By Karen Billing
The Del Mar Hills art room was transformed into a mini kitchen for mini chefs recently as it was overtaken by a Cook for Thought children’s cooking class after school. Cook for Thought founder and director Fernanda Larson led an enthusiastic group of students through making their own pita bread from scratch, paired with hummus and grilled eggplant they prepared.
Larson, a Del Mar resident and Hills parent, started Cook for Thought to provide curriculum-integrated culinary experiences for “curious minds that are hungry for knowledge.”
Her group last week was very hungry.
“I couldn’t walk here my body was so excited, I had to run,” said a student named Dora.
Larson brings her “mobile teaching kitchen” to the Del Mar Union School District for five classes a week in addition to teaching at local preschools. In March, she will be hosting some classes open to the community at Whole Foods in Del Mar, one class will be on Brazilian Carnaval cooking and one a tribute to Dr. Seuss.
Larson was born and raised in Southern Brazil in a family of Italian descent, resulting in an eclectic culinary background. The family’s backbone was in the kitchen.
Some of her most treasured memories of her childhood surround preparing lunch, starting in the morning with a walk to the butcher and then to the produce stand and the grocer. She had a full sit down-lunch every day of the week.
“One of my favorite things to make is black beans in a pressure cooker,” said Larson. “The rhythmic sound of the steam escaping the valve instantly transports me back to my childhood.”
She has her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nutrition, is a certified nutritionist and a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and recently was accepted as an ambassador for Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution Foundation in Del Mar.
Before having her two children she worked mainly with adults, but since becoming a mom she saw the potential for combining food, cooking, academic and social learning to close the “nourishment gap.”
Larson believes cooking is a vital life skill and it has become her dream, mission and passion to pass it on.
“To see how able they are, that’s something that’s so overlooked when working with kids,” Larson said. “They’re so capable and willing to try new things. They’re able to incorporate any technique that I teach them. And they remember and teach each other,”
As her Cook for Thought classes pair education with cooking, children have made roasted quail when studying Native American traditions, a “Hangtown fry” when studying the Gold Run, and tomato sauce caviar when they learned about futuristic molecular gastronomy.
While studying American cuisine, kids have whipped up Philly cheese steaks, gumbo, New England clam chowder and cedar planked salmon.
Her current session at Del Mar Hills is about cooking through the world’s history, from Egypt to Morocco to France. The last class will incorporate the French Revolution and students will celebrate by having a French crepe party with their parents.
Last week the kids learned abut one of the oldest populations of the world, the Mesopotamians who, Larson said, were very famous for setting the technique for making one of the most delicious foods eaten today: bread.
Larson talked about how they used to grind the grains and discovered how to use yeast.
“I think it’s made of dirt,” one child guessed about the origins of yeast before Larson explained it’s actually from the fungi kingdom and has the power to “transform flour into something yummy.”
Two young cooks “proofed” the yeast, waking it up with sugar. Larson explained that the sugar makes the yeast come alive and bubble and know it’s time to do its job to raise the bread.
The children rolled out their dough and flattened them into circles to grill. Using kid-safe knives they used the proper technique to slice eggplants and coat them in olive oil and carefully measured spoonfuls of spices to grill up as well.
Larson mans the stovetop and the grill in her classes for safety reasons.
The kids also grinded their own fragrant cumin, broke up a clove of garlic with a “ninja karate chop” and combined the ingredients with mashed-up garbanzo beans for the hummus.
“Hummus is one of my favorite meals,” said student Peter, inspecting the consistency of their hummus. Some insisted the dip needed more spice but as not all palates are the same, Larson settled for an extra sprinkling of salt.
The students remembered the shape and size of their pitas as they came off the grill and sat down to sample their cooking. Even the eggplant-wary students tried at least a bite of the vegetable and many came back for second helpings of their hummus.
“The biggest reward really is in each and every student that shares their cooking stories, that are excited about making and trying new foods and they write me the most amazing thank you notes,” Larson said. “It’s the feeling of making a positive impact by teaching kids a vital life skill.”
Cook for Thought classes can also be part of fundraisers or team building, birthday parties, Girl Scout “cook” badges, food writing or speaking, and custom-tailored projects. For more information, call (858) 242-2341 or visit cookforthought.com.