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.