A visit to the Yucatan

The Yucatan.  Close to the equator, luscious, lively flavors:

Sopa Di Lima With Lime & Chili
Pollo Ticuleno (wrapped in banana leaf using our own achiote paste)
Housemade Tortillas or Quesadillas
Sikil Pak (Pumpkin Seed dip)
Pastel Tres Leches (Three Milks Cake)

Kitchen Notes:  This seems pretty adventurous.  I mean check out the single banana leaf!  We have been traveling around the world over recent weeks using culinary geography to connect to weather, available ingredients, technique, even history.  Oh yes, and all with a working mentality.
Results? I would make the soup and the chicken dish again, Sikil Pak is a little more unusual – on its own it might make you wonder “why?” but as soon as it goes into condiment action (with eggs or ranchero sauce) it adds an amazing depth.  In our desire to really get the job done, we over-pureed the Sikil-Pak though and ended up with pumpkin butter. Next time, no blender, we will stick to the mortar & pestle (a key Yucatecan tool) and use all the spice.
Three Milks Cake?  Yes, sweet.  Why? Condensed milk, evaporated milk and half & half soak into the cake while it is chilling. On a hot day in a part of the world where milk goes bad quickly, this becomes a refreshingly luscious dessert.  A nice banter developed between the two classes, comparing each other’s efforts as the cakes were soaking:  “Yours is too wet!”  to ” No, yours is too dry.”  In the end, both cakes looked the same on the plate and tasted delicious!

Thank you Elizabeth Prueitt

Dear Elizabeth Prueitt:
You don’t know me, but I’ve stood in line and enjoyed your pastries at your bakery, Tartine, on 18th & Guerrero enough times to be eager to buy your cookbook.  Now I teach high school students in San Francisco. I told them about your delicious desserts and showed them this book. Both of my classes wanted to make your lemon meringue cake and here is what we found out:
  • Chiffon cake is really fun to make, particularly beating the egg whites separately with a little sugar so that they “poof up into a cloud.”  More than one student wanted to dive into that bowl, it looked so much like a cozy blanket.
  • That caramel layer?  Man, I don’t know what we did, our caramel ended up hard and chewy – and yummy.  We warmed it in a double boiler the next day to soften it, and even though we weren’t completely in on the idea of caramel and lemon, that caramel layer? IT MADE THE CAKE.
  • I’ve never seen so many students smile here as we blow-torched the outer meringue.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for your contributions to the world of desserts and for making your recipes accessible.  I know a few students of mine will now be looking for your shop and will tell their friends when they see your lemon meringue cake, “I made that,” and their voices will be full of pride.
All My Best,
Chef Cravens

Dolma & Bastilla

A Mediterranean plate of Dolmathes (dolma) and Bastilla (Moroccan Chicken Pie).

Last week we went back to the classic Middle East for a few reasons.  We had quite a time with grains and beans the week before, and had stretched the envelope of traditional fare more than I had expected.  That and we wanted to explore Prom food options that might be easy, in budget and enjoyable.
So first up, lavash.  Rolled flat bread with a few kinds of spreads to fill and roll, in much the way we rolled maki sushi:  a traditional version with our own housemade hummus with lettuce and vegetables and a westernized version with a turkey and herbed cream cheese interior.  Hands down, they enjoyed eating the slices when compared to finger sandwiches, but the overall consensus was that the hummus thing wouldn’t fly at Prom.  Most students had not had hummus before, many liked it, but there was concern that prom goers would be afraid of it.  But rolled turkey, rolled steak(what?! in budget??), rolled cheeses, definitely.  They loved the ease of boom, 10 sandwiches in one movement.  We agreed we’d make smaller ones for prom, so there would be less danger of spills on a beautiful outfit.  The things one needs to think about when preparing food..
Next we got out jars of brined grape leaves and made dolma.  I love dolma, but have never actually made them, and I have to say, they are even better when you make them yourself (as with pretty much everything else).  Students enjoyed rolling them, liked seeing that we then weighed them down while they were steaming, but they did not like the idea of eating them cold the next day.  They did break them open to taste the rice filling, a pilaf flavored with onions, dill, allspice and currants.  I could hear “it’s not that bad” whispers at the other end of the table as we ate.
And finally, phyllo dough.  Loved it, just wished we had more time to bake. We made a sheet cake version of the Moroccan chicken pie, Bastilla, and also made triangles of Spanikopita and cylinder rolls filled with sweetened cream cheese and strawberry sauce. Between our short class period and our eager eaters, desserts sometimes don’t make it on the plate, but the approval on working with phyllo dough is still on the table.

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.

Beef Stew and Vegetarian Barley Stew over Polenta
Apple, Celery Root & Parsley Salad
Banana Bread & Individual Apple Tarts with Lemon Cream

…and a plating with an extra special dose of hot sauce. Yes, we have found the hot sauce.

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!