French cooking with kids

Canada-based teacher and author Mardi Michels reveals her passion for teaching kids to cook and the inspiration for her new cookbook

27 March 2019
By Connexion journalist

Twice a week during school terms, our school science lab takes on a bit of a different look. If you look in, you’ll see about a dozen boys slicing, dicing, mixing, kneading, sprinkling and tasting, the evidence of their “experiments” all over the lab benches.

Yet, unlikely as the setting may be, what is taking place in the lab is a cooking class that’s now been running since 2010.

You know what? Kids can cook. You just have to let them! says Mardi Michels

In 2005 I started teaching French at an all-boys school, where one of my responsibilities was – and still is – to run an after-school club. Initially I offered technology-based clubs, taking advantage of the resources we had available and, of course, catering to the boys’ interests.

But in the autumn of 2009, I heard Jamie Oliver speak in Toronto about the Food Revolution and his “Pass It On” campaign, which focused on getting people back into the kitchen and cooking. Throughout his talk, all I could think about was that I, an educator, had a duty to contribute to this campaign in some way.

I knew I wanted to pass on my knowledge and love of cooking, and with the opportunity for a new after-school club before me, it seemed like the time was right to try something new!

I figured that it would not only teach my students valuable life skills, but also be a great way for me to get to know them (and them, me) outside the classroom, doing something I really loved. French as a Second Language is not always everyone’s favourite subject, and I was excited by this chance to show the boys another side of me!

Over the years, the cooking club evolved to be more than just cooking with me. I’ve introduced a guest program where local chefs and food enthusiasts work with the boys, either in our lab or in their restaurant kitchens. The boys have had the chance to work in some of the finest kitchens in Toronto (and beyond).

There is a lot of joy in teaching kids to cook, but sometimes I’m so focused on getting everyone out the door on time that I don’t stop to take in all that we’ve accomplished. That we made pastry from scratch, and then we made quiches, and then while they were baking, we made more pastry and cleaned up, for example. In 60 minutes.

But when I’m dismissing the boys and I stop to breathe, I look at their faces and I get it.

Just like the parents when they pick up their boys. What’s going on is joy, creativity and, most of all, learning.

One of the greatest pleasures of teaching kids to cook comes from working with their can-do attitude, which has encouraged me in my own baking and cooking to just “have a go.”

The boys NEVER think something can’t be done unless they’ve been told it’s supposed to be hard. Puff pastry? Choux pastry? Sushi? Molecular cuisine? Working alongside some of the country’s top chefs? No problem for kids who believe they can do anything.

Teaching kids cooking is also about embracing their natural confidence and making them feel that anything is possible. That they can cook.

Extract from In the French Kitchen with Kids by Mardi Michels. Published by Penguin Random House Canada, available from Amazon.

So, why a French cookbook for kids? Well, France is a country dear to my heart. I lived there for years in my late 20s and have been back countless times since I moved to Canada from my native Australia. We own a little house in southwest France, so a part of me is always there.

I love writing about French culture and the French language. And, of course, I love teaching kids to cook, and I am always on the lookout for ways to incorporate a little cooking into the French as a Second Language curriculum because, well, pourquoi pas? As I’ve watched my cooking club evolve over the years to include more complex recipes that many people don’t think kids are capable of making (with a little help, of course!), the idea for this book was born. Kids can cook French food! Because despite what many people think, French food is not all sophisticated haute cuisine.

At home, French people eat and cook mostly simple dishes. Dishes I know my cooking club members would love to make and eat. This book features real French food for kids, a little bit of culture, and some French language lessons too!

I hope to take the intimidation factor out of French food through recipes for everyday dishes that children and their parents can make and eat together. Because you know what? Kids can cook. You just have to let them!

Bon appétit!

Pork chops with apples 

I knew I wanted to include a pork recipe in this book but I couldn’t decide which one. So I went straight to the source – the mother of a French child.

I asked Lucy Vanel, who runs the Plum Lyon Teaching Kitchen in Lyon, France (where some of the photos for this book were shot), what her son, Ian, would enjoy, and a nicely seared pork chop with a creamy sauce was her response. I’ve added some onions and apples for a hearty, yet easy-to-make dish I know kids will love.

