Teachers and staff couldn’t help stopping by the cozy yellow kitchen at Philadelphia Montessori Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia as young cooks sautéed onions, garlic, and peppers and the aroma wafted through the second floor.
“That smells good,” Nisa Jabbar-Bey, a lower elementary schoolteacher, said as she passed by. “What are you making this week?”
“Shakshouka,” the students called out in unison, so proud they had mastered the pronunciation of the dish, and having such fun repeating it over and over. “It’s Middle Eastern,” one of them put in.
Philadelphia Montessori is one of 32 schools participating in My Daughter’s Kitchen, a program designed to teach kids how to cook healthy, affordable dinners for themselves and their families. But visiting these classes that 65 volunteers are teaching in urban schools around the region, it’s so rewarding to see how the program goes way beyond that simple goal.
This school prints the recipes in its newsletter so families and staff can try the dishes. “It’s great exposure to dishes from all over,” said Jabbar-Bey. “But these are the kind of recipes we all want, simple, quick, and good.” She’s made some herself, including tikka masala, her favorite from last year.
School CEO Tish Biddle said the students are always telling her about cooking class and how much they love it. But when traveling with students to a competition and eating at a restaurant with them, she was especially impressed that the children knew how to cook items on the menu, could identify fresh herbs, and also demonstrated beautiful table manners.
“This is what the corporate world calls ‘soft skills,’ ” she said. “All the different abilities that these kids need to compete in corporate America. Dining etiquette is part of that.”
School principal Paulla Jones loves overhearing cooking conversations between parents and kids after class. “They’re so excited, saying, ‘Mom, all you have to do is pick up this and this, and we can make it at home.’ ”
Amaylah Baynes, 12, did just that, asking her mother to buy Greek yogurt so they could make the biscuits that she prepared in class the first week. Even though she said she burned the tops of the biscuits a little, “My mom was like, ‘Oh, wow! These are good!’ ”
The cooking classes at Philadelphia Montessori have also provided two old high school friends, Bonnie Benson and Ellen Quinn, a chance to reconnect. “We’ve been friends for 45 years,” Benson said, “but we didn’t see each other that much until this class.
“We both love to cook,” Benson said. “And Ellen is such a good cook, I learn from her.”
“Oh, you’re a good cook, too, Bonnie,” Quinn said. “But Bonnie is also a speech pathologist, so she’s used to being around kids, so I learn that from her.”
The shakshouka recipe offered Quinn the opportunity to explain the different meanings of spicy. “It doesn’t always mean that it’s hot,” Quinn said. “It can also mean lots of spices that give it an interesting flavor,” as was the case this week with additions of paprika, cumin, and ground coriander, as well as the fresh herb origin of coriander, or cilantro.
The recipe also inspired a geography lesson at Bayard Taylor Elementary in North Philadelphia from volunteers Nancy Smith and Linda Molloy, who showed their students on a globe where the dish originated in North Africa and the Middle East, where many of those spices are used in the cuisine.
Once the garlic, onions, and peppers were simmering on the stove in the tomato sauce and it was reduced and thickened, it was time to taste and adjust the spices to the liking of the young cooks.
“My favorite part is when we‘re over the stove seasoning,” said Tajanay Wilson, 12. “I like to measure and then taste.”
She and her classmates at Philadelphia Montessori decided the amount of spices called for in the recipe was just right, though some other classes, like Wissahickon Charter Awbury, amped up the spice, deciding they wanted more intensity.
At all the schools, the highlight of the class was cracking eggs into the thick tomato sauce. Experienced cooks crack them right into the skillet, but these aspiring cooks were advised to crack them one at a time into a cup, then carefully pour them individually into the sauce, in part to make it easier to fish out errant shell pieces.
Even with that technique, a few yolks were broken, but those that landed intact were celebrated with great pride. “I did it! I am three for three!” said Jaesha Benjamin, the only one in her class at Comly Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia to score three perfect yolks.
The finished dish, sprinkled with fresh cilantro and crumbled feta and served with toasted pita bread, got raves from many students, mixed reviews from others, and complaints from some about the runny poached eggs. At Philadelphia Montessori, that prompted a discussion of alternative proteins, with Quinn suggesting chickpeas, and Benson suggesting chicken.
At Wiggins Elementary in Camden, where the class debated whether the dish was breakfast or dinner, Juan Rivera declared that no matter what, it was a “great new combination of flavors.” His classmate A’Zon Young agreed, and after finishing his plate, posed an interesting question: “If we can make healthy food this good for under $20, why aren’t they serving us this at lunch?”
Makes 6 servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, cut into ½-inch dice
2 green peppers, cut into ½-inch dice
3 cloves garlic, sliced
¼ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons paprika
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon cumin
1 28-ounce can tomato puree
12 large eggs
¼ cup chopped cilantro
¼ cup crumbled feta
6 whole wheat pitas, for serving
1. In a large cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, pepper, garlic, salt, paprika, coriander, and cumin and sauté over moderate heat. Stir occasionally until vegetables are softened, but not browned, about 8 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.
2. Add the tomatoes and simmer until reduced by about one third, about 12 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 and heat the pitas for about 5 minutes, or until they are crispy.
4. Crack the eggs into the skillet, spacing them evenly in the sauce.
5. Lower the heat and cover to poach the eggs until the whites are set and the yolks are still runny, about 5 minutes.
6. Top with cilantro and feta and serve immediately with the toasted pita bread.