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.
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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.

Thanksgiving 2009

A school-wide Thanksgiving feast has been a tradition at Ida B. Wells for years.  The kitchen becomes a kitchen again in a different sense and we serve up a classic fare for the student body.   Teachers brought in cooked turkeys, hams, mashed potatoes and salad.

This year, my students contributed a few pies, and did much of the prep work.  While many of them were suspicious of the pumpkin pie we made, there is a magic pride that happens when you see your efforts put on a plate and served to others – and then see them enjoy it.  I had a few students come up to me and say how good it was too.

And this apple pie?  I had to fight people off so those who made it could at least see the results!

Thank you to Mrs. E. & Mrs. J. for carrying the responsibility for this feast for so many years and for sharing those valuable pearls of wisdom into this year. We hope you will be back in full force next year.

Pasta by Hand (and without a stove)

What we learned:
a) Hand making pasta takes a lot of elbow grease.b) The mortar & pestle is one of the most satisfying pieces of equipment to use. Again.

c) We can do this without a stove, thanks to our rice steamer. Rice steamers can take a little bit of time to boil the water, but ours, which normally burns the rice, was completely up to the task (thank you Martin Aquino for your step by step enthusiasm in your 2007 blog entry about trying this out).

Also, we ended up getting more official and used our Friday cooking, eating and cleaning together combination to really focus on three work ethics:
Positive Response, Pride of Work & Staying within the Team.
It was delicious and satisfying, and reinforcing these practices is valuable for anyone at any age, including me.  Here is a link to the pasta lesson plan since it summarizes many of our efforts and the reasoning behind them.