Thursday, December 22, 2011

Southwestern Holiday Meal

Vacation is a lovely thing...

...but if I plumb my mind I can remember the hectic days before vacation. In a fit of what I hoped was inspiration, I decided that I wouldn't ask parents to send in food for a holiday party on the last day of school before vacation. Instead, we would cook our own feast -- a celebration of southwestern cuisine. Parents were invited to cook with us in the morning or eat with us in the afternoon. Although kids were disappointed to learn that we wouldn't be cooking immense steaks in homage to Texas ranchers, they did approve of the final menu.

Last Thursday morning after snack, we split into three groups to make our three courses.
Each group started off by reading their recipe and doing the math together to double the ingredients. I put some Salsa music on as we cooked and was pleased to see how each dish came together quickly.

One group started off baking cornbread for a cornbread salad that included bacon, hard boiled eggs, pickles and roasted red peppers.

A second group made chicken tortilla soup. They also prepped all the toppings for the soup. A parent volunteer joined this group and worked with her son through the whole process.

I worked with a third group, who made a chocolate pudding spiced with chile and cinnamon.

One student in my group didn't feel like waiting around for his turn to do a step of the pudding, and instead wandered around taking pictures of all three groups. (He also took it upon himself to sample a sliver of the baker's chocolate being chopped in the above picture. Let us just say: Lesson Learned.) As he took pictures, he made it his mission to capture an action shot of an egg being cracked.
Another student took an obsessive interest in the bacon as it cooked on the stove and took picture after picture after picture. When I got home that night, I discovered he had taken 42 pictures in all! For anyone who's ever read Douglas Adams Hitchhiker books, you'll understand why I might be thinking the meaning of life involves bacon...

As groups finished up, kids chose to cut out snowflakes or read a book and I snagged two students at a time to help wash and dry dishes.

After lunch, I settled kids into a Food Network Challenge show that pitted four chefs against each other creating four foot high chocolate creations that included moving parts.

As we were setting up, I heard one student say, "The kids in [another teacher's] class are watching [some comedy movie]."

I tensed up. Was I lame for making them watch the Food Network?

Another student quickly chimed in, (not for my benefit) "But this is better." Excellent!

After the show was over I assembled the food buffet style and let each group say something about their dish by way of introduction.

Then the eating! The soup was very lime-y, the cornbread salad a lot like a yummy stuffing, and the pudding was super-delish. Two parents joined us for the feasting.

Before I let anyone have seconds, we had a round of compliments for each dish, so that the cooks could hear what their audience thought. The soup was quite tangy, but several kids said they liked how it "waked up their mouths." The salad got positive reviews and everyone agreed the pudding was far superior to the store-bought stuff.

Seconds, clean-up, and vacation was in sight! A highlight of my day was standing at the end of the hall as kids charged outside toward freedom. I'm sure most of them didn't even hear me say, "Happy New Year" as they raced away, but one charming student took the time to say, "Thanks for the feast, Ms. G." as she left.

Happy New Year to you all! May everyone have enough healthy food to eat in 2012.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Apple Crisp and the Schoolwide Holiday Luncheon

Our school had a Holiday Luncheon on Wednesday. When I first started working at the school, thirteen years ago, this was an annual event taking place on the Wednesday a week and a half before Thanksgiving. Senior citizens and grandparents were invited, tablecloths were put on the long tables in the lunchroom, parents roasted turkeys and brought in homemade pies. Over the years our school has gotten away from this traditional meal for a variety of reasons, but this fall our amazing cook, Emily, resurrected the event.

Last week a note went out asking teachers if they'd be willing to bake pies (for the grownups) or apple crisp (for the kids). “How about my class makes the apple crisp instead?” I asked. So Tuesday afternoon, after reading the recipe over together, a small group of students went down to the kitchen with Emily to measure and mix the crumble topping.

Meanwhile I supervised the rest of the group using five apple peeler/corer contraptions to prep a monster-sized box of apples. I don't know how much the box weighed but I'm going to estimate at least forty pounds, having carried it from the kitchen to my classroom. (Actually I carried two equally-heavy boxes to my room but one was enough to fill the three pans of apple crisp. I let a proud sixth grader carry the box back when we cleaned up. Having carried them one way I had nothing to prove.)

If you've never used one of these apple peelers, let me tell you that the only thing better than peeling a huge amount of apples with one is letting a group of ten to twelve year olds peel the apples for you!

Everyone loves turning that crank and seeing it turn a whole, red apple into a spiral of juicy apple flesh. Kids took turns with the five peelers and cut the spirals into smaller pieces while I danced around, trying to figure out how to contain the massive amounts of compost we were creating.

One of the peelers wasn't working right, digging in and gouging too much apple flesh off each apple. We were making enough progress that I was ready to take it out of commission and continue on with four peelers but one ingenious student made it his mission to figure out the adjustments and fix the cranky machine. He spent about half an hour trying out various settings, comparing his machine to one of the others, and tweaking settings with a pair of pliers I had on a back shelf. I love that this was the kind of afternoon where he was able to pursue his interest, use his skills in a meaningful way, and do some real-life problem solving.

Today was the meal itself. The staff pitched in to serve lunch to all the students plus many senior members of the community, parents and grandparents, and adults who mentor individual students. The crisp was well received and my students along with the rest of the fifth and sixth graders, enjoyed serving guests at two of the seatings and then being served by their teachers at the third seating.

