When putting together recipes for My Daughter's Kitchen cooking classes, it's always a challenge to assemble a medley of dishes that will inspire 10-year-olds to cook, and also to expand their palates — and their worlds — while teaching them practical kitchen skills. The ideal mix includes a dish or two they are dying to try, some that are familiar but made in a new way, as well as some that may seem exotic, a food from a different culture, introducing new ingredients and preparations. And, of course, they all must be easy, healthful, and cheap.
Yet with the great diversity of children enrolled in the 35 urban schools in Philadelphia and Camden where these classes are taught, the reception to these dishes is almost always unpredictable and often surprising to me and the 70 volunteers teaching the classes.
At Watson Comly Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia, where I was visiting a cooking class last week, 17 languages are spoken: Russian, Georgian, Uzbek, Albanian, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Tajik, Krygyz, Ukranian, Malayalam, Vietnamese, Turkish, Azerbaijani, Polish, and English.
So for many children at this and other schools, tuna pasta salad was new and exotic, as many students had never eaten canned tuna. When fruit and yogurt parfaits were made with granola, we learned many students did not know what granola was; many had never tasted yogurt.
I knew stuffed cabbage was not going to be a dying-to-try recipe in the lineup, and I was right about that. But I was pleasantly surprised by how many students embraced it, and about what a point of pride it had been for one student at Comly, Travis Chopyak, 10, who articulated the proper pronunciation of golabki, and who was so excited when his classmates enjoyed the dish rooted in his Polish heritage.
Perhaps because I love eggplant Parm so much, and consider the dish pretty mainstream, I thought an easy version of it would be a total crowd-pleaser. Especially as the kids would be peeling off the bitter skin and roasting the eggplant with a little olive oil and salt, and then baking it with layers of tomatoes and bread crumbs and cheese, before finishing it with a sprinkling of fresh chopped basil. It's not that much different from a Margherita pizza. At least that was my theory.
"I've never had eggplant before," said Ava Stuchko, 10, another student at Comly, as she and her classmates marveled at the beautiful color and shiny skin of the eggplant. And it turned out the rest of that class and most of the 200 kids making the recipe around the region were not familiar with eggplant. The few who had tasted it were not fans.
That's where the larger lessons come in, as these classes introduce children to foods they have never had before, but also to respect cuisines and preferences different from their own.
Lorrie Craley, a teacher volunteer at Comly who has the distinction of being the longest-serving volunteer in the program, (five years and counting!), said the community that is built in the cooking classes is one reason she stays with it: "Food is more than nourishment for the body; it brings people together," she said. "I love to cook and enjoy the feeling when I make a dish that others enjoy," she said. "I want my students to have the same experience."
The other teacher volunteer at Comly, Cindy O'Donnell, loves to watch the kids use math and science skills they don't even realize they're using. This week, she pointed out the fractions students used while measuring ingredients and slicing up the finished dish. While they were spinning lettuce in a salad spinner, she taught centrifugal force, likening it to a ride at an amusement park. And she quizzed them on why the eggplant shrank so much in the oven.
"What energy was applied?" she asked.
"Heat," the students replied in unison.
"And what happens when you apply heat?" she asked.
They all got it: The water evaporates; the eggplant, which contains water, shrinks. O'Donnell beamed: Science lesson learned.
As the eight weeks of cooking classes progress, the students learn much more than how to chop vegetables, grate cheese, and make their own salad dressing, as they did this week. They also learn what jobs their classmates like, what each is good at, and what foods their cooking partners like and don't like — the basic building blocks of a good working team. They learn to give others a turn at the fun stuff, and to pitch in when someone is struggling with a job.
As the eggplant Parm was served at tables around the region, the reviews were mixed. Two students at Bayard Taylor, Syliani Ortiz and Gabriel "Gobby" Rodriguez, were so pleased with their results, they decided they would like to open a restaurant, "Gobby and Syliani's Healthy Food."
At Kensington Health Science Academy, among other schools, there were true eggplant converts. "Never thought I would like eggplant, but I do," Amany Aviles said. "Don't like trying new things, but it was pretty good," classmate Nayely Morales said.
At Comly, as I looked around the table, there were lots of eggplant chunks left on the plates. The only one who finished her meal was Stella Chau, who said the eggplant was spongy but tasted good. The others, like many other kids around the region, objected to the eggplant taste and texture but loved the tomatoes with the cheesy, crunchy topping.
"I guess you all prefer tomatoes au gratin," I told them.
And what a wonderful lesson that is, to try to find something you like and emphasize the positive instead of the negative. Or to respect that someone else might really enjoy something you don't care for, as was the case with Raquelle Isaac at Hunter Elementary, when she was asked about the meal.
"I'm not going to yuck someone else's yum," she said tactfully.
Such a great philosophy to embrace, not only about food, but about culture, religion, politics. If only the grown-ups in the world could take a lesson.
For full reports from other participating schools, visit philly.com/mydaughterskitchen.
Easiest Eggplant Parm
Serving Units: 6
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium eggplants, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes
2 to 3 plum tomatoes, thinly sliced
8 ounces low-moisture mozzarella cheese, grated
1⁄4 cup Parmesan cheese
1 cup panko bread crumbs
20 basil leaves, cut into thin strips
1. Preheat oven to 450. Spread 1 tablespoon of oil on a rimmed baking sheet.
Place the eggplant in a bowl and toss with 2 tablespoons olive oil, then spread on sheet pan and roast in the oven for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix the mozzarella, Parmesan and bread crumbs in a medium bowl.
Remove eggplant from oven and place a layer of sliced tomatoes on top of the eggplant cubes. Cover evenly with the mix of cheeses and breadcrumbs.
Return to the oven for 5 minutes, or until the cheese melts.
Remove and sprinkle with the basil. 8. Let cool slightly and serve. Enjoy.
Per serving: 317 calories, 17 grams fat, 27 milligrams cholesterol, 451 milligrams sodium, 26 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams dietary fiber, 7 grams sugar, 18 grams protein
Simple Italian Green Salad
Serving Units: 6
For the salad:
1 head butter lettuce
1 head romaine lettuce
Napa or Savoy cabbage, sliced thinly (if leftover from previous recipe)
Cherry tomatoes, celery, carrots, scallions or other leftover vegetables of your choice
For the dressing:
1 teaspoon lemon zest
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1⁄2 teaspoon sugar
6 Tablespoons of olive oil (or fill to 1⁄2 cup when adding to other ingredients)
Salt and pepper
Rinse lettuce and dry well with a clean dish towel or salad spinner. (Salad dressing won't adhere to wet lettuce.)
Tear the lettuce into bite-sized pieces and add to medium bowl.
Wash and chop other vegetables and add to lettuce bowl.
Meanwhile, make the dressing: whisk together the lemon zest, juice, and sugar in a liquid measuring cup. Add salt and pepper. Slowly, drizzle in the olive oil, whisking as you go, so that the dressing becomes an emulsion.
Dress salad right before serving, tossing to combine. Enjoy!
Per serving: 102 calories, 9 grams fat, no cholesterol, 106 milligrams sodium, 5 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams dietary fiber, 2 grams sugar, 1 gram protein