A month or so ago, a friend who runs the Health & Wellness program at our local college reached out to a handful of her friends who are avid cooks and asked if they would be interested in teaching a class for college students. The theme would be creating meals that are nutritious, simple and inexpensive that students can prepare for the themselves.
I said yes immediately. Showing people that cooking for themselves is not nearly as hard as it looks, and is immensely rewarding on many levels, is one of my passions. A few years ago I read this piece in the New York Times that discussed the demise of Home Ec classes and drew a direct correlation between that and our incredible obesity/chronic illness epidemic. The bottom line is this – if we don’t teach people how to cook for themselves, how can they take care of themselves?
While I’ve never taught an actual class before, I’ve certainly thought about it. I continually try and teach my own children to cook – which is met with a range of interest and enthusiasm, depending on the child. Either way, I figure they’re picking up an awful lot just by osmosis. So I relished this chance to talk to some young people (who had entered into the conversation voluntarily) about how easy it is to throw together a good meal for not very much money or effort.
With a maximum budget of $7 per person and very limited cooking equipment – an oven, stove and the most basic of pots and pans - we were asked to develop a menu that could be prepared and ready in about 40 minutes. for 16 to 20 people.
My first inclination was to turn to my old stand-by roasted chicken, the making (and eating) of which I consider fundamental to life itself. Then I could talk about how the chicken can expand to many subsequent meals like sandwiches, soup, salad…But my friend reminded me that not only was it going to be awfully hard to get that all done in less than an hour, but additionally most students don’t have any more than a very small dorm-sized refrigerator for storage. Good point.
So I moved on. Another great technique that serves anyone well is pan roasting. In a hot oven both meats and vegetables roast quickly and deliciously. I do it all the time.
At trick I learned from reading Lynne Rosetto Kasper is that if you put a sheet pan in the oven and turn it on when you walk in the door at the end of the day, by the time you’ve prepped your ingredients the hot sheet pan will help the food to cook even faster.
So here is the menu for my first cooking class: Crunchy Dijon Chicken Thighs with Roasted Potatoes and Broccoli. A simple, fast, nutritious and comforting meal for beginning cooks or any tired, hungry soul.
Here is the game plan:
Turn the oven on to 425 degrees. Prep the chicken thighs according to the recipe below.
Using red skinned or yukon gold potatoes (2 to 3 per person, depending on their size and how hungry you are) cut them into uniform chunks about 2 – 3 inches big. In a large bowl toss the potatoes with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and generous amounts of salt and pepper. You can also add any dried herb you like – rosemary and thyme are both nice.
Once the chicken and potatoes are prepped, carefully remove the hot sheet pan from the oven and on one half of the pan lay the chicken pieces and the other half spread out the potatoes in an even layer. I like to get the potatoes skin side up, so that one of the flesh sides is in contact with the pan and will get brown and crispy.
Slip your sheet pan back in the oven and set the timer for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, rinse a couple of heads of broccoli and cut it in 2 – 3 inch long florets. On a new sheet pan, toss the florets with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, salt, pepper and if you like, some crushed red pepper flakes. Later, you’ll discover that little bit of heat offsets the natural sweetness of the potatoes nicely.
When your timer goes off add the pan of broccoli to the oven and set it for another 15. Set the table, pour a glass of wine – if you’re old enough – and enjoy the aromas of your dinner roasting away in the oven.
When you take the pans out of the oven the potatoes should be golden and crispy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside. The chicken will be beautifully browned. If you’re not sure if it’s done, take a sharp knife and cut the meat near the bone. It’ will likely be somewhat reddish, as it’s dark meat, but if it’s raw looking, stick it back in for 5 minutes. The broccoli will be bright green with somewhat charred edges.
The class went beautifully, the kids asked lots of good questions and subsequently gobbled up every speck of the food. Most of them also remembered to thank me as they left – their parents would be so proud!
P.S. As I was looking for the NYT article I mentioned above, I came across this one, which I found quite amusing and thought you might too: “Cooking is Freedom”
- 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard,
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried,
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika,
- 2 cloves minced garlic,
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature,
- 2 teaspoons whole-grain mustard,
- Approximately 3 pounds bone-in chicken thighs (one large thigh per person, or 2 small),
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt,
- 1 teaspoon black pepper,
- 1 cup plain dried bread crumbs or Panko
- Put a sheet pan in the oven and pre- heat to 425 degrees.
- In a small bowl, combine both mustards, thyme, paprika, garlic and butter. Use a fork or your hands to mash the butter and stir until all is well combined.
- Season the chicken all over with salt and pepper. Using your hands, rub the mustard mixture all over chicken even getting a little under the skin if it's loose.
- Place the bread crumbs or Panko in a wide, shallow bow. Again using your hands, dredge each piece of chicken through the crumbs to coat it evenly with crumbs on both sides.
- Carefully remove the hot sheet pan from the oven and lay the chicken on it. Return the pan to the oven and roast until the chicken is golden and no longer pink, 35 to 40 minutes.
- It's okay if you don't preheat your sheet pan, just know that it will take about 5 - 10 minutes longer for the chicken to cook.