The most rewarding part of teaching kids to cook is watching them progress. They not only build very practical skills in the kitchen - learning how to hold a knife, chop onions, peel carrots, sauté and roast - they also learn to keep an open mind. They learn to be willing to try something new. And they are often surprised at how much they enjoy things they never thought they would.
Two weeks ago, when we were making honey mustard chicken wings with eighth graders at Roberto Clemente Middle School, Emily Gonzalez lamented: "I don't like mustard, can I have mine plain?" And Jodallis Pabon announced: "I don't eat cooked vegetables."
But then Emily was asking for seconds on the wings and Jodallis was gobbling up the roasted carrots, parsnips and potato strips. "I didn't know they would taste like this!" she said.
Healthy eating has gotten a bad rap in the minds of many Americans. It is tough to compete with the fast-food cheeseburgers, fried chicken, pizza, and Chinese take-out that hit the salt and fat triggers in our brains.
But week after week, I see kids in this class - and in the 19 other My Daughter's Kitchen classes - eating simple, healthy dinners they've prepared themselves, and enjoying them.
None of the kids in my class had ever heard of, or tasted, quiche, the recipe we were making last week. Madelyn Espaillat thought it should be pronounced qui-SHAY, like touché. A good guess, as they are both French words and are spelled similarly, I told her.
It was a blessing that they had never tasted quiche, because this recipe was crustless, with caramelized onions serving as the bottom layer. No one would miss the crust.
The week's affordable nutrition lesson? Eggs. A carton of one dozen costs $2. They are a great source of protein and nutrients, quick and easy to cook, and certainly don't have to be limited to breakfast. (Plus, the government has removed them from its eat-sparingly list.) Even when we added cheddar cheese, spinach, milk, onions and zucchini to the bill for this recipe, it totaled only about $10, for a filling dinner for six.
First off, we started chopping onions, so we could get them caramelizing on the stove. And while Emily was manning the stove, she had a hard time restraining herself from tasting them as she inhaled the bouquet. Even Raul Camacho, who declared he was not an "onion person," was willing to give them a try as he took a turn stirring.
"Caramelized onions are completely different from raw onions," I told him. "They get sweeter and softer and turn into something much different from the pungent raw ones."
"Hmmm," was his reply as he sampled one. "They do taste different."
The students made fast work of cracking the eggs, measuring the milk, grating the cheese and chopping the zucchini and removing the stems from the baby spinach. The kids were snacking on so much of the zucchini that I had to stop them lest there be none left for the quiche.
Once the onions were nicely browned, it was time to whisk the eggs, add the milk and cheese, and assemble the quiche.
Raul turned off the heat, and everyone gathered around, watching anxiously to see how this egg pie in a skillet would come together. We layered the spinach and zucchini on top of the onions, and then carefully poured the egg mixture on top. Tatiana Castillo was ready with the spoon to tuck the spinach into the egg mixture, so it wouldn't be sitting on top and burn. Then Tatiana and Emily each took a pot holder and carried the precious cargo over to the oven.
"Whatever you do, don't drop it!" I said. "Not only will it be a big mess to clean up, we won't have dinner!"
The class moved in procession behind the girls with the skillet and watched as it was popped inside. Though the recipe called for the quiche to cook for 50 minutes, the cafeteria convection oven is quite powerful, so we started checking after 30 minutes. Everyone was excited to see, and, indeed, it had magically turned into a pie, and it was nicely browned and firmed up. We gave it five more minutes, just to make sure.
After letting it cool, we sliced it and served it up. There were smiles all around, and not a scrap left over.
"I thought the flavors blended nicely together," wrote Emily. "And the onion crust was unique."
"I enjoyed the quiche very much," wrote Brittany. "I've learned healthy eating is important, and very fun, plus easy."
I couldn't have said it better myself!
"I liked the quiche, it was great," said Raul. "And I'm surprised how much I like the onions, even though I'm not an onion person."
"It's such a good lesson for them to not be afraid to try new things," said Sharon Ward, the food service worker who has been cooking with us.
And it's a lesson that applies to so much more than cooking.
See video from cooking class, and hear what the kids think about My Daughter's Kitchen www.philly.com/mydaughter
Crustless Vegetable Quiche
Makes 6-8 servings
1 tablespoon butter
2 large onions, sliced into half-moons
3 cups baby spinach
2 zucchini, chopped into bite-sized pieces
11/2 cups milk
11/2 cups cheddar cheese, grated
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1. Wash and prep the vegetables. Preheat the oven to 400° F.
2. Melt the butter in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the onion slices and sprinkle a bit of salt and pepper over them. Cook until they are golden brown and starting to caramelize (about 15 minutes). Then remove from the stove and spread the onions evenly across the bottom of the skillet.
3. Spread the spinach and zucchini over the onions. The pan should look fairly full.
4. Crack the eggs into a bowl and use a fork to lightly beat the eggs with the milk, cheese, salt and pepper, just enough to mix up the yolks and whites.
5. Pour the egg mixture over the vegetables and onions, watching it fill in the free spaces.
6. Bake quiche in the oven for about 50 minutes, or until the surface is lightly browned all across the top. Remove from oven.
7. Let cool for about 10 minutes. Slice in wedges and serve.
- From Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4 a Day by Leanne Brown
Lesson Note: Eggs don't have to be eaten only at breakfast! This quiche is filling and delicious with plenty of protein and nutrition. Subbing onions for a kind of crust makes it especially easy to make and especially low in calories.
Per serving: 234 calories, 16 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 275 milligrams cholesterol, 561 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
MY DAUGHTER'S KITCHEN
The mission. To teach schoolchildren to cook healthy, easy meals on a budget.
The reach. Volunteers are teaching 20 classes in Philadelphia and Camden, with intent to expand.
The partner. Vetri Foundation shares the goal of encouraging healthy eating for children.
To support. Send donations to Vetri Foundation for Children, 1113 Admiral Peary Way, Quarters N, Philadelphia 19112; 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.