Can Marc Vetri Save School Lunch?

As a young child, much to my dismay, my mother packed my lunch every day. My homemade whole-wheat bread, natural peanut butter, and sugar-free jam sandwiches and carrot sticks seemed boring and embarrassing compared to the pizza-burgers dished out in the school lunch line or the mini bags of chips and cream-filled cake rolls that other kids carried in their lunch boxes. No one wanted to make any food trades with me. While frustrating at the time, I’m now glad that my mom (who was able to only work part-time for much of my elementary experience) valued the importance of a healthy meal – popular at the lunch table or not.

In my experience working with kids since then – in a wide variety of school,  institutional settings, and nonprofit settings – I’ve come to realize just how rare this is. And when 16% of American children live in food insecure families, school and free lunch programs often provide the only guaranteed meal a day. But these meals – due to budget restriction, red tape, and a truly appalling USDA bulk food system – are often woefully lacking in basic nutrients. And don’t even get me started on how many children have no idea what whole pieces of fruit look like, or that french friend come from a food called a potato, that grows in the ground. If you happened to catch the tv show Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, a season-long show in which British chef Jamie Oliver tried to reinvent the school lunch system in one of the USAs most obese counties, you know impossible the task proved to be. The poor man cried.

So I’m more than pleased to read about local chef Marc Vetri’s “Eatiquette,” a kitchen-table-style  eating plan at the People for People  Philadelphia Charter school. Children not only eat nutritious meals, they know what they are eating, why they are eating it, and they enjoy these meals family-style – an important sociocultural aspect of sharing food that is often ignored by institutional systems.

So what am I going to complain about? Not much. I’m just going to ask how we can implement this program, or a program like it, more broadly in Philadelphia, and around the country, so that children everywhere – especially the neediest – have access.While the $2.66 mandated per child usually provides the canned fruits and vegetables, fried and over-processed everything else, and a healthy dose of ketchup, Eatiquette offers” panko-crusted chicken tenders. Baked ziti with chickpea-and-cucumber salad. Roasted chicken with mushroom risotto. Sautéed shrimp with gazpacho. Strawberries with mint cream. Lemon granita. Melon salad.” Which would you rather eat?

Philadelphia Magazine writes that “They approached the Philadelphia School District about installing Eatiquette in the city’s public schools. But the district’s behemoth size, complicated work rules and uneven allocation of kitchens among its 200-plus buildings required far too much up-front tinkering with a lunch concept that, frankly, needed to be piloted on a much smaller scale.” Perhaps something for the new Philadelphia Schools Commissioner to consider? Or perhaps its something that we should start demanding. What do you think?

photo courtesy Phillymag.com.

Chickpea Stew from Super Natural Everyday

 

I soaked an entire saucepan of chickpeas, intending to make hummus. 3 days later, they were languishing the fridge and I was in needs of a simple, yet satisfying dinner. I actually followed the recipe for “Chickpea Stew” in Super Natural Everyday to a t – very odd for me! While I don’t think that the weight of the soup really qualifies as stew, it is a hearty soup with an incredibly rich flavor, thanks to saffron, greek yogurt, and egg yolks (!) While the ingredients are simple, you do need to pay a bit of attention to how you deal with the egg yolks and hot liquid – you don’t want them to cook and curdle. A little patience and whisking, though, and you’ll be rewarded with such richness, you’ll be glad you used that extra bowl.

In my usual way, I wanted to fit more vegetables into this meal, so I briefly considered adding chopped swiss chard, but when I decided to just braise it lightly and serve it on the side with grated pecorino and sourdough bread, I knew that I had made the right choice – the chard would have weighed the soup down in an uneven way. Just consider this “stew” part of a simple meal, and not the whole meal!

Roasted Cauliflower, Fennel and Radicchio Salad

I don’t  know about you, but I get a little tired of the traditional roasted root vegetable winter salad. There are so many more options! Like most salads, I don’t exactly have a recipe, rather just a list of ingredients and simple preparation techniques. Salads are flexible!

Big head of cauliflower

2 bulbs of fennel

2 heads of radicchio

6 garlic cloves

olive oil

Chop up the vegetables, toss them with the oil and garlic cloves, and pop in the oven at 400 degrees to roast for about 20  minutes. Toss mid-way through the roasting, and check. You want the fennel to soften, and the cauliflower to slightly brown. Toss the vegetables into a large bowl, reserving the roasted garlic cloves.

1 head fresh radicchio

3-4 small heads endive (if you wish)

handful of chopped fennel fronds

fresh parsley

2 cups roasted chickpeas

Toss the above ingredients into the big bowl with the roasted vegetables. Because roasted radicchio tends to get brown and limp, I think it’s nice to add a little fresh (and some endive, if you have it) for crunch and color. The fennel fronds and parsley add a nice bust of color and a bright flavor.

In a small bowl, mash the roasted garlic cloves, and whip with some olive oil, good quality balsamic vinegar, sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and the zest of one lemon. Toss with the salad and – viola! Complex flavors, seasonal produce, and a salad strong enough to hold-up in the fridge for a few days!

Veggie Cheesesteak


Though many would say that it’s not actually our best sandwich (in a city with plenty of serious sandwiches), Philadelphia is certainly known for its cheesesteaks. Greasy, gooey hoagies with enough salt and fat to make your heart stop, part of their charm is their excess. But for vegetarians, and those that like a few more interesting ingredients than a Sarcone’s roll and ‘whiz, there are other options.

I made the above “cheesesteaks” on a weekend afternoon. I marinated local “beef” soy strips in some beefy flavors, fried them with garlic, and placed them on a DiBruno’s whole wheat sandwich roll that I pre-toasted and rubbed with fresh garlic.

 
Topped with caramelized onions and a stinky, triple-cream brie, this sandwich had a new depth of flavor. A side-salad of bitter arugula with lemon, olive oil and large crystal sea salt add a needed bite to the dish. And what else? A beer. But a hoppy Lauganitas IPA. Because we’re classy like that.

*apologies for the grainy, cell-phone pictures!

Easy Weekend Breakfasts – leeks and eggs

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Some weekends it seems to blustery to go outside, and you just want to cuddle, watch movies, listen to NPR and have breakfast in. This is one of my “special” breakfasts. It doesn’t take long, but long enough that I want to save it for a weekend occasion. No real recipe – just sauteed leeks and garlic, farm, fresh eggs in a soft scramble, and topped with a yogurt sauce and lemon zest. A buttermilk biscuit on the side (rescued from the Thanksgiving freezer leftovers). Some arugula, dressed lightly in lemon juice and olive oil. Everything sprinkled with a large-grain, high quality sea salt. A mug of coffee. This American Life. My honey, and no plans. Perfect.

The Diner Breakfast

The diner breakfast is a particular art form. Nothing too fancy, cheap prices, and no surprises. Am I right? The manfriend and I spent a delightful Saturday morning at a diner in my neighborhood, at 52nd and Walnut in West Philadelphia. The Skyline is very basic – just a few stools at the counter and three tables, but we got our eggs and potatoes and pancakes in a jiffy! And they had hot sauce. Some people complain that Philadelphia, unlike its neighbors in New Jersey, has a shortage of classic diners. What are some of your favorites? What do you order?