September 8, 2007
'The Joy (and the Oy) of Cooking' with kids
As long as it involves a whirring blade or a spinning disc that will pulverize anything that has the misfortune to meet it, my 11-year-old son is there.
Yair recently graduated my Cuisinart tutorial, replete with graphic descriptions of what might happen if he managed to override the safety mechanisms meant to keep finger from meeting metal, and he now makes a tangy cucumber and dill salad and a nutty pesto with his weapon of choice.
While Yair, 8-year-old Ezra and 5-year-old Neima usually jump at the chance to help in the kitchen, just peeling carrots or washing parsley can get boring. They want real jobs, and especially during the cooking-intensive weeks of the High Holy Days, giving them more challenging tasks is a good way to hold their interest in all things culinary.
I have been tempted, at times, just to let them get bored and write off cooking, because in all honesty, allowing little chefs into my realm can be a little less than fun. If I have to get 12 dishes cooked in two hours, I don't have a lot of patience for their messy mixing and inexact measuring, or all the questions about which drawer the fleishig (meat) measuring spoons are in.
So why am I crazy enough to let them handle boxes of powdered sugar and vats of flour?
Because when we cook together, I know that we're building memories, that getting them comfortable in a kitchen will only be good for them as adults, and that allowing them to do grown-up things builds confidence and pride. They learn some math, and they follow directions, and they take in family and Jewish traditions. Mostly, it's just fun and messy, and at the end they get to lick the spoons.
And, even though all those things I just listed above so people will think I am really a good mom are true, this story is also about me: While I may spend more time than I'd like to admit at the edge -- or just over the edge -- of my patience while we cook, when we all sit down to eat Ezra's popcorn cauliflower or Yair's confetti cake, I will have forgotten the turmeric that I'm still scrubbing off the wall and will simply enjoy the purer idea of having engaged with my kids in such a primal and organic activity.
Apparently the kids forgive my snapping and yelling through a good portion of our bonding experience, because they always are up for more.
And there are perks: I have found that as my kids have gotten older, their help is the real kind of help, not the keep-them-busy kind of help.
When they were toddlers, I would plop them right up on the counter and they would help me count out the cups of flour, and together we would dump the ingredients into the bowl and then they would help stir. Soon, when they graduated to the stepstool, they could measure out the soy sauce or olive oil themselves. They helped sprinkle the paprika and cumin on the chicken and splashed balsamic vinegar into the marinades.
Now, I can give Yair a recipe, and, with some hovering help from me, he pulls out the ingredients, reads the directions, (grudgingly) gives jobs to Ezra and Neima and produces dishes like chocolate cake and lemon snowball cookies (seriously yum), with only a few burnt fingers or minor cuts. He even cleans up at the end.
Ezra is my salad guy -- he washes and tears the greens, and for him giving the lettuce a ride in the salad spinner is an extra boon. He slices up the tomatoes, cukes and peppers with a reasonably sharp knife -- dull knives can be more dangerous since they can slip if he puts too much pressure on them.
He and his sister husk corn on the cob and pick oregano and rosemary from our herb garden (I'm showing off again). He can level off a measuring spoon of garlic powder and trim green beans, and if I give him a sink full of pots and pans, the dishes -- as well as the counter, the floor and Ezra's shirt -- all get squeaky clean. And if in the middle he is suddenly too tired to finish, that's tough: In my kitchen, if you start a job, you complete it.
Neima cuts the bananas, strawberries and apples (I preslice them, she cubes them) for fruit salad whenever we have our daddy-is-away-on-business breakfast-for-dinner extravaganza. She is adept with a can opener, but after the recent fingernail incident decided never to peel potatoes again. She washes all sorts of herbs and vegetables, pulls cilantro and basil leaves from the stem, and she can clean out the inside of a pepper better than I can. Bonus: Peppers are now one of approximately three vegetables she'll eat.
When there are lemons or limes to be squeezed, the kids work out the order of who goes when (or they fight about it until I threaten to throw them out) and then take all their aggression out on the citrus fruit, using a manual juicer. They can all crack eggs with grace, and they know how to check for blood spots that would render the egg unkosher.
One of our favorite things to cook is challah. We throw the ingredients into a bread machine, then a couple hours later take out the dough and braid it. I used to give them each little lumps of dough to make their own personal loaves, because while they washed their hands at the start, after 20 minutes of kneading, the dough turned into a grayish glob of grossness that I wouldn't eat or feed to anyone else. Soon I gave them larger lumps of dough, and they became expert braiders, making the main challah (after one major meltdown, I learned to explain that the large loaves were for everyone to share, not just for the maker to eat alone).
Now, as Rosh Hashanah approaches, they're working on mastering the twist-and-twirl technique to create the traditional round Challahs. Between now and Shemini Atzeret, we'll have to make about 20 loaves, so they'll get lots of practice. And as long as I can be the super-mom I've portrayed myself as in this article, it should be a lot of fun for the whole family.