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Modern and easy foods for busy families

In her new book, “Kitchen Playdates: Easy Ideas for Entertaining That Include the Kids,” Lauren Deen shares recipes and craft projects that can help families turn meal time into fun time. Here's an excerpt:

Ah, family life. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the old days just a little bit: drinks on a Saturday night at some great new lounge followed by dinner at the fabulous place just reviewed in Wednesday’s New York Times. Maybe it’s a friend’s restaurant, where my guests and I are treated like royalty, course after delicious course, lots of provocative adult conversation, and barely a thought of the time.

Feels like a whole other lifetime. Nowadays, I can’t even look at that tempting lychee panna cotta without calculating whether it’s going to be worth the extra hour of babysitting it will cost me to linger for dessert. A nightcap? Not a chance.

The arrival of my children changed an aspect of my life that I was pretty happy with: the opportunity for social spontaneity, including the occasional nightcap or a long Sunday brunch at a restaurant. Of course my husband, Anthony, and I are absolutely crazy about our kids, Mathias and Natasha, and can’t imagine life without them. But we have both had a little pang for certain aspects of the way things were.

Family life is chaotic — there’s just no way around it. So, I decided, why not embrace it? I’m a problem solver by trade and temperament; how hard could it be to do the family thing and see friends, too? Through a little trial and error I found that I didn’t have to give up my former life, just reinvent it a little.

My experience gained from cooking school and years as a caterer were a help. Since I now make my living producing lifestyle TV, I took the organizing skills I used on the job and tackled the get-togethers, so there’s no sweat, and fewer tears. And though I helped produce her show and respect and admire her, what I do at home isn’t Martha (Stewart, that is). It’s messy. It’s real. My “staff” is prone to giggle fits. And that’s the charm.

Practicality with style has become my signature. Although I have worked with some of the world’s top chefs as the first sous chef at the Food Network and as a TV producer, my experience as a mother has taught me to leave complicated restaurant cooking to the pros. My skill is in taking the tricks and techniques I’ve seen in their kitchens and backstage on the set and translating them so they make sense to the home cook. The result is delectable food that isn’t a pain to prepare and doesn’t require a staff of highly skilled assistants. I’ve included all the little helpful details that often get lost in translation — like using muffin tins for individual desserts instead of fumbling with ramekins, or lining a cake pan with buttered foil and sticking it on a sheet pan when you can’t find the bottom because the kids are using it as a drum.

One other thing you should know about me: I like to get involved in my friends’ lives. Not in a nosy way, just in an “I’m here to help” way. I hate that so few of them feel comfortable cooking, and that the ones who used to cook are giving it up because of time pressures. I’ve made myself available to them, and they’ve taken me up on my offers. I’ve even been known to hold the occasional impromptu weekend lesson to help a friend figure out everything from baking a chocolate cake to tackling the Thanksgiving turkey. Answering their questions and leading those Sunday afternoon how-to sessions became the beginnings of Kitchen Playdates.

So what exactly is a kitchen playdate? It’s a playdate that includes the grown-ups, complete with great food and if you’re up for it, a cooking project with the kids. I realized that many of the old entertaining rules are outdated and don’t reflect the way we really live now. With such busy weeks, we want to see our friends and our kids. Now Saturday night includes everyone; we don’t send the kids to bed and get a sitter. Granted, things start a bit earlier, but it’s just as much fun. I invite the parents and their kids over at three so we can all relax and enjoy each other before the young ones melt down. When you entertain other families, you can have everything prepared beforehand, or ask friends to pitch in. You can cook with the kids or without. There are suggestions for tasks that are child appropriate, and the rest is up to you, depending on your schedule and state of mind and the kids’ moods and ages.

These are get-togethers you actually get to attend. The kids help, and the adults help. When you want a little time with just the adults, send the kids into the other room to snap beans, twist pretzels out of pizza dough, or do an art project. It’s a fresh change from stressed-out entertaining or ordering in the same old Chinese food.

As far as I’m concerned the words “perfect” and “parent” just don’t go together. And there’s nothing wrong with that. These informal get-togethers with friends and family are low stress and are meant to be loosey-goosey. You won’t need crazy gadgets. You won’t be asked to perform knife skills worthy of the Japanese steak house. You don’t even have to make all this food from scratch. No reason you can’t use a roast chicken from the deli counter to simplify things—just serve it with a killer side dish like Sweet Potatoes with Lime and Ancho. Your guests won’t hold it against you. Flexibility is one of the qualities you need most when you’re a parent. The same applies here. I’ve organized things so you can make your events as casual or refined as you want them to be.

These recipes are meant to be mixed and matched, and come with suggestions for items you can buy ready-made to reduce the workload. Most can be halved easily, or doubled. The point is to revel in your little imperfect bit of paradise, not to tend to the party, but attend the party and enjoy your friends and family. The recipes are simple yet stylish, with easy-to-find ingredients with a global range that reflect the multiethnic markets, restaurants and neighborhoods I’ve been lucky enough to live near and visit.

I’ve test-driven and adapted these dishes so they are sophisticated in spirit, yet firmly grounded in the reality that comes with being a busy parent. You’re not sacrificing a thing. That was the firm rule. So good-bye intricate latticework atop my signature linzer torte. It’s updated with a simple polka-dot pattern that the kids can do with cookie cutters. The new recipe is speedier, and looks fabulous and modern. Plus there’s dough left over that we can freeze to make cookies the next time the playground is rained out. It’s all about flexibility and fun, not fuss.

There are no hard-and-fast rules to follow, and you will have plenty of chances to relax with good food, family and friends. Ready to schedule your first playdate?

1-2-3 TART

Ingredients:

1 sheet of best quality frozen puff pastry, such as Pepperidge Farm or Dufour

1 cup ricotta cheese

1/2 cup grated aged provolone or Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1 egg

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Chopped fresh thyme, oregano or rosemary for garnish

Directions:

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry into a thin rectangle, 11"x13" and about 1/4" thick. Transfer to a baking sheet or rimmed half sheet pan. Prick the dough all over with a fork to prevent the tart base from bubbling up.

3. In a medium bowl, mix the cheeses, egg, salt and pepper. Spread over the dough, leaving a 1/2" border. Brush the edges lightly with water, fold over the sides of the dough, and press them to create an edge, pinching the corners and pulling them to make small points like the tip of a star.

4. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until the cheese is golden and bubbly and the sides and bottom of the crust are dark golden brown, making sure they don't burn. Let the tart rest for a minute, then cut into 2" squares, sprinkle with fresh herbs and serve.

Serves 6-8

Excerpted from "Kitchen Playdates" by Lauren Deen. Copyright 2007 Lauren Deen. Reprinted with permission of Chronicle Books. All rights reserved.

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