WESTBROOK — Stephen Foster, 11, was pretty convinced that taking a cooking class was going to be boring.

But then he got a knife in his hand and found that he likes chopping fresh garlic to make marinara sauce.

Here’s the budding chef’s review of a stir-fry, which he recently tried for the first time: “I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s a whole bunch of vegetables mixed together. And it was really good because I thought I didn’t like vegetables, but it turns out I did.”

What’s caused this transformation? Foster signed up for a new program called Cooking Matters to Maine, a project developed by Share Our Strength, a national organization that works to fight hunger.

Cooking Matters recruits local culinary and nutrition professionals to teach low-income families on a limited budget how to prepare nutritious meals that also taste good.

There are 27 Cooking Matters programs already functioning around the country. In June, the Maine chapter of Share Our Strength launched its own program in partnership with the Good Shepherd Food Bank and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Hannaford provides all the food, including bags of groceries that families can take home with them so they can cook the meal they’ve just learned how to make at home.

There are classes for adults, teens, children, parents and children together, and one for teenage parents. Each six-week series of classes is taught by a chef, a nutrition educator and a volunteer.

“The nutrition educator we know is vital, but it’s the chef who really is the star of the show, especially with the kids,” said Kristen Miale, program director for Cooking Matters in Maine. “They just love having the chef. And it’s great, because it really engages the restaurant community in fighting hunger.”

A REAL EYE-OPENER

At a recent class for teenagers at Mission Possible in Westbrook, Chef James Tranchemontagne of the Frog and Turtle and the French Press Eatery restaurants said the program is “like a dream come true for me.”

Tranchemontagne was already on the board of Mission Possible, which feeds 30 to 50 kids a day, so it was a no-brainer for him to volunteer to teach a series of Cooking Matters classes at the teen center. Although he already knows and has worked with many of his students, even his eyes were opened when he started talking about food with them.

“We were here the other day; I couldn’t believe it – three kids didn’t know what a zucchini was,” he said. “I’m like, ‘What do you mean, you don’t know what a zucchini is?’ That’s insane. That’s not a hard vegetable, you know? We bring in a papaya or a mango, I understand. But a zucchini?”

Tranchemontagne said the kids always begin by complaining about the food they’re making — homemade granola is not a teenager’s snack of choice — but usually by the end of the class, “they’re wolfing it down.”

One week they made a Tex-Mex dish, “and they said, ‘I like Taco Bell.’ “

“I said, ‘This is the same thing as Taco Bell, but we’re using fresh meat, we’re using good cheese, we’re using good spices,’ ” Tranchemontagne recalled. “And then they’re like, ‘Wow, this is much better.’ It’s nice to see them kind of wake up.”

Last week, Tranchemontagne made marinara sauce and mozzarella sticks as well as oatmeal-raisin cookies.

When the children are not in the kitchen, they’re getting lessons from Brenda Bracy, a nutrition associate with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and Anastasiya Allen, a student in dietetic technology at Southern Maine Community College.

On the day the teens made the mozzarella sticks, the theme of the day was dairy.

Bracy talked about how dairy helps their bones grow, gives them healthy teeth and aids their nerves and muscles. They need three cups of dairy a day, “and it doesn’t have to always be milk,” she told them. “It can be a slice and a half of cheese or so, or it can be a nice cup of yogurt.”

“Think of it like this: It’s like putting money in the bank,” she said. “If each day you get your dairy servings, three a day, it’s like putting money in the bank so that when you get up to age 30 and 50, you’re going to have nice hard, solid bone.”

SEEING IS BELIEVING

But lectures only go so far. What really impressed the class were the demonstrations. Bracy and Allen held up test tubes filled with a white substance to illustrate how much fat is in whole milk compared with 1 percent, 2 percent and skim.

Allen also covered soda by holding up different sized bottles and letting the students guess how many teaspoons of sugar were in each. They seem shocked to learn that a 20-ounce soda can contain as much as 21 teaspoons of sugar.

The demonstration that wows them the most, however, is the one the teachers have come to call “Blubber Burger.” They hand the students a chart that shows the amount of fat in typical fast-food meals. The students pick out their favorite fast food, then they’re told to take a tablespoon and spread the equivalent amount of shortening on a slice of bread. “That’s what you’re eating,” Allen tells them.

The students’ reaction? “They’re thoroughly disgusted,” Allen said.

The Blubber Burger and soda exercises are done across all age groups, “and every time, it’s a huge eye-opening experience,” Miale said.

Corey Watson, 13, said the classes have gotten through to him “how healthy some foods can be and how bad some foods can be.”

Since he started the class, Watson has been experimenting with his diet, purposefully trying vegetables he’s never had before to see if he likes them. “I’ve tried lettuce and I’ve tried some peppers – green pepper, red pepper,” he said. “I’ve tried onions.”

Spinach, he’s concluded, is just “OK.”

NOTHING FANCY

The last class in the teen series is a “Top Chef”-style challenge where the students cook their favorite recipe from the class for judging.

The recipes used in the classes are in a handbook that each student gets to keep. Chefs are welcome to substitute their own recipe, but each meal must be healthy and cost no more than $2 per person. Fancy ingredients (and the fancy equipment to prepare them) are not allowed.

“For the adults class, we do a little more focus on food budgeting, planning your meals, and buying by unit price and things like that,” Miale said.

Adults learn how to break down a whole chicken in one class. After making chicken nuggets with the meat, Miale said, “we show them the leftover chicken ‘bleh’ – what’s left over after we’ve done everything with the chicken – and we tell them, ‘That’s what’s in the chicken nuggets that you’re buying,’ and they’re disgusted.”

Label reading and deciphering the marketing hype on products is usually a big lesson for adults, Miale said. On week five of the adults’ class, there’s a field trip to the grocery store.

“We take them down the bread aisle and say, ‘OK, find me whole grain,’ ” Miale said. “The bread aisle is overwhelming sometimes.”

Adults are also given a “grocery store challenge” where they have to put together a healthy meal for four people that includes at least three food groups and doesn’t cost more than $10. When they’ve passed, they get a $10 Hannaford gift card.

“We had a great experience at the class in Bridgton where a woman wanted to do a Chinese stir fry,” Miale recalled. “She had brown rice, she had vegetables, but she had one of those seasoning packets for the sauce. And the chef was like, no.

“He showed her the sodium on the back (of the packet), and then he brought her over to the produce and he got her ginger, garlic, scallions, and found a bottle of low-sodium soy sauce and talked her through how to make it herself.”

Every person who takes the classes gets a bag of groceries at the end so they can try the recipes they’ve learned.

“For the adult classes, especially, that’s a real incentive to get them to keep coming each week,” Miale said. “And Hannaford also said they’re going to put together pantry kits for when they graduate, with whole wheat flour, spices and things like that.”

The first two classes held at the Bridgton Food Pantry, taught by a chef from the Ruby Tuesday’s in Augusta, had a 96.2 percent graduation rate.

Watson takes home the groceries every week and asks if he can cook the dishes he learned at Mission Possible. “I haven’t been able to yet,” he said, “but I hope to.”

“My biggest thing to tell them,” Tranchemontagne said, “is to cook at home. Everything stems from getting the family to sit down. And whether they have the traditional mom-dad, brother-sister family, or a nontraditional family, food can overcome so much.”

 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: mgoad@pressherald.com