A cheer went up when our second menu was announced: "Wahoo! Meat loaf!"
After the success of the first cooking lesson at St. Martin de Porres School in North Philadelphia, I was encouraged - but also challenged by the calculus for the future: I wanted to demonstrate healthy, simple, inexpensive meals, but they needed to be prepped, cooked, eaten, and cleaned up in about 90 minutes.
It's the same challenge facing families trying to get dinner on the table every night, with the added dimension of explaining, teaching, and supervising five fifth- and sixth-grade girls.
And if there is any hope that these lessons will be repeated at home, the dishes can't be too complicated or exotic, the food must be familiar, the ingredients few, and, perhaps most important, the results delicious.
Judging by the girls' reaction, meat loaf fit the bill. I used ground turkey (less fat) rather than ground beef - at only 30 cents more per pound, the cost was not prohibitive, especially since we would be using just two pounds. (The ingredient total this week was $15; the first week's, for minestrone, was $10.)
I rounded out the menu with fresh green beans, but planned to gussy them up with lemon juice, a little browned butter, and toasted almonds. Even Maliyah Gregg, who doesn't like vegetables, would be won over, I thought!
It was only our second class, but the girls already had the routine down: Soon after school ended they arrived at the convent kitchen, where Mariah Bey began reading the recipe aloud as we assembled the ingredients and set to work.
Hope Wescott struggled to get the hang of chopping the onion.
"You have to push down and saw," I said, realizing how unqualified I am to teach knife skills.
Nonetheless, she caught on, and soon turned the chopped onions over to Mariah, who was anxious to start sauteing. Of all the girls, Mariah seems to love the actual cooking most. "We're making meat loaf . . . " she sang to herself as she stirred.
"That smells so good," said Kayla Reid.
We measured out the other ingredients: tomato paste (why not substitute ketchup, I later thought), two eggs, Worcestershire sauce, and oatmeal.
Maliyah expertly cracked each egg into a bowl, without losing a single piece of shell. Beautiful job!
And Jayla Reeves knew exactly what to do with the green beans: "You just have to snap the ends off, right? I had to do a whole bunch for Christmas dinner."
As a trio of girls sat around the table snapping the beans, it brought back memories of my own sisters, and the many hours we spent in the kitchen, gabbing, telling stories, and making one another laugh, just as these girls were doing.
"That was so funny at Youth Night, I've got to admit," said Hope, as they laughed and laughed at her particularly awkward move on the basketball court the other night.
"She looked like a ballerina," said Jayla. "You couldn't do it again if you tried."
Soon the onions were cooked and cooled, and it was time to combine the meat loaf ingredients.
"Put your hands right in there, girls, and mix it all in," I said.
"Ewww," said Mariah. "It does not look good."
It will after it's cooked, I assured them.
"Now we shape it so it looks like a loaf of bread?" asked Jayla.
Exactly right. We made two loaves, so they would cook faster, spread a little ketchup on top of each, and popped them into the oven for 45 minutes.
Then we moved on to the sauce for the beans: We juiced the lemon, melted the butter, and toasted the almonds until they were just starting to brown. We put the water on to boil for the beans, but delayed throwing them in until the meat loaf was almost done, as they would cook quickly.
While the girls waited for the meat loaf to cook, they started a line dance of sorts, clapping under one knee, then the other, then clapping hands behind the back, then in front. "Inside, outside, up, down. Jump!" they called out as another girl jumped in. Just as they were in full jump, Sister Nancy Fitzgerald, the school principal, appeared.
"Wow! I don't think I've ever seen that many body parts moving in this kitchen before," she said.
Moments later, the meat loaf was out of the oven, the beans were cooked and slicked with the brown-butter lemon sauce. We sliced and served the loaf, a spoonful of beans on the side.
All the girls gobbled up the beans - all except our veggiephobe, Maliyah. "I like my grandmother's better," she offered, "because they're sweet."
But all the reviews for the meat loaf came in strong.
"Awesome," said Jayla.
"I can't believe it was healthy, because it tasted unhealthy," said Kayla.
"I liked the texture of it," said Mariah.
"It has the flavor I like - meaty," said Maliyah.
But the real proof came, as every cook knows, in the requests for second helpings.
And finally, in this plea from Maliyah: "Can we make it again?"
Green Beans With Toasted Almonds and Lemon
Makes 4 servings
1 pound green beans
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup sliced almonds
Juice of ½ lemon
1. Trim the stem end from the green beans and snap in half.
2. Melt the butter in a heavy pan over medium heat. When the foam has begun to subside, add the sliced almonds. Cook, stirring fairly often, until the almonds begin to brown.
3. Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice.
4. Cook the beans until tender in salted boiling water. Drain well and toss with the almonds and butter. Taste for salt and adjust as needed.
From The Art of Simple Food (Clarkson Potter, 2007)
Per serving: 122 calories, 8 grams fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 49 mg sodium, 10 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams dietary fiber, 2 grams sugar, 3 grams of protein.
Turkey Meat Loaf
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 large onion, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon fresh ground
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
leaves, or 1/4 teaspoon
2 tablespoons Worcestershire
1 teaspoon ketchup, plus more
for the top of the meat loaf
2 pounds ground turkey
¾ cup oatmeal
2 eggs, beaten
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a medium saute pan, on medium-low heat, cook the onions, olive oil, salt, pepper, and thyme until the onions are translucent, but not browned, approximately 15 mintues. Add the Worcestershire sauce and ketchup and mix well. Allow to cool to room temperature.
3. Combine the ground turkey, oatmeal, egg, and onion mixture in a large bowl. Mix well and shape into two rectangular loaves. Spread a thin layer of ketchup evenly on top. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until the internal temperature is 160 degrees. Serve hot.
From The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, 1999)
Per serving: 341 calories, 15 grams fat, 157 mg cholesterol, 258 mg sodium, 10 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams dietary fiber, 2 grams sugar, 30 grams of protein.