PERSONAL PITA PIZZAS

I took an informal poll in my neighborhood with the question, “What do kids like to eat most?” I noted responses from both adults and kids, like mac and cheese, burgers, tacos and chicken fingers. But, to no surprise, pizza dominated. Maybe it’s because it offers something for all tastes.

  If pizza reigns in your house, throw an informal Halloween pizza party, or another get-together with family and friends this school year. Planning and hosting can be creative and easy to cater for all tastes when you keep it simple. 

  Instead of preparing and shaping pizza dough in advance, here’s the shortcut: Make personal pizzas together using pita bread available at a bakery or grocery store. Provide the toppings so guests can enjoy putting their pita pizzas together assembly-line fashion, letting everyone choose their favorites as they go for unique combos. It’s an ideal set-up for picky pizza eaters who prefer their favorite toppings.

  FAMILY-STYLE PERSONAL PITA PIZZAS 

  TOMATO SAUCE

  The pizza-making begins with a good tomato sauce. Purchase your favorite sauce, or make this homemade recipe that goes together in minutes. Enlist your school-age child to measure and stir the chunky sauce.

  For 2 1/2 cups, mix together in a bowl: a 14-ounce can diced tomatoes and a 6-ounce can tomato paste, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil. (For a smooth sauce, whirl in a blender). 

  TOPPINGS

  Classic kid-pleasing toppings include bowls of shredded mozzarella cheese, sliced pepperoni, red onion thinly sliced into rings, sliced mushrooms, chopped bell pepper and pitted olives. For variety, and to accommodate adult tastes, you might include marinated artichoke hearts and drained oil-packed sun-dried tomato slices. 

  For a seasonal option, skip the tomato sauce and layer your pita pizza with Italian shredded cheeses, sauteed onion and slices of an apple or pear. Sprinkle with crumbled gorgonzola and fresh thyme.

  SET-UP 

  At one end of a counter or table, stack pita bread and small plates. Continue assembly-line fashion with the bowls of sauce, toppings and ending with baking sheets. 

  ASSEMBLE

  Invite guests to place a pita bread on a plate. Spread with sauce, if using, then add toppings according to taste. When complete, remove from plate and set on baking sheet. 

  BAKE

  Bake in a 400 F preheated oven for 10-15 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and pita is crisp. 

BOW-OH-WOW! VALENTINE TREATS FOR YOUR PET


Middle-school English teacher Alex Eckroth calls herself the “queen of takeout.” It’s rare to find her scrolling through online recipes or thumbing through tattered pages of a cookbook. Unless, as she readily admits, she’s baking treats for her adorable pug, Bomba.
“Dogs have a sweet tooth, like me,” she says, “but when it comes to shopping for treats, it’s tricky to find dog biscuits with ingredients I want to feed Bomba. I like to bake treats for him using heart-healthy ingredients like whole wheat, rolled oats and peanut butter. It’s relaxing and fun to do, plus I enjoy sharing them with our neighborhood canine friends.”
If you’re fond of your fido, bake a batch of these crunchy dog biscuits with your kids for Valentine’s Day pet treats and gifts. This simple recipe comes together in minutes — no mixer needed, just a big wooden spoon and your kids’ energy to stir everything together.
Create shapes with heart-shaped cookie cutters. Small hearts, big hearts, and how about a few X’s and O’s?

DOG BISCUITS
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup wheat germ
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup peanut butter                                                                                                                                                     1 cup evaporated milk or evaporated goat’s milk
1 tablespoon molasses
All-purpose flour for rolling dough
Makes about 5 dozen 2-inch heart-shaped biscuits.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease two cookie sheets, or line them with parchment paper. Set aside.
To make dough: In a large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients. In a smaller bowl, combine peanut butter, milk and molasses. Slowly pour peanut butter mixture into dry ingredients. Stir until well-combined.

To shape biscuits: Sprinkle all-
purpose flour on the counter. Knead dough a few times, until it is easy to roll out into a rectangle that’s 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick with rolling pin. Using cookie cutters, cut dough into shapes. Transfer to prepared cookie sheets.

