Adventurous dining with kids

Gnocchi Is Just Another Noodle

Raising kids to be fearless eaters

By Haley Pollock
Photos by Kayleigh Shawn McCollum

Bellanico

Young diners relish their lunch at Bellanico Restaurant & Wine Bar in Oakland’s Glenview neighborhood.

Who wouldn’t love to take the kids along to a nice restaurant and enjoy the experience together?

I do, but first, a full disclosure:
I was raised in Napa Valley by parents who often took on catering jobs. They didn’t think we needed special “kid food.” My parents love to recount how they once ordered escargot for themselves only to have their three-year-old (me) eat it all up. And there’s the time my brother and I thought we were eating breaded chicken as our father revealed that it was really calamari—We asked for more anyway. On several occasions, restaurant owners brought dessert to the table, gratis, because we had been so exceedingly calm and enjoyed our food. And I remember saving coins, counting hundreds of pennies until I had enough to walk down to the market for my favorite treat: spinach dip and a baguette, or sometimes pâté.

With this upbringing, I was optimistic that my own children would appreciate such things, and I resolved to let them start sampling everything at the table, even as babies.
As my children started having their own opinions, I continued patiently offering them—consistently with no pressure—everything I might want to cook and enjoy. Our home table policy is “eat it or don’t.” It helps take the fear and consequences out of trying something new. While I rarely make complicated dishes these days, it’s been a pleasure to prepare simple classics, making them flavorful, but not overly spicy or bitter, and featuring a wide variety of items.

Many parents find that getting children involved in the start-to-finish process of meal preparation is a fantastic way to take the fear out of new foods. Bringing children to the farmers’ market or grocery store, allowing them to choose something new, and, at home, guiding them in chopping, washing, stirring, and tasting the preparation ensures that by the time the meal hits the table the kids are familiar with all the elements of the dish.

Thankfully, garden-to-table experiences are now offered in many schools. East Bay Waldorf School teacher Margrit Haeberlin has her nursery school toddlers each bring a seasonal veggie from home on Wednesdays. Together they prepare a “stone soup,” using little tools to scrub, peel, and chop. At the beginning of the year, many children are wary of the beets, parsnips, and kale, but sooner or later, most will eat the soup with delight. Other class projects include rolling oats on oatmeal day, kneading sourdough for bun day, and hiking to the school garden to pick mint, borage, and sour grass.

Lunch at Bellanico Restaurant & Wine Bar

Dining out at an attractive restaurant is something we like to do as a family. Here I am with my two daughters (4 and 6) and a friend on an afternoon in February at Bellanico Restaurant & Wine Bar in Oakland, where owners Elizabeth Frumusa and Chris Shepherd offer rustic Italian cuisine under the able hand of Chef Jonathan Luce, who has been with them since the restaurant opened eight years ago. We’re perusing the menu when Elizabeth comes by the table to welcome us. We learn that she and her husband named their restaurant by combining the nicknames of their children, Gabriella and Nicoletta, and that they also have an “eat it or don’t” policy in their household. By necessity, there’s a simple children’s pasta dish on the menu, but young diners are encouraged to be adventurous here.

We choose a prix fixe menu that begins with crostini and a creamy tomato polenta dip. My four year old proclaims it’s the best dip ever: “I love this the best” is a phrase she reiterates for every course in the meal in the impulsive way a four year old will do.

Next is a farro salad with wild mushrooms, shaved Brussels sprouts, filberts, and cranberries. It’s the first time the kids have tried farro, but there’s no fear of that or the funny looking hen-of-the-woods and hedgehog mushrooms. (My husband’s Chinese background means that we encounter diverse foods at the Asian market and at family gatherings, and we have grown our own oyster mushrooms.) Brussels sprouts, while familiar, are a food not much appreciated at home, but surprise! The girls gobble up the entire dish, leaving the adults to battle for a bite. My six year old says, “Mom, this is my new favorite food. Can we make it at home?” Who wouldn’t like this great balance of tender and crunchy textures with tart, savory, and lightly bitter flavors?

Another first course is a tuna crudo with watermelon radish, caperberries, and blood orange. It’s the first time the girls have had raw tuna, but they enjoy the thin, lightly seared slices. The beautiful blood oranges are a hit, but the caperberries are left behind after the requisite “no thank you” bite.

A second course features gnocchi in Gorgonzola cream sauce. In a sense, gnocchi is just another noodle (and we make it at home frequently), so no problem there, but Gorgonzola can be an overly sharp cheese for kids. However, it works nicely in this creamy preparation, and I have to steal bites strategically as the girls dispatch the entire dish, even licking the plate clean—literally.

The other secondo is a pork tenderloin with roasted radishes, hedgehog mushrooms, crema fritta, and a slab of pork belly. The tenderloin is graciously donated to the adults as the girls discover the crisp, fatty pork belly, which the little one says “tastes like bacon candy!” They share the hedgehogs, but let me enjoy most of the radishes. (I realize that radishes have not been part of our home menu, so maybe we’ll grow some this summer.) My oldest asks if the crema fritta is a croquette. “I love croquettes,” she says, and indeed, this popular Italian street food item is similar to those small minced meat– or mashed vegetable–filled rolls that the French like to bread and fry.

The dessert of warm chocolate pudding cake with dates and hazelnuts and vanilla bean gelato presents no challenge whatsoever. I’m happy that the kids also brave the sharp flavors of the adults’ cheese course. We discuss how cheese can be a dessert, and they think that’s really funny. The youngest declines a second bite of the marmellata (marmalade) of apples and horseradish saying, “That is a spicy sauce!” to justify not trying more.

Do my children have superpowers? Not at all, but they do not have expectations of being served special food that’s just for kids. And while going out to a meal can be a challenge with a preschooler who likes to wiggle in her seat and a big kid who never runs out of things to say, they eat well and we all enjoy it.

Children are welcome to test their tongues at Bellanico. The owners have graciously shared their farro salad recipe so readers can shop for, prep, cook, and taste this dish with their children. That’s what we are going to do.

Bellanico Restaurant & Wine Bar is located at 4238 Park Boulevard in Oakland. 510.336.1180; bellanico.net

Haley Pollock is a child development professional and freelance writer who also writes for Parents Press. A Napa Valley native now residing in the East Bay, she enjoys fiber arts, yard work (really), and cultivating carnivorous plants. With her husband and two children, she goes on culinary adventures all over the Bay Area.

Kayleigh McCollum is a freelance photographer who spends most of her time adventuring around the West Coast and some of it trying to hunt down the best cup of coffee the Bay Area can make. kayleighmccollum.com

 

Bellanico Restaurant & Wine Bar’s Farro Salad

Serves 4–6 as a side dish

1 cup farro
3 cups water
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (a.k.a. maitake), coarsely chopped
½ cup dried cranberries, chopped or whole
1 cup shaved Brussels sprouts
½ cup hazelnuts, lightly chopped, then toasted
Salt and pepper

Add the farro to 5 cups water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for 20 to 30 minutes.
Heat the olive oil in a skillet and sauté the mushrooms until tender. Set aside.

When the farro has reached an al dente consistency, drain any remaining water and place the cooked grain in a large bowl with the dried cranberries, shaved Brussels sprouts, and toasted hazelnuts, plus salt and pepper to taste. Prepare the vinaigrette and add to the farro, as much or as little as desired.

Moscato Vinaigrette

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/3 cup chopped shallots
5 tablespoons white wine vinegar (moscato is best)
5 tablespoons water
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Place all ingredients except olive oil in a blender. Start blending and slowly drizzle in the olive oil to create a smooth consistency.

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