July 11, 2007

Who's In the Kitchen?

Ratatouille + Cooking with Your Kids

In Pixar's delectable Ratatouille, an artistic rat named Remy proves that anyone can cook. Born with a nose for flavor, Remy matches mushrooms and rosemary with a piece of scavenged cheese and then smokes them atop a country farmhouse's chimney. A rodent foodie, Remy travels to Paris and winds up with a dream job - cooking in the kitchen of the late, great chef Gusteau. To do so (rats and kitchens are hardly a desirable match), he hides under the chef's hat of a wanna-be cook called Linguini, pulling on his hair to direct the talentless boy's hands to culinary wizardry. As the once-great restaurant returns to popularity, our incognito genius must balance the demands of his garbage-seeking relatives with the pressures of creating a meal for a critic known as the Grim-Eater (wonderfully voiced by Peter O'Toole). Ultimately, the "Little Chef" wants to be known for who he really is: the best chef in Paris. The story's oft-repeated motto, that anyone can cook, inspired us on to a culinary adventure of our own.

Cooking with the Kids is one of those yummy rites of summer, possible only when homework deadlines and sports practices don't rear their time-consuming heads. Inspired by Remy's passion for fine food, we ventured beyond our usual cookie recipes and planned a Ratatouille-inspired menu of homemade pizzas. A quick trip to our local gourmet market produced excellent ready-made pizza dough, tomato sauce, cheeses and of course, eggplant, peppers and zucchini. Our kids shopped with gusto, adding pesto sauce, pineapples, nuts and gourmet sausages. Before dinner, we grilled the toppings while pre-heating the oven and the pizza stone (see below for must-have pizza cooking utensils). Each of us rolled out an individually-sized pie on a wooden pizza peel. Our boys piled on the cheeses and grilled sausage chunks, our daughters got creative and invented grilled pineapple and roasted pine nut pizza with goat cheese, and we went heavy on the veggies. After spending last summer in Tuscany, we discovered a local delicacy for kids -- Nutella pizza for dessert!

The Film

Film Title: Ratatouille
Directed By: Brad Bird
2007, Rated G, 110 minutes

KOTC Kernels

Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about this Film:

  • Why this Film is Worth It: Pixar has done it again with a joyful portrait of a rat with artistic ambitions. The animation is spectacular, with chase scenes through Paris that dazzle, food so real that our tummies rumbled and a gleaming copper kitchen, itself a reason to watch this film. With a lead character that is the very definition of an oxymoron -- a gourmet rat in the kitchen-- the film's concept is daring. The film is both sophisticated and beautiful, but aimed at a slightly older audience than Finding Nemo, or even The Incredibles. We recommend it for kids over seven.
  • Red Flags: Remy's whole clan of rats gets flushed down a sewer and Remy thinks they are lost forever. Of course, they re-appear at the end of the story but several kids got teary in our audience, so parents of younger kids, beware! Also, a crochety old lady with a shotgun goes after the rats she finds in her kitchen. Although it is a cartoon-y scene, younger kids may squirm (or cry). A word about alcohol: Linguini's evil boss gets him drunk and he is depicted with a hangover the following morning.
Cinema Savvy

Our tips for talking with your kids about this film:

  • Cinema Savvy:  Another cooking movie, No Reservations, a remake of a wonderful German film called Mostly Martha, will be released later this month. Click here for our list of favorite films about food - all for grown-ups.
  • Culinary Savvy: Many of the animators took cooking classics to prepare for this film. Filmmakers also consulted with uberchef Thomas Keller about how a professional kitchen operates and Keller himself created the ratatouille that Remy prepares for critic Anton Ego.
  • Food Critic Savvy: One of our favorite characters is food critic, Anton Ego. Most kids aren't aware of what a critic does, so why not let them judge a few meals this summer? Have them think about presentation and service at the restaurant, and about taste and creativity once they are eating the meal.

