Guest post by Bryan Delsack, my fellow judge at a HealthCorps Teen Battle Chef competition.
Amid a frenetic whirlwind of bubbling pots, chopping knives and swiftly gallivanting chefs, I found myself lost in the action of the kitchen. Swept up by the eye of this culinary tornado, I hung on for the ride. Trying to weave between focused chefs without disrupting the feverish pace of the kitchen, I tried to break into the action of the room with a simple question for one of the chefs: “What are you making?”
On Friday, March 4th, Hazel and I visited West Side High School to be guest judges at their Teen Battle Chef program. Teen Battle Chef is an after school cooking class that emphasizes the importance of healthy eating, while teaching students the cooking skills necessary to prepare nutritious meals. Taking a more innovative and fun approach to teaching cooking than a traditional home-ec class, Teen Battle Chef uses friendly competition to inspire the students and fosters teamwork and camaraderie among them. Competing as two teams of three, the students worked together to create and present a dish to the judges.
Teen Battle Chef was created by FamilyCook Productions and is licensed to schools around the US, including all of the HealthCorps schools. The program is one of the many ways that HealthCorps, co-founded by Dr. Mehmet Oz and his wife Lisa, encourages students to take charge of their health. As the West Side High School HealthCorps coordinator, Sarah Frank empowers the students both in the kitchen and in the nutritional choices they make when eating out. Having been taught under Sarah’s dedicated tutelage, the students have taken home the skills and recipes learned in the school’s kitchen, often putting this knowledge to use in their home kitchens. Of all the recipes they’ve learned so far, students said that their favorites were healthy pizzas, Thai fish chowder and chicken ensaladas, and that these recipes were ones they had prepared at home for their families.
During our visit we had the pleasure of seeing Team Salad Nicoise (Soledad Garcia, Leydi Bautista and Yojerssy Perez) and Team Spinach & Pesto Quesadilla (Kathery Bencosme and Bernard Campos) in action. We watched both teams work to create their respective dish, following recipes from FamilyCook’s Teen Battle Chef curriculum. The students displayed impressive knife skills and an astute understanding of the nutritional value of their dishes, taking the time to explain the health benefits of each component in their dish as they cooked. Throughout the competition Sarah, along the other instructors Minerva Huang and Lilit Suffet, cheered on each team as they raced the clock.
Once the cooking was done, each team presented their dish to a panel of four judges. The presentations included nutritional and historical background about the dish, as well as information about the ingredients and cooking process. Team Salad Nicoise explained that their dish originated in Nice, France. Their salad serves as a rounded meal, with Tuna providing protein, lettuce, tomatoes and beans supplying vitamins and minerals, with olives and olive oil being a source of healthy fat. Team Salad Nicoise also made their vinaigrette from scratch during their presentation, demonstrating how Dijon mustard can help thicken and emulsify a dressing. Team Quesadilla focused on the ancient Mexican origin of their dish, and explained how Quesadillas lend themselves to healthy variations, like the one they had made. Using spinach and healthy goat cheese, team Quesadilla explained that their version had increased nutritional benefits than the traditional Mexican classic.
Then came tasting time! Judges Susan Rayne, Rick Frank, Hazel and myself had the pleasure of chowing down on two equally delicious dishes. The Salad Niscoise, with its bevy of ingredients, had a nice balance of flavors and diversity of textures. The vinaigrette provided a light tanginess and saltiness to the dish, and the Dijon mustard in the vinaigrette prevented its breaking- an important factor in the presentation of the dish. This salad proved to fulfill its claim of being a well-rounded meal, as it was satisfying enough to be enjoyed by itself as a healthy lunch or dinner. The quesadillas benefited from the addition of the goat cheese, as it added tanginess to the dish that is absent in traditional cheese quesadillas. Filled with savory spinach and topped with creamy homemade guacamole, these quesadillas were a delicious and healthy variation of the traditional Mexican snack, and one that will supplant my current Quesadilla recipe come Cinco de Mayo (or anytime the craving for quesadillas emerges).
