Rub It In

D helped me prep a London Broil for dinner, and we realized another great way to get kids involved. Spice rubs are a great choice that satisfies a kid’s desire to help cooking and offers a chance to get fingers dirty. D loved the idea of putting the rub all over the meat before putting it in the oven.

He’s turning into my spice king.  As Dad watches his sodium intake, D works on seasoning both meat and vegetables.  Whether throwing a few pinches of sage onto some green beans or using a salt-free blend, D manages to bump up the flavors on what could be an ordinary meal.

J steps up to fill in wherever needed.  Trying to grab particular ingredients?  He’ll beat you there.  Ask him for anything, and he’s there.  He’s even cleaning up spills before most of us even know they’re there.  A jack of all trades, and that’s a huge asset to have in the kitchen.

A chance to get dirty while helping? Perfect combo!

A pleasant weekend morning

I must confess…the typical word for our household in the morning is chaotic.  Between getting ready for work and school (or track out camp – we’re at a year-round school so they go to school 9 weeks, then get 3 off when they ‘track out’), weekday mornings are hectic no matter how much we prep in advance.

But weekends…ahhhhhhhh.  Our young chefs are key players in getting a lovely breakfast together for all to relax and enjoy.  J will help his Dad get the French toast ready, or microwave bacon while Dad scrambles eggs.  D can always be counted on for one of his fruit salads.

Best of all, J and D take their roles as sous chefs quite seriously.  The boys who needed three or four (sometimes more) reminders to wash their hands during the day are quick to head to the sink first thing before they start their kitchen duties.  While they prep the food, they take great care to clean up after themselves (four words I thought I’d never say unless they included the word NOT).  And there are no longer battles about taking their dishes over to the sink or cleaning up a spill.  I usually don’t even have to remind them.

We’ve managed to find the happy medium between fun and discipline.  It would be loads of fun to mess up the kitchen or to throw spices from any and all bottles in reach.  Fun, but not productive.  We could also be so disciplined that they only used spices when I was holding their hand and guiding them to use just the right amount or making them follow precise, simple directions.  We’re in our own place in the middle.

We call J and D ‘chef’ so that they know they’re a key part of the cooking process, and that they will be in charge of some or all of the process.  D picks the side dishes for meals.  They both get to choose the seasonings and determine how much to use of each.  (Yes, we’ve had a few dishes overseasoned, but since we used those as teaching situations, that doesn’t happen anymore.)  They have their own tools so that they can safely help with prep.  And they’re getting more creative, making suggestions on what to make or what special touch to add.  Thanks to them, grocery shopping is much easier too.  They’re terrific about pointing out when we’re running low on anything so we can keep up the list.

Time to sit back and enjoy some coffee after a yummy in our clean kitchen.

Tips and Tricks

Well, we’ve been cooking away, and we’ve been learning a lot of little lessons.  One of the lessons I’ve learned is that you can easily turn simple cooking into a chance to learn.  I first realized this when the boys and I made a batch of snickerdoodles.  The boys were proud of their efforts and wanted to take their cookies to school for snack time.  The school emphasizes that snack should be healthy treats, and I didn’t want to give the teachers the impression that cookies are a healthy snack.  Although, wouldn’t it be awesome if they were???  I emailed the teachers and included a brief description of the math lessons that we had been doing throughout the cooking process.  The cookies may not have been nutritious, but they did feed their minds.

On a lot of cooking shows, we’ve noticed that the chefs actually refer to each other as “Chef”.  I’ve noticed that when I call the boys Chef, they demonstrate more mature behavior.  They take the cooking seriously, instead of acting like they’re just doing a fun activity with Mommy.  Since I’ve started calling them Chef while we work, I’ve noticed a different body language.  They take pride in their efforts.

The best part for me is that, for once, they clean up after themselves without a battle of wills!  “Cleaning up your workspace” has been far more successful than “clean up your toys”.  They even jumped to help when I dropped a plastic container full of chicken noodle soup.  J took command of the cleaning situation, instruction D and me on what we should be doing.  When Dad got home, he was pleased with their great cleaning.  I never thought I would use the works “great” and “cleaning” in the same sentence when it comes to J & D.  Sometimes it’s wonderful to be proven wrong.

Today I taught them that citrus juices need to be cleaned up quickly when working on a granite countertop.  D’s response was to moisten a paper towel and clean up the counters.  In addition to cleaning, they’re learning proper ways to dispose of waste.  They help me drain off fat into a grease jar instead of pouring it down the sink, since it’s better for the water system to keep out the grease.  And this morning, J asked me about how to dispose of the citrus peels and now knows that running peels through the garbage disposal helps to get rid of any residual smells.  So even though we made our typical fruit salad, we were able to learn new lessons.

D has also taught me to get out of my rut.  He likes to use spice blends when he makes vegetable side dishes for dinner.  He tries to come up with different uses of salt-free seasonings, since his Dad has to keep an eye on his blood pressure.  D had made edamame for me one night, and he threw some seasonings on top.  I admit, I was not thrilled – I like my edamame with just sea salt.  My blood pressure is on the low side, so I don’t have to be as restrictive with my salt.  D was crushed, but then I tried it.  His expression changed quickly when I told him how much I liked the blend, and that he had proven me wrong.  Wait.  That’s two admissions of wrong in the same blog post.  That’s definitely a record for me.

