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).
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 program, 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.
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.
Meatballs in Tomato-Serrano Chile Sauce
Recipe via Chef Dan Tobias-Kotyk, Perspectives Kids Cafe
2 c. ground tortilla chips
1/2 c. milk
6 Tbsp. finely chopped white onion
5 garlic cloves, minced
3 tsp. fine sea salt
1 1/2 tsp. dried Mexican oregano
3/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1 1/2 lbs. lean ground beef
1 1/2 lbs. lean ground pork
1 c. finely chopped seeded tomatoes
3 large eggs
6 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint
3 medium serrano chiles, stemmed (or more, to taste, depending on heat of chiles)
3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
2-29 oz. can diced tomatoes in juice
6 Tbsp. oil
1 1/2 c. water
1 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
Mexican White Rice (recipe below)
Sliced avocado, sour cream (optional)
Combine bread, milk, onion, garlic, salt, oregano, and pepper in a large bowl. Mash with fork until thick paste forms. Mix in beef, pork, tomatoes, eggs, and mint (mixture will be soft). Form mixture into 2-inch balls. Place on baking sheet as you go; chill while making sauce.
Line a small, heavy skillet with foil and place skillet over medium-high heat. Add chilies and garlic and scorch, turning frequently, until skins begin to blister and blacken, about 15 minutes. Cool briefly, then peel garlic and coarsely chop chiles. Working in batches, pure tomatoes with juices, chilies, and garlic in blender or food processor until almost smooth. (Meatballs and puree can be prepared 6 hours ahead. Refrigerate.)
Heat oil in a heavy, large pot over medium-high heat. Add tomato puree, water, and salt and bring to a boil. Carefully add meatballs to the sauce. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until meatballs are cooked through, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes. Uncover and simmer until liquid is reduced to sauce consistency, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes.
Spoon Mexican White Rice into 6 shallow bowls. Top rice with meatballs and tomato-serrano sauce. Garnish as desired and serve.
Mexican White Rice
2 Tbsp. oil
1 cloves garlic, minced
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 c. medium-grain white rice
1 tsp. fine sea salt
2 Tbsp. fresh parsley, finely chopped
3 3/4 c. water
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and saute until starting to brown, about 1 minute. Stir in onion and saute until glassy, about 5 minutes. Add rice and saute, stirring, for 5 minutes. Stir in salt, parsley, and water (mixture will sputter). Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover pan tightly, and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Fluff rice with fork.