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Baltimore chefs share their favorite kid-friendly recipes

Our sister publication, Maryland Family magazine, recently ran a four-week Kids' Cooking Club in which local chefs shared some of their favorite recipes that they love making — and eating — with their own kids.

Participating chefs were Gia Daniella of Cafe Gia in Little Italy, Riccardo Bosio of Sotto Sopra in Mount Vernon, Matt Kane of B&O; American Brasserie in downtown Baltimore and Nikki McGowan of CKCS Foods Studio.

Some of our favorites are shared here and you can find more at

Nikki McGowan, the founder of CKCS Foods Studio, a company that teaches cooking classes at schools and organizations throughout Baltimore, kicked off the cooking club with a recipe for guacamole that's straightforward and simple.

"When you give kids forks to mash the avocado, it's like Play-Doh," she said. "When I'm making this with classes, I relate it to baby poop. The kids love it."

McGowan lets her students sniff and taste ingredients throughout the process. "I tell them the cumin smells like a campfire and let them taste cayenne pepper with their fingers," she said. "We always have a cup of water nearby. They love the drama of having their mouths on fire."

Nikki's guacamole

4 ripe avocados

1/4 of a red onion

1 lime cut in wedges

1/4 teaspoon cumin

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Small bunch of cilantro

Hot sauce to taste (a couple of shakes)

Salt to taste

Parents: Cut the avocados in half, and use a knife to whack the seed so it sticks on the knife and can be easily removed. Use a knife to slice the halves of the avocado while it's still in the shell. Then let the kids slice the rest of the avocado halves with plastic knives.

Have the kids scoop out the avocados into a bowl. Using the back of a metal fork, mash the avocado until it looks like baby poop. (Yes, the kids will understand and enjoy the reference.)

Parents: Cut the red onion into slices. Then let the kids use plastic knives to cut the onion into a smaller dice. (Remind them that even plastic knives can cut fingers.)

Add onion to avocado, and stir to mix. Give lime wedges to the kids to squeeze into the avocado mixture. Add the cumin and cayenne.

Have the kids tear the leaves of the cilantro off the stems then cut up the leaves with the plastic knives. Add cilantro to avocado mixture.

Bring out hot sauces and have the kids choose which one or ones they want to add to the mixture. Make sure they don't add too much — you can't reverse "too spicy." Add a sprinkle of salt to taste. Mix well.

Enjoy with some chips!

Gia Daniella learned to cook from her mother, Giovanna Blattermann, a first-generation American who moved from Sicily to Baltimore's Little Italy as a girl. Today, Gia passes along that knowledge to her children, Luca and Giada, in the kitchen of Cafe Gia, the Little Italy restaurant she owns with her mother.

For busy parents, Gia recommends serving this sauce and meatballs over store-bought pasta — she prefers the Barilla brand (and Luca prefers the cheese tortellini). "There's so much variety in pasta shapes and meat choices these days," she said. "To mix it up, I cook farfalle, fusilli or any other fun shape. The kids just love it!"

Luca's favorite meatballs

Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer

For the meatballs:

1/4 pound ground beef

1/4 pound ground pork

1/4 pound ground veal

1 teaspoon garlic, minced

Dash of salt and pepper

1/2 cup Italian breadcrumbs

3/4 cup Parmigiano cheese, divided

2 tablespoons dried Italian herbs, chopped (oregano, thyme, sage, basil, rosemary and marjoram)

1 large egg, beaten

1/2 cup milk

Butter spray

1 cup water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, mix all of the meat. Add garlic, salt and pepper, bread crumbs and 1/2 cup of cheese (the remainder will be used on the finished product). Knead with both hands until all ingredients are blended together. Add the herbs and egg and knead. Add the milk and knead until smooth. (Gia's son Luca loves getting his hands into the meat. She makes sure they're clean first.)

After the ingredients are blended together, start making the meatballs; they should weigh about 1 1/2 to 2 ounces each.

Spray a cookie sheet with deep sides with butter spray. Place meatballs about an inch apart on cookie sheet. After the sheet is full, add one cup of tap water.

Bake meatballs in oven for 7 to 8 minutes, until medium well. Then move onto the next stage with the marinara sauce.

For the marinara sauce:

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium white onions, peeled and chopped

4 tablespoons garlic, minced

1 16-ounce can plum tomatoes

4 basil leaves, gently torn apart

In a large pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until caramelized, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the garlic and lightly saute until fragrant, about one minute (do not burn the garlic). Add the tomatoes, turn the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes.

Using a hand blender, puree the sauce until smooth.

Gently drop meatballs into the sauce, one by one, so they do not splatter. Cook for another 30 minutes.

Just prior to removing from stove, add basil pieces.

Riccardo Bosio knows that great food — and great eating habits — start with fresh, whole ingredients. Bosio, the owner of the Italian restaurant Sotto Sopra in Mount Vernon, can often be found in his home kitchen with his wife, Monika, and their daughters Amelia, 3, and Victoria, 2 months.

