The students from Wiggins Prep Elementary in Camden were wound up for their last day of cooking class: They'd be preparing dinner for parents, siblings, and guests, showing off the skills they'd learned over the last seven weeks. And their excitement was bubbling over.
The teachers were having issues of their own.
"I just want to let you know what we are working with today," said Edith Bobb, one of the three teachers who have helped with the class. Dawn Wilson had put on two different-colored socks that morning, and Susan Lore came to school wearing two different shoes. "My whole back is out of whack," she said, "because the heels are different."
And then, as we unpacked the groceries, I started thinking there was a strange juju affecting us all. I had left a key ingredient, butter, on my kitchen counter.
"I'm the best you got today," said Miss Bobb, who quickly volunteered to run to the corner store, so at least we would have what we needed to cook, if not our full brain power.
We had a challenging agenda before us. The kids had selected their absolute favorite recipe, the zucchini banana muffins we made the first week, along with the broccoli cheese casserole that we made in muffin tins from just the previous week. The egg, cheese, and broccoli mixture rose up so beautifully in those tins - like fancy little souffles - that the kids immediately decided to serve it to their guests. For dessert: a fruit crisp with apples, pears, and cranberries.
The boys teamed up to make the dessert; Cristina Muriel and Jatiana Cotto partnered on the zucchini muffins, and Aa'myrah "Coco" Bethea took on the broccoli-and-cheese muffins on her own.
All three girls were terribly impressive, working through the recipe so confidently and independently. Cristina and Jati grated the zucchini, mashed the banana, measured ingredients, greased the muffin tins, and had them ready to go in the oven, which they had remembered to preheat. In the oven they went with a timer set for 20 minutes.
Coco was equally efficient, chopping the broccoli and the onion - through tears - and even stopping at one point to demonstrate for classmate Jose Rios the proper way to hold a knife. ("I don't like to do it that way," he countered defensively.)
She grated the cheese, cracked a dozen eggs, greased and filled the muffin tin, and they were ready to go. Into the oven they went, and another timer was set.
The boys needed a little more direction, but Jose was pretty expert at slicing the apples, making clean, straight cuts with the knife in his right hand while his left hand formed a claw on the apple. "Textbook, Jose," I said, even though he had figured out an unorthodox grip on the knife. Mahaaj Jones nicked his finger while peeling a pear and was out of action until he got it washed and bandaged up. The girls stepped in to finish with the peeling.
Miraculously, both muffin pans were out of the oven and cooling before all the guests arrived. We were able to get the fruit crisp baking.
As our guests filed in, the students proudly showed them to their seats around a table decorated with festive place cards.
As we sat down to eat, Mahaaj gave a blessing, pausing first to tell his mom and dad, "I do the blessing all the time."
And as the adults tucked into their meals, there were compliments all around. Jati's mom especially liked the zucchini muffins. "Maybe you could make these for me for my birthday, Jati?" she said.
Lana Murray, the principal, also joined us as a guest. "I've heard so much about this program from the students," she said. "Every week, they brought me things they made after class," she said. "I was looking forward to the cod because I kept hearing no one ate fish. But guess what? There was no cod left - they ate it all."
Marilyn Velazquez, Cristina's mom, said she always had trouble getting her daughter to eat vegetables. "Now she is telling me how to eat healthy, and how she loves carrots and green beans."
As they finished dinner and we were serving dessert, there were awards to be handed out to all.
"Bravery" for Jatiana, who had been terrified of vegetables but overcame it; "Seriousness of purpose" for Cristina, who took every job, even dishes, so seriously and did her best; "Open-Mindedness" for Coco, who hated tomatoes but found out how good they tasted on chicken parm; "Positive Attitude" for Mahaaj, who always had something nice to say and loved everything we cooked; and for Jose, the "Enthusiasm" award for his excitement about being there and learning something every week.
The Wiggins teachers presented each of them with a tall chef's toque and a wooden spoon as parents snapped photos and recorded videos.
But the class benefits went way beyond the kitchen skills these kids learned. Their teachers saw real improvement in the classroom, in behavior, and in academics.
"I also saw them taking on leadership roles," said Miss Bobb. "They believed in themselves."
Why did she think that was?, I asked. She summed it up succinctly: "They felt special."
Wiggins Prep, which has been using a church kitchen, will continue the cooking class in the spring, and is hoping to install a stove in its teachers' lounge (electric, with a 50 amp/250 volt outlet). Anyone looking to donate a stove, please contact me.
MY DAUGHTER'S KITCHEN
The mission. To teach schoolchildren how to cook healthy, easy meals on a budget.
The reach. Volunteers are teaching 25 after-school classes in Philadelphia and Camden, for eight weeks in the spring or the fall, with intent to expand.
The Inquirer's partner. Vetri Community Partnership shares the goal of encouraging healthy eating for children.
To participate. Send simple, 500-calorie, nutritious meals, prepared in under an hour, for $20 or less for six servings, to Food@philly.com.
What a feast we had. The students voted to make fastest chicken parm (which isn't so fast when preparing for 18) and roasted carrots, with the new mixed-fruit cobbler for dessert. Ceanni Fernandez deftly cut five pounds of carrots, and not one sliver was left uneaten. Katherine Nunez, Naiomy Rodriguez, and sisters Emily and Jakelyn Hernandez tackled the fruit and found the pears slippery. Joaquin Estevez dedicated himself to chicken prep and everyone took a turn at clean-up. Our guests were most impressed.
