Mariah Bey’s mom had one concern: Is there a fire extinguisher in that kitchen?
I was making minestrone soup with 11-year-old Mariah and four other girls who had signed up for after-school cooking lessons at St. Martin de Porres at 23d and Lehigh in North Philadelphia.
I had been doing this with my own daughter, Sally — teaching her to cook as we blogged about it — until she started medical school last fall and abandoned me.
Now I needed new students if I was to continue my mission: convincing non-cooks that it’s easy to prepare tasty, healthy, inexpensive meals.
With obesity and diabetes rates climbing, with fast food and processed food becoming the rule instead of the exception, it seems imperative that young people learn the basics of nutrition and cooking. In fact, I submit, this should be part of every school curriculum.
So I decided to find a school and give it a go.
Like many schools in the city, St. Martin’s has no cafeteria kitchen, only industrial microwaves to heat up the prepackaged school lunches. That means we are cooking in the convent kitchen. (I figure God will not let this kitchen burn down, but, just in case, we did locate the fire extinguisher.)
The fifth and sixth graders were excited to get started as they arrived in the kitchen the first day, dressed in plaid uniforms and crisp white blouses. They all said they could cook: “I learned how to make ribs when I was 3 years old,” said Mariah.
But when it came time to peel carrots and chop onions, garlic, squash, and kale, it seemed there was a thing or two I could teach them. (Indeed, the kale and squash were new to most of them.)
Mariah claimed a yellow onion. Though equipped with knife, cutting board, and goggles I had provided so her eyes wouldn’t tear, she was perplexed about just how to begin. I showed her how to peel away the papery skin, cut off the ends, and slice the onion between its poles.
She seemed to be doing a good job, but when I turned my head to help someone else, one of her classmates cried out, “Mariah, watch out for your thumb!” The knife was edging perilously close.
“Lesson 1: Do not cut off a finger,” I said.
We divided the rest of the tasks and soon the kitchen was a hive of activity. Hope Wescott, 11, quickly became an expert at peeling carrots at the sink. Jayla Reeves, 11, peeled and chopped the garlic while Kayla Reid, 11, scraped the leaves off the sprigs of thyme.
Maliyah (“I don’t like vegetables”) Gregg, 10, was grating the Parmesan cheese.
Still, the pace was a little leisurely as the girls sat around the kitchen table, chatting and settling into their tasks. They were to be picked up at 5:50 p.m. and the clock was already inching past 4:30. Time to pick up the pace.
Measure that olive oil and get it into the pot.
“Mariah, how are those onions coming?”
Soon the onions and carrots were simmering, and Jayla set the timer on her phone for 15 minutes.
Next, the girls prepped the remaining ingredients: Cans of beans and tomatoes were opened, squash and broccoli chopped, kale washed, ribs removed, chopped. I showed the girls how to put each ingredient in its own bowl, to make it easier when the time came to add them.
“Maliyah, I think that’s enough cheese,” I said, as a mound of Parmesan rose beneath the grater.
“Can we taste the cheese?” said Kayla.
“Sure, but it’s strong and salty, so it’s best to just try a tiny slice.”
They tasted, and there were squinched faces all around. “Yech!”
“It’s meant to be a garnish,” I said. “Just a spoonful on top of the soup, then it melts in.”
As the pot bubbled, a lovely aroma filled the kitchen, and we had a few minutes to talk.
“Can we peel more carrots and eat them?” asked Hope. “Absolutely!” I said. “As many as you want.”
Then I asked, “Why do you girls think it’s a good idea to learn how to cook?”
“So you don’t have to depend on anyone else,” said Jayla.
“Because it’s faster than going out to eat,” said another.
“Yes, yes!” I replied. “And it tastes so much better than what comes out of a can, with no extra preservatives.”
We had talked a bit about nutrition and foods’ with only empty calories with no nutritional value.
“This soup is filled with things that are good for you,” I said. “Do you think you’d make it at home?”
“No, it’s too expensive,” said Maliyah.
“But it’s not,” I told them: All these ingredients cost $10 — for five people, that’s $2 each, with plenty left over for the nuns!
The timer went off — time to add the rest of the ingredients and two bouillon cubes. We also needed to add three cups of water, but we couldn’t find a measuring cup. OK, we’ve got a 16-ounce soup can. There are 8 ounces in a cup. How many cups will fill this can?
Two, said Jayla.
So the soup can became both our measuring cup and our math lesson.
As those last ingredients were marrying with the rest of the soup, the girls set the table and awaited the fruit of their labor. They took turns ladling it into mugs, topping each with a spoonful of cheese.
Impressively, they waited politely until all had been served and grace had been said before picking up their spoons.
