Chopped Challenge! Bok Choy and Tofu with Soy Honey Glaze, Baby Spinach Salad with Lemon Dressing, Tamarind Fizzes, and Plum Mascarpone Galette

 

If you haven’t seen the new Katie Couric documentary “Fed Up,” I strongly recommend seeing it with your kids. In addition to the usual talking heads, it features sympathetic kids struggling with food choices. It delivers a powerful message that excess sugar is about more than obesity (one can be thin and still suffer from ill effects), and that our food industry has a lot in common with the tobacco industry. My teen son found it incredibly motivating (now I need to take my daughter!). When asked how to get children to join in on the “real food” journey, Michael Pollan said:

I find the best way to enlist children in eating real food is to get them involved in growing food and cooking food. My son would eat vegetables in the garden that he would never eat at the table–there was something about picking them himself that made him curious, and he was often surprised how good they tasted. Cooking, too, gives kids an investment in foods they might otherwise not eat. It also demystifies foods for them. To some picky eaters, cooked food is a black box –what the hell is that sauce hiding? they wonder– and their suspiciousness is allayed when they see how a food is prepared, that it is the sum of ingredients that aren’t scary or disgusting. Kids will eat food they cook because they have an investment in it. They also love the process. It’s about the magic of transformation, after all.”

bok choy holyTrue enough. But the proof is in the pudding. For our last class of the semester, I tested the kids with a “Chopped” challenge. Could they improvise a delicious meal from a pile of veggies and a few odd ingredients and actually ENJOY it? The first hurdle was mine, in choosing what to throw at them. Our Jubilee farmbox had beautiful bok choy (its “eyelet lace” evidence of no pesticides), flowering arugula, asparagus, potatoes, spinach, and eggs. At the grocery store, I tossed in some tofu, a huge Portabello mushroom, some plums, cream, and a lemon. Then for added challenge, a tub of mascarpone and a few tamarind pods. From my home kitchen, I added a box of thawed phyllo dough and some fish sauce. Talk about fusion! Something either delicious or positively inedible could happen. Or both.

The kids were jumping in their seats, eager to begin. Tempting fate, I asked them to fill out a brief evaluation, as I knew we would have no time after eating. Despite their reluctance to do “paperwork,” they gave the class high marks in every area, indicating it had significantly increased their food awareness, skills, confidence, and gratitude. They had some concrete suggestions for improvement as well: “get sharper knives,” and “start cooking sooner so we have more time to eat.”  Several of them said they wanted to take the class again. I was immensely gratified.

arugulablossomsI brought out the groceries and let the kids examine and taste. The arugula flowers met with nods, the phyllo dough with frowns, and the tamarind fruit with laughter (“it tastes like gummy bears!”). After discussion, the eggs, asparagus, and potatoes were nixed, as the kids had cooked with them recently. Soon a menu took shape on the whiteboard, tasks were assigned, and the room buzzed with barely contained chaos. With a little over an hour to make a stirfry, salad, beverage, and dessert, it was all hands on deck. At one end of the room, Josh prepared ginger and tamarind for steeping, at the other end, Megan chopped bok choy while Hana whipped up a glaze based on her memories of a meal in a Japanese restaurant. Maddy sliced plums and Lilly buttered phyllo dough while Justin prepared the salad dressing, finessing the balance with additional salt. Timmy stemmed the spinach and arugula, and added peanuts for crunch.

dustinmaddyplatesWith ten minutes to spare, the meal was plated. To our mutual surprise, when I asked who wanted to “say gratitude,” all hands shot in the air. What had once been an awkward task had become an easy, and even enjoyable, routine. I tapped Justin to do the job, and he did, eloquently, thanking our farmers (Jubilee), providers (Met Market), and awesome helpers (we couldn’t have done this without Doug and Christina). Then the cooks ate what they made, and pronounced it good. (How many classrooms in the city, I wondered, could one find a bunch of kids eating bok choy and spinach, sipping tamarind-tinged soda, and discussing fat/acid ratios?!)

There are no recipes, as they didn’t use any. Below, however, I’ve outlined the gist of the dishes from memory, so students who want to recreate them at home will have no trouble. Just remember to:

  • Begin by preheating the oven to 350 degrees.
  • Start the syrup first, which benefits from a long simmer.
  • Then start the rice.
  • Next prepare the galette, which can bake while you make everything else.
  • Remember to PUT IN PLACE aka mise en place.
  • Taste, adjust, taste!

Tofu Stirfry with Soy Honey Glaze and Brown Rice

For the sake of speed, we cooked the brown rice in the microwave, and it turned out just fine. The ratio is one cup of rice to 2 cups water. Use a microwave-safe bowl and zap for 30 minutes or as long as required. Stop and fluff every 10 minutes or so with a fork. Make a glaze of soy, honey, and Mirin with some grated fresh ginger. Adjust until you’re satisfied. For the stirfry, wash and roughly chop a big bunch of bok choy (it reduces considerably with heat). Brush clean and slice a large Portabella mushroom. Mince two cloves of garlic. Cube a pound of firm tofu. Ten minutes before you’re ready to eat (make sure the rice and salad are done!), heat some olive oil in your wok, then add the garlic and tofu and fry until golden. Add the bok choy and mushrooms, along with a few dashes of fish sauce, and fry until soft. Toss with glaze, and serve with the rice. (Similar results could be obtained with Molly Katzen’s stirfry recipe, but if there was ever a dish that called for improv, this is it! Go wild.)

Baby Spinach Salad with Lemon Dressing

With a ratio of  3 parts fat to 1 part acid,  make a simple vinaigrette of olive oil and lemon juice, then add some grated Parmesan to maintain the emulsion. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, then taste it before tossing with washed and well-dried baby spinach leaves. Top with arugula blossoms (pinched clear of their stems), halved cherry tomatoes, and chopped roasted nuts of your choosing.

Tamarind Fizzes

Heat 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup sweetener (honey or sugar) in a small pan until dissolved. Add a few coins of fresh ginger and the gooey fruit of a tamarind pod (toss the pod!), and simmer for five minutes or longer as desired (the longer the stronger). Remove from heat and cool in refrigerator. Strain and add to sparkling water. Add lemon juice if you have any left! Your parents might like a little gin in it.

Plum Mascarpone Galette

Wash, slice, and pit 6-9 ripe plums, then macerate with a little sugar. the amount of which will vary on the tartness of your fruit. More tart means more sugar; have fun tasting to adjust. On a rimmed baking sheet, brush 8 or 9 layers of thawed phyllo dough with melted butter (one layer at a time). Don’t fret if you get ragged tears. It’s RUSTIC. Fluff a tub of Mascarpone cheese and spoon half of it onto the center of the dough, then cover with plums (drained of any juice). Fold the edges of the dough toward the center and pop in the oven for about half an hour. Slice and top with cold whipped cream. Crispy, gooey, hot, tart, and sweet. What more could you ask of a dessert?

As each kid hung up their apron for the last time this school year, I felt a lump in my throat. It has been a wonderful experience cooking with them and learning from them. The biggest lesson for me? Never underestimate their potential. They are capable of so much.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Beverage, Dessert, Entree, Gluten-Free, Salad, Vegetarian

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