Having viewed the presentations and chowed down on both dishes, we judges were given the Sisyphean task of crowning a winner for best dish and best presentation. After much painstaking deliberation, the judges decided in favor of Team Quesadillas for best dish and for Salad Niscoise for best presentation. How did the teams celebrate their victories? By munching on what was left of the two delicious and nutritious dishes!
Spinach and Pesto Quesadillas with Guacamole
8 flour tortillas, 6- or 8-inch
10 ounces monterey jack cheese, grated
15 ounces frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1 jar pesto sauce
10 ounces goat cheese
Squeeze out the excess liquid from the frozen spinach.
Place 4 of the flour tortillas on a table or cutting board. Spread a generous layer of pesto over each tortilla, then spread some spinach over the pesto.
Sprinkle the Monterey Jack cheese over each tortilla, followed by a portion of the goat cheese, crumbling it with the fingers and distributing it as evenly
Place another flour tortilla over each quesadilla. Press it down firmly over the filling.
Place a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook each quesadilla in the dry skillet until browned on the bottom. Then carefully flip it over with a spatula so the second side can brown. (If it starts to burn, the skillet is on too high a temperature.)
When the quesadilla is cooked on the second side, transfer it to a plate with a spatula, and cover with foil to keep warm. Repeat until all the quesadillas are cooked.
Cut into wedges and serve warm with cilantro and guacamole.
3 avocados, very ripe (but not mushy)
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red onion, finly chopped
2 plum tomatoes, diced
1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
2 lemons, juiced
2 limes, juiced
kosher or sea salt and ground cumin to taste
Cut the avocados in half, peel them, and remove the pits. Slice the avocados into thin strips, and place in a mixing bowl.
Add the garlic, red onion, tomatoes, cilantro, lemon juice and lime juice. Mash everything with a fork.
Add salt and cumin to taste.
Family Cook Productions
Creators of Teen Battle Chef
2 heads boston lettuce
½ pound green beans
2 jars or cans tuna (packed in olive oil)
½ container grape tomatoes
8 new potatoes
½ cup niçoise olives (black, oil cured), drained
3 tablespoons capers, drained
Fill a medium saucepan halfway with water, add potatoes, and set over high heat to boil.
Trim the ends of the green beans and cut in half. When the water is boiling for the potatoes, blanch the green beans in the boiling water for 2 minutes. Remove the green beans with a slotted spoon and cool them in water.
Place the eggs gently into the boiling water and cook for 15 minutes. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon.
Check the potatoes periodically. Remove them from the water with a fork or slotted spoon when a fork can go in easily but they are not mushy.
Rinse and dry the lettuce. Arrange the lettuce leaves attractively on a large platter, so the leaves totally cover the platter and fan out around the edges.
Drain the tuna and flake it with a fork in a small bowl, then place it in the center of the platter.
Cut the grape tomatoes in half and the cooled potatoes in quarters, and arrange them nicely around the tuna.
When the eggs are cool, peel and quarter them, placing them decoratively on the platter.
Add the olives and capers; sprinkling them evenly throughout the salad.
Add the green beans in small bunches around the platter.
Drizzle the dressing evenly over the entire salad.
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, juiced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
3 sprigs fresh tarragon, chopped
6 leaves fresh basil, chopped
Combine the olive oil and lemon juice in a medium bowl. Add the herbs, garlic and mustard.
With a fork or small whisk, blend the ingredients evenly.
Family Cook Productions
Creators of Teen Battle Chef
You can get involved with HealthCorps by emailing your local school coordinator directly. Go to the HealthCorps Schools page, click on your state and the list of schools and coordinator emails will appear on the right hand side of the page. Follow the West Side High School HealthCorps blog to see what else these students are cooking up!
Contact Family Cook Productions to find out how to get the Teen Battle Chef program at your own school.