Archive for February, 2010

Book Giveaway: Get Cooking

February 27, 2010

What vegetarian doesn’t have a dog-eared, food-stained copy of the Moosewood Cookbook in her cookbook stack?

I’m also a fan of best-selling, award-winning author Mollie Katzen‘s  cookbooks for kids: Pretend Soup, Honest Pretzels, and Salad People.

So I was pleased to hear that the warm and whimsical writer has penned a guide to getting started in the kitchen called, aptly enough, Get Cooking: 150 Simple Recipes to Get You Started in the Kitchen.

In her introduction, Mollie notes the irony that interest in cooking is at an all-time high. People everywhere love watching cooking shows and competitions. (Michael Pollan covered this phenomenon in a piece for the New York Times Magazine called “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch.”)

Folks are eating up a steady diet of food blogs and food films. Talk about takeout, new restaurants, street eats, food produce and products permeates everyday conversations.

What’s missing in all this chatter? The art and craft of cooking.

So in her latest book, Mollie, a natural food chef  before the term was even coined, hopes to fill that void with what she calls “150 delicious, doable recipes that even the most inexperienced person can walk into any kitchen right now and make for dinner.”

She’s also moved beyond the produce stand and includes chicken, fish, and meat dishes (though there are oodles of veggie offerings and many recipes can be adapted for vegetarians or vegans.)

So, calling all wannabe cooks: This is the book for you (or the wannabe cook in your life, or perhaps even the person you want to be a wannabe cook). Lots of non-intimidating ideas to get the kitchen newbie — or even a seasoned home cook — going, with sound advice about recipe reading, basic gear, and knife skills.

The author covers simple soups, salads, main meals, sides, and desserts designed to expand a beginner’s repertoire. And her “get creative” sidebars offer loads of options for playing with the basic recipe.

I particularly like the sound of Roasted Butternut Squash and Apple Soup, Wilted Spinach Salad with Hazelnuts, Goat Cheese, and Golden Raisins, Chickpea and Mango Curry, and Cherry Clafoutis.

One quibble: The photos don’t do the food justice; they’re a bit bland and lifeless. They’re not the kind of food shots we’re accustomed to seeing in cookbooks, food sites, or glossy mags. Perhaps the author was going for authenticity over visual excitement. (I attended a food photography session where folks were advised to use fake cream over the real thing ’cause it looks better in a photo. Oh my.) Regardless, Katzen’s enthusiasm and passion for food shines through on the page.

Read a review. Visit the get cooking website. Check out sample recipes, such as Vegetable-Tofu Stir-Fry with Orange-Ginger Glaze.

To win a copy of Get Cooking leave a comment below about what skill, technique, or dish you’d like to learn. Entries must be received by Friday, March 5, PST by 10 pm. Winner chosen at random.

Update: Wow! Mollie Katzen is clearly onto something. It seems like loads of folks want to get cooking, judging by the response to this giveaway, my most popular to date. The copy of Get Cooking, chosen at random, goes to Karen Pochodowicz. But wait — for all you budding chefs who want to learn knife skills, take a look at Mollie’s video tutorial and find sample recipes from the book here. And check back later this month for my March book giveaway.


What’s Cooking at Berkeley’s Kitchen?

February 25, 2010

The Cal Cooking Club at UC Berkeley has spawned more than one non-profit culinary entity with international reach.

Earlier this month I wrote about Sprouts Cooking Club, which offers classes to budding young chefs. Sprouts is the brainchild of Berkeley graduate Karen Rogers.

Newcomer Berkeley’s Kitchen, founded by another UC-Berkeley alum Cristina Lau, aims to offer adults an edible education at affordable prices with an emphasis on showcasing the rich diversity of ethnic cuisine in the local community.

Lau, 23, grew up in Tijuana and San Diego, and recalls peeling shrimp and washing dishes at the Chinese restaurants her parents owned. She speaks three languages, considers herself mostly Mexican with Chinese roots, and enjoys cooking Mexican-Chinese fusion food. (Think stir fry with chillies.)

To learn more about Berkeley’s Kitchen, its classes, and charitable work, read my post on the program over at Berkeleyside.

