We had a lot on our plates for our final cooking class at Bayard Taylor Elementary in North Philadelphia, especially for fifth-grade cooks: We were preparing dinner for their families, cooking the favorite recipes from the ones they had learned. Each of the five children had invited two guests. At least that was the plan.
Somehow, we ended up with three younger siblings in the kitchen: Kareema Brown's younger sister, Kiara, 10, and the little brother and sister of Yariel Fernandez, Bryan, 9, and Yarianna, 7. And Bryan, a high-energy boy, was already running laps around the prep area.
So, eight kids and less than two hours to make chicken quesadillas and lentil soup for 20 - with a balky oven.
I love a challenge!
Then, just as we began unloading the cooking utensils from our cabinet, a glass crashed on the tile floor and shattered.
"Well, I worried the whole year about breaking something on this floor," I said. "At least we got that over with!"
So, we swept it up and we were underway.
Another dimension to the challenge was prepping two recipes at the same time, with some completely inexperienced cooks. But the unexpected reward was watching my veterans instructing - others might say bossing - the younger ones.
"Now Kiara, watch how I do it," said Kareema. "You have to get all the paper off the onion . . . . Now, do we want the onions sliced or diced?" she asked me matter-of-factly, one hand on her hip.
I felt a pinch of pride.
"Well actually, we need both, two sliced and two diced," I told her.
Once the onions and peppers were prepped, Yariel supervised his brother and sister, both outfitted in aprons that fell below their knees, for the sautéing on the stove, with Mark Ramirez providing assistance.
At the same time, Bianca Perez and Lixjohanne Alicea seasoned the chicken thighs and laid them on a baking pan, so we could start praying they would cook in our unpredictable oven.
Our little kitchen had the look of a restaurant assembly line as the children worked through the tasks: putting the lentils in a pot of water to boil; chopping the celery, carrots, and parsley; grating the cheese; opening the cans of beans and tomatoes.
Miraculously, the oven worked, the chicken thighs roasted beautifully. But, perhaps because we had doubled the recipe, the lentils were taking forever.
"Still hard," said Lixjohanne, after tasting them for the second time.
"Ignore them," I said. "They'll cook faster."
We both laughed, and then Lix spoke up: "I'm not really happy, you know," she said.
"What's wrong?" I asked, concerned.
"It's the last class," she said, looking down at the pot.
"Oh. I know," I said, feeling a tug at my heart. "I will miss all of you. . . . But you can remember the fun we had when you make these recipes at home," I said trying to sound cheerful. "C'mon, we still have lots to do!"
The chicken needed to be sliced, which the kids handled beautifully - of course tasting a few hunks along the way. Then the quesadillas had to be assembled: on top of the tortillas, the kids layered the chicken, sautéed onions and peppers, spinach and grated cheese, then folded and placed them on a baking sheet.
Lorrie Craley, the Taylor teacher who's been cooking with us, brought a special dessert for the kids to make: angel food cake, with fruit and low-cal whipped topping, another layering job that appealed to the kids even more.
While we waited for everything to finish cooking, the kids put on tablecloths, and organized the plates, cups, and silverware, so they would be ready to serve their families. And just as the quesadillas were coming out of the oven, at 5 p.m. sharp, the guests started to arrive.
After the kids ladled out soup and plated the quesadillas, the kids served themselves and it was time for our awards.
We were eating in the school cafeteria, which doubles as a gym, and the recurring thump of basketballs echoed from the other side of a partition. Not all the young siblings could sit still, and not all the parents understood English.
But each of the young chefs stood at attention, and beamed as I awarded each a gold medal for their accomplishments.
For Mark: The Passion and Enthusiasm Award.
"You were so full of enthusiasm for cooking and learning that it was contagious. And you kept us laughing with your quick wit. Your spirit and enthusiasm will serve you well."
For Lixjohanne: The Seriousness of Purpose and Good Thinker Award.
"You kept us on task every week, following the recipes so meticulously, measuring the ingredients so carefully. You were always thinking and making connections to the way your mom cooks. Your quiet determination will bring you success."
For Bianca: The Home Cook and Love of Cooking Award.
"You begged your mother to buy the ingredients for the quesadillas and you made them at home! I was so excited to know that you learned a recipe you liked so much you wanted to share it with your family. Your gracious and generous spirit will carry you far."
For Yariel: The Quiet Helper Award.
"You didn't speak a lot in class, but you just went about your business, often doing jobs before you were asked: getting chairs, starting the dishes, chopping vegetables. With your helpful manner and pitch-in attitude you will achieve whatever goals you set."
For Kareema: The Proficiency and Stick-to-it-iveness Award.
"Your knife skills were very good to start and improved with each class. You were the best one at chopping onions without tears! I know you had other things competing for your time after school, but you stuck with it, and sometimes in life that is half the battle - just showing up. I know you will succeed at whatever you decide to do."
And with that, our classes were over, but not before Mark cornered me in the kitchen, his fingers rubbing the medal still dangling around his neck.
"Miss Maureen," he asked, "are these real?"
"Of course they are, Mark," I said. "They are as real as the lessons each of you learned."
Young Scholars Douglass
We were supposed to have guests for our last cooking class, but the children's parents had work commitments or other obligations and the teachers and administrators were involved with other after-school activities.
We decided to serve the lentil soup, the quesadillas, and baked apples.
When the onions, peppers and chicken were cooked and ready, the fun started. All of the students wanted to make the quesadillas. They wrapped them in foil and wrote their names or initials on the packets.
While the quesadillas were heating, we all had some lentil soup. They were surprised that this was the same soup they had made several weeks before. Since there was extra soup, we took the soup home and froze it. Before coming to school, we reheated it.
Everyone loved eating the meal and some even packed up the extras to take home.
- Lyn Stein
and Sue Baelen
Community Partnership School
The kids had voted last week on their favorite recipe to make for their parents. Pork tenderloin, chicken, and applesauce was the winner! As we reviewed the recipe, Lucas quickly raised his hand and said, "I'm in charge of the meat!" We know we would make pork and chicken in separate pans because some of the kids don't eat pork.
The roasted broccoli was so popular the week before we thought we would do it again this week.
By 5 p.m., the parents were seated around the tables, waiting for the meal to be served. The five young chefs stood in front of their parents and welcomed them to the "last class family dinner."
We presented each student with homemade junior chef certificates and clapped for each cook as they sat down at the table.
So many ohs, ahs, and yums were expressed as everyone ate.
The parents recounted stories about the young chefs' new skills that made for some nice meals and help in the kitchen. Jalia had already made the savory applesauce at home and has been a big help to her dad in the kitchen. Lucas was cooking up a storm, since his mom doesn't cook. The parents thanked us.
- Adrian Seltzer
and Katherine Rapin
Wissahickon Charter School
For our final meal, we were making the baked chicken with red onion and potatoes, but we used boneless, skinless thighs because our oven doesn't always get hot enough.
The children tossed the chicken with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper using their clean hands. Most liked that. Then we snipped the rosemary and tossed that and the quartered onions in, too. Using two pans, we filled the oven and waited.
The students did a great job washing and dicing the potatoes, which we boiled and dressed with olive oil, salt, pepper and chopped parsley. Elijah is thoroughly expert at chopping parsley at this point. We also stir-fried some broccoli, red peppers, mushroom, and red onions, which everyone took a turn stirring.
Since we had asked each child to invite one guest, we prepared extra food. Three guests were friends of the students, and they helped a bit with the food prep. Two parents and a sibling joined us, and we had exactly enough food.
I'd say it was a success!
- Diane Fanelli and Barbara Krumbhaar