“Does anyone recognize and can name these two spices?” I ask a class full of kindergarten and first graders. The spices at each table are passed around for a sniff and a few sneezes.
One of my students turns towards me in her chair disappointed from the lack of challenge I have presented. “This is easy.” She sighs pointing out each spice: “This one is gingerbread and this one is eggnut.”
I can understand gingerbread for cinnamon, but, “Eggnut?”
“I drink it every Christmas.”
Eggnut? It takes a minute to figure it out. “Ah, you mean eggnog. You drink eggnog every Christmas. Really good, nutmeg is an ingredient in eggnog. Our other spice, in gingerbread, is called cinnamon.” I am stuck on eggnog. I didn’t drink it growing up and my association with it is through stories that end in hangovers. I cannot help but laugh at the comment, “you must have fun holiday stories.”
More importantly, and what finally shakes the image from my mind, is the wave this comment triggers: “I make cinnamon french toast.” “I’ve had cinnamon ice cream.” “It smells like pumpkin pie.”
Our food memories are tied so strongly to scents that we can have a positive or negative reaction to a dish sometimes just by smelling a single ingredient. In my classroom, I am trying to make positive food memories for all my students through the foods we explore. I want them to know that while, yes, cinnamon is in gingerbread and eggnog has nutmeg, some of the familiar scents we already have associations for, can be used in new and exciting ways– traditionally sweet in savory applications, finding cross-cultural ways to use a single herb or spice, or best yet, rediscovering what was once thought to be gross into something delicious.
We get to work. Little hands are excitedly chopping leeks and celery; onion, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt are measured and combined in the pot. The aroma hits the air and it hits them: the comforting combination of onions sweating and cinnamon blooming in butter, “this is amazing.” My students find their future food memories.
The soup is blended. I don’t serve food until tables are wiped down, prep utensils are cleaned up, tables are properly set and lips are pursed in quiet. The room has never gotten ready to eat so quickly before. Tables are called up for service one at a time. All eyes are on the prize as they take their taste. As spoons hit tongues a symphony of (mostly) praises erupt:
“My taste buds told me to eat it.”
“It’s like liquid pumpkin pie.”
“This is the best soup I’ve ever made!”
Cream of Sweet Potato Soup
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup chopped onion
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 leek, sliced (white and pale green parts only)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1-1/2 pounds (about 3 large) red-skinned sweet potatoes, peeled, cut in 1-inch pieces
4 cups (homemade or low-sodium) chicken (or vegetable) stock
2 cups half and half
3 tablespoons maple syrup
Melt butter in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add onions, celery and leeks, sauté 5 minutes. Add garlic, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Sauté 2 minutes to release aromas. Add sweet potatoes and stock, bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat so soup comes to a simmer, leaving slightly uncovered until potatoes are tender, 15 to 20 minutes.
Working in batches, puree soup in blender (or use an immersion blender). Return to pot. Stir in half and half and maple syrup, season with more salt to taste, if necessary.
NOTE: Make the soup lactose-free and tropical while adding some healthy fat; replace butter with coconut oil and half and half with coconut milk.