One young girl competing in this season’s “MasterChef Junior” television series grew up among the pea tendrils, strawberry beds and yards of chard at Appleton Farms in Ipswich.
Lila DeLuca’s parents signed up for an Appleton Farms’ Community Supported Agriculture share before she was born.
Now 10 years old, Lila has spent her whole life visiting her personal North Star of local foods every week, spring through fall. Kale makes her very happy.
“We cook kale a lot at home,” said Lila, who lives in Rockport. “We bake it, saute it, put it in smoothies; we are always looking for more recipes. And we cook fish a lot, too. In the summer, we catch fish off our boat — stripers, sometimes flounder.”
When she was only 7, Lila and her younger brother, Anderson, got as close as they could 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 said. “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 on local fare, Lila has developed a serious dedication to cooking, an excitement that has landed her sunny, bespectacled face on Fox’s “MasterChef Junior” promotion page with 39 other competitors.
Modeled on the adult version of “MasterChef,” “MasterChef Junior” takes 40 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.
Season five of “MasterChef Junior” kicked off last week and continues tonight.
Fittingly, it was television cooking that first sent Lila into the kitchen.
“Every summer, we would go visit my mom’s college roommate on Martha’s Vineyard,” she said. “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 when after one evening of watching ‘MasterChef Junior,’ we heard Lila down in the kitchen the next morning at 6:30,” said Lila’s father, Scott DeLuca.
She was making croquembouche — an elaborate tower of cream-filled profiteroles held together in a crystalline 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, she said, “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 travels often and far, and Lila has picked up some favorite international cuisines. She loves the simple beans and rice from Nicaragua and enchiladas from Mexico. At home, she loves to prepare chicken tikka masala with her family.
“We love the yogurt sauces,” Lila said. “We marinate chicken overnight in yogurt and mint.”
One of Lila’s favorite fish preparations is 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 are the onions and lemon underneath the fish, which create a bright, fresh sauce to counter those rich crumbs, she said.
“I love it when the lemon and onions underneath the fish make juices,” Lila said. “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.” After all, she’s a girl nurtured on Appleton Farms.