BOOK REVIEW : This Is the Way We Learn to Cook

TIMES FOOD EDITOR

COOKING WITH CHILDREN

By Marion Cunningham

(Knopf: $18, 171 pp.)

*

When I was 8, I wanted to cook like TV's Galloping Gourmet. The one cookbook my mother owned wasn't much help. It was a big white encyclopedic thing, and from the look of its pages--no grease splatters, no smudges of batter--no one before me in my family had read it, let alone cooked from it. I quickly discovered why.

I found pages and pages of recipes--some of which I tried--but they were written in the shorthand of home economists and didn't bother to explain why you had to sear a roast or how to knead dough properly. I did like the drawings of dancing vegetables.

Cookbooks have guided novices for several generations, but never have new cooks relied on them more than they do today. Years ago, children learned how to cook by watching their mothers and grandmothers. Some parents may still teach their kids how to cook, but more and more, cooking means this: getting dinner on the table by any means necessary. Few of us are really taught to cook .

There was good cooking done in my house, but not on a daily basis. My mother single-handedly raised two daughters, sometimes working two jobs, and she really didn't have time to worry whether it would be better to use fresh basil for an August tomato sauce or dried oregano. Shortcuts and convenience foods were an easy way for my mother--for a generation of American mothers--to keep some sanity in her everyday routine.

And though I'd eventually coax my mom and grandmother to reveal some great family recipes, many of my early lessons in cooking were filtered through this lens of brand-name products, smooshing onion soup mix into the hamburger meat, baking cakes from a box. Like almost everyone my age, I learned how to heat a frozen chicken pot pie long before I learned to roast a chicken. And when I first tried to improvise my own baked chicken recipe, I basted the bird with bottled Italian salad dressing.

If only Marion Cunningham's "Cooking With Children" had been written then. There are now scores of children's cookbooks on the market, but almost all make the same mistake: They underestimate kids. Authors gimmick up recipes in the misguided assumption that children want only to be entertained, and too often recipes just doctor mixes and other prepared products in an attempt to make things easy.

You will find no heart-shaped pancakes in Cunningham's book, no box-mix birthday cakes with M&M; happy faces. No cartoon characters cajole the kids into cooking.

Cunningham, the author who revivified "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" and made the classic her own, assumes that the fun is in the cooking--and with her as a teacher, it is. In 15 lessons designed for children 7 and older, beginning with vegetable soup and ending with chocolate birthday cake, Cunningham emphasizes fresh ingredients, organization and the joy of sharing a homemade meal with friends and family.

Without resorting to elitism, Cunningham stresses the seasonality of foods as a natural part of cooking. There are, for instance, two tomato sauces in the pasta lesson, a winter sauce of canned tomatoes and a summer sauce with fresh. Tomatoes, Cunningham tells her young readers, "can be dressed differently in the summer and in the winter, just like you."

But Cunningham's most striking accomplishment here might be the language of the recipes themselves. For almost a hundred years, American cookbook authors and food writers have been saddled with a jargon-filled pseudoscientific method of recipe writing that values brevity above clarity. Only the most hard-nosed authors manage to impart any personal style within the strict formula.

For this book, Cunningham spent two years cooking with kids, teaching them what she knew and, more important, learning what they could and couldn't do. It's clear she put a lot of time into writing simple, understandable recipes that really do teach.

She discovered that kids could handle hot pans if they used square potholders instead of bulky oven mitts, which are too big for small hands. They could cook spaghetti if they used a plastic claw server to remove the pasta from the water instead of dumping the pot of hot water into a colander. She even found that they could work safely with knives--serrated blades work best for beginners because they grip the item being cut.

The lessons are meant to be worked through from beginning to end. The vegetable soup teaches chopping and sauteing. The salad teaches kids to taste critically--imagine a 10-year-old who could make a perfect vinaigrette. She reveals the secret of a perfect hamburger, that an omelet makes a great meal when there's not a lot of food in the house, that a popover is a good treat to cheer someone up--what is a Marion Cunningham book without at least one popover recipe?--and how to make a complete chicken dinner.

Cunningham expects little prior knowledge from her child-age readers, yet she never talks down to them. She never introduces a term like "kneading" without explaining exactly what it means. And she tries to relate the food in the book to the lives she imagines the kids living. "Salads are popular with most people, and even with cats and dogs," Cunningham writes, "as you know if you've ever watched them outdoors chewing green grass."

More than a book of recipes, "Cooking With Children" is a primer on what it is to be a cook, and Cunningham's underlying agenda may be to get families together around the dinner table. If kids learn to cook, not only might they eventually raise their children to appreciate food, they might also get their parents back to the table too.

