Saturday, September 29, 2012

Taste Testing

Full disclosure: I totally copied this lesson from the most recent issue of ChopChop Magazine.

Friday afternoon Su boiled up a big mess of potatoes and I shook small amounts of various herbs and spices into a bunch of small bowls. I also put out a few fresh herbs side by side with the dried ones.

Isn't that an enticing assortment? 
My quick lesson was that seasonings come from all parts of plants including bark (hello there, cinnamon stick) and roots (howya doin', ginger?), both of which I brought in as visuals. I also brought in some bay leaves on a bay leaf branch, which I only have because a family member went to Lebanon a while back and brought it back for us. And I have to say, until I received that branch, I never thought about how all those dried, whole leaves make their way into the plastic container I keep in my spice rack...

The kids cut up their potatoes and spent about twenty minutes dipping potato chunks into various seasonings, tasting it, and then marking comments on a recording sheet.

Just as described in the ChopChop article, the kids tasted, talked, commented, compared, and generally amazed me with their interest in the flavor of things.

Their written comments ranged from initial reactions, to poetic language, to thoughts about how the seasoning would best be used. One student wrote "Needs to be in something" for about half the items on the list, showing a realization that these flavors are not meant to be tasted solo. Parsley was the surprise winner, if we were having a contest, and thyme got the least positive reviews. I've plucked some of my favorite comments to share with you:

fresh basil:
tastes like candy

dried basil:
not a fan

heaven in my mouth

fresh cilantro: 
use it to brighten my day
way too fresh

dried cilantro: 
not as good as fresh cilantro, but good

no thank you
good for beans and chili
too much of a taste

it's a little bland (good for salad)

kinda tastes like dish soap

put it in my soup
best thing on earth

I think we should try it on sushi
Do people use paprika for color or flavor?

fresh parsley: 
tastes like fresh air
kind of refreshing/energizing
tastes like sweet grass

no description

Later this year as we study world geography, we'll return to spices and herbs and use them, as well as grains, as a way to explore regions of the world. In the meantime, I hope Friday's experience will get kids digging around in the spice racks at home, improving the flavors of the food they and their parents are preparing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Fasting by Choice

This afternoon I scurried around at school, putting together sub plans in preparation for my absence tomorrow. I'll be spending the day tomorrow at the synagogue, observing the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In order to better focus on prayer, Jews around the world have already begun fasting, denying themselves food and drink for over twenty five hours, from sunset tonight until after nightfall tomorrow.

Tonight my family ate a lovely, local meal with friends to celebrate the beginning of Yom Kippur. If one is fasting, having a satisfying meal the night before the fast is essential. Adults who are fasting are going into the fast prepared.

But being hungry doesn't always begin with a big meal. For those who live with food insecurity, hunger may be a constant instead of the exception. This is an issue close to me, because although my school serves healthy breakfasts, fresh fruit and vegetable snacks, and amazing hot lunches, many families in the community struggle to bring enough food into their homes to round out the rest of the meals. So it seems appropriate to give a shout out to Hunger Free Vermont. This organization assists schools in establishing hot lunch and breakfast programs, teaches cooking classes to low-income adults and at-risk teens, provides grants to childcare centers and after school programs, and much, much more. This is certainly not the only organization in our small state serving hungry families, but it is one with many programs in place to meet the needs of hungry children.

Around the world and across Vermont, people won't be eating tomorrow. For Jews this is by choice, but for too many others, it is an unfortunate way of life that lasts longer than twenty five hours.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Fruit Salad, in pictures

Maybe I don't need to record our cooking adventures in words. Don't these pictures speak for themselves?

Really, this one picture says it all.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fruit Salad

Friday's recipe inspiration came from the milk leftover from the previous weeks' ice cream lesson. I took it home and made it into yogurt, something we did in class last year. I was imagining using a fruit salad/yogurt dip recipe as a way to review previous skills. Then Tuesday I noticed how quickly kids scarfed down the apples and honey yogurt dip that was provided as morning snack from the kitchen. I tossed cinnamon into the mix and created my own version of fruit dip.

Making fruit salad and yogurt dip allowed students continued practice with knife skills, measurement, and reading a recipe. As was demonstrated last week, if you don't read and follow the recipe, you might end up with large quantities of salt in your ice cream! The stakes weren't as high this week, but they did still require some coordination and discussion in order to create the fruit salad independent of the yogurt dip. Teamwork also came into play as groups larger than last week had to plan and work together for their recipe to  come off successfully.

Doreeninthekitchen got me a beautiful bowl of fruits -- apples, pears, watermelon, kiwi, bananas and grapes. I gave kids a recipe, but told them the fruit salad directions were really more of a suggestion. Randomly divided into groups of five and six, they started off by talking through the fruits and deciding who liked which fruits and to what degree. It was charming to see them so earnest in their planning; certain fruits were chopped up and put in separate bowls so group members could opt in or out.