The Adventure

Cooking With Kids in Your Own Kitchen

Age Recommendation: Everyone
Time Commitment: As much, or little, as you have
Ingredients for Success: Keep it simple, tactile and in the words of Chef Thomas Keller "if it tastes good, you're doing great"

KOTC Kernels

Want to know our tips for taking this adventure with our own kids:

  • What Worked For Us: After many failed pizzas in our past, we decided to invest in proper pizza-making utensils. A pizza stone is key - heat it in the oven and it will give your pies a great crust. And, most important of all is the pizza peel. Sprinkle corn meal on the wooden peel, flap the dough onto the cornmeal and decorate the pie before using peel to slide it onto the pizza stone. (Click here to purchase).
  • It's all about the Ingredients: Trader Joe's, and many supermarkets, have wonderful pre-made pizza dough, and often, your local pizza restaurant may sell you some, if you call ahead. Parents may have to form the pies at first, but eventually, kids get good at it. Don't put either too much tomato sauce or cheese on the pies, or they'll ooze onto your pizza stone.
  • Disney's What's Cooking: A Cookbook for Kids has just been released and has Ratatouille related recipes as well as a forward from Thomas Keller (of The French Laundry and Per Se fame). Recipes include "Remy's Favorite Omelet", the film's ratatouille recipe, pizza rats made from English muffins, chocolate rats, an Eiffel Tower cookie sundae and "Django's Dirt Cake". It's a cute, cute book which we recommend. (Click here to order.)
City Savvy

Caroline Styne co-owns our two favorite Los Angeles restaurants with celebrity chef Suzanne Goin. At Lucques and A.O.C., these women are committed to quality ingredients,  sustainable farming and to making each meal an unforgettably delicious experience. Caroline, a mother of two, offers up these tips for cooking with kids:

  • Caroline's Tips for Cooking with Kids: Be mindful of short attention spans by taking short-cuts like buying pre-made dough. Styne also advises choosing a recipe that is tactile, like kneading dough; kids love to get their hands dirty. Styne is a big proponent of expanding kids' culinary worlds by getting them involved in the kitchen -- kids who eat little more than buttered pasta may surprise parents if they can take little tastes of something more exotic during the cooking process.
  • Caroline Spills The Beans About Her Daughter's Favorite Recipe: Adapted from Suzanne Goin's Fava Bean Puree in Sunday Suppers At Lucques, Styne knows most kids won't have the patience to shuck, blanch and peel fava beans so her kid-tested solution is to use frozen Fava Beans (from Trader Joe's) and serve it with bread. She also likes to send her daughter to the garden to clip fresh rosemary. Here's the recipe that she agreed to graciously agreed to share, adapted for kids in the kitchen: On The Stove: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Heat a medium saucepan over low heat, add 3/4 Cup of extra-virgin olive oil, a rosemary spring, and 1 chile de arbol, crumbled. Once they have sizzled for a minute or two, stir in 1 minced garlic clove. Let sizzle for another minute, then stir in 2 1/2 pounds of fava beans, 3/4 teaspoon of salt, and freshly ground pepper. Simmer beans until tender, 5 - 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain the beans, reserve oil, and discard the rosemary and chile. In The Food Processor: Puree the beans. With the motor running, pour in half the reserved olive oil slowly, until the puree is velvety smooth. Once smooth, pour in more of the reserved olive oil to taste. Squeeze in some lemon juice and taste for seasoning. In A Separate Bow - a garnish for adults: Toss 1/2 cup pitted oil-cured black olives, cut in half with 1/4 cup sliced flat leaf parsley and a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Crumble in 1/4 pound of French Feta, tossing gently to combine. Serve On A Platter: Spoon warm fava bean puree onto a platter. Serve with grilled toasts rubbed with garlic for adults, and soft bread for kids. 
Our City Editors' tips for extending this Popcorn Adventure beyond your own kitchen:
  • New York: The Institute of Culinary Education has fabulous cooking classes for kids ages 9 and over with courses on everything from pizza to Harry Potter Kitchen Wizardry.For younger children, try the classes at KidFresh, Mini Chef. Toddlers can get busy at The Jewish Community Center (JCC) and the 92nd Street Y.
  • Houston: Central Market offers a Kids Cooking Camp during the summer where classes range from pizza to pot stickers. Sign up for four sessions or just one class.  Ages 5-12.
  • San Francisco: Kids Culinary Adventures based in San Mateo and Apron Strings based in San Francisco both offer “design your own” style private parties. KCA also offers an interesting assortment of specific private party concepts.

Cultural Connections

Want more? Here are KOTC's picks of films, books, music, and websites that connect your family to more culture.

Film Festival Most great films about food are for grown-ups so click here to visit our list of Great Films About Food. Books Click here for more cookbooks at the Kids Off the Couch store at Amazon.com.