Turkey feasts, casseroles, and healthy pies…oh my!

Share family recipes, secrets, and cooking basics with your loved ones this season 

‘Tis the season for cooking and baking galore—from delicious seafood (see page 1), racks of lamb, and organic turkey, all the way to homemade apple-blueberry pie and cookies.  

But no matter what you’re cooking up in the kitchen this holiday season, I hope you find yourself surrounded by loved ones. Especially children and grandchildren! And then, I hope you share some of your cooking basics (and secrets!) with one another.  

After all, knowing how to cook is vital to a healthy life. If you can make your own meals, you can avoid eating packaged, processed “Frankenfoods”. And being proficient at cooking makes it easy—and tasty—to follow a healthy diet every day.  

Cooking also gives children (and adults) a better understanding of where their food comes from. It can even help introduce youngsters to diverse foods…and can help take the fear and “yuck” factor out of eating nutritious foods like vegetables. Not to mention, cooking is creative and fun! 

Of course, I also realize that not everyone is comfortable in the kitchen. So, if you don’t know how to cook, or if it has been a while since you’ve prepared an entire meal (and your skills are rusty), I have some good news… 

You can still pass on the joy of cooking to younger generations this holiday season.  

How? Well, cooking really isn’t difficult. At its most basic, it simply means heating foods. And there basically are only three key ways to do just that: dry heat, moist heat, or a combination.  

So, let’s start with a primer on the different cooking approaches, and how to accomplish them. Then, I’ll share some tips I’ve learned over the years on engaging children in cooking… 

Your cooking glossary 

The following cooking techniques use dry heat: 

Baking is a big one, especially at this time of year. Baking employs indirect heat applied from all sides in an enclosed space, like an oven. It’s similar to roasting (see below), but temperatures are typically lower, and cooking times are shorter. 

Most people think baking only involves sweet treats. But you can also bake savory (and healthier) foods. For instance, you can bake whole chickens with vegetables. Baked whole-grain pasta with marinara and full-fat mozzarella is another popular (and easy) dish. And, of course, casseroles and cassoulets are the ultimate savory baked goods. I like to use recipes from www.epicurious.com—search for “savory cooking projects.” 

Broiling is when a food is placed directly under a source of dry heat. Most ovens have broiling settings. (You’ll want to preheat the broiler.) This technique results in a crunchy, crispy outer layer on many foods.  

Of course, you’ll want to make sure your food is at room temperature before broiling. This technique is good for thin cuts of meat or fish (less than 1 ½ inch thick). You can also broil fruits like pineapple or bananas for a unique, healthy dessert.  

Grilling is basically the opposite of broiling. Dry heat is applied from a source underneath the food, typically from an open flame. On a self-contained grill, closing the lid will retain heat and allow food temperatures to rise more quickly—resulting in a faster cooking time while preserving the food’s moisture and flavor. 

Most people think of meat or seafood when grilling, but there are other options. Many fruits and vegetables taste great when grilled. So do avocados and, surprisingly, romaine lettuce, endive, and radicchio. Just make sure to brush fruits and vegetables with a little bit of olive oil or a healthy marinade to keep them from sticking to the grill. (I shared a healthy beer marinade for grilling in the September 2021 issue—be sure to refer back!) 

Roasting involves cooking in a closed oven at a high temperature. This approach works well for larger foods like poultry (think Christmas turkey or goose), or cuts of meat (like roasts), that are relatively tender, with internal or surface fats that keep them moist. You can also roast with vegetables to bring out their flavor and moisture.  

As with broiling, you’ll want to bring foods to room temperature before roasting to ensure a more even cooking. And if you’re roasting meat or poultry, use a thermometer to make sure it’s cooked to a safe temperature. (Always check guidelines for the specific food. But generally, you’ll want to aim for an internal temperature of 165 degrees.) 

Sautéing is used to cook foods quickly in a skillet or shallow pan over high heat—usually on a stovetop. You’ll need a light coating of oil or full-fat butter on the pan to keep the foods from sticking. Since this cooking method heats foods quickly, they need to be stirred and tossed frequently to avoid burning (sauté means “jump” in French, and the chef makes the contents jump in the pan).  

Sautéing is a quick and easy way to prepare tender, small or thin cuts of meat (veal, pork, chicken filets) and fish. It’s also excellent for vegetables, particularly the more tender varieties (asparagus, green beans, mushrooms, peppers, squash, and zucchini).  

Searing uses similar techniques as sautéing, but with different objectives. Whereas sautéing cooks foods all the way through, searing is used to brown food (usually meat) on all sides, creating a crispy crust. The food is then finished using another technique (typically roasting—see above).  

