This summer I did a teen cooking club at the Palatine Public Library. Every week we learned something new about food and cooking and a couple of the weeks we had chefs from different restaurants come in.
We learned how to use a knife and what it takes to run a hot dog stand. We learned how to make strawberry tamales from chef Natalie Oswald at Chilam Balam in Chicago. Chef Thomas Bowman from iNG (also in Chicago) showed us how to make pumpkin pie-flavored grits and taught us cool molecular gastronomy stuff. Molecular gastronomy means using chemicals to make food behave in unexpected ways, like making noodles out of fruit juice and foam that tastes like carrots.
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The club ended with a Teen Iron Chef competition. We were put onto teams of three and we all had to use a secret ingredient -- cucumber -- and a bunch of other items on the table, to make four after school snacks: savory, sweet, healthy and gross.
I like cucumbers, but this made me look at cucumbers in whole new way.
I decided to make a smoothie for the healthy snack and used frozen strawberries, almond milk, cucumbers, plain yogurt and apples. Our savory snack was a dip like hummus but made with cucumbers, of course. Our sweet snack was a wrap that combined marshmallow fluff and vanilla frosting, cucumber slices and chocolate sauce; hey, it really was good, even the judges thought so. For gross, we made a cucumber hot dog with apple slices serving as the tomato slices on top.
Once I got home and made the smoothie again I changed the recipe a bit. Even my picky brother drank it.
A word from Mom: I really have to give a tip of the toque to the Palatine Public Library for providing the free program.
The final competition was fun to watch as the kids had 45 minutes to select ingredients from a table stocked with spices, graham crackers, breakfast cereals, candies, ketchup and other pantry items and create and plate the four snacks.
The five teams all did tremendous jobs and presented creative dishes. I'm sure glad I wasn't in the judge's seat when they had to taste some of the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink creations entered in the gross snack category.
Kudos to Jerome and his teammates, Nate Hockenberry and Jakub Nowak, for clinching the title Teen Iron Chef. A proud parent moment for sure.
Jerome's smoothie recipe uses just half a cucumber so we came up with another super simple after school snack that uses the rest of it: Place a dab of ranch dressing on a wheat cracker (we like Triscuits), top with a cucumber slice and top with another dab of dressing. Chocolate sauce is optional.
• Jerome Gabriel, a seventh-grader, has been helping in the kitchen since he could hold a spoon. His mom, Deborah Pankey, is the Daily Herald's food editor.