Portland is a food-lovers ground zero, a place where good ingredients grow in abundance and a justly celebrated culture of thoughtful inventiveness around cooking flourishes.
When we take our kids out to eat around town, the kids’ menu is often predictable. There are the chicken nuggets, there’s the mac and cheese. There’s pizza and grilled cheese. There’s always a side of fries, and perhaps some applesauce or a fistful of baby carrots.
We at PDX Parent got to wondering: What if there was no “kids’ menu”? What if, instead, the kids were presented with more gently priced and child-appropriate portions of the same dizzying and delicious options available for grown-ups at local restaurants?
Chef Jason French, himself a dad of four kids ages 7 to 15 who has weathered plenty a meal with picky eaters, agreed to open up his light-filled, decidedly grown-up restaurant in Northeast Portland, Ned Ludd, for our experiment. We invited seven kids, ages 5 to 8, all of whose families participate in Portland nonprofit Growing Gardens’ backyard gardening program.
There were a few ground rules in place. Our young guests were encouraged to at least try some of what was on their plates, but not required to do so. French instructed the table not to “yuck” anyone’s “yums” and to think about different textures and flavor profiles — spicy, sweet, sour, bitter, umami — as they ate and drank their way through the four course meal (plus an off-menu palate cleanser) that he prepared especially for them.
Local videographer Nick Macdonald captured the meal on video — check out the video of our brave panel of food tasters for the kids’ reactions to the food in real time.
So what did we learn? It turns out mushrooms and sardines and mussels can be a bit of a hard sell to kids. (Shocker!) But most of our diners surprised themselves by liking unexpected elements on their plates, whether it was the vegetable dip in the first course or the spaetzle in the main course. And everyone licked their dessert bowls clean, and remembered to thank French for the meal.
The lesson? Maybe it’s time we all put aside the children’s menu, and tried ordering the kids something more adventurous off the appetizer list instead. It’s just like Dr. Seuss once wrote, of green eggs and ham: “You do not like them/ So you say/Try them! Try them/ And you may.”
The diners: Ariana Tellis-Shah, age 6 | Alaina Polgar, age 5 | Javier A. Paredes-Santiago, age 8 | Brandon Paredes-Santiago, age 6 | Maizy Baisch, age 6 | Alma Villa Martinez, age 6 | Neoma Eliana Lopez, age 6
Sparkling cranberry cocktail, served Shirley Temple style.
There’s something very festive about a drink served in a goblet. Our young diners toasted to lunch, and sipped (or downed) their fizzy drink.
Vegetable dip with toast and pickles.
French cooks almost entirely in a wood-fired oven, which is where he warmed the crusty bread that accompanied this initial course. All kids love pickles, but in this case, the pickled items included mushrooms, watermelon rind and swiss chard. Brothers Javier and Brandon were the most enthusiastic at the table, and everyone ate their toast. (See recipe on page 18.)
Tomato, arugula, garden vegetables and cured anchovies.
The hardest sell of all the courses. Only Javier and Brandon would try the anchovy. But French was crafty and sold the swirl of tonnato dressing as akin to ranch, which prompted Neoma to give it a try. The lesson? Blend elements of the familiar and the new to make it more appealing to all.
Mussels, bay shrimp, corn, zucchini, tomatoes and spaetzle. Our lunch was held atthe height of tomato season, in late August, and French wanted to highlight the local and the seasonal. The bay shrimp were a big hit with our youngest dinner, kindergartener Alaina, who went straight for them, then polished off Maizy’s portion of shrimp for good measure. Fresh corn and tomatoes proved a hit, too, but the mussels left plenty of the kids baffled, even though French stepped in to demonstrate how to crack the shell and get at the sweet meat inside.
Peach, heirloom tomato and ground cherries.
French went interactive with this course. Ground cherries taste like a blend of cherry tomatoes and pineapple and have papery husks that are fun to peel. They were also old hat to the Growing Gardens kids, who had been introduced to the crop in their own backyards.
Vanilla bean panna cotta with blueberries.
Two thumbs up, way up, all around. French smartly chose a not-too-sweet option, highlighting luscious vanilla beans and late season blueberries.
How Does Your Garden Grow?
The staff at Growing Gardens lives by a mantra: If kids and their families have a hand in growing their own food, they will be more likely to eat it, to vary their diet and introduce new fruits, vegetables and cooking methods. They’ve helped families all over Portland — including those of our young diners — build and maintain backyard gardens, with a special focus on the city’s growing Latino population, and they run school-kitchen garden programs at a handful of higher-poverty schools around the Portland Public Schools district. Find out more about their great work at growing-gardens.org.
Ned Ludd’s Vegetable Dip for the Kids
- 3 yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 carrots, peeled and grated on a box grater
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 head of fennel, trimmed, cored and minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 cup sour cream
- ½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
- ¼ cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped
- ¼ cup fresh chives, minced
- Juice of ½ lemon
- salt and pepper to taste
1. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt and cook over medium heat until soft.
2. Add the bay leaf and olive oil and increase the heat. Add the carrot, garlic and fennel and cook, stirring frequently until soft, but not browned. Add the thyme and wine and increase the heat. Reduce the wine until almost completely evaporated and remove from the heat.
3. Allow the mixture to cool slightly for 10-15 minutes.
4. Add the sour cream, Parmesan and herbs and whisk to combine. Season with the salt, pepper and lemon juice and allow to cool and meld overnight. Serve with crudites or crackers.
Jason French’s Panna Cotta
- 1 envelope unflavored gelatin (about 1 tablespoon)
- 2 tablespoons cold water
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup half and half
- cup sugar
- ½ vanilla pod split lengthwise or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. In a small bowl, sprinkle gelatin over water and let stand about 1 minute to soften. Heat gelatin mixture in a microwave or over a pan of hot water, stirring regularly until gelatin is dissolved and remove from heat.
2. In a large saucepan bring cream, half and half, and sugar just to a boil over moderately high heat, stirring. Remove pan from heat and stir in gelatin mixture and vanilla. (Remove vanilla pod if using.) Divide cream mixture among eight ½–cup ramekins and cool to room temperature. Chill ramekins, covered, at least 4 hours or preferably, overnight.
3. To serve: Dip each ramekin into a bowl of hot water for
three seconds. Run a thin knife around edge of each ramekin and invert ramekin onto center of a small plate. The panna cotta should release and fall out onto the plate. Garnish accordingly with nuts, fresh fruit or fruit puree.