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September 21st, 2009:

Deceptively Delicious: More Fun With Fooling the Kids

burgers, macaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookies

My apologies for the long hiatus. I’m not even sure I can fully account for all my time, but it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve been able to cook for the project and post about it. But on Sunday night I got back into the swing of things with the second fool-your-kids-into-eating-vegetables book, Deceptively Delicious. To make an effective comparison with The Sneaky Chef, I made the same dishes: macaroni and cheese, burgers, and chocolate chip cookies.

Jessica Seinfeld’s basic philosophy isn’t all that different from that of Missy Chase Lapine. Nutrition is really important, kids will resist what they don’t understand, being “deceptive” will enable you to ensure they’re getting good food while you establish a more peaceful atmosphere at the dinner table, blah blah blah. (I suppose to be a Seinfeld purist I should say “yada, yada, yada,” but I’m not; I was so over the show like five years before it ended.) But the specific approaches are a bit different; where Lapine has you prepare an array of specific blended purees and mixes, Seinfeld simply recommends you puree particular vegetables ahead of time. The final recipes are not identical, though of course many of the same kid-friendly dishes are offered. Where Lapine’s book has supporting quotes from a cook and nutritionist, Seinfeld’s is peppered with suggestions from other parents and cute sayings from her husband and kids. I’m still confident that the publisher didn’t plagiarize from Lapine, but simply turned down a relative nobody in favor of a celebrity mom. Which doesn’t mean Seinfeld’s recipes are better, just that she’s an easier sell to a celebrity-hungry public.

I started by making the chocolate chip cookies. Seinfeld’s call for regular flour, oats, salt and soda on the dry side, and trans-fat-free margarine, brown sugar, egg whites, vanilla, chocolate chips and chickpeas. Whole, cooked chickpeas — rinsed and drained if from a can — that are added to the wet ingredients together with the chocolate chips. I double-checked the recipe to see if they were supposed to be mashed first, but no; Seinfeld specifically mentions that if your mixer bowl is broad enough you may get flying chickpeas, which the kids will find hilarious. I didn’t have flying chickpeas, but for quite a while I also didn’t have chickpeas that were in any way blending into the dough. The photo didn’t show obvious signs of chickpeas in the finished cookies. Puzzled, I turned up the mixer, and now I was able to break them down sufficiently. There were still some obvious chickpeas and chunks of chickpeas to be seen, but they were mostly assimilated. The dough was wetter than regular chocolate chip cookie dough, and it baked up into a nice, puffy cookie; credit the egg whites for that. I tasted one of the warm cookies and found an unmistakable chunk of chickpea, but it went well with the cookie as a whole, which was quite tasty. I think these cookies were just as good as Lapine’s, but not necessarily any better. And I’d probably give the chickpeas a few whacks with a potato masher before adding them if I made these again.

I turned next to the macaroni and cheese. This recipe was a lot more complicated and time-consuming than Lapine’s. I started by halving and roasting a butternut squash, which I pureed. Theoretically I could have done this part ahead. While the squash roasted I did the rest of my prep: grating cheddar and measuring cream cheese for the mac and cheese, and chopping mushrooms, grating zucchini and grinding bread crumbs for the burgers. (The bread crumbs could have been prepared ahead too.) When I had things ready, I boiled and drained some macaroni. This is a stovetop mac and cheese: I made a sort of roux with olive oil and flour in a saucepan, then added some seasoning and milk. When that had begun to thicken a bit I added the squash, cream cheese and cheddar, and whisked them until they had melted into a smooth, thick sauce. Thicker than the usual mac and cheese sauce, in fact; a little thicker than I prefer. But it blended well enough with the macaroni. It didn’t taste as cheesy as Lapine’s recipe, though I might have mismeasured the cheddar; one could certainly adjust the sauce ingredients to taste pretty easily. Overall I thought it was a lot more work for not quite as flavorful a dish.

While I put that together I was also assembling the burgers. I used bison again, and blended it with chopped mushrooms, bread crumbs, grated zucchini, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, and seasonings. I cooked the patties on one side on the stovetop, in a cast-iron skillet, then turned them and slid the skillet into the oven to finish them. I’m not sure why one couldn’t finish them on the stovetop, but they turned out just fine: moist and flavorful. The mushrooms were certainly less visible in the uncooked patties than the spinach-and-blueberry mixture had been.

Once again, Scott knew that there was something “deceptive” in the dishes, but not what it was. He didn’t think the macaroni and cheese was as good as Lapine’s, but he thought it was all right, and he couldn’t figure out what the vegetable component was. He thought Seinfeld’s burgers were just as good as Lapine’s if not better, though when I explained that the main vegetable ingredient was mushrooms he was surprised. “Why not just saute mushrooms and serve them on top? That would taste better,” he said. Maybe not if you were an ornery seven-year-old, I suggested. Finally he tried the cookies, and since he didn’t happen to choose one with an un-broken-down chickpea evident he was hard pressed to guess what the mystery ingredient was. He did like the texture and the rich chocolate flavor from the chips, which accentuated the sweet and puffy cookie.

Verdict: Success. The dishes were all good, though the mac and cheese was more work than I found reasonable. I still don’t buy into the idea of sneaking vegetables into kids’ food, but I think I’d make the burgers and the cookies again. Maybe not right away; I’m a little burgered-out at the moment.