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.