Three things can always warm me up on a chilly late winter day in March: a nice soup made from last summer’s tomatoes, watching kids get excited about cooking with local ingredients, and learning about innovative efforts, both of which raise awareness of food insecurity sharpen Maine and work to fight it. On a Wednesday afternoon at The Maker’s Galley, a new culinary event and gallery space at 5 Commercial Street in Portland, as the rain turned to snow outside, I was triple warmed as all three things happened simultaneously.
4 Kids By Kids is a six-week cooking class offered by Portland-based 2gether Private Chefs for fourth through eighth graders. In this first iteration of the course, nearly 20 children will learn both basic cooking skills and the principles of locally sourced and sustainable food from a full cast of farmers and culinary experts, whom Amy Kayne, owner of 2gether Private Chefs, has hired to guide various parts of the course to teach class. Ultimately, graduates will help prepare a five-course meal to be served at The Maker’s Galley on April 9th. Proceeds from this dinner benefit Full Plates Full Potential, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending child hunger in Maine.
On the day I attended the class, a dozen fourth and fifth graders were excited to talk about preserving local foods for maximum flavor, learn how to cut, dice, and cut diagonally vegetables, all kinds of pickled vegetables to taste and make suggestions on how to flavor local popcorn.
The guest speaker was farmer Stephanie McDonough, founder of Farm to Table Kids, a summer camp and year-round alternative educational space she created on her 150-acre farm in North Yarmouth to enable children to learn, eat and play.
“Anybody can tell me anything they know about food preservation?” Kayne asked as she passed a jar of canned local tomatoes for the kids to smell. The tomatoes, which they agreed smelled fresh of the summer sun, were processed at Turtle Rock Farm, a Brunswick-based local food preservation company that helps smallholder farmers like McDonough collaboratively create long-life cans from their harvests. These jars were intended for creamy tomato soup that the children would taste at the end of class.
Hazel Goldstein, a student from South Portland, waved her hand vigorously until Kayne asked her to answer the conservation question. “Down here on the water they used to catch a lot of cod that couldn’t be eaten all at once. So … they added lots and lots of salt, and then it was all good to eat some other time in the future,” Goldstein said.
When Kayne and McDonough recognized Goldstein’s understanding of Portland’s historic waterfront, they turned to take the entire class’s understanding of food preservation to a new level. The women explained how to pickle vegetables in brine and vinegar if novice cooks want to safely experiment with food preservation.
As they sampled Dilly Yellow pickled wax beans, Kayne reminded them of the previous week’s lesson on where a eater can taste sour things on the tongue. Typically, people taste sour and salty on the sides, sweet in the front, and bitter in the back. The students suggested what to put in for the April 9 event. Cucumbers, radishes and blueberries were all on the list, but the collective finally settled on pickled garlic, snack peppers and red onions.
The kids were suitably quiet as the chefs spent a good deal of time explaining knife safety protocols. They were even quieter as they focused on slicing cucumbers, celery, and tomatoes, choosing each vegetable so students could practice working with vegetables of different shapes and textures.
As the class ended, McDonough explained that sustainable farming means protecting the land so that their children and grandchildren can also use it to produce healthy food. For them, that means not putting any chemicals in it. She talked about how no-till techniques make soil healthier without fertilizers, how ladybugs take care of aphids that eat greens, and how much fun it is to strap on a headlamp and go hunting for glow-in-the-dark hornworms , before they ruin your tomato crop.
I have to admit that I’m a bit disappointed that I was only invited to one course. The kids, the curriculum, and the cause would be worth my time attending all six.
Local food advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is editor of Edible Maine magazine and author of Green Plate Special, a column about sustainable eating in the Portland Press Herald and the title of her 2017 cookbook. She can be reached at: [email protected]
Creamy tomato soup with Farmer Steph’s Herbed Popcorn
The American cheese slices in the soup make it creamy, while the popcorn served on top adds texture.
For 6-8 people with plenty of popcorn left over for snacking
FOR THE SOUP:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 (28-oz.) cans diced tomatoes with juice
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon dried oregano
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3 slices American cheese, chopped
2 tablespoons Greek yogurt
a pinch of sugar
salt and pepper to taste
FOR THE POPCORN:
1 tablespoon table salt
3 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
2 ½ teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons dried thyme
4 cups freshly popped popcorn
2 tablespoons melted butter
For the popcorn, mix the spices in a small bowl. Mix the popcorn with the melted butter. Sprinkle the spice over the popcorn to taste.
For the soup, mix olive oil, onions and red pepper flakes. Cook until onions are translucent, about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes, broth, oregano and garlic, simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in American cheese. Using a blender, puree the soup and return to the pot to keep warm.
Temper the yogurt by placing it in a small bowl and stirring in a few tablespoons of hot soup. Stir the tempered yoghurt into the soup.
Place a fine mesh strainer over a second pot. Pour the pureed soup through the strainer to catch tomato skins. Use a spatula to push the liquid through the strainer to get a smooth texture. If you like a thicker texture, either skip this step or stir some of the pulp back into the soup for a texture that’s somewhere between completely smooth and thick. Compost the pulp that you don’t use in the soup.
Add sugar to the soup to balance its acidity. Season with salt and pepper.
Serve the hot soup in a mug with a handful of herb popcorn.