Amazing Buttermilk Air Fried Chicken
Air Fryer Honey-Cajun Chicken Thighs
S.’s Mom’s Mac n’ Cheese
Internet Mac n’ Cheese
Avocado Zucchini Chocolate Chocolate Chip Muffins
This week’s Cultivating Change was so much fun! Not only did we have Jamilah joining us as our guest chef extraordinaire, but we also had a recipe cook off. Whenever we ask the youth what recipes they would like to make in upcoming classes, fried chicken and mac n’ cheese always get lots of votes. So Jan had the brilliant idea of having a cook-off competition to judge the best fried chicken and mac n’ cheese recipes. There were six boys in class, so two teamed up with Jamilah to make the honey-cajun thighs, two joined me to make the buttermilk chicken, and then the other two prepared both types of mac n’ cheese with Jan. The plan was to have the girls from shelter judge the winners.
The energy was great in the room, with the adults getting into the competitive spirit by offering to judge the final products and stopping by periodically to watch us in action. The boys from the other chicken team also stopped by to eye up our chicken and talk smack, and everyone was in really good spirits. Two boys who I hadn’t met before, A. and T., were on my team and we had a great time preparing the flours and egg batter that would coat the chicken. I could see that T. was having a tough time understanding some of the tasks, and A. jumped right in to help him without teasing him or being rude in any way. A. later told me that he was studying nursing at his high school, and I thought that was a great career path for him having witnessed the kind and patient way he worked with T.
Once our chicken was in the air fryer, we dispersed to look at what the other teams were up to. I stopped by the mac n’ cheese table and started salivating. Both recipes looked so good. S. told me that he pieced together his mom’s recipe from memory, and Jan said that he was even doing conversions to account for the different batch size. The mac n’ cheese was getting cooked in muffin tins (of course it was—we love muffin tins!), so there were plenty of crispy edges to go with the gooey cheesy center. I couldn’t wait to try it!
When all the teams had finished up, we lined up the dishes on the table, and distributed a portion of each to all of the boys and the (many) adults who had stuck around to vote (I think they were figuring this was going to be better than whatever they had packed for lunch). After everyone had a chance to sample the dishes, we took a show of hands to determine the favorites. The clear winners were the honey-cajun thighs and S.’s mom’s mac n’ cheese. I glanced over at S. while I was tallying the raised hands, and he was beaming with pride that his mom’s recipe won. It was clearly a really special moment for him, and I was so happy that he had a chance to impress everyone with his cooking skills.
For dessert, Jan had prepared avocado zucchini chocolate chip muffins without telling the boys what was in them. After tasting them, she asked them to guess the secret ingredients, and without a moment’s hesitation D.—a boy who told us he lives on a farm and correctly identified the duck egg in last week’s class—announced confidently that it was zucchini. Everyone was stumped when it came to identifying the avocado. It turned out that the girls were not up for cooking, which meant that we had some bonus time to spend with the boys. Jan suggested that they make a batch of the chocolate muffins, so they could see how the avocado and zucchini are mixed in the batter. So while she and all of the boys mixed up a fresh batch of muffins, Jamilah and I cleaned up the dishes. It was one of the most carefree and fun Cultivating Change classes we have had in a long time. It was wonderful to have so many staff members there to join in and cheer on the boys in their culinary successes.
Pumpkin black bean quesadillas
with homemade tortillas, roasted delicate squash, and Instant Pot black beans
After so many weeks of only cooking with the girls, we are now cooking with just the boys. A. left for placement earlier in the week, and P. was making poor decisions at school and had lost her privileges. We will see what next week holds for her. I hope that the prospect of no home cooked meals with Cultivating Change will be an incentive to make better decisions, but I know that she is facing big challenges, and without A. by her side to encourage her, she probably feels like she is facing them alone.
Our plan this week was to recreate the dishes we prepared last week, only this time using all scratch-made ingredients. So instead of store-bought tortillas, Jan brought in her tortilla press and we made our own masa. I roasted a delicate squash before class that we scooped out and seasoned for the pumpkin quesadilla filling. We steamed the rice and cooked the pre-soaked black beans in the pressure cooker. We made guacamole and cut up a pineapple for dessert. It was an ambitious undertaking.
There were two new boys in class for a total of five. There is an inevitable period when people join class when the fear and uncertainty that they are feeling in a new situation comes out as teasing or jokiness. They are nervous, and then try to compensate for it by being overly confident or mean. Class began that way as we gathered around the table together to blend our own adobo seasoning. A couple of the boys were picking on S. I didn’t engage with their behavior and continued to instruct them on preparing the spice blend. I was impressed with S.’s maturity, with how he asked if he could help Jan with her preparations and left the group without ever acknowledging the others’ remarks. He was able to dissipate the tension, and the energy shifted.
