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.

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