AUGUSTA — Bits of broccoli, collard greens and curly kale and dabs of squash littered the floor. Aromas of baking macaroni and cheese and garlic braising in canola oil filled the cooking classroom at Cony High School.

Young chefs stirred pots, sliced greens and asked question after question of the three adults directing the class.

“No, you can’t put metal in a microwave,” dietitian Jacqueline Stevens told one inquirer who wanted to steam broccoli in a metal pot. So the pot went on the stove top instead.

Gabby Cotnoir and Benjamin Lucarelli, both eighth graders, dealt with the greens, holding the stem of the curly kale and pulling off the leaves for chopping. Then Cotnoir sliced the hard stems from the collard greens and Lucarelli rolled them for slicing.

“I’ve never had it,” he said, as the greens filled a large bowl to overflowing. So far, his favorite foods from the program are the peanut butter and banana pockets, which Stevens described as a nutritious breakfast and snack.

This was the fourth week of “Cooking Matters,” a two-hour, after-school program offered to Cony middle schoolers which focuses on healthy foods.

This is the third time Stevens, a coordinator for Healthy Communities of the Capital Area and coordinator for the federal food program SNAP-ED, has conducted the course at Cony. Students spend the first hour in a nutrition lesson, then put those lessons to work to create a healthy meal and then eat it, deciding what they like.

Then they take home a grocery bag with the same ingredients so they can recreate the meals for their families.

The grocery shopping and individual bagging is done in advance by students in the functional skills class taught by Ann Boyd.

The dozen or so students in “Cooking Matters” are split among three demonstration kitchens in the special education and former food science room just off the high school’s main entrance.

In one station, Megan Greaton, a seventh grader, minced fresh broccoli, saying, “I think we cut it up because we don’t like it very much, so we don’t want to kind of see it.”

Camryn Elliott, an eighth grader, countered, “I love broccoli.” She said she first tasted it when she was very young.

The broccoli was destined for “Top Macaroni and Cheese” with some whole wheat pasta and cottage cheese substituting for the Monterey Jack or cheddar.

After the steaming, Greaton covered the pot with aluminum foil and labeled it.

Seventh-grader Sarah Cook-Wheeler said she cooks at home. Her favorite dish is pancakes.

Devin Young, a seventh grader, said he tries the new recipes at home.

He and Cook-Wheeler had precooked the macaroni on the stove and were stirring into it the mashed butternut squash, cottage cheese and six ounces of cheddar..

“Remember, you’re earning points if you do the dishes as you go along,” said Brenda Weis, Cony wellness teacher and volunteer coordinator for the program.

The “Cooking Matters Teens Point System,” like some of the popular televised cooking shows, earns perks for the cooking teams. They can get an extra five minutes of cooking time in the final or exclusive use of a tool, such as a blender or counter-top griddle.

The students watch some of the shows. Eighth-grader Liz Young is fond of MTV’s “Snack-Off” and Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” Cotnoir prefers Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” and Fox’s “MasterChef.”

There are lessons to be learned from each dish the students prepare as well.

The super-salty salsa last week was the result of prep mishap.

Young said it proved the take-away: “Don’t measure the salt over the dish.”

Alyssa Wingate, volunteer chef, demonstrated the use of a whisk to blend items, and the students ran back and forth to various stations, adding ingredients, grabbing low-fat milk from the refrigerator and lifting lids to take a whiff of various dishes.

Then with all the baking and cooking and steaming done in 45 minutes, it was time to serve up and enjoy.

Opinions were split. The Top Macaroni and Cheese was too sweet for some and just right for others.

Lucarelli had thirds of the creamy-style dish with broccoli.

“This only has five grams of fat per serving,” Stevens told him.

The greens were slow to go, and Stevens said that might be the result of doubling the garlic because the volume of greens was doubled. She suggested cutting back the garlic a little.

In Maine, the Cooking Matters program is offered through the Good Shepherd Food Bank, and the curriculum “teaches healthy eating habits, cooking skills, food shopping and budgeting,” according to the Good Shepherd Food Bank’s website. More information is available at cookingmatters.org.

Cooking Matters has programs for children, adults, families and parents. Stevens said Cony is her favorite place to offer it because of the availability of multiple kitchen stations.

In other venues, she’s had to carry in an extension cord and hot plate, which makes it more of a demonstration and less of a hands-on experience for students.

After the meal, the students headed out to catch rides home, leaving the dishes for the adults and the floor cleanup for maintenance staff.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams


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