Food Fit for a Teenager


When I first graduated from culinary school my first job was working for a family on the Upper West Side of New York, preparing dinner 4 nights a week.  At the time the prospect seemed a little daunting.  How would I come up with three course menus and prepare them in a mere three hours?  It paid terribly and it became quickly apparent that working for these people precluded me from doing much of anything else for work, but it was a good training ground and they were open to trying just about anything.

My favorite part of working for this family was their four kids, especially their youngest boy, Chase.  He was just six at the time and he loved to sit in the kitchen and talk to me, ask questions, and often demand to help with a task that looked particularly interesting to him.  He loved to suck on lemon halves after I’d juiced them and to lick spoons – trying everything I challenged him to.  When their parents were out for dinner I’d sometimes bring along pizza dough from the nearby pizzeria, prepare some toppings, and have all four kids design their own pizzas for dinner.  I taught the two teenagers in the house some basic knife skills and helped them recreate their favorite takeaway dishes at home.   I loved watching the lightbulb go off over their heads as a previously complicated task became clear, or their eyes light up as they saw their dishes come out of the oven looking delicious and sometimes even professional (if rustic).

Last Friday I got a call from the couple I cook for here telling me their college-age son was visiting and he wanted some cooking lessons.  Teaching him to cook sounds all-encompassing and quite grandiose, but I love giving someone a few skills, hints, tricks and then they can take it from there.  For Tom I wanted to show him a couple of dishes that he could then use his imagination and endless combinations of ingredients and come up with new meals for himself.

First on the agenda was a Chinese beef stir fry with vegetables and rice noodles.  He loved this dish when he was living at home last year and it’s so easy and delicious to make with a few techniques.

Chinese Stir Fried Beef & Noodles
serves 2 generously

8oz. sirloin steak
2 teaspoons cornstarch

2 teaspoons five spice powder

4oz. rice noodles
1 stalk lemongrass
1 inch peeled ginger
1 garlic clove
1 cup baby corn
1 cup sugar snap peas
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons dry sherry
2 tablespoons water
4 scallions, sliced
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted (optional)

First soak the rice noodles according to the package directions – usually about 15 minutes in warm water.  Take them out and set them to one side.

Mix together the cornstarch and five spice powder.  Slice the steak into thin slices against the grain and then put the spice mix all over it – massage it into the meat.

Bring a large pan of water to a boil and salt it.  Add the baby corn and sugar snaps and boil for one minute.  Drain and set to the side.

Using a microplane, grate the garlic and ginger.  Finely chop the lemongrass.

In a wok or large sautee pan, heat the vegetable oil until very hot.  Add the ginger, garlic and lemongrass and quickly move them around the pan for 30 seconds.  Add the beef and continue to stir fry until it’s no longer pink (and a little crispy if you like).  Now add the vegetables continuing to move everything around the pan quickly.  Finally add the noodles incorporating everything – now add the soy sauce, water and sherry.

Garnish with the scallions and some toasted sesame seeds if you like.  Serve immediately.

The second dish we did was a more sophisticated spin on pizza.  I made a pizza dough (see my earlier blog for the recipe) and then let Tom do all the fun stuff.  I had him work the dough like it was focaccia and push into the base with his thumbs allowing a generous amount of olive oil to settle in the depressions.  Season well with salt and pepper and herbs of your choosing.  I let that bake in a 500 degree oven for about 8 minutes just to get it under way and so the toppings don’t get too overcooked when they’re added. I had found purple potatoes and had Tom slice them on the mandoline very thinly. Then he used a peeler to make strands of asparagus.  He very carefully arranged all of these on top of the partially cooked base, added more seasoning and a little goat’s cheese.  This went back into the oven for 15 minutes and this is what we got!

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