Cooking teachers and students both learning lessons

Sierrah Knox cooks turkey burgers as Makiah Green assists and Milan Blount does dishes during the My Daughter’s Kitchen cooking program at Universal Daroff Charter School in West Philadelphia.

Leave the root on when chopping an onion, and there will be fewer tears. Place half a lemon near the joint of tongs to squeeze out all the juice. Listen for the sizzle and look for browning around the edges to know when to flip a burger.

These were just a few of the lessons imparted last week as volunteers Elena Levitan and Beth Buckman helped a team of fifth graders prepare Greek turkey burgers and banana nut muffins during cooking class at Universal Daroff Charter School in West Philadelphia.

It’s one of 35 urban schools in Philadelphia and Camden where volunteers are not only teaching students to cook simple, healthy, affordable meals, but also passing on their own time-tested tips along the way as part of My Daughter’s Kitchen cooking program.

Most of the 70 volunteers teaching these after-school classes are home cooks, with expertise in getting dinner on the table for their own families, though there are some with considerably more cooking experience.

Elena Levitan, for instance, worked as a professional chef in New Orleans as well as in Philadelphia, “a half a lifetime ago,” as she put it, and Beth Buckman had a career in banking and now teaches business at Drexel University. Both had been volunteering at Team Up Philly, the nonprofit organization that runs the after-school programs at Daroff, and both jumped at the chance for a hands-on cooking class.

The lessons in this week’s menu were many: to demonstrate how easy it is to make burgers at home; to introduce a burger made of turkey, which is high in protein, lower in fat than red meat; and to add whole grains to the meal by serving it on a whole wheat pita pocket, a more nutritious alternative to a standard bun made with refined white flour.

Camera icon Maureen Fitzgerald
Volunteer Elena Levitan reads the recipe for Greek turkey burgers as (from left) Milan Blount and Sierrah Knox listen and Makiah Green (right) chops an onion at Universal Daroff Charter School.

Oregano and onions were added to the burger, which  was accompanied by a yogurt tzatziki sauce, presenting a Mediterranean flavor profile from another part of the world, while at the same time offering an alternative to ketchup, the sugar-laden condiment that is the default topping for burgers and just about every other American food.

A muffin for dessert was also included this week, so the children could practice baking before their final class, when they will choose their favorite dish to prepare for family and friends. But instead of a typical muffin high in calories and low in nutritional value, this one is made with banana, walnuts, zucchini, and yogurt, demonstrating that you can pack lots of healthy ingredients into a dessert and still have it taste good.

As the students worked through the recipe, their instructors explained not only how to do the tasks, but why they were doing them.

“Why do you think we are salting the cucumbers?” Levitan asked after the students chopped the cucumbers for the tzatziki sauce.

“The salt is going to take the moisture out of the cucumbers,” said Sarah Morris, 10.

“Yes! We are taking the water out of the cucumbers so the tzatziki sauce won’t be watery,” Levitan said.

“But we are putting the grated zucchini in the muffins. Why do you think that is?” Buckman asked.

“So they won’t be dry?” said Zakiyah Hillard-Taylor, 11.

“Exactly,” their teacher replied.

As they were measuring the ingredients for the muffins, Buckman asked the students how they remember that a teaspoon is smaller than a tablespoon.

“Because a teacup is smaller than a table,” a few of the girls responded in unison.

“I’ve learned some things myself in this class,” Buckman said.

Camera icon Maureen Fitzgerald

(From left) Sierrah Knox, Makiah Green, Sarah Morris, Zakiyah Hillard-Taylor, and Milan Blount sit down to enjoy the Greek turkey burgers they prepared in their after-school cooking class.

That has been an unexpected benefit of the program: A rich trove of home-cooking knowledge has been collected over the five years among the volunteers who have been teaching at schools around the region, and a wonderful cooking community has evolved as they share their experiences and tips, not only with the children but with one another, as they write each week on the blog

Chris Hoyler said she never realized the superiority of chicken thighs until she was making them in these classes. “I was always using chicken breasts,” she said. “But the thighs are cheaper and so much more flavorful.”

Another volunteer, Bonnie Benson, was grateful for the simple trick of waiting 20 seconds before stirring scrambled eggs. “I have made scrambled eggs a million times, and that makes all the difference. Now I do that every time and they are perfect,” she said.

Of course, the main mission is to pass on these lessons to the children and to instill in them the confidence to cook for themselves and their families.

“I wanted to learn to make more than grilled cheese and noodles,” said Milan Blount, 11, a student at Daroff, when asked why she signed up for cooking class. “And I have.”

The learning was evident in how well last week’s meal came together, and how beautifully the students took turns doing both the fun jobs, like cooking the burgers on the stove, and also the not-so-fun, like washing the dishes.

And as the meal was laid out on the table, the spread looked like it had been prepared by experienced cooks, and, in fact it had.

“I give it a 9.5,” Sarah said.

“I like it better than a regular hamburger,” said Mikayah Green, 11. “I give it a 10.”

They enjoyed it so much, they voted to prepare it for their guests for their final class.

Greek Turkey Burgers with Tzatziki

6 serving(s)

Greek Turkey Burgers with condiments of Tzatziki sauce, lettuce and roasted peppers to be served in pita pockets as prepared by students at Universal Daroff Charter School in West Philadelphia.


For the burgers:

1 pound ground turkey

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

1 onion, peeled and diced

2 ounces Greek yogurt

¼ cup panko breadcrumbs

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

¼ teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon olive oil

2 red bell peppers, seeded and sliced into ½- to ¾-inch strips

1 cup lettuce, shredded

3 whole grain pocket pitas, sliced in half

For the tzatziki:

1 small cucumber, peeled chopped finely

¼ teaspoon salt

4 ounces Greek yogurt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon lemon

1 teaspoon dried dill


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a large bowl, mix the turkey with the salt, pepper, onion, yogurt, bread crumbs, Worcestershire, and oregano and form into 6 patties. Put a thumbprint in the center of each patty to prevent it from rising in the center as it cooks.
  3. Meanwhile, heat a cast-iron skillet on the stove and place the patties in the skillet, browning them for about 2 minutes on each side. Next, lay the patties on a sheet tray lined with foil and cook until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees, about 10 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, toss the red pepper strips in the oil.
  5. Wipe out the skillet you used to brown the turkey burgers and set it to medium heat, adding a teaspoon of oil. Roast the peppers until they soften and have a bit of char, if desired. Set peppers aside.
  6. Make the tzatziki sauce. Place the cucumber pieces into a bowl and sprinkle the salt over them. Set aside for about 10 minutes. Once it has rested, squeeze the cucumber to remove as much liquid as possible. Discard the liquid and add the remaining ingredients, stirring well to combine.
    1. To assemble each sandwich: open each half pita to form a pocket. Add lettuce, roasted red peppers, and a dollop of tzatziki. Serve immediately to keep the burger hot and the veggies cool.

304 calories, 11 grams fat, 79 milligrams cholesterol, 517 milligrams sodium, 28 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams dietary fiber, 5 grams sugar, 28 grams protein