- Jane Elkis Berkowitz, Frank Iannuzzi
We have had the best time with this terrific group of kids. They have really enjoyed the experience, as have we. The kids were amazing about trying new foods and doing new tasks around the kitchen.
- Stephanie Lawrence, Ellen Porter
Another great semester! The cranberry, apple, and pear crisp recipe was filled with surprises, as our student chefs did not expect the soft, sweet, and tart of the fruit to be so tasty. Our last class together featured parent and teacher guests, much discussion about newly learned skills, and which recipes the girls were going to make at home. Yes!
- Cindy Rappaport
The children decided on chicken parm and fruit and yogurt parfaits. At this point, they are pros at chopping and measuring. Here are some of their final thoughts on the program: Shaun liked washing the dishes; Cierra Rodriguez liked taking turns with jobs; Giovanny Capulin enjoyed trying new things; Brandon Kelso and Jayden Smuk liked everything about the program (wow!); Sinmi Adegboyega liked sitting down to eat together. What Aliyah Hudnell didn't like was that the program ended.
- Maureen Barrett, Mariann Owens
How pleased we were to learn today that Kaleem Cooper's mom made last week's broccoli-and-cheese casserole at home, and classmate Andre Slaughter joined them! This week, there were lots of new tastes, including nutmeg and cranberries - Kaleem said he liked the cranberries raw, but not cooked; Andre didn't like them at all. However, both boys gobbled up the finished dessert! - Ilene Miller and Jessica Plank
Our last cooking class! How did it go so fast? We decided to make the broccoli-and-cheese casserole. We also had the fruit crumble. The chopping and cutting went so fast. The skills and knowledge our students gained over the last seven weeks was surely on display as we had the broccoli and onion cut in no time and the apples and pears sliced and diced so easily. Our chefs were so excited to show their guests what they had learned and were all smiles when they received their certificates and wooden spoons.
- Kristin Stitz, Dana Srodes
Fastest chicken parm and roasted green beans and almonds were our overwhelming favorites. The real star of the show, though, was the cranberry, apple, and pear crisp. Everyone loved the flavor - even though the tart cranberries were new to some. Ijanae Harrigan thought it was amazing and told everyone that she couldn't wait to make it for Christmas dinner.
- Elena Levitan and Beth Buckman
The big day had arrived! The opportunity to show our families what amazing chefs we have become. The chefs voted on their favorites, chicken parm with salad and vinaigrette. They felt this would go perfectly with the cranberry, apple, and pear crisp.
The chefs knew this was a big endeavor once they started unpacking the ingredients. Thank goodness by now they work together like a well-oiled machine.
The invited guests were thrilled. The chicken parm was even better than the last time – practice makes perfect. Now time to try the never-before-made cranberry, apple, and pear crisp. All eyes were on it as it arrived to the table, still quite warm. The chefs and their guests slowly took the first taste. Delicious! The perfect way to end our eight-week culinary experience!
- Cindy ODonnell Watson, Lorrie Craley
What a busy session! We all enjoyed a hectic time in the kitchen preparing a meal for (what turned out to be) 16 people! We were supposed to have only 10. Fortunately, we made some extra food.
The dishes we made included: broccoli-and-cheese casserole; cranberry, apple, and pear crisp; salad; turkey chorizo quesadillas; and zucchini, cherry tomato, and ricotta pasta. The students made each item with confidence, as the techniques were not new to them.
- Lisa Krader, Linda Todorow
What we took away from the program was how much the students' confidence increased and, in turn, their kitchen skills improved. By our last class, where we were under time constraints, making panko-crusted cod, roasted carrots, plus a special dessert, they got down to business and all worked so well as a team. They went about chopping, measuring, mixing, and calling, "Hot corner" with aplomb. It was wonderful to witness and what we hoped to achieve. Seeing how excited they were to share their efforts with family members made our hearts sing. We will miss these kids.
- Katie Rhodes, Jill Kaiserman
Makes 8-10 servings
For the topping:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
8 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the filling:
2 to 3 (depending on size) Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
2 to 3 pears, peeled, cored, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 cup fresh cranberries
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of fine sea salt
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a 9-by-12 Pyrex glass casserole.
2. Make the topping: Combine the flour, oats, sugars, salt, and spice in a large mixing bowl. Mix briefly with your hands just to incorporate. Add the cold butter, and toss until it is coated with the dry ingredients. Then use your fingertips to mash, rub, and press everything together to create moist crumbs. Sprinkle the vanilla extract, then mix and press again. When you squeeze a handful of the topping together and it holds its shape, it is properly mixed. Pinch the topping into bits and morsels, cover the bowl, and refrigerate.
3. Wash, peel, and remove the cores of the apples and pears. Then slice into ½-inch chunks. Add them to a large mixing bowl, and toss with cranberries, sugar, salt, citrus zest, and flour.
4. Spoon the fruit mixture into the buttered casserole dish. Remove the topping from the refrigerator and scatter it over the fruit, pressing it into the fruit gently.
5. Bake in the middle rack of the oven for 45 minutes, or until the fruit is bubbling up around the topping, and the topping is golden brown. Remove from oven, and let sit until cool enough to eat.