This is the sixth in a series on healthy cooking classes at St. Martin De Porres School in North Philadelphia.
Maliyah Gregg was first to arrive and was hoping for a private lesson: "If I'm the only one, do I get to do everything myself?" she asked.
Moments later the rest of the troops showed up and her face fell. Not only did Hope Wescott, Jayla Reeves, and Kayla Reid come, but also Chamya Davis, 11, a new student.
Mariah Bey did not. She was absent last week too, and it turns out her family moved out of the area because of an emergency. We are all hoping she'll be back.
Chamya had heard about the classes and wanted to join. We were happy to have her.
Salmon cakes were on the menu for the day at the request of Hope and Kayla. I chose canned salmon for a quick, inexpensive version (canned wild Alaskan is a fraction of the price of fresh). Also with nonperishable ingredients, I could take a suggestion that came from a few readers: to send the girls home with the ingredients to make the meal for their families.
The first order of business was dicing the vegetables, a task the girls have become quite good at. An onion, celery and pepper were chopped to the proper 1/4-inch dice, then into the skillet they went, with seasonings, to be sautéed for 15 minutes.
On to the salmon. Chamya opened the can, drained it, and gently flaked it with a fork into a bowl.
"Eww. There's bones," said Kayla. "Can we take out the bones? I don't want to eat the bones."
Actually, the bones are good for you, that's calcium, I said. These are not the kind you can choke on. You can smash them with your fingers, or you can leave them in for crunch. Look how easily they smash, I showed them, pinching the soft bones between my first finger and thumb. You can take them out at home, but let's leave them in to see if you even notice them.
Meanwhile, the other girls were measuring the bread crumbs, mustard, mayonnaise, and cracking and then beating the eggs. Those ingredients were added to the salmon and gently mixed.
The timer went off for the veggies, and they needed to cool. So I reminded them of the wisdom of cleaning up as we go.
Each of the last five weeks, I've brought prizes chosen from the stuff sent to me as food editor: an insulated lunch bag, a water bottle, samples of cheese. I offer them as incentives for being helpful, staying on task, doing the dishes.
Some weeks, the girls compete; other times one girl goes for it and the others slack off. This week, I had a plastic wallet made to look like bacon.
When I showed it to the girls, Maliyah, who normally is not particularly interested in doing extra work, was at my side: "What can I do? Tell me what to do next. I want that wallet!"
She was soon at the sink doing dishes, wiping the counters, even getting out the broom.
When the vegetables cooled, we added them to the salmon mix, lined a baking sheet with parchment paper, and the girls each got to make two salmon cakes. Before I knew it, the girls were tossing salmon balls back and forth between their hands.
Eeeks. You really don't want to handle it that much, I tried to warn them, don't mush them so much, you just need to gently shape them into patties. But it was hard to dampen their enthusiasm.
Once flattened into patties, they were ready to go in the oven, a healthier alternative to frying.
"Wait, wait, I have the perfect background music for this!" said Jayla.
She held her phone high as the catchy tune rang out: "Fishy, fishy, fish-fish, mcbites-mcbites..."
The girls shook their hips and belted out the lyrics along with the techno rapper.
That's fun, I said. What is that song?
"Oh, you won't like it," said Kayla. "It's a McDonald's ad."
My heart sank, as I thought about how the fast-food industry targets this market so strategically.
As we waited for the cakes to bake, we had time to talk about their favorite foods: fried chicken, mac and cheese, turkey wings, collard greens, General Tso's chicken, and, of course, fast food.
"I love the banana milkshake at Checkers," said Jayla. "It is soo good."
"Well, that's healthy," said Kayla, "It has a banana in it."
"Nu-uh. There's no banana in that," said Jayla. It's only flavoring."
Well, at least she knows.
I told the girls that there is nutritional information with each recipe I gave them, with the amount of calories, protein, fat, sugar, salt, cholesterol.
"We want foods that are low in calories and high in protein?" said Jayla.
That's the idea, I said. But you girls do need calories. You want protein, but you want foods with protein that are not too high in sugar and fat and salt.
"When you get fast food, do you ever look at the calorie count?" I asked them.
None of them had.
"I want you to look at the calorie counts. Compare them with the recipes; see which one is healthier."
The timer went off and it was time to eat. But not before Hope raised her water glass and proposed a toast: "To friendship and an appetizing meal and . . . .
"And to our cooking momma," said Kayla.
"Kayla, I was getting to that, you interrupted my toast!"
As the girls tucked into their cakes, the reviews were not the strongest.
"I think the vegetables almost overpower the salmon," said Hope.
"Good, but too many veggies," said Jayla.
"I think they are really good," said Chamya. "It was a good idea to make them."
Maliyah was blunt: "I really did not like them," she said as she pushed them around on her plate.
Despite mixed reviews, the other girls descended on her plate.
"If you're not going to eat them, we will," said Jayla. "K - split this?"
And so, for once, Maliyah's plate was clean.
And even if she didn't like them, she made sure she left class with her bag of ingredients - and the bacon wallet.
Makes 5 servings, 2 salmon cakes per serving
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small red onion, diced small
2 stalks of celery, diced small
1 red bell pepper, diced small
1 tablespoon dried parsley
¼ teaspoon hot sauce
½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 can of salmon (7.5 to 8 ounces)
1 cup bread crumbs
¼ cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons brown mustard
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
2. Place olive oil, onion, celery, red bell peppers, parsley, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, Old Bay seasoning, salt, and pepper in a large saute pan over medium-low heat and cook until the vegetables are soft, approximately 15 minutes. Cool to room temperature.
3. Put the bread crumbs in a large bowl. Open the can of salmon, drain it, and flake it with a fork into the bowl. (You can smash up the bones, they will pulverize between your fingers, or leave them for crunch.) Add the mayonnaise, mustard, and eggs. Add the vegetable mixture and mix gently. Cover and chill in the refrigerator for 10 minutes. Shape into 10 (21/2- to 3-ounce) cakes. Try not to overhandle.
4. Put the salmon cakes on a sheet pan lined with foil or parchment paper. Heat in oven for 20 minutes or so. Serve hot.
Per serving: 228 calories, 17 grams fat, 97 milligrams cholesterol, 679 milligrams sodium, 6 grams carbohydrates, trace dietary fiber, 3 grams sugar, 13 grams protein