Mixed vegetable frittata
Seasoned hash browns
Avocado/tomato toast on homemade bread
Berry peach mango smoothie
Peanut butter banana smoothie
The boys weren’t available for this week’s class, so we went right to the shelter to start cooking with the girls. The first order of business was to make smoothies, and the girls eagerly jumped on that job. We sampled the smoothies while prepping the food for the main course. I think they get better every class, and I like that we are in the habit of enjoying a “fancy” drink while we prepare the meal. A healthy decadence. The dishes this week shared many common ingredients, so we worked together cutting and chopping onions and peppers, and we talked about how just a few ingredients can be combined in many different ways. We collected a whole bowl of beautiful micro greens from the aquaponics tower in the multi-purpose room and seeded more vegetables in the empty pods to make sure that we have a constant supply of fresh greens for our upcoming recipes.
Back in the shelter, Jan and A. started sautéing the vegetables that would go into the frittata, while P. and I shredded potatoes and sautéed the peppers, onions, and spices for the hash browns. At one point, P. wandered over to see what Jan and A. were up to and said, “You guys are doing such a good job!” before popping back over to give the hash browns a stir. It is wonderful to see how supportive they are of one another, and how much confidence they have gained in the kitchen since the classes started. It often feels like we are just cooking a family meal together, and I quickly forget where we are and why we are there. I hope that the girls also get lost in these pleasant moments.
While the frittatas baked in muffin tins in the toaster oven*, we set the table for the meal. Jan brought silverware from her house as a break from the plastic cutlery we typically use and throw away. Setting the table is another ritual of Cultivating Change that I’ve come to love. Each week we put more care into the table, making sure that it looks beautiful, that the food is presented well, that we set a place for everyone. Jan said that she wanted to bring real silverware so that the girls know that they are worth it. That they matter. Next week I’ll cut some dahlias from my garden for the centerpiece. The girls had us each sit at the head of the table, Grandma Jan at one end and Auntie Heather at the other. Their AHHAH family. And we enjoyed another wonderful meal together with delicious food and heartfelt conversation. Just as we’ve learned how to put a kitchen on wheels, we are also learning how to take home on the road.
*It is amazing the range of foods that can be made without a proper kitchen—“cooking on a cart” as Jan always says—and we could absolutely dedicate a whole blog to that alone. We only use an electric skillet, air fryer, or toaster oven to cook everything we make.
This Feels Like Family
Jan also shared her favorite AHA moment from this past Saturday (8/14/21): "I cried as I read Heather's reflection and remembered all of the AHA moments of last Saturday's Cultivating Change program. One additional memory I have is when we sat down at the beautiful table to celebrate P.'s birthday. A. looked across the table at me and then at Heather and then at P. and said "this feels like family"."
Arroz con gandules (Rice with pigeon peas)
Quesadillas with refried beans, corn and microgreens
Salsa verde and guacamole
Tulsi mint lemonade (“The Honeymooner”)
We arrived to detention to find two new boys, S. and Q., had joined P. It’s always interesting to see how the dynamic changes with the arrival of new folks into the program, and how they have different ways of protecting themselves in the face of the unknown. Many boys start the program withdrawn and sullen, and it takes time to allow them to slowly emerge from their protective shells. Other boys are boisterous and agitated, often cracking jokes and pulling the focus away from the lesson. This is how Q. was in this week’s class. He was distracted—off talking to the adults or whispering something comical to P. as we were going over the lesson. At one point, I discovered that he secretly squirted hot sauce into the guacamole that was specially made for S., who doesn’t like spicy food.
I enjoy these shifts in energy as they arise, even if they are disruptive. They feel like waves, flowing in and out, sometimes forceful, sometimes peaceful. It is a reminder to me of what our job really is—to be consistent, to keep showing up, to be a lighthouse. At the end of class, P. told Jan that he was going to be moving to another facility this week. He expressed his gratitude for the class and lit up when Jan told him what a great job he had done in Cultivating Change and the writing workshop. I thought of his first class with us only a few weeks ago, and how lost he had seemed, adrift in the rough sea of his emotions. Here he was just a short time later learning to navigate those troubled waters.
We moved onto the shelter, where P. was celebrating her 13th birthday, and we had a special meal planned. The girls would have steak for the quesadillas and chocolate zucchini cupcakes for dessert. “Practice makes progress.” A. said it as she was grilling the chipotle lime beef that was going into their quesadillas. She was doing an excellent job, and the meat had perfect grill marks, like what you would expect in a steak house. That phrase resonated with me, because it felt like something I needed to hear in that moment, and particularly because I hoped it meant that A. was allowing herself the grace and patience she deserved to find her way back to healthy and nurturing habits. It isn’t really fair to say that practice makes perfect, and we can stop ourselves from ever taking that first step if we think that perfection is the only acceptable outcome. But if we know that each step makes progress, and that progress is the work of a lifetime, then it makes that first step easier to take. Even if it feels like you have to take that first step anew each morning on your road to sobriety, or forgiveness, or self love.
The meal was delicious and we finished by singing “Happy Birthday” as we brought out the cupcakes. After P. blew out the candles, we went around the table to share our wishes for her for the upcoming year. A. wished that P. would have the strength and courage to stay sober and make good decisions. Jan said that by taking the steps to change, P. will be the positive role model for her younger sister that she always hoped she could be. Practice makes progress.
Tomato-Watermelon Gazpacho (boys) Tomato-Avocado Soup (girls)
Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
Cucumber-Ginger-Mint-Lime Agua Fresca
Fresh Fruit (pears, peaches, apples)
It’s become a habit for me in class to figure out how many of the ingredients for the recipe have
come from either Jan’s or my garden. This week the tomatoes, herbs, peppers, and garlic were
homegrown by Jan, and I provided the onions, scallions, peaches, pears, and apples from my
garden. The remainder came from local farmers, and I don’t think any of the produce was
purchased at the supermarket. It’s fun for me to boast how much food we can grow ourselves.
