Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Learning by cooking

A private school in West Mount Airy puts knives and pans in young hands and ever-new foods on students' plates.

Braden Clark is served by Gabe Beresin at Project Learn. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Braden Clark is served by Gabe Beresin at Project Learn. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)Read more

At Project Learn, a small private school in West Mount Airy, students are encouraged to question, to read extensively, to think mathematically, to observe the natural world - and to learn fairly advanced cooking skills at a surprisingly young age.

Almost any afternoon finds kids in the kitchen and classrooms chopping, sauteing, rolling, pinching, and of course eating, from a stockpile of interesting and imaginative recipes.

"Food and cooking are a natural place to engage students to build on what they know and actively involve children in learning," says Fran Fox, one of the 40-year-old school's founding teachers. "By cooking regularly students learn to follow directions and cooperate, and also learn many practical tools for self-sufficiency."

This spring, students Emma Dudnick and Maya Lerman were inspired to explore the cultural commingling in Malaysia, and shared with their fourth- and fifth- grade geography class by cooking spicy Singapore noodles they made in the school's small but well-stocked kitchen.

"When I look on maps I always wonder what people are eating in all those faraway places," Dudnick said. "When we make recipes for dishes from some of those places, it makes me feel like I know the people who live there a little bit."

The kindergarten/first-grade class not only cooks and eats a recipe for each "letter of the week," from Campfire Baked Apples to Zucchini Bread, they also illustrate their own book of recipes, which is used for years to come.

"I never make a child try something they don't want to, but do encourage a courtesy bite," said teacher Jane Laties. "I am also no longer surprised that after talking about the ingredients, actively joining in the preparation, and watching their classmates and teachers sampling these dishes - most students will try everything."

Last week was S week, and student Nadja Anderson-Oberman tried sushi for the first time. It turns out she didn't really like it (yet), but now she knows.

Even the youngest children use real knives, as knife skills and safety are taught and reviewed regularly. The students are taught the vocabulary of cooking, as well as basic techniques such as separating eggs, folding, sauteing, rolling, and kneading. Sammy Cavalli, now a sophomore at Central High School, was asked to cook some onions when she was in eighth grade at the school. "Do you want them sauteed or sweated?" was her response, now famously remembered and repeated by her proud teachers.

Foods are made from scratch, which sometimes means practicing patience, especially for the youngest students, who started making a yeast bread before math one recent morning.

After a reading lesson (and before lunch) they prepped and started some fresh strawberry jam to cook. Later in the day, as the yeasty smell of fresh-baked bread filled the building, the students took turns shaking a jar full of fresh cream until the fat solidified and it became butter.

After draining the whey and stirring a pinch of salt into the fresh butter, a few students set the table for a much-anticipated (and scrumptious) afternoon snack.

As the students get older their opportunities to create meals and develop skills increase, especially as the school works to build community in group projects.

"By far the most popular group activity is cooking and eating together," said Joan Fox, a longtime staff member. "We decide as a group on a meal or dish to make, everyone gets a job, and there is the immediate satisfaction of making and celebrating with a meal together."

They have made homemade noodles with various sauces and fillings, and baked elaborate cakes. A current project: to make fondant to decorate the graduation cake for the eighth graders.

"We also always try to make enough extra so we can share with students or staff in the building who come sniffing around," Fox said.

Junior high math and music teacher Liz Ben-Yaacov says students have strong feelings about what they want to prepare. They often choose salad, specifically Israeli.

"There is something about how these familiar vegetables taste after cutting them up very, very small," she says. "What really blows their minds is that the dressing doesn't come from a bottle."

In late April, eighth graders returned from a trip to Costa Rica that included community service. To finish paying off the trip's expenses, they cooked a hot lunch each week that other students could purchase.

"We loved the food our home-stay mothers made for us while we were away," says Chris Gueye. "So now once a week we are making some Costa Rican specialties."

Adds eighth grader Matthew Hamilton: "We ate rice and beans at every meal and all sorts of vegetables and great salsas, so that's what we serve."

Founding teacher Fran Fox felt so strongly about the importance of teaching children to cook that after she retired from 25 years in the classroom, she volunteered to expand the school's free Saturday classes to include a monthly morning children's cooking program.

Project Learn's kitchen and community room open for four hours on the second Saturday of the month during the school year. To celebrate the 40th year, Fox felt a fitting tribute would be publishing a book. Of course it was called Kids Can Cook.

