Teaching schoolchildren to cook dinner from scratch is a window into the world of American eating, revealing what is familiar, what is strange, what is appealing, and what is not. And with the diversity of cultures in our local schools, it’s fascinating how varied the responses can be.

Biscuits and scrambled eggs held nearly universal appeal for the 160 children in the first of eight weeks of cooking classes in the My Daughter’s Kitchen healthy cooking program, even for children who had never had them before. The same with homemade chicken noodle soup.

But this week’s recipe of Moroccan stew was a trip to unfamiliar territory for nearly all the students in the 32 schools participating in the program in Philadelphia and Camden, meeting with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

At Sacred Heart in Camden, the students were excited about cooking with so many colorful spices: coriander, paprika, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper. At Comly Elementary in the Northeast, Cheyanna Rivas said, “I can’t wait to cook my first stew!”

Many students at all the schools had never tasted squash before, yet at Wissahickon Charter in Germantown, that ingredient was the most desired.

“I love squash!” said Marsalis Boyd. “It’s kind of like sweet potato, isn’t it?” said Egypt Scott. “I love sweet potato.”

At Lewis Elkin Elementary in North Philadelphia, volunteer Bette Begleiter introduced the stew by giving each student a map with a line from Philadelphia to North Africa so they could see where the dish originated.

“What I love about cooking,” she said, “is that you get to travel the world without leaving your kitchen. Today, we are traveling to all the way to Morocco.”

Carrots, squash, onions, garlic, along with the array of spices, plus a can of tomatoes and a can of chickpeas were lined up on the counter and introduced one by one. The stew would be served with a grain that is thousands of years old, said Begleiter. It’s a lot like rice, but it is incredibly healthy. It has more protein, is lower in calories, and high in fiber, she told them.

“It looks like what is left after birds eat the bird seed,” said Yaslyn Garcia.

And as they started chopping and sautéing the ingredients for the stew, it was clear this group was not overly excited about the dish.

“You know you are going to have to taste it,” said Yaslyn.

“Yeah, I know,” said Amariliz Irizarry.

Fresh vegetables and raw ingredients are often far removed from what Americans eat, in part because of the availability of packaged, processed, prepared, and fast food. Yet those grab-and-go foods that often contain little nutritional value seem to appeal to all. And they are always at the ready, require no preparation, and are sold everywhere.

I thought when I started this program that, at least for a couple of hours after school, we could limit these kids to fresh, unprocessed foods and teach them how easy it is to prepare a simple meal and how good it could taste. And many weeks, we have success. But junk food is hard to escape, because it is everywhere. And it has a strong allure.

As I was pulling up to one school for cooking class recently, I saw two students race into a corner store and then emerge with a bag of chips each.

“Did you two go and buy a junky snack right before healthy-cooking class?” I asked them.

Caught red-handed, they could hardly deny it.

“There is not one thing that is good for you in those bags,” I told them.

“I have one gram of protein,” one meekly said, reading the nutritional label on the back.

“Is one gram of protein worth all those calories?” At least it was a lesson in understanding the nutrition label.

At Lewis Elkin, there was a vending machine in the teachers’ lounge where we were holding class. And it was calling to the kids, even though they were told it was for teachers, not for them. But how could Moroccan stew compete with Skittles and Hot and Honey Cheese Doodles?

At all the classes, the students universally enjoy the chopping and the sautéing and putting the dish together, the setting of the table and sitting down to share the meal together.

The tasting and eating does not always share equal enthusiasm.

There were strong raves for the Moroccan stew at Chester Eastside, where the children especially loved the crunchiness of the almonds. And at Loesche, where everyone had a positive reaction, Vincent Vadeanu felt: “The star of the dish was probably the squash …. The seasoning played a big part.”

At Lewis Elkin, Layla Centeno was rapturous: “This is the best food I ever tried,” she said. “It is cooked perfectly and all the flavors go together.”

Though some of her classmates did not share her opinion, Begleiter gave them good advice: “Imagine if you were sitting down to dinner in someone’s home in Morocco. You need to be respectful of their culture”.

One classmate just couldn’t bring herself to taste the food, saying she was afraid it might make her sick. She was still pulled in the direction of the vending machine.

“Now that class is over, can I get something?” she asked.

What a shame that the food that was good for her was left untouched, while the food that was not held the strongest allure.

Contact Maureen Fitzgerald at mydaughterskitchen@gmail.com. For stories on previous classes, go to www.philly.com/mydaughterskitchen.

Stirring the squash, carrots, tomatoes and onions in the Moroccan stew.
Maureen Fitzgerald
Stirring the squash, carrots, tomatoes and onions in the Moroccan stew.

Moroccan Stew with Squash and Quinoa

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, cut into ½-inch dice

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1 teaspoon paprika

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

½ teaspoon ground coriander

½ teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon fresh ginger

1⁄8 to ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1 cup water

1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

4 cups peeled butternut squash in 1-inch cubes (20-ounce package, chopped)

4 carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds

1 15.5-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and drained

1 cup quinoa

½ cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 cup slivered almonds (optional)

1. Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until soft, stirring often, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and stir for about 1 minute. Mix in paprika, salt, black pepper, coriander, cumin, fresh ginger, cayenne pepper, and cinnamon.

2. Add water, tomatoes, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil. Add squash and carrots. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat until vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Taste and add more cayenne if desired. In the last five minutes, add the chickpeas. Season with salt and pepper.

3. While the stew is simmering, make the quinoa according to package directions. (Similar to rice, although it cooks a little quicker. It takes about 15 minutes to cook after the water boils. It should be fluffed after all the water is absorbed.)

4. When quinoa and stew are done, mix together and add cilantro. Sprinkle with almonds, if using, serve, and enjoy.

Per serving (based on 6): 428 calories, 17 grams protein, 64 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, 5 milligrams cholesterol, 442 milligrams sodium, 14 grams dietary fiber