2019-04-01 / Dishing

Convivial Cooking

Cooking Collaborative offers students an opportunity to cook with fresh, local ingredients in a supervised atmosphere.
Text and Photos By Michele Marchetti

It’s Friday night in downtown State College and last call — to wrap sushi.

About a dozen Penn State students, one alumnus and one staff member are gathered at Abba Java Coffee House on Locust Lane to cook an Asian-inspired feast with ingredients sourced from local farms, including the Student Farm at Penn State. They paid $10 each, less than what a restaurant would charge for a meal that wouldn’t be as fresh, local or, arguably, delicious.

The so-called Cooking Collaborative is a student-run project started by the Penn State Student Farm Club (a separate entity from the farm), with the idea of bringing students together around locally sourced food. Each event features a guest host who oversees, and sometimes demonstrates, the cooking.

Cooking Collaborative is marketed primarily to college students through the farm club email list. Another dinner is planned for April, and there’s talk about an event that more intentionally targets both students and community members.

For now, with the exception of the occasional straggler, the only non-college student is the cooking host, someone who loves cooking and spends their workweek preparing, researching, growing or thinking about food. Think of it as a speaker series that swaps a lectern for a stockpot.  

“It puts (that person) in a different social space with the students. It’s less formal, and anytime you’re cooking and eating together it’s more convivial,” says Leslie Pillen, Penn State associate director of Farm and Food Systems.

On a February evening, Kristen Devlin, communications specialist for Penn State-based Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development, serves as the cooking host. She introduces four dishes: miso soup; noodles and stir-fried veggies with an addictive Thai curry sauce; a salad with a Japanese carrot dressing; and vegetarian sushi rolls — “a fun thing to have in your toolbox.”

The sushi checks all the potluck boxes, Devlin says. Vegan and gluten-free, it’s something nearly everyone can eat and will probably enjoy.

The Abba Java kitchen hums with activity as students break into four groups and unpack one of four cloth bags, each with the ingredients to a dish. Participants wash, dice, sauté and puree, some of them accumulating new experiences: first time meeting a daikon radish, first time cooking with tofu or first time opening a bag of dried kelp.

As they cook, they learn about their food and how to get closer to the source. Those radishes, along with yellow onions and perfect spinach leaves, came from Windswept Farm (in Patton Township near the airport). The spinach mix for the salad was sourced from the student farm’s hydroponics operation, which gives club members a hands-on growing opportunity through the winter months.

The dried kelp and red miso came from Far Corners Asian Market on West College Avenue, and the carrots came from Friday’s Downtown State College Indoor Farmers Market, located minutes from campus in the borough building. As one participant minces a carrot for the salad dressing and tosses the stubby end into a compost container, another plucks it free and pops it into his mouth. “I hate to waste food,” he says.

Devlin, a former steering committee member of the student farm, keeps the group moving, washing dishes or performing triage when necessary. After a failed search for a salad spinner, she quietly hand-dries the spinach mix with paper towels. She wants the students to have fun and adopts a self-deprecating approach to her role as head chef.

“I premade tonight’s rice, and it’s not awesome,” she admits after one of the most comfortable cooks in the kitchen cautions that it is difficult to get the stickiness of sushi rice just right. “But I will say you can work with whatever comes out of the pot.”

Yes, aspiring cooks, even apron-owning adults misstep in the kitchen.

On bamboo mats purchased at Weis Markets, students set out sheets of seaweed. They add Devlin’s rice, diced avocado and slices of cucumber and carrot before dipping their fingers into tiny bowls of water to moisten the seaweed and seal its contents.

Conversation flows from favorite restaurants (Kamrai Thai & Sushi House for a treat) to factory farms to the virtues of venison. The more experienced sushi rollers in the crowd help the newbies, including one student who patiently persists after some wayward avocado finds its way out of the seaweed and onto the mat.

After the students slice each roll and stack the pieces on a towering platter, they sample their work and smile. These are learners brimming with knowledge in physics, food science, environmental resource management, neuropsychology and global health. But on a Friday night in the midst of their spring semester, they discover one of the biggest pleasures in life: filling your belly with a meal that tastes better simply because you cooked it yourself. •SCM

Japanese Carrot Dressing
Yields 1¼ cups

½ cup packed grated carrots
¼ cup chopped onions or scallion bulbs
½ cup vegetable oil
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1½ tablespoons peeled and grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil
2 tablespoons water
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon brown sugar (optional)
ground black pepper

Combine all of the ingredients, except for the brown sugar and black pepper, in a blender and whirl on low for a few seconds, then increase the speed to medium or high and puree until smooth. Taste the dressing — if the carrots are very sweet, you may not want any additional sweetener. Otherwise, add the brown sugar, and whirl again briefly.

Season with black pepper and add more salt to taste.

This dressing will keep for several days in the refrigerator.  

(Recipe from Moosewood Restaurant Favorites: The 250 Most-Requested, Naturally Delicious Recipes from One of America’s Best-Loved Restaurants)

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