'Wait, what? We are eating plants? This stuff grows in the ground?'

Instructor Maddy Booth, right, shows a piece of ginger root to young chefs (from left) Damir Freeman, 12; Germaine Glover, 10; Kareem Freeman, 11; Shamaj Henry, 10; and Brianna Miller, 12.

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.

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Instructor Maddy Booth gives Germaine Glover, 10, a quick lesson in fractions using a carrot slice.

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.

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Instructor Maddy Booth (left) helps Kareem Freeman, 11, cut a head of cauliflower.

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.

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Kareem Freeman, 11, grates cauliflower.

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.

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Damir Freeman, 12, slices carrots for a cauliflower “fried rice” dish.

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.

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Damir Freeman, 12, cracks open an egg to scramble for the cauliflower  dish.

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.”

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Shemaj Henry, 10, rear, helps Kareem Freeman, 11, add chopped snow peas to a cauliflower fried rice dish as Kareem’s brother, Damir, 12, stirs the pan.

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.

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Participants rate a cauliflower “fried rice” dish they made.


Cauliflower Fried Rice

Kareem Freeman, 11, serves a plate of cauliflower fried rice to co-instructor Paula Booth.

INGREDIENTS

1 head cauliflower, leaves and stem
removed
2 teaspoons canola oil
4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
3 cloves garlic, minced
One 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and
grated
2 medium carrots, diced small
1 cup snow peas, cut into bite-size pieces
or 1 cup frozen peas, thawed
¼ cup thinly sliced scallions, reserved from
cucumber salad
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy
sauce, plus more for serving, optional

DIRECTIONS

1. Cut the cauliflower into chunks. Working
in batches, grate the cauliflower until
coarse in texture, like rice.
2. Heat a wok or large skillet over medium-high
heat. Add 1 teaspoon of the canola
oil. Add the eggs and quickly scramble.
Transfer the eggs to a plate and set
aside. Heat the remaining 2 teaspoons
canola oil. Add the garlic and ginger and
cook, stirring constantly, about 1 minute.
Add the snow peas, if using, and
carrots, scallions, and cauliflower. Stir-fry
until the vegetables are tender, about 5
minutes.
3. Stir the thawed peas, if using, and soy
sauce into the cauliflower mixture. Cook
an additional minute or 2, or until the
peas are warmed through. Stir the
cooked eggs back into the mixture.
4. Serve with a side of cucumber salad.

Per serving: 113 calories, 5 g fat, 160 mg cholesterol, 630 mg sodium, 338 mg potassium, 10 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, 4 g sugar, 8 g protein


Cucumber salad

A cucumber salad

INGREDIENTS

2 large thin-skinned cucumbers (about 1½
pounds), sliced thin
Salt to taste
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 small garlic clove, minced or pureed
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more to
taste
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 bunch scallions, white and light-green
parts, thinly sliced (¼ cup reserved for
fried rice)

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

DIRECTIONS

1. Sprinkle the cucumbers with a generous
amount of salt and let sit in a colander in
the sink for 15 minutes. Rinse and dry
on a kitchen towel. Transfer to a salad
bowl.
2. Whisk together the vinegar, soy sauce,
sugar, garlic, ginger, red pepper flakes,
and pepper. Whisk in the oil. Toss with
the cucumbers, scallions, and cilantro.
Chill until ready to serve as a side with
cauliflower fried rice.

Per serving: 69 calories, 5 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 179 mg sodium, 213 mg potassium, 6 g carbohydrates, 1 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 1 g protein