Every week, we’ve featured ingredients harvested from the raised beds at CCYC, and this
week, for the first time, we included fresh microgreens from the aquaponics tower in the
cafeteria. It was exciting for them to harvest and enjoy food that they had only planted a few
This was W and S’s last class with us before they move on to other placements.
Understandably, their energy was low, but that didn’t stop them from wanting to jump right into
the food prep. We all pitched in a hand to prepare the ingredients for the gazpacho, and I
enjoyed having the opportunity for all of us to work together. After the veggies were prepped,
W and I made the jalapeño popper grilled cheese sandwiches. I asked how W was
feeling knowing that he was going to be at the next facility for nine months. He said that he
wished that he had people to write letters to. After class, I asked Jan if he would be able to write
AHHAH letters, and she said that she would ask CCYC if we can set that up.
Miraculously, we prepared the food with time to spare (usually we are madly rushing to finish
before dashing off to set up with the girls). This gave us time to sit and eat together, and for the
boys to write a review of the recipes and their time in Cultivating Change. It also gave Jan an
opportunity to demonstrate some breathing and tapping exercises that the boys can use to help
them manage difficult emotions. S followed along while Jan talked him through the
exercises, and it was shocking to see the transformation that took place in S’s demeanor
and posture just in the five minutes that he practiced. His face brightened, and his body lifted
out of the slump it had been in all class. It looked as if he had been somehow inflated with
sunshine. He was truly beaming.
As we rolled our carts into the shelter, the girls were applying makeup and fixing their hair. We
discussed the menu, and P tasted the gazpacho the boys had made. She decided we
should take it in a completely different direction, so this time we made gazpacho with avocado
instead of watermelon. The texture of the avocado made the soup almost like a summer cream
of tomato, which lent itself perfectly to eating with the grilled cheese sandwiches. We made two
of the grilled cheese sandwiches as the recipe called for, and the other sandwiches were to be
the girls’ creations. They piled their grilled cheese with ham, four types of cheese, peppers and
avocados. The result was a gooey and decadent crowd favorite. The jalapeño popper grilled
cheese was also a big hit, with the staff asking for the recipe at the end of each class. That will
definitely be making its way into the cookbook! I’m so proud of them for their willingness to
experiment with flavor, and impressed by how delicious their concoctions consistently turn out.
They really find a way to shine in cooking class. P, in particular, peppers our conversations
with anecdotes about what she’s learned from cooking with her mother, and it is easy to see
how proud she is to share her skills in class.
Before class ended we asked P what she would like for her birthday meal, since she will
be turing 13 on our next visit. She requested Puerto Rican food. While fruit is always the dessert
on offer during Cultivating Change classes, Jan suggested that we make her a chocolate
zucchini cake as a surprise treat to celebrate her day.
Per their request, the youth cooked up chicken wings this week. The wings were air-fried, with
homemade buffalo and barbecue sauces (another opportunity for a little friendly recipe
competition between the boys and girls), arroz verde, tulsi lemonade, and fresh fruit from my
We welcomed a new resident, "P", who was very disengaged and lethargic at the start. He
later told me that he had only arrived the day before. Once we started class, "P" roused, and
he asked lots of great questions about cooking techniques and ingredients. He jumped right into
the food prep, and the eating. When he dug into the arroz verde, he said, “I’m in love with this
rice!!” It was a striking transformation, but one that we see regularly when the youth join
Cultivating Change. Jan later told me that she met "P" the day before during their writing
class, and that his improvement in just 24 hours was even more dramatic. He had described his
mood to her as “thunder and lightning.” It seemed like, at least for the moment, his storm was
"W", true to form, willingly tried every new food in front of him. As he chopped an onion for
the arroz verde, I jokingly said that I was surprised he wasn’t eating that too, which of course
prompted him to pop a large slice of it in his mouth. I enlisted him to help me prepare the fruit,
which included peaches, yellow plums, figs, and mulberries. Even though he had never seen a
fig or mulberry before, he didn’t hesitate to try them both, and happily walked out of class with
all of the leftover fruit salad.
"S" has really begun to shine in class. He is Jan’s eager sous-chef, and takes so much
pride in his work. He made both sauces for the chicken wings, and was beaming when
everyone said how good they both were. Even the girls, after later tasting the sauces he made,
begrudgingly said that his buffalo sauce was better than theirs, and I imagined how broad his
smile would be when he heard that news.
The girls, "A" and "P" were in good spirits when we arrived. As we prepared the rice together, I
asked "P" how her week was, and she said that it had its ups and downs, but she felt like
she did her best, so she was proud of herself. With that level of maturity, it’s hard to believe that
she is only 12 years old.
Tulsi (holy basil) is making a regular appearance in our menu thanks to its adaptogenic
properties, and this week we brewed the fresh leaves as tea to add to a store-bought lemonade.
After drinking one glass and then another, "A" said that she felt “saturated with calmness and
love.” Imagine what would happen if tulsi tea was available all of time at CCYC, at schools, or in
prisons? After tasting the fresh fruit, "A" asked if she could buy it off of me. When I told her
that I’d sell it to her for free, she danced around the shelter excitedly.
As we sat down to our meal, "P" said that she has been writing in the journal that Jan gave
her, and it has been helping her. We unanimously agreed that their barbecue sauce was the
clear winner, and everyone happily chomped on the wings with sauce all over their faces and
dripping down their fingers. In between bites, "P" said that she didn’t want to leave because
she likes cooking with us so much, but she wants to leave so she can go home.
Heather Leach is Cultivating Change's facilitator and Program Director!