Friday, December 16, 2011

Kids Make Danish Pebber Nodder (Christmas Cookies)

A little taste of Denmark for Christmas

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

These may be the easiest cookies you'll ever make. In fact, you might say they're downright rudimentary. But one of my favorite spices--cardamom--gives these little shortbread nuggets--called pebber nodder in Denmark--a huge lift.

I was looking for something quick and easy for our last baking class before the holiday break. These cookies certainly filled the bill, but they looked a little too plain when they came out of the oven, so we dressed them up with a sprinkling of confectioner's sugar. They would work great in a selection of holiday cookies. And they get the kids in our food appreciation classes fully involved--creaming butter and sugar, mixing the dough, rolling it out, then taking turning cutting the dough into these little pillow shapes.

Start by creaming 1 cup (2 sticks) room temperature butter with 1 cup granulated sugar. Beat until the mixture lightens in color, then add 2 eggs, one at a time, beating until the eggs are completely incorporated. We do this by hand in a mixing bowl using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, but of course you can also do it at home with an electric mixer.

Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, whisk together 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour and 1 teaspoon each ground cinnamon and ground cardamom.

Cutting a log of dough into pebber nodder

Add the flour mix to the butter mix and gently blend until you have a smooth dough. Divide the dough into six balls--you might want to roll them in a little flour. Then, on a floured work surface, roll out one of the balls into a long, thin log--about the thickness of a cigar. Cut the log into 3/4-inch lengths and place these on an ungreased baking sheet, leaving some room around each nugget. Place in a 375-degree oven and bake 14 minutes, or until the pebber nodder are firm, the undersides lightly browned. Use an inverted spatula to move them to wire racks to cool.

Working through each ball of dough individually, we filled a total of three baking sheets. In other words, this recipe makes a lot of pebber nodder. As they cooled, we transferred them to a basket where we dusted them with powdered sugar as you see in the picture above.

They are quite delicious. I'll bet you can't eat just one!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tell This Woman How Much You Disapprove

Former White House aide Anita Dunn: corporate food shill

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

How far behind the times are we?

Apparently, it was last October that food policy writer Marion Burros reported in Politico that the White House's former communications director, Anita Dunn, is now leading the multi-million-dollar lobbying efforts of food corporations trying to put the kibash on Obama administrations attempts to curb junk food marketing to children.

Much has been written lately about how the food industry has pushed back against "voluntary" guidelines on food marketing proposed by a cluster of federal agencies. Now it appears that one of the Obamas' very own is the chief strategist for the industry assault, having left the White House to join a D.C. lobbying group, SKDKnickerbocker.

Not being a regular Politico reader, I first caught wind of it from Marion Nestle's blog this morning, where she reports on findings issued by the Sunlight Foundation that food interests--including Coca-Cola and General Mills--have poured some $37 million into the campaign to stop the marketing guidelines.

Burros reported in Politico that Dunn's turning on Michelle Obama's favorite project--childhood obesity--did turn some heads, but also did not come as a particular surprise, because she did not embrace the first Lady's thinking on the subject. You can read that as, Please do not piss off our friends in the food industry!

This sort of revolving door is nothing new to Washington politics, but underscores how corporate forces have aligned against children's health. Just to show you how incestuous things are in the nation's capitol, Dunn's husband, Bob Bauer, is a former White House legal counsel who continues to work on Barack Obama's re-election campaign.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been pushing for years for tougher child nutrition standards, said, "Anita Dunn and her firm should be ashamed of themselves for leading teh food industry's panicky efforts to quash the Obama administration's reasonable and voluntary nutrition guidelines proposed for food marketed to children."

Burros quotes Dunn as replying: "This is a national problem that is not going to be solved by personal vilification."

Maybe personal vilification won't solve this problem. Still, Dunn should be ashamed and I think anyone who cares about children's health should tell her so. Here's the phone number for SKDKnickerbocker: 202 464-6900. Give Dunn a call and tell her what you think.

Or, you can go here and send her an e-mail.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Kids Make Norwegian Lefse

Ricing potatoes for lefse

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

There could be no greater compliment for our Norwegian lefse than the one we got from our school nurse, Elizabeth, who said the lefse--or potato crepes--we made in our food appreciation classes tasted just like the ones her Norwegian grandmother used to serve.

Who knew? The Norwegians have their own version of a French crepe, except it's made with potatoes instead of flour and eggs. So instead pouring a thin crepe into a pan, you have to roll it out. Apparently the mark of a truly gifted lefse maker is rolling a perfectly round, paper-thin crepe. For this, Elizabether loaned us her grandmother's special wooden lefse roller. The roller is textured, leaving a distinct pattern on the finished crepes.

Otherwise, lefse are fairly easy. There are only only six ingredients: potatoes, heavy cream, butter, sugar, salt and all-purpose flour. The finished lefse are so simple, but delicious and comforting. Sprinkled with sugar or perhaps a dollop of fruit preserves, they make an easy dessert. Or you can stuff them with cheese for a savory snack or side dish.

Recipes vary, calling for more or less potato, more or less flour. I found that 2 1/2 pounds potatoes make plenty of lefse for our needs--about 15 large, finished crepes. We measured the flour loosely, eventually just taking handfuls from the bag until we had a manageable dough that wasn't sticky.

A day ahead, peel 2 1/2 pounds baking potatoes, cut into large dice and cover with plenty of water in a large saucepan. Cook until the potatoes are tender, then drain in a colander and pass the potatoes through a ricer into a large mixing bowl. Add 1/2 cup heavy cream and 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) melted butter, along with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon granulated sugar (omit if making savory lefse). Mix well, cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next day you'll want to have some sort of griddle on hand along with butter to grease it. The Norwegians have a special electric griddle for this purpose. We made our lefse on our portable butane stove at the prep table so the kids could watch the crepes cook, using for a griddle our cast-iron Mexican comal, essentially a skillet with no sides to interfere with our efforts to get under the crepes and flip them with an inverted spatula.

To the prepared potato mix, add 1 1/2 cups flour and work it in with your hands. Continue adding flour until a soft dough forms that is no longer sticky. You may need another 1/2 cup flour or more for this. Dump the finished dough onto a floured work surface and roll into a log about 3 inches across. You will cut pieces from the log to form individual lefse.

Slice enough doughfrom the log to make a small fistful, roll it into a ball and, using your floured work surface and a rolling pin, roll the dough into a paper-thin, round (--ish!) crepe. Carefully work an inverted spatula under the crepe, then lift and move the disc to a buttered griddle over moderate heat. Within a minute or two, brown spots will appear on the underside of the lefse. Flip it with the spatula and cook another minute more. At this point you can sprinkle the lefse with sugar (or with grated cheese, if making savory lefse). Fold the lefse in half twice to make a triangle shape.

Finished lefse, hot off the griddle

You can line the finished lefse on a platter to cool. You need do nothing more at this point than serve them, or perhaps dress them with a dollop of lingonberry jam. For savory lefse, you might want to place them into a hot oven to melt the cheese inside.

Lefse are a simple peasant food that must have brought great comfort to Norwegian families during long. dark winters. Elizabeth also encouraged us not to worry too much about rolling our perfectly round ones. She said hers usually turn out more square.

Friday, December 2, 2011

KIds Make Norwegian Christmas Cookies

Wire release scoop for making cookies

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

What's special about Norwegian Christmas cookies?

They look like ordinary sugar cookies at first blush. But one bite is all you need to tell the difference: These cookies are chewy and full of almond, coconut and oats.

What? You say you've never heard of oats in Christmas cookies?

Our food appreciation classes have started their annual baking segment and with Christmas just around the corner I decided to lead off with these cookies so we could serve them at tonight's parents night dinner, which features a buffet of all the Scandinavian food we've been making lately.

As simple as the cookies look, they do require quite a bit of elbow grease if you're making them by hand. They're much easier if you're using an electric mixer. But in our classes, the mixer consists of a wooden spoon and kid muscle.

