Young chefs embrace the real thing

Posted: May 30, 2014

'Do you know what processed food is?" I asked the fifth graders at Henry Lawton Elementary, where I've been teaching cooking classes.

I had just seen Fed Up, the heartbreaking documentary on America's addiction to processed food, and I felt compelled to talk about it.

"It's fake food," said Nick Rodriguez.

"It's food that they put stuff in," said Aneza Abalo.

"You're both right," I said.

Processed food does not grow in the soil. It comes from factories where they add chemicals and ingredients that you can't pronounce, I told the kids. Cheetos, Doritos, McDonalds are all processed. And eating those kinds of foods is causing people to get fat and sick.

"But they taste so good!" said Aneza.

"I know!" I said, explaining how big food companies have had scientists figure out the perfect combinations of salt, sugar, and fat to not only make their products taste good, but to trigger your brain to keep eating them, to keep craving more.

"And their main target is kids just like you," I said.

Like most American children, these 10- and 11-year-olds said their favorite foods are pizza, fries, cookies, and cheeseburgers. They eat chicken nuggets and pizza for school lunch. (Except for Kimberly Luu, who is Vietnamese and who listed her favorite food as the noodly soup called pho.)

But over the last nine weeks, I have seen them cook and enjoy broccoli, asparagus, ratatouille, turkey lettuce wraps - lots of fresh and healthy foods.

Today we are poaching chicken, making rice, and roasting broccoli. Poaching, I tell the kids, just means cooking in liquid. We poached eggs in water a few weeks ago. This time we're poaching chicken in broth, then tying it up in little parchment bundles so the meat will stay moist and tender.

It's a challenge to juggle three recipes and make sure the cooks don't burn or cut themselves, while constantly being peppered with questions. I've tried to send the kids back to the recipe so they get in the habit of going there instead of asking me.

But there are still things the recipes don't cover. Kimberly wanted to learn how to smash garlic. "I never did it, Christian always did," she said. I showed her how to put a clove of garlic under the flat side of the knife and crush it with the bottom of her fist. Kim made a fist and gave the knife a weak bang.

"I know you can punch harder than that!" said Nick, though I'm not sure how he knew.

Kim's little sister Kathy was with us for class today, and once Kim got the hang of it, she deftly gave her sister a demonstration and a turn.

The boneless chicken breasts had to be sliced in thirds, and I showed the kids how to slice them so the pieces were similar in size and would cook evenly. We tossed them in a quick marinade of olive oil, lemon zest, garlic, and a pinch of salt and pepper.

And then each child assembled a packet by placing a sheet of parchment over a bowl, placing three pieces of chicken inside, and then drawing all the corners together and tying it into a packet with twine.

But while we were working on the packets, we forgot about the rice, and failed to turn it down after it boiled. It looked hard, and we feared it was burned on the bottom, a lost cause. "I'll still eat it," said Nysirah Hall, sportingly.

We salvaged it by adding a little water, turning the rice down and letting it simmer as it was supposed to. Somehow that worked - the kitchen gods were smiling on us.

We added lemon zest and juice to the broccoli before roasting, and clearly the most popular job this day was squeezing lemons with the bright-yellow juicer.

"I need to do it," said Aneza, making her case. "I gotta get my anger out," she said, explaining how upset she was with a teacher who reported her for chewing gum.

But Nick and Nysirah also wanted the job, and Nick was not above sneaking the lemon into the juicer when no one was looking.

"You can all have a turn," I said.

Though we have tried valiantly, we still have not mastered all the ins and outs of the industrial convection oven. As Nick attempted to preheat it, a loud buzzer sounded, causing the whole kitchen to vibrate. "I think I'm getting Tased!" he said.

In the end, the roasted broccoli quickly turned crispy, but was still not quite tender after 15 minutes at 425. And while the oven usually cooks things faster, the poached chicken took longer than the 20 minutes in my home oven.

But the chicken was a big hit with the kids. "I'm going to try to make this one on my own," Nysirah said. Even Nick, who said he didn't like white meat, went back for seconds.

While I had their attention, I couldn't let the opportunity pass: "This is real food," I told them. "The broccoli grows in the earth. The chicken doesn't have anything added. This is the best kind of food, and you have cooked it yourselves!"

Poached Chicken

Makes 6 servings

6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2½ pounds) tender removed, cut into thirds

4 fresh rosemary sprigs (or 1 teaspoon dried rosemary)

2 cloves of garlic, peeled, smashed, and chopped

Zest of 1 lemon

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

1½ cup chicken stock

Parchment paper and kitchen twine

Cooked brown rice

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. In a large bowl, combine the chicken, rosemary, garlic, lemon zest, and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Set out 6 soup bowls and place a large piece of parchment paper over each bowl to make a well. Divide the chicken mixture evenly between the bowls, bringing the sides of the wax paper up around the chicken. Pour about ¼ cup of chicken stock into each paper parcel (or less, just enough to cover the pieces and allow them to poach). Then tie each one with twine.

4. Place the parcels on a baking sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. (Check one after 15 minutes.)

5. Remove from oven and place one chicken parcel on each plate and let students rip them open. Spoon the rice into the parcel to soak up the juice.

Per serving: 317 calories, 16 grams fat, 126 mg cholesterol, 256 mg sodium, 350 mg potassium, trace carbohydrates, 41 g protein

Roasted Broccoli

Makes 6 servings

4 pounds broccoli

4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

2 tablespoons good olive oil

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

2. Cut the broccoli florets from the thick stalks, leaving an inch or two of stalk attached to the florets, discarding the rest of the stalks. Cut the larger pieces through the base of the head with a small knife, pulling the florets apart. Place the florets in a large bowl and toss them with the garlic and olive oil and lightly sprinkle with salt and pepper.

3. Line a sheet pan with foil. Place the broccoli florets (cut side down) on the sheet pan, large enough to hold them in a single layer. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes, until crisp and tender and the tips of some of the florets are browned.

4. Remove the broccoli from the oven and immediately toss with the lemon zest and lemon juice. Serve hot.

Per serving: 148 calories, 6 grams of fat, no cholesterol, 295 mg sodium, 976 potassium, 21 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams dietary fiber, 5 grams sugar, 9 grams protein

My Daughter's Kitchen

The mission. To teach schoolchildren to prepare healthy, easy meals on a budget.

The reach. Volunteers are in five Philadelphia schools, with intent to expand the program.

The partner. The Vetri Foundation, which shares the goal of encouraging healthy eating for children.

To support. Send donations to Vetri Foundation for Children, 1113 Admiral Peary Way, Quarters N, Philadelphia 19112; note "My Daughter's Kitchen" in the memo. Or go to

To participate. Submit recipes to be considered for classes. Must be simple, nutritious, protein-rich, prepared in less than an hour, and cost less than $20 for six servings. Send recipes to


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