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This chef wants to make vegetables your kids' main course

"Meat on the Side" author Nikki Dinki switches up your dinner.

Nikki Dinki didn’t always eat her vegetables. After two decades of subsisting on mostly cereal, bagels and instant ramen, “Picky Nikki” decided it was time for a transformation.

Now, the co-host of Cooking Channel’s "Junk Food Flip" has done a complete 180, advocating for delicious fare that centers on the veggies she once despised. In her cookbook "Meat on the Side," Dinki has created dishes that even non-vegetable lovers can get behind. Dinki stresses that giving up meat isn’t a must for healthful eating — but let the veggies take center stage.

We caught up with the cooking star to hear how she cooks for all types of eaters.

How did you develop your meat-on-the-side philosophy?
I really started eating meat on the side because I didn’t really eat anything until I was 20 — no veggies and no protein. I started to eat veggies before introducing myself to meat — chicken, then fish, then pork. Vegetables have always been the core of my cooking background.

What’s a good way to introduce vegetables to someone who’s less nutritionally minded?
The best thing to do if you’re not used to eating vegetables is to weave them into dishes you already love. It takes a while of slowly incorporating new tastes until you really like them on their own. A good introductory food is my spaghetti squash “mac” + cheese or a cauliflower crust pizza — who doesn’t love pizza?

How would you get picky kids to eat their vegetables?
For kids, it’s more of a trick just getting the food into their mouths. Sometimes the look of something can be a big turn off. In the book, there are family friendly modifications next to some recipes. For example, pureeing the chunky veggies in a sauce or sprinkling a little bit of cheese on top — really simple things.

Is your husband a meat-on-the-side guy too?
My husband ate a lot more meat before I started cooking. Now he eats vegetarian for a fair amount of his meals and doesn’t even notice he’s eating less meat. For someone who was a meat and potatoes guy, he’s now realizing he doesn’t need it.

What’s something more experimental that you’ve cooked?
A lot of times I try and recreate classic, meat-heavy dishes into meat-on-the-side versions. I made a carrot hot dog — it took a lot of tries! I sauté and marinate the carrot in Worcestershire, paprika, chili powder — lots of hearty flavors. It really looks like a hotdog and has a smoky, meaty flavor too. We rarely have the same thing for dinner twice because I’m always experimenting with something new.

How do you make vegetables fun and exciting, not just another salad?
I really like the idea of using ingredients in ways you wouldn’t normally think of. For example, I put a couple of twists on cabbage in Meat on the Side. We usually think of cabbage in coleslaw, but I created tomatillo and cabbage nachos and a raspberry and red cabbage grilled cheese sandwich. I grew up mostly eating bread and cheese… we all love what’s familiar!

Nikki Dinki also releases new recipes on nikkidinkicooking.com every Monday.

Kale Egg Cups

Nikki Dinki- Meat on the Side (St. Martin’s Press)

Makes 8 Egg Cups; Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 medium yellow onion

1 red bell pepper

4 fully cooked breakfast sausage patties

8 large kale leaves

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ cup shredded mozzarella

8 large eggs

8 teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese

Method:

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease an 8-cup muffin pan and set the pan aside. Place a medium saucepan of water over high heat and bring to a boil.

2. Chop the onion and bell pepper and cut the sausage patties into ¼-inch pieces. Set aside.

3. One at a time, hold each kale leaf by its stem and dip it into the boiling water until it turns bright green, about 5 seconds, then lay it on some paper towels or a clean kitchen towel to drain.

4. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onion, bell pepper, and salt and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the sausage and sauté just until it turns brown, 2 to 3 minutes more. Remove the skillet from the heat.

5. One at a time, pat each kale leaf dry with a paper towel. Cut away its stem and then cut the leaf cross-wise into 3 pieces. Line the bottom and sides of a prepared muffin cup with the 3 pieces, overlapping them and making sure to cover the sides, all the way to the top. Repeat the procedure to line all of the cups.

6. Put 1 tablespoon of the mozzarella in each cup; top that with a spoonful of the vegetable and sausage mixture, making sure there is still room in the cup for an egg. Crack and egg into each cup and then sprinkle one teaspoon of the Parmesan over the egg. When all 8 cups are filled, place the muffin pan in the oven and bake until the eggs are set, 15-17 minutes.

7. Transfer the muffin pan to a wire rack and let the egg cups cool for 2 to 3 minutes. Run a table knife around the inside edge of each cup to release anything that might be sticking. Gently lift out the kale egg cups and place 2 on each serving plate. Enjoy them hot!

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