As our cooking classes wind down - just one more to go! - I still want to introduce healthy meals, but I also long to teach these 11-year-old girls to make something they really love.
I figured smoothies were a good bet, and I knew better than to whip up the banana, kale, flaxseed, and almond milk concoctions I love. I'd go with a basic banana-yogurt-honey blend, and present it as an alternative to the fast-food banana milkshake Jayla Reeves loves.
But as we started, Jayla spoke up. "Are you making it with yogurt?"
"Yes, delicious vanilla yogurt."
"I hate yogurt," she said. "Can't we make it with ice cream?"
"I don't like yogurt either," Chamya Davis said. "It makes me throw up."
"Well, let's just make a small one with yogurt and frozen bananas, and you can try it."
So we did, and they universally rejected it.
Smoothie, take two: Bananas, frozen strawberries, milk, ice and a little honey. We whirred it up in the blender, and while they did sip enough to make a reasonable decision, none of them was won over.
"It really needs more honey," Kayla Reid said.
So much for making something they would all love!
Before we got to the smoothies, we had also made a chicken Caesar salad. I wanted to introduce the idea of salad as a meal, one they could prepare quickly and easily on their own. Since these are committed carnivores, I knew meat was essential, so I added chicken to the classic Caesar.
While I feared the anchovies in the dressing would scare them, I really wanted them to taste the briny result. So I prepared the authentic dressing at home and brought ingredients to make another version sans anchovies with the girls. They could taste both and decide.
For the croutons, I brought panini bread, which needed to be sliced into squares. I demonstrated with a serrated knife, best for slicing bread.
"It looks kind of like a saw," Kayla said.
"Exactly right, and it works the same way," I said.
They all took turns slicing the bread, sneaking a few squares into their mouths along the way.
"We won't have any croutons in the salad," I warned.
We put the bread cubes in a bowl, drizzled them with olive oil, added a pinch of salt and a few turns of the pepper mill, and tossed them to absorb the oil. Then, into the oven for 10 minutes to toast.
Jayla and Maliyah Gregg wanted to cook the chicken, and Kayla and Hope Wescott opted to prepare the romaine lettuce, while Chamya Davis would chop the garlic and start on the dressing.
I demonstrated how to separate the lettuce leaves, rinse them in cold water, and then, since we had no salad spinner, shake off as much water as possible and set them on paper towels to dry.
I told Jayla and Maliyah that we needed the chicken breasts to be the same thickness, about 3/4-inch, so they would cook faster and more evenly. We had no meat mallet, so we improvised with the flat bottoms of Corningware casserole pans.
Maliyah was tentative, but Jayla was so aggressive I thought she might break the dish. "I love this!" she said as she whacked the chicken down to size.
"Easy, easy does it," I told her.
Once it was a (relatively) uniform thickness, we sliced each breast in thirds, and then browned it on both sides, using a cast iron skillet, so we could finish it in the oven.
"Oooh, it looks nice and golden," Maliyah said.
"Yes, but it's not cooked all the way through, so don't taste it!"
We put the chicken in the oven after pulling out the croutons to cool.
Checking in with Kayla, I found her already chopping the lettuce - and, frankly, it was not looking too good. It was soaking wet; the outer leaves, wilted and brown, had not been discarded; and her slicing did not go clear through the leaves. The result was a pile of shredded, soggy greenery.
OK, let's get rid of these ugly brown leaves, I said, picking them out of the bowl. And then let's get some paper towels and see if we can blot these leaves a little bit.
"Why do they have to be so dry?" Kayla asked.
Because otherwise, the dressing won't cling to them, I told her.
With a little better instruction, the appearance of the lettuce was greatly improved.
Now the chicken was done, taken out of the oven, cooled, and sliced. Jayla was shaving the Parmesan cheese, using a carrot peeler to produce long, thin curls. Chamya had finished the salad dressing, so the ingredients were ready to be assembled.
Time to decide on the dressing.
Each girl dipped a romaine leaf into one dressing, tasted, then tried the other.
To my total amazement, the one with anchovies was the clear winner.
"This one is sooo much better!" Jayla said.
"Tastes like a real Caesar salad," Hope said.
"And now you have to guess the secret ingredient," I said.
"What? What is it?" they asked.
"Little fish that come in a can."
"EWWWW! I'm so glad you didn't tell us!"
Lesson learned, on both my part and theirs. You never know until you try.
Chicken Caesar Salad
Makes 6 to 8 servings
For the croutons
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups rustic bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the chicken
3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded to 3/4-inch
1 teaspoon olive oil
For the dressing
2 garlic cloves
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 egg, coddled (see note)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 heads romaine lettuce, outer leaves discarded, inner leaves washed and dried
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler
1. To make the croutons: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place the cubes of bread in a bowl and toss with the olive oil until coated. Sprinkle with salt, and pepper; toss until evenly coated. Spread the bread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake until croutons are golden, about 10 minutes. Set aside.
2. To cook the chicken: Salt and pepper chicken breasts. Place olive oil in an oven-proof skillet. Brown the chicken breasts on medium heat for about two minutes. Turn and brown on the other side. Finish in the oven for five minutes, until cooked through.
3. To make the dressing: Smash, then mince the garlic. Mince the anchovies. Add them to a blender or mini-prep Cuisinart with the lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, and coddled egg. Puree til smooth. Add the olive oil and blend until incorporated.
4. Chop the romaine leaves into 1- to 11/2-inch pieces. Place in the bowl and add the croutons. Drizzle on the dressing. Toss with the cheese. If you wish, grate extra cheese over the top.
Note: To coddle the egg, break it into a small, microwave-safe bowl and cook for 20 seconds. Transfer to another small bowl to let it cool before adding it to the dressing.