After we had enjoyed our little meal together — what I hoped would be the first of many — and they had cleared the table, I asked them to write down their impressions. I think they were pretty honest:
“It was a little job,” wrote Kayla. “And now I know that you can make something good out of vegetables. The broth gave the vegetables a tasty flavor.”
Jayla: “Today we made minestrone soup and it was so good. We had so much fun with vegetables and it was just so flavorful. Love, Jayla.”
“It was good and tasty,” wrote Hope. “It had a lot of flavor and love and now that I can make it, I will tell my family about it.”
Mariah: “What I liked about it was I learned how healthy foods are also my best foods now.”
And finally, non-vegetable-eater Maliyah, who sipped the broth, skimmed the cheese from the top, and reluctantly put a spoon with one piece of broccoli between her lips for the briefest moment before spitting it out.
Her verdict: “I think it was the worst soup ever!”
Next week, Maliyah — meat loaf!
I got the text from my son first thing in the morning on his girlfriend’s birthday. “I want to make a birthday dinner tonight. Can you send a good easy recipe.”
I’m happy anytime my kids cook instead of resorting to take out, but I was especially thrilled that he wanted to cook a special meal instead of going out.
“How about the scallops we made over the weekend,” I suggested via text.
“Eh, no scallops,” he shot back. “What else you got?”
“What does she like?” I queried. “Fish or meat?”
Why did I bother to ask?
“Meat!” was his reply.
Well, at least he was just doing steaks on the grill, he was actually looking for a recipe. I suggested a pork roast with vegetables, an easy, but elegant dish.
“Boom! Send the recipe!”
But moments later, he was having second thoughts.
“Chicken parm, I decided,” he texted, naming one of his favorite dinners. “Do you have a good recipe?”
I explained that it was just like the eggplant parmesan I had made often and that recipe was already on the blog.
“You just saute the chicken breast, then spoon tomato sauce on top, layer some cheese over that, and bake it in the oven.”
“Perfecto, can you send the recipe?”
“Haha! I thought I just did.”
I did email the recipe, and he actually made the dish before me, texting me a photo at 8:20 that night.
“Impressive!” I texted back, and I meant it. The photo really did look delicious.
“How did it taste?”
Slowly, meal, by meal, I may convince these children of mine, that cooking is worth the effort.
Makes 2 servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon each, chopped: fresh rosemary, thyme, and parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 (3 ounces each) chicken cutlets
¾ cup marinara sauce
¼ cup shredded mozzarella
Fresh basil, for garnish
1. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
2. Stir the oil and herbs in a small bowl to blend. Season with salt and pepper. Brush both sides of the cutlets with the herb oil. Heat a heavy, large ovenproof skillet over high heat. Add the cutlets and cook just until brown, about 2 minutes per side. Remove the skillet from the heat.
3. Spoon the marinara sauce over and around the cutlets. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of mozzarella over each cutlet. Bake until the cheese melts and the chicken is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Garnish with fresh basil.
— From Giada De Laurentiis
Per serving: 507 calories, 54 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 24 grams fat, 161 milligrams cholesterol, 604 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
From the time my children were in grade school, their favorite takeout dinner, hands down, was the vermicelli noodles and chicken topped with spring rolls from Vietnam Restaurant in Chinatown.
I don’t mean to suggest that they were super adventurous eaters, because they weren’t. But my husband used to bring home this dinner for the two of us, and soon enough the kids wanted to taste what their parents were eating. Shortly thereafter, they wanted styrofoam containers of their own.
It was just familiar enough, with noodles, lettuce, carrots, cucumber and peanuts, but a little bit exotic and grownup with mint and spicy chili peppers. The fish sauce was served on the side, and could be skipped, until their palates were ready for the salty, fishy fermentation.
It remained one of the few takeout dinners that my daughter Sally could eat after she was diagnosed with celiac, as the noodles are made with rice, and it is entirely gluten free.
So, I was anxious to try this Vietnamese noodle salad when I saw the recipe, and curious to see if I could reproduced something close to the dish we all love.
It was surprisingly quick and easy to pull it together, and the flavor profile was really close to the salad part of that favorite takeout. It does require some chopping, but the ingredients are all routine purchases, except for the rice noodles and fish sauce, which I found easily in the Ethnic food section at Wegman’s. I forgot to buy peanuts, and subbed with chopped almonds, which were not bad, but I definitely recommend using the salted peanuts.
I topped the salad with some leftover grilled chicken, which worked well. But I think it would also be great with grilled shrimp or pork kebabs.
