Friday, February 11, 2011

Novel Food 2011: School Lunch Edition

As I alluded to before, I've decided to write in entry for Novel Food, a celebration of food and literature organized by the blogger who writes Champaign Taste, which is a blog I've actually been quietly lurking in for years now. The Novel Food roundup always interested me, but I was never actually able to get it together in time to enter anything. Well, now I have, in a slightly unorthodox way.

When I thought about what I wanted to make for Novel Food, I thought about the books I've been reading, and then I realized that I have just not been reading a lot of fiction lately. I've really become immersed in the world of nonfiction over the past year or so, and my inspiration for Novel Food tended to lie more in those works. I finally chose to make something inspired by the book I'm currently reading: How to Walk to School:Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance by Jacqueline Edelberg and Susan Kurland. The rules of Novel Food stipulate that the book you read doesn't have to be about food, and true to form my book doesn't mention food anywhere in it (at least not so far; I haven't actually finished the book). Instead, How to Walk to School is a book about school reform based on organizing your community to enhance the quality of already-existing neighborhood schools, which are frequently left behind as parents are taken in by the allure of shiny new charter schools popping up, and leaving the poorest families (who cannot afford to send their children to any other school) to send their children to a school that the community has given up on. The book is an inspiring story of what happens when a group of parents decides to galvanize their resources and turn their school into a better place, and I think it's worth a read, not just by those in the educational system but by communities in general.

So what made me want to cook for this book? Well, it dovetailed very nicely with where my life is now. I am currently working on my practicum (think student teaching) in a high school, dividing my time between two different special education classrooms. One classroom consists of kids with emotional and behavioral disorders, and one is primarily children with more severe physical and intellectual disabilities. Being in the schools all day puts me right in line with a pivotal issue in the education and development of young people: that of what they're eating. I've always been a hardcore supporter of more nutritionally appropriate food in the schools, so this is on my mind frequently.

A couple days after I decided to participate in Novel Food, I was in my Emotional/Behavioral classroom putting up the school lunch menu for March underneath the February menu. As I looked at this month's menu, I noticed all the usual unhealthy suspects: pizza, burgers, chicken nuggets, etc. Then I noticed that for that day, the main course was listed as "cheese sticks". I'm assuming these cheese sticks are fried, much like mozzarella sticks. Note to my school: cheese sticks are not a main course!! Especially when it seemed clear that the school had barely tried to squeeze in a fruit and vegetable side option, neither of which looked at all appetizing. I discussed the issue with my students, and one said "the only thing on the menu I care about is the cheese sticks", to which all the other students nodded. Sorry, buddy. Cheese sticks are not a meal.

Then it came to me what I wanted to do for Novel Food: I wanted to create the school lunch I wished all my kids would be interested in eating. I'm not saying it's what my kids would eat, even if it were offered, but it's what I wish they would eat. I was a woman on a mission. I went out to the grocery store and bought a bunch of vegetables: mushrooms, a green bell pepper, zucchini. I bought some pita pockets and a can of chickpeas (I prefer to buy dried ones and then soak them and cook them myself, but I guess nobody in my area does that, because dried chickpeas are rarely available at my local grocery stores. I chopped all my veggies into very small pieces and threw them in a pan to saute in a little olive oil.

Then I added a can of chickpeas...

And after letting that heat for a while, I came up with my finished veggie mix!

This got put in the fridge overnight, and here's the finished product that I ate the next day for lunch. I also brought 2 homemade oatmeal cookies, and a handful of dried apricots. At school there was some kind of snack thing available for staff, so I snagged a Quaker Chewy Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip bar as well.

This is what I wish my kids would be eating. That sandwich is packed with delicious chickpea protein (I was actually going to make hummus, but I didn't feel like breaking out the food processor the night before), the veggies are full of nutrients, and there's plenty of carbs and sweet stuff to have on the side with the fruit and the cookies (plus the surprise extra protein and sugar in the granola bar). What did I drink with it? Water. I can't go anywhere without a giant bottle of water.

I know my kids would probably not touch this stuff now, even if it was in front of them. But maybe they would if we taught our kids from the beginning that vegetables were delicious. If we raised our kids to drink water more than soda. If gardening and growing your own food was more heavily emphasized both in school and at home. If kids had a more consistent knowledge of is and is not healthy for them. If fast food were not quite so prevalent, or if local and fresh produce were more readily available to families whose socioeconomic status currently prohibits them from offering such options to their children. My job is to care about my kids, and that includes being concerned about what they eat. Maybe one day I'll be teaching in a world where my students will eat this stuff for lunch every day, and I think they'll be a lot better for it. But for now I just fantasize, and read books on school reform. It reminds me that anything is possible.

I linked in the last entry to the Novel Food roundup page, so check back in a few days and you just may see me on there!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

NYC food adventures, and the best mussels we've ever had

One of the best things about getting to visit Noah in New York (besides, of course, the "getting to see Noah" part) is being able to have days when we just go to the city and try to experience as much of the food atmosphere as possible. The small town where I live is almost stiflingly homogeneous food-wise, so the wealth of options available in New York is intensely refreshing. In early January, I took the bus to New York to surprise Noah with a visit (I had planned it in advance with his parents, and miraculously none of us managed to give away the surprise!), which was a huge surprise for him (he had no idea!) and was a lot of fun. Since he wasn't dong anything in particular that weekend, we decided to take a day and have adventures--or "foodventures", as we like to call them.

