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Learning to Cook

For 13-year-old Winter Matweecha, the need to learn how to cook came from within — her stomach, that is.

"I came here because I'm not the best at cooking and I'm always hungry," said Matweecha with a laugh. "I'm always asking my mom to cook me food, and most of the time she does, but I want to give her a break."

Recently, Matweecha joined two other young chefs-in-training at a pilot cooking program for teens a the Brattleboro Food Co-op in Brattleboro, Vt. Lizi Rosenberg and Nathaneal Matthiesen, the co-education and outreach coordinators at the Co-op, taught the group how to make quesadillas, winter salsa and a bean-and-rice casserole. The class' main objective was to teach basic cooking techniques, such as cutting, mixing, how to make rice and how to distinguish different herbs, according to Rosenberg.

The Mexican theme night was the perfect meal for Matweecha, of Brattleboro, who said she enjoys authentic food. Matweecha and Lacy Hudson, 12, and Lydia Hudson, 8, prepped the quesadillas, winter salsa and bean-and-rice casserole — something Matthiesen said is easy to cook and delicious to eat.

"A strategic way to get teens into the kitchen is keeping it simple. We're trying to strike a balance of simplicity, but also learn skills of how to use knives, the stove and a cast-iron pan safely — things that are pretty basic, but maybe are not that obvious if you've never done it before," said Matthiesen.

Getting teens to prepare something beyond ramen noodles or a peanut butter or jelly sandwich can be challenging, but recently, Rosenberg said she has noticed teens showing an appetite for learning about what goes on in the kitchen.

"I've noticed there's an increasing curiosity and real passion around kids that I meet," said Rosenberg, who received a cooking class request over the summer from five 12-year-old boys who enjoy cooking together. "It made me start to wonder if there were more kids who would be interested in this."

Rosenberg mentions a few basic skills that teens should learn while under the supervision of a parent before they get cooking. First, she said, they should know basic knife skills, such as the bear-claw technique. For right-handed individuals, this means having the knife in the right hand, folding your fingers holding the knife under so that only the knuckles are exposed and hiding the thumb.

"They need basic knife skills to be comfortable. Even if that means practicing with a plastic cutting knife," Rosenberg said.

Parents or guardians should also help teens understand the mechanisms of a stove. In addition, Rosenberg said, teens should be able to develop a taste or internal guide to foods and vegetables.

"As our lives become more fast and processed, we forget what we love to eat and what resonates with our bodies," she said.

Once the basic skills have been taught, Rosenberg said the best go-to meals for beginners are those that are made between two pieces of bread or a tortilla. As someone who grew up in Colombia, she also encourages individuals to try food from different countries. She suggests something as simple as a Tortilla Espanola, which consists of potatoes, eggs and onions mixed together. Aside from sandwiches, she said, anything that can be blended — such as hummus or salsa — is a good way to get started in the kitchen, as well.

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Learning to cook is not only about the immediate gratification of enjoying a meal, but also a lifelong skill, something teens can learn at the Culinary Arts program at McCann Technical School in North Adams, Mass.

Chef Instructor and department head Patrick Cariddi believes getting teenagers in the kitchen is important because it gives them invaluable experience for the workforce. Prior experience in the kitchen at a young age, he said, betters the chances one has of getting a job in the culinary field, which can be helpful to college students looking for part-time work.

"It's a great hands-on program," said Cariddi. "When they learn these skills, there are a lot of job opportunities for the students."

Cariddi notes that learning to cook in a professional setting is "not for everyone."

"It can be a demanding industry, you have to deal with the heat at times, which can be challenging," he said. "Everyone likes the part of eating and tasting, but there are definitely difficult parts to the job."

However, he believes anyone can make cooking fun and interesting. Cariddi allows students to choose a recipe that fits their tastes and is realistic to prepare and cook. He said some students currently are researching an appetizer they would like to prepare. After they choose a recipe, they bring it to the kitchen and see what they can create. He added there are some projects that are too big, such as wedding cakes, which would be too detailed and time consuming.

"We try to keep it age appropriate," he said.

Even if your teen does not go on to become a chef or pursue culinary school, Cariddi believes all kids and teens should learn cooking skills that will help them day-to-day.

"It's never a lost skill, even if they're here for four years and want to go on to be a nurse, they always have the skills to prepare food," said Cariddi. "Even in your own home, you'll have those skills to fall back on, that you'll use your entire life."

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275

Get cooking

Steer your teen toward an interest in helping out in the kitchen by preparing this easy-to-make rice and bean casserole, courtesy of Brattleboro Co-op.

Ingredients: 1.5 cups cooked rice; 1 can of beans, drained; 2 roma tomatoes, chopped; 2 scallions, thinly sliced; 1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped; 1/2 bunch parsley chopped; 1 Tbs olive oil; salt and pepper to taste; 2 oz cheddar cheese, grated

Directions: Mix all ingredients listed up to cheddar cheese and pour into a casserole dish. Add cheese on top and bake for 350 degrees for 20 minutes. (Recipe can be made without cheese added on top.)