We were cooking at noon because of early dismissal for teacher report-card conferences, and some students were opening their report cards for the first time.
"I got an A in violin!" exclaimed Kimberly Luu - which set off a round of bragging about how many A's each received that lasted until I could get the geniuses to focus on cooking.
Before starting our spring cooking classes, I had asked several local chefs for simple, nutritious recipes that included fresh produce, could be prepared in about an hour, cost less than $20 for six servings, and contained about 20 grams of protein and no more than 500 calories per serving.
Several chefs submitted recipes, but unfortunately, most were too expensive, too difficult, too time-consuming, or had too many calories. But one, from Brad Spence and Ned Maddock at Amis, got an A-plus!
The question: Would these fifth graders appreciate chicken spiedini with salsa verde (an Italian variation of chicken kebabs with a parsley sauce) and fruit salad with parsley, lemon juice, and shavings of Parmesan cheese?
Reading it over, they were skeptical: "I thought parsley was a garnish, not something you eat," said Christian McKinney.
"It has a subtle flavor," I told him. "Don't decide till you try it."
First, we soaked bamboo skewers in water, so they wouldn't catch fire in the oven. Then, the chicken had to be cut into chunks. There were enough skinless, boneless thighs for each child to have a go, so I demonstrated how to lay the poultry flat, trim the fat, and then carve it up. The boys were quick, but Aneza Abalo and Nysirah Hall wanted to carefully (endlessly) trim every bit of fat. Once it was gone, Aneza loved cutting the flesh.
"It makes me excited to dissect a frog," she said. "Is this what that's like?"
"Well, there are a lot more body parts on a frog that you will have to identify," I said.
Kimberly Luu, who had been plucking parsley as she waited for a spot at a cutting board, had heard enough: "I don't think I really want a turn."
We discussed how important it was to scrub cutting boards and hands with hot water and soap after cutting raw chicken, to avoid salmonella.
Once the chicken was marinating, we moved on to the salsa verde. Nick Rodriguez helped Kim with chopping the parsley, and he learned what every chef knows about working with herbs: "It really takes a lot of chopping to make half a cup!"
For the fruit salad, the boys claimed the apples and Aneza and Nysirah the oranges. Kim was happy to keep chopping parsley.
"Can I take the extra home?" she asked.
"Yes, you have certainly earned it," I told her.
The apples were easy to cut into quarters, then cut away the core and slice into bite-size pieces.
Segmenting the oranges was a little tougher. I showed the girls how to cut off each end, then, placing the flat end on a cutting board, how to follow the shape of the orange while cutting away all the peel and pith. I suggested holding the oranges over the bowl when separating the segments, to capture the juice. And these oranges were juicy!
The kids weren't excited about parsley or olive oil or lemon juice in their fruit salad, not to mention Parmesan cheese and salt and pepper? Couldn't they have it plain?
"You already know what regular fruit salad tastes like," I said. "You have to open your mind to exploring new things. . . . Besides, this recipe is Italian, Christian. It's your heritage!"
We got the chicken threaded onto skewers, then popped them in the oven. While we waited, I suggested we start cleaning up - but when it's time to wash dishes, there are always requests to use the restroom or call parents. No different than my own house, I might add. No A-pluses in dishwashing for this group!
Pretty quickly, the chicken was a lovely brown and ready to eat. I demonstrated how to slide the chicken with a fork off the skewers and onto the plate.
"Why can't we just eat it on the stick?" Christian asked.
"And why did we bother to put it on?" asked Kim.
Good questions both. "You can eat it that way," I said. "But if you're at a formal dinner, you should know how to take it off the stick."
In the end, Nysirah and Christian preferred the chicken without the salsa verde, and the fruit salad without the parsley and the cheese. But Kim, Nick, and Aneza were fans.
And Kim, who has come to appreciate some of the flavors that are so different from the porridge her mother makes, demonstrated that she is discovering her own palate: "I really liked the fruit salad because it was sour and juicy," she wrote. "And I like sour stuff."