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Cooking with the kids during spring break

Recipes, like adults, shouldn't talk down to kids. Instead, keep things simple, fun and inspiring with hands-on steps and fresh flavors

03/12/2013 1:25 PM

03/14/2013 4:06 PM

PARIS -- When I was in elementary school, I couldn't wait to get home and get into the kitchen. If I wasn't assisting my mom as a junior sous-chef (licking the cake batter bowl was my specialty), I was making chocolate chip cookies, cupcakes, fudge and bittersweet chocolate brownies on my own.

If it was chocolate, I wanted to make it -- and eat it; today, not much has changed in that department.

Luckily for me, everyone in my family was as crazy about food as I was. When my Uncle Charles came to visit for the holidays one year, he showed me how to pick fresh mushrooms (still considered exotic in Denton in the early '70s), and on another visit, how to play around with spices so that leftovers didn't need to be so lame. Not long after he and I transformed day-old Christmas turkey into an Indian-style curry, he surprised me with a subscription to Gourmet.

There weren't many chefs on TV, but I'd watch the ones who were on it as much as possible. I'd sometimes put a warm washrag on my forehead to feign a fever just so I could tune in to The Galloping Gourmet on Channel 11. It makes me wonder why it took me so long to get around to cooking as a career.

Better late and all of that.

By the time I was in sixth grade, my culinary education had expanded far beyond Easy Bake Ovens and cutesy children's cookbooks. Through what was on the dinner table each night, I'd already tasted a world of cuisines, from French to Chinese, and South American to American Southern, which my Birmingham, Ala., mother specialized in.

Today's kids have been exposed to even more foods than I was. Cooking shows are as common as cartoons, and kids of all ages watch them, just like I did. Which means that they are exposed to new and different styles of food and cooking -- far more than what you will find in most cookbooks that are written for kids. Those recipe collections can be super-simplified and often silly.

I say let's not underestimate kids who already love to cook by giving them dumbed-down recipes. Keep it simple, sure, while exposing them to new flavors and techniques -- like in these very hands-on recipes, for which tomatoes are hand-smashed, cornflakes and cookies are hand-crushed and mint is hand-torn, and that grown-ups will love to make, too.

Ellise Pierce is the Cowgirl Chef and author of "Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent" (Running Press, $25). www.cowgirlchef.com; @cowgirlchef.

Squashed cherry tomato salad with feta and mint

One of the easiest salads ever. The first moment fresh cherry tomatoes are available, make this. It'll have you thinking of summer, even though it's still months away.

18 ounces cherry tomatoes

12 Kalamata olives, pitted

Small handful of mint

11 ounces feta cheese

Pinch of dried oregano

Pinch of black pepper

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

1. Put the cherry tomatoes in a medium-size bowl and smash them (or tear them in two using your hands). Do this in the bowl, because the juice will squirt out.

2. Tear or slice the olives in half (longways) and toss these in with the tomatoes.

3. Tear the mint and crumble the feta, and toss into bowl, too.

4. Add the oregano, pepper, red wine vinegar and olive oil, and toss to combine. Let salad rest at room temperature for at least a half-hour before serving.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 317 calories, 26 grams fat, 10 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams protein, 69 milligrams cholesterol, 1,078 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 72 percent of calories from fat.

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