Ingredients, serves 2

  • 2–3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 large (200g each) bone-in pork chops
  • 2 medium (400g total) red-skinned sweet apples (like Gala), skin on, cored and thinly sliced
  • 1 large (200g) yellow onion, sliced
  • 60ml chicken stock
  • 60ml double cream
  • 1/2 tablespoon  dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Method (prep time 15 mins; cooking time 35 mins)

1. Preheat the oven to 400˚F (200˚C).

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large ovenproof skillet (large enough to hold the pork chops and the apples and onions – around 10 inches/25 cm in diameter) over medium-high heat.

3. Cook the pork chops for 4 to 5 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Remove them from the skillet, place  them on a plate and cover loosely with aluminium foil.

4. If there is no fat left in the pan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, then add the apples and onion and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring  occasionally – they will just be starting to soften and brown.

5. Add the broth and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any brown bit from the bottom of the skillet. Keep those brown bits in the pan, as they add flavour to your dish.

6. Add the cream, dried thyme, salt and some pepper and stir to combine.

7. Place the pork chops back in the skillet and arrange them between the apples, onions and sauce.

8. Place the skillet in the oven and cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes, or until the pork registers 155˚F (68˚C) on a meat thermometer. Obviously, the cook time will depend on how thick your pork  chops are.

9. Remove the skillet from the oven, cover it loosely with aluminium foil and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving. The internal temperature of the pork should have reached 160˚F (71˚C) by this time.

 

Crispy vegetable cakes

 

Ingredients, serves 4 to 6

Prep time 30 mins; cooking time 30 mins

  • 1 small (100g) leek
  • 1 large (250g) Yukon Gold or russet potato, peeled and grated
  • 1 large (200g) courgette, grated
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 60g grated cheddar cheese
  • 21g Panko breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt
  • 1/4  teaspoon  freshly ground black pepper

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 400˚F (200˚C). Prepare two baking trays with parchment paper. Place a few layers of paper towel on your countertop.

2. Prepare your leek by removing the dark green tops and the root, then slicing it open lengthwise. Rinse the leek well under cold running water to remove any dirt or sand. Dry the leek as thoroughly as possible, and then finely chop the light green and white parts.

3. Squeeze the water out of each batch of grated vegetables, using your hands. Squeeze the leeks too. Squeeze as hard as you can! Place the drained vegetables on the paper towel in a single layer. Place a couple more paper towels on top and gently pat the vegetables dry.

4. Once they are dry, place the vegetables in a large bowl. Add the eggs, cheese, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper to the vegetables and mix well to combine, using a wooden spoon or your hands.

5. Using a 3-tablespoon cookie scoop and packing the mixture in tightly, scoop out mounds of the mixture and place them about 1 inch (2.5cm) apart on the baking trays. If you don’t have a cookie scoop this size, use a 1/4-cup (60ml) measure filled about three-quarters full with the mixture, pressing it to pack it in the cup. You should have approximately 20.

6. Place the baking trays on racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven and bake for 15 minutes, then remove the trays from the oven. Use an offset spatula to carefully flip the croquettes – they are pretty fragile at this stage – flattening them slightly as you do.

7. Bake a further 15 minutes, until the croquettes are crispy and golden on both sides.

 

Chocolate mousse

Ingredients, serves 8

Prep time 20 mins; chilling time 4 hours to overnight

  • 11/3 cups (240g) semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 250ml double cream
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Method

1. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler on the stovetop or in a glass bowl for 2 to 3 minutes on 50% power in a microwave. Set aside to cool slightly. It doesn’t need to be completely cool, just not scorching hot.

2. Using handheld electric beaters on high speed, whip the egg whites to stiff peaks in a large metal bowl, about 3 minutes.

3. In a separate bowl, whip the cream to soft peaks using the beaters on high  speed (no need to wash the attachments after you’ve whipped the egg whites) for 2 to 3 minutes.

4. In a third bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar together using the beaters on high speed (again, no need to wash the attachments here), until they thicken slightlyand turn pale in colour, about 2 minutes.

5. Add the cooled melted chocolate to the egg yolks and continue to beat until thoroughly combined. The mixture may stiffen as you are doing this – just keepgoing. It will eventually be okay!

6.  Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the whipped cream into the chocolate mixture, one-third at a time.

7. Use the rubber spatula to carefully fold in the egg whites, about one-third at a time. Continue to gently fold until there are no streaks of egg white.

8. Divide the mixture evenly between eight 125ml ramekins, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight.

9. Serve as is or with a dollop of Chantilly cream, some chocolate shavings or a drizzle of raspberry coulis.

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