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Simple Sides: Pizza Bells!

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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.
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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 fun pizza-making lesson for your young kitchen helpers to try without having to worry about all those doughy, empty calories that are usually a part of this kid favorite. Using instead a colorful assortment of bell pepper halves to create individual “mini-pizzas”, your aspiring chefs will not only discover a healthier way to enjoy the flavors of pizza without all the “bad” stuff, but they will also learn how to make one of the most essential components in cooking during the process: tomato sauce!

While the flavor foundation of any good pizza starts with the generous brushing on of tomato sauce, it does not have to be the kind that is simmered for hours as required for other more complex Italian dishes. This provides a great opportunity to teach your kitchen crew a rudimentary version of this component that they can use as a base to build on as their own culinary experience develops. For now, the formula is simple and quick: toss all the ingredients listed in a medium-sized sauce pan, cook the mixture down for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally and in no time your young sous chef will have created his or her first tomato sauce. Quite a culinary confidence builder! Note: this procedure may require your assistant to stand on a chair to reach stovetop if necessary--it’s how most all good cooks got started! Also, that final pinch of salt called for in this sauce’s ingredients also provides for yet another culinary lesson. That is, insist that your helpers TASTE the sauce BEFORE and AFTER that pinch of salt is added to judge if it was even necessary; it is, of course, but the point is to encourage novice cooks to get into the habit of tasting as they cook.

As with many of the recipes in this blog with beginner cooks in mind, I have kept the ingredients simple and to a minimum for this one. Though these ingredients are meant to cover all the “majors” in pizza flavors, if it were MY half of bell pepper I would come up with many more additives that reflect my personal tastes and years in the kitchen. It will only be a matter of [kitchen] time before your novice cook suggests maybe adding a few sliced mushrooms or olives or even pineapple ‘n ham to one the pepper halves! This recipe is designed to lay the groundwork for those more creative ingredient choices once the basics have been mastered.

I guess one could use just standard green bell peppers for these mini-pizza, but that would be so much more boring than an assortment of brightly colored bells that add both eye-appeal and even a little different flavor with each shade! Along with learning the physical skills of the culinary arts, a good cook must also sharpen one’s palate to appreciate the effect each ingredient has on the whole dish. To that end here’s a little exercise for aspiring beginners: each colored bell pepper has a distinct flavor, so ask your helpers to taste and describe each color. The teacher’s cheat sheet is provided below:

Green Peppers have a slightly bitter taste, best enjoyed cooked or in cooking.
Yellow Peppers are sweet and fruity. They are great sliced raw in salad or cooked.
Orange Peppers are not quite as sweet as the yellow. Still very good in salads and adds color to cooked dishes
Red Peppers are fully ripe, so the sweetest and juiciest. They also contain more nutrients than the other peppers.

I found that a serrated grapefruit spoon worked great in the hands of a small child to core, seed and scrape the insides of the bell peppers clean – no sharp knife necessary. The stem on each half will just pop off by hand. The small amount of knife work that this recipe does require is also extremely basic, no precision required / just crude chopping. In fact, since the tomatoes for the sauce are going to be cooked down anyway, that “dice” could be just a rough chop for a young, beginner sous chef! These tasty little mini-pizzas can be reheated for a quick lunch, dinner or healthy snack! Dare I say it…ring in the pizza bells!

Pizza Bells
Makes 6 mini-pizzas
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Ingredients - Pizza Sauce:

1¾ cups Roma tomatoes, diced
1 can tomato paste (6 oz.)
2 TBS fresh basil leaves, chopped
1½ TBS olive oil
2 tsp dried oregano
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt (a pinch)

Ingredients – Pizza Bells:

3 Melissa’s Tri-Colored Bell Peppers, halved, seeded and cored
1 TBS. olive oil
Salt + pepper to taste
A spoonful of pizza sauce
2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
½ c. Parmesan, shredded
1 TBS. chopped parsley
Pepperoni rounds, quartered (2 per pepper half)

What the kids can do:
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Sauce: combine all ingredients in a saucepan and simmer gently for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally until smooth.
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Place the bell pepper halves on a baking tray, brush each generously with olive oil, then sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Spoon a heaping spoonful of sauce into each pepper half and then spread around with bottom of spoon to distribute evenly – it should not be too thick.
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Combine the two cheeses and parsley, then spread over sauce and top with pepperoni slices.

What the supervising adult should do:

If your helper is old enough, oversee the knife work required to prepare the Bell pepper halves; a serrated spoon works great to seed and core the peppers. Bake @ 350° for 10-15 minutes, until the peppers are crisp-tender and the cheese is melted.
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