Five weeks into our healthy-cooking classes, the fifth graders from Wiggins Prep Elementary in Camden have made incredible strides.
They've mastered the routine of reading recipes, and are peeling, measuring, and chopping ingredients with increasing expertise.
And, lo and behold, they have even surprised themselves at how much they've enjoyed the dishes they've prepared.
Two girls who swore they hated tomatoes were amazed when they tasted the chicken Parmesan we made with a slice of fresh tomato a few weeks ago. "I liked the tomatoes the most, even though I don't like them," said Jatiana Cotto, 10.
We've conquered zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, quesadillas, pasta, salad, and even split pea soup - converting picky eaters all along the way.
But this week, I knew we would face our biggest challenge yet: cod.
Nobody in the class had tasted fish that wasn't fried. And Edith Bobb, one of the fifth-grade teachers helping with the after-school class, was not any more enthusiastic than her students.
"I'm right with the kids on this one," she said. "I'm not a big fan of fish."
Things did not improve when we unwrapped the fish. "That's what we are going to eat?" asked Mahaaj Jones, 10. "That's the fish?"
"Yes," I started, trying to sell its benefits: a lean source of protein, packed with vitamins and minerals that are good for your bones and your brain . . .
But they responded with their honest reactions: "Eww." "It's slimy." "It's slippery." "Gross."
Yet, they all wanted a turn slicing through the fillets, their curiosity trumping squeamishness.
We were roasting the cod with a topping of panko bread crumbs (for a little crunch), butter, parsley, and lemon zest, which results in a healthier, lighter, and - to my mind - much tastier fish than the flavorless deep-fried strips of the fast-food world.
But it remained to be seen what these kids - not to mention Miss Bobb - would think.
The fish was to be paired with roasted carrots tossed in olive oil, salt, and pepper. Too many new tastes in one meal can be overwhelming, so we kept the carrots simple.
There was a lot of peeling and chopping to do and the impressive knife skills were on display, as 15 carrots were prepped and ready to go in the oven in record time.
The bread crumb mixture was portioned over all the fish, and already it was looking much more appetizing.
"It actually looks good now," said Aa'myrah "Coco" Bethea, 10.
The carrots went in first, followed after 10 minutes by the fish, and the children remarked on how quickly we had gotten the meal together.
Once the fish emerged from the oven, its color had changed, and now it actually looked quite appealing. I'm not sure any of them were eager to taste it, but perhaps because of their previous experiences, they all resolved that it was worth giving it a try.
Even I was amazed at how well it went over.
"Outstanding," said Cristina Muriel, 10.
"Really delicious," said Jati.
"Can I have seconds?" asked Mahaaj.
"I didn't expect it to taste so good," Coco said of the fish. She had flatly stated she did not like carrots before the class, but after tasting them, she said: "They were very sweet!"
José Rios was the only child not won over. He had a few bites but did not like the fish or the carrots.
Miss Bobb was the last holdout, and even with the enthusiastic endorsements of her students, she was tentative.
"I'm so afraid," she said.
"Just taste it," said the kids.
And she did. Her charges stared in anticipation of her reaction.
"Wait," she said, as her taste buds kicked in. "It's actually good. It's not a fishy fish taste at all. . . . Don't tell anyone," she said. "I've been saying I hate fish all these years."
What a wonderful lesson. Even more important than realizing how delicious a piece of fresh fish can taste with a little lemon, butter, and parsley, is realizing how wonderfully rewarding it is to keep an open mind.
Russell Byers Charter School
"Mmm, oh, my goodness, I never thought it would taste like heaven," Kayla Biviens enthused. The sounds of satisfaction were heard around the table as our meal was devoured by all. Even the carrot-haters declared these roasted carrots sweet and delicious.
- Cindy Rappoport
TeamUp Philly/ Shepard Rec Center
Bibeta "B.B." Nana and her mom arrived with stories about how B.B. was so excited to cook one of her favorite MDK recipes for Thanksgiving but was having a hard time deciding which one.
