Simply Kid Chefs: Spinach and Cheese Stuffed Shells

It was our oldest’s turn to prepare dinner. Our youngest received a new cookbook, Twist It Up, for his birthday. It’s written by a little boy who has leukemia and part of the proceeds go to funding research. The boys have been excited to try a recipe.

Our youngest allowed his brother the opportunity to cook from it. Not surprisingly, he picked a yummy, comfort food, spinach and cheese stuffed shells. We trekked to the store with his younger brother as we were hoping to also see the parade of rescue vehicles bringing toy donations for Stuff a Bus, supporting Toys for Tots.

Here is the parade and the toys that were donated. This doesn’t include the thousands of toys donated over the whole weekend, just the ones dropped off to police and fire stations on Cape Cod. As we were waiting and saw the volunteers assembling to unload the vehicles, the oldest asked if we can help next year. The answer, of course!

Here is the 16,069 toys collected by the police and fire departments. The total for the weekend was 31,844!!

Our oldest is pretty much running the kitchen. I slice the garlic, the end of the onion, drain the pasta and put the food in and out of the oven. That’s it, he does the rest! Here he is hard at work…

Here is the recipe

Marinara Sauce:
2tablespoons olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 (14 1/2-ounce) cans tomato sauce
2 beef bouillon cubes
1/2teaspoon dried basil
1/2teaspoon dried oregano
1tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2teaspoons sugar
1teaspoon coarse salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 (12-ounce) box jumbo pasta shells, cooked and drained
2tablespoons olive oil
1pound fresh spinach
1/4cup water
1 1/4cups shredded mozzarella cheese
3cups ricotta cheese
2large eggs, lightly beaten
2 garlic cloves, minced
1cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1/8teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2teaspoon coarse salt
1/4teaspoon white pepper
1/4cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

To prepare marinara sauce, heat olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute. Add tomatoes, tomato sauce, bouillon cubes, basil, oregano, parsley and sugar. Stir well. Simmer over low heat 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Makes about 6 cups.

  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Toss cooked pasta with olive oil and set aside.
  3. Combine spinach with 1/4 cup water in a large saucepan over medium heat. Simmer, covered, until spinach is wilted, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain well and squeeze spinach to remove excess moisture. Finely chop spinach.
  4. Combine mozzarella, ricotta, eggs, garlic, spinach 1/2 cup Parmesan, nutmeg and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Stir to blend. Generously stuff pasta shells with cheese mixture. Place stuffed shells in 2 (13 x 9-inch) baking dishes and cover with marinara sauce. Sprinkle evenly with remaining Parmesan cheese and parsley.
  5. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until cheese is melted and sauce is hot and bubbly.
  6. Let cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving

We did not use an egg in the cheese mixture and it came out delicious! The chef was surprised at how much the spinach shrinks. He looked at me with each handful that went in and then was pleased to see how much it cooked down. 🙂

The sauce was delicious and the meal was a big hit!!

Does your town do Stuff a Bus? What’s your favorite holiday tradition?

Simply Kid Chefs: Pork Tenderloin with Fried Okra and Pickled Watermelon

This week, our youngest turned 8 and made a special dinner to boot. We have been watching Master Chef Junior as a family and are really enjoying it! It has been amazing to see all of the dishes the kids have created. Another plus is the wonderful sportsmanship and camaraderie between the contestants. Both boys love the show; seeing what everyone creates and to their surprise without formal recipes.

Our youngest began pulling out cookbooks and came across this old Food and Wine cookbook

He immediately noticed Graham Elliot from Master Chef on the cover. We found his recipes in the book and he selected the pork tenderloin. I wasn’t sure how he would do with the different flavors but followed my rule of not discouraging based on my own perception.

We couldn’t find some of the ingredients, but substituted ground cardamon and ground coriander for the brine (about 1/8 teaspoon of each). Ground sumac also proved to be impossible to find for our timeline and we left it out.

The chef was able to do most of the preparations. I did the stove work, but he did put the okra in the oil.

The brine took longer to cool down than we anticipated. Here is the chef waiting for it to come to room temperature. Like a watched pot never boils, a watched brine doesn’t cool 😉

The meal was amazing!! I was a little nervous about the okra as I’ve never had it before. We could have eaten more! I would definitely increase the amount of okra when we make it again. The watermelon was delicious and really complimented the pork.

The recipe was a little intimidating at first, but really not difficult. Timing was the most complicated aspect. The chef wanted to keep moving and there was a lot of down time. Definitely allow enough time for the brine to cool when planning the meal. Everything else is relatively quick.

Do you watch Master Chef Junior? Have you made a brine before? What are your thoughts on okra?

Simply Kid Chefs: Meaty Quesadillas

Apparently we are on a Mexican kick around here ;). Our oldest was up and he selected the meaty quesadillas from our cookbook. After looking at the recipe, I realized he could handle all of it, except slicing the garlic cloves.

