Though summer days are not exactly lazy anymore, life slowed down enough at our house recently to attempt a project in the kitchen that up until then we’d only talked about: taking my 12-year-old daughter Lily to the next level in her cooking. Figuratively speaking, she wanted to make the move from a prep cook to a sous chef.
For quite awhile Lily has wanted to invite her two best pals, Elaine Ejigu and Elsie Taffere, over for a meal that she wanted to make herself, from beginning to end. She was eager to fly solo with only a little assistance from the tower, to test all the skills she’d mastered helping me over the years. This would require that I actually let her cook, rather than controlling everything myself.
OK, I said. Then I called cookbook author Martha Rose Shulman, whose most recent title is “Ready When You Are,” (Clarkson Potter, 2003). She occasionally teaches girls how to cook, and she sent over several recipes from her class.
Lily has helped in the kitchen since she climbed out of her highchair for the last time. As there are just the two of us and I had to keep an eye on her while I cooked, she didn’t have much choice: I put her to work. Luckily, she was born with a willing spirit.
When she was 2, she started putting the silverware on the table. “One utensil at a time” was her motto. Now she sets a pretty table, quickly. Lil also happens to make a good salad — one part lemon juice to three parts olive oil, with a little sea salt, tossed over butter lettuce. She can safely handle a sharp knife on fruit and vegetables, and she bakes a mean blueberry crumble. In the kitchen, she’s learned to measure exact amounts and from that how to occasionally eyeball an amount.
Lily pored over the recipes Schulman sent and finally chose two: spanakopita with its many layers of filo pastry, and shrimp and lemon wedges grilled on skewers. She added a salad and a favorite family dessert — Norwegian birthday cake (blotkake) — to the menu.
The spanakopita was more complicated than any recipe she’d attempted before, but as she read it and made her shopping list, she became more enthusiastic, a good sign. As we drove to the Armenian market, we had a discussion about getting the spanakopita, shrimp and salad all to the table at the same time. Did I say discussion? OK, it was more like a lecture.
As her eyes glazed over, Lily said, “Mom. My friends won’t mind if everything isn’t perfect. Seriously.”
The night before the dinner we washed the produce, then baked the cake. We tried out a new method of separating eggs that a friend had described to me. You crack them right into your cupped hand and the whites slither down into a bowl. The yolks remain in your palm, making it easy for kids to transfer them to a separate bowl. After the novelty wore off (by the third egg), it proved to be an efficient method that requires a lot of hand washing, always a good idea in the kitchen. The blotkake recipe also requires whipping egg whites and folding them into the batter.
“Do you need help with that?” I asked, as Lily folded the whites into the yolk mixture.
“You really mean, ‘Get out of the way and let me do it.’ No thanks,” she said. “I can do it.”
While the cake was baking, we proceeded with the first two steps of the spanakopita recipe. It took two tries to sauté the leeks (the first batch burned). From this experience, Lily learned to regulate the heat under the pan and to keep a watchful eye on the stove top. She delighted in adding the spinach and watching the voluminous chopped leaves first fill the pan and then reduce down to barely cover the bottom.
The next day, we were glad we had a head start because there was still plenty to do. We were definitely cranking up the heat in the kitchen. Could we stand it? Lily, in fact, could. " Why are you going so fast?” she asked, as we threaded shrimp onto the skewers. “When I take my time they look prettier.”
So I slowed down and followed her lead. She’s very organized and she has a great sense of timing. She oiled the filo and lifted the thin sheets to the pan with the patience of a Zen master. She used the recipes like road maps to a mysterious destination: Although she wasn’t sure where they’d take her, she followed with faith. Her delight as the ingredients turned into a mouth-watering meal was a joy to behold — and contagious.
Leave room for girl talkWhen Elsie and Elaine arrived, there were still a few things to do, so Lily enlisted their help. The three of them made the lemonade and had fun assembling and frosting the cake.
I put the shrimp on the barbecue, and we were finally ready to sit down.
Sharing the delicious food, the girls laughed and talked about boys and school and teachers and the crazy pressure to conform. As the laughter traveled across the patio and mixed with the music from an apartment across the way, I thought about mothers and daughters in kitchens all over the world engaged in the dance of leading and following, holding on and letting go, following and leading.
As Lily and I did the dishes later that evening she asked, “When can we do this again?”
Maybe we won’t wait until next summer.
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Grilled shrimp and lemon wedges
Total time: 25 minutes
Note: From Martha Rose Shulman
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound peeled and deveined shrimp (26 to 30 count)
8 to 10 wooden skewers, soaked for 30 minutes in water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. In a large bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, lemon zest and garlic. Add the shrimp, stir to coat them evenly, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and no more than 3 hours.
2. Soak 8 to 10 bamboo skewers in water for 30 minutes before threading. Heat an outdoor or indoor grill, a double-sided grill or the broiler.
