School holiday cooking – Virgil

Kitchen quality time

Virgil Evetts 

 So the school holidays are upon us again. Yay. Fortunately our ‘child’ (my baby brother-in-law, has lived with us since he was a mere bairn, long story…) is now a gangly uni-student and needs no entertainment outside of loud expletive-laden music, alcohol and the odd curiously-smitten girl. But it wasn’t so long ago that school holidays meant that age old dilemma of how to entertain a ferociously smart and infuriatingly bored boy for weeks on end. In summer this wasn’t such a problem. Once chiselled free from his computer he could be sent to a friend’s house, taken to the beach, the park, etc.  But the winter holidays, starting with the buffet of weather phenomena that is Easter, were an altogether more challenging time for us as parent-type figures and for the bored boy alike. Sure, you can go to the movies, the museum, the mall, but New Zealand by and large isn’t big on indoor entertainment. The choices are quickly exhausted, as are funds.

No doubt the above is more than a little familiar to any parent, caregiver or whatever you want to call yourself.  So what can you do on the cheap? What can you do that doesn’t involve brain-rotting electronic ‘entertainment’ but is still fun?

Well, if there was ever a perfect time for some serious parent/child bonding in the kitchen (and like teaching your own child to drive it’s probably debatable) it might just be a rainy day in the holidays. At least you’ve got a captive audience.

To my way of thinking, teaching a child to respect food and to love, rather than fear, cooking is one of the most valuable things you can pass on. Yes, love, compassion and all those warm fuzzies are important too, I guess, but they won’t put an edible meal on the table.  Also, I’m told on somewhat biased authority that a boy who can cook is quite a catch (this is a very good selling point to teenage boys).

As Jamie Oliver has shown us (repeatedly, ad nauseum thanks, we get it now James), a terrifying number of children are growing up believing that all food comes from cans or the depths of the supermarket freezer, and whilst proficient in microwave management they could barely tell a stove apart from lawnmower, let alone know how to use one.  So please, please teach the kids to cook.

 There is a gooey tendency to patronise children when it comes to cooking lessons. Most books on the subject are full of dinosaur shaped cakes and spaghetti and cheese covered scone-dough creations. While it’s true that most children will enjoy making and devouring this sort of thing, I believe in pushing a little harder.  Cooking is a grown up thing so children should learn to cook like grown-ups. Obviously I don’t mean uber-adult haute cuisine, but real food- pesto, hummus, a nice poached egg. As I’ve said countless times before, the best food is usually the simplest. This to me is one of the true joys of cooking.  A few choice ingredients can come together and work pure magic.

So I’ve assembled here a few ideas to try with kids in the kitchen when the rain starts falling (and let’s face it, it’s inevitable) these holidays.

All of these have been made and enjoyed by aforementioned baby brother-in-law throughout his childhood and will hopefully make him a hit on the flatting circuit. If he ever leaves home.

I’m not a big fan of drumming the science of nutrition into young, impressionable heads. Kids don’t need to know those details, nor do they need to start obsessing about their weight. If you teach them to make real food from basic ingredients and that old adage about everything in moderation, the rest will follow in time. I once over-heard a mother quite skilfully fostering lifelong body-image issues in her little girl by telling her  that she couldn’t have an ice cream because ‘ice-cream makes you fat and ugly’. Nice.

 A brief Achtung [!] that I hope I don’t really need to add- kitchens are full of stabby, slicey, burny things that can have some seriously detrimental affects on unsupervised children. Remember that old joke about the baby with the potato peeler? Based on a true story.

Pizza

Just show me the child who doesn’t like Pizza.  Sure you can buy the frozen kind, and most kids will very happily oblige by wolfing them down, but where’s the fun in that? Making a pizza from scratch can take the best part of an afternoon if you get your resident offspring making the dough from scratch. Sure, it’s a messy business once the flour gets airborne and doughy fingers escape from the non-stick confines of the kitchen but it’s this kind of tactile cooking that kids remember. My basic pizza base recipe goes something like this- 2 cups of flour, a good pinch of salt, enough water and yeast to make an elastic dough and a good splash of olive oil.  I’ve never written it down before because my mother showed me how to do it and taught my hands to know when it’s right. I’ve never forgotten and neither have my fingers.  This is Crucial lesson #1 for any kitchen newbie: learn to trust your senses rather than relying purely on the infallibility of recipes.

I like to let children’s imagination go wild with pizzas. It’s a good way of letting them learn what works and what… offends the very angels in heaven. It’s one thing to tell a kid that banana and tuna don’t go together and another (and far more memorable one) for them to learn firsthand. Crucial lesson #2: we all make mistakes- learn from them.

