A lanky youth walked into the community room, eyes down, mumbling an incomprehensible reply to my welcome. Then an outgoing, smiling young man bursts in with an affable hello. Next, a guy who won’t make eye contact sneaks in. Our first cooking class at Venice Community Housing is off to a start. I’m teaching in a rec room outfitted with a hot plate and a couple of cutting boards stacked on rickety, long folding tables. The menu, pozole and guacamole, was requested by another kid who, as it turns out, didn’t show up.
As I begin the presentation, describing the dishes we’ll be cooking, I’m well aware that no one is paying attention. The boys are staring at their cell phones, and while they might have been amused when I got out my big knife to demonstrate the proper way to cut an onion, the reality is that I feel like a flight attendant explaining to passengers on a crowded flight how to buckle their seat belts. I can’t get even one boy out of his seat to pick up the knife and try the technique. Then onions begin to sizzle in a large pot and gradually the sweet aroma of caramelization fills the room. One face looks up from his phone, then another. By the time I’m chopping cilantro and chilies for the guacamole, all eyes are riveted on me and questions are flowing.
This class was inspired by Liz Hauk’s tender book Home Made, where she shares her experiences cooking with kids in a group foster home, and the impact her commitment made on these broken, young lives. As I read, I knew I wanted to do something similar, but how to get started? I wrote to Liz, I mentioned the idea to everyone I saw, and eventually something clicked. Robert, a successful filmmaker and my generous cousin, sent an email to several charities he supports, introducing me and the idea. I interviewed 2 places, and knew Venice Community Housing was the one- they liked my vision and had the population I was eager to spend time with, homeless youth, in this case 18-24-year old’s.
I developed recipes for these classes with 3 goals in mind- so easy the young people just might make the food on their own, inexpensive to fit their limited budgets, and, of course, tasty enough that I’d feel good serving the dishes to my soon-to-be new friends. Because there wasn’t an oven in the rec room, and to encourage the students to return for more classes, I baked a big batch of chocolate chip cookies at home to bring to our first meeting. Eventually easy desserts will be part of the curriculum too.
On this blog, I plan on sharing these cooking adventures, my evolving relationship with the kids, and the recipes we cook together. The experience is even more satisfying than I had hoped, the highlight being chatting with the young people while they polish off good, homemade food. I received the best reward for the day’s work when at the end of our fourth class, the lanky guy asked if cooking Monday lunch together could be a permanent date. Perhaps my stories will inspire one or two of you to try something similar.
Easy Green Pozole
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ½ large onion, roughly chopped
- 3-4 bone in chicken thighs
- Salt and black pepper
- 1 quart chicken broth or chicken stock
- 1 cups water
- 1 15- ounce can hominy, drained
- 1 cup salsa verde, about 1 7-ounce can
- Thinly sliced cabbage
- Sliced radishes
- Chopped onion
- Chopped fresh cilantro
- For the soup: Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Pull the skin off the chicken thighs, sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper. Add to the pan and cook until no longer pink, about 1 minute on each side. Add the broth and water. Bring the soup to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, about 25 minutes.
- Meanwhile, prepare the toppings of your choice.
- Remove the chicken from the broth and place on a plate. Add the hominy to the broth and bring to a simmer. When chicken is cool enough to handle, pull the meat from the bones and shred the meat into bite sized pieces. Return the chicken to the soup with any juices on the plate. Add the salsa verde and bring to a simmer. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Spoon the soup into bowls. Let each person garnishe with the toppings they like.
Kristine’s Famous Guacamole
- 2 tablespoons chopped red or white onion
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
- ½ Serrano or jalapeno chile, seeded and chopped
- ½ teaspoon slightly rounded salt
- 2 medium size ripe but firm Hass avocados, about 8 oz each, halved, pits removed
- 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
- Chips of your choice
- Place the onion, cilantro and chile on a work surface. Sprinkle with the salt. Chop all the ingredients together until very finely chopped.
- Score the avocado flesh into squares and scrape from the peel into a bowl. Add the chopped ingredients. Mash very gently with a fork just until incorporated. Add lime juice and gently mix in. Do not over mix. Guacamole is better when it is chunky. Taste and adjust the seasonings with more salt and or lime juice. Serve with chips.