Start by placing 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted room-temperature butter in a large mixing bowl, alongwith 1 cup sugar and 7 ounces almond paste, grated. For the almond paste, we used the Odense brand, which comes wrapped in foil looking like a small sausage. It's somewhat soft, so grating it on a box grater takes a bit of work--great if your trying to keep a group of kids busy.

Mix until the ingredients are combined, then add 1 egg plus 1 egg white and beat on high for 3 minute. Picture a group of third-graders armed with a wooden spoon, imitating an electric mixer turned to "high."

Meanwhile, sift 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour with 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add this, plus 1 cup rolled oats and 1/2 cup sweetened coconut flakes. Mix until well combined, then form into balls and place on greased cookie sheets.

Using a fine seive for sifting dry ingredients

To make balls out of the dough, we used a 1-inch metal scoop with a wire release. If you have one a little larger, so much the better. It all depends on how big you want your cookies (or what kind of scoop you have on hand). I suppose you could do this with a spoon if you didn't have a scoop with a wire release. Once the balls are on the cookie sheets, you want to pat them down a little, either with the palm of your hand, or using the flat end of a glass moistened and dusted with granulated sugar.

We then decorated our cookies alternately with red and green sugar sprinkles. Place them in a 350-degree oven and bake just until they begin to show a little brown around the edges, or 10-11 minutes. An inverted metal spatula works best to remove the cookies from the pan and place them on wire racks to cool.

Merry Christmas from Norway!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Congress to Kids: Drop Dead!

Congress puts corporate profits over kids' health

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Amid all the hysteria over pizza and potatoes this week the mainstream media missed the real story behind the USDA's embattled school nutrition guidelines by half and mangled the other half badly.

The half they missed: These guidelines [PDF], ostensibly aimed at making school food healthier, were not the creation of Michelle Obama or the USDA. Rather, they were the result of a highly deliberative, multi-year process undertaken by an esteemed scientific body--the Institute of Medicine--to make good on a congressional mandate that the food schools feed children should align with the same nutritional advice the federal government gives everyone else: the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The part the media mangled: "Congress Declares Pizza to be a Vegetable!" Or other screaming headlines to that effect.

Here's a news flash, folks: Pizza already is considered a vegetable in the federally-funded school lunch program. Or, rather, the tomato sauce on the pizza is counted as a vegetable for purposes of qualifying as a reimbursable "meal." Welcome to the world of industrially processed cafeteria food.

What the USDA wanted to do was double up on the tomatoes before continuing to give pizza "vegetable" status. But frozen pizza giants such as ConAgra and Schwan Foods objected. Who would eat a pizza with all that tomato paste on it? they asked. So they got their congressmen to put the kibash on that particular rule, and pizza goes back to being counted as a vegetable just the way it is, as well as being counted as a grain.

Let's see. Now that the dust has settled, maybe it's time to take a little survey of where, exactly, things stand with these proposed new guidelines--the first update in 15 years--that were supposed to constitute a federal response to the nation's childhood obesity epidemic.

First, the Senate, again playing to the interests of the processed food industry--and to industrial potato growers in particular--axed the USDA's proposed limit on white potatoes and other starchy vegetables (corn, lima beans, peas) to just one cup per week. Does this mean french fries every day in the lunch line?

Well, it may in fact be a hollow victory for spud lovers. Because what Congress did not do was lift the USDA's new requirement that schools serve more and larger servings of fruits and vegetables--meaning green and orange vegetables, not white potatoes--as well as legumes like beans and lentils.

How are schools, on their extraordinarily tight food budgets--less than a $1 for ingredients per meal--supposed to continue serving french fries or any other kind of potato on a regular basis in addition to all those other vegetables? My guess: They won't. It's not in the budget. Or, maybe what we'll see is a nation of school children acquiring a new taste for orange french fries. Say hello to the sweet potato!

What about the USDA's proposed restrictions on salt? Industry would like to see those disappear. But Congress, in striking a deal behind closed doors, was only willing to go as far as telling the USDA it must certify that it has read the science on the health effects of sodium. The USDA says, Can do.

And the requirement that all grains served in schools must soon be at least "whole grain rich?" (meaning at least 51 percent whole grain). Again, the processed food industry would rather not. But Congress only says the USDA must define "whole grain." The USDA says, No problem.

For those of you keeping score, that means pizza is back to the status quo, french fries become a budget buster, and the USDA sees clear sailing for salt restrictions and requiring more whole grains. What are we to make of all this, aside from the ugly spectacle of Congress treating children as fungible, as so much less than important compared to their deep-pocketed pals in corporate food?

There's a fascinating subtext to this story, and it has to do with our attitude toward the schools themselves and their role in feeding children more healthfully. The nation's 14,000 school district are hardly innocent bystanders in this dispute. They do not have to serve industrial pizza and french fries to children every day. But many do. They pander to kids' terrible eating habits and look the other way.

As I've mentioned here before, pizza doesn't have to be junk food. Ann Cooper, the nation's premier cafeteria reformer, serves it twice-weekly in her menu schemes. But she aims for whole grain crusts, topped with a homemade sauce containing real vegetables besides tomatoes. She does not count the sauce as a "vegetable." In Ann Cooper's world, pizza only passes as a grain.

Why do the rest of the nation's school food service directors need a club over their heads to do the right thing? Aren't they listening to Michelle Obama?

And what of the first lady? She's been utterly silent on Congress' mauling of nutrition rule making. She basked in public adoration when school food reform was flying high, but dove for cover when her project blew up on Capitol Hill. When are we going to see her visiting one of these cafeterias, sitting down with the kids to sample the horrible food they're eating?

Now that would make a great photo opp: More fries with that pizza, Mrs. Obama?

As this latest episode amply illustrates, fiddling with nutrition guidelines only gets you so far. Inviting the processed food industry--a group that spent more than $5 million lobbying against the USDA's proposed new rules--to hold hands and sing Kumbaya obviously is not a winning strategy. When push comes to shove, the corporate boys pull out the brass knuckles.

And the fun may just be starting. The USDA still has to come up with new standards for the "competitive" foods sold in schools, meaning the stuff kids buy in a la carte lines, vending machines and school stores. As part of its spending authorization last year, Congress gave the USDA that particular authority for the first time. You can bet the purveyors of potato chips, corn dogs and Eskimo pies will have something to say about that as well.

If only our leaders in Washington could be honest enough to own their craven ways. But now the whole world sees plainly where things stand. When it comes to a choice between kids' health and corporate profits, Congress has a ready response: Show me the money!

Update: Watch this hilarious send-up of the piazza fiasco courtesy of Seth Meyers and Kermit the Frog on Saturday Night Live.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Kids Make Rutabaga Souffle

The lowly rutabaga, transformed

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

This was the last week in Scandinavia for my food appreciation classes on our virtual world culinary tour. We couldn't very well leave without sampling one of the Nordic region's favorite vegetables: rutabaga.

I know what you're thinking: Rutabaga! Yuck! This underground cousin of cabbage and kale is so closely associated with Swedish tastes that it's often called "swede." I happen to like it--especially home-grown rutabaga--but a survey of rutabaga recipes online left me cold. I wanted the kids to try something a little more inspiring than the usual root vegetable casserole or rutabaga-potato mash.

Then I remembered one of our favorite preparations, from an old Gourmet magazine article: rutabaga souffle. This 20-year-old article that I've saved in my recipe files describes several ways to elevate the lowly rutabaga into something sublime. Rutabaga souffle makes an elegant--and delicious--side dish.

Truly, you can turn almost anything into a souffle. It's just a matter of transforming your base ingredient into something you can fold into egg whites. The basic steps are cooking the rutabaga and grinding it into a paste; mixing that into a sauce made with a basic roux and some of the rutabaga cooking liquid; flavoring with cheddar cheese and fortifying with egg yolks; then finally folding the mix into egg whites and baking in the oven.

