STAFFORD TOWNSHIP — The cast on his arm didn’t slow Alex Scherzer, 17, of Stafford Township, as he rapidly chopped basil for the mango sauce he would pour over the pork chops sizzling nearby in a pan.
“It sounded interesting,” he said of his blue team’s choice of recipe for November’s “Iron Chef” challenge in Culinary Arts teacher Jennifer Furlong’s classroom at Southern Regional High School. “It is a risk. It will either be a hit or a miss.”
Nearby members of the red team tentatively tasted the blackberry basil crush drink they made to accompany their basil-topped pizza.
“It’s okay,” Connor Devaney, 18, of Beach Haven said unenthusiastically. “Add some lemon.”
Teammate Stephen Adams, 17, of Stafford, squeezed fresh lemon juice into Devaney’s cup.
“Oh, that’s good now,” Devaney said, and Adams added a squeeze of lemon to the drinks prepared for the judges.
The second of a planned monthly series, the challenge is designed to give students in the advanced culinary class the chance to branch out, be creative and learn what makes a dish taste great. The first challenge was apples. Wednesday’s was basil, grown by students in the school greenhouse.
Limited by the school schedule, the five teams were given Monday to research and develop a recipe for the basil. They did advance preparations Tuesday and the cooking Wednesday. One plate was prepared to be judged on presentation, and small plates were put out for the judges to taste.
The orange team chose a pasta salad partially because they thought it would present well with its medley of colors from cherry tomatoes, basil and colorful peppers.
“We know a lot is presentation and thought this would look nice,” Emily Vaughan said as she mixed the dressing with the farfalle pasta and vegetables.
The Green team made spaghetti and basil with a roasted tomato topping. Furlong said the teams have learned small lessons, such as when you only have 30 minutes, you can’t make a huge pot of pasta because it takes time to boil the water. Allowing enough cooking time is still a challenge, and the yellow team made their eggplant parmigiana Tuesday so it could spend the entire 30 minutes in the oven Wednesday.
“We knew it needed the time to bake,” said Joshua Hernandez, 18, of Stafford. He likes to watch cooking shows, and is familiar with the competitive shows like Iron Chef, Chopped and Hell’s Kitchen.
With two minutes to go, the students started plating their dishes and setting them up for display. Judges Scott Baker, a math teacher; Patty Ewart, school supervisor; and Christopher Wilson, a 2011 Southern Regional graduate now attending the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College, grabbed their plastic forks and dug in.
The pork chop got high marks for creativity and taste, but there were concerns that it was a bit undercooked. The pizza was popular, but Wilson noted the students should have not added the basil leaves until the end because they got singed. The blackberry drink was also praised, despite some initial concerns about the mix of blackberry and basil.
The eggplant was warm enough, but a bit salty. Furlong said they have discussed measuring and tasting as they go, but different people also have different tastes. The spaghetti got a bit cold and sticky waiting to be tasted, another lesson learned.
When the points were tallied for taste, presentation and creativity the pasta salad won, beating the pork chop by a few points.
The Culinary Arts class is one of four popular cooking electives offered at Southern Regional. Lead teacher Catherine Latshaw said the Food Network has sparked an interest in food, but most students still have little training or hands-on experience.
Ewart said the district has made a concerted effort to maintain so-called practical-arts programs such as cooking and sewing to offer students a range of career options and useful lifelong skills.
Wilson realized in his junior year at Southern Regional that he wanted a culinary career.
“It was the courses I took here that convinced me,” he said.
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