It was 6 a.m. on the North Shore of Chicago, and my 2 1/2 -year-old grandson, Levi Max Solomon, was trying to convince his mother he needed to make scrambled eggs.
At that very moment.
My daughter suggested he sleep a little longer or maybe play with Skarloey, his favorite red push-train. "No, Mommy, scrambled eggs. With cheese."
Eventually my daughter relented. Levi cracked the eggs in a bowl, scrambled them, grated cheddar cheese and gathered thyme, basil and chives from the garden for an omelet. He even took the silverware out of the dishwasher to set the table.
When I first heard this story, I thought for sure my daughter was raising a genius. Or, at the very least, a self-assured, innovative, cordon bleu chef.
But at another house in downtown Annapolis, Laurel Klayman steps out of the shower to clattering sounds and the pungent aroma of garlic wafting from the kitchen. "What are you doing?" she demands of 4-year-old Jack.
"Making something yummy," her son answers enthusiastically. "Garlic and eggs." He points to bits of garlic he'd squeezed through the press as well as the remnants of a few eggs he'd managed to crack into a metal bowl.
And in the far left side of the country, Los Angeles chef Ben Ford is awakened at 3 a.m. by the sounds of the Sub-Zero refrigerator being pried open. He nudges his wife. "Ethan," he says with a laugh. He pads to the kitchen, where he discovers his 3-year-old son anxiously peering into the refrigerator. "What's up?" his dad asks him. "I'm making waffles," the blond-haired grandson of actor Harrison Ford answers matter-of-factly.
To active, inquisitive youngsters, cooking is just as much fun as pushing Skarloey - or any other train - around their wooden track. It's much more fun than being complacently planted in front of the television. And it just about equals their level of excitement when Mom or Dad reads to them from their favorite book.
According to early-childhood educator Jean Piaget, Levi, Jack and Ethan are at the ages when children are learning about the world and figuring out their place in it.
If, as Piaget believes, the business of childhood is preparation to become happy, self-confident adults, cooking is one of the most beneficial jobs a parent can give to a child.
"It's amazing how much there is to talk about when Jack and I cook," says Klayman, a dietitian who works primarily with women, infants and children.
"Jack and I read the recipes and measure the ingredients. We talk about time when we set the timer - he gets to see how long 20 minutes is. I take him to pick strawberries, peaches and apples, so we talk about where food comes from.
"He's very interested in learning about the different attributes of foods. We came up with the term 'always' foods - items you can eat with every meal, such as fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, protein and whole grains. Then there are 'sometimes' foods - treats which are sugary or fatty. Although we occasionally bake brownies or cookies, he knows you don't eat them every day.
"Because Jack is so involved with food, he's excited about trying spicy dishes or recipes of different ethnicities," she says. "I think he's developing a healthy relationship with food. He's not a picky eater because, to him, mealtime is an adventure."
"I let Jack choose what he wants to eat. It makes him feel independent," Klayman says. "He makes up his own recipes, which is a wonderful way for him to express himself," she adds.
"First it was garlic and eggs, then onions and eggs. The latest was marshmallows and eggs. I decided to draw the line there," Jack's dad, Evan Klayman, says with a laugh. "I try to get him to cook recipes that I remember making as a child. Our favorite time to cook is breakfast. It's so elemental. And it's the time of day when everyone has a lot of patience."
Piaget calls the child an explorer and the parent his first teacher. That's why young children watch Mom and Dad and want to do what they're doing. They want to use the same gadgets and utensils, and they want to get the same results.
Ben Ford, former chef/owner of the upscale organic restaurant Chadwick's in Beverly Hills, now a caterer, cooks with Ethan every day in a state-of-the-art kitchen he designed.
Ethan has his own drawer with pots and pans, whisks, wooden spoons, spatulas and plastic measuring cups. When Dad starts cooking, Ethan gets out his utensils to join in. "He's already memorized several recipes so when we're making a dish, he'll tell me when to add the eggs and stir in the milk," Ford says.
"Our meals are a product of who we are as a family," Ford says. "We're pretty sophisticated in our tastes and I love experimenting with different foods, so Ethan is pretty much willing to try anything. But I'm also conscious of quality and the way food is grown. I think our favorite meals are when we've planted 100 percent of the ingredients from seeds."
Ford shows off a three-tiered organic garden he tends with Ethan, who comes bounding out, all smiles. Ford asks what he'd like for lunch. The self-assured toddler thinks for a minute. "Peas and carrots," he replies. "And what about breakfast?" "I think broccoli and waffles."
"The most important thing you can teach a young child is to be adventurous and say yes to life," says Paul Cummins, founder of the innovative Crossroads and NRoads schools in Santa Monica, Calif.
In For Mortal Stakes (Peter Lang Publishing, 1998), he reiterates, "Engaging children in activities they love nurtures their passion for life. The goal of education should be to help each boy and girl ignite whatever spark is there into a full, blazing fire."
Not literally, of course.
Parents who cook with their kids emphasize the importance of teaching children safety in the kitchen.