I intended to include photos from the luncheon, but then realized that I don't have permission from the many people who attended to publish their images on the internet. Sorry! You'll have to use your imaginations.

This recipe was a departure from the regional United States cooking of the past six weeks or so. This month has been so jam packed with extra events and activities that we've barely had any class time to study the Southwest yet. As a result, we are going to spend the rest of our time until vacation working on the Southwestern states and then have a class celebration the last day before vacation. I am planning a three course feast to celebrate Southwestern foods. We'll cook in the morning and eat in the afternoon. Stay tuned!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Omelets That Ate Denver

My husband makes the omelets in my house. He has this special trick of separating the eggs, beating the whites into a froth and then adding in the yolks back in so that the omelet will be especially fluffy. Or something like that. I don't pay a lot of attention because when we plan to have an omelet, as he's the Go To Guy for this dish. There's no more reason for me to know how to make an omelet than there is for him to know how to knit socks.

So it made perfect sense for me to plan to make four omelets with my class on a Friday afternoon. (If you didn't already, go back and read that sentence with a sarcastic tone.)

We are finishing up learning about the Rocky Mountain region. Funny thing – when you start reading about regional foods, the main thing that comes up for this region is recipes related to the era of westward expansion. That, and potatoes recipes for Idaho. Only one recipe stood out: the mysteriously-named Denver Omelet.

From what I could find in my ramblings through cyberspace, no one is certain why an omelet filled with green pepper, onion, ham, and cheddar was named for Colorado's largest city. It is also known as a Western omelet, and the consensus seems to be that ham and eggs would have been readily available to cowboys on the trail (Apparently chickens were sometimes dragged along for the ride...and for eggs; onions could be found in the wild; peppers could be dried). In some iterations it was served on a sourdough roll as a Western sandwich and at some point the roll was dropped and the eggs became the mechanism for holding the whole mess together. A few bits of research and speculation can be found here and here.

Usually when a cooking project is coming up I spend a what may be a smidge too much mental energy planning and imagining how it will go. It's good in that it's a form of advanced trouble shooting; it's a hindrance to the rest of my life, though, when I am cooking with my class in my dreams for days ahead of time.

This week was different. I have been in a mellow mental place at school and while I had Friday afternoon from 1:30 – 3:00 blocked off, I hadn't put much more thought into it other than to order the ingredients through our school kitchen and confirm that Su could join us and help out that afternoon.

Friday morning it occurred to me that my plan of using the school kitchen had some drawbacks.

  1. P.E. Class would be happening in the gym so we couldn't spill out of the kitchen as needed like we did when we made salsa.

  2. I only had one omelet-worthy fry pan so using the huge range was not the asset I imagined it to be.

So without days of forethought and obsession, I decided to cook in the classroom. Groups of four could prep their filling but I'd cook it all up in one frypan. Those small groups could also prep their eggs, but then as they waited for their omelet to get cooked up, they could work on their spelling packets, something I hadn't been able to fit into the schedule for the past two days.

1:30 rolled around and I assembled all the ingredients and cooking implements at a central table. (I also had heated up some water on the two burner stove to make sure the burner was warmed up and ready. This was Colleen's suggestion after the delayed cheese incident last week. Not to be confused with this band.) Before we started we reviewed what we were cooking and why. I showed them the difference between a regular fry pan and a no-stick pan with a rounded bottom edge. I also gave a brief overview to the recipe, assuming everyone was paying one hundred per cent of their attention to the wisdom flowing out of my mouth. Because that's what usually happens on Friday afternoons.

Then without much thought about it, I randomly split up the groups, tossed a recipe at each of them, and let them come and grab whatever food and cooking items they needed to get started. This was not necessarily my finest moment as a teacher! It all worked out in the end, but even with a total of three adults in the room, there was less planning and coordination between the group members than I would have liked. Kids were cooperative, but I would not used the word "organized" to describe what took place. And it was clear that some kids never really read the recipe. Evidence: the one student that asked me no less than three times what to do with the salt and pepper he'd measured out. Each time he asked I'd tell him to go read the recipe. And then he'd leave, apparently not read the recipe, and come back and ask again a few minutes later, slightly more frustrated and muttering things like, “I just don't get it!” (In case you are wondering: the salt and pepper gets mixed in with the eggs and milk.)

One student grabbed the iPad and captured the scene:

I love how in this picture you can't see the head of the primary subject but there's a vast expanse of empty table in the foreground.

Forty five minutes later, the filling was warmed up and we started cleaning tables off and settling kids into spelling work. I had one group at a time come up and watch as I poured in their eggs and created their omelets. And Su – amazing, smart, uber-helpful Su – she grabbed one student and made him start on the dishes, supervising all the way. After a few dishes she let him go and thanked him by letting him pick the next non-volunteering dishwasher. This continued until all the bowls, measuring cups and cutting boards were clean! I especially appreciated this as I had weekend travel plans and wasn't thrilled with the idea of staying at school for half an hour washing dishes after the kids left.

The eggs cooked up cooperatively and each groups oohed and ahhed as their omelet got folded in half, cut up and served to them. I was pretty damned impressed with myself for pulling off four decent omelets although I started panicking as the clock ticked its way toward three o'clock. The last omelet came off the heat at 2:55.