It’s definitely a salad I’ll be making again, even though I’m sure it will never completely replace our favorite takeout. I love those crispy spring rolls way too much, and deep frying them at home is out of my league.
Vietnamese-Style Rice Noodle Salad
Makes 6 to 8 servings
½ cup fresh lime juice (from about 2 large limes)
¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon minced ginger
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 Thai bird chile, seeded and minced
8 ounces dried rice noodles (about ¼ inch thick)
8 cups thinly sliced iceberg lettuce (from 1 large head)
1 large carrot, shaved into ribbons (use a vegetable peeler)
1 large cucumber, peeled if you like, cut into ½-inch dice
5 medium radishes, thinly sliced
1 cup fresh mint leaves
3 chicken breasts, grilled and sliced thin
½ cup salted peanuts, coarsely chopped
1. In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, cilantro, fish sauce, sugar, ginger, garlic, and chile and let sit for at least 10 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the rice noodles and stir immediately. Cook the noodles, stirring frequently, until just tender, about 4 minutes. Drain and rinse the noodles with cold water until cool to the touch.
3. In a large salad bowl, combine the noodles with the lettuce, carrot, cucumber, radishes, and mint leaves. Add the sliced chicken and toss the salad with the dressing. Garnish with the peanuts.
Per serving (based on 8): 200 calories, 5 grams protein, 36 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fat, no cholesterol, 530 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Let’s face it, sometimes dinner comes down to what’s in the freezer. I knew I had a nice bag of Trader Joe’s scallops that soon would be overstaying its time in my freezer.
When I grabbed them to defrost, I spotted a bag of frozen peas and inspiration struck: Scallops with Thai pea puree, a Nigella Lawson recipe that could not be easier.
The truth is, I have yet to try a Nigella recipe that has not worked for me. Her flavor combinations are always inventive, but always spot on, and usually not ingredients I would have put together on my own.
In this case, the recipe calls for cooking a bag of frozen peas, and them throwing them in a blender with Thai green curry paste, and some sour cream. (I actually subbed Greek yogurt for the sour cream, which worked out just fine.)
Then the scallops are quickly seared for a couple of minutes on each side in a pan with butter and oil. The pan is deglazed with the juice of a lime, to create a sauce to be drizzled over the scallops. The pea puree is served alongside.
The green curry paste gave the peas just enough heat to make it interesting, while the lime butter sauce added a citrus zing that really elevated an ordinary scallop dish.
The whole thing comes together in about 20 minutes, start to finish, as quite a lovely weeknight meal. But don’t confine it to weeknights, wthis is nice enough to serve for guests.
Scallops with Thai-scented pea puree
Makes 2 servings
1 pound (3½ cups) frozen petits pois or peas
1 to 2 tablespoons Thai green curry paste
cup sour cream or Greek yogurt
2 teaspoons peanut or other flavorless oil
2 teaspoons butter
6 big scallops (such as sold in shell by fishmongers) or 10 to 12 small bay scallops (such as sold in packages in the supermarket), preferably diver-caught (If frozen, thaw in refrigerator according to package instructions.)
Juice of a lime
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or Thai basil
1. Cook the peas in boiling, slightly salted water until tender, then drain and tip into a blender, adding 1 tablespoon curry paste and the sour cream or Greek yogurt. Season to taste with salt and perhaps add more curry paste, depending on how strong it is.
2. Heat the oil and butter in a frying pan until foamy, and then fry the scallops for 2 minutes a side. If you are using big scallops it is sometimes easier to cut them in half across. When they are cooked, they will have just lost their raw look in the middle and be lusciously tender, while golden and almost caramelized on the outside.
3. Lift the scallops onto two warmed plates and then deglaze the hot pan by squeezing in the lime juice. Stir to mix well and pick up every scrap of flavor, and then pour over the scallops on each plate.
4. Dish up the pea puree alongside the scallops, and sprinkle with the chopped cilantro or Thai basil. Serve with another wedge of lime if you feel like it.
_ From Nigella Kitchen: Recipes From the Heart of the Home by Nigella Lawson (Hyperion, 2010)
Notes: The pea puree can be made 2 to 3 hours ahead. Drain peas and immediately rinse with plenty of cold water. Puree when cold with 1 tablespoon of the curry paste and sour cream or Green yogurt. Put in a bowl, cover and leave in a cool place or refrigerator. Reheat gently in a saucepan, taste and adjust seasoning before serving. If using sour cream, make sure the puree doesn’t boil, otherwise it will turn grainy.
Per serving: 536 calories, 42 grams protein, 41 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 23 grams fat, 83 milligrams cholesterol, 485 milligrams sodium, 13 grams dietary fiber.
