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Savory lentil soup casts its spell

'This looks like fish food," said Mark Ramirez, when he opened the bag of lentils we would be using to make soup. "Or the stuff you feed the ducks at the zoo."

Lixjohanne Alicea (left), Bianca Perez, and Kareema Brown grate cheese and prepare other ingredients.
Lixjohanne Alicea (left), Bianca Perez, and Kareema Brown grate cheese and prepare other ingredients.Read moreAPRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer

'This looks like fish food," said Mark Ramirez, when he opened the bag of lentils we would be using to make soup. "Or the stuff you feed the ducks at the zoo."

None of the fifth graders in the cooking class at Bayard Taylor Elementary School in North Philadelphia had ever had lentils.

"Do they taste like peas?" Kareema Brown asked.

"Not really," I said. "They don't really have a strong taste, they take on the flavor of the things they're cooked with. But they are so good for you - full of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They fill you up, and they're really cheap!"

And this week, I told them, I had brought extra ingredients for them to take home, so they could make this soup for their families.

"You mean, all this stuff, the carrots and celery and everything is in these bags, and each of us gets one?" asked Bianca Perez, peeking in one of the bags.

"That's right," I said.

"Can I put my name on mine?" said Lixjohanne Alicea.

"Sure. And I want you to tell your families that all this stuff, to make a pot of soup for six people, only costs about $5."

"Do you think if I make it, I could ask my Dad for five bucks?" asked Mark.

I had to laugh.

Since the lentils take a while to cook, we had to get them going before we started chopping the vegetables. Kareema and Lixjohanne took on the task of rinsing them and adding them to a pot with water and chicken bouillon cubes.

Mark volunteered to smash the garlic. After removing the papery skin, I told him, you place it under the chef's knife, laid flat, and pound your fist down as hard as you can.

Bam! Bam! Bam!

"That's fun!"

After Bianca took a turn, the smashed garlic was added to the pot along with two bay leaves. Soon it was simmering away, producing a lovely aroma.

"It smells like chicken," said Kareema.

"I think that's the garlic," I said.

Because of early dismissal for report-card conferences, we were cooking at noon, and had more company in the cafeteria kitchen than when we are there after school. The lunch ladies, cleaning and doing paperwork, were quite interested in our project.

The kids sauteed the onions, celery, and carrots before adding them to the pot along with the cans of chopped tomatoes and chickpeas. Bianca moved on to chopping the parsley. And everyone wanted a turn grating the cheese.

"What are you making?" asked one lunch lady, clearly impressed with the children's skills.

"It's lentil soup," said Lixjohanne proudly.

"Could I try some?" she asked. "It smells so good."

"Well, it's not done yet," I said. "The lentils are still hard."

"If I leave a container, could you save me a little bit and put it in the fridge?" she pleaded. "I want the recipe!"

"See that," I told the kids. "You have everyone wanting you to cook for them. That's pretty impressive!"

As the soup cooked and the kids set the table, we chatted about all the good things in the soup: four vegetables - tomatoes, onions, carrots, and celery - plus protein from the lentils and chickpeas.

And I talked to the kids about how much better this was for them than processed food out of a bag. I asked about their favorite snack foods, how often they ate them, and if they sometimes ate them instead of a meal.

Hot Cheetos, Tastykakes, Spicy Doritos, chips, cheesecake were rattled off. And they ate them every day, sometimes instead of a meal.

I tried to explain to them that these foods were created by big businesses that want to make money. They have figured out how to trigger our brains into wanting to eat more and more. That's why there are so many obese people and people with diabetes.

If you keep eating lots of snacks and processed foods, I told them, you are on the path to being fat and sick.

"But they taste so good," said Kareema.

"I know!" I said. "That is how they get you."

But I do wish anyone who says you can't get kids to eat healthy meals could have been in the basement kitchen of that battered 100-year-old school, with those 10-year-olds hovering around the stove, breathing in the lovely aroma of the lentil soup they had just made, eagerly anticipating a sip from their "tasting spoon." It was a beautiful moment.

Once the soup was done, everyone was dying to ladle out a bowl, sprinkle it with cheese, and tuck in.

And even I was surprised at how warmly they embraced it.

"Mmmmmm. . . . "

"I want to save some for my mom to taste," said Bianca. "But it's so good I just can't," she said, lapping up the last few bites.

Erika White-Aponte, food service manager for the school, was still in her office doing paperwork in the rear of the kitchen.