So there really isn’t an ordinary cooking experience with the kids.  Even when we’re doing some of our standards, or adding spices to dishes, or just cleaning up, we all have a lot to learn – and teach.

Snow Day

We’re snowbound!  J and D are enjoying their second day home from school.  Nature’s making us a winter sandwich – one layer of snow, some ice smeared on top of it, and now we’re getting a final layer of snow to top it all off.

The kids are off for the second day, and the parents get to join in today.  If not properly handled, we could end up with a big case of stir craziness.  Fortunately, we have not lost power, so we’ve got lots of options.  So, what to do?  J has successfully taught D how to make a snowball, and they thoroughly enjoy throwing it at each other.  Today’s plan also includes a snowman with Dad.

The kitchen has come in handy.  We’ve done some of our typically cooking effort, and added a few special occasion and snow activities to the mix.

Typical cooking activities – Yesterday’s breakfast included D’s yummy fruit salad.  We also followed our normal plan last night, with the boys making the vegetables for dinner.  While we’re snowbound, I’ll make sure to get them on marinating and seasoning duty.

Special occasion activities – On weekends or holidays, we’ll escape from our typical throw-breakfast-together-quickly flurry and have a big breakfast.  Today, J was Dad’s sous chef for a pancake a sausage breakfast.  J was on turning and flipping duty, making sure all of the food was evenly cooked.  He also added treats to the pancakes for us, like blueberries and chocolate chips.  Adding a second pair of hands meant a breakfast feast for all.  We also baked a batch of brownies last night so we have a sweet treat to enjoy.

Snow activities – Normally, we enjoy vanilla ice cream with our brownies, but we didn’t have any.  So what could we do?  Snow cream!  We only needed three ingredients.  We always have sugar and vanilla around, so all we needed was milk.  But we’re Southerners, and it’s an unwritten rule to stock up on milk, bread, and eggs whenever there’s even a slight possibility of snow.  The boys were happy to mix up and enjoy a batch of snow cream, and I know they’re pleased that a new batch of ingredients is falling.

So whether you’re snow bound or just laughing at those of us slipping and sliding, you can get the kids involved in either cooking the main dish or making a special treat.

Triple D

J helped me to make a delicious chicken dinner.  I tried a new recipe, but then I realized that we were actually going back to the beginning of our cooking collaborations.

When D saw the chicken breasts on the counter, he asked if we were making Buttermilk Chicken (the first dinner we ever made together).  I smiled and said no, we were trying a new recipe for Ranch-Parmesan Chicken.  As J and I were putting the meal together, I realized that the two recipes followed the same basic rules that I call the Triple D:

  • Dip – You dip the chicken breasts in a liquid.
  • Dredge – You roll the chicken breasts around in some sort of coating.
  • Drizzle – You add moisture to the top of the breasts before baking them in the oven.

For the Buttermilk Chicken, we dip the chicken in buttermilk, dredge it in cornflake crumbs, and drizzle it with olive oil before we bake.  Today’s recipe involved dipping in ranch dressing, dredging it in panko and parmesan, and drizzling with melted butter.

We’ve made other recipes that follow that same basic formula.  Here are some of the possibilities for mixing and matching:

  • Dips  – buttermilk, ranch dressing, honey mustard dressing, yogurt
  • Dredges – cornflake crumbs, panko and other sorts of breadcrumbs, chopped nuts, cheese.  You can also combine dry ingredients and add different herbs for variety.
  • Drizzles – olive oil, melted butter

The combinations are endless.  We usually use boneless chicken breasts, but chicken tenders and even chicken on the bone work well.  When we use chicken legs, we call them “Dino Drummies”.

This formula is well-suited for involving the kids, and they get to have fun.  One child can handle dipping and dredging, or the tasks can get split up.  J and D usually get into an argument on who gets to do what, because they both volunteer for the dipping. Sometimes I can convince one to do all of the dredging, but other times I have to let each one handle the whole process for half of the chicken.  They love getting their hands dirty, and I appreciate not messing up mine!

Happy Birthday to D

Wait a minute…weren’t things supposed to slow down after the holidays?  In a way, I guess they did.  We had loads of family events in a short period of time – that’s what happens when both extended families are in town!  After the hectic holidays, it was back to school and the typical chaos.

The cooking gadgets were a big hit.  D’s set also included a shopping list, so he was eager to plan his first creation.  He sat down with me to surf online databases for cooking ideas.  Food Network’s Family and Kids site seemed like a good place to start.  We found a few that interested us, and decided to start by making Sloppy Joe Dimaggios for dinner one evening.  He used one of his new knives to cut up the hot dogs, while I browned the ground beef.  I added the hot dogs and onions while he mixed the sauce.  It didn’t take long to finish the dish once we added the sauce , but it smelled so good that it felt like an eternity.  J was quick to praise his big brother and ask for seconds.  We were all in the Clean Plate Club after that delicious meal.  That sauce would taste good with chicken or pork, so I might get D to make it for us to experiment on other dinners.

