Planting Seeds: Teens Cook from the Garden
Getting up early to harvest veggies from the garden and cook on a Saturday morning is something I wouldn't have done as a teenager, but recently 15 teenagers did just that.
They came to the Community Roots Garden in Oxnard as volunteers to learn how to master Butternut Squash Pasta Alfredo, Green Beans with Walnut Brown Butter and Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Butterscotch Caramel Sauce under the enthusiastic guidance of Amy Tyrell. (See recipes on page 26.)
Amy, the day's volunteer chef, developed the recipes based on what was ready for harvesting at the garden, located on a lot adjacent to the North Oxnard United Methodist Church. She also wanted the students to explore familiar ingredients in new ways, like using browned butter instead of regular butter for the green beans.
Only two students had cooking experience. The others rarely made anything more complex than a bowl of cereal. Their inexperience deterred some, who doubted they could take on a full menu–let alone a vegetarian one.
The teens were part of Oxnard City Corps, an organization that encourages community service to cultivate job skills. A significant emphasis is also on supporting youth to realize their full potential by experiencing diverse potential career pathways as they participate in community service activities, says Eric Humel, program developer at City Corps.
Students who need volunteer hours come to the garden to weed, prepare the vegetable beds and help harvest. They're there to fulfill graduation requirements, to pump up their transcripts, to work off court-ordered community service while on probation or simply because they want to be involved.
Through the Volunteer Chef program, the teens cook meals for the garden's volunteers under the supervision of a chef or another cooking enthusiast.
After a welcome and overview of the cooking process, Amy, who owns the catering company Morsels As You Wish and teaches cooking classes at Spice-Topia in Ventura, appointed her sous chefs and split the kids into teams: green beans, butternut squash and dessert.
After a quick tutorial on what a ripe green bean looks like, the designated team headed off to the tall rows of climbing bean plants. Amy took another group to pick sage, throwing in a quick lesson in cooking with the nearby lavender flowers. The squash team went a different direction still.
Because the church's small kitchen couldn't accommodate all the students and their recipes, some dishes were cooked on a grate over a fire pit, camp style.
At first, the teens were first silent as they prepped the veggies, speaking only when prompted. As the morning warmed, so did their moods.
Amy flits from group to group, giving an instruction here, a witty comment to elicit a smile there. Soon the kids were chatting and asking questions: "Is this a tablespoon?" asked one cook, holding up a teaspoon. A perplexed look crossed another's face when asked how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon.
Sergio Lopez and Cesar Ramirez, both 17 and attending Pacifica High School's Culinary Arts program, took the opportunity to talk with Amy about the culinary field.
Through it all, Amy encouraged them to go beyond just following the printed recipe: "Chefs have to taste!"
After three-plus hours, lunch was served. The teams presented the menu to their fellow classmates and other garden volunteers in loud, enthusiastic voices. They were clearly proud of what they had made.
Any doubts about a vegetarian menu were dashed as everyone ate in enjoyable silence. As Christian Morales, 17 and attending Hueneme High School, finished the main course he compared the pasta to macaroni and cheese, but "much better."
"I'll definitely cook it [the pasta] again," he adds.
It was a delicious meal–I can attest to that. It was also an ambitious project where everyone learned the value of teamwork, to try new things and that they can cook.
For Amy, a highlight was seeing the teens' transition from very wary, tentative and worried about how to cook, to a group proud of what they had accomplished and eager to share with each another and the adults.
"The second [highlight] was watching their 'aha' moments, those moments when they became excited about a newly acquired skill or piece of knowledge that made them smile and say things like, 'I want to do this for my mom or for my family,'" says Amy. "You know they walked away from the experience enriched in some way."
BACK TO THE ROOTS
Community Roots Garden was launched in 2008 by congregants of North Oxnard United Methodist Church and other volunteers to address hunger in the community through sustainable food-growing techniques, says Angela Schultz, volunteer coordinator. Its goal is to "grow, share, empower and restore."
Volunteers tend the land and harvest the produce, which is shared among the volunteers and donated to shelters and other local organizations that aid the needy. A portion of the harvest continues to support the church's food pantry program, Angela says.
The nonprofit garden's Volunteer Chef program is a way for teens to learn how to cook with the freshly harvested vegetables and to encourage them to eat more healthfully, she says.
Every weekend, volunteer chefs cook with City Corps' students using recipes based on the current harvest and serve 25–30 volunteer gardeners.
Volunteer chefs don't need to be professional chefs, but they do need to be passionate about cooking and teaching. For more info about volunteering as a chef, contact Angela at 805-616-2326 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The linked recipes are offered courtesy of chef and culinary instructor Amy Tyrell of Morsels As You Wish, a Ventura-based catering company.