By JO ANN HUSTIS
STREATOR, Ill. — Allowing 10- to 12-year-old kids in the kitchen is an excellent idea, especially when it leads to creating pizzas from scratch with fresh ingredients found locally in backyard gardens and neighborhood farmers’ markets.
To illustrate, five preteens kneaded dough, grated cheeses and carefully spooned chopped tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and minced onion atop the pizzas they whipped up at the Kids Cooking Class by the Streator Downtown Farmers’ Market Aug. 5. The session was included in five days of events to celebrate the 15th annual National Farmers’ Market Week.
“The sooner you teach kids about food and where it comes from and how to cook, the better off they’re going to be in the long run,” Katelynn Essig of Rochester, an intern at the Illinois Stewardship Alliance organization and assistant cooking class instructor, noted.
“It’s learning about vegetables and eating, and trying new things as their taste buds are kind of changing as they’re getting older. This is also a good and easy way to get them to eat vegetables even if they say they don’t like them.”
The Illinois Stewardship Alliance promotes environmentally sustainable, economically viable, socially just local food systems through policy development, advocacy and education. Kids Cooking Class instructor Molly Gleason of Springfield – ISA outreach coordinator for promoting local foods and conservation, plus editor and contributor to the organization’s website and e-newsletter – noted all kids like to get their hands dirty.
The tough part is when it’s time to clean up the kitchen … which nobody wants to do, she noted.
“But the thing we really want to try and instill in kids today is the importance of from where they get their food,” Gleason said. “Also, making sure they’re taking a kind of active role in going to farmers’ markets and seeing that their produce is grown sustainably and chemical-free; and, do they like going to farmers’ markets?”
Tomatoes, potatoes and greens at markets are not always washed and cleaned, Gleason pointed out. “That is part of the education for kids, too; making sure that they know what real food looks like and then washing that food and how to prepare it to make it taste good.”
Learning to wash and clean produce is the best preparation for preteen kids to learn. “It’s washing, cleaning, picking out the produce, shopping and taking ownership of where that food came from because they feel they had a part in making it,” she said.
“Absolutely, they should be in the kitchen at this age. They should be learning how to cook at an early age; that’s a basic life skill and it’s also going back to knowing where your food comes from and how to prepare it. That’s something every kid – every person – should know.”
Both instructors smiled about some of the questions asked by preteen kids in kitchen classes. “They want to know where food comes from and what it tastes like,” Essig said. “That’s part of the joy of being in the kitchen and trying and tasting new things. And if you don’t like it, well, you don’t like it.
“Preparation is really important. If you don’t prepare a food right, it may not taste good. But if you learn how to prepare it, you may turn out to love it cooked – you just don’t like it raw. It’s good to learn to cook, to put things together and create meals.”
The last thing on the menu for their classes is a set of seven basic questions. Each youngster is quizzed on what he or she learned from the class.
What follows are a couple of recipes from the Kids Cooking Class instructors:
Farmers’ Market Pizza
Crust (makes two 12-inch crusts)
3/4 cup lukewarm water
2 teaspoon active-dry yeast
3-1/2 to 4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons honey
3/4 cup pureed beets (about 2 large beets, roasted and peeled with 1/4 cup water)
Pesto (makes 1-1/2 cups)
2 cups fresh basil leaves (packed into measuring cup)
3-4 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil (choose a flavorful olive oil)
1/2 cup pine nuts
3/4 cup coarsely grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste
Goat cheese or feta cheese
Roasted beets, sliced
Bell peppers, sautéed or raw
Mini heirloom tomatoes, halved
One red onion, sliced
Sweet corn cut from cob
Fresh spinach or greens of choice
Fresh basil for garnish (optional)
To make crust: Place pizza stone on lower middle rack of oven and heat oven to 500 degrees. Combine and stir water and yeast in a mixing bowl until mixture resembles miso soup (a fermented mixture of soybeans, sea salt and rice koji).
Add flour salt, honey and pureed beets to yeast mixture and mix until dough just comes together. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and knead until the flour is incorporated, about 5 minutes or until it is smooth and elastic. Dough should be moist and slightly tacky. If sticky, add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time until smooth and form into a ball.
Lightly oil a bowl and place dough in, turn once to coat dough with the oil. Cover with plastic wrap and set in warm place to double in size – about 1-1/2 to 2 hours. Then, divide dough into two even halves. Refrigerate one half for another time (you can refrigerate for up to three days) or double the topping recipe to make two 12-inch pizzas.
Lightly grease a sheet of parchment paper with olive oil. Transfer one ball of dough to parchment and stretch it out by hand as much as possible. Lightly brush olive oil on more parchment paper and place on top of hand-flattened dough. Using rolling pin, work from center of dough outward to flatten it to 1/4-inch thick. Peel off top parchment paper.
To make pesto: Wash basil leaves if needed and spin-dry or dry with paper towels. Put leaves and sliced garlic into food processor fitted with steel blade and process until basil and garlic are finely chopped, adding oil through the feed tube as you process. (You may need to take off the lid and scrape down the sides with a rubber scraper to get the basil all chopped.)
Add pine nuts, parmesan cheese and lemon juice to basil mixture and process 1-2 minutes more, until the pesto is mostly pureed and well-mixed. Make it as finely pureed as you wish, then season to taste with salt and fresh ground black pepper and pulse a few times more.
Store pesto in glass jar in refrigerator, where it will keep for more than a week. Pesto can also be frozen.
To assemble: Spread pesto evenly on crust with spatula or back of spoon, leave 1/2-inch border. Top with cheese and layer with additional toppings of choice. Sprinkle with more cheese.
Slide pizza, with parchment beneath, onto hot pizza stone. Bake 3-5 minutes until crust starts to slightly brown. Rotate pizza one time, remove parchment, bake 3 minutes more and remove from oven.
Optional: Garnish with watercress, fresh basil or your choice of greens. Slice and serve.