One of the new boys, B., was very withdrawn, and was resistant to my attempts to draw him into the action. After we made the masa as a group, I asked if he would like to help me make the pumpkin puree. He agreed, and we started working together, just the two of us. As we worked I asked him about foods he liked and he shared some of his favorite recipes from his grandmother and sister. He eagerly shared that his 17 year-old sister is a really good cook, and it was easy to see how proud he was of her. After we finished the puree, we headed over to the tortilla press. We practiced making a few test tortillas, to make sure that we had the right size dough balls and pressure to make big enough and thin enough tortillas. Once we were pleased with the result, B. rolled the dough into golf-ball size rounds while I pressed them between sheets of wax paper on the press. In no time we had a large stack of tortillas ready to cook. We swapped jobs and B. took over on the press. He was a natural, and I could see the tension that had been on his face when he first entered the room melt away. He talked and laughed freely as we worked. I was grateful for his help as we measured and rinsed the rice for steaming, and then started cooking the tortillas in preparation for the quesadillas. It was at this point that I realized we might have been a little too ambitious in our menu planning. We still needed to cook the tortillas, fill them, and then stick them back on the skillet to melt the cheese. I stayed on the skillet while B. joined the others to take care of any final preparations for the meal.
I was a little worried after all of this work that they boys might say that this scratch-made meal wasn’t noticeably better than our packaged version from last week. I was very relieved when they said that they could really taste the difference in the tortillas, beans, and pumpkin. They said that everything was much more flavorful. It was such a hit that they were lining up for seconds, but unfortunately we had run out of time which served as a reminder why we don’t usually make everything from scratch in Cultivating Change. I guess it is better to leave them wanting more of a delicious meal though. At least this way, next time they will know not to waste precious eating time by picking on one another and will get right to the business of cooking.
Pumpkin black bean quesadillas
Apple pear carrot salad
Broccoli cheddar soup
Jalapeño cheddar biscuits
Apple pear carrot salad
With autumn officially here, Jan and I were ready to start making soups. And with the Instant Pot—our new favorite kitchen gadget—in tow, we knew that we would be able to make soups pretty quickly. We started off with the boys working as a group to prepare the ingredients for the corn chowder, so that could be cooking while we prepared the salad and quesadillas. There were three boys in this week’s session, and they all settled into their tasks very quickly. Once the soup was simmering away, we divided up to work on the other dishes. This was the second week that I worked with R. He is comfortable in the kitchen and often talks about his dad and older brother, who are both cooks. I find that it is very natural for the youth to bring up their family when we are cooking, since food is key to so many important memories for them. They open up to us easily when the focus is on the dish they are preparing and not on them directly. In this way, we are able to offer them a safe space to share their emotions without them even thinking that might be our goal.
The soup needed time to cool, so we had the boys start eating the quesadillas and salad, and saved the soup for their second course. The quesadillas were a big hit. They loved the pumpkin, which was canned, so it was really easy to use. Also, we try to make sure to give them lots of options for toppings, so that they can make their dish their own. This week we introduced papalo, a fragrant herb that is used in the cuisines of Mexico and Central and South America. Jan suggested that next week, we repeat the menu, but with roasted delicata squash and homemade corn tortillas to compare store bought versus scratch made ingredients.
The corn chowder was worth the wait. It was so flavorful, which surprised me since we threw all of the ingredients into the Instant Pot raw. We encouraged the boys to try some of the same toppings from the quesadillas in the soup. I added papalo, avocado, and roasted hot peppers to my soup. It was incredible. There was enough soup left over that we were able to take some over to the girls to try.
As soon as we arrived to the shelter and told the girls that we had soup left over from the boys’ class, they dug out the cups and spoons and dished themselves a bowlful. They liked it so much they had a second and then a third serving. Jan and I were wondering if we even needed to cook at all, but A. said that she really wanted to make the broccoli cheddar soup, so we got started. P. and I made the jalapeño cheddar biscuits while A. and Jan made the soup. We didn’t have much time to cook, since the girls were eating for the first part of the class. It felt a bit rushed, and by the time everything was on the table, there were only a few minutes left for the girls to eat and talk. They weren’t all that hungry anyway, since they had eaten so much soup at the start of class. I felt a bit disappointed, since I knew that this was A.’s last class. She would be leaving in a couple days for placement, and I wanted to hear how she felt about the transition. I wished that we kept the meal simple, and just enjoyed the leftovers from the boys’ class, which would have given us more time to sit and share. Sometimes we try to fit as many recipes into class, forgetting that it is our time together, not our production output, that feeds the change we are seeking to cultivate. I wish that I could have said more to A. before she left, about how she has grown so much and developed so many skills for how to navigate the world and her challenging emotions. That she has a great sense for food and should keep developing that talent. That we are a part of the community, and she can still come talk to us over a bowl of soup anytime she wants.
Heather Leach is Cultivating Change's facilitator and Program Director!