Economic Units And Humans

This is our economic unit of vegetarian maki sushi, 25 cents per piece, before overhead.  Not bad for our first time on the mat.
It is an interesting time to apply reality in economics to the classroom.  We thought we would coordinate with the economics class and figure out how much each individual piece of something we make might cost (to keep things simple we added food and labor costs together, ignoring overhead and things like service taxes).
We warmed up on sushi in our first class and then for the combined class, used potstickers as an economic unit of study.  Needless to say our combined class was fun, even tasty, but it was not what I would call a controlled environment.  Notice no pictures of potstickers (and note to self: do not combine 2 classes of hungry teenagers right before lunch and cook great smelling food that can be eaten with the fingers).
I often get questions on food served in school;  since we teach our Culinary Arts class in the cafeteria, it is a natural question and a tough one to respond to.  We all want better.  It is difficult to display acceptance for something we are all quietly (or less quietly) ashamed of.  And we know its economic unit, how much it costs ($2.74 per student, give or take a few cents).
Now it looks like I’m becoming an economic unit, measured to be cut.  And so is my boss. And my principal. And our Spanish teacher. And our wellness counselor.  With this first round of cuts, 482 teachers and 163 administrators for SFUSD received provisional notices that our services are not required.  I feel a little bit like that end piece of sushi that might need to be trimmed off and thrown away.  None of us have been fired yet, but the problem is big enough where the only thing that is known is that this is the safest measure to take.
Most of us notice-receivers probably think that our individual situations don’t justify this action– my reasoning is because my principal, myself and my CTE boss created this class and got this position written.  We see this class actively engage students every day in hands on learning.  The results have been positive enough that we were also recently told that my position will remain written in. And now with these layoffs, it is possible someone else could take this position over because I am the new kid on the block.  In a way it sounds safe and fair.  Just like pre-portioned meals in nice, neat, plastic sealed packets.
I’m not writing this with bitterness, we are facing a big, nasty-no-matter-how-you-slice-it-problem.  Culinary Arts the way we teach it here is an elective class I’m passionate about ( I am not doing it for the money, believe me), but if there really is no money, I can’t expect to take precedence over core classes and services that are also being cut – or to keep my job over someone else who has been here longer and is qualified.  At this point, I still hope better learning doesn’t get sacrificed with the cutting, portioning, slicing and dicing – it is hard to see how it won’t.
Our world is not an economic unit.  We know this after our financial crisis came to the forefront.  We’ve tried to make it so, with our justifications for requiring more efficiency and more numbers to make more profit and our willingness to turn around and let those numbers guide us and our ethics. We see how it has created problems on every level, from bank bankruptcies to school food.
Our world is human.  We need to teach our children how to be humans.  How to not be swayed off their work by the hundreds of text messages (think 300-600) our average student gets daily.  We need to focus on how to connect with our students in this commerce driven, passive and distracting world we have created for them and help them actively understand that you can think for yourself and that you can think enough of yourself to take pride in everything you do. And to our adults, we need to connect with them to help them understand how having our state reduce its educational funding to the lowest amount of money spent per child in the country is something we really can be ashamed of – more than the $2.74 meals served to our students everyday.

Filling The Table

Tiramisu can be a good incentive, even if it has no rum or zabliogne egg base in the filling.   We wanted to work on teamwork and the best way seemed to be to throw in as many cooking tasks in a short period of time  as we could – and select a menu that would appeal to a wide audience. A little bit of a mad house, but restaurants regularly have these moments.  What was great is that everything came together and you could sense the pride in our meal:

  • Tri-color Lasagne with Housemade Pasta & Sauces
  • Vegetarian Tuscan Soup
  • Mock-Caeser Salad
  • Tiramisu

What also came out of it was that first glimmer of hospitality.  We sent a plate up to our main office and yes, the positive cheers from up there hit home. Immediate sense of accomplishment and more.

When someone likes your food, it goes straight to your heart, right next to how it feels when someone cooks for you.  It can hook you into becoming a chef or loving to work in a restaurant.  But even if it doesn’t, everyone deserves to have and then in turn be able to create these moments.


Discovery: Eating Together and Farmer’s Markets

“I don’t know what those greens were but they were the best greens 
I ever had in my life.”  …. 3rd period new student

Our first week to plate, sit down and eat this semeseter and for our end of week meal last Friday:

Chicken Pot Pie (biscuit topping, not classic pie crust)
Sauteed Flowering Greens in Olive Oil & Garlic
Orange & Kiwi Salad with Honey & Fresh Mint

They liked it.

As to those greens, they tasted close to a rabe-like green, although the Asian farmer I bought them from called them sweet mustard.  If anyone knows what I can officially call them, please tell me!
(thank you Rainbow Grocery, it is called Gai Lan…)

Then Monday morning rolls around and all of a sudden, everyone is in class.  I usually have pretty good attendance, but rarely does everyone make class. Either there was really nothing else to do out there or word got out that we ate some good food.  Now, “What are we eating today?” has become the daily greeting, and this week I had to stall them – no cooking really until Thursday due to school testing, but it was a good chance to discuss and visit the farmer’s markets with those who had completed their testing.

