Grating a head of cauliflower into tiny grains and using it instead of rice was the intended cooking lesson last week at Chester Eastside, an after-school program connected to St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chester. But the lesson these grade-schoolers took in was actually much more profound.
A cauliflower was held aloft and the children were asked to describe the different parts, from the roots to the leaves to the flower.
A rapt 11-year-old raised his hand.
"Wait, what? We are eating plants?" said Germaine Glover, his eyes wide. "This stuff grows in the ground?"
It was a reminder that with so many Americans consuming frozen and fast-food dinners, and so many children eating prepackaged meals for school lunch, there are few opportunities for kids to learn where the food on their plates actually comes from.
But, in one moment, a connection was made.
Cooking instructor extraordinare Maddy Booth explained that, yes, all these vegetables in the recipe for cauliflower fried "rice" — garlic, carrots, snow peas, scallions and cauliflower — were plants that grow in the ground and that several of them were root vegetables that absorbed their minerals and nutrients right from the dirt.
Maddy is the education program manager for the Vetri Community Partnership, which helps to bring healthy and economical cooking classes to more than 200 children at 40 urban schools around the region through the My Daughter's Kitchen program. Her job involves coordinating all the lesson plans, volunteers, schools, and equipment for the program, and then some. Last week, her job also included filling in for one of the 80 volunteer teachers, namely Sallie Anderson, who started the cooking program at Chester Eastside.
In a lovely but unintended nod to the program, which was inspired by lessons I taught my own daughter, Maddy brought as her assistant the woman who taught her to cook, her mother, Paula Booth. "My mom was the queen of making leftovers into soup," Maddy said. "She saved every scrap, and the soup was never the same twice," she said. "We'd say, 'Mom, this is amazing, can you make this again?' and she wouldn't even remember everything she threw in."
Her mom's resourcefulness came in handy when Maddy started cooking for herself, and she continues to teach students that just about any vegetable trimming can be saved to go into stock, a great lesson when cooking on a budget.
The mother-and-daughter team led the children through what appeared to be two very simple recipes — cauliflower fried "rice" and a cucumber salad — but that were a bit more complicated with young and emerging cooks doing the chopping and prepping.
Kareem Freeman, 11, found that it took quite some time to cut the cauliflower into sections and then grate those into tiny shards. "It's making sooo much," he marveled as his effort was filling a large mixing bowl.
Germaine had another lightbulb moment as he was chopping the scallions and found his eyes watering: "Hey, wait a minute! Are these onions?" he asked.
Shemaj Henry, 10, worked hard to scrape the skin off the ginger with a spoon and then grate it for both dishes. The hardest part may have been getting the ginger out of the grater.
Brianna Miller, 12, the only girl in the group, worked quietly and efficiently, chopping and measuring the ingredients for the cucumber salad before tossing them together. "All these flavors are coming together so nicely," she said as she tasted a cucumber.
Damir Freeman, 12, took pride in cracking the eggs and then whisking them before they were scrambled for the fried rice dish. "I do this at home when we make breakfast," he said.
The children all gathered around the stove as all of the prepped ingredients were added one by one to the big cast-iron skillet.
"It looked like it was not that much food, just a few vegetables," said Germaine. "But it really is."
Before the children began to eat, Germaine asked to offer a blessing for so much more than the food: "Thank you, God, for sending the young lady and her mom here to us. They're so nice and they brought all this nice food and they teach us how to cook."
And as they tucked into their plates, they offered assessments of their cooking: "I like that the vegetables are soft and moist," said Damir. "I like that it's healthy," said Brianna. "I like that it's sweet and saucy," said Kareem.
But the best review of all: The children finished their plates and asked for seconds.