Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Sweet New Year To You All

In this week's recipe, take:
4 pounds of carrots
2 humongus sweet potatoes
16 kids
and put them together for
10 minutes.

This is what you'll get:

I took the day off school today and tomorrow, to celebrate the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashannah, with my family. Last week when I started wondering what our cooking project of the week might be, I realized it would have to happen early in the week and Su wouldn't be available to do oven detail. In a flash of inspiration, I decided to prepare a simple stove-top vegetable dish that has always been served in my family for Rosh Hashannah: tzimmes.

Tzimmes is a general term that is used to describe any sort of stew that includes an element of sweetness. It is customary to wish people "a sweet new year" -- one of the reasons tzimmes is a staple at most Rosh Hashannah meals. If you Google tzimmes recipes you will find everything from chicken to brisket to dried fruit included in a cornucopia of recipes. My mother made a simpler variety: carrots steamed in a little margarine (I used butter), sprinkled with flour, then cooked in just enough water to cover them. After half an hour, toss in the sweet potatoes and cook until they fall apart. She made it that way because Grandma made it that way because Great-Grandma made it that way...I didn't even realize there were other ways to make tzimmes until a couple of years ago.

Our school lunch program has joined in a food cooperative and our district was also awarded a fresh fruits and vegetables grant this year, so I was able to order four pounds of carrots and two monstrously large sweet potatoes from two local growers and get it billed to the grant program. I have been piecing together funding for ingredients this month and will be writing a grant for my classroom this weekend that will hopefully take care of some of our expenses this year. This week, it was nice to have that end of things handled so easily.

Wednesday morning when students checked the morning message, they were asked to check off which they thought was healthier: white potatoes or sweet potatoes. They all guessed sweet potatoes. During reading time, we read a pared-down version of this article (pun intended). The complexity of the article allowed them to practice checking understanding as we read, something I have discovered many students need to work on. We recorded what we discovered on a Venn diagram on the white board. While sweet potatoes do have antioxidants and large amounts of vitamin A, they are also more often prepared without the massive amounts of oil that french fries and potato chips require. The article made for an interesting class conversation.

As snack time began, I got out peelers and they got to work. Kids worked in shifts in between eating their own snacks. As writing time started, I heated up a plug-in burner and started steaming the carrots.

In the afternoon, I served everyone a small taste and then asked for comments. Overall the reaction was favorable, with some kids specifically commenting on the fact that they liked the texture. I had wondered what they'd make of squashiness of the falling apart sweet potatoes. It brings me back to countless family meals, but if you haven't encountered it before, it's not the most charismatic way to interact with a sweet potato. One student didn't care for the carrots, but came back asking for seconds on the mush.

The success of the day came from the student who had eaten bread plain when we made pesto, then ate more bread plain when we made the eggplant dip. The optimistic side of me has been thinking, "Hey! This kid likes healthy, home-baked bread." I've been too busy serving everyone else to let the pessimistic side of me pipe up. But his lack of adventurousness hasn't escaped my notice.

Yesterday, after hearing everyone's comments on tzimmes, he came up and asked for his own sample. Sure enough, he was back in line with almost everyone else, asking for a full-sized serving for seconds. There was no peer pressure, but there was certainly peer influence at work.

As I offered up seconds, I asked the group to take their time eating so I could capture some pictures of them munching away. (Usually most of them have finished by the time I'm done serving.) A student who opted out of seconds volunteered to be cameraman. This is what he saw:

Friday, September 23, 2011

Eggplant Lovers Unite!

I am mounting an eggplant rebellion.

To explain: I spent my twenties as a fairly strict vegetarian. When I started dating my now-husband, there were often few vegetarian choices on the menu when we ate out. Eggplant parmesan was a reliable choice; in fact the Friday night pizza and sub place we frequented for the first three years we lived together made the best eggplant parm sub I have had before or since. (Really tasty baklava, too, but that's another story...) My husband was not a vegetarian, but was willing to eat vegetarian at home. But not eggplant. Never eggplant. It was more than him not liking it -- he was and still is offended by its existence. "Empty fiber," he has told me more than once.

This character flaw was no deal breaker and we've been happily married for twelve years and have two children.

Our kids are really good eaters. They eat almost anything and especially fruits and veggies. My son does not like beets and my daughter does not like cauliflower. Fair enough -- I don't particularly like brussel sprouts. Everyone's entitled to one or two food aversions.

A couple of years ago I brought home a lovely eggplant, sliced it thin, put a bit of olive oil on it and grilled it up with dinner. I'm not pointing any fingers, but it's possible that my husband made a few jokes of the "eggplant is gross" variety. So it was no surprise that both my children tried a piece of grilled eggplant and stated they didn't like it. Whatever. Solidarity with Dad = more eggplant for me.

