Why can't we make what we like?

Mark Ramirez, 10, and Kareema Brown, 11 , get chopping, preparing to make fish tacos at Bayard Taylor Elementary School in North Philadelphia. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Mark Ramirez, 10, and Kareema Brown, 11 , get chopping, preparing to make fish tacos at Bayard Taylor Elementary School in North Philadelphia. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 15, 2013

Nobody was too enthusiastic about the idea of making fish tacos for our fifth cooking lesson at Bayard Taylor Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

The fifth graders in the after-school class were on board for the taco part. But the cod, which none of them had tasted before, not so much.

"I don't really like fish," said Bianca Perez, wrinkling her nose.

"Keep an open mind," I told them.

I asked the kids to write down what they ate for dinners at home and their answers were typical of many American households: pizza, Chinese takeout, chicken, mac and cheese, rice and beans, fish sticks, hamburgers.

For lunch, chicken nuggets and tater tots (the school offering that day); also a Nutella sandwich with popcorn. For breakfast, pancakes, Lucky Charms, eggs and bacon.

So I could see where fish tacos with cabbage slaw was not a meal most American kids were going to get excited about. Kareema Brown, never shy about expressing her opinion, put it right out there: "Why can't we make the foods we like?" she asked. "Why do we have to make the foods you want?"

"Well," I said, "you don't need me to teach you about the foods you already know. I'm trying to introduce you to foods you might not know, and show you how easy it is to prepare them. And how good they can be."

But truth be told, Kareema was not alone. Even the volunteers teaching the cooking classes in other schools had weighed in after the first few lessons, asking if we could make more kid-friendly recipes. One wanted to make muffins. Another, apple crisp.

I get it. It's so much more fun to teach children to cook the foods they want. And it is so much easier to feed them the meals they love. I know my own kids begged for pizza and McDonald's when I was pushing healthy meals with fruits and vegetables.

But the soaring rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity are, in part, the result of taking the easy way. And I truly believe that cooking simple, tasty, healthy meals can start to change the way kids think, and, in the end, that can make a world of difference.

So we stayed on task, and got busy making the cole slaw, with Kareema coring and chopping a big purple cabbage, Mark Ramirez chopping the cilantro, Yariel Fernandez juicing the lime, Lixjohanne Alicea measuring the olive oil, and Bianca mixing it all together along with a tablespoon of sugar, before we put it in the fridge to cure.

I'm not sure Kareema really bought my answer, but she didn't pursue the argument. And as we moved on to slicing the fish, she wanted a turn, just as they all did. And once they got the hang of it, each pulled the knife through the flesh quite confidently. All except Bianca, that is, who wanted no part of it. Even touching the strips of fish made her shudder.

The kids took turns soaking slices of cod in milk, and rolling them in the panko bread crumbs, to which we had added a pinch of cayenne. They even recognized it was the same technique we used to bread eggplant fries.

"Exactly right!" I exclaimed.

We laid the breaded fish in rows on a baking sheet, then put it in the oven. We wrapped the tortillas in foil to warm them, while the fish was baking.

And then we added the leftover sliced cabbage to spinach and romaine for the salad; sliced a pear to add, while Lixjohanne and Bianca made a simple vinaigrette.

A squeeze of lime juice into mayonnaise made for a simple sauce for the tacos.

When the timer went off, and the kids assembled the tacos and dug in, I think everyone was quite surprised at how much better they tasted than they expected.

"I never ate cod before, but I would make these at home," said Yariel.

We made as many tacos as we could with the leftovers, and everyone wanted to take them home. Everyone, that is, except Bianca.

"I still don't like the fish," she said. "But I did like the cole slaw."

"Well, at least you tried it, that's all I can ask," I told her.

The biggest surprise of all came from Kareema: "I love the fish cod," she wrote. "I love the fish tacos, and I love cooking class!"

Well, what do you know?

Kitchen Notebook

Young Scholars Douglass

Instead of the regular salad to go with the fish tacos, we made more cabbage slaw, and added green cabbage and red onion. The girls chopped the cabbages and onion with just a few tears. We told them about a few options they could try to avoid the tears, including putting perfume/cologne about their upper lip and below their nose to confuse the brain, freezing the onion, or putting a piece of bread in their mouth to absorb the smell. Our suggestions got a few giggles! We all got a lesson in the geography of the lime from a guest teacher (my regular partner is on vacation). Zelda Greenberg showed us the poles on the lime when we needed slices; equator/middle is used when we want to squeeze the lime. Aniya McLean told us that she didn't like fish but she enjoyed the fish taco. All of the girls agreed that they could make this dish for their families.

