Cooking up a storm in the Vail Valley
EDWARDS, Colorado – The June Creek Elementary School cafeteria might see most of the culinary action at the school, but Thursday evening it was the gymnasium that got the gourmet goods. The inaugural Eagle County Little Foodies in the Kitchen event gave fifth graders an opportunity to think about healthy cooking and strut their culinary stuff. There was also a Little Foodies event happening simultaneously at Brush Creek Elementary for downvalley students.
Students from all local schools were invited to submit a recipe and make a dish in one of three categories: Interesting Entree, Amazing Appetizer or Delicious Side Dish. A panel of five judges rated each dish based on healthfulness, taste, appearance and creativity. All participants will get to cook in a restaurant kitchen with professional chefs, including Mark Millwood and Scott Nesbitt of the Vail Marriott, Paul Wade of The Lodge of Vail and Douglas Dodd of the Arrabelle. There also will be a cookbook consisting of the kids’ recipes, making them all published cookbook contributors.
“We wanted to really get the kids involved and learning about healthy eating, and how easy it is to prepare something that’s healthy,” said Sydney Hennis, operations administrative assistant at the Vail Marriott and one of the event’s main organizers. “Healthy food can also be good food.”
The hours between 3 and 6 p.m. must have been a mad dash for the student chefs, because all of the 21 foil-wrapped and carefully plated dishes at June Creek arrived fresh and, in several instances, still warm from the oven.
Students were called to the judging table one at a time to describe their creations. They often gave a little explanation on why they chose each dish and the recipe details. The panel of judges then sampled each dish and scored it.
Thanya Gutierrez’s chipotle tilapia was a mix-and-match platter of fiery red fish set against the cool green of cucumber, avocado and key limes. The 11-year-old cooks a lot at home, and rates the spicy tilapia among her favorite dishes to devour.
“I like cooking,” Gutierrez said. “It’s entertaining. And you get to eat what you make.”
Sara Dittemore’s mom, Georgia, is the kitchen manager at June Creek Elementary School so being around food is second nature to her. But whereas her younger sister, Lisa, doesn’t want anything to do with cooking, Sara has a real love for it. While Georgia spent time in the hospital this summer, the 10-year-old stepped into the family-chef role, dishing out tasty treats.
“I came downstairs one morning and I smelled bacon and coffee,” Georgia said. “And she was about to make some eggs.”
Sara’s been watching her mom cook since she was itty bitty, but as any chef can attest, there’s a world of difference between watching a master throw something together and being the one standing at the stove, adjusting the heat, stirring and tasting. The transition didn’t faze Sara, who produced a lovely dish of zucchini and cheese ravioli lasagna. Ravioli lasagna? Yep – instead of noodles, she threw in cheese ravioli.
Sara wasn’t the only Little Foodie who utilized in-season produce. Jake Vickerman’s scrumptious (and perfectly cooked) frittata, made with zucchini from his grandma’s garden, delivered a big punch of flavor and a nice play of textures. Those thin zuke slices spoke of meticulous knife skills.
Hannah Hervert created “Dad’s Garden Grilled Cheese Sandwiches,” which paired earthy goat cheese with tomatoes and zucchini. The soft, thick bread became a nice golden brown after a stint in the pan. Mara Millette’s carefully layered eggplant parmesan made excellent friends of the eggplant, tomatoes and cheese, which clearly spent a merry time bubbling in the oven together. The soft, oozy dish could be sliced with a fork.
“It’s a family recipe, but it’s not really quick,” Millette said. “I made it because it’s my favorite. And it’s healthy because it’s eggplant.”
Kids have a penchant for cheese, but they’re not afraid of vegetables. Sarah Smith’s roast beef salad was a colorful explosion of lettuces, peppers, tomatoes and more. Crispy lo mein noodles gave a nice little crunch, and deli roast beef offered a savory bite of protein. How’d she come up with the recipe?
“It just sounded good to me,” she said.
August Mayer’s chicken lo mein showed a deft handling of the chicken, noodle and vegetable dish. The chunks of chicken breast were still juicy, and the light saucing made for an excellent, from-scratch dish.
Harry Jaffe’s fruit bread pudding – reminiscent of a British summer pudding – showed him to be both meticulous and excited about his dish. He loves to cook, and created the fruity dessert by cooking berries, straining the juice and soaking slices of bread in the juice. He formed a loaf out of the fuchsia-stained bread and still more berries, creating a treat that was by turns sweet and almost tart. The homemade whipped cream was a nice touch.