I used to think the produce this time of year would be like the weather, grey,  but the colors we saw were pretty astounding.  I had seen castel franco before, but this curly purple treviso…pretty exotic. The oranges practically jumped out at us from across the street. And the rainbow chard  and the watermelon radish slices caught our eyes too.  One of my favorite things about cooking is that the discovery, it never ends.

Skewers & Interviewers

A tasty plating of brochettes with quinoa & rice alongside a cup of leek & potato soup.

It was the second to last week of the semester and I wanted to cover a lot of territory. What can we cook that would be a good basis for future cooking at home, not too complicated and not too expensive?  Brochettes (“skewers”) and soup had the most variety.

For the brochettes, a few different marinades, a lemon-like vinaigrette for the chicken and a teriyaki style for the tofu —  and we remembered to soak the skewers in water ahead of time.  It also gave us a chance to go over raw meat handling and cross contamination again (those squeezed lemon halves come in handy for helping to kill germs on that cutting board too).  We added some red quinoa (prounounced “keen wah”) to the rice, adding protein and a little more tooth to rice, which has a tendency to mush out for us in large quantities.  Red quinoa doesn’t break down quite as easily as the blonde variety, so it was a definite help.

The soup?  The grandmother of soups, leek and potato.  Easy and it can become so many things. Add more vegetables or grains ,herbs & pasta for a vegetable soup or stew.  Puree as is for a smooth soup, or puree,  add cream,  garnish with chopped chives and you have vichyssoise (got some shocked expressions envisioning a cold potato soup tasting good).  They really liked this simplest of versions, hot and unpureed, and liked that this was so easy to make.

We also kept it simple this week because I wanted to move through a lot of interview practice, in preparation for our mock interviews with our volunteers.  This idea didn’t meet with a fanfare of excitement.  It took some time for my students to go from not wanting to participate at all to realizing that someday very soon, there will be a need to be interviewed, whether for a job or for getting into college. Some were afraid that they would sound like they were boasting, but after a bit of practice they realized that what  they were really doing was talking effectively about themselves, more like standing up straight with a smile than puffing like a rooster. A helpful tool: a list of job-friendly attributes a student can review and circle those that best apply to him or her. We pulled these out when we got stuck in our practice sessions and they all found ways to pick attributes and apply them to something that they have done.

The students hear me talk a lot about responding positively to a situation, it seems that the default in our society is to point out what someone is doing wrong, not what they are doing right, and often not focusing on figuring out and fixing the actual problem.  But in a job situation your ability to frame what you say in a factual or positive way is much more valued than putting others down. It makes you stand out well when you swim against the stream in this way. And again, not like a puffing rooster, but with effective positive awareness. Interviewing helped us take that positive response we’ve been working on in class and turn it into positively talking about oneself.  At the end of our mock interview sessions with our adult volunteers everyone stood a little straighter with a smile.

Pride of Work

It is “the how” not “the what” that matters.
Meet romanesco.  It has been around since at least the 16th century.  A little more tender than brocolli, with a fresh, green, cauliflower-like flavor, it is better tossed in olive oil, garlic & salt and then roasted instead of being boiled.  We like it for its logarithmic or fractal spirals.  Nature should be pretty proud of this one.
Toward the end of the semester we get familiar enough with one another that it is hard not to spend social time and we find ourselves getting less and less done.   The challenge of getting past “the what” in the activity and getting into  “the how” becomes pretty apparent.  Especially when it comes to cleaning, we find clusters of people in corners of the room talking or texting and perspective disappears.

chopping onions and leek tops for vegetable stock.

It is easy when looking for a job to center around what one can do.  But what ends up mattering more to an employer is how you will work, much more than what you can do.  Today we started class talking about pride of work, being proud of how you work as a way to gaining the kind of experience and work ethic that is useful in any job.  When it comes to the less glamorous tasks such as cleaning, once one student starts jumping in, the rest soon realize it is not a big deal and cleaning as a group goes pretty quickly.  Luckily, with cooking in class we have the bonus that they can see and taste the results of their labor — a quicker connection to that kind of pride in how we work, a tangible chance to get to a sense of accomplishment. Pride of work comes before much of what we think needs to happen to get a job and the only way to get it is to do something, anything and to do it the best you can.

