Friday, June 8, 2012

Goodbye to School Year: Kids Make Fettucine Alfredo

Lots of cream and butter make sloppy good eats
By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook
How do you tempt kids off the playground on the last day of school?

Tell 'em you've got fettucine Alfredo waiting for them in the multi-purpose room.

Legend has it that this dish was named after a Roman restaurateur--Alfredo Di Lelio--who used it to keep American tourists coming back. It may be the most decadent pasta dishes ever invented, swimming in sinful amounts of butter, cream and Parmesan cheese.

How could kids not love it, especially when they get to crank out their own noodles on the pasta machine.

Fresh pasta is much softer and cooks much quicker than the dried commercial variety. To my taste, it definitely has a place in a well-equipped kitchen. The simple machine I own will make fettucine or thinner linguine noodles. All you have to do is make a dough, starting with flour and eggs.

Commerical pasta typically is made with semolina, a harder variety of flour. Semolina is not so easily found, and it's definitely more difficult to work with at home. Feel free to use all-purpose flour, or a blend of all-purpose and whole wheat (or try white whole wheat).

Place two cups flour on a clean work surface in a volcano shape, then use your measuring cup to create a deep well in the center. Into the well crack two eggs and pour in 1/8 cup water. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Stir the eggs and water vigorously with a fork to blend, then gradually work in flour from the edges of the well. Continue this process--stirring and working in flour--until you have a thick mass and can draw in more flour with your hands to form a ball. Don't worry if you can't incorporate all of the flour. The pasta seems to know how much flour it actually needs.

Knead the dough a few times with your hands until it holds together. You can finish the kneading process by rolling the dough through your pasta machine. First, divide your dough ball into four pieces. Pass each about a dozen repeat rolls through the machine at the lowest setting, folding the dough in half after each pass and dusting occasionally with flour if it's sticky. The end result should be a smooth, elastic dough. (You can finish kneading by hand if you like. In fact, you don't need a pasta machine at all to make these noodles. Just roll out pieces of dough with a rolling pin, then roll the finished sheets into cigar shapes, dusting them first with flour, and cut into fettucine-sized widths with a sharp knife.)
Even kids can make perfect fettucine noodles
If you are using the machine, simply pass your sheets of dough through the fettucine setting. We cut ours both ways--by hand and with the machine. The machine obviously is faster. But we're not looking for speed in our cooking classes. We're trying to keep the kids busy and teach them how to cook without fancy gadgets. This way they learn pasta noodles with or without a machine.

Toss the finished noodles with a little corn meal and spread them out on your work table to dry a little while you bring a big pot of salted water to a boil and prepare your sauce.

For the Alfredo sauce, melt four tablespoons butter in a heavy skillet, then add 1 large clove garlic, finely chopped, and saute over moderate heat until the garlic is soft. Then add 1 cup heavy cream and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and continue cooking the cream at a light boil until it thickens. Don't worry if it gets foamy and rises up in your pan. Just stir frequently with a whisk and take it off the heat momentarily if necessary. When it reaches the desired thickness, stir in 1 cup or more of finely grated Parmesan cheese and a generous pinch of nutmeg. Remove it from the heat.

Meanwhile, cook your noodles. They shouldn't take long--maybe five minutes. When they are al dente (to the tooth), drain them well in a colander, then pour them into your skillet with the Alfredo sauce. Toss the noodles well to coat, then add a good fistful of chopped parsley.
Special treat for last day of school
The kids eagerly slurped their fettucine Alfredo out of hot drink cups. But you can serve yours in a bowl. Sloppy eating doesn't get any better than this.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Kids Make Mussels Venetian Style

Sloppy eating at its best
By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Welcome to Italy!

Our food appreciation classes landed in Venice this week and there are so many culinary adventures to be had in Italy I think we may be here for a while.

Venice is famous for its art, its canals and its gondolas. But it also happens to be situated on the Adriatic. Consequently, Venetians love their seafood.

Mussels are one of my favorite foods. They are a great source of protein that's relatively cheap compared to other aquatic species. And mussels are abundant, both in the wild and in the farmed seafood economy, which is more environmentally friendly than many other fisheries. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program rates farmed mussels a "best choice" because "they are farmed in an environmentally responsible way." Here in the Mid-Atlantic, farmed mussels are readily available from Prince Edward Island in Canada.

Like oysters, mussels are a bivalve, meaning the creature lives inside a shell and filters food from the surrounding water. In the wild, mussels attach themselves with filaments to rocks or wooden piers. These "beards" needs to be pulled off before you eat them. Mussels spoil quickly so they must be alive and odorless when you purchase them. The shells should be tightly closed. If not, you can test them by pinching the shells closed. If the shells stay closed, the mussel is still alive. If not, throw it away. Keep them refrigerated until you plan to use them, preferably within a few hours of purchase.

Many cultures have recipes for mussels. The Belgians love theirs steamed with a side of french fries. In Venice, the preparation is extremely simple and the mussels can be eaten as a starter or as a main course. They are delicious hot off the stove, or at room temperature as an antipasto, or even chilled served in the shell or in a salad.

To start, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil in the bottom of a heavy pot. Over moderate heat, saute until soft (about 5 minutes) one fairly large shallot, diced small and seasoned with a generous pinch of salt. Add 2 pounds cleaned mussels and douse with about 1/3 cup white wine (we used non-alcoholic wine in our classes: it works just as well). Place the lid on the pot and allow the mussels to steam until fully cooked. As the mussels cook, the shells open. The meat should be plump and firm when done. Discard any shells that do not open.
Simple goodness: steamed mussels
Stir a fistful of chopped parsley into the pot and distribute the mussels into warm bowls along with some of the broth. Younger kids may be skeptical about the wisdom of eating mussels, but the older ones love pulling the meat out with their fingers, making this a great sloppy fun meal. Be sure to have a good bread on hand for sopping up the broth.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Kids Make Chocolate Mousse

Can't beat chocolate in a cup
By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow cook

The kids in my food appreciation classes are always begging for something sweet. They'd be delighted if we just made cookies and cupcakes every week. Well, I finally obliged. It being near the end of the school year, I figured they were due for a treat. And since we had stopped in Switzerland on our virtual world food tour, we couldn't really pass up a chance to make something with chocolate.

How about a cup of chocolate mousse?

Well, it may not be traditional Swiss, but this recipe is all about chocolate. Plus, the kids get to learn some really valuable kitchen lessons--like how to make custard, how to temper hot cream in egg yolks, how to use a double boiler to melt chocolate, how to fold the chocolate into whipped cream.
They passed with flying colors.

My wife's first comment about our chocolate mousse was, we didn't use the best chocolate. The response to that is, we do try to budget our expenses in these classes. I admit that where we might have spent a fortune on the chocolate (and you certainly may if you like), we instead opted for the Baker's brand, which provides twice as much chocolate for the same price at Ghiradelli's. And I don't think the kids noticed at all.

You won't want to start this without the right equipment: At least three stainless or glass mixing bowls, one large and two medium; a heavy 1-quart sauce pan; a double boiler if you have one (you can also just place a mixing bowl over a pot of water); a good whisk; a fine-meshed sieve. An instant-read thermometer is really helpful.

Plan on making the mousse a day ahead, then refrigerating the finished dessert overnight.

Start by separating four eggs, whisking the yolks together with 3 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and a pinch of salt in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Next, heat 3/4 cup whipping cream (you'll need another 1 1/4---2 cups altogether--later on) over moderate heat in a heavy 1-quart sauce pan until the cream is just hot to the touch. Drizzle the hot cream into the the egg yolk mix, whisking continuously, until fully incorporated. You want to slowly "temper" the yolks so they don't cook.

