Nobody was excited for the tuna patties. Not the kids at the Neighborhood Center in Camden, where I was cooking, nor any of the kids from the other urban schools around the region, where 80 volunteers are teaching healthy cooking as part of the My Daughter’s Kitchen program.
Some of the 200 students in the after-school cooking classes had never tasted tuna before. Those who knew it were not singing its praises. And the sight and smell was not changing any minds.
“The tuna looks nasty!” Johan Acevedo-Gonzalez said as cans were being opened at Comly Elementary.
Priscilla Tun, a student at Olney Elementary, lamented there was no way her class would like the tuna as much as the baked chicken and root vegetables they had made the week before. “But we’ll have fun making it,” she said, trying to put on the best face.
The teachers at St. Augustine Academy heard a lot of whining when they read the recipe: “I don’t like tuna,” several students whimpered.
Ajaliq Oritz, a student at the Neighborhood Center, was familiar with tuna, but she didn’t understand why we were cooking it.
“Hot tuna?” she said. “That doesn’t sound right.”
But I pressed on, as did the other volunteers, asking the children to be open to new tastes and textures.
This recipe is known as a pantry meal, because it is made of ingredients that are usually on hand -- tuna fish, bread crumbs, mayonnaise, celery, onion, mustard, lemon, and an egg. It’s a meal that can be thrown together quickly in a pinch that feels a little more like dinner than a tuna sandwich.
I added some chopped zucchini to the basic recipe to get another vegetable in the mix, and when I shopped for the ingredients, the cans of tuna and the zucchini were the only things I had to buy (because, in fact, I had all the other things in my pantry and fridge). As tuna is high in protein, low in fat and calories, and packed with vitamins and minerals, it’s a nutritional bargain at about $1.50 a can. So it’s worth figuring out how to work it into a regular meal rotation.
We added green beans to round out the meal, and we were roasting them with a little olive oil, and then tossing them with lemon zest and lemon juice.
It seems children at all the schools love the process of chopping, measuring, and prepping ingredients, no matter what they are preparing.
“It’s amazing how eager the kids are to participate in every aspect of the cooking,” wrote Paige Duvorsik at Philadelphia Montessori School. “Even though they know that chopping the onions will make them cry, they all want to do it."
Kaneira Williams, a student at Urban Promise in Camden, was so proud of her pile of perfectly chopped onions and of her great accomplishment: “I have not shed a single tear!” she said.
The ingredients for the tuna patties were chopped, measured, and mixed, and the children took turns making them into patties, which Mason Schihl of William Loesche Elementary said reminded him of making cookies.
After the patties were formed, they were placed on a sheet pan or in muffin tins. The trimmed green beans were spread out on a sheet pan and tossed with olive oil. And then all the pans were placed in the oven.
While the patties and green beans were cooking, one student at Philadelphia Montessori suggested they make a sauce and concocted one with Dijon mustard, mayo, lemon juice, paprika, red pepper, salt, and pepper.
“They all loved the tuna patties with the green beans and sauce. Everyone’s plates were licked clean!” Duvorsik, the teacher there, wrote.
But even without the sauce, the tuna patties and the green beans seemed to exceed everyone’s expectations. Indeed, it turned out that Priscilla Tun at Olney was only half right. The girls did prepare the meal with their usual gusto, but once it was on the table, it rapidly disappeared. Ailani Guerrero Beato declared the patties "excellent!” and everyone agreed.
"I hate tuna, but this made me change my mind,” said Liliana Hernandez at St. Augustine Academy. “It was so good.”
“Our group devoured the tuna patties and green beans -- the first time there were no leftovers to take home,” wrote Sallie Anderson, the teacher at Chester Eastside. “The oven-roasted green beans, dressed up with a lemony tang, were the biggest hit. As Ja’Niye Deedon put it: ‘The green beans were banging. Delicious and healthy.’ "
The dinner was well-received by most of the students at my class at the Neighborhood Center in Camden. Even Ajaliq, who wasn’t keen on cooking the tuna, admitted it was “way better than I expected.”
And Raziyah Lewis, who had been picked up early and missed class on previous weeks, was easily the most enthusiastic. She had never eaten tuna before and could not stop eating the patties. She went back for seconds, thirds, even fourths. She loved the tuna, she loved learning how to chop, she loved being with her friends.
“I got to stay until the end for the first time,” she wrote in her journal. “And I loved it.”