Cooking with Kids

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fun food
The best part about Mother's Day is, of course, the cooking that starts the day. At least that's how it is when you're eight, counting the scoopfuls of coffee grounds needed to make that all-important morning cup, showing off the brilliant red of raspberry jam in a pretty cut-glass bowl and finally nipping outside for a handful of blossoms to adorn the tray.

I still remember the production-with-a-capital-P that making Mother's Day breakfast in bed was for my two older sisters and I, with my dad hovering in the background to make sure we didn't burn the house down with the toast.

Being a guy with pretty high standards, especially when it came to food, I can imagine it took a lot of willpower for him to stand back and give us the satisfaction of doing the whole job ourselves, even if it meant Mom got a mouthful of grounds in her coffee (oops, someone forgot the filter paper) or scrambled eggs that would bounce if you dropped them. But I thank them both for letting us totter up the stairs with that laden tray. It's a great lesson, learning what it takes to turn ingredients into food, and to see how even the simplest cooking can be a gift of great generosity.

So, how exactly do you start? My own experience cooking with kids (none of my own, but auntie to many) has shown that a little Zen energy helps a lot. You really do need to appreciate the journey--the floor-powdering transition of flour, butter, and water into pie crust, the triumphal cracking of an egg--as the purpose of the adventure. You can't hurry a five year old through the mixing of a cookie dough, any more than you can keep his hands out of the chocolate chips. (And for that, I recommend keeping a small "tasting bowl" of chips, nuts, raisins, etc. for nibbling alongside, so all the goodie-packed raw dough doesn't disappear into little bellies along the way.)

Do bigger kitchen projects, like making a pie or mixing a meatloaf, when you have a little more time and the household isn't screaming with 6pm hunger. Let go of your banal adult standards of acceptable beauty. Embrace pink sprinkles as appropriate decoration for just about anything but garlic chicken. Don't stress about the mess, but don't let your kids blithely ribbon the place with molasses and then disappear, either. Make the clean-up as much a part of the activity as measuring and mixing. And don't assume that kids are only interested in sweet stuff.


Which leads me to the next tip: even when the whole household IS screaming with hunger, don't banish the kids from the kitchen. There are many boring and repetitive tasks--shelling peas, husking corn, tearing lettuce into bite-sized pieces, even getting the ketchup on the table and pouring the milk--that children find fascinating, or at least mildly entertaining. Anything that gets them involved and aware that there are steps you can master that will turn ingredients into food is a small step towards a well-fed adulthood.

Now that I know what a mess kids can make of a kitchen, I'm even more impressed at how much time and patience my mom extended in teaching me how to cook. It was never formal; she just let me hang around while she did what she did every day, the radio tuned to the local classical-music station, as she made granola and rolled out the crust for an apple pie (or, when the 80s arrived and she went back to work, quiche, quiche, and more quiche, the power-suited lady's best friend).

As I went from watching to helping to "I can do it myself", she quickly realized quickly that I needed the satisfaction of creating something on my own more than I needed perfection. So she let me make my own tiny pie in a little Pyrex cup, which I could dig into with pride while everyone else had to settle for an ordinary slice from the big one. My own little meatloaf, squished like Play-doh and baked in the same Pyrex cup, my own mini-loaf of braided challah: all kid food, made to scale, and most importantly, first shaped and then, eventually, made start to finish all by me.

Of course, things escalated pretty fast. Pretty soon, I couldn't wait for my family to leave the house for the day. I would hold my breath for 10 or 15 minutes, waiting for someone to run back up the stairs for a left-behind wallet or pair of glasses, and then I'd head straight for the kitchen. Dill bread from scratch, homemade mayonnaise, fragile tuiles that had to be shaped over a rolling pin while still hot: it wasn't until much later that I discovered that for most kids, nascent adolescent rebellion didn't involve the Joy of Cooking or Julia Child's recipe for spinach omelets.

Of course, I did get into trouble, more than once, when the family showed up early to discover a high-octane mess. Yes, full-on yelling, go-to-your-room, banished-from-the-kitchen kind of trouble, which somehow never precluded everyone from happily scarfing down whatever I'd made. This seemed, and still does, a tad unfair. After all, there's no omelet without breaking eggs, and certainly there are no tuiles without a certain amount of butter and flour on the floor, especially when you're twelve.

In my sister's household, it's her husband who is the cook of the family. As soon as my nephew Graham was old enough to stand up on his own, my brother-in-law fenced in a tall chair so that he could pull his son eye-level to the counter while he diced and chopped and pulled espresso shots. Now 12, Graham is an ace cook and an adventurous eater (and I'm sure only a few years away from becoming a cappuccino connoisseur). For Mother's Day, he and his sisters are making my sister homemade veggie sushi for dinner.

Really, though, even if your kid never gets farther in the kitchen than pinging the microwave, teach him how to set a table. Napkin and fork on the left, plate in the middle, knife (blade in), then spoon on the right. This is how it's done. If you can nail down the difference between your and you're, its and it's, you can master this small but crucial bit of social currency. Please, don't make me have to follow you around when you're 25, shifting your forks from one side to the other so you don't embarrass yourself.

Sesame Fish
I couldn't resist adding this recipe to my kids' cookbook Fun Food, since it was the one and only way we would eat fish as children. Cutting the fish into strips nudges it a fish-stick direction, while leaving the fillets whole gives you both a teachable moment in the ways and means of graceful fork management. Definitely serve ketchup, lemon-spiked mayo or tartar sauce on the side; every kid loves a dip.

1 1/2 lbs rock cod, halibut, or other firm white fish fillets
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
freshly ground pepper
2 eggs
1 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup peanut or canola oil
lemon wedges, for serving

1. Wash your hands. Did you use soap? OK, now, what'll it be, fillets or fish sticks? Sticks? All right, now put those fillets on a cutting board and cut fish into strips, roughly 1 by 5 inches. Rinse and dry your hands again. Get out three wide, shallow bowls and two big clean plates.

2. Put the flour in the first bowl, and season it with salt and pepper.

3. Crack the eggs into bowl #2, then beat with a fork until well blended.

4. Finally, put the sesame seeds into the last bowl.

5. Line up the flour, eggs, and sesame seed bowls in that order) in front of you.

6. Drag a piece of fish through the flour, shaking off any extra. Dip it quickly into the egg, letting any excess drip off. Drag it through the sesame seeds, turning to get it coated evenly. Set it aside on a big clean plate. Repeat until you've coated all the fish. Place a layer of paper towels on plate #2, and set aside.

7. Now here's the hot-stove part where a grownup will definitely want to be in the room. Heat a saute pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Add oil and heat for another 30 seconds or so. Using tongs or a spatula, add the fish one by one to the pan. The coating should sizzle when it touches the oil. Don't crowd the pan; there should be a little space around each piece. (You may have to do this in batches)

8. Cook fish until golden brown, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer fish onto paper towels to drain. Repeat as needed to cook remaining fish.


9. Serve hot with lemon wedges and the sauce of your choice.