ADRIAN — “OK, who made last week’s recipe?”
Vickie Pfeifer, program instructor in nutrition and physical activity for MSU Extension — Lenawee County, looks around her Cooking Matters class on a mid-August Monday. Several members of the class say they did indeed try the dish in question, a chicken stir-fry — although there were some modifications tested out with it.
“I made it with tofu,” one said. “I’d never used tofu before.” Another said she left out the chicken and added mushrooms. “Instead of the brown rice, I like chow mein noodles, which I know have no nutritional value.”
“That’s OK. You’re among friends; you can admit that,” Pfeifer said as the rest of the class laughs.
Cooking Matters is a free six-week cooking and nutrition class held at the Lenawee Human Services Building, 1040 S. Winter St., Adrian. The program is run on the national level by Share Our Strength. Locally, the MSU Extension partners with the Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan.
Participants come in a wide range of ages and with an equally wide range of backgrounds. Some don’t know the first thing about cooking. Others have cooked all their lives but want to pick up new tips and recipes. Some heard about the class from friends and want to know more about healthy eating. Others are receiving Supplemental Nutritional Food Assistance Program benefits and are learning how to make good food choices on limited budgets.
Everyone comes away from the classes with lots of recipes and having learned a wide range of nutrition information, including how to choose healthy foods and make meals with the right balance of food groups; tips for eating out; the nutritional value of, say, fresh vs. canned vs. frozen items; how to know what proper portion sizes are; how to read nutrition labels; food safety; and how to adapt a recipe if, for example, it calls for ground beef and ground chicken is on sale instead — or if the cook wants to leave the meat out altogether.
They also learn how to budget for healthy groceries, debunking what Pfeifer said is “The No. 1 myth” that healthy food is more expensive. “And cooking for yourself is not that hard,” she adds. For one class session, the group goes to a local grocery store, where they put what they’ve learned about evaluating pricing and nutritional values into practice and must purchase the items to feed a family of four, including all five food groups, for less than $10.
And the participants get to cook.
Each week, they learn how to prepare the week’s recipe — and eat the results — under the tutelage of a professional chef. And having that expertise on hand, Pfeifer said, is one of the big plusses of the class.
The class “could watch Vickie cut up a chicken, but it’s so much better when they learn from a chef,” she said.
The chefs volunteer their services, and according to Pfeifer the ones who have helped out to date have been deeply committed to the experience.
For the first series of classes, she was able to get two chefs from Firekeepers Casino to come. When the next six-week session rolled around, she asked chef Ray Broat from Adrian’s Coast to Coast Deli. “He said yes immediately,” she said. “He saw the importance of it in the community.”
The next chef to get involved was Zack Woodford of the Adrian Red Lobster, who’s working with this particular group of students and also volunteered for the previous series of classes. “I like what they’re doing,” said Woodford, who grew up around a family restaurant business and learned his craft at the Lenawee Intermediate School District Tech Center culinary arts program. “I like being a part of it.”
He sits in a chair listening, and occasionally adding a comment or two, as Pfeifer leads the day’s lessons, which come complete with hands-on participation involved. For example, one discussion involves comparing certain fast-food menus, coming up with sample meals from each, and looking at the meals’ nutritional value — with the group creating a visual comparison of the fat content using hamburger buns and spoonfuls of shortening.
Finally, it’s time to make the week’s recipe: a cheesy hamburger skillet.
Pfeifer passes out the recipe and the class divides into two groups, one to prepare the meal with gluten-free pasta and one to use whole-wheat pasta, and quickly sets about chopping green peppers, garlic, and onions and getting all the ingredients into the skillets. As the groups work, sharing tips and ideas for other possible ingredients with each other, Woodford circulates around to check on their progress and answer questions.
At one skillet, Linda Shavalier is working across from Kenny Gonzalez on cutting up the vegetables and getting everything into the skillet as the rest of the team pitches in.
Shavalier, of Adrian, learned about Cooking Matters from a Red Hat friend. “I wanted to learn to cook for one, and how to use seasonings,” she said. “Plus I’m gluten-free, so I wanted to learn more recipes.”
Has the class met her expectations? “More so,” she said. “Far beyond what I expected.”
Gonzales, also of Adrian, took the class on the recommendation of his roommate. “I like to cook and I wanted to learn to cook healthier,” he said. As it turns out, his now 125-pound frame used to have 180 pounds on it, and now that he’s lost all that weight he wants to keep it off. The class, he said, has taught him how to “balance his plate” with proper serving sizes of the right foods.
It isn’t long before the scent of a skillet-made meal fills the air and the participants get to dish up and sample the fruits of their work. As they enjoy their “home-cooked” lunch, which took just minutes to prepare and not much longer to cook, they discuss how much it would cost to purchase the ingredients and compare the nutritional information and generous serving size for their recipe to what’s shown on a box of Hamburger Helper.
Soon, class wraps up for the day, and the participants leave with their new recipe, a bag of everything needed to make the meal at home, and ideas about including other vegetables, swapping one meat for another or using beans as a protein-filled substitute for meat, or using rice instead of pasta.
Three friends and former co-workers, among them Jan Herman of Clayton, gather up their groceries and class materials. “I wanted to learn to cook more healthfully,” Herman said, and for the three women to attend together allows them to learn and stay connected with each other at the same time.
“I’ve learned a lot,” she said.
Pfeifer is pleased with the success of Cooking Matters — it’s so popular that she has a waiting list — and hopes to continue offering the sessions as long as she can get volunteer chefs. She certainly knows the classes are making a difference to the people who take them.
No other such classes are quite like Cooking Matters, she said. Besides the fact that professional chefs are involved, “I think it’s dramatically different from other food programs in that it involves actual cooking,” which is a plus especially for people who are intimidated by the idea of preparing food. And, she adds, having such a diverse audience as the program draws “creates an incredible atmosphere for this class.”
To get the class schedule and register for the next available class, call Pfeifer at 264-5303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.