By Chef Renee Morgan
Happy Chinese New Year! Okay, so I’m a little late. I know it’s already past. It’s just that I received a very special party invitation for the big day. I was honored to attend a Chinese New Year banquet put on by Mrs. Kathy Becker’s Culinary Arts class at Liberty Hill High School on Monday.
The effort these young people put into this celebration was evident as I walked into the room, which was decorated in traditional Chinese decor and the red and gold colors that are considered lucky in Chinese folklore. The Asian music of guan and pipa played softly in the background and tables were set with place settings including chopsticks and bamboo bowls. One of the students had even handmade an elaborate colorful dragon headdress, like the kind in parades.
The extensive offering of authentic Chinese recipes included prepared dishes of Dim Sum, Dumplings, Sesame Chicken, Sticky Rice Cakes, Whole Tilapia with Green Onion, Asian Noodles and Spring Rolls – and I can tell you from experience, those spring rolls are not easy to master.
Although the culinary students did an amazing job on all the food, a couple of offerings stand out as favorites. The sesame chicken was flavorful, sticky-sweet and beautifully prepared with a subtle umami undertone of soy. Many times, this kind of dish can turn out overcooked, tough and dry, but not this time. It was moist and juicy, with just a bit of crunch from the sesame.
Another stand out for me was the spring rolls. As I said before, mastering spring rolls isn’t easy. Rolling them up securely can be a little tricky. It was an amazing first effort. What I really loved was the fresh, basil-herby flavors slight crunch of the sweet carrots. It tasted like springtime.
As Mrs. Becker explained, the students were allowed to choose the theme for the banquet, and they do all the planning, decorating, cooking and serving. Some even went to the Asian market in Austin to buy ingredients for the feast. Speaking of serving, these students really have that hospitality thing down. Their front-of-house skills are as polished as many much more seasoned waitstaff. Guests were greeted immediately and offered a choice of drinks. Plates were kept comfortably full and conversation was lively.
I was so impressed, not only with the quality of the Culinary Arts program at Liberty Hill High School, but also the spirit, pride and ownership the students showed. I got the opportunity to talk with several of them and found them to be polite, smart, funny and creative.
For example, Olivia Frausto, a senior, was dressed in a beautiful kimono for the occasion. She is designing her own prom dress and plans to attend the Art Institute upon graduation.
Nick Hofstetter, a well spoken young man told me of his plans to become a Marine after graduation in May.
Katie Rollins showed me pictures of her amazing decorated cakes and shared that she will attend Central Texas College in Marble Falls beginning this fall, where she will major in special education.
Still, despite the different paths their lives are taking, they have the food in common. I felt gratified that these students have chosen to study the culinary arts during their high school career. No matter what path these young people decide to take they are building valuable life skills. Some may go on to culinary school, in which case this class will have been a wonderful head start. Others will major in other disciplines, in which case they may use the principles they learned in culinary class to get a part-time job while in college. In any case, they are learning skills they will use for a lifetime in taking care of themselves and others, how to behave in social situations and how to provide proper nutrition and home cooked, healthy meals for future families.
Now in it’s second year, the Culinary Arts program at Liberty Hill High School is really coming into its own. It is one of the best high school programs I’ve ever seen. A three year program, the first year students learn the fundamentals and earn their ServeSafe certification (which is required for employment at any food service establishment). In the second year, they concentrate on nutrition and spend a majority of time cooking in the third year. Quite of bit of action goes down in a kitchen with only two homestyle kitchen stoves. And this is no bird course. There is food science to be learned and tests to be passed.
What does the future hold for the program? In late February, the class will compete in a Family Career and Community Leader of America cooking competition in Corpus Christi. We wish them all the best and will be waiting with baited breath to hear of their accomplishments. According to Mrs. Becker, when the new high school is built, culinary arts classes will enjoy a professional style kitchen with six work stations, classroom and small dining room where the students will serve around 100 meals a day as they learn their craft. Quite ambitious
Chef Renee’s Combination Fried Rice
Note: This recipe comes together very quickly over a very high heat so you should have all of your ingredients and equipment prepped and close at hand before you begin.
sesame oil, as needed
1/4 pound chicken tenders, sliced into thin strips and then 1 inch pieces
1/4 pound flank steak or beef strips for stir fry, thin strips and then 1 inch pieces
8 ounces sliced mushrooms
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped or pressed through a press
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 eggs, lightly whisked
3 cups cooked rice
5-6 green onions, thinly sliced
soy sauce, as needed
chili oil, as needed
salt and pepper, to taste
1. Heat a wok or large pot over high heat. Make sure the pan is large enough to accommodate the product with space. Otherwise, your meat will steam instead of browning. Swirl in one tablespoon of sesame oil. Season the chicken and beef with salt and pepper. When the pan begins to smoke, add the chicken and beef and saute until cooked, about 4-5 minutes. Remove and set aside.
2. Add another tablespoon of sesame oil if needed. Add the mushrooms and saute until lightly browned. Add garlic and saute about 30 seconds until fragrant. Add the shrimp and saute until just turning pink, about 3 minutes. Do not overcook. Remove and set aside.
3. Add another tablespoon of oil if needed. Add the eggs in a stream all around the edge of the pan. Move the eggs continuously around the pan until almost completely cooked. Then add back in the previously cooked ingredients, rice and green onions. Toss to combine. Add a generous drizzle of soy sauce and chili oil to taste. (Go easy on the chili oil to start with as it is spicy. You can always add more.) Saute a minute or two to combine flavors. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
The great thing about this recipe is that it is very versatile. You can add in most anything you have on hand. I used leftover peas and carrots in mine.