Kids in the Kitchen

Rather than chase the children out of the kitchen, why not put them to work?

Another school year begins, and children across Virginia are easing into their new routines. Having survived the first-day jitters, lingering worries may still persist in the first little while as they get used to a new schedule of timetables and a slate of fresh teachers.

When things get hectic and fraught, I head to the kitchen and take the children with me.

Invariably, a simple pleasure settles in as we chop and measure and stir a slow pot on the stove. Apart from the pride and satisfaction of producing something for friends and family to eat, children learn so much in the kitchen. Dealing with weights and measures, and understanding a little about the philosophy of cooking, are wisdom gained while having fun. Notions of safety and prudence and good recycling habits are picked up during time spent near the stove.

Kids see firsthand that heavy-handedness can ruin a dish, or that a simple garnish on a plate can turn the everyday into elegant. By routinely inviting your young kitchen visitor to help out, a steadily built up confidence with food preparation will instill a lifelong appreciation and respect for food. Share some time with children in the kitchen — it can be both instructive and calming, and by choosing uncomplicated recipes, you all might just have a jolly good time too.

The recipes that follow are those that a child could easily lend a hand with, or even produce with older siblings. I have chosen ingredients that children are mostly familiar with, like pork tenderloin and fresh string beans, and then given it all a little difference by the addition of fresh herbs, coconut and lemons. Serving couscous instead of the usual pasta or potatoes is a gentle nudge for more conservative eaters to try something different but not too challenging.

So next time the children look like they are dragging their feet, gather them into the kitchen for a therapeutic, fun cook-fest. Make sure they have covered shoes on, for safety, and a nice clean apron to save you from later laundry woes.

The Lemon Scented Milky Pork has evolved from a traditional Italian recipe. The fresh lemons curdle the milk and produce what I have heard children call a ‘lumpy-bumpy’ gravy, which is delicious spooned over the sliced pork and couscous.

Beans are a favorite with children, and a sprinkle of coconut before the pan is removed from the stove adds a nice flavor. Pick tender, bright green string beans to make this dish. My trouble with this dish is making sure that my assistants don’t eat all the beans as they helpfully string them! It is a simple recipe that takes very little time to prepare.

The couscous with chickpeas and fresh herbs is fragrant and buttery. A wonderful aroma fills the air when you stir in the fresh herbs at the end of the cooking process. Pineapple Fluff is an old family recipe.

My mother made it for many dinner celebrations when we were children, and the topping varied according to the age of the eager guest. Children mostly preferred mini marshmallows on theirs, but the adults experimented with toasted coconut flakes or chopped (and toasted) cashew nuts. Learning to make pineapple fluff at the age of 10 all by myself certainly felt like crossing an important culinary threshold, because it looked and tasted so sophisticated.

With the lovely variety of Virginia’s soft summer fruits, think about a jug of something fruity and cool to drink too. I have chosen watermelon juice, being partial to the fabulous bright pink, which adds so much fun color to the laid table. This is a menu that is faithfully licked clean when made at our place, so I hope you and your young friends have as much fun producing it — and feasting on it.

All the following recipes are for a family of four to five people.

Lemon-Scented Milky Pork Tenderloin

2 1.3-lb. pork tenderloins

5 cloves garlic, peeled and cut into thick slivers

1 1/2 cups whole milk

5 lemons

1/2 stick of butter (2 oz.)

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons cracked black pepper, or to taste

Season the pork well on both sides with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a heavy-based pan and throw in the garlic slices. As the garlic turns golden, carefully place the two tenderloins into the pan. After one minute, turn the meat over to brown on the other side for another minute. Now carefully pour in the milk, and scatter the peel of two lemons into the pan. In a corner of the pan place half an unpeeled lemon. Turn the heat down to low and put the lid on the pan so that it is almost completely covered but not quite. Leave to cook on low heat for 45 minutes. After 45 minutes, lift the lid and check the meat by making a deep stab with a sharp knife. If the juice runs clear, the meat is done. If it is still pink, leave for another 10 to 15 minutes. Lift the meat from the curdled gravy, and arrange on a platter. Quarter the rest of the lemons and arrange around the platter as garnish. Pour the gravy into a jug and serve with the meat. I sometimes carve the meat and then pour the gravy over. Serve warm. NOTE: When peeling the lemons, make sure you do not peel too much of the pith with it. Too much of the white pith will give your pork an unpleasant bitterness.

Pineapple Fluff

1 pint heavy whipping cream, chilled

2 cans crushed pineapple in syrup

1 1/2 packets pineapple Jell-o

1 tablespoon sugar

Drain the tins of crushed pineapple and reserve 2 cups of the juice. If there isn’t enough juice, top up with water. Heat the juice until warm on the stove or in the microwave. Add the 11/2 packets jell-o to the warm liquid and stir well until all the crystals are dissolved. Leave to cool completely. In the meantime, whip the chilled cream with an electric mixer. Add the sugar and continue to beat until light. Slowly add the cooled pineapple liquid to the cream while continuing to beat this mixture until light and frothy. Add about 1/2 cup of the crushed pineapple to this mixture. Pour into a deep glass bowl and cover tightly with cling wrap. Leave to set for at least one hour in the refrigerator. Decorate with mini white marshmallows, toasted coconut flakes or your favorite nuts such as almonds, pecans or cashews.

Couscous with Fresh Herbs and Chickpeas

2 cups plain couscous

2 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 stick butter

1/2 cup fresh herbs of your liking

1 cup canned chickpeas, drained

In a pan, combine the two cups water, salt and butter. As soon as the water begins to boil vigorously, pour the couscous in a spray from directly above the pan. Add the chickpeas and fresh herbs. Stir once. Turn the heat off immediately, remove from the stove and leave with a well-fitting lid on the pan for about one minute for the couscous grains to absorb all the water and swell. Fluff the couscous and mix thoroughly before serving. NOTE: As the couscous takes about 5 minutes to make, prepare all the ingredients and only cook this dish just as you call everyone to the table. It will ensure you have a steaming dish to serve.

Watermelon Juice

Chop up half a football-sized watermelon and blend with lemon juice and sugar to taste (about a tablespoon of each). Pour the juice through a sieve and into a clear glass jug. Chill. If preparing in advance, the juice will separate, so give it a good stir just before serving.

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