Young cooks meet bucatini and squash

Kareema Brown measures olive oil for the salad dressing.
Kareema Brown measures olive oil for the salad dressing.
Posted: October 25, 2013

The five young chefs were ready with their cookbooks and cutting boards when I arrived for our second class at Bayard Taylor Elementary in North Philadelphia.

"What's boo-ca . . . ti-ni?" said Bianca Perez, 11, sounding out the first word in the recipe for our second meal, bucatini with spicy summer squash and white beans.

"It's a kind of pasta," I said, digging into the bag of groceries to show them. "It's a little thicker than spaghetti but hollow in the middle."

In addition to teaching these fifth graders healthy, inexpensive recipes for the next two months, I wanted to introduce them to different foods. As we read through the recipe, it was clear they were not familiar with, or enthusiastic about, another ingredient: summer squash.

"Keep an open mind," I told them. "The way you cook something can make it taste different, and once you learn, you can cook things the way you like them."

"My dad says if you learn to cook, you'll never be hungry," piped up Mark Ramirez, 10, my most enthusiastic chef.

"Exactly!" I said.

In short order, the kids were hustling around the kitchen, putting water up to boil on the stove, chopping zucchini and garlic, grating Parmesan cheese, chopping parsley. And this space, which at first seemed so cold and industrial, had become warm and almost homey, transformed by the light in the faces and the energy of these five children, so eager to learn. They worked so quickly, it was a challenge to keep them busy.

"Miss, Miss," prodded Yariel Fernandez, 10. "What can I do next?"

At that moment, we needed to figure out how to open a can of beans without a can opener. I was contemplating poking holes with my car keys when Lorrie Craley, a Taylor teacher who has generously volunteered to help us after school each week, appeared with an opener she found in the teachers lounge.

"OK, Yariel, you can open the can."

In the meantime, Mark had started sauteing the squash on the stove, adding commentary: "My dad says you always have to add a little oil, or else it will burn, right?"

Mark could be teaching the class! He adeptly browned the zucchini slices in the skillet, removed then to a plate, then demonstrated for Yariel, who is small and shy and mostly quiet - perhaps because Spanish is his first language - but always ready for another job.

After our first class, Chanitza Sanchez moved to another school, so a new student, Lixjohanne Alicea, 10, joined us. (Last year I lost one of my most enthusiastic students when she moved after a few lessons; mobility is just one more challenge in urban schools.) Lixjohanne held the zucchini plate for Mark, then took a turn at sauteing.

Kareema Brown, 11, a tall girl with a mind of her own, sauntered over, eyeing the nicely browned coins of squash, and asked if she could try one.

"Absolutely," I said.

Her verdict: "It tastes sort of like potatoes and broccoli." I never thought about summer squash that way, but I could see what she meant.

We were also making a salad, a variation on a Waldorf, with apples, celery, and raisins. I demonstrated how to cut the apples in quarters, remove the core, and then cut thin slices for the salad. But checking back, some of the core was left on most slices, there were bruises, and the cuts were not clean.

If you worked in a restaurant, I said, the chef would make you do it again.

"Why?" asked Kareema. "It still tastes good."

"Well," I said, "part of cooking is to make the food look beautiful."

But at the same time I realized Kareema had a point, and told her that in her own kitchen she could do it her way. The apples do taste just as good, and there is merit in not wasting.

We powered through the rest of the meal. Kareema measured and mixed ingredients for the vinaigrette; Lixjohanne, wearing giant oven mitts up to her elbows, expertly drained the pasta, steam rising in a cloud; and Mark sauteed the garlic, adding the beans to warm them before we put together the pasta dish. The finishing touch was a sprinkle of Parmesan and parsley.

As we tucked into our meal, we talked about the importance of eating healthy to reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, so prevalent throughout so much of the city. Many of the kids had family members with diabetes.

"Your bodies need fuel, just like a car needs gas," I told the kids, adding how important it is to eat foods with vitamins, minerals, and protein so your body grows healthy and strong, your brain functions at its best, and you have lots of energy.

"Those beans are your protein," I told Bianca when I saw she had left them on her plate. The next time I looked, she was slipping the beans, one by one, into her mouth.

