Two comfort food favorites are given a seasonal spin to broaden kids' palates

  • Ooey-gooey pumpkin mac and cheese.

    Ooey-gooey pumpkin mac and cheese. Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

 
 
Posted10/27/2021 6:00 AM

One way to broaden kids' palates is to expose them to a wide variety of foods, flavors and textures. Doing so helps overcome their tendency toward neophobia or a fear of trying new foods. Bridging the familiar to the unfamiliar is often a successful strategy. This means that you take something your child already knows and likes, say pizza, and add in something new, like sauteed Swiss chard as a topping.

Layer the fillings on one half of the tortilla before folding.
Layer the fillings on one half of the tortilla before folding. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

Lately, I've used this approach with a class of preschoolers to incorporate winter squash in the form of quesadillas and macaroni and cheese. They were a big hit with the tiny chefs, even though they were dubious about the delicata squash we harvested from the gardens and didn't entirely trust a mac and cheese that didn't come from a box.

The mac and cheese recipe is fast -- under 30 minutes -- and literally so easy that kids made it. Here I used canned pumpkin, but it makes a tasty base for peas, broccoli or cauliflower, too. Add cubed, cooked chicken or ham, and it becomes a full meal. Because one of my students can't tolerate milk, I used Greek yogurt here. I prefer the thicker, tangier result, but if you use milk, go for at least 2% or preferably whole, to give the desired creaminess. We used sharp white cheddar cheese but using half cheddar with another cheese, like Gouda or Gruyere, would be fantastic for adult tastes, as would a ¼ teaspoon of smoked paprika or even chili flakes.

Roasted delicata squash gives a seasonal spin to quesadillas.
Roasted delicata squash gives a seasonal spin to quesadillas. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

I recently learned that most pre-shredded cheese in stores is treated with cellulose to prevent clumping and moisture buildup. This makes it resist melting, so go for the block and use a box grater. Make sure the grater is stable, set atop a cutting board. Have the kids use their nondominant hand to hold the grater steady, running the block of cheese down from top to bottom while keeping their fingers clear of the sharp edges of the holes.

Elbow is the classic pasta shape for this recipe, but I let the kids choose from various fun forms. Giving them a say is another way to give them a stake in the result and makes it much more likely that they'll enjoy eating it.

Smokey, seasoned and roasted delicata squash is ready for loading into quesadillas.
Smokey, seasoned and roasted delicata squash is ready for loading into quesadillas. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

For the quesadillas, we used bell pepper instead of the typical jalapeño, given most kids can't take too much heat. But we did use a pepper jack cheese, so there was a little kick. The onion, garlic, cumin and paprika ensured that there was still plenty of flavor without overwhelming anyone's taste buds. I used a mandoline to slice the onion very thinly, making the kids think of spaghetti as they watched it caramelize in the skillet and hence, more appetizing.

I set out bowls of toppings to let everyone customize their quesadilla, but we didn't make different versions of the filling. Some kids didn't want to try the beans, the squash or the cheese, and another wanted a plain tortilla. Rather than create personal versions, everyone was encouraged to try one bite before deciding what they liked or didn't. Then they were free to open up their little triangles of deliciousness and pick out the offending ingredients -- their loss.

• Leslie Meredith is the winner of the 2019 Cook of the Week Challenge and teaches people how to grow and cook "real" food. She runs Farmhouse School on a historic homestead in Campton Hills. See the school's Facebook or Instagram pages @FarmhouseSchool or contact Leslie at food@dailyherald.com.

A young student uses the box grater to shred cheese for the pumpkin-yogurt mix used to make Pumpkin Mac & Cheese.
A young student uses the box grater to shred cheese for the pumpkin-yogurt mix used to make Pumpkin Mac & Cheese. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

Pumpkin Mac & Cheese

3 cups pasta (elbows, shells, fusilli are good options)

1½ cups plain Greek yogurt

1 cup pumpkin puree (about half a can)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3½ tablespoons all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon dry mustard

¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg

1½ cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese (or a mix of cheddar, Gruyere and/or Gouda)

Salt and pepper, to taste

Cook the pasta according to package instructions. Drain and reserve ½ cup of the starchy cooking water.

Meanwhile, stir together yogurt and pumpkin puree. Melt butter over medium-low heat in a medium saucepan (large enough to hold the pasta) and whisk in flour. Keep whisking as mixture cooks another 2-3 minutes. Add the mustard and nutmeg along with the pumpkin mixture and whisk until fully blended. Simmer another 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the cheese until it melts. Add pasta to the saucepan and stir to coat with sauce. If the sauce is too thick, add some of the reserved pasta water, a couple of tablespoons at a time, to thin. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 4

Leslie Meredith

Quesadillas can be customized with favorite toppers, including tomatillo salsa, chopped tomatoes, cilantro, radish, green onion, Greek yogurt and avocado.
Quesadillas can be customized with favorite toppers, including tomatillo salsa, chopped tomatoes, cilantro, radish, green onion, Greek yogurt and avocado. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

Delicata Squash and Black Bean Quesadilla

1 delicata squash, halved, seeded and sliced into half-moons ¼- to ½-inch thick

1 tablespoon + 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided. More for brushing tortillas.

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon smoked paprika

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 yellow onion, sliced thinly

1 bell pepper, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

6 10-inch flour tortillas

1 cup cooked black beans (about ½ a can, drained and rinsed)

1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese

Optional toppings: Greek yogurt, chopped fresh cilantro, chopped fresh tomatoes, salsa, sliced green onion, sliced avocado

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place squash slices in a large bowl and mix with 1 tablespoon of oil, cumin, garlic powder, paprika, salt and pepper. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and arrange squash in a single layer without touching on the sheet. Roast for about 20 minutes, flipping halfway through cooking, until soft and starting to brown at the edges. Reduce heat to 375 degrees.

Meanwhile, heat another tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once hot, add onion and cook for three minutes. Add pepper and cook another two minutes. Add garlic and cook while stirring another 30 seconds. Remove from heat.

Brush one side of tortillas with oil and place, oiled side down, on sheet pan (use two pans to cook all at once or do in batches). On one half of tortilla, layer squash, 2 tablespoons of beans, some of the onion mixture and a generous sprinkling of cheese. Fold the tortillas in half over the filling and press down gently. Bake until cheese melts and the tortilla browns, about 6-8 minutes, turning once halfway through cooking. Use a pizza wheel to slice each tortilla into three triangles. Serve warm with chosen toppings.

Serves 6 (three wedges per serving)

Leslie Meredith

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