It's not enough to get kids to just fork down their vegetables. I want them to embrace carrots and onions and peas, to get excited about green beans and sweet potatoes and beets.
So my plan for the fourth cooking class at Henry Lawton Elementary School was to take familiar vegetables and prepare them in an unfamiliar way.
I chose a soup made with onion, carrots, and sweet potatoes to demonstrate how different vegetables can feel in your mouth when made a certain way, in this case, all blended together; and how different they can taste when seasoned with spices, in this case curry and paprika.
I thought this thick, smooth, delicious soup would be an interesting lesson and a sure winner with these fifth-grade chefs. We would garnish it with cilantro and a dollop of Greek yogurt as a sub for sour cream. Corn bread made in a cast-iron skillet would seal the deal.
Christian McKinney claimed the hardest job - dicing an onion - which came with the bonus of wearing protective goggles to prevent tears.
"Have you ever sliced an onion before, Christian? Do you cry?"
He looked at me incredulously. But soon enough, he knew what I was talking about.
"It's not making me cry," he said defensively. "But the smell is bothering my nose." Yet he pressed on. He was not going to give up the knife - or the goggles.
The others were busy peeling and chopping the carrots and sweet potatoes. It's gratifying to see that each week, with more practice, there is improvement and growing confidence.
Nysirah Hall, a lefty, is still a little tentative. "I don't like the big knives because I'm afraid I might cut myself," she said. But as she watched her classmates Aneza Abalo and Kimberly Luu proficiently cutting cubes of sweet potatoes, she found her courage. And her resulting cubes looked just as good as the others'.
"How perfect they are!" I told all three girls.
Nick Rodriguez felt his carrot slicing had been overlooked: "Look how good I am at slicing into coins!"
We got Christian's nicely diced onions sauteing on the stove, and the kids learned a new vocabulary word - translucent.
"Nice and brown like on a cheesesteak?" said Christian.
"Not quite," I said. "They are delicious that way, but we want to cook them only until they lose their white color, till they are almost clear."
Next, we added chicken stock and the perfectly chopped vegetables and set it to simmer.
Now it was time to get going on the corn bread.
"Are we making Jiffy?" asked Aneza, referring to the popular box mix for corn bread.
"No, we are making it from scratch," I said, thinking that would excite them. Not so much. I suggested that this would be good but different. We got the ingredients stirred together, poured the batter into the hot skillet, and popped it into the oven.
By then the vegetables in the soup were tender and ready for the immersion blender. After a serious warning - "Do not get your fingers anywhere near this blade at any time or it will mean a trip to the emergency room!" - Nysirah didn't want anything to do with it. Plus she really didn't like the idea of combining all the vegetables.
"I don't understand why we have to blend it all up," she said.
"I get it," said Nick. "It's kind of like baby food."
"Well, that's not how I would describe it, but it is the same idea. Have you ever had a pureed soup?" I asked. None of them had.
"You're going to love it."
The boys embraced the hand blender as a power tool, and after seeing them lower it into the soup and watching it whir, all the girls, even Nysirah, took a turn, blending the soup until thick and smooth.
Once the table was set, it was time to pull the corn bread out of the oven and sit down to eat. I couldn't wait to hear what they thought of the soup.
Christian might have liked it if he hadn't added too much yogurt and cilantro and ended up with something that was just gloppy - and cold.
Nick was enthusiastic: "It's great!" he said.
Kimberly liked the soup, though the curry was an odd flavor for her. Not that she didn't like it, it was just something new. She did eat it all, and her corn bread, too.
Nysirah and Aneza were not fans. And it didn't have anything to do with the flavor - it was the texture they couldn't get past. Each of them took a few bites, mostly to be polite.
"It's just weird," said Aneza.
"I think if it wasn't blended all smooth," said Nysirah, "I would have chowed it down."
So I had been wrong to think blending the vegetables into a smooth soup would make them more appealing, and that the curry would render the soup pleasingly exotic. Perhaps the lesson this week was for me: Not to try so hard - but never to stop trying.
Carrot and Sweet Potato Soup With Beans
Makes 6 servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 carrots, peeled and cut into coins
1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
5 cups water (or vegetable or chicken stock)
Sea salt and pepper to taste
14-ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon good curry powder (or more to taste)
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
Pinch of paprika
2 tablespoons of cilantro leaves
1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy stockpot. Add the onion and stir until the onion has become translucent. Add the carrots, stir. Add the sweet potatoes. Add the water or stock, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Simmer until the sweet potato is soft, about 12 minutes.
2. Add half the beans and the curry powder, stirring well. Then use the immersion blender to puree the soup.
3. Add the remaining beans and cook gently. If too thick, add extra boiling water. Taste for salt, pepper and curry powder.
4. Ladle the soup into bowl. Swirl in a dollop of yogurt and sprinkle with paprika. Scatter cilantro leaves on top and serve.
- From Good Cooking (Quadrille)
Per serving: 376 calories, 20 grams protein, 65 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fat, 1 milligram cholesterol, 44 milligrams sodium, 22 grams dietary fiber.
Skillet Corn Bread
Makes 12 servings
1 cup yellow corn meal
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
8 ounces Greek yogurt
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup butter
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. Combine cornmeal, flour, salt, and baking powder in a bowl. Stir together.
3. Measure the yogurt and milk in a measuring cup and add the egg. Stir together with a fork. Add the baking soda and stir.
4. Pour the milk mixture into the dry ingredients. Stir with a fork until combined.
5. Melt butter in a cast iron skillet. Pour almost all the melted butter (leave a small amount in the bottom of the pan) into the batter. Stir until just combined.
6. Pour the batter into the hot skillet (batter should sizzle). Spread to even out the surface.
7. Cook on stovetop over medium heat for one minute, then bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown.
- From the Pioneer Woman
Per serving: 118 calories, 4 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 47 grams fat, 26 milligrams cholesterol, 290 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
My Daughter's Kitchen
The mission. To teach schoolchildren to prepare healthy, easy meals on a budget.
The reach. Volunteers are in 10 Philadelphia schools, with intent to expand the program.
The partner. The Vetri Foundation, which shares the goal of encouraging healthy eating for children.
To support. Send donations to Vetri Foundation for Children, 1113 Admiral Peary Way, Quarters N, Philadelphia 19112; note "My Daughter's Kitchen" in the memo. Or go to vetrifoundation.org.
To participate. Submit recipes to be considered for classes. Must be simple, nutritious, protein-rich, prepared in less than an hour, and cost less than $20 for six servings. Send recipes to Food@philly.com.