To make the custard, pour the egg yolk mix into the sauce pan and heat it, stirring frequently, over moderately low heat until it reaches a temperature of 160 degrees, as measured by your instant-read thermometer. If you don't have an instant-read thermometer, you'll know the custard is finished when it coats the bottom of the pan fairly heavily. It will thicken quickly at this point and you want to be careful not to cook the yolks.

Remove the pan immediately from the heat and pour the custard back into the mixing bowl, passing it through a fine-meshed sieve to catch any bits of cooked egg.

Set the egg mix aside and melt 7 ounces bittersweet (or semi-sweet) chocolate, either in a double-boiler, or by placing a second medium-sized mixing bowl over a sauce pan of lightly boiling water. (You can use the same sauce pan as the one you heated your cream in. Just clean it out first.) When the chocolate has completely melted, stir it into the egg custard until fully incorporated. Refrigerate while you whip your cream. (I like to chill the chocolate mix until it has cooled at least to room temperature.)

In a large mixing bowl, whip your remaining 1 1/4 cups cream to stiff peaks. Fold about one-quarter of it into the chocolate custard, then pour the custard into the large bowl and fold in the remaining whipped cream. Fold gently, using a rubber spatula to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl. You don't want to knock the air out of the whipped cream. In fact, it's okay to stop folding when the mousse is still lightly streaked brown and white. Or you can continue folding until the cream is completely incorporated in the chocolate.

"Mousse" means "foamy" in French, just like the stuff you put on your hair. And that's the texture--more or less--you want to end up with when you serve the finished dessert. You can either place the entire bowl in the fridge and divide it into individual servings later, or you can scoop the mousse into cups (or cocktail glasses, if you want a really elegant effect) and place those on a sheet pan that fits in your refrigerator.

I think you'll be quite proud of yourself when you see how good this is.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Kids Make Cheese Fondue

Hang on to your bread!
By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Years ago, in another lifetime as a budding newspaper reporter, I wrote a rather snooty piece for the Washington Post about the proper way to make Swiss fondue.

I suppose having lived a couple of years in Switzerland I felt entitled to pontificate on how frequently the American version of fondue strayed from the authentic Swiss original I had come to know. Fondue should only be made with a blend of classic Swiss cheeses, I intoned; only the true Swiss wine--Fendant--will suffice; corn starch should never be used as a thickener in place of potato starch; the mix must contain a generous splash of Kirsch, the cherry liqueur.

Well, guess what. You can make a decent fondue with the processed Harris Teeter brand Swiss cheese at our local supermarket. Corn starch and a generic alcohol-free white wine work just fine. And the kids never missed the Kirsch. In fact they had a blast with this fondue, forming a conga line around our prep table to take turns dipping their cubes of bread in the bubbling brew.

You don't need a fancy fondue set for this either, although it helps to have a small, heavy pot in which to melt the cheese into the wine. Ours is a Le Creuset--enameled cast-iron. Also, we did not have any of those fancy, long fondue forks. We used inexpensive wooden skewers from the grocery store.

If you really want to impress your friends, by all means do seek out a pound of real Swiss cheese. Opt for 1/2 pound Gruyere, 1/4 pound Emmentaler, and 1/4 pound Raclette. These are all good melting cheeses. Your local wine merchant may carry Fendant. Otherwise, almost any dry white wine will do. You'll need 1 1/2 cups. And a good liquor store will assuredly carry Kirsch. You only need a couple of tablespoons, though, and you can substitute wine.

We used non-alcoholic wine with the kids in our classes, for obvious reasons.

First, cut a loaf of sturdy country bread into 1-inch cubes. I like to toast these a little in a 350-degree oven while we are preparing the rest of the fondue.

While the bread is in the oven, grate  1 pound Swiss cheese over the large holes on a box grater. In a small, heavy pot, meanwhile, bring 1 1/2 cups white wine almost to a boil, then gently add the grated cheese to the wine. (This is usually done on the stove top, the finished fondue later transferred to a special fondue stand over a can of sterno or some other heat source. We made our fondue on our portable butane burner at our prep table, which worked perfectly.)

Stir the cheese continuously until it is completely melted and incorporated in the wine. Then add 2 tablespoons corn starch (or potato starch) thoroughly mixed with 2 tablespoons Kirsch (or white wine). Continue stirring, seasoning the mix with 1/4 teaspoon white pepper, a generous pinch of ground nutmeg, and salt as needed. When the fondue begins to bubble, lower the heat. You want to keep the cheese melted, but you don't want to burn the bottom.

Now you are ready to start dipping your bread. Make sure the bread is firmly skewered. The rule is, any girl who loses her bread in the pot has to kiss all the boys at the table. Any boy who loses his has to buy everyone a round of drinks.

This recipe will easily make a meal for six or eight people. In fact, I challenge you to finish the whole thing.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Kids Make Strawberry Shortcake

It doesn't get any better than this
By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

If there's a better dessert any simpler than strawberry shortcake, I don't know what it is.
Our food appreciation classes are tooling around central Europe on their virtual world culinary tour, but I couldn't resist all the strawberries showing up lately in the grocery store. So we took a break from our foreign travels to whip up one of my favorite classic U.S. desserts: strawberry shortcake.

We don't go for that sugary, spongy stuff the supermarkets sell for shortcake. No, to my mind a genuine strawberry shortcake depends on a biscuit with perfect crumb, a biscuit with just enough savoriness to show off the ripe berries with a sweet dollop of whipped cream.

But before you get to the biscuits, you'll want to macerate your strawberries in a little sugar. Trim and cut 1 pound of strawberries into bite-size pieces, then toss them in a bowl with a tablespoon or more of granulated sugar. Set them aside while you prepare your biscuits. The sugar will draw the juices out of the berries--you'll want that to pour over your shortcake later.

For the biscuits, whisk together in a large mixing bowl  1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, 3 teaspoons baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt. Into the mix cut 6 tablespoons butter into small pieces. This is your shortening, and the really fun part for the kids, because you need to "cut" that butter into the flour, meaning pinching the flour and butter together with the tips of your fingers until the mix resembles beach sand.

This takes a bit of practice. Some of the kids want to grab handfuls of flour and butter. So I work right alongside them, pinching, pinching, pinching. Each kid gets a turn, and in a few minutes it's perfectly done.

Now into the dry mix stir 3/4 cup milk. The milk activates the baking powder, causing the biscuits to rise in the oven. The dough may be a little sticky at this point. If so, just sprinkle in some more flour. The key to a great southern biscuit is not overworking the dough. You just want to incorporate all of the ingredients, then turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead it a couple of times until it holds together.

Pat the dough out to a thickness of 3/4 to 1 inch--thicker of course will result in taller biscuits. In our classes, we used a paper drinking cup with the bottom cut out to cut the dough into rounds. This made 15 2-inch biscuits, a perfect size for our classes. But if you want fewer biscuits but larger, just choose a bigger biscuit cutters.

Place the biscuit rounds on an un-greased baking sheet and bake in a 450-degree oven until the tops begin to show just a bit of brown, about 13 minutes. Set the biscuits aside to cool.

To assemble the dessert, mash the macerated strawberries with a potato masher. Slice the biscuits in half, or pry them in half with a fork. Spoon a generous portion of berries and their juices over the bottom half of the biscuit. Top this with a dollop of vanilla-flavored whipped cream. Then place the top half of the biscuit over the whipped cream, or cock it to one side for show.

I'll bet you've never had a springtime dessert better than this.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Kids Make Wiener Schnitzel

It takes a tough kid to make a tender schnitzel
By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Our food appreciation classes have landed in Austria on their virtual world culinary tour and we went straight for a classic dish: Wiener schnitzel. That means veal cutlet in the Viennese style, traditionally pounded thin with a mallet, then dredged in bread crumbs and fried.
Many people object to veal--the meat of a male beef calf--because of the way it is raised. Too often the calves are confined to small crates, prevented from moving to keep their flesh tender. They may be deprived of iron to keep the meat pale.