A Daughter’s Memories of a Beloved Father’s Food

February 24, 2010

Dear Readers:

In my last post I asked you to share a favorite family food memory. I received this response from new friend and frequent Lettuce Eat Kale commenter Julie Cleeland Nicholls, a fellow Australian living in Singapore. I met Julie through my oldest friend in the whole wide world Jane Rogers, who was wise enough to say yes when I asked her whether she wanted to be my best mate in second grade.

Julie wrote this homage to her father and his food on the second anniversary of his death. I’m sure you’ll agree it is a lovely remembrance of a man and his meals.

It is an honor and a pleasure to publish it here as the very first guest post on Lettuce Eat Kale.

I’ve retained the Australian spellings in Julie’s prose. A couple of cultural references explained: A magpie, for those who may not know, is a noisy black-and-white bird native to Oz.  Max Brenner is an over-the-top chocolate shop originating Down Under.

Julie grew up in Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, Australia. Her father, Peter Robert Cleeland was an Australian Labour Party politician, a doting dad, and an awesome cook, an unusual feat for an Aussie bloke of his generation.

“I miss my Dad every single day,” Julie tells me. Read on to learn why.

Dad’s Kitchen Song

Special Guest Post by Julie Cleeland Nicholls

When I reach back for memories, I invariably remember food…It’s the food itself, the taste of things shared and, most often, the meals the dead used to prepare…Death has its particular relationship with food. It is, by its nature, symbolic and metaphysical. The dead are beyond succour and hospitality. We eat, and particularly drink, in remembrance.A. A. Gill

Dad never cooked for us when we were little; that was Mum’s province. From the vantage point of later years, after Dad revealed himself as a talented cook, this division of labour seems odd, because Mum disliked cooking.

After a hard day teaching, she’d hastily direct her children to assemble strange concoctions with some very borderline ingredients indeed. “Just cut that green bit off the chicken, Julie,” she’d say.  “It’ll be fine when it’s cooked.” Mum’s approach combined a breezy tendency to scoff at use-by dates, and bursts of desperate creativity, resulting in memorable dishes like her infamous sausage and curry casserole. I eat now at the dodgiest roadside stalls around the world without fear of illness and attribute this to my early food experiences at my mother’s hands.

When my Dad set up home for himself at a later stage in his life, he took to cooking, discovered he was good at it, and realized he liked it.  And he shared that discovery with me. Now some of the warmest memories I have of him are in the kitchen. The soundtrack to these memories is provided by Dad himself, singing loudly and with emphasis, “As I WANder along through the hills, MAG-gie, where once the roses BLOOMED.” He didn’t know any of the other lyrics, so he’d just repeat, pause, and then hum the rest of the tune while he chopped, sauteed and basted. We called it “Dad’s Kitchen Song” and it was always a harbinger that good things were on their way.

What would Dad cook?

  • Lush winter soups with a rusty silk wash of paprika and spices skimming the surface.
  • Sweet roast spring lamb with root vegetables: “I love parsnips; not everyone does. I don’t know why not. They’re so earthy. Here, Jule – smell this,” and he’d present a specimen he was peeling so I could share his pleasure in its good, raw scent.
  • Wonderfully fragrant Thai curries. He fussed about finding authentic ingredients, tracking down bitter little pea aubergines and grinding his own spices. He experimented with frozen, imported kaffir lime leaves before he and his wife Jan decided to grow their own. They tracked down a nursery in New South Wales that grew kaffir lime trees and on their next trip to Sydney to visit me, they spent the better part of a day driving to the outer Western Suburbs to buy a tree. Successfully transported back to Melbourne and nurtured it in a sheltered corner of their windy garden till the leaves were ready to harvest whenever they needed.
  • Dad’s Christmas specialty was a whole salmon poached with sliced lemons picked that morning from his garden tree, and big handfuls of dill, coriander, and any other fresh herbs that took his fancy. It was the centrepiece of the family lunch – enough to feed his and Jan’s blended families, their spouses, and growing numbers of grandchildren. The salmon was moist, cool and light on the days when it was a sunny celebration; and when the Melbourne Christmas weather turned grumpy and unseasonal, its slick and melting texture was a fine consolation for the spattering rain outside.  Dad would stand watchfully over the hooded barbeque, wine glass in hand, making sure the fish was cooking perfectly. At the same time, he managed to remain front  and centre of every passing conversation going on around him; the perfect example of a holiday multitasker.

For Dad, a meal wasn’t complete without a vigorous debate going on at the same time; words, food, wine, and ideas were the ingredients he most valued at a family feast.

On the first Christmas after his death, my husband Andrew agreed to supervise the salmon, following Dad’s bit-of-this-splash-of-that recipe as well as he could. The pressure was extreme, and Andrew admitted to some feelings of fishy inadequacy in the lead-up. But with advice, input, and cheerleading from the rest of the family the task was accomplished.

We ate the Christmas salmon as we’d always done – with just one great and terrible difference: The creator of the dish was missing from around the family table.

I learned respect for the ingredients that make up a meal from Dad. He loved markets, frequently shopping at Preston Market in the northern suburb of Melbourne, where he’d grown up. In addition to debating every green-grocer and deli owner who’d engage in repartee with him, he took deep delight in the smells, sounds, and sights of Melbourne at its most multicultural.

From the second-generation Australian shopkeepers selling Italian, Greek, and Turkish foods; to first-generation arrivals from India, Vietnam, Africa, and the Middle East, he’d talk about how wonderful it was to shop in a place where the cultures, languages and cuisines of the world came together to take part in the everyday yet transformative miracle of choosing, preparing, and serving good food.

The last meal I shared at my father’s table was not cooked by him. In the final days of his swift and fatal six-month illness he couldn’t walk and had increasing trouble moving his arms. He was sensitive and proud about not being able to eat with ease, so we carefully didn’t watch him as he painstakingly maneuvered the sushi that Andrew and I had brought over for lunch. With the meal, we opened bottle after bottle of red wine from his “cellar” – really just a converted corner of the laundry.

He joked that his goal was to finish every bottle before motor neurone disease had its inexorable way with him. That became one of the few life goals that Dad didn’t fulfill. We’re still drinking wine from his cellar two years later.

After the sushi, I opened a box of hand-made chocolates from Max Brenner to have with coffee. I’d included each of his favourite flavours, and was rewarded by his smile. He managed to eat a couple then, and I hope more after we left.

There’s a photo taken from that day, I’m standing behind my Dad’s chair with my arms around him after we finished our meal. I’m smiling too brightly, and Dad’s eyes are their usual beautiful, denim blue but his smile is tired. Even the simple act of sharing lunch had exhausted him. On the empty plate in front of Dad is a smear of soy from his sushi, and you can just see the corner of the chocolate box, still a quarter full.

For Dad, the art of selecting, cooking, and sharing food was an extension of his enthusiastic, generous, and big-hearted personality. As with everything he did, he expected acclaim and extravagant compliments to be showered on him as he presented his meals. But the results of his efforts were always shared with such hospitality and joy that this demand for approval was simply part of his incomparable charm.

The praise was always given to him, unstintingly, sincerely, and with love. I hope that made him as happy as his kitchen songs made us.

In memory of Peter Cleeland, May 31, 1938 – September 16, 2007

A Taste of Justice

February 22, 2010

Think of agents for change in American eating habits, and Berkeley’s Alice Waters and Michael Pollan come immediately to mind.

Indeed, eat-more-greens advocates can appear as white as Wonder Bread.

On the menu at the local La Pena Cultural Center last night: some much-needed color in the conversation about good food matters.

Read my entire post on the foodcentric performance piece Visceral Feast over at Berkeleyside.

I first learned about the evening from accomplished choreographer Amara Tabor-Smith. (Full disclosure: I’ve taken Amara’s Rhythm & Motion dance class for almost two decades. The girl knows how to inspire joy and shake her booty like nobody’s business. Believe me when I say she raises the roof. There’s a reason I think of dance class as my church.)

Well, turns out, Amara, artistic director of  the Oakland-based Deep Waters Dance Theater, has been investigating edible issues, such as where food comes from and its impact on the community and the environment, in performance pieces that address the soul and spiritual connections to eating and cooking.

Last year she showcased a work in progress, “Our Daily Bread,” as part of an artist in residency at CounterPULSE, a non-profit theater in San Francisco.

