Monthly Archives: July 2013

School Lunches

My elementary school was known for having good lunches, or so the teachers who had been around a while claimed. In those innocent days, when the main concern of school security was dealing with benign vandalism from the naughtier students, workers in the area would often stop by the school cafeteria for their lunch. It is hard to imagine that happening today in any school today, even if security were not an issue. Few schools actually prepare meals on site; this job has been taken over by food services, with a spectrum of quality topping out at mediocre. Is mediocre the best that can be hoped for, given the issues that preparers of school lunches must face?

There is the issue of childhood obesity, and the pressure on food services to offer “healthy” meals, “healthy” all too often the opposite of “tasty”. There is also the problem of the populace being fed: very few children have adventurous palates; many are incredibly picky eaters, even through their college years. There are even bigger problems when thinking about school lunches: hunger still exists in this country, a fact which many of us in our affluent little cocoons choose to ignore, but a fact that many schools and teachers must face (check out the blog ontheschoolground).  And there are tragedies such as the recent school lunch poisoning in India.

There do, however, exist good, even excellent, school lunch programs. The two cookbooks featured in this post are by chefs for two such lunch programs. Robert W. Surles of the Calhoun School in Manhattan brings us Chef Bobo’s Good Food Cookbook and from Deep Springs College in California we have Tom Hudgens with The Commonsense Kitchen: 500 Recipes Plus Lessons for a Hand-Crafted Life. It should be noted that high school tuition at the Calhoun School is essentially the same as tuition at Ivy League universities (not including room and board), so Chef Bobo is feeding a pampered group of students. It would be interesting to know just what the Calhoun School spends on their lunch program, and to know if such a program would be feasible in less wealthy schools. Deep Springs is a two year college for men only, with only about 25 students, most of whom continue their education at the most prestigious colleges after their two years at Deep Springs. Deep Springs also functions as a working ranch, with its students working about 20 hours a week in addition to their school work. Thus we may imagine that they are pretty hungry when they sit down to meals. An interesting foodie note: David Tanis is a Deep Spring alumnus.

chef-bobos-good-food-cookbook-11612l1Based on his cookbook, Chef Bobo does an admirable job of feeding his students. Judging from the pictures of happy students and their notes to Chef Bobo, some of which are reproduced on the end papers, the students love both Chef Bobo and his food. The food in this cookbook is plain, and yet good enough that I plan to cook most of the recipes I tried again some time. Although there are lots of meat recipes, there is still quite a bit for the vegetarian. The food is, for the most part, healthy, and the only drawback of this is that the desserts are not particularly interesting. Finally, there is nothing too complicated; overly fussy preparations have no place in a school kitchen.

spinachIn my mind, recipes like “Spinach Salad with Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette” (page 36) are not really recipes, just instructions for assembling a salad. I certainly do not measure anything when putting together a salad like this; what you see is what you get, so eyeballing is the way to go. For this salad, put together spinach, hard boiled egg, walnuts, olives, red onion and parmesan. Top with a vinaigrette. I did not follow Chef Bobo’s instructions for the vinaigrette, but just used my standard dressing: olive oil and balsamic vinegar, in approximately equal amounts, with a squeeze of honey, a pinch of salt, and a dab of mustard. This all made up to be a good combination, and I will remember this salad when I need to get out of the lettuce salad rut.

bobobeanChef Bobo’s “White Bean Soup” (page 82) was strangely delicious. Strange because it appears from the recipe that this is just a boring white bean soup. But it really doesn’t take that much to elevate food above the ordinary. In this soup I believe that what elevates it it is the squirt of sriracha and a good broth. For broth, I added Better than Bullion to the bean cooking liquid plus water in which I had cooked cauliflower. The fennel might have added some flavor also. I used fewer beans than Chef Bobo, and also differed from him in my chosen garnish: he suggests store bought pesto; I just topped my soup with parmesan and pepper.

brocsoup“Cream of Broccoli Soup” (page 73) is simply broccoli blended with broth, onions, and a few spices, perked up with a tiny amount of red wine vinegar. There is a very similar broccoli soup I make that I found in a Martha Stewart cookbook that uses water, not broth, and is flavored with curry powder. I do not think that I will replace Martha Stewart’s soup with Chef Bobo’s.

