Brianna Arroyo, 10, was deep in concentration, expertly chopping garlic for coconut curry ramen soup, when she picked her head up and calmly raised a note of alarm.

"Brynn, you're going to lose a finger," she said matter-of-factly to her classmate in the after-school cooking class at St. Augustine Academy in Norristown. Brynn Mitchell, 10, whose knife was perilously close to her fingers, stopped short.

Brianna — who attended a cooking camp last summer, has an uncle who is a chef, and who has been practicing her chopping in this class — had developed not only impressive knife skills, but a healthy respect for a sharp knife.

"You need to watch," she warned. "You're lucky you didn't cut yourself already."

Brynn took heed, studied Brianna's careful method, and was immediately more deliberate and more receptive to instruction.

Brianna Arroyo (left) and Peyton Gooden chop garlic and peppers for coconut curry ramen soup at St. Augustine Academy.
MAUREEN FITZGERALD
Brianna Arroyo (left) and Peyton Gooden chop garlic and peppers for coconut curry ramen soup at St. Augustine Academy.

A few words from a classmate can often carry more weight than the same words from an adult. So it's always exciting to see a student demonstrating a technique or sharing knowledge when I'm teaching or visiting at one of the 35 urban schools in the region participating in My Daughter's Kitchen healthy-cooking program.

Indeed, when some students at Community Partnership School in North Philadelphia lamented that we were ditching the flavor packets that come with ramen noodles in favor of fresh herbs, vegetables, and spices, it was Imani Hall, 10, who stepped up.

"Those are little salt bombs," she said. "They're filled with sodium and bad stuff and if you eat them for the rest of your life, you will die," she said ominously. As we talked about how too much salt can lead to high blood pressure and heart attacks, it was clear these kids were aware, if only from the altered diets and illness in their own families. Four of the six students in the class have relatives with diabetes, a disease greatly complicated by high blood pressure.

Still, throwing away the foil packet was not an easy sell at CPS or any of the other schools around the region preparing the soup. The kids saw a favorite food and were heartbroken not to get the complete dish. "No! You're throwing away the best part," cried Madison Wilson at Wiggins School in Camden.

But as the class continued, and students read the unpronounceable ingredients and saw that the packet would produce in one cup more than half the salt recommended for a whole day, "they realized we actually threw away the worst part," wrote teacher Edith Bobb at Wiggins.

In fact, nearly 80 percent of salt in the typical American diet comes from processed foods. Thus, reducing salt means avoiding things like the "salt bomb" flavor packets.

Adding fresh onions, carrots, and  peppers and inhaling the aroma as they were sautéing on the stove helped ease the loss of the foil packet at St. Augustine.

Brynn Mitchell gets some knife-skill instruction from volunteer Sheryl Wolff at St. Augustine Academy in Norristown as part of the My Daughter’s Kitchen healthy cooking program.
MAUREEN FITZGERALD
Brynn Mitchell gets some knife-skill instruction from volunteer Sheryl Wolff at St. Augustine Academy in Norristown as part of the My Daughter’s Kitchen healthy cooking program.

"Oooh, that looks so good!" said Keymoni Thorton, 10, admiring the vegetables as she and the others huddled near the pot.

"And it smells amazing in here,"  Amaia Randall, 10, said as she stirred the veggies.

The ginger, garlic, and curry powder enhanced the aroma even more. But the next addition to the soup was something no one seemed to like: coconut, as in a can of coconut milk.

"You probably won't even taste it when the soup is finished," said Cheryl Pfeiffer, one of the volunteers. "The flavor is very mild," added Sheryl Wolff, her cooking partner.

As the soup bubbled on the stove, the students took turns adding the blocks of ramen noodles and talked about cooking.

"I learned not to be afraid of cooking," said Amaia. "I measure and follow a recipe and now it's not scary." She had already made at home one of the recipes she learned, the easy eggplant Parm recipe — with tomatoes from her uncle's backyard garden — and shared it with her sister. "She liked it!"

"I learned to be careful in the kitchen," said Keymoni, who wants to open a restaurant with Amaia.

