Kids learn about local foods, improve cooking skills, and help their peers

Three things can always warm me up on a chilly late winter’s day in March: a nice bowl of soup made from last summer’s tomatoes, watching kids get excited about cooking with local ingredients, and learning about innovative efforts that both raise awareness about food insecurity in Maine and work to combat it. On a recent 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 triply warmed by having all three things materialize at once.

4 Kids By Kids is a six-week cooking class offered to 4th- through 8th-graders by Portland-based 2gether Private Chefs. In this first iteration of the class, almost 20 kids are learning both basic cooking skills and the tenets of eating locally and sustainably from a whole host of farmers and culinary experts that 2gether Private Chefs owner Amy Kayne has lined up to teach different portions of the class. Ultimately, graduates will help prepare a five-course meal to be served at The Maker’s Galley on April 9. Proceeds from that dinner will benefit Full Plates Full Potential, a nonprofit organization working to end childhood hunger in Maine.

The day I attended the class, a dozen 4th- and 5th-graders were excited to talk about preserving local foods at peak flavor, to learn how to slice, dice and diagonally cut vegetables, to taste all sorts of pickled vegetable and to make suggestions on how to season local popcorn.

The guest speaker was farmer Stephanie McDonough, founder of Farm to Table Kids, a summer camp and year-round alternative education space she’s created on her 63-acre North Yarmouth farm for kids to learn, eat, and play in.

“Who can tell me something they know about food preservation?” asked Kayne as she passed a jar of local canned tomatoes for the kids to smell. The tomatoes, which they agreed smelled fresh like summer sunshine, were processed at Turtle Rock Farm, a Brunswick-based local foods preservation operation that helps small farmers from like McDonough collectively produce shelf-stable preserves from their crops. These jars were destined for creamy tomato soup the kids would sample at the end of class.

Hazel Goldstein, a student from South Portland, energetically waved her hand until Kayne called on her to answer the preserving question. “Right down here on the water, they used to catch lots and lots of cod that couldn’t be eaten all at once. So… they added lots and lots of salt to it, and then everything was good to eat at another time in the future, ”Goldstein said.

As Kayne and McDonough acknowledged Goldstein’s understanding of Portland’s historical working waterfront, they pivoted to level-set the whole class’s understanding of food preservation. The women explained how vegetables are pickled in salt and vinegar brines when beginning cooks want to safely experiment with preserving food.

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As they sampled dilly pickled yellow wax beans, Kayne reminded them of the previous week’s lesson about where on the tongue an eater can taste sour things. Typically, humans taste sour and salty on the sides, sweet in front and bitter in the back. The students gave suggestions on what they should pickle for the April 9 event. Cucumbers, radishes and blueberries were all on the list, but the collective eventually settled on pickled garlic, snacking peppers and red onions.

Amy Kayne praises student Lola Roper for her newfound chopping skills. The students are learning about local foods, as well as learning cooking skills. Brianna Soukup / Staff Photographer

The kids were appropriately quiet as the chefs spent ample time explaining knife safety protocols. They were even quieter as they concentrated to make cuts to cucumbers, celery and tomatoes, each vegetable chosen so students could practice working with vegetables of different shapes and textures.

As the class started to wind down, McDonough explained that farming sustainably meant protecting the land so her children and her children’s children could also use it to produce healthy food. To her, that means not putting any chemicals into it. She talked of how no-till farming techniques makes soil healthier without using fertilizers, how lady bugs take care of aphids that eat greens and how fun it is to strap on a head lamp and go out to hunt for glow-in-the-dark hornworms before they wreck your tomato crop.

I must admit I’m a little disappointed I was only invited to attend one class. The kids, the curriculum and the cause would make attending all six well worth my time.

Local foods advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is the editor of Edible Maine magazine and author of “Green Plate Special,” both a column about eating sustainably in the Portland Press Herald and the name of her 2017 cookbook. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

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Stephanie McDonough, from Farm to Table Kids, tops cups of tomato soup with freshly-popped popcorn during a cooking class for kids at The Maker’s Gallery. Brianna Soukup / Staff Photographer

Creamy Tomato Soup with Farmer Steph’s Herbed Popcorn

The American cheese slices in the soup make it creamy while popcorn served on top adds texture.

Serves 6-8 with lots of popcorn leftover 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 tomato with juice
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 tablespoon dried oregano
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3 slices of American cheese, chopped
2 tablespoons Greek yogurt
Pinch of sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

FOR THE POPCORN:
1 tablespoon table salt
3 tablespoon 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

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To make the popcorn, combine seasonings in a small bowl. Toss the popcorn with the melted butter. Sprinkle the seasoning over popcorn to taste.

To make the soup, combine the olive oil, onions and red pepper flakes. Cook until onions are translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, stock, oregano and garlic, simmer 10 minutes. Stir in the American cheese. Use a blender to puree the soup and return it to the pan to keep warm.

Temper the yogurt by putting it in a small bowl and stirring in a couple tablespoons of hot soup. Stir the tempered yogurt into the soup.

Place a fine mesh strainer over a second pot. Pour pureed soup through the strainer to catch any tomato skins. Use a spatula to push the liquid through the sieve 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 somewhere between completely smooth and thick. Compost any pulp that you don’t use in the soup.

Add sugar to the soup to smooth out its acidity. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve the hot soup in a cup topped with a handful of herbed popcorn.

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Tomato soup topped with freshly popped popcorn. Brianna Soukup / Staff Photographer


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