But you know how it is. If no one else will eat something when you make it, you make it less often. And now that I enjoy all the animal-based entrees when we eat out, I rarely consider ordering eggplant parm. So when I found this yummy sounding recipe for an eggplant dip, I decided to make it with my students instead of trying it at home.

Yesterday I brought two luscious, purple specimens into my class. "That's an eggplant?" a couple of kids questioned. I was thrilled just to think I was exposing them to something they'd never seen before. Isn't that what education should be about?

During reading time, I shared some basic nutritional info about eggplant. (With the kale and basil, we read short informative articles about those veggies, but I recognize the flaws of my jeweled veggie friend -- a nutrition article about it wouldn't be very long.) Instead they read a short essay that recognizes both the lovely and the horrifying about eggplant. It does not have your typical texture; it does make some peoples' lips kind of itchy.

Kids discussed the text in small groups (something we're working on for anything they've read) and then we shared out as a whole group. More thrills: my students were interested in trying it a new vegetable instead of being scared off. And of course, the question: "Why is it called eggplant? It doesn't look like an egg." We ended reading time by cutting them open and seeing what they looked like inside. They are a weirdly atypical fruit, with their spongy flesh inside that luminous violet skin. One student said if it smelled weird he probably wouldn't like it, so we let him get close for a sniff.

The fantabulous Su
roasted the eggplant after lunch and in the last hour of day worked with groups of three and four to measure the rest of the ingredients while everyone else worked frenetically on a building challenge involving newspaper and tape. It was busy in the room! A few whirs of my food processor (lugged from home), the room was cleaned up, and everyone sat at their seats in anticipation. It's amazing how quickly a group of kids can clean up and settle down if they know there's food waiting at the other end...

I served small tastes spread on loaf two of the bread and kids shared their reactions. Three quarters of the class liked it and came back for seconds. Some comments:

"I think I'd like this spread on a turkey sandwich."

"This is the best thing I've ever eaten!"

"This would be really good with a slice of sharp cheddar cheese." (You know you're in Vermont when kids request sharp cheddar.)

One student, who began what will possible be a life-long love affair with kale two weeks ago said, "It would be better with kale chips." He needs a t-shirt that proclaims: Everything is better with kale chips.

No one complained about itchy lips. Today most kids ate more spread on slices of leftover bread from the school kitchen (Thanks, Emily!)

But here's the best part.

When I left school yesterday, I brought some with me. My daughter had said she wanted to try it, just in case maybe she did like eggplant after all. Knowing I'd hear about it if I didn't bring any for my son, too, I made up two mini-sandwiches for them to eat on the way home.

They ate it.

They liked it.

There are now three eggplant eaters in my house. My husband is outnumbered.

The eggplant rebellion has begun.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Behind the Scenes

In case you are wondering how I manage to bake bread in the middle of the day, let me introduce you to my couldn't-do-it-without-her-partner-in-cooking-crime:The indispensable Suzanne, putting eggplant in the oven this afternoon

Miss Su, as my students know her, is both a volunteer and valued member of our professional community. School wide she has roles too numerous to list here. In my room, she handles any projects that need oven time in the school kitchen, but she also pulls small groups of students to chop, measure, mix, etc. And just when it looks like a bomb has gone off and I am envisioning the clean up process come 3PM, she tackles that, too.

There's no way I could have considered a cooking-based curriculum without her.

Next post: the skinny on the eggplant dip and student reactions.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Baking Bread

We baked bread, not to learn about yeast, but to provide ourselves with a vehicle for all of the pesto.

Plus I wanted to see if I could pull it off.

We will be baking bread later this year as part of the food chemistry unit. But I was so easily flattered last week when my students enjoyed that smidgen of a loaf I brought in for pesto-tasting purposes. How could I deny them more?

The bread I usually bake at home is from my favorite source of new recipes: Catherine Newman. Her wonderful blog is a source of humor, musings on food, and a window into her family life. Plus great recipes and much more. You can find the recipe in her archives, I hope. It is a 5 minute no-knead bread, and what could be easier at school? Volunteers mixed up the dough at snack time as I casually told them what to do and chatted with another adult who was in the room. Look how easy I make this look, I thought pridefully to myself. Then I looked down and saw that the dough was quite a bit gummier than usual.

"How much water did you put in?" I asked one helper.
"Are you sure you put in 2 1/2 cups of white flour?" I asked another.
"Maybe I should watch them a wee bit more carefully next time," I told myself while dumping in enough flour to make it look "right."

Lesson learned.

The dough rose wonderfully, almost alarmingly, as the morning went on. I shoved a plate under the bowl and moved it off my desk where I had set it out of the way, shuddering to imagine the gluey dough overflowing onto a pile of unsorted papers. Kids exclaimed at how pouffy it was in the bowl, and I veered off course from the usual process and punched it down several times to avoid disaster.