Kids had varied reactions to the yogurt dip, which was only mildly sweetened with honey. Unless you are in the habit of eating plain yogurt, you don't realize how (over)sweetened the commercial stuff is. Of course, that goes for many pre-packaged foods. One girl did say she preferred her yogurt "tart." Student choice came into play as each child decided how much dip they wanted on their salad. One table group opted to spoon it into cups to make sure it was divided evenly, and some kids ate it separate from the salad.

As they ate, we talked about their reactions to the dish and how their groups worked together. Overall it came off stunningly smoothly. Every group worked out their kinks on their own, no one came to me complaining, everybody ate and enjoyed their dish. There was almost no wasted food, either.

Two areas that could have worked better:
1) Leadership: We are investigating leadership as a beginning of year theme. I had randomly assigned the groups, and randomly drawn one name out of each group to be the team leader. We discussed how this didn't mean that person was the boss of everyone, but rather a person to keep an eye on the overall process and make sure everyone was appropriately involved. Although the students who were drawn liked being call "Chef," from my point of view the dynamic in each group was no different than if there hadn't been a designated Chef. On the other hand, the students who were Chef commented on how they felt a responsibility to make sure everything was going smoothly. And it did, so maybe they were somehow doing their job, unbeknownst to me. Next time, I will make the Chef job more specific if possible. Leading a group can be a huge role to take on and in this case, it might not have been immediately apparent to the Chef what s/he was supposed to do.

2) Clean up: This was where it became clear some of the leaders were happy to let their worker bees do everything. In a burst of group spirit, many groups cleared all their dishes in one fell swoop and were prepared to have one or two group members wash everything. Other groups sent up each person with their own dish and one group item to wash. Those kids got stuck behind the kids trying to wash 25 items and the line stalled. This is easy to fix. Next week we'll practice having each student wash their eating dishes first, then work out a plan for washing everything else. One of these days, it will all work smoothly and I won't be left with a pile of dishes to finish at 3PM...

You've read this far and may be wondering where the pictures are. Whoops! I left the camera at school. I'll post some pictures tomorrow.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Friday afternoon's mess does not justifies the $3 I saved in materials, but even still, our ice cream making adventure was a success.

The focus this week was on reading a recipe and measuring ingredients. I found a recipe titled Ice Cream for One that necessitated measuring liquid and dry ingredients using both measuring cups and measuring spoons. Best of all was the freezing method: place the ice cream ingredients in a small freezer ziploc (tightly sealed), then place that ziploc in a larger ziploc filled with salt and ice. Seal the big bag completely and then shake until frozen. Can you imagine a better activity for a Friday afternoon  -- shake the bejeezus out of a bag and behold! Ice cream!

[You may be thinking, as I did, that this is an excellent recipe for food chemistry. We could spend more than one lesson on this between the phase changes and the salt depressing the freezing point of the ice. I've made note of this for next year when I am back in the first year cycle of science curriculum.]

In an attempt to be economical, I spent the week making ice cubes at home so I wouldn't have to shell out for bags of ice. (Also, the cubes melt slower so they seemed better than crushed ice for this job.) Each ziploc needed 1/2 cup of salt which totals a whole lotta salt. Luckily, Emilyinthekitchen had containers of iodized salt she doesn't cook with, so one less item to buy. When I mentioned my worry that someone wouldn't follow the recipe correctly and might mix the salt into the ice cream ingredients, she said, "Oh, I think some of them need to eat salty ice cream." Prophetic words...

She also offered me large ziplocs, but they weren't of the freezer variety. I had already tested out the recipe with my own children using the recommended freezer ziplocs. Thursday night I took one of the non-freezer bags home and tried the recipe again. The results were the same, so I crossed freezer ziplocs off my shopping list.

Sometimes you think you're saving money, but it's really not worth it.

But let's talk about what did work, shall we?

Friday at 2PM I did a short introduction on how to measure liquid and dry ingredients. I also talked about the importance of reading a recipe carefully and making sure one understands each step. "Ask your partner, ask another student, ask me if you aren't sure," I told everyone. Then I handed out the recipes, set out the ingredients, and stood by with the camera.

As predicted, the bag shaking was a big hit.

What I didn't foresee were the variables between Liz-making-ice-cream-at-home and students-making-ice-cream-in-the-classroom. For one, it was about 60 degrees when I tested the non-freezer ziplocs. Compare this to a billion degrees in a stuffy Friday afternoon classroom. My shaking method is also a bit less...enthusiastic than the average eleven year old. The results being that everyone's ziplocs were leaking like fountains all over the tables and floors, and one duo gave such an almighty shake that the bottom of the bag split open in one fell swoop and two cups of melted ice mixed with half a cup of salt hit the floor with a ginormous SPLOOSH.

