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Kids can cook!

Sierra Harvest’s tasting week teaches 2,700 local students culinary skills

Valerie Costa

Kids throughout western Nevada County had the opportunity last week to learn how to cook delicious dishes using fresh, local ingredients as part of Sierra Harvest’s annual Tasting Week. The event is one of the highlights of the nonprofit’s Farm to School Program, and this year reached 2,700 K-12 students at 25 different schools.

On Wednesday, October 11, and Friday, October 13, 24 volunteer chefs taught cooking lessons utilizing local, fresh, seasonal and organic produce to inspire and excite the students to eat healthy and fresh food. Each lesson was geared toward the grade it was presented to, so younger students received instruction on basics such as cutting fruits and vegetables and mixing ingredients, while older students were taught more advanced culinary concepts like the proper way to chop herbs and how and why to reduce liquids when cooking.

At Mount St. Mary Academy in downtown Grass Valley, students got to chop, measure, mix, and taste a quinoa cucumber salad thanks to volunteer chef Kathie Beckham. More than just a cooking instruction, Beckham gave the students an interactive lesson on the ingredients, and taught them that quinoa comes from South America and is a staple in Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, and Bolivia, and has been eaten in those countries for the past 7,000 years. She also led a rousing discussion about tomatoes and cucumbers, and whether they are fruits or vegetables. Beckham explained that tomatoes can be classified as both because of the Supreme Court. She taught the students that in the late 1800s, John Nix, who imported and exported produce, claimed (and rightly so according to the scientific definition) that tomato was a fruit not subject to being taxed. Nix, who was taxed on the tomatoes, took the Collector of the Port of New York to court to recover his money, and in 1893 the case went to the Supreme Court, who ruled that the tomato should be classified as a vegetable.

The students were intrigued by the history of the ingredients in their dishes, but even more interested in the process of making the recipe. They took turns chopping onions, peeling cucumbers, cutting cilantro, juicing limes, and more, and then at the end had the opportunity to try their creation. 5th grader Farrah commented as she was cutting cilantro leaves from the plant, “I’ve never had cilantro before. It smells so strong.” Her classmate Aiden said after trying the salad, “I like the quinoa and tomatoes together.”

At Nevada Union High School, Tess’ Kitchen Store owner Steve Rosenthal was the guest chef of the day, and gave a demonstration on how to make Pasta Primavera to the school’s culinary classes. An older, more sophisticated audience, these students were given some great cooking tips, such as starting with the vegetables that have tougher skin, such as broccoli and carrots, and then cooking the softer vegetables such as mushrooms and squash separately (and in butter, because butter makes everything better). Rosenthal also cautioned the students to wait until the end to add the garlic so it didn’t burn and become bitter, and how to flip the pan to mix the vegetables, “So you look cool and like you know what you’re doing,” he joked.

Rosenthal also taught the students that their hands are their best kitchen tool, but to make sure they are clean, and that cooking is something that engages all of the senses. “When you cook, you cook with all your senses,” he said. “If you don’t hear the sizzle when you put the onions in, you know your pan isn’t hot enough,”

Nearly all of the ingredients used during these cooking classes came from local farms and most were organic. Aimee Retzler, Co-Director of Sierra Harvest, says that these events are meant to inspire kids to get excited about eating and cooking with fresh, healthy, and local produce, and then to bring that enthusiasm back home to their parents. “One of the barriers we hear from people in the community is that they don’t know what to do with their produce,” she said. “When we can show these kids what to do with fresh ingredients it opens their world. Tasting week removes those barriers to eating fresh and local. No excuses!”

To learn more about Sierra Harvest and the many great community programs they provide year-round, visit sierraharvest.org.

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