As our second cooking class got underway at Roberto Clemente Middle School, I was amazed at how quickly these eighth graders had gotten the hang of things. They filed in, stashed their backpacks, donned their aprons, washed hands, and turned to the recipe.
"We're making the winter minestrone today," announced Tatiana Castillo, 13, completely in charge.
A new student joined us, our only boy, Raul Camacho, 14, who sports a thick shock of dyed-blue hair and hip black glasses. I wasn't sure what to expect, but he was quiet and serious, and actually a calming addition to our group.
After reading the recipe aloud, and seeing that there was a lot of chopping to do, they quickly got to work: peeling potatoes and carrots, dicing celery, chopping turnips and cabbage - and, for the first time, an onion, which Brittany Jordan, 15, handled beautifully, save for a few tears blotted on the sleeve of her sweater. "It hurts," she said.
"It does sting sometimes," I said. "But it's only for a minute. And it's worth it for the flavor it gives the soup."
The students remembered how to hold the knife, how to cut the vegetables in half first and place the flat side down, making it easier to work on a level surface. Tatiana even corrected a classmate for not curving her fingers properly to avoid a cut.
"Why do you think it's called winter minestrone?" I asked.
"Because we are making it in the winter?" said Brittany.
"Well, yes," I said, explaining that these winter vegetables used to be the only ones available in the winter months, in the olden days, before produce was trucked in from warmer places and before the advent of frozen and canned foods.
Even today, "when you buy vegetables in their growing season, they are always fresher - cheaper," I told them. And, I added, these heartier veggies are the perfect tonic for the cold weather. In the summer, the soup can be made with that season's bounty, tomatoes and zucchini.
After we got the onions, carrots, and celery cooking in olive oil on the stove, I demonstrated a trick I learned from Marc Vetri when he visited a class: smashing the garlic with the flat end of a can. The papery skin comes away easily, leaving the cloves easy to chop. Everyone wanted to try, and Raul got into it. "This could be quite useful in therapy," he said.
We added the garlic and herbs, then the water and chicken stock, and it seemed to take forever for things to come to a boil, especially because everyone had to take the lid off and get a look.
"If we ignore it, it will boil faster," I said. It was a perfect moment to teach the importance of cleaning up as we go. We also put together a chore chart, so that everyone would have a turn setting the table, clearing the table, washing the dishes, drying the dishes, and cleaning up the prep table as we worked.
As they started washing and wiping down, the talk turned to the Spring Fling dance to be held the next day at the school. Nice clothes were required, no hoodies or ripped jeans. There was much discussion of what to wear, who would look good in what, whether or not a pencil skirt was a flattering choice. And they had strong opinions!
"You will all look gorgeous, no matter what you wear," I said. But I was surprised at the level of body awareness and fashion sophistication among these eighth graders, though I shouldn't have been, with the media world they live in.
"I wish I was thinner," said one. "I hope I don't get diabetes," said another.
"Well, I'm teaching you a great way to prevent gaining weight and getting diabetes," I said - jumping at the opportunity to hammer home the point - "eating healthy foods instead of junk food that is full of salt and fat that makes you want to keep eating. It doesn't have the nutritious ingredients your body needs."
I'm sure it will take much more than my voice to change behavior. But presenting an alternative - delicious, easy recipes they can make themselves - at least proves it can be done. The ingredients for this soup, which would feed at least eight people, cost about $12.
Emily Gonzalez reported that the pot was finally boiling, so we could add the rest of the veggies - potatoes, turnips, and cabbage - and the beans. We had added a few more vegetables than the recipe called for, to stretch the recipe in case someone wanted seconds. So we added a little more water, which concerned Emily. "The broth is going to be too watery," she said.
"Well, we will get flavor from the extra vegetables, too," I said. "And the grated cheese will also add flavor."
We quickly grated the Parmesan cheese so it could be sprinkled in the soup.
At last, the soup was ready. The students ladled some into their bowls, then we sat down at the table and passed the grated Parmesan and olive oil. And the reviews came in:
"Amazing," said Tatiana, who asked whether she could bring leftovers home to her family.
"So good," said Brittany.
"I like all the flavors of the vegetables," said Emily.
"I think it's too much veggies," said Jodallis. "But I kind of like it."
Raul politely kept his counsel on the soup. But when I asked each of them to share the best part of their day as we sat around the table, he quickly responded:
"This is it."