They gathered around the dining room table. Bowls of pretzels and popcorn tempted Grace, Shawn, and Maggie Kuhling, Isabella Wakeman, Isabella’s Chinese guest, Brenda, Matthew Jaeger, Grace Howgego, and Zach Fuchs, all students of Lorraine Hurley’s “Hurley’s Kitchen” children’s cooking school on South Main Street. The young people, instead of snatching up handfuls of the snacks, were partaking of the after school treat in an unusual manner on Thursday afternoon, February 21.
Wielding chopsticks, the eight children painstakingly picked out one kernel of popcorn or a single pretzel and lifted each piece precariously to his or her mouth. Only Brenda, visiting the Wakeman family from Lao Cheng, seemed able to happily move one piece after another from bowl to mouth, while the others looked to her for tips on using the chopsticks effectively.
The chopsticks lesson was under the direction of Chef Andrew Howgego of Newtown, and was part of the afternoon’s introductory lesson to Chinese cooking.
Chef Howgego is employed by a private foundation in Brewster, N.Y., and has lived in numerous Asian countries. Through his travels there, and his professional training, he learned the nuances of Asian cooking. “Two of my favorite Southeast Asian cuisines are Thai and Indian,” said Chef Howgego, but an American-style Chinese menu was the simplest way to introduce American children to a new cuisine and new ingredients.
Two of those new ingredients, for most of the children, were fresh ginger and fresh coriander (cilantro). Cutting off thin slices of the gnarly ginger root for students to taste, the chef observed that the students seemed to find the flavor much spicier than the dried ginger with which they were more familiar.
Cilantro, looking similar to parsley, but with a decidedly different flavor, according to the chef, is a common ingredient in Asian recipes. “Tear it up with your fingers,” he encouraged his eight helpers clustered around the kitchen workspace. “And then chop up the stems. The stem is where all of the flavor is,” he pointed out.
Ginger and cilantro were both used in the first recipe Chef Howgego demonstrated, pot stickers. It was only moments before the students had mastered filling won ton wrapper squares with spiced ground pork into compact packages. The class stood back respectively as Chef Howgego then tossed the wrappers into a pan of hot oil, browning them quickly, then added water (“Oh no! They’re sticking to the pot,” he joked), covered, and steamed them to finish the cooking process.
Chinese cooking is often done over very high heat, and quickly, he told the children before serving up the fragrant pot stickers, which proved highly popular.
Nutty-scented sesame oil was another key ingredient that was new to the class, and was used to add flavor to the fried rice recipe. Flavored with chopped bacon, the closest ingredient he could find to the Chinese marinated pork usually used, he said, the rice was a colorful mixture of vegetables, scrambled eggs, and a soy sauce based sauce.
“You can hold the bowl close to your face, and scoop the food into your mouths with the chopsticks,” Chef Howgego tipped off the diners, as they struggled to capture grains of rice.
“Or, there are forks on the table…” said Ms Hurley.
Fresh Yaki Soba noodles were the base of the stir-fried vegetable and noodle dish that followed. As he expertly jerked the pan on the hot burner, tossing the food to mix it, Chef Howgego cautioned the children about attempting that particular skill. “I like to use kitchen tongs, or even chop sticks, to stir things around. They are really the most versatile tools,” he suggested.
It was back to the kitchen for a lesson in making Vietnamese summer rolls, once the bowls of noodles were licked clean. As much as they had eaten up the rice and noodles, the class voted unanimously that, so far, the pot stickers were the favorite recipe.
“You’ve probably heard of spring rolls. They’re similar to these summer rolls,” said Chef Howgego, “but spring rolls are normally fried.”
Because it is very hot in Vietnam, year around, cold foods are favored by the Vietnamese. Summer rolls, said the chef, are essentially a salad rolled up in a rice wrapper.
He demonstrated how to soak the rice paper wrapper in water to soften it, then fill it with thinly sliced vegetables, chopped lettuce, cilantro, scallions and grilled chicken slices. The ends are folded over, he showed the class, and the whole thing is rolled. The vegetable-filled log can then be sliced in half, dipped into a chilled soy and lime sauce and eaten, uncooked.
The young chefs caught on quickly, eager to master the skill — and eat the results.
The purpose of the class, said Ms Hurley, was to introduce a new cuisine, as well as practice preparation of the food. “It is shown that children are more apt to eat a variety of foods, and try new foods, if they prepare the foods themselves,” said Ms Hurley. “This is a wonderful opportunity today, and we are so lucky to have Chef Howgego with us,” she said.
To view a slide show of the afternoon’s cooking class, visit www.newtownbee.com.