Kids gobbled up their omelets, washed their plates and forks, and suddenly it was 3:05 and my room was both clean and empty! Adults who I crossed paths with after school all commented on the enticing smells coming from my room.

As we were cleaning up, one student had said to me, “I liked cooking by ourselves in small groups.” Others chimed in in agreement. I liked the dynamic of them having to plan and negotiate to get their omelet prepped, but next time I would definitely make small groups sit and read their recipes together, then make a plan before diving in. I think this would have solved the issues of the initial chaos we went through getting groups started as well as supporting the several kids who weren't quite sure which ingredients needed to get mixed together because they hadn't read the recipe.

Overall, a successful venture. There are so many opportunities to learn about one thing or another: about food and geography, about cooking itself, about measuring, about working with others, about reading directions carefully. And of course, about cleaning up after oneself by doing the dishes.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Day I Made Cheese Without Most Of My Students

Monday was all about the learning curve with the new stove. The short version: it doesn't heat up as quickly as my gas range at home.

What did I expect? I was trying a recipe for the very first time and had no idea whether the recipe would work well, so it was already like rolling the dice...

The recipe was for a cheese that doesn't require any culture or rennet. Instead, vinegar is used to separate the curds from the whey. (Making cheese always makes me want to recite Little Miss Muffet...) I found the recipe at this website, also a great resource for cheesemaking ingredients and materials.

The plan was that in the afternoon as math was ending, I'd start warming up a gallon of milk with a few teaspoons of salt sprinkled in. While it heated to the boiling point, kids would read an amalgamation of two online articles I cut, pasted and printed out on one page about the food traditions of the Midwestern states. They would read to find out:
  • what foods are grown/harvested/produced in the Midwest
  • what the cultural backgrounds of many of the immigrants to that region are
  • what food traditions they brought with them from countries including Germany and the Scandanavian nations.
Kids had a short worksheet to fill out to help them find the big ideas in the article, and at the end were asked to reflect on how the food traditions were similar to and different from New England food traditions. (I put this in because, honestly, there are more similarities than differences between the two regions.)

By the time everyone had read the article, the milk would be warm enough to remove from the heat. We'd pour a cup of vinegar into the heated milk, see the whey separate from the curds, then leave it to sit while we discussed the article. Before the majority of the class left for Chorus, we'd put the curds in cheesecloth and leave it to drain. I'd refrigerate it overnight and we'd eat cheese and crackers at snack on Tuesday.

That was the plan.

Unfortunately it took over an hour for the milk to warm up to 190 degrees.
Should I have taken it out of the fridge at lunch and brought it to room temperature? Yes.
Should I have put it on the stove and started warming it up sooner? Yes.
Could I have anticipated how ridiculously slow the stove is to heat up? Maybe, but I didn't.

We finished the article, and the milk was barely tepid. Did I mention that my building principal had stopped in and was visiting the class and reading the article with kids? (Disclaimer: he does not do Gotcha! evaluations. But when he has some time, he will stop in and to visit classrooms and interact with students. It's in no way evaluative, but understandably, you kind of want things to go smoothly when he stops by.)

Time to improvise: I gathered the class in the meeting area and we went over the worksheet together. I told them we were making cheese in recognition of the large amounts of cheese made in Wisconsin. Luckily I had also brought in some wheat berries so we talked about what they were and passed a small amount of them around for everyone to look at up close. Later in the week we may boil some up and eat them with butter, just to appreciate the grain in its unmilled form.

By now the milk was about 140 degrees. More than half the class packed up for the day and went to Chorus. I promised to have the rest of the class help me finish off the cheese and take pictures to share on Tuesday.

The good news is that the kids that remained are some of the ones who are most excited about cooking projects week after week. We started a study hall and when the milk (finally) hit 190, we took it off the heat and mixed in the vinegar. Instant curds and whey! We took pictures, let it sit a while, and before they left we put the curds in the cheesecloth and started it draining.

190 degrees. Finally.

Curds and whey. Little Miss Muffet got a raw deal.

Today we ate it at snack. It didn't taste fact it had very little flavor at all. But it did have the interesting consistency of play-doh, as one student noted. My guess is the lack of flavor is due to the lack of culture that is usually at work created curds out of the milk solids. Certainly you could add more salt, herbs, or other seasonings as you drain the whey. One of the adults who works in my room copied the recipe and plans to try it. I think this experience will also be useful when we get to kitchen chemistry.

But next time, I'll start the stove sooner.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Three Course Meal

So there I was, Wednesday afternoon at lunchtime, a nice Jewish girl stirring two pounds of ground sausage slowly cooking away in my classroom. Not exactly what I envisioned for myself when I started teaching fourteen years ago, although not an unwelcome set of circumstances either. Still, I had to chuckle at it.

We started the morning with spelling and a roux. I heated up equal parts flour and oil and as each spelling group came to the horseshoe-shaped table where I meet with small groups, we examined the roux before turning our attention to new spelling packets. I was a bit skeptical, knowing what happens when any small quantity of a mixture stays on the stove for too long, even at low heat. But although the rest of the ingredients in gumbo can vary, every recipe I read insisted that gumbo starts with a roux, and a roux is flour and oil or butter cooked for at least thirty minutes over low heat. Kids exclaimed that it looked like a gravy, and as it heated (but didn't dry up and stick in the pan, thank goodness!) a fragrant smell filled the room.

