Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Behind The Kitchen Door Series: More About The Salad Bar

One of the very first things I did on the job was make a lentil salad for our salad bar.  It was really simple: I boiled 10 cups of lentils until they were tender and mixed them with vinegar, oil and salt and pepper.  No one had seen lentils on the salad bar before, so they were devoured quickly.  My next step was to show our salad lady how to make them.        

Our salad lady wears many hats during her day at my school.  She’s also a lunch server, dishwasher, and kitchen helper too.  She spends less than half of her six-hour day working on the salad bar.  While she usually makes all components of the salad bar, I will pitch in too.  Items like roasted vegetables involve a bit of coordination with other staff that might be using the oven that day.    

There has been resistance to the change, however gradual it has been.  Breaking a routine that has been set in place for a very long time takes getting used to.  Most improvements to the salad bar require more work and effort, and the workday hasn’t gotten any longer.  It’s a contentious issue, and I understand both sides.  For now, adding a couple of new dishes here and there has been working for us.     
Even with many improved dishes on the salad bar this year, the cost of ingredients has been about the same as before.  Our salad bar held fresh raw vegetables, and canned and processed food.  Because many of our newer dishes begin with dried ingredients, beans or grains, that we have to cook ourselves, we aren’t paying for the convenience of cooked food in cans, which tend to be pricier.  Also, by buying from a local farm, serving fresh, in-season vegetables becomes affordable – we pay $13 for ten pounds of peeled and diced butternut squash.  Prices of our staple salad vegetables fluctuate dramatically over the school year, so if the cost of cucumbers is particular high one week, we may reduce the amount, or even eliminate, what we put out on the bar.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Behind the Kitchen Door Series: The Salad Bar

There was no salad bar to speak of when I was in high school, so seeing one on my first day on the job in my school's cafeteria showed me that school lunches have come a long way.  The salad bar at my school holds twelve crocks of items in addition to a large pan of lettuce mix.  Roughly half the crocks hold year-round staples such as tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, onions, and carrots.  The other half houses a random rotation of items like hummus, cottage cheese, yogurt, canned fruit, feta cheese, or croutons.  There’s usually a slot or two filled with salads that our salad lady comes up with on a whim or makes based on what we have in the kitchen.  One day it might be potato salad to use up a previous day’s excess of baked potatoes, the next it might be a salad of chickpeas, tomatoes and cucumber. 

Tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers

I’m sure that what I’ve described so far is wonderful compared to those schools that don’t have a salad bar.  I’m happy to have it, but there’s always room for improvement.  Our non-staple salad items tended to start with canned items such as beets or sliced peaches or were very heavy on the mayonnaise and other ingredients I’d rather not serve.      

While it’s unrealistic to eliminate every canned good, we now supplement the salad bar with legumes, whole grains, and fresh vegetables.  We’re making these changes to the salad bar one crock at a time.  Though we don’t have a precise system in place, we are trying to switch out some of the more processed items with items we cook in the kitchen.  Because these small changes don’t take huge amounts of time to make nor do they require lots of space on the stove or oven, the salad bar was one of the first areas of improvement to our school lunch.    
Clockwise from upper left: carrots, croutons, pineapple, zucchini salad, hummus, onion 

In addition to canned beans, we now use a variety of dried lentils, crimson, black, and green, to make simple salads.  They’re high in fiber, and cook in less than twenty minutes.  Quinoa, a whole grain that's high in protein, is an addition to the salad bar that has gotten a lot of people talking because most haven’t heard of it.  (Learn more about quinoa at the Whole grains Council. )  Just like bulgur, which we also started serving this year, it’s quick to prepare and a great base to a pilaf that can include vegetables, herbs, and spices.  Roasted vegetables have made it onto our salad bar and have been a huge hit, especially the butternut squash from a local farm.  We roast one or two pans at a time, which means that we might be borrowing the oven for fifteen minutes while the main meal is cooking in the oven too.