Veal is a natural consequence of the dairy industry. Cows must give birth in order to produce milk and half the calves they bear are males, which do no good in the dairy barn. Despite the controversy surrounding veal, we don't want to shiled our kids from the issues, but rather teach them how to make better choices without eliminating entire chapters from the culinary lexicon. So we bought our veal from Whole Foods, which assures customers that its veal calves are raised on pasture, where they can romp with other cows.

But if you still have a problem with veal, you can substitute chicken breast in this recipe. (I don't know of a vegetarian option.)

Figure 1 pound of veal cutlets for four to six persons. First you'll need to make some bread crumbs. Two thick slices from a country-style loaf should do. Tear the white part from the crust in small pieces and bake these in a 350-degree oven until they are completely dry and show the first signs of browning around the edges. When they've cooled, you can chop them fine, or run them through a food processor.

Next, use a tenderizing mallet or another heavy object such as a rolling pin to pound the veal cutlets thin. They will of course grow wider and longer as they get thinner. For our classes, we placed the cutlets between sheets of plastic wrap to keep our mallet clean.
Schnitzel with red cabbage and Caesar salad
To fry the cutlets, you'll want a large, heavy skillet filled with cooking oil to a depth of about 1/8 inch. Nearby, make a dredging assembly line. We used three aluminum pans for this, one containing about 1 cup all-purpose flour seasoned with salt, the second containing 2 eggs beaten with a bit of water, and the third containing our bread crumbs. Heat the skillet over moderately high heat until the oil is hot and shimmering, then dredge one of your cutlets first in the flour, then in the egg mix, then in the bread crumbs. Lower the cutlet into the oil and fry until golden on both sides. You'll probably want to fry two cutlets at a time. Drain them on paper towels and hold in a warm oven before serving.

We used our portable butane burner for this so that we could set up the entire dredging and cooking operation on our prep table in front of the kids. In smaller groups, the older kids can take charge of the dredging and frying, but they must be very careful around the hot oil.

You can serve the finished schnitzel with almost any kind of side dish: french fries, braised cabbage, spaetzle. Use your imagination, but by all means include a wedge of lemon. Our kids could not get enough.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Kids Make Spaetzle

Spaetzle: messy but good

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Marco Polo notwithstanding, most food cultures seem to have some version of a noodle in their culinary arsenals. Germany may have the messiest. Called "spaetzle"--or "little sparrows"--this noodle starts with a sticky dough that falls somewhere between pancake batter and library paste and must be pressed through holes into a pot of boiling water.

What? You say you don't care for clouds of steam billowing up your sleeve? You aren't ready to make a gooey, sticky mess out of your favorite box grater? Pish, posh. Spaetzle, it turns out, are quite delicious and worth a little extra pain in the kitchen. Think of a noodle that's almost a pastry, flavored with a bit of nutmeg.

The great dilemma in non-German culinary circles is that most kitchens are not equipped with the standard spaetzle making tool, which looks like a long grater or a plain with large holes. It typically comes with a metal cup to hold the dough, the cup sliding back and forth over the holes. The holes cut the dough, which then dribbles into the boiling water to form the "little sparrows."

Some cooks improvise by pressing the dough through a colander. I think the holes in most colanders are too small, so I opt for my box grater. You have to hold the box grater at an angle over the boiling water so that the dough falls through the opening and not onto the opposite inside wall of the grater.

Once you've got all that figured out, making the actual spaetzle is a snap.

In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 cup all-purpose flour with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper and 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg. In a second bowl, beat two eggs with 1/4 cup milk. Pour the egg mix into the dry ingredients and stir until a smooth, sticky dough forms.

Over a large pot of boiling water, using a stiff rubber or plastic spatula, scrape portions of dough against the large holes of a box grater (or your favorite spaetzle tool), allowing the dough to dribble into the water and cook. Repeat this process until you've used all of the dough. When the noddles are fully cooked, drain them into a colander.

For the finishing touch, melt about 4 tablespoons butter in a large skillet. Over moderately high heat, add the spaetzle and cook, tossing frequently, until the noodles show just the slightest hint of browning.

We served the finished noodles with some brown gravy. They make an ideal side dish to a typical German meal of sausage and braised red cabbage, in which case they are even better dressed with a little gravy.

Friday, April 13, 2012

No trick to making this delicious side dish

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

It's hard to believe anything as simple as cooking red cabbage in a pot could taste so good. But red cabbage may be one of the most underrated of vegetables. With so much nutritional value--to say nothing of the stunning visuals it brings to the dinner plate--we should find more occasions to use it.

"This is your brain on cabbage," I told the kids in my food appreciation classes. And the cross-section of a red cabbage sliced in half does look a bit brainy. At least I thought so. "I think it looks like the inside of a cathedral," said one of the more precocious kids.

In any case, what you'll need to make a family-sized helping of this delicious side dish is little more than a red onion, a red cabbage, some red wine and red wine vinegar and a few spices. It cooks best in a heavy lidded pot. I can't think of anything to go better with a gamy dish such as venison tenderloin, or perhaps your favorite German sausage.

Start by chopping the onion into medium dice and sauteing in olive oil (or bacon grease) over moderately high heat until softened, about five minutes. I like to season the onion aggressively with salt to draw out the liquid. Then add 1/2 head red cabbage, roughly chopped. Stir in 1/4 cup red wine (we used a non-alcoholic wine in our classes) plus 1/4 cup red wine vinegar. Add 1 apple, peeled and grated, and a bouquet garni consisting of 4 whole allspice berries and four peppercorns tied up in cheesecloth. Push this to the bottom of the pot so that it's submerged in the liquid.

Bring to a boil, then cover, reduce heat and cook slowly for about 45 minutes, or until the cabbage is cooked through and tender. After removing from the heat, fish out the bouquet garni and discard. Then for the finishing touch, stir in 1 1/2 tablespoons dark brown sugar and 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon. You can make this less sweet if you want. But red cabbage really calls for cookie spices to bring out its innate flavors.

I don't know any kid who doesn't like red cabbage cooked this way. You could almost serve it for dessert.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Kids Make Sauerrueben

Squishing grated turnips with your hands

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Touring Northern Europe, my food appreciation classes recently got their hands deep into the food. They were making sauerrueben, a version of fermented turnips very much like sauerkraut, but t0 my mind much better. Sauerrueben has a nuttiness and depth of flavor most sauerkrauts lack. Tossed with sauteed onions, it works great next to a Polish sausage, for instance.

All you have to do is grate some turnips and add salt. Truly, this is more a formula than a recipe. For every five pounds of grated turnips, mix in 3 tablespoons pickling salt (or substitute sea salt or kosher salt--no chemicals allowed, including iodine). You can make more or less, depending on your needs.

What you see in the photo above is one of my students mixing the turnips with her hands. This is the most fun part, although the kids are crazy for peeling and grating turnips as well. Anything involving a kitchen tool will keep them focused for hours. But there's nothing like squishing sloppy, grated turnips through your fingers to get the juices flowing--literally.

We are fermenting our turnips--about 10 pounds--in a ceramic crock made for that very purpose. Otherwise, I would use a plastic bucket from the paint store. You just need a tight-fitting ceramic or glass plate (or a piece of non-resinous hard wood cut to size) to lay over the top of the turnips. Salt draws the water out of the turnips, creating a brine that should cover not only the turnips, but whatever object you are using to hold them down. For good measure, place something heavy--like a plastic jug filled with water--on top to weigh everything down and keep it submerged.

