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Teaching little hands to make hearty meals

The Family Kitchen: Easy and Delicious Recipes for Parents and Kids to Make and Enjoy Together, By Debra Ponzek Clarkson Potter, 196 pp., $25

One of the unintended -- and probably unnecessary -- consequences of feminism's mixed success was that many of us grew up learning just about everything but cooking. We were studying, going to dance class, swimming, or playing soccer. A lot of our moms were working, and simply too rushed and harried to do much more than get dinner on the table, never mind masterminding their kids' culinary development.

Hence, the much-bemoaned phenomenon of food illiteracy. A kindergartener thinks apples come from the store; a 20-year-old cooks only pasta and cheese. There is, of course, no better remedy than starting out cooking by your parent's side, and recent years have lifted the patina of servitude from the kitchen. Yet from a mom's point of view, the classic pluses and minuses remain. The company doesn't get any better, and it's educational in the long term. On the other hand, a kitchen's sharp and hot perils can be harrowing. Things take longer, and the mess that results can be dumbfounding. Until now, most cookbooks geared toward kids have been more about a tricked-out, commercial concept of ''fun" (say, decorating cupcakes with M&M's).

What Debra Ponzek has done is admirable. ''The Family Kitchen" is eminently usable, the recipes generally work, and the food is real. The former chef of New York's Montrachet restaurant also understands an exuberant world where sticky hands, floury clothing, and shrieks of delight are the norm. Leave the book around if you're expecting breakfast in bed on Mother's Day.

Each section starts with easy recipes and proceeds to harder ones. Pages feature a ''Call the Kids" panel detailing the child-friendly tasks like measuring, whisking, and peeling. And while some of the recipes are time-consuming, none is too complex for little hands.

Fresh berry bismarck, a puffed-up pancake for sharing, was practically foolproof and delicious. Bright and crisp sugar snap peas with mint and lemon were crowd-pleasers. Asian flank steak salad with peanut dipping sauce benefited from a heavy dose of lime and soy, though the sauce yielded twice as much as projected and seemed pretty spicy for young palates.

Clearly, a few compromises had to be made in the name of feasibility. The chicken pot pie's cornmeal crust won't win any prizes for flakiness at the state fair. However, clear, familiar flavors made for a hearty meal and splendid leftovers. Rigatoni with ricotta, tomato, and basil could probably be made by an unsupervised 8-year-old, and the curd-flecked final pasta was tasty, but there wasn't anything particularly special about it. Glazed baby carrots were easy, if a little on the soft side and bordering on too sweet. And raspberry-filled sugar cookie hearts were designed around an easily workable butter dough, but a little grated lemon rind wouldn't have hurt.

From a parent's perspective, my test-drive was not comprehensive. My 5-year-old son enjoys cooking, but the lures of the whisk do not always compete with toy knights and construction sets. (Perhaps his sister, due this summer, will be different.) Still, he gamely prepped vegetables for the chicken pot pie, measured flour for the bismarck, and stamped out cookie hearts with shouts of conquest. Nobody was surprised that he also evinced a little boy's disdain for cleanup, matched by a roughly equal passion for splashes and stains.

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