Teaching Kids to Cook

September 16, 2010

A food writer friend of mind has been tweeting lately that she’s giving her college-aged daughter a cooking “crash course” as she moves into her first apartment.  And that made me wonder how do people teach their kids to cook?  Do you have them stand beside you on a regular basis, where they observe and take it in?  Do you agree on a dish or two that you will make together?  Do you have them plan meals?  At what age do you let them do their own thing in the kitchen?

I’ve got four children, two boys and two girls.  The girls are 15 and 9 (soon to be 10), and the boys are 16 and 11.  My 9 year old daughter is a baking machine, constantly making cookies, muffins, and the occasional loaf of bread.  She doesn’t do anything overly fancy, but it’s almost always tasty.  She has not, however, done much on the range.

My 16 year old son can make a few things.  He knows how to poach an egg.   He can make a solid, classic alfredo sauce. Oh, and a grilled cheese, too.  But that’s about the extent of his repetoire.

My 15 and 11 year olds, however, don’t cook that much.  My 15 year old daughter can make pasta.  That’s her specialty.  Her only specialty.  My younger son doesn’t really cook at all.

I wonder why my kids don’t cook more often.  Is it because they view me as the cook, where I control the process too much?  Do they have any desire to learn?  Am I too impatient with them?

I want my kids to know how to make some basic dishes by the time they go off to college, and right now, I’ve realized that I haven’t been doing a good job of teaching.  Time for that to change.

Happy 15th, Ryan

August 25, 2010

I embarrassed my daughter last year somewhat by describing the dinner I was going to cook for her birthday party as a type of father-to-daughter love letter.  I’ll not do that again, but I’m pretty pleased that she asked me to cook for her and her friends again this year.  I’ve got a tentative menu planned, including a couple of Thomas Keller dishes, but she may have me tweak it a bit.  It is her birthday, you know.

Hors D’Ouevres
Gougères (French Cheese Puffs)

Cream of Cauliflower Soup with Red Beet Chips (Keller)

Baby Spinach with Avocado and Grapefruit, Poppy Seed Dressing (Thanks, Ann Cashion)

Farfalle with Pesto, White Beans, and Local Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Sautéed Curry Chicken Breasts with Tarragon Butter Sauce, Pole Bean Ragout (Keller)

Raspberry Buttermilk Cake with Dark Chocolate Ganache, White Chocolate Ice Cream (Thanks, Crumb!)

My Kids and Food

August 10, 2010

Many of you might think that my kids eat everything and anything put in front of them.  Not so.  Each of our four children has his or her idiosyncrasies,  things that are loved or loathed.  My oldest loves most food, but he hates legumes of any kind — except for roasted peanuts, perhaps.  He just can’t stand the texture and now the taste.  My older daughter doesn’t like seafood or red meat.  My younger son doesn’t like cooked fruit, except for applesauce.  My younger daughter doesn’t like bananas or fresh peaches or pineapple.  Only one of the kids will eat raw tomatoes and none of them like cilantro.  I sometimes stress out, as my (unrealistic) expectations are that they should like everything.  Yes, that’s a completely ludicrous position, and I’m coming to grips with it.

I recently visited Vin Rouge in Durham, taking my younger two children (they’re 9 and 11).  I’ve known chef Matt Kelly before he started there, but I’ve only eaten his cooking a couple of times.  Vin Rouge has become the place where other chefs eat, primarily because of Kelly’s dedication to the craft of cooking.  He’s one hell of a cook, and if you ever visit on a Sunday night, you’ll find a handful of local chefs eating there on their night off.

Anyhow, shortly after we sat down, a huge charcuterie plate landed on our table, featuring 5 different kinds of pate’, a pork rillette (or was it rabbit?), plus some bacon confiture, salami and other goodies.  The kids tried some of the items on the plate, liking some and saying, “That’s different” with others.  My son later tried and liked my sweetbreads.  The kids ordered hanger steak — rare (although they were torn between that and the mussels).  For dessert they had chocolate mousse and creme brulee.  It was a pretty safe meal, except for the pate’ and the sweetbreads.

