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.