Like sautéing, searing is done in a large flat pan, coated in oil or full-fat butter, at high heat. This technique adds color and flavor while sealing in moisture.   

Now, the following cooking techniques use moist heat: 

Poaching is a gentle method in which foods are simmered in liquids—usually water, but also broths or stocks, milk, wine, or vinegar. Poaching preserves the flavor and moisture of the food without the use of butter or oil. 

This method uses low, indirect heat (usually a medium-low setting on your stovetop), making it suitable for delicate foods like eggs. But you can also poach chicken, fish, and fruit (fruit is especially tasty when poached in wine).  

Poaching can be tricky, though, if you don’t know how long to cook the food. Eggs should be poached for two to four minutes, depending on how runny you like them. Fish should flake when done. As for meat and poultry, again, I recommend using a meat thermometer to make sure it’s cooked at the right internal temperature.  

The following cooking techniques use a combination of dry and moist heat: 

Braising and stewing are very similar. The main differences are that braising uses larger pieces of meat and vegetables, whereas stewing is for smaller, more uniform cuts. Also, in braising, the foods are only partially covered in liquid, whereas they’re completely immersed during stewing.  

Both techniques are used to cook foods that aren’t naturally tender. This includes the tougher meats (brisket, chuck, oxtail, round, and shank cuts) or firm, fibrous vegetables like cabbage, carrots, celery, eggplant, leeks, or tomatoes. The lower heat and longer cooking times used in braising and stewing preserve the food’s flavor and moisture while also tenderizing it. 

To braise or stew a food, start by searing it (see the definition above) in a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot or pan. Then, add liquid (usually water, but broth or stock is another good choice) and simmer until tender in the Dutch oven or a slow cooker. 

And there you have it! Now that you know the cooking basics, you don’t have to stew (unless you want to!) over how to provide healthy, delicious meals for you and your family. Just heat up the skillet, turn on the oven, or fire up the stovetop or grill and get cooking! Then, when you feel ready, start experimenting with different flavors, too—through a combination of healthy spices or even homemade sauces and marinades. 

Four easy ways to get children into the kitchen 

Cooking is usually thought of as an adult skill. But teaching children to cook is a great investment in both their health and independence.  

Far too often, younger generations spread their wings and fly…only knowing how to power up a microwave (a poor cooking choice under all conditions) or boil a cup of noodles (probably the worst food on the planet). But the reality is, by middle school, they should be able to plan and cook meals by themselves from start to finish. 

So—let’s pledge to do something about it. Start by teaching the youngsters in your life the same cooking basics that I’ve outlined above. And holiday cooking rituals are a great place to start! (Just don’t limit kitchen experiences to decorating Christmas cookies or gingerbread men.)  

Then, here are some tips for encouraging them to join you in the kitchen…  

  1. Ask for help.The secret to the great five-star chefs is their reliance on sous chefs.Young children can start their cooking careers (and make your job easier) by adding and stirring ingredients into recipes. As they get older, children can learn to chop and dice foods, too. (You’ll also want to teach about safe use and sharpening of knives.)  
  2. Encourage young taste buds.Children can be surprisingly good taste testers. When I was an aspiring young cook in the kitchen with my mother or grandmother, they never once cracked open a cookbook (except for the occasional baked good, which wasn’t really my thing anyway). We all just tasted the food during preparation and decided about adding so much of this or that.  

With all due respect to the great Julia Child (and our friend, her niece, Phila Moran), the real art of Mastering the Art of French Cooking was in not needing a cookbook. Enlisting children as taste testers helps them learn about cooking without even knowing they’re doing so.  

  1. Involve kids in meal planning.Children hear about many different kinds of foods and cuisine through media orfriends, and can be curious about trying them out. If you ask them to help plan the week’s meals, you may be pleasantly surprised when they bypass the canned, packaged, processed food aisles and opt for more colorful and interesting fresh foods.   

You can also encourage this natural curiosity by venturing out to specialty food stores and occasionally trying different kinds of restaurants to expose your children or grandchildren to novel cuisines (and avoid boring and unhealthy fast-food and chain eateries). 

  1. Watch cooking shows.Make TV viewing healthy in more ways than one. There are so many cooking shows to choose from these days, and TV chefs tend to be masters at entertainment as well as cooking—which helps keep even younger children engaged.

Cooking shows can introduce children to different foods, kitchen utensils, and meal preparation, as well as food-related terminology. They’re also good, wholesome entertainment and education for the whole household.