On busy weekday evenings in one household in Princeton, the kids are just as likely to be cooking dinner as their parents.
Emily and Lyla Allen, twin sixth-graders, have culinary skills and ambitions far beyond their 11 years.
Whereas most tweens favor kid-friendly classics like burgers or grilled cheese, Emily and Lyla prefer vegetables. The sisters became vegetarian (like their mom) after a farm trip during which they learned that their favorite long-eye-lashed cow would soon be butchered for meat. For health reasons, neither twin eats gluten.
These rather daunting dietary restrictions are part of what drove them into the kitchen, where they whip up creative recipes that fit the program, while also being delicious. Their go-to treat is homemade carrot-ginger sauce served with red cabbage leaves for dipping.
In November, the girls spun their enthusiasm for healthy home cooking into a thriving small business - Kitchen Twins Make Your Own Kale Chips, a DIY snack kit now available in hundreds of supermarkets around the United States.
The process of starting their business came more naturally to them than you might think - it's in their DNA.
"Our parents own a natural-foods company, so we've been surrounded by this stuff all our lives," Emily said.
"I started getting them involved in the kitchen when they were 3 years old, which helped, but both of them have really gravitated to cooking and nutrition," said their mother, Cricket Allen. "It's such a passion for them."
Kale chips became a snacking obsession for the girls after their parents brought home samples from a natural-foods convention. (For the uninitiated, kale leaves toast up in a hot oven into remarkably chip-like crisps and, when well-seasoned, make a surprisingly tasty replacement for many other packaged snacks. Even junk-food-loving kids will usually eat them.)
At the time they fell hard for kale chips, Emily and Lyla already were writing a food blog, sharing simple recipes and collecting the videos they had made demonstrating their creations or interviewing chefs. Interview subjects range from their classmate Ali, who loves baking, to Bill Telepan, a chef notable for his acclaimed New York City restaurant and for his activism in school-lunch reform.
When I recently met with the Kitchen Twins to watch them make a few of their recipes, it was easy to see why a celebrity chef would grant them an interview. Dressed in sophisticated A-line skirts and grown-up statement necklaces, the pint-size chefs and entrepreneurs exude ambition and determination. In front of a camera, they snap into a practiced pose in a microsecond.
"We want to have a TV show," Emily said. "Just like Giada" De Laurentiis.
And in fact, their mother said, a TV show for the pair is in early stages of development. They're working with producers to iron out a concept and shop a polished pilot in the coming months. Until then, there is always their YouTube channel, with a mix of interviews and instructional videos, including a tutorial on proper sushi rolling.
For the moment, the family's focus is on growing the kale-chip brand. The product is a bag of chopped and washed kale leaves packaged with small packets of olive oil and sweetened coconut flakes. It sells for $3.99 and makes about two servings. The girls are eager to show me how easy it is: Simply add the packets to the bag of kale, shake, and arrange on a sheet tray. After eight minutes in the oven, the crunchy leaves are ready to eat.
It is, indeed, easy, but hardly more so than tossing the bagged, chopped kale already widely available in stores with the olive oil you already have. When I asked the girls how they managed to land their kits in major grocery stores, including Shop Rite and Acme, with so many other products vying for spots, their father, Brian Allen, interjected: "That smile," he said, as Lyla proudly grinned. Clearly, the cute-kid quotient counts.
"We're only 11," she said, knowing how much this distinguishing detail makes their product stand out. The girls also attribute their kale-chip breakout success with the fact that it's the only kit-style product for kale chips on the market. Experiments for new flavors are now underway as the Kitchen Twins brand prepares for its fall debut in Whole Foods.
It seems like a lot to manage between middle-school classes, the three sports they play, garden club, and theater - in addition to just being kids. According to Cricket Allen, her strict policy of no screens during the week helps her kids accomplish it all. Blogging for their site doesn't count as screen time, mom said.
"It's really part of their education," she says. The girls' school encourages students to do some form of journaling, and the blog fits in with that.
Both girls hope to attend culinary school one day and to pursue careers as natural-food entrepreneurs - as well as celebrity chefs. It's an undoubtedly ambitious life plan, but this pair of sixth graders seem poised to take a shot at dethroning Gwyneth Paltrow as their generation's twin doyennes of kale and clean eating.
Coconut Rice and Maple Tofu
Makes 4 servings
1 block extra-firm tofu
1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 1/2 cups coconut milk
1/2 cup water
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup Thai forbidden rice
(or rice of choice)
3/4 cup frozen peas
1 avocado, sliced
Cilantro or parsley (optional, for garnish)
1. Preheat the oven to 375. Grease a cookie sheet, and set it aside.
2. Drain the tofu, slice it into slabs, and put it between layers of paper towels. Place a heavy book on top to help squeeze out the water. Let stand for 15 minutes. Remove the paper towels, and cut the tofu into 1-inch cubes.
3. In a mixing bowl, combine the tamari, maple syrup, and tofu cubes; toss until the tofu is well coated. Arrange on the cookie sheet, and transfer to oven. Bake, flipping the tofu periodically, until the pieces are brown, about 30 minutes.
4. While the tofu is cooking, make the rice. Combine the coconut milk, water, and salt in a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Bring to a boil; add the rice, stir, cover, and reduce to a bare simmer. Cook until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed, about 30 minutes (or more depending on rice). Stir in the peas, and let stand off heat until the peas are warmed through, about 5 minutes.
5. Divide the rice among serving bowls, and top with the tofu, avocado slices, and herbs.
- From the Kitchen Twins
Per Serving: 563 calories; 18 grams protein; 52 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams sugar; 35 grams fat; no cholesterol; 351 milligrams sodium; 10 grams dietary fiber.
Ginger Carrot Sauce
Makes 4 servings
2 inches peeled ginger root, roughly chopped
3 peeled carrots, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
11/2 teaspoons tamari or soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1. Combine all ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor, and puree until almost smooth.
2. Serve as a dip, over rice or salad, or scooped in cabbage leaves.
Per Serving: 148 calories; 2 grams protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams sugar; 9 grams fat; no cholesterol;
494 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.