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Tips for teaching kids to help in the kitchen

Kids “helping” in the kitchen often more closely resembles parental hand-holding.

When youngsters actually assist, freeing adult cooks to pursue another part of the process, parents have proof of time well spent. The result rewards everyone’s patience and persistence.

My family experienced such a victory recently when my mother-in-law wanted to make applesauce from a box of orchard-fresh fruit brought home from travels in Washington. My two sons, 6 and 4, were keen to help, which typically constitutes measuring, pouring and stirring.

Could my older son cut the cores from quartered apples while she and I peeled? Given a brief refresher on handling a knife, I was sure he could.

First, I retrieved the appropriate knife, one I’ve used to teach my kids basic cutlery skills and safety precautions since they were old enough to grasp the handle firmly.

Pampered Chef makes a paring knife that has no peer among beginner blades for tiny hands. Admittedly diminutive in size, it has little appeal to proficient cooks beyond a portable utensil for slicing soft cheese perched on a picnic blanket. But children can wield it almost completely confident of not being cut.

It isn’t the 2-3/4-inch blade’s edge that performs the cutting function so much as the thinness of the blade. This is a cheap knife, $5, and the blade is so slender that it’s almost impossible to keep the edge sharp. That’s an asset, however, when the goal is reassuring kids, who can press the knife’s edge against their skin and feel how dull it is. Yet the blade’s almost paper-thin profile allows it to slide right through a variety of food items of differing densities — even apples.

A little technique still is needed to manage this tool. While I clamp a quartered apple in my left hand and, adjusting the pressure with my right thumb, cut toward myself to remove the core, kids lack both the dexterity and control to manage this maneuver.

So I showed my son how to rest one of the cut edges on his cutting board and, in a single lateral slice, score above the core deeply enough to then tip the apple away from him and snap the core off cleanly. He had to practice the motion a few times and get comfortable with the knife, and with pressing the apple firmly into the board with his non-cutting hand.

The last is a tip that I reinforce time and again while teaching knife skills to both adolescents and adults. At first, it’s awkward to curve fingers into a claw shape and, using fingertip force, steady the food item to be cut. The knife novice’s inclination is to grip food with the palm, which puts fingers in harm’s way.

Kitchen injuries have a way of diminishing the cooking experience like few other mishaps can. And solid knife skills go so far toward easing a beginning cook’s discomfort and promoting both a broader outlook and repertoire.

A serviceable knife is paramount — specifically a chef’s knife, about 8 inches long, that will tackle just about any kitchen task, from butchering meat to dicing vegetables. The blade should be wide at the heel end (near the handle), tapering to a point at the tip end.

A variation on the standard chef’s knife, the Japanese-style santoku with its bull-nose, is my preference. A good-quality knife can run upward of $100 (Wusthof, Shun, Zwilling J.A. Henckels and Global are popular brands), but more important is how a knife feels in your hand. Does it rock easily? For chopping, the point of a knife should remain on the cutting surface while the cook moves the knife’s heel up and down, creating a rocking motion. Place your thumb and forefinger on the blade at the heel end for greatest control.

Foods are cut most easily and precisely by inserting the knife’s point and smoothly leveraging the blade down through the food, rather than positioning the blade to contact food at a 90-degree angle. When the length of the blade presses down on food, instead of tip first, items are prone to rolling around on the cutting surface.

Here are some more pointers for effective knife work corresponding to common culinary terminology:

Chop: To cut food into 1/4-inch, uneven pieces (or smaller for a fine chop). Coarse chop means to cut into larger, 1/2-inch, irregular pieces.

Dice: To cut food into small (1/4-inch, 1/2-inch or 3/4-inch) squares or cubes. The easy way to do this is to cut ends off, square off the food and then cut into desired-size planks. Stack the planks and cut into desired-size strips. Turn the strips and cut to desired-size dice.

Mince: To cut food into pieces smaller than a chop. The pieces are so small that they can almost dissolve in the food.

