This week’s cooking lesson was meant to demonstrate the simplicity of a sheet-pan supper. All the ingredients -- chicken, vegetables, and seasonings -- are assembled on one sheet pan and tossed in the oven to roast for a lovely dinner. A second lesson: to laud the humble chicken thigh, which is so much cheaper than chicken breast, so much tastier, and so much more forgiving, especially for beginning cooks. It’s hard to overcook.

But those lessons did not seem front of mind for students at Gesu School in North Philadelphia, one of 35 schools around the region participating in the My Daughter’s Kitchen healthy-cooking program. They were most excited for a dinner with … potatoes!

Simran Singh, 13, who signed up for the cooking classes to learn about healthier eating, could not contain her excitement. “We’re using potatoes!”

Sanat Burton, 13, who said her favorite food was her uncle’s potato salad, was equally enthusiastic. “I love red potatoes!” des White, 13, was also a fan. “Each week the recipes get better and better!” she said.

I had not realized that none of the recipes thus far included potatoes, in this the seventh of eight weeks of cooking classes. It was as though we had been holding out on them. But students at other schools also took note: “We need to make more potatoes,” said Aliani Cabrera, a cooking student at Bayard Taylor school in North Philadelphia. “Like 20,000 more!”

Eighth-grade teacher Annette Pickett suggests cutting the potatoes smaller before they go in the oven to roast with chicken, carrots and onions.
Maureen Fitzgerald
Eighth-grade teacher Annette Pickett suggests cutting the potatoes smaller before they go in the oven to roast with chicken, carrots and onions.

I can relate, as I was the same kind of fan at their age. The first thing I learned to make on my own was mashed potatoes, and potatoes remain a favorite food to this day.

Indeed, the students at Gesu love potatoes so much they found it hard to believe they’re a vegetable. While they quickly and easily identified the food group of chicken as protein, carrots and onions as vegetables, the potatoes had them stumped.

“Potatoes are a vegetable? Really?” said Simran. It didn’t seem to make sense that potatoes could belong to a group they’d been taught to eat more of.

Yes, potatoes are a vegetable, a starchy root vegetable high in carbohydrates that therefore should not be eaten with the same abandon as, say, leafy green vegetables. But, also, how potatoes are prepared significantly alters their nutritional profile. In this recipe, we use one pound of red potatoes for six servings, which (with a splash of olive oil) weighs in at about 70 calories and 2 grams of fat. That is much preferable to thinly sliced, fried and salted potatoes made into chips that contain 160 calories and 10 grams of fat for 12 chips. Bottom line: the negative effects of salt and fat outweigh the benefits of potassium, vitamins, and fiber, making potato chips a poor source of nutrition. Not to mention how hard it is to eat only 12 chips.

So, potatoes are a perfectly good vegetable, but not a meal, and they are better baked or roasted than fried. Yet, that does not mean you can never eat potato chips or French fries. It just means they should be an occasional treat, not a regular part of a healthy diet.

Annette Pickett, the eighth-grade teacher at Gesu who also helps with the cooking class, told the students how closely she has to pay attention to things like potatoes with high carbs in her diet because she has diabetes. “If I’m not careful, if my sugar changes, I could pass out on the floor,” she said.

That we had plenty of time for this nutrition discussion reinforced the beauty of the sheet-pan supper, but it was also a tribute to the efficiency of the students preparing the meal, in confidently slicing potatoes and carrots and onions, trimming the fat from the chicken thighs before marinating them, getting all of the ingredients onto a sheet pan and into the oven, cleaning up the prep space as they worked. And it was evident how much the students in this and other classes had learned in seven weeks.

“Seeing our chefs put this meal together confirmed how quickly kids can master kitchen skills in a program like My Daughter’s Kitchen,” wrote volunteer Peter Landry at Bayard Taylor.

“Student excitement is building toward the course finale and the opportunity to share new, delicious learnings,” wrote volunteer Maria Brown at Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

But, as is always true, the class at Gesu enjoyed much more than learning how to prepare a recipe. Sanat said she was so happy they were making foods from different cultures, instead of just familiar foods. Desireé loved cooking with her peers, and Simran, who is new to the school, was glad for the chance to get to know her classmates.

As for the volunteers, Margaret O’Neill retired as a social worker at Gesu, and Liz Mooney retired as a resource room teacher. Both relished the opportunity to come back to the school and work with the children. “This is my home,” said O’Neill.

Pickett, the eighth-grade teacher, enjoyed passing along her love of cooking to her students, but said they learned much more. “We’ve pulled in a lot of other ideas about working together, including respecting each other … These girls were not all friends when this class began,” she said. “They’ve really bonded.”

The roasted chicken thighs and vegetables were well received, with several schools voting it as their choice for the final meal to be prepared for family and friends. A few schools submitted the exact same reaction: “Winner, winner, chicken dinner!” The kids at Gesu agreed, but I think it would have to be qualified: “Winner, winner, chicken and potato dinner!”

Contact Maureen Fitzgerald at mydaughterskitchen@gmail.com. For additional reports from other schools, go to philly.com/mydaughterskitchen.

Roasted Chicken Thighs and Vegetables

Roasted chicken thighs and vegetables as prepared by students at Gesu School in North Philadelphia as part of My Daughter's Kitchen healthy-cooking program.
Maureen Fitzgerald
Roasted chicken thighs and vegetables as prepared by students at Gesu School in North Philadelphia as part of My Daughter's Kitchen healthy-cooking program.

Makes 6-8 servings

INGREDIENTS

4 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 tablespoon paprika

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

12 skinless chicken thighs, bone-in (if skin-on, remove before cooking)

1 red onion, cut into wedges

1 pound baby red potatoes, cut in half or in quarters, depending on size

3 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

2. Mix 1 tablespoon olive oil, garlic, paprika, cider vinegar and salt in a small bowl. Place the chicken thighs in a large bowl and spoon and spread the marinade on them. Set chicken aside to marinate while you chop the vegetables.

3. Spread the prepared vegetables in a single layer on a sheet pan. Toss with remaining tablespoon of olive oil and salt and pepper.

4. Tuck the marinated chicken pieces among the vegetables and bake for 45 minutes (or until the internal temperature reaches 165°F.)

5. Remove from the oven and serve. Enjoy!

Per serving: 480 calories, 18 grams fat, 135 milligrams cholesterol, 141 milligrams sodium, 29 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams dietary fiber, 3 grams sugar , 35 grams protein