Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cooking With Girl Scouts

I have a long history with Girl Scouting.  I first joined when I was in the 4th grade and I continued to be active in scouting right up until I graduated from high school.  I always planned that if I had a daughter, I'd become a Girl Scout Leader.  When it became clear that pregnancy wasn't in the cards for me, my husband and I started looking into Foster care or adoption.  But again, something else was in the works for us and just as we finished our Foster Parent training, my husbands niece asked us if we'd take two of her children for a year.  Of course we were happy to so we moved in the two children - brother and sister during the summer.  When school started in the fall, Arynn (then 5), came home with a flyer for a Girl Scout information night and wanted to go.  I was thrilled, we went and I came home having signed up not only Arynn for Daisy Girl Scouts but, myself as a co-leader to boot!  This was the beginning of my adult journey as an Adult Girl Scout.  I have co-lead and lead troops, I have organized events, I have camped, I have trained other adults as leaders, I have hosted sleepovers...the list is fairly long, but I'm sure you get the picture.  We eventually ended up with all 4 of our niece's children moving in with us (3 girls & a young man, then 5, 8, 9 & 12) and we have had many trials and adventures since but about 2 years ago, all 3 girls decided they were done with scouting.  This left me knowing I wanted to still be involved in scouting but not sure what I wanted that to look like.  This fall I ran into a fellow leader and we chatted about her troop's long-standing interest in cooking and I offered to host a cooking workshop here at the house.  So, this past Monday, I had 6 middle-school-aged girl scouts, 2 leaders and an adult assistant here, cooking together, having fun and enjoying a delicious meal!

One thing that never fails to surprise me when I cook with a group of kids is the length of time each dish actually takes to prepare.  I never seem to plan for quite enough time - although we managed to have dinner by about 6:30 (and they had cleaned up and cleared out by 7:30).  Each dish you make will take a minimum of 3 times longer that it would take you to make it yourself.  So plan carefully.  Luckily, the lasagna was the only dish that was labor intensive, everything else was pretty simple and easy.  The key for us was to get cracking the minute the girls walked in the door. 

Have a menu, recipes and an order pre-set and printed out for the group to consult if they wish.  I printed up the menu and "order of the kitchen" on one page, then printed the recipes on separate pages & sent the recipes home with the leader to copy for any troop members that wanted them. 

We did a great job of following the order - which kept us on track and ensured that the butter was soft when we were ready to make our garlic butter and the puff pastry sheets already thawed when we needed them. 

Again, most of our recipes were pretty simple.  For the garlic bread, we made garlic butter by roasting a head of garlic in the oven (don't you just love that smell) and mixing the roasted garlic with softened butter, then spread it on a couple loaves of french bread which we put into the oven during the last 15 minutes the lasagna baked.  For the Caesar salad, we used bottled dressing & store-bought croutons so all the girls had to do was cut up a few heads of romaine, shred some Parmesan, dress the salad and toss in the croutons.  Sticking to a menu where they only have to prepare and cook a couple items is a great way to go.  I'd love to have them make their own croutons some time, but with something like lasagna to make it's probably not the best time to make your own. 

We had Minute Apple Tart for dessert - a recipe by Linda Larsen that I found a About.com.  The apples for the tart needed to be sliced paper thin, so I did have the adults did do the slicing for that.  I'm sure the girls could have done it, but the whole group was getting pretty hungry (and squirrely) by the time we were preparing them so we had to send them outside for some "wiggle time" and it was the perfect opportunity to have the adults do some power chopping.  For safety, I think that's a good time to step in anyway.

The great thing about working with Girl Scouts is they have a wonderful energy.  It's really very satisfying, on a personally level, to know you're teaching them something they can really use.  For many young people, this is the only time they will be taught to cook.  Also, Girl Scouts always clean up - one of their basic precepts is to "leave it better than when you found it" - so they do a great job and you'll likely not even be able to tell they were there, cooking in your kitchen, except for any yummy leftovers that may have been left behind!

Lasagna

Spaghetti Sauce (make the day before, if you possible):
1 lb Italian sausage, bulk or links (hamburger or ground turkey will work too)
1 12 oz can tomato paste
1 20 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 20 oz can tomato sauce
1 onion, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, sliced
2 palmfuls oregano
2 palmfuls basil
1/2 palmful parsley
salt & pepper to taste

For the layers:
Lasagna Noodles 1 8.8 oz. box, I prefer the oven-ready type
Ricotta Cheese, 16 oz
2 lb. Mozzarella Cheese
8 oz. Grated Parmesan Cheese (or less if you grate it fresh as you go)
Nutmeg

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Spray an 9 x 13 baking dish with non-stick spray.  Distribute a thin, even layer of spaghetti sauce into the bottom of the baking dish.  Cover with a layer of noodles.  Spread noodles with a layer of Ricotta Cheese.  Grate a little nutmeg over the Ricotta.  Layer with mozzarella cheese & sprinkle with Parmesan.  Cover with a layer of sauce.  Repeat.  Finish with one more layer of noodles and top with sauce, then a layer a mozzarella leaving some of the sauce visible.  Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.  Cover with foil and bake 30-45 minutes.  The cheese should be melted and the whole casserole bubbly.  Remove foil and bake another 10-15 minutes, until cheese on top is golden brown.  Allow Lasagna to sit about 5 minutes prior to cutting, this will help it to hold together for serving.  Mangia!

Note:  It is absolutely unnecessary to pre-cook lasagna noodles.  You can use any variety of lasagna noodles, they do not have to be "oven ready" - they will come out perfectly al-dente if you do not pre-cook them.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Cooking with Fresh Pumpkins

With Halloween on it's way later this month the local stores and produce stands are loading up on pumpkins.  I picked up a couple of sugar pumpkins earlier this week and I'm planning on pureeing them, then freezing them so I can use them for pies & other baked goods later this fall and winter.  If you're not familiar with sugar pumpkins, they are a typically smaller variety of pumpkin with an especially thick flesh that makes them an extremely poor choice for carving but an excellent choice for cooking.  The flesh is also sweeter than that of your typical carving pumpkin.  We used to grow them when we had a garden, but we really haven't been gardening for a few years now (long story perhaps to share another day). 

In the past I've either boiled or baked the pumpkin and I haven't been particularly happy with either choice.  Boiling the pumpkin tends to result in a watery and less tasty puree than baking, but baking seems to result in hard, crusty spots on the surface of the pumpkin flesh that doesn't puree very well.

So today, I'm asking for your help.  What is your favorite method of preparing pumpkin for preserving?  Do you freeze the results, or can them?  I'm looking forward to hearing your comments, thoughts and ideas - and feel free to share your favorite fresh pumpkin recipes too!