Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cafeteria Trends for New School Year

It's time again to wrap those textbooks in brightly-patterned spandex book covers, sharpen some pencils and pop some fresh batteries in that calculator. Before we send kids out the door with some lunch money, take a look at some of the new trends in school cafeterias across America. This is from an article from one of my favorite blogs on school food policy.

  • Syrup-infused pancakes, waffles, etc. in plastic packages that you can "safely" put in the oven.

  • Mini burgers, hot dogs, cereals and the like.

  • Cheese-covered bread in various forms (think pizza, quesadillas, pizza quesadillas, cheesy bread-sticks, and chili cheese wraps).

  • Salty snacks such as buffalo wing, chipotle cheddar, honey mustard pretzels, stuffed churros, super pretzels and soft pretzels.

  • Sugary milks in new flavors such as extreme chocolate, rootbeer, mocha, hot fudge, and mint chocoloate.

Maybe they'd be better off packing a turkey sandwich with veggie sticks...

Every summer, the School Nutrition Association’s hosts a food expo, showcasing all sorts of new products to use those commodity dollars on. Here are some particularly disgusting new "foods":

  • Clodhoppers, cocoa-covered graham wafer clusters, which does count as one USDA serving of a bread or grain. It’s “great for breakfast, lunch or after school!”

  • Giorgio Foods' new Cheese Stikcs, which asks you to “pledge allegiance to breaded American cheese." I'm not even joking. And guess what? They are breaded American cheese. Again, I'm not even joking. Not a little bit.

  • The Crazy Apple! A company has developed apples that taste like bubble gum, cotton candy and tropical blast. I wasn't aware that apples tasted that bad... especially if you're picking GOOD apples.

  • If you like the idea of sweetened, colored fruit, the United Commodity Group will process those apples and turn them into flavored applesauce. The neon-green “Super Sour Apple” is made of apples, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavor, FD&C Yellow #5 and Blue #1, and Vitamin C. And sadly, that counts as one serving of fruit for school lunches.

  • Polish Water Ice (see image above) claims that its product has no fat, no dairy, no cholesterol, no peanut oil and fewer than 140 calories. It does contain: water, apple juice concentrate, cane sugar, corn syrup, natural and artificial flavor, guar gum, carbohydrate gum, locust bean gum, citric acid and FD&C Red #40. Yep, you guessed it- that counts as half of the required fruit and vegetables for meals. Do you see that thing?

  • And last but not least, why bother making pancakes and eggs as separate breakfast dishes? No need! Schools can now buy heat-and-serve “Maple PanEggCakes,” which is an egg patty that is nestled inside a maple-flavored, whole-grain pancake. Seriously? Whole grain? Who are you kidding?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ate my Way through Chicago

I'm back from the Windy City and had an absolute blast. Kendall and I had such a good visit with Mary, Jonathan, Chris, Sarah, Al and all the new faces along the way! Chicago's weather was beautiful so we spent as much time outside as possible. And we also took advantage of the many tastes of the city.

Our flight landed on Saturday and after dropping our bags, we were on our way to meet my cousin, Jonathan and his husband, Chris, downtown. Once there, we decided to try Hot Woks Cool Sushi, almost right across from the Art Institute of Chicago. Now, Chicago's pride in Barack Obama is unquestioned and only in this city could you find a sushi roll dedicated to our current president! Chris and Mary showed their support and ordered the 10-piece plate. A mound of red spangled sushi topped with the sweetest little American flag arrived. I tried one of Mary's rolls, which was a lovely combonation of flavors and textures- smooth, creamy, salty, crispy. I ordered the Panang Noodles which were smothered in a sweet, savory and velvety sauce, with just the right amount of spice.

After filling our bellies, we headed into the Art Institute to check out their new Modern Art wing. Every year, we make a pilgrimage to the institute and I am always floored by the variety and quality of the art they bring in. The new wing is beautiful, makes a great use of natural light. The space feels very open so your mind can wander amongst the abstract techniques and ideas. As always, I was impressed by the number and variety of great works they were able to bring in.

That night, we stumbled upon Twist Tapas. We shared sangria, calamari, cheese, bread, asparagus, scallops, mushrooms, shrimp, ahi tuna and more. We also shared memories, stories and a lot of laughs. It was time for Chris and Jonathan to go home, so after a sad goodbye, we hit up the store for a few bottles of good French wine to be enjoyed at home. We went with a 2005 Bordeaux (always a good bet) and a Boujelais (2006 I think?).

Sunday, we headed out for the Garfield Park Conservatory. As we switched trains, we caught a quick bite at Wow Bao. Mary and Kendall had the hot buns, which I tasted, and I had dumplings and rice, and we all left happy. The buns are soft and filled with a moist filling of your choice, from edamame to chicken to pork.

The conservatory was beautiful. It's hard to believe that it's FREE. It is filled with so many varieties of flowers, trees, and fauna. We had a great time taking photos, enjoying some kids wandering around, and walking amongst the greenery. I witnessed a careless patron groping and then plucking a banana off a tree... after the Conservatory had made such an effort to hang cute and witty little cards all over the place!

On the way home, we stopped by the grocery store and picked up some cheese for homemade pizza, some salad fixings, and some berries and yogurt for dessert. Yum! We made guacamole and margaritas while the dough rose and enjoyed wine and pizza later. The pizza was from the recipe I posted previously and the guacamole was a collaborative effort. Many cooks tasted and re-tasted to tweak the lime and salt. Mary seriously impressed with her fine herb chopping skills-- the cilantro evenly flecked the whole bowl of dip.