Would she like to try some soup, she was asked.

"Would I?" she said. "I've only been dying back there, for the last hour, smelling how good it was."

She came out of her office and joined us for a bowl.

"I could eat this every day," she said. "Really good."

Mark piped up. "And it's really good for you. It has all the food groups. And lots of protein, so you won't get hungry later."

Like most public schools in the city, the lunches here are prepackaged, trucked in daily, and reheated. The school district has said it is a challenge to meet the USDA guidelines for nutrition, with $1.49 per student allotted for food. And the lunches - chicken nuggets, pizza, turkey hoagies - do not inspire one-tenth the love that these kids had for this simple pot of lentil soup.

"I only wish you could make lunches like this for the kids every day," I said.

"Believe me, so do I," she said. "So do I."

Reports from other soup fronts

Wissahickon Charter

We divided up the tasks: cutting carrots, garlic, parsley, and onions, rinsing lentils, and stirring both the vegetable saute and the soup. We also had a salad with sliced apples, raisin, nut and sunflower seed mix, onions, and red leaf lettuce. We did have some extra time so we looked at a color-coded graphic that shows how healthy meals contain vegetables and fruit on about half of the plate, the other half is divided into one-fourth protein, one-fourth whole grains. Students will try to design a healthy menu from favorite foods or food we have cooked in class.

We ate the soup out of the best bargain bowls I could find: a set of storage containers with lids. The kids were elated to take home leftovers in their very own bowls. The Abruzzese Lentil Soup was very well received. The grated Parmesan, a popular addition to many of our recipes, added to the appeal. It may well be the most popular of all of the recipes so far.

- Dianne Fanelli
and Barbara Krumbhaar

Young Scholars Douglass

Since we don't have a stove, we brought a crockpot. The stock had to be heated in a microwave (across the hall) to be hot enough to cook the lentils. Watching the clock, the lentils were not completely cooked when the next ingredient was to be added. Lyn took out all the lentils and went across the hall to microwave them while we continued following the recipe.

We also made a simple salad using red leaf lettuce, cucumber, and tomato. When we sat down for our meal, we talked about how healthy this simple meal was: vegetables, beans, green salad, and bread.

Everyone carried some of the dishes, glasses, pots and utensils down the stairs, through the gym, and into the wash room.

- Lyn Stein and Sue Baelen

St. Martin De Porres

The team really did a quick and lovely job of prepping the ingredients for the lentil soup. Everyone dislikes the job of grating the romano cheese as they can't stand the smell, but all of them love the taste of the completed dishes, so a good lesson there.

"The lentil soup was delicious," said Kevina Day. "I would make this at home. It was a very quick, delicious meal. Today in cooking class I enjoyed myself and the food!"

"It was GOOD, and I mean very good," said Hope Wescott. "The flavor and the spices made a party in my mouth!"

The girls thought that the soup and bread was like something you would have in an Italian restaurant, and they were very surprised at how good it all tasted.

- Christine Chmiewski
and Julie Smith

Abruzzese Lentil Soup

Makes 6 servings


1 16-ounce bag brown or green lentils

2 garlic cloves, smashed

2 bay leaves

6 cups chicken stock

1 onion, peeled

2 celery stalks

2 carrots, peeled

2 tablespoons olive oil

14-ounce can diced tomatoes

14-ounce can chickpeas, drained

Sea salt and pepper

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Parmesan cheese, freshly grated, for serving


1. Rinse the lentils, then place in a pan with the garlic, bay leaves, and 6 cups chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook until almost tender, about 25 to 30 minutes, skimming off the foam occasionally.

2. In the meantime, finely dice the onion and celery and slice the carrots into thin coins. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion, carrots, and celery and cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes.

3. Add the tomatoes and stir well, then add to the lentils and their cooking liquid. Simmer until nice and soupy, about 15 minutes.

4. Add the chickpeas, sea salt, and pepper, and simmer for at least 10 minutes longer, adding extra water as necessary.

5. Stir in the chopped parsley and ladle into soup bowls. Serve with grated Parmesan.

Note: Lentils from Abruzzi or Umbria in Italy or Puy in France are best, but regular supermarket lentils will do.

- From Good Cooking, The New Basics (Silverback Books)

Per serving: 461 calories; 27 grams protein; 74 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams sugar; 10 grams fat; no cholesterol; 988 milligrams sodium; 31 grams dietary fiber.