The faces of the fifth graders lit up as they arrived for their seventh week of after-school cooking classes.
"Hello, Mrs. Byers!" Kaylah Nobrun called out. A chorus of greetings from the others followed.
"She's our founder," Kaylah said proudly, referring to Laurada Byers, who started the Russell Byers Charter school - named for her late husband - that these students attend, and who had come to visit the class they walk to at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
"Hello, hello," said Byers. "I can't wait to see what you are cooking!"
Clearly a familiar figure to the children, she donned an apron and positioned herself at the prep counter for a close-up view of the magic.
The students, eager to show off their skills, quickly shed coats and backpacks, washed hands, tied on aprons, and started reading the recipes for this week's meal: chicken satay with spicy peanut sauce and edamame succotash. Then they manned their cutting boards.
Christina Brown and Bethany Swan started right in cutting the chicken breasts into thin strips.
The others divided the succotash prep work: chopping onions and red pepper, mincing garlic, chopping cilantro, and juicing the lime, Byers encouraging and commending as they went. "This is great," she said. And later: "Do you know how lucky you are?"
These 10-year-olds have become quite comfortable with getting dinner on the table, not only prepping and cooking but also setting the places, doing the dishes, and, perhaps what draws the most interest, portioning the food. So as soon as the chicken pieces were tossed in olive oil, and we started threading them on skewers, the question arose: "How many do we each get?"
Having grown up in a big family, I was quite familiar with the time-honored tradition of stretching whatever you have to make it enough for however many show up. So I had suggested cutting the chicken widthwise and putting only two or three pieces on each skewer. That way, each person would be able to have a couple.
"Let's see how many we have when we're done and we'll divide," I said.
As Dayanna Shomo put the skewers in the oven to roast, we got the onions and garlic cooking for the succotash, and got started on the peanut sauce.
I showed them the trick of measuring the cup of peanut butter we needed by adding it to a measuring cup filled with a cup of water. "So you spoon in the peanut butter," I said. "And when the water reaches the 2-cup mark, you know you've got 1 cup of peanut butter."
"Do you know what that scientific principle is?" Byers said, recognizing a teachable moment.
No one was quite sure. And it had been a long time since I had been in a science class.
"It's displacement, right?" I said. And there was a science lesson right in our midst.
The next challenge was whisking the honey into the peanut butter, along with some red pepper flakes and a little bit of water. "Do you see how this whisk is much better for this job than a spoon?" I asked.
One of the most important lessons in cooking is tasting as you go, to make sure you've got the seasonings right, and after we smoothed out the peanut sauce Byers was a willing taster: "Magnificat!" she said, dramatically kissing her fingertips.
Dinner was almost ready, but she couldn't stay - she had a meeting about renewing the school's charter and couldn't be late!
So she bade us goodbye, saying she had learned several things herself, including how to measure peanut butter, and the proper way to cut a pepper to easily remove the seeds.
After the skewers were nicely browned and arranged on a plate, we did the math and a cheer went up. Everyone could have at least three.
As we dipped the chicken into the peanut sauce many thought it needed something, so we added a little soy sauce, which seemed to do the trick.
Judging from the written comments, the meal was a winner, especially because everyone thought she could re-create it at home.
"I can make spicy peanut dip!" wrote Kaylah. But Christina upped the ante. She wrote that with all the things they had learned in cooking class, she and Kaylah "want to have a restaurant, called K and C Restaurant." After this news she drew six smiley faces.
Laurada Byers later wrote me how valuable she thought the cooking classes were for these students: "We believe that being present and having experiences gives students knowledge, self-confidence and increases curiosity," she wrote. "Through the use of well-prepared fresh food, the library's program gave students the chance to utilize and enjoy scientific, mathematic and literary principles."
And I thought we were just cooking supper.
Makes 6 servings
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 packages wooden skewers, 6 to 8 inches long (about 2 dozen)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 lime, zested and juiced (optional)
1/2 bunch fresh parsley
For Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce:
1 cup natural chunky peanut butter, no sugar added
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
2 tablespoons honey
May need water to adjust consistency
1 teaspoon soy sauce (optional, to taste)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut chicken breast lengthwise into ¾-inch-wide strips.
2. Insert pointed end of stick into each strip and skewer.
3. Toss skewers into olive oil in large bowl and season gently with salt and black pepper.
4. Place chicken onto sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Cook for approximately 15 minutes. (Roasting time may be more or less than 15 minutes depending on oven).
5. Toss chicken skewers in large mixing bowl with fresh lime juice (if using), zest, and chopped parsley.
Directions for sauce:
6. In a small sauce pot, warm honey with crushed red pepper flakes over low heat. In medium mixing bowl, add honey to peanut butter using a whisk to combine thoroughly.
7. Add water to adjust consistency, whisking to incorporate.
8. Taste and add soy sauce to taste.
Per serving: 544 calories, 46 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams sugar, 34 grams fat, 101 grams cholesterol, 34 grams fat, 101 milligrams cholesterol, 349 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber. EndText
Makes 6 servings
¼ cup olive oil
1 medium white onion, coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium red bell pepper
1 16-ounce bag frozen corn
1/3 cup water
1 pound shelled frozen edamame, thawed
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped fine. Reserve a few leaves for garnish
1. Heat large saute pan over medium heat. After 3 minutes, add olive oil.
2. Sweat onion and garlic over medium heat until translucent.
3. Add red bell pepper and corn. Cook for 5 minutes, tossing occasionally.
4. Season twice around pan with salt.
5. Add shelled edamame to pan and cook an additional 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
6. Pour succotash into a large mixing bowl.
7. Add chopped cilantro and the juice of 1 lime into bowl.
8. Transfer to serving bowl and garnish with reserved cilantro leaves.
Per serving: 245 calories, 10 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, no cholesterol, 10 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber. EndText