum!
Ingredients: 1 1/2 cups juice, 1 cup fruit, 2 envelopes of unflavored gelatin, sweetener of your choice (as needed)
Puree together 1 cup of whole fruit and 1 cup of juice, then bring to a simmer on the stove.
Sprinkle 2 packets of unflavored gelatin over 1/2 cup juice and let it sit for a couple of minutes.
Add the gelatin mixture to the simmering puree mixture. Whisk while the gelatin fully dissolves (about 5 minutes). Give it a taste and add your favorite sweetener as needed.
Pour mixture into an 8×8 pan. I poured mine through a strainer, just to catch any undissolved gelatin or bits and pieces.
Refrigerate at least 3-4 hours to set. Dunk the bottom of the pan in hot water to help release the jello, then cut into squares and enjoy! (The Meal Makeover moms suggest using an offset spatula to remove the jello squares from the pan.)
Our neighbor Mimi served these fun appetizers when she had us over for dinner. They were so cute I made them for snack day at Luca’s preschool. When you bring a container, marked “creepy fingers” to school, everyone wants to know what’s inside! These are simply rectangles of puff pastry with cherry tomato “fingernails” added before baking. For a sweet version, you could use roasted grape halves and replace the parmegiano with a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar. You can find puff pastry in the freezer section of the grocery store, I nabbed mine at Trader Joes.
Ingredients: 1 Package of Frozen Puff Pastry, a Handful of Cherry Tomatoes, 1 Beaten Egg, Parmegiano Reggiano
Optional (if you have the time), roast your cherry tomatoes to release some of the water before placing them on the puff pastry. Half the tomatoes, place them in a pan cut side up. Season with sea salt, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sugar. Roast in a 350 degree oven for 20-30 minutes or until they start to look a bit dry and shriveled. You can do this in advance.
For the fingers, let your puff pastry thaw slightly until you can cut it easily. Cut it into rectangles approximately 3/4″ x 4″. I rounded one end using scissors so the shape would be more finger-like.
Place a halved cherry tomato skin side up on the rounded end of the pastry. Brush the whole thing with beaten egg and sprinkle with grated parmegiano reggiano.
Bake as directed on the box of puff pastry. Best if served right away, but you can store in an airtight container after they have cooled. I like to separate layers with sheets of waxed paper.
There’s lots you can do with leftover puff pastry:
Try Simran’s recipe for “Anything Puffs“, substituting the puff pastry for the crescent dough.
Extra puff pastry also makes a great top for a pot pie, stew or soup (may I suggest Simran’s Fish Chowder?). Cut a circle slightly larger than the rim of your oven proof, individual serving-sized bowl. Brush the rim of the bowl with beaten egg and seal the bowl with the pastry (remember to cut a few slits for the steam to escape). Place the bowl on a baking sheet and bake as directed on the puff pastry package.
Stay with me here….. You might be as dubious as I was to see an avocado infiltrating a harmless banana bread, but this is one of those healthy “recipe makeover” substitutions I can whole heartily endorse. I’m all for healthy food of course, but I’m not a big fan of healthy versions of not-so-healthy things if they fall short on the yumminess factor.
It turns out you can substitute avocado for half the butter in many baking recipes. So you’re not only replacing bad fat with a healthier one, you’re also adding some extra nutrients. In our banana bread test, the avocado didn’t end up altering the flavor or color significantly and the end result was as moist and tender as the original. This is excellent news since my family has a major addiction to banana bread and I have become “the banana bread lady” at my son’s preschool. So now we’re eager to see how the avocado fares in some of our other favorite baked goods.
We decided to put this “healthier banana bread” experiment to the ultimate test by making it for a recent family soiree put on by the awesome folks of SF Music Together. [If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, Music Together is a fabulous children’s music program not only here in San Francisco, but around the world, where families can share and create music.] The party was tons of fun with face-painting, singing and tambourine shaking galore — Simran even snagged some totally cute hair clips from Made in the Haight. The banana-avocado bread was a big hit across the board and there wasn’t a crumb left to take home. We heard many a “yum” which is definitely music to our ears.
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup softened butter (half a stick)
Half an avocado (approximately 1/4 cup)
2 cups flour (I used 1 1/4 cups app purpose, and 3/4 cup whole wheat)
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 very ripe bananas (this is not worth making if your bananas aren’t super ripe)
3 TBL milk
Cream together sugar, butter and avocado.
Stir in the eggs and vanilla extract and mix well.
In a seperate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda and salt until well mixed.
Fold together the butter and flour mixture until well incorporated.
Mash 3 very ripe bananas. Mix in the mashed bananas and milk.
Bake at 350 degrees for one hour or until the top springs back when you press it.
