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Lessons learned in the kitchen last a lifetime

It’s a line straight from campy movies about bratty kids.

Maybe those insufferable television series of family life in decades gone by. Never something I thought I’d actually hear in my own home, uttered with a straight face.

“He’s sticking his tongue out at meeeeeee!!!!!”

Make that a flushed, furious face under a mop of curly red hair.

“Are you kidding me?” I think, vowing to ignore the discord. But the protest reaches another octave, and my younger son’s rage robs him of coherent speech.

“Jasper,” I say to my older son. “I don’t care who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s doing what to whom. Your brother needs a break. And I need your help with dinner.”

My strategy, admittedly, didn’t tackle the problem. It didn’t compel my kids, 5 and 3, to communicate in a constructive, conciliatory way. It skirted the issue. But taking the path of least resistance, I’ve learned, has its merits. Particularly when everyone’s hungry, tired and running low on patience.

Retreating to the kitchen can afford that all-too-important buffer from my kids. Yet I’ve never barred their access to this training ground for some life’s most significant skills. Aprons were among the first Christmas gifts I purchased for each of my boys, when they were each about 18 months old. And partly because they love donning their special attire, joining me in the kitchen is a regular pastime.

I don’t recall whether my mom bought me my own apron. Like me, she rarely wears one while cooking. But I do know that some of my first memories surface from time spent with her in the kitchen. Slicing olives and severing radish roots and tops with a paring knife. Grating cheese. Stirring sour cream and tomato paste into beef stronganoff, cream of mushroom soup into a pan of pork chops.

When people ask who taught me to cook, “my mom” is an obvious answer. When they ask how old I was, “probably 4 or 5” apparently is an uncommon age, at least these days. So many parents of young children, who barely feel competent themselves at the stove, wouldn’t dream of inviting their kids to wield a wooden spoon, much less a knife, alongside them.

Thus, meals in families with young children easily can revert to large quantities of processed foods. Dinners from bags, boxes, cartons and cans allow parents to keep one eye on kids roving the kitchen and the whole mealtime process essentially at arm’s length for everyone. The convenience reinforces kids’ — and parents’ — penchant for instant gratification.

Patience is perhaps the most important lesson my kids are learning in the kitchen, at least initially. They have to wait, listen and understand what to do next before they pick up any tool or ingredient. They hear me repeat every time we’re in the kitchen which stovetop surfaces are safe to touch and where their fingers belong when cutting foods.

And they love every minute of it. I love it when the dish furnishes a task for everyone.

Once Jasper was ensconced in his apron, Xavier had to follow suit. And soon we were all calmly and congenially stirring dried herbs into tomato sauce and ricotta cheese into beaten egg. I manned the vat of boiling water for our lasagna noodles.

The boys held their breath as I assembled each layer of ingredients in the baking dish, waiting for their chance to lick the saucepan. And when the lasagna emerged from the oven, the boys heralded the dinner “they” made.

Lessons learned. Bellies full. Harmony restored.

Read more on Sarah Lemon’s blog at www.mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish and tune into her podcast at www.mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-whole-dish. Email her at thewholedish@gmail.com.

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Marinara from the pantry

Marinara is a pantry staple for many households. Yet lacking a jar doesn’t keep me from making my favorite tomato-sauced dishes.

Instead, I reach for other pantry staples: canned tomatoes and tomato paste. Both of these I often have from homegrown tomatoes. Yes, we could simmer our own tomatoes into sauce. But I prefer the versatility of canned (or frozen) whole tomatoes and tomato paste with the majority of our harvest.

Making marinara yields a sauce with much less sugar than most commercially prepared varieties. A bit of sugar does bring out tomatoes’ sweetness, but I also add balsamic or apple-cider vinegar for a sweet-tart contrast.

Here’s how to do it:

In a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat, sweat 1/2 cup chopped red, white or yellow onion. When onion is translucent, add 1 peeled and minced garlic clove; stir for 30 seconds until fragrant. Season with 1/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes and dried or fresh herbs of choice (thyme, oregano, marjoram, savory and rosemary all are nice).

Add 1/4 cup tomato paste and let cook, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes until fragrant. Splash 2 tablespoons of red wine, Marsala or sherry into pan, increase heat to medium-high, stir to combine, reduce heat and simmer gently for several minutes.

Drain a 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes; dice, size depending on how large you like tomato chunks in your sauce. Alternatively, use a 28-ounce can of chopped tomatoes. Add to pan of aromatics and tomato paste, stir to combine and simmer for several minutes.

Taste for seasoning, adding 1 teaspoon sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Splash in a teaspoon or so of balsamic or apple-cider vinegar, if you like.

This makes enough for an 8-by-8-inch dish of lasagna, manicotti, eggplant Parmesan or other baked pasta dish or 4 servings of pasta tossed in sauce.