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Teen Iron Chef: The Secret Ingredient Is Shrimp

The Teen Iron Chef Competition came to Houston this week at Sharpstown High School. Enterprising adolescents who had been training for seven weeks had their final showdown on Wednesday to see which team had made the most advancement in the kitchen. With Chef Monica Pope of T'afia serving as guest host and judge (and occasional impromptu advisor), the stage was set for an intense competition.

With the help of their teacher Stewart Schaefer, the kids have not only been learning how to make healthy food options that work in their real life, but also turning out nutritionally sound dishes from around the world. The teenagers eagerly called out a long list of mouthwatering dishes they'd prepared over the past weeks, including everything from Thai fish chowder to Cajun jambalaya to mussels Provencal, which I hear was particularly week since the young chefs were not terribly familiar with the bivalves. They even hosted a cupcake throwdown that was particularly challenging, since the cupcakes had to be healthy. That's right: healthy cupcakes. Before you cry "oxymoron," keep in mind that they rose to the challenge, valiantly turning out dozens of zucchini-ginger and apple-cinnamon treats packed full of fiber and vitamins.

Schaefer is part of a growing organization called Health Corps that was started by Oprah's main medical man, Dr. Oz. Schaefer says that right now there are only two Health Corps teachers in the vast state of Texas, and only about 30 in the country. He operates by taking over a class or two a week from teachers willing to donate the timeand teaching kids how to make healthy decisions in their lives, including increasing physical activity, choosing the healthiest food options available to them, and abstaining from harmful substances such as alcohol. Schaefer is exuberant and energetic and really connects well with his students.

The high-schoolers, mostly seniors and a few juniors, congregated in the kitchen-like classroom for the final competition using the secret ingredient of the week, which was shrimp. The tables were scattered with a host of healthy ingredients, including tons of fresh vegetables, organic ingredients and pasta that had been made from scratch that morning. Each team had its own work table, oven and range. They each had two recipes to prepare and a little less than two hours to get it all done. Their chopping, slicing and dicing was amazingly adept and their focus and concentration were equally impressive.

After all was said and done, four delectable dishes were prepared. Team 1 presented a thick and tasty gumbo chock full of shrimp, sausage and chicken that left a little fire in my mouth. They also served up shrimp brochette with avocado-cilantro salad. The shrimp were brushed with a touch of olive oil and lightly seasoned before being pan-seared to perfection and served with a rich salad chock full of healthy-fat-containing avocados. Delicious! Team 2 served up the crowd favorite: an excellent shrimp ceviche with lots of fresh citrus juice and a baked wheat tortilla crisp. Their next dish was fettuccine Alfredo with freshly made pasta, an Alfredo made from a good-looking wedge of Australian parmesan and organic milk, shrimp, broccoli florets, and red bell pepper strips.

The teams each gave a five-minute presentation while their dishes were being heartily consumed, describing the origins of the dish as well as its nutritional benefits. Teams were then graded by a judging panel consisting of friends, teachers, chefs and food writers based on their culinary skills, including knife skills, food presentation and taste. Team work and their verbal presentation also factored in. The competition was close, and though all the students received certificates of completion from the program, only Team 2 was able to claim the crown of victory.