No picture of that - sorry.

After school when I told the teacher next door about the ziplocs, she shook her head and let out an, "Ohhh...." that made me realize what an idiotic thing I'd done. On the other hand, it was an opportunity for me to admit a mistake to my class (which I did) and accept responsibility for a foolish choice, something kids often have a hard time doing. But there it is. We all make mistakes, and hopefully we all learn from them.

Most kids got to enjoy ice cream like this:

But at least one pair had to beg a taste from friends as they dumped their salt into the ice cream ingredients. I didn't sweat it -- this was a logical consequence for their mistake. And one of the two even said, "Where's a copy of the recipe for me to try at home? I need to read it more carefully."


Clean up went really well considering the watery messes scattered across the room. Everyone washed their own cups and spoons and most even remembered to dry them. As we raced to finish cleaning up the room at five minutes to three, a group of kids clustered around the sink and counter making sure everything got taken care of, and another hung out in the corner fooling around. I bemoaned this to Su, who reminded me, "It's still only September." We have many more months to streamline the process and make sure everyone's owning the process.

They left, having tracked salty wet footprints out of that one puddle and across the entire floor. I apologized profusely to the after school janitor and wished that we could just send in a couple of deer who would undoubtedly have the salt lick cleared off my floor in no time.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What Am I Up To Now?

You know how you get a song stuck in your head? This week, I've found myself singing a little ditty by Vanilla Ice each time I open up the freezer to make a batch guessed cubes! It's not the usual work a teacher brings home, but I'll take it over grading a stack of writing pieces.

Here's a quick multiple choice quiz for you to take as you ponder what I'm up to.

Why does Liz need to make 22 cups of ice before Friday?
a) There's no ice making machine at her school.
b) She is too cheap to buy it.
c) She prefers homemade to store bought.
d) I don't know, but I bet it's for a fun Friday afternoon project.
e) All of the above.

Congratulations! You've finished the quiz. Now that your work is done, enjoy this ridiculous video!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

First Date Jitters

You'd think after all the crazy recipes we cooked last year that I would begin this year with a sense of confidence. On one hand, I know whatever I try will work out fine -- or if it doesn't work out, life will go on and I'll probably have some good material for a blog post. Even still, last Friday morning I started the day with the kind of nervous excitement that could be compared to first date jitters: I know I like doing this, but I have no idea how this upcoming event will go...

Once again I am starting the year with simple cooking activities designed to build a sense of community in the classroom. But I've upped the ante. I'm also using these first several weeks to teach some basic skills that students may or may not have. Which skills happen when are in part dependent on food availability and what inspirations I find on the internet.

For this first recipe, I wanted to keep it very simple but make something that would require the use of knives. I thought about seasonable, kid-friendly produce and quickly settled on watermelon. Using my favorite cookbook, Google, I found a recipe for watermelon salad that added lemon juice and mint to the watermelon. Perfect! A little different, but nothing too bizarre for the second week of school. Our school continues to benefit from a federal fresh fruits and veggies grant, so I am able to get my produce for free through the school kitchen, which is sourcing produce locally whenever possible. The watermelon came from Lewis Creek Farm, which is literally a five minute walk from the school.

Like someone anxious about their impending date, I planned the conversation that would kick things off. I've never written down notes before a date, but I did this time! In five minutes we covered why we cook in the classroom and the basics of knife safety. Then everyone got chopping! My favorite food assistant, Su, was on hand to get materials out to kids, collect compost scraps, and do whatever else came up. How lucky are we?

Watermelon was quickly chopped and most kids got to help with juicing a lemon, chopping up some mint, or mixing the whole mess together. (One more "How lucky am I?": Our kitchen manager, Emily, was not sure she'd be able to get mint, so another kitchen chef, Doreen, brought in a lovely bunch from her garden.)

We ate our lovely salad, then talked about the process. Some kids wanted more mint, some preferred less lemon juice. Part of cooking is following a recipe, but part of it is seasoning a dish to taste. This was a great opportunity to bring up this idea. Out of 22 kids, all but 2 finished their serving and most asked for seconds. And everyone tried this new dish -- something to celebrate!

The final part of the lesson centered around clean up. I did a quick mini lesson on how to wash and dry your own dishes and then kids started that process and did end of week clean up routines around the room. I am hoping being more intentionally about training for these routines will make every cooking experience run more smoothly, while also teaching important life skills.
It warms my heart to see kids lined up waiting to do the dishes!
Hooray! We finished in time for a short recess, and of course Su snuck back into the room and did the last few community dishes we hadn't gotten to. What are we going to do about her??