Amara describes herself as “mostly vegan” not initially for political reasons but because she doesn’t care for the taste of meat. But she cooks meat for others and acknowledges her roots as a child growing up eating her mother’s gumbo.

She’s planning several food parties as part of her exploration of eating this year. One she’s dubbing Raw Meat, where she hopes raw food folk will dialogue with confirmed carnivores.

Find Amara’s Recession Root Stew recipe, inspired by the times and in the spirit of African American food traditions, right here.

It’s vegan, can feed lots of folks, and includes dinosaur kale, cilantro, and coconut milk. Sounds just the dish for a cold winter’s night.

At last night’s performance the audience was asked to share a favorite food memory.

I listed my sister’s pavlova and family barbecues with the proverbial “shrimp on the barbie” (Aussies call them prawns). And Vegemite on white toast, comfort food when you’re sick. All of these foods remind me of home.

The man seated next to me wrote simply, “I miss my mom’s chai.”

Now it’s your turn.

Photo credit: Alan Kimara Dixon

Favorite Food Films

February 19, 2010

How many fabo feature flicks can you think of where food is the focus?

My friend Jim Kahn and I were mulling over this very matter recently as we chatted about the marvelous Meryl Streep.

While Julie & Julia was obviously a meal of a movie, the pleasures of the table also got more than a cameo role in another recent Streep vehicle, It’s Complicated. Check out what my friend Cheryl Sternman Rule has to say about the latter movie’s memorable food moments over at ivillage.

Jim and I started rattling off a list of food films that deserve fanfare.

Five Easy Pieces, When Harry Met Sally, Joy Luck Club, and Moonstruck all have stellar food scenes but arguably aren’t food films per se.

Here’s what our Top Ten Food Flicks looks like in alpha order:

1. Babette’s Feast (1987)

The Danish do dinner in the desolate countryside courtesy of a young housekeeper who turns out to know a thing or two about French food.

2. Big Night (1978)

Larger-than-life characters consume the screen in this funny family caper about an Italian restaurant on the brink of bankruptcy.

3. Chocolat (2000)

Sexy single mama Juliette Binoche shares the sensual delights of chocolate with the rural French who resist its charms–and hers–but not for long.

4. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)

Ang Lee loves a wedding banquet. This meditation on food and family, culture and cooking, features a Taiwanese chef who loses his sense of taste and his picky eater daughters.

5. Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

An American story about enduring female friendships, Southern hospitality, and the regional specialties served up at a local café.

6. Julie & Julia (2009)

Meryl Streep eats up the screen as Julia Child. Amy Adams plays the frustrated office worker and fledgling blogger channeling her inner Julia.

7. Like Water for Chocolate (1992)

A young Mexican couple barred from marrying express their passion through cooking and eating.

8. Pieces of April (2003)

Ultimate oddball Thanksgiving dinner film featuring a wonderful performance by Katie Holmes before Cruise control killed her career.

9. Ratatouille (2007)

Animated Pixar pic stars Remy the rat who aspires to be a great chef despite family opposition — and the obvious obstacle of being a rodent in a rat-phobic profession. But follow those food fantasies: Remy sets the French cooking scene on fire.

10. Tampopo (1987)

Jim calls this the ultimate Japanese noodle Western. Widow seeking to make the perfect bowl of ramen gets help from an unlikely source.

11. Waitress (2007)

Sweet American indie featuring the late Adrienne Shelly who bakes her way to a better life.

Okay, that’s 11, but who’s counting?

Clearly cinematographers love to get in the kitchen.  Find other food film lists here, chef pics here, reader raves here.

Coming soon: Eat, Pray, Love, based on the book of the same name, which will no doubt feature Italian, Indian, and Indonesian fare.

What do you think of this list? Granted it’s skewed towards recent rom-coms pairing culinary pursuits and passions of the hearts. Hence all the chocolate.

Did I give your favorite foodie film the flick? What’s missing? Racked my brain for a great Aussie food film, alas I couldn’t come up with one.

Where’s the golden oldie featuring food — even if it’s in black and white? Where’s the Indian feast flick? A French food film classic, actually made in France? A soul food big screen treat?

I’m sure I’m leaving out loads of other sumptuous cinematic offerings.

Feel free to correct the record below.