Yummy reports from the other classes

Wissahickon Charter School

We found Italy on the map and talked about different pasta shapes and passed around the bucatini so everyone could see how tubular it was. Everyone wanted a chance to grate the Parmesan. The students set the table beautifully, remembering the rule from last week: fork on left (four and left both have four letters), knife and spoon on the right (all with five letters).

We decided to serve a salad, too. Amber and Elijah worked on the dressing, the girls sliced pears, and Brandon washed and chopped the romaine. Nina composed the salad, lettuce piled in the middle with pear slices fanned around the perimeter, feta cheese sprinkled on top. The pasta was a big hit. They loved the red pepper flakes, and most added more to their plates.

- Diane Fanelli and

Barbara Krumbhaar

Young Scholars Douglass

We used the propane burner to make the bucatini (as the school does not have a stove), and Sue brought her electric fry pan again for the squash. Safir showed much patience cooking the squash, which took a long time. We also made a salad with romaine along with vinaigrette. Keyshawn was very proud of the vinaigrette he made, and was totally amazed by the oil and vinegar separating. All the students said they could make this dish for their families. This week the sixth graders were taking trips to visit colleges, Samir to the University of Maryland, Keyshawn to Howard. A major thrust at Young Scholars is going to college and they start discussions early. We told the boys that we expected a full report.

- Lyn Stein and Sue Baelen

St. Martin De Porres

We talked about presentation, and Aniyah spent a lot of time meticulously arranging the apples on the plate in a spiral. Maliyah enjoyed working with Julie to make a pretty salad! They took such pride in making things look attractive.

Everyone (except Maliyah) loved the zucchini! They all would make it again at home. We talked about using spices (hot pepper flakes in this case) to ramp up the flavor instead of oversalting things. No one wanted to mix the zucchini in with the pasta! They all thought the beans were "nasty" except for Maliyah, who thought they were good and "tasted like shrimp!" Everyone wanted tomato sauce with the pasta, veggie on the side. And they wanted meat. We explained the beans and the cheese were good proteins, but no one was buying that.

- Christine Chmielewski

and Julie Smith

The students from Community Partnership School were on a field trip and did not cook this week.

Bucatini With Spicy Squash and Beans

Makes 6 servings

¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (or less)

1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (or to taste)

1½ pounds squash, cut into ½-inch coins

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

One 16-ounce can cannellini or white navy beans, drained and rinsed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1½ pounds bucatini or other pasta, such as shells or rigatoni

¼ cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley (or 1 tablespoon dried)

¼ cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1.   Bring 8 quarts of water to a boil in a large pasta pot.

2.   While the water is heating, heat ¼ cup of the oil (or enough to cover the bottom of the pan) in a 12-inch saute pan over medium high heat until smoking. Add the red pepper flakes and just enough squash coins to cover the bottom of the pan in one layer. Cook without moving the squash, until it is golden brown on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Transfer the browned squash coins to a plate. Repeat until all the squash is cooked, adding oil as needed.

3.   Add the remaining oil and the garlic to the saute pan and cook over medium heat until the garlic is light brown, about two minutes. Add the beans and simmer for 5 minutes, until warmed through. Add the cooked squash and season with salt and pepper to taste, remove from the heat, and set aside.

4.   Add 2 teaspoons salt to the boiling water. Drop the bucatini into the water and cook for 1 minute less than the package instructions indicate. Just before it is done, carefully ladle ¼ cup of the cooking water into the squash mixture.

5.   Drain the pasta in a colander and add it to the sauce. Add the parsley and toss over medium heat for about 30 seconds, until the pasta is nicely coated. Pour into a warmed serving bowl and serve immediately, with the grated cheese sprinkled on top.


From Molto Batali, Simple Family Meals From My Home to Yours

(Ecco, 2011)

Per serving: 508 calories, 10 g fat (2 g saturated fat, no trans fat) 67 mg cholesterol, 100 mg sodium, 80 g carbohydrates, 13 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar, 24 g protein

Nutritional note: Low in sodium, sugar, high in dietary fiber, thiamin.


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