Tomorrow: More about the changes to the salad bar 

Behind the Kitchen Door Series: A Peek Inside My School's Food Program

Beginning tomorrow, I will be posting profiles of different components of my school’s food program.  You’ll get a peek at our main meal, salad, soup, deli, and bagel bars, as well as our snack service.  I will discuss what I walked into when I began working in October 2008 and where we are today.  I will also discuss how we were able to make changes, issues we had to deal with along the way, and the challenges we still face.
I hope that this will shed some light on how a school might begin making improvements in school lunch, even if this is just an anecdote.  As I’ve mentioned before, my school is an independent private school and we don’t receive food subsidies from the government like public schools receive.  However, my school still deals with all the fundamental problems that public schools deal with in a school lunch, including a dependence on highly processed food, a limited budget, and lack of space and equipment.  Please look at my past post, 10 Positive Things About My School Cafeteria That Have Happened Over A Year And A Half, to read about some changes that I will address in the profiles. 

Thanks for reading my blog:)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

What's Cooking?

It disturbs me that thaw-and-serve in school and TV dinners at home -instant foods- have changed the societal connotation of cooking.  When my school kitchen staff says we’re cooking the main meal, in fact what we’re saying is that we’re reheating, thawing the meal out.  When I first started in my school kitchen, I heard our garden vegetable soup described as “pretty much from-scratch.”  It actually just involved heating up a can of tomato soup with canned beans and a bag of frozen vegetables.  That certainly doesn’t describe a from-scratch soup to me. 

Baked good are another category of food where homemade used to mean something different.  With all the mixes and refrigerated products out there that simplify the process down to placing pre-formed dough rounds on a baking sheet, do we really consider this homemade?  As a kid, I genuinely thought that brownies should start with a boxed mix and there was no other way to make them!  Luckily, going to culinary school and spending some time in a professional pastry kitchen changed that idea.    

I am a part-time private chef for twenty-five people, and when I first started I was dismayed to find I had inherited a large collection of commercial brownie and cake mixes from the previous chef.  Incorporate water into the mix and it's oven-ready.  Oil and eggs are not needed.  It took me months to clear the shelves of the mixes before I started making the sweets myself.      

Homemade and from-scratch imply care and quality in food.  But when all kinds of shortcuts are used in cooking, you get an inferior product studded with preservatives and other ingredients you don’t want to ingest.  It's not real cooking.           

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The No-Bake Sale

New York City public schools are no longer allowing bakes sales to sell homemade items yet have approved of twenty-seven prepackaged items for sale at schools.  The ban is one measure intended to help deal with obesity.  See an article about it here in the New York Times.  I just don’t get it. 

Categorically banning home-baked goods is a bit silly given what students actually eat in schools and that the approved items include pop-tarts and Doritos.  Do we trust snacks made by giant companies over ones made by parents and students?

My school has a no-food-from-home policy that is based on similar health concerns but also due to the prevalence of severe food allergies, which I find easier to swallow.  There are no cupcakes to celebrate birthdays and no bake sales whatsoever.  It’s kind of sad. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Switch to Local Apples

My state produces plenty of apples, so there’s no reason to buy them from across the country.  Getting local apples was a priority for me when I first started working for my school.  Buying from local farms means that produce comes to the school fresher and doesn’t need to be trucked long distances.  It also supports local farmers over middlemen.  I did some web research and found my state’s Farm to School Project, a government resource that matches schools to local farms.  They connected me to a farm that was already delivering produce to my town.  Comparing the cost of apples between the farm and our main food supplier, I found that the farm’s apples were less expensive or the same price.  About 70% of our apples this school year will come from the farm.                

Schools typically buy 198-count apples, meaning there are 198 apples in a box.  A 198 is two-thirds the size of your average supermarket apple (110-125s) and a great size for a wide range of students.  Before schools started buying 198s, the farm had tons of them left over and didn’t know what to do with them. 

