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A Taste for The Kitchen

SANTA FE, N.M. — The cafeteria cooks left the green chile out of the quesadillas.

And, in the measured consideration of four of the “Sweeney Cougar Cooks” who had created the menu, that was an error. Vegetarian quesadillas with beans, corn, cheese and no green chile are … a little bland, thought fifth-graders Jailey Benavidez, 11; Jailine Arballo, 12; Jessica Perez, 11; and Gisel Lopez, 12.

“They shoulda put it in there,” Perez said.

a/k/a Sweeney Cougar Power Lentils
(6 servings)1/2 cup lentils, brown or green
2 cups water
3/4 tsp olive oil
2 Tbsp onions, chopped
3/4 tsp garlic, minced
1/2 tsp ground cumin
3/4 tsp ground mild red chile, optional
1/2 tsp prepared chili powder
1/3 cup diced tomatoes, canned or fresh
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped

Combine the lentils and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook the lentils until tender, about an hour. If needed, add more water.
Sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil for 2 to 3 minutes, until softened. Stir in the ground cumin, ground red chile, if using, and chili powder. Add this mixture to the cooked lentils. Stir in the tomatoes and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the
heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Just before serving, stir in the chopped cilantro, or use it as a garnish for the lentils.

But volunteer Chef Rocky Durham, who works with the Cooking With Kids (CWK) students who designed Wednesday’s menu, had a thought. “You know,” he noted, “these kids know and love green chile. But the cafeteria workers are cooking for the whole school. The little first-graders might not be so thrilled with green chile in their quesadillas.”

Despite such missteps, the Sweeney Cougar Cooks, fifth-graders at the southside elementary school who participate in the monthly CWK classes, had a wonderful day Wednesday.

Clad in royal-blue Sweeney T-shirts and matching blue bandannas to cover their hair, they prepared a special lentil recipe they’d invented for a national contest, pairing it with the quesadillas (made with homemade whole wheat tortillas) and mixed green salad with orange vinaigrette and orange wedges for a balanced, delicious lunch that was being evaluated by a trio of judges associated with the contest.

Sweeney’s “Lentils of the Southwest,” aka “Sweeney Cougar Power Lentils,” have made it to the final stage of the Recipes for Healthy Kids Challenge jointly sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative to reduce childhood obesity.

Sweeney’s entry is one of 15 semifinalists among the 340 recipes submitted by schools across the country. At stake is a trip to Dallas this summer. If Sweeney makes it to the finals, some of its kids will compete in a national cook-off at the American Culinary Federation. The winning teams will be invited to prepare their nutrition-packed meals alongside White House chefs.

On Wednesday, the kids took over a classroom to demonstrate meal preparation, while the judges circulated among them, discussing the things foodies always talk about: ingredients, sources and kitchen skills. They found that the Santa Fe children learn the names of all ingredients in English and Spanish—cumin is comino and cilantro is coriander.

The judges were Eileen Ferruggiano, head of the USDA childhood nutrition division in Alexandria, Va., and creator of the contest; Chef Roland Schaeffer of St. Augustine, Fla., a member of the American Academy of Chefs Hall of Fame, and Karen Green, student nutrition director for Thomas County, Ga.

Ferruggiano told the students their recipe had already been selected for the Recipes for Healthy Kids cookbook that will be circulated among schools nationwide, “so you’ve already helped lots of kids eat healthy.” Green complimented Sweeney and its students on a Southern cultural value, “hospitality,” and said she’d enjoyed her visit to Santa Fe a great deal.

But she was curious about one thing: “Why is that student being so selective about his red peppers… uh, I mean, chile?”

The picky chile preparer, Eduardo Athie, 11, explained. “Red chiles are dried,” he told Green. “You want the crispier ones to grind in the mortar and pestle, because they’re drier and easier to grind up.”

He looked up at Chef Durham with a mischievous grin. “Seeds or no seeds?”

“Maybe just a few seeds,” Durham told him. “Red chile is familiar to all of you, but it’s not impossible that our guests have never had some of these foods.”

Asked his opinion of the Power Lentils, Schaeffer said they were “very good.” Maybe just a tad too much cumin. And he agreed solemnly, chef to chef, with student Jessica Aguilar’s murmured suggestion that the lentils could do with a little lemon. “Maybe a little lemon or lime, that would brighten all the ingredients a bit,” Schaeffer said.

The flavors of the meal were not strange to him, the German-born Schaeffer said. “My wife is from Mexico City.”

Cooking With Kids

Santa Fe-based Cooking With Kids, which led to the Sweeney students’ contest participation, a 16-year-old nonprofit organization intended to help elementary school students develop healthy eating habits through hands-on learning with fresh, affordable foods from diverse cultural traditions. Salaried food educators, classroom teachers, farmers and chefs work together to help students from kindergarten through fifth grade prepare main dishes, learning about the food sources.

This year, CWK is in 10 Santa Fe elementary schools, teaching more than 3,900 students, according to founder and executive director Lynn Walters.

The program began when she and her husband owned The Natural Café, and her children were in preschool classes. Walters said she realized that children had no idea where food came from; they thought it came from packages. Working with an ad hoc group of school nutritionists, chefs and other concerned parents, Walters started Cooking With Kids. Its premise is based on two principles: 1) that kids won’t eat unfamiliar food, and 2) working with various foods increases the acceptance rate.

Durham has been volunteering at Sweeney Elementary for four years, he said. The demo was special, but “this is what CWK does every day,” Durham, 41, said. “These kids have been in this program since kindergarten. It’s a real, home-grown program and it’s just amazing. It just makes sense to me.

“We’ve given them tools, space and instruction, but these kids actually invented this dish,” he told the judges.

Because its curriculum is integrated with other subjects they’re already studying, CWK improves the students’ progress on many levels, Sweeney Principal Theresa Ulibarri said.

“It’s not just cooking. They get tasting classes and keep a food journal where they record their notes on what they taste and keep a record of recipes,” the principal said. “It makes them more articulate — in two languages — and encourages them to take more risks. And it’s teaching parents. … One parent told me about being in the store with her son and he asked, ‘Are those blood oranges? Because you know, blood oranges are special.’ He could tell her all about them.”

Flor de Maria Oliva, the CWK food educator at Sweeney, said the school’s program is “one of the best we have. It’s very integrated. The kids are learning geography, history, cultural traditions, math …”

Sandy Sena, the fifth-grade teacher for most of the Cougar Cooks (six of the 30 were from Liz Hernandez’ fifth-grade class) said CWK had been at Sweeney for more than 14 years. “My kids learn a lot of collaborative skills from this program, and it makes them want to try different things,” she said.

Learning about foods from around the world, and the music that accompanies those traditions, were among the favorite parts of the program for Antonia Alejo, 12. “You can take the recipes home and it’s like you can always have a little restaurant at home,” she commented.

Gisel Lopez said the people who teach it are all nice, “and we can trust them.

“We can trust them that they know how to hold things like knives and that they can show us how to cook properly,” she said.

Jessica Perez also enjoyed the home-cooking skills she’d learned. “One time, I made tortillas for my family,” she said. “They said that they were good — they just needed a little more salt.”

Photo Credit – eddie moore/journal
Cutline – Diana Ornelas, left, and Leslye Torres cook tortillas Wednesday as they and other fifth-graders take part in a national contest for tasty, healthy recipes.