Is it possible to get kids to appreciate a simple, baked drumstick when so many are accustomed to the crunchy, salty, deep-fried, fast-food chicken that is so wildly popular around the globe?
That was my hesitation in even trying to make a healthier version of fried chicken in our after-school My Daughter's Kitchen cooking classes. Yet in the five years that we've been teaching urban schoolchildren to make healthy dinners on a budget, fried chicken has been the most requested dish.
If these young cooks could learn to make a more nutritious version of the chicken they love, would they be more motivated to cook it with their families? That was the hope for this week's recipe for baked corn flake chicken accompanied by braised greens.
I was visiting St. Martin of Tours, a vibrant Catholic school in the Lower Northeast, one of 35 urban schools participating in the program around the region. The class of 10- and 11-year-olds were assembled in the basement kitchen there, eyeing up the ingredients for what they were being told would produce a simpler, cheaper, and healthier version of fried chicken.
Simpler, that is, than deep-frying the chicken at home. Of course, nothing is as easy as picking up a bucket of chicken from KFC. Cheaper, as 12 pieces of KFC chicken cost about $20, and our ingredients for the same amount are about $14.
But the real value is in the nutrition. There are 340 calories, 24 grams of fat, and 780 milligrams of salt in two extra-crispy chicken drumsticks from KFC, according to the company's website. That means those two drumsticks are approaching the amount of salt and fat recommended for an entire day. A single, extra-crispy KFC chicken breast weighs in at 530 calories, 35 grams of fat, and 1,150 milligrams of sodium!
Alternatively, two baked corn flake drumsticks, served with a side of braised greens, contain 263 calories, with 8 grams of fat and 484 milligrams of sodium.
The kids were wide-eyed at the comparison. "Our recipe had so much less fat, salt, and calories. It was crazy!" Destiny Vera, 11, wrote in her journal.
They also were interested in understanding why.
"Is it healthier because we are not using Frosted Flakes?" asked Quinterra Phillips, 11.
"Well, yes," said Chris Hoyler, one of the volunteers teaching the class. But she explained that it was also healthier because it was baked, not fried in oil, and that there was less added salt.
Hoyler, an emergency room nurse at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in North Philadelphia, volunteered because of her experience there. "I just see so many children who are so overweight, I just decided that someone has to do something," she said. "I know it's not solving the problem, but I do see it making a difference. These kids love to cook."
The other volunteer, Nicole Follmer, a second-grade teacher at St. Martin, heard about the program from her sister Genevieve Lynch, the development director at Vetri Community Partnership, the nonprofit that administers My Daughter's Kitchen. When an email went out asking whether any teachers were interested, Follmer raised her hand.
"I love it, and I've gotten some great recipes," she said. "I now have to make that beef stir-fry once a week."
Smashing corn flakes in a resealable bag for the breading was the highlight of this recipe. But no one was more enthusiastic than Dominic Valerio, 10, who banged his fists in the rapid-fire rhythm of a drum roll. He was asked whether he was thinking of anyone when pounding so forcefully.
"I have two sisters at home and I'm the only brother," he replied.
One at a time, the drumsticks were dipped in an egg and milk bath before being put into the zipper bags to be coated with the crumbs.
"Shake, shake, shake," Hoyler said. "Shake, shake, shake … Shake your chicken," she sang to a tune they all knew and soon repeated as they shook. Then onto sheet pans went the chicken and into the oven.
Meanwhile, another team had started on the braised greens, first immersing the kale and broccoli rabe into boiling water, then into ice water to stop the cooking, a technique called blanching.
When the chicken was nearly done, smashed garlic was heated in oil to impart its flavor. The recipe called for it to be cooked until fragrant, so Destiny and Kara Santiago, 11, hovered over the stove, waiting to catch the aroma.
"It smells like the bread sticks that you get from Pizza Hut!" Kara said, nailing the scent.
Once the chicken was done, and the kale and broccoli rabe were sautéed in the garlicky oil, the kids carried the platters of food to the teachers' lounge. After grace, "God bless the cooks," and a few bites, the reviews came in. The greens weren't a big hit. But the chicken was another story.
"It's beautiful!" said Dominic.
"Ten out of ten," said Aryanna Leonardo, 11.
"Eleven out of ten," Destiny said.
"A million out of ten!" Quinterra said.
"Yo," said Hadassah Sohail, 11. "This chicken is good!"