The farm I work with occasionally runs out of the little apples.  I order about three cases a week for my school, so filling the order isn’t a big issue.  I’m pretty flexible if 198s aren’t available - I’ll take the next size up.  I’ve heard from the farm that some school districts with six or seven schools in their towns are ordering these apples thirty cases at a time.  Demand is going up.       

As more schools tap into local farms, more will be interested, willing, and able to cater to the needs of schools.  I also buy carrot sticks, diced butternut squash, and dill pickles from the farm.  Everyone at school loves these items, and they’re great for us to work with in the kitchen.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Pizza Ingredients: School, Market, Home

Whole Wheat Pizza with Asian Eggplant and Brown Beech Mushrooms

My very first blog piece was Pizza Perspectives for the Fed Up with Lunch: the School Lunch Project blog.  You may have seen it already but if you haven’t, you can find the piece here.

I had so much fun writing it that I started this blog.  It is really surprising that a plain piece of school pizza has 62 ingredients, so I wondered how that compares to other pizzas. 

I scanned the frozen section of my neighborhood grocery store.  Most pizzas I looked at listed 40 ingredients, and all those included one topping such as pepperoni.    

About a month ago, I began making pizza at home every Friday for dinner.  My fiancé dubbed it Pizza Friday!  It is fast becoming a tradition for us.  Sometimes we invite a friend or two over to partake; other times we indulge on our own.  Tonight I decided to see how many ingredients go into my pizza.   

Dough: 7 ingredients
When Pizza Friday! started, I made the dough myself, but then I got lazy.  After I found frozen organic dough at Whole Foods to be cheaper than the dough at my grocery store, I decided that the $1.69 was totally worth it.  By the way, the 7 ingredients count comes from white pizza dough.  I also used an organic whole wheat dough, but the label fell off, and I can’t seem to find it. 

Sauce: 9 ingredients
I opened a can of tomatoes, pureed it, and added olive oil, garlic, dried oregano, and chili flakes to it. 

Cheese: 4 ingredients  
Today I took a hunk of mozzarella cheese and sliced off what I needed as I’m making the pizzas.  I don’t buy the pre-shredded cheese because it’s more expensive and there’s extra stuff added to the cheese to prevent it from sticking together.  Occasionally, I might use a nice round of fresh mozzarella.

Brown Beech Mushrooms

Toppings: 2 ingredients
I used Asian eggplant, and brown Beech mushrooms; Pat kept his plain. 

Etc: 10 ingredients    
I drizzled olive oil on the dough, sprinkled some salt on the eggplant, and dusted my pizza peel off with some cornmeal and all-purpose flour, which I found out has six other ingredients other than wheat flour.  I included all 7 ingredients in my count because I counted every distinct ingredient when I looked at my school’s frozen pizza to come up with 62 ingredients. 

Total ingredients used for Pizza Friday!: 32

That’s more than I would have expected, though I may have over-counted a few items.  I know salt appeared in more than one ingredient category.  Still, that’s about half the ingredients compared to my school’s pizza. 

My pizza: whole wheat with Asian eggplant and Beech mushrooms
Pat’s pizza: plain cheese   

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cooking for 25 versus 500

I’m new to blogging and am trying to figure out what kind of pieces are appropriate for this blog. I’m also trying to add more pictures to the blog. Right now, I’m on school vacation, so I can’t offer any pictures of school lunch. So, what you see in these pictures above are meals that I cook as a private chef.

In addition for working for a school cafeteria, I cook dinners five times a week for a group of about twenty-five adults. Most things are made from scratch. Each night, I offer a main course, side vegetable, starch, salad, and dessert. I come up with the menu and write it up on a board. Each day after cooking the meals, I leave it for them on the stove. I don’t see many of them while I am there cooking. If someone has a strong opinion about the food, she usually writes it on the board.

This is my second year as their private chef, and I noticed that they seem to prefer some of the richer, unhealthier options. “I would walk 10,000 extra miles to eat your mac n’ cheese!” someone wrote. I’m not going to make indulgent foods everyday, so each week I balance a rich entree with a healthier meal, a vegetarian meal, and a fish meal.

