Friday, May 11, 2012

A Local Meal

After Monday's analysis of my lunch, I decided we needed to cook a well-balanced meal that used as many local ingredients as possible. We haven't done a true cooking project in a while, so that was another incentive to plan something more elaborate than taste testing carrots and apples (which I still need to post about...)

For some reason I quickly decided our protein would be tofu. Costwise it was a more practical choice than local beef or chicken. Little did I know what a big deal tofu would be. But that's getting ahead of things.

I spent a day or so belaboring the rest of the meal, but then realized that I should just prepare a meal that my family eats and enjoys on a semi-regular basis: Catherine Newman's pan-fried tofu with yummy maple lemon sauce, barley, and a local greens salad with craisins on top. At home we use walnuts too, but our classroom is nut-free. I usually dress my salad with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, but instead we'd make a balsamic vinaigrette.

So I gathered my ingredients, noting the insane cost of local greens this time of the year. Kids have brought up the issue of how expensive organic food is, and the same can often be said of local foods, organic or not. Surprisingly, the barley that I order in bulk from Pete's Greens is actually cheaper than the bulk non-local barley at the local market I shop at.

Have I not raved about Pete's Greens? Check out his website. That should answer any questions you have. I have been a year round CSA member for about five years and that membership has profoundly changed how my family and I eat.

So in class today: everyone gathered around and noted the nice smell coming from the barley that I had started boiling during math. Three cups water to one cup barley, bring to a boil and simmer until the water's absorbed. Add butter. I have one student who has been not only reticent about trying new foods, but offended by their existence. Today, he was the first to say something smelled good. I showed everyone what uncooked barley looked like and offered anyone that was interested a grain to try. To my surprise, hands stretched out eagerly. Including his.

Next I told kids where the spinach came from (a farm one town over) and showed them how to pull off the biggest part of the stem and tear the leaves up for salad. I also had a bag of mixed greens from Pete's. Our most recent issue of Chop-Chop has a page that identifies which leaf is which type of green, and for kids to that didn't want to cook I offered for them to try and identify which greens were in the bag, using that guide. 

On to craisins. Many kids didn't know what they were and had never tried them. Even in retrospect, that makes me think WOW. I spend so much time with these young people, but easily forget how their exposure to the world of food is vastly different from my own children's. Hands stretched out to try a craisin when offered.

Finally, the main event: the tofu. For some reason, tofu seems to be a loaded topic. It is unfamiliar to many, it sounds and looks weird. I think it still also holds an association with weird, hippie, alternative diets. I had been pressing it to remove some of the water, so uncovering it felt like some big deal reveal. 
Lots of comments about what it looked like; many kids had never seen tofu or even a picture of it. I get my tofu in bulk from the local market, and it is made by Vermont Soy Company, which also sells their product packaged. About half the class tried a small sliver of cold tofu, with my admonition that even if they didn't like it, they should try the cooked dish and see how much it changed. As one child made a dramatic reaction, spitting a sliver of tofu the size of a toothpick into the trash, another one shrugged, unfazed, and said, “It doesn't even have a flavor.” Exactly.

Now it was time to get cooking. We split into self-selected groups: tofu, salad and dressing, and analyzing the greens. 

Again, I was pleased to see that my food-reticent sixth grader chose to cook the tofu with me. This never would have happened in the fall. Kids got to work, but here is where it gets tricky because there's never quite enough for everyone to keep their hands busy, and this causes some kids to lose interest pretty quickly. 

Still focused, making salad

The salad was ready before the tofu, so many kids met in the meeting area to play a group game during the lag time. Time off task, which I generally avoid letting creep into our daily schedule. I have come to realize this is the trade off with teaching through food: sometimes there's down time.

One of the last pictures taken by the photographer du jour. This is the reality of handing the camera to a twelve year old and promptly forgetting about it. You never know what you're going to find on the camera!

Once everything was finished, kids were invited over two at a time to be served the foods they were interested in sampling/eating. More than two thirds of them tried at least a sample bite of tofu, and several came back enthusiastic for a bigger serving, even some of my picky eaters! The barley was a big hit, and many kids asked me to drizzle the sauce from the tofu over it. Lots of salad was eaten. For some reason, this warms my heart.

Salad dressing – a little tangy
Barley – many thumbs shot up as they shoveled it in
Tofu – loved the sauce and it was totally different once it was cooked

Will all my students be eating local, well balanced, low-on-the-food-chain meals made of mostly whole foods starting now? Who am I kidding – of course not. But everyone learned something about local foods, almost everyone tried something new, and many kids discovered that they liked what they tried.

I think my next career will be in nutrition education.

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