My oldest son, standing in for his sister and taking a crack at cooking and blogging, is not in the least bit interested in light or vegetarian recipes.
“Where’s the beef?” was the refrain I often heard from him and his brother if I tried to offer meat-free dinners when they were growing up.
However, I did come up with some dishes the boys came to love, including this summer pasta salad, a take on a caprese salad, made with tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil leaves — and, of course, a hearty helping of sliced grilled chicken for the meat-eaters.
This started, as many favorites do, as a thrown-together recipe, when there was leftover grilled chicken in the fridge and pasta in the pantry. With a pot of basil growing on the back porch, and tomatoes and mozzarella weekly grocery staples at this time of year, you can see how easily this came together.
It’s honestly not something that even requires a recipe, but for the beginning cooks in my family, everything requires a recipe.
The bonus is that you can put this dinner on the table in 30 minutes, even if you are grilling the chicken. Just let the chicken rest for five minutes before you slice it and toss it with the rest of the salad and the lemon vinaigrette. The fresh-squeezed lemon juice really brightens this salad, so please don’t even think about using that stuff from a bottle.
Tim's Favorite Pasta Salad
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 or 3 boneless chicken breasts
1 pound pasta (shells, ziti, or fusilli)
2 ripe tomatoes, cut into 1-inch dice
4 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into ½- to 1-inch dice
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, sliced into thin strips
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
1. Preheat grill to medium high.
2. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper.
3. Fill large pot with water for cooking pasta. Add a pinch of salt and bring water to a boil.
4. When water boils, add the pasta and cook according to package directions, usually 9 to 13 minutes. Remove from heat, drain, and set aside.
5. Meanwhile, when grill is hot, oil the grates with paper towel, and grill chicken breasts, about 6 to 10 minutes per side, depending on thickness. Remove from grill and let rest for about five minutes, then slice into thin strips.
6. Slowly pour the olive oil into the lemon juice, stirring constantly, to make the vinaigrette.
7. Combine pasta, chicken, tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil.
8. Slowly drizzle about half the vinaigrette over the salad and toss. Add more to taste. (I like to save a little to revive leftover salad the next day.)
9. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Per serving: 551 calories, 39 grams protein, 59 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 74 milligrams cholesterol, 213 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber
My daughter says she has not completely abandoned the blog, but she has certainly not been cooking, taking a few weeks before she starts medical school to visit friends, go to the beach, and do a lot of nothing.
So, I’ve implored my son to take a crack at this cooking thing. Sally had a preference for learning a lot of vegetarian dishes, or meals centered around fish or chicken.
While Tim’s favorite meals are more meat centric, everyone in the family loves crab cakes, so I thought that would be a recipe he was anxious to learn.
Well, not so much. Tim made it pretty clear. He wanted meat. Red meat. And potatoes. Colored vegetables were optional.
Okay then. He wanted to just grab a few steaks and throw them on the grill. But as he was home for dinner over the weekend, I suggested we cook together, and try London Broil, or top round. Much more meat, just as tasty, for a much better price. In fact the two pound slab of top round I bought was about $10. Even (what used to be less expensive) flank steak was about twice that price.
I did a quick marinade with fresh herbs and olive oil, coarse salt and pepper. Then while the grill was heating up, we cut up potatoes, zucchini and carrots.
We roasted the zucchini and carrots in the oven with a little olive oil and salt. Instead of whipped potatoes, which are not terribly hard but can be challenging for a new cook, we went with smashed potatoes.
They don’t need to be peeled, just cut up, boiled, then literally smashed with a potato masher, with butter, salt and a little milk. Even Tim was impressed at how easy they were.
The London Broil was grilled to a nice medium rare, so good that the son who never eats leftovers brought them home to his apartment for dinner the next night.
Two nights in a row without takeout is a good start.
London Broil, Smashed Potatoes, and Roasted Vegetables
Makes 4 servings
2 pounds of top round beef
3 tablespoons mixed chopped fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, oregano, or marjoram
1½ teaspoons coarse salt, plus to taste for veggies
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper, plus to taste for veggies
4 medium-size Idaho potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled
2 zucchini, washed
4 carrots, washed and peeled
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons milk
1. Mix together and rub into the beef the herbs and salt and pepper. Drizzle with one tablespoon olive oil. Let the meat sit out for 1 hour at room temperature.
2. Prepare the grill.
3. Meanwhile, slice the zucchini and carrots into coins, and cut the potatoes into 2-inch chunks.
4. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Put the potatoes in a pot of cold water and bring to a boil.
5. When the grill is hot, put the meat on the grill and cook for 3 minutes on one side, turn over and cook for 3 minutes on the other side. Then turn down the heat, and cook for 6 or 7 minutes on each side for medium rare.