When you break it down into these steps, it's really not so complicated. But it is a bit of a workout in a classroom situation, especially if you have to run back and forth from the prep table where the kids are working and the stove at the other end of the room. That's why I've started using my portable butane burner more and more for our classes: I can cook right on the prep table where the kids can see what's happening. Not only can they see what's in the pot, but they can take turns stirring, something they love to do.

There's plenty for the kids to do to make this souffle. They get to peel the rutabaga. (Most had no idea what it was, but several surprisingly guessed the connection with cabbage from the aroma.) There's the grinding of the cooked rutabaga in a food mill, the cracking and separating of eggs (always fun, because they get to separate eggs in their bare hands). There's the stirring of the roux and the mixing of the sauce, the beating of the egg whites and the folding of the final ingredients. And seeing the finished souffle emerge from the oven with its glorious brown top is a show-stopper.

Here's how to do it. First, peel 1 pound of rutabaga and cut into 1-inch cubes. Cover these with water in a saucepan, season liberally with salt and cook, covered, until the rutabaga is quite soft, about 30 minutes. Drain the rutabaga but reserve the cooking liquid.

Meanwhile, in a separate saucepan start a roux by melting 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter. Add 1/4 all-purpose flour, stir and cook over moderate heat, stirring continuously, for a couple of minutes. You don't want to brown the flour, just cook it a thoroughly. Add 1 1/2 cups of the rutabaga cooking liquid and continue stirring. You might want to raise the heat at this point as flour won't fully thicken until it reaches the boiling point.

After two or three minutes, you will have a thick sauce. You can now add 6 ounces grated cheddar cheese. (My wife, the professional cook, suggests half cheddar and half Gruyere for more depth of flavor). Stir until the cheese has melted and is completely incorporated. Remove the pan from the heat and add your cooked rutabaga ground fine either in a food processor or in a food mill. We do everything by hand in our classes--no electric gadgets--so we used a food mill for this. Just as well, as it gives the kids something to do with an appliance they find utterly fascinating.

Rutabaga in the food mill

Separate 6 eggs. Stir the yolks into the rutabaga mix. In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg white to stiff peaks. You can add 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar to the whites if you have it. This chemical--potassium hydrogen tartrate--is an acid salt that helps give egg whites more volume and stiffness. Again, we do the beating by hand with a wire whisk, but feel free to use an electric mixer. Just don't go overboard or your stiff peaks will start to get grainy.

Stir about 1/4 of the whites into the rutabaga mix, then pour the mix into the bowl with the beaten whites and gently fold everything together with a rubber spatula. Folding is an acquired skill in our classes. We monitor the kids closely so they are stirring or beating the mix. You're trying to maintain the air in the egg whites--that's where "souffle" gets its name, from the French word for "breathe."

When everything is incorporated, pour the mix into a greased, standard-size souffle bowl fitted with an aluminum collar, also greased. (You can grease with butter. We used a cooking spray.) This collar is made from a sheet of aluminum foil cut large enough to completely encircle the souffle bowl. You can fasten it in place with a piece of butcher's twine, but I found it just as easy (and more convenient) to just hold the two ends of the foil together with a large paper clip. The idea is to contain the souffle when it rises up over the top of the souffle bowl. You'll see: the final mix will come up to the top of the bowl, and if you've done your job well with those egg whites, it will rise from there.

Place the bowl on a baking sheet and then in a 400-degree oven for about 60 minutes, or until the top is deep golden brown and the souffle firm. Don't worry--souffles are not all that fragile. It won't collapse if you open the oven door to take a peak. You'll know it's done when the souffle is puffed and no longer sloshing around in the bowl.

To serve, dig a spoon through the crust all the way to the bottom of the dish. You want everyone to see some of that glorious crust on their plate.

As for the seasoning of your souffle, be your own judge. It does pick up quite a bit of salt from the rutabaga cooking liquid and from the cheese. You can add more when you are mixing the base ingredients. But taste it first.

This is one lesson that left me exhausted, but the kids stayed busy and they had a great time. In fact, I would rate this as one of our all-time best cooking lessons.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Processed Food Industry Shows USDA Who's Boss in the Cafeteria

Kids' all-time favorite food: pizza

First it was potatoes. Now it's pizza. The processed food industry is reaching out to its friends in Congress to scuttle new USDA guidelines that were supposed to make school meals healthier.

Politico reports that House and Senate negotiators are likely to approve agriculture appropriations language that would allow the tomato paste on pizza to be counted as a vegetable serving under the USDA's new school meal guidelines. Count this as the result of lobbying efforts by processed food giants ConAgra and Schwan Food. Schwan is one of the world's largest purveyors of frozen pizza and pitching for its sauce is Sen. Amy Knobluchar, Democrat of Minnesota, where Schwan is based.

The new pizza rule comes quick on the heels of a Senate amendment prohibiting the USDA from limiting the amount of potatoes served in school meals. That was pushed by senators from potato producing states Maine and Colorado.

These latest broadsides against the USDA rule-making process--inserting Congress as micro-manager and protector of economic interests over kids' health--point up the pitfalls of trying to use meal standards written in Washington as a way to dictate what kids eat. It also provides a vivid illustration of what happens when you go after the foods kids most love in the lunch line.

Pizza is the all-time favorite school lunch food, followed by potatoes in all their guises. Essentially, the proposed new guidelines would sharply cut back on foods kids really like, and replace them with things they hate: vegetables, beans and whole grains. Turns out there are huge amounts of money at stake behind the foods beloved by the 32 million children who participate in the national school lunch program. Frozen food companies are protecting their share the best way they know how: using their clout with their local congressman.

Ironically, it was Congress back in 2004 that called on the USDA to re-write the nutrition guidelines for school meals so that they would align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which call for more balance in the way we eat. In other words, fewer potatoes and more vegetables, legumes and whole grains. The USDA contracted the work of writing those guidelines to a scientific panel at the Institute of Medicine. The IOM's guidelines were first released in October 2009. The USDA now is in the process of writing final new rules, to go into effect possibly in the fall of 2012.

Other efforts to mess with pizza also have failed. In Berkeley, for instance, elementary school children get a rectangular pizza made with a locally-produced whole wheat crust. Middle schoolers, however, insist on a round pizza, which has to be sourced through a wholesale food distributor. But Berkeley found a way to make the sauce healthier by cooking it from scratch using all kinds of vegetables in addition to tomatoes.

Last I checked, pizza was still being served twice a week in Berkeley schools, and that was after famed school meal reformer Ann Cooper took over. Cooper tried to remove nachos from the menu entirely. But she was forced to reinstate them in a healthier version--meaning no processed cheese out of a can--after students went on strike, refusing to eat in the cafeteria.

As I've learned sitting in on meals at my daughter's school the past two years here in the District of Columbia, children will go to great lengths to avoid the foods adults consider "healthy." Vegetables, beans and whole grains--they typically get dumped in the trash. Kids will spend inordinate time picking the spinach out of fresh-cooked lasagna, for instance, before wolfing down the pasta.

Since most schools no longer cook food from scratch, the frozen food industry has gained a huge stake in what children eat at school. Politico reports that "both Schwan and ConAgra have quietly helped to finance the 'Coalition for Sustainable School Meal Programs' which maintains a red-white-blue – and yes green – website with the heading 'Fix the Reg.' " Illustrating just how mixed up and incestuous the business of feeding children has become, the coalition is being managed, Politico reports, by Barry Sackin, a former longtime lobbyist for the School Nutrition Association.

The SNA, while claiming to represent the interests of children and thousands of the nations school food service directors, is driven by money from the processed food industry--including Schwan and ConAgra.

The last time we talked to Sackin, he'd been barred from a conference hosted by the American Association of School Administrators. The Service Employees International Union, which also got the boot, had enlisted Sackin to give a presentation on how schools can better deal with food rebates in their contracts with food service companies. Corporate sponsors of the event--which included Aramark and Chartwells--objected.

