Posts Tagged ‘Edible Schoolyard’

An Edible Education in Thailand

March 3, 2010

Kyle Cornforth was up for a challenge. So when the founder of a cooking school in the outskirts of Chiang Mai asked Kyle, who was working at the Edible Schoolyard at the time, if she’d like to come on board as director of The Prem Organic Cooking Academy and Farm, she leapt at the chance. She wanted to share what she’d learned about local, sustainable, organic cooking at a public school in north Berkeley with students and staff at an international school in northern Thailand.

So last summer, Kyle and her husband Jay, a teacher at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley where Edible is based (the two actually met in the garden, cue a chorus of awws), packed their bags and headed off on an adventure in Asia with their daughter Zorah.

“It was an opportunity we just couldn’t pass up as a family,” says Kyle via video Skype. (Full disclosure: We met at Edible, where I’m a volunteer.)

“Professionally, it was also a privilege to work with teachers and children from other parts of the world,” Kyle adds. “We knew it would be uncomfortable at times. We were pretty set in our ways in our lovely little Berkeley life. We thought it would be good for us.”

That’s proven to be the case. Going to live in another continent sounds super cool. And, for the most part, it is. Kyle loves the liveliness, colors, sounds, smells, sights, and tastes of Thailand. She even loves that simply getting into town, about 45 minutes away, is its own adventure.

But as anyone who has ever done it will tell you, moving out of your comfort zone, setting up shop in another country, and navigating an unfamiliar culture is not without its challenges.

Even something as seemingly banal as the weather can take time to get used to. Kyle finds the heat and humidity in Chiang Mai tough after the temperate, foggy Bay Area.

She pines for simple foods from far away. (She wrote a lovely blog post about how much she missed her daily bread.)

A soft-spoken woman with a kind demeanor, Kyle finds it incongruous that at times she feels like the loud, brash, opinionated American. Her gentle but direct manner and problem-solving approach doesn’t always serve her well here — it can offend — and so she’s figured out how to communicate to better suit local tastes.

The family is thriving in their temporary Thai home. Kyle, 30, describes her daughter and husband as being “Thai in their past lives,” pointing out, as evidence, that they happily eat rice for breakfast.

Kyle is learning about the principles behind traditional Thai cooking, with its emphasis on food as medicine.  And its key flavors: sweet, salty, buttery, bland, astringent, bitter, spicy, cool, and sour.

She says she has adopted a new, favorite way of thinking about meal planning, the Thai concept known as grom grawm or contrast, surprise, and balance.

She’s on a personal mission to perfect making Khao Soy, a popular street dish, comprised of crispy egg noodles, pickled cabbage, shallots, lime, meat, curry sauce, and coconut milk.

And she is following the advice of a wise friend who encouraged her “to go slow and go deep,” in her new environment. So she makes a point of frequenting the same vendors at local markets or street stalls, developing relationships with these people and their food as she goes.

Founded in 2008 by the San Diego restauranteur Su-Mei Yu, the Prem academy teaches traditional Thai cooking and farming techniques to visiting school kids from international schools around the globe.

Yu grew up in Bangkok, moved to the U.S. as a teen, and opened the first Thai restaurant in San Diego some 25 years ago. The cookbook author wants to help preserve and pass on the customs she learned as a young child, both in the kitchen and on the land.

Yu discovered that children growing up in cities in Thailand — and other Asian nations –often have little knowledge about where food comes from or how to cook, not unlike many American children.

Yu is friends with Mom Luang Tridhosyuth Devakul, the founder of the Prem Tinsulanonda International School (known as the Prem Center), who planted a vast organic garden that was so prolific it wasn’t long before the farm was feeding students at the K-12 boarding school. Adding the cooking academy felt like a natural progression.

At Prem, students learn how to prepare authentic Thai food using traditional tools.

They make coconut milk using a little wooden stool with a sharp blade known as a kratai. They also use a mortar and pestle to grind spices for curries.

