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Spicy chicken tortilla soup, so much better than from a can

"We should replace the chefs here at school," said one student. "It was one of the best soups I have ever tasted."

Chicken tortilla soup   prepared by students at Cristo Rey high school.
Chicken tortilla soup prepared by students at Cristo Rey high school.Read moreTom Gralish

The kitchen counter at Cristo Rey High School was laden with spices, herbs, vegetables, chicken, and beans; the cutting boards and knives were lined up and ready. The students in cooking class were asked whether they had ever made soup at home.

"You mean, from a can?" asked Essence Battle.

"The soups from Wawa are really good," put in another.

Their responses were typical of most American families. My personal childhood favorite was Campbell's tomato — which I then served to my own kids (with grilled cheese) on many a school night. That is, before I caught on to how easy it is to make soup fresh.

And that is exactly the goal of the My Daughter's Kitchen program: to convince these kids (and maybe their parents, too) that, without much trouble, they can make soup that will taste better and be healthier than what they would get from a can or a corner store. And it will cost less, too.

Our lesson this week was chicken tortilla soup, topped with strips of tortillas and a sprinkling of cheese. It was to be served with baked tortilla chips and guacamole, not only to round out the meal and make use of the extra tortillas, but, truth be told, to win over the kids who weren't too excited about the soup. Because who doesn't like tortilla chips?

But even still, there were skeptics, at Cristo Rey, and at some of the 39 other urban schools around the region where 200 students are enrolled in cooking classes this fall. In Camden, the volunteer teachers at Urban Promise reported that their students were not enthused; at Sacred Heart, the students said they were not accustomed to making soup from scratch. At Visitation Blessed Virgin Mary in Kensington, the students were certain the soup wouldn't be spicy enough.

But a fter six weeks of following recipes and improving their chopping, measuring, and sauteing skills, the students have learned — borrowing from the 76ers here — to trust the process. Or, if not to trust the process, then at least  to enjoy it. The students are always excited to chop and grate and especially to smash the garlic before mincing.

The only job that doesn't meet with enthusiasm? Chopping onions. At Cayuga Elementary in North Philadelphia last week, the cutting of the onions was such an "eye-watering challenge" said volunteer Suzanne Rady, that her students wrote about it at length in their journals.

Yet they always soldier on, learning another life lesson: that although  some jobs are not terribly fun, they need to get done.

The basic concept of how to build flavor in a soup is demonstrated in this recipe: the chicken thighs are sauteed first, then the vegetables are sauteed in the juices of the chicken before the cumin, chili, and garlic powder are added.

And as the fragrance of the sauteed vegetables and spices wafted from the stove, "excitement began to grow with their appetites," reported Maureen Dodson, one of the volunteers from Urban Promise. "That smells so good!" said Ignacio Garcia, one of her students.

Students at Wissahickon Charter Awbury had tasted the chicken broth right from the box, reported volunteer Ellen Scolnic. "They were amazed at how it changed color and became much more flavorful as the soup cooked," she wrote.

At Wiggins Elementary in Camden, teachers Edith Bobb and Susan Lore gave a lesson in home economics. They bought a bag of tortilla chips for $1.20 out of the school vending machine and counted 12 chips. Meanwhile, a $1.39 bag of fresh tortillas from the grocery produced two full trays of baked chips, or several dozen. "Our tortilla chips were easy to make, less money and better for us,"  Bobb wrote. "A valuable lesson learned."

Perhaps the most memorable lesson for the young cooks, however, was what a delicious soup they were capable of producing.

At Visitation, where students feared the soup would lack spice, volunteer Maria Brown wrote: "The finished product allayed apprehension and provided some zesty, sharply spiced slurping.

"This was a true lovefest!" wrote Susan Munafo, the volunteer at William Loesche Elementary. "Everybody loved everything. Evidence: no leftovers!"

The same was true at Cristo Rey. Every drop of soup was spooned out of the pot; every last tortilla chip was eaten. The guacamole dish was scraped clean.

"We should replace the chefs here at school," said student Malachi Campbell, feeling quite proud of the results. "I would make this soup at home and my family would enjoy it," he wrote in his journal. "It was one of the best soups I have ever tasted."