Apparently, Sacking plays for both sides.

Like other processed food purveyors, Schwan and ConAgra spend enormous sums as "rebates" to entice schools and food service companies to place their products in cafeterias. As I reported recently,ConAgra placed seventh and Schwan eighth among companies that paid the most in rebates to Chartwells as part of its contract to serve kids in D.C. Public Schools.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Kids Make Poached Salmon with Dill Sauce and Cucumber Salad

No skimping on the dill

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

It's not always easy getting kids to eat fish. Some automatically gag at the very aroma of seafood--even when it doesn't smell at all. But the kids in my food appreciation classes adored the poached salmon we made this week, especially when it was smothered in a creamy dill sauce. (Some requested it without the sauce, and I have to admit the really little kids--pre-K and Kindergarteners, were not entirely enthusiastic.)

We're still in Scandinavia and I was inspired by a recent "Nordic Day" in D.C. Public Schools sponsored by various embassies. The Norwegian embassy, for instance, flew in 10,000 pounds of salmon for the event. Salmon and dill go naturally together, as do cucumber and dill, completing our meal with a classic Scandinavian salad.

Poaching is one of my favorite cooking methods for fish. It's so gentle and results in the most tender and moist salmon with the essential flavor of the fish intact. Plus, we can easily set up a skillet with poaching liquid on our portable gas burner so that the children can actually watch the fish cook in front of them on our prep table.

Salmon also is rich in heart-health Omega-3 fatty acids.

But you may want to start with the cucumber salad. The flavors need time to meld, and you can easily make it hours or even a day ahead and refrigerate it. Peel three large cucumbers, then slice them in half lengthwise. Use a teaspoon (or even better, a grapefruit spoon) to scoop out the seeds. Cut the cucumbers into thin crescents and toss these with 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt in a colander. Set the colander in a pan and allow the cucumbers to drain for 1 or 2 hours. Use your hands to squeeze more liquid out of the cucumbers.

In a mixing bowl, combine 1/3 cup white vinegar, 2 tablespoons cider vineagar and granulated sugar to taste (about 1/4 cup). The finished dressing should be sweet and sour. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, then add 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill. Toss the cucumbers in the dressing and serve.

Likewise, make the dill sauce ahead so the flavors have a chance to develop. It's easy. Simply mix together 1/4 cup mayonnaise, 1/4 cup sour cream, 2 scallions, thinly sliced, the juice from 1/2 lemon, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill and salt and pepper to taste. You can keep it in the fridge until it's needed.

To make the poaching liquid for the salmon, peel 1/2 onion and cut into thin slices. Toss this into a medium saucepan along with 1 small carrot, peeled and sliced into thin rounds, 1 small celery stalk, thinly sliced, 4 sprigs thyme, 2 sprigs parsley, 1 generous piece lemon peel and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Cover this with 5 cups water, bring almost to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain the liquid and discard the vegetables. (You can use 3/4 cups dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc, and reduce the amount of water, but I chose not to bring wine to school.)

To poach the salmon, use individual 6-ounce fillets. If possible, choose wild-caught Alaska salmon rather than farmed salmon. For environmental reasons, ocean scientists continue to discourage the consumption of farmed salmon. But most salmon sold in stores--typically labeled "Atlantic salmon"--is farmed. To find wild caught salmon, you must seek it out. It usually comes from Alaska.

Place the fillets in a heavy skillet and cover with the finished poaching liquid. Bring the liquid almost to a boil (200 degrees, as measured with an instant-read thermometer), then reduce heat and simmer until the fish is just cooked through.

This is always the hardest part poaching fish--deciding when it's done. I've found the easiest way is to insert the point of paring knife into the middle of a fillet at its thicket point. Wait 5 seconds, then press the knife tip to your lower lip. It should feel very warm, but not hot.

Use a spatula to remove the fish immediately from the pan. You can serve it warm, or chilled. with a big dollop of dill sauce and cucumber salad on the side.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Yes, We Have a New Wellness Policy

Better food equals healthier kids

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Over the last several months I've been meeting with D.C. school officials and now it can be revealed: We have a new wellness policy that prohibits flavored milk and sugary cereals, requires that all children have at least 30 minutes to eat their food at lunch, limits classroom celebrations to just one per month and mandates that all food served on school grounds--including vending machines, school stores, bake sales and other fundraisers--comply with HealthierUS School Challenge gold-level standards.

Congress in 2004 mandated that all public schools must have a wellness policy in place that sets goals for nutrition education and physical activity and establishes guidelines for the food available during the school days. The federal law also requires that schools involve parents and students in developing the wellness policy. But it doesn't give precise directions on how this is to be done, so parents in too many cases have been frustrated in their efforts to make wellness policy changes.

The policy is supposed to be updated every three years.

Fortunately for us in the District of Columbia, we now have a food services director--Jeffrey Mills--who would like nothing better than serve the kind of food Alice Waters would be proud of. I was pleasantly surprised at how open the process of revising our wellness policy was--even though I didn't get everything I wanted.

For instance, I pushed for a policy that would have prohibited children bringing sodas or sugary beverages from home to drink with their lunch in the cafeteria. But Mills and others thought the community wasn't ready to go this far. They favor a "go slow" approach to avoid controversy. They did include language saying "schools will encourage teachers and families to not bring soda and other beverages high in sugar content on school grounds, including in student lunches from home."

My fellow committee members were also leery of lecturing school staff on what they eat. But we did approve a bullet item stating that "school staff should be encouraged to model healthy eating habits for the students," meaning employees "are strongly encouraged to not consume frood in front of students that do not meet" the HealthierUS School Challenge standards.

Since I first exposed what Chartwells was serving in D.C. cafeterias, school food service has seen some dramatic changes. A "Healthy Schools Act" approved by the D.C. Council established extra funding for meals that include local produce. Mills, after being hired in late 2009 as food services director, undertook a massive overhaul of the Chartwells menu, eliminating flavored milk and sugary cereals and other treats such as Pop-Tarts, Giant Goldfish Grahams and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins. Kitchen workers received extra training, and they now make some meal entrees--such as lasagna--from scratch.

D.C. also pays for a free breakfast for every child that wants one. In elementary schools where more than 40 percent of students are considered low-income, breakfast is served in the classroom. The city also now pays for children who normally would be eligible for a "reduced price" lunch to get theirs free. D.C. Public Schools operates a city-wide supper program for kids who stay late, and further subsidizes meals with $6 million or more in annual deficit spending.

Still, when a school district contracts with a big food service company like Chartwells or Sodexo or Aramark, it should expect to see meals comprised largely of processed frozen foods. The level of oversight Mills and his team brings to bear is unusual. They are now trying to place salad bars in all 121 of the schools under their jurisdiction. (Charter schools operate independently. Indeed, they are each required to draft their own individual wellness policies.)

As we are learning, however, drafting a policy and seeing it actually take effect can be two different things. For instance, in our last meeting we learned that while schools are required to provide at least 30 minutes of physical education for all primary grades, and 45 minutes in senior schools, some principals have instructed their PE teachers instead to have the kids read, to boost test scores. In fact, the school officials at the table urged me and other community members that the best way to address problems like that may be for us to draft a letter to the schools chancellor. Apparently, working up the chain of command doesn't necessarily get results.

Yet under "Healthy Schools," kids beginning in 2014 are supposed to be getting five times as much PE--150 hours per week in elementary school, 225 minutes per week in grades six through eight.

Similarly, although the wellness policy states that every child should have at least 30 minutes to eat lunch "after the last student passes through the line," I don't know of any school where that currently is the case. Especially in schools with high enrollment of low-income children, who tend to take the federally subsidized meal rather than bringing one from home, those lunch lines can be very long. In my daughter's elementary school last year, for instance, the lunch period was only 30 minutes long, and the last kid who went through the line typically did not have much more than 15 minutes to eat.

Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in far Northwest Washington has some 1,600 students, yet only one lunch period for its undersized cafeteria. Lunch is said to be pure chaos.

Next on the agenda for the wellness committee may be figuring out how the school can arrange training sessions for staff so that they actually know what's in the policy and what they need to do to comply with it. Federal rules require that the wellness policy be distributed to staff and made easily available to the public, such as by posting it on school websites and keeping copies for public inspection in the school office.

Other highlights: nutrition education that integrated into other content areas such as math, science, language arts and socials studies and teach "media literacy with an emphasis on food marketing." Schools must provide at least 20 minutes of recess daily, and it should come before lunch "whenever possible." Schools are required to increase participation in meal programs through a "coordinated, comprehensive outreach plan" that builds community coalitions and may include after-school cooking clubs for families, parent workshops and community/school gardens.

Under the federal mandate, we are also required to figure out a way to collect data and masure the impact of implementing the wellness policy. In other words, we still have our work cut out for us.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Swedish-U.S. Farm to School Meetup

Annika Unt Widell, left, with Andrea Northup
By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

As part of "Nordic Week" in D.C. Public Schools, one of the people I met on my recent fact-finding mission to Sweden was here in the District of Columbia. Annika Unt Widell, spokeswoman for better school food in Sweden, had flown here to mentor Swedish students who had competed for a chance to take part in food preparation for "Nordic Week."

I wish some of my friends in D.C. schools had thought to invite me for all the work that went on behind the scenes--rolling thousands of Swedish meatballs and preparing some 10,000 pounds of Norwegian salmon for Wednesday's lunch. Annika was anxious to see our farm to school program in action, so on Friday I drove with her to the Arcadia Farm at Woodlawn Plantation. In the photo above, she's conferring with another hero of the school food movement--Andrea Northup--whose brilliant idea it was to form the D.C. Farm to School Network.

A garden for kids at Woodlawn Plantation

Andrea created the farm to school network two years ago after graduating from college. The idea sparked a movement, drawing hundreds of supporters, including many of the city's non-profits involved in agricultural issues and food access and hordes of chefs anxious to get involved in efforts to improve local school food. My own involvement was accidental: I met Andrea while catering a reception for the D.C. Schoolyard Greening organization and wound up on the network's advisory board. But Andrea doesn't need much advice. She's made this idea work mostly on her own, including finding grant money to fuel the project.

Andrea originally found a home for the network at the Capitol Area Food Bank in northeast D.C. But this year she struck up a partnership with a local restaurant business called Neighborhood Restaurant Group and its foundation arm, Arcadia. They struck a deal with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to start a children's garden at Woodlawn Plantation, a property once owned by George Washington and located just a few miles from Mount Vernon in suburban Virginia. It's called Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, "dedicated to creating a more equitable and sustainable food system and culture in the Washington, DC area and a collaborative space for the many local efforts and initiatives around better food."

The garden and the staff who tend it now host regular visits from D.C. school children. The D.C. Farm to School Network at Arcadia also retrofitted a bio-diesel-fueled school bus to take garden plants and fresh produce to D.C. schools--a kind of garden on wheels.

Kids love to dig in the garden

On Friday, the garden was hosting a group of children from the private Lab School. Among the organized activities, kids learn about butterflies and how salads grow. But I think their favorite part is just running around and digging in the dirt with rakes. There are plenty of herbs for kids to touch and smell. Straw hats provided by the garden give the kids a real professional gardener look.

Kids posing as bees deliver pollen

To demonstrate how plants depend on bees and other insects for pollination, the kids get little baskets filled with colored balls of cotton. Their job is to fly around the garden and deposit the "pollen" in baskets hanging from strategically planted wooden posts.

Finally it was time for the children to get a lesson in harvesting greens and vegetables for a salad. They don't need much instruction before they are racing from one raised bed to the next, plucking leaves of lettuce and mustard greens and yanking jumbo-sized carrots out of the soil.

Catch of the day: carrots

My job was to peel and chop carrots and one giant beet for a salad bar. The garden has it's own weather-proof salad bar in the outdoor "kitchen" and eating area. The kids would also get a demonstration in salad and vinaigrette making from a professional chef, before having their turn at the salad bar.

A 7-year-old who knows his salad

We couldn't stay for lunch. Annika had to get back to her hotel and prepare for the flight back to Sweden. But I know she was impressed. They may have universal free school lunches in Sweden, but the farm to school concept has yet to catch fire. Schools there simply don't have the funds to transport children to farms on a regular basis. And that's part of the attraction of Arcadia: it's closer to city schools than any traditional farm, and you don't have to find a farmer willing to take visitors.

"I'll always remember this day," Annika said.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Kids Make Swedish Split Pea Soup and Pancakes

Sour cream of lingonberry jam on your pancake?

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

If it's Thursday, it must be split pea soup and pancakes with lingonberry jam. At least that's the custom in Sweden where our food appreciation classes happen to be visiting on their virtual world culinary tour.

Concidentally, this was happening at the same time D.C. Public Schools were celebrating Nordic day, with traditional foods being supplied by the embassies of Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

The split pea soup I remember from childhood was thick as mud and full of little bits of gelatinous fat from the ham bone that was cooked in it. The soup we made is over-the-top delicious. Still, it's not especially pretty, except for the bits of carrot (not fat) swimming around in it, and getting the kids to eat it takes a bit of cajoling. But once they find out how good it tastes, they come back for more. And it's such an inexpensive way to make a family meal, even if you just serve bread on the side instead of the pancakes.

Why pancakes with split pea soup? Frankly, I don't know. I guess you'd have to ask the Swedes. It's a bit like dessert--especially if your stuff your pancake with jam. The pancakes are bit more like eggy crepes than the thick, floury pancakes we're used to here. Personally, I like the combination of sour cream and lingonberry jam on mine.

The Swedes are especially proud of their berries, which thrive during the long, northerly days in summer. Lingonberries are a bit tart, like cranberries, which makes for an interesting jam. I was surprised to find it at our local Harris Teeter's. But then my wife brought some home from a shopping trip to Ikea, the Swedish furnishings store, and it was $2 cheaper. It's rather a long way to drive for jam, though.

Make the soup a day ahead so the flavors have a chance to develop. Start by place 1 pound dried yellow peas (we got ours from the bulk section at Whole Foods), 2 onions peeled and finely chopped and 2 carrots peeled and finely chopped in a stock pot and cover with 8 cups water. Add 1 onion studded with two cloves and 2 ham hocks. Bring to a boil, then cover, reduce heat and cook slowly for 3 hours. Remove the onion with cloves and the ham hocks. If there's any meat on the hocks, you can chop it up and add it to the soup if you like. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

About 30 minutes before serving, bring the soup back to a simmer and stir in 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves and 1 teaspoon ground ginger.

The pancakes can also be made ahead and held warm in the oven. This recipe makes about 2 dozen, each about 4 inches across. You can make the batter in a blender or a food processor, but we don't use electric gadgets in our classes. We simply whisked it together by hand. I think the kids get a better feel for the ingredients and the food preparation process working this way.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk until frothy three eggs. Mix in 1 1/2 cups milk, then add 1 cup flour, 1 tablespoon granulated sugar and finally 3 tablespoons melted butter. Continue whisking vigorously until the batter is perfectly smooth, without and lumps.

Over moderate heat, melt some butter in a small, well-cured or non-stick skillet. Pour in some pancake batter. You can make the pancakes as small or as large as you like. When the underside has lightly browned and the top is nearly dry, use an inverted spatula to flip the pancake onto the other side. Cook for about 30 seconds and remove. Repeat this process until all of the batter has been used.

Serve with sour cream and lingonberry jam.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Ann Cooper Rallies Parents in Fairfax for Food Day

"Renegade lunch lady" today in Vienna, Va.