Spelling packets got stowed and as snack started, my most enthused cooks joined me to chop up onion, celery and pepper, otherwise known as the trinity of Cajun cooking.

The food chopper is unbelievable. I wish I had gotten video, or at least a better picture, of it in action. Let's just say that the afternoon of making salsa could have taken a fraction of the time.

Another student came over and started mixing the veggies into the roux. Then I brought out the okra. It is such a weird vegetable that I wanted to expose my students to it, even if it was in frozen form. A few kids tried a piece of it as it defrosted and were unfazed. Others waiting to chop some of it, mainly, I think, because they wanted to try out our new knife.

One quieter sixth grade girl came over as I shooed off the kids who had been with me for the entire snack, and happily chopped up most of the bag of okra and then helped me mix it and the vegetable-roux mixture into a pot of boiling water and tomato sauce. Another friend of hers joined us and they added the salt, pepper and other dried seasonings. When we first started snack, they hadn't rush the table and I thought they were more interested in socializing with their friends over snack than they were in cooking. Now I realize they were just waiting for a quieter opportunity to help out. This interests me because clearly these cooking projects are of high interest to the fifth grade boy population in my room, based on how they practically push themselves into the center of things when we start cooking. But this very behavior causes some of the more hesitant kids to hang back until they can see a safe opening for themselves.

Back to the gumbo: it simmered through reading groups and writing. Then during lunch I browned the sausage, added it to the gumbo, and made a pot of rice. Earlier in the week, we read about how rice was used to stretch many Cajun dishes. I opted to use sausage as shellfish was not an option and fresh catfish did not present itself to me at the grocery store and

Tear your eyes away from the amazing looking food and check out the sexy new two burner stove!

In the afternoon after math, I put some Zydeco music on the CD player and once again wished I had captured the hip movements that started almost instantaneously. The music continued to play as I served our three course feast: gumbo, rice, and ridiculously sugary iced tea I had made at home the night before.

I had wondered if the okra would get picked out of the gumbo and discarded; I hadn't spent a lot of time introducing it to the whole class so it was truly a mystery entity. To my surprise, it got gobbled down along with everything else.

In case you were wondering, the dish washing process went much more smoothly. Phew!

This was a day when we cooked while the rest of school was happening. It happened that way out of necessity – there wasn't a time this week when I could schedule a cooking-only session. When we cook this way I worry that I am missing the mark by letting students decide if and how much they will help us out. But a conversation with a student during writing on Wednesday made me rethink things. He is writing a report on how our school is helping students learn about healthy eating habits. He told me that he has learned that it's ok to try new foods and he is more likely to do so than he would have been previously. As I watched the majority of students in my class munch on a okra-laden gumbo, I decided it didn't matter if each student had a hand in the making of the gumbo. It was made in the context of learning about the southeastern states, and it encouraged kids to try new foods in a new combination. That's plenty of learning for me.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Reflections on cooking

I really like to cook.

One on hand, I already knew this. But I am also developing a new appreciation for what that statement means to me.

For the past nine years, I have had the luxury of teaching part-time and spending two weekdays at home with my family. In the early years of this arrangement, that translated to changing diapers, doing laundry, and changing more diapers. However in the past couple years, we bid a farewell to diapers. One child was in school full time and the other spent large parts of the day playing with her dolls and asking relatively little of me.

So days home, while still about laundry and other household realities, became opportunities for cooking projects: cheese-making, the baking of homemade bread products, mixing of batches of granola, and the creation of dinners slightly more elaborate than what it's possible to throw together at 5PM when everyone's crabby at the end of long days at school and daycare.

I knew these kitchen projects would take a hit with my return to working full time. Now granola gets made on the weekends as does bread. There hasn't been a batch of cheese since summer and I gave up on homemade english muffins in early September.

Nevertheless, healthy dinners are still important. We accomplish this through a variety of methods. We double stew recipes and freeze half, defrosting them in the middle of the week when we otherwise would only be able to muster energy for grilled cheese. We make quick healthy meals and use our bounty of vegetables from our CSA share for salads and side dishes to accompany the inevitable grilled cheese.

While eating healthy is a priority, I also had several moments this week where I realized that my efforts in the kitchen efforts had another motivation as well.

Tuesday I came home to dinner plans of defrosted sweet potato and black bean chili. A couple of days earlier my husband had commented on the large quantities of cornmeal in the freezer. (It is from a local source, and we keep it there to prevent spoilage.) Tired as I was, I whipped off a batch of corn bread to go with the chili. And I didn't even mind. I wanted to.

Wednesday we had a Thai peanut noodle recipe. It's a relatively quick dish to put together, but you feel like you're really cooking in a way you don't when making, say, grilled cheese. This was after spending the morning up to my elbows in gumbo at school. [Note: The post about gumbo is coming soon...] Again. I didn't mind making dinner. The process was even soothing, a pleasant task that took me away from the hecticness of a day spent with energetic preadolescents.

And the gumbo itself! If I could spend all day cooking with my students, I don't think I'd mind. It's a different interaction than we have when we're in a reading group or working on math problems. More natural, more focused on a real-life task.