Another dessert was Sophie Miner’s cinnamon-scented chunky apple cake, a four-hour labor of love.
“Peeling all the apples takes the most time,” she said about her sweet treat.
Anna and Allie Pugmire are twins who share a love of their mother’s ravioli. But they aren’t just good eaters. Anna’s been cooking since she was 6, and she likes to experiment with flavor combinations.
“I like picking food and cooking it,” she said. “It tastes better.”
Her crispy “Anna’s Appealing Apples” were made in a dehydrator, dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Allie’s “Allie Cakes” were a berry-blasted version of pancakes, embellished with powdered sugar and whipped cream.
Parker Rodeen’s stromboli oozed mozzarella and spinach inside the soft dough.
“I love it,” Rodeen said. “It’s kind of easy to make.”
Gabrielle Trueblood’s macaroni and cheese and peas dish was the result of an emergency: One day she wanted mac and cheese right then and there, but the family was out of the mix.
“I didn’t really know how to make it. I just guessed,” she said.
The whole-wheat pasta had a cheese sauce as well as freshly grated cheese on top. Trueblood is no stranger to the kitchen.
“Every Sunday my sister, my dad and I cook pancakes for Mom,” she said. “We thought it would be good to have a way to thank her for cooking all of our meals during the week.”
Jade Gallegos offered “The Ultimate Seven Layer Dip.” Ultimate it was. She has a flair for presentation, and served the dip in individual tartlet tins, each crowned by pico-filled scoopable chips and a couple of corn chips displayed like feathers in a headdress. From the layers of beans to the guacamole, it was seven layers of healthiness.
Molly McCoy’s vegetarian tacos were stuffed with cheese, olives, avocado, tomatoes and more. The soft tacos, made with whole-wheat tortillas, showed how unnecessary meat can be in the face of such delicious veggies. Jessie Hawkins also went in for the Mexi theme, making her world-famous “Jessie’s Breakfast Burritos.” The scrambled eggs and light dusting of cheese seemed made for the whole-wheat tortillas and tomato salsa.
Alyssa Hilb took a recipe from her grandmother and really made it her own, adding mushrooms and tomatoes and paprika to her German goulash. The chunks of saucy beef made good companions to the spaetzle, which Chef Millwood said displayed fine technical culinary skills.
Katie Deck’s cranberry-orange relish is a family favorite during Thanksgiving. Fresh cranberries may be easily found in November, but they were nowhere to be found in early September. No worries, she substituted dried cranberries.
“It’s a little sweeter with the dried cranberries,” she said, explaining that only half a cup of sugar was used in the entire batch. Walnuts and fresh orange zest added some pizzazz.
Sydney Dietz’s cherry walnut bars also utilized dried fruit – cherries. The bars, glazed with apricot preserves, could be eaten as a dessert or a snack. With whole-wheat flour, walnuts and ground flax seed, there’s no reason to feel guilty for the sweet squares. Likewise, Kaela Fahrney’s honey crepes were transformed by the young chef from indulgent dessert to a real fruity treat. She stuffed the crepes with fresh, in-season peaches, making them healthy and tasty.
Created by I Openers, Little Foodies in the Kitchen is part of Vail Restaurant Month. When they enter the professional kitchens, the kids will be learning about cooking in addition to preparing food that will be served in the restaurants’ dining rooms that evening.
At the Vail Marriott, chefs Millwood and Nesbitt will divide the dozen or so kids into three groups, and they’ll rotate through different “stations,” such as basic knife skills, meat handling (like how to break down a whole fish or slab of lamb), ice sculpting and more.
“You know, just the basics,” Millwood said.
Millwood and Nesbitt are in the middle of changing their menus at 7One5, including their children’s menu.
“Look at all the children’s menus out there, and they all have the same stuff on them,” Millwood said. “There’s nothing health-oriented on them – or if there is, it doesn’t taste good.”
He’s trying out healthy dishes on his own “picky eater,” Victor Vigil, and Nesbitt’s son, Ronan. If those two approve of the new creations, they’re sure to fly with other kids.
“Nutrition is something that’s getting more and more important,” Millwood said.
And local fifth graders seem to agree.