What happens next is a kind of culinary miracle. A procession of bacteria will multiply in your brine, creating lactic acid that inhibits noxious organisms. The bacteria feed on the turnips to survive. So you might say that the finished sauerrueben--or any fermented food, for that matter--has undergone a process of rot.

Sounds rather unpleasant, and there is a bit of odor to go with the fermentation. But it sure tastes good. Just put your crock in a cool dark place for a few weeks, covered with a tea towel. And I love teaching kids how our ancestors dealt with food preservation before they had refrigerators.

The bacteria are happiest in an ambient temperature of around 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Check on their progress periodically. You'll know your sauerrueben is done by tasting.

You can store your finished sauerrueben in the refrigerator, which will slow the fermentation process to a crawl. I've had it as much as two years later and it was not only edible, but incredibly delicious.

This is one science experiment you can definitely eat for dinner.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Kids Make Pierogies

Pierogies lightly browned in the skillet

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Call them dumplings. Call them Polish pot stickers. Call them whatever you like. Pierogies are just plain delicious, and kids have a blast making them.

This is the first time we've attempted a stuffed dumpling in our food appreciation classes and pierogies--a huge favorite in Eastern Europe--do take a bit of practice. The trick is getting just the right amount of stuffing onto a circle of pasta dough so that when you fold the dough closed, the stuffing doesn't ooze out the edges. Then you have to pinch the edge several times all around to make sure the dumpling doesn't open up when you boil it and spill its contents into the water.

Otherwise, there's nothing terribly complicated about making the components for pierogies: along with a pasta dough much as you would use for Italian pasta, there's a stuffing, in this case a very traditional potato and cheese mix. Pierogies can also be filled with sauerkraut, mushrooms or other savory items.

We chose to roll our dough flat with a rolling pin, but if you have a pasta machine, you might want to use it instead. Eventually, you want your dough to be on the thin side of 1/8 inch. A thinner dough makes more delectable pierogies--plus the thinner you roll the dough, the more pierogies you'll have.

Start by making your dough. You'll want it to rest an hour or even overnight before using. In a large mixing bowl, mix together 2 cups all-purpose flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt. In a separate bowl, beat 1 large egg, then whisk in 1/2 cup water. Add the egg mix to the flour and mix thoroughly. If it's too sticky at this point, add more flour. Use your hands to shape the dough into a ball, then pour it out onto a floured work surface and knead the dough about five minutes, or until it is smooth and elastic. Cover with plastic and allow to rest.

Cutting circles of dough for pierogies

While the dough is resting, peel 1 large Russet potato and cut it into 1-inch dice. Cook the potato in a large kettle of salted water. (This will later become your water for cooking the pierogies.) When the potato is cooked through and soft, remove it from the water and drain in a colander. Place the potato in a mixing bowl and mash thoroughly. When it is cool enough to handle, add a like amount of farmer's cheese (or substitute cottage cheese or ricotta) and mix thoroughly with your hands.

On a floured work surface (or in your pasta machine), roll the dough to a thickness of 1/8 inch or even a bit less. As you're rolling the dough, you might want to flip it over from time to time and dust it with flour to make sure it doesn't stick to your work surface. When you have finished rolling it, cut the dough into circles with a 3-inch biscuit cutter. Save the scraps--they can be rolled again to make a few more pierogies. You should end up with about 30 in all.

Use your hands or a mechanical scoop to place a small ball of filling on one of the discs of dough. Holding the disc in one hand, use the thumb of the other hand to press the dough into place as you fold the disc in half to close the dumpling, making a half-circle.

Placing filling on the pasta dough

The trick at this point is not getting any of the filling onto the edges of the pasta disc, which means practicing a bit until you get a feel for how much filling each dumpling requires and carefully pressing the filling with the side of your thumb into the crease as you close the dumpling.

Now, while continuing to hold the dumpling in one hand, use the thumb and forefinger of the other hand to pinch the edge closed. Don't be afraid to pinch fairly hard, pushing the filling back toward the crease. Once you've pinched the edge closed, go back around and pinch it a couple more times to make sure the seal is good and tight. (You can find videos of this process at YouTube.)

Pinching the pierogie closed

Once you have your pierogies assembled, you can cook them in the same kettle of salted water you used for cooking the potatoes. Use a large amount of salted water for this. It should be at a rolling boil before you add the pierogies. Cook them in batches, perhaps 10 at a time. After you've added the pierogies to the water, give them a stir to make sure they don't stick to the bottom of the pot. Make sure the water returns to a boil. The dumplings will be done in about three minutes, when they are all floating at the surface. Use a slotted spoon or other tool to drain the dumplings well as you remove them from the pot and place them on a sheet pan to cool.

You can hold the pierogies for several hours after they've boiled. Just cover them with plastic. (They could also be frozen before boiling for use later). The final step, just before serving, is to fry the pierogies to a delicate crispness in butter. Again, do this in batches using plenty of butter (at least 2 tablespoons) in a heavy skillet or saute pan over moderately high heat. You don't want to burn the butter or the pierogies. When the dumplings are lightly browned on one side, flip them over and brown the other.

Serve with plenty of sour cream, either as an appetizer or as a side dish with your favorite Polish sausage and sauerkraut.

Pierogies are not the easiest assignment for an elementary school cooking class. But the kids in my classes really impressed me with how well they followed each of the steps. They did a great job folding the dumplings. And of course they were crazy about the final result. They were dying for seconds.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

D.C. Schools Chancellor Set to Ax Food Services Team?

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson: Hot over cafeteria deficits

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Hinting at a major shakeup in D.C. Public Schools' cafeteria operations, Chancellor Kaya Henderson says she does not believe food services chief Jeffrey Mills and his staff are capable of getting multi-million-dollar deficits under control.

In a recent letter to D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Henderson rejected suggestions that D.C. schools run their own food services, rather than outsourcing those operations to contractors, saying, "I do not have confidence that my current food service staff has the capacity to manage a self-run food service program, even at a small scale."

Cheh, author of the city's "Healthy Schools Act," had suggested that Henderson undertake a pilot program to test the in-house approach. But Henderson wrote, "To date, we have had significant challenges managing the few contracts we have in place. Our team has not demonstrated proficiency in human capital management or project management."

Apparently, Henderson has lost patience with Mills, who was hired little more than two years ago amid high hopes that DCPS could vastly improve the quality of school meals while also bringing the food service budget more into balance. Saying food service was "not a core competency" of the schools, former Chancellor Michele Rhee ordered cafeteria operations outsourced to a large food service management company. Chartwells won the bidding and under Mills' direction food quality markedly improved. But deficits once again soared out of control, creating $14 million in red ink at last count.

Mills has tried to blame the huge budget shortfalls on waste and inefficiency on Chartwells part, as well as a weak contract. He has argued that the schools could do better by ditching Chartwells and bringing food service operations back in-house. But Henderson and her top echelon of managers have refused to give Mills' plan an audience. Instead, Henderson ordered Mills to put the contract up for bid again.

The latest proposal foresees dividing the district's 121 schools among several different contractors with strict provisions for food quality. Currently, Chartwells serves most of the district's schools, but caterer Revolution Foods has been providing meals to seven schools, while another seven get their food scratch-cooked by chefs from D.C. Central Kitchen.

Mills has pointed out that most of the nation's large school districts manage their own cafeteria operations. Experts agree that providing meals in-house also is more economical than outsourcing those services to for-profit corporations--in theory at least.

For instance, Chartwells’ average cost per meal here is $4.21, compared to $3.06 for D.C. Central Kitchen and $2.87 per meal for Revolution Foods, according to Mills. Officials said Chartwells runs up the cost with numerous contractor fees, and by paying inflated prices for many supplies and ingredients. Mills’ plan called for severing ties with Chartwells and eliminating food service deficits by 2016.

