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Simple Sides: Stuffed Heirloom Tomatoes

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Children in this country consume an estimated 12 percent of their calories from fast food and 20 percent of all American meals are eaten in the car! The consequences are predictably unhealthy. 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, allowing 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 and to identify where adult attention might be 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 and confidence in the kitchen develop. 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. Enjoy your kids in the kitchen; they will be grown and gone before you know it! “No one is born a great cook; one learns by doing” – Julia Child.

Here’s a very simple recipe that could be the perfect introduction to the joy of cooking for a first-time kitchen helper. While there are few moving parts and the little bit of knife work required could be pre-prepped by the supervising adult, this scrumptious stuffed tomato dish is a real culinary confidence builder for the novice cook. It looks so impressive coming out of the oven and is guaranteed to evoke many kudos around the family table. Who knows – many a professional chef discovered their hidden culinary talents as a child having a hand in preparing food for the family table. But there had to be that first dish of discovery!

Firstly, while we celebrate the inherent irregular shapes of heirloom tomato varieties, when shopping for this recipe, look for fruit that will sit fairly even in the baking dish – envision a good container-like shape with a portion of the top lopped off. That said, slicing off about a half-inch down from the stem end crosswise of these misshapen pieces of fruit still can require some precision best left to the adult in the room. If your helper is very young and not ready for sharp blades yet, prep the lemon zest and parsley for measuring. Once these tasks are completed, a child of almost any age who knows their numbers can measure out and put the rest of the recipe together with minimal help except for the oven stage.

Heirloom tomatoes, compared to commercial red tomatoes, are much meatier with dense interior fruit. While there are still seed cavities to clean out before filling with pine nuts, they are nowhere near as pronounced nor as symmetrical as the cookie-cutter interior pattern of a regular tomato. So, care does need to be taken in both the cleaning out these crevices and then stuffing them as deeply as possible with the pine nuts without damaging the fruit. I used a combination of a small serrated spoon and a tooth pick! A demo by the supervising adult might be in order here – the process is kind of fun once your helper gets the idea of how each heirloom is structured and how deep those little crevices go into the fruit for stuffing. Some real hands-on experience, no doubt!

While the density of the heirloom tomato means that a lot less of those tasty little pine nuts will be in each forkful than if a large steak tomato had been used, the flavor gained overall erases any thought of needing more of anything! It is unfair to even compare the intensely deep flavors of the heirloom tomato to today’s commercial product. And a product is what the red tomato has become: capable of being shipped across country and back without losing any flavor – namely because that gene was bred out long ago in favor of making that cross-country trip yet still look fresh as the proverbial daisy—and tasting like one!

Using a regular tomato for this recipe repurposes the tomato’s role in this dish to that of a tasteless delivery vehicle for the rest of the delicious components of this dish. Conversely, the heirloom not only becomes an integral part of the presentation, but its sweet flavor commands top billing! Plus, teaching your kids to appreciate the flavors of a real tomato early in life could be a lesson carried on in their own food choices for years to come or, at the very least, upgrade big time the flavor of their next BLT!

Stuffed Heirloom Tomatoes
Serves 4
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Ingredients
4 medium-sized heirloom tomatoes
1 pkg. Melissa’s Pine Nuts
4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and black pepper to taste

Combine:
1 cup grated Parmesan
1 large lemon, zested & minced
3 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, minced

What the supervising adult should do:
Slice about ½-inch off the top of each tomato, zest enough lemon and mince enough parsley for your helper to then measure out. Handle removing the hot baking dish from the oven halfway through to add the Parmesan blend.

What the kids can do:
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Slice the tomatoes in half crosswise, remove seeds, stuff seed cavities with pine nuts.
Image of stuffed tomatoes in baking dish
Arrange tomatoes in a baking dish, cut side up. Drizzle oil on tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Combine the Parmesan topping ingredients in a small bowl, then set aside.
Image of baking dish in oven
Bake at 400°F for 10 minutes; remove from oven, sprinkle tomatoes with Parmesan blend and bake for 10 minutes more.
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