As long as it is within our budget, I get to cook without much of any food restrictions.  I’ve made chicken coconut noodle soup, shrimp gumbo, feta cabbage pie. It is quite a contrast to the meals served at my school cafeteria, where we need to think about things like, is this food going to be a choking hazard to our youngest students? (This issue came up when we served a grilled chicken breast instead of our normal chicken patty.)

What does it take to cook dinners five nights a week for twenty-five people? About two and a half hours a day. I don’t do the dishes used for the cooking, but I do rinse them free of food and grease. I write up a list of ingredients I need each week and email them to the house manager. The food is usually there in the fridges when I walk into the kitchen. Here is the menu for this week, minus a standard salad:

1. Beef and black bean chili and vegetarian corn, chickpea and black bean chili, steamed broccoli, cheddar cornbread, fruit salad with cantaloupe, grapes and strawberries
2. Soy marinated chicken breast with garlic and scallions, roasted potatoes, asparagus, brownies
3. Whole wheat pasta primavera with cherry tomatoes, cauliflower, asparagus and zucchini, creamed spinach, cake
4. Breakfast for dinner (Huh? It’s one of their favorite meals!!): baked eggs, breakfast sausages, cinnamon French toast, roasted broccoli and cauliflower, rice crispies treats
5. Roasted salmon, rice, sautéed zucchini, peppers and corn, apple crisp

Here’s the menu from a past week this month at my school cafeteria (we’re on spring break right now). We serve 500. In addition to what you see on the menu, there are salad, bagel, and deli bars.  There are eight of us, most of us part-time.  We have less than three hours to prepare lunch each day before the first of five lunch services starts.  After the last lunch is over 3 hours later, the kitchen is cleaned and in thirty minute, most of the kitchen crew leaves for the day.  In addition to lunch, we provide food for special events, from simple breakfasts for meetings to catering 200 person special dinners. We also sell snacks mid-morning and provide snacks for our after school program and sports teams.

1. Beef stew, wheat roll, corn chowder, grapes
2. Chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes, garden vegetable soup, cookie
3. Ham and cheese sandwich, coleslaw, pickles, cream of broccoli soup, ice cream
4. Mac and cheese, sweet peas, French onion soup, diced peaches
5. French bread pizza, salad, chef’s choice of soup, cake

After calculating the number of labor hours at both of my jobs, I was shocked to find that they are roughly the same per meal per person coming in at 6 minutes per meal!!

As a private chef, I cook most things from scratch. At school, our main meal normally comes in frozen. As a private chef, I have an entire kitchen to myself including two mixers, a stove, and an oven. At school, the eight of us share a kitchen with one tiny mixer, a stove, and two ovens. As a private chef, I spend my time at work pretty much just cooking. At school, we spend most of our time doing other things such as serving lunch, washing dishes, and selling snacks.  Preparing the meal accounts for less than half of the time we spend in the kitchen.

If we want better meals, it seems clear we need to devote some more time to cooking.  It’s a goal that’s reasonable and within reach.  We also need a bigger and better equipped kitchen.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

10 positive things about my school cafeteria that have happened over a year and a half.

My last post was pretty negative.  So here’s something a little happier: 

