On a recent Saturday afternoon, 30 talented fourth- and fifth-graders gathered to cook up healthy Mexican meals in the Peninsula High School kitchen. The recipes, which students created themselves, had been selected as finalists for the annual Sodexo Future Chefs Competition.
The event is part of a national cooking contest for children sponsored by the food service provider Sodexo. This year’s theme was “Fiesta Fit.” The contest, now in its eighth year, was developed with the goal of getting kids excited about cooking and eating healthy food. Themes from years past included healthy Asian meals, breakfasts and snacks.
Katie Walters, Sodexo general manager for the Peninsula School District, was in charge of reviewing recipes submitted and selecting finalists. “We had over 50 recipes submitted this year,” Walters said. “We try to select at least one and as many as three students from each of the elementary schools.”
While all students selected to cook at the high school received a participation medal and a chef’s coat and hat, additional prizes were awarded in categories such as Best Table Presentation and Most Kid-Friendly.
Perla Torres-Alcantar, a fifth-grader from Vaughn Elementary School, took home the Healthiest Choice prize with her recipe for Calabazas con Queso, a cheesy zucchini dish.
The entree is not a new one for Perla, whose family counts it among their dinner time favorites. “When I was little, I started by warming up tortillas. Then I got more interested, learning how to make beans, how to make rice,” she said. Watching the TV show “Master Chef” with her family helped her get excited about cooking.
With Perla being the first in her family born in the United States, traditional foods help the family feel connected to their history in Mexico.
“I have to cook twice a day. I try to cook things from Mexico,” Perla’s mother, Cristina Alcantar, said. “I ask them every day, ‘What do you want to eat today?’ ”
“ ‘Enchiladas, gorditas, pozole.’ Every day (they) say the same thing,” Alcantar said, adding that spaghetti is among the family’s favorite meals too.
At the event, Perla had help from Walters, who collected the ingredients and scaled up family-size recipes to make 30 to 50 samples for judges and guests. Vaughn Elementary lunch lead Mindy Relaford played assistant chef by chopping the zucchini and peppers for Perla beforehand.
“These kids did great! The recipes they brought were probably the most difficult we have had, and they accomplished more than most adults could do in the timeframe given,” said Kim Kaija, lunch lead for Minter Creek Elementary School. “We could only assist them; they did all the work. I am so proud of all of them,” Kaija said
Vaughn Elementary Principal Lillian Page also had high praise for Perla.
“Perla is an amazing student. She always has a smile and comes to school excited to learn,” Page said.
Perla offered counsel for beginners in the kitchen: “When you first cook it comes out as a mess,” she said. “But once you practice, and you do it several times, you get better.”
The young cook is intent on continuing to get better in the kitchen herself. “In the future I would like to learn how to cook enchiladas and tamales,” Perla said.
Calabazas Con Queso
½ onion, sliced
3 zucchini squash, diced or cubed
4 half bell peppers (yellow, green, red, orange), thinly sliced
1 block of cheddar (to taste), shredded
1 tomato, chopped
Heat about 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan. Add sliced onion in pan and heat until clear. Next, add chopped tomato. Add thin sliced bell pepper. Add zucchini. Sprinkle with cheese to taste.
Cover and put on low until zucchini is tender and cheese is melted.