I spent the last 15 months attempting to teach my college-bound son to cook, and all I got was a lousy tattoo. Let’s be clear. I didn’t get the tattoo. And my son doesn’t think it’s lousy at all. He considers it an artful, expressive rite of passage for himself and a genuine tribute to me.

It’s a tidy, less-than-life-size outline of my favorite 10-inch chef’s knife. On his ribcage. Pointing to his heart. Don’t get me wrong. I get the sentiment. My first-born has permanently inked his devotion to my home cooking on his torso, after all.

But the basic tenet of my calculated cooking curriculum – which started with steaming, shocking and properly storing vegetables for weeklong-use; was supposed to have sailed through making pizza dough as a party starter; and be capped off with a lesson in cookware versatility with cast iron skillet cornbread – was to give Owen the skills and culinary confidence he’ll need to venture into kitchens unknown. The tattoo is a reminder, every time he takes off his shirt, that he’s still somewhat attached to my apron strings.

Cooking classes, like most of the homework Owen completed during his senior year at Brunswick High School, started off strong, fueled by good intentions. For example, in September, he became expert at using the oven to cook a side of skin-on salmon. He now knows he prefers the mild taste and silky texture of sustainably farmed local salmon to the stronger, less fatty but arguably better-for-you-and-the-earth wild variety from Alaska.

He learned the hard way that lining a half-sheet pan with foil covered in a skim coat of oil, before laying the fish cut-side down onto it, makes the job of flipping the fish once the broiler has bubbled up the skin for easy removal much, much easier. And he’s discovered that leftover salmon is a great breakfast item.

But his time in front of the stove was severely curtailed by soccer in October, the college application process in November, a successful basketball season that included tournament play through late February, and jazz band competitions in March.

The delays, going back to the homework analogy, resulted in panicked cramming in the kitchen starting in April, motivated by the prospect of a University of Chicago housing placement that included cooking facilities, the realization that dining halls aren’t open on Saturday nights, and the reality that Owen doesn’t want to use too much of his limited cash flow on food.

Owen's favorite mac-and-cheese goes into the pan. Joel Page/Staff Photographer

Owen’s favorite mac-and-cheese goes into the pan. Joel Page/Staff Photographer

NOT WILD ABOUT SAFFRON

As with many of the push-pull teaching moments I’ve experienced while parenting teenagers, the cooking lessons that did stick were the ones he actually wanted to learn.

He flat out refused to cook eggs because he doesn’t eat them. When we were whisking oil drop by drop into the mustard, vinegar and shallot that would eventually result in a basic French vinaigrette, he was so exhausted by the process that he asked for a stool. And he was less than gracious about making peanut butter buttercream so he could pull off his sister’s birthday cake if I couldn’t at some future point, because of his firm conviction that there is only one true frosting flavor: straight vanilla.

The skills he willingly mastered he did so because he was hungry for tasty food, copious amounts, mostly meat, acquired as cheaply as possible. Yes, I know, that’s the polar opposite of how sustainable food activist and author Michael Pollan says we should be eating for a better planet. Baby steps.

Owen prefers food writer Mark Bittman’s technique for making whole roasted (local) chicken a weeknight staple to full-on butterflying a bird to accomplish the same hour-long cook time. Bittman simply preheats a cast iron pan in a very hot oven, and severs the skin holding the legs and thighs close to the breasts so that when you place the seasoned chicken into the pan, the dark meat settles onto the surface of the hot pan and gets a jumpstart on cooking so that it’s done at the same time as the normally faster-cooking white meat.

Spatchcocking the chicken by removing its backbone so that it lies flat on a sheet pan means that Owen has to touch the raw bird more intimately than he finds comfortable. That said, he’s more than happy for me to butcher a chicken in this fashion as it produces crispier skin on the thighs, a favorite aspect of his favorite part of the bird.

To go with either roast chicken, Owen practiced making his favorite yellow rice. Sometimes from a Goya or Vigo pouch, sometimes from scratch using real saffron.

Certainly the homemade is better overall because you can taste more than just salt, he concluded. “But at this point in my life, it’s going to come down to price. When you tell me that saffron is the most expensive spice out there, I’m not feeling it,” Owen said.

