World Chefs: What cooking teaches you about parenting

TOKYO Tue Jun 7, 2011 10:47am EDT

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - When Keith Dixon's daughter Gracie arrived five weeks early and about half the size of a normal newborn, it ushered in a long period of learning to cope with the unexpected that faces all new parents.

As Dixon, an enthusiastic life-long cook, adapted to fatherhood, he found that lessons learned in the kitchen came to his aid in dealing with everything from teething to sleepless nights.

In a memoir of Gracie's first year, "Cooking for Gracie," Dixon shares recipes and stories of how he learned to be a new kind of cook -- quiet enough so he wouldn't wake his daughter sleeping nearby -- even as he juggled work and parenthood in a cramped New York City apartment.

Dixon, who now has two daughters, talked about what cooking means to him.

Q: You seem to have a long history of cooking, were you self-taught?

A: "Yes, I was entirely self-taught ... I grew up in a household where they're very interested in the quality of their food. So during the week I would eat my mother's comfort food -- she tended to gravitate toward comfort food classics like meatloaf and roasted chicken, things like that. And on weekends my father would arrive as this sort of experimental member of their union, and suddenly we'd be eating smoked brisket or Chinese food. So all my life I grew up eating very well.

"When I moved to college, like most people I discovered just how horrible food can be. Eventually I learned that there are only two ways to eat well in this life -- you can get rich enough to pay people to feed you every night, which as I was an English major who wanted to be a writer that was pretty much out. I realized that the only other way is to learn to cook for yourself. So you become a sort of cook's apprentice, and you make all the mistakes...

"It really does remind me of parenthood. Because parenthood is this new puzzle every day, every morning you sort of wake with a renewed interest or a new excitement."

Q: What is food to you as part of your family life?

A: "A cook once said that chicken breast is the blank canvas on which a chef works his art, meaning that the chicken breast is sort of immaterial. Who the chef is, is revealed in what he does with it. And I think that cooking is the same thing -- it's not necessarily an end in itself. Of course you get a wonderful meal at the end of it if you learn how to cook well, but what's really important is all the constellation of wonderful things that move around it.

"Cooking helps me learn along with my daughter -- I was growing with her. It helps me be a better father. It helps me, on a rainy day, prevent a total meltdown by an overtired four-year-old because I say, 'Grace, let's go in the kitchen and make some bread dough.' It doesn't really matter in the end if you get a terrific set of bread sticks out of it. What it does is, it provides an environment where people can participate in all different ways."

Q: Do you have any advice for parents juggling jobs and children and cooking?

A: "My best advice to (new) parents is to forget trying to make elaborate recipes -- there'll be time for that when the baby learns to sleep and you have some time off. But do learn a few valuable recipes, even if it's just four or five that can be made from ingredients you can keep right there in your pantry or your kitchen cabinet."

Q: How do you feel cooking has enhanced your family life?

A: "Over time, I think this is going to continue to evolve. As my father told me, it's the things in life that don't turn out the way you expect that make life worth living. I think he was talking about how you can try to plan for your kids, and aim them in a direction where you want them to go, but invariably they're never going to go where you want them to. I think cooking and the table is going to reflect that. If you have a family dinner every night, you're going to be a part of this direction that their life is going in. Cooking and eating together is something that at least allows you to be part of it as it's ongoing.

"I'm sort of looking forward to having my daughter say, 'I absolutely love Eskimo food,' or something I just can't anticipate. But if she says that, I'll say to her, 'Why don't we go out tomorrow and get an Eskimo cookbook? We'll do it together.' I think that's what cooking means to me. It provides a way to take part, even when life is moving in this chaotic fashion that I can't plan. It provides me a way to connect."

Spaghetti with Anchovies, Walnuts, Mint and Bread Crumbs

2 thick slices white bread

1/3 pound dried spaghetti

6 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling

2 garlic cloves, minced

4 oil-packed anchovy fillets

1/4 cup crushed walnuts

Big pinch of crushed red pepper flakes

Salt, freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/4cup chopped fresh mint or parsley

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat.

2. Toast the bread briefly to dry it, then add the bread to a food processor or blender. Blend until crumbs the texture of coarse soil form. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the bread crumbs. Toast the bread crumbs, stirring and tossing frequently, until browned and nicely crisped, about 4 minutes. Pour into a small bowl.

3. Add the spaghetti to the boiling water and cook according to the directions on the package.

4. While the spaghetti is cooking, add olive oil to the same skillet you used for the bread crumbs and place over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and anchovy and saute, crushing the anchovies with a spoon until they fall apart, about 1 minute. Add the walnuts and saute to toast, about 4 minutes. Add the pepper flakes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the white wine, raise the heat to medium high, and simmer for 2 minutes. By now the spaghetti should be done.

5. When the spaghetti is done, reserve some of the pasta water, then drain the spaghetti and add it to the skillet, along with the pasta water and the mint. Mix well, divide on to 2 places. Top each plate with a hefty scattering of bread crumbs, drizzle with more olive oil and serve.

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