Hoppin’ John and rice
Collard greens with smoked turkey legs
Macaroni and cheese
Cornbread with honey butter
Grapes and clementines
Apple cider donut holes
Mystery ingredient fudge
Pomegranate tulsi peach spritzer
In order to ring in the new year properly, we planned a Cultivating Change menu that featured foods traditionally eaten to bring prosperity and health in the coming year. Before we started cooking, we asked everyone to name a food that they thought they wouldn’t like but then did upon tasting. We offered this as a reminder to the boys that there have been plenty of times (especially in this class) when they were pleasantly surprised by the taste of a new or unusual food. This lesson would become particularly relevant when they discovered the mystery ingredient in the fudge that Jan brought for dessert.
There were only four boys cooking with us this class, and like we had been doing all month as a practice of service and generosity, we would be preparing enough food to share with the other pods who weren’t able to cook with us. This meant that we needed to get cracking. The good news was that Jamilah was teaching with us, so we were sure to get everything done in time.
Jamilah and I paired up with two of the boys to make the Hoppin’ John, rice, and collard greens. Jan would make the drinks and cornbread with the other two boys. Jan had already made the mac and cheese, fudge, and donut holes before class. Jamilah and I were working with U. and P. They are very different young men. U. is very confident and often says that he is a master chef. He does have great cooking skills, which makes me think that he must have spent a lot of time in the kitchen growing up. P. is the exact opposite. He is very tentative and lacks confidence. He gets easily frustrated with himself and often wants to give up. But he has a wonderful sense of curiosity and a gentle nature, so if you can get him to forget his fears, he is easily absorbed in the recipes and is eager to learn about how to make everything. The other good thing is that he is always very excited to eat anything he helped create. I’ve seen his enthusiasm for the food motivate the other boys to try foods that they were hesitant about.
We worked as a team to chop the vegetables for the two dishes. We would be cooking each of them in pressure cookers to make sure they got done in time. P. was really curious about the Ninja Pot pressure cooker. Together we sautéed the vegetables and added smoked turkey legs, black-eyed peas, and broth to the pot. We read and re-read the instruction manual to make sure that we had set it up properly. Then we had to wait for it to come to pressure. P. was really worried that it wasn’t working, and he kept a close eye on it the whole time. He was so concerned that he convinced me to check to make sure it was working. It was. Eventually the pressure gauge popped up and it started counting down the time until it was ready. P. watched and paced. He had lots of questions about the functionality of the cooker. When it came time to open it up, I showed him how to turn the valve to release the steam. He looked at it like it was magic.
We assembled all of the food on the table, and, although I think this every week, it looked and smelled especially delicious. After we made up the plates for the other pods and the boys had sampled all of the food, we dished out their dessert of grapes, clementines, apple cider donut holes, and fudge. Jan was giddy with excitement about the fudge. She told the boys that whoever guessed the mystery ingredient would get to have a big slab of it to themselves. They nibbled on it while guessing lots of different vegetables and spices. No one was even close, and the adults started shouting out guesses too. Everyone said it was really good, but they couldn’t quite tell what was different about it. Jan gave them a hint that it was an ingredient in something else we were eating. S. looked at the table perplexed and questioned, “Mac and cheese?” At this point Jan was doubled over with laughter. S. was nearly there, but ultimately didn’t guess that the mystery ingredient was Velveeta! Hopefully this meal was a reminder to the boys to be open to new foods and experiences in the year ahead, and to be brave, curious, and generous. They might be pleasantly surprised by result.
Holiday cookie extravaganza
Hot chocolate with marshmallows
For most Cultivating Change classes, we set ourselves an ambitious menu, and this one was no exception. We would be attempting to make not five, not six, but eight different holiday treats during class time. In addition, we would also serve chocolate chip and spritz cookies that Jan and I made at home to share with the group.
We had a lot to accomplish and no time to waste. The boys got right to work measuring, mixing, and melting the ingredients for the desserts. We would be making a classic gingerbread cookie; two Oreo-based desserts; chocolate dipped, candy cane-coated pretzels; a chocolate oat and cranberry no-bake cookie; chocolate krinkles; coconut chocolate kisses; and hot chocolate.
The whole process was a bit of a blur to me because there was so much going on. There was flour on every possible surface and I had the boys running laps looking for the right ingredients and measuring spoons for each recipe. I knew making the gingerbread people would take some time, so we got to that right away. First, I demonstrated how to flour the work surface and roll out the dough to the right thickness before cutting out the shapes. Then each of the boys had a chance to try it out for themselves. At one point in the process, a new boy, who had just arrived to CCYC minutes earlier, sat down at the table and jumped right in to making cookies with us. Their first attempts were failures with dough sticking to the rolling pin, ripping, or being rolled out unevenly. But by their third attempt, they had it down, which meant that I was free to check on the status of the other cookies we were making.
