The Cook in Me: Child's Play--Or is It? Minestrone and Rustic Italian Bread©
In 2004 I moved from Northwestern Ohio to Hewitt, Texas. I doubt that many of you are familiar with Hewitt as it's not exactly a major metropolitan hub. It is a suburb of Waco, the city commonly associated with the Branch Davidian siege in April 1993. Actually, the Branch Davidian commune was not located in Waco, but in Elk, Texas, approximately twenty-five miles from Waco. The closest FBI and Federal ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms) offices were located in Waco, and for that reason the common belief is that the commune was in Waco. Waco was the major city closest to the Branch Davidian commune, it was where the press stayed, and many broadcasts that didn't come directly from the commune came from Waco. Hence, the association of Waco with the Branch Davidian siege. Not that this information is in any way material to this article; I just wanted to clear up a common misconception that has tainted Waco's reputation in the eyes of a lot of people. Waco is actually a lovely community and I loved living in that area.
Hewitt was a community of approximately 12,000 residents when I moved there. The town boasted one stoplight, the community park (which I could access through a beautiful wrought iron gate in my back yard), a grocery store, a post office, a Popeye's chicken franchise, an Uncle Dan's (great Texas barbecue), a gas station and the city offices. Apparently since I left Hewitt, the community has grown, and it was recently named one of the best places in Texas to live. I chose it because it was a quiet, rural area accessible to all major highways, half way between Dallas and Austin, close to my office in Waco, it had virtually no crime rate, and I literally had a park in my back yard. Not part of the decision was the fact that it was also centrally located to the two most famous tourist attractions in that area at that time—George W. Bush's Crawford, Texas ranch and the ruins of the Branch Davidian complex. The Bush ranch was 25 miles to the Northwest and the remains of the Davidian complex were 25 miles to the Northeast. That gives you some idea of the sleepy little town that it was.
About two months after I made the move, my then 12-year old Grandson, Zachary, came to visit. It was his second trip to Texas as he accompanied me when I went out initially to find a place to live. He stayed for approximately two-and-a-half weeks in June, and because I was working during the week, I found him some activities to occupy the weekdays while he was there. The first event was a one day class at the Dr. Pepper Museum. As some of you might know, Waco is the home of the soft drink, Dr. Pepper. It was founded in 1880 by a Waco resident, and the original factory is now a museum that offers tours, classes, souvenirs, etc. Zak took a class that included a tour of the original factory and museum and a class on the product's history, as well as a "cooking" session in the on-site old-fashioned soda fountain. In the class, the children learned how to make various soda-fountain drinks like malts, sodas, sundaes, sweet treats, etc. It was only a one-day class, but it was well worth the price, and something a little different from the regular run-of-the-mill tourist attractions.
For the next two weeks, I enrolled him in a cooking school. He preferred this to the other available day camps. From the time he was old enough to stand on a stool (about 2 years old), he loved helping me in the kitchen. He shucked corn, peeled carrots, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, cleaned and snipped green beans, juiced oranges and lemons, tore lettuce and spinach, chopped celery, hulled strawberries, and rolled out pie dough. I don't remember starting him with a plastic knife like I did my students when I taught my "Science in the Kitchen" cooking classes to kindergarteners and first graders. He started at about age 4 with a paring knife, and since he never cut himself, he moved on from there. When he was 8 years old, he made his first full dinner—Chicken Parmesan, Salad & Pasta. He still wasn't tall enough at that time to work at the counter or the stove without a stool, but he could make a dinner. He made the sauce from scratch, prepared the egg wash, crumbs and flour to coat the chicken, browned the chicken in olive oil and butter, and boiled the pasta. I was there with him supervising and making sure that he did not injure himself, but he did the actual work himself. I can't tell you what a feeling of accomplishment he experienced by doing everything himself.
When I gave him a choice of camps he could attend, he chose the program at the Mud Pie Cooking School for Children. Unlike his brother, he was never interested in any sports, so I wasn't surprised that the cooking school intrigued him. The school was conveniently situated near my office in Waco. Contrary to its moniker, the school offered a fantastic program that featured meal preparation of "adult" foods. For example, the first week the theme was Italian cuisine and the class learned to make Minestrone, Italian Bread and Pasta, Marinara Sauce, and an Italian dessert, all from scratch. At that time, I had never made pasta from scratch, so I was impressed! The second week the theme was Classic American foods. The school was started in Waco in 2003 by Julie Fabing Burleson and Suzy Vinson Nettles, two women who are incredibly gifted at their profession. Their syllabus provides that: "While learning food preparation skills is the main ingredient. . . each class adds a heap of kitchen safety, a scoop of etiquette, a handful of table setting, a pinch of menu planning, and laughter to taste."1 .Also included are sanitation measures, kitchen hygiene, food storage and safety, proper use of utensils and kitchen tools, knife skills and care, and so on. Zak is now 21 years old, and he is still in contact with many of the friends he made through the Mud Pie Cooking School. I believe that speaks well for the quality of the program, the camaraderie the students developed, and the common ground they will always have together. The Mud Pie Cooking School in Waco was so successful that the owners franchised the concept and today it is known as the Young Chefs Academy®2 with locations across the country. Because I believe so strongly in teaching children to cook, if I was twenty years younger, I would seriously consider opening a franchise here in the Fort Myers, Florida area. Check out their website listed below to learn more about this impressive establishment.
