Teaching Life Skills While in the Kitchen

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Najwa with spatula

This may not make any sense, not even sure if it makes any sense to me, but it’s never been a concern of mine that Najwa learns how to cook. And I’m not even sure why other than there are a ton of other concepts, skills and habits atop the list of things to teach.

But then I got to thinking the other day and had an epiphany.

When I was growing up, cooking wasn’t pressed on me or my brother. My mom cooked every meal, every day, whether we were hungry or not. And if she was too tired, my dad cooked. He showed me how to flip a steak properly without splashing hot grease all over myself, but it wasn’t like I had to prepare a full course meal.

Eventually, I left for school and a life on my own. Let me tell you how confusing it was.

Now that I had to pay for food, I didn’t realize how expensive it was to eat out. Every day. For every meal. I didn’t understand that microwaved foods or frozen dinners weren’t the same as home-cooked though it was cooked at home. And some of my favorites started to lose its appeal when I was eating them three times a week. I mean, how many bags of Ramen noodles can you eat without it starting to taste artificial?

Being an avid reader, I used to go to the bookstore a lot. And they’d have these discounted books at the entrance. And being on a budget, you have to look at the books going for $2 or $3 just because. And there would be an entire sections just for cookbooks. And one day, why not, I got a cookbook.

Now, I wasn’t whipping up mom-quality meals, but I figured out a thing or two. Eventually my cupboards had a variety of herbs and spices, the pantry had a mixture of side items, and all I had to do was get the right meat and the rest was already in the kitchen. Because I was using Mint.com [is that still a thing?] to see where my money was going, I saw my food and entertainment budget drop. Never mind that I spent the extra savings on the entertainment part [I was in the A-T-L — who could blame me?].

Then again, being able to cook a meal for that person you met out and about rather than always going out to Pappadeaux or Sonny’s BBQ all the time had its benefits, but I digress…

However, it’s not the savings or health reasons or extra benefits that made me think of this.

See, cooking seems so easy when you read the seven steps needed to create those meals in the pictures.

  • Step 1 is usually pre-heating. It does make a difference.
  • Step 2 is mixing a bunch of stuff, in specific quantities, and setting them aside.
  • Step 3 is preparing the meat or whatever, sometimes requiring overnight marinating, other times pounding with a mallet or sliced so thin you have to learn how to hold the meat without slicing your fingers.
  • Step 4 is tossing the meal in the oven or on the stove, until it boils or simmers or browns or something else that requires a level of attentiveness that makes you appreciate the saying that a watched pot never boils.
  • Step 5 is the long game. Bake for 45 minutes or fry until the blood dries up or boil until it’s soft but not too soft.
  • Step 6 is putting it all together.
  • Step 7 is how to garnish it, make it look appetizing like the pictures.

Ok, got it. But you can’t have the main protein without a side or two or three. And you don’t want to prepare the sides while the main dish is sitting in the oven drying out while you prepare the sides. And not any side goes with any meat.

Now, you prepare this meatloaf using a custom recipe, sprinkling the bottom of the pan with brown sugar, using some weird but tasty bread crumbs with diced vegetables, and a few extra herbs to add some kick to the meat. Next? Can of Del Monte cut green beans? Nada. Boxed mashed potatoes? Nope. The sides have to meet the level of the culinary dish. Your one step of open can and boil or mix box contents and heat and stir are being replaced with seven step recipes.

And then there’s the tools. There’s a special knife for special cutting. I didn’t get it until I was cooking for a friend and she asked why I was using a bread knife to cut meat. Bread knife? I just saw the jagged teeth and figured it was good for cutting ribs. And there’s the different types and shapes of pots and pans and if your rice cooker isn’t from am Asian corner store, your rice isn’t going to be right. There’s differences in cooking oils, salts and peppers, butters, flours, sugars and all the other basics. Not to mention curry powder is not cayenne pepper is not paprika is not Lawry’s. And if you really want to do it right, ginger or garlic from a bottle doesn’t compare to freshly grated ginger or garlic. Same for blocks of cheese rather than the stuff in a bag.

Back to my Point

Unless you share the same experiences I had while learning how to cook, you probably didn’t make it this far. Or skipped directly to it.

The point is that cooking changes the way you think. It presents plenty of challenges that need to be figured out and usually the deadline is right now. You have to learn patience, time management skills, imagination, discipline. You will fail. A lot. You will feel disappointment, and that feeling of disappointment is worse when you’re hangry.

So, I’ve had a change of heart. Najwa is going to learn how to cook.

Scrambled Eggs

In the past I let her beat the eggs for breakfast or toss the cheese in the pan, but this morning, it was all on her. I mean, even before step 1. She had to get her cooking tools and ingredients. Two eggs, the butter [butter keeps your eggs from turning brown like oil], the wooden spoon [actually, we use a plastic rice scooper], slice of cheese, bowl, fork, plate and of course the pepper.

She then cracked the first eggs and dropped it in the bowl. For the second egg, it was a weak crack so she had to dig her fingers in there to tear the shell. It was sharp and she struggled. Did you hear me? She struggled cracking the egg! She asked for help and I told her to find a solution. So, she banged it on the counter to get a bigger crack and egg white splatter on the floor. We’re off to an interesting start.

Next, I thought beating an egg was intuitive. It’s not. There’s a certain way to flick your wrist; she looked like she was making mashed potatoes.

Time to fire up the stove, get the butter melting and prepare the cheese. Let’s just say that we have to work on her sense of timing, urgency and concentration. That and I have to remember that when cooking for the first time, it’s not as easy as after cooking for 20 years.

And then, it happened. Her finger touched the pan. And she just knew her finger was going to catch finger, blister up, fall off — I’m not sure what she was thinking but it was obvious I had to take over. I mean, she was burning the cheese. You can’t burn the cheese!.

I grabbed the Neosporin but there wasn’t even a hint of contact. No blister, no burn mark, it didn’t even hurt after a couple of minutes. It was the shock and I get it.

I’m sure her first foray into cooking on her own was at first exciting, next confusing, finally terrifying, but this is going to be the way for the next nine years until she leaves for college. And the quasi-burning of her finger is precisely why. She needs, all kids need, more activities that they’ll fail in. They need to make mistakes. So that they can learn and develop the skills to focus better, persevere and overcome challenges.

Next Steps

This is a loosely thought out plan, and one that may change as I figure out how to do it, but here’s my thoughts.

Najwa and I are going to go to a book store and she’s going to pick out a cookbook. She’ll pick out three recipes she wants to cook and we’ll go to the store and get any ingredients not already in the house. She’s going to talk it out, verbally explain how she’s going to do it, visually herself already doing it. Then she’s going to do it. Over and over again until what she whips together is as she anticipated.

So when she does leave for college, she won’t be so easily impressed by some guy who happens to know how to make spaghetti.

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