Danielle Fudala was deep into her nutrition lesson about the dish her fifth graders would be making in their after-school cooking class: mushroom Bolognese.
The students from Octavius V. Catto Community School in Camden were naming all the food groups represented, finding protein, fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy. This whole-grain pasta contains more protein than regular pasta, she said, and this meal had no meat at all.
"Back when I was growing up, we had a food pyramid, and meat was one of the food groups," she said. Nowadays, many foods are recognized as good sources of protein, and meat is not necessary at every meal, she said.
She was so comfortable with the nutrition, it was clear she had done this before.
"Are you a health teacher, by any chance?" I asked.
"Yes," she said proudly. "But I'm not much of a cook."
Her colleague Kaisha Siner, a special-ed teacher at the school, handles the cooking instruction.
"I'm progressing along with the kids," Fudala said, laughing.
Their class is one of 35 being taught to schoolchildren in Philadelphia and Camden as part of the My Daughter's Kitchen healthy cooking program.
Once the students reviewed the recipe and nutrition, the class moved into the cafeteria kitchen, where the prep work began: chopping onions, carrots, celery, garlic, mushrooms, and walnuts for this vegetarian variation on a traditional Italian sauce served over pasta.
Fudala positioned her cellphone on a shelf so she could play a mix of pop songs while they worked.
"It keeps us motivated, and it keeps us moving," Fudala said as she danced around the kitchen to "Call Me Maybe" while the kids worked through the recipe.
"Who's doing the onion? Who is going to cry today?" asked Siner.
As Siner handed out the vegetables to be chopped, Ta'Von Johnson, 10, perhaps the most enthusiastic of the young cooks, mentioned that he had never seen a whole carrot before, only the baby ones, which he didn't like.
I suggested he might try a piece of this carrot, because it tastes better than the little ones that are dried out after having been industrially washed, peeled, cut up, and bathed in chlorine. He did taste it, but he wasn't sold on the bigger one, either.
"I'm picky," he said.
Ta'Von hasn't liked too much of the food, his teachers said, but he still loves the cooking. Though he did surprise himself a few weeks ago with how much he liked the rosemary chicken drumsticks.
"We're adding a little oil to the pasta water. Why do we have to do that?" Siner asked the kids.
"So the pasta won't stick together," said Leo Rivas, 10.
"Yes!" Siner said, clearly impressed. "Go tell Miss Fudala," she teased, "because we have to teach her the lessons, too."
"I did not know that," Fudala said.
These students had to write an essay to secure a spot in this class, and it was competitive, Fudala said.
"My mom went to school for culinary," Otyanna Russell wrote, "and I want to follow in her footsteps."
When Otyanna was chosen, her mom was so proud she made her call all her aunts and uncles and grandparents.
Ta'Von wrote that he would "spend less time playing video games and more time preparing healthy meals," a line that probably clinched his spot. "This could be another hobby for me," he wrote.
As the meal was coming together, with the pasta cooked and the mushrooms simmering in the sauce, school security officer Hector Medina popped in to say hello.
"Hi, Grampa!" called the kids, using his nickname. Medina does a lot of cooking himself and often stops in to offer encouragement or demonstrate a chopping technique - or to get a taste of their cooking.
"Don't worry, Grampa, I will get you a plate when we're done," said Rosa Vincente, 10.
Once everyone sat down to eat, the adults raved, including Grampa, but the children's reviews were a little more mixed.
"I like it," said Leo, who is always game to eat whatever the class prepares, his teachers said. "It really tastes like meat."
"It's OK," said Otyanna. "I think it tastes like chicken."
"It tastes a little weird," said Rosa, "but I'm enjoying it." She shared it with her little sister, Mercedes, who paid the highest compliment.
"I like it, and I want some more," said the kindergartner.
Ta'Von took a taste but immediately scrunched up his nose, turned down his mouth, and made a face. No words were needed.
I suggested he offer some to his mom, who was waiting to pick him up. She was not enthusiastic, either.
Then Mercedes came by and inspired Ta'Von's little sister, Tytiana, to try it.
"You like it, Mercedes?" asked Tytiana. "I like it, too!"
And the two kindergartners, full of excitement, held hands and skipped across the room, celebrating the taste of something new.
Makes 6 servings
1 pound whole-grain or multigrain pasta (I
like Barilla protein plus)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1 small yellow onion, finely diced or grated
1 large carrot, peeled and grated
2 celery ribs, diced small
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 pound wild mushrooms (such as baby bella) chopped fine
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 14.5-ounce can petite diced tomatoes
1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup pasta water (reserved, or more for desired consistency)
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
Fresh grated Parmesan cheese
Per serving: 370 calories, 11 grams fat, 14 grams cholesterol, 210 milligrams sodium, 1240 milligrams potassium, 38 carbs, 10 grams dietary fiber, 12 grams sugar, 19 grams protein