Kyle is expanding the program’s reach. Prem has begun offering intensive cooking classes aimed at adult travelers interested in experiencing real Thai cuisine. Participants explore Thai flavors with local chefs and make seasonal dishes using fresh organic ingredients such as Kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, and sweet basil all harvested from the Prem Academy’s garden.  Coconut, papaya, and bananas, are grown on site as well.

The program combines cooking and culture: Participants prepare alms trays, or offerings of food, to Buddhist monks at a nearby temple. Longer courses offer the chance to cook in local homes and meet village elders.

The classes are starting to find an audience.

This month AFAR includes Prem in a round-up of cooking schools around the world.

Last year Travel and Leisure featured a profile of the program by Karen Coates, who blogs beautifully on culinary travels at Rambling Spoon.

Kyle looks forward to bringing back a repertoire of Thai recipes to try out on family and friends in the Bay Area.

Below, she shares a simple noodle dish popular in northern Thailand.

Prem chef teacher Khun Nid learned this recipe from her mother.

It is considered a well-balanced, one dish meal.

In keeping with Thai principles it has salty, sweet, spicy, crunchy, and soft tastes and textures.

Enjoy.

Photos: Courtesy of Cornhens in Thailand

Pad Kanom Jeen

Northern Thai Style Rice Vermicelli

Makes 1- 2 servings

Ingredients:

2 cups room temperature rice vermicelli noodles, cooked

(can substitute soba, somen, or thin egg noodles)

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh red chili

2 stalks green onion, thinly sliced across

2 to 3 stalks cilantro, minced

Condiments:

1 egg

½ cup vegetable oil

1 slice firm tofu (1/4 by 3 inches), sliced into eighths

a handful fresh bean sprouts

¼ teaspoon dried chili powder (more or less according to taste)

Method:

1. Put the rice vermicelli in a mixing bowl and toss gently with the soy sauces to combine, being careful to not break up the noodle strands.

2. Sprinkle the sugar over the noodles and mix again. Set aside.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a wok over medium-low heat. Wait for 30 seconds and add the garlic.

4. Stir-fry garlic until golden and then add the noodles. Stir to mix until hot and fragrant.

5. Add the chili and stir to mix for about a minute.

6. Transfer to a serving plate.

7. Garnish the top of the noodles with green onion and cilantro.

Preparing the condiments:

1. Crack the egg into a small mixing bowl and beat it with a fork.

2. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil in a wok and heat over medium-low heat.

3. Spread and swirl the oil around the wok. Heat until hot, about 30 seconds.

4. Beat the egg vigorously and add to the hot oil. Swirl around into a thin sheet.

5. Carefully flip the egg over to cook other side when the bottom is slightly brown and the top congealed.

6. Transfer to a plate to cool once both sides are cooked.

7. Roll into a tight cylinder and slice across into thin strands. Set aside.

8. Add the rest of the oil to the wok, on medium-low heat.

9. Wait for a minute or so until the oil begins to smoke.

10. Add the tofu and deep-fry until crispy and golden, about 2 to 3 minutes.

11. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels.

12. Surround the noodles with mounds of omelet strands, crispy tofu, bean sprouts, and dried chili powder and serve.


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Cultivating Controversy: In Defense of an Edible Education

January 18, 2010

I was so royally peeved by Caitlin Flanagan’s hatchet job on Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard in her Atlantic piece “Cultivating Failure” that it’s taken me a week to simmer down enough to write about the matter with some decorum.

The snarky article takes a swing at public school gardens everywhere and it made me choke on my chard for professional and personal reasons.

Thankfully, lots of thoughtful –and less riled up — writers rushed to Alice’s defense — and called Caitlin on her strident screed, which begins with a weird fantasy sequence to set up her story. That’s fantasy folks.

