Kids in the kitchen. Let them experiment, advises cooking teacher Catherine Evans
Here's Nicco Mele, a fourth grader from Arlington, Va., showing us the pi`ece de r'esistance in his favorite made-it-yourself dinner: Surprise Salad. ``Looks like just another yucky salad, doesn't it?'' he asks, showing us what appears to be a bowl of wet lettuce. ``But look,'' he says, lifting the top layer of greens, ``it's not!''Skip to next paragraph
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He's right. Below, nestled in another bed of wet lettuce, is roughly a cup of chocolate chips. ``Surprise!''
As anybody with a child and a kitchen knows, kids can cook - and not just cookies, either. ``Kids are more adventurous in the kitchen, more willing to experiment,'' says Catherine Evans, who teaches children and adults at the prestigious Academie de Cuisine near Washington.
``I ran an international [food] camp last summer and had the kids making German tortes,'' she says. ``Three of the girls came to me and said, `Catherine, we don't like chocolate and we don't like nuts, can we change the recipe and make it different?'
``So we did,'' she said. ``I know few adults who would be willing to experiment that radically with a recipe.''
In fact, Ms. Evans rarely gives out recipes until the end of the class, ``just as a reminder, if they want to make it again.'' Her recipes are more on the order of proportions and lists of possible ingredients: ``We make a basic cookie dough, and then I have bowls of chocolate, nuts, cinnamon, oatmeal, raisins, everything you can think of to add. And each person makes their own batch.''
Instead of recipes, she prefers giving children a spoon or a whisk of their own. ``I started teaching cooking when my three boys were little, and I didn't own a mixer. All the kids in the neighborhood would come over to help me cook; they would be my beaters,'' she says.
Fooling around in the kitchen is probably the easiest way to learn to cook - a goofing-off process encouraged by books like Sara Stein's ``The Kids Kitchen Takeover'' (Workman Publishing Company, out of print but available in many libraries), which includes recipes for invisible ink and directions for coloring eggs with onion skins, or Vicki Cobb's ``Science Experiments You Can Eat'' (J.B. Lippincott, $4.95).
Referring to the kitchen as the ``lab in everyone's home,'' Ms. Cobb shows kids how to make crystals (rock candy), turn red cabbage into a kind of litmus-paper test, form a reaction from a gas (while making lemon fizz), and measure water in seeds by making popcorn. Along the way, kids start to see cooking for what it really is - one delicious chemistry experiment.
It's an experiment that takes time, however, and a certain amount of supervision. Evans worries that busy parents often shoo children out of the kitchen to avoid their distractions while making dinner - distractions she thinks of as a good investment.
``Just think how nice it would be if you came home to find the salad made, a vinaigrette ready to pour, the meat seasoned, and the potatoes scrubbed,'' Evans says. ``A nine- or 10-year-old probably shouldn't be entrustred to light the oven, but he can get everything ready for it,'' she adds.
In fact, she thinks training as cooks begins ``when you put the first spoonful into their mouths, and they learn to taste.'' Toddlers can be given a chance to ``stir, taste, see, and smell what you're doing,'' she says. ``Give them a stool and their own spoon,'' she advises.