Marvelous Mushrooms

February 17, 2010

Regular readers may recall that every so often I get a bee in my bonnet about a particular kind of produce.

Persimmons come to mind. Brussels sprouts too. No surprise that a blog named Lettuce Eat Kale showcases a certain dark, leafy green, whether roasted or dehydrated.

Today, mushrooms get their due. Recently, I’ve become a tad obsessed with these forest favorites as they show themselves, post-rainy season, in my neck of the woods.

First, I felt compelled to make Mushroom Risotto. Compelled. So at a farmer’s market I stocked up on a big, brown bag full of crimini, shiitake, and oyster mushies. And I made a big, brown batch of risotto, its inherent creaminess offset by the earthy flavors of the three fungi.

My recipe is similar to this one, sans cream, from Simply Recipes. But I have nothing against cream, cream and I are firm friends, so I’ll definitely give Elise Bauer’s version a go. And I encourage you to, as well.

Then I read Barbara Kingsolver’s love poem to the mighty morel in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, her lyrical account of a year living off the land.  This exotic edible, which defies attempts at domestication, sells for a small fortune during its short season.

With a little local help, Kingsolver uncovers the mystery of where Molly Mooches (morels to the rest of us) pop up on her very own property and her family set out to hunt and gather this prized wild delight.  She finds a perfectly good home for them in Asparagus and Morel Bread Pudding, from Deborah Madison‘s Local Flavors (downloadable here).

Next up, the forageSF Wild Kitchen Chinese New Year dinner, where fungi was featured in not one but two of the seven courses, made up of mostly sustainable, foraged, local, wild ingredients, natch.

The communal dinner kicked off with the smoky subtlety of Black Trumpet Mushroom and Wild Radish Dumplings and ended on a high note with Ginger Candy Cap Ice Cream. The candy cap mushrooms offered a deep, rich, maple-syrup like sweetness to this delish dessert.

I know, mushroom-infused ice cream. Who knew it could be so good?

Then just last week, I was wowed by the dreamy creaminess of Scott Howard’s reinvented macaroni & cheese, at his restaurant Five, in downtown Berkeley. This mac&cheese only marginally resembles the American classic mama used to make. And that’s a good thing.

Little ramekins of loveliness ooze with orzo, cream, and smoked gouda, topped with sliced, braised morels, a dollop of tomato jam, and a smattering of bread crumbs. A decadently divine dish.

Ready for a recipe?

Today’s offering, Chanterelle Pate, comes courtesy of chef Mary Kuntz, whom I met while reporting on the Sprouts Cooking Club.  Kuntz has worked in many acclaimed local restaurants and taught cooking to teens in Richmond public schools for about a dozen years.

She recently ran a four-week cooking class for Sprouts attended by Kaiser Permanente employees and their families at the Westside Cafe in Berkeley.  The mushroom pate was a big hit with her students.

For a primer on choosing, caring & cleaning mushies, whether wild or cultivated, start here.

Enjoy experimenting with these woodsy wonders.

Mary Kuntz’s Chanterelle Pate


1 lb. cleaned, sliced chanterelle mushrooms

1 stick butter

3-4  finely chopped shallots

2 cloves minced garlic

½ cup finely chopped Italian parsley

2 Tablespoons chopped fresh thyme (or lemon thyme)

1-2 cups dry white wine

2 cups peeled almonds (blanch & slip skins off)

salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper


1. Sauté the sliced mushrooms, shallots, garlic, parsley and thyme in the butter in a large frying pan.

2. When tender, pour over the wine, add almonds, and simmer till most liquid is absorbed.

3. Pureé in a processor in batches, add salt and pepper to taste, and some more soft butter to make richer, if desired.

4. Place in serving terrine and sprinkle with a little more minced parsley.

5. Cover and refrigerate for at least a few hours (or overnight) to allow flavors to develop.

6. Serve with toasted baguette, dark rye bread, or wheat crackers.

Valentine’s Day Dining Out: Just Say No

February 12, 2010

Allegedly, this coming weekend is a good one for amore.

That’s debatable, of course, depending on how your love life is looking.

What’s indisputable: It’s a great weekend for restaurants. This year, Valentine’s Day falls on Sunday, so presumably there’s a wider window (tonight might be a tad early, but tomorrow or Sunday works) of possibilities for the coupled to express their devotion over dinner.

