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updated: 1/7/2014 9:37 AM

Cook of the Week: Sisters don't let disability get in the way of kitchen adventures

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  • Video: Elizabeth Morgan

  • Elizabeth Morgan, right, teaches cooking classes for adults with special needs, like her sister, Moira, through the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association.

      Elizabeth Morgan, right, teaches cooking classes for adults with special needs, like her sister, Moira, through the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Elizabeth Morgan, right, and her sister, Moira, make empanadas.

      Elizabeth Morgan, right, and her sister, Moira, make empanadas.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

By Abby Scalf
Daily Herald Correspondent

Elizabeth Morgan loves making meals in the kitchen of her parents' Naperville home with her younger sister, Moira, at her side making the salad.

"You have never had or seen a more perfect salad," says Elizabeth, 22. The sisters recently added the roles of teacher and student to their relationship status. Elizabeth just wrapped up her first session as head instructor for Cooking 101, a class offered by the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. And Moira, 20, who has Down syndrome was among her students.
"I think she's on the borderline between 'it's cool that I know the instructor and my sister knows what I'm doing with my friends,'" Elizabeth says.

Since taking her first cooking class in second grade, Elizabeth has had some role in making the family's dinner.

"It's come to the point that I make dinner and my mom does the dishes, and that's awesome," she says.

At home, Elizabeth does not follow recipes but experiments with a bit of this and a bit of that. Her most recent creation was a panini on focaccia bread featuring a spread of sun dried tomato pesto and mayonnaise with grilled chicken, roasted red peppers and provolone cheese. Some attempts don't turn out as well such as lemon chicken that was too sour. To make it edible, they smothered the chicken with cheese.

"The moral of that story is we discovered cheese fixes anything," she says.

Elizabeth finds ways to get Moira involved in the meal prep, too; sometimes the two even pretend they are creating a television cooking show. That practice may have given them a leg up on today's video that you can view at

While she admits it sounds cliche, Elizabeth says she enjoys spending time with her sister. "During the week, we make dinner and talk about our day," she says.

While her mom and Moira may help get the main course on the table, dessert duty falls squarely on Elizabeth's shoulders. Pecan and strawberry rhubarb pie are among her specialties.

"Nobody touches my pies," she says.

Taking on the cooking teaching role was natural for Elizabeth, who as a high schooler lead her first cooking class for elementary school students. She also credits that experience with sparking her interest in teaching; she now works as an English and special education teacher at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville.

Elizabeth also has been involved with the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association in several roles including aiding at summer camp, helping the choir and coaching softball. When she found out the association needed someone to lead a cooking class, she took the job.

Assisted by three instructors, adults ages 18 to 40 who have varying disabilities learned recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The recipes challenge the students to learn new skills yet are simple enough for the students to confidently replicate at home. Making eggs in a hole, for example, students learned to break an egg with one hand and work safely with a hot griddle. Students practice knife skills with finger sandwiches and fruit salsa and have learned how to make chicken enchiladas.

For dessert, Elizabeth showed the students how to make hand pies, or empanadas, filled with apples or Nutella and marshmallows. Today she shares that recipe using her prized pie crust.

While Elizabeth admits she tries not to be too hard on Moira in class, at home she will challenge her.

Elizabeth said she'll tell Moira, "Hey I know you know how to make this. Prove it. I saw you were cutting fruit in the cooking class. I know you don't like fruit but I saw you do it so I know you can."

Elizabeth is now tweaking recipes for the next season of Cooking 101. Excited that Moira has signed up, she's considering introducing the students to more ethnic foods. And while her students will have fun and learn new skills, Elizabeth adds she also benefits from the programs.

"It is difficult to leave a program or a class in a bad mood because the people I'm working with have the ability to express joy in an uninhibited way that some people are not able to do," she says. "Their emotions are real, and that is beautiful."

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