Respect for ingredients. Appreciation of taste. Legalized child labor. I can think of any number of reasons to engage your kids in the kitchen, but chief amongst them must surely be the joy of creating the food itself, of working side by side with your littles, of watching small hands learn to cut, whisk, and measure. (Here is where I’m probably meant to disclaim the use of knives by small children, along with feeding them steak tartar and raw egg yolks and letting them taste the wine. I’m sure it’s all a terribly risky and soon-to-be-Federally-regulated activity, so please consider yourself duly cautioned.)
What kids lack in technique – which is to say, nearly everything – they tend to compensate for with an undiluted enthusiasm that the rest of us lost somewhere around the time we decided that we had to be paid to go to work, so the key is to temper their excitement with just enough discipline to yield an edible final product. I generally impose this discipline with simple rules, like “mix wet into dry” or “cut the pieces in uniform sizes”, and I try always to work with concepts, rather then recipes, so you can imagine my pride when my daughter, barely buckled-in and basking in the buzz of her elected role of class cook, told me how she had her little team of sous chefs to add vegetables to a soup they were making in relation to each vegetable’s cooking time. That she wanted to go home and replicate her piece de resistance - a loose riff on the French peasant soup potage garbure, consisting of little more than fresh wintry vegetables and chives – well… let’s just say that we went shopping on the way home and very nearly forgot about homework.
I try always to make shopping an integral part of our kids’ experience with food, so we immediately drove to Love Farms, one of my favorite local farm stands, and started grabbing whatever sounded good: Pungent purple onions, sweet corn, bright green zebra tomatoes, multi-colored carrots, and a bunch of leeks that you could almost smell from the car; we measured nothing. Walking from the car to the kitchen, we grabbed handfuls of parsley and thyme from the garden (another silver lining, along with peppers and tomatoes, of an otherwise diabolical grape-growing season here on the North Coast). As we prepped the veggies, tasting as we cut, we decided to use water in lieu of stock and to forgo meat in the base altogether – partly because my wife doesn’t really eat meat, but mainly because we wanted the bright, clean flavors of our freshly-dug vegetables to take stand center stage, with neither crutch nor bling for support or adornment.
MacKenzie’s Love Soup (Version 1.0)
- Go to a roadside farm stand and buy a big bag of vegetables, preferably including leeks, onions and carrots for the base and some tomatoes for acidity. (Our proportions, shown at right, yield an almost-corn chowder.)
- Roughly chop the vegetables into approximately uniform chunks and, if using tomatoes, concasse them and reserve the juice.
- Sweat the onions and carrots until soft, add 2-3 quarts of water and any tomatoes, corn, potatoes, and aromatics that you’ve chosen, and in the approximate order of their expected time to cook; total cooking time, once the water is in, should be 20-30 minutes. Simmer gently, skimming occasionally, until the vegetables are all cooked through and the tastes begin to meld. Season to taste with salt and pepper (if you’re using corn, try a little dried or fresh hot chili – not to make it spicy, just to add a subtle note of heat underneath all the sugar in the corn).
- Use a slotted spoon or spider to reserve 1-2 cups of the chunky vegetables and puree the rest; return the reserved chunks to the puree and adjust seasoning.
- Serve with crusty sourdough bread from your favorite local baker and garnish with pistou.