Today on Kitchen Knightmares: An unusual invite from Kraft leads to Jon Paul’s first recipe exclusive. Guest star: Chef Marcus Samuelsson.
When the cat wasn’t devouring my baby food, I mostly subsisted on a diet of chicken fried steak, peanut butter, and fried chicken growing up in Texas. But on occasion, my palette veered into the exotic, enjoying delicacies unusual for many kids. Slurping oysters at S&D Oyster Bar was a favorite Sunday afternoon treat. And I never had enough of Aunt Shirley’s spicy gumbo with slimy okra bits since tasting it required a seven-hour car trip to Lafayette, Louisiana.
Years later, when my partner Chef began cooking for several Big Apple families, I was surprised to hear stories about the picky eating habits of NYC kids. I had wrongly assumed that growing up in an urban jungle where exotic ports-of-call are represented on every street corner would have lead to a sophisticated—and expansive—palette. Instead, Chef found himself cooking one more round of crowd pleasing chicken quesadillas sans cilantro.
Thus my suspicion when an invitation to a brunch sponsored by Kraft heralding the kid-friendly recipes of Top Chef Masters Season 2 winner Marcus Samuelsson. It was part of a new collection included in Kraft’s iPad app called Big Fork, Little Fork featured.
Now, I’ve been a big fan of Chef Samuelsson practically since I moved to New York—blown away by his global infusion of flavors into Scandinavian cuisine at Aquavit. But what was a chef known for exalting exotic flavors doing with a solidly middle American food giant like Kraft in an effort to promote kids involvement with cooking? This couldn’t be good, or successful.
Having briefly worked on a PR campaign for an international snack giant, I’m generally suspect of food companies and their efforts. But, hey, I was impressed that Kelli, one of the publicists on Kraft’s team, had researched NYC food blogs and writers, and targeted me. Besides, who am I to cast stones? I of all people know that in this day and age, writers and chefs need support of major marketers to advance their messages and agendas. My own Chef might have a book coming out soon, and this would give me a chance to see up close and personal how a chef that I admire navigates the often times tricky world of corporate partnerships.
Turns out, the charming and clever Chef Samuelsson manages it with ease, helped by the fact that Kraft isn’t over reaching here. As the company executives explained to me, the idea behind the app is to give busy families some fun tools for easy cooking. Sure, each recipe features at least one Kraft product—maybe some cheese, salsa, or taco shells—but the special recipes developed by Chef Samuelsson add in exotic flavors. “We don’t have time to cook like in my grandmother’s age,” Chef Samuelsson said as he whipped up some flavorful chicken tacos. “Not many people are going to make their own salsa or their own taco shells, so you’ll use these good options from Kraft. But the rest of it you can cook yourself. This application is about striking a balance between store bought and fresh.”
The recipes all have complete nutritional breakdowns, which is great, but made me wonder if Kraft was missing the mark. Shouldn’t they be attacking the obesity problem in America? As if he was reading my mind, Chef Samuelsson interjected, “Maybe in the next round we can address obesity, diabetes. But this is a first step of getting kids involved in food. It’s great for Kraft to be part of the solution.” Point taken. At least Kraft is doing something, even if it is subtly marketing their food products.
And just as I was starting to snicker that Chef Samuelsson was cooking a pretty easy recipe of chicken tacos for a room full of snobby food bloggers and writers, he once again whisked away my skepticism. “I grew up in Sweden. And all over the country on Friday nights, the entire country eats tacos. Surprising, right? Not what you think of as authentic tacos. But Swedish tacos with all sorts of unusual fillings. And I realized that tacos are a great way to incorporate different types of ingredients and flavors for kids. Light chili pepper, or paprika.”
The dish on the brunch display I was most taken by was the Red Grits. In the South, grits are a gateway food to a heart attack. But Chef Samuelsson’s concoction tasted more like a side dish at an upscale Italian restaurant. I commented to one of the Kraft executives that I would love to feature the recipe, and she told me they were exclusive to the iPad. I pressed, and she said she would see what she could. A few minutes later, she returned with Chef Samuelsson in tow, explaining that it was up to him to give permission. When I told him my childhood love affair with grits, he lit up, “That’s it. Grits are really a food that kids eat in some form around the globe. So they are a wonderful way to introduce kids to vegetables like tomatoes. Of course you can have the recipe.”
And then he smiled, and my heart melted. Because I knew that in his heart, he was doing the right thing. Fighting the right battles. Marcus Samuelsson is as passionate as Jamie Oliver, but way more palatable. And he’d just given me my very first Kitchen Knightmares exclusive.
Kitchen Knightmares Exclusive
Red Grits by Marcus Samuelsson (adapted from Kraft’s iPad app Big Fork Little Fork)
1 Tbsp, olive oil
1 tsp, tomato paste
1/8 tsp, smoked paprika
½ cup, grits (old style, NOT instant)
1 cup, chopped tomato
1 cup, tomato juice
1 cup, fat-free reduced sodium chicken broth
¼ cup, Kraft shredded Colby & Monterrey Jack cheese
2 Tbsp, chopped fresh basil
To Make: Cook first three ingredients in medium saucepan on medium to low heat for 1 minute. Add grits; cook and stir 2 minutes. Add tomatoes; cook and stir 2 minutes. Stir in juice and stock; simmer 10 minutes. Top with cheese and basil.
JP’s notes: I like a little heat and spice (fancy that living with a Mexican Chef), so would add more paprika or even a hint of chili powder. The fresh basil definitely gives it an important flavor punch, so keep that in mind when you taste for seasoning—you don’t need to over salt because the basil will give it a kick.