The first time the kids entered the Peace House, where their after-school cooking class would be held, they had to explore the entire 3,000-square-foot home, running upstairs, counting all the bathrooms, checking out the porches.
It is a beautiful house, yes, but it is also famous, a product of the Extreme Makeover television show. It was built for a disabled dad and his five children, who, unfortunately, could not afford to stay in the house. So Urban Promise, a nonprofit that runs schools, camps, and job training for local youth, bought it from him and now uses the five upstairs bedrooms for its offices. The kitchen and living area downstairs are used for extracurricular activities, like My Daughter's Kitchen cooking classes.
These preteens loved knowing that this house was on TV, and they even channeled its reality TV history into an idea of their own.
"We could do a TV show," said Jasmine Trieu, 11. "Will the recipe be tasty … or will it not?" she said, mimicking the deep voice of a television narrator. "Find out on the next episode of My Daughter's Kitchen."
The class at Urban Promise is one of 35 around the region in which volunteers are teaching schoolchildren to make simple, healthy dinners on a budget, with the hope that the children will bring the lessons home to their families. And, after only two weeks of class, Noah McBride, 11, had already used the skills he learned to make scrambled eggs at home for his family. "They turned out just like the ones I made here," he said proudly.
Rebecca Bryan, director of the Wellness Center at Urban Promise, remembered one child, McKhai Delts, who was so enthusiastic last semester he even tested out a recipe at home before they learned it in class, and then gave his classmates pointers. (It was a dessert recipe for apple pear crisp.)
This week's meal was spicy roasted broccoli pasta, and as they read over the recipe, volunteer Jane Elkis Berkowitz asked the students why they were putting the broccoli in the oven.
"To make it crispy," said Cymara Williams, 10. She knows her way around a kitchen — her family runs Reggae Grill on Federal Street in Camden.
"Exactly," volunteer Maureen Dodson said. "When I was growing up, every vegetable we ate was boiled to mush. They were awful. Now we roast vegetables and they taste so much better."
Berkowitz decided to demonstrate by first having the children taste the broccoli raw, then boiling some with the pasta, then comparing that with the roasted. No one hated the raw or boiled broccoli, but they didn't rave, either.
They also tasted the ricotta, which took some encouragement, as the soft and dense texture was unfamiliar. None were fans. "I don't want it on mine," said Jaden Mosley, 10.
But after the pasta was tossed with the broccoli, red peppers, lemon zest, pumpkin seeds, and bread crumbs, then topped with dollops of ricotta cheese, it went under the broiler for a minute or two and things were starting to look better.
The roasted, caramelized broccoli looked so much more appealing now than the boiled version, and same with the melted, gooey ricotta compared with the cold blobs of moments earlier. Mouths were watering.
After grace by Noah ("Thank you, God, for this food and the hands that prepared it") and a toast from Cymara ( "I'm so glad that we can cook and eat and have fun together"), the children dug into their meals as Dodson delivered a lesson.
"Twenty-five percent of the fiber you need for the day is in that bowl," Dodson said. She explained that there was fiber in the whole-wheat pasta, in the vegetables, in the pumpkin seeds. Acknowledging that it's an indelicate subject at the dinner table, Dodson explained that fiber scrubs out your insides and keeps your bowels moving every day.
With so much processed food in the American diet, studies have shown that most people eat only about half of the 25 to 35 grams of fiber recommended each day. Eating breads and pasta made with whole grains, having an apple a day, snacking on raw veggies and nuts, and adding beans, peas, and lentils to your diet can help maintain a healthy weight and lower your risk of diabetes and heart disease, they were told.
And these children often surprise the volunteers with their reception of the healthy meals.
"Sometimes our predictions about what the kids will like are just completely wrong," Berkowitz said. She thought in a previous class no one would eat the mushroom Bolognese, made with chopped-up mushrooms and walnuts simmered in a tomato sauce and served over whole-wheat pasta. "But there was not a morsel left."
This week, the kids surprised themselves. In spite of their initial disdain for the ricotta cheese, when the ingredients came together, they all cleaned their plates. And several went back for seconds. In fact, Noah, who was certain this meal was not for him, was eating the leftovers he had planned to take home for his family straight out of the zipper bag. "It is so good!" he said.
As the kids cleared the table, it was obvious Jasmine was not giving up on her reality TV idea: "That concludes this week's episode of My Daughter's Kitchen," she said, "with a very tasty dish."