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Carla Contreras Makes It Special

The veteran of Chopped (and a million meals for her own kids) reveals the secrets of "mini-prep," salad, and taking kids shopping.

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Carla Contreras is one of those epic modern kitchen heroes: a culinary reality TV star (Chopped, Cook Your Ass Off), a seasoned pro chef, and a mom who dispenses healthy and empowering wisdom via her own popular blog.

We caught up with Carla to talk about life at the cutting board and stove. She was also nice enough to hook Little Sous readers up with her dynamite course More Than a Salad—free! (Use the code LITTLE SOUS.)

What’s inspiring you right now? 

I have started to work a lot more (as a food stylist, photographer, and recipe developer) since my kids are now in school full time. I used to believe that I had to do one big meal-prep on Sunday with a little bit of meal-prep during the week. Now I’m doing what I call “mini prep.” It’s small bursts of prep that take less than 30 minutes. 

Maybe it’s washing some greens and chopping some veggies. I prep two to three salads at a time so that I have lunch while I’m working. The kiddos always help me prep. They love pressing the salad spinner and helping me fill Stasher bags with greens. 

It’s been incredible to see that I can save time, money, and do less work by chopping up my meal-prep into tiny segments, as opposed to spending my entire Sunday afternoon cooking and cleaning.

What is your motto in the kitchen?

“Cooking is the highest form of self-care.” I believe cooking is your foundation and the way that you chose to nourish yourself affects everything you do. That being said, even though I am a chef, food stylist, and cooking school founder, it does NOT mean that my food is always perfect. 

There are epic fails. I have two toddlers running around. Sometimes, dinner gets burned and we have to order pizza and it’s totally all good! This is why I started Cook+Chop, my online cooking school—to ditch the idea of perfection around cooking. It’s all about giving yourself grace and dropping the fear around cooking; once you do that, everything starts to flow. 

What new foods have your kids discovered lately?

I have been roasting tons of veggies and placing them on a trivet on the kitchen table to let them cool. The smell of the roasted veggies draws my kiddos to the table, and before I know it, half the tray is gone! The other day, this happened with cauliflower—I couldn’t believe it! It’s amazing what happens when there are zero expectations or pressure around food. 

My kiddos are also really into healthy treats. The latest one is almond butter balls. They are packed with protein and have just a touch of sweetness. My daughter loves having one on her way out the door to school. 

What do your kids love doing in the kitchen?

I grew up in the kitchen with my mom. I went to the farmers market twice a week with her. I picked out recipes I wanted to try, and I would make a grocery list. We had a garden, and I loved picking green beans and making pancakes with freshly picked mulberries. 

We would go to the butcher, the fishmonger, and the Italian bakery, where I would eat the middle of the warm bread. I know—this is the reason I became a chef. I was so connected to my food. I am working on re-creating that experience for my children. 

Right now they are 3 and 4. They love to help me in the kitchen. It’s part of our family food story. I bring them grocery shopping and to the farmers markets. We make cookies and smoothies, we pull apart broccoli florets, they pour noodles into the boiling hot water, and we make banana pancakes (from the Little Sous box) on a rushed weekday morning just because! My son loves to tear lettuce to feed to his dinosaurs (he also loves when I take videos of this!).

They both love to take pictures with me and help me style food. My entire Instagram feed has been based on their hands for the past few years. I have been food styling and taking food photos for publications and brands since they were born. I am so grateful to have this connection with them. 

What’s your funniest/most tragic kitchen disaster story?

My fellow chef and food stylist friends think that it’s hilarious that my children love “Insta-worthy” food. If I place food on my styling surface, they are 10x more likely to try to eat the food, as opposed to placing it on their plates. It’s all about the fact that I am taking a picture of it—it makes it “special.” 

They both have their own toy cameras and often have to get their “shot” before I can move the food. My son loves to style and move the food around. Truthfully, some of his styling has been in the final shots. 

Join our cooking club for kids! Themed monthly cooking lessons + recipes + food  science + food culture + kitchen tools delivered right to your home. 

Chef Carla’s “Hummus” Salad Dressing

This dressing is a new family favorite, inspired by a Miso Ranch recipe from Healthyish. The miso adds an umami flavor without MSG, which some bottled dressings contain. It makes a killer dip for veggies.

My kiddos call the dressing “hummus” because of the tahini. They love dipping roasted veggies in it. It is also nut-free-school-friendly, which means you can pack it for snack or lunch. I love that the recipe has a TON of ingredients. My kids take turns and help me measure and pour the ingredients into the blender. It whips up in 30 seconds in a high-speed blender.

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  • Yield: About 1¾ cups

Ingredients:

  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from about 3 lemons)
  • 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup smooth liquid tahini
  • 2 tablespoons white miso
  • ½ teaspoon Dijon or whole grain mustard
  • 1 teaspoon pure maple syrup
  • ½ cup filtered water
  • 1 ½ teaspoons onion powder
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • teaspoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste (say, 3 to 5 cranks)

Steps:

  1. Step 1

    Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor until incorporated and smooth.

  2. Step 2

    Store in the fridge for up to one week.

  3. Step 3

    Chef Carla’s Notes: The trick to measuring the tahini is to place the olive oil in the liquid measuring cup first. 

    What to dress: This makes a crazy-good dressing and can sub in anywhere you’d typically use a creamy dressing, like on crunchy romaine (instead of Caesar dressing) or on a wedge of iceberg lettuce (instead of blue cheese dressing). 

    I love the miso tahini dressing drizzled on a salad with a double dose of crunch—think a mix of raw and roasted vegetables like red peppers, carrots, cauliflower, squashes, cucumbers, beets and radishes, and instead of croutons, add a sprinkling of salted and roasted sunflower seeds and top with kimchi. Kimchi gives your salad a huge probiotic punch!