When I was growing up, my Mother did all the cooking. Once in a while my Sisters and I might have helped by making a salad or baking cookies, but for the most part my Mother did the cooking and my Father did the grilling. When my sons were small they both expressed an interest in cooking. I'm not sure whether they were fascinated by the activity that always seemed to be concentrated in the kitchen, the fact that their Uncle Bob was a chef, or that they found a sense of creativity in helping me cook. For whatever the reason, they enjoyed helping and creating their own culinary "masterpieces." Like most children, as they grew older their interests became more diverse. It seemed like Scott always had a tennis racquet, golf club, baseball glove, or basketball in one of his hands, and Jonathan's interests focused on collecting comic books, playing Dungeons & Dragons and video games. Today, both the boys enjoy cooking and I am pleased to see that they do not consider the kitchen strictly a woman's domain.
I believe that from an early age children should learn to cook and help in the kitchen. When they are young, they view it as a type of game or play activity. In reality, you are teaching them a valuable lifelong skill. Encouraging children to play a part in meal preparation offers a multitude of benefits. The most obvious benefit is that they actually learn HOW to cook. They learn that things don't just magically appear on the table at mealtimes! It also aids in creating healthy eating habits, encourages creativity, and improves their self confidence and self esteem. They learn the art of making something for others' enjoyment and benefit. Involving children in the process of cooking also provides them the opportunity to become involved with other basic everyday life activities such as menu planning, proper food storage, hygiene, nutrition, grocery shopping, budgeting, reading and comprehending recipes, applying weights and measurements to an actual formula, and creative food presentation. It also provides a practical application of principles they study in school including math concepts, chemical reactions, responsibility, time management, planning, and analysis. The kitchen activity provides a great environment for family bonding while children master new skills; not to mention that it's just plain FUN with a delicious outcome! While there can be downsides, I have found that with proper supervision and instruction, safety concerns become less of an issue. Children become more cautious on their own once they learn proper use of the tools and utensils for their intended purpose and not as toys. The other benefit I have found is the reduced number of squabbles about cleaning up afterward. Just as with their toys, if they get it out, they clean it up. Children understand this concept everywhere else, so why shouldn't it apply in the kitchen as well?
Although all four of my Grandchildren enjoyed helping out in the kitchen when they were younger, only two have expressed a real avocation for it. Zak still loves to cook; in fact he is primarily responsible for food preparation in his household. The fact that he is a Psychology major has not deterred him from pursuing his love of cooking. He posted pictures of dinners that he made last week including Crab Pot Pie, Salmon Sandwiches with Guacamole, and Garlic Lemon Basil Chicken with Mashed Sweet Potatoes. I don't know any other college students not living at home that eat that good, except his roommate. Not even I do!
My Granddaughter Tara, who is now 11 years old, began helping me in the kitchen when she was 4 years old by making fruit and vegetable salads. She also liked to do everything that she was capable of doing, and by the time she was 5 she was making Salsa, Bread, Cinnamon Rolls, Cranberry Apple Crisp, and Vegetable Soup. Her favorite game in the kitchen used to be pretending that we were on a television cooking show and walking the audience through the preparation of whatever dish it was that we were making. Today, she has an unbelievable palate. She can have one taste of a dish and break down its ingredients for you, including the herbs and spices. It amazes me! But if you think about the amout of information small children absorb when they take in everything you say and teach them, and their minds soak up information like sponges, it's not surprising. They do not have filters like doubt at preschool ages. They are generally building a foundation of information and that is the time to begin teaching them.
As a tribute to the Mud Pie Cooking School, I am sharing a variation on their basic recipe for Minestrone today, It is not difficult to make. Just have all your ingredients prepared in advance, and you will then find that it only takes minutes to combine. Zak and I decided that we'd add some protein with Cannellini Beans. You can either make it with or without them. I am sure you will love it as much as we do. I've paired it with my recipe for Rustic Italian Bread. Whether you mix it by hand or use a stand mixer fitted with a bread hook, this recipe is a breeze! After it has cooled, spread Butter (Margarine, or brush with Olive Oil) on the top side, sprinkle it with Garlic Salt (or Garlic Powder if you are watching your sodium), and toast it in the oven until golden brown. Or Butter (or brush Olive Oil) on both sides of the sliced bread, sprinkle with Garlic Salt or Powder and press the in a George Forman Grill or Panini Press. No matter how you choose to serve it, there's nothing better than fresh baked bread. And paired with a delicious hot soup—what more could you want on a cold day? And don't forget, invite your children or grandchildren to help you! You'll reap the benefits some day when they're grown and they invite you to dinner!
