'Why did you choose drumsticks?" asked Bushra Anis, 24, a second-year student at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. "Isn't that the part of the chicken with the most fat?"
The med students were asking great questions about this week's recipe in the My Daughter's Kitchen cooking program, operating in 35 urban schools throughout the region. They are taking the class as an elective, in part to learn how to talk to patients about improving diets.
The cooking program is designed to teach schoolchildren how to cook healthy, easy, affordable meals for a family of six. In response to Bushra's question, I took out the receipt for the groceries. The total was $9.53 for 12 drumsticks, a head of cauliflower, an apple, an onion, a head of garlic, and two ounces of pecans.
"Wow," said Khea Tan, 21. "That's what I spent on my lunch today."
The package of chicken was $3.96. "Drumsticks are really cheap," I said. "Yes, the fat content is higher, but at 10 grams of fat for two drumsticks, not terrible. And when you are learning to cook, they are the most forgiving. Cooking a boneless chicken breast is actually much harder."
"And everyone loves drumsticks, right?" said David Pioquinto, 24, another student.
"And, yes, they do have more flavor," I said.
When talking to patients about better eating, the students told me, they've learned that small steps are most effective. So this rosemary drumstick recipe could be suggested as an alternative to fried chicken.
As David took the lead role this week, reading the recipe and assigning jobs, he wasn't sure which fresh herb was thyme and which was rosemary.
"I think I've only had it in rosemary Triscuits," he said.
He put the drumsticks in a bowl and added the herbs, lemon zest, salt and pepper, and olive oil.
"Just mix it up with your hands," I told him. "I think sometimes your hands are your best tools."
"That's also true for doctors," Khea said, a lesson that begins in anatomy class. "So much in medicine can be learned through touch."
As Khea chopped an onion, she caught herself being lulled by the rhythm.
"Is it weird that I like the sound of the knife on the cutting board?" she asked. "It's such a comforting sound. My dad cooks at home and I remember hearing that as he was making dinner. I sort of get reminded of that."
This was the student who, just last week, said she didn't find cooking relaxing.
"Are you starting to feel more comfortable?" I asked.
"I am," she said. "I just have to do it more."
"That's the only way to become a better cook," I said. "Keep cooking."
Four students in the class are in their second year, with a big exam the next morning. Two opted to miss class and study instead of cook; Bushra and David took another approach. "I studied all day, and I'll study after this," said Bushra. "How much can you study? "
As we got the chicken and the vegetables in the oven to roast, there was down time to chat while cleaning up and setting the table. The topics varied wildly, from what specialties they might pursue (anything but surgery, said Bushra and David; Khea thought surgery was her top choice) to what junk food would be the easiest to give up. (Khea thought ice cream. David agreed that might be easy, especially in the winter. Bushra couldn't decide. "I'm really thinking about it. I love it all," she said.)
Meanwhile, we checked on the two pans in the oven, and the chicken and the vegetables still appeared pretty raw. So we cranked up the heat to broil, and soon enough, the chicken was browning. The cauliflower wasn't getting enough heat in the pan below the chicken, so we took it out and gave it a turn on the stove top in the cast-iron skillet.
When everything was finally done, Bushra took great pleasure "plating" the food, artfully arranging the chicken and vegetables - cauliflower, apples, onion, and pecans - and adding leftover herbs for garnish.
"This is my dream!" she said, trying to imitate the artistry of the cooking shows she loves.
All three raved about the meal.
"I'm in love with this cauliflower!" said Khea.
"The meal was juicy, fresh, and delicious," Bushra wrote in her weekly journal. "I'm very impressed with how cheap we could make this meal for six," she added. "It's still complicated for me to see how I could translate this to patient care."
As more of modern disease - like obesity, heart disease and diabetes - is related to diet, these future docs will have to figure out how to talk to patients in detail about better eating. Hopefully, by learning to cook simple, inexpensive meals themselves, they will have a starting point.
"Great dishes!" wrote David. "I think by making small, realistic changes in diet, you can set up patients for success."
"I'm realizing how easy it is to get a nutritious, delicious meal for an affordable price," wrote Khea. "And you feel good about yourself afterward because you know you cooked it yourself. I think stressing this to patients, the importance of a healthy meal, is something I could do."
My Daughter's Kitchen
The mission. To teach schoolchildren to cook healthy, easy meals on a budget.
The reach. Seventy volunteers are teaching 35 classes in Philadelphia and Camden, with intent to expand.
The partner. Vetri Community Partnership shares the goal of encouraging healthy eating for children.
To support. Send donations to Vetri Community Partnership, 211 N. 13th St., Suite 303, Philadelphia 19107; note "My Daughter's Kitchen" or go to vetrifoundation.org.
To participate. Submit recipes to be considered: Simple, 500-calorie, nutritious meals, prepared in under an hour, for $20 or less for six servings. Send recipes to Food@philly.com.
Rosemary Chicken Drumsticks
Makes 6 servings, 2 drumsticks each
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest, plus
juice of one lemon
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
12 chicken drumsticks (usually an economy pack)
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
2. Combine the chicken, garlic, rosemary, oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt, and pepper in a large bowl and toss to coat. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet. (Line sheet with foil or parchment paper for easier cleanup.)
3. Roast for about 35 minutes, or until the thickest part of the chicken registers 165 degrees F. If you have a convection oven, this will go faster.
4. Serve with roasted cauliflower, pecans, and apples.
Per serving: 201 calories, 25 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, 10 grams fat, 81 milligrams cholesterol, 365 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Roasted Cauliflower with Apples and Pecans
Makes 6 servings
1 head cauliflower, cut into florets (about 5 to 6 cups)
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup pecans
1 red apple, cored and sliced thin
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
2. Toss the cauliflower florets and chopped onions with 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt, and pepper.
3. Spread the florets and onions on a rimmed baking sheet. (Lining with foil or parchment paper makes for easier cleanup.)
4. Roast for 20 minutes, or until slightly brown. Remove from oven, toss cauliflower so all sides can get roasted.
5. Add apples, pecans, and thyme to the baking sheet. Return to oven for 8 to 10 minutes.
6. Remove from oven and serve with chicken drumsticks.
Per serving: 118 calories, 2 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams fat, no cholesterol, 111 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.