Ten positive things:
1.      Locally-made bagels that often arrive warm replaced frozen bagels.  
2.      Recycling program for cardboard, glass, aluminum, and plastic has reduced kitchen trash drastically.
3.      Preferential ordering of local produce from an in-state farm. By the end of this school year about
o   70% of all apples, carrots, pickles at our school come from the farm.
o   100% of butternut squash and turnips come from the farm.
4.      Commitment to using reusable plates, soup bowls, utensils when possible, which means less paper plates, foam bowls and plastic silverware in our trash bins.
5.      First 100% made-from-scratch soup was served at lunch this year, butternut squash soup, and everyone can tell it doesn’t come from a can!
6.      Quinoa, bulgur, and crimson lentils are some of the whole grains and legume introduced to the soup and salad bars.
7.      Local peaches served to the school for the first time in the fall. 
8.      100% recycled paper napkins replaced all our napkins; began using a napkin dispenser that encourages people to take just one – less is more!  
9.      Reusable squeeze bottles for ketchup and mustard replace the thousands of plastic packets that end up in the garbage.
10.  Our budget is the same as before we made these changes (and in fact, if all goes well for the rest of this school year, the budget just might be LESS than that of last year.)
***I don’t understand, I thought improving school lunch would be really hard and costly??  The changes I made were the EASIEST to implement and don’t involve costly changes such as expanding the kitchen or hiring a chef.  For example, changing where we buy apples is fairly easy.  It involved a substitution of suppliers from a large food company to a local farm.  I made the change after researching that apples generally cost the same or less from a farm, after all, local apples don’t need to be trekked across the country on a gas-guzzling truck.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


A “thaw-and-serve” meal is the industrial version of the TV dinner. It’s the kind of meal that comes out of my cafeteria hotline. Preparing the meal involves thawing it in the oven to about 160 degrees and then serving it. The stuff can go from frozen to ready in twenty minutes. Hamburgers, nuggets, chicken patties, mac and cheese, and pizza are all “thaw-and-serve.”

Cooking is nearly extinct in the school kitchen, and it makes me wonder how this happened. Once upon a time there were family-style meals at my school with food that was baked, sautéed, or roasted. “Thaw-and-serve” didn’t exist.

Making egg salad traditionally involved boiling and peeling eggs. It’s time and labor intensive: pulling the eggs out of the water when the yolks are fully cooked, uniformly yellow, and not tinged with a green ring takes skills.

Today, we never have a problem with sulfur-y, overcooked eggs. Our egg salad starts with hardboiled eggs in bags that keep for a surprisingly long time in the fridge. The eggs are perfectly cooked and peeled every time! Who knew that you could get eggs like that? Not long after seeing eggs in a bag in my school kitchen, I spotted them at one of my favorite grocery stores.

In schools, food isn’t the priority, clearly. Often times, it isn’t in our homes either.

Part 2: How my school went from family-style meals to “thaw-and-serve” feed lots.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My story

I work for a progressive private school, Pre-K through 12th grade. We serve lunches each day to students and staff in an all you can eat cafeteria. Participation is nearly 100% for students and staff, as lunch is included in student tuition and a perk for everyone else.

I started working there close to the beginning of the 2008 school year. The job description mentioned updating its food offerings with local and organic items, and that is what interested me. In addition to a main meal “hot line,” there is a soup bar during colder months and year-round salad and deli bars.

Even when I first started, the lunches were much better than your average school lunch. The kitchen exclusively served organic milk and yogurt, and the salad bar always had lettuce, tomatoes, and other fresh vegetables.

Even with a few great items in the cafeteria, it still has a long way to go. The majority of students and staff eat food from the main meal line, and the food is just a small step up from an average school lunch. Hot dogs, hamburgers, nuggets, and pizza are monthly mainstays. Yes, the hot dogs might be lower sodium and the buns are made with whole wheat, but healthy and nutritious, they are not.

Before taking this job, I worked in a few upscale restaurant kitchens as a cook, pastry chef, and sous chef. I rarely cooked at home, and I ate pretty poorly during those years. It made me wonder why I was cooking in the first place.

I would never have guessed I would end up working in a school cafeteria five years ago. New York City was just beginning to revamp its school lunch program when I was finishing up culinary school. They were hiring at my culinary school’s career fair. I was interested, but I didn’t linger at their booth too long. Why would I spend two years of my life learning to cook and then work for a school, where little cooking is done on premises?

Several years later and exhausted from twelve hour days feeding a select few restaurant-goers, I began to think about school food. I heard more and more about people like Alice Waters and Ann Cooper. I taught a free cooking class for high school students and their stories reminded me how bad school lunch can be. At some point, tackling a stagnant school food system seemed much more interesting than making truffle risotto day in and day out.