Guest Post

By Ann Cooper

Food Day is such an important event to help draw attention to the broken parts of our food system while celebrating all of the wonderful chefs, cooks, farmers, parents, advocates and food service teams that are working to bring healthy and delicious food to our nation’s children. In honor of National Food Day, Monday, October 24, 2011, I will be joined by local DC chef and fellow sustainable food activist, David Guas, to visit the students at Wolftrap Elementary School in Vienna, Virginia where we will be celebrating Real Food For Kids (RFFK).

Real Food For Kids is an education-based advocacy group of concerned Fairfax County parents who are stepping in to improve the quality of food being served in their schools. What started as a small group of parents has now grown into a community-wide machine. RFFK aims to eliminate the high percentage of processed foods laden with dyes, artificial preservatives, and flavorings as well as trans-fats, high fructose corn syrup and excess sugar and salt. In FCPS schools, a hamburger alone has more than 30 ingredients, while a FCPS quesadilla has over 70.

Chef David Guas, who is moved by Real Food For Kids as both a chef but also as a parent of two young boys in the Northern Virginia school system, wants to help “change, inspire, and teach my sons and our community to go for the natural choice.“ With Fairfax as one of the largest public school counties in the U.S., Real Food For Kids, myself and chef Guas will push for these changes, especially when it comes to school lunches. In fact, at Wolftrap Elementary, Guas and I will work with the students to make a truck-full sized salad and a 10-lb grass-fed beef burger thanks to donations from local Maple Avenue Farms and Whole Foods.

To find out more information on our event and Real Food For Kids, visit us at

And here's this from the organizers:

How many ingredients does it take to make a quesadilla? 70. At least in Fairfax County public school cafeterias. In an effort to draw attention to the link between school food and children’s health and wellness, the Fairfax County Real Food For Kids is heating it up for National Food Day, October 24, at 2:30 pm, Wolftrap Elementary School in Vienna, VA, immediately following a 1:30pm food sourcing and planning meeting with the Fairfax County School Board and special guest, Jeff Mills, Director of Food Service for the District's Public Schools, at the same location. All Fairfax County School Board members and candidates have been invited to attend the Food Day event. The organizing group, a grass-roots organization of Fairfax County parents, hopes to urge the school board to take action on getting “real” food affordably back into Fairfax County public schools. The Wolftrap Elementary School PTA is the premier host for the RealKids.RealFood event on October 24.

The GET REAL! RealKids.RealFood event will feature celebrated author, chef, educator and advocate, The Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper from Colorado and culinary personality and award winning chef, David Guas of Arlington’s Bayou Bakery Coffee Bar & Eatery. Cooper will address the Fairfax County School Board to discuss ways to provide “real” food for students without increasing costs. Chefs Cooper and Guas, working alongside some Fairfax County students, will also create a truck-full sized salad and an over-sized grass-fed beef burger! Bigger is better when it comes to real food for your kids- vegetables and 100% protein, straight from the source.

Two Hundred children, from Fairfax County Schools, are expected to attend and will be sporting GET REAL T-Shirts colored in varied rainbow hues of vegetables and fruits. Each child, in their designated colored T Shirt, will be placed in a specific space to spell out each letter from the words GET REAL. What an incredible image to see the children coming together spread out across the School’s grass field. These kids are showing the way to others that healthy food can be seen in vibrant colors and not so bland.

Local farmer Chris Guerre of Maple Avenue Farm is donating over 50 pounds of grass-fed beef, lettuce, tomatoes for the salad (to feed 250) and Chef Tim Ma, owner of Maple Avenue Restaurant, is coming out to lend a culinary hand while doing all the cooking on his portable truck. Whole Foods Market is a lead sponsor for the event, providing free healthy snack vouchers, butternut squash soup to sample for participating students as well as other donations to secure a successful event.

Urging School Board members to come to the table to discuss the problems of childhood obesity and school food that is highly processed, artificial, preserved and dyed, Real Food for Kids’ JoAnne Hammermaster says, “Children deserve healthier choices while they are at school.”

Hammermaster also notes that the group is pleased to be part of a major new campaign that involves some of the most prominent voices for change in the food policy world. Organized by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Day, a nation-wide event, will encourage people around the country to sponsor or participate in activities that encourage Americans to "eat real" and support healthy, affordable food grown in a sustainable, humane way. Food Day is modeled on Earth Day and is led by honorary co-chairs Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).

Real Food For Kids ( has also developed a Food Day education program for Fairfax County Schools, to be disseminated through participating PTAs. For more information, contact JoAnne Hammermaster at or 703-581-3085.

2:00 pm – School children arrive please
2:30 pm - Children will spell out GET REAL for photo opportunities.
2:45 pm - Speakers and Cooking Demonstration
3:15 pm - Salad, soup, and other healthy snacks are distributed to the audience.


Wolftrap Elementary School – 1903 Beulah Road, Vienna, Virginia 22182 (it is near the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts)

For More Information:
Simone Rathle- 703.534.8100

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Senate Posts New School Lunch Score: Potatoes 1, USDA 0

Spuds win out over kids' health

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

In an unprecedented act of meddling in school lunch rule making, the U.S. Senate last week approved by unanimous consent a measure that forbids the U.S. Department of Agriculture from limiting the amount of potatoes in the national school meals program.

Mainstream media got it wrong: This was not a defeat for the Obama administration or for first lady Michelle Obama. Rather, it was a clear case of congressional double-speak, overturning a mandate Congress itself gave the USDA seven years ago to conform school meals with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Senate action reverses the work of food science experts at the Institute of Medicine, who had spent years at the USDA's behest drafting the new guidelines Congress had ordered.

The problem with potatoes is that kids like them too much and schools serve them all the time in order to comply with the vegetable requirement in the school lunch program. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, however, recommended eating a variety of vegetables daily and throughout the week.

Here's what those guidelines say:

Consume a sufficient amount of fruits and vegetables while staying within energy needs. Two cups of fruit and 2½ cups of vegetables per day are recommended for a reference 2,000-calorie intake, with higher or lower amounts depending on the calorie level.

Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables each day. In particular, select from all five vegetable subgroups (dark green, orange, legumes, starchy vegetables, and other vegetables) several times a week.

In order to align with those guidelines, the new school meal rules drafted by the Institute of Medicine, and embraced by the USDA, proposed limiting potatoes and other starchy vegetables such as corn, peas and lima beans to no more than 1 cup per week, and increasing the portions of dark green and orange vegetables and legumes.

That touched off a storm of protest from the potato industry, as well as numerous congressmen, who wrote the USDA demanding that the potato restriction be removed in the final rule. Last week's drubbing of the USDA process came in the form of an amendment to the 2012 agriculture spending measure jointly proposed by two senators from potato growing states, Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado.

Collins and others argued the nutrition benefits of potatoes, suggesting schools should simply remove fatty french fries. Proponents of the new rule repeated the call for more vegetable variety in school meals. Perhaps they would have gotten further if they'd pointed out that starchy spuds are not an appropriate food to be feeding children in the middle of an obesity epidemic. A recent Harvard study, which looked at the eating habits of more than 120,000 American men and women over a 20-year period, found that potatoes more than any other food were associated with excess weight gain, regardless of whether they are fried, boiled or baked.

In fact, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that obesity is not caused solely by a failure to burn off all the calories consumed, but by the metabolic effects of eating too many carbohydrates, especially highly glycemic carbs such as potatoes, refined grains and sugar.

The Senate action represents a naked display of agricultural interests and political emotion trumping the science around kids health. So I thought readers might like to see exactly what was motivating members of the Institute of Medicine committee when they wrote their 380-page report, first released in October 2009, proposing the school meal nutrition guidelines the Senate has not tossed overboard.

Here's what the committee said:

The overall goal was the development of a set of well-conceived and practical recommendations for nutrients and Meal Requirements that reflect current nutrition science, increase the meals’ contents of key food groups, improve the ability of the school meal programs to meet the nutritional needs of children, foster healthy eating habits, and safeguard children’s health.

