Changing perceptions one bowl of vegetable soup at a time

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Tashya Anderson (from left), volunteer Belinda Rosen and Ajaliq Ortiz get ready to measure out the olive oil in The Neighborhood Center in Camden.

I wanted to skip the vegetable soup.

After the cool reception -- no, let’s be honest, the outright rejection -- of the tortellini with vegetables the week before at the Neighborhood Center in Camden where I’m teaching healthful-cooking classes, I couldn’t imagine  I would have any luck with straight-up vegetable soup, made with nothing but carrots, onions, kale, green beans, tomatoes, zucchini, and beans.

But then I reconsidered: Changing perceptions is what we are trying to do, after all. As part of the My Daughter’s Kitchen program, there are 80 volunteers cooking at urban schools across the region.

So I took a deep breath, gathered my courage, and shopped for vegetables. I also recruited reinforcements. I asked my dear friend and retired Camden school teacher Belinda Rosen to help. Her daughter Kari Cohen, a current Camden teacher, also agreed to stop by.

And from the minute the kids stepped into the room, the atmosphere was different. The two teachers knew cousins and relatives of the children in the class.

“Wait, you know my little cousin London?” Ajane Cates, 13, said to Belinda. “No way!”

Nonetheless, there was definite trepidation (mine and theirs) about the vegetable soup.

“Is there any meat in it?” asked Asiyah Miller, 9, who the week before had declared that she really did not eat vegetables.

“No, but there are potatoes,” I said hopefully, having added them to the recipe that I knew would be a hard sell.

As we started preparing the meal, one child wanted us to wear hair nets (standard issue in commercial kitchens), so we all wore hair nets, even the boys, and that was a great equalizer, somehow bonding us, that we were all in this together, working toward a common goal in the kitchen.

And what a beautiful vision it was to have all these kids -- in hairnets -- working so enthusiastically: Ajane chopping onions; Anjaliq Ortiz, 13, mincing the garlic; Doyonni Holmes, 12, and Zahmiere Grimes, 9, peeling and chopping the carrots; Tashya Anderson,12, setting the table; Saivon Segarra, 10, and Asiyah trimming and snapping the green beans.

Yet, the afternoon was not without its challenges. Ajane, the one with the most kitchen experience and swagger, fell victim to the vapors of raw onions. We led her over to the sink so she could wash her hands, but not before a dramatic wail: “Am I going to die?”

She quickly recovered, heading over to check on Asiyah, who was stirring the chopped onions and carrots in the pot and loving the aroma of the vegetables she professed to hate.

Ajane took the spoon out of her classmate’s hand and scraped the onions off the sides. “You want to get all these vegetables from the sides, so we can get all the flavor,” she said authoritatively. “You feel me?” she asked as she returned the spoon to Asiyah and left her nodding.

There were still kale and zucchini to be chopped, a can of tomatoes and a can of cannellini beans to be opened, and the table to be set. We moved through all those jobs seamlessly, with Belinda effortlessly persuading idle children to help with the washing and drying of dishes as we progressed.

We added the water to the pot, and, when it came to a boil, added the rest of the vegetables and the bouillon, and then more water. Because there are always more people interested in sampling our food at the Neighborhood Center, I brought extra vegetables, and we stretched the recipe to about 16 servings.

As the soup bubbled in the pot, the children were eager to taste it, and we got small ladles for sampling.

“Wow! This is good,” said Saivon. “I will definitely have the broth,” he said, still not committing to the vegetables.

By the time we sat down to eat, there was real anticipation -- not dread -- about tasting the soup. (We also sprinkled grated Parmesan to boost its chances.)

The students were not disappointed.

“Mmmm” said Anjaliq, clapping her hands together and closing her eyes with pleasure. “I love the kale! Is there any more left for seconds?”

“I don’t even like zucchini," said Ajane, "but I don’t even mind it in here.”

Zahmiere didn’t say a word; he just sat quietly spooning the soup into his mouth, stopping only long enough to nod when asked whether he liked it. Even Saivon grudgingly conceded that it was good.

But it was Asiyah who surprised us all, and even herself: “It tastes like angels made it,” she said dreamily. And then, as she continued to sip the soup, she changed her mind. “No, not angels. This tastes so good, it tastes like God himself made it.”

Immediately, she thought again, and turned to me: “Oh, please, don’t you tell my mom, or she will be wanting me to eat vegetables every night.” 

“Too late,” said Ajane’s grandmother, Valerie Cooke, who had joined us at the table. “I’m telling her.”

“Well, can I at least bring some soup home to her?” Asiyah asked.

We had to scramble because the soup was going fast. But we filled a to-go cup and covered it with cellophane, and she proudly presented it to her mom when she arrived.

“You got to taste it,” she told her. “It’s so good.”

So, believe it or not, sometimes perceptions can be changed, one bowl of vegetable soup at a time.

My Daughter's Kitchen

The mission. To teach schoolchildren to cook healthy, easy meals on a budget.

The reach. Eighty volunteers are teaching 39 classes in Philadelphia and Camden, with intent to expand.

The partner. Vetri Community Partnership shares the goal of encouraging healthy eating for children.

To support. Send donations to Vetri Community Partnership, 211 N. 13th St., Suite 303, Philadelphia 19107; note "My Daughter's Kitchen" or go to vetrifoundation.org.

To participate. Submit recipes to be considered: Simple, 500-calorie, nutritious meals, prepared in under an hour, for $20 or less for six servings. Send recipes to Food@philly.com.


Alice Waters’ Minestrone Soup

Makes 8 servings

Youths at The Neighborhood Center in Camden, NJ make minestrone soup. A bowl of the final product.

INGREDIENTS

¼ cup olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

3 carrots, peeled and cut into coins

4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

5 thyme sprigs or ½ teaspoon dried thyme

1 bay leaf

2 teaspoons salt

3 cups water

½ pound green beans, cut into 1-inch

lengths

1 medium zucchini, cut into small dice

1  15.5 ounce can petite diced tomatoes

2 cups kale, coarsely chopped

1  15-ounce can cannellini

1 bouillon cube, chicken or vegetable, if

needed

Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

DIRECTIONS

1. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onion and carrots, and cook for 15 minutes, or until onion is translucent.

2. Add the garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and salt and cook for 5 minutes longer.

3. Add water and bring to a boil. When boiling, add the green beans, zucchini, tomatoes, and kale. Cook for 15 minutes. Taste for salt and adjust as necessary. Add the bouillon cube if lacking flavor.

4. Add the canned beans and the liquid from the beans and enough water to make 1 cup. Cook for 5 minutes. If the soup is too thick, add water. (I added  another two cups of water at this point.)

5. Remove the bay leaf. Serve in bowls. Garnish with grated cheese.

Adapted from "The Art of Simple Food" by Alice Waters (Clarkson Potter, 2007)

Per serving: 256 calories, 12 grams protein, 37 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, no cholesterol, 634 milligrams sodium, 14 grams dietary fiber.