My Daughter's Kitchen: Eggplant fries? Worth the sacrifice!

Learning to cook at Bayard Taylor school, Yariel Fernandez adds Worcestershire sauce to the turkey burgers as Lixjohanne Alicea and Mark Ramirez supervise. Eggplant fries were also on the menu.
Learning to cook at Bayard Taylor school, Yariel Fernandez adds Worcestershire sauce to the turkey burgers as Lixjohanne Alicea and Mark Ramirez supervise. Eggplant fries were also on the menu. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 01, 2013

When I arrived for our third cooking class at Bayard Taylor school in North Philadelphia, I learned two of my students were missing dance club to be there. I would understand the true extent of that sacrifice as class progressed.

First, I handed out new aprons, a gift from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. (Thanks, PHS.) As we read over this week's recipes, for turkey burgers and eggplant fries, the young chefs were looking quite professional!

Four of the five kids had never tasted eggplant. They eyed the shiny, dark-purple vegetable curiously, but were not the least bit resistant to trying it.

"My aunt makes eggplant and I love it!" said the fifth, Mark Ramirez.

After the vegetable was peeled, I showed them how to slice it into strips the size of french fries. Kareema Brown, quite skillful with the knife, demonstrated for the others: "Cut it in half, then in half again, then into thin slices, like this." The strips were soaked in milk, then dipped in bread crumbs seasoned with a little grated cheese and cayenne pepper - well, perhaps a little too much cayenne.

The real challenge when teaching children to cook is to provide them with enough guidance, but also to give them enough independence to let their confidence build - in this case, so they can cook these recipes at home. At the same time, I don't want them to ruin perfectly good food.

So I did try to supervise the measuring, explaining that if the recipe called for ¼ teaspoon, it couldn't be heaping or it might end up being closer to ½ teaspoon, which would be too much. (And, I confess, I didn't see the spoon of cayenne before it was dumped into the bread crumbs.)

Many hands made short work of coating the eggplant strips in bread crumbs and laying them in the baking pan. Lixjohanne Alicea was working so hard, with such a seriousness of purpose, her neatly braided hair was coming undone and falling in her face. Nonplussed, she tucked it behind her ear, pulled on the enormous oven mitts, and loaded the fries into the oven.

Meanwhile, from the multipurpose room right outside our kitchen, we heard the thumping beat of Taylor Community Dance and Music Ensemble: " It's a summer paradise/ cruisin with the boys and girls./ Surfing day and night. . . . " The voices of about 200 kids rang out as they crooned and danced to a tune from Disney's Teen Beach Movie.

The young cooks could not help themselves. Bianca Perez and Mark, both dance-club members, had to see what they were missing; the others just wanted to sing and dance along. They crowded around the window in the adjoining door; all knew the choreography, and soon arms were flying and hips were rocking as they mimicked the movements of the dancers on the other side.

After bopping her braids with blue flower barrettes a while, Kareema cracked the whip: "Come on, we gotta get crack-a-lacking on the turkey burgers!"

Lixjohanne tried out the goggles made to prevent onion tears - and, on the advice of a reader, I had refrigerated the onion. No matter: The girl teared up so much she had to give up the knife.

Truth be told, there were too many onions, and they could have been more finely diced. But we proceeded, adding a little salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and thyme to the meat.

"Don't handle it too much," I told them, as they sank their fingers in to blend the ingredients. "You want a loose grind to keep the burgers juicy." Each took a handful, shaped it into a patty, and laid it on the baking sheet.

Six minutes remained on the timer for the fries, and the burgers were to cook for 6 to 8 minutes, so it seemed as if things were progressing nicely.

But when the timer beeped, the burgers still looked pretty raw, and the fries were not as crispy as when I had made them at home. They needed more time. Five minutes later, they did not look much further along. And, actually, the oven did not seem to be 425 degrees.

There had been a lot of button-pushing when the kids preheated the oven, but when the digital display said it was baking at 425, I assumed all was well. After more button-pushing and beeping and digits flashing, we managed to turn the oven off. We pulled out the fries and this time set the oven to broil. Finally, the turkey burgers began to brown.

In the end, the burgers were a bit overcooked and a tad rubbery, perhaps the result of getting acquainted with a new oven. But the kids still gave the meal good reviews, the best proof being that they finished every last bite.

"I like it better than a regular burger," said Bianca.

"It's just like a burger and fries," said Kareema.

"Yes, a healthier version," I said. "Lower in fat, and better for you!"

The eggplant-fries reviews made me suspect a heavy hand with the cayenne.

"I love them," said Mark. "But I do feel like I have smoke coming out of my mouth."

Nonetheless, he saved his fries just as he had saved the leftovers the week before, to take home to his family.

"How did your family like the bucatini, squash, and beans?" I asked.