In addition to Cheh, many parents and food activists support Mills' vision of a school district that makes its own meals. An on-line petition to that effect recently gathered more than 200 signatures. It was delivered to Henderson this week. Henderson has agreed to meet with a committee of parents and food access organizations that currently advises Mills' staff.

But Henderson sounds like she's already looking for someone to replace Mills. "Before I am willing to in-source food service, even as a pilot, I must have complete confidence that the team I have in place puts DCPS in the best position to be successful," Henderson wrote Cheh. "Along with monitoring our new food service contracts, my efforts in food service will be devoted to ensuring we have solid management in place in the coming year."

Friday, March 16, 2012

Kids Make Kielbasa

First step to sausage: grinding pork

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Our food appreciation classes continue on their world culinary tour, landing this week in Northern Europe and specifically Poland. And what would dinner in Poland be without kielbasa--Polish for sausage.

Making sausage is one sure way to get kids' attention. In short, it's a blast, from cutting and grinding the meat, to adding herbs and spices, squishing everything between your fingers and finally stuffing the mix into hog casings.

There's a hygiene lesson here, of course. We teach the kids to wash their hands frequently when handling raw meat and not to touch anything else--like tabletops, tools, door handles--before washing to avoid cross-contamination.

Normally we don't use electric gadgets in our classes. I like the kids to do everything by hand, like cooks would have done in the old days. They get a better sense of their ingredients and the process that way. But I do not own a manual meat grinder, so in this case we used my electric grinder/stuffer. As you might imagine, the kids were fighting for their chance to push the meat through the grinder every step of the way.

Traditional kielbasa are normally cold-smoked, but that wouldn't work for our classes. So we'll just make do with fresh kielbasa, which are also delicious, especially when you've just made them yourself with the finest quality pork and seasonings.

I've adjusted this recipe to call for two pounds of meat--plenty for the average family. In fact, you might want to freeze some for future use. The original formula called for a certain amount of fat back. But fat back--literally, fat from the back of the pig--is getting more and more difficult to find. So I simply look for a fatty piece of pork shoulder (aka pork butt). You want plenty of fat in your sausage or it will taste dry.

Also, when making sausage, you want to keep your cutting blades and meat well chilled whenever they are not in use. Things can get sloppy as the fat warms.

Is this fun, or what?

First, slice two pounds of fatty pork shoulder--the best you can find--into 1-inch dice (or a little larger). Run the meat through your grinder and into a mixing bowl using the largest cutting die you have. Then add 1/3 cup cold, 1 1/3 tablespoons finely chopped garlic, 2/3 tablespoon kosher salt, 1 1/3 teaspoons dried marjoram, 1 1/3 teaspoons ground black pepper, 2/3 teaspoon dried mustard, 1/3 teaspoon ground coriander. Mix well (this is where the kids got to squish everything together with their hands.)

Run the mix through the grinder two more times using successively smaller die, or until the mix is rather finely ground to your taste. At this point, you can taste for seasoning by frying some of your mix in a skillet. If necessary, adjust the seasoning, then stuff the mix into hog casings, twisting into individual links about five inches long. (Hog casings can be purchased online, or often from your neighborhood butcher. We got our at the Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, where a couple of old-fashioned butchers sell all sorts of pork products.)

Stuffing sausages works best with two people, one to push the meat through the stuffer and the other to handle the links. Try to pack the meat so there are no air pockets, but these are almost unavoidable. When you've finished stuffing, prick the sausages all over with a needle or poultry skewer (there is a special tool made for this). Doing this give the air a chance to escape and helps prevent the sausages from bursting open when you cook them.

We're saving ours for the parents night dinner in May. Stay tuned!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Brussels Sprouts Kids Crave

Sweet & sour Brussels sprouts are the best

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

After our food appreciation classes on Wednesday I got wind of a parent spreading the word that she had witnessed our kids fighting for helpings of Brussels sprouts.

Imagine, kids actually loving Brussels sprouts!

Well, the moral to this story is that sometimes food is all about the preparation, not necessarily the ingredients. Many vegetables, cooked badly, are simply unpalatable. And I suspect that badly is how most people cook Brussels sprouts. But not us. We have a special preparation that's darn near irresistible. Here's how it goes:

For a pound or more of sprouts, trim away the stem ends and cut the sprouts in half lengthwise, removing any loose leaves. Cook the sprouts until barely done in a large pot of salted water. Drain the sprouts into a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking process, then dry the sprouts thoroughly on sheets of paper towel.

For the next step you'll need a heavy skillet liberally greased with olive oil over moderately high heat. When the oil begins to smoke, cover the bottom with sprouts laid flat-side-down. You'll need to do this in batches. Allow the sprouts to brown, then turn them over with a pair of tongs or simply toss in the skillet. Douse liberally with red wine vinegar--you'll get a burst of steam and noise--and toss again. Season with granulated sugar, salt and black pepper to taste. Continue cooking another 30 seconds, or until most of the liquid in the skillet has evaporated. Set aside and continue with the next batch of sprouts.

You might not believe it, but our kids could not get enough of these sweet and sour sprouts. Maybe it was the excitement of seeing that cloud of steam when we added the vinegar to the hot skillet, the popping and sizzling, or even the brief flames as we tossed the sprouts in the oil. Whatever--this is one way you definitely can get children to eat their vegetables.

Note: I neglected to take photos of this week's classes and for some reason don't have any pictures of sweet and sour Brussels sprouts in my files. The photo I've shown here is the closest thing--the carrots are an extra bonus.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Time to Take a Stand for Better D.C. School Food

What's for lunch these days? Tilapia

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Here's one thing for sure: Lining the pockets of big corporate vendors is not a path to a sustainable school food system. D.C. officials made that mistake four years ago when they opted to hire Chartwells to run the city's cafeterias. Now D.C. Public Schools are staring at a $14 million hole in their budget. The problem Chartwells was supposed to solve has only gotten worse.

But schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson would continue down that path. She refuses to listen to a plan to bring school meal production back in-house where it belongs. Instead, she's ordered her staff to put meal service out for bid again. That may work temporarily, but concerned parents and food activists across the city are asking Henderson to think again and start the process of building a self-operating meals program.

D.C. is one of only a few large school districts nationwide that outsource their food service to companies like Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark. Most districts know that the only way to feed kids well economically is by running their own kitchens. But making the switch takes lots of planning. It takes an entire community rallying around the important business of how we feed out kids.

That's where you come in. Add your voice to those demanding that we keep the momentum going behind the recent improvements we've seen in D.C. school meals. Sign this petition and send Chancellor Henderson a message: We want our dollars used to put better food on kids' plates, not for shareholder profits.

You can read more about this issue here and here. Details about the new DCPS school meals "mega contract" is contained in the recently published "request for proposal."

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Kids Go Wild for Cinnamon Buns

Cinnamon buns don't get much better than this

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

We had a near-riot on our hands this week when we made cinnamon buns in our food appreciation classes. Apparently word traveled fast around the campus how good they were. Kids crowded into our kitchen area. I had to send some of them back onto the playground so that we could actually conduct classes.

Even I was a bit surprised that a simple biscuit dough wrapped around some sugary cinnamon could taste so good. These buns were light and tender--but with a hint of cloves in the filling, they packed a powerful flavor punch.

The one tool you will find essential for this is a pastry scraper. That's to get under the dough and roll it into a log. Pry, lift, roll: that's the motion you want, all along the edge of a rather long rectangle, creating a pinwheel log, after you've pressed the filling onto the sheet of dough. If you don't have a traditional pastry scraper, you could substitute an extra-wide paint scraper or a drywall finishing tool. Just make sure it's very clean. You don't need any paint or drywall in your cinnamon buns.