If you’re not part of a dining dead duo (have nothing to say to each other, for those unfamiliar with the term, illustrated above) or go solo while you sup, then the thought of taking your main man (or woman) out for a bite to eat this weekend has probably crossed your mind.

I have three words for you: Don’t do it.

Here’s why:

  • High-expectation holiday  = Recipe for disappointment. No restaurant, no matter how fabo, can live up to this kind of pressure.
  • Restaurant kitchens and wait staff tend to be stretched thin on Big Night Out nights. Too much tension in the air. Who needs it?
  • Chances are you’ll wind up spending more than you would on a regular night out. You just will. Trust me on this one.
  • Food served up on a major holiday night tends not to taste as good as on a garden-variety evening. Little time for that careful attention to detail.
  • Lingering over a meal may not be possible if an eating establishment is trying to squeeze in two or three seatings for the night.
  • Tables tightly crammed into a small space to accommodate more people can preclude intimate conversation.
  • Other diners may engage in behaviors you’d rather not witness, be they proposals or displays of passion.

So stay home. Cook. If you can’t cook, serve an awesome cheese platter and a stellar bottle of vino, spread a blanket on the floor and call it a picnic. Or find inspiration for special dishes for the day by entering the words “Valentine’s Day recipes” into the Food Blog Search directory.

Spontaneous. Private. Mood managed. What could be sexier? And what says I (heart) you more than taking the time to plan a celebratory meal for the person you (heart)?

Don’t take my word for it. Restaurant industry insider and food service professional Food Woolf says V Day dining out is a really bad idea.

Canada’s Globe and Mail reports that restaurant wait staff consider V Day one of the least romantic evenings of the year with more bickering, hostility, awkwardness, and tension on table 2 than on other nights. Not to mention the fact that some fellow diners perform sex acts others would rather not see. So sez the paper. I kid you not.

Are you a lover or a hater of dining out on Valentine’s Day? Got a V Day eating out story — good, bad, or ugly that you care to share? Bring it on.

Fed Up with School Lunch: The Feds Join The Fray

February 9, 2010

Many kids in the U.S. eat half their daily calories at school.

And what a sad, super-size me state of affairs that is in most parts of the country.

Highly processed and packaged food laden with sugar, fat, and salt fill in for whole grains, fruit & veg, and protein — you know, the kind of nutrients that might actually help a child learn and stay lean.

Loads of folks have been working their buns off to try and make schools a healthier place for children to eat. Check out Ann Cooper, the self-styled Renegade Lunch Lady, who revamped school lunch programs in Harlem, NY, Berkeley, CA, and now Boulder, CO. Or visit Slow Food U.S.A.’s Time For Lunch Campaign, or Susan Rubin’s Better School Food.

And yes, for the record, we know we’re spoiled here in Berkeley with our made from scratch, fresh ingredients lunch menu. We also know what’s going on here is the exception, not the rule.

Maybe that can change. Today, as part of the federal government’s “Let’s Move” launch, the First Lady’s much buzzed about campaign against childhood obesity, Michelle Obama announced plans for a renewed effort to raise the quality of school food, feed more kids, and feed them better.

White House watchers know that the administration recently called for an additional $10 billion over 10 years to improve school food and increase participation in school nutrition programs. Congress must green-light this request, of course, before it’s a reality.

More money is needed, and lots of it, but new thinking about what nourishment looks like at lunch is necessary, too. Think less processed, packaged edible food-like substances and more fresh, real food.

These government efforts may seem like too little too late to critics. But they can’t come soon enough for people like Mrs. Q, the anonymous school teacher from an unnamed Illinois public school who has vowed to eat the same school lunch offered to her students throughout 2010.

Granted, Fed Up: The School Lunch Project sounds like another food blog gimmick. Not so. This teacher has hit on a simple but surefire way to draw attention to the deplorable state of school lunch in her workplace, one bad lunch at a time. And she’s perfectly positioned to serve up the inside scoop.

