Growing veggies and leaders

Serafina Harris and Travis Hamilton saute vegetables they grew and harvested in Teen Leadership Corps at the arboretum's Agricultural Village. VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer
Serafina Harris and Travis Hamilton saute vegetables they grew and harvested in Teen Leadership Corps at the arboretum's Agricultural Village. VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer

Teen Leadership Corps, an unusual summer program at Awbury Arboretum, is cooking up fresh food and solid work skills.

Posted: July 18, 2014

Yes, the kids are learning how to slice and dice, why a nicely set table is important, and the difference homegrown produce can make to health and well-being.

But Teen Leadership Corps, an unusual summer program at Awbury Arboretum in Germantown, is about much more:

Good work habits, interpersonal and leadership skills, possible job opportunities, and "green" enterprises, such as a farmer's market or herbal-products business.

"It's about meaningful work and growing leaders," says Anna Herman, one of its founders.

For four weeks this summer, 28 city kids, ages 14 to 20, are planting, harvesting, preparing, and eating the freshest food imaginable, not from their own backyards, but from 10 raised beds, a small "farm" in the arboretum's 16-acre Agricultural Village, and assorted other gardens.

They include those cultivated by the formidable Herman, 53, of Mount Airy, a longtime proponent of healthy cooking and eating and "green" entrepreneurship. She's also an expert on all things culinary, from the origins of Parmesan cheese to the uses of kohlrabi.

Of course, the kids think it's "Parma Jean," pronounced the French way, and wonder why on earth Monsieur Jean would make French cheese in Italy. Makes more sense to stay in France and make it there, non?

And like a lot of adults, they've never seen the odd little "Sputnik vegetable," but Herman refrains from describing kohlrabi that way since no one would get the reference. The kids call it "Kobe Bryant," and as she talks about its broccoli-stem taste and apple consistency, they're making gross-out faces and then, losing focus, speed-talking about movies: Thor 2, Avengers 2, and Captain America 2.

To pull them back in, Herman holds up a cilantro stem. "What herb is this?" she asks. The kids are guessing - Mint? Thyme?

"I know - Old Bay Seasoning!" announces Travis Hamilton, a 17-year-old from Germantown who's got a lock on class comic and has mastered ribs and mac 'n' cheese at home.

His, and the group's, repertoire is about to expand big time. They're learning how to make pesto, vinaigrette, stuffed grape leaves and skillet coffee cake, grilled pizza, even phyllo.

It is not easy teaching teenagers, what with the spontaneous dancing, lure of social devices, and endless comedic patter. But the rewards could be transformative.

And after all, the program has just started. It's hoped that the kids' need to establish a social pecking order will soon give way to the real "planting and harvesting" - of talent - that Herman and program cofounder Susan Willson, of Chestnut Hill, had in mind all along.

The two met eight years ago through their children's school and quickly realized they shared a strong belief in the power of healthful food to enrich lives and bring people together.

"It's all about building community in a disconnected world," says Willson, 48, who started a similar program when she lived in Vermont.

The duo began with an after-school pilot program this year in refurbished trailers donated to the arboretum, which underwrote its $12,750 budget. Ten kids, whose families met income requirements, earned a $100 stipend to design the kitchen classrooms, build raised beds and a tiny kit-greenhouse, and grow 750 herb and vegetable seedlings that were sold or planted in the garden.

The summer program is funded through a $31,750 contract with the nonprofit Philadelphia Youth Network's WorkReady initiative. The kids earn minimum wage ($7.25/hour) for a 30-hour week that includes not just gardening and cooking, but also learning about Awbury and hunger issues, and other projects.

In the kitchen, with Herman's encouragement, the kids chop fresh garlic, onions, beans, and the mysterious "Kobe Bryant." They grate Monsieur "Parma Jean" and toast "pie nuts" - oops, pine nuts - before pulsing pesto in a blender.

Here and there, Herman delivers little gems: Clean as you go. Don't play with the cheese. Don't chop green beans with a pizza cutter. Prepare ingredients before you cook. And compost every single scrap.

Then, after deciding that everyone should be served a little before anyone takes more, the kids dive into the pesto pasta they've spent the morning making.

Delizioso! (The kohlrabi remains a tough sell.) They also made stuffed grape leaves, which would be baked and enjoyed during their next class.

Then the checklist: Is the oven off, the sink empty?

There's unfinished business, for sure. Someone mopped a water spill off the floor with cloth napkins. A dirty fork got wiped clean on a T-shirt. Many hands touched the food being prepared. And the boys often let the girls do the work.