VEGETABLE SOUP

This is the recipe of the first lesson in Marion Cunningham's "Cooking With Children." The novice cook learns to peel and chop vegetables; to saute onions, carrots and celery in order to bring out their flavors; the difference between boiling and simmering; and how to organize oneself before beginning to cook.

1 onion

1 carrot

1 stalk celery

1 tomato

1 zucchini

2 tablespoons butter

Salt, pepper

4 cups chicken broth, canned or homemade

PREPARING THE ONION

Use a paring knife to trim off the fuzzy small brown root end and the tan papery top of the onion and discard them. With the paring knife, make a cut into the papery outer skin of the onion, then peel it all off with your fingers and throw it away.

Cut the onion in half from stem top to root end. Put the onion halves cut side down on a cutting board. Cut 8 or 9 slices crosswise from each half, about the thickness of 2 pennies. As you slice, curl under the ends of the fingers of your hand holding the onion so that you don't cut your fingertips with the knife; move your hand back on the onion after each slice. Cut the slices into 3 equal parts. Scoop all the onion pieces into a small bowl and set the bowl near the stove.

PREPARING THE CARROT

Slice off the coarse top and the bottom tip of the carrot with a paring knife and discard. Holding the thick top of the carrot in one hand and the vegetable peeler in your other hand, slide the peeler down the length of the carrot, pressing just hard enough to remove the coarse peel. Keep turning the carrot slightly and repeat the motion from top to bottom until you have removed all the peel.

Put the carrot on a cutting board and cut the carrot in half lengthwise. Put each half flat side down and cut crosswise into half-moon slices the same thickness as the onion slices. Add the carrot slices to the onion in the bowl near the stove.

PREPARING THE CELERY

Wash the celery stalk and dry it. Place it rounded side up on the cutting board. Slice it crosswise into half-moon pieces the same thickness as the carrot and onion slices and add them to the same bowl with the other vegetables near the stove.

PREPARING THE TOMATO

With the tip of a paring knife, cut out the little round brown stem top of the tomato by cutting around it. Discard it. Now cut the tomato in half from stem top to bottom. Put the halves on a cutting board, cut side down. Cut each tomato half crosswise into 6 or 8 slices, just as you did with the onion. Cut the slices into 3 pieces. Put them into a separate bowl and set aside.

PREPARING THE ZUCCHINI

Zucchini does not need to be peeled; the bright green skin is tender and pleasant to eat. Just rinse off the zucchini and dry it. Remove the hard stem end and the tip. Now cut the zucchini in half lengthwise, the same way you cut the carrot. Put the flat sides down on your cutting board and cut half-moon slices the thickness of 2 pennies, the same size as the carrot slices. Put the zucchini slices into the bowl with the tomato and place the bowl near the stove so that it's right at hand when time to add these vegetables to the soup.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Put a 2 1/2-quart saucepan on the stove and turn the heat to medium-high. Put the 2 tablespoons butter into the saucepan and, as the butter melts, tilt the saucepan a little, up and down and around, so the butter covers the bottom of the pan. Now turn the heat down to medium-low.

Add the onions, carrots and celery, stirring to mix and coat them with butter. Cook, stirring the vegetables often, for 5 minutes. Shake a little salt and pepper over the vegetables and stir them again.

Pour the 4 cups chicken broth into the saucepan and stir so the vegetables are well mixed with the broth. Turn the heat up to medium-high so the broth begins to boil. (Liquid is at a boil when it is bubbling busily all over the surface and giving off steam.) As soon as the broth boils, turn the heat to low so the broth will simmer. (Liquid is simmering when there are just a few bubbles forming on top of the broth. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and zucchini and cook the soup for 3 or 4 more minutes. Now dip a large spoon into the soup and cool the broth a little by blowing on it. Taste it, and if it doesn't have much flavor, salt it lightly and taste it again. You have to be the judge of your own cooking. Remember, you're the cook and you're in charge! As you learn to taste critically, you will be surprised at how many times just adding a little more salt or pepper can make your dish a lot better.

Put the soup bowls near the stove and use a soup ladle to dip the soup out of the pot into each bowl. (A soup ladle is a large deep-rounded spoon on a long handle.) Without getting too fussy about it, try to dish up about the same amount of broth and vegetables for each soup bowl. Vegetable soup should be served hot.

Makes 7 cups, about 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

118 calories; 928 mg sodium; 16 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.73 gram fiber.

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