Maliyah Gregg's eyes lit up when she spied a package of bacon on the counter for cooking class in the convent kitchen at St. Martin De Porres in North Philadelphia. And then she saw the spinach.
"Can I eat just the bacon? Please? Just the bacon and a boiled egg. It will be like breakfast. Please?"
After four weeks of cooking lessons, I had gotten the message loud and clear from Maliyah and the other 5th and 6th grade girls: We want meat!
While many people are eating less meat and trying to center meals around other proteins for health and environmental reasons, these girls are not quite buying in. I heard the same chorus from my own two boys when I tried meatless family dinners when they were growing up. For them, it just didn't feel like dinner without meat.
I know these habits won't change overnight. So I tried a recipe with the girls that included meat, but didn't build the meal around it.
I went with the smoky, salty bacon they love, and paired it with vitamin- and mineral-packed spinach, in a classic version of spinach salad.
I knew I had a fighting chance of getting the girls to eat spinach if it was drizzled with warm bacon dressing and tossed with hardboiled eggs and wilted red onions, creating more of an indulgent comfort meal and less of an eat-your-vegetables dinner.
But Maliyah, the one who finds vegetables most unappealing, was already bargaining before we even started.
Well, I told her, the whole idea is to get you to see how good the spinach tastes with bacon dressing.
"But you know I don't like vegetables," she whined.
You just have to try it, I stood firm.
But that did not dampen her desire for cooking the bacon.
"Can I do it?," Maliyah asked. "I know how. My dad makes it at home."
Do you help him? I asked.
"No I just lay in bed and wait until he calls me to tell me that it's done."
As we laid the slices one by one in the hot skillet, I warned the girls to be very careful because the bacon splatters hot grease as it cooks. And soon it was splattering away.
It seemed like one of the easiest recipes we had attempted, but it's amazing how chaotic the kitchen can become with high-energy girls learning new skills.
We put the eggs in water to boil, and then got going on the onions, which needed to be sliced, very thin. Hope Wescott and Jayla Reeves took on that task, but without the onion goggles this week, the girls were crying, and then running to the bathroom and splashing cold water on their eyes. Sorry about that.
When the eggs were done, we ran cold water over them so they could cool before we peeled them. As the girls watched, I dumped the cold water out of the pan that held them, but before I could stop, all the eggs went right down the drain. Yikes, I said, as we all laughed. Well, they're still in their shells, we can just fish them out.
"But it's the regurgitator!" said Kayla Reid, in fear, using her own special pronunciation for the garbage disposal.
"It's OK, it's OK," I told her. "As long as no one turns it on!"
The eggs were retrieved, peeled, sliced. The cooked bacon was draining on a plate lined with paper towels.
Time to assemble the salad. I brought baby spinach, with a lighter flavor than fully grown spinach. Next the mushrooms, already sliced and cleaned, were added to the salad. See how easy this is?
The onions needed a quick sauté in the bacon pan (after most of the grease was discarded) to soften the texture and flavor and bring out their sweetness. While Maliyah was sautéing, Jayla made the dressing, a soy-mustard vinaigrette.
And we also needed to chop up the bacon, which all the girls were fighting to do.
"Should we just eat the burnt pieces?" said Kayla.
"There won't be any left for the salad!" was my reply.
Nonetheless, each time my back was turned their hands were flying to the plate of bacon and sneaking a piece. More went into their mouths than into the salad, without a doubt.
The vinaigrette was added to the onions in the skillet and heated through, then poured over the salad and tossed. We sat down to eat, and every girl finished her salad - except Maliyah. Again, I asked them to write down what they thought.
Jayla: It was great. The dressing was sweet and sour and I LUVED it. And the bacon, OMG!
Hope: The spinach salad was so good. It's healthy and tasty. I'm surprised I really liked the spinach a lot, but the bacon was the best. I'm going to tell my family how to make the salad.
Kayla: I had never made, or EATEN spinach salad before. The best part was the bacon!!! But I DID like the salad.
Maliyah: I did love the dressing, but the bacon - it was too tasty. I could not stop eating it. This was the first time I ate spinach. It was alright.
Spinach Salad With Warm Bacon Dressing
Makes 6 servings
10 ounces baby spinach or about 10 cups lightly packed
6 pieces thick-sliced bacon (about 4 ounces), finely diced
1 pound white mushrooms, thinly sliced
3 large eggs, hard-boiled, chilled, peeled, and thinly sliced
1/2 medium red onion, very thinly sliced
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoon smooth Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 cup olive oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Rinse and spin-dry the spinach and place it in a large salad bowl. Scatter with mushrooms and sliced hard-boiled egg.
2. In a large skillet, fry bacon bits over medium-high heat until they're brown and crisp and have rendered their fat. Use a slotted spoon to scoop them out of the skillet and spread them on a piece of paper towel.
3. Pour off the hot bacon fat from the skillet. Add the red onion for 20 seconds to just soften. Whisk together the cider vinegar, sugar, mustard, and oil and pour it into the bacon pan, scraping up the remaining bits of bacon. Pour over entire salad and season with salt and pepper. Toss gently and serve hot.
- Adapted from The Food You Crave by Ellie Krieger (Tauton, 2008)
Per serving: 248 calories, 20 grams fat, 103 mg cholesterol, 568 mg sodium, 6 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams dietary fiber, 2 grams sugar, 14 grams protein
Note: To make hard-boiled eggs, cover eggs with cold water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Once boiling, turn the heat down to medium and allow the eggs to simmer for 10 minutes. Immediately fill the pan with cold water, add ice, and allow the eggs to cool for about five minutes. Peel and slice.