Sometimes the world seems vast and unreachable and other times it is right in front of you and as open as the palm of your hand. My lifeline branched last month and led me to Slovenia, which sounds far from central Pennsylvania, but it turned out to be entirely within my grasp.
Kids cooking programs are alive and well in the Republic of Slovenia. Due to its beautiful scenery and rich natural resources, the nation has been carved apart by various conquerors since the dawn of history, but it maintains a pride cured by the many coats of arms it has worn.
In turn Roman, Celtic, Hun, Slav, Frank, Bavarian, Magyar and Hapsburg dynasties ruled the country and that was up until the turbulent 20th century when, as part of Yugoslavia, it suffered multiple divisions, emerging as its own republic in 1991.
Slovenia shares borders with Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Italy and its culinary heritage is distinctive in 11 different regions in a country smaller than New Jersey. It is a melting pot in the most delicious sense. Maintaining the culinary diversity is a recognized priority in Slovenia.
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This is especially true for Anka Peljhan, project director of a program called Cooking Kids that organizes cooking demos and competitions across the country led by local chefs and culinary school instructors who are fully endorsed by the government and national press and also supported in part by a grant from the Weston A. Price Foundation. Regional foods are championed and ancestral recipes are taught to the young chefs to try to maintain culinary identity.
Thanks to Sylvia Onusic, a Portage resident who leads small group food tours to Slovenia, I learned that the Slovenian Cooking Kids were going to be in Washington, D.C., for a demo at the Slovenian Embassy on EU Day, May 9.
My radar went up. I attended the demo, meeting Onusic for the first time though I had been on her email list for years. She introduced me to Peljhan, and I observed her kids in action, carefully rolling out dough for dumplings. Their dynamic cooking teacher from the Danila Kumar International School in Ljubljana, Keli Jerman, was keeping close tabs on the young cooks as they dropped dumplings into the steamer and the uniformed team made a valiant effort to keep up with the queue that lined up for samples.
Peljhan and I chatted about our mutual interest in getting kids involved in cooking while the open house lines lengthened around us. We pledged email contact and Onusic escorted me from the embassy when I received a FaceTime call from our daughter, Rose, who lives in Austria.
Wait a minute. Slovenia and Austria share a border; suddenly the world was shrinking and a plan started to formulate as I sampled the Kranjska kielbasa the ambassador passed out at the exit door. I was planning a trip to Austria in June; maybe I could observe the Cooking Kids in their own kitchen.
Peljhan welcomed the idea and we emailed back and forth about what I could demonstrate. I suggested pizza, always the hands-down favorite at the Cook Like a Chef camp at Penn State for 14 years. But Peljhan ruled that out. “Pizza is considered a junk food in Slovenia. Could you possibly demonstrate burgers?”
Clearly, we had a cultural divide. When I explained that in the U.S. burgers are only ground beef, minimally seasoned, Peljhan said that then her kids would use a recipe that won a recent chef’s contest in Ljubljana. The recipe included apple, roasted onion and cucumber. I had my doubts that those ingredients were compatible to a burger but kept an open mind.
Ljubljana is a three-hour drive from Salzburg, but those miles wend through 17 tunnels and countless bridges through the Alps. The drive was daunting but beautiful and, thanks to a friend in State College, I had a place to land when I got there and her brother to answer questions.
The Vič neighborhood of Ljubljana is walking distance to the Old City, through streets lined with lush rosebushes and meticulously landscaped gardens. Though urban, each house and apartment has plants growing from every available square inch of soil.
After soaking up some of the local flavor, I devised a plan for a simple appetizer to prepare with the Cooking Kids team that involved their local soft cow’s milk cheese, cucumbers and flowers from the large farmers market that operates every day downtown.
The Danila Kumar International School is as large as a city block, offering classes from pre-kindergarten through middle school. The school has a foods program for kids as young as second grade and a more advanced program for 11- to 13-year-olds, my usual cohort. Once I found the bright and well-equipped teaching kitchen I saw the busy team preparing for the grand finale for parents and invited guests. The energy level was high.
I was lucky; all the Cooking Kids are fluent in English and many were eager to engage. In less than 15 minutes I had a group that was busy snipping rose petals and dianthus blossoms, shaping cheese into balls and slicing cucumbers. Rolling the cheese balls in the bright, snipped blossoms proved a popular activity with many hands involved. These kids were adept in the kitchen and needed only to be shown once what to do and they were on task.
Under Jerman’s supervision, two of the boys proceeded to cut a large dishpan full of potatoes into quarters and then place them on roasting pans with a little oil and dried herbs. Another group worked with Peljhan on the “healthy burgers,” mixing ground beef with raw onion and a little Tony Chachere’s Cajun spice that I brought along to add to the mix. These kids weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, mixing all the ingredients carefully and portioning the mixture out into mini burgers. During production the kids conversed about who could eat the burgers, and were happy to tell the Muslim girls that the mixture didn’t contain pork so they could enjoy them. Vegetarian options were also considered respectfully.
Onions were slivered and dry roasted in a hot oven until they charred. Lettuce was washed and spun dry, cucumbers sliced and a Hollandaise sauce whirred in a food processor. Several loaves of sliced brown bread were cut out into circles and toasted off. Everything was ready for assembly.
Dessert was underway in another corner of the kitchen, a ground walnut and biscuit torte that was topped with molten chocolate. These Cooking Kids had all the bases covered.
At the appointed time, the kids set up the room for the guests, set out the appetizers, assembled and plated up the “burgers and fries,” healthy style. The guests sat at a large u-shaped table and a slide presentation illustrated highlights of the year — trips to farms, special guest chefs and the Washington Slovenian Embassy trip.
Parents beamed with pride as they saw what the program had accomplished and enjoyed the fruits of the children’s labor at the table. The program ended with a dance demo to “Timber,” by Ke$ha and Pitbull, performed by all the kids who had the moves down!
I learned several things that afternoon. First of all, that a burger with apple, cucumber and roasted onion is delicious and more importantly, how a program whose slogan is “Make Food, Not War” could engage a diverse population and show the next generation how to come together on common ground, at the table, and with respect. Thumbs up!