He’s mastered the method for cooking both, because it’s one and the same: combine ingredients, boil, don’t stir, cover, turn off the heat, wait 20 minutes, fluff and serve. But the price differential for one cup, we calculated, was 39 cents for the processed stuff compared to $1.05 for the saffron-laced variety.

While he accepted that math on the rice front, my showing him how to use chicken bones to make stock that could then be used to flavor any rice dish, and pointing out that he was basically using free garbage to make something that would cost him almost $3 a quart in the store, didn’t add up in his eyes. Doesn’t that dried yellow powder in the rice mix have chicken flavor in it too, he asked. Clearly, my work is not done.

STICKING TO HIS RIBEYES

We’re covering tuition, dorm fees and an unlimited meal plan for his freshman year, but Owen’s responsible for buying the books he’ll need for each of the three quarters he’ll take classes running through next June.

So he knows he’s not buying a good steak to cook on his own anytime soon. But he’s also figured out I’m more likely to spring for things like that if there’s a lesson to be learned.

“I think I need to practice my grill marks on a ribeye, Mom,” he said one night in early August. It was a total “aha” moment for me in culinary school when the chef explained that if you place a steak on the grill at an angle pointing to 2 o’clock, wait three minutes, and turn it to 10 o’clock to sit for the same period of time, you get restaurant-quality marks.

Owen rejected my point that he could practice making marks on slices of zucchini, eggplant and summer squash just as easily at much less cost. But he’s rarely hungry for those items. I bought the steak because I am both a sucker and I know he’s not likely to be home for dinner at a regular clip for much longer.

If I had it to do over again, I’d have started my home cooking school 15 years ago. I stand by the lesson plan because I think it strikes a good balance between needing to feed a body, a soul and an extended family.

But I’ve come to understand as well that there needs to be more time built into the schedule for both a little less task-mastering by the teacher and more self-guided culinary exploration by the student.

For his final class, Owen asked to learn how to make my version of baked macaroni and cheese. I, of course, obliged, as it starts with a béchamel, one of the classic mother sauces I was more than honored to pass along to my son, who received it with gusto.

I’m totally OK with him admitting that he cooks out of hunger. If he wants to be reminded of how food can make a nostalgic mark on a person, there’s always the tattoo.

The finished product is perfect for a college freshman – or anyone. Joel Page/Staff Photographer

The finished product is perfect for a college freshman – or anyone. Joel Page/Staff Photographer

BAKED MAC AND SMOKED CHEESE RECIPE

Owen has always preferred homemade to the boxed variety. This recipe has evolved to be more flavorful over the years as we’ve mixed and matched cheeses we’ve come to love along the way. Owen likes to make this dish with rigatoni as they are bigger than other dried shaped pasta, like medium shells, elbows, penne or rotini. But any of those other pastas will work just fine, cooked al dente so that the pasta has room to soak up a little cheese sauce.
Serves 6 to 8

1 pound shaped pasta
¼ cup butter plus more for buttering dish
¼ cup flour
1 tablespoon powdered mustard
4 cups milk (whole is best but 2% is okay)
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
4 ounces smoked cheddar cheese, grated
4 ounces yellow mild cheddar cheese, grated
4 ounces Alpine cheese, grated
4 ounces stretchy cheese like Monterey Jack, grated
½ to 1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta to al dente, 9 to 12 minutes, depending on the pasta type. Drain.

While the pasta is cooking, in a separate pot, melt the ¼ cup butter. Whisk in the flour and mustard and keep whisking for about 5 minutes to cook out the floury taste. Make sure the mixture is free of lumps. Stir in the milk and Worcestershire sauce. Simmer for 10 minutes.

Combine all of the cheeses. Slowly add ¾ of the cheese to the sauce, a handful at a time, stirring after each addition. Season with salt and peppers. Fold the pasta into the mix and pour into prepared casserole dish. Top with remaining cheese.

Bake the macaroni and cheese for 30 minutes until the cheese on the top has browned a bit and the sauce is bubbling up around the edges. Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester, and a cooking teacher in Brunswick. She also writes the Green Plate Special column in Source. Contact her at:

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