Six weeks into our cooking classes, the 10-year-old students from Russell Byers Charter School had shown impressive progress in their ability to peel, chop, whisk, measure, slice, season, and sear.
And none too soon, as they would need all these skills for one of our most labor-intensive recipes yet, an Asian-style stir-fry with chicken thighs and vegetables, served over quinoa instead of rice.
These fifth graders were familiar with similar dishes from Chinese take-out. But this recipe would produce a healthier, lower-salt, lower-calorie version that would serve six people for less than $20. Even the cheapest corner takeouts would be hard pressed to beat that.
It also introduced the children to the technique of cutting carrots and red bell peppers into matchsticks, and I was so grateful to have Ayelyn Estevez, the culinary student from Benjamin Franklin High School, demonstrate how to carefully slice them into thin, even little rectangles that would cook quickly.
"Are these peppers hot?" asked Bethany Swan, who was slicing with Christina Brown.
"No, these are bell peppers - they have no heat," I said. "No worries about burning your eyes if you touch them after cutting. But good question!"
Dayanna Schomo, Kaylah Nobrun, and Amber Wiggins were happy to cut the thighs into thin strips.
"Should we cut off the fat?" Amber asked. A chorus of preferences ensued: "I love fat!" "I hate fat!"
The thighs were skinless, boneless, and pretty lean. The little bit of fat won't add many calories, but it will add flavor, I told them. So it's really the cook's preference. In the end, some was trimmed, and some was left.
Dennis Morrison Wesley 3d, who hates vegetables, has no aversion to chopping them, and he took on dicing the zucchini - quite proficiently, I might add. We also had garlic to slice, ginger to mince, scallions to chop, and limes to zest and juice - lots to do!
Kaylah and Dennis were eager to sear the chicken in a saute pan - until, that is, we got started and it turned out to be the most challenging task they had faced thus far.
First step: heating the oil. Then the chicken was added. We had to watch the powerful gas burners to make sure their flames were not burning too high, lest the oil splatter.
"This is hard . . . It's so hot!" said Kaylah, tongs in hand as she moved the strips around in the pan as they browned.
"Yes, but look at you," I said. "You're cooking!"
At about 4 feet tall, Kaylah was much closer to the stovetop than the adults it was designed for, and when she leaned over the pan to see if the chicken was brown, she jumped back quickly with a gasp. A drop of hot oil spattered right in her face.
To her credit, after splashing cool water on her face she was back, asking for another job.
After the chicken was browned and removed, the beautifully cut pepper and carrot matchsticks were given their turn in the pan, along with red pepper flakes and garlic.
Then another lesson: creating a slurry, a thickening agent.
"This will hold the sauce together and help it cling to the chicken and vegetables," I told them. "It's also how you thicken gravy for Thanksgiving dinner."
We stirred cornstarch into vinegar in a small bowl. "It's important to get all the lumps out and stir it with a fork until it's smooth, or it will be lumpy in the sauce," I said.
Minced ginger and soy sauce were added to the vegetables, then we slowly stirred the slurry into the pan juices until they thickened into a sauce. The chicken was returned to the pan, and it was looking like a real stir-fry.
"Look what you made," I said, quite impressed with the results myself.
We had started the quinoa and found the low setting was not working, so we cranked up the flame for the last five minutes. Soon it had absorbed all the liquid, and we were ready to add citrus and scallions.
In no time we were sharing our meal - and not a scrap of the stir-fry or a morsel of quinoa was left over.
The written reviews came in pretty strong.
"I didn't like it," wrote Christina, "I loved it!"
Dayanna: "I like the stir-fry because it was delicious, spicy, sweet, and smoky."
Bethany: "Today I tried sweet red peppers for the first time and I liked them. I also liked the quinoa."
Kaylah: "The stir-fry was absolutely delicious and the chicken had tons of flavor. I learned that you can try new things and you might like them."
Amber: "I liked the stir-fry mostly because of the chicken."
Dennis left the vegetables on his plate, but ate plenty of chicken and quinoa. But he did demonstrate his developing palate: "Next time, less lemon in the quinoa," he wrote.
Stir-Fry With Chicken Thighs
Makes 6 servingsEndTextStartText
1 1/2 pounds chicken thighs, boneless and skinless (make sure each is completely dry)
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 carrots, medium, cut into matchsticks
1 zucchini squash, large dice
1 red bell pepper, cut into matchsticks
1 1/2 tablespoons vinegar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon reduced sodium soy sauce
1 lime, cut into wedges to squeeze over individual servings
1. Cut chicken thighs into strips, about ½ inch thick each. Season strips with salt, making sure each piece is seasoned entirely.
2. Heat large saute pan over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Once oil is hot, but not smoking, add chicken thighs to pan, searing meat on each side. Once seared, remove chicken from pan and allow to rest next to stove. It may be necessary to do this in two step, searing the chicken in batches using ½ tablespoon of oil to begin the second batch.
3. Add remaining 1/2 tablespoon olive oil to pan remaining on medium heat. Add crushed red pepper flakes, garlic, carrot, zucchini, and red pepper, and toss occasionally for 5 minutes.
4. While vegetables are cooking, create slurry in separate bowl. Gently whisk 1½ tablespoons of vinegar into 1 tablespoon of cornstarch. This may also be accomplished by using a fork.
5. Turn pan to medium-low heat, and add ginger, water, and soy sauce. Stir with wooden spoon. To thicken sauce, add cornstarch slurry to pan, and stir in with spoon. Add chicken to pan and allow to cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. You may need additional cooking time to ensure that chicken is completely done.
6. Serve over citrus quinoa. (See accompanying recipe.)
7. Squeeze the juice of lime wedges over stir-fry and season additionally if necessary.
Per serving: 290 calories, 34 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, 101 milligrams cholesterol, 216 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber. EndText
Makes 6 servingsEndTextStartText
3 cups water or chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups dry quinoa
1 lemon, zested, then cut into quarters
1 lime, zested, then cut into quarters
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 bunch scallions, cut on a slight bias
1. Bring 3 cups water with 1 teaspoon salt to a boil in a medium saucepan. (If using chicken stock, skip the salt.) Add quinoa to water and turn heat to the lowest setting on stove. Cover and cook for 15 minutes, checking at 10 minutes.
2. After quinoa has absorbed water, cover saucepan and turn off heat. Allow to stand for 5 minutes.
3. After 5 minutes, use fork to fluff quinoa, trying not to stir.
4. Transfer cooked quinoa to mixing bowl and add zest of lime and lemon in pinches, tasting as you go. (Some children found it too lemony.)
5. Cut into quarters, and squeeze the juice of both citrus into bowl, to taste. Drizzle olive oil, and combine. Fold cut scallions into quinoa. Serve warm. (This dish may also be refrigerated and served as a cold salad the next day.)
Per serving: 154 calories, 6 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, no sugar, 3 grams fat, no cholesterol, 393 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber. EndText