Monday, November 21, 2016

New Book Review: Kid Chef

Title: Kid Chef

Author: Melina Hammer

Date: 2016

Publisher: Sonoma
ISBN: 978-1-943451-20-31

Length: 200 pages
Illustrations: color photos

Quote: “May you feel empowered to bop around the kitchen and create terrific food.”

The good news is also the bad news. Kid Chef is not the sort of first book that tells kids how to insert pre-sliced bread into the toaster and ask an adult to help start the automatic heat cycle. This book picks up where the ordinary “kids” cookbooks leave off. It assumes understanding of words like “purée” and “ramekins,” and the level of coordination and attention the reader will need to do the things these specialists’ word mean. It addresses kids who are already familiar with a chef’s knife and will find uses for an immersion blender when they get a chance to use one. It mentions that cooking bacon until crisp will take about six minutes, once, but does not repeat that information or warn kids that bacon has been known to spatter; its target audience already know how to cook bacon. Lessons one through five consist of Garlic Bread, Granola, Fried Eggs, Salsa, and Frittatas. If your child would be likely to break ramekins, your child is not ready for this book.

So, for what age group is Kid Chef a reasonable gift? That’s a judgment call. My mother, an early reader and true "foodie kid" who was cooking for crowds at five, could have used it by age six at the latest. Some of The Nephews, who learned to read later, might have preferred to wait until they were ten or twelve. Cooking is a separate talent from math or reading or music; not every child who might be considered a Kid Chef uses words like “empowered” or “tagliatelle”  or “residue” in conversation, and cooking is an easy, either “before the others start thinking about it at school” or “when all else has failed,” way kids learn about fractions. If a child is tall enough to stand on the floor while working on the kitchen counter, this book should be more interesting than frustrating. Then again, there are even younger kid chefs who take to cooking the way Mozart took to music, like my mother, who might want this book now. Then again, there are bachelors who didn't think about cooking before they started inviting friends to their apartments, who can still use this book to impress their friends.

Hammer caters a bit to the trendy yuppie “foodie” crowd:

“Professional chefs don’t cook with a microwave and neither should you.”

“If you have to choose between stocking up on vinegars versus oils, I recommend widening your vinegar selection first.”

“Flake salt, such as Maldon” (for Lesson 1’s garlic bread).

At this point parents might justifiably worry that their Kid Chef may start teasing for trendy, pricey foods. (It’s possible, but isn’t it better than having a kid tease for chewing gum or video games?) Frugal parents will appreciate this tip on page 33: “Swap as needed…an ingredient for another like it that looks fresher.” It is possible for the alert parent to sell kids on the idea of not choosing the trendiest and priciest ingredients. Do you really need any kind of salt, even good old Morton’s, on garlic bread? Do you actually prefer cheap raisins to expensive dried berries or cherries in granola?  Swap as needed.

Hammer does not address any special diet needs, but followers of restricted diets can enjoy this book anyway, because special diets happen to be trendy.There’s a recipe for sesame bar cookies that’s naturally wheat-free, a quinoa (or rice or barley) pudding that’s naturally dairy-free, several recipes that are naturally vegetarian and/or vegan. “Good for you”? Well…fresh-cooked meals are generally more nutritious than “fast foods” or frozen dinner-on-a-tray. Which of these recipes are really good for your health is something you have to work out.

Will kids like these recipes? Probably every child will like some of these recipes. I have never personally met a child who liked vinegar. Kid Chefs can use this book to chop up delicious salads and “hold the dressing.” Pages 126-127 tell Kid Chefs how to simmer cauliflower in a mix of wine or vinegar and water and oil and many other things, then dip it into a cheese sauce. Frankly, one whiff of that concoction at any stage of its preparation would spoil my appetite. There are medical and nutritional reasons why Kid Chef might feel the same way, and every child deserves to know that good cauliflower tastes its very best raw, with nothing on it but the water used to wash it.

Most kids like a good healthy gross-out, such as the idea that salad dressing was invented by extremely hungry people in search of a way to choke down rancid or moldy vegetables. Some fungus-tainted vegetables taste just a bit like butter, although they taste even more like moldy veg. Many decaying fruits or vegetables ferment and taste just a bit like wine or vinegar. By whipping up oil and vinegar with a lot of other strongly flavored additives, the great cooks of the Middle Ages were able to distract starving people from the foulness of the food that was left at the end of a long winter. Boiling food, then smothering it in salt and vinegar, actually killed enough of the germs, vermin, and fungi that most of the people who ate this nasty food survived. So there are good reasons why “dressing” salads became a tradition, but the majority of kids who hate salad “dressings” deserve to know that the ancient Roman gourmets who invented salads did not “dress” them.

If I could tell all Kid Chefs one thing that’s not in this book, it would be this: “Dressing” a salad is an apology—either for not having good veg, or for not knowing them when you have them. A good salad, in which the cut-up veg (and fruit) ooze their own perfect blend of tangy juices and oils, so fresh and delicious that you can’t resist going after it with a bit of bread or even a spoon, does not need to be mucked up with oil and vinegar.

Kid Chef contains recipes for 77 trendy, zingy foods that are more complicated to prepare than your basic peanut butter sandwich or lettuce-tomato-and-onion salad.A majority are gluten-free; a majority are sugar-free; a majority are dairy-free, and a slight majority are meat-free, although very few are all of these things at the same time. Any teen-aged (or “tween”-aged or adult) reader who has mastered any of these recipes will be able to use it to impress friends.

This one is not a Fair Trade Book because it's still a new book. Remind me, in a few years.