Mariah Bey was the first to arrive in the kitchen for our third cooking lesson.
“Hellooooo,” she crooned, throwing her arms wide open to announce herself. “What are we cooking today?”
“Omelets,” I said. “And you get to decide what to put in. I have lots of choices: mushrooms, peppers, greens, cheese, tomatoes. And we’re also going to dye eggs for Easter.”
“We’re going to dye eggs!” she cried, her eyes filling with excitement. “This is the best cooking class ever!”
I’ve been cooking once a week with fifth- and sixth-grade girls from St. Martin de Porres school in North Philadelphia, with the goal of improving not only their culinary skills but also their nutrition with easy meals they can make themselves. And Mariah is nothing if not enthusiastic.
“Can we do this every day? Or at least two days a week? How about Wednesday and Thursday?” she asked.
Indeed, the girls enjoyed the first two healthy meals we cooked, turkey meat loaf with green beans and minestrone soup made with fresh vegetables. (OK, in truth, Maliyah Gregg has not liked any vegetables yet.)
After each meal, I give the girls the recipe. But when I asked after the first class whether they had tried making the soup at home, they were silent.
“We don’t have all that stuff at home,” Jayla Reeves said finally.
OK, I thought, what can we make with ingredients that they’d likely have in their kitchens? Well, eggs are cheap and available, and an omelet can be a great breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
So, I planned to have each girl make her own, with the fillings of her choice. It turned out to be a good idea, because several of the girls wanted to leave early for track practice, which started in one hour. Jayla, perhaps the most experienced cook in the group, is training to run the 200-, 400- and 800-meter events. And far be it from me, a longtime, loyal track mom, to keep her from practice.
“Do you know how fast eggs cook?” she said to her classmates. “I can get this done.”
She sauteed some mushrooms and let the eggs set in the pan before scrambling them around the edges, then adding the mushrooms and some cheese and greens. She added a bit too many greens for a two-egg omelet, but apart from the contents’ overflowing, her attempt was well done.
“It was quick and so easy to make,” she said.
And, truth be told, the girl is fast. Not only did she finish her omelet before practice, she also peeled two of the hard-boiled eggs I had brought, chopped them up with a fork, added some mayo, and had an additional snack of egg salad before she flew out the door. (I had planned to teach the girls how to make egg salad, but Jayla did it for me!)
Next up was Kayla Reid, who also would have to leave for practice. She runs the 100- and 200-meter events, because “she doesn’t like to run any farther,” said Jayla.
“It’s true,” Kayla agreed. “That’s about as far as I can go.”
She did go the distance with her omelet, however, taking the time to saute the red peppers and mushrooms before adding them to the eggs with cheese. She flipped the omelet to let the cheese melt before turning it onto a plate. And she was proud of the results: “I really made it look nice,” she said.
Her take on the finished product: “So good.”
Maliyah has become an expert at cracking eggs, and with a little instruction, she got the hang of whisking.
You have to do it really fast, I told her. It’s a more intense kind of stirring.
And even though she is having a hard time finding a vegetable she likes, she was surprisingly willing to add vegetables to her omelet. She went right for the mushrooms, just as the other girls had before her. I asked if she wanted to try adding anything else. Tomatoes? Peppers? Greens? She said she had never eaten a tomato.
“Oh, I have these lovely yellow grape tomatoes,” I said, hopeful that she would be won over. “I think they are delicious.”
Without hesitation, she popped one right into her mouth. But it was not to stay. She made a face. “Uck. I thought it was going to taste like a grape ... It didn’t.”
She pushed ahead with her omelet, adding the mushrooms and some cheese and mastering an impressive flip of the omelet. “It kind of looks like a fish,” she said when she finished.
After a few bites, she was not exactly effusive. “It was OK,” she said. “But I didn’t really like the mushrooms ... I liked the eggs, but there were little brown parts on the eggs that I didn’t like.”
Well, next time, you just have to turn the heat down, so it doesn’t brown at all, I told her. Everyone likes their eggs a certain way. That’s the beauty of cooking for yourself.
Mariah, dear heart, the first to arrive and the only one not on the track team, had busied herself dyeing eggs, patiently waiting for her turn to make her omelet. She had colored eggs for each member of her family, blue for the boys and her dad, and varying shades of pink and orange for the girls.
She knew she wanted mushrooms and cheese in her omelet and she knew exactly how she wanted those mushrooms cooked: “Nice and brown,” she said, as she stirred them in a skillet. “My mom knows how I like them, and that’s the way she likes hers too.”
She had the omelet-making process down cold from carefully watching the others: On her own she cracked the eggs into a bowl, added salt and pepper, whisked and then poured the eggs into the pan, letting them set for a minute before stirring them around the edges. She added the nicely browned mushrooms and the cheese, then folded the eggs over and let the cheese melt.
She turned her creation onto a plate, set it on the kitchen table, and took a seat at the place she had set for herself. Her six beautiful dyed eggs were arrayed in front of her like a centerpiece.
She took a deep breath and savored the moment before picking up her fork.
“Now, I’m just going to sit here and enjoy my omelet,” she said. And she did precisely that.