When my neighbor Mari Bartram told me about her vegetarian “cheesesteak” with portobello mushrooms, which she thought might be a good addition to the recipe lineup for the My Daughter’s Kitchen cooking classes, I was intrigued. I knew the kids would be excited to make cheesesteaks, but I also knew many of them had a strong aversion to mushrooms; the spongy, sometimes rubbery texture can be hard to get past. Some kids don’t like onions and peppers, either, which these cheesesteaks would be served with. And, of course, some kids would miss the beef.
But when Mari invited me into her kitchen and thinly sliced those large, beautiful mushrooms and sautéed them with onions and peppers and covered them all with melted cheese and served it to me on a soft roll, I was sold.
I made it for some of my friends and they also were impressed, remarking on how “meaty” the mushrooms tasted when tucked into a roll with onions, peppers, and provolone. Even my skeptical husband gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
When coming up with new recipes for My Daughter’s Kitchen, the challenge is multidimensional. Most important, the meal has to taste good. Next, it has to contain fresh ingredients, with a focus on vegetables. It has to be easy enough that 10-year-olds can prepare it in under an hour, contain mostly familiar ingredients, and have nutritional value, with an eye on calories, protein, sodium, fat, fiber, sugar, carbs, and cholesterol. Finally, it has to be affordable: the goal is the meal can feed a family of six for $20 or less.
Perhaps most of all, it has to hold some appeal for the 160 children who will be learning to prepare these recipes at 32 urban schools around the region as part of My Daughter’s Kitchen healthy-cooking program.
The mushroom “cheesesteak” checked all the boxes while presenting a healthier approach to such a classic Philadelphia sandwich. A traditional cheesesteak weighs in at about 900 calories with 40 grams of fat, 80 grams of carbohydrates, and 1,900 grams of sodium, according to a Penn Medicine analysis of two South Philly cheesesteak spots. A sandwich with that nutritional profile should not be part of a regular diet.
The mushroom version, however, cut the calories, fat, and salt to a third of those numbers and even added some dietary fiber, antioxidants, and potassium. So, in theory, it was a terrific alternative. But the question remained: Would the students buy in?
I visited the Parkside Boys and Girls Club after-school program in Camden. It offers this cooking class for teens 14 and up from 6 to 9 p.m., so we would be cooking at a more traditional dinner hour. The class is led by Lela Shambry, 20, a youth-development professional there. “I am really learning right along with them,” Shambry said. “My doctor says I have to eat healthier because I am pregnant, so it’s good for me, too.”
As she introduced the recipe, Shambry was honest. “So, I don’t have much experience with mushrooms,” she said as she pulled the large portobellos out of their plastic bag. “But I googled, and I learned that these mushrooms taste a little like steak, but they are healthier, there is less grease and fat, and I also learned that mushrooms have fiber. I didn’t know that.”
Tyrone King, 18, immediately had a question. “Are they expensive?”
“No,” Shambry said, “that’s the best part. “I paid $3.43 for six large mushrooms, one pound and nine ounces. Much cheaper than steak.”
These teenagers were not convinced it would taste like steak, but they were open to trying. They were also making sweet potato fries, and blueberry hand pies for dessert, so there was plenty of work to be done, and Damir Riley, 19, set up his portable speaker so he and his classmates Tyrone and Vicky Shambry, 17, Lela’s sister, could sing and dance as they worked to a playlist as varied as “Believer” by Imagine Dragons and “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. And as they worked through the recipes, slicing then sautéing the peppers, onions, and mushrooms and cutting the sweet potatoes into fries, and then assembling the hand pies, Shambry was getting more and more excited about the mushrooms.
“Honestly, if you didn’t tell kids that it was mushrooms, I don’t even think they would know,” she said. “They really do smell like steak!”
When the dinner was on the table, Shambry gushed some more. “Surprisingly, this looks really good!” And, after a bite: “That’s crazy. I actually really like it. I want to make this at home.”
Her students agreed: “I loved the cheesesteak,” said Tyrone. “I love mushrooms,” said Damir. Vicky, Lela’s sister, was not quite as enthusiastic. “I don’t love it, but I’m eating it. I like it with meat better.”
At other schools around the region, there were some who could not get past the idea of the mushrooms, refusing to even to try. For others who did venture a bite, the taste did not appeal. “Not my cup of tea,” said one. “Just don’t like the mushrooms,” said another.
But there were plenty of new mushroom converts.
“The sandwich tastes exactly like an actual cheesesteak,” said Cheyanna Rivas at Comly Elementary in the Northeast. “I can’t even tell there isn’t any meat.”
“These cheesesteaks do still have a meaty texture,” said Joseph Alejandro at Robert Pollock School in the Northeast.
“I wish I could take 50 of these home!” said Shemaj Henry at Chester Eastside.
And the kids at Lewis Elkin loved the vegetarian version of this Philly classic so much, they chose it for their final meal to cook for their families and friends.
The recipe’s creator, Mari Bartram, who is now volunteering with her daughter Olivia at Sacred Heart School in Camden, was excited to hear about the kids who were won over, but she already knew of the recipe’s power. Said Olivia: “I always used to say that I didn’t like mushrooms until I ate this cheesesteak.”
Makes 6 sandwiches
6 large or 9 small portobello mushroom caps, sliced thin (about 1 pound) (other mushrooms can be substituted but portobellos have the most meaty taste)
1 large green pepper, cut into thin slices
2 medium onions, sliced thin
6 slices of Provolone
6 small rolls (such as Amoroso’s club rolls)
Olive oil, enough to coat the pan
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Cut the stems off the mushrooms and rinse any remaining dirt off the caps. Clean the peppers, slice in half and remove seeds.
2. Slice the mushrooms, peppers, and onions. It is important to slice everything very thin, especially the mushrooms.
3. Coat a large saute pan over medium heat with oil. (You may need to use two pans.) Cook peppers until tender, about 5 minutes. Then add onions and cook thoroughly, about 3 minutes. Last, add mushrooms and cook until they are tender, about 5 minutes more. Add salt and pepper to taste.
4. Mix the veggies and separate them into six even portions in the pan (ensuring each portion has a good mixture of all the veggies). Add one slice of cheese over each portion of mushrooms, peppers, and onions and let it melt. A lid may be helpful to keep in heat.
5. Use a spatula to scoop the mixture into rolls and serve immediately. Enjoy with a side of sweet potato fries.
-- From volunteer Mari Bartram
Per serving: 288 calories, 12 grams fat, 19 milligrams cholesterol, 545 milligrams sodium, 35 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams dietary fiber, 3 grams sugar, 15 grams protein
Makes 6 servings
3 sweet potatoes, sliced into 1⁄2-inch sticks
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon paprika
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Heat oven to 450.
2. In a large bowl, toss the potatoes with the oil, paprika, salt, and pepper.
3. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread the potatoes on the baking sheet, trying to give them as much space as possible. (If necessary, use two baking sheets.)
4. Bake for about 10 to 12 minutes, remove from the oven and turn with a spatula. Then bake for another 10 to 12 minutes, until browned and crispy.
5. Remove from the oven and serve with Mari’s vegetarian “cheesesteak.”