Handling food, turning it from one form into's not the same as yoga, but the process of cooking centers me. When I cook I am taking a group of disparate ingredients, processing them, turning them into something altogether new and different. I never thought of it this way before, but there is a synergy to a well-prepared dish. Something bigger than a bagful of ingredients emerges out of the time spent chopping, mixing, sauteing.

And that synergy -- that making something more out of what you have in front of you -- it all starts with the cook.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Crab Cakes Extravaganza

Originally, I wanted to make Manhattan Clam Chowder. A nod to the seafood available on the Mid-Atlantic coast, recognition of the produce grown in the fertile farmlands of Pennsylvannia and New Jersey. But we have a no shellfish policy at our school because of the serious allergies some of our students live with.

Plan B: I decided we would make crab cakes with fake crab, which is really Alaskan pollock. Real crab is going for $16/pound, so this made good economic sense, too.

Flash forward to the beginning of last week. My fridge at home is filled with six packages of fake crab and I have just read the label and discovered that there is actually 2% snow crab mixed in with the pollock. Whoops.

This is where I pride myself on thinking outside the box. Of course, before I could get my brain out of the box I had a mini meltdown and then called several groceries stores asking them to check the ingredient list on their fake crab. They all told me there's some real crab mixed in. I finally dragged myself out of the box and consider alternative venues for cooking. The town library is a short walk down the road from the school and happens to have a fully functioning kitchen in the back. One phone call later and I secured permission to cook there on Thursday afternoon.

Thursday at 1:30 my class walked down the road along with my right and left hand ladies, Su and Colleen. We set up three stations in the kitchen and the back part of the library and each adult worked with five or six students mixing up the ingredients and forming crab cake patties.
As groups finished we melted butter in a couple of pans and Su stood vigil in front of them. The original plan was to have her fry up the patties herself, but several kids opted to stay in the kitchen and help with this step so Su ended up managing the kids: translation who gets to put which patties in which pans when. I don't think she got a chance to touch a spatula with so many eager helpers! I overheard one student say something along the lines of, "I've never had crab cakes before but these smell good so I am going to try them."

In the meantime, I cleaned up. Colleen met with the rest of the kids in a cozy part of the library that includes rocking chairs and a comfy couch. We are just starting to learn about the southeastern states and as Colleen lived in Louisiana for a couple years, she was able to regale the kids with tales of alligator, gumbo and grits.

Originally I had planned to have all the kids interview Colleen about this wide array of southern foods, but I appreciated that the flow of the afternoon allowed some self selection so that kids who are very motivated about cooking got some extra time completing the recipe. I also really liked that everyone got to see the whole recipe through from mixing ingredients to forming the patties.

Almost everyone tried at least a little bit, about two thirds of the class opted to eat a whole patty, and a handful of crab cake devotees finished off the extras. We ended by talking about the difference between fresh caught fish and grocery store fish and tried to imagine what a crab cake made with fresh caught real crab might taste like...

A huge thank you to Lisa at the library, who graciously allowed us to descend on her calm library for an hour and a half and didn't blink at the mess we made (and ultimately cleaned up.)

Thank you TSEF!

This week our class received two packages of goodies that I recently ordered. I was able to place the order because of the generous grant I received from the Tari Shattuck Education Foundation (TSEF). In addition to funding the purchase of ingredients for the year, the grant allowed us to buy a two burner stove and a bunch of kitchen gadgets that we didn't already have. I am very excited that I won't have to keep bringing my measuring spoons from home every time we cook!

I made opening the packages into a little bit of an event. Friday afternoon we gathered around and oohed and ahhed as each item came out of the boxes. It was also a way to teach kids about what the tools are for; after my experiences watching them wash dishes I am reminded not to assume that they have all interacted with a full range of kitchen utensils.

Thanks again to TSEF!

(Later this weekend, I'll post the run down on crab cakes.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Getting Ready For The Next Cooking Project

We aren't just cooking; first my students need to understand the significance of whatever dish we're preparing. This week, that is Maryland Crab Cakes.

This afternoon I shared a slightly revised version of this article with my class. Knowing there are a wide range of reading levels in my class (between second grade and seventh grade), I gave the option to read this alone or in a small group with me. About a third of the class joined me in the meeting area while the rest read on their own. As we read, we stopped to record new information about mid-Atlantic foods on a Venn diagram I provided at the bottom of the article. Students quickly learned that most foods grown, raised or harvested in New England are also grown, raised and harvested in the mid-Atlantic region. A few foods popped up as being specific to the more temperate weather south of us: peaches and soft shell crabs, for example. I chuckled to myself when kids asked me if kale and eggplant grow down there. They know I got those veggies locally in September and were wondering how widely available they are. I even stumbled upon two of the independent readers Googling “Does kale grown anywhere besides New England?”!

Everyone took this assignment seriously, which I was glad to see. Afternoons are not always the most focused time for this class. Was their focus because they knew this was leading into our next cooking project? Or was it more simply the fact that I told them I'd be grading their Venn diagrams?

In our wrap up conversation as a whole group, it came up that most foods grown in our region are also grown in points south. Then, proudly, several students realized that maple syrup is primarily produced in New England. Our claim to fame!