Yesterday we we spent the afternoon playing with dumplings and empanadas. Both are great projects to do with kids. Even the bambino got into the act! There are lots of tasks that little cooks can do and they might even be inspired to try something new. As always, hunger for a tasty bite was our main focus, but we were also doing a trial run for our upcoming “Cooking with Kids: Dumplings and Empanadas” event on May 7th at 18 Reasons. Come on out and cook with us! Click here for class and ticket info.
In addition to having a jolly good time, getting messy and eating way too much, we learned a few things which you may want to keep in mind for your next dumpling or empanada-inspired play date:
Make extra dumplings because the kids will probably scarf them down before you can get one (we made Simran’s Easy Peasy Dumplings with minced chicken thigh meat)
Mark whose empanadas are whose if you want to avoid an empanada guessing game. An identifying scrap of dough on top does nicely.
Chocolate and caramelized banana empanadas are to die for!
Semi-Sweet Chocolate and Caramelized Banana Empanadas
Makes about 6-8 Dessert Empanadas
[you could make a simplified and slightly healthier version by mashing the bananas and adding a pinch of cinnamon rather than caramelizing them]
Preheat oven to 375.
Break up a bar of semi-sweet chocolate into small pieces and set aside.
In a pan melt 2 tablespoons of butter, and stir in 2 Tablespoons of brown sugar until it dissolves. Add a pinch of cinnamon if you like.
Stir in 2 sliced bananas and let them cook in the sauce for a few minutes. [For an adult version, you could add a splash of rum and flambe the filling]
Roll out your empanada dough and cut into 5″ diameter circles (or you can use prepared empanada discs found in most latin markets). Fill each empanada with 3 Tablespoons of filling and place a few chocolate pieces on top.
Brush edges with egg wash ( 1 egg beaten with a Tablespoon of milk). Fold the dough over the filling making a half circle shape and press edges down to seal. Crimp edge with a fork and poke a few holes on top with the tines of your fork.
Brush top with egg wash and sprinkle with demerara sugar (optional).
Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm.
We couldn’t resist snatching up a giant bag of green garbanzos (fresh chick peas) when we saw them at our favorite neighborhood produce store. We love canned or dry chick peas in all kinds of soups, stews and salads but fresh chick peas are a totally new one for us. Our haul is enough for a few experiments, and our first was this simple charred green garbanzo snack. After washing the pods and drying them well, I chucked them in a hot, dry skillet and let them toast until they were blackened on one side (2-3 minutes). Then we tossed them with some good olive oil and our favorite sea salt. Eaten like edamame, they are super snack-able with a mild and slightly nutty flavor. Kids who like eating edamame will probably be more than happy to give these a try… and the beans inside also happen to look like tiny green brains which is pretty cool too.
I am thinking about batches flavored up with lime and chili, or perhaps we’ll give them the same treatment as Mythili’s edamame with coconut, cumin and chili. Chances are pretty good I’ll be making another run to grab some more while they’re still in season.
Homemade pizza — It’s my cheap, fun and easy go-to meal when we have friends over and it’s becoming somewhat of a Friday night family dinner tradition, too. My husband is always so impressed that I make my own dough but in truth, it’s really simple and takes only about 10 minutes to put together. To me, that always seems a lot quicker and easier than running to the store (finding a parking space and shuttling 2 kids) to pick some up, so I guess it’s all in how you look at it. I think I’ll let him continue to be impressed.
Lately I’ve been kind of obsessed with this very simple zucchini flatbread version. It’s the same old pizza dough, rolled as thinly as possible and topped with paper thin slices of zucchini, a scattering of whatever herbs I have in my garden (I like rosemary, oregano, parsley and thyme), a grating of parmegiano reggiano, a drizzle of good olive oil and seasoned with sea salt and black pepper. The version above included some caramelized shallots too. I have learned through experience to make one corner a little less herb-y for Luca and you might try that if you’re making it for a little one. It’s perhaps not substantial enough to make a full meal, but it’s a fantastic appetizer, lunch or snack. For dinner, we’ve been serving it up along with a simple pureed vegetable soup and an antipasto platter for a mostly vegetarian meal.
I’ve become so obsessed with this flatbread that whenever I make pizza I save a little extra dough (and make sure to buy a zucchini) so I can make this the next day… I’m particularly loving this zucchini-herb combination at the moment, but the possibilities are truly endless. You could absolutely trick this one out, but this no-frills version has reminded me that simplicity has its place too.
Luca loves to help me with any dough project and this is no exception. At the mere sight of the stand mixer he runs to pull up a chair. In addition to helping me measure and supervise the mixer, I save a glob of dough for him play with which is another good reason to make a little extra.
Thin Crust Pizza: The Roman Way
(Adapted from Marco Flavio Marinucci from the Cook Here and Now blog. Here’s his original post that includes his recipe and lots of other great pizza info.) Makes 2 large pizzas.