Plantain Chips

Makes approximately 4 servings


2 green plantains

Oil for deep frying

Salt or cinnamon sugar to taste


1. Using a small sharp knife, trim the plantains and cut them in half widthwise. Peel by slitting the skin with a knife, following the natural ridges, then lifting it off. Place the plantains in a bowl of cold water.

2. Heat the oil in a large pan or deep fryer to 365 degrees. Remove the plantains from the bowl and pat dry.

3. Fry the plantains in batches until crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt or cinnamon sugar and serve.

Per serving: 199 calories, 1 gram protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, no cholesterol, 149 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.EndText

Chocolate Chip Bread

Yield: two 9-by-5-inch loaves or about 16 servings


1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter

1 1/2 cups sugar               

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon salt

One 16-ounce container cold sour cream (2 cups)

2 large eggs         

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

3 cups all-purpose flour

One 12-ounce bag mini chocolate chips


1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-by- 5-inch loaf pans. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat or in the microwave.

2. In a large bowl place the sugar, vanilla, salt, sour cream, and eggs. Whisk to combine. Add the melted butter and whisk. Add the baking soda and baking powder and whisk.

3. Add the flour and chocolate chips to the bowl. Using a large rubber spatula, mix just until combined.

4. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans. Bake for 50 to 55 minutes or until the top of the loaves springs back when touched gently with your index finger. Cool the breads in the pans for about 10 minutes before turning out onto a baking rack to finish cooling.

Per serving: 412 calories, 5 grams protein, 50 grams carbohydrates, 30 grams sugar, 22 grams fat, 68 milligrams cholesterol, 272 milligrams sodium, 2 gram dietary fiber.EndText

Frijoles Negros con Arroz

Makes 6 servings


Frijoles Negros:      

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 Spanish (sweet) onion, peeled and diced      

1 green bell pepper, diced

6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced         

1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced      

4 15-ounce cans black beans, drained

1 tablespoon cumin

1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes (optional)

Juice of one lime

1/4 cup chopped cilantro or parsley

Salt and freshly ground  black pepper   

Tabasco or other hot sauce for serving


2 1/2 cups water               

1 1/2 cups long grain rice

1/2 cup coconut milk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper   


Frijoles Negros:

1. Prepare the onion, bell pepper, garlic, and jalapeno.

2. Heat the oil in a heavy, straight-sided skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, garlic, and jalapeno. Saute until the onions are soft.

3. Drain and rinse the beans in a colander. Add the beans, cumin, can of diced tomatoes (if using), lime juice, cilantro or parsley, and salt and pepper. Simmer to combine the flavors. If the mixture seems dry, add some red wine, vegetable broth, or water (a half cup or so).


4. Bring the water and coconut milk to a boil in a saucepan. (You can use all water instead of the coconut milk.) Add the rice and season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until all the liquid has been absorbed, 25 to 30 minutes.

5. Serve the rice with beans ladled over the top and pass the hot sauce.

Note: This dish can be made with either black or red beans. In Honduras the two are equally common.

Per serving: 902 calories, 45 grams protein, 161 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, no cholesterol, 20 milligrams sodium, 31 grams dietary fiber.


Frittata With Peppers and Onions

Makes 4 to 6 lunch servings


3 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced finely

2 medium Yukon gold potatoes, cooked, cut in half, and sliced thinly

1 roasted pepper, minced



8 to 12 eggs, lightly beaten


1. In a 10- to 12-inch saute pan (a well-seasoned or nonstick pan works best), heat the oil until hot. Add the onions and garlic and cook until just browning.

2. At medium heat, add the potatoes and cook until they are almost brown. Remove from heat, add the roasted pepper pieces, and season well with salt and pepper.

3. Add the beaten eggs to the pan and cook covered for 5 to 8 minutes over low heat until the bottom seems well set. Place under a hot broiler for a very short time to finish cooking the top.

4. Turn onto a plate. Serve warm or room temperature for brunch, lunch, or supper with a salad, or with drinks.

Per serving (based on 6): 243 calories, 11 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams fat, 282 milligrams cholesterol, 102 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber

Note: Each spring the kindergarten and first-grade class hatches a batch of chicken eggs. When the chicks start to lay, we make this frittata to celebrate the first dozen eggs. EndText