Start by melting 11 tablespoons of butter (1 stick plus 3 tablespoons). The original recipe called for melting various quantities of butter at different stages of the production. But I think it's much easier just to melt all of the butter at once in a small sauce pan. Set it aside to cool.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, mix the filling by whisking together 3/4 packed dark brown sugar (we used light brown sugar), 1/4 cup granulated sugar, 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Stir in 1 tablespoon melted butter, using your fingers to break up any clumps, until the mix looks like wet sand. Set aside.

In a separate, large mixing bowl, whisk together 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt.

In a liquid measuring cup, stir together 1 1/4 cups buttermilk and 6 tablespoons melted butter.

Pour the buttermilk mix into the flour mix and stir with a rubber spatula, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl and pressing the liquid and dry ingredients together until a shaggy dough forms. Pour the dough onto a floured work surface and press it together as you would for biscuits, kneading it a few times. Press the dough into a rectangle with your hands, making sure both sides are dusted with flour. Then use a floured rolling pin to roll the dough into a larger rectangle--about 15 inches long by 12 inches wide. The dough should be about 1/4-inch thick or a bit more.

Rub about 1 tablespoon melted butter over the dough, then pour on the cinnamon mix, spreading it all over the surface of the dough and patting it lightly with your hands. Then at the near edge of the dough use your pastry scraper to lift the dough and roll it over onto itself to form a log. When you are finished rolling, you can squeeze and pat the log along its length to make it a bit more uniform.

Grease a 9-inch metal cake pan with 1 tablespoon melted butter. Use a serrated knife to cut the log into 1 1/2-inch rounds, patting each piece lightly to flatten it a bit, then transferring into the cake pan, packing them as tightly as necessary. Don't worry, they will separate easily after they've been baked.

Pour the remaining melted butter over the top of the buns, then place the cake pan on the middle rack of a pre-heated 425-degree oven for 25 minutes.

While the buns are in the oven, you can make an icing if you like. Stir together until very smooth 1 tablespoon soften cream cheese, 1 tablespoon buttermilk and 1/2 cup sifted confectioner's sugar.

When the buns have finished baking, set the cake pan on a wire rack to cool. When the buns are cool enough to handle, use a pointed knife to gently cut around the edges of each bun and remove them to the wire rack or a sheet pan to cool further. Before serving, drizzle some icing over each bun and watch them disappear.

Friday, February 24, 2012

It's Time for the Inspector General to Investigate D.C. School Food

Why do D.C. cafeterias consistently lose money?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Was former D.C. schools Chief Operating Officer Anthony Tata pulling our leg when he told a room packed with parents and other concerned citizens in August 2010 that school cafeterias had been losing $11 million to $14 million every year on food service?

I was there, and I distinctly remember Tata saying school officials had "found a sweet spot" by hiring Chartwells, a giant food service company, to manage the cafeterias. Sitting next to him was the newly hired DCPS food services manager, Jeffrey Mills, who had spent his first months forcing Chartwells to radically overhaul its menus, ditching Pop-Tarts, chicken nuggets and strawberry milk in favor of chicken on the bone, homemade lasagna and locally-sourced broccoli.

Now comes Mills saying deficits have only gotten worse under Chartwells--a whopping $14.35 million in the current school year. But wait: According to figures Mills recently supplied to D.C. Council Member Mary Cheh, budget overruns in food service have ranged widely. In school year 2006-2007, when DCPS was running its own food service--meaning purchasing ready-made meals packed in a suburban factory--the deficit was $10.8 million. The following year, when food service was still self-operated, the flow of red ink increased to $11.6 million. In 2008-2009, after Chartwells took over, the deficit swelled to $14.4 million. But the following year it shrank to $13, million and fell a whopping 30 percent in 2010-2011--the year D.C. hired D.C. Central and Revolution Foods to serve the food in 14 schools as part of a pilot program.

So why is the budget shortfall back with a vegeance this year--40 percent larger, in fact, at $14.35 million?

Out of control deficits have prompted schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to demand that her food service team immediately advertise a new "mega-contract" for outsourced cafeteria operations. A request for proposal is scheduled to be published in this Sunday's Washington Post. The last such RFP was published four years ago and led to the hiring of Chartwells. The only other company to bid was Sodexo, one of Chartwells main competitors.

Both companies are part of huge, foreign-based conglomerates. Sodexo is French, Chartwells, which manages food service in more than 500 U.S. school districts, is just a small part of the $14 billion Compass Group, based in Great Britain.

There's no reason to suspect that Chartwells won't bid on the new contract. Or that it might not just win the bidding again and continue under some new terms. That's the last thing Mills would want to see. He wants Chartwells out now so that he can run his own system in-house. But that has put him at odds with Chancellor Henderson, who won't even listen to Mills' proposal and prefers to rule over DCPS cafeterias in typical D.C. fashion--with an iron fist.

Apparently, one thing Mills hasn't learned in his two years on the job is how to navigate the schools bureaucracy. It will be a miracle if he keeps his job. And that would be a shame, since he really has presided over some dramatic improvements. The vastly more appetizing menu-- minus the flavored milk and other processed junk foods--was a great starter. But he also has incorporated lots of locally-sourced produce, taking advantage of extra funding made available in the Healthy Schools Act approved by the D.C. Council two years ago. He started a school breakfast program that has been named the best in the country, along with a new "supper" program that ensures kids don't go home in the evening with empty stomachs. And he's installed salad bars in a number of schools, which has been credited with increasing student participation in the meals program across the board.

That's why it's so important now to ask the city's inspector general to finally untangle the messy finances in DCPS food services. Please tell us why the schools consistently lose so much money every year feeding our kids. We need this kind of baseline information--some real straight talk--so that we can make important decisions in the future about how school cafeterias should be run.

In my reporting on school food, I've chosen to look on these deficits in D.C. as a subsidy for the meals program. For sure, all that red ink helps pay for some of the best school food in the country. But is it also subsidizing too much waste and inefficiency? Do we just pay a lot more for cafeteria worker salaries? Or is too much money simply lining the pockets of Chartwells and its Compass Group shareholders?

If the schools were running deficits before, when they were just ordering the equivalent of factory-made airline meals, how different are the deficits now, when we have a professional food service company making the meals in school kitchens using individual components? These are the kinds of questions the inspector general could answer so that we as a community do not continue to trip over ourselves trying to decide what kind of food service the schools should have, so that we aren't trying to chose a winner between the chancellor and her food services director.

I'm told that asking the inspector general to get involved now really wouldn't help much--it takes a year or two to conduct an investigation and generate a report. But here's the kicker: building a successful food program in a district the size of D.C. is a multi-year process. In Boulder, for instance, where I spent a week observing the results of a dramatic overhaul, Ann Cooper and her team of experts spent a year just studying the local cafeteria operation and devising a plan to change a menu of processed junk to meals prepared by teams of professional chefs. In Berkeley, parents spent years organizing and agitating before they got their vaunted cafeteria overhaul.

Changing school food service in any meaningful way requires political change as well. Butting heads in the D.C. Council chamber, as May Cheh did with Kaya Henderson yesterday, may provide drama and grist for reporters, but it doesn't result in clarity or the unity of purpose we need to move the school food program together. But one thing the Council could do now that would help is ask for a formal investigation by the inspector general. That at least would explain why school food service budgets don't balance, and give us a common reference point with which to hold a civilized conversation down the road.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Is Kaya Henderson Turning Out the Lights on D.C. School Food?

Henderson:Preparing meals is not a core competency for schools

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

In a chilling rebuke, Chancellor Kaya Henderson has disavowed the ambitious plans for improved D.C. school food set forth by DCPS food services Director Jeffrey Mills and instead has ordered her staff to proceed immediately with a new contract to outsource cafeteria operations and try to stem the mounting deficits attributed to the system's current vendor, Chartwells.

