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 saute 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 talk
When 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.