Saturday, March 28, 2009

Songs of Innocence and Experience

Michelle Bernstein, James Beard Award-winning chef and foodie darling, moves in the kitchen like the ballet dancer she once was.  This cannot be said of my guys Rudy, Robert, Stefan and Yvan, or indeed any of the kids participating in Common Threads.  

A national nonprofit program begun in 2003 by Oprah chef Art Smith, Common Threads pairs kids from Title 1 schools with chefs (fancy pros like Michy and semipro-to-eager-amateurs like me).  Michelle provides inspiration a little cooking demo.  Volunteer chefs work with children, ages eight to 12, and make sure when they chop onions, they don't chop fingers, too. The kids learn how to cook, but they also learn nutrition basics and global awareness by making -- and eating -- cuisine from all over the world.  

I'd signed up for Common Threads because I believe in community service and believe in the importance of our connection to food, yadayada.  I did not think it would be so incredibly fun. 

Fun has not been on the menu so much lately.  The economy?  Pakistan?  Korea?  Afghanistan? Let's not even go there.  Closer to home, many people I love are struggling.  We all are.  I want us all to get through it the best we can.  In fact, I'd rather we were already out the other end. You know some people rhapsodize about the Journey?  I just want to friggin' get there. But maybe that's wrong.

The Common Threads kids may not have the grace that comes of knowing their way around the kitchen, but they've taught me, jaded me, there can be joy in discovery -- joy in discovering how to cut corn off the cob, delight in tasting tahini for the first time. It is very much like falling in love.  And it is contagious.  I like to have the kids sniff each spice, sample each unfamiliar ingredient before we add it to the mix.  

After our class had Turkey Day (the country, not the bird) Yvan, who'd never had a chickpea, became a convert. Judy said she could eat tabbouleh every day.  These things do my veggie heart good.  I want these kids to see how delicious food can be, am grateful they've reminded me life can taste pretty good, too.  I want to keep that joy going -- for all of us.

Spinach Salad With Tahini and Yogurt

Here's an easy Turkish-inspired composed salad with (mostly) familiar ingredients that come together in ways surprising ways. There's interplay between flavors and textures, with crunch, creaminess, tang, spice and sweetness, the comfort of what you know and the thrill of discovery.  

1pound fresh flat-leaf spinach
1 cup chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds (or dried cranberries)
1/2 cup pine nuts

For tahini-yogurt dressing:
3 cups plain yogurt (nonfat is fine)
1/2 cup tahini
1 teaspoon cumin
1-1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
sea salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl, mix all ingredients for dressing until thick and creamy.  Set aside.  

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  

Place pine nuts in a small oven-proof baking dish and toast for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden and fragrant.  Give them a stir at least once during baking time. 

Place spinach on a large platter or shallow bowl.  Scatter with chickpeas, pine nuts and pomagranate seeds.  Drizzle some of the dressing on top (there will be more than enough).  Go for visual appeal -- channel your inner Jackson Pollock.  The idea is not a thoroughly tossed salad, but one where the separate flavors get to peak through at will. 

Serves 6.

Any leftover dressing keeps refrigerated in an airtight container for several days. 

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