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.