3. Cut each lemon into 8 wedges. With the tip of a small, sharp knife, remove any visible seeds from the wedges.
4. Remove the shrimp from the marinade and thread 3 shrimp and 2 lemon wedges on each skewer. Pass the point of the skewer through both the head and tail end of each shrimp.
6. Season the shrimp on both sides with salt and pepper. Place the skewers on the grill rack directly over the fire, or under the broiler, and cook until they turn bright pink all over, 1 to 2 minutes per side, turning the skewers once with long-handled tongs. If using an indoor double-sided grill, grill for 2 minutes only. Serve immediately, encouraging guests to slide the shrimp and lemon wedges off their skewers and squeeze the warm lemon over the shrimp.
Each serving: 144 calories; 24 grams protein; 3 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 4 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 221 mg. cholesterol; 255 mg. sodium.*
Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Note: From Martha Rose Shulman
2 1/4 pounds (about 3 bunches) fresh spinach, stemmed and washed
7 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 large leeks, white and light green parts only, cleaned and thinly sliced (about 4 cups)
1 cup chopped Italian parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
3 large eggs, beaten
6 ounces (about 1 1/4 cups) feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
12 sheets phyllo dough, thawed according to package directions
1 egg white, lightly beaten
1. Leaving the water on the spinach leaves after washing, place the spinach in a large (14-inch) heavy nonstick skillet and cook over medium-high heat until wilted, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a colander, rinse with cold water and press out as much water as possible. Then wrap the spinach in a towel and squeeze out more water. Chop fairly fine and set aside.(This can be done in advance. The wilted spinach will keep for 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator.)
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in the same skillet over medium heat and add the leeks. Sauté, stirring often, until softened and just beginning to brown, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the spinach and stir together until the spinach is coated with oil. Remove from the heat. (You can make the recipe through this step several hours or a day ahead. Store in the refrigerator in a covered bowl. )
3. Place the combined spinach and leeks in a large bowl. Stir in the chopped parsley, dill, beaten eggs, feta cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
4. Brush an 11-inch tart pan with olive oil and layer in 7 sheets of phyllo dough, one at a time. Brush each sheet with olive oil before adding the next sheet. Place them not quite evenly on top of one another so that the edges overlap the sides of the pan all the way around. (When working with phyllo dough, work with one sheet at a time. Keep the other sheets covered with a slightly damp cloth to prevent them from drying out.) Press around the edge of the pan so the phyllo dough fits into the bottom of the pan.
5. Spoon the spinach mixture onto the phyllo dough, spreading it evenly over the bottom of the pan.
6. Using kitchen scissors, trim the edges of the dough to a 1 1/2 -inch overhang. Fold the edges of the dough over the spinach mixture and brush them with olive oil. Layer 5 more sheets of dough over the top, brushing each sheet with olive oil. Using scissors, cut the excess dough to a 1 1/2 -inch overhang and tuck the edges under into the sides of the pan.
7. Brush the top of the pie with olive oil, and the beaten egg white, and pierce in several places with a sharp knife. (The spanakopita can be assembled a few hours before you bake it and held in or out of the refrigerator.) Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees until golden brown, about 45 to 50 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Each serving: 328 calories; 11 grams protein; 26 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 21 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 98 mg. cholesterol; 499 mg. sodium.*
Norwegian birthday cake (blotkake)
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
5 eggs, separated
3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups whipping cream
1 to 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, depending on sweetness of berries
4 cups berries in season, such as blackberries or raspberries
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray 2 (8-inch) round cake pans with cooking spray, then line the bottoms of the pans with parchment paper and spray again. Set aside.
2. Beat the egg whites until foamy, then add the cream of tartar. Beat again until stiff peaks form. Gradually beat in three-fourths cup sugar and then set aside.
3. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks with the remaining three-fourths cup sugar until they form a thick yellow-colored ribbon. Stir in the water and the vanilla.
4. Sift the flour and the baking powder twice. Gradually fold the flour mixture into the egg yolk mixture by hand, until thoroughly combined.
5. Fold the egg white mixture into the flour and egg yolk mixture.
6. Pour the combined mixture into the prepared cake pans and bake until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out dry, about 30 to 40 minutes. Let the cakes cool.
7. Cut each cake into 2 layers.
8. Whip the cream. Gently stir in the powdered sugar. Set aside 1 1/2 cups of the whipped cream to spread around the sides of the cake.
9. In a bowl, crush half the berries. Add the remaining whole berries. Gently fold the berries into the remaining whipped cream.
10. Spread one-fourth of the berry whipped cream over the bottom cake layer. Top with a second layer of cake. Repeat with the remaining two layers, and spread the last one-fourth of the berry whipped cream on the top of the cake. Frost the sides of the cake with the reserved plain whipped cream. Serve immediately or refrigerate until serving time.
Each serving: 354 calories; 5 grams protein; 46 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 17 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 143 mg. cholesterol; 75 mg. sodium.