Last night I attended a potluck where a number of chefs were in attendance, including Matt Kelly.  I thanked him again for the charcuterie plate and told him that my kids had fun with it.  He responded, “It’s great to serve normal food to kids, as it’s so rare for that to happen.  I get all kinds of crazy requests to accommodate kids.”  I thought about that for a moment, and then realized that Matt’s statement might be the highest complement he could have paid me as a food-loving father.  Suddenly, images of my kids’ food adventures started running through my head.  I took those same two children to Publican in Chicago last month, where they sampled lamb neck, sturgeon, octopus and pork rinds.  They loved the frites with fried eggs on top (someone needs to do that dish around here — are you listening, Ashley Christensen?).  They didn’t think the food was weird at all.

And so, after all these years, I think that I’m finally able to handle the kids’ dislikes.  They’re by no means picky eaters, and I realize that.  They may never have a passion for food the way that I do, but they’ll always understand its importance.  Yup, I’m damn lucky indeed.

Why I Blog

May 18, 2010

Last night, I had the honor to eat at Herons where a handful of local chefs put together a great meal to support a super cause.  I was in attendance because I’m the chair-elect of the charity benefiting from the dinner, the Lucy Daniels Center.  Before the dinner I was invited back into the kitchen to talk to the chefs, all of whom I knew pretty well except for one.  As the dinner started, I was given the opportunity to talk about the Center to the guests, and then I sat down to enjoy the splendid food and wine.  Over the course of the evening, two or three folks introduced themselves to me, saying that they read my blog.  My initial reaction in those situations is typically, “Really?  Why?”  I’m always surprised to meet one of my readers, as I just don’t think about that side of the blogging equation.  And when I’m asked, “Why do you blog?” my answer is almost always the same: “For me.”

To me, there is no creation of human beings greater than food (other than other human beings, of course).  We must eat to survive, of course, but it’s far more complex than that.  Societies and cultures are defined in great part by food, by the rituals surrounding the dining table.  We celebrate with food and drink.  The most intimate way to welcome guests from abroad is to cook for them.  When I think of France or Italy or Morocco or India or Mexico, my first thoughts are about the food and cuisine of those nations.

I write about food because it is important to me and my family, and quite honestly, I want to keep a journal of my life with food.  I want to help preserve the memories of my 9 year old daughter’s passion for baking, or the time when my older daughter wanted me to cook a multi-course dinner for her birthday party.  I want to remember when my 10 year old son and I bellied up to the bar in DC or when my then 15 year old son went to Herons on a night I was working in the kitchen.  I also want to remember what I cooked a couple of weeks ago, or when I first tried a livermush sandwich.

I like to write about my friends, and that’s why you’ll rarely see me writing negative things in this blog.  Heck, any blog post here about restaurants is typically about a friend’s place, so why on earth would I ever write bad things about them.  I’m not a journalist, I’m an advocate for the local food community.

I rarely write about events that I know nothing about.  I get a handful of press releases each week about this event or the next.  I sometimes even get a very nicely written email about a particular event, but if I don’t know anyone involved, I typically write back explaining that I have chosen not to write about such events.  I do break from that rule now and then, but not very often.

I have also learned that writing about food does in fact give me some credibility in the food world and some access that I might not otherwise have.  I got to work in the kitchen at Herons and the Globe because of this blog, in part.  Some of my best friends are chefs and food writers, but I have learned that those friendships did not evolve because I blog.  It’s because food is nearly as important to me as it is to them.  Folks in the food industry love to “talk shop” more than any other industry I know.  We health care lawyers really don’t want to what we do or health care reform.  We want to talk about music or sports or, of course, food.  When I’m with a group of chefs and food writers, the only thing they talk about is food.  It’s not just their business, it’s their life.  And because I share that similar passion, they’re happy to talk to me about it to.

