As Kristin Smith, a sixth-grade teacher at Robert Pollock School, was reviewing a recipe for golabki, or stuffed cabbage, she explained to students how they would prepare a filling of meat and vegetables and then roll it up in cabbage leaves. Immediately, one student made a connection.
"I get it!" said Dayjha Blades, 11. "Is it like a burrito?
"Yes, exactly!" her teacher said.
Pollock School in Northeast Philadelphia is one of 35 urban schools in Philadelphia and Camden participating in the My Daughter's Kitchen healthy cooking program. When I visit these after-school classes and receive reports from the volunteers teaching them around the region, it is interesting to see how much the classes are the same and how much they are different as the same meal is prepared in nearly three dozen classes each week.
Kids at other schools also likened the stuffed cabbage to dishes they knew: Students at Comly Elementary discussed lettuce wraps, dim sum, and grape leaves. Chinese dumplings and burritos without the tortilla were mentioned at Wissahickon Charter School, Awbury campus, as well as the stuffed peppers Kendall Jones' grandmother makes. At Pollock, sisters Alina and Victoria Shashkova, 10 and 11, said the recipe reminded them of a Russian dish their mother makes — but neither were fans of cabbage.
Smith, their teacher, has been thrilled by how much all the students love the cooking process, especially the chopping of vegetables, a job many cooks consider one of the most tedious in the kitchen. In fact, that has been the most coveted job in all these classes since they began in 2013. Even students who don't like vegetables, even those who refuse to eat them, are happy to chop them.
"I do not like celery," Victoria stated unequivocally as she diced a particularly large stalk of celery.
"You probably won't even taste it when it's cooked," Smith said, explaining how some vegetables just build subtle flavor as they cook in a recipe.
Sanaa Burton at Gesu School told classmates her grandmother had told her exactly the same thing. "Even if you think you don't like vegetables, when you mix them together, they taste great," she said her grandmother told her. And then Sanaa shared her own wisdom with her class: "The mixture enhances each ingredient, and we are cooperating and doing the same for each other."
In this, the third week of classes, volunteers at Bayard Taylor, LaSalle, Gesu, Prince Hall, and others reported great progress and enthusiasm for the chopping task. And over the course of dozens of cooking classes, I have seen that when children hold vegetables in their hands and carve them up, they are more willing to eat them, and even eager to like them.
Yet this week, one thing many classes had in common was a lack of enthusiasm for stuffed cabbage — and most especially the cabbage — among grownups and students alike.
"To be honest, Mariann and I were a little skeptical about this week's recipe," wrote Maureen Barrett, a volunteer at LaSalle. "And if we were, we thought for sure the children would be."
As the recipe was read aloud at Gesu School, volunteer Margaret O'Neill wrote, "there were groans, not only from students, but from one of the adults as well."
Yet students at Comly were excited to try it, perhaps because of the spirit of one student, Travis Chopyak, who knew exactly what the dish was and even how to pronounce it.
The recipe is an adaptation of a traditional peasant recipe, updated with ground turkey, which is lower in fat and calories than beef and pork, and with the addition of the powerhouse ingredient of quinoa instead of rice. I intentionally chose napa or Savoy cabbage, as it is milder in flavor than regular cabbage. Also, in an effort to teach home economy, we used the quinoa that was left over from the granola recipe in the first week, and the fresh dill left from the tuna pasta salad last week.
Because all the students at Pollock were tentative about the meal as I was visiting there, I encouraged them to taste the filling before they rolled it in the cooked cabbage. "I'm afraid," said Alina, standing at the stove with a tasting spoon. But the grimace on her face turned into a smile after she sampled it. "It's good!" she said, and her classmates were equally enthused.
In the end, there were plenty of students who remained cabbage haters, but almost all loved the filling of turkey, onions, peppers, celery, tomato and quinoa. So the dislike of cabbage created another teachable moment, especially with all the other preparations that had been discussed. Many classes sent home leftover filling, and students suggested serving it in a taco shell, a pepper, a dumpling, over rice or in rolls like a sloppy joe. And that is the beauty of home cooking. You can prepare recipes with ingredients you like, leaving out the ones you don't.
But to the surprise of many adults, many of the students loved the dish — cabbage and all! "Boy, were we wrong!" wrote Barrett at LaSalle. "Every single person tried it and loved it!" wrote Iliana Alvarez at Smedley. "Our meal was delicious and other students stopped by for a taste because it smelled so good," wrote O'Neill at Gesu. At Community Partnership School, the students lamented that they did not boil more cabbage leaves for the leftover filling.
But the highest compliment of all came from Egypt Scott, whose 11th birthday fell on the day of her cooking class at Wissahickon Awbury last week. After a successful meal, during which her classmates sang "Happy Birthday," she called to her teachers as she was leaving, "I may make this for my sleepover birthday party!"
Makes 6-8 servings
½ cup quinoa
1 large head napa or Savoy cabbage
1 medium onion, medium diced
1 stalk of celery, medium diced
2 red or yellow peppers, medium diced
1 pound ground turkey
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 32-ounce can tomato sauce
4 teaspoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons vinegar (or lemon juice)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
Toothpicks or string to close cabbage leaves
- Rinse quinoa under cold running water. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil, add the quinoa and cook for about 12 minutes. Set aside to cool.
- Meanwhile, bring a stock pot filled with water to a boil and boil the 12 largest cabbage leaves for about six minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water. Chop enough of the remaining cabbage leaves to make 1 cup.
- In a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat, heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil. Add onion, celery, cabbage, and peppers. Sauté, stirring, until vegetables are aromatic.
- Add the ground turkey and cook until the turkey is no longer pink.
- Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds.
- Add half the tomato sauce to the skillet, plus 2 teaspoons brown sugar and one teaspoon vinegar and mix to combine.
- Stir in the quinoa and the dill. Mix all the ingredients together and remove from heat.
- Lay one cabbage leaf on a cutting board. (Cut out the thick stem so the leaf will lie flat, if necessary.) Fill leaf with about 1⁄3 cup of filling. Roll up and secure with string or toothpick. Place back in skillet seam side down. Repeat with remaining cabbage leaves.
- In a small bowl or in the tomato sauce can, stir remaining brown sugar and vinegar into remaining sauce. Pour over the cabbage rolls in the skillet.
- Return the skillet to the stove and simmer for 20 minutes over low heat.
- Serve hot and enjoy (and don't forget to remove the toothpicks or string.)
— My Daughter's Kitchen