Friday, July 31, 2009

Pizza Fridays Forever

It's become a tradition in our house to have pizza on Friday nights. For me, it signals that the weekend is finally here, and that it's time to relax and find solace with some casual and comfort fare. We used to buy a frozen pie and throw it in the oven for 20 minutes when we got home, but once I ventured out and made my own dough from scratch, we haven't looked back.

Homemade pizza yields something so delicious, you could never find it in a box. The dough is hearty, using whole-wheat flour, the sauce tangy and a bit spicy, the veggies a bit undercooked to maintain their crispness and the cheese plentiful and gooey. It pairs beautifully with both red wine and beer. Many of my favorite memories with Kendall focus around watching David Brooks and Mark Shields row over the past week in politics, nodding or wincing, sipping heartily and eating pizza.

I found the dough recipe in the Betty Crocker cookbook, and the sauce, I tweek every time, depending on what I have on hand. But here's a rough idea...

Laura's Pizza Sauce
1 8-oz. can tomato sauce
1 clove minced garlic
1/4-1/2 C fresh basil, oregano, sage if you have it, or dried herbs (I use Herbes de Provence frequently)(1-2 tsp or Tbsp depending on your taste)
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
Salt & Pepper to taste

Pass the Milk Cooler and Grab your Dino Chicken Nuggets

A fascinating and frightening post on the School Food Policy blog today. Here are some of the highlights:

"Thanks to a provision known as commodity processing, cafeterias can divert their government-donated foods to commercial processors and receive table-ready items instead of raw products. Today, schools divert about half of their commodities to processors.

According to the USDA, the goal of commodity processing was twofold: it was supposed to allow schools to maximize the use of commodities, while also opening up the school market for the food industry. By those standards, it has been an amazing success. Schools now turn commodity meat, flour, cheese and fruit into a wide variety of (unhealthy) foods kids love. And companies rake in the money from turning raw chicken into nuggets, strips and breaded patties. Today, over 150 companies — from Tyson to Jennie-O Turkey — process commodity items for school cafeterias.

...The USDA’s list of the most frequently processed commodity items includes pork (sausage patties and links, pizza topping), beef (charbroiled patties, crumbles, meat balls), chicken (nuggets, patties, breaded chicken), turkey (turkey ham, bologna, deli slices), frozen fruit (popsicles and turnovers) and flour, mozzarella and tomato paste (pizza)."

Yum, yum. While I understand that it would be very, very expensive for a school to use those funds to buy commodities such as flour, eggs, yeast, tomato paste, raw chicken, etc. and then cook meals for thousands of kids from scratch, there has to be a better way. I wonder if some of there are vendors out there who produce less-processed, more natural foods. Maybe turn the fruit into a fruit cup instead of a popsicle or pastry? Maybe the chicken doesn't have to ground down, injected with a host of preservatives, shaped into dinosaurs, breaded and fried? Anyone?

Here's the link to the article:

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Don't Touch the Stove

After receiving a frighteningly high electric bill last month, my husband and I decided to look for ways to use less. This summer, our A/C unit has been competing with record heat daily, month after month. We turn it up when we're gone, letting the temperature rise to about 83 degrees and slowly work it down to about 76 degrees at night. We noticed that our A/C works very, very hard when the stove or oven is on, filling the kitchen and living room with heat. So we stopped using it, and since then, we've found some new ways of thinking "What's for dinner?"...

Make a big batch of gazpacho is the blender or food processor and chill. It serves as a new way of getting your veggies, some precious liquids, and cooling down, all in one dish. Serve with sandwiches, usually stuffed with veggies. You can also make big salads with everything but the kitchen sink, which are really satisfying and filling. Sometimes we can't finish everything I've thrown in the large mixing bowl.

We've been using our indoor grill to cook anything that has to be cooked. It doesn't heat much more than an inch or two around it. We grill chicken, salmon, shrimp, asparagus, you name it. I even tried potatoes once, to mediocre results. Pressed sandwiches are always delicious and feel really decadent, like we're eating at a restaurant.

