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Teaching

As I write this column, back-to-school madness is in full swing. I’ve been retired from Vernon High School for a little more than a year, and it is a relief not to be partaking in it.


Eggplant with herbs and peppers, onions and vegetables with bread

I walk right by the stacks of marble composition books, marked down to 50 cents, without so much as a second glance. I used to buy 40 of them at a clip as writing journals for my incoming freshmen to use through what I hoped would be four years of Italian with me.


You may be tempted to say that I’ve been “retired” since the middle of 2020 due to the pandemic but bite your tongue! That last marking period I taught remotely was lonely, grueling and frustrating. Retiring at the end of it felt like going out with a whimper instead of a bang. I was inspired to teach by my mother, Gertrude Kertscher. She taught German at Dover High School for about 15 years, starting her full-time teaching career late in life, like I did. I remember her explaining her love for being with teenagers came from losing the joy of being a teenager herself, having grown up during the war.  


Gertrude thoroughly enjoyed teaching, from what I could see. She started an exchange program with a school from her hometown of Wiesbaden and ran it every other year. She would take her students to Germany for two weeks and have the students stay with their partners in their homes. The students from Germany would come to America later in the year where she introduced them to American high school culture and organized field trips to New York City and Washington, D.C.


Cooked vegetables served on toast

Several of them have remained life-long friends, visiting each other, writing letters and attending each other’s children’s weddings. In this program, though, Gertrude gave her students the biggest gift of all: she gave them the love of travel.


Looking through the scrapbook I created in the actual gradebook I used the last two years that I taught, there were plenty of great moments in my teaching career, too. I certainly was fortunate to have more students taking my courses since they were not “requirements.” I had the pleasure of teaching many kids who chose Italian just for fun or because of their Italian heritage.


Since my passion was cooking, I always incorporated one or two cooking lessons into my advanced Italian classes. I was often able to “borrow” a kitchen from one of the home economics teachers when the schedules permitted. Pizzelle at Christmastime, spaghetti alla carbonara (see last issue V.13 No. 4), fresh pasta “with” scratch and Italian bread were a few of the recipes I taught the kids over the years.


a group of smiling teenagers cooking and learning how to cook

In 2011, at the height of Vernon’s enrollment, we had so many kids enrolled in the Italian program that I had two sections of Italian III. These were students who had followed me since freshman year, and I was very fond of them.


Susan Nadeau, my colleague in the Family and Consumer Sciences Department (that’s what home economics is now called), was exceptionally generous, sharing her kitchens with me and helping me create a unit plan, teaming up her Survey of the Practical Arts students with my Italian III students.


Learning to teach a foods class was quite an eye-opener for me. From planning the lesson to shopping for and storing the ingredients to prepping and distributing them to each “team” and overseeing the safety and cleanup, all while encouraging them to speak Italian while they were cooking, was a high-energy feat!


a teacher teaching students on how to cook

I enjoyed every minute of it. Looking back, the hands-on teaching and learning experiences were my favorites.


I photographed every lesson, and at the end of the unit the students created two beautiful spiral-bound cookbooks (one from each class), illustrated with color photos of the foods we made and the kids in action, complete with a glossary of Italian cooking terms and each recipe written in both Italian

and English.


Recently, one of my students, Cody Hover, ran across his copy of the cookbook and posted it on his Facebook page: “Just found this little cookbook while I was cleaning from period 5 Italian class Jr. or senior year, I believe. Lots of good times with these fellow classmates. Signora Simmons was a riot.”


One of the recipes we featured in the cookbook was caponata, a Sicilian eggplant relish with capers, celery, raisins and pine nuts. My department chairman at the time, Vito Galati, an authentic Italian, born in the Abruzzo region, was naturally suspicious of a German-American woman (me!) teaching American students to cook Italian specialties. I am proud to say that our caponata got my boss’ approval. I hope this recipe goes on to become a part of your eggplant repertoire.


Chris Tuminello and the author.


Cody Hover, Molly Mantell and Isabela Wolak.


Recipe

1st Group

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup good olive oil

  • 1 large-ish eggplant (1 to 1 ½ pound), peeled and cubed (about 1 inch)

  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and cubed (about ½ inch)

  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and cubed (about ½ inch)

  • 1 medium-sized zucchini (about ½ pound), diced (about ½ inch)

  • 2 stalks celery, finely chopped ½ onion, finely chopped

  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced

Procedure

  1. Heat the olive oil in a very large frying pan and add the eggplant.

  2. Sauté over high heat about 5 minutes, then add in the rest of the 1st group ingredients.

  3. Cook another 5 minutes, then cover and lower the heat, cooking for 10 more minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the following:

2nd Group

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup golden raisins or dried cranberries

  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

  • ¼ cup sliced pimento-stuffed green olives

  • 2 tablespoons capers with a tablespoon of their brine

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

  • ⅓ cup red wine or balsamic vinegar

  • 1 28-ounce can crushed or diced tomatoes (preferably San Marzano tomatoes)

  • 1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar

  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano 2-3 basil leaves, torn salt and pepper

Garnish

  • 3-4 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

  • 1 tablespoon snipped parsley

  • Shaved Parmigiano or Grana Padano cheese

Procedure

  1. Stir the ingredients from the 2nd group into the pan with the vegetables from the 1st group, stirring well to blend.

  2. Simmer together, covered, for 20 minutes.

  3. Remove the lid and cook over medium heat for another 10 minutes to reduce juices and thicken. 4 Allow to come to room temperature and top bruschetta toasts with the caponata, garnishing with the pine nuts, parsley and shaved cheese.


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