One point I wish I had better made was that avaible foods are only part of the equation in determining what dishes are eaten in a region. The people cooking them are the other important element. Regional foods have a strong background in the cultural traditions of the people who immigrated to that region. This is a point we'll have to revisit as we continue to learn about new parts of the country.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

We didn't cook but there were still dishes to wash

In September I set a goal to cook with my class every week. I needed the goal to push myself to make cooking a regular part of our classroom instead of a once in a while sort of thing. And so far it's worked. There have been a couple of weeks where I know I would have skipped the cooking if I didn't have that crazy goal-obsessed voice in my head saying, “You have to do this. You said you were going to do this.”

Last week, as I planned ahead for this week, I had to tell that little voice that sometimes it just doesn't make sense, even if I promised myself.

This week was Halloween, every teacher's favorite holiday (not). Our school has a whole school parade through town which essentially eats up the entire afternoon. (It's pretty amazing. The state highway gets closed while our ragtag lot of 140 students and 20 some teachers march down the road and back, to an admiring audience of no more than 40 parents and community members, waving from the side of the road.)

We also have a long art project scheduled, taking up three hours of time during the course of the week. And Friday is conference day – no school for the kids.

Taking this all into consideration, there was no logical way to do a cooking project that would mean anything in the context of our current U.S. Geography studies. So I took a deep breath and told that pushy voice inside my head to shut up about it. Just for one week.


Monday afternoon our class had a small party after the Halloween parade. As I have done every year, I asked parents to send in a food item to share if possible. I asked for a range of foods such as veggies and dip, fresh fruit, cheese and crackers, baked goods, and apple cider. I love sweets as much as the next person and this is a way to model planning a balanced party, where the guest can eat sugary stuff in concert with some healthier choices.

In previous years I would have picked up some paper plates and cups for the party. Not so on Monday. This fall, an important part of getting ready to cook with my class was making sure we had reusable dishes, cups and utensils so that we weren't filling a trash can with paper waste every time we ate something we'd cooked. In August I spent a portion of my classroom budget money on sturdy, reusable plates, bowls, cups and silverware. A few weeks back I taught everyone how to use our semi-primitive dish washing set up, consisting of a basin of warm soapy water set in the sink, the faucet running cool rinse water alongside the basin (but not in it so it cools off and overflows), and the drying rack next to the sink, that (mostly) drains back into the sink. It's not a perfect system, but it's what I've got to work with.

As the Halloween party wound down, I stood by the sink to monitor the dish washing. Every single child had a cup and a plate so it was our biggest load of dishes to date. I was amazed that washing dishes was a new concept for some students. Many didn't appreciate how a sponge dipped in warm soapy water would be a good starting point, others weren't sure what to do with the dishes when they finished. One student just set them precariously on the edge of the counter and would have wandered off if I hadn't called him back over. Part of what surprised me about this is that overall this group is very capable and industrious and can get the room cleaned up very quickly once they get into motion! I would like to think that if they all knew how to do their dishes, they would have been more efficient at it without so much support from the adults in the room.

Ok, I know, it was Halloween and they were all excited. I get it. But I also realized that teaching kids how to help clean up after we eat is just as important as how to prepare the food. Imagine their kitchens when they grow up if they don't get practice at cleaning up after themselves! It makes me wonder if I should appoint a rotating team of kids to wash up the community dishes (pots, pans, etc) instead of dong them myself or relying on whatever kind adult or child volunteer wanders past at the right moment.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Good Old Corn Chowder

Once again I found myself wondering if I weren't just a wee bit insane.

It was writing time and I was chopping onions with three students, one eye on the clock. In twenty minutes the sixth graders had to leave for their math class and fifth graders from another room would be coming in to have math class with me.

Everyone (except the onion choppers) had writing work in front of them, but their pencils were moving at varying speeds, if you know what I mean. Writing is hard work, and if you're not in the mood, or not sure what to say, it can become near impossible. Which is why normally, I'd be circulating around the room encouraging, wheedling, and threatening. Instead I was standing in front of two pots of melting butter, watching tears stream down the cheeks of three tough boys and answering writing questions from a distance. I felt like a cheerleader on the sidelines.

We were making corn chowder. Corn has been an important part of the standard U.S. diet since long before there was a U.S. Previously we had discussed how all of the ingredients, save the spices, were items New Englanders have been able to grow or harvest for hundreds of years.

Almost everyone got to come and help with one step or another, the ingredients all made it into the pot in time, and one enterprising fifth grader helped me with the dishes as others cleaned up their writing (Thanks D! You can come clean up at my house anytime.) The chowder simmered through math, lunch and recess. Later in the afternoon kids got to try as much or as little as they wanted. Many opted for a small serving in a cup and then came back for seconds. Several started out with a bowl full and then polished off another. Only a few tried it and decided it wasn't for them. One boy did inform me that his father's corn chowder was better, but he said it kindly, as if he were concerned for my feelings.

Thoughts on this food excursion:

-I like working with my students in small groups when we're cooking, but

-doing so means no one (but me) gets to experience the whole recipe start to finish.

-I am still trying to figure out “the best” was to incorporate the cooking part. Managing a whole group while cooking is tricky, but otherwise the cooking can distract from whatever else everyone else is doing in the room.

-Kids are trying new and healthy foods. I am jazzed about this. Even if they don't love what they're trying, they're trying it. And many do truly like what they're trying.

