One young girl about to compete in this season’s Fox MasterChef Junior television series grew up among the pea tendrils, strawberry beds, and yards of chard at Appleton Farms.
Lila Deluca’s parents signed up for an Appleton Farms’ CSA share before she was born. Now ten years old, Lila has spent her whole life visiting this North Star of local foods every week, spring through fall. Kale makes Lila very happy.
“We cook kale a lot at home; we bake it, saute it, put it in smoothies; we are always looking for more recipes!” Lila says brightly, nothing kale-tired about her.
“And we cook fish a lot, too,” Lila says. “In the summer we catch fish off our boat – stripers, sometimes flounder.”
Lila grew up in Rockport. When she was only seven, Lila and her younger brother Anderson pressed their faces as closely as possible without singeing noses to the chefs’ stovetops at the Rockport Harvestfest Seafood Throwdown. Sister and brother have remained front row faces ever since.
“Every year we go to Harvestfest,” Lila says, “we watch the Seafood Throwdown because we cook fish a lot, and we are looking for ideas, and then we make them at home.”
Nurtured thus on local fare, Lila has developed a serious dedication to cooking, an excitement that has landed her sunny, bespectacled face on the Masterchef Junior promotion page with her 39 other kid competitors.
Modeled on the adult version of MasterChef (Gloucester resident Christian Collins made it to the #3 position out of 100 on MasterChef Season 2 in 2011.), Masterchef Junior takes forty talented kids between the ages of 8 and 13, and puts them through a series of whimsical challenges in which some cooks get eliminated, and the field gets more and more narrow. Ultimately one lucky child takes home the MasterChef Junior trophy and the $100,000 grand prize.
Fittingly, it was television cooking that sent Lila originally into the kitchen.
“Every summer we would go visit my mom’s college roommate on Martha’s Vineyard. She had older kids who loved watching cooking shows. That’s how my brother and I learned to love them. We started watching them at home – I liked Masterchef Junior a lot.”
“I knew something was happening,” Lila’s dad, Scott, said, “when after one evening of watching Masterchef Junior, we heard Lila down in the kitchen the next morning at 6:30. She was making croquembouche.” Croquembouche is an elaborate tower of cream-filled profiteroles held together in a crystaline web of spun sugar.
Lila now slips on an apron and turns the handle on a pasta-machine in her Rockport kitchen like a professional. She hasn’t lost that Appleton Farms good taste; when asked what some of her favorite foods are Lila says, “I really like carrots, if you mix them with butter and brown sugar and almost caramelize it. I like this with fish because the sweetness complements the fish.”
The Deluca family travel often and far, therefore Lila has picked up some favorite International cuisines; she loves the simple beans and rice from Nicaragua, enchiladas from Mexico. At home she loves to prepare with her family Chicken Tikka Masala; “We love the yogurt sauces; we marinate chicken overnight in yogurt and mint,” Lila says.
Here is one of Lila’s favorite fish preparations, a simple white fillet – Lila loves cod and striper for this – coated in a Ritz Cracker and butter crumb. What makes it a little special is the onions and lemon underneath the fish, which create a bright, fresh sauce to counter those rich crumbs.
“I love it when the lemon and onions underneath the fish make juices,” Lila says. “We pour that over the crumbs on the fish when it’s served.”
Lila recommends serving this with roasted potatoes and, of course, kale. She sautés her kale in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and garlic slices, and finishes it with lemon juice and salt.
When asked to describe her cooking style, Lila responds, “farm to table.” She’s a girl nurtured on Appleton Farms.
MasterChef Junior Season 5 starts February 9th on the Fox network.
Lila’s Baked Fish
2 pounds cod, striped bass, haddock, pollock, or substantial white fish fillets
8 ounces (about 2 sleeves) Ritz crackers
6 tablespoons melted butter
2 medium onions, sliced
2 lemons, sliced
1/2 – 3/4 cup white wine
Preheat oven to 375
Rinse the fillets under cold water and pat dry. Sprinkle lightly with salt.
In the bottom of a baking dish that will hold the fillets in one layer, lay out the onion slices, lemon slices, and pour in the white wine. Lay the fillets on top. Cover the fillets thickly in the cracker crumbs. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the fillets are cooked through and the crackers are browned. Serve with roasted potatoes and sauteed kale with garlic.