Kids in the Kitchen: A 9-Year-Old Cooks Pasta With Tomatoes and Mushrooms


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Rory (right) chops tomatoes while Lily measures flour for pie crust.Credit KJ Dell’Antonia

Can a 9-year-old cook a healthy dinner the whole family will enjoy?

In the comments to the last Kids Cook column, Juliet noted that we’ve cooked a lot of desserts, and no vegetables (unless, she teases, we count Ketchup Chicken). “Isn’t the point of this series,” she asks, “to give our kids more agency in the kitchen, which encourages them to try new things and, by extension, find healthy foods they actually want to eat?”

It is. The point is also, I’d add, to raise children who can produce a healthful meal for themselves as they get older, as high school students, in a dormitory kitchen, in their first apartments. I’m personally haunted by the specter of the young Dartmouth student who, told to make macaroni and cheese while babysitting for us years ago, took a pan, put some water in, dropped in the pasta and the cheese powder and then turned on the stove.

The story of that student reminds me that children need to master two kinds of cooking: the recipe-driven kind (which can be as simple as following the instructions on the macaroni and cheese box) and the basics of putting together a meal from what is on hand — the kind of cooking most of us do every night.

This week, we had both kinds going on in the kitchen. I walked my 9-year-old daughter, Rory, through a simple, easily customizable pasta with tomato, mozzarella and mushrooms (for those who like recipes, what we did was very similar to Mark Bittman’s Pasta, Beans and Tomatoes ). Meanwhile, my 11-year-old daughter, Lily, made a Rustic Berry Tart, carefully following one recipe for pie crust and another for the filling. I supervised Rory closely; Lily was on her own.

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Adding mushrooms to a hot pan.Credit KJ Dell’Antonia

I had Rory do everything, from chopping tomatoes, mushrooms and mozzarella to lugging the pan of water over to the stove. She chopped with a full-size knife (it’s better to teach children to use a good knife right than to give them a tool that’s too small for the job) and sautéed mushrooms and tomatoes. She also calculated an on-the-fly math lesson: If the spaghetti takes 12 minutes to cook and the angel hair pasta that you have to add because you don’t have enough spaghetti will take only four minutes, how long do you cook the spaghetti before you add the angel hair?

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While she cooked, I talked, telling her things I’ve said before and will say again, but that I hope will stick. Pasta water should be salty like the ocean. Get a good rolling boil, and don’t start your timer after you drop the pasta in until the water comes back to a boil. Stir the pasta. Let the pan and oil get hot before you add the mushrooms (she dropped them into a cold pan with no oil, prompting a reminder that even if she thinks she knows what to do next, she should wait for me if we’re cooking together). Add the tomatoes, and now your sauce is done when you say it’s done (we add the mozzarella off the heat). Taste the pasta even though the timer went off, cook it a little longer if you need to, drain, don’t rinse, and add olive oil right away to keep it from sticking if you’re not ready with the sauce.

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A Rustic Berry Tart, ready to bake.Credit KJ Dell’Antonia

While Rory cooked the meal (and I scooped up dishes after her), Lily’s berry pies achieved rustic perfection (the forgiving style is ideal for a young cook). She and I have talked before about the basics of recipe cooking: Read it through before you start, make sure you do the steps in order, review the ingredient list often and again at the end to make sure you’ve used everything, and remember that very few recipes involve dumping all the ingredients on the list into a bowl. She has been making a better pie crust than I do this summer, maybe because she doesn’t bring the baggage of pie-crust-failures past into the kitchen. This is good; every family needs someone who can make pie.

Dinner could have been fancier (a recipe would likely have called for a little sautéed onion or garlic in there), but that wasn’t the point. The point, as Juliet noted, was to increase my daughters’ agency in the kitchen. Plus pie.

Skills Learned/Practiced: Chopping. Cooking and timing pasta. Sautéing in a hot pan. Building a pasta sauce from ingredients on hand.

Similar Recipes: Pasta With Burst Cherry Tomatoes; Pasta Amatriciana; Pamela Sherrid’s Summer Pasta.

Kid Cook Verdict: Six thumbs up.

Next week, Margaux and I will try Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread. Join us, or choose a different dish from our Kids Cook recipe collection. Follow us on Twitter (@KJDellAntonia and @margauxlaskey), Instagram (@kjda and @margaux_laskey). Let us know how you’re doing with the hashtag #NYTKidsCook.



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