Hello there!  It has been a while, but I still exist.  Debbie Strickland here in Greeneville, TN, kicking it up with Rural Resources!  My co-worker, Kathleen Lokey, has been keeping you all posted with our gardening program involving our at-risk teens.  She has come on board this growing season, and has been doing an amazing job with the teens in the garden space, and with their home gardens.  Today, I am wanting to catch you all up on our cooking program.  What have we been doing with all that fluffy, luscious, gorgeous, amazing produce coming out of our garden?

Well, I am glad you asked!!  We have been busy teaching our second and fourth year teens what to exactly do with all that “stuff”.  Our second year teens have been increasing their pallets tasting creative ways of preparing and preserving fresh produce from the gardens as they are immersed in a culinary program that is teaching them skills in the kitchen for future job careers and needed skills to succeed in life.

The teens have been engaged in basic cooking skills, preservation methods, and culinary arts.  They have explored edible plants and created pizzas with, it will blow your mind, weeds!!  Yes I said weeds!  All those things I am pulling out of the garden, they cooked with it and ate it.  I really want to say “yuck” or “disgusting” but it was extremely delicious, and they all tried it!!  The vast majority even liked them, or liked certain ones.  They used lamb quarter and nettle to make two dishes that they, or myself, would have never ever thought to make.  Who would have thought I could not just pull my weeds, but eat them too!  They are also supposed to be rich in nutrients that your body can use, and guess what, they are free!!  They grow everywhere!  How better is that?!

They also prepared an entire meal for our local soup kitchen, a pork bbq (from our farm) with cole slaw and baked beans.  They served 235 meals that day to walk ins and prepared meals to send out to the shut ins.  The teens loved the experience to give back to those who are in just as much need as many of them.  It gave them a chance to help their community and take pride in what they have learned.  They were able to share the skills they gained to help someone else in need.  Many teens feel a lack of connection in the community, for what are they capable of doing?  An activity like this allows them the opportunity to feel connected and helping fill a need among their neighbors.

They also helped during our local fair week, with food preservation and food preparation demonstrations.  One of their favorites was pickling sweet pickles.  The teens prepared a batch prior to fair to walk through all the steps of the canning process.  Then, at fair, they shared with others how to make pickles in a crock.  Teens just seem to love pickles, so what better way to get them into preservation, than teaching something they simply love eating!  Now, they have requested a dill pickle, so my hunt begins for a good pickling recipe.  Many I have tried just do not hold up or taste just right.  But, my goal is to figure one out and begin dill pickles, then they will truly be in heaven!

Our 4th year teens have been busy trying to launch a food social enterprise.  They have been in product development.  We have had three experimental pizza dinner nights, featuring locally crafted and fresh pizzas.  Our pizzas are made, obviously, with love and care, but also with fresh ingredients out of our garden and a home made whole wheat pizza crust.  They have also played with gluten free crust recipes and created an amazing crust that others cannot tell is gluten free.  Each of these dinners have featured items in season.  We have created a Margarita, creamed spinach with or without chicken, roasted vegetable, vegan, massaged kale and sausage, pesto with roasted vegetables, peach and bacon, and some very basic everyday pizzas.  Our teens have offered surveys at each of our dinners and the response is overwhelming in positive feed back for taste, crust, topping options.  Everyone seems to be in love with a healthier choice for pizzas in the community, and a fresher take.  We are working on getting our kitchen certified this month.  Once done, we will have a commercially certified kitchen, then our fun really begins!  We will be making pizzas using our fresh ingredients and freezing them to resale to the public.  Our community will be able to place orders from our options list and take pizzas home to cook in their home ovens, at their convenience.  We will still offer occasional pizza nights to come and enjoy all the flavors of the season.  Are anticipation is growing this enterprise and integrating more into our programming work as we move forward.  Our 3rd year teens will take this over in January, and have begun making plans to add on and improve the products that have been developed.  We are very excited to get this opportunity underway and give the teens more skills and opportunities.  I am going to share the creamed spinach recipe that one of our teens fell in love with.  She did not like spinach, but enjoyed making and eating the creamed spinach pizza.  We had spinach growing all spring and summer.  We started with a mix of spring spinach, but also planted malibar spinach.  Malibar is a warm season spinach and allowed us to incorporate spinach all summer in our pizza creations.  It has a very nice flavor, after being cooked.  It was very slimy uncooked.  This teen simply loved the cooked spinach on top of her pizza.  Here is the recipe she adopted:

2 cups of spinach

1 cup cream

2 tbl butter

1 tbl garlic

1/2 cup onions

1 1/2 cup ricotta cheese

Saute butter, garlic, onions in a medium pan.  Add in spinach and cream.  Cook till cream thickens.  Spread ricotta cheese on pizza crust (12-14″).  Add spinach and cream mixture and evenly spread on crust.  Bake in oven at 400 for about 15-20 minutes.  Enjoy!

We have so much more to share, but I could go on for many more scrolls down.  We are excited about all the cooking and preservation activities the teens have done and what they are learning.  We are looking forward to preparing our annual Thanksgiving Dinner for our HUD senior housing facility, catering our annual teen appreciation dinner for family and friends, making APPLE BUTTER (had to capitalize this one!  This is one of the teens favorite fall activities), and making a bunch of pizzas!  So, go out, get busy in the garden, and think what creations you can make for a seasonal pizza.  I would love to hear your creations!