Our first stop was Doughnut Plant, where we started our day right with delicious fresh doughnuts. I had a hazelnut doughnut, because I am helpless to the power of hazelnuts, and Noah's was Meyer lemon. Then we went to Kossar's and had bialys. At least, I think we did. My memory is hazy after so many weeks, so I don't remember exactly where we went or what kind of bialys we had, just that we had bialys somewhere and they were really good and there wasn't a lot of seating so we pretty much had to squeeze onto one chair. From there we stopped briefly at an amazing pickle place where pretty much anything you can think of existed in its pickle form. We gaped at the selection of pickled things (I love pickles, so it was like the mothership calling me home), but decided we were going to come back to it. We never did, because we got distracted., Maybe next time! My google searches do not come up conclusive on what the place was called. This concluded Leg One of our food tour: the Lower East Side.

Our next leg was the Chinatown leg. We were only in Chinatown for one thing, and that was super-cheap dumplings. After some preliminary research, we finally decided on a dumpling house called, well...Dumpling House. (I believe my Google search also comes up with Vanessa's Dumpling House, but I can't remember if they're the same place.) We started our time there with 2 orders of dumplings. The dumplings are all crammed together in one small container, and 1 order (containing 4 dumplings) is $1. Can't get much better than that! We followed it up with a sesame pancake (Dumpling House has several varieties, and I can't remember which one we had...this'll teach me to wait so long to write my food blog entries) and some kind of soup--I think it was the pork wonton soup, but again, not sure. Dumpling House is definitely the kind of place I'd be at all the time if I lived in NY--it's super crowded, everybody's pressed together like sardines jostling each other as they eat their delicious (and budget-friendly) dumplings. I'm looking forward to visiting there more times during my regular visits to the city.

We then abandoned Chinatown for a very cold and windy walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, which made me wish I'd brought a hat, but was still exciting because I'd never walked across the Brooklyn Bridge before. We were in Brooklyn for the Mile End deli, where we'd heard there were amazing smoked meats being made. And the smoked meats were really good! After a wait, we ordered the smoked meats and also a house-ground salami sandwich (I tried to get the menu on my computer, but for some reason my computer loaded it really tiny and I couldn't make the window any bigger, so I can't actually read the menu to tell you what the sandwich was called). The smoked meat sandwich was good, but we actually liked the salami sandwich better. If I remember correctly, we also had pickles. And I had a cup of tea, because I was really cold. Mile End is a great place if you enjoy people who put a lot of care into their meat, and if you've got some time on your hands (there is always always always a wait, from what I've heard, so don't expect to just waltz right in). I would definitely go back to try more of their menu, or just eat more delicious salami sandwiches.

3 days after I went back to MD from that trip, Noah came to visit me for MLK Day weekend! We had 3 days to spend together, which coincided with an early celebration of our 2.5-year anniversary. (Since we had had feelings for each other for a while before we got together, and because we were a bit hazy on when we actually became an official couple, we chose July 26, 2008 as our anniversary because that's when we believe everything really started.) Because we had an anniversary to celebrate, we decided to go someplace nice for dinner, and after some deliberation we chose a little Bistro in Baltimore called b. It was a great choice for a nice dinner--it was intimate and friendly, and pretty much everything on the menu was strong. We got a selection of appetizers, tapas-style, and then shared an order of moules-frites. The appetizers included: olives (Noah's email reminding me of where we went and what we ate describes this as "roasted olives with lemon peel and some other stuff"), a charcuterie plate with amazingly delicious duck prosciutto as well as really good bresaola and serrano ham, served with fried bread, and a potato appetizer that was reminiscent of the patatas bravas that you get at tapas places everywhere. The potatoes were SO good--the waitress had placed them by me, and I definitely had a hard time sharing! ;-)

The star of the show, however, was without a doubt the moules-frites. The mussels were the best mussels either of us had ever had. They tasted like they had never known the inside of a freezer, and were incredibly fresh and well-prepared. They were served with frites, which were also excellently done. The meal was so good that I wrote a thank-you note to the staff on the back of my receipt and left it for them. There couldn't have been a better way to celebrate 2.5 years together then with good food and wine and the company of your partner. :-)

Coming attractions:
Check back in the next couple of days for my (slightly unusual) entry in this year's Novel Food, a celebration of literature and food organized by a food blog I've been reading for a while now. I'm not sure my entry will be accepted, since I didn't base it on a novel (more of a nonfiction book), but you'll get to see it regardless! I also may talk about an excellent stir-fry I made the other day from an even more awesome cookbook that you should all go out and buy. But that's later.


Doughnut Plant
379 Grand St.
New York, NY 10002

Kossar's Bialys
367 Grand St.
New York, NY 10002

Dumpling House (this address is for Vanessa's Dumpling House, because I think it's the same thing)
118 Eldridge St.
New York, NY 10002

Mile End Delicatessen
97a Hoyt St.
Brooklyn, NY

1501 Bolton St.
Baltimore, MD 21217