-At the beginning of the year I wish I'd surveyed everyone about what kinds of foods they like, how healthy they eat or think they eat, etc. Then I could track a change in attitudes and habits. I am still mulling over how to best incorporate this into the process mid year. I am especially interested in what healthy and/or adventurous eating is spilling over at home.

- I need to build time into the class schedule in advance of cooking to make them double or triple the recipes. Why pass up the opportunity for a real life application of math skills?

-Eating is social. As I watched students hang out and joke around while they ate their chowder, I wondered if socializing was overpowering the experience of trying something new and absorbing the significance of the foods we were eating. But it is natural to combine eating with being together as a group; I can't imagine making everyone sit at their assigned seats and eating their chowder silently. Instead I wonder how I can structure the eating of what we've prepared so that learning stays at the forefront but the natural inclination to socialize is honored.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Look what came in the mail today!
The Tari Shattuck Education Foundation is a local organization started in memory of a beloved teacher who passed away at age 41 after several years battling leukemia. Among its activities, the foundation awards grants to the schools in our five town community twice a year. Our school and my classroom has benefited from generous grants countless times in the past.

I wrote a grant requesting funds for several items my class kitchen currently lacks including:
  • a two burner stove
  • dish towels
  • utensils (spatulas, whisk, measuring spoons)
  • a digital timer
  • a hand powered food chopper (why not put all that kid-energy to good use and avoid the risk of burning out my personal food processor?)
These items total about $100. I also asked for funding to purchase ingredients. I wasn't able to itemize this list -- some of the units we'll be cooking our way though haven't been finalized and I only have a guess of what ingredients I'll need in January or April.

The generous TSEF board granted my full request, which means in addition to now being able to purchase all of the items listed above, I also have $150 to put toward the actual food we'll be cooking. This grant is making possible something I have already committed to, and for that I am so very thankful.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Eating bacteria -- on purpose

Last Tuesday night, I found myself wondering what my students would say when I told them that yogurt is made by bacteria multiplying in milk. Let's face it, that sounds like a dubious way to make a food product, doesn't it?

I picked yogurt for two reasons:

1) We are studying the U.S. and are going region by region. We've started with New England and making yogurt is a way to celebrate our home state's dairying tradition.

2) This week we had limited time for any cooking project because of the last round of standardized testing and a teacher inservice day on Friday. Yogurt is a quick no-brainer recipe.

My husband and I have been making yogurt weekly for over twelve years. When we first got married we used a yogurt maker, which is a glorified incubator for the warm, cultured milk. It stopped working a year or two and a friend told me how to incubate the milk the old fashioned way, which is what I planned to do with my class.

I started off by asking the kids what they knew about bacteria. I got the responses you'd expect: it can make you sick, they're really small, etc. I explained that not all bacteria are harmful, and that some are even beneficial.

They looked at me with skepticism.

Then I explained how yogurt is made: milk is warmed to just below the boiling point to kill off bacteria that while not harmful, prevent the bacteria we would add to the milk from multiplying. I had done this step as they were coming in about 45 minutes earlier. Then the milk is cooled to about 110 degrees, a temperature that is just right for the bacteria we were going to add. We talked about how if the bacteria doubles, then doubles again, and so on, there would quickly be a lot of bacteria in the milk, and this is what would turn it into yogurt. The last step is to keep the pre-yogurt warm enough for the bacteria to do its job. We checked the milk and it was the right temperature, so we moved from the meeting area to the horseshoe table near my desk.

Usually a demonstration like this is tricky. Can everyone see? Is everyone focused or do some people take the opportunity to stand next to a friend and chat. This time, I knew there was a high degree of interest. Everyone crowded around respectfully and was listening and asking good questions as we proceeded.

I often use my own yogurt as starter, but after several generations we usually buy a new tub of commercial yogurt to get a strong culture. The day before, I stopped at the local general store and the only choice was Chobani. A bit of a risk, since I hadn't tried using it as starter before, but knowing Chobani yogurts are very thick, I decided to give it a try.

We added several tablespoons of starter to a cup ful of warm milk, mixed it in thoroughly, and then poured it back into the pot of milk. As I stirred I reminded everyone that I was spreading the bacteria through all the milk so it could do its job. Then I ladled milk into 8 oz Ball jars, sealed them up tight and put them in a large pot. We poured hot water in up to lid height, covered the pot and then wrapped it in some foam and a towel to keep the heat in.

Five hours later, we peeked to see what was going on. (At home I usually leave it overnight to culture.) Done! The yogurt was solid in the jars. I refrigerated it overnight and at snack the next day I served it with a drizzle of maple syrup. Sixty four ounces of yogurt were devoured in minutes.

A couple things struck me about this activity:

- Yogurt making is a science. And we will explore it in this vein over the winter. Several kids naturally asked, “What if you did...” some step a slightly different way. Yogurt making is totally ripe for changing one variable and applying the scientific method.

- Some basic recipes I have been using for years are completely novel even to adults who work in my room. One of whom has said a couple of times that she plans to try making yogurt at home herself. This recipe is so simple once you see it done, it doesn't even require written directions!

- We didn't really cook. I did a demonstration and the class ate the product. I am not sure how I feel about this, but am making note of it.

