As some of you know, since my 3-year old Liam began eating solids at 8 months, I’ve thought about how and when to introduce him to Indian food. I started with basic spices that don’t pack any heat, like pinches of ground turmeric (Turmeric-spiced Meatballs for Babies) and ground coriander (Keema for Babies: mint and coriander-spiced chicken, zucchini, peas, and potatoes). As we progressed to age 2, I introduced fresh herbs like cilantro and mint, in addition to giving him Indian and Thai dishes cooked with onions, garlic, and ginger. As soon as Liam was regularly eating whatever we ate, I began introducing heat through pinches of ground cayenne and crushed red chilli pepper.
What’s the point? Fair question. Think of it as another way to introduce your kids to a variety of different foods, flavors, and textures so they don’t become picky eaters. There are nutritional benefits as well, since chili peppers are related to bell peppers, jalapeños, and other peppers, and are said to help digestion and boost metabolism, in addition to being sources of vitamins A, B6, E, C, riboflavin, potassium, and manganese. That said, because we eat such small quantities of hot pepper, the corresponding nutritional benefits are also small. So, really, we’re doing it to expand their palettes, to make them more open-minded, and of course, to see if we can prevent them from becoming really picky eaters.
Today more than ever, parents around the world are increasingly adventurous, introducing little children to everything from sushi to injera. Still, many parents shy away from the heat and ask me about it all the time. When is the right time to introduce food with some kick to our littlest eaters? Like anything else, moderation is key. Adding pinches of cayenne powder or crushed red chilli flakes to their favorite dishes is the best way to start. For instance, Liam LOVES sausage. His favorite breakfast is buttermilk pancakes with maple syrup and chicken & apple sausages. Knowing this, using spicy Cajun andouille sausage, I was able to pack vegetables, spices, and heat into one-pot weeknight dinners like my Curried Pork and Vegetable Fried Rice. Liam gobbled it up, paused to say “Oh, it’s so spicy, Mommy,” took a sip of cold water, and continued eating. It didn’t seem to bother him in the least, but honestly, I think that’s really because of the sausage. The key to helping children become more open to anything from vegetables to hot & spicy flavors is to leverage foods or dishes they already like.
At a lunch recently, my colleague Dominique ordered the restaurant’s “house made kale chips” precisely because she doesn’t like kale…she started eating them and couldn’t stop. It dawned on me — vegetable chips are a perfect way to introduce children to new vegetables and heat at the same time! There are very few people in the world who don’t like some kind of crunchy chip. Especially children.
I experimented today. I asked Liam to help me break leaves of raw kale into bite-size pieces while he was watching Dinosaur Train. Next, I washed and spun the kale, patted it dry with a kitchen towel, and then spread half of it evenly on a large cookie sheet; you don’t want to overcrowd the tray by putting everything on it, otherwise the kale will steam, rather than become crispy. I drizzled it generously with olive oil, added a bit of salt and cayenne powder, and using my fingers, made sure every piece of kale was covered with oil. I generally recommend using ground cayenne rather than crushed red chilli pepper, because it’s easy to add as a dash or pinch and not visible to the eye (especially for children). I popped the tray into a 350F oven for 15 minutes.
I wasn’t sure Liam would go for it. I thought he might be skeptical by the look of it, besides which, lately he’s been smelling everything first…I’m not sure what that’s all about. I thought I might have to call it ‘dinosaur chips’ or something to convince him. Let’s just say the kale chips came out crispy and crunchy and, well, tasted like chips, so it was a huge hit. By the time I turned around, Liam had eaten most of the plate. Vegetables and heat. Success! Whether it’s for your children, someone who doesn’t eat enough green, leafy vegetables, or even for your next cocktail party, you have to try it.
Baked Kale Chips with Sea Salt and Cayenne
Yields 2 batches (for one bunch of fresh kale)
- 1-bunch fresh kale, stems removed and broken into bite-sized pieces
- 1-2 tablespoons olive oil, enough to cover and coat each piece
- Sea salt or kosher salt (optional)
- 1/8 tsp ground cayenne (or to taste; start with 1/8th teaspoon and more after it comes out of the oven — you want this to have some kick, rather than not have any heat at all)
- Preheat oven to 350F degrees.
- Use an entire bunch of fresh kale, removing the stems and breaking the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Wash and dry well. I use a salad spinner and then pat try with a tea towel or thick paper towels.
- Spray large cookie sheet lightly and add kale pieces, but don’t crowd the sheet or they will steam, rather than crisp up. One bunch of kale can be chipped up in two batches.
- Add olive oil, and using your hands, coat all the pieces of kale evenly.
- Sprinkle sea salt and cayenne pepper.
- Bake for 15 minutes. Let sit for a couple of minutes. If desired, sprinkle a little more salt and cayenne, to taste.