Illana Alvarez had her charges working like sous-chefs on the line, chopping celery, garlic, ginger, and scallions, as they prepped ingredients for the turkey lettuce wraps they were making in after-school cooking class.
“Run the knife through that again,” Alvarez, who teaches Spanish at Mastery Charter Smedley Elementary in Frankford, said as she commanded her troops, ages 9 to 12, working at the stainless steel counter in the cafeteria kitchen. “That needs to be chopped finer.”
When one young cook complained that her hand was getting tired, Alvarez had no sympathy. “Have you been practicing at home?” she asked. “You’ll get better if you do.”
Alvarez is one of 65 volunteers teaching kids to make healthy, affordable dinners at 32 urban schools in Philadelphia and Camden as part of My Daughter’s Kitchen cooking program.
And Alvarez speaks from experience; she has been cooking since she was the age of her students. “My mother was a great cook, and there were always women cooking in the kitchen. And I wanted to be a part of it,” she said.
Learning at her mother’s elbow and eventually cooking for herself and her family over the years transformed Alvarez into a confident and experienced cook who beautifully demonstrated for her students how to hold a knife, how to mince, how to keep the tip of the knife on the cutting board and lift the handle up and down when chopping. “It’s all practice,” she said as she quickly and expertly dispatched a stalk of celery.
Last semester, students got to taste some of her family cuisine when the class chose beef tacos as their favorite recipe to cook for their families, and Alvarez brought in her family’s recipe for guacamole for the party. “I was able to share a little bit of my heritage with the kids, and we all really loved that,” she said.
Alvarez appreciates that the class exposes kids to food they haven’t tasted before and ingredients they don’t have at home. And it has expanded her own palate, as well.
“I would never have tried that shakshouka if we hadn’t made it here first,” she said of the Middle Eastern tomato stew with poached eggs. “And it was really good.
Sharon Stern, the other volunteer at Smedley, gave a lovely introduction to the turkey lettuce wrap recipe, pointing out that it continued the pattern of using ingredients in different and unexpected ways, like the eggs in the shakshouka. This week, the recipe called for using lettuce, not in a salad, but to wrap up a spicy meat mixture like a taco. The lettuce wraps would be accompanied by a fruit salad, made with not only apples and oranges, but with a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice and a sprinkling of parsley as well as salt and pepper.
Each week, as I cook with my class as well as visit another school, I tell myself we cannot possibly hit home runs every time. There are going to be dishes that kids are going to politely push around on their plates.
But, just as when I was making dinner for my own kids, it’s much more fun to make a dinner that everybody likes. It’s so rewarding when the kids like a meal that is healthy and inexpensive, and it’s downright exciting when the kids prepare it themselves and they truly feel like they have knocked one out of the park.
Last week, judging from the student responses, the turkey lettuce wrap recipe was a grand slam.
“The meal was marvelous,” wrote Marialis Rodriguez at Feltonville School of the Arts. “We finally got to use meat!” wrote her classmate Jayla Velazquez.
Even the fussiest eaters were won over. At Lewis Elkin Elementary in North Philadelphia, a student who wouldn’t even taste the Moroccan stew, who had been loath to taste most of the dishes, gobbled her dinner right down.
At Mastery Smedley, the pickiest of the picky eaters, the one who doesn’t like anything, gave it a thumbs-up.
“I know I am a picky eater,” said Bianca Simpkins. “But I now know that I have to try new things because I might like them,” she said, adding that she discovered two new dishes she really liked, the salmon and the turkey lettuce wraps.
Her classmate Amy Diallo is Senegalese, and her family eats lots of rice and meat and vegetable dishes. “There are many foods from around the world that my family doesn’t eat that I’ve tried that I never knew I would like,” she said.
Surprisingly, at the participating schools around the region, there were no complaints from students wishing for tortillas instead of lettuce. There were no reports of children leaving the vegetables behind on the plate.
Instead, many students were taking the time to savor the dish and paying attention to the texture and flavors.
“I liked the cold, crunchy lettuce with the warm, soft turkey,” said Eliany Chavarria at Wiggins Elementary in Camden. Her classmate A’Zon Young described the fruit salad, saying “The parsley is leafy, so it offsets the sweet, crunchy fruit.”
Many students made similar observations.
“Our students are becoming food critics as well as chefs,” wrote volunteer Susan Munafo at William Loesche Elementary in North Philadelphia.
At Wisshickon Awbury, the best endorsement of the meal was that the students were fighting over who got to take home the leftovers. Every scrap on every plate was accounted for. “Are you going to eat that?” was followed by, “Stop eating all that fruit salad, I’m bringing some home!”
A few classes were predicting it was the meal they would cook for their families in the final week.
Said Zusanna DeJesus at Bayard Taylor in North Philadelphia: “My grandma needs to taste this!”
Makes 6 servings
3 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons flour
1⁄2 teaspoon sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 pound ground turkey
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and grated
1⁄4 to 1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons finely chopped green onion
About 20 cup-shaped lettuce leaves (such as Bibb, Boston, or iceberg), washed and dried
Fresh cilantro for garnish
1. In a small bowl, combine the soy sauce, vinegar, flour, sugar, and salt and stir well to dissolve the flour and combine everything into a smooth sauce.
2. Place the ground turkey in a medium bowl. Add the soy sauce mixture and gently mix the seasonings into the ground turkey, using your hands. Set aside for 10 minutes.
3. To cook, heat a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat until very hot. Add the oil and swirl to coat the pan and then add the ginger and garlic. Cook, tossing once, until fragrant (but not browned), not quite one minute.
4. Stir in the celery and carrots and then add the ground turkey. Using a spatula or large slotted spoon, break up the meat and spread it out over the hot pan to help it cook evenly. Let it cook until it changes color on one side, about two minutes. Then turn the uncooked side onto the hot pan and let it cook another minute or two undisturbed.
5. When the meat is cooked, add the red pepper flakes and green onions and stir to break up any large chunks.
6. Remove pan from the heat and stir again to make sure everything is mixed well.
7. Arrange lettuce cups on a serving platter and fill each one with a spoonful or two of the cooked turkey mixture.
8. Enjoy warm.
Per serving: 296 calories, 27 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, 77 milligrams cholesterol, 595 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber
— From Quick and Easy Chinese (Chronicle Books)
Makes 6 servings
5 apples, julienned
3 oranges, segmented
1⁄2 cup whole parsley leaves
1⁄4 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. To julienne the apples, cut the flesh off the core so you have flat surfaces to work with.
2. Lay each apple piece flat on your cutting board and cut into thin slices or planks.
3. Stack the thin planks and cut into thin strips resembling matchsticks.
4. To segment the oranges, cut the top and bottom of the orange. This way, the orange will sit flat on the cutting board.
5. Working from top to bottom, use a knife to remove the peel and pith, deep enough to remove the thin skin that holds the orange segments together. Once you can see the bright flesh of the orange, move along to the next section.
6. Using a sharp, thin knife, carefully cut between each segment and the membrane.
7. Toss all prepared ingredients with oil, lemon, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Serve and enjoy.