WHITINGHAM -- Before he discovered Junior Iron Chef, Mitchell Hall wasn't crazy about tofu.
"I thought it looked mushy," he said. "Like a sponge."
But as Hall and many other students found out, expanding one's culinary horizons can be fun.
"The way we cook it, I like it," Hall said of his team's crispy tofu, which the young chefs tossed into a stir fry with sweet and sour sauce.
For Twin Valley Middle and High Schools, the Jr. Iron Chef cook-off is not just a fun way to spend an afternoon -- it's a serious competition. Sixty-two middle school students participated this year; that's more than half the middle school population.
The students formed 14 middle school teams and two high school teams. The program has become so popular that Twin Valley holds its own preliminary version of the contest so the school can send the best three teams to the state competition in Burlington, March 27.
Junior chefs from the Twin Valley schools have a history of success at the state level. Last year their only high school team came in first place in Burlington, and the year before that, one of their middle school teams won best in show.
The students have been preparing since the beginning of January. The teams got together once a week to test recipes and to modify them once they figured out which one to use.
The recipes had to be vegetarian, and the students were asked to incorporate local products. They should also
That means cafeteria cooks should be able to make the recipe so that it may possibly be featured in school meals.
The Epic Ethiopians, a middle school team, ventured into the realm of foreign food, as did several other groups. They came up with a dish they called Ethiopian Pancakes, which took home the third place prize and secured the team a spot at the state competition.
"We thought the recipe sounded interesting, so we decided to cook it," said eighth-grade student Maddie Marchionna of the team's variation on a breakfast favorite that incorporated the use of shredded vegetables.
"It's like a dinner pancake, but still has all the vegetables," Marchionna said.
"We like to look at things that are different and creative," added Marchionna's teammate Christine Reilly. "It's like you can mix different things but still have it taste amazing."
"The kids really gain an understanding of how wonderful it is to cook using fresh ingredients that are local whenever possible," said Brian O'Grady, project director of Wings community programs, which partners every year with Jr. Iron Chef.
The students interested in participating commit to spending one day a week cooking with their team for about two months.
"It's great for the area to have a program like this, especially in the middle of winter," O'Grady said. "Wings is all about providing young people with real, interesting things to do in a hands-on, project-based way."
O'Grady said much of the credit for the program's success goes to Alonzo Paige, food service director for the Twin Valley schools.
Paige said that when he first heard about the program and wanted to see if any students were interested, he walked into the school cafeteria during lunch and asked if anyone wanted to participate. Twenty-four
That was three years ago, when Jr. Iron Chef VT first began. Paige has seen the program grow and grow every year.
"It was just a fundraiser, and now there are 40 teams (from around the state) this year," Paige said. "I love that there are so many kids involved." Proceeds of the state contest go to support state-wide initiatives led by Vermont FEED and the Burlington School Project.
The students had up to 90 minutes to prepare their dishes Thursday afternoon; after the teams had completed five plates for the judges, they raised a flag in the air and a volunteer brought the platter of mini meals to the judges.
The local chefs were Jeff Collins of the White House in Wilmington, Mark Maturo of the Grand Summit Hotel, Laurie Merrigan of the Brattleboro Food Coop, Elaine Scofield of Readsboro School and Tristan Toleno of the Riverview Cafe.
Collins also judged the contest last year and said the students were more adventurous with their creations this time around.
"They've moved to more interesting dishes," he said as he watched the students cook. "Most everyone's dish I am looking forward to -- they've gotten better, no question. They're stepping up their game."
Among a sea of creative dishes including "passionately prepared pizzas," Mexican picadillo and stacked breakfast quesadillas, it was the veggie roux-stew, prepared by the J-Lee Stew Crew, that came out on top.
J-Lee Stew Crew members Kaylea Niles, Hailey Gamache, Baylee Crawford, Justin Hicks and Jordan Niles will advance to the state competition along with the Epic Ethiopians and the "Sugar & Spice & Everything Nice... and Tristan" team, whose "bodacious butternut squash and black bean chili" was the judges second-favorite dish of the day.
Anyone who would like to try some of these recipes and help to raise money to cover the expenses of the students' trip to Burlington, can attend "A Taste of Jr. Iron Chef," to be held at the Honora Winery pavilion April 10, from 5 to 7 p.m. Ten teams will prepare samples of their dish and the community is invited to try each one and cast a vote for their favorite.
Tickets are $25 per person and are available at the schools' main offices and at the Mount Snow Chamber of Commerce.
Jaime Cone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.