“I want to make this for my mom on Mother’s Day,” says Juan Mejia, 17. He’s speaking of a spicy braised fish dish made from a recipe that was handed down from his grandmother. She used to make it back in Colombia for Mejia’s mother, who, in turn, taught it to him.
Mejia is one of 30 students in the third-level class of the culinary academy at Coral Gables Senior High School. At our urging, their teacher, Mercy Vera, asked them to share recipes they would like to make for their moms on Mother’s Day. The students didn’t have a problem with the assignment. After all, they have learned a lot from Vera.
“Although I have a passion for food and use it as an artistic outlet for myself, teaching is what I really love to do,” says the petite dynamo, who trained at Johnson & Wales University and worked in restaurant kitchens before coming to the high school 13 years ago.
Throughout the five-level program, she teaches her students the basics, from making mayonnaise to boning chickens. The students also get to work in an organic garden growing outside their classroom and in a restaurant kitchen through an internship program Vera created.
“It’s beautiful to see a kid who comes into your classroom with no interest in eating anything and then see how he develops,” she says.
She was happy to see that the students turned in a wide variety of creative yet simple recipes for their Mother’s Day assignment that would be perfect for any celebration. Here’s a sampling.
Katie Callis, 17, says her mom likes to have “breakfast for dinner.” She remembers being 6 years old and helping her mother prepare pancakes. Back then she was also good at “making cereal.”
“That’s what my mom would say when I put milk on my Trix,” she says with a ready smile.
Callis wants to celebrate her mom by making Cheddar and Green Chile Waffles with Thyme-Infused Syrup. You won’t believe the flavor that a few sprigs of thyme can give to warm maple syrup.
Try serving these waffles with a side of bacon. “Dipped in the syrup, it’s just delicious,” she says.
Callis admits she took Vera’s course because she thought it would be an easy elective. “But now I realize how much I love cooking and how much we learn in class,” she says.
After graduation, she’s aiming for a degree in nutrition and a career helping athletes and performers eat better.
“I want to work with anyone famous,” she says.
Octavio Munoz, 17, plans to make his mother a Souffle de Limon.
“Mom has made it forever. I can’t remember her not making it,” he says of this frozen confection with its fresh, tart taste.
Growing up in Cuba, his mother learned the recipe from her own mother, and there’s some speculation that it may have been handed down from Munoz’s great-grandmother.
“This was the first dish that came to mind to make for Mother’s Day because it’s my favorite,” he says. He asked his mom for directions, and it turns out the recipe couldn’t be easier.
Freeze a can of evaporated milk overnight, then put the milk in a blender with lots of fresh lemon juice and enough sugar to fill that can.
“We use the juice of four lemons because that’s what my grandmother did,” Munoz says.
Pour the blended mixture into cups and freeze them again. Serve to your mom with crumbled Conchita Maria Cookies on top. “Those vanilla cookies are very popular in Cuba,” he says.
Munoz plans to attend college. “I want to get the basics done and then find my major while I’m there,” he says.
The recipe for Jerry Delgado’s Yuca and Calabaza Salad has been in his family for many years. It was his grandfather who first made it for his mother when she was 8 years old and living in Cuba.
“It’s my grandfather who is the cook in the family. That’s who got me interested in food,” says Delgado, 18, who doesn’t speak fluent English, so Vera translates for us.
Having decided to take this culinary elective, he finds “cooking comes easily and it’s a good avenue to express myself.”
Delgado, who was born in Cuba, remembers being 12 and helping his grandfather make this salad for the first time. “It was fun because I got to taste something I made and I got to work with my grandfather.”
It was also the first time his grandfather let him use a knife, he recalls with a mischievous smile.
The recipe is a combination of starchy yuca and sweet calabaza cubes boiled until just tender and mixed with a creamy garlic dressing.
He doesn’t plan on a culinary career, but says his cooking skills will still come in handy: “I want to be a policeman, and I’ll make it for all my fellow officers.”
Fish on his dish
Mejia’s Sudado de Pescado starts with mild fish fillets that are gently simmered in wine spiked with lime juice. Tomatoes, onions and yellow peppers are added to the tangy sauce that is nicely accented with spicy yellow and red pepper pastes as well as cilantro, parsley and fresh ginger.
“My mother taught me how to make this dish when I told her I wanted to become a chef,” says Mejia, , who emigrated from Colombia when he was 4.
He decided on his career path after attending one of Vera’s early classes. “I saw everybody being happy and friendly with each other while sharing food. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a chef and make people happy,” he says.
Since then he’s been cooking alongside his mom and recording her recipes in a composition notebook.
“She works 12 hours a day for me and my brother. And she tells me, ‘You are here in the United States so work hard and live the American dream,’ ” he says.
His dream is to open a restaurant that fuses the fast techniques of Asian food with the flavors of classical French cooking. “The idea really excites me,” he says.