“Cooking is at once child’s play and adult joy. And cooking done with care is an act of love.”—
A dozen years ago, I got a crazy idea: rent a church kitchen for a week and host a group of kids for a hands-on cooking camp. It was so much fun and the feedback proved it was a success, so it became an annual tradition. Sharp knives, hot stoves, fresh ingredients, happy kids. We always started with an earnest 101 of kitchen safety and each week concluded with a homemade banquet fit for kings and queens.
Watching kids master some essential life skills always fueled me to continue, despite the potential recipe for disaster. I call it happy kitchen chaos. These kids have enriched my life. This year, my summer schedule did not allow a week off to chop, sing, dance, and sizzle in the kitchen with the pint sized set, but when I learned that the YMCA was opening their action-packed summer camp to children who have been affected by the flood, my lightbulb illuminated.
For just one day, we converted the Oak Room at the Coonskin clubhouse into a makeshift kitchen. We split the group of 80 aproned campers into age-group sessions and they rotated between four stations for a Friday Fiesta. My kitchenette was the setting for hand-chopped fresh tomato salsa. I showed the kids how to safely chop grape tomatoes for salsa using a ‘pinch and saw’ technique. They chopped green onions and cilantro and stirred it all together with some fresh garlic and minced jalapeño pepper and a pinch of salt. The occasional outburst of “I don’t like tomatoes” turned into “this is soooooo gooooood!!”
A team of middle-school volunteers led the guacamole smash. Cora Clark, a cooking camper from my church kitchen days and ever excited in the kitchen invited her friends Jenna and Tatum to help with the project. At their station, they transformed a mountain of avocados and limes into tons of silky guacamole.
Adam Flack, a new dad with a passion for good health streamed Mariachi music at the griddle station, keeping the mood festive. He led the cheese grating and quesadilla making, where each child prepared a crispy, melty quesadilla which they devoured with their handmade salsa and guacamole. Of course we had a little sweet treat, too. My daughter Sara, born in the kitchen and a graduate of the first cooking camp circa 2005, rolled and dipped cookie dough with the crew for dozens of snickerdoodles.
Our tables were set with parchment placemats and cups of fruit-enhanced water and the happy chefs dined together, enjoying this feast they helped create. Hands-on fun and full bellies. Then the buses arrived to shuttle them to their next activity, bringing the next group to repeat the fiesta fun.
Recipe for a pint-sized fiesta — we didn’t actually refer to any recipes, but using my brilliant husband’s advice for all things (“don’t get hurt, have fun!”) we chopped and stirred, squeezed and smashed, brushed and grated and griddled our way to a delightful feast!
Fresh Tomato Salsa
Some like it hot…some do not. The best part about homemade salsa is tweaking the heat and seasonings to your preference. Grape tomatoes are easy for kids to cut in half and in half again for a chunky salsa fresca.
- grape tomatoes, rinsed
- green onions, roots trimmed and discarded
- cilantro leaves
- garlic, peeled and crushed or minced
- jalapeno pepper, seeds removed and chopped (an adult job)
- salt to taste
For kids: pinch the grape tomato by the sides with thumb and forefinger and saw it in half using asharp paring knife or serrated knife. Turn them flat (cut) sides down and pinch and saw in half again. Place the tomato pieces into a bowl.
Slice the green onions into thin rings and add them to the tomato. Chop the cilantro and add to the bowl, along with some garlic, a little jalapeño, and a pinch of salt. Stir to combine and serve with chips or quesadillas or as a taco topping.
The word that ends in ole’! No fiesta is fit without a big bowl of guacamole for dipping andtopping
- ripe avocado
Cut the avocado in half, putting the tip of the knife in by the stem and cutting in to the pit. Turn the avocado and knife in opposite directions until the knife is back at the stem top. Twist the halves to pop the avocado open. Tap the pit with the knife blade and gently twist the knife to remove the pit. Using a spoon, scoop out the soft green flesh and let it fall into a bowl. Squeeze in some lime, sprinkle in some salt, and mash it all together with a fork or a pastry cutter. Serve immediately.
A canvas for any fillings your heart desires. We went with straight cheese, grating white cheddar which was sprinkled onto whole wheat tortillas
- whole wheat tortilla
- 1 ounce white cheddar cheese, grated with the large holes of a box grater
- olive oil for brushing
Heat a griddle or skillet over medium heat. Place the tortilla on a work surface and brush one side with a drizzle of olive oil. Turn the tortilla over and sprinkle the cheese evenly on the un-oiled side and fold in half. Place the cheese-filled half-circle onto the hot griddle and cook for a minute or two on each side until golden brown and cheese is melted. Cut into triangles and serve.
Chewy sugar cookies with a cinnamon topping. Recipe adapted from averiecooks.com
Makes about 3 dozen
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
Cream the butter and sugars together in a large bowl (preferably in the bowl of a stand mixer and using the paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer). When fluffy, beat in the egg and vanilla until egg is blended into the butter mixture.
Add the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt. Mix on low to combine. Cover and chill the dough for at least one hour and up to overnight.
Heat the oven to 350 and line 2 baking sheets with parchment. Combine the 3 tablespoons sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl for rolling the dough. Roll walnut sized bits of dough into balls and roll in the cinnamon sugar mixture and place 2 inches apart on the prepared sheets.
Bake for 9 to 12 minutes until cookies are light golden and slightly wrinkled but still puffy in the center. Remove from the oven and let cool on the sheets for a few minutes before removing to a rack to cool completely.