Mark beamed with pride: "My dad brought it to work for lunch and told everyone I made it."

Kitchen Notebook

Young Scholars Douglass

We told Keyshawn Andrews that he was getting a "Master Class" in cooking today - two teachers and one student! - because the other students either couldn't make it or had to leave early. We expanded the vegetable selection to sweet potato, white potato, and parsnips, as well as eggplant for "fries." While the fries were baking, Keyshawn prepared and panfried the turkey burgers in the electric fry pan. We still haven't gotten the commercial oven to work in our favor. The fries tasted good, but the panko browned too much.

While we were working, we talked about his recent trip to Howard University, a school he liked a lot and would like to attend.

We sent all the food home with Keyshawn for him to share with his family, which he was very happy about.

- Sue Baelen and Lyn Stein 

St. Martin De Porres

All of us (cooking teachers included) were highly skeptical of the baked eggplant fries recipe. There was even a plea to "just fry them." We dutifully explained the benefits of baked vs. fried food. However, we all expected the worst. We also made baked sweet potato fries, to go along with our focus on thinking and learning about different tastes and preparations. Well, both types of fries were completely amazing, as were the turkey burgers, and fast and uncomplicated to make! (A confession, we did burn some of both types of the fries, as we initially neglected to turn them in the oven.) Even vegetable hater Maliyah Gregg chomped happily on an eggplant fry! Most of the girls felt that the taste on the burger and fries was so good that they did not even need condiments.

- Christine Chmielewski and Julie Smith

Wissahickon Charter

For the burgers and the eggplant, we divided into two groups, with two students making the burgers and three working on the fries. Brandon Day and Alaina Tomlinson were a little squeamish about mixing the meat, but they used gloves and got through. Other than that, everyone is getting into the swing of peeling and chopping, so the meal prep went very fast with a lot of time left to eat the final product and discuss dressing up for Halloween. The end results were the burgers were well liked, but the eggplant fries not so much.

"The turkey burger was delicious," said Amber Jacobs. "Loved it with the hot sauce."

"The eggplant fries were good and salty," said Nina Cunningham. "This is the best I ever had. P.S. The best thing is being with my friends."

- Barbara Krumbhaar and Diane Fanelli

Community Partnership School

After a two-week delay, our class is finally underway! We didn't have access to the kitchen, so we made the gazpacho and quesadillas, adding more veggies, and skipping the chicken. Everyone wanted to peel and chop the veggies: Their enthusiasm kept three cutting boards, four knives, and two peelers going at same time.

The kids took turns blending the diced vegetables, grating cheese, and sautéing the peppers, onions, and spinach for the quesadillas. Everyone wanted to be a part of everything, even doing the dishes when they saw the industrial kitchen sprayer.

After the table was set and the meal served, these kids dug right in, fearlessly trying everything. Anyia Daniels, who had been skeptical of the gazpacho, insisting it "looks like puke," was surprised after her first spoonful. "Mmm, I didn't think it was going to be that good because of the onions."

"I swear, all of us did a good job. . . . This is good," Lucas said, biting into a quesadilla. "I don't like to brag, but I'm going to have to brag about this."

- Adrian Seltzer and Katherine Rapin

Turkey Burgers

Makes 8 servings

2 pounds ground turkey

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1 medium onion, chopped

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 large tomato, sliced

4 cups spring salad mix (or lettuce)

8 wheat hamburger buns

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

2. Place the ground turkey in a mixing bowl. Add the thyme, onion, Worcestershire, salt, and pepper. Mix gently.

3. Make into 8 hamburger patties, and place them on a foil-lined baking sheet.

4. Bake patties for 6 to 8 minutes, then turn the oven to broil, and broil for a minute or two, until they brown a bit. Check to make sure they reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.

5. Place on bun (toasted if desired), top with greens and tomato, and serve.

Nutritional note: High in niacin, high in selenium, very high in Vitamin B-6.

Per serving: 348 calories, 40 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, 84 milligrams choloestrol, 409 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.

Eggplant Fries

Makes 6 servings

1 large purple eggplant

11/2 cups milk

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

3/4 cup panko bread crumbs

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

2. Peel the eggplant. Cut into thick strips (similar to a thick-cut fry).

3. Season the milk with salt.

4. Soak the eggplant in the milk.

5. Place cayenne, grated cheese, and bread crumbs in a shallow bowl.

6. Dip each slice of eggplant in the bread-crumb-and-cheese mixture, and roll to coat both sides.

7. Bake at 425 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes, or until crispy, turning the eggplant halfway through.  

8. Serve immediately.

- Adapted from a Vetri Foundation recipe.

Nutritional note: High in phosphorus, very high in Vitamins B6, B12.

Per serving: 133 calories, 8 grams protein, 17 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 4 grams fat, 12 milligrams cholesterol, 209 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.



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