- Lyn Stein, Zelda Greenberg

Wissahickon Charter School

This week really surprised us as we did not think all the kids would like the fish tacos but they all raved about them. We added a black bean and corn salad to complement the tacos. Some of the kids added this to the taco as well as the slaw. We also used a grater for the cabbage to get smaller pieces, which made the assembly of the tacos easier. Here are some remarks from the kids.

Alaina Tomlinson: I liked it, not loved it. To me the black beans and corn were too cold and had no flavor. I tasted everything.

Nina Cunningham: I loved the fish taco with cabbage slaw. The fish taco was the best I ever had in years. The cabbage slaw was great and the black beans OMG!!!

Brandon Day: The fish tasted amazing. It melted into my mouth. I felt like I was in fish heaven.

Amber Jacobs: The fish taco was cool. Everything that we had was awesome.

- Barbara Krumbhaar, Diane Fanelli

Community Partnership School

The fish tacos and salad were a big hit. We got the cod that was on sale at ShopRite. After we got everything ready, each kid assembled their own taco with a few chunks of fish, slaw, a drizzle of lime-mayo, and a sprinkle of cilantro. We used the whole-wheat tortillas again and no one even noticed. Although Annette Grant didn't think she liked fish tacos, she asked for more after finishing her first! Three kids wanted to take the leftover salad home. The tacos were all gone except for Anyia Daniel's, the only one who still didn't like the fish, but she did try it. Nicholas Bowersox, who said he didn't like fish, was caught eating it. We think we made a convert!

We were also excited to hear this from Jalia Hale's dad: "Now, I'm the chef in my house," he said, "and the other night guess what Jalia said? 'I think this could use a little more paprika.' She's definitely bringing this stuff home, and now she wants to be in the kitchen with me more."

- Adrian Seltzer and Katherine Rapin

My Daughter's Kitchen

The mission. To teach schoolchildren to prepare healthy, easy meals on a budget.

The reach. Volunteers are in five 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.

Fish Tacos With Cabbage Slaw

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1/2 head red cabbage

1 cup cilantro, stems removed and roughly chopped

2 limes

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound lean white fish, such as cod or flounder

1 cup milk

1 cup panko bread crumbs

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

8 flour tortillas

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Core cabbage and cut into very thin strips (about 1/8 inch); place in mixing bowl with cilantro.

3. Juice one lime and mix the juice with salt and sugar in measuring cup until dissolved. Add olive oil.

4. Pour over cabbage and cilantro and refrigerate until ready to use.

5. Soak the fish in the milk in a shallow dish.

6. Place the bread crumbs and cayenne pepper in another shallow dish and mix well. Then dip the fish, one piece at a time, into the bread crumbs, turning to coat.

7. Place fish on baking pan, and season with salt and pepper. Cook in preheated oven for about 10 minutes or until flesh is tender and bread crumbs are crispy.

8. Slice remaining lime into quarters, and squeeze one quarter into mayonnaise for sauce and set aside. Slice remaining quarters in half for garnish.

9. Remove fish from oven.  

10. Lay tortillas on table, and divide the fish among the tortillas. Top fish with cabbage slaw. Fold into a taco, and top with mayo lime sauce, plus a squeeze of lime, if desired.

Per serving (based on 8): 237 calories, 18 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, 42 milligrams cholesterol, 500 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

Nutritional note: Very high in selenium and Vitamin B-12, high in Vitamin C, B-6, and phosphorus.

Spinach and Romaine Salad

Makes 8 servings

One head romaine lettuce, washed, dried, and chopped

4 cups baby spinach, washed and stems removed

1/2 head cabbage, sliced thin

1 cucumber, peeled and sliced

1 ripe pear, sliced into wedges

For salad dressing:

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1. Toss romaine and spinach together in a salad bowl.

2. Add cabbage, cucumber, and pears.

3. Make dressing: Measure mustard and vinegar and stir together in measuring cup.

4. Stir in the sugar.

5. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, while stirring.

6. At the last minute, dress the salad and toss.

Per serving: 130 calories; 1 gram protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; 13 grams fat; no cholesterol; 41 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.




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