School's out, or about to be, and there lies before us a little gap before camp that the mothers in my set are moaning and groaning about. Nobody can quite understand whence comes the idea that kids need a break from the most fun they ever have -- namely hanging around with their pals, cutting and pasting, and reading fabulous books that they'll never again have time for once they grow up. I suspect it's the teachers who need the time off, and since we marvel over their patience throughout the school year, we ought to have the grace to grant it to them.
We still have the problem of entertaining the kids throughout the long hours they manage to stay alert. Of course we'll orchestrate trips to parks and zoos and beaches and air-conditioned museums, but they will also need quiet time. And a good way to fill that quiet time creatively is to let them cook. Preferably dinner.
It is true that they'll always want to make cookies instead, but this leaning must be curbed. Making something like Chic'n Lic'n Nuggets is just as much fun and far more useful. Though my boys enjoyed making them, they turned out to be so much better than the popular fast-food item that inspired them that the kids refused to eat them. No matter; the grown-ups scarfed them down happily. I wouldn't hesitate to make them for a fancy hors d'oeuvre.
The amount of supervision required depends on your children's ages and agility. I'd wait a good long time before letting a child chop with a knife; I personally was 23 before I stopped cutting myself. But the advent of the microwave oven -- now a common appliance in American homes -- is a great boon to kiddy cooks. There isn't nearly the possibility of getting burned as with a conventional oven. But an adult should always be there to remove the cover of a just-microwaved dish. The cloud of steam can be quite unexpected, and dangerous. I expect I'll be 43 before I stop being surprised by it myself.
Most of these recipes are written for a microwave oven, but translating back and forth is no problem. Allow roughly four times as much cooking time for a conventional oven, remembering that there will be variations with the density of the cooking items, and the number of them in the microwave at the same time. Successful experimentation -- not to mention unsuccessful experimentation -- is an important part of the learning-to-cook process. CHIC'N LIC'N NUGGETS (4 servings)
2 whole medium chicken breasts, skinned and boned
2 tablespoons water
16 rich round crackers
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup barbecue sauce or sweet and sour sauce or mustard-mayonnaise sauce
Put chicken and 1 tablespoon water in a 9-inch nonmetal pie plate. Cover with waxed paper. Microwave on high for 3 minutes. Turn dish halfway around and cook for 2 minutes more. If parts of chicken are still pink, micro-cook 1 minute longer or until no pink remains. Let stand for 5 minutes in oven.
Crack the egg into a bowl. Add remaining tablespoon water and stir with a fork.
Put the crackers into a plastic bag, close and use a rolling pin to finely crush them.
When chicken is cool enough to handle, transfer it to a cutting board and cut into bite-size chunks.
Dip chunks into egg mixture, then put into bag with crushed crackers. Close bag and shake to coat the chicken. Put butter in the pie plate and melt in microwave (about 15 seconds.) Add chicken. Microwave for 1 minute. Stir and cook for 1 minute longer or until hot.
Put the sauce into a small, nonmetal bowl and microwave on high for 1 minute or until hot. Serve with dipping sauce. From "Better Homes and Gardens' Microwave Cooking For Kids," Meredith, $5.95. SURPRISING PEANUT BUTTER MUFFINS (Makes 6 muffins)
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons brown sugar plus extra for sprinkling
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon cooking oil
Jelly and cream cheese OR semisweet chocolate pieces OR thinly sliced banana OR maraschino cherries
Put flour, brown sugar and baking powder into a medium mixing bowl. Use a fork to stir well until mixed. Crack the egg into a small mixing bowl. Stir with the fork. Use a rubber scraper to stir in peanut butter, milk and oil. (The mixture will not look well mixed.) Add the peanut butter mixture to flour mixture. Stir until dry ingredients are wet but still lumpy. Do not stir too much.
Line 6 custard cups, or a microwave muffin pan, with paper muffin cups. Put 1 rounded tablespoon of batter into each cup. Add 1/2 teaspoon of jelly and cream cheese or chocolate pieces or 1 banana slice or 1 cherry. Top with 1 rounded tablespoon of batter. Sprinkle additional brown sugar on top.
Arrange custard cups in a circle in center of microwave oven. Microwave on high for 2 minutes. Insert a toothpick near center of muffin. If pick comes out clean, the muffin is done. If batter sticks to pick, cook for 10 seconds to 1 minute more.
When done, remove from cups. Cool on cooling rack for 10 minutes; serve warm. From "Better Homes and Gardens' Microwave Cooking for Kids", Meredith $5.95 MEAT LOAF RINGS (Makes 8 rings)
1/2 cup milk
3/4 cup quick-cooking oats
3 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon instant beef bouillon
3 tablespoons chopped onion
2 teaspoons horseradish
2 1/2 pounds lean ground beef
Mix all ingredients in a bowl with a fork. Divide mixture into 8 equal parts. Roll each part with your hands into a tube shape 9 inches long and 1 1/2 inches thick. Press the ends of each strip together firmly to make a ring.
Put the rings in 2 ungreased oblong baking pans, 13-by-9-by-2 inches. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.
If desired, the holes can be filled with mashed potatoes or vegetables 5 minutes before the end of cooking time, then baked for the final 5 minutes. From "Betty Crocker's Cookbook for Boys and Girls," Golden Press, 1984, $5.95 BACON BARBER POLES (4 servings)
1 slice whole wheat or white bread
2 slices bacon
Toast the bread in a toaster. On a cutting board, cut the bread into 4 long slices, about 1 inch wide. Use kitchen scissors to cut each slice of bacon lengthwise into 2 strips, making 4 strips. Wrap one bacon strip around each toast stick in a spiral. Put the toast sticks on a white paper towel on a nonmetal plate.
Microwave on high for 1 minute. Use hot pads and tongs to turn sticks over.
Microwave, covered, on high for 1 minute more. If bacon is not crisp, cook on high for 10 seconds to 1 minute more. From "Better Homes and Gardens' Microwave Cooking for Kids,"