The Philadelphia Montessori Charter School is housed in a former city rec center on the corner of Island and Saybrook Avenues in Southwest Philadelphia. The grand, weathered old brick building has been retrofitted into a thriving elementary school for about 170 children, mostly from the neighborhood.
The kindergarten classroom there, equipped with nothing but a sink and a convection microwave oven, serves as a teaching kitchen for after-school cooking classes twice a week. The sixth graders squeeze into chairs meant for children half their age, prepping and measuring ingredients at the tiny classroom table to prepare easy, healthy dinners from the My Daughter's Kitchen cooking program.
When I visited last week, principal Carrie Kries excitedly updated me on plans to replace the makeshift kitchen.
Participation in the program was an inspiration for getting a new kitchen built, Kries said, as it fits so well with the school's hands-on, "education for life" philosophy. Her mother, Jane Green, was a big supporter of the school, and when she died last July, Kries decided to seek donations to build a teaching kitchen in her memory. About $15,000 in cash and in-kind donations - including a stove donated by an Inquirer reader - poured in for Janie's Kitchen; work will begin next week and should be done by early May.
But Kries didn't stop there. She wanted a vegetable garden, too. She won a grant to install an organic garden on the grounds for staff and students during the school year, with plans to have school families tend it, run a farmer's market with the produce they grow, and participate in food literacy classes in the summer. She hopes to have the garden planted by the end of May.
"I would love to bring some life to this corner of Southwest Philly all through the summer," she said. "My dream is to make this the most gorgeous corner of the world!"
I can't wait to return and see students preparing recipes in the new kitchen with produce harvested from that garden. But last week, we were making do quite nicely, preparing baked chicken wings and baked strips of potatoes, carrots, and parsnips as a healthy alternative to deep fried takeout favorites.
Volunteer Ilene Miller demonstrated how to turn chicken wings into drumettes: "You need to find where the knuckle is - feel it with your finger. That is where you make the cut."
Shalise Smith, 12, bravely made a clean cut, then winced, looking away. "I know I can't be a butcher," she said. "I just can't look at the blood and veins and stuff."
"Today, people buy their meat all packaged from the grocery store," Miller said. "But when my mom was growing up, you would go to the butcher and pick out your chicken and the butcher would kill it."
"There are still stores like that," said Ewilca Nicolas, 12.
"I know, that's why I can't go back to Chinatown," Shalise said. "Once I saw that duck hanging in the window, I was done."
Maarkee Love, 12, took over trimming and separating the wings, mastering just where to slice and separate.
Greta Haebel, a teacher at the school who volunteers for these classes, instructed the others on how to wash and peel the potatoes, parsnips, and carrots; slice them into strips; put them in a plastic bag filled with cold water to remove some starch and help with crisping.
They also prepared the marinade, measuring honey and Dijon mustard and juicing the lemon, so it was ready to pour over the trimmed wings after they, too, were put in a bag to soak.
Meanwhile, Haebel told the kids, "Let's clean up so we can feel more organized, to give us all a better mental space, so we don't feel like, 'Ahh, this is overwhelming.' "
While the chicken and vegetables were baking in the oven, I asked the students why they signed up for the class.
"I want to express myself through cooking and have people enjoy what I cook," said Beinushi Jean-Pierre, 11.
Maarkee said he wanted to "learn to cook better" to help his mom and "to eat healthier," his New Year's resolution. Haebel said that when she told him he'd been selected, he actually skipped home, he was so excited.
Ewilca, whose family is Haitian, said she wanted to learn more American foods. "I never knew something called 'minestrone soup,' " she said. "It was awesome."
Dajah Bryant, 12, said she was not a good cook but wanted to improve: "My mom needs help. I wanted to be there by her side to help her."
When the timer went off, it was hard to judge whether the chicken was done, as the convection microwave does not brown as well as regular ovens, Haebel said. She used a meat thermometer to ensure that the chicken had reached 165 degrees. It was 185, and the clock was ticking toward 5:30 p.m., so brown or not, the wings came out. Similarly, the vegetables were not as crisp as they could have been.
But that didn't stop the kids from gobbling them up, and giving the meal high marks.
Bridgette Gamble, Maarkee's mom, had arrived early and was waiting for the class to finish. "He's got that 'I love it' look on his face," she said. "He'll be wanting to make these at home."
Honey Mustard Chicken Wings
Makes 6 servings
31/2 pounds chicken wings (12 wings)
2 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1. Trim the chicken wings and pat dry. Place in a gallon zip-top bag.
2. Mix the honey, mustard, and lemon juice in a measuring cup.
3. Pour over the chicken wings. Zip the bag and squish the chicken around until all the wings are coated. Let marinate for 30 minutes.
4. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the chicken wings on a rack set above a foil-lined pan and bake until sticky and golden, about 30 minutes.
- From Good Cooking, The New Basics (Silverback, 2005)
Per serving: 462 calories, 60 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 17 grams fat, 202 milligrams cholesterol, 316 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Baked Potato, Carrot & Parsnip Strips
Makes 6 servings
4 yellow fleshed
potatoes, skin left on
Salt and pepper
1. Scrub the potatoes, carrots and parsnips.
Slice the vegetables in strips to resemble
2. For the potatoes: Cut in half, then place flat
side down and cut into strips about ¼ inch
in width. Cut those pieces in half again if
3. Slice the carrots and parsnips into similar
4. Place the vegetables in a zip-top gallon bag
and fill with cold water. Allow to soak for 30
minutes (to remove starch).
5. Drain the vegetables and pat dry. Lay on a
foil-lined sheet brushed lightly with olive oil.
Lightly brush the vegetables with olive oil.
Sprinkle lightly with salt, pepper and
6. Bake in a 400° F oven for 30 to 35
minutes (with the chicken wings, switching
places halfway through to make sure each
7. Serve hot.
Per serving: 104 calories, 1 g fat, 394 mg sodium, no cholesterol, 21 g carbohydrates, 3 g dietary fiber,
trace sugar, 3 g protein.