I used to imagine that my boys would learn to cook before they left home, then when they were grown, they would make the dishes we made together when they were small.

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by Greg Atkinson

When he was very young, my oldest son showed some interest in cooking. Every time he heard me open the refrigerator or a cabinet, he would drag a chair to the kitchen counter and stand on the seat for a better view. As I took out ingredients for baking, he would help me measure the flour or sugar.

Once, when he was 3, we came home with fresh apples and he knew we were about to make a pie. As he dragged his chair into place, he cried out, “Is everybody ready for pie dough?”

His brother was the same way. Even before he could see over the edge of the counter, he was ready to help cut vegetables, and though I secretly cringed in fear that he would end up one finger shy of a complete set, I taught him how to hold the knife in one hand and the carrot or potato in the other, keeping his fingers back from the blade.

When the boys were in elementary school, I made a point of taking them to farmers markets. When I purchased fresh seafood right off the dock on San Juan Island, I brought the kids with me, and they worked beside me while I filleted the fish or shelled the prawns. We worked together in the garden, and one season, they sold their own herbs and flowers at the Bainbridge Island Farmers Market.

I used to imagine that my boys would learn to cook before they left home, then when they were grown, they would make the dishes we made together when they were small. Over the years and over the miles, we would maintain a connection through food. I imagined them stirring up a Ragu Bolognese for their own kids some day and telling the grandkids about the apple trees, the vegetable garden and the freezer full of grass-fed beef and sustainably-raised pork they grew up with. But it’s beginning to look like that might not happen.

My younger son likes to cook simple things when I’m not around. If we stock the kitchen with foods he likes, he’ll fry potatoes, make a grilled cheese sandwich, or wrap up a burrito after school. He also makes the best blue cheese dip I’ve ever tasted. But I don’t expect him to take over the dinner detail any time soon.

“Let’s keep it simple and cheap,” he said once when I asked what he wanted for dinner.

My older son is even less interested in cooking. He is just wrapping up his freshman year at college, and as far as I know he has never really cooked a thing. Aside from occasionally tossing the salad or scooping the cookie dough at home, he has never moved beyond that early childhood interest in cooking. The most complicated dish I have ever seen him make is trail mix. He likes to buy dried fruits, nuts and chocolate from the bulk section of the supermarket and mix them into custom blends for his munching pleasure.

“I don’t cook,” says my oldest son, “because I never had to.” And yet, he does have great food sense.

Last summer, when it was almost time to pack him off to school, and I was beginning to despair that he was a culinary illiterate, he surprised me. It was almost time for dinner and I had no plan for what to cook. I opened the refrigerator and saw bacon and eggs. I knew we had pasta in the cupboard and garlic on hand. “Maybe we should have spaghetti alla carbonara,” I said.

“Dad!” said my teenager in the concerned and overly patient tone he reserves for when I’m showing signs of premature dementia, “It’s summer! Carbonara is a winter dish.”

I stopped, tilted my head and considered this.

“Why don’t you do that pasta with fresh basil and tomatoes,” he wondered, “with some of the olive oil I brought back from Italy.” It was true, he had been to Italy on some kind of world leaders of tomorrow tour. He rummaged around in the produce drawer and came up with the fresh basil. In a basket on the kitchen counter I had some organically grown tomatoes.

“Just keep it simple,” called out my younger son. “Don’t do anything to muck it up. And use plenty of garlic.”

Then it dawned on me. The boys might not cook like me, but they think like me, and more importantly, they eat like me.

Greg Atkinson is author of “West Coast Cooking.” He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com.

Recipe: Penne Pasta with Tomatoes, Garlic and Basil

Serves 6

When the ingredients are the best they can be, and the cook does nothing to mess them up, even the simplest dish can be great.

For the pasta

1 pound penne pasta

1 gallon boiling water

2 tablespoons kosher salt, for boiling the pasta

1 tablespoon olive oil

For the sauce

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 ounce fresh basil, stems removed, leaves left whole

6 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and sliced thin

1 pound (about 4 medium) Roma tomatoes, cut into ½-inch wedges

2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

Grated Parmesan cheese, as an accompaniment

1. Boil the pasta in salted water until it is barely tender, about 10 minutes, and drain. Scatter the drained pasta over the surface of a baking sheet rubbed with the oil to halt the cooking process and allow it to cool. The pasta may be prepared ahead up to this point and finished later.

2. Put the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat; when the oil is hot, drop in the basil leaves. (Make sure they are not wet or the oil will spatter uncontrollably.) Add the sliced garlic and sauté until it is fragrant, but not browned. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper and sauté for 2 minutes, or until the tomatoes are soft and heated through.

3. Toss the sauce with the cooked pasta and serve at once with Parmesan cheese passed separately.

Greg Atkinson, 2008