Cooking for a crowd at Phipps

This is the fourth in a series on high school interns learning to cook at Phipps Garden Center. Read previous weeks' installments at

When expecting a crowd, think pasta. Phipps high school interns did last week, when they invited the Phipps Conservatory/Phipps Garden Center college interns for lunch after cooking class at the garden center in Shadyside.

Teacher-cooks in charge were Virginia Phillips, Alyce Amery-Spencer and me from Slow Food Pittsburgh. As we drove up, the combined crews were outside, weeding, cultivating and working up appetites.

The menu would do the refueling: slabs of good bread to dip in olive oil with chopped fresh herbs, a gigantic pasta dish, assorted cherry tomatoes for salad, iced tea and yummy blueberry cake with a few fresh berries for garnish. Dessert was a preview of an upcoming trip to pick berries at Reilly's Summer Seat Farm.

In this, their fourth class, there were changes in the ways students tackled the chores. After viewing recipes, they just picked up knives and started in. Some chose their favorite tasks, while others went where they needed practice.

The girls got green and yellow zucchini ready -- keep the dice small and even, please.

Then there was mozzarella to grate on the big holes and a big hunk of real parmesan to shave. Athif Wulandana had help husking a pile of corn, then cutting off the kernels -- not too close or the tough cob gets in.

Three big pots of water had to be brought to a boil on one stove. On the other, four big skillets were set out. There were lots of parsley and oregano to chop, tomatoes to wash and halve, garlic to mince, basil to tear. Maya Quezada Szejk was everywhere, doing everything.

After the cooking started, salad was dressed to go. And Mberwa Mada learned how to swipe the bread with water -- two huge Italian loaves and one ciabatta -- and set them in a hot oven to crisp. Then he cut thick slices and hustled them out to the guests to avoid an uprising.

By the time the penne had cooked, the vegetables were ready, everything was put together and the skillets went straight to the tables.

Athif saw things this way: "It's really fun, really interesting and we're learning skills we can use in the future." In his case, the future is very near. He's headed for Northwestern University this fall and facing cooking for himself for the first time.

Skillet Penne with Zucchini and Corn, Melting Mozzarella, Shaved Parmesan

  • Salt: 1 tablespoon for pasta water and 1/2 teaspoon for vegetable mixture
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups zucchini and/or yellow squash, diced small
  • 4 green onions, sliced not too thin
  • 4 cloves garlic minced
  • 2 cups corn kernels (cut from 3 to 4 ears)
  • 1 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 cup oregano chopped
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 pound small penne
  • 2/3 pound fresh mozzarella, grated on big holes of box grater, or cut small
  • 2/3 cup parmesan shaved or grated
  • Flake salt for finishing

Put an 8 quart kettle of water to boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt.

Film a pan with olive oil. Add zucchini and cook 5 minutes. Taste for doneness. Cubes should be firm but not raw-tasting. Cook a minute or 2 more if needed. Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon of salt over veggies. Add green onions, cook 1 minute.

Move veggies to one side, add garlic to bare spot in pan, dribble on a little olive oil if dry, cook 1 minute, moving garlic around so it doesn't burn. Stir garlic into mixture. Add corn, stirring 1 minute, to heat through. Stir in chopped parsley and oregano. Remove pan from heat.

Add pepper and test for seasoning; the veggie mixture should be salty and peppery enough to stand up to the bland pasta.

Cook penne according to box directions -- test a minute early to see if pasta is al dente. It should be firm but with no hard bit in the middle.

Drain pasta. Pour pasta into skillet. Mix quickly and gently with veggies. Top with mozzarella. Stir cheese in a bit to soften. Top with parmesan. Season with flake salt. Serve immediately.

Serves 6.

-- Rose Marie Perla of Slow Food Pittsburgh

Cherry Tomato Salad

What could be better with mozzarella creamy pasta?

  • 1/2 head, home-grown lettuce, washed and dried
  • 2 pints multicolored cherry tomatoes, super-ripe, home grown
  • Basil, about 20 leaves
  • 1 teaspoon or more of flaked salt, such as Maldon
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons good quality balsamic vinegar

Arrange lettuce leaves at either end of platter.

Halve tomatoes and mound on platter. Tuck basil leaves among and on top. Sprinkle with a teaspoon or more of flaked salt. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar, 2- to 3 tablespoons, to taste.

Serves 6.

-- Virginia Phillips

Freelancer Nancy Hanst: First Published July 26, 2012 4:00 AM


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