Using vegetables from the school garden, Southold students vie for 'Top Dish' honors

A Top Dish team holds up the recipe for Fantastic First Grade Feta, Etc. Cheese and Herb Stuffed Tomatoes. Courtesy photo: Southold Elementary School

If you happened by Southold Elementary School last week, you might have smelled some delicious aromas wafting out of the cafeteria and heard the kind of enthusiastic cheering you’d expect at a sporting event.

Those wonderful sounds and smells were coming from the first annual Top Dish cooking competition, the brainchild of elementary science teacher Russell Karsten.

“We have a large school garden that produces so many vegetables during harvest season and I was trying to figure out something fun to do with all of it,” said Karsten. “Then I thought of Top Dish.”

Loosely modeled after popular cooking shows, Top Dish is a competition which requires students to put together a dish using one key ingredient and vegetables from the school’s garden and to present their concoction to a panel of judges.

Karsten brought the idea to elementary teachers and staff, who received it with enthusiasm, so he went ahead and began planning for the event, which was held on Friday, Oct. 6.

“We have an abundance of tomatoes,” said Karsten, “so that became our required ingredient.”

Teachers brainstormed with their students and came up with ideas for a fresh snack-type dish they could put together using vegetables from the garden.

Each class was required to produce a poster advertising their dish, an ingredient list and some kind of preparation guide. Older students also included calorie counts for their dishes and one sixth grade class even created a website.

“It was really exiting to see how the kids got into it,” says Karsten. “And the teachers were able to incorporate creative and persuasive writing, math, science – many of the subjects across the curriculum.”

Students prepared their dishes in the classroom; if cooking was necessary they used crock pots and several classes used the school cafeteria kitchen.

The competition was judged by elementary principal Ellen O’Neill, secretary Mrs. Bufkins, Coach Palmeri and Coach Salerno, who followed a rubric prepared by Karsten. Dishes were evaluated for flavor, use of the key ingredient and presentation.

The Top Dish award – a trophy Karsten made himself – went to Mrs. Michaelis’ sixth grade class for a take on a tomato and basil salad they dubbed “Tomato-tastic.”

Using vegetables from the school garden, Southold students vie for 'Top Dish' honors
‘Tomato-tastic” won first place in the Top Dish competition. Courtesy photo: Southold Elementary School

“Everyone had a lot of fun,” said Karsten. “I’m hoping to make this an annual event. We encourage wellness and physical health and having the kids be involved in cooking from their own garden is a step in the right direction.”

Superintendent David Gamberg, who encourages teachers to explore topics and initiatives from their own areas of expertise for use in the classroom, was supportive of the Top Dish competition.

“One of the interesting parts to this activity is how it was creative and involved a number of academic disciplines,” he wrote in an email. “Students had to present their dishes and describe it in front of other classes, explain the nutritional content, and the process of preparing the dish.”

Photos courtesy of Southold Elementary School

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