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Twin Valley teams take Best in Show awards at annual Jr. Iron Chef VT competition

—The students of Twin Valley Middle and High Schools in Wilmington have become a force to be reckoned with when it comes to cooking.On March 26, for the fourth year in a row, cooking teams from the school went to the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction to participate in the Jr. Iron Chef Vermont competition, and the Twin Valley middle school and high school teams both came away with Best in Show titles.Hakuna Matata, one of three high school teams that Twin Valley sent to the competition, took the title with their rendition of Veggie and Cheddar Empanadas. The team’s name means “no worries” in Swahili.It was the second state title in three years for the three young women on the team — Stevie Cunningham-Darrah, Shannon Lozito, and Chelsea Schneider. Todd Darrah, owner of the Chelsea Royal Diner in West Brattleboro, was the coach of Hakuna Matata.“I’ve had a such a big smile on my face for so long, my face hurts,” said Darrah. “This team has been together since middle school, and they have been a lot of fun to work with.”Also competing from Twin Valley High School were the teams Hot and Dangerous, and Deliciousness.Making the team that goes to the state finals is a competitive process at Twin Valley.On March 17, 64 middle school students on 13 teams faced off for three berths in the state contest. Team Murdock, J-Lee Stackmasters, and Zeman’s Zing Zang were the winners, and Team Murdock went on to win Best in Show in the middle school category with its dish of DriedCherry, Root-Vegetable Chili with Potato Pancake. Seventh-graders Jake Cassese, DJ Lazelle, Kyle Murdock, and Nick Nilsen were led by local chef Matt Murdock.

—In all, 39 middle school teams and 16 high school teams from around the state competed in the day-long event, and there were plenty of other Windham County schools participating. Brattleboro Area Middle School, Guilford Central School, and Putney Central School joined the three Twin Valley teams in the middle school division, while Brattleboro Union High School and Leland & Gray Union High School each sent two teams in the high school division.“That’s the coolest thing about Jr. Iron Chef,” said Darrah. “We’ve got so many kids from our area that are cooking in this contest. To me, everybody is a winner, because they are all part of a growing local food movement in Vermont. I love watching them turn vegetables into something they want to eat.”In Jr. Iron Chef Vermont, teams each have 90 minutes to create a dish using seasonal, local foods. In the case of Hakuna Matata’s empanadas, Darrah said that the local vegetables included Gilfeather turnips, parsnips, carrots, potatoes, onions, and celeriac. Vermont cheddar cheese and yogurt rounded out the local ingredients.Dishes must be vegetarian and must be prepared by the students. The adult coach can assist in the development of the dish, but cannot take part in the actual cooking. Judges then sample each dish and rate them on taste, best use of local ingredients, creativity, and feasibility of using the recipes as part of school food menus. All the food used in the contest is donated by local producers.Jr. Iron Chef Vermont serves as a fundraiser for statewide Farm to School programs, which connect the state’s schools with local farms to improve the quality and nutrition of meals in school cafeterias.“Fifty percent of the commodities that the [federal] government sends to school lunch programs are garbage,” said Darrah. “I wouldn’t feed them to a dog. But if you take the other 50 percent you can use, like cheese and peanut butter, and use the rest of the lunch budget for fresh, local food, it would make a huge difference.”The key to making better school lunches, Darrah said, is to get the students involved in the process.“The more involved they are, the more likely they are to eat it,” he said. “That’s why this contest has become so big.”Recipes from all the teams that participated in the 2011 contest, and more information about Jr. Iron Chef Vermont, can be found at www.jrironchef.org.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #95 (Wednesday, April 6, 2011).

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