We were baking everything in the air fryer, which meant that there was only one tray of cookies going in at a time, and there was only room for a handful of cookies on the tray. Needless to say, it made for a bit of a juggle, and there were a few casualties as a result, including the tips of my fingers, which I burned repeatedly in my haste to switch out the trays. The coconut chocolate kisses faired the worst, with the first batch coming out too dark, and the second coming out not dark enough. But the good news was that they got drizzled with chocolate, which helped to cover up my multiple missteps.
The best news was that everyone else was on top of their cookie game, so the other treats that I was not responsible for baking turned out beautifully. Yet again, I was amazed by the diversity and quantity of food we are able to make using a random mix of kitchen implements schlepped into the multipurpose room. The assortment of holiday cookies we made looked and tasted fantastic. The boys were excited to forget for a moment that they were spending their Christmases at CCYC. Before they could sit down to eat, they each made up a goodie bag for the other other pods who weren’t able to cook with us.
As the boys headed back to their pod and the flour dust settled, two thoughts crossed my mind: somehow we pulled it off, and I hope Santa brings us a bigger oven for Christmas.
Waffle House Waffles vs. Caitlin’s Waffles
Homemade whipped cream
Assorted fresh fruit
Recipe competitions have really become a staple of Cultivating Change. Not only do they create a little friendly rivalry among the youth, but they help us to narrow down the recipes that should be adapted for the Cultivating Change cookbook. AHHAH is creating the cookbook to help offset the restitution costs that youth pay when they return to their communities. This week we decided to focus on waffles. We debated about doing a waffles vs. pancakes cook-off, but we know that there are diehard fans in both camps, so we wouldn’t want to exclude either from the cookbook.
Jan provided the teams with the choice of preparing either a Waffle House style waffle, or her daughter Caitlin’s recipe. There were vocal Waffle House supporters in the group, and they joined me to make that recipe and the persimmon syrup, while Jan’s group made Caitlin’s recipe, the whipped cream, and the milkshakes.
Our recipe was very complicated. There were almost twice as many ingredients in it as compared to Caitlin’s. It called for both butter and vegetable shortening as well as three types of milk (whole milk, half and half, and buttermilk). Once we got through all of the measuring and mixing, we got to the fun part of making the waffles. We had a double Belgian waffle maker, and the boys were very excited to use it to make the waffles. C. was particularly adept, which didn’t surprise me, since he has shown a knack for cooking in every class. We left him in charge of making the waffles while the rest of us made the persimmon syrup. We made the syrup from fresh persimmons from my yard. Most of the boys had never seen a persimmon before and were hesitant to try it. Once we started cooking the persimmon with cinnamon, sugar, and vanilla extract and the aroma started to fill the air, the boys were more eager to try it. We let it cook down and then strained out the remaining pulp. I had my helpers sample it. They loved it and were amazed by how good it was.
Both teams plated up the waffles and brought the syrups, fresh fruit, and whipped cream to the table. Staff were encouraged to participate in the voting, and we definitely didn’t need to ask them twice. I was impressed by how many boys tried the persimmon syrup, no doubt spurred on by the guys on my team raving about how good it was. After everyone had sampled both waffles, we voted by a show of hands and the tally came out exactly even. Everyone voted for the waffle that they made, and the staff were evenly split.
To me, it was a great result because it showed that if you get a young person involved in cooking, they will (most likely) enjoy the result. The boys clearly favored the waffles that they helped make. Even the persimmon syrup, which I thought was a little heavy on the vanilla extract, was a big hit, because they made it themselves. Now as far as which recipe should make the cookbook? I think we should take the best of both recipes and combine them to make a true CCYC original. That way everyone is a winner.
Ramen bowl with two types of broth, hard boiled egg, and assorted vegetables
Homemade chili oil
Sticky rice with mixed fruit
Passion tea with lemonade
At the start of class, we often ask everyone what their favorite food is. It might be a specific category, (favorite breakfast food, favorite comfort food…), or just generally what is their favorite food at that moment. Last class, S. said that his favorite food was ramen. That got Jan and I thinking that we should make a homemade and healthy alternative to packaged ramen, so that the kids could taste that it was possible to make a savory and flavorful ramen without all of the sodium and preservatives. I suggested pairing it with mango sticky rice for dessert, and Jan found a quick and easy rice cooker version that looked like it would work for us. Not only would the boys be making their own ramen, but they’d need to make enough for the other two pods who weren’t able to cook with us, so we had a lot to do in not much time.
