How one mother delegated dinner time. And made it work.
Here is what our personal chef prepared for dinner the other night: seared duck breast with an apricot-orange sauce, wild rice pilaf and haricots verts.
He delivered it to the table with professional aplomb and served everyone himself. Although the duck skin might have been more crisp and the pilaf fluffier, my husband and I were effusive with our praise.
The chef, after all, was our teenage son.
I cannot remember exactly when it occurred to me that my children should be cooking dinner for me instead of the other way around.
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It almost certainly came at the end of a typical long workday: I rush home from the office, start hustling in the kitchen even before my coat is off and then, maybe 15 minutes later, a child stumbles downstairs from playing a video game. He peers into a bubbling pot and moans, “Not pasta again,” or “Don’t you know I hate tomatoes?”
So, about six months ago, I asked each of my sons, ages 14 and 10, to cook dinner once a week. I was not proposing a heartwarming mother-son bonding experience. I made it clear that they could cook only when an adult was in shouting distance, but the goal was to have them plan and execute the meal on their own while I commuted home or ran errands — or drank a glass of wine on the couch.
The boys did not protest too much, mainly because I offered a reward. Our longstanding routine had them cleaning the kitchen after dinner under my husband’s supervision — loading the dishwasher, scrubbing pots, wiping counters, sweeping the floor. Now I was offering a get-out-of-jail-free card: You cook; we clean. They were elated by the idea.
And I was not just throwing them into the deep end of the pool. They had already helped me a lot in the kitchen and learned basic safety rules, like not leaving the room when a burner is lighted and how to hold their fingers when chopping. They had mastered making a few dishes from scratch: popovers, biscuits, pasta carbonara.
All the same, their shaky progress from apprenticeship to control involved a steep learning curve — about recipes and planning, techniques and strategies — for all of us. A half-year into the experiment, I am pleased to report that despite a minor burn, there have been no house fires and all fingers are accounted for. We’ve had some yummy home-cooked meals. And, best of all, my boys are proud of their handiwork.
The biggest obstacle has been getting them to commit to a menu in advance. On Saturday mornings, before the grocery shopping, I ask them to decide what they want to cook for the week and to assemble a list of ingredients.
There are a few ground rules. They must make a complete, balanced meal. It needs to be more healthful than not, so deep-frying is out. I try to steer them away from heavy meat or cheese dishes; simple fare, like soup and sandwiches, is fine by me. And although I dream that they will end up more like Alice Waters than Rachael Ray, I have not banned timesaving processed ingredients like canned sauces and broths. I just lobby against them.
Sometimes the boys are ready with ideas. Recently, my younger son Joe’s fifth-grade class assembled a cookbook, and he was eager to try some friends’ recipes. I nixed one, orange creamy chicken (made with marmalade, onion soup mix and mayo), but gave the green light to Greek meatballs.
More often, though, they lack any inspiration, and I endure a maddening game of procrastination. To get through this, I try to have several suggestions ready for them, usually foods they have mentioned wanting to eat or at least cuisines they have requested for takeout. It gives us a starting point for discussion. Still, great reserves of persistence are required.
I have a large selection of recipe sources, and my sons have used the full range, from Martha Stewart Everyday Food magazines to more sophisticated cookbooks like “A Twist of the Wrist” by Nancy Silverton. Usually, though, a notion pops into their heads first, then they search for a recipe. That’s why there is an Internet.
For quality assurance, I have to approve each meal plan. When my older son, Sam, proposed making creamy carrot soup with grilled cheese sandwiches, the concept was good but the balance was wrong: too much dairy. We settled on a salad with nuts and pears as a better accompaniment for the soup.
If I’ve erred in my judgments, it is toward approving recipes that are too ambitious. Joe recently asked about making spanakopita, and because he normally resists vegetables in any form, I jumped at the thought. But working with delicate prepackaged phyllo dough was above his skill level. The dish turned out to be delicious, but more of a team effort than either of us wanted.
We did better a week later. He proposed filet mignon (knowing only that it was fancy meat) and mashed potatoes. I countered by suggesting shepherd’s pie: ground meat with frozen vegetables mixed in, topped with a mashed potato crust. A quick Google search produced a simple recipe.
Joe won’t cut onions, so I did that. But he browned the meat, added the veggies and a gravy made from demi-glace (my idea), cut and boiled the Yukon Gold potatoes, mashed them with milk and butter, grated the cheddar and baked the dish. It was not haute cuisine, but it was all his.
Although my sons learned some basics while cooking with me previously, their time in charge has showed how many subtleties they missed. I am still surprised by the questions I get:
Q: How do you mash garlic?
A: Use the side of a knife.
Q: Can I use the hand blender to chop onions?
A: No, don’t be lazy.
Q: If I make a chocolate parfait for dessert, do I still have to make a vegetable?
A: Are you kidding?
Q: What about flambé? (My older son thought it sounded “cool.”)
A: That one answers itself, don’t you think?
To allow some mentoring, I’ve encouraged my younger son to cook on Sundays, when I am around to help, even if the meal will be served later in the week. This is fine for dishes like stews, which get better with time.
For my older son, who prefers to cook when I am not around to interfere, I’ve compensated by adding instructions to the recipes. If I stood over his shoulder and told him that, when boiling dry pasta, he should add a small handful of salt to the water, not a sprinkle, he might not listen. So I email him the amended recipe and hope for the best.
Letting go has not been easy. A few weeks back, Sam was making a simplified version of pho, the Vietnamese soup. He assembled the dish, as instructed by the recipe, by pouring the boiling beef broth (flavored with fish sauce, cinnamon and star anise) over thinly sliced raw steak and rice noodles, and adding handfuls of cilantro and basil.
He first served Joe, who quickly complained that the steak, which had been sliced too thick, was not cooked enough. Without thinking, I stepped in and — even as Sam yelled, “Don’t!” — threw a handful of raw meat into the stockpot, to give it a few minutes’ head start to cook before the boiling broth did the rest.
Sam stormed upstairs in a fury and despite my apology missed what turned out to be a very delicious meal. Later, he said he would have preferred serving the dish the way the recipe said to. If the meat wasn’t cooked enough, he would have put the bowls in the microwave. It’s not what I would have done, but it was his meal, and I should have let him make his own mistakes, too.
Last week Sam made chicken satay and vegetable fried rice. The chicken had marinated overnight, the rice was cooked and cooled, and the vegetables had been chopped. But Sam waited until I walked in the door at 7 to begin cooking.
I sat on my hands and said nothing as he meticulously threaded the chicken onto skewers. I remained silent, but did squirm a bit, when he left a small flame on under the fried rice while waiting for the skewers to broil. I could barely watch as he awkwardly flipped each satay, taking minutes to do a job that should have taken seconds.
But my patience paid off. The rice did not burn. The chicken was juicy and expertly seasoned, much better than the overcooked stuff you get in the average Thai joint. When he sat down proudly to join us for dinner, I could honestly tell him that it was the best satay I’d ever eaten — and that I was looking forward to doing the dishes.