This week, the cod was not familiar and was met with trepidation. At first, the students were warily poking at their dinners. After a few bites, however, they all declared the dish a success. "When you first taste it, it tastes weird, but then it tastes delicious," said Daniyah Eskridge. The students were amazed by the intense and different lemony flavor from using just the zest.
- Elena Levitan and Beth Buckman
Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Cod was a first for many of our students but it was certainly devoured by all. It was "meaty" and so satisfying. The panko crust really kept the fish moist. We added some Brussels sprouts to our roasted carrots for some added flavor. We also added a quinoa and lentil salad to the mix, with chopped scallions, lime zest, garlic, and a simple vinaigrette. We have adventurous eaters with such interest in food and preparation. We haven't heard any protesting or "yucks" at all. I'm sad to see we only have two classes left.
- Stacey Polsky
The verdict was unanimous: No one liked the cod - they loved it. "This is a 10!" exclaimed Amir Clinton. Before our meal, not one student even knew what cod was. "I am definitely making this meal for my family," declared Jordan Laws. She thought it was the best cooking class ever. The kids got a kick out of learning that eating fish can improve brain function (make them smarter). This simple, healthy meal may likely be our family meal for the last week.
- Katie Rhodes
The fish was met with some held noses, but Ameena Long was brave and stepped forward to portion the fillets. And when it was done, she said: "Today's recipe was unusual to me. I liked the fish, but I didn't like the lemon juice. The vegetables were great."
Niya Williams said she'd love to make it again, saying she thought it was "really good." Stefany Rivera didn't like the chewiness of the fish, but liked the carrots, cauliflower, and turnips we roasted.
- Maddy Booth, Sharon Ward
Philadelphia Montessori, Session 1
Today's meal was easy to prepare and really showed off the knife skills the kids have acquired. They had to peel and chop 15 carrots and they handled it like pros. Everybody liked tasting the parsley (it was sweet) and liked how it smelled. They loved the carrots, but the fish got mixed reviews. Nakiya Fant-Salley was excited to taste it, but didn't like it. Andre Slaughter and Kaleem Cooper argued over who would take home the leftover piece.
- Ilene Miller and Jessica Plank
"What are fill-its?" asked Christopher Fashina Daniels. We explained that you can cook a fish whole or just the meaty part - the fillet - without its skin and bones. When the cod first came out of the oven, Raven Davies noticed that "it looks kind of like the chicken Parmesan we made before." She thought the carrots (and the roasted Brussels sprouts we added) tasted "amazing."
- Lisa Krader and Linda Todorow
La Salle Academy
Aliyah Hudnell serenaded us with her beautiful voice while we waited for the fish and carrots. We talked about how fish is high in protein, low in fat, and helps boost brain development. Nearly everyone enjoyed it. Simni Adegboyega called the cod "food for the mind."
- Maureen Barrett and Mariann Owens
"Seven times! Agh, really?" That was the reaction when we shared with our students the research that says people may need to try a new food seven times to develop a taste for it. But last week, we beat all records: The carrots in the pea soup were nearly unanimously left in the bowls. Today, they were devoured with gusto.
- Ruth Biemer and Sylvia Wilson
MY DAUGHTER'S KITCHEN
The mission. To teach schoolchildren to cook healthy, easy meals on a budget.
The reach. Volunteers are teaching 25 classes in Philadelphia and Camden, with intent to expand.
The partner. The Vetri Foundation shares the goal of encouraging healthy eating for children.
To support. Send donations to the Vetri Foundation for Children, 1113 Admiral Peary Way, Quarters N, Philadelphia 19112; note "My Daughter's Kitchen" or go to vetrifoundation.org.
To participate. Submit recipes to be considered: Simple, 500-calorie, nutritious meals, prepared in under an hour, for $20 or less for six servings. Send recipes to Food@philly.com.