Meet Your Dinner.

On Saturday afternoon, the Carnivore and his daughter came back from our food co-op, lugging bags and boxes of goodies. “You’d better cook all of this,” she said, “after I carried it!” (She turned seven in January, and, man, is she bossy.) She loves to help in the kitchen—cracking eggs, measuring and pouring spices, whisking pancake batter, licking the beaters. There’s something fascinating about having a seven-year-old as your sous chef: You see how primal cooking really is, really should be, watching a child touch and taste everything. She’s normally a fussy eater, but when she helps with the meal, her hands are constantly in every dish; if you don’t want something going in her mouth before its time, you have to keep a sharp eye on her.

Now, this is a child who has never met a type of junk food she didn’t like, so it came as no surprise that she instantly perked up when I mentioned chicken for dinner—KFC is a personal favorite. It was different story entirely, though, when I pulled a whole, raw chicken from my shopping bag.

“What is that?” she asked, wrinkling her nose and patting down the bird. “It feels weeeeird.” I explained where the head would be, and, standing it up on its end, pointed out that “leg” wasn’t a euphemism—those were really legs she consumed, with such relish, in fried form. “I don’t think I can eat this,” she said, latent humanitarian tendencies rising to the fore. I pointed out that her chicken tenders come from animals similar to this one; her logical response, echoed by millions of meat eaters in denial: “But those don’t look like chicken!” And, later, as we spooned the garlicky, peppery, lemon-and-cilantro marinade under the unlucky bird’s skin, she ventured into tricky ethical waters: “I hope this wasn’t one of the good ones.” As everyone knows, only bad chickens deserve to be eaten.

I take great pride in the fact that I can almost always get this staunchly picky eater to sample pretty much anything. (Clams in black bean sauce, pancit canton, and bok choy looked funny, but she loved them all once she had a bite—in our case, it’s all about presenting unfamiliar food with enthusiasm, with the emphasis on how absolutely delicious everything tastes. Curiosity gets her every time.) To that end, I had high hopes for this simple chickpea-and-vegetable couscous. Fresh summer produce, gentle spices, and those quick-finishing pasta kernels seemed like a winning combination, and one I could throw together while the chicken was on the grill.

Easy, it definitely was, but I was dismayed to discover that this recipe requires serious tweaking. The first red flag should have been the lack of salt in the ingredient list, second should have been the directive to chop a fennel bulb into half-inch wedges. By the time the fennel had softened, the zucchini was overcooked, the overall end result being a bland and kind of mushy dish, even with a late-in-the-process dousing of salt. The kid was game to taste it, but that was about it. I couldn’t blame her—I could hardly finish my own helping.

The chicken took thirty-five minutes on the grill and, as you can see from the charred skin, probably could’ve come off a few minutes sooner. Crazy as it seems, those blackened spots didn’t even detract from the deliciousness; if anything, they added a deep, caramelized flavor to the juicy, spicy meat. The browned sections weren’t nearly as savory.

As you can tell, all ethical misgivings were forgotten when faced with a couple of drumsticks, but, even so, I like the fact that this meal had some small part in opening a kid’s eyes to where her food comes from. I was mulling all of this over during my commute this morning, thinking about what I’d write, when, in a stroke of serendipity, I came across Nigel Slater’s opinion on the subject.

“It is never too soon to kindle children’s interest in what they eat,” he writes. “We can do this well before they get any thoughts of cooking; simply scrubbing a load of mussels or shelling a bag of peas is a good start. I don’t agree with forcing anyone to cook, but I do think any interest they show is probably best encouraged. There should be no particular agenda, but the provenance of what a child eats is probably as good a place to start as any. … I have a strong feeling that the more children learn about their food early on, the more chance they have of growing up to enjoy cooking rather than it becoming a chore. And, anyway, children have a right to know that their breakfast came out of a hen’s bottom. If there is any possibility at all of showing children where food comes from, then I suggest you do.”

I don’t claim to know the daily trials of being a full-time parent—I would imagine that those of you who do have plenty of insight to share and may even be rolling your eyes at my naivety; I’d love to hear from you in the comments—but I do know that for this child, at least, Nigel is right on the money. She loves to help, and she’s almost always brave enough to taste what she’s created. She may grow up to be a foodie yet.

Grilled Lemon-Coriander Chicken
Gourmet | May 2006

3/4 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro sprigs
1/4 cup olive oil
2 shallots, chopped (1/2 cup)
1 large garlic clove, chopped
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 fresh serrano chile, minced, including seeds (I used a jalapeño instead, and the heat level was just right.)
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 (3- to 3 1/2-lb) chicken, rinsed and patted dry
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Special equipment: kitchen string; a large chimney starter (if using charcoal); an instant-read thermometer

1. Purée cilantro, oil, shallots, garlic, lemon zest and juice, chile, coriander, sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a food processor until it forms a paste. Leave any fat in opening of chicken cavity and sprinkle cavity with pepper and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Starting at cavity end, gently slide an index finger between skin and flesh of breast and legs to loosen skin (be careful not to tear skin). Using a small spoon, slide cilantro purée under skin over breast and drumsticks, using your finger on outside of skin to push purée out of spoon and distribute evenly. Tie legs together with kitchen string and tuck wing tips under. Brush outside of chicken all over with butter.

2. Prepare grill for cooking over indirect heat with medium-hot charcoal (moderate heat for gas).

To cook chicken using a charcoal grill: Lightly oil grill rack, then put chicken on rack with no coals directly underneath and cook, covered with lid, until thermometer inserted into fleshy part of thigh (do not touch bone) registers 170°F, 40 to 50 minutes. (Add more briquettes during grilling if necessary to maintain heat.) Transfer chicken to a platter and let stand 15 minutes.

To cook chicken using a gas grill: Lightly oil grill rack, then put chicken above shut-off burner. Grill, covered with lid, turning chicken 180 degrees halfway through cooking if using a 2-burner grill, until thermometer inserted into fleshy part of thigh (do not touch bone) registers 170°F, 35 to 45 minutes.

  • Cooks’ notes: Chicken can be prepared, but not grilled, 1 day ahead and chilled, covered with plastic wrap. Let stand at cool room temperature 30 minutes before grilling. If you can’t grill outdoors, chicken can be roasted on an oiled rack set in a roasting pan in middle of a 375°F oven about 1 1/4 hours.

Chickpea and Vegetable Couscous
From Shape magazine | July 2010

As I mentioned above, this recipe has potential, but it needs some adjustments. I would consider doubling the spices, for starters, and adding salt and pepper, to taste.

½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, cut into 1 ½-inch pieces
1 bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 fennel bulb, cut into ½-inch wedges
1 zucchini, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 yellow summer squash, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 plum tomatoes, cut into large chunks
1 cup canned chickpeas
2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
1 cup whole-wheat couscous
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1. Combine the spices (coriander through cayenne pepper) and set aside. In a large skillet, heat olive oil at medium-high. Sauté carrots and bell pepper for about 5 minutes, or until slightly soft. Add fennel, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, chickpeas, and spices. Cook for 5 more minutes.

2. Pour in vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer; cover and cook for 15 minutes until all the vegetables are tender.

3. In a small saucepan, bring 1 ¼ cups of water to a boil. Add couscous, stir, and remove from heat. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes.

4. Place couscous in a serving dish and top with vegetables and broth. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.

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