"I make sure Ethan isn't around the hot stove or toaster, and I keep everything hazardous, such as the knives, in one area, which is off-limits," Ford says. "I'm always talking to him about being careful. He has his own set of plastic knives, which actually cut. Part of cooking with Ethan is keeping him occupied with easy tasks while I'm doing the hard part. When we make bread pudding strawberry pancakes, he cuts the strawberries and stirs the batter while I'm cooking the pancakes on the stove and putting them in the oven."
"There are so many teachable moments surrounding food," says Cummins, an educator for more than 30 years.
"While you're making an apple pie, you don't need to explain to 3 to 5 year olds how a mixer works. You can talk about where apples come from, take a field trip to an orchard, meet the apple growers, and talk about what climates apples need to thrive. You're teaching children to be inquisitive and have respect for the Earth and the environment."
That's why he will install a large interactive kitchen where children will cook with the teachers in the new preschool facility set to open in 2005. He's in the process of hiring a chef/teacher who will work with other teachers to make cookery an organic part of the curriculum.
"We'll cook dishes from different parts of the world, which leads into talking about customs and diversity of various cultures. When children like the foods of Italy or Thailand, they develop a curiosity and respect for the people. We might have a Japanese tea ceremony; the children will learn about quiet customs and about what ceremony is, which is doing things in order. This is a wonderful way for children to make sense out of the world.
"Engagement is the key word in learning. And the prize at the end is the children get to eat what they cook," he says.
Cooking with preschoolers
Take the cue from your child. He'll tell you when, where and what he wants to cook.
Talk about kitchen danger such as hot stoves, toasters and barbecues, sharp knives, peelers and graters; glass. Instruct him never to turn on any appliance without you.
Set up an area in the kitchen with his own safe utensils.
Install a sturdy stool or chair for him to stand on so he can reach the sink and watch you cook.
Analyze his capabilities and encourage him to do jobs he can handle. As he becomes more proficient, increase the difficulty of the tasks.
Expose him to a variety of tastes, textures and degrees of spiciness; let him determine which ones he wants to include in his repertoire.
Take him shopping for the ingredients. If possible, go to farmers' markets or fruit stands where shopping is fun and the produce tastes the most delicious.
Plant fruit trees and vegetables from seed so he can watch his garden grow.
Encourage creativity. Teach him the basics, then allow him to experiment.
Instill the joy of cooking; you're creating a lifetime passion.
- Beverly Levitt
1 1/2 cups maple or fruit syrup
1/2 vanilla bean
1/2 cup strawberries
3 lavender flowers
Heat syrup on a very low flame in a small saucepan. Turn off flame. Add vanilla, 1/2 cup strawberries and lavender flowers. Steep for 5 to 10 minutes or until taste is pleasing. Set aside.
- From chef Ben Ford
Bread Pudding Strawberry Pancakes
Serves 4 to 6
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 slices stale, crusty white bread (country or Italian is best), crusts trimmed and cut into 1/2 -inch pieces
1 cup milk
1 large egg, beaten to blend
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup strawberries, sliced
2 tablespoons butter, plus more for frying
Stir flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in small bowl to blend. Place bread in large bowl and add milk. Let stand until bread is very soft and beginning to fall apart, stirring mixture occasionally. Add flour mixture to bread mixture and blend. Mix in egg and melted butter. Let batter stand 15 minutes.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Add 1 cup strawberries to batter. Melt 2 tablespoons butter, or more, if needed, in heavy large skillet or griddle over medium heat. Drop batter by 1/4 cupfuls into skillet (smaller for dollar size).
Cook pancakes until bubbles form on surface and bottoms are brown, about 2 minutes. Turn pancakes over; cook until pancakes are brown on bottom, about 2 minutes longer.
Transfer to baking sheet. Keep warm in oven. Repeat with remaining batter, adding more butter to skillet as needed. Serve with warm syrup.
- From chef Ben Ford
Eggs in a Nest
Makes 6 prosciutto cups, which will serve 4 to 6 people
12 slices prosciutto, sliced thin
1 cup mashed potatoes
1/2 cup mild smoked fish such as trout, whitefish or halibut, cleaned, boned and crumbled
1/4 cup chives, chopped (optional)
1/2 cup whole organic milk, warmed
1/4 teaspoon sea salt (plus more, if desired)
freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese (optional)
To make prosciutto nests: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Layer 2 slices prosciutto into each of 6 cups of a standard nonstick muffin tin. Place 3-inch- by-3-inch piece of parchment paper over each prosciutto cup. Put dried beans, rice or pie weight on top of paper.
Bake for 20 minutes or until barely crisp. When cool, gently lift prosciutto cups -- which are now shaped like flowers -- out of the muffin tin. Transfer to a flat 13-inch-by-9-inch baking pan.
To make filling: Gently mix together mashed potatoes, smoked fish, chives, if desired, milk, salt and pepper. Place 1 scant tablespoon mixture inside each prosciutto cup.
Crack an egg over each potato mixture, being careful not to let white escape. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, if desired. Bake for 25 minutes or until egg reaches desired doneness.
If desired, grate parmesan cheese over top. Finish for 30 seconds under the broiler.
You can bake prosciutto cups the day before. Cover with plastic wrap or place in flat plastic container in a cool, dry place until ready to assemble.
-- From chef Ben Ford