I was working with C., P., and U., who I had worked with the week before. We were in charge of making the chili oil, vegetable broth, and prepping all of the vegetables. I was feeling slightly panicked because it seemed like it might be too much for us to do. C. and U. got started prepping the vegetables, and I was immediately impressed with their attention to detail. Particularly U., who was slicing the scallions to a restaurant quality level. They were perfectly uniform, small, and neat. Plus, he was fast. I realized that I was underestimating my crew. We had everything under control. While they worked on the vegetables, P. and I prepared the vegetable broth. It would be packed with flavor from plenty of garlic and ginger with a splash of sesame oil and soy sauce added to the vegetable bouillon. We threw in a handful of beautifully prepped scallions for good measure. While that simmered, we got to work searing the vegetables in a wok. I showed the boys how to properly use a wok, at very high heat, with lots of stirring, and for just a short amount of time. C. was a natural. P. was nervous that he was going to burn the green beans and was almost too nervous to try, but I assured him that he could do it. Slowly, he began to relax and enjoy the fun of cooking with a wok. (Later, when we were eating, several boys said that the green beans were their favorite part of the meal.)
After we put the vegetables and chili oil on the table, we went over to lend a hand to Jan’s crew. They were wrestling a mountain of sticky ramen noodles. We helped to wrangle them into a bowl. They had finished up the chicken broth. Apparently, S. (who had inspired us to make this meal in the first place) was disappointed that we wouldn’t be using the flavor packets that came with the noodles. We told him that the whole point of the meal was to show that we could make something delicious and healthy from scratch. He was skeptical and insisted that the chicken broth be left plain, so there was only bouillon in that broth. Jan dished out the noodles and I asked which broth each boy wanted. At first, because they like meat so much, boys were only asking for the chicken broth. Since I knew that the vegetable broth was going to be more flavorful, I suggested to a couple boys that I add a splash of it their chicken broth. They relented. When it was P.’s turn, he requested the vegetable broth. Since he made it with me, he knew everything that was in it, and was eager to sample his hard work.
The boys devoured the ramen, and L. said that it was the best he had ever tasted as he scooped himself seconds from the pot. Several boys said that the sautéed vegetables were their favorite part of the dish. Only S. didn’t like our take on ramen and asked if he could add one of the seasoning packets to his bowl. It was a good reminder for us that sometimes favorite foods are favorites not because they are the most flavorful or interesting, but because they bring us back to a certain time or place and provide comfort. Perhaps S. was nostalgic for packaged ramen, and what we made didn’t quite transport him out of CCYC to better times. But for the other boys, they realized that not only could they improve upon packaged food with fresh ingredients, they could also cook for a crowd. We were able to prepare an inexpensive and nutritious meal (with dessert!) for approximately 20 people in a little over an hour.
Velveeta mac & cheese
Strawberry banana smoothies
As soon as I heard the phone ring early Saturday morning and saw that it was Jan, I knew that there was a problem. She was barely able to squeak out that she had lost her voice and wasn’t going to be able to teach Cultivating Change. She was devastated because she and the girls had come up with the menu in their writing workshop the day before. I assured her that I would manage on my own, and I headed over to her house to pick up the supplies.
When I arrived to CCYC, I found out that there would be eight boys in class, which was the most that had participated in a while. I feel like the numbers always increase as the weather turns cold. It was going to be interesting to see how I managed that many boys on my own, but most of them had been attending class for at least two or three sessions, so they knew what to do.
Once I explained the menu, the boys divided into teams: one group was going to make the smoothies, another would shred the turkey and make the taco seasoning, and the last group would prepare the guac and all of the taco toppings. Jan had made Velveeta mac & cheese the day before to add to our list of contenders for the cookbook, so that was already prepared and just needed to be reheated.
I jumped back and forth between groups to check in on them and give them help as needed, but most of them were doing a stellar job without much assistance. Staff were there to lend a hand, which definitely kept things running smoothly. Within no time, the smoothies were ready and being poured. I started putting out the toppings for the tacos while W. and a new boy, L., sautéed the turkey meat with the taco seasoning. I popped over to check on the guacamole making, and J. and U. seemed to have everything under control. I was so impressed with how well the boys worked together without any direct leadership. They really have developed solid skills in the time they have been part of Cultivating Change. Somehow we managed to get the food on the tables and the boys eating ahead of schedule—something that never happens when Jan and I are both there. We were so early in fact, that I offered to air fry taquitos with the leftover turkey meat while they ate. They had time for seconds and to sample the mac & cheese. It definitely was not as well-received as S.’s mom’s or Jamilah’s recipe, both of which were made with shredded cheese. I was happy that the family recipes were the favorites.
Without even asking, the boys started to clean the dishes and sanitize the tables. When they needed to step up and put in the extra effort, the boys really came through and displayed a level of maturity that I hadn’t seen before.