Once upon a time I thought that good parenting meant protecting my Sprouts from harm. Bumpers around the hearth, child-proof outlet covers and those infuriating two-handed tether locks on bathroom cabinets.
All good ideas, but sometimes our girls have as much to teach me as I have to teach them. Like, good parents also know when to let their kids test their limits. Take, for instance, Daughter 1’s growing enthusiasm for helping prepare meals. For a long time I’ve selected the “safe” kitchen tasks for her and her sister…getting out the ingredients, measuring (great for building math skills!), mixing, etc. Any steps that required the use of flame or sharp implements I reserved for myself. But every self-respecting six-year-old wants the opportunity to prove themselves, to feel a little grown-up and tackle tasks which they previously were not allowed to tackle.
And so it goes. Solo navigation of the stove top and the oven are still off-limits, but, with heart-in-mouth, I recently handed her a pairing knife and allowed her to assist in the chopping. It helps that she takes a weekly cooking class in which knife skills are demonstrated: tucking fingers back when chopping, holding knives correctly, and making precise and careful cuts. The ability to practice has made her confident. This is new for both her and me: as worried as I am that the knife blade will slip, I realize now that she’s much more capable with a knife than I previously gave her credit for being. It makes me proud when she asks to help, and I coach her (gently) as she does it “on her own.”
Who knew that the kitchen could be such a self-esteem incubator!
This is a great dish for fostering that independence. There are a host of small and easy tasks appropriate for children of any age, and plenty of chopping for that kid who is getting comfortable with a knife. This recipe calls for large chunks of vegetables in a rough chop, which is fantastic for little hands.
Another fun aspect of this recipe is reconstituting the dried chickpeas, though you could choose to use canned and the recipe would turn out just fine. It’s like its own little science experiment: start with something tiny, put it in warm water, and watch it double in size. Very cool to the six-and-under crowd.
I like this recipe because it is both vegetarian and vegan. It makes a great side dish but can also be a main course when served with some rice or crusty bread, or with some roasted lamb or chicken. By starting it on the stove top and finishing it in the oven — and using a sauté pan with deep, straight sides — a lot of the moisture the veggies release as they cook is retained. The onions melt into the dish, the tomatoes pop open in little explosions of sweet juices, and the eggplant dissolves down as it cooks. The chickpeas, however, stay slightly firm. Great marriage of both textures and flavors. And leftovers taste even better the next day. If you have picky eaters in your house who, for example, like tomatoes but detest bell peppers, the veggies still retain enough structure to allow you to plate only the ones your little one agrees to eat.
This is a simple dish at heart. Rustic, flavorful, and just right for parenting lessons both big and small. Let me know how it goes in your house, and keep those little fingers tucked as they chop!
Roasted Mediterranean Vegetables with Chickpeas
One cup of dried chickpeas, picked over for stones and other debris and well rinsed (alternatively, use two 15-ounce cans of chickpeas, well rinsed and drained, and forgo the soaking and boiling in the recipe)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium eggplants, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 onion, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 yellow bell pepper, cut into 2-inch chunks
1/2 pint whole grape or cherry tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, finely diced or pressed through a garlic press
Additional Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper to season
Drizzle of pomegranate molasses for serving (optional)
Chopped fresh parsley for serving
Begin by placing the chickpeas and baking soda in a medium sauce pan and covering with water by two inches. Bring to a boil and cook for two minutes before turning off the heat and covering the pan. Allow the chickpeas to soak for at least an hour. The chickpeas will double in size as they soak. Add more warm tap water as needed to keep the chickpeas submerged while they soak. After an hour has passed, drain, rinse well, and return the chickpeas to a clean sauce pan, covering with fresh water by three to four inches. Add the bay leaves and simmer over medium heat for approximately one more hour or until tender but not mushy. Drain and set aside.
Place the eggplant chunks in a colander set over the kitchen sink or a clean bowl. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon salt over the eggplant, using your hands to distribute it evenly and massage it in to the eggplant. Allow the eggplant chunks to drain for 30 minutes, pushing on the eggplant lightly to extract any additional liquid as it drains.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and place the oven rack in the middle lower position.
In a large, oven-proof frying pan (preferably with steep, straight sides), heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. When shimmering, add the onion chunks and bell pepper chunks and sauté for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the garlic and sauté for another 1 – 2 minutes while stirring frequently. Add the tomatoes and eggplant and continue to sauté for another 10 minutes, stirring the mixture every couple of minutes to distribute the vegetables evenly around the pan.
Transfer the pan with the vegetables to the oven and bake at 400 degrees for 45 minutes, stirring the mixture approximately every 15 minutes. By the time 45 minutes has passed the eggplant should have cooked down a good deal, making room in the pan for the chickpeas. Add the drained chickpeas with the bay leaves, stir well, and return the pan to the oven for another 20 – 25 minutes, until the flavors are nicely incorporated. The dish should be moist but not watery. You want a ratatouille-like consistency…a ragu.
When finished, remove the bay leaves, season to taste with Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper and serve the roasted vegetables with drizzle of pomegranate molasses and a little chopped fresh parsley over cooked Basmati rice, or with a hunk of French or sourdough bread.
Serves: 8 as a side dish or 4 as a main course
Kid rating: three stars. Loads of opportunities for kid participation while making this. That may, for some families, result in children more willing to try things like eggplant and bell peppers. Daughter 1 ate a little of everything, though she’s not a big eggplant fan (yet). Daughter 2 was a little more picky. Bell peppers are not on the approved list. Tomatoes are, and those were eaten. She was suspicious of the eggplant but at least tried it, which makes it a successful dish.
Parent rating: four stars. The chickpeas are nicely toothsome in this dish, tender but not mushy. Combining them with eggplant, onion, pepper and tomatoes makes for a hearty and healthy side in which flavors meld nicely. It can be served, as we served it, with rice and lamb, which felt very Mediterranean. But you don’t need to pair it with a meat to still have a nice meal: it’s great on its own.