Julienne: To cut the food in matchstick-size pieces. Cut the food in planks about 1/4-inch thick and 2 inches long. Stack the slices and then cut them into thin strips.

Chiffonade: To cut leafy vegetables (basil, lettuces, greens) into thin shreds. (In French, this translates to “made of rags.”) Stack the leaves, roll them up and slice through them, making a pile of shreds. Don’t chop down on them or you will bruise delicate herbs like basil.

The following sheet pan supper includes two components that kids can manage with a paring knife. Even more than slicing apples, my kids enjoy trimming the ends off Brussels sprouts and halving the heads. I adapted the original recipe from pork chops to chicken thighs, and it’s become one of my family’s go-to cold-weather dinners.

Halving cherry tomatoes with a paring knife, slicing cheese and also cutting pastry dough is good practice for little hands. I love creating appetizers in my mini muffin tin, and this one would accommodate any cherry tomatoes that are still on the vine but starting to split. Brie or any cheese that melts well could be substituted for halloumi, which is becoming more widely available in well-stocked cheese sections.

Chicken Thighs or Pork Chops With Roasted Apples and Brussels Sprouts

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon garlic salt

1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 tablespoons light-brown sugar, divided

2 teaspoons finely chopped, fresh rosemary, divided

1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided, plus more to taste

1/2 teaspoon black pepper, divided

4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, or 4 (1-inch thick) bone-in, center-cut pork chops

3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided

3 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar

1 Gala apple, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch wedges

1 pound fresh Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and lightly grease with cooking spray. If using chicken, preheat baking sheet in oven to ensure crispy skin.

In a small bowl, stir together the paprika, chili powder, garlic salt, red pepper, cinnamon, 1 tablespoon of the brown sugar, 1 teaspoon of the rosemary, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the black pepper. Rub each of the chicken thighs or pork chops with 1/2 teaspoon of the olive oil; rub both sides of each pork chop with brown sugar-spice mixture.

In another small bowl, whisk together the vinegar and remaining 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 1 teaspoon rosemary, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Slowly whisk in remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil until blended. In a large bowl, combine the apples, Brussels sprouts and 1/4 cup vinegar mixture; toss to coat.

Place seasoned thighs, skin side down, or chops in center of prepared baking sheet; place apple mixture around chops.

Bake in preheated oven for 12 minutes; turn meat over and bake until a probe thermometer inserted in thickest portion registers 140 degrees for pork or 165 degrees for chicken, about 10 to 20 more minutes. Transfer thighs or chops to a serving platter; cover with foil to keep warm. Stir apple mixture on baking sheet and spread into an even layer.

Turn oven to broil, and broil apple mixture for 3 to 4 minutes or until browned and lightly charred. Pour remaining vinegar mixture over apple mixture and stir, scraping pan to release browned bits. Season with the salt and serve with roasted meat. Makes 4 servings.

Recipe from “One Sheet Eats,” by Oxmoor House.

Cherry Tomato Tarts

2 sheets frozen puff pastry, thawed according to package directions (each 17.3-ounce package contains 2 sheets)

18 cherry tomatoes, quartered

5 ounces halloumi cheese (Greek grilling cheese), cut in 1-inch chunks

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Unfold the pastry on a lightly floured counter. Using a 2-1/2- to 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut rounds from pastry.

Gently press each round into a 2-inch tart mold (a mini-muffin tin also may be used). Using fingers, press dough against mold’s top edge, pinching away and discarding any excess dough.

Place 4 tomato quarters in each mold or muffin-tin cup, then wedge a piece of cheese between them. Arrange tarts on a rimmed baking sheet, then season them with the salt, pepper and thyme leaves.

Bake in preheated oven for about 20 minutes, or until pastry is puffed and brown at edges. Let tarts cool a bit before removing from molds.

Tarts may be served warm or at room temperature. They also can be cooled and refrigerated, then heated briefly just before serving.

Makes about 18 tarts.

Tune in to Sarah Lemon’s podcast at www.mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-whole-dish. Email her at thewholedish@gmail.com.