If you missed the whole Flanagan flap last week (what one tweeter dubbed Garden Gate) here’s her thesis in bite-size chunks:

  • Public school gardens enslave kids in back-breaking labor and deprive them of valuable instruction time at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley and elsewhere in the nation.
  • Students would be better served spending an additional 90 minutes in algebra or English class rather than tending tomatoes or cooking carrots.
  • The achievement gap that plagues so many public schools would vanish if only Alice Waters would stay in her kitchen and out of our schools.
  • School kids, especially migrant ones, who dig in the dirt will likely wind up illiterate sharecroppers.
  • Folks in the ‘hood can find healthy food if they really want to (in Compton anyway).

Crazy stuff, huh?

I was appalled by the inaccuracies and false assumptions running through Flanagan’s polemic like water through a colander full of freshly-harvested lettuce.

For well-reasoned rebuttals read what slow food chefs, food policy wonks, garden teachers, and sustainable ag advocates had to say over at Civil Eats, Serious Eats, Grist, ChewsWise, Salon, and La Vida Locavore.

Or check out the self-styled Renegade Lunch Lady, Ann Cooper on her blog. The Atlantic even gave their own Corby Kummer a chance to refute much of Flanagan’s inflammatory rantings. And Ruth Reichl spoke.

Meanwhile, my friend and fellow PTA parent Andrew Leonard, also at Salon, penned the wittiest retort with the most humorous header “Rage against the vegetable garden: Caitlan Flanagan declares war against public school foodie propaganda, exposes evil Alice Waters plot.”

Here’s a taste of what Andrew had to say: “When I dismiss Flanagan’s thesis that the time spent tending vegetable gardens is preventing disadvantaged Berkeley kids from getting the rigorous education that would enable them to successfully reach for the American dream as laughably absurd, I could be accused of having an axe to grind, or at least an organic garden row to hoe.”

While many writers weighed in, I have a unique P.O.V. to add to the mix.

For the past five years I’ve been a volunteer in the kitchen at the Edible Schoolyard. No surprise, then, that on a personal note I was completely offended by Flanagan’s mean-spirited characterizations of those of us who donate our time to the program.

When I moved to Berkeley I didn’t know much about the place, other than it was a gown town with a gourmet ghetto and a population that favored sensible footwear. I chose to get to know my new community by helping out on the school food front and Edible was an obvious place to show up.

Clearly Caitlin hasn’t spent much, if any, time in the Edible kitchen, run by head chef teacher Esther Cook since its beginnings 14 years ago.

But I have.  And I’ve seen a lot of wonderful things take place in that cooking classroom, not least of which is the making of fabulous, school-grown, organic feasts.

Here’s what I’ve witnessed:

  • Kids from diverse backgrounds working together to cook food.
  • Middle schoolers who might not excel in conventional classes discovering other talents such as knife skills or cooking chops.
  • Teenagers discussing everyday events, controversial topics, or answering a thought-provoking question over a shared meal.
  • Students absorbing a healthy dose of curriculum along with healthy food.
  • A whole lot of love. As a cynical reporter, I don’t type those words lightly.

While many kids leave the Edible kitchen classroom with recipes, culinary skills, or a new appreciation for a previously unfamiliar dish or piece of produce, they also receive a warm welcome, respect, attention, hugs, and encouragement from Esther and, until recently, former assistant chef teacher Nicole Thomas. (The very capable chef Joyce Lin-Conrad recently stepped into that slot.)

I’ve stayed as long as I have as a volunteer at Edible in large part because of how Esther and Nicole work that kitchen.

Caitlin got this right: There’s seduction going on in that room but it ain’t Alice Waters who’s doing it. Flanagan argues Alice has an “almost erotic power she wields over a certain kind of educated, professional-class, middle-aged woman (the same kind of woman who tends to light, midway through life’s journey, on school volunteerism as a locus of her fathomless energies.)” Please. Enough. Alice is an icon, so such attacks, however misguided, come with the territory.

For the record, I’ve run into the Chez Panisse founder just a few times at ESY, including when Prince Charles came to call. (I served Alice a bowl of bean soup…the woman was hungry…but that’s another story.)