Pesto

I know of a small boy who until recently refused to eat anything other than pesto sandwiches. It was the first real solid food he ate and he seemed to regard it as the archetype of all things edible. I like this. It shows how cosmopolitan our tastes have become when an otherwise normal kiwi kid obsesses over pesto, a sauce that 20 years ago was regarded as outrageously exotic and new (in New Zealand anyway- the Italians have been making it for centuries). Pesto – of the original Genovese or basil persuasion – seems to have almost universal acceptance with the young kiwi palate. It only takes minutes to prepare but is a great way of teaching kids how to build flavours. Use loads of fresh basil, cashew nuts (far cheaper than pine nuts), cheap generic parmesan (use the real deal if you’re a purest), plenty of garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. Encourage your trainees to taste the ingredients separately and to judge the finished product with their eyes and taste buds. Crucial lesson #3: taste, taste and taste again

Eggs

There is something very satisfying about lying in bed to the sound of a child quietly cooking themselves an egg for breakfast. Satisfying because you are still in bed. Don’t underestimate the value of self-catering kids.  But as Queen Delia has pointed out (via a cook-book trilogy and TV series – way to stretch a point!), a woeful number of children are venturing forth into the world without this precious skill. Eggs are tasty little monkeys and as I recall have been officially pardoned of all previous charges of cardiovascular misdemeanour, so we should be in eating them by the protein-rich bucketful. Anyway, who can afford meat these days?  I do agree with indoctrinating children in the ethics of eating. The odd You-Tube horror clip on the reality of battery farming is a sobering but valuable lesson. Probably best skipped if you’re a battery-egg household. The easiest style of eggery for the first-timer is scrambled. This takes but a minute, but if you don’t time it right, your eggs will be stone cold by the time the toast is done. Crucial lesson #4: timing is everything- plan ahead.

Schnitzel

A personal favourite of mine. As a child there was no finer meal in my books than Weiner schnitzel, cooked in frothy, sizzling butter, served with mashed potatoes and probably some sort of boiled plant that I ignored or tossed out the window (we didn’t have a dog). I’ve since found that all children seem to have a pre-programmed love of schnitzel and any other breaded fried food for that matter. Schnitzel is dead-easy to make but is both noisy [bash, bash, bash] and messy- two things dear to the heart of every healthy child. Getting to grips with the latter is particularly important for any budding kitchen apprentice. Eggy, floury and bread crumbed fingers are reality of making a decent piece of schnitzel .Crucial lesson # 5: cooking can be icky- get over it.

Hummus

When I was a child chickpeas were loathsome things. Mercifully unknown to most children, and hated by those of us unfortunate enough to be raised by pulse-obsessed hippies.

But oh how the world has changed. The chickpea – in the form of hummus – is the dip and sandwich spread of choice for an entire generation of kiwi kids; stranger still, I’ve come to love the stuff too.

Just as previous generations were taught at a tender age to make evaporated milk/onion soup chip- dip, the contemporary child needs know how to whip up a batch of hummus. If you really want to go the whole nine yards you can get them soaking dried chickpeas a day in advance and regularly changing the stinking water. Then again, why bother when canned are just as good? Crucial lesson #6: sometimes even the best cook cuts corners.

 

These are just a few ideas. Depending on the age and interest of the child, you can teach them just about anything. The main thing is to keep it fun, practical and avoid being preachy. No kid wants to feel like they’re back at school in middle of the holidays, so when tempers start to fray or if boredom sets in, do something else. You don’t need to impart your entire repertoire in one day.

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5 thoughts on “School holiday cooking – Virgil

  1. My kids are not a fan of Hummus, but love making Dukkah.
    They experiment with different nuts and seeds- pumpkin, sunflower, cashews, even peanuts – Im not sure it is Dukkah anymore!
    They also play around with the spices, sometimes I swear they just chuck in salt and chilli into the food processor when they are mixing the nuts/seed.
    I guess it is the dunking of the bread in the oil, and then in the dukkah that is most satisfying for them.
    My 5 year old likes to make it weekly.
    I like the school holidays as an excuse to do more baking than usual, as I have “helpers”.
    Have fun
    Ruth

  2. It’s the punch line to the following: What’s red and pink and sits in the corner getting smaller and smaller? It was considered devastatingly witty in the corridors of Takapuna Grammar in the early 90s.
    I only ever use [roasted] cashews in pesto- much cheaper than pine nuts but still taste great. The trouble with pine nuts is that they are very often rancid by the time we get them down here in NZ, not a risk I’m willing to take at that price per kilo.

  3. I am really worried about the baby and the potato peeler and not sure whether I should be asking or not…?
    My kids live on hummus – it is afternoon tea with pretzels or rice crackers most days. Yes schnitzel is a favourite as well but I am stil working on pesto.
    I haven’t ever made basil pesto with cashew nuts – is it really good or just a more economical option?

  4. Baby and Potato Peeler? I don’t know that one, but the mind boggles. Do I want to know? I do remember my butcher having a sign on his bacon slicer: ‘Please don’t sit your baby on the bacon slicer; we might get a little behind with our orders.’
    Thank you for a great article, Virgil. I believe wholeheartedly in teaching the little tykes to cook. Should be done in schools too, but we’ve been there in a thread on the forums.

  5. Pizza is great, we do scrambled eggs too, and a variety of home baking with garish cupcakes the most popular. Pies also work well – we have done apple and bacon and egg with success.