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Simple Sides: Zucchini Tots!

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.

Cookin' with the Kids

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. “No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” – Julia Child.

Here’s an easy recipe that is perfect for introducing a very young helper to the kitchen. The short list of simple ingredients requires no sharp knives or open flame stovetop to make. There is also a very hands-on, arts and crafts part of this recipe in forming these tasty little “tots” that will keep a young mind engaged for the entirety of the preparation. The dish is also a fun way to get a finicky child to eat a vegetable and enjoy it!

Based on a classic kids’ favorite -- potato tots – this healthier version replaces those starchy carbs with zucchini, though grated yellow or summer squash could be used or even finely shredded, steamed carrots would work! The hands-on fun starts right off with the first task being the shredding of the zucchini. While there are all sorts of kitchen tools designed for grating, an old-fashioned box grater is the least messy and the most kid-friendly [safe] way to get this job done with minimal risk to small fingers. The handle at the top of the grater provides stability during the process and if one places the grater into a large, deep bowl for the process, there will be little waste or clean up required.

Tip: Zucchini is 90% water, removing as much moisture from the shredded squash as possible is critical to the success of this recipe. The most efficient way to remove excess liquid is to have your kitchen helper squeeze out the grated squash wrapped in a cheese cloth and then pat dry with lots and lots of paper towels. In my first batch I did not realize that I had done such a poor job at drying my squash until it became apparent as I mixed in the panko; to correct I had to double-up on the panko to absorb the extra liquid, which produced a thicker, doughy tot. I was much more conscientious in prepping a second batch [in the interest of culinary research!] and the result was a much lighter tot with a better flavor and texture.

Since this recipe is best suited for a beginner, keep things simple and use Melissa’s convenient Minced Garlic and forgo the garlic mincing lesson for now. There will be many, many fresh garlic cloves to mince in your kitchen assistant’s future. Right now the key focus should be in perking some interest in cooking, so avoid cluttering up the prep with tedium that could lose the attention of your young assistant.

This is a one-bowl recipe. Meaning all of the ingredients are measured into a bowl and simply mixed together in a dough-like consistency – easy peasy! Once the mixture turns doughy, have your helper form 1½-2-inch tots by rolling a bit of the mixture between the palms and squaring off the ends of each. Place the tots on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray and then covered in parchment paper. BTW, cooking spray keeps the parchment down by adhering it evenly to the sheet – just a little culinary trick to teach your assistant, who will carry this one to his or her own kitchen in the years to come!

BAKING NOTE: Since every oven cooks differently I have not edited the original cooking time suggested in the recipe below. However, please note that it took twice as long for my oven to brown the tots and cook them through. The supervising adult should make a judgement call by watching the oven closely, maybe taste-test and then adjust the cooking time accordingly. Actually, the biggest challenge for any adult with this recipe is leaving some tots for the kids to enjoy too! To save the time in would take to prepare a second batch, consider doubling up on the measures with the first! There will be no leftovers. Enjoy.

Zucchini Tots
Yields about 24 tots

Ingredients for Zucchini Tots


2 medium zucchini, shredded
1 large egg
½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
½ cup panko
1 tsp. garlic, minced
1 tsp. black pepper

What the kids can do:

Shred zucchini and squeeze dry with cheese cloth / then paper towels.

Shred zucchini and squeeze dry with cheese cloth / then paper towels.

Mix shredded zucchini with egg, Parmesan, panko, garlic and pepper together.

Mix shredded zucchini with egg, Parmesan, panko, garlic and pepper together.

Spoon out a heaping tablespoon of mixture and roll it into a tater-tot shape between the palms of your hands and square off each end as much as possible.

Spoon out a heaping tablespoon of mixture and roll it into a tater-tot shape between the palms of your hands and square off each end as much as possible. Place on the baking sheet treated with nonstick cooking spray and covered with parchment paper then hand off to supervising adult for baking.

What the supervising adult should do:

Preheat oven to 400° and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until golden. Serve with ketchup! There is not a lot required of the supervising adult for this recipe beyond general overseeing of the process as this recipe really can be accomplished by any child old enough to read, measure and mix.
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