For most regions, we will only prepare one dish, but because I want to do something representative of the entire New England region, if that's possible, we are going to make chowder next week. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Salsa Wrap Up

So we made that salsa on Monday. Tuesday, volunteers served it at lunch. Some of them chose to miss part of recess to do so!

One of my students has been in the holiday spirit all week. Don't ask me why. Sixth graders are a strange breed.
At the morning message sign in on Wednesday, I asked everyone to describe how it felt to have the school eat our salsa. And I asked them to use more creative words than "good" or "happy".

I was impressed with their choices : proud, joyful, awesome, confident, caring.

In morning meeting I asked them to explain their choices. Here's a smattering of what they said.

"I was proud that the whole school ate and enjoyed it."
"I felt joyful because a lot of the older kids tried it. I was joyful that they were willing to."
"I felt confident because I knew we made it and it was good."
"I was confident when we were making it. I knew we could do it."

A mystery student signed in that he felt sad about the salsa. I asked the group the reasons someone might be sad after this experience. Some predictions:
"Sad that some people didn't want to try it."
"I went for seconds and it was out already."
I shared that when we cook, we are creating a kind of art that doesn't last like a painting does. I wondered it is might feel sad when you're so proud of something and then it's gone.

Finally, the shy student spoke up. I hope our conversation had somehow made him feel that it was ok to express his feelings, even if they were very different from the rest of the group. He was sad because he wanted to like the recipe, but he didn't like the big clumps of onions and tomatoes. I love that he wanted to like what we'd made.

But in the end, it all comes down to taste. Everyone is not going to like every recipe every time.

No worries. As long as they are trying new (and healthy) foods and recipes, they are expanding their exposure to the world. I can't ask for more than that.

Monday, October 10, 2011


One afternoon last week when there was a warning for a hard frost overnight, this is what I saw when I went in the teacher's room after school:

A parent/co-worker had brought in heaps of tomatoes from her garden. All varieties, all colors, all shapes. A few teachers took a couple, but largely they were just sitting there.

The tomatoes must be used. The tomatoes could not be allowed to sit in those containers and rot. So I started scheming.

I had many ideas, all with reasons not to follow through on them.

Take them home and try oven-drying them to use later? The kids wouldn't get to see them shrivel up and change, so all I'd be gaining was free ingredients to use at a later date.

Make sauce? An ungodly mess anytime I've tried this before.

Freeze them whole to use later? They take up more space than I have in my freezer.

Someone suggested salsa. This seemed like the most practical way to use the tomatoes, but there was a volume issue. We had been gifted A Whole Lotta Tomatoes. How much salsa could we eat? Should I try freezing it to use a little bit at a time?

Then, the moment of inspiration, which I am more and more relying on to help guide me through planning these cooking adventures.

I went to Emily our food services coodinator. “If we made salsa Monday afternoon, could we serve it as part of the hot lunch program?”

“We're having tacos Tuesday, so yes.”

These are the stars-are-aligned moments that give me confidence I'm on some version of the right track. Sometimes you choose the recipe; but sometimes the recipe chooses you.

Emily gathered the other ingredients, gave me a loose starting point kind of a recipe, and let our class take over the kitchen this afternoon after she and her crew had cleaned up for the day. We spread out by using a table in the main part of the gym outside the serving window. Cutting boards were borrowed from several of my co-workers; knives and mixing bowls came from the kitchen.

A Whole Lotta Tomatoes means there was A Whole Lotta Tomato Goop all over the place in the thick of it. As kids finished chopping I just grabbed whoever was closest for whichever task needed doing: rinsing dishes and getting them racked up for the dishwasher, wiping down counters, taking out the compost.

Once the kitchen was back under control, I let everyone know we'd have a quick taste test. I asked them to think about whether the salsa needed more salt, more lime juice, more something else. Many brows were wrinkled in concentration as they tasted their concoction. Overall it got a thumbs up, but the suggestions for improvement ran the gamut from “too salty” (I, of course, thought it needed more salt), to too chunky, to “I couldn't really taste the lime.” And of course there were a bunch of tough guy and gals who insisted it needed more heat in one form or another.

“Remember,” I told them, “this salsa is for everyone in the school. We don't want to blast the kindergarteners with too much heat.” It is interesting, as our whole school focuses on the social skill of empathy this month (as we do every October) that one or two kids couldn't get past what they wanted the salsa to taste like instead of thinking about what others might need. But the wonderful thing about school is that there's always room for growth...

Speaking of which: One area we need to work on as a class is each individual making responsible choices (i.e. if you're done with your job and not sure what to do, ask a teacher instead of running across the gym like a wild person). There was no way to assign all the jobs ahead of time because there was no telling who would finish which task when; each child needs to demonstrate responsibility and some modicum of good judgement to participate in whole class cooking activities. As it is, I sent three kids to take a break in the office because even with a timeout quick discussion with the whole group about this concept, three chose to goof around to an extreme. I am hopeful that as I better learn how to frame these cooking explorations, my students will also improve in this area.

We left the salsa wrapped up in the fridge for tomorrow. Students will have the option to help serving it tomorrow at lunch and I hope that at mid-morning snack, someone is willing to make a small sign naming our class as the producers of this fine salsa. Wednesday we'll also talk about how it felt to prepare food for others and then see them eat it.