Cookin with the Kids
Simple Sides: Stuffed Heirloom Tomatoes
By Dennis Linden
Competing schedules in the day-to-day lives of a busy modern family make it difficult to share a home-cooked meal together, but not impossible. In fact, with a little planning, cooking together can become a fun family event and learning opportunity. This feature will focus on providing a child or a group of children, working together under the supervision of an adult, with one uncomplicated, healthy and delicious side dish recipe. The dishes will be centered on seasonal fresh produce items; the recipes will always contain tasks will allow even the youngest kitchen helper to contribute to the family meal. Parents should always read through each recipe carefully to judge the division of labor based on age and ability as well as to identify where adult attention might be especially needed.
Many of the recipes presented here will seem very basic -- this is by design. It is hoped that these simple preparations will provide the culinary foundation and confidence to inspire kids to try more challenging recipes as their experience in the kitchen develops. Melissa’s encourages parents to find the time to gather as a family unit at least once a week for a dinner that everyone pitches in to prepare. It’s a wonderful way to teach a child basic culinary skills and, more importantly, cooking with your children will build memories in all of your hearts forever.
Here’s a simple and scrumptiously delicious side dish that is perfect for the beginner cook. Though the ingredient list for these stuffed heirloom tomatoes is short, the dish packs a very flavorful punch that is guaranteed to build kitchen confidence as well as require making enough for second helpings at least! For family meal planning the nice thing about this dish is that it pairs with almost any main course, be it beef, fish, fowl or even just a simple plate of pasta. Plus the culinary lessons in this recipe for the novice almost outnumber its ingredients!
Those lessons start with choosing the heirloom tomato as the main ingredient over the much more common red steak tomato that can be readily found in most all retail produce departments. Training your kids to appreciate flavor over appearance is actually a life lesson that can be applied way beyond the kitchen counter, but let’s just deal with what’s on the cutting board. That is, with rare exception, the commercially-grown tomato has gone the way of the Red Delicious apple. Its popularity has led to a huge demand that can only be met with large-scale growing, which is a business that puts the emphasis of breeding in characteristics that will allow the fruit to maintain its good looks through the entire chain of distribution [field to table] including being displayed in less than ideal storage conditions for several days at retail. That also means breeding out those characteristics that shorten shelf-life i.e. sugar content, aka flavor. Unless you have a garden red ripe with home-grown tomatoes, heirlooms can be found at most upscale grocery outlets and/or in the organic produce sections of larger retailers these days.
Besides being way more flavorful than regular tomatoes, the odd shapes and unusual colorings found in an assortment of heirlooms are just more fun and interesting to work with for young sous chefs! One tip, when choosing heirlooms for this recipe pick out fruit that is extra firm. Heirlooms are extremely juicy-sweet by nature and one cannot tell ripeness from color like the obvious green-to-red tones of a commercially grown tomato. Choose fruit that has just a slight give to the touch, the sweetness has already developed even if the fruit feels a little under-ripe. Extra firm because if the tomato is too ripe the fruit will not hold shape during the baking process. Seeding tomatoes is a delicate process that the supervising adult might want to demonstrate rather than delegate. To seed, hold each tomato half under cold running water while gently squeezing out the seeds by hand and carefully cleaning the small seed cavities with fingers or a very tiny spoon. Once seeded, the halves can be turned over to your kitchen assistants for the less exact and much more fun task of stuffing!
Pine nuts have a very high oil content. So much so that they should always be stored in the refrigerator or the nuts will turn rancid in a very short time. Use this oil content to your advantage by first allowing the pine nuts to come back up to room temperature before pulsing them slightly with the fresh basil. Make your kitchen aware of bringing the nuts to room temperature; its one of those little tips they will remember forever! Your youngest helper can be tasked with stemming the basil leaves so that everyone in the family gets involved. The quick pulse breaks up the nuts just enough to release the oils that bond with the basil to form a pesto-like mixture without the need for the traditional olive oil. Plus breaking the nuts in smaller pieces will make for a more efficient stuffing of the spread into the small cavities of the fruit. A wide butter knife is a great stuffing tool; the pine nut mixture should be worked gently into the nooks and crannies of each tomato half.
Finally, in supervising the touch of balsamic into each tomato half, be aware that a few drops will go a very long way. Visibly, a couple of drops of this dark vinegar will spread and slowly seep into each half. It’s kind of cool to watch! The strong flavor of balsamic vinegar should be used sparingly to enhance, without overpowering, the natural flavors of the heirloom. The vinegar will sweeten up during the bake, so the flavor goal is to lace that sweetness subtly into each bite. Have your helpers ready to add a spoonful of Parmesan to each tomato half at the end of the bake and then monitor the quick broil until the cheese begins to turn just a very light brown. While the odds of having any leftovers is pretty remote, I should add that I re-heated a few tomato halves into a tasty and nutritious lunch the next day after a quick visit to the microwave. That evening I sliced up a couple of more halves into large chunks, tossed them in pasta and sautéed the combo in olive oil. It’s a dish that keeps on giving, so have your kitchen crew make lots! Enjoy!
Stuffed Heirloom Tomatoes
Heirloom Tomatoes, sliced in half, seeded
6 oz. Melissa’s Pine nuts
1 (handful) fresh Basil leaves, chopped fine
Balsamic Vinegar to taste
5 oz. Parmesan cheese, grated
What the kids can do:
Place the pine nuts and basil leaves in a food processor or blender, PULSE a few times until nuts have broken into pieces and combined with the basil. Transfer mixture to a small bowl and set aside.
Once the tomato halves have been seeded and washed place them on a baking sheet sprayed with a little vegetable oil.
Using a butter knife, gently work the pine nut mixture into the cavities of each half, then slowly drizzle a little balsamic into the same cavities, careful not to “overflow” as the vinegar will be absorbed. Bake for 15 minutes @ 325°, remove from oven and top each half generously with Parmesan, pop back into the oven under the broiler just long enough for cheese to melt and begins to turn a light golden brown.
What the supervising adult should do:
The seeding of each tomato half could be messy and damaging to the star of this dish; only you know the capabilities of kitchen assistant. The other delicate task that definitely needs a bit of overseeing is the application of the balsamic, that calls for another very light touch.