The girls were so thrilled to see chicken thighs and drumsticks that they temporarily lost their minds.
"Are we making fried chicken?" Hope Wescott asked breathlessly.
"Sorry," I said. "Not in a class about healthy cooking."
In truth, I did test a version of oven-baked "fried" chicken - dipping it in yogurt and rolling it in smashed corn flakes - and it wasn't bad. But, honestly, it wasn't nearly as good as true fried chicken. And the last thing I want to teach these girls is that the "healthy" version isn't nearly as good as the real thing - who would want to go healthy?
So I opted for something different: chicken with a maple mustard glaze, a simple recipe with a blend of familiar ingredients - maple syrup, mustard, garlic, and oregano. I added mashed potatoes and salad to round out the meal.
We got the oven preheated and lined a baking sheet with foil. (I demonstrated how to remove the skin, but did most pieces at home, as that task might have taken the entire class - and I feared they would beg to leave the skin on!)
After the ingredients for the glaze were stirred together, Jayla Reeves carefully spooned it on each piece, and we popped them in the oven for 50 minutes.
I brought carrots to snack on, and as Hope and Kayla were peeling them they dreamed up a new dip: maple syrup.
"These are so good," Kayla moaned as she coated the carrots.
"Yikes, that is really not what I had intended," I said. But soon all the other girls wanted to try.
As soon as I could, I grabbed the syrup and put it above the fridge. But when I turned around, there it was, back on the table and flowing over the carrots.
Argghh! I do remember sprinkling sugar on sliced tomatoes in my own youth. How is it that kids can always find a way to turn anything into a high- sugar snack?
Chamya Davis and Maliyah Gregg were at the sink learning to peel potatoes, a job I was more than qualified to teach. Growing up, since about age 10, I was responsible for the mashed potatoes at every big family meal.
All that practice has produced some pretty great results over the years, so I can't explain what possessed me to mess with such a classic. I guess I thought mashed potatoes weren't healthy enough on their own. Solution: We'd add a little cauliflower.
It needed to be chopped - but not before Kayla, who had not seen cauliflower before, and said it looked like the torch from the Statue of Liberty - paraded around the table with the bulbous vegetable held high overhead.
How that led to "Harlem Shake" and "Gangnam Style" dancing in the middle of the convent kitchen I do not know, but I know these girls need no excuse to dance and they are a joy to watch - unless you are trying to teach a cooking lesson.
"Can somebody help me clear off a spot on the counter for this mixer? We need it for the mashed potatoes."
The potatoes were boiling away, and it was almost time to add the cauliflower. Meanwhile, the girls could not keep the oven door closed.
"It looks like fried chicken, it really does!" said Hope. Hopefully.
To make the salad, we added some of the leftover chopped cauliflower to the spring-mix greens, and I showed the girls how to shave the carrots with a peeler for some color.
Kayla measured out the ingredients for the vinaigrette; I told her to slowly drizzle in the olive oil while stirring, so it could emulsify.
"What does that mean?" she asked.
"Well it means that it blends together and gets thicker," I said.
"Is that science again?" said Kayla.
"Yes, I guess it is."
The cauliflower was added to the potatoes, cooked another several minutes, then drained.
Once Maliyah and I started the mixer, I knew the cauliflower had been a mistake. If whipped too long, lovely mashed potatoes can turn to glue. It was clear we couldn't whip them long enough to smooth out the cauliflower lumps without turning them into spackle. So the lumps would have to stay. Lesson learned!
We finally got the chicken, salad, and mashed potatoes on the table, and the girls grew impatient while the photographer snapped a picture, "calling" which pieces of chicken each would claim.
But once they dug in, the reviews were strong.
"I am definitely bringing this recipe home to make for my family," said Hope.
And when Kayla helped herself to salad, Jayla's admonition warmed my heart: "Don't you finish that salad, girl - I want seconds too."
Here are their written reflections on the meal.
Chamya: "It was so good and fun."
Jayla: "Today was a great day because we had CHICKEN! Yay! I'm a little scared of mustard, but after it was cooked, it was good."
Kayla: "The chicken was good because I love chicken. And the salad was good. And the potatoes were really good. It was just the cauliflower that wasn't."
Hope: "It was so tasty and good. I loved the mashed potatoes the most. But the chicken was good too. This is the kind of food I like to eat and make."
Maliyah: "I didn't like the mustard, but I liked the inside of the chicken. It was tasty and juicy. The mashed potatoes and cauliflower were good and lovely. The salad, it was all right . . . well, not really."
Maple Mustard Chicken
Makes 5 servings
10 bone-in chicken thighs and drumsticks, skin removed
½ cup Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ cup maple syrup
¼ teaspoon oregano
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper towels.
2. Combine the mustard, garlic, maple syrup, and oregano in a small bowl.
3. Spread the mustard mixture evenly on top of each chicken thigh or drumstick, being careful to cover as much of the surface as possible to form a crust.
4. Arrange the chicken in a single layer in a large baking dish. Bake until mustard mixture has formed a crust and is slightly hardened, and the juices run clear when the chicken is pierced in the center, about 45 to 50 minutes.
Adapted from The Food You Crave (Tauton, 2008)
Per serving: 274 calories, 9 grams fat, 101 milligrams cholesterol, 383 milligrams sodium, 12 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram dietary fiber, 10 grams sugar, 34 grams protein.
Mashed Potatoes Without Cauliflower
Makes 6 servings
8 medium to large russet potatoes, peeled
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup milk
Salt to taste
1. Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1-inch chunks. Place in a large pot. Cover with cold water.
2. Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat to medium, letting the potatoes continue to cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they can be easily pierced with a fork.
3. Drain all but about 2 tablespoons of water.
4. Add butter, and with a mixer, begin to whip the potatoes, slowly drizzling in the milk a little at a time. Beat until the potatoes are smooth and lump-free, but be careful not to overbeat. Add salt to taste and serve hot.
Per serving: 190 calories, 3 grams fat, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 241 grams sodium, 35 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams dietary fiber, 3 grams sugars, 5 grams protein.