Kitchen Shrink: Tips for cooking with kids

KITCHEN SHRINK:

Thanks to the popularity of such shows as The Food Network's "Chopped Junior," the kitchen has become the new cool playground. In response, readers have requested kid-friendly advice for having a fun and safe culinary play date with their young children and grandchildren. So, roll up those big and little sleeves, and game on!

Mother Hubbard needs well-stocked cupboard: Be prepared. Map out a thoughtful game plan for the event. Select age appropriate recipes, and compile an ingredient list. Remember, kids have different tastebuds and palates than we do. Flavors are amplified, spicy foods are not well-tolerated, while sweets are overly welcomed. If you have a plentifully stocked pantry, freezer and produce drawer you might be able to skip the trip to the market.

Little hands make big messes: Expect spills, dribbles, splashes, overflows, splatters and flour dust —everywhere! Put aprons on all chefs, and try using plastic sheets on counters and floors for damage control. Have everyone pitch in at the end for cleanup.

Rub-a dub dub: Make sure all wash their hands before any food preparation, after handling fish, chicken, meat or anything sticky, and, of course, before eating. Explain the dangers of bacterial and viral "kooties" that can cause serious foodborne illnesses.

Safety first: When doling out kitchen patrol, leave the chopping to older kids. Even still, give a crash course in basic knife skills (see below), and always supervise. For newbies, a cutting glove might be a good bet, along with a sturdy stool for standing on if the prep counter is too high. Other safety tips include turning pot handles inward to prevent burns, tying long hair back, keeping knives in blocks, and breakables away from edges.

Chop goes the weasel: There are three cardinal rules for using knives at any age: 1) keep them sharp as they are safer than dull ones, which can easily slip off foods and cut you; 2) uuse cutting surfaces that will keep blades sharp like wood or plastic; and 3) always clean knives by hand. Use a serrated knife for slicing bread, a paring knife for peeling fruit or trimming fat, and a chef's knife for slicing and dicing. Grasp the blade handle with thumb and forefinger, making an "O" formation. Hold food in place with your free hand, curving knuckles inward, claw-like, away from danger. Slice away.

Baby Bear's porridge: Kids shouldn't have foods too hot that will burn delicate mouths and throats, or too cold that will cause brain freeze.

The ABCs of GMOs: Talk to these future stewards of our planet about the beauty of seasonal, sustainable, local, organic, and hormone, antibiotic and GMO-free foods. Tell them about freaky Frankenstein creations like the peach that was crossed with the DNA of a cold-water fish to preserve the fruit during early frosts.

Teachable moments: This is also a good time to seamlessly incorporate math (measurements, metric conversions, equivalents in recipes), chemistry and science (reactions with leavening agents and acids, denaturing of proteins, creating emulsions, etc.) into the mix.

Don't (rolling) pin them down: While most first kitchen experiences start with baking, you should equally expose them to the art and joy of cooking. Let them marinade, toss, sauté, shock, scale fish, debone chicken, peel, mash, shred, zest, garnish, and take pride in the fruits of their labor.

Camera, Action! Record video of the event to capture the memory, and dole out kudos. Most importantly, have a blast!

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•••• Recipe: Easy, Cheesy Baked Ziti

Ingredients:

• 1 pound ziti, cooked slightly al dente, drained

• 1 jar quality marinara sauce

• 14-ounce can/jar diced tomatoes

• 4 garlic cloves, minced

• 1 sweet red pepper, diced

• 8 ounces white mushrooms, sliced

• 1 handful fresh basil, chopped

• 1 teaspoon honey

• 3 tablespoons virgin olive oil

• 12 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese

Method: Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Add oil to large pan on medium heat, and add garlic, peppers and mushrooms. Sauté until tender. Add sauce, tomatoes, honey, half the basil and seasonings. Toss pasta with sauce and transfer to oven-safe casserole dish. Top with thick layer of mozzarella. Bake until brown and bubbly (about 20 minutes). Garnish with basil. (See junior chef videos at freerangeclub.com)

Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: kitchenshrink@san.rr.com

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