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Simple Sides: Fresh Herbs and Spices

Image of School mascot with kids
This feature will focus on providing a child or a group of children, working together under the supervision of an adult, with two uncomplicated, healthy and delicious side dish recipe options. The dishes will be centered around seasonal fresh produce item and easy enough to prepare so that a child of any age can help in contributing to the family meal. While many of these recipes may seem very basic, this is by design. It is hoped that these simple preparations will lay the culinary foundation necessary to inspire kids to try more challenging recipes as their confidence in the kitchen grows. 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.

The competing schedules of today’s 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 even be great fun. 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 children some basic cooking skills and, more importantly, cooking with your children will build memories in all of your hearts forever.

Here’s a fun way to introduce your young sous chefs to cooking with fresh herbs and spices: invite the kids to prepare the same basic dish, a few days apart, using two completely different sets of seasonings. Spaghetti Squash is the perfect “control” vegetable for this culinary experiment. This tasty squash variety has a mild, slightly nutty flavor that pairs well with many seasonings. Nutritionally, using a spaghetti squash as a side dish in place of foods with high carbohydrates, like white rice or pasta that can affect blood sugar levels, is also a much better choice. Besides, the squash’s stringy, noodle-like, characteristic is just plain fun for kids to work with and eat!

To keep the focus on the culinary lesson at hand – Fresh Herbs and Seasonings 101 -- do not be tempted to add other ingredients to these recipes, though I am sure many come to mind. The influence of competing flavors would only muddle the appreciation of each set of seasonings. Certainly adding mushrooms, tomatoes, walnuts or pine nuts, black olives, broccoli and many other appetizing embellishments would enhance either of these dishes. However, for this demonstration to have the most impact, let your aspiring chefs experience how the entire profile of the squash can be altered completely by simply changing out the seasonings.

Recipe I
For the busy family, a whole spaghetti squash can be ready to use with a quick steaming in the microwave. For both these recipes, place the two seeded halves, cut side down, in a microwavable pan filled with about an inch of water; cover tightly with plastic food wrap and cook on high for 12 to 15 minutes, depending on size. You can avoid the concern of kids vs. sharp knives by using a food processor to chop and blend the fresh herb mix. Working with a hot skillet in this recipe is a task that should be done by an adult. An option to the final stovetop stage of this recipe that could involve even your youngest kitchen helper is to simply forego the fry pan and toss all the ingredients together, very similar to the process called for in Recipe II. First melt the butter with garlic and olive oil in the microwave or under fire. Then let the kids carefully toss the hot squash with the butter sauce and chopped herbs until well coated. Provide large serving forks for this task as it will help separate the strands of squash. Very simple, quick and absolutely delicious! I would suggest doubling up on this recipe for the leftover factor; like real spaghetti, the second time around is better than the first. Though a stovetop sauté is really obligatory for leftover spaghetti, whether vegetable or flour-based!

Recipe II
That first recipe was so tasty that I had to try this one the very next evening! While the family might want to put a few days between versions, you should try for immediacy to make the comparison between the two dishes that much more impressionable. In fact, it would probably be a good idea, before starting the first recipe, to announce to the family that everyone is going to have to endure two wonderfully flavorsome spaghetti squash recipes in a row, for the sake of culinary education! Use the same micro-steam-and-scoop procedure of Recipe I to get a bowl of hot spaghetti squash. Then have the kids toss with a garlic-butter sauce containing three slightly exotic, yet very mild, spices along with some chopped cilantro. What a difference a day and a few seasonings make! Be careful handling the turmeric as it has the endearing characteristic of staining all that it touches. In fact, this ingredient should probably be measured out (sparingly) by the supervising adult as it will stain countertops. Hint for removing a counter stain: soak for an hour in a non-toxic cleaner, like Borax. Repeat if necessary until stain fades. Not child’s play. This recipe also introduces your cooking crew to two versatile and staple seasonings that will be a key part of their own pantries one day--paprika and cumin. Each is found in many cuisines around the world. As a rule, spicy and kids are not a good fit; be assured that the Middle-Eastern tones of this dish have a buttery-rich flavor that is distinct, yet light on the palate. Another great dish, one-day removed i.e. leftovers for the next day’s lunch! Happy forks!

Recipe I
Sautéed Spaghetti Squash & Herbs
Serves 4
Image of Sautéed Spaghetti Squash & Herbs
1 medium-small Spaghetti Squash (about 2¼ pounds), sliced lengthwise, seeds removed
4 Tablespoons Butter
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 cloves Minced Garlic
4 Tablespoons Herb Mix (finely chopped Basil, Italian Parsley, Sage and Tarragon in processor)
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
½ teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
4 Tablespoons Parmesan cheese

What the kids can do:
  1. Hollow out the squash halves.
  2. Place halves in microwavable pan, pour in 1 inch of water.
  3. Cover pan tightly with plastic wrap. Measure out all ingredients.
  4. Blend fresh herbs in processor.
  5. Under supervision, scoop out cooked squash from its shell using a long-handled spoon.
  6. In a large bowl, toss spaghetti squash with the garlic butter, herbs and seasoning until coated thoroughly, using a long-handled serving fork.
  7. Plate individually or family style.
  8. Sprinkle with Parmesan and serve.
What the supervising adult should do:
  1. Handle the hot squash halves, letting them drain and cool to the touch before allowing your designated squash scooper to begin scooping.
  2. Arm that scooper with a long spoon and kitchen gloves…plus your complete attention while the warm squash is being transferred to a large bowl. Of course, the stovetop work should be done by an adult. That is, heat a skillet on medium flame; add the butter, oil, squash, herbs, garlic, salt and pepper. Work the seasonings into the squash thoroughly but gently until combined; an older child could help with this sauté under strict supervision. Or, see alternate method of final prep in accompanying article.
Recipe II
Spaghetti Squash Marrakesh
Serves 4
Image of Spaghetti Squash Marrakesh
1 large Spaghetti Squash
4 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter, cut into pieces
2 Garlic Cloves, minced
1 teaspoon Ground Cumin
1 teaspoon Ground Coriander
1 teaspoon Paprika
¼ teaspoon Ground Turmeric
4 Tablespoons Fresh Cilantro, chopped
Pinch of Sea Salt

What the kids can do:
  1. Prepare squash for microwave same as Recipe I.
  2. Prepare and measure out all other ingredients.
  3. In a large bowl, toss the butter sauce and cilantro with the spaghetti squash until mixed thoroughly.
What the supervising adult should do:
  1. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat with garlic and cook, stirring, until it is barely golden. Let the kids stir in spices and salt. EXCEPT for the turmeric – adult should handle.
  2. The counter you stain should be your own! Remove from heat and place in a small bowl for your helpers to toss with the squash and cilantro.
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