Learning to cook is not just something we must do to survive as humans, it’s a life skill that we hold with us forever. Being a relatively new father of three little girls, I always find it inspiring when I impart a new life skill onto one of them. Learning to walk and talk are the big ones that all parents wait for but in our house, learning to cook and how to have respect for food has been just as important to their development.
From a very young age, my oldest daughter Kate who just turned five, has been interested in what goes on in the kitchen. She realized early on that what shows up on her plate at dinner table, starts in a very different form in the kitchen and she wanted to see it all. For my wife and I, it was an epiphany of sorts because anything that Kate didn’t recognize on the table and was hesitant to try, she would taste once I told her she helped me make it. To date, the only thing she didn’t enjoy were olives, but she’s since developed a taste for them too. She also always cautions me about making things too spicy, so I let her inspect and smell everything and if it passes her inspection, we use it. If later tells me it’s too spicy, I remind her that she approved everything and then she’ll try it again.
Her love of quality food has now taken her to the market where she will not let me put anything in my basket until she’s inspected it fully. It has to be one perfect apple or peach to get past her stringent eye. It takes a simple shopping trip to a whole new level of scavenger hunt, looking for the best of the best. If she should ever get a job as a food inspector, she’ll either be responsible for elevating suppliers to the best they can be or bring them to financial ruin as very little would be accepted. I know that I’m having an effect on her because one day when we were looking for pasta, she picked out the best-looking one and said, “this one is rough extruded, it’s the best daddy.” I was so proud. The lady next to us in the aisle said, “Pardon, what did she say” as she picked up the same box for a closer look (see Pasta Lesson in the Rouxbe Cooking School if you don’t understand what “extruded” means or how to select quality pasta).
Last week Kate helped me make laminated pasta by cranking the handle on my new pasta machine till she cold barely crank anymore. This week we decided to make one of her favorite foods, gnocchi. She has many favorites already but from the first time I made homemade gnocchi, this one went to the front of the class. It is by far the most requested dish after maybe French toast or pancakes. I had let her try to shape some them the last time we made it with moderate success, but this time I thought, it was time we both took a leap forward. From helping me decide if the potatoes were done to when to add the eggs, Kate was involved. I did the cutting of the dough but she was the flour girl always ready to give me a dusting when I needed it. After letting the dough rest, which she was sure to remind me to do, we both rolled out the long snakes of dough. She was flouring everything as I cut the gnocchi down to size and then it was time to shape.
I showed her the thumb method on the gnocchi paddle a few times and then let her go. When the pieces stuck together, I showed her what to do and how to fix it and after that, she was telling me when she needed a dusting of flour. We made a big batch that gave us enough to freeze for another night and of course enough for dinner that night so she had a lot to shape.
It was her menu that night, she picked everything from the butternut squash to the piggy (pork) as she likes to calls it. She cleaned out the squash for me practicing for when she’d have to clean a pumpkin for Halloween soon enough. I peeled it and cut it up but she added the olive oil and mixed it up by hand while I added the seasonings. She then helped me arrange it on a baking sheet for the oven. She also approved all the spices for the dry rub I used on the pork that I was preparing to go on the bbq. She even picked the fresh sage from the garden for the gnocchi sauce. To top it off, she even set the table for dinner.
I don’t know how early you should let your kids into the kitchen and expect them to actually make anything edible. I started to cook when most people learn, after they moved out of their parents house, which when thinking back to my frozen food days, was far too late. Kids learn at an incredible pace and have such a capacity to absorb what we show them so don’t be afraid to sit your’s down on a stool next to you in the kitchen. You may be surprised by what they pick up and you might even find yourself having more fun in the kitchen. As Kate finds things she wants to be when she grows up, she always adds them to her resume, which right now reads like this: Princess, ballerina, singer, ninja, artist, and/or chef. Of that list I have no idea what she’ll achieve personally, but she’ll always be my princess and I don’t think she’s ever going to starve.