This is what really put me off my food: Flanagan disses what Esther and the rest of the Edible Schoolyard staff does every day, and she’s never even met these folks.

It’s the day-to-day work of teachers like Esther, along with the garden crew Geoff, Ben, and Jonah, that engages students — and volunteers — in the world of where real food comes from.

By the way, the  folks who donate their time to ESY aren’t mostly like me (middle-class, middle-aged, white-as-whipped-cream women).  Currently I volunteer alongside a keen as mustard male chef, my previous partner was a young, Asian, female student. So much for Flanagan’s stereotypes. And, um, we do paid work too.

Oh, and if Ms. Flanagan had done her research, she would know that though Alice is the most famous figure in today’s school-garden movement she was by no means the first, not even in Berkeley, not by a long shot, to introduce kids to amaranth, sour sorrel, and kale.

Just wrong, wrong, wrong on so many counts Caitlin.

Here’s where I do see eye-to-eye with the contrarian with a capital C: California’s public schools face many challenges. I know this first hand as a parent of a 5th grader in a Berkeley public elementary.

Wanna really find ways to fix this problem? How ’bout addressing more funding, smaller classes, or doing away with the anachronistic three-month summer for starters? But blaming the state’s school woes on Alice Waters and her passion for sustainable produce is just silly.

I do need to thank you, though, Caitlin, for giving me the opportunity to write a long overdue mash letter to my friend and mentor Esther Cook.

And it’s not even Valentine’s Day yet, her favorite holiday, natch.

My Persimmon Problem

October 27, 2009

Photo by Flickr user mbgrigby used under the Creative Commons license.

So it’s orientation time for the sixth graders, a sweet and chatty bunch, at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, where I volunteer each week.

Last Friday, head kitchen teacher Esther Cook (yes, Ms. Cook is her real name) began by engaging the students in a food memory exercise.  As we mingled around the tables the talk turned to unusual fruits or vegetables we’ve tasted and one of the girls mentioned persimmons.

I resisted the urge to make a face. The very same day The Lemon Lady suggested a post on this seasonal fruit and I laughed to myself because, dear readers, I have a little persimmon problem.

Perhaps one of the biggest produce pushers on the planet, I don’t much care for this prolific fall fruit. In my kitchen, right near the beloved Wedgewood, hangs this gorgeous image of persimmons by my talented friend, artist Emily Payne.  I adore the print, and yet if I had to pick a fruit to munch on, persimmons would never make it on the list. Until now.

Esther joked that maybe I’d never eaten a persimmon at “just the right minute.” So, with that in mind, I decided it was time to get over my persimmon phobia.  I welcome all and any assistance in this matter. I suspect my first mistake is not eating this fruit at, well, just the right minute.

First, some research. Here’s what I learned:

Known to ancient Greeks as the fruit of the gods, two varieties of persimmons are commonly available in the U.S. Hachiya, originally from China, are bright orange globes that taste awfully astringent when not fully ripe, due to the high levels of tannin in the fruit.

They absolutely need to be soft and squishy before you even think about biting into one or you’ll pucker up and the bitterness could put you off persimmons for life. Trust me on this one.

A ripe Hachiya should feel a little like a water balloon, I’m told. Use the fruit within a few days, at most, of prime ripeness or the pulp will get too mushy. Okay, so this is a high maintenance kind of fruit; vigilance is called for. Got that?

(Conversely, if you want to speed up the ripening process, put a persimmon in a bag with an apple or banana. Or freeze for 24 hours and then use as you would a perfectly ripe persimmon.) When properly ripe, persimmon has been described as apricot-like, plum, or even pumpkin-esque in taste. The sweet pulp from ripe Hachiya persimmons is best used as a puree in cookies, cakes, and puddings.

The other kind of common persimmon Fuyu, are squatter, more tomato-like in appearance and a duller orange in color. This variety is supposed to be eaten when firm and crunchy, much like an apple, peeling and slicing recommended, but optional. First grown in Japan, Fuyu work well in salads, where they add crispness to the mix.  Both kinds are a good source of vitamins A & C and loaded with fiber.

