My son Nathan and I have been enjoying the privilege of volunteering at Perspectives Kids Cafe on Friday evenings. Founded by Sue Zelickson in 1998, Kids Cafe is a nutrition and self-esteem program for high risk and homeless youth living in St. Louis Park. Under the leadership of "Chef Dan" Tobias-Kotyk, the cafe is humming five days a week, serving more than 55 elementary aged children each day. Chef Dan, along with volunteers like Nathan and me, work with the children as they prepare, serve, and clean up a nightly dinner. The food is deliciously cooked from scratch, from Chef Dan's time-tested and popular menus and recipes, with fun twists and education about nutrition and what makes fresh food taste good.
The whole crew sits down to dinner together. The kids talk about what they like - and don't like - as well as howl with laughter at how much taller my son is than I am. The little boy sitting next to me last Friday lost a tooth during dinner, while the other kids debated the merits of cinnamon rolls with butter or without (breakfast for dinner is a favorite, as is Chef Dan's famous Chicago-style, deep-dish pizza, yes).
The magic of Kids Cafe isn't just the food, though. It's the calm, funny presence of Chef Dan, who is an educator by training and a chef by accident. After graduating from college, he substitute taught while cooking at the Ukrainian American Community Center to pay the bills. When Perspectives was hiring a kitchen manager with teaching experience for their new Kids Cafe, it turned out that the cooking teacher was their man. Fifteen years later, Chef Dan says his favorite part of the job is working with the kids in the kitchen, seeing the children try new foods, and having the children develop favorite meals to cook for the whole group.
He cooks at home too, making up and adapting recipes for his wife and daughters' soy, dairy, and gluten allergies. When I told him I couldn't eat gluten, he said he had a recipe for Mexican-style meatballs that I might like. We made them with the kids a couple of weeks ago and...ding ding ding! Huge win, absolutely fantastic. Nathan asked me to make them at home, I asked if I could share the recipe with you, and luckily Chef Dan said...yes. So here you go! The meatballs are made with crushed tortilla chips, in a spicy tomato-chile sauce, to serve over rice. It's worth mentioning that I've also eaten them wrapped in a warmed corn tortilla, and Nathan pointed out they'd make an incredible meatball sandwich, so make the whole batch and try them as many ways as you can think of.
Note that the meatballs aren't browned before adding to the sauce. They emerge so tender and flavorful, I may never brown another meatball again. Great technique.