Grilled cactus anyone?
I am standing in a Mexican kitchen on a picturesque ranch outside of Oaxaca city kneading dough that will become mini tortillas. I already have grilled the cactus that will be a part of the topping for these "memelas."
The rest of my gang is working equally hard -- my son Matt and husband Andy volunteered for the rice, my daughters Reggie and Mel (chocoholics!) for the chocolate pudding dessert made with the famous chocolate from this region, and I work on the little tortillas that we will cook outside on a special tortilla grill called a "comal."
Welcome to Seasons of My Heart Cooking School (www.seasonsofmyheart.com), run by chef Susana Trilling, an American from Philadelphia, who fell in love with Mexico on vacation more than 20 years ago and has lived here most of the time since, raising her two children here, offering cooking lessons and culinary tours. "Mexico is so wonderful for kids," she tells me. "They love children."
Oaxaca is in the southeastern part of Mexico (www.oaxaca.travel) or (www.visitmexico.com), and we've come here for a few days of cultural immersion after a week lazing on the beach. To make the most of our time, we've arranged for Austin-Lehman Adventures (www.austinlehman.com) to guide us -- including our day at cooking school.
As children become more sophisticated eaters, there are more opportunities to learn about cooking and local cuisine on vacation -- visiting local restaurants or farmer's markets, or taking cooking lessons.
Kids can even learn to cook on the high seas! Aboard the Holland America Line (www.HollandAmerica.com), for example, there's the kids and teens Culinary Arts Center, where they learn to create dishes as part of Club Hal. Disney Cruise Line's Med cruises (www.disneycruiseline.com) offer adults-only cooking lessons at a farm in Tuscany while the kids are entertained on board. Disney also offers family shore excursions where you can all cook together.
"Family cooking classes in Italy are a big hit and can be the most memorable part of an itinerary," says Amie O'Shaughnessy of Ciao Bambino! (www.ciaobambino.com), which arranges such excursions. "The best classes are hands-on where kids are engaged and interacting with the instructor, and then everyone sits down for a yummy meal as the grand finale."
Resorts are incorporating cooking lessons and demonstrations in their kids programs too -- from major all-inclusives like Beaches in the Caribbean (www.beaches.com) to the Grand Velas in Puerto Vallarta (www.grandvelas.com), offering great summer kids-free deals along with deals for single parents.
The mega-resort Atlantis (www.atlantis.com) in the Bahamas has even built a Culinary Room for budding chefs, as part of its expansive new Kids Club, while Loews hotels (www.loewshotels.com) in Miami Beach and Lake Las Vegas invite kids to Sushi Skool.
There are plenty of options too at small hotels like The Coppertoppe Inn and Retreat Center in Hebron, N.H., (www.coppertoppe.com) or the Essex Resort & Spa in Vermont (www.vtculinaryresort.com), which offers summer culinary camps for kids, as well as special private family classes.
Back in Mexico, Trilling explained the menu: Memelas, small tortillas smeared with bean paste, cheese and various toppings; grilled nopaeles salad (cactus with avocado, tomatoes, cilantro and more; tortilla soup; green salad with pears and Roquefort; a savory chicken stew with capers and olives; rice flavored with chepil, a pre-Hispanic herb; and the piece de resistance -- a Oaxacan chocolate pudding with a strawberry tangerine sauce.
Soon the big kitchen was noisy as the 30 people chopped and stirred and kneaded and sipped Mexican beer. Thankfully, Trilling's staff whisks away the dirty pans, bowls and measuring spoons. When everything is ready, they invite us to the big wooden tables and serve us our creations course by course.
We applaud after each one. We're proud of ourselves and eat until we can't manage another bite.