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.
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.
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 philly.com/mydaughter.
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.