6. When the oven is hot, put the veggies on a sheet pan, drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and put in the oven for about 15 minutes.
7. Once the potatoes boil, set the timer for 10 minutes, but keep checking with a fork to see if they are soft.
8. When the potatoes are fork-tender, drain. Add butter and milk and smash the potatoes with a potato masher (with skins on) to desired consistency. (But don’t mash too much or they will turn to glue. They should be a little lumpy.)
9. Take steak off the grill and let rest for 5 minutes. Slice thinly across the grain and serve with potatoes and vegetables.
-Adapted from a recipe from Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food
No one can say I did not try. I spent an entire afternoon giving my children a lesson in what I would like for my Mother’s Day meal. But did I get miso-marinated cod with mushroom risotto? Of course not. Since my oldest son was the only one able to make it home, my husband pitched in. And what did they make? Chicken fajitas.
Well, I do love chicken fajitas. And Tim added his first blog post.
Tim: My mom asked me to take over blogging duties for my sister who is heading to medical school in July (congratulations Sally!) So moving forward, as a 27-year-old male, I will be contributing to this blog … We may want to rethink the title.
As promised, I came home for Mother’s Day … the only child to come home, I might add. Although, with a brother at Princeton and now, a sister in medical school, I think it’s safe to say I’m still comfortably in 3rd place. After the leafy, green pea sauce last week, I wasn’t sure what to expect for the meal, but my dad and I decided on fajitas, my mom’s favorite. And I was thrilled. We marinated the chicken with a lime sauce and some onions and peppers (I’m not sure what was in the lime sauce, the Phillies were on). It had to marinate for 2 hours, during which I took full advantage of my parents’ recliner and 50-inch TV to watch two episodes of FX’s Justified, that show is legit. Next, we baked the fajitas for about 20 minutes, and, then my mom gave me the most important job … making gin and tonics. Bluecoat gin, some top-shelf tonic water, and we were in business. When the chicken was done baking we grilled it outside for a few minutes on each side. While the chicken grilled we sautéed the peppers and onions on the stove top. My dad made guacamole (his first time and it was not bad!) And we were ready to rock-and-roll. Well, except for the fact that we had to wait 20 minutes for Mom to photograph the food. Really, Inquirer? No photographer? Other than that, the food turned out delicious and the gin and tonics went down easy. All in all, a great Mother’s Day.
Makes 4 to 6 portions
Juice of 4 limes
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts
2 large onions, halved lengthwise and cut into -inch slivers
2 bell peppers (I like red and yellow), seeds removed and sliced into strips
2 packages (7 ounces each) 6-inch corn or flour tortillas, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups guacamole (see note)
8 ounces sour cream or Greek yogurt
2 ripe plum tomatoes, cut into -inch dice
1 1/2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
Tabasco or hot pepper sauce
1. Combine the lime juice, olive oil, oregano, and teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a measuring cup. Mix well.
2. Put the chicken breasts in a 9-by-13-inch Pyrex pan. Add the sliced onions and peppers. Pour the marinade over, making sure to turn over the chicken breasts so the marinade coats both sides. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and marinate, turning occasionally, for 2 hours.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and prepare hot coals or gas grill for grilling.
4. Remove the chicken, onions, and peppers from the refrigerator and bake, still covered, for 20 minutes. Remove the chicken breasts and set aside.
5. Transfer the onions and peppers to a heavy skillet, adding the remaining marinade. Sprinkle with the remaining teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until they are very soft and slightly browned, about 15 minutes. Drain, if necessary, and set aside.
6. Place the chicken breasts over a hot grill and grill until they are cooked through but still moist, about 3 minutes on each side. Slice them into strips, 3 inches long and -inch wide.
7. Throw the tortillas on the grill for about one minute on each side, just to crisp them up, but watch carefully. (This is optional, but so worth it!)
8. Lay the tortillas on a large platter and serve along with the chicken, onions, guacamole, yogurt or sour cream, tomatoes, and cheese. Let each person fill a tortilla according to taste. Top with a dash of hot sauce. Fold or roll the tortillas and enjoy!
Note: To make guacamole, scoop the insides of 2 avocados into a bowl. Add 4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, and mash the avocados coarsely. With a fork, gently mix in 1 chopped plum tomato, 1 tablespoon chopped onion, salt and pepper to taste, and a dash of Tabasco. Serve within an hour at room temperature.
- Adapted from “The New Basics Cookbook” (Workman, 1989)
Per serving (based on 6): 373 calories, 26 grams protein, 17 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 22 grams fat, 62 milligrams cholesterol, 747 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.