She believes a lousy school lunch has many downsides for kids who:

  • can’t learn as poor quality food doesn’t fuel their bodies and brains
  • feel bad in their bodies after eating this junk food
  • may surmise that no one cares enough to stop feeding them garbage

Mrs. Q wants to keep a low profile; she fears losing her job if she’s outed. But I’ll check in with her towards the end of the school year to find out what conclusions she draws from her school food experiment. For now, you can read her insightful interview with Robin Shreeves at Mother Nature News.

While it’s unlikely that this presumably underpaid teacher will make a small fortune on a book deal or movie rights for her efforts on behalf of school kids, she may get an invite to the White House.

So might Ed Bruske, who could likely walk over, since he hails from D.C. The Slow Cook blogger recently spent a week in an elementary-school kitchen in the nation’s capitol–and it’s not a pretty picture there either.

Bruske documents a daily menu of industrialized school food that’s cheap, fast, and easy to dole out to the masses. Tellingly, kitchen staff spend more time cleaning up and serving than they do prepping or cooking food, writes the former Washington Post reporter in the first of his six-part series.

He also recounts witnessing such edible atrocities as so-called scrambled eggs, “a manufactured product with 11 different ingredients cooked in a factory in Minnesota and delivered 1,100 miles frozen in plastic bags to the District of Columbia.”

Clearly, the Feds have their work cut out for them. Clearly, good folks are keeping tabs on them. Clearly, school lunch made in the U.S.A. needs a massive makeover.

In France, Italy, and Japan, and elsewhere around the globe, children do eat well at midday, notes Deborah Lehmann at School Lunch Talk. Even some students here do, as this child tucking into salad in a New York City school illustrates.

Here’s the big ask: Can Michelle Obama and crew address childhood obesity, school lunch, and food security in all of the communities across the U.S.?

Can she do it?

The survival, literally, of the next generation of American kids may well depend on it.

What say you?

Photo: Chicago school lunch: Corn chips with cheese sauce, French fries, ketchup, pears in syrup, & chocolate milk (Source: American Lunchroom: What Our Kids Are Eating at School: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly)

Bottom Photo: New York school lunch salad eater by Kate Adamick

Food Poisoning, Food Allergy, or Stomach Flu?

February 8, 2010

Will depart from regularly scheduled programming today to bemoan the fact that for the third time in two and a half years I have some intestinal trouble that has had me completely off food since Friday.

I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating: It’s almost impossible to write about food when you can’t keep any in your stomach. So I won’t. But I will ask you all a question: Does that seem like a lot of tummy upsets in a short amount of time?

I ask because my friend Karen, whose hubbie Jay has pinch hit for me on two of these occasions by taking my son for the day, wondered if maybe I’m allergic to something and don’t know it.

Could there be a food that’s literally making me sick?

Karen has first-hand experience: She discovered she’s allergic to lentils. Lentils! Who would have thought they’d pose a gastrointestinal hazard?  But Karen ended up in the E.R after eating lentils so they’re off her list of safe legumes she can consume.

I’ve had food poisoning before;  oysters one New Year’s in Pt. Reyes and prawns one anniversary celebration in Milan spring immediately to mind.

Food poisoning is the pits. Acute, violent, it’s like you morph into Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

The Italian incident was the worst. The then-hubbie and I had exactly the same dish but only I succumbed at 2 a.m. in the most intense way. Maybe it was The Gods getting back at me for picking a fight on what was supposed to be a special, joyous occasion. Or maybe they were just equaling the score since he got hepatitis after our honeymoon in Mexico. Who knows.

Thank goodness we’d sprung for a modern Milan hotel room with a bathroom the size of my current cottage. I spent a lot of time in there and refused to let anyone in. It was a wild scene and I didn’t want any witnesses. Then we had to make a decision whether or not I was well enough to fly home that day.

I wasn’t. But I was also terrified of being left in a land where I didn’t speak the language and feared dying of dehydration with no one the wiser, so I forced myself to get on that 12-hour flight. It was not pretty. At one point I lay on the floor in the airport terminal. Ewww.

On the plane I found myself sandwiched between a group of happy clapping Baptists — Lord help me — who were, it must be said, very sweet. When I explained my predicament, that I would not eat anything in flight and might have to dash out of my seat without any notice, they were kind and understanding. By the end of the trip one practically snarled at the flight attendant: “Don’t you get it? She’s too sick to eat. Stop offering her food.” Bless that woman.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to crawl into my own bed than I was at the end of that journey. I did not change my clothes or brush my teeth. But I did lie there moaning in relief that I had made it home with my insides still intact.