To bake biscuits: Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until edges are lightly browned. Place on cooling rack. Cool completely.

To wrap: Divide your pretty “doggone cool” biscuits into gift bags or heart-shaped paper pockets. Attach valentine tag and deliver to neighborhood dog friends on Valentine’s Day.

TASTY SLOW-COOKER GRANOLA

We’re a granola-eating family. When the tall jar in our pantry reads almost empty, it’s time to stir up and bake a new batch. It’s never a chore, because the fresh homemade taste of heart healthy oats with nuts and dried fruit always satisfies, whether combined with yogurt and berries at breakfast, or sprinkled over a scoop of ice cream for an evening dessert.

No wonder I was curious when a friend suggested I make granola in my slow cooker instead of baking it in the oven. Skeptical, I gave it a try and loved the results. In fact, it’s a game-changer.

I stick with my basic recipe that never disappoints. The hand-crafted, economical blend is open to variations, like substituting cashews for the almonds or pecans. When I buy a jug of fresh local maple syrup, I leave out the brown sugar entirely. For variety, I’ll cut up something unusual, like dried persimmons, to toss in at the end with the raisins.

Tasty Slow-Cooker Granola
Yield: About 6 cups.
Ingredients:
— Cooking spray or olive oil
— 4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not quick cooking)
— 1/2 cup brown sugar
— 1 teaspoon cinnamon
— 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
— 1/2 teaspoon salt
— 1/2 cup coarsely chopped whole almonds
— 1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
— 1/2 cup canola oil
— 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
— 2 egg whites, slightly beaten
— 1/2 cup raisins

Prepare the slow cooker: Spray the cooking spray on the bottom and sides of a 3-quart or larger slow cooker or lightly coat with oil.
Combine the oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, salt and nuts in a slow cooker.
Stir together the oil, vanilla and egg whites in a small bowl. Add to dry ingredients and toss well until fully coated.
Turn slow cooker to high. Set a wooden spoon under one side of the lid to hold the lid open, slightly ajar. Cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours until toasted, stirring mixture well every 30 minutes.
Stir in raisins and spread mixture on a baking sheet to cool. Store in jars or in an airtight container.

Note: Substitute brown sugar with 1/2 cup maple syrup, honey or agave syrup, and combine with liquid ingredients before tossing with dry ingredients.
In addition to (or instead of) raisins, use your favorite dried fruit, chopped.

Gift-giving tip: Let kids draw a label to glue to a mason jar. It might say “The Johnsons’ World’s Best Granola.” For a Valentine’s Day gift, tie a pink ribbon around the jar with a paper Valentine card.

MAKE FRESH RICOTTA CHEESE IN YOUR KITCHEN

When I hear “I made it from scratch!” at a gathering, my first instinct is to assume it must have taken a lot of time to prepare the tasty-looking dish coming my way down the table. But I also think, “Oh, it must be extra good!”
Here’s where I’m going. Do you love ricotta cheese in lasagna, or spread on crostini toasts and topped with a drizzle of olive oil and savory delights for a quick appetizer? Make ricotta yourself! You can prepare it in your kitchen from start to finish in less than an hour “from scratch.” And, it IS extra good!
This isn’t a true Italian-made ricotta, but it’s an easy, delicious version. Just heat milk, cream and salt to boiling, add lemon juice or vinegar, then gather ’round the pot with your kids and watch it curdle. Within a half-hour of draining away the whey in a separate bowl, you’ll have a lovely ricotta with a light consistency and mild, sweet flavor for using in a favorite Italian recipe like lasagna, or for spreading on crackers and toast sliced from a baguette — a sure winner at a Superbowl party.

Homemade Ricotta
Makes about 1 1/4 cups
4 cups whole milk (not ultra-pasteurized)
1 cup heavy cream (not ultra-pasteurized)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice or white wine vinegar

To prepare sieve for draining:
Set a fine sieve or colander lined with a double thickness of cheesecloth over a deep bowl.

