I knew I had a battle ahead of me for our next-to-last cooking class with fifth graders at Bayard Taylor Elementary School in North Philadelphia - and it wasn't with the kids.
Throughout our lessons over the last nine weeks, we had been fighting with our electric oven and all its digital bells and whistles. The thing seemed to have a mind of its own; its ability to hold a consistent temperature was as unpredictable as a moody teenager.
But I was determined to teach the kids this simple recipe for baked chicken thighs and potatoes because, with a working oven, it's such an easy family dinner - just prep and pop in the oven - and it appeals to even finicky eaters. And chicken thighs are so affordable, even Bianca Perez made note of the bargain family pack of eight thighs for $4: "Wow, that's a good price!" she said.
So I came to school with a combat plan: We immediately set the oven to preheat to 450 degrees, instead of the 400 called for in the recipe, figuring if it did get nice and hot we could always turn it down.
Mark Ramirez was my first lieutenant: "Now stay there," he commanded, wagging his finger at the recalcitrant appliance.
By now, the kids were so comfortable with the prep routine, they got right to work, peeling and then cutting the onions into wedges, peeling the garlic, cutting the red potatoes in half, stripping the fresh rosemary leaves from the sprigs. Once the vegetables were tossed with oil and vinegar, it was time to massage a little salt into the chicken thighs.
While many object to handling raw chicken, these kids jumped right in.
"Oooh, I love doing that," said Bianca. The others also wanted a turn.
We nestled the very well massaged chicken among the vegetables, and spread the ingredients between two pans. We want the vegetables to roast, I explained, and if the pans are too crowded they will steam instead.
Meanwhile, the oven, of course, did not feel like 450 degrees worth of hot, even though that's what the digital numbers read. And Mark was taking on the role of a frustrated parent: "Stop lying to us!" he chastised, waving his hand at the oven.
I went to Plan B, bumping the temperature up to broil, knowing that we could watch the contents of the top pan for five minutes or so, till they browned, then rotating to give the other pan a chance to brown.
While it was cooking, we chopped some broccoli to stir-fry on the stove, deciding not to try to juggle one more thing in the oven. Yes, we could have steamed it, but the crisp texture and taste of stir-frying or roasting are so much more appealing. We tossed the broccoli with a little olive oil, a pinch of salt, and some lemon zest.
Just as we were ready to start cooking it, Lixjohanne Alicea, the only one who can be trusted with the timer, alerted us that it was time to rotate the pans.
Bianca pulled on the big oven mitts, removed the top pan to the stove, moved the other one up to the broiler position, and slid the other one underneath. OK, the top pan had browned nicely - this might actually work! We set the timer for five minutes.
Kareema Brown and Mark started stir-frying the broccoli in two sauté pans, but those burners are also a challenge, because they seem to be either red-hot or hardly working. So we were alternating there too, stir-frying over high heat until we started to see crispiness on the edges of the broccoli, then turning it down so it wouldn't burn and could finish cooking slowly.
"It is not the ideal way to cook," I told the kids. "But sometimes you just have to improvise.
"What does improvise mean?" asked Mark.
"Well, when things don't work out the way they are supposed to, you figure out another way," I said. "You make it work."
Once the second pan of chicken was nice and brown, we switched the pans again, lowered the heat, and crossed our fingers.
While it cooked, the kids made invitations for the parents and guests they are inviting to share the meal we're making for our final class: chicken and spinach quesadillas and lentil soup.
It's so gratifying to see how excited they are to welcome their families to our little kitchen, and to see the enthusiasm they have for these simple meals.
As Mark stirred the broccoli on the stove, he paused for a minute and took in the scene. "I'm so happy to be here," he said.
As the kids monitored the chicken's progress, they all squatted around the oven window, laying dibs on the various pieces.
"That big one is mine," said Kareema.
These kids are now experts at setting a table with cloth, cutlery, plates, and folded napkins in their proper place - I don't have to say a word.
When the chicken finally seemed done, we arranged it on a tray, put the broccoli in a bowl, and sat down to eat.
After one bite of chicken, Mark pronounced: "It's a miracle!" He also enjoyed the broccoli - a vegetable he had never liked before.
I asked the kids to write down what they had learned today. How to stir-fry broccoli, how to peel garlic, how to make chicken and potatoes as a meal for their family, were some of their responses.