What I have right now doesn’t have the drama of food poisoning. Maybe it’s a gut bug I picked up on an overnight field trip with a group of 5th graders. I started to feel bad the evening we returned from the three-day trip, though nobody else in our group seems to have gotten sick.

Or maybe it’s something I ate at a Thai restaurant Friday night — I can’t rattle off the menu or visualize it right now because it makes me feel icky. No one else in our large party got ill, but immediately after the meal I started to endure major discomfort during a dance performance we all went to and I had to head home in a hurry.

And that proved to be me last supper, for now.

While I’m on this sorry subject, my colleague Molly Watson over at the Dinner Files recently compiled a handy list for caregivers looking after someone with a short-term, yet incapacitating, illness. Check it out.

I’d add to her list: Feeding young ones so the sick don’t have to spend any time in the kitchen. Nothing worse than having to make dinner for kids when you’re too ill to face food. My son’s dad made dinner for our boy last night and for that I’m extremely grateful.

I’ll save the $15 co-pay at my doctor’s office and solicit online opinions. What do you think I’ve got — food poisoning, a virus, or food allergy — and what do you recommend I do to find my way back to food?

Molly suggests salty crackers, which I’d forgotten about. I think I might try and make it to the corner store for a box so I have something to nibble on, if the urge strikes.

Then it’s back to bed for me. Stay well.

Garlic Gadgets: Cool Tools or Waste of Space?

February 3, 2010

So I need to come out. I am, indeed, a (gasp!) garlic press user. Not sure when this habit started or why I can’t kick it.

But, well, I used just last night. Okay, I know I’ve probably lost any pro chefs who have stumbled upon my posts. I’m probably losing some of you savvy home cooks too.

Here’s the thing: I’m not a gizmos gal. I don’t own a food processor, microwave, toaster oven, or other large kitchen appliance. In theory I’m down with the idea that all you really need to whip up a feed is a good knife, cutting board, and a pot.

And yet somehow I find myself reaching most nights for that unwieldy metal object that’s a pain to clean and takes up too much room in the drawer where I store the veggie peeler, can opener, and the like.

Who knew what a culinary faux pas I’ve been committing all these years? Or that so many people had such strong opinions about the usefulness, or lack thereof, of this kitchen aid.

I’ve had a crash course in the whole discourse around the garlic press, viewed by some as an unnecessary, ridiculous, pathetic, even heinous addition to any cook’s toolbox, in a recent story by food writer Felicity Cloake in The Guardian.

Cloake quotes a bunch of culinary big guns on the matter of mincing over pressing.  Anthony Bourdain, for one, doesn’t hide his disdain for the press. “I don’t know what that junk is that squeezes out the end of those things, but it ain’t garlic.”  Cloake’s conclusion? Crushing works well for salad dressing but for all other purposes…carry a big knife.

Judging by the loads of comments — 135 and counting — the Brits take their garlic mincing, chopping, or pressing very seriously. Many reveal their scorn for the offending implement.  Some admit to a preference for a grater, microplane, or mortar and pestle. A few brave souls speak out in favor of the humble garlic press.

One man even ‘fesses up to owning “the most effete garlic gadget imaginable…it’s a poncey little pipe of silicon rubber in a nursery shade of blue, its ends apparently trimmed with pinking shears.” Most of you real cooks won’t have a clue what he’s on about. Alas, I do, because I own one of these as well — at least mine is clear — and find it the handiest dandiest device. Here’s how it works: You pop whole cloves, skin and all, inside the tube, give it a roll and a press under the heel of your hand, and hey, presto, out pop perfectly peeled cloves ready for pressing. I mean mincing.

So, dear readers, where do you stand on the great garlic debate? Do tell.

And do you have any other kitchen gadget lurking in a drawer that you’re actually ashamed of and only get out under the cover of darkness?

Just curious. Your secret is safe with me, no culinary judgments here.

Let’s face it, anyone who owns an egg slicer and a garlic press has no business sniffing at the kitchen tools favored by others.