I do not blog for economic gain, that’s for sure.  You’ll note the lack of advertising here, as I’ve chosen not to commercialize VarmintBites, even though several offers came my way.  First of all, there’s hardly any money in it, unless you become a huge entity with multiple writers and hundreds of thousands of daily visitors.  Second, you have to write every day, several times a day, and you have to write well.  I have a blog with hundreds of daily visitors and on a busy week, I might have 3 posts, each of which I wrote over a course of 10 minutes, with no re-writes or much proof-reading.  And I can also go two weeks with only one post.  It’s my party and I can write when I want to .

In the end, I write for my memories, for my passion, and yes, for my ego.  I am flattered when someone does tell me they read the blog.  I have my insecurities, too, wondering whether anyone really cares.  It sort of reminds me of some of my chef friends, when I tell them how much I loved a particular dish, and they respond, “Really?  You’re just not saying that?”  It’s pretty funny, those folks who work to feed us.  They’re not rock stars or ego-driven maniacs.  They’re just plain folks, like you and me, who happen to love food and have made it their career.  I don’t have the skills or the stamina to do what they do.  But I’m glad I get to be in their world from time to time.

A Cupcake Nursery

January 19, 2010

A family friend recently had a baby, and my youngest daughter decided she needed to make some special cupcakes for them.   With the aid of her brother and sister and my wife, this is what they made.  Pretty impressive!

Christmas Cheese

December 22, 2009

My wife’s family has a longstanding tradition for breakfast Christmas morning that is, well, rather disgusting.  All it is is melted cheddar cheese, but we bake cubes of sharp cheddar until the oil starts separating from the cheese solids and a crust forms along the top and edges.  This crust, called “frust” for some reason by my family, is the most desired part of the dish.  We serve the cheese with freshly baked buttermilk biscuits and preserves (fig is the first choice).  I generally serve some scrambled eggs, too, but it’s a simple breakfast where the frust is the star.

It’s funny how such a simple thing can be so special, when you serve it only once a year.  May you have a little frust in your world this Christmas.

Tacos for a Crowd

September 23, 2009


It’s my birthday on Saturday, and rather than going out to dinner, I decided to do what I enjoy the most: cook for others.  I suspected it might be a sizable crowd, so I decided to just serve tacos, which are easy, can be eaten while standing up, and are still incredibly tasty.

So last weekend, I smoked a beef brisket and two pork shoulders (thanks for the use of the Weber Smoky Mountain Cooker, Chad).  The brisket was too lean and is consequently a bit dry, so I’ll be sure to toss it with some sort of sauce before serving, maybe a roasted tomato chipotle salsa.  Any suggestions.

The pork is nice and unctuous, with lots of fatty parts throughout.  I may cut it up into cubes and through it in a hot cast iron skillet to give it some more brown bits — a quick style carnitas, of sorts.  I’m thinking a green chili salsa would work with that.  Or I could do a quick “pastor” style dish with some roasted pineapple.

I’ve got a bunch of boneless chicken thighs that I want to cook, but I haven’t figured out what to do with them.  Any ideas, folks?

My friend Phoebe is getting me freshly made corn tortillas from Taqueria La Vaquita in Durham.

The only side I’ll make is a big pot of Rancho Gordo beans that can be served in cups.  It will be vegetarian, so there will be something for my non-carnivorous friends.

Other than that, we’ll have some queso fresco, cilantro, lime, onions and avocado.  Am I missing anything?

Oh, tequila and cerveza, of course.  I picked up 5 bottles of tequila and 2 bottles of Cointreau.  That’s a good start.

For dessert, we’ll have Mexican chocolate sandwich cookies (filled with dulce de leche), Mexican wedding cookies, cinnamon pound cake, and vanilla pound cake.

It should be a lot of fun, and I’ve already done most of the work, except for the chicken and the salsas.  This way I can just put out food at a casual pace and not worry too much.  I may not know much about Mexican cooking, but that’s not gonna stop me.  Now where did I put that shot glass??

I really don’t know what I’m doing, just winging it as I go along.


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