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.
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.
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.
Tuesday, one of our students had her wallet taken in class. It is not the first time there has been a theft, but it is the first time in awhile. The wallet was found later, without the money, which helped her a little, since there were IDs and pictures more important to her in that wallet. The trust, however, has been broken again.
We are in our 12th week of class, and I’ve gotten to know and like the students, even (or especially) the ones who sometimes get defiant and tell me directly why they are acting that way. They are usually right on in their reasoning and just need guidance on a better way to express it. But trust is so important in any workplace. A restaurant, probably most enterprises, can’t survive without a measure of trust – it is what allows a team to work together and create more than they could individually. It allows the love to come out. You are trusting me to supply you with a good meal, and I am trusting you to enjoy it, see the value in it and to pay for it so I can keep supplying good meals and a good place to be.
We all want more. But the way to more is not in the taking, it is in the giving. I might be getting all lofty-sounding, but experience tells us this and we feel this when we are actively working in a group and contributing – we can feel the fun. Trust is where it starts.
So our first fundraiser is for our class to recoup the loss. I’ve put the piggy bank out and we will see what happens.
“I didn’t know squash could taste this good!” – 2nd period student
It is hard to admit that for years, the only autumn squash I handled was the canned pumpkin for pumpkin pie. But, desperate for my own kids to start eating vegetables, I snuck spaghetti squash into the tomato sauce one night – they took it like an April fool’s day joke, but ate it anyway, glaring at me and the injustice of it all. With a sigh, I still wish I had warned them, although the looks on their faces were a priceless payment for the experiment.
Then my sister roasted up butternut squash along with potatoes, olive oil, salt & rosemary one night. That was it, I was hooked for good. Now I watchfully wait for those butternut squashes to appear again every year. My kids do too, I’m happy to say.
For class, we made a classic butternut squash soup, baked it up with onions, garlic, a few apples and herbs. Pureed it and added water where needed and a touch of cream. Drizzled a little sage oil on top for accent (made by the students with the mortar & pestle) and then a little sour cream thinned with cream. And yes, we tried the spaghetti squash too (in full disclosure this time!) – and some liked it, others were politely quiet about tasting it. Group respect in tasting takes practice like everything else and warning ahead of time to curb negative responses helps keep the respect.
Prep-wise, it is important to halve the squashes with the students closely, and break down the squash to “hand size pieces” for peeling more easily. Butternut squash is a little more tender than some of the heritage squashes that are re-appearing, but it is still a hard-skinned item to maneuver. I wouldn’t start doing this until you are comfortable with your student’s awareness with knife handling and that they have developed a willingness to wait and observe while you finish the tougher task for the class, knowing that their turn is ahead.
I wasn’t sure how to tackle the world of grains and beans, but it was time to get a sense of the depth and breadth of it. So we tried a variety of things:
a) We lined up a variety of grains and beans and poured them into origami boxes we had folded together and labeled, then looked at the similarities and differences. Much discussion on grain vs. bean/legume and the ways that many cultures around the world eat a combination of beans and grains which nutritionally results in more complete proteins.
Origami in a culinary arts class? We needed some hands-on activity, and origami is great as long as you are prepared for first timers. Often there will be a hidden origami pro in one student which can help too. I’m already running into students being organized enough to be able to produce a lot of output and it gets challenging to find ways to keep their hands busy without ending up with a 5 gallon bucket of chopped carrots after half an hour. I was hoping origami would help with this. It can when you have enough “buy in” and the project is doable. Having a cutting project (such as trimming parchment circles for steaming baskets) is also good, but you need pairs of scissors.
b) We made hot cereal. Many students have never had whole oats before and it is close enough in flavor to rolled oats that they could compare and contrast – and several asked when we could have hot oats again.
c) We put things away and organized a grain and bean shelf. I love watching the discovery that happens as someone takes ownership of their project. In the picture at right of some of our jars, this student’s labeling was essentially correct – it is a wonderful reminder about experience, generations and our changing lifestyles.
d) We got into hummus and pita bread. As long as you have a baking stone and get it up to temperature, pita bread is more satisfying than flat bread because it bakes quickly and watching it puff up in the oven is immediately gratifying. Roll the circles of dough out paper thin for this result. There was more discovery as students blended or pounded the “seeds” of chick peas into a familiar spread with garlic, sesame tahini and lemon juice. Many had never tasted it before and we compared it to classic tomato sauce on our freshly baked pita. We had to make more pita dough for later in the week.
e) Finale Friday: hummus with pita, chicken soup with quinoa, tabouleh (bulgar is an easy grain to make in the class room), and an onion-pepper relish. It was a successful meal.
Next time? This could be broken down into more lengthy projects but for our class these quick glimmers were good ways to expose without over saturating. It helped keep the curiosity alive in the room.
Found it. New May Wah’s on Clement Street and 7th Ave. Don’t look at the chicken, meat or fish sections. Do look at the fresh noodle aisle and the myriad of bottled sauces. Potsticker wrapper heaven, the thicker ones, that even come in spinach green (don’t worry, the flavor is the same, you just get a lovely contrasting color).
We found a recipe for a low meat filling that allows you to pre-cook the meat part of the filling, which helped our timing. We could make the filling itself one day, then focus on filling the wrappers and cooking the next. Potstickers would be a good one for an event, the many pairs of hands caught on quickly and produced almost 100 potstickers in no time. The trick would be to make sure to keep them from drying out and to plan out the cooking of them adequately. But this was voted one of our best “meals” of the quarter.
Laurence in his kitchen as we work.
One Tuesday at the end of last quarter we were able to visit Laurence at NOPA
restaurant for our 5th period afternoon class. Laurence Jossel, one of the owners of NOPA and Nopalito restaurants, has been a wonderful support to our cooking with teenage youth. From letting us forage in their walk-in to jumping in over the summer with over thirty interested teens without any warning, he has a magnetic way about him and a contagious passion about food and cooking.
I was amazed as he spent a few hours with us that afternoon in his restaurant as we peeled garlic together for one of the spreads used on pizzas. Amazed at how much value to cooking that could transpire as the students continually peppered him with questions. I wish I could have taped the conversation. He made peeling garlic a pleasure and the students loved the fact that we were making something people were going to pay for and enjoy, while a number of NOPA chefs made a point of coming over to admire our work. Our walk back to the high school was full of that excited talking after a wow experience. “He is a really nice guy,” was the unanimous refrain.
How do you measure the value of this afternoon? We know in our hearts that coming together around food is valuable and when we take it this direction, where community and food can connect with working practice, it opens unmeasured doorways in one’s mind. Thank you Laurence for keeping your door open with a smile.