`Lesson One: Don't cut off a finger!'

Mariah Bey’s mom had one concern: Is there a fire extinguisher in that kitchen?
I was making minestrone soup with 11-year-old Mariah and four other girls who had signed up for after-school cooking lessons at St. Martin de Porres at 23d and Lehigh in North Philadelphia.
I had been doing this with my own daughter, Sally — teaching her to cook as we blogged about it — until she started medical school last fall and abandoned me.
Now I needed new students if I was to continue my mission: convincing non-cooks that it’s easy to prepare tasty, healthy, inexpensive meals.
With obesity and diabetes rates climbing, with fast food and processed food becoming the rule instead of the exception, it seems imperative that young people learn the basics of nutrition and cooking. In fact, I submit, this should be part of every school curriculum.
So I decided to find a school and give it a go.
Like many schools in the city, St. Martin’s has no cafeteria kitchen, only industrial microwaves to heat up the prepackaged school lunches. That means we are cooking in the convent kitchen. (I figure God will not let this kitchen burn down, but, just in case, we did locate the fire extinguisher.)
The fifth and sixth graders were excited to get started as they arrived in the kitchen the first day, dressed in plaid uniforms and crisp white blouses. They all said they could cook: “I learned how to make ribs when I was 3 years old,” said Mariah.
But when it came time to peel carrots and chop onions, garlic, squash, and kale, it seemed there was a thing or two I could teach them. (Indeed, the kale and squash were new to most of them.)
Mariah claimed a yellow onion. Though equipped with knife, cutting board, and goggles I had provided so her eyes wouldn’t tear, she was perplexed about just how to begin. I showed her how to peel away the papery skin, cut off the ends, and slice the onion between its poles.
She seemed to be doing a good job, but when I turned my head to help someone else, one of her classmates cried out, “Mariah, watch out for your thumb!” The knife was edging perilously close.
“Lesson 1: Do not cut off a finger,” I said.
We divided the rest of the tasks and soon the kitchen was a hive of activity. Hope Wescott, 11, quickly became an expert at peeling carrots at the sink. Jayla Reeves, 11, peeled and chopped the garlic while Kayla Reid, 11, scraped the leaves off the sprigs of thyme.
Maliyah (“I don’t like vegetables”) Gregg, 10, was grating the Parmesan cheese.
Still, the pace was a little leisurely as the girls sat around the kitchen table, chatting and settling into their tasks. They were to be picked up at 5:50 p.m. and the clock was already inching past 4:30. Time to pick up the pace.
Measure that olive oil and get it into the pot.
“Mariah, how are those onions coming?”
Soon the onions and carrots were simmering, and Jayla set the timer on her phone for 15 minutes.
Next, the girls prepped the remaining ingredients: Cans of beans and tomatoes were opened, squash and broccoli chopped, kale washed, ribs removed, chopped. I showed the girls how to put each ingredient in its own bowl, to make it easier when the time came to add them.
“Maliyah, I think that’s enough cheese,” I said, as a mound of Parmesan rose beneath the grater.
“Can we taste the cheese?” said Kayla.
“Sure, but it’s strong and salty, so it’s best to just try a tiny slice.”
They tasted, and there were squinched faces all around. “Yech!”
“It’s meant to be a garnish,” I said. “Just a spoonful on top of the soup, then it melts in.”
As the pot bubbled, a lovely aroma filled the kitchen, and we had a few minutes to talk.
“Can we peel more carrots and eat them?” asked Hope. “Absolutely!” I said. “As many as you want.”
Then I asked, “Why do you girls think it’s a good idea to learn how to cook?”
“So you don’t have to depend on anyone else,” said Jayla.
“Because it’s faster than going out to eat,” said another.
“Yes, yes!” I replied. “And it tastes so much better than what comes out of a can, with no extra preservatives.”
We had talked a bit about nutrition and foods’ with only empty calories with no nutritional value.
“This soup is filled with things that are good for you,” I said. “Do you think you’d make it at home?”
“No, it’s too expensive,” said Maliyah.
“But it’s not,” I told them: All these ingredients cost $10 — for five people, that’s $2 each, with plenty left over for the nuns!
The timer went off — time to add the rest of the ingredients and two bouillon cubes. We also needed to add three cups of water, but we couldn’t find a measuring cup. OK, we’ve got a 16-ounce soup can. There are 8 ounces in a cup. How many cups will fill this can?
Two, said Jayla.
So the soup can became both our measuring cup and our math lesson.
As those last ingredients were marrying with the rest of the soup, the girls set the table and awaited the fruit of their labor. They took turns ladling it into mugs, topping each with a spoonful of cheese.
Impressively, they waited politely until all had been served and grace had been said before picking up their spoons.
“So good!”
After we had enjoyed our little meal together — what I hoped would be the first of many — and they had cleared the table, I asked them to write down their impressions. I think they were pretty honest:
“It was a little job,” wrote Kayla. “And now I know that you can make something good out of vegetables. The broth gave the vegetables a tasty flavor.”
Jayla: “Today we made minestrone soup and it was so good. We had so much fun with vegetables and it was just so flavorful. Love, Jayla.”
“It was good and tasty,” wrote Hope. “It had a lot of flavor and love and now that I can make it, I will tell my family about it.”
Mariah: “What I liked about it was I learned how healthy foods are also my best foods now.”
And finally, non-vegetable-eater Maliyah, who sipped the broth, skimmed the cheese from the top, and reluctantly put a spoon with one piece of broccoli between her lips for the briefest moment before spitting it out.
Her verdict: “I think it was the worst soup ever!”
Next week, Maliyah — meat loaf!