Merri Schwartz remembers walking into an elementary school for the first time after founding Gowing Chefs nearly a decade ago. The pastry chef was visiting the Grade 2 classroom at Champlain Heights Elementary School with two other Vancouver chefs—Andrea Carlson and Gabriella Meyer—in order to teach the students about food, nutrition, and basic cooking skills. Schwartz was surprised by what she learned.
“In our first class, we asked all the kids if anyone had ever eaten arugula, and only one little girl put up her hand,” Schwartz recalled during an interview at East Van Roasters (319 Carrall Street), where she works as a chocolatier. “It was shocking. So many kids didn’t even know that carrots grow in the ground.”
Over three-and-a-half months, the team of chefs helped the students plant an indoor vegetable garden, played games about nutrition, and did crafts related to food. During the last class, the group made a salad from the vegetables they had grown.
“We did some really basic cooking, just to take the kids through how amazing it feels to plant something and nurture it and eat it,” Schwartz said. “Personally, I think there’s nothing more empowering than that. It’s such an amazing feeling for anybody of any age—but especially for a kid.”
Schwartz was exposed to farming and homesteading at an early age. When she was born, her family lived in a log cabin with no electricity or hot water in the Kootenays, and even after moving to Vancouver when she was young, her parents continued to live off the land.
“We grew huge gardens, canned, preserved, and made everything from scratch, so that definitely had a huge impact on my life,” she recalled.
After graduating from the pastry arts program at Vancouver Community College in 2002, Schwartz worked at Raincity Grill and C Restaurant, where she met Carlson and Meyer, and convinced them to participate in Growing Chefs. The nonprofit organization—which aims to teach children, families, and the community about healthy food and healthy food systems—now works with 100 chef volunteers, and its program runs in 35 schools across Metro Vancouver. Schwartz remains involved but no longer manages the registered charity’s daily operations. Instead, she makes chocolate at East Van Roasters, a social enterprise associated with the PHS Community Services Society.
“We run a program where we employ women in transition [at the Rainier Hotel] to work in the shop and help them get back into the work force,” Schwartz explained. “One of the things that the women do when they first start working is shell cocoa [beans]. It’s a really good first step for entry-level work, and it’s very therapeutic and soothing because it has nice repetition. I think there’s something magical about working with food that puts you at ease.”
Along with selling coffee and bean-to-bar chocolate, East Van Roasters offers several baked goods, including a gluten-free, nut-free, dairy-free bar called the Good Cookie. Schwartz said the recipe is ideal for home cooks because it requires very few tools and almost no baking.
“The nice thing about this cookie is you can do anything with it that you want. It has basic dried fruit, and aside from that, you can throw in nuts, seeds, other dried fruit, chocolate, different flavours, different spices,” she said. “It’s great for making at home with kids because it’s super hands-on and there are lots of fun ingredients.”
Schwartz suggested that kids can help make the cookie—as well as meals in general—no matter what their age or ability.
“If they’re not ready to work with knives, choose vegetables and ingredients that they can tear into pieces with their hands,” she said. “There’s always something that kids can be doing to help them take ownership of what they’re eating.”
East Van Roasters’ good cookie
2 Tbsp (30 mL) coconut oil
3 Tbsp (45 mL) honey
2 cups (500 mL) assorted dried fruit (such as cherries, apricots, figs, and raisins), diced
1 cup (250 mL) dark chocolate, roughly chopped
1 Tbsp + 1 tsp (20 mL) cocoa powder
½ cup (125 mL) shelled pumpkin seeds
¾ cup (185 mL) shelled sunflower seeds
½ cup (125 mL) sesame seeds
⅔ cup (180 mL) hemp seeds
¾ cup (185 mL) shredded unsweetened coconut, plus extra for garnish
½ tsp (2 mL) sea salt
Seeds from 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
4 cups (1 L) dried fruit purée
(see recipe below)
- Preheat oven to its lowest setting, around 150 ° F (65 ° C).
- Line a 9-by-13-inch baking sheet or cake pan with parchment paper.
- In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the coconut oil and honey, stirring until well combined. Set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the diced dried fruit, chocolate, cocoa powder, seeds, coconut, salt, and vanilla seeds. Mix to evenly distribute ingredients. Add the fruit purée and using clean hands or a spatula, work until mixture comes together. Add coconut oil and honey mixture, and knead together.
- Scrape the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet or cake pan. Spread evenly, pressing the mixture firmly into all corners using a spatula. Sprinkle extra shredded coconut over surface and gently press in.
- Place in the oven and leave overnight, or for a minimum of 5 hours. When ready, dough should be dry and firm to the touch.
- Remove from oven, cool at room temperature for 30 minutes, and then refrigerate for 1 hour to help set.
- Carefully flip the dough onto a cutting board, and slice into 2-by-2-inch squares. Store cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 month.
Dried fruit purée
1½ cups (375 mL) pitted dates, halved
1 cup (250 mL) dried apricots, halved
1 cup (250 mL) dried cherries or prunes
½ cup (125 mL) dried figs, stemmed and halved
- In a medium-sized heat-safe bowl, combine fruit and cover with boiling water. Let soften for 1 minute, then drain using a mesh strainer, pressing to squeeze water out.
- Using a food processor, blend the strained fruit mixture into a rough purée.
Yield: 18 cookies.
Recipe has not been tested by the Georgia Straight.