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As for the rest of the recipes, by sheer dumb luck I hit on a menu that was an instant success: Chicken McMarty (a crowd-pleaser for the name alone), pizza faces, a quick gazpacho, a two-ingredient fresh vegetable dip and fruit kebabs. The McMarty involved simply dipping pieces of skinless, boneless chicken in egg and milk, then rolling them in crushed cereal and baking them in the oven with a drizzle of oil; no recipe required. Even simpler: the fruit kebabs. You want kids to eat fruit? Put it on a stick. We did, and we could barely keep up with the demand. Not a single child asked what fruit he or she was eating, and we loaded the skewers with cantaloupe, honeydew, grapes, strawberries and peaches. Later, we adapted the kebab approach for Salad on a Stick. Hand a kid a stick with a bite-size piece of lettuce, baby spinach, a slice of carrot, a cheese cube, a tomato and a crouton on top, and he'll finish it before anyone can say "Pass the dressing."

But not everything was sunshine and lollipops, so to speak. When we tried a second menu, we soon found we'd gotten too ambitious: We thought puréed cauliflower with skim milk, known to South Beach dieters everywhere, would be a crowd-pleasing favorite — but even babies were crinkling their little foreheads and giving us quizzical looks along the lines of "You're kidding me, right?" And for a time, I was fixated on offering a chicken gumbo as one of the recipes. Could all those folks in New Orleans be wrong? I couldn't find fresh okra, so I used the more convenient frozen. There was just one problem: After numerous tries, I realized that I don't like okra that much.

Our surprise success was with a little-known fruit called a pluot. It's a cross between a plum and an apricot that looks like a plum but tastes sweeter. My associate Rosemary Leidholdt and I would cut up dozens of pluots at each Cafe because the fruit was a hit with both kids and adults. Although pluots are becoming more readily available (or so the Internet tells me), I had no trouble finding them at grocery stores and warehouse stores. If some produce manager is smart, he will rename them something a lot catchier and easier to pronounce, along the lines of the kiwi-formerly-known-as-the-Chinese-Gooseberry. But the pluot tastes so good that I didn't have to sell the name to this crowd.

The author explains the intricacies of making a smiley-face pizza. See more photos here.
Ellen Jaskol
The author explains the intricacies of making a smiley-face pizza. See more photos here.
The Tasting Cafe featured food that was fun and good for you.
Ellen Jaskol
The Tasting Cafe featured food that was fun and good for you.
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We took an all-hands-on-deck approach to the Cafe, relying on WIC counselors at Tri-County to bring people through the door, where a cute little smiley face was plastered with an open sign. Even though folks could enter the Cafe at will, they were suspicious at first: "Hmm, free food? What's the catch?" So the counselors would explain the program and we'd take it from there. Because some of the clientele spoke only Spanish, the counselors would often walk them through and describe the foods in Spanish. I would supplement with my high-school Spanish — which, aside from "¿Dónde está la biblioteca?" (Where is the library?) includes "caliente" (hot), which I picked up from Taco Bell commercials.

To engage the kids, we used the toaster oven to make whole-wheat pizza faces, which involved spreading tomato sauce on whole wheat bread or English muffins, letting the kids choose their favorite vegetables to make a face, and adding cheese. Later, we used the same tactic for monster yogurt faces, using fruit for the faces and cereal for the hair. All I had to ask was, "Who wants to make a pizza?" and the kids immediately lined up. And the parents would go from tentatively tasting to comments like, "Oh, that's good. I'm going to fix that for dinner tonight," or "I wish I had brought my seven-year-old — he would love that."

The recipes were no longer just words on a piece of paper.

Currently, we're waiting on a grant to move forward with the program at all the Tri-County Health facilities. To determine if the Tasting Cafe actually accomplished anything besides stroking my ego, we put surveys by each dish, in both English and Spanish, asking if folks would serve a certain food or make one of the recipes. Of the 290 respondents, 96 percent said they'd tried a new food and were likely to serve it at home. But more to the point, there were a lot of happy parents and kids who could shed their everyday concerns for a few minutes and sit down and talk (and eat) food, the universal language.

One day, a three-year-old who'd been to WIC earlier in the month came to the door. "Chicken?" he asked hopefully. And there wasn't a drive-thru in sight.


Recipes from the Tasting Cafe


CHICKEN McMARTY
Serves 4
2 ½ to 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cubed
Salt
6 to 8 ounces cornflakes
1 egg
1/8 cup skim milk
Canola oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Crush cornflakes in a plastic bag with a rolling pin until they turn into fine crumbs. Mix egg and milk with a fork. Sprinkle salt on chicken cubes. Dip in egg/milk mixture. Roll nuggets in crumbs in the plastic bag. Place nuggets on a baking tray, drizzle with oil. Bake 20 minutes or until cooked through.


BAKED SWEET POTATO CHIPS
Serves 4
4 sweet potatoes
Canola oil
Salt

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