In recognition of the need to update and revise the Nutrition Standards and Meal Requirements for the school meal programs, Congress incorporated requirements in the 2004 Child Nutrition and WIC6 Reauthorization Act (P.L. 108-265). In particular, the act requires USDA to issue guidance and regulations to promote the consistency of the standards for school meal programs with the standards provided in the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans...

Among the changes needed to improve consistency with the 2005 edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans are the following:

  • Increasing the emphasis on food groups to encourage a healthier food consumption pattern, especially by offering variety and a larger amount of fruits and vegetables, and by offering whole grains as a substitute for some refined grains, and
  • Limiting the intake of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sugars, and salt by offering foods such as fat-free (skim) milk or low-fat milk, fewer sweetened foods, and foods with little added salt.

Charge to the Committee

  • Specify a planning model for school meals (including targets for intake) as it may relate to nutrients and other dietary components for breakfast and lunch.
  • Recommend revisions to the Nutrition Standards and, in consideration of the appropriate age-grade groups for schoolchildren, provide the calculations that quantify the amounts of nutrients and other dietary components specified in the Nutrition Standards.
  • Recommend the Meal Requirements necessary to implement the Nutrition Standards on the basis of the two existing types of menu planning approaches (i.e., the food-based menu planning [FBMP] approach and the nutrient-based menu planning [NBMP] approach). The Meal Requirements are to include
    • standards for a food-based reimbursable meal by identifying
      • the food components for as offered and as served meals and
      • the amounts of food items per reimbursable meal by age-grade groups and
    • standards for a nutrient-based reimbursable meal by identifying
      • the menu items for as offered and as served and
      • the 5-day average amounts of nutrients and other dietary components per meal.
  • Illustrate the practical application of the revised Nutrition Standards and Meal Requirements by developing 4 weeks of menus that will meet the recommended standards for the age-grade groups.

Critical Issues for Consideration by the Committee on Nutrition Standards for National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, as Submitted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture1

There are a number of important issues on which USDA particularly seeks guidance. In the descriptions below, we have raised a number of questions and concerns, as well as tentative policy concepts for IOM’s [Institute of Medicine] critical review. These are intended to clarify the scope of the committee’s charge, but not to constrain or pre-determine its recommendations. We also ask the committee to consider such operational factors as market conditions, impacts on student acceptability of meals, and the decision to participate in the program, in making recommendations in each of these areas.1

Calorie requirements:

Since the establishment of the school meal programs, the dietary concerns for children have shifted from preventing hunger and nutritional deficiencies to recognizing the increase of childhood overweight/obesity rates while enhancing cognitive performance and academic achievement. FNS [USDA's Food and Nutrition Services branch] requests that the committee provide recommendations for calorie levels in consideration of the best scientific information available (including the DRIs) that reflect the diversity of energy needs in today’s school children. FNS would like the IOM committee to provide minimum calorie requirements, and consider also recommending maximum calorie levels for reimbursable meals that take into consideration age-grade groupings.

Age-grade groups:

The NSLP [National School Lunch Program] nd SBP [School Breakfast Program] provide meals for children age two and older (generally, under 21). The meal programs group children according to age-grade and establish meal patterns with minimum portion sizes and servings to help menu planners design meals that are age-appropriate and meet the diverse nutritional needs of school children. Nutrient and calorie requirements are also determined for each age-grade groups. In light of the childhood obesity trend, FNS is concerned that school meals provide age-appropriate portion sizes and promote the development of healthy eating behaviors. We request that the committee recommend age-grade groups that are consistent for all menu planning approaches and reflect the stages of growth and development in children and adolescents.

School grade structures and meal service operations must be considered to ensure that age-grade group recommendations can be successfully implemented. Specifically, in the NSLP, some schools currently use a single age-grade group to plan meals for children and adolescents. The Department is concerned that for lunch meals intended to provide ⅓ of the RDAs without providing excessive calories, this practice may result in meals that fail to meet the nutritional needs of either group. While the same may be true for SBP, where the meals are intended to provide ¼ of the RDAs, FNS recognizes that there are different operational constraints. In the SBP, children typically participate as they arrive at school, rather than by grade level or other service schedule that would be common in lunch. The single age-grade group currently allowed for SBP menu planning is intended to provide flexibility to meet the needs of the SBP foodservice operation. Also of note, many schools have implemented alternative methods of delivering meals to promote student participation, such as Breakfast in the Classroom or Grab-and-Go Breakfasts. FNS requests that the committee consider the potential impacts that age-grade group requirements may have on the unique aspects of NSLP and SBP meal service, operations, and participation.

Nutrient standards:

FNS requests that in addition to the current required nutrients, the IOM committee consider the DGA [Dietary Guidelines for Americans] recommendations to minimize trans fats, as well as the intake recommendations for sodium, cholesterol, and fiber, which currently do not have quantitative standards in the school meal programs. Program operators are currently required to reduce sodium and cholesterol levels and to increase fibers levels. Monitoring these nutrients has been facilitated by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act requirement that sodium, cholesterol, and fiber amounts be included on food labels and product specifications. Furthermore, trans fats information is now required to be included on the Nutrition Facts label and on product specifications, which would facilitate the ability of Program operators and administrators to monitor compliance with the trans fats recommendation.

Total fat:

The DGA recommendation for fat is to keep total fat intake between 30 to 35 percent of calories for children 2 to 3 years of age and between 25 to 35 percent of calories daily for children and adolescents 4 to 18 years of age. It should be noted that breakfast meals are often relatively low in fat (below 25 percent). The fat recommendation for each of the meals, in addition to the total daily fat range, should be considered in this process.

Available nutrient information:

Program operators and administrators rely in part on nutrition information provided by food labels and product specifications to plan and assess menus that meet the required nutrient levels. FNS is concerned that establishing requirements for nutrients that are not required to be listed on food labels and product specifications by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA, P.L. 101-535), such as the nutrients of concern for children including potassium, magnesium, and vitamin E, would be a burden to Program operators and administrators. FNS requests that nutrient standard recommendations take into consideration the availability of nutrient information on food labels and product specifications.

Sodium standard:

It is well-recognized that the current intake of sodium for most individuals in the U.S., including school-age children, greatly exceeds the DGA recommendation to consume less than 2300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. FNS has encouraged schools to reduce sodium in the NSLP and SBP since the implementation of the School Meals Initiative (SMI) in 1995; however, the School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Studies (SNDA I–III) consistently indicate that the efforts since 1995 have not resulted in any significant reduction of sodium levels in school meals, on average.

FNS is concerned that the challenge of reducing sodium levels in school meals extends beyond the efforts of Program operators and administrators alone. At present, sodium is a common addition to processed foods and convenience items which are commonly used in school meal programs to save time and reduce labor costs. Additionally, the availability of high so-dium foods at home, at restaurants, and at other locations in and outside of the school meals programs has resulted in a taste preference for salty foods which impacts student acceptability of school meals and Program participation. Furthermore, it takes time to change children’s taste preferences and for industry to respond to a need for low-sodium products in schools and the general market.

The USDA requests that the committee consider student acceptability, Program participation, and market conditions when making recommendations for sodium levels in school meals. Additionally, the Department requests that the committee consider a recommendation that would allow for a progressive or gradual reduction of sodium levels in school meals, such as interim targets, to ultimately meet a standard based on the DGA recommendation over a realistic period of time without adversely affecting program participation.

Vitamin A standard:

Current regulations require that school meals meet minimum levels of vitamin A expressed in Retinol Equivalents (RE), as specified in the 1989 RDAs. The nutrition facts panel on food products provides vitamin A levels in International Units (IU). The most recent DRI standards for vitamin A are quantified in Retinol Activity Equivalents (RAE). FNS is concerned that there is no direct conversion from the DRI recommendations in RAE to IU. FNS requests that the committee recommend a vitamin A standard that addresses the fact that Program operators and administrators rely both on values in nutrient analysis software (which may be in RAE, RE and/or IU) and on food labels and product specifications that quantify vitamin A in IU (i.e., percent of Daily Value in International Units). FNS recognizes that a conversion from levels expressed in RAE to IU may need to be based on representation of a mixed diet for school-aged children.

