As I walked through the front door at Henry W. Lawton School with five students in tow, all of us lugging pots and pans and bags of groceries, the school police officer stopped us cold.
"Hey, hey, wait a minute," said Raymond Mahon, getting up from his desk and blocking our passage. "What's all this? Where are you going?"
"Cooking class," I said, explaining that I had checked in earlier before retrieving the children to help me carry stuff from my car.
"It's all approved through the office," said Mark "Doc" Hawkins, the fifth-grade teacher helping with the after-school project.
"Cooking class?" said Mahon, not quite sure what to make of this information. But he recovered quickly: "Hey," he said. "I don't have dinner tonight. Make me something, I'll tell you if I like it."
And so began the adventure of the third semester of My Daughter's Kitchen cooking classes, with a new batch of enthusiastic fifth graders at a public school in the Tacony section of the city, continuing the mission of teaching kids healthy cooking.
We are working in the industrial school kitchen, where lunches are cooked for most of the 700 students who receive free lunches at Lawton, so we should be able to manage a dinner for seven.
"What are we making?" said one of the students, Christian McKinney, who was so excited he was bouncing on his toes as he walked. "I know how to cook ... I cook a lot ... I can make Italian food. I'm Italian, well, like 90 percent."
"Roasted buttermilk chicken, sweet potato fries and a green salad," I said.
"Do we get to eat it?" he asked.
"Of course, that's the whole point," I said. "We're making dinner!"
"Yessss!" said Christian, pumping his fist in triumph.
As we emptied the grocery bags, washed hands, and got the lay of the land in the kitchen, the kids paged through the binder of recipes we would be making for the next 10 weeks.
While some had cooked at home, none thought he or she could manage an entire dinner. I told them that by the end of our classes, I hoped they would have the skills and confidence to do just that. And I hoped to convince them that eating healthy meals would nourish their bodies and brains. I chose dishes that are nutritional but also delicious, and cheaper than fast food. That got their attention.
First things first: We needed to preheat the oven. An old black gas range was my first choice, because it looked more like what kids might use in their homes. But failing to get that lit, we tangled with the industrial rig - double doors, a dozen shelves, flashing lights, a deafening buzzer, and a powerful convection fan that just about knocked us over when we opened the doors. We set the temp and hoped for the best.
After reading the recipes, we quickly divided the tasks. Christian and Nick Rodriguez measured the buttermilk; Aneza Abalo peeled the garlic; Nysirah Hall smashed the peppercorns - or tried, delicately tapping them with a spoon before the boys jumped in.
"C'mon, Christian, hit like you're in a fight," Nick prodded. So Christian slammed the spoon down with everything he had. Bam! Bam! Bam!
"OK, OK," I said. "The peppercorns are sufficiently smashed!"
Now it was time to transfer the drumsticks to a zip-lock bag, and it was clear some had never handled raw meat before: "Ewwww!"; cried Nysirah and Kimberly Luu.
"Use the tongs," I told them. But it was too late. And as soon as they touched the chicken, Nick shouted out a warning: "Cross contamination!" he said. "I learned that in Boy Scouts. You can get salmonella if you don't wash your hands."
"Impressive, Nick!" I said.
Hands washed and chicken safely zipped in the bag with the marinade, the kids discovered their favorite part, squishing the chicken in the bag to evenly distribute the liquid. When it was adequately squished, we set it aside to marinate for 30 minutes, while the girls started scrubbing the sweet potatoes and the boys set the table.
As they worked, Officer Mahon poked his head in. "Hey, do you know how to poach salmon?" he said. "I always wanted to learn how to poach salmon. . . . "
I told him I'd be happy to chat with him about the finer points of poaching fish but I had my hands full at the moment, and shooed him away.
The sweet potatoes were huge and the inexpensive knives we were using were no match. We cut them in half to create a flat base for slicing, but it was still a struggle. The resulting fries were a bit ragged, but no worries - it wouldn't affect the taste. They also went into a zip-lock bag, this one filled with water, where they soaked for a bit to remove some starch and help them crisp in the oven.
With an eye on the clock, we lined four sheet pans with foil, for both drumsticks and potatoes, and the kids took turns loading them onto the pans. When we opened the double doors, the oven made a loud whooshing noise, blasting us with a wave of heat. As they slid the pans in, I told the kids to cross their fingers!
We set the timer and assembled a quick salad. It was a mad dash, a race against the clock to get everything done, but the oven came through. The chicken cooked nicely and we checked the internal temp of the drumsticks just to make sure.
Then we sat down to enjoy a peaceful supper.
"I wish we could have meals like this for school lunch every day," said Nick.
"Then I would eat the lunch every day!" said Nysirah.
The proof was in the empty platter that had held the sweet potato fries, and the bargaining over the last two drumsticks.
Christian asked to pack a second helping as his grandpop was there to pick him up. He didn't have time to write his reactions, but called out: "It was really, really good!"
Kimberly Luu wrote that she likes to "discover new American food. At home I eat rice, soup, and noodles everyday. My mom thinks that American food is bad for me."
She ate only the sweet potato fries. I told her I hoped to convince her and her mother that some American foods were quite good for her.
Nick was the last to leave, and he greeted his mom with this take on the first class: "The chicken was so good, I ate four pieces!"
Buttermilk Roast Chicken
Makes 6 servings
12 chicken drumsticks (about 3 pounds)
2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, skins removed and smashed
1 tablespoon crushed peppercorns
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1. Place the chicken drumsticks in a large freezer bag and add the buttermilk and ¼ cup of oil.
2. Add the smashed garlic to the bag along with the crushed peppercorns and salt.
3. Sprinkle in the ground cumin and finally add the maple syrup, and then squish everything in the freezer bag around to mix the marinade and coat the chicken.
4. Let the chicken marinate in the buttermilk and spices out of the fridge for at least 30 minutes (or in the fridge overnight).
5. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Take the chicken pieces out of the bag and arrange them on the baking sheet.
6. Roast chicken in the oven about 30 to 35 minutes, or until brown and even scorched in parts, and juicily cooked through.
- From Nigella Express (Hyperion)
Per serving: 272 calories, 28 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, 84 milligrams cholesterol, 623 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Roasted Sweet Potatoes With Paprika
Makes 6 side-dish servings
4 medium sweet potatoes, well washed, cut in half, then cut into thick fries
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon paprika
1. Put the cut potatoes in a bowl, cover them with water, and let them soak for 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil.
3. Drain the potatoes and dry them as best you can with a dish towel or paper towels.
4. Put the sweet potatoes back in the bowl, and add olive oil, salt, and paprika. Toss well.
5. Place potatoes on the baking sheet, trying not to crowd them. Bake in the oven 8 to 10 minutes.
6. Remove pan from oven and turn the potatoes. They should be lightly browned.
7. Return to the oven and cook 2 more minutes or so.
8. Serve warm.
Per serving: 266 calories, 3 grams protein, 53 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 5 grams fat, no cholesterol, 405 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber.