On a Thursday morning in early May, I informed the principal of Bigfork School, Matt Jensen, that two local sushi chefs were coming in to teach knife skills to seventh and eighth graders. Mr. Jensen was a little taken aback, but he rolled with it and requested only that I not let any of the kids lose any fingers. I had been leading bimonthly healthy cooking projects for Mary Ahnert’s health classes throughout the year, and this would be the first time we would use an entire session to focus on knife skills. Tiffany Newman and Drake Doepke, the co-owners of a popular Bigfork sushi restaurant called Sake To Me, had generously offered to visit Mrs. Ahnert’s classes to share their precise cutting techniques with the students.

Veggie Wraps

The former Home Economics room in Bigfork Middle School has four kitchens and throughout the year I’ve led cooking projects that can be assembled from four components so that every kitchen has a distinct job. Our health classes have assembled a salad bar with beets, pickled red onions, and two kinds of homemade dressings; we’ve whipped up healthy squash hummus and red pepper dips with homemade pita chips; we’ve made whole-wheat pretzels, tacos, and vegetable stir-fries; and we’ve capped off the trimesters with a pizza day (to the occasional dismay of the students, we don’t just mean cheese and pepperoni. See a sample recipe below). This time, we were experimenting with healthy spring rolls, which are raw bundles of vegetables, tofu or seafood, herbs and even fruits rolled in a rice or tapioca flour wrapper.

Prior to this Thursday, Tiffany, who also has a certificate in Holistic Nutrition, had planned and taught this rainbow spring roll lesson with me for elementary classes grades 1-4. To begin each class, Tiffany and I would give an introductory explanation on “eating the rainbow,” explaining that colors in fruits and vegetables often correspond to a variety of nutrients. We then let the students pick from a buffet of fruits and veggies from all the colors of the rainbow, taught them how to soak their rice wrappers, assemble their filling, and roll it all together. Students crunched into their gorgeous, rainbow-colored spring rolls, and they loved them (even though the texture of the sticky rice wrappers was foreign to most of the kids). With the middle school cooking classes, Tiffany figured, we could take it a step further and teach the students how to do the prep work for the spring roll fillings themselves.

Kids

So on this Thursday, Drake accompanied Tiffany with his portable set of sushi knives, and they both went to work in the classroom. They began by emphasizing safety and demonstrated “the claw” or a safe way to grip the vegetable with your non-cutting hand. They then taught the students three basic cuts: the julienne, for carrots and peppers; the shave, for scallions and cabbage; and the mince, for cilantro. And then we cut! Drake and Tiffany watched every single student carefully, correcting form and mostly managing to avoid injury. Piles of slender, julienned peppers and carrots accumulated as the kids practiced their knife control until–with no lost fingers–the seventh and eighth graders had prepped neat piles of vegetables for our spring rolls, learning control and care in the process.

From the beginning of the year, Mrs. Ahnert and I had agreed that we wanted to empower the students with basic prepping skills in the kitchen–peeling garlic, trimming onions, and other ways that we make fruits and vegetables available and enjoyable for us to eat. Though this was our first lesson totally devoted to knife skills, all of our cooking projects involved a variety of vegetables, and so some type of prep was constantly being learned. We would often notice a seventh grader attempting to dice an onion with its papery skin still on and realize that we should probably intervene. Dish by dish, we showed them basic tricks of the kitchen that I myself only learned when living and cooking in a co-operative house in college. So even if they don’t go home and start julienning kohlrabi for their families immediately, Mrs. Ahnert and I hope that these skills will stick with the students in some way as they grow up.

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At the end of trimesters or special visits to classes, I often receive very sweet, if mandatory, thank-you notes. One message from a fifth grader that stuck with me read, “Thank you for letting us use knives in class,” adding, “I didn’t think you’d trust us.” It had not been an intention of mine to teach or emphasize knives in that class, but still it stuck with at least one ten-year-old girl as the most notable part of the session. That note and watching the middle schoolers improve at cutting has made me realize that beyond just being a part of eating healthy foods, teaching knife skills can also be an act of trust and respect, as important as trusting kids to try growing their own food in gardens.

Mrs. Ahnert added a question to the end of her last health quiz this trimester: “Have you developed any healthy habits this year? Yes / No. If so, what?” Out of her 30 students, 20 said they had been “eating healthier” since being in health class, and 5 of those specifically mentioned eating more vegetables. Teaching students how to use a knife bridges one significant part of the gap between that whole, healthy, and maybe even locally grown vegetable, and a kid’s ability to eat and enjoy it.

Zoe Tucker is the author of this blog post and is the FoodCorps member serving with Somers, Cayuse Prairie, and Bigfork schools.

The Harvest Pizza
Crust: Whole wheat crust from Tassajara found on Google Books here.
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Toppings:
Butternut Squash, cubed and roasted
Dried Cranberries
Onion, sliced into half-rings (bonus points for caramelizing onion before baking)
Olive oil
Mozzarella

Steps:
1. Spread olive oil over crust.
2. Arrange onion and squash on pizza. (NO tomato sauce necessary!)
3. Sprinkle mozzarella over pizza.
4. Bake at 500 and set the timer for 8-10 minutes. Check it at about 6 minutes.
5. Sprinkle dried cranberries on top AFTER pizza comes out of oven. Enjoy!