It was baked without issue in the afternoon (more on how I manage this in a future post) and suddenly it was 2 PM and there was the aroma of fresh bread in the room! Excitement! Distraction! Would we make it through the last minutes of the day without totally losing our focus?

It was gobbled in minutes, without ceremony, which I regret. But I needed to get the kids who opt in to chorus down to the music room, and as always time runs short when you most need a few more minutes in the day.

The recipe makes enough for two loaves so I walked out of school with a half-filled bowl of the glutinous dough in my arms. I'll bake it on Wednesday night and bring it in to eat with our next recipe: eggplant dip also from Catherine Newman's blog. I haven't tried this recipe at home as I am the sole eggplant eater in my household, so who knows what will happen...I'll let you know how it goes.

Every Bit of Learning Counts

Last Thursday I taught a fifth grader what a garlic clove is.

We were making pesto, simply for the reason that a co-worker had offered up her surplus basil. Thursday afternoon we had plans to work with the art teacher creating pinwheels for peace, in preparation for International Day of Peace this coming September 21. Instead of working in the art room, I'd arranged for us to work in the classroom so I could pull a couple kids at a time to prepare the pesto while everyone was coloring their pinwheels.

We ended up with a ten minute window after math groups and before the art teacher arrived. The basil leaves sat in a large bowl, stripped off their stems by student volunteers during snack that morning. I quickly packed them down into a measuring cup and showed the class that we had three cups of basil, and the recipe I was using called for two. How could we adapt the recipe? It cracked me up to hear kids suggesting that if we had an extra cup of basil, we should use an extra cup of everything else, too.

A more adventurous teacher might have let the class try this experiment, but I was looking for good-tasting pesto results! Here was a real world opportunity for some multiplication, division, and fraction work. I showed them my thinking that we needed to do a 1 1/2X recipe, instead of doubling it or something else. Kids quickly picked up on the procedure for increasing ½ cup of parmesan to ¾ cup, and so on. When we got to the number of garlic cloves, one student asked what a garlic clove was.

Fifteen minutes later, the art directions had been given. Guess who I called over first to help me peel the outer skin off the garlic?

Last Thursday I tried to teach my students a whole host of concepts and skills. You can never be sure which ones will stick, but I'm pretty sure that from here on out, that one student will know what someone's talking about when they hear “a clove of garlic.”

It's no Mr. Holland's Opus, but for now, I'll take it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

It All Started When...

Two weeks ago I brought in a huge bunch of kale to school. A co-worker had brought me to her community garden plot the afternoon, and in the moderately heavy rain, we'd cut about a dozen stalks from her massive kale patch. When I asked the fifth and sixth graders I teach what vegetable it was, only one guessed that it might be kale. The rest had never knowingly interacted with that vegetable.

All morning it sat in a big bouquet on the horseshoe table next to my desk. At reading time we read an article about kale as a whole group. Kids learned that kale is a powerful antioxidant (they also learned what an antioxidant is). They also were interested to find out that kale has over one thousand percent of the US RDA of Vitamin K, which, among other things, is an important factor in healthy blood clotting function. At the end of the lesson, anyone that wanted tried a small bit of raw kale. I suggested this so they could appreciate how much better it tasted after we turned it into kale chips, but to my surprise several kids enjoyed the taste of it raw!

In the afternoon everyone washed their hands and worked with a partner to tear the kale leaves off their stems and into small bits. Volunteers helped toss the kale with a bit of olive oil and salt and then an adult volunteer took a large cookie sheet of our mixture to the kitchen to bake it while the class gathered around for read aloud.

Twenty minutes later I finished the chapter and the finished kale chips arrived in the classroom. We munched them and kids shared their opinions. Some wanted more or less salt, but overall about two thirds of my students enjoyed what they'd eaten. Most came back for seconds.

Learning how to enjoy and prepare food for a healthy diet is as essential a skill as reading or knowing your multiplication facts. This year my students will be learning about the United States through regional cooking projects. We will explore US History by cooking dishes that were common during various eras. We'll learn about chemistry by baking bread, learning about fermentation, and other chemical processes that happen to food. And we'll finish the year off exploring environmental issues related to farming and agriculture.

Have I planned all these units yet? No. But I know I'll get there.

For now we are in the first six weeks of school, establishing routines and growing as a class community. Food is already a part of our class identity. Last Thursday we made pesto. (More on this in another post) I brought in some bread I'd baked at home to serve the pesto on, and everyone enjoyed it so much they convinced me we needed to bake bread in the coming week so we could finish off the pesto! So tomorrow we're baking bread and later this week we're making an eggplant dip recipe that I've been wanting to try. I hope there's some bread left over for us to spread it on...

I am passionate about cooking healthy food with local ingredients whenever possible. Bringing this energy into my teaching is by far the most gratifying new thing I've done as a teacher in many years, and I am constantly trying new things! I hope to post as regularly as I cook. I've set a goal to include at least one cooking project in each week throughout the year.