Eating well

Cooking to share cultures


Rick Bayless is a familiar name to Chicago food lovers. His Near North Side restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, are nationally acclaimed and must-visits for any chef coming through town.

At home, he and his wife, Deann, don’t indulge in lofty culinary goals. They focus on teaching their daughter, Lanie, 13, to master essential kitchen skills and sharing a taste of other cuisines with their family and friends.

Intrepid travelers Rick and Deann take Lanie everywhere, including France, Italy, Mexico, Thailand and Morocco. Bayless often chooses a destination where he has friends or contacts who provide an opportunity to shop in local markets and cook at home with a family.

Cooking together is a bridge to understanding others, says Bayless. “Everyone has a need to be nourished. When you sit down and share a meal you level the playing field.” 

Sometimes food creates a bridge when cultures might otherwise collide. Their visit to Morocco soon after 9/11 is an example. “The news was filled with ‘us and them.’ I wanted Lanie to go and have a positive experience,” says Bayless.

Lanie wasn’t as sure: “I was scared. I thought people would be mean because we’re Americans.”

The Bayless family found their way to a Marrakesh family whose hostess took them shopping for olives, preserved lemons and harissa, Morocco’s famed hot sauce. Then everyone gathered in the kitchen for a cooking marathon of bastilla, a savory stuffed pastry, couscous, lamb taijine and four different salads.

“I ate couscous before. [But] I thought this dish brought us together,” says Lanie, recalling how the family sat around chatting after the meal.

“I’m very interested in having people share food as a family and use food as a way of exploring other cultures,” Bayless says. “I like to know the details of food. Is [the dish] typical? Is it a family dish? How do you eat it?”

He and his daughter answer some of these questions in Rick & Lanie’s Excellent Kitchen Adventures, (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2004), a book to be treasured for its easy-to-follow recipes, lush descriptions and for Lanie’s marvelous take on her experiences.

“Instead of just doing a book of food at home, I wanted to do a book of food cultures, to let people know how they can turn an afternoon at an Asian grocery store into a way to understand the world,” Bayless says.

You can help your children broaden their world even if your explorations only take you to a different neighborhood, say Rick and Lanie. “You can go to ethnic grocery stores in Mexican neighborhoods or to a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. My dad goes to grocery stores and brings back all kinds of ethnic ingredients. I brought my friends in and we all tasted the food together. It was fun,” says Lanie.

You may not start your family’s culinary adventure with a 20-ingredient couscous, but Lanie recommends the following recipe for balsamic green beans as an introduction to the foods of another country. The dish has been an essential part of the Bayless family Thanksgiving menu since Lanie was young and they visited Italy. They stayed in a home where a fine, cask-aged balsamic vinegar was produced. Bayless was taken with the craft of vinegar production; Lanie enjoyed dribbling each expensive drop over the holiday green beans.

Balsamic green beans 12 ounces (4 cups) green beans Salt 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 large garlic clove, peeled 1½ to 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar Break the stems and little tips off the green beans. To blanch the green beans, in large (6- to 8-quart) saucepan, bring 4 inches water to boil over high heat. Add 2 teaspoons salt. Add green beans and cook 7 minutes (5 minutes for the little French green beans). Drain and spread out on large plate to cool. Pour oil into large (10-inch) skillet. Set over medium heat. Crush garlic through garlic press into oil. Add green beans and cook 3 or 4 minutes—stir continuously—until beans are hot. Sprinkle with about 1/4 teaspoon salt. Stir to season evenly. Scoop onto platter. Slowly and evenly pour vinegar over beans. Serve right away. Serves 4.

NOTE: The green beans can be regular ones, yellow ones or the skinny little French ones called haricot verts. Or they can be snow peas or sugar snap peas. Everyday balsamic vinegar is available in the grocery store, but you can find very special “artisanal” balsamic in specialty stores. Some of it is so expensive you want to call it black gold.

Bev Bennett is the mother of two and the author of 30 Minute Meals for Dummies (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2003)

Kids Eat Chicago

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