The only things I've baked recently have been pizza (which I make from entirely from scratch and refuse to order out or and we won't give up pizza) and blueberry muffins (because the most delicious berries were on sale last weekend and they made a great Sunday breakfast).

Here's an open-faced sandwich we had the other night, which earned rave reviews:
Whole Wheat bread (I used leftover hamburger buns)
Hummus (homemade spread recipe below)
Green Bell Pepper
Green Onion

Toast bread if desired. Spread with hummus. Add cheese and veggies. Eat open-faced.

Homemade Hummus Spread:
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 Tb lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1/4 C olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

Put it all in a blender or food processor.

Bon Appetit!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

This One's for the Men in my Life

Last week, my father and husband and I were sitting around the living room and they both started talking about how much they like my writing and miss my blog. So I decided to give it another try.

Since my last post, I've gotten hitched, started taking classes to earn some credits that I need before pursuing my Master's in Nutrition. We've been spiffing up the house and this summer, spending a lot of time indoors to escape the scorching Texas heat.

In the next few weeks, I'm looking forward to wrapping up a chemistry class, and taking off for our annual trip to Chicago. After surviving subzero temps in one of the coldest Chicago January's on record, my friend Mary and Kendall and I figured that we should switch seasons; Mary will come in the winter, and we will go in the summer, instead of the other way around. So off we will go to visit with Mary, my cousin Jonathan and his husband, to see some sites and take in some deep-dish. Sometimes, the thought of this trip is my saving grace to get through a daunting chemistry final and an incredibly frustrating lab.

The other thing that has helped is, of course, good food. Allow me to be specific. When I say "good food," I am referring to food that is simple, ripe, in season, healthy, filling, and not processed. I've become increasingly interested in food policy and specifically, school food policy. What are we feeding our kids? What are the politics behind the cafeteria tray? Who really thinks that giving a choice of a previously-frozen corn dog or chicken nuggets with some sort of potato product that's been deep-fried is giving students healthy options? Who are we kidding by thinking a few pieces of iceberg lettuce with some grated carrots, swimming in dressing, is a health food? And more importantly, why is this happening?

The blog below is a good one for exploring some of these questions, reading some statistics, etc.:

I've seen my nephew's school menu and it's sad. Here's just a sampling of a few days off his lunch menu:
  • Beefy Mac & Cheese; Hot Dog; Cheese Quesadilla; Green Peas; Orange Smiles; Jell-O
  • Baked Steakfingers; Bean Soft Taco; Fresh Garden Salad; Green Beans; Orange Smiles; Apple Sauce; Chocolate Chip cookie
  • Mozzerella Sticks; Lasagna; Cheese Quesadilla; Green Beans; Chilled Pears; Applesauce Cake
  • Cheese Pizza; Fresh Garden Salad; Ham Deli on Wheat; Mixed Veggies; Strawberries; Vanilla Pudding
To add insult to injury, the school system has devised a color-coding system of red, yellow, and green dots that they put by each food item that is about as informative as our current homeland security color system. Red is for the unhealthiest, yellow for the somewhat unhealthy, and the green for the healthiest options.

I'm not even going to begin on how accurate this color-coding is...other than to point out that "baked steakfingers," (likely frozen and reheated processed beef that's been breaded and deep-fried, frozen, wrapped in plastic and shipped to schools nationwide, then warmed or "baked" in an oven) is designated as yellow, the somewhat unhealthy option, not red. But more irritating is that the first three options don't offer a "green" or healthy entree. (The last offering does with a ham sandwich. But seriously, what's a kid going to pick-- the cheese pizza or the sandwich?) The only healthy things offered are the side dishes, some lousy salad or perhaps some overcooked peas, maybe some applesauce.

I understand that schools have a budget that they have to stick to and that school cafeterias have become more like restaurants, insofar as they have to offer food that kids will actually want to buy so that it sells, not food that kids should eat.

And parents aren't exempt from responsibility. Parents who pay for their kids' school lunch should have a discussion with their children about which option on today's menu would be best... and then hope they don't pull a fast one on you and order the pizza or hot dog or steakfingers or mozzerella sticks or mac & cheese or bean burrito or...