One mission of My Daughter's Kitchen healthy cooking classes is to get kids cooking and eating more vegetables. Yet, like many Americans, there is no denying that most of these kids love cooking and eating meat.
That has been true since the first class five years ago, when we made vegetable soup and the 10-year-olds asked, "Where's the meat?"
In spite of author Michael Pollan's advice to eat "mostly plants" and studies advocating a veggie-rich Mediterranean diet, the USDA predicted we would eat more chicken, beef, and pork this year than ever before — 222 pounds per year per person, on average. Americans eat more beef than almost anyone else in the world. Even as vegetarian and vegan diets gain popularity, most Americans still love meat.
So it came as no surprise that the lime-marinated steak taco was the most anticipated recipe at the 35 urban schools in Philadelphia and Camden where cooking classes are being taught for eight weeks this fall.
This recipe provides a healthier alternative to a fast-food favorite, with fresh ingredients and less salt and fat. It calls for a modest portion of lean beef, one pound sliced thin to make 12 tacos, or six servings, making it not only healthier, but also cost efficient ($23 for ingredients). Onions, peppers, avocado, cilantro, a crumbly Mexican cheese, and a citrusy cream are added, noting that meat does not have to be the main ingredient, just one component.
Though many of the 200 students had been waiting for this recipe, at Frances McGraw Mastery Charter School in Camden, where I was visiting last week, the children have been receptive to every recipe so far, reported volunteers Judi Levine and Sashai Roberts, who is also a special-ed teacher at the school.
"I've been so impressed with how open they are to trying new things," said Levine, even the cabbage and eggplant that were unfamiliar.
"It has been really great trying things I haven't had before," said Gigi Torres, 9.
"I like all the different ingredients we are putting in," LaShay Pearson, 9, said as she inhaled the aroma of the cilantro she was chopping. It seemed like every ingredient the students encountered prompted another ode of joy. "I love avocados!" said Gigi. And then, minutes later, "I love limes!"
"Gigi loves everything," said Levine. "I keep telling her she is not allowed to have so much fun." Gigi just responded with giggles. "That is the best part of cooking class," she said. "It's so fun!"
Katelyn Moreno, 9, was quick to raise her hand to cut up the top round steak she loves. As she and Hailey Ramos, 9, were slicing it into strips, they were asked if they knew why all the pieces had to be the same size. "So they all cook the same," Katelyn replied matter-of-factly.
The students worked through the recipe, mixing the marinade and squishing the meat as it marinated in the plastic bag, making the lime crema (adding a squeeze of lime into some yogurt) and then sautéing the onions and peppers on the stove.
"Oh, yeah, you get in there and sizzle," Katelyn said, bossing the vegetables as she stirred them in the hot cast-iron skillet. And then she passed along a lesson: "You have to stir all the way around the pan, and keep moving it around, so it all cooks the same," she told Gigi, who was stirring after the steak strips were added.
Once the meat was cooked through, it was added to the lineup of taco ingredients: tortillas, cheese, avocados, lime wedges, cilantro, and lime crema.
Roberts, who hadn't eaten red meat in more than a year, found the aroma and presentation so tantalizing she was inspired to try it — and liked it. "I love to cook," she said, "but what I really love is having the one-on-one experience with the kids."
"I don't love to cook — at all," said Levine, the other volunteer. "But I love to eat well, and I know eating well is important." She likes to teach shortcuts: "There is nothing wrong with buying grated cheese or chopped garlic … I want to be a part of opening young minds about better eating but also make it easy and fun."
The students and their teachers all took turns assembling their tacos, and after waiting until everyone was ready, they took their first bite together. After one silent moment of chewing, the group broke into spontaneous applause.
Their rave was echoed by the other schools around the region, though a few wanted to add more spice. The kids at Hunter, Wiggins, Bayard Taylor, Community Partnership, and others said it was the best so far; many suggested it might be the meal they will prepare for friends and family for the final class. The cooks at McClure, Philadelphia Montessori Charter School, and Comly School all used love to describe the tacos. Children at the Daroff Charter reported they were "out of this world," and Egypt Scott at Wissahickon Awbury rated the tacos "infinity out of 10."
When describing exactly what made them good, a few students mentioned the tart surprise of the lime crema, but, not surprisingly, another ingredient got a lot of love. "Everyone agreed that their favorite part was the meat," wrote volunteer Susan Harris at Sacred Heard at Camden.
"This is my favorite recipe so far," said Katelyn Moreno at McGraw. "It's very good and it has a lot of meat."
Makes 6-8 servings
For the marinade:
1 medium jalapeño, seeds removed, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
Juice of 1 1⁄2 limes (about 1⁄4 cup)
1⁄4 cup cilantro, stems removed and coarsely chopped
1⁄4 cup olive oil, plus one tablespoon for sautéing
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3⁄4 teaspoon ground cumin
For the tacos:
1 pound top round boneless steak, about 1⁄2 inch in thickness, sliced into 2-inch-by-1⁄2-inch strips
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 green pepper, sliced into strips
1 medium ripe avocado, sliced
4 ounces queso fresco cheese, crumbled
1⁄2 cup cilantro leaves, stems removed
1⁄2 cup Greek yogurt
Juice of 1⁄2 lime
1 lime, cut into wedges, for garnish
12 8-inch corn tortillas
- Make the marinade: combine the jalapeño, garlic, lime juice, chopped cilantro, olive oil, salt, pepper, and cumin in a large liquid measuring cup. Mix well.
- Place the sliced steak in a large zippered plastic bag. Pour the marinade over the steak and squish to combine. Let marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add sliced onions and peppers and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes.
- Prepare the toppings and place in bowls: Slice the avocado, crumble the cheese, remove the stems from the cilantro.
- Make lime crema: place yogurt in a bowl. Juice the remaining half lime and stir the juice into the yogurt.
- Preheat the oven to 350° F. Once the steak has marinated for 20 minutes, heat the corn tortillas. Wrap them in foil and place them in the oven for about 10 minutes.
- 7. Add the sliced steak and the marinade to the onions and peppers in the skillet. Cook over medium-high heat very briefly, until the meat starts to lose its color. It should take under 2 minutes, and the meat will start to toughen up very quickly after that. Remove from the heat immediately and place it on a serving platter. Cover it with foil to keep it warm.
- 8. Assemble the tacos: On a tortilla, place a row of meat and vegetables, a drizzling of lime crema, a slice of avocado, a sprinkling of cheese and a few cilantro leaves. Drizzle with a squeeze of lime. Enjoy.