Cooking class à la francaise

   Christian McKinney chops onions while Nysirah Hall (left) and Kimberly Luu get ready to grate cheese.
   Christian McKinney chops onions while Nysirah Hall (left) and Kimberly Luu get ready to grate cheese. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 16, 2014

Ratatouille was on the menu for our after-school cooking class, and the fifth-grade cooks were eager to try the dish they knew about because of the eponymous Disney film - especially since the movie version of this vegetable stew was so good it melted the heart of the evil food critic, reminding him of his mother's home cooking.

Indeed, ratatouille is a staple of French home cooking; it is served in school cafeterias and is a dish French children love.

But they may not have loved it the first time they tried it, I told the Lawton elementary students. As I learned in the book French Kids Eat Everything, French parents know that taste buds take time to develop. If children don't like a dish, parents encourage them to keep tasting until they learn to appreciate it.

We're adopting that philosophy today, I said, as we got started chopping. Teacher Mark "Doc" Hawkins, who spends his summers in France, gave us French translations for the vegetables in the dish, making them sound so much more exotic: Red peppers became  poivrons rouges; eggplant, aubergine; zucchini, courgette.

Does anyone else know any French words? I asked.

" Mise en place," shouted Nick Rodriguez, remembering the phrase I repeat every week as we are prepping and organizing ingredients for the recipe.

"Yes! Good for you, Nick!" I said.

" Voilà," offered Christian McKinney, kissing his fingertips, then spreading them wide in the classic French gesture.

"Wait, I thought you were Italian, Christian. You speak French?"

But even a French cooking lesson with a movie connection could not compete with the more pressing topic on these students' minds: the school dance.

"It's tomorrow. We're so excited!" said Nysirah Hall. "What are you wearing?" she asked the other girls. "I'm wearing a pink dress, it's kind of flowing at the bottom."

"Are you allowed to wear makeup?" Aneza Abalo asked. "I'm allowed to wear a little, but not too bright."

"What are you wearing, Dr. Hawkins?" Nysirah asked.

"I'm guess I'm wearing what I always wear," he said, a little baffled, motioning to the slacks and button-down shirt he had on.

"No," said Nysirah. "You should wear jeans."

"OK, guys, back to our ratatouille," I told them. In addition to the peppers, eggplant, and zucchini, there were onions, garlic, and fresh basil to chop, as well as Parmesan cheese to grate.

Nick has become the expert at starting the finicky stove, so he took on that job, and then began sautéing the onions, peppers and garlic over a low flame.

We were serving the ratatouille over quinoa, so we had to get that started, too. We also were poaching eggs to place on top, and each child wanted to poach his or hers separately.

I showed them how to crack the egg into a bowl, then, once the water was boiling, to stir it, creating a whirlpool, then drop the egg into the center of the swirl. The kids loved watching the raw egg turn white and firm up into a ball, but it took a while to poach six eggs (and there were a few yolks broken before the kids understood how gently the eggs needed to be cracked.)

"Whew, it's getting hot in here!" I said, as the steam rose from the three things cooking at the same time. Without saying a word, Kimberly Luu went over to her backpack and removed a folded hand fan, snapped it open, and began fanning me as I stood at the stove.

"How kind you are, Kim," I said, genuinely touched.

She smiled.

One of the biggest challenges facing any cook is timing all the elements of a meal to be ready at the same time. That challenge increases exponentially with five 11-year-olds asking questions. But that is always preferable to neophyte cooks not asking.

After adding canned tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini to the onion, garlic, and peppers, Nick felt things were not moving fast enough and took matters into his own hands, raising the heat. After catching a slight whiff of something burning, I checked the flame.

"No, it will scorch Nick!" I said. (And, in truth, it did burn a little on the bottom.)

But somehow the meal always comes together, and the children take great pride in sitting down together to enjoy the results of their labor.

Each week, Aneza has made a practice of saving scraps of the vegetables to create a centerpiece for the table. This week's arrangement of red pepper tops and basil leaves was especially lovely, I said.

"I added the basil leaves," Christian said. "I think it made it look . . . mysterious."

In the end, the children's reaction to the ratatouille was mixed. "I don't like peppers, and I don't like eggplant, and I liked it," said Nick. Kim also liked it and said it would make a great dinner for her family. Christian ate much of it, but said it was not his favorite.

Aneza said it didn't look like the dish in the movie. She and Nysirah did try a few bites, but they mostly just pushed it around on their plates.

"You haven't tried it enough," I said, reminding them of the French philosophy. "Have you ever met someone you didn't like at first, but then you become friends?

"Yes, that's like me and Jenna," said Nysirah.

"Sometimes food is like that," I said. "It's too soon to decide you don't like it."

"Well," said Aneza, considering. "I guess if it was the last thing on Earth, I would eat it."


Makes 6 servings

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, finely chopped

2 red bell peppers, seeded and diced

1 banana pepper, seeded and cut into ½-inch dice

5 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 15-ounce can tomatoes, diced

3 small zucchini, cut into ½-inch dice

2 medium eggplant, peeled and diced

3 tablespoons capers (or more to taste)

1½ teaspoon dried oregano

½ cup grated Parmesan

½ cup julienned fresh basil

4 cups cooked quinoa

6 poached eggs, to serve on top (optional)

1. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion, red pepper, banana pepper, and garlic and saute until tender, 5 to 7 minutes.

2. Add the tomato paste and continue cooking 3 to 5 minutes.

3. Add the tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, capers, and oregano, and cook until tender, about 10 minutes, adding water if necessary.

4. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve hot, over quinoa, with Parmesan and basil, and poached egg on top, if desired.

- Slightly adapted from Avec Eric,

by Eric Ripert (Wiley)

Per serving: 426 calories, 15 grams protein, 44 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams sugar, 18 grams fat, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 248 milligrams sodium, 10 grams dietary fiber.


comments powered by Disqus