By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
The young mothers chat in Spanish as they learn tricks for quickly grating fresh ginger and garlic, chopping carrots into elegant julienne strips and storing fresh cilantro for up to two weeks in the refrigerator with stems sitting like fresh flowers in a cup of water.
A table at a Denver elementary school cafeteria is full of an array of colorful vegetables from broccoli and beans sprouts to jicama and cucumbers.
While their children are in school upstairs, these women are learning to make healthier meals for their families, save money by cooking from scratch and add a little zest to their routine.
This week, the Latina moms all wanted to learn to cook Asian cuisine.
So their volunteer chef and a coordinator from Cooking Matters, a national nonprofit affiliated with Share Our Strength, are teaching them to make two meals from similar ingredients: lo mein with stir-fried vegetables and lettuce wraps with a peanut sauce. The six-week classes take place right after the mothers drop their children at school. There’s homework each week, but the payoff is fun. The women get to take home groceries and experiment with making the same recipes they learned in class.
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Perla Gamez has two children at Asbury Elementary School in south Denver, a girl in fifth grade and a boy in first. She learned about the Cooking Matters class from a school social worker and was interested right away. She urged her mom and sister to sign up too.
“We were excited because it’s healthier food. I think it’s something we have to get into with the kids,” she said.
Gamez’s young brother, who is only 11, is already obese. At 160 pounds, he weighs as much as a grown man.
“It’s hard. He doesn’t really like vegetables. All he wants to eat is bad food. That’s why we came here to learn this. He has bad habits. He hides when he eats. He likes sugar a lot. My mom was really excited about the class too because she knows she needs some help for him,” Gamez said.
Already, the family is eating less meat and has stopped using lard.
Perla’s sister, Brenda Cardona, said that her son, a first-grader, is already struggling with his weight.
“My son is on the same road to not being healthy (as my brother),” Cardona said. “The doctor told me that he’s over the weight that he’s supposed to be and to watch him.”
Cardona said she’s excited to learn how to cook with more fresh fruits and vegetables.
“My husband is always telling me to cook healthy food, but I don’t know how. I know how to make the basic enchiladas, but I know that’s not the healthiest,” Cardona said.
During the class, the women learn that flavorful vegetables can be the center of their meal. For their lo mein, they sautéed onions, garlic and ginger, then added blanched green beans and broccoli. They stir-fried all the vegetables, added some chopped jalapeno for a little kick, then served the dish over whole grain pasta with a simple sauce of brown sugar, corn starch and soy sauce.
Nivia Fernandez, the volunteer chef, is a culinary student at Johnson & Wales University and the mother of two older children. She volunteers regularly for Cooking Matters, which offers about 200 six-week classes throughout Colorado each year. Originally from Puerto Rico, Fernandez shifts easily from Spanish to English, encouraging the women to plan for more than one meal at a time so they can save money and time.
“When we’re budgeting and we buy all these vegetables, we’ll have leftovers, so we’re going to do lettuce wraps too,” Fernandez said.
Today’s lesson focuses on fruits, vegetables and grains.
Afterwards, they sit down and enjoy their food and learn more about the topic du jour: whole grains.
The cafeteria table looks for a moment like an upscale restaurant as fresh cut orange slices float in a pitcher of water.
“It’s so good,” one mom says as she takes her first taste of the lo mein.
Cooking Matters Coordinator Megan Cazer asks the women if they know the difference between whole and refined grains. She demonstrates how manufacturers remove parts of the grain to make processed grains.
“This is where all the fiber and the vitamins and minerals are. Why take something that is whole and process it like that?”
The women are stumped.
“It lasts a lot longer on our shelves, but when you process it like this, you are stripping it of all the good parts,” Cazer says.
She encourages the women to try whole-grain pita bread, whole-wheat bread and crackers made with whole grains, and suggests that they try to substitute whole grains for about half of the grains they’re currently using.
One woman says she’s already shifted to making her tortillas with whole-wheat flour.
“Oh, that’s good,” Fernandez the chef says.
Another woman asks if store-brand breads can be as healthy as name brand products.
“It all depends on the ingredients,” Cazer said, then points out that the store-brand bread is made with whole-wheat flour and has plenty of fiber.
Another woman asks if whole grain foods are more expensive. Yes, Cazer answers. Often they are, but the foods are also more filling.
She simulates the digestion of white and wheat bread, adding water to bread slices. The white bread quickly dissolves while the wheat bread holds together longer.
“See. I’m not going to get as hungry as fast,” Cazer said.
The women plan ahead for upcoming classes. Next week, they’ll focus on protein and will learn how to make chicken broth from scratch, Thai basil chicken chili and smoothies. Later, they’ll make a field trip together to a grocery store and learn how to read nutrition labels and spot the best deals for buying healthy food.
As the class finishes, the women scoop up their grocery bags and Fernandez encourages them to improvise with favorite ingredients like adding more jalapeno if they wish.
“We’re learning to cook with what we have at home and what’s in season,” Fernandez said.
The excitement in the room is palpable.
“I like it. I want to learn how to cook healthy,” said Cyntia Cereceres. She has two children at Asbury and said she learned two new lessons at the class. “How to make lo mein and that the brand from the store (for bread) is OK.”