I hesitate to include “Roasted Salmon with Honey and Soy Glaze” (page 148) amongst the recipes I tried from this cookbook, since I really didn’t follow Chef Bobo’s instructions. He would have us sear salmon in a hot skillet, then cover the salmon with a soy sauce, honey, and ginger glaze, and let it finish cooking in a 350º oven. I dispensed with the pan searing and used a 300º oven. The salmon did not end up looking beautiful, but it was tender and tasty.

boboriceMy favorite Chef Bobo recipe was “Mexican Tomato Rice” (page 164), although the recipe was flawed. Here we have rice cooked with tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic, and spices, with kidney beans added. The flaw was that dish was way too dry, and I had to add extra water. This was not a problem for me, but might have been one for a less experienced cook blindly following directions. With the extra water, this rice was quite good, with an excellent spice balance. I did not even feel the need to top it with cheese, and especially enjoyed eating the rice with mashed cauliflower from The Commonsense Kitchen.

Commonsense_kit-330The Commonsense Kitchen by Tom Hudgens is a comprehensive guide to running a kitchen. In addition to over 500 recipes, Tom provides instructions on washing dishes, removing laundry stains, and even making soap. Most of the sample menus given are meat-centric; Deep Springs does not seem to be a terrible vegetarian-friendly place. The recipes are completely unexceptional, yet competent. Someone with unadventurous tastes can trust this cookbook. It would, in fact, make a better learn-to-cook cookbook than any of the three cookbooks in my learn-to-cook cookbook post.

Mashed Cauliflower

Mashed Cauliflower

“Mashed Cauliflower” (page 225) is a standard lower carb alternative to mashed potatoes. Tom uses a modest amount of cream and butter. I like a lot of black pepper since cauliflower is a little too bland for my tastes. I used the water in which I cooked the cauliflower in Chef Bobo’s white bean soup, and found the cauliflower to perfectly complement the Mexican Tomato Rice. I might not have cooked my cauliflower enough before I began mashing it, but my immersion blender accomplished what my potato masher could not.

There are different schools of thought on just how to make macaroni and cheese. Let us immediately dismiss the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese option (equivalently, the Wacky Mac option). What we are left with are: white sauce based macaroni and cheese, eggy macaroni and cheese, and Julia Moskin’s cheesy macaroni and cheese. White sauce based macaroni and cheese is probably the most common type, and is the object of John Thorne’s total contempt in Simple Cooking. White sauce is “a noxious paste of flour-thickened milk” used to make “a casserole universally bland, dry, and rubbery. Contrary to popular belief, this is not macaroni and cheese but macaroni with cheese sauce. It is awful stuff and every cookbook in which it appears should be thrown out the window.” Whew. Fortunately, I do not have to throw The Commonsense Kitchen out the window, since “Retha’s Macaroni and Cheese” (page 153) is an egg based macaroni and cheese. This is a perfectly good dish, and it would probably still be my go-to macaroni and cheese dish had I not come across cheesy macaroni and cheese. Cheesy macaroni and cheese makes perfect sense: the starch from the macaroni provides the thickening. It is cheesy, greasy, caloric, and quite delicious. A recipe appears in Kim Severson’s and Julia Moskin’s CookFight.

applepancakeYears ago I found an apple pancake recipe in Gourmet magazine, which quickly established its presence on the quick and easy supper list (accompanied perhaps by a green salad). At some point I lost the recipe, and simple though the recipe was, I hesitated to try to recreate it. The recipe for apple pancake is not that unusual, but it was only when I came across the recipe from The Commonsense Kitchen for “Dutch Babies” (page 118) that apple pancake made its way back to the supper rotation. All you do is fry up some apples in butter with a little sugar and cinnamon, then pour a popover batter over the apples and cook in a hot oven. This is so good and so easy.

vwafers“Vanilla Wafers” (page 544) turned out to be very good. They are simple drop cookies, like chocolate chip cookies with all white sugar and no chocolate chips. What is the point, you may well wonder, without chocolate chips? Although butter, vanilla, and sugar are quite tasty on their own, thank you, what was best about these cookies was their texture. Unlike too many chocolate chip cookies, they did not flab out into a pancake shape, nor were they too hard, as often happens with chocolate chip cookies when one tries to correct the flabbing out problem with more flour. If I were trying to come up with a cookie-like recipe for Game of Thrones style lemon cakes, I would go to these cookies, replacing the vanilla with lemon zest.

bballsThe real reason I made vanilla wafers, though, was to make “Mama Nell’s Kentucky Bourbon Balls” (page 547), without having to resort to packaged vanilla wafers. This recipe is like the typical recipe you would get from Googling “bourbon balls”: little balls of pecans, crushed vanilla wafers, powdered sugar, cocoa, and bourbon. I had never had this variation of bourbon balls before, and was not too impressed. Instead of nibbling on one of these, I would much prefer to sit down with a vanilla wafer, a square of good chocolate, and a shot of bourbon.