Gingerbread house results

We were not sure if we were going to complete this project this week, class time seemed so short, and making gingerbread houses from scratch is difficult!  We finally allowed ourselves to trim mix-matched pieces (just like in real construction projects) which helped. But there are parts to this that just can’t be rushed:  you can’t put the entire house together and decorate it all at once.  There was a jewel like moment when a group of students realized that they had eaten too much of the gingerbread dough a few days earlier, and had to race to make more in time to use for buildings.  They got there with gusto even if the final houses didn’t look the way some had originally planned.
Still, this was definitely worthwhile. By the last minutes on Friday, everyone was actively into the fray to finish the decorations.  Several other classes stopped by afterwards to view, but I decided to forgo the judging in the final hour, not wanting to jeapordize the satisfaction in our accomplishments in presenting the houses.  This already has me thinking of ways to make this an even better project (whether competing or not) for next time. Tiles, perhaps, to decorate and become a house of cards?
I can recommend King Arthur Flour’s recipe if this is your first time. This version of gingerbread is more structural, and it tastes better as it ages, if you don’t mind the texture.  It holds up pretty well.  The icing is thin, but dries to concrete.  Some of the structures you see were made with 5 day old gingerbread and are still going strong. In fact, houses that were not taken home are still at school, covered, until after New Year’s. I’m curious how they will hold… Happy New Year to Everyone!

5th period Cake Walk

I don’t talk much about my afternoon class – we only meet once a week for a few hours. The style of the class is similar in professionalism, just a little more relaxed since we try to cook and eat in the two hour period. There was a recent request to work with fondant, so I managed to get some in the house this week. It is very fun roll to out and lay onto a buttercream filled spongecake and decorate. We also made chocolate leaves using camellia leaves as templates. Two hours sped by quickly.

This is the first version of the cake. After showing it off, we came back and decorated it further with chocolate curls and a dusting of powdered sugar, took pictures, and then promptly cut it up to eat. I am very proud of the students working steadily through the project – even though it is all gone, what a great sense of accomplishment!

P.S. Cake walk is a term that infers doing something is easy (“it’s a cake walk”) or, if you’ll forgive the parallel terms, “a piece of cake.” Originally it was a form of group dance that civilized people of moderate means did as a polite activity while socializing. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes not, but you always made it look like it was easy. Just like these students did this week.

Gingerbread House Contest

They each have accepted the challenge. My two classes will compete with each other in gingerbread house making – the class with the most points wins!  We will have pictures next week but I am happy to say that the students came up with this idea and the parameters.  Judging is on Thursday December 17.

Scholastically speaking, it is great to see many of them do things they normally shy away from, like math, double checking measurements and planning.  Even down to the careful counting of the candy to make sure everything is fair and square.

Vocationally speaking, the classes have been more orderly than usual.  I haven’t even had to ask anyone to clean!  Thank you Hays House Museum (in Maryland) for these pictures.

It’s A Hood!

This may not be the most appealing picture to most of you, but it is definitely appealing to us!  My students have been patiently upbeat about the way we have been cooking in here, using a rice steamer to boil water and a convection oven to heat pans hot enough to simulate sauteeing.  But we all know that those aren’t ways to cook regularly.  Thank you, THANK YOU, to all the people who have made it possible to take this next step into real cooking.  The students are noticing.

To see our wish list of initial items we need, please click here.

Soon we will be able to use the range and expose students to more “normal” ways to cook which helps in two directions – the timing and understanding of a range for a professional chef in one direction, and how to cook healthier food choices using your stove at home in the other.  What will we cook first???

Gathering Recipes

This week, instead of telling my students what we were going to make, I let them take a turn. We sat around a cluster of cookbooks based on soul food, cajun and creole cooking on Monday, with my thinking we would use this opportunity to get into menu and “prep” planning.  It turned into the unexpected, which is one of the reasons I was eager to jump into this job in the first place.

The students not only learned that we can’t throw it all into a bowl on the last day and have everything we want ready to eat, but more importantly, that all this wonderful cooking they have wanted to do takes experience and attention to detail too.  It brought up the subject on how much of authentic American cooking is at risk of being lost. We have so many recipes, but which one shows you how to make your own family’s version?  You have to find out from your own family.  One student in my 3rd period class took the reins on documenting a recipe with her family’s real macaroni and cheese, so we documented it while we made it.  It allowed us to get beyond the “oh you just make it” and show ourselves the kind of detail one needs to know to effectively pass along a family recipe.  When she saw the recipe in print (she chose the name “Smackin’ Mac N’ Cheese”), you could see her pride.  It helped them also realize that while the exact measurements are not that important all the time, understanding how everything goes together so that it will turn out the way you want, is important. And that  it is worth documenting.

For my 2nd period class, we were again lucky, this time with one of our volunteers – she grew up in Louisiana and when she saw the Jambalaya recipe we chose, she offered to write up her own family recipe. Pure gold!  Again, very simple, but it helped the students recognize the value of each of our family’s heritage and that sharing recipes is a common ground to relate to people we don’t even know very well.

The meals?  They came out well, perhaps not as well as if grandma cooked them, but this time, that made it even better.