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Lessons learned from cooking for pre-schoolers

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barrett

Chef Larry Barrett with some of his pre-school clients.

During his 40 years in the food/hospitality industry, Larry Barrett, owner of Simply Gourmet catering in Sarasota, has provided creative fare for Hollywood celebrities such as Michael Douglas, Danny Devito, Phyllis Diller and Patricia Heaton, plus numerous others. Though his inventive and elegant culinary wedding preparations and re-creations of famous presidential dinners are well-known, the chef says few things give him as much personal pleasure as supplying lunch daily for pre-school children at Church of the Palms Education Center in Sarasota.

Barrett has catered to the taste buds of tots for close to 15 years and though he doesn’t earn a fortune from this endeavor, he would never give it up.

“Just about every day I learn something new from these kids,” he said. “There is nothing in the world like the excitement and adulation you get from these youngsters when they come running out to the truck screaming, ‘what’s for lunch?' And, of course, there’s no more honest food critic than a young child. I’ve found they are pretty willing to try anything, especially in a group setting with their peers, but if they’re not happy with it, they let you know immediately and dramatically.”

Barrett learned valuable lessons at the very beginning of his assignment. He put together some macaroni and cheese from scratch (generally a universal favorite), and the children let him know immediately that they didn’t like it.

“I don’t think it was the taste,” explained Barrett. “It was the color. All kids, by the time they get to pre-school, believe that mac and cheese has to be orange. I learned I could successfully get kids to eat my home-made recipe; it just had to be orange! And we all know, we can either blame or credit Kraft with that.”

When the chef was offered the opportunity to cook regularly for school kids, it brought back memories of his own school lunches.

“They were memorable because they were so atrocious,” he added. “When my son went to school I was shocked to see the bar had not been raised regarding children’s cuisine. So with our pre-school clients, I decided to make a difference in what these kids would eat for the rest of their lives.

“I only use the freshest products and enhance nutritious, healthy ingredients with taste. Taste is number one, followed by color and texture.”

The kids’ favorite dishes in Barrett’s repertoire are chicken a la king, the aforementioned and tweaked mac and cheese, broccoli trees and fresh fruit.

When Barrett is preparing food for lunches, he doesn’t hold back because he wants the kids to discover new tastes that might be out of their comfort zones.

“Besides the usual spices – salt, pepper, garlic and basil – I also slowly introduce the kids to oregano, thyme, sage and even smokey ancho chili without the heat," he said. “It’s easy to do that with pasta dishes because all kids love pasta, mostly because it’s hand friendly."

Barrett suggests that parents cook pasta for kids al dente. “They don’t like slimy textures,” he said. “For instance, that’s one reason they seldom take to undercooked mushrooms. They don’t like the texture or the brown/gray color. But if you caramelize them, it’s a whole different story.”

The chef also has observed over the years that children are more willing to try new tastes if they eat in a group setting among their friends. They taste, react and gain comfort and confidence from the rest of the group.

“I am a great believer in family sit-down dinners every night,” he said. “Good food should be a shared experience, whether at home or at school.”

barrett chickenCHICKEN A LA KING
"This has all the elements for a great meal for kids – creamy sauce, crunchy vegetables, satisfying roast chicken. Serve with rice, noodles or on toast points. When mixed with rice and cooked for a few minutes – the dish takes on the taste and texture of risotto. It also makes a great chicken noodle casserole. One recipe – three dishes."
Serves 6 adults; 12 children; 18 pre-schoolers.

Ingredients:
5 cups full-flavored chicken stock
8 tablespoons flour
6 tablespoons butter
Salt and white Pepper (to taste)
2 stalks celery (medium dice)
One onion (medium dice)
4 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
One pound roasted boneless/skinless chicken breast (medium dice)
1 cup peas/diced carrots
1/2 cup pearl onions
1/2 red pepper (small dice)
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup heavy cream
Fresh chives

Method:
In a large saucepan melt the butter and sauté the onion, celery and garlic with a tablespoon of water.
When the water evaporates and the vegetables are tender, add the flour and cook for a minute or two. Whisk in the chicken stock, add the bay leaf and thyme, and cook for about 10 minutes (skim if necessary).
Remove the bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Add the cooked chicken, peas/carrots, pearl onions and red pepper. Bring back to a boil and then remove from heat.
Add the cream and whisk. Season with salt/white pepper. Add more stock to thin to desired consistencyif necessary, or a little more flour to thicken if necessary.
Garnish with chives. Serve with long grain rice, noodles or toast points.
For grown-ups: Add a little sherry and a few sautéed mushrooms.

barrett pastaBROCCOLI-TREE PASTA (PENNE CON BROCCOLI)
“It’s amazing how much kids love this dish. Full-flavored with garlic and Italian herbs. I love watching as they explore this meal for the first time, picking up the little broccoli florets and eating them. The kids call the broccoli ‘little trees.’ I keep the broccoli slightly crunchy by a technique called ‘shocking.’ The bright green, red and white are beautiful and also the color of the Italian flag. A delicious dish and a geography lesson.”
Serves 6 adults; 12 children; 18 pre-schoolers.

Ingredients:
One pound penne pasta (cooked al dente)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion (medium dice)
3 cloves garlic (minced)
One pound broccoli florets (trimmed and washed)
6 roma tomatoes (medium dice)
Salt/black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons dried basil
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1/4 cup full-flavored chicken stock
Grated parmesan cheese
Fresh parsley (finely chopped)

Method:
Sauté onions and garlic in butter, olive oil and the chicken stock. Cook until soft and stock has almost evaporated.
Drop the broccoli florets into boiling water. In a minute – when bright green – drain the broccoli in a colander. Add a few cups of ice to the broccoli to stop the cooking (this will set the color).
Add spices, sautéed onion and garlic, broccoli and tomatoes to the pasta in a mixing bowl and mix well. Adjust seasonings if necessary.
Heat again in sauté pan before serving. Garnish with fresh parsley and serve with Parmesan cheese.
For grownups: Add some red pepper flakes and 1/4 cup white wine when sautéing the onion.

Last modified: October 16, 2013
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