To prepare ricotta mixture:
Combine milk, cream and salt in a large pot and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Watch carefully. Just as the mixture reaches a boil, turn off the heat, remove from burner and stir in the lemon juice. The mixture will separate and curdle. Let it set about a minute.
Pour into the cheesecloth-lined sieve and let the watery whey drain into the bowl.
Discard the liquid that drips through. Let the curds continue to drain for about 25 minutes, until cool. The longer it drains, the thicker the ricotta.
Spoon the ricotta out of the cheesecloth and use immediately, or refrigerate in a covered storage container until ready to use within five days.

ROSEMARY CASHEWS-GREAT FOR GIFTS AND FOR SNACKING


I’m nuts about nuts. All year round. I try to keep a bowl of fresh, shelled California almonds replenished and within easy reach on the kitchen counter for a grab and go snack. And thanks to my Georgia-raised friend, I have a stash of tasty pecans for tossing on salads and desserts.

For special occasions, our tastes shift to cashews, and this easy recipe that makes them, well, more festive. The addition of fresh rosemary and cayenne pepper is unexpected and always gets raves.

Here’s our family version, which calls for your kids’ assistance. Let them take charge of pulling the fresh rosemary leaves off the stems before you mince the fragrant herb with a sharp knife. Heat up the nuts in the oven and the remaining steps come together in minutes.

Double the recipe for gift-giving. Instead of filling cellophane food bags, use recycled clear-glass jars. Your kids might want to make it whimsical and reminiscent of a snow globe scene by layering the seasoned cashews in the bottom third and adding a cute foil covered chocolate snowman or ornament on top of the cashews. Anchor sprigs of rosemary upright to mimic pine trees, screw on the lid and add a tag. For an extra gift, tie a spoon to the jar for scooping up the flavorful treat.

Let’s get cooking…
ROSEMARY CASHEWS
3 cups roasted, unsalted cashews
1 heaping tablespoon minced fresh rosemary leaves
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Spread the cashews in one layer on a cookie sheet and bake for about 6 minutes, or until warm and lightly toasted.
Combine the rosemary, brown sugar, salt, melted butter and cayenne pepper (if you wish an extra kick) in a large bowl. When the cashews are heated, immediately pour them into the bowl with the spice butter mixture. Toss thoroughly.
Cool and serve. Store in an airtight container up to two weeks.
Note: If you prefer, substitute 1 tablespoon pure maple syrup for 1 tablespoon brown sugar.

MAKE “WORLDS BEST GRANOLA”


Homemade granola is tasty to eat any time of day, but in our family it’s a staple for  breakfasts with nonfat plain yogurt and fresh fruit. Not only is granola a nutritious start to the day, with its wholesome blend of heart-healthy oats and chopped nuts, but a handful makes a satisfying after-school treat with a glass of milk, and a few spoonfuls add crunch to a scoop of ice cream for an evening dessert.
Granola is so easy to prepare that you and your kids can make this recipe in a jiffy — just under an hour. While one child measures and stirs together the dry ingredients in a big bowl, another can measure, pour and stir the liquids in another. Combine all of the ingredients in the big bowl, and voila! The just-sweet-enough mixture is ready for you to spread on a baking sheet and place in the oven.
Give it a try and see why the fresh taste of this homemade granola rivals any packaged mixture.

“World’s Best Granola”
Yield: About 5 cups
Ingredients:
–3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not quick-cooking)
–1/2 cup brown sugar
–1 teaspoon cinnamon
–1/2 teaspoon baking powder
–1/2 teaspoon salt
–1/2 cup coarsely chopped almonds
–1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
–1/4 cup canola oil
–1/2 teaspoon vanilla
–2 egg whites, slightly beaten
–1/2 cup raisins

Here’s the fun:
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, or spray with nonstick spray.
Step 1: Combine the oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, salt and nuts in a large mixing bowl.
Step 2: Stir together the oil, vanilla and egg whites in a small bowl. Add to dry ingredients and toss well.
Step 3: Spread the mixture evenly on the baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, about 25-30 minutes. Cool completely; stir in raisins and store in an airtight container.
Note: If you wish, substitute 1/4 cup pure maple syrup and 1/4 cup honey for the brown sugar, and combine with liquid ingredients before tossing with dry ingredients.
Creative tip: Let kids draw a label to tape or glue to the outside of a plastic storage container or glass jar. It might say “The Johnsons’ World’s Best Granola.”