On Monday, we walked around Mary's new neighborhood. It is filled with lots of cute shops, handy banks and dry cleaners, and many little restaurants and bistros. We ducked into Paper Boy to check out their hip cards, stationery and gifts. Imagine my delight when they were having a "Stuff This Bag for $10" sale! I bought lots and lots of holiday cards, which I am frighteningly excited about. I have issues about holiday cards... I want something cute and non-religous, but cannot justify paying a lot for something that will become part of a tangled mass and thrown out (or RECYCLED) within weeks. Now I have the best of both worlds! Start checking your mailboxes in early Decemeber, y'all!

After that, it was time for our much-anticipated trip to Tre Kronor, a little Swedish kitchen. Mary introduced us in January and we fell in love with their French Onion soup. It is by far the best I've ever tasted. The soupcrock is sealed with creamy cheese, revealing a rich broth, finely chopped onions and a mix of wheat and rye bread croutons. I truly believe I could eat a bowl with every meal and never get tired of it. We also enjoyed the spinach salad and chicken salad sandwich. I'm hoping to check out the dinner menu on our next visit. It's going to be featured on the Food Network in September, so tune in to see lots of shots of their yummy food.

After lunch, we took a stroll along the shores of Lake Michigan. We sat on a bench by the marina and watched boats and ducks bob in the water. The park started to enjoy heavier use as we headed back to our bus stop. It was great to see so many people out and actively enjoying the weather and park! Runners, dogwalkers, bikers and rollerbladers all shared the trail. We tried to keep out of their way as we made our way to happy hour.

We stopped by another neighborhood stop, Joey's Brickhouse. We ordered some deep-fried appetizers while enjoying half-price beers. The patio was lovely and allowed for people watching. The fries had a sweet and savory seasoning and the calamari had what I'm guessing is a flour-and-spice coating, as opposed to a batter coating.

After that, we headed home to enjoy some more margaritas, guac, leftover pizza, wine and cards. Don't mean to brag, but it turns out I am a card-shark. Just sayin'.

I always have so much fun in Chicago and with Mary. The city boasts some seriously great food and I look forward to returning and trying some more great grub.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


It's only a few days until Kendall and I fly out for our annual trip to Chicago. We go to visit one my dearest friends, Mary, and try to squeeze in some time with my cousin Jonathan and his husband Chris. We are so excited to see all of them!

We're also stoked to get out of this triple digit heat and into weather with a forecasted high in the mid-70s... Heaven! We haven't been to the Windy City in the summer, and I am looking forward to strolling around in the sun, taking in some sites, but mostly, visiting with some of my favorite people. We always have a blast with Mary and her always-cool-forever-hipper-than-us friends. I've never met a single one I haven't liked!

Chicago is also home to some great chow. Deep-dish pizza, of course, is a Chicago classic, and is so deeply hearty and satisfying. But Mary's also taken us to some great little spots, including an unbelievable Lebanese restaurant and a better-than-Grandma's Swedish kitchen with some of the best French Onion soup I've ever had.

After a wretched dinner this past winter, there's now an unfortunate legend of my off-the-cuff homemade broccoli cheese disaster. It was 17 degrees below zero, and after freezing our way to the Shedd Aquarium, we decided some hearty soup was in order. I decided that making broccoli cheese soup would be simple enough. I figured you'd make a white sauce, add some cheese, thin it with a bit of milk, add the broccoli and presto. But my plan went awry...

After successfully making a white sauce, I slowly started to add some shredded Cheddar. It didn't melt slowly into the sauce, but rather curdled. Panicked, I added milk and turned the heat down. No luck. Turned the heat up. No luck. I added the broccoli. Nada. After 20 minutes of trying to tame this thing down, and no other options, I threw it in the blender. It was... not good. It was pretty much tasteless, had a horrid texture, and felt spongy between your teeth. But my loving friends still ate it. My husband gave me grief.

This time, I feel compelled to take along a few recipes in my suitcase to try to wow them again... Any suggestions?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Kick It Up A Notch!

In the past decade, food shows have risen in popularity, warranting their own TV station. With all of these chefs having fun and dishing out some amazing-looking grub, one would assume we'd all be heading for the kitchen, ready to add some "gahlic" to whatever Emeril dish we're concocting, adding some "bam! bam!s" of spices, and making it "happy, happy, happy" with some butter or bacon.

But strangely, sadly, we're not. Instead of being inspired to cook, we're glued to our couches, strapped in to be entertained some more by something out of a diner in Arizona as some punk with bleach-blonde hair visit every greasy spoon in America.

In Pollan's article, "Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch," he reveals the scary reality that we are not cooking any more than we were ten years ago, that we are relying more and more on pre-packaged convenience foods, and that we are watching more and more people cook food that we aren't eating.

My first hint at this was seeing the "Joy of Cooking" brand of frozen TV dinners at my local grocery store. "But isn't this..." my husband peered. I nodded. "A total contradiction." The fact that these dinner exist proves that we have entered an era of wanting to experience the same great flavors that we see on our favorite primetime food show (braised beef tips with noodles, roasted herb chicken with potatoes and vegetables) but without the hassle of actually cooking it.

When we aren't eating out, we are staying in, throwing a frozen tray into the microwage, and nestling in to watch two top chefs go head-to-head as they cook up several courses from the mystery ingredient... fiddlehead ferns! Salads, risottos, gelees, fern-squid soup, panna cotta with ferns and berries, all fly from the kitchens to judges who deconstruct every nuance of every bite... then, Ding! Microwave brownies are done and we are ready for watching people make towering cakes that look like the Grand Canyon for someone 50th birthday!