As a matter of fact, I do not recognize these as true bourbon balls, and I think that most denizens of Old Lexington would agree. Bourbon balls are Rebecca Ruth bourbon balls, not a bourbonized version of rum balls. Rebecca Ruth bourbon balls consist of a creamy white center flavored with bourbon and a chocolate coating. Just how one makes the center is a secret; supposedly it took Ruth Booe two years to figure out just how to make the center. The only recipes that I can find for Rebecca Ruth style bourbon balls use a filling composed of butter and powdered sugar (and, of course, bourbon). The real filling might be more of a fondant, or perhaps a Kentucky cream candy (a food that this blog will explore some time this winter). I have not had any true bourbon balls for 50 years, and am not about to order any in order to examine the filling, so the exact nature of this filling will remain a mystery to me. One thing I do know: it contains no vanilla wafers.


White Bean Soup

Adapted from Robert W. Surles, Chef Bobo’s Good Food Cookbook

3 pound dry cannellini beans
Olive oil
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 small fennel bulb, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups vegetable broth (use any bean-cooking liquid)
6 branches of parsley
2 bay leaves
Sriracha sauce

Soak the beans overnight in a generous amount of water. Drain, then cover again with water, bring to a boil, and then simmer until done, adding more water if needed. Heat a tablespoon or more of olive oil in a soup pot, and add the celery, onion, and fennel. When the vegetables wilt, add the garlic, and cook a few minutes longer. Drain the cooked beans, saving the liquid, and add enough vegetable broth to the bean liquid to have 8 cups. Add this broth and the cooked beans to the vegetables; add also the parsley, a squirt of sriracha, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer everything together for half an hour or more. Remove the parsley and bay leaves before serving.


Apple Pancake

Adapted from Tom Hudgens, The Commonsense Kitchen

3 Granny Smith apples
4 tablespoons butter
3 eggs
34 cup flour
34 cup milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon cinnnamon

Preheat the oven to 450º.

Peel, core, and slice the apples. Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a cast iron skillet (or some other oven proof skillet).  Add the apples, and cook until soft. Beat together the eggs, flour, milk, and salt. Add the additional tablespoon of butter to the apples, and let it melt. Sprinkle the apples with the sugar and cinnamon. Pour the eggs over the apples. Put the skillet in the preheated oven and cook until the pancake is puffed and brown, which may take 10 to 15 minutes. This is best eaten immediately, as the pancake will deflate once you take it out of the oven.

The Southwest Bakery

It takes several weeks for me to test the recipes from a bread book since there is only so much bread three people can eat, especially if one is a very picky eater, and the other two view bread as a relatively small component of a healthy diet. But I have lots and lots of bread books, and if I am ever going to get through them I had better get to work. This first bread post features breads from the Southwest: Beth Hensperger’s Breads of the Southwest: Recipes in the Native American, Spanish, and Mexican Traditions and Flavored Breads: Recipes from Mark Miller’s Coyote Cafe by Mark Miller and Andrew MacLauchlan with John Harrisson.

At some point, perhaps right in the middle of the bread machine craze, I became something of a bread purist: bread equals flour, salt, yeast (ideally from a carefully tended sourdough starter), and water and anything else is at best a distraction. I never fully embraced this position, as I still made challah, and would go further afield when guided by a baker I trusted, such as the incomparable Nancy Silverton in her Breads from the La Brea Bakery, but this was still my starting point. Thus, although Breads of the Southwest had been on my shelf for quite a few years, I thought that it was just full of breads with gratuitous add-ins, and so had never really examined it. Flavored Breads was the source of my all time favorite muffin recipe, as well as a recipe for whiskey scones that I made occasionally, but I had never before explored the yeast breads in the book. I now know that I should have cracked open these two books a lot sooner, as we have been eating some very good breads in the last month or so.


