cooking for swedish teenagers

It is spring vacation, or sports vacation as it’s called here – a tradition from the days when we had snow in early February. This year, one might call it mud-week. Most parents have no mud-week, and so our newspaper printed this large article with “easy-to-make and good-to-eat” things that teenagers can prepare alone using what’s already at home – food that takes little time to prepare so that the kids can devote themselves to “computer games, their friends and skating” (Borås Tidning, 2 February, p 18-21).

Let’s have a look.

The menu.

1) Blueberry scones. Using whatever goes into scones plus yogurt and instant blueberry soup. Blueberry soup? Oh yes. Think diluted and sugared blueberry juice and some sort of thickening agent, to be eaten cold or warm. Instant blueberry soup? Even better.

2) Macaroni pudding, taco style. An oven dish. Layers. Fried minced beef and a bag of taco spices. Macaroni cooked soft in Milk. Canned corn. Frozen peas. Pre-grated cheese. Fifteen minutes in the oven at medium heat.

3) Plaice fillets with coconut; mashed potatoes with shrimp. Fish fillets turned over in coconut flakes and fried in butter. Instant mashed potatoes, made edible by adding chopped shrimp, dill, butter and cream cheese.

4) Warm Snickers bars and banana milkshake. Snickers bars in pastry dough, baked fifteen minutes in the oven at medium heat. Bonus: the milkshake is real: genuine bananas, vanilla ice cream and milk.

Quite endearing that the standard goods that are “already at home” in these parts include frozen shelled shrimp, frozen plaice fillets, taco spices, instant mashed potatoes, pastry dough and instant blueberry goo, isn’t it.

To test the results, Borås Tidning provided an exclusively male, c. 15 years-old expert panel. I would indeed believe that most fifteen year-old girls from this country are unlikely to eat a pasta oven dish, butter-fried fish, mashed potatoes with cream cheese and extra butter, blueberry scones and hot Snickers bars all in one sitting. I’ve been chairman of the local school’s parent organisation. Some of the girls at school ate a lettuce leaf or two for lunch, and anyone who knows how this has become a general tendency is very worried about the situation. This is the first big missed chance for our dear newspaper. They should have provided some helpful calorie-minded food knowledge.

But let’s accept for the moment that both mud-week cooking and mud-week eating is a Strictly-Guys enterprise. The panel had things like this to say: “the taco dish tasted good, a mix of macaroni and taco was a good combination. It smelled completely normal,” “The banana shake was a normal banana milkshake. Nothing special. Its smell was somewhat banana-like,” and “The fish tasted almost not at all, its smell was somehow Thai-inspired with coconut.” Smelled? Someone clearly had told the panel to comment on smells. Strange. Why even bother, I wonder, if one uses instant-this and frozen-that and spices from a bag?

Then there are the slightly more informative comments: “the mashed potatoes don’t get a grade because I didn’t try them,” (that one is quite plain, isn’t it?) or “this looked like it was very easy to make,” and finally two unanimous ones: The scones were “extremely filling”, but everyone liked the macaroni cooked in milk – believe it or not, it’s one of the things kids get here: stuvade makaroner.

What a nightmare on all fronts. The old pedagogical principle to find the smallest common denominator of knowledge in a group before presenting one’s story surely doesn’t mean that one may not move an inch away from it. Even if we accept the Strictly For Men concept and embrace the scones, Snickers, butter and cream cheese, this whole initiative is a gigantic wasted chance. It would have been a golden opportunity to tell the kids that there are better things out there than milk-cooked macaroni; a great moment to make them understand that one third of a chopped-up banana and a spoonful of frozen peas and corn per person per meal are not truly vegetables even if one counts their possible placebo effect.

The only positive element here is the use of fish and shrimp. Otherwise the entire menu makes hardly any sense at all. Instant mashed potatoes should be banned, no matter whether they are in the pantry or not and disregarding how many packages of cream cheese and shovels of chopped shrimp one might be able to add. A Snickers bar wrapped in pastry dough is downright imbecile. The scones seem okay, but the unanimous verdict “extremely filling” tells us otherwise. Taco spices from a bag are so superfluous as to make me wince: you take one hot pepper, cumin, coriander and oregano instead and you’ll skip the entire chamber of horrors of taste-enhancers, stabilizers, colorants and anti oxidants while you’re also not paying any money to the Taco-Fake-Goo company for their TV ads. Looking for something to teach the kids? Here it is.

There are even problems with the preparation of some of the recipes: coconut flakes, for instance, are notoriously hard to manage in a frying pan: they get black almost before one switches on the heat. It requires quite some expertise to pull this fish off in a decent way. But is this Thai-inspired? Give me a break. Are these people, who have thought out such rambling recipes, chefs? Pitiful.

Forget what’s already at home. Show the kids how to shop and how to chop. Find five great spices and tell them what they are and what they do. Explain pan frying, boiling and ovens. Show how to make a decent salad. The movie Ratatouille is still fresh in everyone’s mind. Even those kids who can’t tell a walnut from a meatball have seen it. Yes, everyone can cook, but you gotta mean to try. Let them make their own food and have fun together. Mud-week cooking can be great. Turning around fish fillets in grated coconut isn’t cooking, it’s cruel.

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