Eight-year-old Lucy Gray is wide-eyed and quivering with anticipation when I arrive at her house in suburban Maryland. I am sorry to report that I am not the object of her excitement. She is thrilled because she will soon be cooking with my companion, Molly Birnbaum, editor in chief of America's Test Kitchen Kids.
America's Test Kitchen has long been a reliable source of advice for home cooks. The kitchen tests tools, techniques and recipes before making recommendations through its TV show, magazines and cookbooks. Now, all that know-how is becoming accessible to kids in The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs.
The book has more than 100 recipes for foods that kids love to eat: blueberry muffins, cheese quesadillas, creamy dreamy tomato soup, sesame noodles with snow peas and carrots, chocolate mug cake. Birnbaum is going to show Lucy how to bring one of these yummy recipes to life. Lucy has chosen "One Pot Pasta with Quick Tomato Sauce." Although Lucy has helped with cooking in the past, this is the first time she will prepare a main dish by herself.
Before cooking, Birnbaum advises Lucy to assemble all of the ingredients. For this recipe, they need olive oil, crushed tomatoes, onions, penne, basil, parmesan and seasonings.
As Lucy reads the recipe aloud, she stumbles over some unfamiliar terms. Birnbaum explains that cooking comes with its own foreign language: "There are so many words in these recipes that you just don't know until you've cooked a lot."
That's why the cookbook has a section at the beginning called "Decoding Kitchenspeak." It defines terms like "whisking" and "zesting," and explains the difference between chopping and slicing, mincing and peeling, stirring and beating. The cookbook lays out the basics with photographs of tools and equipment, and explains common techniques like how to crack and separate an egg. The cookbook also emphasizes safety, saying that it is an important secret to success in the kitchen.
Birnbaum shows Lucy how to hold a knife while chopping an onion so that her fingers will be tucked safely away from the sharp edge. Under Birnbaum's watchful eye, Lucy takes over the prep work and begins to cook the onions. Lucy loves the way the onions glisten as she stirs. "They're beautiful," she says.
Next, they add the canned tomatoes. Birnbaum says they did not use fresh tomatoes in this recipe because they want it to work year-round, even when tomatoes are out of season.
Lucy notices that they have not yet used the salt they'd placed in a small dish while assembling ingredients. "Are you supposed to put the salt in now?" she asks.
Checking the recipe, Birnbaum notes that yes, they should have added the salt while cooking the onions. "Let's put it in right now," Birnbaum suggests. And then she reassures Lucy that it's OK to make mistakes when cooking.
"For kids, mistakes are part of the process, and we really embrace them," Birnbaum says. "I think doing a good technique and taking your own spin on it, even if it results in a mistake, is an awesome way to learn how to cook."
This recipe is interesting because the pasta is not cooked separately, but added with water into to the simmering tomato sauce. Lucy worries that there is too much water. But Birnbaum assures her that "it's the perfect amount" and will be soaked up by the pasta during the cooking process.
Birnbaum says these recipes, like a lot of others in the book, would also work for adults looking to cook something quick and delicious. "I cook from this cookbook all the time," she confesses. "And I don't have kids 8 to 13!"
When the pasta is finished, Lucy adds the basil. As a final touch, she grates Parmesan cheese over each portion.
Her 12-year-old sister, Kate, digs in. "What's in this?" she wants to know. "It tastes so good!"
Their dad, Paul, agrees. "I think this is going to be in our rotation," he says with a laugh, "especially when the kids cook it."
That works for Lucy. She is already eager to take on her next culinary challenge.
"And then we make dessert!" she declares as she finishes up her pasta.
One-Pot Pasta With Quick Tomato Sauce
This dish, which is the one cooked by 8-year-old Lucy Gray in this story, is part of a collection of recipes in The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs, courtesy of America's Test Kitchen.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 onion, peeled and chopped fine
1 teaspoon salt
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes, opened
¼ teaspoon sugar
3¾ cups penne pasta
3 cups water
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
Grated Parmesan cheese
Gather Cooking Equipment
- In Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat for 1 minute (oil should be hot but not smoking). Add onion and salt and cook, stirring often with wooden spoon, until onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook for 30 seconds.
- Stir in tomatoes and sugar. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.
- Carefully stir in pasta and water. Increase heat to medium-high and cook, stirring often, until pasta is tender, 16 to 18 minutes.
- Turn off heat. Drizzle pasta with extra oil and sprinkle basil over top. Use ladle to divide pasta and sauce among individual bowls. Serve with Parmesan cheese.
Cooking Pasta and Sauce Together
Rather than boiling the pasta in a pot of water, draining it, and then combining the cooked pasta with the sauce, you can actually cook dried pasta right in the sauce (which means no extra pot or colander to wash!). To help the pasta cook evenly, it's important to add a measured amount of water to the pot with the sauce. By the time the pasta is cooked, the sauce will be the perfect consistency and the pasta will have absorbed some of the sauce, so it will taste better. Talk about win/win.