During a quick spin around my friendly neighborhood farmers’ market I find the folks at Blossom Bluff Orchards, who seem super persimmon savvy. I especially appreciate the warning sign in front of the bins of Hachiyas. With the vendor’s help, I select a large, firm, blemish-free Hachiya that should be ready to eat in a couple of weeks.  Stay tuned.

The two giant Fuyu persimmons I pick are good to go now, although a gaggle of shoppers agree that if they’re just a tad on the soft side you’re rewarded with a little more sweetness. I sampled some and while I’d still prefer an apple or pear I can appreciate how they’d add a nice crunch to a green salad. So one variety back on the will-eat list.

Since we’re coming up to peak persimmon time, here are some recipes that showcase persimmons by folks who know what to do with this fruit:

Persimmon Pudding Cake from Romney Steele’s new book My Nepenthe

Avocado, Citrus, Jicama Salad with Persimmon Dressing courtesy of Capay Valley, California organic growers Farm Fresh to You

James Beard’s Persimmon Bread, adapted by David Lebovitz, author of The Sweet Life in Paris

Steamed Persimmon Pudding with Silky Persimmon Puree by Deborah Madison, from Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets

Persimmon Cookies, from Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes

Salad of Frisee, Radicchio, Pears, Pomegranate and Persimmons, courtesy of Joanne Weir for The Food Network

Anyone out there care to weigh in on other ways to enjoy this produce?


School’s in Session, Time for Lunch Lessons

September 8, 2009

Yesterday while loads of folks fronted for backyard barbecues, Slow Food USA sponsored more than 300 Eat-Ins around the country as part of their Labor Day potlucks with a purpose.

The cause: Getting real food into schools. The organization’s Time for Lunch Campaign seeks to bring attention to the Child Nutrition Act, the bill that governs the National School Lunch Program, which is up for reauthorization this fall. The goal: More local, nutritious food, particularly fresh fruit & veg, in a program that feeds more than 30 million children every day.

With a trio of 5th grade boys in tow, I swung by the Berkeley event at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. The boys were curious about the goat milk ice cream (still hard as hockey pucks when we stopped by) and pleased to see a substitute teacher performing on stage. The food, according to Ameer, looked better than what’s served at Malcolm X Elementary, where the boys are students. The gathered group, Griffin noted, seemed to include many homeless folks in search of a decent feed. Gabe just wanted to get to the pool pronto.

griffin.gabe.ameer

So we missed the speeches and the spirit of the event, which felt a little like preaching to the converted in our town anyway. Alice WatersEdible Schoolyard anyone? Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper has only recently left town, after a major makeover of school food. And every public elementary in Berkeley has a much-loved cooking and gardening program. En route to the pool, the three kid critics complained that school food is unappetizing; they’re all still lunchbox lovers, despite parental efforts to convert them to the good food fight.

In fairness, many families in our school district are absolutely delighted with the fare on offer at lunchtime (snack, supplied by parents, is another matter). As I drove the boys to Strawberry Canyon to swim, I started mulling over something I read in the literature from the Center for Ecoliteracy booth at the Eat-In that made sense to me.

The brochure notes that food quality and taste aren’t the only criteria for kids’ decisions to eat — or not — at school. An inviting atmosphere or ambience is also key. I know many urban public school administrators will likely roll their eyes at this, but when I see school kids eating at benches outdoors I feel a pang of envy. My sensory sensitive son has a tough time eating in a cafeteria which, despite folks best efforts, is full of sights, smells, and sounds that aren’t always conducive to a positive eating environment.

Even the much-anticipated Dining Commons over at MLK Middle School in this city has awful acoustics. I’m surprised much eating gets done in that din at all, despite the building’s physical appeal.

That said, I want to know, as we all navigate the back-to-school transition, does your child eat lunch at school and, if not, why not?