Culinary students transform MREs into enticing entrees

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A yellowish-brown 4-by-4-inch square about as appetizing as a cell phone slid out of the plastic bag onto the butcher block table that serves as a desk for Brendon Rios.

He held a kitchen knife, cutting the square – which had the dubious distinction of being an MRE pound cake – into smaller squares.

Rios and his partner Isabella Wright were one of six teams competing in the MRE Challenge held last Thursday at the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center.

MRE – or “Meals Ready to Eat” – supplied by the Rhode Island National Guard are designed to provide sufficient calories for a day. They come neatly packaged in plastic and take up no more room than a book. By only a stretch of the imagination do the contents resemble what they are labeled – creamy spinach fettuccine, Mexican-style chicken, Asian-style beef strips and chicken pesto pasta, for example.

The goal of the culinary arts students was to transform the MREs into something palatable and appealing.

Rios and Wright had a plan for the pound cake. It would become an ingredient in an apple trifle, a dessert with layers of whipped cream, apples and granola. For their entrée, they took the MRE Southwest-style beef and back beans and made a huevos rancheros.

Cooking competitions including Skills USA are “above and beyond the school day,” explains Eva Niosi, baking and pastry instructor. The goal of the culinary program is to introduce students to the field and give them the skills to get a job once they graduate.

Niosi visited the national Pro-Start competition for culinary high school students and was wowed by the students.

She’s not looking to replicate such a highly competitive environment at the center, but would like to see the MRE Challenge taken on by career and tech centers across the state with finals conducted between the winning teams from each center.

Niosi said the military initiated the MRE Challenge in New Jersey and the National Guard came to the center with the idea. This is the second year it has been held at the WACTC. Using everything in the packet with the exception of the chewing gum, students are to prepare a dessert and entree to serve four. They are permitted to add to the MRE, as Rios and Wright did with the addition of apples, whipped cream and granola for their trifle.

The teams started preparations at 8 a.m. and were done in time to have their completed meals – ones really ready to eat – for judging by members of the National Guard by 10:30. Judging was based on appearance or plating, taste, degree of difficulty and how the MRE was used.

Jacob Knorr, a junior at Toll Gate, and Sarah Lupo, a senior at West Warwick, were the winning team for their Southwestern Arancini with queso as an entree and bread pudding with orange glaze for dessert.

Also competing were Kristina Ellinwood and Lyndsey Evans; Dynasy Ramos and Tiana Stokes; Shilah Miller and Devon Mendez; and Greg Stewart and Alysa Thompson.

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