MAKE BROWNIE MIX IN A JAR



It’s a handmade and homemade kind of holiday season this year.
If there are still some people on your gift list you wish to remember with a little something, or you need some grab-and-go hostess gifts on hand for parties and get-togethers, create this “from your kitchen” gift idea in an afternoon this week.
Be sure to get your kids involved in making this creative go-to stash of gift jars filled with the dried ingredients for making super chocolaty, chewy and moist brownies. A throwback kitchen craft, this updated version is fun to assemble with even your preschooler. What 4-year-old doesn’t like to scoop and pour? That’s what building the layers of brownie ingredients in a jar is all about as they work to create an artful gift of yummy ingredients.


Here’s how to make a “Brownie Mix in a Jar”:
1. Assembly-line fashion, set out the ingredients, including clean, wide-mouth quart-size jars and lids, on the kitchen counter or a large table. Place a measuring spoon or measuring cup by each ingredient, along with a card stating the name of the ingredient and the correct quantity to scoop into each jar.
2. Layer the following ingredients, in the following order, for one recipe. Pack firmly before adding the next layer. (Use a narrow drinking glass to tamp down ingredients.)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 Teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup baking cocoa powder
2/3 cup white granulated sugar
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white or dark chocolate chips
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
1/2 cup small, unwrapped candy, such as M&M’s (optional)
3. Secure lid, add a gift tag and a card with these baking instructions:

CHOCOLATE BROWNIES
Makes 6 large brownies
Heat oven to 350 F.
Grease or line the bottom of an 8-inch pan with parchment paper.
Pour contents of the jar into a large mixing bowl, and add:
3 eggs
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Stir lightly until blended, then pour into pan and bake for 25 minutes.
Cool in pan, cut into squares and serve.

MAKE BAKED APPLE RINGS AND MICROWAVE APPLESAUCE

 


Baked apple rings are a tasty and nutritious snack you can make in your own kitchen on a chilly fall day. We use zesty apples that friends share with us from their backyard trees, or we buy them at farmer’s markets and apple orchards.
The drying process concentrates the sweetness of the apples, making them an ideal snack food to grab between meals or to include with trail mix on a hike or bike ride. Enjoyable for adults and kids to make together, you also can turn any leftover raw end apple pieces into chunky applesauce in just minutes in the microwave.

BAKED APPLE RINGS
Makes about 50 rings depending on apple size
4 firm apples
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup water
Preheat oven to 250 F.

Prepare pans. Place wire cooling racks on two large baking trays. Or line two large baking trays with parchment paper.

An adult should core and cut the apples in 1/8-inch rings using a sharp knife or mandolin. There will be extra irregular-size pieces on the ends. Snack on them as you work, or save for making microwave applesauce (see recipe below).

In a shallow dish, stir together lemon juice and water. Set prepared baking trays on the counter by ingredients. Young kids will enjoy dipping each slice into the lemon mixture and setting them on a rack or parchment paper. Edges may overlap slightly.

Bake rings until dried with a leathery texture, about two hours. (If using parchment-paper-lined pans, an adult should flip the rings over after 1 hour and return to oven for additional hour.)

Remove from oven and enjoy! Cool before storing.

Extra idea: For added flavor, sprinkle a mixture of 2 teaspoons cinnamon and 1 tablespoon sugar over the rings before baking.

MICROWAVE CHUNKY APPLESAUCE
Makes 2 servings
2 cups apple chunks from cored apples of one or more varieties, peeled or unpeeled if you like (red peels may give your applesauce a nice rosy color)
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Combine ingredients in a deep microwave-safe bowl.

Cook, uncovered at full power for 5 minutes. Remove and stir well. Cook an additional 5 minutes.

Use a potato masher or whisk to mash and stir the apples into the liquid.
Cool and serve or refrigerate.

