Squash: from mystery to triumph in Morrocan stew

(From left) Yariel Fernandez, Lixjohanne Alicea, Mark Ramirez, and Kareema Brown add ingredients to pan.

What is that?" Bianca Perez exclaimed as I pulled a cream-colored, bottlenecked gourd from the grocery bag.

 (From left) Yariel Fernandez, Lixjohanne Alicea, Mark Ramirez, and Kareema Brown add ingredients to pan. "Butternut squash," I said.

 "Does it taste like peanut butter?" asked Mark Ramirez.

 "Not really, but it does look like a peanut," I said.

 Moroccan stew with butternut squash, carrots, and quinoa was the project for our fourth cooking class at Bayard Taylor school in North Philadelphia. None of my five aspiring fifth-grade cooks had ever tasted butternut squash or quinoa.

 I had brought the squash to show the kids what it looked like, but because it can be a challenge to peel and cut, I also bought a package of some already peeled and chopped. I added a few sweet potatoes for their peeling and cutting pleasure. Yariel Fernandez and Mark got right to work on the sweet potato, chopping it to match the size of the squash cubes.

 Bianca discovered the cilantro and held it to her nose: "Oooo. I know this! It's cilantro. My grandmother uses this when she makes the sauce for rice and beans!" she said.

 Mark wanted to smell it too: "It smells good, kind of lemony," he said.

 I explained the concept of mise en place: prepping ingredients and putting them in bowls, so everything is ready when it is time to start cooking.

 Kareema, onion goggles in place, made swift work of the onion. After the potatoes, the boys, already making great strides with their peeling and chopping skills, moved on to the carrots.

 "Should I slice them into coins?" Mark asked after peeling one.

 Just then, Nicole Molino, a third-grade teacher, happened to be passing through the kitchen.

 "Wow, Mark! Coins? You know how to cut into coins? I'm so impressed!" Mark just smiled, but he seemed to straighten his shoulders and stand a little taller; his knife sliced the carrots even more surely.

 Lixjohanne Alicea started measuring the already cubed butternut squash, lifting the measuring cup a little higher each time, before she dumped them with a Liberace-like flourish into the larger bowl.

 With the onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, and squash in prep bowls, I wanted to oversee the sauteing of the onions and measuring of the spices, and to cut back a bit on the cayenne and paprika, as this group does not like a lot of spice.

 But the next thing I knew Kareema was halfway through slicing that squash. "Be careful, Kareema!"

 She hadn't peeled it but was making careful, beautiful slices all the way through. So we decided to put a little olive oil and salt on those slices and bake them while the stew cooked.

 After a quick saute of the garlic, all the other vegetables and spices were added to the pan. As it simmered, we got the quinoa cooking, too.

 As the lovely scent of ginger, garlic, and cumin filled the air, the tablecloth was unfurled and the table set. Soon we were ready to dine, and the kids were quite impressed with what they had created as they watched the steam rising from the beautiful orange-hued stew.

 Just as we were about to dig in, Mark cried out: "Uh-oh! We forgot the peanut butter squash!" We quickly pulled the slices from the oven and served them on the side, so the kids could taste what squash is like without spices.

 The reviews came in strong. "The Moroccan stew was amazing," Mark wrote. "If I could make it every day, I would."

"It was like I went to heaven, it was so good," wrote Bianca. "I would like to make this at my house for my family."

 Best of all, when I asked who would like to take some home, every hand went up.