Menu planning approaches:

FNS would like the committee to examine the adequacy of the current menu planning approaches in meeting the applicable DRIs and DGAs. We are concerned that the structure of the current menu planning approaches, such as the Traditional FBMP and NSMP, may no longer be adequate to provide school meals that reflect the 2005 DGAs. Furthermore, FNS would like recommendations for a single food-based menu planning and a single nutrient standard menu planning approach. FNS requests that the IOM recommendations result in age-appropriate meals and reflect the applicable DRIs and 2005 DGAs under any menu planning approach.

Fruit, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat/fat-free milk products:

The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 amended the NSLA to require increased consumption of foods that are specifically recommended in the most recent DGAs. FNS is requesting recommendations to increase the availability of the food groups encouraged by the 2005 DGAs. FNS wishes to apply requirements for these food groups to ensure that all students in the NSLP and SBP have access to adequate amounts of these recommended foods, regardless of the menu planning approach used by their school foodservice authority.

Current NSLP regulations require that minimum servings of fruits and/or vegetables, fluid milk, and whole grain or enriched sources of grains/breads be offered daily in the food-based menu planning approaches. In the nutrient standard menu planning approaches, fluid milk is the only required food item to be offered and minimum serving requirements are not established. Under all menu planning approaches, whole grains are encouraged but not required. Additionally, all schools must provide a variety of fluid milk types (a minimum of two); regulations do not place restrictions on offering any milk-fat or flavored varieties.

In the SBP, meal patterns and menu structures have been designed to provide schools with flexibility to provide meals that reflect a typical breakfast meal and avoid unnecessary burden on school foodservice operations. FNS requests that the committee consider such differences between NSLP and SBP meal service operations when making recommendations to increase the food groups encouraged by the 2005 DGAs in the FBMP breakfast meal pattern and the NSMP menu structure.

Special considerations for whole grains:

  • In order to incorporate whole grains into the menus, schools must be able to accurately identify a creditable whole-grain product. An issue for FNS is helping schools easily identify whole grain products that provide a significant level of whole grains. At this time, the FDA has not published a definition of a whole-grain product, or a whole-grain serving. USDA wishes to establish a consistent definition for all the FNS Special Nutrition Programs (including NSLP, SBP, Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), WIC, and the FNS commodity programs).

Special considerations for fluid milk:

  • The NSLA and program regulations require that lunches include fluid milk and allow fluid milk in a variety of fat contents and flavors. Fluid milk may not be substituted by another beverage or dairy product, except when a disability precludes milk consumption.2 Under the FBMP approaches, a minimum of eight fluid ounces is required for school-age children and a minimum of six fluid ounces is required for preschoolers. No minimum quantity is required under the NSMP approaches. Since calcium is a nutrient of concern for children and milk is a primary food source of nutrients for children, FNS is seeking recommendations to implement the recommendations of the DGAs and DRIs. When considering this, the IOM expert committee should also address concerns that offering different quantity for the various age-grade groups in the NSLP and SBP may be operationally difficult to implement at the local school level due to procurement logistics and economies of scale.

Meat/Meat Alternate:

The current meat/meat alternate requirements in the NSLP meal patterns exceed the recommended quantities in the USDA Food Guide, the food pattern that illustrates the recommendations of the DGAs. The School Nutrition Dietary Assessment (SNDA) studies show that current meal patterns require more than adequate amounts of meat/meat alternate to meet the nutritional (protein and iron) needs of children and adolescents. There may be adjustments to existing meat/meat alternate requirements that could help schools limit food costs while still meeting the nutritional needs of participants. Schools could meet the meat/meat alternate requirement over the course of the week as long as a minimum serving of meat/meat alternate is offered daily. Consistent with the DGAs, schools should offer low-fat, lean meat/meal alternates to help children limit the intakes of saturated fat, total fat, and cholesterol. In addition, there is public interest in incorporating nutrient-dense meat alternatives such as soy-based products in the NSLP.

Offer versus Serve:

The IOM committee may need to be aware of Offer versus Serve, a statutory requirement intended to reduce plate waste in the lunch program. The NSLA requires that high school students be allowed to decline foods they do not intend to eat. Offer versus Serve may be implemented at lower grades at the option of the local school district. Program regulations require that students select at least three of the five food items offered in a food-based menu. For nutrient-based menus, the regulations require that students select the entrée. If three items are offered, students may decline one; if four or more items are offered, students may decline two.

Attainable recommendations:

The majority of schools prepare meals on-site with a small staff and restricted budget. Food purchasing, planning, preparation and service are often carried out by employees with no formal food service or management training. Changes to the meal patterns and nutrition standards must be feasible for school foodservice operators, and should not jeopardize student and school participation in the meal programs. To ensure that the combined set of recommendations are attainable, the Department requests IOM to include in the report separately for NSLP and SBP a set of four-week cycle menus for each of the recommended age groups that meet all recommendations, are relatively cost neutral and would not likely have an adverse effect on program participation.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Nordic Love: Kids Make Swedish Meatballs

Best meatballs in 1 hour

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Just in time for the "Nordic Day" festivities in D.C. Public Schools next week, my food appreciation classes arrived in Scandinavia on our virtual world food tour and made the best meatballs you've ever tasted from scratch--including fresh bread crumbs and white sauce--in less than an hour.

It helps to have a portable burner to make the sauce at the prep table. Otherwise, the stove is about 30 paces away, and running back and forth gets tired after a while. The kids love pulling the bread apart for the crumbs, mixing the beef with the toasted crumbs, onions, eggs and other ingredients, then rolling the mix into balls. Nobody refuses the finished meatballs either. The only question at that point is, do you take them with or without the white sauce? And how about the lingonberry jam?

I tried to explain to the kids that the Swedes like their sweet and savory combinations and that lingonberries are a big deal in the land of the midnight sun. Not all were convinced. Still, I was delighted to find authentic Swedish lingonberry preserves amongst the other jams right next to the peanut butter display at my local Harris Teeter's.

Most Nordic countries have a traditional meatball recipe and there are any number of ways to sauce it. I thought the white sauce was easiest for the time we have allotted for our classes. It makes a good lesson in basic sauce construction.

Start with the fresh bread crumbs. And by all means make them fresh--the stuff in the cans won't due. Use about three thick slices of a country-style loaf (I chose a Tuscan round). Remove the crust and chop the white part fairly fine. Spread on a baking sheet and toast lightly in a 450 degree oven. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl beat 2 eggs. Add 1 small onion, minced, and 1 1/2 pounds (or a little less) ground beef. Add bread crumbs and mix well, seasoning to taste with salt, black pepper and a generous pinch of ground nutmeg. You would do well to work the mix for a few seconds with your hands. Kids love squishing it between their fingers.

Use a measuring spoon to scoop out heaping tablespoons of meat mix. Roll these into balls and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, leaving a little space around each meatball. Place in the 450-degree oven and bake until lightly browned and cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes.

While the meatballs are cooking you can make your sauce. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a small skillet. Add 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour and stir together to create a roux. Cook over moderate heat, stirring, for a minute or two, then begin adding 1 cup chicken broth. Stir continuously while you add the broth. The sauce will still be quite thick. As it begins to bubble again, add about 1/3 cup half-and-half, or enough to make a fairly thick sauce. Remember that it will thicken more as it cools. Season with salt and possibly a little nutmeg.

Serve the meatballs warm, covered with sauce, with some lingonberry jam on the side. Our kids got them in hot drink cups with a spoon. Hold any leftover meatballs warm, as your family is bound to ask for seconds.