The first time I stepped into the kitchen to meet my Jr Iron Chef VT high school student team, the situation was clear: those kids were there because their moms signed them up.
Jr Iron Chef VT helps to pair culinary coaches — school nutrition staff, teachers, professional chefs, etc — with middle and high school students to give kids the opportunity to learn culinary skills, teamwork, and build deeper connections between themselves and the food they eat. I needed to prepare these kids to create and refine a recipe, and in a few months’ time, we’d be competing alongside seventy teams at the Champlain Valley Exposition. In 90 minutes, with only verbal assistance from me, they would have to execute a competition-worthy dish and plate a dozen tastings for a judging panel.
Our first practices were akin to herding cats: lots of wandering away from the kitchen, daydreaming, and side conversations. Although they were new to cooking, I knew they needed to pick the dish we prepared so they would feel more ownership of it. The guidelines are simple: the dish has to be vegetarian, feature local ingredients, and able to be reproduced in a school setting. The only girl in the group, who was studying French, suggested Salad Lyonnaise.
Salad Lyonnaise is usually a warm salad composed of bitter greens, bacon vinaigrette, and an egg. Since we couldn’t use bacon, we flavored tofu with smoke and maple in its place. We upgraded to the Arzak Egg, in which an egg is poached in plastic wrap with a flavorful oil. We added in caramelized onions and potato slices to round out the dish and show off newly learned knife and sauteeing skills. As they worked to perfect the recipe during the following months, they developed confidence in the kitchen, bonded as a team, and their enthusiasm during the practices grew.
The competition day came and they were nervous. But as they got to work — chopping, poaching, slicing, and plating — they built more and more confidence. Onlookers kept stopping by our station, curious about their poaching technique. And what started as a chore instigated by their mothers ended in a triumph: their effort and dedication won the ‘Crowd Pleaser’ award for the overall best dish! Their faces beamed with pride. I, too, felt a sense of accomplishment having mentored these high schoolers to a win. This feeling sticks with me to this day, reminding me why I enjoy imparting the love of good, honest food to young people.
Without knowing it, you may have enjoyed this recipe at the Inn, too. The salad, when complete, has all the components of breakfast, and has been a well-received item on the Inn’s ever-changing breakfast and brunch menus.
Jr Iron Chef VT is a program of Vermont FEED, our Farm to School project in partnership with NOFA-VT. The 12th annual competition will be held Saturday, March 16, 2019 at The Champlain Valley Exposition.
Makes eight servings. Make the whole recipe for a filling meal, or just parts to liven up your typical side salads.
5 cloves garlic
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
Tofu Bacon Bits
¼ cup maple syrup
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons liquid smoke
1 teaspoon salt
1 (14-ounce) block firm tofu
4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes
1/3 cup Garlic Oil (see above)
Pinch each salt and freshly ground pepper
Caramelized Onion Purée
1 yellow onion
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups water, divided
1½ teaspoons maple syrup
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 slices sourdough bread, crust trimmed
¼ cup garlic oil
½ teaspoon salt
8 farm-fresh large eggs
Pinch each salt and freshly ground pepper
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon sugar
Pinch each salt and pepper
8 cups mixed winter greens
2 tablespoons chopped chives
¼ cup shredded aged sharp cheddar
To prepare the garlic oil: Mince the garlic into a small skillet. Add the oil and place over medium heat, stirring constantly, until golden brown and fragrant. Remove from heat and reserve.
To prepare the tofu: Stir the maple syrup, oil, liquid smoke, and salt in a medium bowl. Crumble in the tofu and stir to coat well. Spread the tofu out onto a baking sheet and bake at 350°F until golden, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes.
To prepare the potatoes: Slice the potatoes paper-thin. Toss with the garlic oil, salt, and pepper. Spread out into 8 rows of overlapping slices onto a silicone mat lined baking sheet and bake at 350°F until the edges are golden and crispy, 20 minutes.
To prepare the caramelized onion purée: Thinly slice the onions and place in a large nonstick skillet with the oil and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until onions start to turn golden. Add ½ cup water, and keep stirring the onions so that the sugars don’t stick to the pan. Repeat with the remaining water until onions are soft and liquid is absorbed. Puree in a high-powered blender until smooth; add the maple syrup and pepper; blend to combine
To prepare the garlic croutons: Cut the bread into ½-inch cubes and place on a baking sheet. Toss with the oil and salt. Spread out the croutons in an even layer and bake, turning occasionally, at 350°F until golden and crisp, about 8 minutes.
To prepare the Arzak eggs: Fill a medium saucepan half full with water. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat. Line a small bowl with plastic wrap and brush with the garlic oil. Crack the egg into the plastic wrap and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pick up the edges of the plastic, forming a small bag, and tie with butcher’s twine. Be sure to get out as much air as possible. Repeat with the remaining eggs, oil, salt, and pepper. Working in batches, lower the egg packets into the simmering water and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure even cooking. Remove from water and keep warm.
To prepare the vinaigrette: Combine all ingredients in a mason jar and shake vigorously to combine.
To assemble the salad: In a large bowl, combine the salad greens and chives. Toss with the vinaigrette, salt, and pepper. Spread a stripe of the caramelized onion purée onto each of 8 serving plates, followed by a strip of the potatoes. Place 1 cup of the salad off-center on each. Gently remove each egg from its packet and place next to the salad. Top each plate with 1/8th of the croutons, tofu bacon, and cheddar cheese.