Kid-Friendly Fusion Food

When someone talks about gourmet fusion cuisine, few people imagine a youngster in the picture. But I think we sell kids short. I mean, they are curious by their nature and trying new things is actually pretty easy to do, especially if you get them involved in the cooking. For me, it's also a matter of introducing new things in a fun, familiar way. The recipe below is an excellent example. Stuffed shells are usually an Italian dish wherein jumbo pasta shells are filled with a creamy cheese mixture and baked in a rich marinara sauce and topped with still more cheese. It's a popular dish with kids, especially those that love cheese. Mine happens to be a proper Cheesehead and falls into that category. So I started with a recipe I know she likes and then I tweak it a bit to make it an Italian-Mexican fusion dish. Swap out the filling for a taco-flavored creamy mixture. Marinara is replaced with salsa (make sure it's mild enough for kids to approve). And cheese? Well, keep that but make it a blend of cheddar and pepper jack for a little extra kick. Then serve it with sour cream and more salsa … maybe even sliced black olives if your kids would approve. Bingo! You're on the road to more adventuresome eating.

I used a roasted garlic salsa for my version of this dish. I also opted for a drier rendition and used about 2 cups of rice in the filling. It meant we could easily eat it with forks on plates rather than with spoons out of bowls. I liked the cream cheese in the filling. It gave it a creamy flavor without requiring lots of cream. In fact, I even used low fat cream cheese and you couldn't tell the difference. If you have some in your home that love hot food, spicy salsa, hot sauce and diced jalapeños could all be used as condiments for these shells and you'll still have them little kid friendly. Enjoy taking your kids on your culinary adventures. You'll be surprised at how enthusiastic they can be about them!

Mexican Stuffed Shells

  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 T. southwestern seasoning (I used Penzeys' version)
  • 4 oz. cream cheese
  • 1-2 c. cooked rice (use more for drier filling, less for filling that's more moist)
  • 1/2 c. diced tomatoes
  • 14-16 jumbo pasta shells
  • 1 1/2 c. salsa
  • 1 c. grated cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 c. grated pepper jack cheese
  • 3 green onions

Preheat oven to 350°.

In a frying pan cook the ground beef; add the southwestern seasoning and cream cheese, cover and simmer until the cheese is melted. Blend well. Add the rice and diced tomatoes and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Set aside and cool completely. While ground beef is cooking, cook the pasta shells according to directions; drain. Set the shells out individually on a cutting board/baking sheet so that they don’t stick together.

Pour the salsa on the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish. Stuff each shell with the meat mixture. Place the shells in the 9×13 pan open side up. Cover the shells with cheese and sliced green onions. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Serve with sour cream and/or more salsa.

  • Yields: 6-8 servings
  • Preparation Time: 50 minutes