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Aden Johansen and Ellie Warren, eighth-graders at Nichols School, met at a summer theater program in 2019. They became friends; and over the COVID-19 lockdown developed an even deeper friendship and also become accomplished cooks. This story of friendship and cooking is one they’ve lived and co-written. It has been edited by Judy Chiss.
By Aden Johansen and Ellie Warren
It was the third week of summer that we met at Mudlark Theater’s Giant Puppet Camp. We were both going into seventh grade at Nichols, and though we didn’t know each other, immediately we didn’t have any problems talking to each other.
We always say that the first time we met we felt like we’d known each other forever. We only had a week to make a puppet the length of two tall basketball players at camp.
We agreed we’d make a giant lizard puppet out of cardboard and felt. It would open its mouth and maybe even have spines that could move. The week went fast, and when it was time to present our lizard puppet, everyone loved it. Camp ended after that week, but in fall on the first day of seventh grade, Aden heard someone call out, “Hey, remember our puppet?”
We ended up becoming lab partners and doing our science projects together. Soon we started hanging out after school or on weekends and discovered that we each like baking. That was the beginning of our cooking and baking adventures and what saved us from boredom and loneliness during the pandemic.
On March 13, 2020, school shut down. At first we thought it would be great to have a break from school for a couple of weeks. But we definitely were wrong. We needed anything but a break. Even the first day of the quarantine was boring. We missed our old friends and we missed seeing each other, so we ended up FaceTiming each other, sometimes most of the day and until we went to bed.
To pass the time soon we started cooking and baking AND FaceTiming while we were doing it. When we were cooking or baking, it almost felt like everything else around us didn’t matter. We’d laugh or have sincere and serious conversations or make up conspiracies! All that mattered was that we were sharing experiences.
We started deciding together what to cook.
We admit not everything always worked out perfectly.
One time we agreed we’d cook homemade linguini. Because the recipe said it’d take 30 minutes we thought it’d be easy.
Not so! We had to cut the uncooked dough by hand — oh what a mess! It took three hours, looked strange, and was not delicious. And the meatballs didn’t turn out well either!
Growing up we had both learned a bit about cooking by watching our parents cook. Sometimes we’d each pull up a stool or chair to watch them up close, and by the time we met we were pretty interested in cooking and baking.
Our parents are both very organized, so organized they said we needed to start making lists. We got in the habit of making a list of ingredients we’d need for the week, and our parents did the grocery shopping.
Soon every day we made a list and then cooked a dish based on those ingredients in our recipe. We made things as complicated as homemade linguine to something as simple as roasted carrots. We baked banana muffins and different kinds of cookies, made pizzas, and perfected mac and cheese.
We loved making it and with different cheeses, sometimes with Gruyere and mozzarella. We also liked to make lamb burgers and veggie burgers, cinnamon rolls, and minestrone soup. We found a good recipe for green rice with feta cheese and pine nuts. We also made lots of different kinds of pasta sauces and made sushi too.
Whatever we were making, we both always made the same thing and did it while we were FaceTiming from our separate kitchens.
Between March and the middle of July, we cooked every day! We cooked so much that after a while we didn’t need to keep reading the recipes – we would just glance at them when we cooked.
We cooked and we talked for hours. Every day. After one of us learned to make calzones and homemade French fries and strawberry wontons from an online cooking class, both of us made those dishes in our usual afternoon FaceTime shared cooking.
Lots of the times we were baking or cooking, we made food to share with our families. They liked what we made, but for a while we also made some pretty big messes in our kitchens. We weren’t so good at cleaning up. While scrubbing the dishes, we would laugh and ask each other how many more plates we still had to clean. Now we do a much better job cleaning up!
Sometimes we’ve wished we’d made a record of every single dish we made from quarantine until now. We estimate it is about 75 different dishes.
You’d think we’d be tired of cooking and baking by now, but we’re not. In fact we think that the number 75 isn’t that significant, that it could always be bigger.
Now we’re cooking less because we’re back in school, but with summer coming up we know there will be lots more cooking adventures. Sometimes we think about wanting to open up restaurants when we’re older, not chain restaurants, more like fine dining restaurants that each serve different kinds of food.
We also would like to write a series of cookbooks, ones that include what meals really look like, not edited photos with unrealistic cooking expectations.
Over the summers of our high school years we might do catering, even though we are still kids.
Another thing we’d like is being on a cooking show. Over quarantine we “binge watched” the show Chopped with our families. On that show the contestants are given mystery items, and they have to make a dish out of them. To be chefs on that show would be amazing!
We’ve learned a lot from cooking, and we’ve also had so much fun. We figure through the rough times of COVID-19, we took lemons and made lemonade. We’re grateful to our parents who let us do this and to our whole families who complimented our meals (even the ones that weren’t so appealing).
Now we are thankful we’re able to actually hang out together – in person.
From all the things we cooked, below is our favorite dish. One day when we were pondering what to make, we remembered a favorite childhood movie, “Ratatouille.” The ratatouille that the character, Remy the rat, made looked so appealing in the movie that we thought, why don’t WE make it?
We did make it, and it was pure heaven! We never tasted anything so delicious and different. Everyone in our two families (even our siblings) loved it! Here’s our recipe if you want to try making it.
(made with fresh veggies from Ellie’s mom’s garden and with Ellie’s Mom’s tomato sauce recipe)
5 medium-large tomatoes (or a 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes)
1 large onion
1 large zucchini
2 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon of butter
2 tablespoons of olive oil
a pinch ( no more than 1/8 teaspoon) of each of these spices: dried oregano, dried basil, salt, and pepper
several leaves of fresh basil
To start off, you’ll need a pot to make and heat the tomato sauce. Put the butter and half of the olive oil in the pot and turn on the burner to start melting the butter and heating the oil. Add the chopped garlic, and using a cutting board and a sharp knife. Next chop the onion into small-medium-size pieces. And add them to the sauce pot.
Sauté the onions on a medium low heat until they are golden brown (not burned). Then chop the tomatoes into medium-size pieces and add them to the sauce pot. Cook the mixture until the tomatoes turn into a sauce and it begins to thicken a bit. If you want to you might use a blender to make the sauce smoother – or keep it the way it is. Keep the heat low on the sauce while you start the vegetables.
Use either a sharp knife or a mandolin if you have one to cut the zucchini into thin round pieces. Put them in a small bowl.
Next slice the two eggplants into thin round pieces and put them in a different bowl. Do the same with the squash and put the pieces in a separate bowl.
Turn the oven on to 350 degrees and let it heat up while you are working on the vegetables.
To arrange the vegetable pieces, you’ll need a large oven-proof skillet or a large round baking dish such as a large pie pan.
Scoop all of the heated tomato sauce into the baking skillet or pan – except for about ¼ of a cup that you’ll save. Then stir the rest of the olive oil into the mixture. Next arrange the vegetables on their sides in a repeated pattern around the round baking pan, and keep layering until the whole pan is filled.
Pour the ¼ cup of sauce you kept aside over the layered vegetable dish. Sprinkle the mixed spices over the whole mixture.
Cover the round pan or skillet with tin foil, and then put it in the oven for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, carefully remove the foil and bake the mixture for another 20-30 minutes uncovered.
When you remove the ratatouille from the oven, add the couple of leaves of fresh basil to decorate the baked dish before serving it.
After you eat it maybe you’ll say what Ellie’s dad said with his empty dish in his hand: “Wow, that was amazing.”