I know the Southwestern United States only through books. The general impression I have is of a mixture of austerity and richness: the desert with a deep blue sky above. This is reflected in the breads from this region: from the simplest corn tortillas to the many ingredients of three kings bread. And yet the tortillas have their own richness, a depth of flavor not to be found in the store bought tortillas we find in Midwest groceries, and the fruits in three kings bread are dried fruits, with simply the essence of, say, pineapple or papaya. Beth Hensperger gives us  these breads in Breads of the Southwest. She covers old and new traditions, flat breads and fat breads, corn breads and wheat breads, baking powder and yeast breads. Being the experienced cookbook author and bread baker that she is, her instructions are clear. The recipe headnotes will often try to place recipes in historical and cultural contrast, although there is much that Beth does not say about “Indian Fry Bread” (page 55). For the complicated history, symbolism, and nutritional aspects of fry bread, check out this article from the Smithsonian.

swbread“French-Style Mexican Hard Rolls” (page 71) appeared to be a plain and unexciting recipe. I was expecting something rather challah-like, although the bread had no eggs (except for the glaze) and used butter, not oil. I must have underestimated the effect that eggs have on bread, because what I ended up with was quite different from my challah. These rolls had a pleasant flavor, but what I liked the most was the almost perfect texture, just the right combination of chewy and soft. My rolls did not much resemble the ones in the book’s photograph, since my dough was much wetter than it was supposed to be, but these were still really good rolls. I think these rolls might be ideal for a bánh mì sandwich (on my mind since Jacqueline Pham’s Bánh Mì is one of my newest cookbooks).

pumpkinbread“Taos Pumpkin Bread” (page 51) was a very tasty bread, with a dense grain but easy to slice. The two loaves use only half a can of pumpkin, leaving the problem of what to with the rest of the pumpkin; the solution to this problem appears later in this post. Adding to the flavor was toasted cornmeal and piloncillo (Mexican unrefined cane sugar). You could obviously just use regular brown sugar, but these unrefined sugars have way better flavor. I used a combination of white whole wheat flour and white flour, instead of just the white flour called for. I also used a lot less total flour, and still had a very firm dough.

tortillaI could not close this book without trying a tortilla recipe. Years ago I acquired a tortilla press, but had never used it; as one might expect, when I was finally ready to make tortillas, I could not find the press. Even without it, “Blue Corn Tortillas” (page 33) turned out quite well. Fresh, just made tortillas are superficially similar to store bought tortillas, yet still so far removed in space-time. Fresh tortillas add a whole new dimension to Southwestern food (or to any cuisine in which tortillas appear). The recipe for blue corn tortillas in Breads of the Southwest calls for four parts (by volume) blue cornmeal, three parts yellow cornmeal, one part flour, and a little bit of salt mixed with water. Let the dough rest an hour, then press, pat, or roll out into rounds. I rolled the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap. Cook on a hot, ungreased skillet. My first tortilla was perfect, but subsequent ones stuck a little. Perhaps my dough was too wet, or perhaps a little bit of grease in the skillet would not have been out of order. Ideally, you want to use masa harina para tortillas, cornmeal treated with lime.

flavored-breads-recipes-from-mark-69655l2The breads in Flavored Breads are Southwestern in that they are served at Mark Miller’s Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe. Many of the breads do, however, use Southwestern flavors and ingredients: corn, of course, and chiles, pine nuts, and pumpkin, for example. Many others, however, have nothing to do with foods of the Southwest. We have juxtapositions such as  “Killarney Irish Oatmeal Bread” coming right after “Zuni Pepita” bread. Some of the flavors are a little forced, and would be better on rather than in bread, “Rhubarb Ginger Lemon Bread” being one such example. But this book was influenced by bread machine mentality, in which creativity in bread making is judged by the weirdness of ingredients that can be thrown into a loaf. Another bread machine influence is the completely useless sidebar on most of the recipes giving “Bread Machine Instructions”. Still, a lot of the flavors work.

pumpmuffsMy version of “Spiced Autumn Pumpkin Muffins” (page 39) has evolved over the years. This is a fairly uncomplicated muffin with pumpkin and pumpkin pie spices. I have always added the optional pecans, chocolate chips, and orange flavoring. I use white whole wheat flour instead of white flour, and use walnut oil instead of unspecified “vegetable oil”. The biggest change that I have made, though, is to reduce the amount of pumpkin from one can to half a can. The reason for this is that I almost always make these muffins to accompany a very easy chili recipe that uses only half a can of pumpkin, and so I adapted these muffins to use the other half of the can. The chili recipe, which involves opening six cans and a jar, has an incredibly high taste to trouble ratio. When I used to teach at The School That Shall Not Be Named, before I left home I would mix up the dry ingredients and (separately) the wet ingredients for the muffins, open and combine the necessary cans for the soup, and leave everything for Alan and Shay to finish when they got home an hour or so before I did.