In a letter to D.C. Council Member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Henderson distanced herself from some 1,500 pages of documents Mills' staff had recently sent the Council detailing how Chartwells has contributed to some $14 million in red ink over the past year. Meanwhile, Henderson and her key management staff have refused to hear Mills' proposal to ditch Chartwells and bring much of the system's food service operations in-house.

Mills sent the proposal, in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, to Cheh. But Henderson withdrew it, saying "the views in the PowerPoint do not reflect the direction that DCPS food services is moving in...."

Henderson told Cheh that "some of my staff members may not necessarily agree with my decision" and that she was sending a revised response to questions generated by Cheh. Echoing former Chancellor Michelle Rhee's decision to hire Chartwells four years ago, Henderson wrote that "food service (like facilities maintenance and construction) is not a core competence of ours," adding that "the option of bringing food service back in house is premature at this point."

Henderson is scheduled to appear for questioning before the Council today, and Cheh, author of the city's Healthy Schools Act, plans to ask the chancellor a number of food-related questions. School officials have yet to explain whether annual deficit spending--now averaging more than $12 per year--is supporting better food, high labor costs, waste and inefficiency, corporate profits for Chartwells, or some combination of all of the above.

The emerging schism between Henderson and Mills casts a pall over a food service operation that otherwise was thought to be showing great progress since Mills was hired two years ago. Mills had forced Chartwells to completely revamp its menus, removing things like Pop-Tarts, chicken nuggets and strawberry milk in favor of low-sugar cereals, fresh vegetables and more lunch items prepared from scratch by school kitchen staff. But while Chartwells ostensibly was hired to gain control of budget shortfalls in school food service, the deficits according to Mills have only gotten worse.

For instance, the average loss per school in 2007-2008, the last year DCPS self-operated food service, the average loss per school totaled $80,000. That jumped to $115,447 the first year Chartwells took over, and in subsequent years has run around $90,000 per school.

The total food service deficit for the current school year is expected to reach $14.35 million, or more than double the red ink DCPS cafeterias generated in 2004, when the schools ran their own food service.

According to Mills' staff, Chartwells' average cost per meal is $4.21, compared to $3.06 for D.C. Central Kitchen, which prepares meals for seven schools under a pilot program, and $2.87 per meal for Revolution Foods, which caters to another seven schools. Officials said Chartwells runs up the cost with numerous contractor fees, and by paying inflated prices for many supplies and ingredients. Mills' plan to sever ties with Chartwells called for eliminating food service deficits by 2016.

Chartwells also collects millions of dollars in rebates from its suppliers. Under federal law, Chartwells is supposed to pass those rebates on to the schools, but officials said they still aren't sure they are receiving all of the funds to which they are entitled.

Chartwells has a "cost reimbursable" contract with the schools, meaning it is reimbursed for all of its expenses, as well as being paid an annual management fee and a small fee for each meal it services. Under its contract with the schools, Chartwells is supposed to hold deficit spending to no more than $6 million annually or forfeit its management fee. But according to one official, Chartwells has forfeited its management fee every year the contract has been in place while deficits zoomed out of control.

Mills, whose background was in developing restaurant concepts in New York prior to being hired as food services director for the schools here, has chafed under the Chartwells contract, hoping eventually to build a system in which the schools produced their own meals from whole ingredients. In anticipation of such a system, the Healthy School Act called on the city to provide a central kitchen and food processing facility that has yet to materialize.

According to Mills, only 8 of the nation's 135 largest school districts outsource their cafeteria operations to large food service companies such as Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark. Neighboring Fairfax County, for instance, runs its own food service without creating deficits. But the food served there also is regarded a far inferior to the meals children in D.C. receive.

But in light of the school chancellor's latest move, Mills' vision for meals cooked fresh by local chefs may be a long way off.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Kids Make Bacon Cheese Bread

Is there anything bacon can't make better?

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

One of the adults at our school asked if we were using turkey bacon to make bacon cheese bread in our food appreciation classes.

"Heck, no!" I replied. "We do not use fake bacon in our classes!"

We teach kids to make traditional foods using traditional tools and techniques. Modern "healthy" alternatives, such as substituting a processed turkey product for real pork bacon, is an entirely different lesson But you could certainly opt for the ersatz bacon when making this bread at home.

And believe me, you will want to make this bread.

We love to torture the rest of the school with our cooking aromas. The smell of bacon sizzling on the stove top--followed by sauteed onions--started mouths watering all over campus. Add to the bread heaps of Parmesan and Gruyere cheese and you practically have a stand-alone meal that any southern chef would be proud to put on the menu. In fact, this bread would be even more perfect slathered with pimento cheese, another southern specialty.

And it's not at all difficult--or time consuming--to make. This is a quick bread, after all, where baking powder is the principle rising agent.

Start by grating 3 ounces Parmesan cheese over the large holes of a box grater. Set aside. Then grate 4 ounces Gruyere cheese and reserve separately.

Next, cut five slices of thick bacon into 1/4-inch pieces. Sautee these until almost crispy in a heavy skillet over moderately high heat, then drain the bacon onto paper towels, reserving 3 tablespoons of bacon grease in the pan. Next, sautee 1/2 medium onion, chopped fine, until lightly browned. Set aside.

For the wet ingredients used in this bread beat 1 large egg in a medium mixing bowl, then whisk in 1 1/4 cups milk, 3/4 cup sour cream and 3 tablespoons melted butter.

For the dry ingredients, whisk together in a large mixing bowl 3 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper and 1 pinch cayenne pepper. Using a spatula, mix in the 4 ounces grated Grueyer cheese, tossing and stirring until the cheese is completely coated with the flour mix, breaking up any clumps of cheese as you go.

Grease a 9-inch by 5-inch loaf pan with cooking spray. We had some issues with the bread sticking to our pan, especially on the bottom. You might want to line the bottom of the pan with a piece of parchment paper and spray it well. Dust the bottom of the pan with 1/2 the reserved grated Parmesan cheese.

Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mix and mix well with a rubber spatula, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl until all of the ingredients are incorporated. Scrape the batter into the prepared load pan, smooth out the top and dust it with the remaining grated Parmesan cheese.

Place in a 350-degree oven for 50 minutes, or until the loaf is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Allow the loaf to cool in the pan for about 15 minutes, then invert and place the loaf on a wire rack to cool further.

Make sure to get a slice for yourself. This bread does not last long!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Kids Make Cranberry Nut Bread

A quick bread loaded with fruit

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

The original recipe for this delicious quick bread originally called for fresh cranberries. But with cranberries out of season, we had a choice to make and opted to use sweetened dried cranberries instead. The result is perhaps more like a fruit cake than a bread. So much the better. The kids couldn't get enough.

The kids in my baking classes know by now what a chemical rise is, as opposed to a rise created with yeast. Baking soda and baking powder react with acidic liquids to make dough expand, giving us a tender bread or biscuit instead of a cracker. In this case, we use both baking powder--which contains both alkaline and acidic ingredients--and baking soda to create the rise when combined with orange juice and buttermilk, both of which bring an acid to the equation.

Lots of orange zest, in addition to the juice, also lends a ton of fruit flavor to the bread, complementing the cranberries nicely. Heck, you could serve this bread as a replacement for your traditional cranberry mold. It would be delicious toasted and slathered with cream cheese.

Start with your dry ingredients, whisking together in a large mixing bowl 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 cup granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda. To this add 1/2 cup coarsely chopped and toasted pecans (we skipped the toasting part) and 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped cranberries, or dried cranberries.

Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, beat one egg, then the grated zest and the juice of 1 large orange, plus 2/3 cup buttermilk and 6 tablespoons melted butter.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix well with a rubber spatula, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl. When all of the ingredients are incorporated, scrape the batter into a 9-inch by 5-inch loaf pan greased and dusted with flour (we sprayed with Baker's Joy).

Pay careful attention to the baking instructions. Place the loaf in a pre-heated 375-degree oven for 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 degrees and bake an additional 45 minutes, or until the top of the loaf is mahogany brown and a tooth pick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Allow the bread to cool in the pan 10 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Kids Make "Healthy" Blueberry Muffins

No processed sugar in these muffins

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

If you're trying to reduce the saturated fat and processed sugar in your diet, these muffins definitely fall into the category of "healthy." Orange juice, apple sauce and the blueberries lend a bit of sweetness. And for fat, we have canola oil, which contains even more mono-unsaturated fatty acids than olive oil.

But we can't advertise muffins as "healthy" to the kids in our food appreciation classes. The last time we tried, they turned on their heels and ran back onto the playground. No, the best way to market these muffins, we found, is to just have the kids make them. Through the magic of hands-on participation, kids somehow overlook the fact that in this case, a delicious muffin doesn't have to knock them over with its sugar content.

The only trick to these muffins is assembling a somewhat unconventional list of ingredients. For instance, you may not have oat bran--full of vitamins and fiber--or whole wheat pastry flour on your pantry shelf. But we found these readily available at the local Whole Foods. The blueberries in this case were the frozen variety, a stock item in most supermarkets.

Start by whisking together your dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl: 1 1/2 cups oat bran, 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour, 2 teaspoons baking soda, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon salt.

In a separate bowl, beat 2 large eggs, then mix in 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened apple sauce, 1/2 cup orange juice, 2 tablespoons canola oil, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix together, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl, just until everything is incorporated. Then fold in 1 1/4 cups blueberries.

Grease a standard muffin tin (we used cooking spray) and spoon in the batter. Scatter about 1/4 cup rolled oats over the tops of the muffins and give them a gentle pat. Then place the tin in a 400 degree oven for 18 minutes.

The finished muffins turn out light, moist and bursting with blueberries. Pour yourself a tall glass of cold buttermilk to wash it down.

Note: You can also add 1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnut pieces to the muffin batter for a bit of crunch.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Kids Make Zucchini Bread

Squeezing water out of zucchini

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

The secret to a great zucchini bread, apparently, is getting the water out of the zucchini.

You don't want a wet, leaden bread. And as the kids in my food appreciation classes learned, squash--like most vegetables--is mostly water. Salt or sugar added to grated zucchini penetrates the cell walls on a molecular level, drawing out copious amounts of liquid. Left standing in a colander over a bowl for an hour (or overnight) will produce a cup of water or more from a pound of squash. You can then squeeze out even more with your hands, or by twisting the zucchini in batches in a tea towel.

(One of the kids wanted to taste the water after we'd given the sugar treatment. We did. Not bad! Green and sweet.)

So start your zucchini bread with a pound of squash. Trim off the ends, cut into manageable pieces and grate using the large holes of a box grater. Placed the grated zucchini in a colander set over a bowl and toss in 2 tablespoons sugar. Allow to sit at least an hour--or overnight--then squeeze as much of the remaining liquid out of the zucchini as you can. Set aside.

Meanwhile, whisk together 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt. These are your dry ingredients for the bread.

In a separate bowl, beat two eggs. Add 1/4 cup plain yogurt, the juice from 1/2 lemon (strain out the seeds), 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar and 6 tablespoons melted butter. Combine well. These are your wet ingredients. Stir in the grated zucchini.

Add the wet ingredients to the flour mix and gently combine with a rubber spatula, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl. Pour the mix into a 9-inch by 5-inch loaf pan that has been greased and dusted with flour. (We sprayed with Baker's Joy).

Place the loaf pan in a 375-degree oven and bake for 55 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Invert the pan to remove the loaf and allow to cool on a wire rack.

Scraping batter into the load pan takes teamwork

Our kids loved the zucchini bread just as it was. In truth, even though the bread is flaked with zucchini, making it quite pretty, you can't really taste the vegetable. In an ideal world, you would serve the bread warm, slathered with cream cheese and washed down with a tall glass of cold buttermilk.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Kids Make Spinach and Mushroom Quiche

Filling quiche takes teamwork

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

How do you get kids to eat spinach? Make quiche!

Even I was surprised by how eagerly kids took to quiche when it was filled with spinach and mushrooms. Well, not every kid was overjoyed about the mushrooms. Or the spinach. Still, this quiche was a huge hit in our baking classes this week, leaving me to wonder why, in all the years I've been teaching food appreciation at a private elementary school here in the District of Columbia, quiche had never made it onto the menu before.

It's a great project for the kids, loaded with all kinds of kitchen skills to learn.

First, the crust. No store-bought crust for us. The trick to a flaky, delicious, made-from scratch pie crust is to keep the ingredients--especially the butter--very cold and add only enough water to get the flour to bind together. You don't want to add too much liquid, or work the dough at all. And ideally you'll want to start on this a day ahead, or at least several hours.

To make one 9-inch quiche, whisk together in a large mixing bowl 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Add to that 1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled, unsalted butter cut into pieces. Using a pastry cutter or two knives (most people would do this pulsing in a food processor), cut the butter into the flour until the mix is granular, with a few pea-size pieces. The butter should be thoroughly incorporated into the flour, but you don't want to work it too much. In fact, when you roll the dough out later, you will see flecks of butter in the flour.

To this mix add 1 or 2 tablespoons ice water. That's right, we're dealing with tablespoons of water. Use a spatula to turn and press the flour to incorporate the water. Continue adding water a tablespoon at a time until a dough begins to form. It won't look like a dough yet, but you should be able to gather it with your hands and press it together. When it just holds together, you can stop adding water. Pour the dough onto a floured work surface, press it into a disk about 3/4-inch thick and wrap in plastic. Store the dough in the refrigerator several hours or overnight.

Pre-bake your crust by again turning the dough onto a floured work surface and rolling it out into a circle large enough to overlap the edges of a 9-inch pie plate. Now, wrap the dough around your rolling pin--dusted with flour--lift and transfer the dough to the pie plate. Press the dough into the bottom edge of the pan. Use a sharp knife to trim away the excess dough from the edges and crimp the edge with your fingers to make a decorative presentation. (We then lined the inside of the dough with aluminum foil and filled the bottom with ceramic pie weights--little marbles that hold the crust's shape while it's in the oven. Skip this if you don't have the pie weights.)

Do try this at home

Bake the dough in a 375-degree oven for 20 minutes, or until it is fairly firm to the touch and beginning to lightly brown. Remove and set on a wire rack to cool.

Meanwhile, for the custard, mix together in a large bowl 2 large eggs plus two yolks. (The kids always have a blast with this. We separate the eggs by cracking them into their cupped hands.) Add 1 cup milk, 1 cup heavy cream. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon white pepper and a generous pinch nutmeg.

Use about 2 ounces each chopped frozen spinach (wrung dry), chopped mushrooms and grated Gruyere cheese. The original recipe I used as a guide for this called for a ridiculous amount of these ingredients. We just eyeballed it, adding only enough to make their presence known in the finished pie. Add too much, and you won't have room for the egg custard, which binds everything together. As it was, we had some of the egg mix left over.

Place the crust with the filling on a sheet pan and place this on the middle rack of the oven heated to 375 degrees. Only now do you pour the egg mix into the pie shell. You don't want to be to carrying a shell filled to the brim with egg liquid across the kitchen after all.

Bake for 38 minutes, or until the quiche is firm to the touch and cooked through. Allow to cool for a while--but do try serving it warm. It makes such an impression, fresh from the oven. Serve with your favorite salad, breakfast, lunch or dinner.