Phipps Conservatory interns make the cut

Everything's been sprouting at Phipps Conservatory in Oakland and Phipps Garden Center in Shadyside since eight high school interns arrived for a six-week program. Staff gardeners and Kate Borger, program coordinator, pre-planted the early vegetables and herbs in the plots that the teenagers are going to tend. Right now there's mostly a lot of weeding and waiting.

The plan is to harvest on Wednesdays and cook lunch on Thursdays for themselves and guests. Although their own gardens cannot yet supply much, roasted vegetables were the theme of last week's kickoff lunch.

This year's participants are a UN of students: Zainab Burhanuldeen and Mberwa Mada from Allderdice High School; Kiehl Jackson and Lauryn Robinson from Woodland Hills High School; Eric Klemm from Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy; Denise Porter from Westinghouse High School; Maya Quezada Szejk from CAPA; and Athif Wulandana from Shadyside Academy.

In charge of the first meeting were Alyce Amery-Spencer and Justine Cassell, two of the six teacher-cooks from Slow Food Pittsburgh. Before cooking began, there was an introduction to knife skills: how to hold the tool and the food being cut, how to slice and dice and chop, how to care for the knife, then how to keep it sharp. Because (and here's an important lesson) a sharp knife is a safe knife. Dull gets you in trouble. They all tried sharpening a knife on a stone.

Knives honed and appetites whetted, it was time to start prepping lunch. The dishes to be prepared by the interns were hoagies stuffed with seasonal roasted vegetables and sides of oven-fried zucchini sticks and oven sweet potato fries. To round out the menu, a smooth watermelon-grapefruit agua fresca drink and zucchini-carrot bars with cream cheese icing were provided.

The interns' skills and experiences in growing and cooking food vary widely. Mberwa handles a knife with ease and holds his hand in a perfect claw when cutting vegetables, but some of the girls had never picked up that utensil. Kiehl has worked in a restaurant and helps her grandmother in the kitchen. Maya teaches at a Saturday youth program in a community vegetable garden and does a lot of the cooking at home. Mberwa's family grows corn in the backyard.

Determined to get it right, the students settled down to slicing and chopping piles of vegetables, then slicking them with olive oil, salting and peppering. Before long, delicious smells wafted from the oven. Everyone wondered what this stuff was going to taste like. There were eggplant, zucchini, onions and peppers for the hoagies. Some of the kids had never tasted eggplant. Almost nobody had tasted vegetables roasted this way. Some thought the whole place smelled like sweet potatoes.

It was time to slice the tomatoes, wash the romaine and basil leaves, set out the mozzarella-provolone, mayonnaise, ketchup and sausage rolls. Then a fork poked in the last, recalcitrant onion slice registered "done." Everything was out of the oven and tasted (zucchini was a favorite) and arranged on trays or in bowls, so that hoagies could be constructed. Whoever wanted cheese topping could stick the sandwich under the broiler for a few minutes.

It was agreed that roasted vegetables make great hoagies. And there was not a sweet potato crumb left. The whole experience was recorded by the interns with their Nikon Coolpix cameras. Maybe some of the shots will make it to the exhibit scheduled for next fall in the Phipps Conservatory Welcome Center.

The interns keep daily journals in which they are asked to write a letter to someone describing the week's events that they most want to remember. Denise wrote to her mother: "I wish you got to see the way we cooked and learned how to use kitchen techniques. I felt like a chef who had been cooking for years."

The Phipps intern program brings together high schoolers who wrote winning essays and were recommended by their teachers. The program's purpose is Learning for a Greener Future, by way of horticulture, plant science, vegetable gardening, environmental issues, sustainability, green career possibilities and healthy living. The internships are underwritten by The Grable Foundation and Pennsylvania Education Improvement Tax Credit Program.

In coming weeks, other Slow Food teacher-cooks will be Emily Schmidlapp, Kelsey Weisgerber, Virginia Phillips and this writer, with a guest appearance by Andrea Jackson from the Western Pennsylvania Herb Society. Weekly menus and recipes will appear in the Food & Flavor section.

Roasted Vegetable Hoagies

This is more of a very flexible idea than a recipe:

Japanese eggplants, zucchini, peeled onions, red and yellow peppers, all sliced or chopped, are lightly coated with olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, laid out on baking sheets and oven roasted at 450 degrees until fork-tender. Keep testing as the zucchini will be done first.

Arrange vegetables on long rolls with hard or semi-hard crusts. Add a choice of tomato slices, lettuce, (optional basil leaves), mayonnaise or aioli, ketchup and a good melting cheese if you like. Finish under the broiler if using cheese.

Note: Other likely vegetable choices are fennel, carrots and asparagus. -- Nancy Hanst

Oven Sweet Potato Fries

  • 1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into wedges
  • 2 teaspoons canola oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss the ingredients together and spread wedges on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until browned and tender, turning once, about 20 minutes.

-- "Eating Well" magazine

Oven-Fried Zucchini Sticks

  • Canola oil cooking spray
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds zucchini (about 3 medium) cut into 1/2-by-3-inch sticks
  • 2 egg whites, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a large baking sheet with cooking spray. Combine flours, cornmeal, salt and pepper in a large sealable plastic bag. Dip zucchini in egg white, shake in the bag to coat and arrange, not touching, on the baking sheet. Coat all exposed sides with cooking spray. Bake on the center rack for 7 minutes. Turn the zucchini and coat any floury spots with cooking spray. Continue to bake until golden and just tender, about 5 minutes. Serve hot.

-- "Eating Well" magazine

food - recipes

Freelancer Nancy Hanst: First Published June 28, 2012 4:00 AM


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