The others wandered in one at a time. Kimberly Luu, meticulous about following instructions, is always willing to take on the job no one else wants (unless it involves raw flesh), and this week volunteered to chop onions.
Nicholas Rodriguez, so full of energy that he races around the kitchen from one job to the next, is also our resident mechanic. He fiddled with the ancient gas stove until he got it lit and then started the rice.
Nysirah Hall, chatty and sometimes pokey, took on peeling and chopping of the ginger along with Aneza Abalo. Perhaps the most comfortable and skilled with a knife, Aneza had a cold, her throat ached, and she was not sure how much help she would be.
I knew the recipe for coconut fish curry was a tad ambitious. It introduced some of the kids to salmon and coconut and gave them another taste of curry, which they had for the first time only a couple of weeks ago. But I had made the recipe a few times, and had received rave reviews, even with picky eaters at the office.
Yet when we shopped for ingredients the night before class, my husband - not the most adventurous eater - saw me buying coconut milk, gave me the look that only a husband can, and said: "You need to consult me about these recipes. These are fifth graders."
So I was little concerned that maybe I was expecting too much.
As Nysirah and Aneza started peeling and chopping the ginger, Nysirah recognized the smell: "Is this the same stuff that's in gingerbread and gingerbread men?"
"Yes, good for you Nysirah! Nice connection."
"It kind of stinks," she said.
"Maybe it will help my cold," said Aneza.
Nick opened the can of coconut milk.
"Can I taste it? It smells good," he said.
"I'm not sure you'll like it, it's unsweetened," I said.
"It's not bad," he said, after swiping his finger across the lid of the can and tasting a smidgen.
Once the onions, ginger and garlic were sautéing over a low flame, the lovely combination of scents filled the cafeteria kitchen and whetted everyone's appetite.
"That really does smell good!" said teacher Mark "Doc" Hawkins.
Even though Christian had no interest in eating the salmon, both he and Nick were disappointed that the fishmonger had already cut it into fillets. So I let them cut them in half again. They loved touching the slippery pink flesh and feeling the slimy silver skin.
"Don't we have to cut off the skin?" Nick asked.
"No, it's fine. You don't have to eat it, but leave it on while it cooks. It will fall right off."
There is something about a pan simmering on the stove that invites a crowd. Each child took a turn adding an ingredient, and each wanted to add a piece of salmon.
Everyone was sure we had way too much spinach, and all were amazed to see how quickly it wilted into the creamy curry sauce.
The salmon curry was served over a bed of rice, in this case, brown basmati rice, which everyone loved, perhaps because with the sauce, they couldn't really discern the color. "It tastes just like Chinese rice," said Nick.
I decided to leave well enough alone and not discuss how this brown rice is much healthier than white. They were eating it, right?
Nick and Kimberly, who have turned out to be the most enthusiastic and adventurous eaters, dug in and happily finished their plates.
Christian did try the salmon, though it truly pained him to do so. He shuddered and shook his head.
"It is not my food," he said. He scraped his plate and went back for a helping of plain rice, which he ate without complaint.
Aneza, who thought she wouldn't like the salmon, ended up eating every bit.
"It was OK," she said, not wanting to sound too enthusiastic. But then she asked Nysirah if she could finish what was left on her plate.
"I think your body was hungry for healthy food to heal your cold," I told her.
This recipe was quicker than many of the others, and we had more time to sit around the table chatting about the recent school dance ("So fun!" said Kim), which middle school they would attend next year, scrapes they had gotten into with other kids, whom they would invite to the last dinner we would prepare.
They were all surprised and sad to learn that we only have two more weeks of class. Aneza insisted that we had skipped one of the recipes and flipped through the cookbook, trying to figure out which one.
And as we sat there, I realized how far they had come, and how settled they were in the routine of prepping, cooking, setting the table, and sitting down to share a meal together. And I also saw that learning to cook and trying new foods was only a part of the experience: the conversation that goes on at the table is just as nourishing as spinach.
And the kids are not the only ones who have come along. When I brought some of the leftovers home to my husband, he gushed. "This is fabulous," he said. "Forget what I said in the supermarket."
Coconut Fish Curry
Makes 6 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 to 2 tablespoons mild curry powder (start with 1 and adjust to taste)
One 13.5 ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth or water
11/2 pounds fresh fish, such as cod, salmon, or halibut
5 cups baby spinach
Fresh lime juice
Steamed rice, preferably brown
1. Heat a large deep skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and swirl around the pan.
2. Add the onion, garlic, and ginger and cook, stirring often, until the onion is softened, about 6 minutes.
3. Add the curry powder and cook, stirring constantly until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
4. Add the coconut milk and broth and stir to combine. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce slightly thickens, about 3 minutes.
5. Add the fish and simmer, stirring occasionally, until cooked through, about 6 minutes. Add the spinach and stir until wilted, then season with lime juice. Check the seasonings to taste.
6. Serve with steamed rice.
- From Keepers (Rodale)
Per serving: 533 calories; 29 grams protein; 55 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; 22 grams fat; 50 milligrams cholesterol; 91 milligrams sodium; 5 grams dietary fiber.