Well, it’s finally happened. The kids in the food appreciation classes I teach at a private elementary school here in the District of Columbia have graduated (the older ones, at least) from plastic knives to real knives.
The only reason this hadn’t happened sooner was my failure to deliver on promises I’d been making for, oh, the last couple of years. Turns out elementary-aged children are perfectly capable of dicing an onion with a steak knife. So I made a trip to Target and bought several sets of those “Made in China” knives that sell for $1 dollar each. Then we organized a cooking lesson around a dish that requires lots of vegetable prep: vegetable soup.
The biggest class of the four I teach, each for one hour, one hour a week, is the “A” group. These are the pre-K and Kindergarteners. They’re going to need to get a little older before we offer to replace their plastic knives. But the kids in grades one through five handled it just fine. Since our first rule in these classes is, “No blood in the food,” the criteria for passing knife certification were extremely simple: If you cut yourself, you are disqualified.
I show the kids how to cut by pressing down and forward with the knife at the same time. This is not a motion easily grasped. But the kids certainly try, as opposed to simply hacking away at the vegetables. We always aim to be cutting something that lays flat on the cutting surface. Things that like to roll or pitch while you are cutting them frequently are the ones that lead to injuries. Thus, to dice carrots, I like to cut the carrot into manageable lengths, then stand those vertically in order to slice them into thinner pieces, or batons. (Is this how they teach it in chef school?)
We only had one teensy, eensy cut involving a girl who generally is a little overly energetic. I passed her on a probationary basis. We will be watching her closely in future classes. But I had to quickly improvise some other rules. For instance: Knives do not leave the table. Despite being cheap, these are extremely sharp steak knives. In this first lesson, I learned that kids have no idea how dangerous they can become if, say, you get very excited and start waving your arms around, gesticulating as excited kids do from time to time. Or running after one another in a moment of sudden hilarity, the knife still in your hand.
So, knives do not leave the table.
I had brought from home a stock made with chicken backs. When the lesson involves something that takes longer than 20 minutes to cook, I typically bring a finished version from home, then the kids make it for the classes that follow. The chicken stock was simply an onion cut in half; a couple of carrots and a couple of stalks of celery cut into rough pieces; a fistful of parsley; a large leek, trimmed, carefully cleaned of any grit. and cut into rough pieces; a couple of bay leaves; and a half-dozen peppercorns. On top of the aromatics I laid 2 1/2 pounds of chicken backs, hacked roughly into pieces with a cleaver. The backs are a good lesson in food economy, since they only cost 79 cents a pound and use a part of the chicken that otherwise wouldn’t be eaten. (The next class would add another 2 1/2 pounds of backs, plenty to make a dense stock.)
The kids love watching me whack chicken with a big cleaver, so that part is fun, and breaking up the bones releases lots of wonderful collagen and flavor into the stock. (At this point, you could roast the backs in a 450-degree oven for even more flavor and a browner stock.) The weight of the chicken helps keep everything submerged. I then cover the whole mess generously with water and weigh it down, usually with my folding, stainless steamer basket.
For the soup, we had no particular recipe. I just cruised the produce section looking for as many seasonal, colorful vegetables as I could find: onion, carrot, celery, cabbage, fennel, broccoli, acorn squash. We would also add half a 14-ounce can each of diced tomatoes and great northern beans.
So the kids simply got to work dicing the vegetables. I cut each item into manageable pieces; the kids took it from there. On hand as a guest was none other than the D.C. Public Schools’ new food services director, Jeffrey Mills. Mr. Mills, formerly a restaurant entrepreneur in New York, has been making a whirlwind tour of area food attractions that focus on healthhful meals from fresh, whole ingredients. Watch this space for more news about that, as the approach Wills says he intends to follow is dramatically different from what kids in our public schools currently are seeing in the cafeteria. (See my recent six-part series on the sad state of school food here in the nation’s capital.)
The onions, carrot and celery were sauteed with a teaspoon of salt for a few minutes in olive oil at the bottom of a heavy pot, the other vegetables added along with the tomatoes, the beans and a generous amount of finished chicken stock. We seasoned it simply with ground pepper and dried thyme. The soup cooked about 20 minutes, or until the vegetables were tender. If you like, you can be a little more precise with the broccoli and add it somewhere in the middle of the cooking time, so that it isn’t cooked to death and maintains some of its color.
At this point, while the soup is cooking, we typically remove to another part of the multi-purpose room and read a story. This is one of my favorite parts of our cooking classes: finding a good picture book to accompany the theme of our cooking lesson. We’ve been reading lots of African stories lately, since we happen to be visiting there on our virtual world food tour. For this knife certification and soup making session, the choice of story seemed obvious: “Stone Soup,” a tale about three soldies who trick a bunch of villagers into coughing up the meat and vegetables they’ve been hiding by pretending to make a soup out of stones.
Then we divided our finished soup into hot drink cups and stood back as the kids wolfed it down. I couldn’t help turning to Mr. Mills, the new food services director, and giving him a little nudge: This is how you get kids to eat their vegetables.
And truly, it is.