Kiwi kids must learn to cook. If I had my way, or at least the ears of our Prime Minister and his Cabinet, I’d be pushing hard for such a vital life skill to be part of every primary, intermediate and secondary school curriculum. On a morning visit to East Tamaki Primary School late last year, I arrived in time to see children carrying wicker baskets overflowing with freshly harvested lettuces, carrots, potatoes and kale marching behind a modern Pied Piper of food, chef Sid Sahrawat. They had gathered produce from the school’s garden and were off to join classmates to cook lunch with one of Auckland’s more creative chefs.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday, volunteers show up at this decile 1 school in the heart of the Auckland suburb of Otara to help the Year 5 and 6 children with gardening and cooking. Many schools around the country have introduced vegetable gardens to expand their pupils’ life skills and knowledge, but what sets this one and seven others in the region apart is their participation in a scheme known as Garden to Table (GTT). Administered by a trust board, the scheme is into its fourth year in New Zealand. Local businesswoman Catherine Bell modelled it on an initiative of Melbourne chef Stephanie Alexander, who attracted federal government funding for her school gardening and cooking programme throughout Australia.
If kids are going to get their hands dirty digging in vege gardens, it’s vital they know what to do with the produce. East Tamaki school, with Garden to Table guidance, has set up a permanent kitchen with Fisher & Paykel-sponsored ovens and dishwashers, complemented by cupboards and drawers filled with kitchen accessories, and work tables and separate dining tables and chairs. I was heartened to see the children revelling in their opportunity to gather from the garden, then cook and eat sociably together.
Jiuan Kok heads the kitchen team, and several volunteers, like her, drive across the city to help out each week. Sahrawat, as guest chef, veered from the recipes Jiuan had set out for the day. He encouraged the children to gather the flower heads of various vegetables and herbs and showed them how to use them in their dishes. The children’s intense concentration was impressive as they carefully plucked petals and decorated the salad, and hand-filled and sealed the ravioli. Sahrawat encouraged them to smell and taste the food as they worked, and was so impressed with the quality of the garden produce he suggested he could buy surplus flowers from the school for his Ponsonby restaurant, Sid Art.
Calm prevailed in the kitchen as adult-sized knives flashed to chop carrots and slice potatoes and ingredients were weighed up. Tables were set with vibrant tablecloths and by 11.30am the team in the garden assembled at the door to join their cooking classmates for lunch. The volunteers came in, too, including Damaris and Renee Coulter, owners of Coco’s Cantina restaurant, and Emile Bennington, the chef at Harbourside restaurant. They had been digging with the kids and thoroughly enjoying their weekly trip to help.
School principal Sarah Mirams told me she has seen real benefits and development in all areas of the curriculum through the GTT programme: numeracy skills through measuring, weighing, and the scaling up the recipes; science in the kitchen; biology and horticulture in the garden; oral English with one-on-one contact with volunteers; nutrition; written language through keeping kitchen diaries; adult interaction; and social skills like table manners, respect for others and so much more. There’s a wonderful sense of community, and I wish this scheme extended to every school so we could teach all our kids these skills. Maybe with encouragement and some vital government funding, it will succeed. These are the recipes prepared by the East Tamaki children under the chef’s watchful eye.
SID SAHRAWAT’S SCHOOL GARDEN SALAD
- 6 large handfuls of mixed salad leaves
- baby nasturtium leaves
- 12 baby carrots
- small bunch of chives
- 3 spring onions, cut into 6cm pieces
- nasturtium flowers
- chive flowers
- borage flowers
- juice of 1 orange
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- salt and pepper
Wash all the leaves well and dry on paper towels. Peel the carrots, cut into thin slices and blanch in boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain well and cool. Chop the chives into 2-3cm lengths. Carefully pick the petals from the nasturtium and chive flowers and place on paper towels. Toss the leaves with the carrots, chives and spring onions in a serving bowl. Combine the orange juice, oil and salt and pepper to make the dressing. When ready to serve, toss the salad with the dressing and scatter the flower and herb petals over the top. Serves 6-8.
PUMPKIN RAVIOLI WITH BUTTER, FRIED SAGE LEAVES and GARDEN FLOWERS
- 300g pumpkin
- 4 unpeeled cloves garlic
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- salt and pepper
- dumpling wrappers (Chatzu brand from
- Asian stores)
- 6 tbsp butter
- handful of sage leaves
- garden and herb flower petals to decorate
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Peel the pumpkin and cut into small chunks. Toss into a roasting pan with the garlic and toss with the oil. Roast the pumpkin for 20 minutes until very soft. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Remove the skin from the roasted garlic. Purée the garlic and pumpkin with the salt and pepper in a food processor until smooth. Alternatively, use a stick blender. Dust the bench with a little flour so the wrappers do not stick, and lay out about 25 wrappers. Place a teaspoonful of the pumpkin mixture in the centre of each wrapper, wet the edges with a little water and press another wrapper down over the filling. Crimp the edges of the 2 wrappers with your fingers so they are completely sealed, encasing the pumpkin. Continue until all the pumpkin is used. To cook the ravioli, bring a large pan of salted water to a simmer and drop the ravioli in one by one. As they cook they will float to the surface (about 2 minutes). Drain well and place on a serving plate. To serve, heat the butter in a small frying pan. When it is starting to turn brown, drop the sage leaves in and allow to cook for about 30 seconds so they are crisp. Tip the butter and leaves over the ravioli and serve, decorated with carefully trimmed edible herb flowers. Serves 6.
See www.gardentotable.org.nz for more information, to volunteer your services, or to donate funds.