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Posted Apr 01 2011 12:00am

As I sit down to right this post, it dawns on me that I’ve rarely shared details about what I do on a daily basis.  Perhaps I’ve been worried that words can’t do justice to the beauty I witness each day, to my rediscovery of the transformational power of food, the capacity and depth of which continuously amazes me.  It’s hard to sit down and write about something that seems so significant and, at the same time, so fundamental.  But I want to share it with you.  I can't make it my goal to try and capture the enormity of the feelings that surround my job.  So I’m keeping it simple here - with a little synopsis and a fantastic recipe. For the past year and a half, I’ve been working for a non-profit that teaches teenagers about the importance of food, health and sustainability.  It’s called Nextcourse , and when I first moved to San Francisco, I knew it was where I wanted to be.  Having spent years working in restaurants and cooking for the wealthy in their homes, I was yearning for a position that allowed me more personal connections and, perhaps, the ability to make an impact that was identifiable, even measurable.  

I teach students at a local high school in the Mission district of San Francisco.  Many of the students I encounter claim their meals revolve around vending machine snacks (primarily “Flamin' Hot Cheetos”) and KFC.  Most of them look at me like I’m from outer space whenever I hold up fresh, whole vegetables; brussels sprouts, fennel, cauliflower and beets appear totally foreign.  I once met a young boy who had never seen or tasted a blueberry; recalling the look that fell upon his face with that first bite brings tears to my eyes all over again.  So I teach them what I know in hopes that, by the second time they try something new, they’ll actually like it - even love it.  And most of the time, this proves to be the case.  A piece of stand-out evidence came at ten o'clock on a Saturday night, when one of my students sent me a message: "Chef M, can you please email me the recipe for caramelized brussels sprouts?  I want to make it for my mom tomorrow night."  Truly, these kids have the ability to crack open my heart like little else can. 

But it’s not all about cooking and eating.  The food is really just the vehicle for reaching greater goals.  The program is designed to use food to awaken mindfulness (so important in a time when teenagers’ eyes are almost continuously fixed to the screen of their phone), foster confidence and empowerment, build leadership skills, and connect the students to their community.  All tall orders, I know - but Food can handle it.

Lately, I’ve been working with the students to develop healthier snacks that are easy to prepare and that, most importantly, they actually like.  For the first several weeks of recipe testing, they seemed to be focusing entirely on sweets: granola bars, oat cookies, almond-stuffed chocolate-dipped dried apricots.  I pushed them to create a savory option, but inspiration was nil.  Fortunately, my intern mentioned a puffed rice snack that is a popular street food throughout southern India.  According to the results of a quick Google search, there are many versions of this nosh, but most recipes agree it should be loaded with peanuts, fresh chiles, salt, sugar and spices - perfect for those teenagers who opt for peppery, pungent, florescent orange chips.  

The first few attempts were a miss.  They wanted something that was less salty, a tad sweeter and a little less hot.  The snack needed to last for days and needed to be eaten easily by hand (most recipes resulted in a trail-mix-like concoction, in which all the tiny rice pieces remained separate).  So I had to take a step back from all of the recipes and suggestions and invent something new that would satisfy their palates and suit lifestyles. Finicky teens?  Yes.  But the students’ feedback led me to develop a wonderful recipe that is equally addictive to adults.  As always, my students prove to be my greatest teachers.

TANDOORI-SPICED PUFFED RICE SNACK 1 quart crisp (unsweetened); often sold in the cereal or bulk aisles of health-food stores1 cup toasted cashews, roughly chopped1 cup toasted peanuts, roughly chopped1 cup flaked coconut 3 tablespoons (you want the virgin, non-deodorised stuff here, preferably organic)1 tablespoon brown mustard seeds1 1/2 teaspoons (I used Epicurious’s recipe , but it is also available for )1/2 teaspoon salt1/3 cup honey 1 cup dried banana chips, broken in pieces (optional; I prefer it without, but the teens loved it with) Preheat oven to 350° F.   Line two rimmed half sheet pans with parchment paper.In a large bowl, combine the puffed rice, cashews, peanuts and coconut.Meanwhile, coconut heat oil in a small frying pan over medium heat.  Cook mustard seeds until seeds pop, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the tandoori spice, salt, and honey. Scrape from the pan over the puffed rice and mix to coat.Spread the mix on a large, rimmed baking sheet; pack mixture down with the back of a wooden spoon or spatula (mixture should be about 1/2” thick).  Bake for approximately 12-14 minutes, or until slight browned, glossy and fragrant.  Allow to cool on the pan.  Break into large pieces.  Toss with banana chips, if using. makes approximately 5 1/2 cups

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