"We cook at home and at the restaurant," says Bosio. "Amelia is always with us cooking. We try to teach her how things are made by hand."

One of the Bosios' favorite recipes to make at home is this simple, light-as-a-feather gnocchi made with fresh spinach and a large helping of salty Parmesan.

Spinach ricotta gnocchi

Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer

8 ounces ricotta cheese, drained

Kosher salt

2 cups spinach, washed

1 clove garlic, peeled

1 large egg, beaten

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

1 cup all-purpose flour, divided (1/4 cup in dough, 3/4 cup for rolling out)

Put ricotta cheese in a fine sieve over a bowl in the refrigerator and let it drain.

Fill a medium pot with water. Bring it to a boil. Add a tablespoon of kosher salt. Add the washed spinach and once it has wilted, approximately a minute or two, remove and drain the spinach. Lay the spinach out on a sheet pan and let it cool.

Fill a large, wide-brimmed pot with salted water and bring to a boil while you prepare the gnocchi for cooking.

Once the spinach has cooled, drain its excess moisture. A good method is putting it in a hand towel or cheesecloth and twisting the towel at the top to apply pressure - excess liquid will drain out of the bottom of the towel/cheesecloth. Or if you have a potato ricer, you can use that.

Add the spinach and garlic clove to a blender or food processor and process until the spinach is finely chopped.

In a large bowl, add the drained and processed spinach/garlic mixture, 1 beaten egg, drained ricotta, nutmeg, Parmesan cheese, a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper. Mix well. Fold 1/4 cup of flour into the mixture and mix well.

Dust a clean surface with some of the remaining 1/4 cup of flour. Take a small amount of the dough and turn out the mixture onto the surface. Roll the dough, adding flour to the surface and dough as necessary, until it holds a 3/4-inch wide ropelike shape (be careful not to overwork the dough). Cut the dough into one-inch pieces.

At this point, you should cook the gnocchi immediately so the glutens don't stiffen. If you can't cook them immediately, freeze them. Start the freezing process by laying them out on a lightly floured sheet pan to allow the glutens to stiffen. Once firm, transfer to a container that is well-sealed and air-tight and place in the freezer.

By now, the water in the large pot should be boiling. Reduce to a gentle rolling boil. Place one gnocchi in the pot to test — it should rise to the top. Once at the top, let it cook for about one minute. Taste and adjust timing; you may also need to add more flour to your main mixture. (If using frozen gnocchi, use the same instructions — test one and adjust timing. Frozen gnocchi will likely take a little longer to cook.)

Dress with a simple marinara or brown butter and sage sauce.

B&O; American Brasserie sous-chef Matt Kane spends his days off getting down and dirty in his kitchen with his 4-year-old daughter Addison. Together, they cook hearty breakfasts, like this simple but delicious vegetable-heavy Denver omelet casserole.

"This is a great recipe to do with kids," Kane said, "because it allows them to get a little messy, have fun and eat well without realizing it."

Kane family Denver omelet casserole

Serves 6 to 8 (or 4 really hungry) people)

About 3 tablespoons cooking oil, such as vegetable or canola

1 pound bulk (uncased) turkey sausage

1 Vidalia onion, diced small

1/2 cup button or crimini mushrooms, sliced

2 beefsteak tomatoes, diced

2 cups raw spinach, chiffonaded

2 tablespoons all purpose flour

2 cups 2 percent milk

1 dozen whole eggs, whites and yolks separated (you will use all egg whites and two egg yolks; reserve the extra egg yolks for another use)

1 can buttermilk biscuits

1 8-ounce container cottage cheese

6 ounces shredded Cheddar cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Coat a medium to large saute plan with 2 tablespoons oil over a medium flame. Once hot, add turkey sausage. Cook until the sausage is cooked evenly and has reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

Drain the sausage and, using a small amount of oil, sweat onion until translucent. Add mushrooms, tomato and spinach and cook until your desired doneness.

Return sausage to the pan with the vegetables and add flour. Be sure to keep the pan moving so the flour doesn't stick. Add milk and allow the mixture to slowly come up to a simmer, stirring regularly, until thickened.

In a separate nonstick pan, scramble the egg whites with two egg yolks.

Now for the fun kid assembly. Have your child open the biscuit can — that is always a hilarious experience. Carefully split the biscuits, placing the bottoms only in a greased casserole dish. Place the biscuits in the oven and cook for about six minutes.

Remove from the oven and using a spoon, have your child spread the scrambled eggs evenly across the biscuits. Spread the cottage cheese evenly across the eggs. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spoon or ladle your vegetable sausage gravy over the cottage cheese. Spread as evenly as possible. If it's not perfect, that's OK: It will start to move as it cooks.

Sprinkle cheddar cheese over sausage, reserving a small amount. Finally, top with the biscuit tops and sprinkle the rest of the cheddar on the raw biscuit tops.

Bake in the oven until the biscuits are golden brown, about 10 to 12 minutes.

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