I informed him that it would be his show and he was a little overwhelmed. Once he was ready, we broke it down step by step and he was good to go. Imagine his surprise when he realized he did it!

Here he is hard at work..

Here’s the recipe from The Food Network:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ancho chili powder
1 pound lean ground beef or lamb
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
4 scallions, thinly sliced
4 10 -inch flour tortillas
3 1/2 cups shredded muenster or monterey jack cheese
Fresh salsa and/or sour cream, for serving

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and chili powder and cook 1 to 2 minutes. Add the beef, oregano, 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste. Cook, breaking up the meat with a spoon, until it is no longer pink, about 2 minutes. Add the scallions and cook 5 to 6 more minutes.

Heat a large griddle or skillet over medium heat. Brush 1 side of each tortilla with olive oil. Place 2 tortillas on the griddle (or 1 if using a skillet), oiled-side down, and scatter about one-quarter of the cheese on each. Cook until the bottoms are golden brown and the cheese is melted. Put about a quarter of the beef mixture on half of each tortilla and fold into a half-moon. Continue to cook until the quesadillas are crisp, turning once. Repeat to make 4 quesadillas.

Cut into wedges and top with salsa and/or sour cream.

Per serving: Calories 813; Fat 48 g (Saturated 23 g); Cholesterol 155 mg; Sodium 1,889 mg; Carbohydrate 43 g; Fiber 3 g; Protein 52 g

Read more at:

We added carrot sticks, sliced cucumber and tortilla chips to the meal. The dinner was a big hit!

We used ground beef, but I would substitute it with ground turkey or chicken in the future. The meat isn’t particularly spicy which was great for the kids and could easily be adjusted with more chili powder or adding jalapeños. We made exactly 4 quesadillas, but you could easily thin out the meat and make more 🙂

Have you made quesadillas? What’s your favorite Mexican recipe?

Simply Kid Chefs: Quesadilla Pizza

Our young chefs spent Saturday night with their grandparents and we didn’t plan cooking ahead. I called Sunday and spoke with our youngest about what he would like to prepare as I was heading out for the big weekly shop. He wanted to re-make quesadilla pizzas from Rachael Ray and we decided because it hadn’t been on the blog – it was ok 🙂

This time, he was excited to try chorizo (not surprising as he loves ALL meat in tube form). I only put the pans in and out of the oven. The chef did everything else! He was pretty excited to slice by himself and do everything with minimal help.

Here’s the recipe from Rachael Ray

8 flour tortillas
2 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup salsa, red or green, mild or hot
3/4 pound brick smoked cheddar or pepper Jack cheese
1/2 cup sliced green olives and pimentos, drained
3 scallions, cut up with kitchen scissors or chopped into small pieces
8 ounces chorizo or linquica sausage (available near the kielbasa in your grocery store’s meat department), thinly sliced or diced

Preheat oven to 400°F.
Take out two nonstick cookie sheets. Place two tortillas on each cookie sheet, one next to the other.
Top each tortilla with lots of cheddar cheese.
Place another tortilla on top of each cheese-covered tortilla.
Put the tortillas in the oven and bake five minutes. Take them back out of the oven using pot holders.
Press the tortillas down a bit with a spatula to set them in place with the melted cheese.
Top each cheese quesadilla with some salsa, a sprinkle of smoked cheddar or pepper Jack cheese, olives, pimentos, scallions and some thin slices of chorizo or linquica sausage.
Put the pizzas into the oven and cook until the edges are brown and crisp and cheese is melted on top, 5-6 minutes more.
Take the pizzas out and transfer one whole pizza onto each dinner plate and serve.

It was a great, easy dinner on a football Sunday :). Like most recipes, it can be played with. The amount of cheese, salsa or meat can be easily changed and it was a huge hit with the entire family!!

Have you tried combining Mexican and pizza? What’s your favorite recipe to change up?

Simply Kid Chefs: Baked penne with fennel

Our oldest was up and yet again he chose a yummy, comfort meal. Originally, he wanted to try another mix and match recipe but he came across this baked penne with fennel recipe from our cookbook and decided to give it a go.

He is becoming quite the pro in the kitchen! I still help with some of the cutting and keep a very close eye, but he is doing most of the work. His confidence continues to increase and he’s definitely enjoying the independence!

I love his expression squeezing the tomato 😉

Here’s the recipe from the Food Network:

Kosher salt
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing
1/2 pound pancetta, trimmed of excess fat and diced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced
1 28 -ounce can whole plum tomatoes
1/2 cup heavy cream
12 ounces penne
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1 cup grated parmesan cheese (about 2 1/2 ounces)
2 cups grated mozzarella cheese (about 8 ounces)
1 3/4 cups grated fontina cheese (about 6 ounces)

Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 450. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring, until the fat renders, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour off the fat, leaving about 1 tablespoon in the pan. Add the onion and fennel and cook until the fennel is soft, about 5 minutes. Crush the tomatoes into the pan with your hands, then pour in the juices from the can and bring to a simmer. Fill the empty can with 1/2 cup of the boiling water and add to the sauce. Stir in the cream and simmer while you cook the pasta.

Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente. Drain and add to the sauce. Stir in the basil and 1/2 cup parmesan. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, season with salt and toss.

Oil a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Layer the pasta, mozzarella, fontina and the remaining 1/2 cup parmesan in the dish, alternating pasta and cheese. Drizzle with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Bake, uncovered, until browned and bubbly, about 15 minutes.

Per serving: Calories 757; Fat 45 g (Saturated 22 g); Cholesterol 117 mg; Sodium 939 mg; Carbohydrate 56 g; Fiber 6 g; Protein 33 g

Recipe courtesy Food Network Magazine
Read more at:

The meal was a big hit. Even our youngest ate it – he’s anti-pasta but pro-cheese ;). Our youngest picked out a piece of fennel and asked what it was. I told him and he tried it. Turns out, he loved it and kept picking it out of the dish to eat. It is pretty tasty!

Clearly, not the healthiest meal, but there are plenty of ways to cutback. You could use less heavy cream or just use mozzarella cheese. We made the recipe as is and chose to eat light, healthy meals for the remainder of the week. It’s really about what works for you 🙂

Have you tried fennel? What’s your favorite way to use it? How do you feel about squeezing tomatoes into a dish?

Simply Kid Chefs: Cheese and Onion Enchiladas

IMG_1191.JPGOver the summer, our youngest enjoyed borrowing the Hank Zipzer books from the library. Imagine his surprise that Holy Enchilada included a recipe at the end of the book. He knew he would want to try it but the book needed to be returned. We decided to take pictures of the recipe for future use.

He has been deciding when he wanted to try it and this week was it! The ingredient list was nice and small, making the young shopper quite happy. The recipe was pretty simple and he could do most of it himself. We decided to make up a Southwestern salad to go with the enchiladas.

The chef did everything (with very heavy supervision)! I held the items being cut and kept a very close eye/hand with the knife. He was incredibly proud of himself!!

Here are the photos of the recipe we worked with…



It was my first time making enchilada sauce and we will definitely do it again. It was easy and everyone liked it. The recipe is easy to play with. You could easily add black beans, chicken, ground meat, etc to the meal.

Our salad had lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, defrosted fire roasted corn, avocado and green onions. We used Newman’s ranch dressing.

The entire meal was a huge success!! Both boys loved it and can’t wait to have it again 🙂

Have you made your own enchilada sauce? Have you taken photos of a recipe for later use?

Simply Kid Chefs: Cheese-Stuffed Pork Chops

This weekend, dinner was up to our youngest. He looked through the cookbooks and selected cheese-stuffed pork chops from our trusty Food Network Magazine cookbook. This was a different selection for him as he tends to stick with seafood.

We ventured off to the store and found all of the ingredients pretty easily. He wasn’t too sure about the beans, but we decided to follow the recipe.

There were a lot of new experiences for both of us. I had never used a brine or prepared a stuffed meat. The chef loved mixing the brine and putting the meat in. I sliced the pockets in the meat and minced the garlic (he peeled it). We worked together to chop the escarole.

The stuffing was pretty easy, but I didn’t make the pockets big enough. We decided to let a little spill out and see how it went. The chef was able to put the meat in the pan. I flipped them and removed them. He added the beans and prepared them in the pan for the chops return.

They were delicious!! The escarole added a really nice flavor. The adults enjoyed the beans and the kids tried them. Definitely a recipe we will try again and our youngest helped me get over the fear of stuffed meat 🙂

Here’s the recipe from the Food Network:

Kosher salt
1/4 cup sugar
4 bone-in, thick-cut pork chops (6 to 8 ounces each)
1/2 medium head escarole
2 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
Freshly ground pepper
4 slices provolone cheese (about 2 ounces)
4 fresh sage leaves, chopped
1 (19-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

Dissolve 1/4 cup salt and the sugar in 3 cups warm water in a large bowl. Insert a paring knife into the curved side of each pork chop to make a deep pocket, about 2 inches wide. Soak the chops in the brine, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, finely chop the escarole and garlic. Toss with 2 tablespoons olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Remove the chops from the brine and pat dry. Fold each cheese slice and tuck into the pocket of a pork chop, then stuff with the escarole mixture. Brush the pork with olive oil, sprinkle with the sage and season with salt and pepper.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the pork in batches, turning once, until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Add the beans and 1/3 cup water to the skillet, scraping up any browned bits; season with salt and pepper. Return the pork to the skillet, cover and cook over medium heat until no longer pink, 5 to 7 more minutes. Serve the pork with the beans.

Per serving: Calories 463; Fat 28 g (Saturated 7 g); Cholesterol 63 mg; Sodium 693 mg; Carbohydrate 21 g; Fiber 6 g; Protein 31 g

Read more at:

Have you tried stuffing meat? What is your favorite recipe? Do you have a go-to cookbook?