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.
Based 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.
In 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.
Chef 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.
“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.
My 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.
The 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” (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.
Years 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.
“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.
The 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
3⁄4 pound dry cannellini beans
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
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.
Adapted from Tom Hudgens, The Commonsense Kitchen
3 Granny Smith apples
4 tablespoons butter
3⁄4 cup flour
3⁄4 cup milk
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1⁄2 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.