The table was set with a flowered cloth, the soup was ladled into bowls, and there was much anticipation about how it would taste. Some found the broth bland, perhaps still missing the salty flavor packet, and were encouraged to squeeze the lime and add the fresh cilantro.

Hot sauce was also offered as an option.

Finally, they all seemed satisfied.

"I love this. It takes over the lead as my favorite," said Amaia. "I don't taste the coconut milk at all. It just adds a little richness, a little body," she said.

"When it's cold and chilly and you don't know what to make, make this," said Keymoni.

After adding hot sauce, Brynn also chimed in: "I have to Instagram this, it's so good," she said, reaching for her phone. "I would eat this every night."

Peyton Gooden, 9, also added hot sauce but learned a lesson in moderation the hard way: the top of the hot sauce bottle flew off and her soup became bright red. Miss Sheryl tried to spoon some out, but the soup was inedible. Luckily, there was more in the pot.

Brianna, so good with her knife skills, surprisingly seemed to have little interest in tasting the soup. She said she was getting picked up soon, had to pack up, and would take some home.

But she agreed to try a small taste before she left. After finishing that taste, the to-go container came out of her backpack and she finished it. Then, without a word, she quietly headed to the stove for seconds. The other students went back for refills as well. And the soup pot was scraped clean.

Contact Maureen Fitzgerald at mydaughterskitchen@gmail.com. For more reports from participating schools, go to philly.com/mydaughterskitchen.

Coconut Curry Ramen

Makes 8-10 servings

INGREDIENTS

1 tablespoon olive oil

1  onion, diced

2  green, red, or yellow peppers, cut into thin strips

3  carrots, peeled and cut into coins

1½ tablespoons ginger, peeled and minced

2 tablespoons garlic, peeled and minced

1½ tablespoons curry powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

4 cups low-sodium chicken stock

4 cups water

1  28-ounce can coconut milk

12 ounces ramen noodles, flavor packets discarded

2 cups fresh collard greens, stems removed and cut into strips (or one 16-ounce package frozen)

For garnish: 2 limes, cut into wedges and 1⁄2 bunch of cilantro, stems removed (left over from last week's recipe), and toasted chickpeas (recipe follows)

DIRECTIONS

  1. Heat oil in a stock pot over medium heat. Add onions, peppers, carrots, and fresh collards (if using frozen, it will be added later). Cook until veggies begin to sweat and become aromatic, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add ginger, garlic, curry powder, salt, and pepper and stir, cooking for an additional 2 minutes.
  3. Add water, stock, and coconut milk and stir to combine. Bring to a boil. Then reduce to a simmer and cover until veggies are tender and the curry powder has dissolved, about five minutes.
  4. Add ramen noodles (and frozen greens, if using) and cook until soft, about five minutes.
  5. Serve with lime wedges, cilantro, and a handful of toasted chickpeas on top or on the side.

Per serving: 381 calories, 26 grams fat, no cholesterol, 474 milligrams sodium, 32 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams dietary fiber, 6 grams sugar, 7 grams protein

Toasted Chickpeas

Makes 8 ½-cup servings

INGREDIENTS

2  15-ounce cans of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

2  teaspoons olive oil

2  teaspoons paprika

½ teaspoon salt

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°.
  2. Open cans of chickpeas, drain and rinse well. Place a clean dishtowel or paper towel on your work area and transfer the chickpeas carefully to the towel. Place another towel on top of the chickpeas and begin drying the beans by gently rolling them back and forth between the towels. Rolling the chickpeas back and forth will loosen some of the skins. (Removing skins from the chickpeas helps them get more crispy).
  3. Place chickpeas with skins mostly removed in a bowl. Stir in the oil until all the beans are evenly coated.
  4. Spread the chickpeas on a baking sheet, place them in the oven, and roast them for about 10 minutes, or until golden brown, stirring them around once or twice.
  5. Remove from the oven. Sprinkle paprika and salt on top and stir to disperse evenly. Enjoy as a topping on soups, salads, or as a nutritious snack.

Per serving: 319 calories, 6 grams fat, no cholesterol, 137 milligrams sodium, 51 milligrams carbohydrate, 15 grams dietary fiber, 9 grams sugar, 16 grams protein