Continuing our exploration of fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables, the kids in my "food appreciation" classes this week took up squash. I think I've detected a pattern.
The older children are generally more willing to try and tend to enjoy a variety of vegetables. The younger ones almost universally cry "I don't like that!" as soon as they see something green. They have to be coaxed and prodded.
Not long ago I read the results of one study or other suggesting that younger children don't like vegetables because their immature bodies cannot assimilate the nutrients in vegetables. I wish I could lay my hands on that information, but it was something that did leap out at me.
Could there be an organic basis for the hateful aversion to fresh vegetables that drives parents up a wall? It wouldn't surprise me. All I know is, after many months working with the children in my "food appreciation" classes at a private elementary school here in the District of Columbia, these most recent lessons dealing with fresh produce have been among the very rare occasions when my young collaborators have pushed their food plates aside before devouring whatever was on them.
And it wasn't for lack of trying. In fact, this week we sampled two dishes, both involving zucchini. I like to reach beyond recipes to teach the kids something interesting about how particular foods evolved, where they come from, perhaps some special botanical aspects. I also like to introduce them to new kitchen equipment, cooking science and safety issues.
This week's lesson incorporated so much, and it all starts with the simplest squash. Our first dish consisted of a zucchini carpaccio, thinly sliced raw zucchini spread out on a platter, then dressed with extra-virgin olive oil, coarse salt, freshly ground black pepper and finally some crumbled goat cheese. With the older kids, we added some torn mint leaves as well (I know how averse the littlest one are to pieces of unfamiliar green stuff floating in their food).
It takes hardly any time at all to make this dish. But I wanted to introduce the kids to a special slicing device, a professional mandolin. Ours is stainless steel and stands at an angle on some folding legs. Besides slicing, it can also julienne and make crinkle cuts. What I wanted to impress on the children was how thinly, precisely and quickly the apparatus will cut a vegetable such as zucchini. I also wanted to familiarize them with the razor-sharp blade, and make sure they learned to keep their fingers away from it.
The kids all got turns slicing zucchini, or a zucchini and a yellow squash for some variety of color. They then watched me dress our platter of squash and they were all terribly excited until we dished it onto plates and passed it around.
"I don't like it raw," was one complaint. "I don't like the cheese," was another.
Most of them at least agreed to take a nibble. A few dove in and gobbled it up. But I would say there was quite a bit of zucchini carpaccio that went straight into the garbage. Oh, well.
For the second dish, I introduced another seasonal vegetable that soon will be out of season again: corn on the cob. There is some vocabulary to review here. "Cob," "shuck," "kernels." These are all words that are almost specific to corn. And what is this furry, stringy stuff sticking out the top? That, of course, is the tassel. But what is it for?
Most of the kids think the silk is there to protect the corn or maybe to keep it warm. Even the oldest in the class are surprised to learn that the tassel and silk are essential to corn reproduction, that the strands of silk are in fact individual tubes that transport the pollen dropped from the tassel to the corn ovary. There is one silk corresponding to every kernel on the cob. It is an amazing bit of natural engineering.
The kids love shucking the corn and removing the silk. Then they get to slice the kernels from the cob using their small plastic knives. Out comes more zucchini and I show them how to slice the squash lengthwise by standing it on one end. They use their plastic knives again to cut the squash into pieces, then everything goes into a hot skillet to be cooked with some extra-virgin olive oil, seasoned with salt, pepper, a dash of ground cumin and, just before serving, some chopped cilantro.
It seemed to me that more kids we ready for the cooked squash than the raw squash. But before we ate, we retired to the book corner of our multi-purpose room to read "Busy in the Garden."
This is a fairly simple book of garden-related poems and riddles that popped up on the computer screen when I asked my local librarian if she had any picture books on the topic of zucchini. In fact, the entry on zucchini is a pretty long one, recounting the many, many things that can be cooked or baked using squash and how exhausted everyone is from eating zucchini by the end of the season. It's one of those books that's too simple for me to read to the older kids. What I do in that case is let them read it to each other.
Note: I intended to record the zucchini lesson from a number of different photographic angles, but my camera suddenly was registering nothing but a digital snowstorm. Time for a new camera?