‘Start them early’

  • Nora Harney, 1 ½, uses a food chopper during a cooking class for preschoolers at Tilton Library in South Deerfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Nora Harney, 1 ½, uses a food chopper during a cooking class for preschoolers at Tilton Library in South Deerfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Liam Harney, 3 ½, chops carrots during a cooking class for preschoolers at Tilton Library in South Deerfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Children's Librarian Julia Cavacco leads a cooking class for preschoolers at Tilton Library in South Deerfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Liam Harney, 3 ½, uses a tortilla press during a cooking class for preschoolers at Tilton Library in South Deerfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • James Griffin, 2, makes a tortilla during a cooking class for preschoolers at Tilton Library in South Deerfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • A completed tortilla. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • For safety purposes, Children’s Librarian Julie Cavacco said they only use kid-friendly kitchen gadgets during the classes. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

Staff Writer
Published: 11/20/2019 7:00:17 AM

A tantalizing aroma of frying corn tortillas drifted through stacks of colorful children’s books in the basement of the Tilton Library in South Deerfield. Children’s Librarian Julie Cavacco flipped a tortilla and called to a gaggle of preschoolers who were playing with toy trucks nearby.

“Alright, it’s cooking time. Everyone go wash their hands,” she said while transferring the sizzling tortillas to a round plastic table alongside peppers, a can of diced tomatoes, a small onion, carrots, grapes and rotisserie chicken.

As Marit Harney, of South Deerfield, herded her two children, 1 ½-year-old Nora and Liam, 3 ½, toward the sink to prepare for a weekly cooking class held at the Main Street library, Liam exclaimed, “That smells like a good snack.”

This week, as part of the Kids Can Cook, Too program, Cavacco prepared beforehand all the ingredients necessary to make kid-friendly tacos. Notably, the kitchen gadgets used by the young students were safe for children to use, such as plastic knives, push choppers, sealed graters and salad spinners.

The classes, which started last month and end this week, covered everything from gluten-free oatmeal with homemade molasses and chopped bananas to pasta salad with hummus-based ranch-flavored dressing. Throughout, the half-dozen preschoolers who regularly attended were introduced to culinary fundamentals like knife skills, food prep and sanitization.

“My goal is to empower children in the kitchen,” Cavacco said as she boosted Nora into a taller chair so that she could reach the table. “If we start early kids will cook later.”

Beside her, local youngster Benjamin Griffin, 4, and his brothers, Matthew, 4, and James, 2, stripped grapes from the vine.

Speaking from her own experience as a librarian and as a parent, Cavacco said exposing children to cooking early on encourages them to experiment in the kitchen later in life. In order to broaden a child’s palate, she suggested sneaking in something small they might not otherwise eat. To encourage them in the endeavor, she stressed the importance of giving them a chance to invest in the cooking process.

“If you grow your own green beans, kids will eat green beans because they pick them — they’re invested,” she said.

To that end, over the next hour or so, the kids chopped lettuce, mashed grapes, mixed fresh salsa with an immersion blender and hand-pressed masa harina, a traditional Mexican corn dough, into tortillas, which Cavacco said she was introduced to by a library patron originally from Mexico.

“I taught them how to make pizza, they taught me how to make tortillas,” she joked. For the kids’ class, Cavacco used Maseca brand masa harina, which is easily made into a dough by adding water and can be found at most area supermarkets.

In particular, the young students were enthralled by the immersion blender, with each vying for an opportunity to push the power button. One straggler, however, little James, had to be corralled from the toy section for his turn at mixing. The youth culinary program stemmed from similar adult classes hosted at the library, which covered everything from kimchi to crackers. Both, in turn, were driven my Cavacco’s personal passion for cooking.

Each week, the foods were curated for a kid’s palate — simple and mild. To make the salsa, for example, Cavacco combined peppers with a can of diced tomatoes and a small onion, using carrots as a sweetener. The result was appetizing and not too acidic, albeit mild — with strong earthy tones from the vegetables.

When slathered over a protein in the authentic tortillas, the salsa “sweetens the chicken without adding moisture or something like mayonnaise,” she said.

For the children, highlights of the class included utilizing the immersion blender and mashing the grapes, among other things.

“I liked making the pancakes,” Benjamin said, referring to the corn tortillas.

Andy Castillo is the features editor at the Greenfield Recorder. He can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com.

Kid-friendly salsa

1 can diced tomatoes, drained

1/2 small green pepper

1/2 small onion

1 small carrot

Microwave the pepper and onion until soft. Clean and cook the carrot. The kids can chop it into smaller pieces. Blend all of the ingredients until smooth

Homemade corn tortillas

2 cups masa harina (Cavacco recommends Maseca brand flour)

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ cups warm water

Add 2 cups mesa harina and ½ teaspoon salt to a mixing bowl. Add 1 cup of the warm water and stir until the water is absorbed. Add the rest of the water incrementally until the flour melds into a dough. Use your hands to knead the dough into a cohesive ball. If the dough is sticking to your hands, add a bit of mesa harina to dry it out.

Flatten the dough balls using a tortilla press or a flat-bottomed pan. Be sure to line each side of the dough ball with plastic or Ziploc bag pieces.

Separate the dough into golf ball-sized chunks. This will make the tortillas approximately 4 inches across.

Heat a skillet or comal to medium-high heat. Add a tortilla and flip after 10 seconds. Then cook each side for 1-2 minutes or until light brown spots are forming. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container in the fridge. Makes 12 to 16 tortillas.




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