Elizabeth Coots strapped on her apron, washed her hands and hit her mark in the demonstration kitchen at the Woodford County Extension Office. With two smart phones on video mode she began to show the world on Facebook Live how to make Garden Patch Salad, a mix of sliced summer vegetables tossed with a vinegar dressing.
“I’ll be honest…when I first saw this I thought ‘that seems kind of boring,’” she said, but she persisted and found out otherwise.
Since there was a lot of cutting and no cooking in this recipe, Coots took the opportunity to explain the basics of using a knife safely and efficiently: grip it close to where the handle meets the blade, rock it back and forth for repeated slices and make a claw with the other hand to keep finger tips and thumbs safe as you guide vegetables under the blade.
As the 22-minute demonstration unfolded Coots, officially known as the Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, reassured her viewers that there aren’t many hard and fast rules about cooking. “I’m no chef,” she said, “make it work for what you like, what you have, and make it fun.”
And that, says Sandra Bastin who works with cooperative extension agents from her post as extension professor in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, is what makes the extension service unique. “Nobody’s going to judge you for your ability…we’re trying to provide you with what you need to be successful in the kitchen,” she said, not turn you into a food snob. “We’re a safe place to come for all your questions,” whether about planning meals, cooking new vegetables, growing a garden, canning safely or a host of other food-related topics.
What do Kentucky extension agents do?
Extension agents nationally consider themselves “the best kept secret,” although that’s the last thing they want. As Coots explained, Kentucky property taxes pay for the agents, so “we are a service here for you, and it’s free.” The calling card of the extension service is “reliable information based on research,” she said.
In 1914 Congress created extension programs at at land-grant colleges and universities, tasking them to provide nonformal, research-based education to farmers, gardeners, business owners and the public on topics ranging from parenting to food safety.
Every Kentucky county, all 120 of them, has an extension agent and an office to help with more than nutrition. Other programs include farms, gardens, embracing life as you age, financial stability, 4-H youth development, and community, economic and strategic initiatives.
Pivot to online
For years agents have presented programs and classes in person, forming partnerships with libraries, farmers markets and other community agencies to extend their reach. Coots did her monthly cooking demonstration at the local public library until COVID caused a pivot to Facebook Live and she sees benefits to both. With the recorded program, more people can see it and they can look at it whenever they want — her recent videos include chicken tacos, pork with greens and beans and easy peasy mac and cheesy. “I like the name because it starts with easy,” Coots said. Still, she said, it’s hard to assess audience engagement online and she misses the energy of having people in person, asking questions and sampling the finished dish together.
Although Coots was working on Facebook Live, Bastin said Zoom was also a popular tool for reaching out during the pandemic. “We had one training that had 1,700 people attend, they were from all over the world.”
The pandemic, indeed, was something of an opportunity for extension, as people stuck at home experimented with growing gardens, preparing what they produced and preserving the extras. Just getting started was important, Bastin said. “People are trying things and once they find out they like it, they figure out how to use it.”
Extension’s nutrition recipe calendar
One popular tool for helping people figure out how to use what they grow is the annual food and nutrition calendar that Coots was cooking from. Developed by the UK Cooperative Extension Service, it’s a beautifully photographed and designed guide to month-by-month cooking in Kentucky. A sampling of this year’s calendar includes the Burger Bowl in January, a large salad topped with mini burgers ($2.20 cost per 250 calorie serving), the salad Coots’ made in July ($1.80 and 110 calories per serving) and Vegetable Barley Soup in December ($1.83 and 160 calories per serving).
Each month also includes ideas for things to add to the dish to make it a full meal, physical activity tips and a line to write down how many days you’ve been active. The first pages of the calendar tell readers where to find videos like the Coots records each month, provides a chart of measurements and substitutions, and a guide to portion sizes. At the very end, after December, are pages with recipe cards to clip out and keep, and suggestions about healthier substitutions for commonly eaten foods (popcorn instead of potato chips, plain yogurt with fresh fruit instead of flavored yogurt.)
Although the message Bastin, Coots and the army of extension agents present is serious — improving health and nutrition — the tone is never preachy or punitive. Extension agents, Bastin said, know their subject is serious but they like to have fun with it. “I’ve been working for them for 25 years and I haven’t met one I didn’t like.”
Garden patch salad
Yields: 5 servings
Serving size: 2 cups
Cost per recipe: $9.02
Cost per serving: $1.80
- 1 pound (about 2) thinly sliced zucchini
- 1 pound (about 2) thinly sliced yellow squash
- 1 pound (about 2) peeled and thinly sliced cucumbers
- 2 thinly sliced bell peppers
- Cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 thinly sliced white onion
- 2 tablespoons parsley flakes
- 2 tablespoons garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- In a large serving bowl, toss together all ingredients.
- Let stand 10 minutes before serving.