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Kitchen Magic

by Marge Perry on July 2, 2015

Wallpaper from the exquisite Bennett Leifer room

I want to tell you a story about the most lovely kitchen magic there is.

The story begins in a room that isn’t a kitchen at all, just a cavernous space that is usually empty. But every Thursday at 3,  the big hollow room starts to buzz. First come the folding tables and the stack of folding chairs. Next is the cart, piled high with plastic bins and Oxo cutting boards and 8-inch chefs’ knives; colanders and beautiful gleaming Anolon pots and pans; and an assortment of whisks and wooden spoons and spatulas.

Then comes the sound of jostling 9, 10 and 11 year olds running up the stairs, giggling and teasing and arguing and usually using outdoor voices. They come over to the ingredients table, firing out guesses and questions and factoids about their day, their life, or that very-important-thing-that-happened-in-school-today. They run and wash their hands, get their aprons on, and become very serious and quiet. They focus on learning what they are going to cook and the steps it takes to make it happen.

These kids have made a real commitment to cooking. They have promised to show up every week– not always easy for kids whose after school lives may involve a tremendous amount of flux– and to use their big, sharp knives according to strict guidelines. As long as they are standing at their work stations, they focus on their preparation tasks; on clean hands and ingredients; knife skills and whisking; measuring and thinking through next steps.

The enormous room is now a kitchen. They have done this, with their lovely magic. It is our kitchen in the Bronx where the kids mince garlic, cilantro and parsley; dice tomatoes, avocado and onion; slice zucchini, pineapple and potatoes; and do so, so much more.  After many weeks of listening and learning and doing (and yes, occasional BandAid-wrapping), it is the last day of class.

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We don’t have time to be sad. The last class will not be at our kitchen. Our last class is at a mansion in Manhattan, in a stunning just-built kitchen where we will be cooking and serving our food to grown-ups. We are making Quinoa Stuffed Baby Peppers with Avocado Crema. Seriously. (See the recipe below.)

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When the van drops them off and I am already there, one boy whispers to me, “Is this your mansion?”

“No,” I say, giving him a little squeeze. “But today the kitchen is ours.”

The kids wash their hands, and in honor of all their weeks of work, are given graduation chef coats. We roll sleeves and fasten stubborn buttons and they get to work.

They split the zillions of peppers and remove the seeds and membranes;

Danae has been in the program three years, and is now my assistant

 

Chop yellow and red tomatoes, scallions, cilantro, mint, olives and cucumber;

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… and gently combine the chopped ingredients with cooked quinoa and whisk avocado with sour cream, lime and cumin until it is smooth enough to pipe.

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They spoon the quinoa salad into the peppers;

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and pipe the top with a zigzag of avocado crema. They arrange the peppers on trays and serve them to the attendees at the Kips Bay Decorator Show House.

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The kids are having a blast and I am so proud I could bust. The attendees at the Show House, who have come from near and far to see the work of the most prestigious decorators in America, may or may not understand that the fee they paid at the door funds a safe place for kids in the Bronx to go after school. They attendees have come here to get ideas from the prize winning designers, but what they give is so much more. Thanks to their entrance fee, the kids who go to the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club are not on the streets; they are not in an empty apartment after school. They have more than just a place to go; they have an environment in which they can grow and expand. Just ask Jennifer LopezKerry Washington,  and a host of other famous alumni. Thanks to the entrance fees to the Show House, these incredible, interesting, wonderful kids come to the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club club house, which means I get to spend a few hours a week with them.

I look around this beautiful kitchen which, like all the rooms in the Show House, was designed by one of the top decorators in the country. The kids have anointed this gorgeous Christopher Peacock-designed kitchen with avocado smears, dirty dishes sprawling across the Silestone counters, and a few strategically placed squashed cherry tomatoes. They have done it again.

They have turned this room into a kitchen. It truly is the most lovely kind of kitchen magic.

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Below is the recipe for the great hors d’oeuvres the kids made. But before we get to that, I want to be clear on just how important the Show House is. Yes, it is one of the most prestigious show houses in the country– the Grammys for decorators. But it is far more than that. Without the participants and sponsors of this show house, there would be no cooking program– or perhaps no safe haven for these kids to go to after school.

I am so grateful to the Hearst Design Group— and most especially to Lisa Lachowetz, Executive Director of Marketing and  Meaghan Trimarchi, Integrated Marketing Manager– they not only shot most of the photos on this post, they also stayed long after the kids were gone to help clean up the impressive mess we made.  The indefatigable Sean Sullivan, Associate Publisher/Group Marketing Director of the Hearst Design Group, has generously shared his impressive culinary prowess and energy with me and the kids for the past several years at the Show House.

Did you see the spiffy aprons the kids are wearing? For both the aprons and their invaluable ongoing support, I am eternally grateful to Dacor, maker of (among other things) spectacular ovens and ranges. And to Christopher Peacock, who let us come in like a tornado to his gorgeous kitchen and whose kitchens are the stuff of cooks’ (especially this cook’s!) dreams, and Silestone, whose countertops we subjected to more abuse in a couple of hours than most cooks could inflict in years… And yes, they looked just as good when we left as when we came.

But most of all, I am grateful to these magical kids who cook with me… and who are just the best things since sliced bread.

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Quinoa Stuffed Baby Peppers with Avocado Crema

This is really two recipes that can stand on their own: the quinoa salad makes a lovely side dish and may be served as is or in lettuce cups. The crema is wonderful on a toasted English muffin with a slice of smoked salmon or for spreading on a turkey sandwich.

Quinoa Salad

1 cup quinoa

2 cups water

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered

1 Persian cucumber, cut in1/4-inch pieces

2 scallions, green part only, thinly sliced

1/4 cup coarsely chopped pitted calamata olives

1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped

1. Rinse the quinoa and combine in a pot with the water; bring to a boil and immediately reduce the heat to low and cover. Cook 15 minutes, until the water is absorbed.

2. Combine the quinoa with the olive oil and salt. Stir in the tomatoes, cucumber, scallions, olives, cilantro and mint.

Avocado Crema

1 avocado, chopped

1/4 cup light sour cream

1 teaspoon lime juice

1/8 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon salt

1. Place the avocado in a bowl and mash with a fork. Add the sour cream, lime juice, cumin and salt and mash or whisk until the mixture is smooth.

For the Assembly

Split baby peppers in half and remove the membrane and seeds. (The number of baby peppers you need will vary greatly depending on the size of the peppers. I generally buy a bag and roast the leftovers.)

Fill the peppers with the quinoa salad.

Spoon the crema in a small zip lock bag and push it all to the bottom corner. Snip the corner of the bag and gently squeeze the crema out to pipe it decoratively over the salad. Alternatively, (and more simply), top with a dollop of the crema.

Serves 8-12

 

More photos, because I can’t help myself — and again, with thanks to Lisa Lachowetz and Meaghan Trimarchi who took and shared most of these photos.

 

 

 

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