Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Twelve Preschoolers and a blender

I'm not easily intimidated in the kitchen. I ran my own cafe and catering business for eight years, serving lunch to movie producers, Olympic athletes and famous politicians. I served half-caff-non-fat-triple-shot-venti lattes (don't forget the two Equals) to Hollywod stars and homeless people. Granted, I've been out of that pressure cooker for a few years, but I can still hold my own.

So, when the parent volunteer list went up at my son's preschool, the line for "class chef" had my name all over it. I mean, how hard could that be? The teacher wanted someone to come in once a month and cook with the kids. I cook with my kids on a regular basis, and sometimes we even have the neighbor kids join in the fun. Piece of cake, right?

I'll teach them all about nutrition, expose them to new foods, send them home with recipes that they'll beg their parents to make...oh, I had great plans. Then we had our first class.

My son's teacher had chosen a recipe for blender applesauce. "The kids love to watch the blender," she tells me. Well, I know from my own experience that the kids don't want to just WATCH the blender.

"Johnny, keep your hands out of the blender," I warned. "Susie, don't sneeze in the applesauce" (names have been changed to protect innocent future chefs). "Jesse, don't pick your nose". "OK, everbody, line up - one at at a time on the blender," I command. This is like hearding cats. Managing 12 kids is way different than cooking with my two sons. Whatever they pay these teachers, it is not nearly enough.

"Ok, add a little sugar - good," we're almost finished. "Sit down kids, time to eat."

"This is yucky. I don't like it." I don't think I ever heard the word "yucky" in my cafe. "Teacher, I spilled." Do you know how sticky applesauce gets after 24 little feet trample through it?

"Story time, kids, come sit on the carpet," calls the teacher. I am relieved. My shift is over.

Recipe: to make blender applesauce, peel, core and chop six apples, squirt generously with lemon juice and sprinkle on 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. You might want to add 1 or 2 teaspoons of sugar, depending on how sweet the apples are. Place all of the above in a blender and blend until smooth, adding a little water or lemon juice if necessary. Makes about 3 1/2 cups.

Mint tea leaves lasting impression

I arrived in Marrakech late on a rainy Friday night, completely washed up from 20 hours of travel and a lingering sore throat. Our host Hassan served me a cup of mint tea that soothed my throat, eased my travel weary body and lifted my spirits. That one cup of tea in a small glass set the tone for the whole trip. It was a strong, sweet elixir so unlike anything I had ever tasted. It was comforting and reviving at the same time. Somehow, I knew I was going to like Morocco.

Walking through the souks in the medina of Marrakech, the smell of mint was heavy in the air. As I passed the old man with the leathery face, he smiled at me over the top of his cart piled high with mint. I gestured to him how I enjoyed both the smell and the tea his fragrant herbs provided.

Round trays with teapots and small glasses lined the shop counters and sidewalks, evidence of the many cups of tea required for each business transaction. Tea breaks happened everywhere, with groups of men seen crouched around low tea tables – just about anywhere, from the bus depot to the street corner.

I started each day of my trip with an early morning jog, shortly after the sun came up. I was surprised at how early the city awakened, with shopkeepers hosing down the sidewalks and garbage collectors making the rounds. I carefully made my way around the donkeys pulling carts of fresh mint to market in the early morning. The cafes opened early, with many Moroccans taking a cup of tea at a sidewalk café on their way to work.

One morning after I returned from my run, I craved a hot beverage. As the rest of the guests in the house were still sleeping, I decided against coffee as it would be too noisy to grind the beans. Tea would be much quieter. I examined the remains in the teapot left out from our previous afternoon’s tea. Would I be able to duplicate this delicious brew I had been enjoying? I cleaned the teapot and set the kettle to boil. I found the box of Chinese green Gunpowder tea, and the glass jar on the counter with a bouquet of fresh mint.

I put in the tea, and a few sprigs of fresh mint with the stems broken to release the flavorful spearmint oils. I added a handful of sugar cubes, filled the pot with boiling water and waited. I held the teapot high in the air and poured the first cup. I then returned it to the pot, to aerate the tea and mix the sugar. Hmmm….not bad. Feeling pretty pleased with myself, I poured several more glasses and carried them upstairs to the other guests.

Recipe:Moroccan mint tea is traditionally made with Chinese green tea, fresh spearmint and a lot of sugar. It is made in a small 3-4 person British style teapot, usually aluminum.

Rinse the teapot with hot water. Put 1 ½ T. of loose green tea in the pot. Add 1-2 stems of fresh mint, stems broken to release the flavorful oils. Add 8-10 sugar cubes (more or less to suit your taste). Fill the tea pot with boiling water and let steep 3-4 minutes.

Pour one glass of tea, holding the pot high above the glass. Return this tea to the pot. The tea has been mixed and is now ready for serving.

This article was originally published (without the recipe) in the Seattle Times travel section on August 17, 2008.