It’s also a lot easier for D to make fruit salads these days.  He can easily find the tools he needs by going to the caddy – no more searching through drawers.  He can cut up on serve the salad without needing anyone else helping.

He does let J help though, and J has been enjoying sharing chef duties.  While D cooked dinner, J was cutting and mixing a salad for the side dish.  He’ll also be D’s side cutting fruits up for the fruit salad.  They’re a good team.

In addition to finding online recipes to try, we also went to the Curious Chef site to see if there were any other interesting products.  In our household, holiday shopping starts back over right after Christmas, because D was born in January.  He was intrigued by the Cupcake Decorating List, so we put that on his birthday wish list.  He was thrilled when that wish came true, because now he can get creative when he bakes.  We do like desserts, so J and D can combine their loves of cooking and desserts for an extra-special situation.

I know that desserts and snacks can be a sensitive topic for some people.  With the battles against childhood obesity and unhealthy lifestyles, we don’t want to be too focused on loading up on sweets.  Here’s how treats are handled in J and D’s home:

  1. Fruits are always a good idea for snacks and dessert.  
    That’s what is so great about fruit salads.  Since the boys enjoy making fruit salads, it’s easy to suggest that they make a fruit salad when they want a snack.  Their snacks for school usually include a thermos of fresh fruit.
  2. Desserts are not required eating.  
    The meal is.  If you’re not hungry enough to eat our healthy meal, you’re not having dessert.  J and D don’t assume they can have dessert – they always ask if it’s OK.  If they ate enough of their main meal, then yes, a small dessert is just fine.  
  3. The dessert portion is smaller than the meal.
    You don’t save room for dessert by ignoring the healthy food.  We keep smaller candies around the house, like M&Ms and Reece’s minis, so we can easily dole out small dessert portions.
  4. We don’t have forbidden foods at our house.
    When I was a kid, if my mom told me not to do something, I sure got more interested in doing what I had been told to avoid.  We don’t want to make candy some glorified defiance or act of rebellion.
  5. Bad behavior = no treats.
    Treats are a privilege, not a right.  Misbehave during the meal, and don’t even ask about dessert.  It’s not happening.

Merry Christmas

‘Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the house…preparations were underway for the special visitor who would be bringing presents down the chimney.  We put out carrots for the reindeer – the boys got to choose between regular sized carrots or baby carrots (it was regular this year).  We also put out egg nog and cookies for Santa.  The kids were upstairs playing, but we didn’t have any cookies.  I put all of the ingredients and reminded them that we had cookies to me, and they came flying down the stairs to help.

We made peanut butter kiss cookies, and those are a lot easier when you’ve got helpers.  I put the butter in the mixer, and then we all measured out the sugar, peanut butter and brown sugar.  They each cracked an egg while I added the vanilla.  While that mixed, we mixed the dry ingredients in a separate bowl, which we then added to the mixing bowl.  They rolled the cookie dough into small balls while I cleaned up a little.  Funny how much chaos you can create in a kitchen with sugar, brown sugar, and flour.  Then they rolled the first batch in sugar and put them on the cookie sheets and started baking while they got to work unwrapping the kisses.

Tip #1: When you have to unwrap a lot of candies for a recipe, put a small trash bowl on the counter for the wrappers.  The work space stays neat, and all you have to do to clean up is throw the contents of the bowl into a trash can.

Tip #2: To keep the tips of the kisses from breaking off, put them on a plate after you unwrap them.  That way, they are kept out of the way and are less likely to be damaged.

After we were done baking the cookies, the chefs had to make sure that they had turned out all right.  After all, you have to make sure that the cookies are good enough.  The kids declared the cookies Santa-worthy, and they also decided to take some to their grandparents’ house for Christmas dinner.

On Christmas Day, Santa brought D a wonderful gift.  The Curious Chef  makes safe and appropriately sized cooking items for kids.  D now has a caddy with 30 kitchen tools that he and his brother can use when they cook.

The package included a shopping list, so he asked me to help him pick recipes we could make.  Food Network has a page on their website called Cooking With Kids, so we decided to start there.  We decided to start with a variation on Sloppy Joes. Before going to bed, he wanted to get a few other recipes.  We started looking at side dishes.  He loves pumpkin bread, so when we found a recipe for that, we added those ingredients to our shopping list.  He wanted to put another main dish on his list, so he started talking about steak.  Our church cookbook has a fabulous flank steak marinade recipe, so we’ll add that.  Then he saw turkey meatballs on the site and wanted to try that.  So now we have three recipes to try.

D’s birthday is in January, so we went to the website to see if there are any other cooking items he wanted to order for his birthday.  He’s leaning toward the baking set that includes a muffin pan, silicone liners, and decorating tools.  I told him I had seen a recipe for homemade peanut butter cups that called for silicone liners because paper ones would stick to the candy.That’s another recipe on his list to try.

Looks like my young chefs will be wrapping up 2013 in style and getting 2014 off to a great start.