Suddenly, a four-week program seems way too short for all sorts of reasons. Which is why Awbury is seeking grant money to continue it through 2015. It also wants to boost enrollment from the nearby zip codes of 19119, 19138, 19144.

It's all well worth it, declares the suddenly serious Travis. "Life is not all about electronics," he says.

Stove-Top Coffee Cake

Makes 4 to 6 servings

For the cake:

11/2 cups sifted "white" whole-wheat flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup turbinado or cane sugar

1 egg, beaten

1/4 cup melted butter

1/2 cup mango simple syrup (substitute coconut milk or orange or pineapple juice for the simple syrup)

For the topping:

1/4 cup raisins (optional)

8 tablespoons sugar

4 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons white whole-wheat flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1. Sift flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar into a large bowl.

2. Combine egg, butter, and syrup (or substitute). Add to flour mixture and mix well.

3. Grease an 8-inch heavy skillet (such as cast iron) and line bottom with 5 or 6 layers of waxed paper. Spread batter evenly in skillet.

4. Mix topping ingredients together and sprinkle on top of cake. Cover with tight-fitting lid.

5. Place on stove top on lowest heat possible for 40 minutes.

- Recipe from Gail Hinson

Per serving (based on 6): 413 calories; 5 grams protein; 64 grams carbohydrates; 35 grams sugar; 17 grams fat; 68 milligrams cholesterol; 316 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.

Rice and Summer Veggie-Stuffed Grape Leaves

Makes 15 to 20 servings as appetizer, 6 to 8 as main dish

30 to 40 fresh-picked young grape leaves, or 40 bottled brined leaves, rinsed

11/2 cups fragrant white rice (basmati or jasmine)

1 cup olive oil, divided into 1/4- and 3/4-cup measures

1 large onion, peeled and minced

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2/3 cup finely minced veggies: yellow squash, zucchini, carrots, peppers

1/3 cup raisins or dried cherries, chopped

2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

3 to 5 tablespoons minced fresh herbs such as summer savory, green coriander seeds (from bolting cilantro plants), basil, dill

1 teaspoon dried mint

Salt, fresh-ground pepper

1 lemon

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cucumber (optional)

Feta cheese (optional)

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop the grape leaves in and submerge, blanching for 1 to 3 minutes until soft. Drain and cool in an ice-water bath or by running cold water over them. Set aside.

2. Place the rice in a bowl and cover with boiling water; let sit while preparing the rest of filling ingredients.

3. Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a medium saucepan until shimmering. Add the onion and garlic and cook over medium to low heat, stirring often, until wilted and browning. Add the veggies and cook for 4 to 5 more minutes. Add the raisins, pine nuts, fresh herbs, and mint. Drain the rice and add to the herb-onion mixture. Season well with salt and lots of fresh-ground pepper.

4. To fill: Oil a baking dish. Preheat oven to 350. Separate the grape leaves from each other and in batches lay them smooth side down on a damp counter, with the pointy part of the leaf facing away from you. With scissors or a sharp knife cut away the stem attachment at the bottom of the leaf. Place approximately ½ to 1 tablespoon of filling at the stem end of the leaf. Fold the sides over (burrito style) and roll up into a cigar shape. Place in baking dish seam side down. Tuck the grape leaves together, but don't pack too tight as they will expand as the rice cooks. You can make a second layer if you need to, as long as there is room in the baking dish.

5. When all the filling is used up, cover the filled leaves with a mixture of lightly salted water and the remaining 1/2 to 3/4 cup olive oil. The liquid should come to just over the top of the rolls. This liquid will be absorbed by the cooking rice. Grind fresh pepper over all. Cover tightly with foil and bake approximately 45 minutes. Remove from oven and let sit for ½ hour.

6. Remove foil; squeeze the juice of 1 lemon over all the grape leaves and drizzle with the 3 tablespoons olive oil.

7. Serve as is as a finger food, or serve with sliced cucumbers and feta cheese as a lunch or snack or light dinner. Garnish with fresh mint or chopped herbs.

- From Anna Herman

Per appetizer serving (based on 20): 174 calories; 2 grams protein; 20 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams sugar; 11 grams fat; no cholesterol; 3 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.

Jack Goldenberg's Lemon Vinaigrette

Makes 2/3 to 1 cup

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon raw wildflower honey

Juice of 2 lemons

1/2-2/3 cup fruity olive oil

Salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste

1. In a small bowl, whisk the mustard and honey with lemon juice. Slowly drizzle the olive oil into this mixture, whisking constantly to ensure emulsification. Add salt and pepper to taste.

- From Jack Goldenberg and

Per serving (based on 4 servings): 196 calories; trace protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams sugar; 21 grams fat; no cholesterol; 122 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.



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