My Kid in the Kitchen

Moms ask me all the time if my daughter is a good eater, and I’m happy to say that she is. Part of the reason is that I put her to work in the kitchen (from an early age … see the video below). I’ve said before and I’ll say again that the more kids get involved with their food, the more likely they are to eat it. Here are a few ways that Noemi (4-1/2) and I cook together in the kitchen.

  • kid in the kitchenWe snap beans and peas together, and husk corn … often at the table outside or on our front stoop (I think God made front stoops as a place to husk corn and eat popsicles).
  • Noemi “zips” greens for me. She loves, loves, loves doing this and is so proud of what a great job she does.
  • She cuts soft vegetables and fruits like mushrooms and strawberries. I bought a couple of plastic serrated knives from Curious Chef a couple of years ago and we’ve never looked back. Noe puts a cutting board on her her little “stove,” picks up her knife and goes.
  • Noe loves pounding garlic in my mortar and pestle. Last night, as I was pulling together a pasta with zucchini and pesto, she perked up and asked if she could help out. So I put her to work on the pesto (what she’s not so fond of is mommy hopping up to get her camera and then making her hold a pose …).
  • A different season, but Noemi also loves getting pomegranate seeds out of the pod, and little things like rolling cheese in breadcrumbs and shaping mounds of dough.

The point is, the kitchen is a really fun place for kids if you invite them to do things that they can excel at and enjoy … no matter what their age. Start them young and your kids will become naturally curious towards food, rather than looking at it as something foisted upon them.

Last night after making her pesto, for instance, Noemi was enthusiastic about sitting down for dinner. And, yes, she did eat the zucchini.


(Almost) Traditional Spanish Paella

Perhaps no dish conjures up more images of Spain than paella. Steeped in history and distinctive spices, to prepare this dish is to summon the soul of Spain and the spirit of her people.

For the uninitiated, paella (pronounced “pie-AY-ya”) is kind of a rice casserole, traditionally prepared in a special kind of pan (from which it takes its name) over an open fire. And it’s prepared by men.

Food carries a very strong cultural imperative in Spain, and customs are not swept away merely for the sake of political correctness. Throughout Spain, there are exclusive all-male clubs dedicated entirely to cooking and to the pleasures of the table.

Paella has at least 400 years of history, and its origins are in the province of Valencia, on the southeast coast. There, they grow the medium-grain Valencia rice that absorbs flavors wonderfully and is the key to the dish. The first paellas were made by peasants, using their native rice and whatever was available–often snails, onions, and that curious import from the New World, the tomato.

Since then paella has evolved into an enormous variety of dishes in every region of Spain, as well as the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the Philippines. Many use saffron, but not all, and the countless combinations of ingredients include all manner of shellfish, game, fowl, mushrooms, and finfish.

The traditional method, using the wide, shallow, heavy-bottomed paella pan, cooks slowly over a well-regulated fire. Where Americans might have a clambake, Spanish families have beach cookouts where paella is made amid plenty of wine-fueled arguments about the right way to do it. Controlling the fire, stirring enough but not too much, when to add which ingredients so they cook completely without overcooking; all this is debated throughout the process because every Spanish cook claims to make the best paella. This method takes practice and patience, but is quite rewarding for all who partake.

Now for those who are looking for a shortcut, here’s a simpler method that cooks the rice and the seafood/chicken/chorizo mixture separately so it doesn’t require the constant attention of the traditional method. Breaking with tradition is not a sin of which I am often guilty, but I have to admit that this does produce quite a tasty dish … even if I would be shunned by my fellow male chefs in Spain.

Remembering Home Cooking Lessons on Father’s Day

By Alison Ashton

You always hear people saying they learned to cook from their mamas or grandmas. With Father’s Day coming up, I’m reminded that it was my dad who suggested I get acquainted with the kitchen with some home cooking lessons.

fathers-day“Don’t you think Alison should learn to cook something?” he asked my mom one day when I was 11.

“Why on Earth would she want to do that?” Mom asked. She was a reluctant cook herself, and the women’s movement was in full bloom at the time, so she figured if I wasn’t interested, why bother? After all, Dad wasn’t exactly nudging my brother toward the stove.

Until then, my culinary participation was limited to doing homework at the kitchen counter while Mom cooked dinner or, when she (rarely) made chocolate-chip cookies, licking the beaters. (Those were the days, before salmonella scares, when raw cookie dough was meant to be relished, not feared.)

Dad didn’t take the bait on Mom’s gender politics, so he and I embarked on a series of home cooking lessons. One of our first ventures was making brownies. We used a box mix, which is a big cheat of course, but they tasted good and offered guaranteed success. Before long, though, my tween passive-aggressive sulkiness and lack of enthusiasm took the wind out of Dad’s culinary determination and he tasked me instead with “character-building” chores, like scrubbing our redwood hot tub (above, with Dad soaking happily) with steel wool under a blazing summer sun (if only I’d stuck with learning how to cook a pot roast).

I continued to avoid the kitchen throughout my early adulthood, living on restaurant meals, takeout and convenience food. But after awhile, eating out became a chore in itself–deciding where to go, parking, the time. So I started following a recipe here and there with edible–even good–results. To my surprise, I discovered I enjoyed cooking; it was a relaxing way to end the day.

As I learned more, I worked my way into food editing and writing, where I enjoyed sharing my newfound knowledge with others. I even went to culinary school last year to fill in the lingering gaps. I learned plenty of fancy stuff—how to make crystal-clear consommé and a chicken galantine–but, truth be told, I was happiest mastering some basic skills that I likely would have picked up if I’d just stuck it out in the kitchen with Dad.

He didn’t live to witness this transformation, though I imagine he’d greet this news with a satisfied smirk and say, “Honey, if you weren’t so stubborn I would have shown you that for free.”

Well, Dad, better late than never.

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A longtime editor, writer, and recipe developer, Alison Ashton is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and the Editorial Director for NOURISH Evolution. She has worked as a features editor for a national wire service and as senior food editor for a top food magazine. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, and Natural Health.