ARRANGE A PARTY CHEESE BOARD WITH KIDS

There are so many ways that kids can be part of daily meal prep, from setting the table or popping ice cubes into a pitcher of water to hulling fresh strawberries for dessert.
Routine jobs are important to family life, and new responsibilities can be introduced as kids grow and become more confident in their kitchen skills. It’s especially gratifying for kids when they can be part of the action when company comes.
If there’s an end-of-summer informal barbecue on your calendar, there are always extra to-dos, many of which are suited for young helpers, like arranging fresh fruit, cheese slices and other tasty and healthy nibbles on a cheese board for a delightful, trendy appetizer.
Kids are artistic by nature, so first give them an opportunity to take a visual tour with you in the kitchen to find out what healthy appetizer-type food items are on hand on pantry shelves, in the refrigerator and in the fruit bowl on the counter. They’ll no doubt be inspired by the rainbow of colors on the spectrum, from red cherry tomatoes to green olives and violet grapes.
Now it’s time for them to get creative.

BASIC FAMILY-FRIENDLY CHEESE BOARD

For young school-age kids, begin with a few foods that can go directly to a cheese board or platter with minimal fuss. Good choices are pre-sliced cheeses, nuts, olives, dried fruit, cold cuts like salami and clusters of washed grapes. Kids can line up the cheese or place a chunk of cheese at an angle with a cheese knife to the side. Put small piles of nuts near cheeses, line up cold cuts in rows, then fill in spaces with dried fruit, grapes, sweet cherries and berries. Pile a variety of crackers here and there.

If you have space, spoon prepared hummus into tiny bowls for spreading on crackers. Peanut butter, jelly and honey will make the selection even more kid-friendly. Add style with a few edible blooms, such as nasturtiums, or use a pretty silk flower or two.

As kids become more comfortable in the kitchen, teach them how to mix their own sweet and savory dips, slice vegetables and wrap breadsticks, pretzels or asparagus with cheese or meat.

Extra family fun: When guests arrive, your young child might like to play the role of a “waiter” and take orders from adults of their choices from the cheese board. They can assemble the “order” on a small plate and deliver it to the guest.

BANANA BOATS:A CAMPING AND BACKYARD GRILLING TREAT


Benjamin Franklin gets credit for saying that there are only two things certain in life: death and taxes. Hey, Ben, do you mind if I add bananas to your list?
No matter the time of the year, I’m always certain that when I take a trip to my local grocery store, there will be a bunch or more of the yellow treasures that end up in my shopping cart. They are relatively inexpensive, healthy (potassium rich), and they come naturally well-wrapped.
Toss bananas in your kids’ sports bags when they head off to soccer practice, or tuck them in your carry-on for an instant snack on a flight to your vacation destination. You just can’t beat that dependable, always in season, always there banana.
No, I’m not a spokeswoman for the banana council, but I am a real fan of the fruit, even if I sometimes complain that they seem to go from yellow to brown way too fast, or when they end up getting smooshed in the bottom of a kid’s backpack, not to be discovered for a week or two.
Here is another reason to make certain that enough bananas make it home from the grocery store. You can create, concoct and cook this yummy “Banana Boat” dessert treat with kids on a camping trip, or fire up the grill at a designated picnic spot at a city park or in your own backyard.
BANANA BOATS
Serves 6
— 6 firm, ripe bananas
— chocolate candy bars, broken into pieces, or chocolate chip morsels
— marshmallows, miniature or regular
— aluminum foil
1. Slice each banana just through the skin, lengthwise without removing the peel. Use a teaspoon to scoop out a small amount of the banana the length of the slice, to create a little cavity. Tuck the chocolate bits and pieces and the marshmallows into the cavity of the sliced banana.
2. Wrap each entire banana in foil, and place directly in the coals of a campfire or on a grill. Cook until chocolate and marshmallows are melted, about 8-10 minutes.
Remove with tongs. Unwrap and eat with a spoon. Yummy!
Cook’s note: Add nuts, granola, dried fruit or other toppings, if you wish.
Tip: If you have extra bananas that are starting to turn brown, peel them, wrap in plastic wrap, store in a freezer bag and freeze. Eat them whole while slightly frozen, mash them for baking, or toss into a blender with favorite smoothie ingredients.