© 2012, 2013, 2014 The Cook in Me: Child's Play—Or is It? Minestrone and Rustic Italian Bread by Kathy Striggow
This article may not be reproduced or reprinted in whole or in part without the express written permission of the author.
ZAK'S MINESTRONE (a variation of the Mud Pie Cooking School for Children Recipe (June 2004)²
Yield: 2-1/2 quarts
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cooking Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
6 cubes of Chicken Bouillon
6 cups Water
1 Sprig each of Fresh Basil, Oregano, and Rosemary
1 1/2 cups Tomato, chopped
1 cup Celery, chopped
1/2 cup Onion, chopped
1/2 cup Zucchini, thinly sliced
1/2 cup Carrot, thinly sliced
1/2 cup Green Bell Pepper, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup Fresh Mushrooms, sliced
1 1/2 cups Pasta of your choice (I prefer a smaller Pasta like Orzo, Ditalini, or Orecchiette, but any kind will work)
16 oz. can Cannellini Beans
2 tsp. Dried Whole Basil
1 1/2 tsp. Dried Whole Oregano
1 tsp. Salt
1/2 tsp. Black Pepper, freshly ground
2 cloves Garlic, minced
2 Bay Leaves
Fresh Parmesan Cheese, grated
1. In a large stock pot, put water, bouillon cubes, and fresh herbs.
2. Bring to a boil over medium high heat; cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.
3. Discard fresh herb sprigs.
4. Add chopped tomato and the rest of the ingredients except the fresh Parmesan cheese.
5. Simmer for an additional hour.
6. Discard bay leaves.
7. Ladle soup into bowls and sprinkle with freshly grated parmesan cheese.
8. Freeze extra soup in an airtight container for up to three months. When ready to serve, thaw overnight in refrigerator. To reheat, place in large saucepan and over medium heat, warm until heated through, stirring soup occasionally.
RUSTIC ITALIAN BREAD
Yield: Two loaves
Active Prep Time: 30 minutes
Inactive Prep Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Baking Time: 35 to 45 minutes
2 Envelopes (or 1-1/2 Tbsp.) Active Dry Yeast
1 Tbsp. plus 2 tsps. Sugar
2 cups Lukewarm Water (about 110° F)
1 1/2 Tbsp. Salt
5 cups Flour 1 Tbsp. Olive or Canola Oil 4 Tbsp. Yellow Cornmeal
1 Egg Yolk mixed with 1 Tbsp. Water
1. Using an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the yeast, sugar and warm water and mix for 2 minutes to dissolve the yeast.
2. If you are making the bread by hand, simply combine the yeast, sugar and warm water and stir for 2 minutes to dissolve the yeast. See the rest of the directions for hand mixing below.*
3. Add half the flour and the salt.
4. With the mixer on low, mix until the flour is incorporated.
5. Continue adding the rest of the flour and mix until the dough starts to come together.
6. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and mix until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl and crawls up the dough hook. Continue mixing for approximately 3 to 4 minutes to knead.
7. Grease a large bowl with the oil.
8. Place the dough in the oiled bowl and turn once so that all sides are covered lightly with oil.
9. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel and place in a warm, draft free place until the dough doubles in size about 60 to 90 minutes.
10. Remove the dough from the bowl onto a floured surface.
11. Divide the dough into 2 equal portions and cover, letting dough rest for approximately 15 minutes.
12. Pat each portion into a large rectangle about 12 x 15 inches and 3/4-inches thick.
13. Beginning at one end, roll up the dough, beginning with the short side and stopping after each full turn to press the edge of the roll firmly into the flat sheet of dough to seal.
14. Press with your fingertips. Tuck and roll so that any seams disappear into the dough.
15. Sprinkle a baking sheet evenly with 2 Tbsp. of the cornmeal.
16. Place the loaves on the baking sheet, about 3 inches apart.
17. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons cornmeal.
18. Cover the loaves with a light cloth and let rise until double in size, 45 to 60 minutes.
19. Preheat the oven to 400º F.
20. With a sharp knife, make diagonal slashes, about 1-inch apart, on the top of each loaf.
21. With a pastry brush, carefully brush the egg wash evenly over each loaf, making sure not to press too hard and deflate the loaf.
22. Place a cup of hot water in an oven-proof container on the baking sheet with the loaves.
23. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes*, or until the bread is golden brown.
24. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.
25. Wait to slice until the bread has cooled somewhat.
26. To serve, after the bread has cooled, spread butter or margarine (or brush with olive oil) on the top side, sprinkle it with Garlic Salt (or Garlic Powder if you are watching your sodium), and toast it in the oven until golden brown. Or butter the bread (or brush olive oil) on both sides, sprinkle with Garlic Salt or Powder and press the slices in a George Forman Grill or Panini Press.
*Notes for Hand Mixing: I have made this bread many times without using a mixer. Simply follow the directions and mix. I actually knead the dough right in the mixing bowl for about 3-4 minutes before placing it in another bowl to rise.