Kids Cook: Teacher shares lessons, recipes and accomplishments of her young students

  • Leslie Meredith, the winner of the Cook of the Week Challenge 2019, will write a new column for the Food section. She runs a cooking school for kids out her home in Arlington Heights.

      Leslie Meredith, the winner of the Cook of the Week Challenge 2019, will write a new column for the Food section. She runs a cooking school for kids out her home in Arlington Heights. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/25/2020 1:53 PM

Welcome to Kids Cook, a new monthly column about cooking healthy food with kids, not for them. I'll share recipes, tips and ideas for getting kids in the kitchen, helping to prepare family meals. Of course, you don't have to be a kid to give these simple yet flavorful dishes a try. First up, a pair of fresh recipes tapping the first veggies of spring: asparagus, peas and new potatoes.

I grow asparagus at home and get a serious thrill when I notice the first spears emerging in April. It's like Mother Nature's alarm clock, waking up the garden and letting me know that winter is finally over. Fresh, local asparagus should start appearing in stores soon, along with other early spring vegetables like peas and new potatoes. All three come into play in a green "risotto" and spring salad.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Leslie Meredith, the winner of the Cook of the Week Challenge 2019, will write a new column for the Food section. She runs a cooking school for kids out her home in Arlington Heights.
  Leslie Meredith, the winner of the Cook of the Week Challenge 2019, will write a new column for the Food section. She runs a cooking school for kids out her home in Arlington Heights. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Asparagus is a heavy breather (technically, it has a rate of respiration), meaning you will want to eat it within a day or two of bringing it home. The spears are stems, which means you can trim a half-inch from the bottoms and store in a glass of water, covered with a plastic bag, in the fridge. Or wrap the ends in a damp paper towel before refrigerating, as you would with fresh flowers. When you are ready to cook, each spear will snap in your hands just above the woody part of the stem. If your asparagus is fresh, there should only be about an inch or so that gets composted or discarded. Kids especially enjoy doing this.

I'm using quotes around "risotto" because this version uses farro instead of the traditional rice. Farro is an ancient Mediterranean whole grain with more fiber and protein than rice, yet it has a similar chewy texture and soaks up the flavors of the dish. You can find it in most grocery stores.

There are different types of farro, depending upon how processed it is and, therefore, how much of the bran is retained. Most of what is sold in the U.S. is called pearled and will cook faster than either semi-pearled or whole.

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Making risotto requires a lot of stirring. While that gets tedious for adults, it's fun for kids, so pull up a step stool and hand over the wooden spoon. The little ones can also help with the measuring, shaking up the dressing and even the chopping, with supervision. Teach them the "claw" and "bridge" techniques (see sidebar) to do so safely. You might also want to buy a set of plastic safety knives for your kiddos.

While not strictly necessary, having tools like a microplane, garlic press or a juicer make the job go faster and are fun for kids to use.

• You can find the School of Food at @learngrowcookeat on Facebook or contact Leslie at food@dailyherald.com.

Leslie Meredith, the winner of the Cook of the Week Challenge 2019, will write a new column for the Food section. She runs a cooking school for kids out her home in Arlington Heights.
  Leslie Meredith, the winner of the Cook of the Week Challenge 2019, will write a new column for the Food section. She runs a cooking school for kids out her home in Arlington Heights. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Green "Risotto"

1 bunch of asparagus, woody ends snapped off, cut into ½-inch pieces, divided

1 cup fresh or frozen English peas, divided

5-6 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

1 leek, trimmed and sliced into ½-inch rounds (optional)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup pearled farro, rinsed

1 lemon, juiced and zested

1 tablespoon butter

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

¼ cup chopped fresh herbs like parsley or mint

Freshly ground salt and pepper

Puree ½ cup of the asparagus (not the tips), ½ cup of the peas, and 1/4 cup of stock in a blender until smooth. Add more stock if needed to thin into a smooth puree. Set aside.

Bring remaining stock to a simmer.

Heat oil in a large, deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and leek, sprinkle with salt and sauté until soft and turning translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and continue cooking for another 2 minutes. Add farro and stir until coated and cook until you notice a nutty aroma, about 2 minutes. Add lemon juice and cook just until liquid is absorbed. Then ladle in stock ½ cup at a time and stir until absorbed. Keep adding stock a ½ cup at a time until the farro opens up and softens, yet retains some bite, about 30 minutes total.

During the last 2 minutes of cooking, add the remaining asparagus and peas and stir in the vegetable puree.

Remove from heat and stir in butter and cheese. Top with herbs and zest, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serves 4 to 6

Spring salad

For the salad

1 pound new or baby potatoes (use small red ones if can't find "new" at the store), halved or quartered if large

1 celery stalk, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon fresh chives, chopped

1 bunch of asparagus, woody ends trimmed and cut into 1½-inch pieces

2 spring onions, finely chopped

1 cup fresh parsley, roughly chopped

For the dressing

This makes more than needed for this recipe, but keeps in the fridge for a week and is good on green salads

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons white wine or apple cider vinegar

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon honey

6 tablespoons plain, full-fat yogurt

2 teaspoons minced shallots or scallions

Salt and pepper to taste

Steam the potatoes for 10 minutes or until fork-tender.

While the potatoes cook, prepare the dressing by shaking all ingredients in a lidded jar until blended.

Toss the warm potatoes with the celery, chives and 1/3 cup of the dressing

Steam the asparagus for 2 minutes, until tender. Drain and rinse with very cold water to halt the cooking. Add to the potatoes and toss. You can add more dressing if you like, along with the spring onions and parsley. Finish with ground salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature.

Serves 4 to 6

Knife safety

Claw: Good for slicing and dicing. Curl your fingers into a claw by tucking your fingers and thumb in toward your palm. Grip the food with the curled fingers, leaning them forward so that your knuckles are showing but you can't see your nails when you look down at your hand.

Bridge: Good for cutting round foods in half or slicing lengthwise. Create a bridge over the food with your hand, with your fingers on one side and your thumb on the other. The knife should go through the bridge to cut the food.

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