1.5 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup “00 Pizza Flour” (available in bulk at Rainbow Grocery), or substitute Pastry Flour
1/8 cup semolina flour
1/2 tsp dry active yeast
3/4 teaspoons sea salt
3/4 cups of lukewarm water (more if needed)
Mix yeast and lukewarm water in your mixing bowl (the water should be about the temperature of a baby bottle). Let sit five minutes to foam and activate while you set up the rest of your ingredients.
Add flours, salt and semolina to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook and mix just until a ball forms. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides a few times. Adjust the flour and/or water as needed, a little bit at a time. [If you don’t have a stand mixer, you can use the “well method”. Mix the dry ingredients in mound and make a crater in the center for the wet ingredients.]
Let rest 5 minutes.
Knead for 2-3 minutes by machine (or 4-5 minutes by hand) — don’t over knead. Marco says the dough should be tacky like used tape.
Shape the dough into a ball and drizzle and coat with olive oil. Place in a bowl and cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let it sit at room temperature for a half hour, then refrigerate it overnight. You can also make it a few hours before and leave it at room temperature.
Baking your pizza:
Let the dough come to room temperature. Place a pizza stone in your oven and heat at 500 degrees for about 30 minutes to get it nice and hot. [A pizza stone is a must for any pizza lover.]
Divide the room temperature dough into two pieces (or more pieces if you want small, individual/kid-sized pizzas).
On top of a piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil, roll the pizzas 1/16” thick or as thin as you can. Using the parchment or foil will help you transport the pizza from your counter to the oven.
Lightly spread with toppings. If using sauce it should almost be transparent since the crust is so thin. If using fresh mozzarella, Marco suggests cutting the cheese into small dice so you get nice pools of cheese.
Use the parchment or foil to lift your pizza into the oven. Cook 5-7 minutes until golden and bubbly. You can slide the parchment/foil out from underneath halfway through so that the bottom of the pizza can cook directly on the pizza stone, the parchment/foil should slide right out. Take the pizza out using a peel, a rimless baking sheet or a couple of large spatulas.
Top finished pizza with a drizzle of good olive oil and some fresh herbs.
We don’t know a whole lot about Danish cuisine but these little open faced sandwiches make me want to learn more. Sabrina Gabel of Seesaw has these on the menu at her cafe cum play-space in Hayes Valley. Seesaw is fast becoming a favorite of ours. A neat little oasis for a play date or even a “business” meeting for parents with kids. Stacie and I recently met up with Rosie from 18 Reasons at Seesaw to discuss our upcoming parent-kids/family cooking classes that we will be co-hosting at 18 Reasons. The kids kept themselves engaged with the toys in the play room and did not bother us at all. Ria even made a new little friend.
Sabrina is quite the foodie and is developing a unique menu for Seesaw. When I saw these smørrebrød (Danish for butter and bread) on Seesaw’s Facebook page, I knew I had to make them for Ria (and me). They make the perfect after-school snack or a unique lunchbox item (trick is getting an open-faced sandwich to school). We just like saying “smørrebrød”! Smørrebrød usually consists of buttered, dense, dark brown rye bread available at specialty grocery stores (Cost Plus World Market, Rainbow Grocery) and pretty much your topping of choice. A filling and fun snack that the little ones will enjoy making with you. Wonder how this bread would taste with peanut butter and grape jelly? The possibilities are endless.
Making things mini often makes them more appealing to kids. Making things in the shape of mini-cupcakes also makes them an easier sell to the munchkins. We call these egg cupcakes around here and that gets Ria all excited about them and she gobbles these up.
She also loves them because this recipe is by her favorite “cooker” Jamie Oliver. She once said to me, “Jamie Oliver – he’s the greatest cooker. I want him to come to our house. We have an extra room for him.” Maybe I should stop watching the Food Network with her. I should at least tell her that he is a celebrity and just because we watch his show regularly, it does not make him our personal friend. I think she fancies him also because on his Jamie at Home show he has a vast vegetable garden that she has often expressed a desire to own herself. I have to admit, she does have good taste – Jamie is one of my favorite “cookers” too.
These cupcakes are fun and easy to make with the little ones. They work great for brunch, picnics, school lunches and a post-school snack. You can fancy them up with any fillings you and your kids like (ham, cheese, spinach, asparagus etc.). It’s always helpful to have a small stash of these in the fridge for when hunger strikes.
Jamie Oliver’s Mini Frittatas
2 tbsp milk or heavy cream
Preferred filing – we used cheese and diced ham
salt and pepper to taste
Grease a cupcake tin and preheat over to 350F
In a measuring cup, beat the eggs and milk or cream