whscones“Honey Highland Scones” (page 45) is another recipe that has long been in my repertoire. The distinguishing feature of these scones is the Drambuie. The scones are quite heavy, and one of these scones would make a good prototype for Terry Pratchett’s “Scone of Stone“, bread beloved by dwarfs. The recipe directions are for 12 to 15 tiny scones. I prefer to double the recipe for eight good sized scones.

choccherry“Chocolate-Cherry Sourdough” (page 147) is inspired by Nancy Silverton’s bread of the same name, but her recipe results in a much better bread. The recipe in Flavored Breads calls for no sugar, and I do not think that this is a typo since sugar is mentioned in neither the ingredient list nor the directions. Danny, who takes a Spartan approach to food (no butter on bread, no dressing on salad), liked this bread with no sugar, but I think that the chocolate needs a little bit of sugar.

figgyrye“Mission Fig Rye Sourdough” (page 154), or “Figgy Rye” as I call it, was a great bread. I think that dried fruits go really well with rye; I went through a phase when I had to have a toasted and buttered slice of raisin rye every day. Although I did not care for the figs in Smitten Kitchen‘s challah, figs are much more compatible with rye.

Both of these breads, the chocolate cherry and figgy rye, use a sourdough starter, instructions for which are in the cookbook. These starters use commercial yeast, which is a lot easier than trying to coax wild yeast to start growing. They also call for milk, although I think spring water would have made a better liquid. But I followed the directions in the book, and got some very nice loaves.

DSC_0095The “Gorgonzola Blue-Vein Bread” (page 176) was quite decadent, with over half a pound of blue cheese to go with less than four cups of flour. I used Point Reyes blue cheese, which was not cheap, but oh so good. Plus, this cheese even has a hechsher. The bread dough was really soft, and so I put it in four mini-loaf pans. We ate one, froze two, and gave one away.


Soft Rolls

Adapted from Beth Hensperger, Breads of the Southwest

2 teaspoons yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1½ cups water
2 cups flour

2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons butter, softened
2 cups flour

1 egg

Dissolve the yeast in the sugar and water in the bowl of a heavy duty electric mixer. Mix in the flour. Cover the bowl and let the sponge sit for one hour.

Add the salt and butter to the sponge. Add the flour gradually while mixing with the paddle. You may not need all the flour. When the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. switch to the dough hook and knead for several minutes. The bread dough should form a ball around the dough hook, but still be quite soft.

When you decide that the dough is sufficiently kneaded, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the bread rise at room temperature until doubled. Alternatively, put the dough in the refrigerator to rise slowly overnight.

When you are ready to form the rolls, break the bread into twelve balls. Take a ball, flatten it, and roll up. Then roll up again in the perpendicular direction. Place all the dough balls seam side down on a parchment lined baking sheet, and cover with a kitchen towel. Let the rolls rise until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 400º. Beat the egg, and brush on the rolls. Bake the rolls 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375º and bake for another 15 minutes or until done.


Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins

Adapted from Mark Miller and Andrew MacLauchlan with John Harrison,  Flavored Breads

212 cups white whole wheat flour
13 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground allspice
14 teaspoon grated nutmeg
12 teaspoon ground ginger
12 cup pecans, chopped
6 ounces chocolate chips
12 cup walnut oil
1 cup milk
12 can pumpkin
2 eggs
1 teaspoon orange extract

Preheat the oven to 375º. Line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners, or butter it.

Mix together the dry ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. Mix in the pecans and chocolate chips. Mix together the wet ingredients. Combine the dry and wet ingredients, being careful not to overmix. Scoop the batter into the muffin cups (I use an ice cream scoop), and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Cool on a rack, but be sure to eat one while the chocolate is still soft.



Chile from 6 Cans and a Jar

Adapted from Crescent Dragonwagon in Vegetarian Times

1 15 ounce can garbanzo beans
1 15 ounce can kidney beans
1 15 ounce can black beans
1 15 ounce can cannellini beans
1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
12 can pumpkin
1 16 ounce jar salsa (tomatilla salsa recommended)

Rinse and drain the beans. Combine the beans with the rest of the ingredients and one salsa jar of water. Heat until hot. You may need to add salt. I like to eat this topped with chopped avocado and cheese.