"Growing Up Gourmet"

“The trick I found was to develop recipes that work for the entire family, so that the whole day’s labor does not go into a single puree that feeds only the smallest member of the house.”

With a single sentence, Jennifer Carlson, co-founder of Baby Gourmet and the author-with Jennifer House- of “Growing Up Gourmet” (Atria Books, $24), summarizes the game plan that informs both her company and her book. It seems like a simple premise, but as anyone who has ever cared for infants and toddlers on a day to day basis will attest, it’s actually quite complex, especially in today’s hurry-up world.

Look at the world’s population. How many of them eat food that truly nourishes their minds and bodies? Precious few-some by choice, others by the conditions around them. A bag of chips washed down with a sugar-laced soda isn’t “lunch,” at least in a nutritional sense.

Carlson continues, “…every child should be exposed to a wide variety of healthy, delicious, homemade meals, so that they can develop a lifelong taste for foods that will form the foundation of a strong adulthood.”

The book is arranged chronologically, beginning with the simple purees that are baby’s first solid food. At 12 months plus, the focus is on “…tasty, wholesome meals that can be pureed for young babies, pulsed for adventurous eaters, cut into bite-size pieces for your independent toddler, and savored whole (on a plate) at the table by Mom and Dad.”

The recipes in the last section are all designed to appeal to the entire family. Choosing one to include in the review was difficult, only because so many of them were appealing. Should I go with the Italian-style hamburger soup, the halibut with black bean banana salsa, or the crispy cheese, quinoa, and broccoli bites? In the end, the ricotta pumpkin stuffed shells got the nod. After all, what could be more timely than pumpkin?

Ricotta Pumpkin Stuffed Shells
Makes 24 shells

24 extra large pasta shells
1 ½ cups ricotta cheese
2 ½ cups pumpkin puree, divided
2 egg yolks
½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated, plus more for sprinkling
1 cup spinach, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, minced
Pinch of nutmeg
1 cup tomato sauce
1 cup low-sodium vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oven to 350-degrees F.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a pinch of salt and drop in the shells. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Drain and rinse with cold water. The shells should still be firm.

Mix the ricotta, 1 ½ cups pumpkin, egg yolks, Parmesan, spinach, thyme, and nutmeg together. Season with pepper,then set aside.

Combine the tomato sauce, remaining 1 cup pumpkin, and stock. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon a layer of sauce over the bottom of a 9x13-inch baking dish. Fill the shells with a generous spoonful of pumpkin ricotta filling. Place the filled shells in the dish, pour the remaining tomato sauce mixture over the top, and sprinkle with extra grated Parmesan cheese and pepper. Cover with foil and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 5 minutes to brown.

For Baby: Pulse 1 or 2 shells with 1 tablespoon of liquid, 5 to 10 times, adding more liquid if necessary to reach the desired chunky texture. Serve.

Tip: Try using sweet potato mash instead of pumpkin.

Tip: Try adding ground sausage or chicken to the ricotta filling for more protein.

Tidbit: The deeper the color of the squash’s flesh, the higher its beta-carotene, which has cancer- and heart disease-fighting properties.

Suitable for freezing.

"Growing Up Gourmet" (Atria Books, 2016) by Jennifer Carlson

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