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A Little at-Home Pick-Me-Up

May 8, 2008 By:
Andrew Schloss
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A child's hunger is fleeting. Challenge it with a spinach-speckled casserole and it will vanish, but greet it with chip night and it just might explode in excitement.

It is a cruel irony of my profession that when my three children were small, the less I cooked the better they liked it. They rejected without tasting anything sauced or leafy, but had praise unending for naked pasta and canned baked beans ("This is the best you ever made, Dad!"). For many years, I resented every meal I uncanned for them, but then everything changed.

I started keeping track of what my young children ate in a typical day: Cheerios, carrot sticks, yogurt, cookies and chips. Their diet was neither model nor criminal. All in all, it was quite varied, but with one overriding theme: Almost everything my children ate was hand-held.

So year's ago, I launched the first of our pick-up dinners: chip night.

My kids did not eat many vegetables eagerly, but they scarfed down salsa and chips indiscriminately. I never objected to this snack. In fact, I encouraged it. Of the infinite junk-food opportunities, this one seemed downright healthy by comparison.

We rounded out the salsa/corn-chip core of our meal with bean dip (a big hit and a complete protein with the corn chips), guacamole (one thumb down; two thumbs up) and some shredded cheese.

Since then, the cheese turned into a warm cheese dip, and we experimented with different vegetable salsas. The dippers expanded from corn chips to include crackers, triangles of pita, pretzels and fancy veggie chips. How else was I going to get my kids to try taro and beets?

Chip night blossomed into other hand-held/pick-up meals. My children started eating sauce on pasta, as long as it was a dip with ravioli, tortellini or ziti -- anything that could be hand-held. All you have to do is run the cooked pasta under cold water until it is a handle-able temperature. Serve it with bowls of warm tomato sauce and cheese sauce, and you'll be shocked at how many raviolis a 7-year-old can pack away.

We also tried sushi night, which fast became my daughter's favorite food. I know you can buy sushi anywhere these days, but it's also fun to assemble them as a family. You can cook up the rice earlier in the day. Slice up the fillings, and everyone can roll their own.

Although my children ate raw-fish sushi in restaurants, I never liked the cross-contamination threat of them handling raw fish, so we only made vegetable sushi at home.

My children are all grown up and out of the house, and my wife and I still have chip night occasionally, but what I really crave is a grandchild -- or 10! -- with whom I can set aside the forks and spoons, and share the great fun of enjoying food.

Serve the following array of dips and salsas with a big bowl of corn chips, potato chips, vegetable chips, pita triangles, crackers and/or pretzels.

Mild Red Salsa
(Pareve)

2 scallions (white part only), coarsely chopped 
3 tomatoes, coarsely chopped 
2 Tbsps. olive oil 
1/4 tsp. minced garlic 
2 Tbsps. chopped parsley 
1 Tbsp. ketchup 
salt and pepper to taste

In a food processor or blender, process the scallions and tomatoes until finely chopped.

Pour into a bowl and mix in the oil, garlic, parsley, ketchup, salt and pepper,

Makes about 2 cups.

Slightly Spicy Corn Salsa
(Pareve)

2 cups canned corn 
1/2 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and diced 
1 Tbsp. chopped cilantro or parsley leaves 
1/4 -1 tsp. finely chopped jalapeño peppers 
salt and pepper to taste 
1 tsp. ground cumin

Combine all ingredients.

Cover and set aside for at least 20 minutes. Refrigerate if held for longer.

Makes about 2 cups.

Black-Bean Dip
(Pareve)

1 can (15 oz.) black beans, drained 
1 clove garlic, minced 
juice of 1/2 lemon 
1 Tbsp. olive oil 
salt and hot-pepper sauce

Mash the beans with a fork.

Mix in the garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and hot-pepper sauce to taste.

Makes about 2 cups.

Cheese Dip
(Dairy)

8 oz. American cheese, in small pieces 
1/4 cup salsa (any variety)

In a small microwavable bowl, combine the cheese and salsa.

Microwave at full power for 30 seconds.

Stir and microwave another 30 seconds, or until fully melted.

Stir and serve immediately.

During the meal, if cheese should start to solidify, zap it for another 15 seconds.

Makes 11/3 cups.

Pick-Up Pasta
(Dairy)

2 dozen cheese ravioli or 1 lb. tortellini, penne or ziti 
2 cups jarred spaghetti sauce 
grated Parmesan cheese

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and rinse in cold water until cool enough to handle, but still warm.

Meanwhile, heat the sauce in a small saucepan over medium-heat, or microwave in a microwave-safe bowl for 2 to 3 minutes at full power.

Serve a small bowl of sauce to each diner for dipping.

Dip pasta in a bowl of grated Parmesan.

Makes 4 servings.

Deli Tacos
(Meat)

3/4 lb. deli meats (any type), cut in strips 
3 cups chopped lettuce 
1 large tomato, stemmed and chopped 
1/2 cup salsa, Italian dressing or pareve Russian dressing 
8-12 taco shells, or 8 to 12 wheat tortillas

Assemble the meats, lettuce, tomato and sauce in separate bowls.

Warm the taco shells or tortillas in a microwave or conventional oven according to package directions.

Diners can assemble their own tacos as desired.

Makes 4 servings.

Groovy Guacamole
(Pareve)

1 small clove garlic, minced 
1 Tbsp. finely chopped onion 
1 large California avocado, peeled, pitted and cubed 
juice of 1/2 lemon 
1 tsp. wine vinegar 
1/2 tsp. finely chopped jalapeño pepper 
salt to taste

In a food processor or blender combine the garlic, onion, avocado, lemon juice, vinegar, jalapeño and salt. Process until finely chopped, but not completely smooth.

If you're not going to use the dip right away, place the avocado pit in the middle of the sauce and store covered in the refrigerator.

Makes about 11/2 cups.

Andrew Schloss is a food-industry consultant and a cookbook author. His current book is2500 Recipes From Everyday to Extraordinary.

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