The fifth graders from Russell Byers Charter School had learned plenty of kitchen skills since we started our cooking classes back in October. Now, it was time to put them to the test: cooking dinner for their families, a group of about 20.
Glazed salmon was the students' first choice, but in our mission to teach healthy and affordable cooking, here was another lesson: When feeding a crowd, don't choose an expensive protein. "Salmon is too pricey," I said.
Pasta with tomato sauce and turkey sausage was the next best choice for our final class in the kitchen at the Free Library of Philadephia.
Dividing up the jobs was a snap, as everyone was eager, excited, and confident. "We are expert onion-choppers!" said Kaylah Nobrun. "Give us the onions!" But Amber, the quietest student, spoke up. "I haven't chopped an onion yet," she said. Kaylah, Christina Brown, and Dayanna Shomo gave her a demo, remarkably similar to the one that culinary student Aelyn Estevez had given them just a few weeks ago. Kaylah even pressed on, blinking back onion tears, until the onion goggles were found.
Bethany Swan took on the job of searing the sausage; Amber, on a roll after her success with the onion, joined with a second pan. Not a word of complaint about the heat of the stove. They were practically pros!
Instead of chopping the garlic for the sauce, we cooked the cloves in olive oil, as Marc Vetri showed us on his visit, producing roasted garlic and infused oil, which would add another layer of flavor.
The cooking went remarkably smoothly. We sauteed the onions, added the chicken stock and crushed tomatoes, and after the mixture was cooked, took turns buzzing it with the immersion blender. The sausage was not completely cooked when we added it, but it got 20 more minutes of cooking in the sauce. We set water to boil for pasta, and grated the Parmesan cheese. The students even had time to fuss over the table setting, rolling the silverware in napkins for a festive touch.
Soon, the parents were arriving, and their children began serving them juice and seltzer, a healthier version of their favorite drink, a Shirley Temple.
The pasta done and drained, we were ready to mix it with the sauce. But wait - the sausage was still pink in the center. Crisis management time: We quickly spooned the sausage into a saute pan and finished it on the stove. Then back into the sauce it went. Another lesson: More sausage and more sauce takes more time.
The students had counted how many guests would be coming and set the table accordingly, but even more showed up. We squeezed in extra chairs around our table, thankful we had made more than enough food. As they enjoyed dinner, I cited each student for their special contribution.
Kaylah: Enthusiasm Award. From the first time we met, when you told me, "Cooking excites me," you have demonstrated your enthusiasm. Never lose it!
Dayanna: Love of Cooking Award. You were already comfortable in the kitchen, but you were eager to learn more. When you said, "This food looks like it's from a fancy French restaurant," I was so proud because you and your classmates cooked it.
Bethany: Best Helper Award. You were always willing to do more than your share, even the not-so-fun jobs, like the dishes. You tried your best, and you got so good at chopping onions.
Christina: Proficiency Award. You had good knife skills and you improved even more. I was thrilled you took the skills home, and you and your family made the stuffed peppers recipe.
Amber: Perfect Manners Award. You were a lovely, quiet presence. You did your jobs beautifully. You made a point to say how much you liked things and only wrote things you didn't like in your notes.
Aelyn: Superstar Role Model Award. You were able to demonstrate the proper way to chop an onion, a pepper, or anything we put in front of you. You were a wonderful high school role model. Thank you so much for coming to work with us.
There were also awards for Nydean Geathers, the patient after-school teacher who walked the students over in any weather, and even pitched in with dishes.
And for Liz Fitzgerald, our gracious host in the library kitchen, who was so welcoming and generous and helpful.
When the time came for hugs and goodbyes, it was wonderful to hear from parents what the class meant to their children.
"She's always trying to make something in the kitchen now," said Kaylah's mother, Carol Deloatch.
"She really loved this experience," said Andrea Swan, Bethany's mom.
Shemesha Burton said she promised her daughter, Amber, that they would cook the recipes at home.
"What should we make?" she asked.
Amber's face lit up. "The stuffed peppers, the chicken with dipping sauce, and the salmon," she said, without missing a beat. "But salmon first."