But Lixjohanne summed it up best: "Today, I learned how to improvise."
The children learned what a whole bulb of garlic looked like (as compared to a clove of garlic). We showed the girls how to take the papery skin off the garlic cloves.
The children separated the potato mixture into four aluminum containers to reduce the cooking time. We mixed the olive oil and red wine vinegar and poured that over the potato mixture and put the pans into the oven.
Then we worked on the chicken. We bought boneless chicken thighs, which the girls seasoned and rolled using the tongs. (Everyone wanted a turn with the tongs!)
After the chicken was prepped, we removed the pans from the oven and squeezed in the chicken. Our chicken dish was a big hit with the students. There was almost nothing left! Because Sue can't eat white potatoes, we also roasted a sweet potato, which the girls really enjoyed.
The conversation around the table revolved around everyone's Thanksgiving dinner. The sweet potato with marshmallows dish was one of the big hits at their table. Some of the students indicated that they had greens and mac and cheese. Sue spoke about the potato latkes in honor of Hanukkah at her Thanksgiving dinner. Lyn told about making jelly doughnuts, a Hanukkah tradition in Israel, with her granddaughters.
As a postscript, Lyn made the chicken recipe for dinner on Friday. Her husband enjoyed it almost as much as the students did.
- Lyn Stein and Sue Baelen
As we were preparing the vegetables for the chicken and potato dish, Adrian explained how the garlic gets 'angrier' the more you chop it, when garlic is roasted whole, the sugars in the cloves caramelize, leaving you with a sweet, garlicky perfumed product. The finer you chop it, the more the volatile chemicals in the garlic combine making the flavor harsher and stronger.
Nicholas cut the potatoes into even quarters. He had learned the importance of having them all the same size from the butternut squash in the Moroccan stew. "We want it to all cook evenly," he said.
Expert herb-chopper Jalia took care of the rosemary. We had decided to make the dish a "one pot meal" and added broccoli to the mix. Adrian regularly roasts broccoli and knows that lemon goes great with it. Annette learned to peel a lemon and slice the zest into strips, which were added to the mix.
While the chicken and veggies were in the oven, we sat down to talk to the kids about making the lentil soup with the ingredients we sent home.
We were thrilled to hear that four out of five of our cooks successfully prepared the soup! Lucas told us how he rinsed the lentils, chopped the veggies, and simmered the soup.
"I didn't like the chickpeas, but the rest of it was really good," he said.
Nicholas and Aniya made their soup for Thanksgiving. They both did it all by themselves and their families really enjoyed it. "I made my mom cut up the onion and my brother laughed at me and called me a crybaby," Jalia said. But her dad, the head chef in her household, liked the soup and she was happy.
We checked on the chicken and it wasn't done yet. The 400 degree setting on the oven didn't feel like 400 so we upped the temperature to 450 degrees. Soon it was done. The chicken and roasted veggies got rave reviews.
"The broccoli's my favorite!" Jalia said. Nicholas asked for extra broccoli too. How often do you hear that from 5th graders? We'll be including that in the family dinner too. With kids, roasted veggies ARE the way to go.
- Adrian Seltzer and Katherine Rapin
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 red onions, each cut into 10 wedges
2 pounds new potatoes, not peeled, but cut in half or quarters, depending on size
2 bulbs garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
Salt and pepper
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
5 sprigs of rosemary, or 2 teaspoons dried
12 chicken thighs, with bone, rubbed with a pinch of sea salt to crisp the chicken
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Farenheit. Spread the vegetables and garlic in a single layer over the bottom of a Pyrex pan, so they will crisp and brown nicely. (You may need to use two pans.)
2. Season with salt and pepper, combine the oil and vinegar, then pour over the vegetables and add the rosemary (leaving some sprigs whole if using fresh and stripping the leaves off the rest.) Toss the vegetables with your hands and tuck the chicken pieces in among them. Bake for 45 minutes, until cooked through.
3. Remove from the oven and serve.
- From Pure Simple Cooking (Ten Speed Press, 2007)
Per serving: 480 calories, 18 g fat (4 g saturated fat, no trans fat) 135 mg cholesterol, 141 mg sodium, 29 g carbohydrates, 5 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar, 47 g protein.
Nutritional note: low in sodium, sugar; very high in vitamin B6, high in niacin, selenium, vitamin C