José Rios, a fifth grader at Wiggins Prep Elementary school in Camden, had a pressing question as he arrived for his second week of healthy-cooking classes: "Are we going to make a cake? Can we, please?"
After such success with banana-zucchini muffins for our first class, I hoped this group would be open to lots of fruits and vegetables. José hoped it was the first of many baked treats.
"We'll make dessert for our last class, when we invite your families," I said. "Dessert is special, not for every meal. Today, we are making pasta."
Whole-wheat pasta with tomatoes, zucchini, beans, and ricotta, plus a green salad with homemade vinaigrette, to be specific.
Once we read the recipe and got each child going on a job, the kitchen was pretty hectic. And even with five pairs of hands, there was a lot of work to be done: zucchini, cherry tomatoes, and garlic to be washed, sliced, and smashed, respectively; red pepper, carrots, and celery to be chopped, grated, and sliced for the salad.
While the veggies were being prepped, Abriana Rodriguez and Jatiana Cotto filled the pasta pot with water, found the lid, and put it on the stove to boil.
Aa'myrah "Coco" Bethea took on the job of swirling the olive oil around in the skillet and learned just how heavy a cast-iron pan could be.
"Lean it against the stove top," I told her. "You don't have to lift all the weight. Just lift up one side and then the other to move the oil around."
Once the oil was heated, José was excited to start sautéing and took his job seriously, trying to make sure every piece of zucchini got some heat. After a few minutes, Abriana added the chopped garlic and other spices, then the chopped tomatoes and cannellini beans. "That smells so good!" said José.
It's wonderful to have teachers in the kitchen, too, seeing teachable moments at every turn.
"Let's have a science lesson here," said Susan Lore, the fifth-grade science teacher. "How do we know the water is boiling? Look at the pot."
"Because of the steam?" said Cristina Muriel.
"Yes," she said. "The water starts to boil and turns to steam."
José added the pasta and replaced the lid, and soon the students had that science lesson reinforced, as the pot started boiling over.
"Look!" said Abriana, pointing to the bubbling liquid oozing over the edge of the pot and hissing as it hit the flame beneath.
"We just have to take off the lid," I said, quickly removing it. "See how that steam was building up underneath it."
They got another quick science lesson when Abriana and Jati made the salad dressing and whisked together the vinegar and mustard and then drizzled in the olive oil, while continuing to stir, until it emulsified. "It's another word for two liquids blending and bonding," I said.
Once the pasta was cooked and drained, it was added to the skillet with the cooked veggies. The salad was tossed with the vinaigrette, and it was time to sit down and eat.
José, seated at the head of the table, gave thanks.
"Thank you, God, for this day and for this cooking class," he said. "Amen!" everyone responded.
As the pasta and salad were passed, I attempted a lesson on whole-wheat pasta, explaining that it adds more fiber to your diet and keeps you full longer.
"It's not really dinner-table conversation, to discuss exactly what the fiber does for you," I started.
"Oh, don't worry," said Edith Bobb, another fifth- grade teacher. "Nothing is off the table after we discussed Thomas Crapper, the plumber who improved the flush-away toilet."
"Well, OK, fiber helps in that department," I said, as the kids giggled.
"This is just delicious!" said Jati, her face lighting up as she had several bites of pasta. Everyone concurred it tasted great.
But as I looked around, I noticed the small piles of zucchini and tomatoes accumulating on each plate.
"Are you really not eating these delicious vegetables that you just cooked? The cherry tomatoes are already sweet, but when you cook them, their flavor concentrates, so they are even sweeter," I said. "You have to try them."
Jati took a deep breath and plunged her fork into one of the tomatoes.
"It's like I'm terrified of vegetables," she said.
"Take it with some of the pasta," advised Miss Bobb. "I don't like tomatoes, but when they're cooked in with everything, they taste different."
Jati took a bite, made a face, and swallowed.
"It's not too bad," she concluded.
Everyone at the table agreed to try the vegetables on their plates, but I can't say they were sold.
Cristina did clean her plate. "It was a little bad but really good," she wrote afterward.
Then she volunteered to be the first one on dish duty, a job each of them would take a turn doing as the class continued.
"I really like this class," she told me as we stood together at the sink, she washing, me rinsing. "The only healthy things I like are applesauce and strawberries," she said. "So I'm glad I'm learning to try new things."
Zucchini, Cherry Tomato, and Ricotta Pasta
Makes 6 servings
1 pound whole-wheat penne pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced into half-moons
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tablespoon butter
8 ounces ricotta cheese
1 15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons thinly sliced basil leaves
1. Cook the pasta in boiling water according to package directions. Drain in a colander, but reserve ¼ cup cooking liquid.
2. Wash the zucchini and tomatoes and slice. Peel and mince the garlic. Rinse the beans. Chop the basil into thin strips.
3. Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil to pan, swirl to coat. Add zucchini and sauté for 2 minutes. Add garlic, salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper and sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in reserved cooking water (as much as desired), tomatoes, and butter. Sauté for 1 minute or until butter melts.
4. Add ricotta cheese and beans, and stir.
5. Put drained pasta in serving bowl. Add the contents of the skillet and top with chopped basil. Toss gently to coat.
- Adapted from "Cooking Light"
Per serving: 474 calories, 7 grams fat, 13 milligrams cholesterol, 218 milligrams sodium, 80 grams carbohydrates, 17 grams dietary fiber, 5 grams sugar, 22 grams protein.
Green Salad with Basic Vinaigrette
Makes 6 servings
For the salad:
Spring mix salad or other salad greens, about 10 to 16 ounces, depending on greens (enough for a salad for 6)
Your choice of vegetables, washed and chopped (try to get a variety of colors, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, scallions, carrots, celery)
For the vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
2/3 to 3/4 cup good- quality olive oil (A light-tasting oil is best for children, who may not be familiar with a strong or peppery oil. But do use a good-quality oil.)
1. For the salad: Wash and chop the vegetables into bite-size pieces.
2. If not prewashed, wash and dry the spring mix.
3. For the vinaigrette: Measure mustard into a liquid measuring cup or small bowl.
4. Add vinegar, stirring to combine.
5. Add sugar, stirring to combine.
6. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, stirring until it emulsifies.
7. To build your salad: Toss spring mix with vegetables. Drizzle lightly with dressing, and toss. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 235 calories, 20 grams fat, no cholesterol, 240 milligrams sodium, 9 grams carbs, 4 grams sugar, 3 grams protein, 4 grams dietary fiber.