Historically, chefs haven’t been the most obvious people to tap as experts when it comes to politics. But the reach of a chef has changed significantly in the last decade: restaurateurs and leaders of kitchens have become celebrities, moving beyond the kitchen to write books, star in TV shows, and pen op-eds. And regardless of how you feel about the proliferation of “rock star” chefs, there is a positive outcome to this newfound attention: many of these chefs are using their soapboxes for good by picking a cause to champion and speaking out on behalf of food-related issues, from hunger to food safety.
Over the past few weeks, we have been examining some of the issues related to food security in the state, prompted by the work of a General Assembly legislative committee last session. One of the recommendations of their study zeroed in on schools as one of the most successful outlets by which to introduce healthy eating habits to children and lower the risk for child hunger. We have talked with researchers and legislators about some of the innovative programs that schools are employing to reach more children — from breakfast in the classroom to farm to school programs.
Now we’re asking the people who deal with food preparation on a day-to-day basis. We reached out to three prominent North Carolina chefs and restaurant owners and asked them to reimagine school lunch by creating a recipe. Without much in the way of guidelines regarding budget or ingredients, their answers are more an exercise in creativity than practical application, but their viewpoints offer new perspective and outline unexplored opportunity in how we approach this increasingly important meal.
Day 1: Panang chicken curry
Vansana Nolintha, owner of Bida Manda, Raleigh, NC
Vansana Nolintha, who immigrated to Raleigh from Laos with his family when he was 12, is a product of school lunch. “I was thrilled to talk about this issue because it’s personal to me,” he said. “One of my strongest and earliest memories about living here is being jealous of the kids who got to bring their lunch to school.” Nolintha recalls the distinct social divide in the cafeteria between those who bought and those who brought. What’s more, he remembers a feeling of alienation from the food itself. The items on his lunch tray in no way resembled what he ate for lunch in his native Laos.
Nolintha approached his assignment from a place of optimistic opportunity, imagining a school lunch program that was intrinsically tied to curriculum. “Food is a quick route to telling a story,” he said, “so how wonderful would it be to have the food in the cafeteria mirror what’s being taught in the classroom? If the lesson plan is about Latin American history, why not focus on some of the cuisine of the places that are being studied, in a way that all students are exposed to.” And when it is part of the classroom, cafeteria food becomes less stigmatized and far more creative.
His panang chicken curry is a reflection of that possibility, while still practical from a cost and preparation perspective. It can easily be prepared in bulk, uses relatively low-cost ingredients, and is high in nutrients.
Panang chicken curry
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, diced
½ cup panang curry paste
5 pounds chicken breast, cut into small pieces
2 pounds carrots, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 pounds parsnips, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 pounds turnips, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 tablespoon yellow curry powder
4 cups chicken stock
4 cups coconut milk
10 kaffir lime leaves (optional)
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 pounds potatoes, diced
Rice, for serving
In a large pot over medium heat, add the oil, panang curry and onions. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the onions start to soften, then add the chicken, carrots, parsnips, turnips and curry powder. Cook for 3 minutes, then add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Let boil for 5 minutes, then lower to a simmer and add the coconut milk, lime leaves (if using), salt and sugar. Cook for 15 minutes, then add the potatoes and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Serve with rice.
Day 2: Chicken and brown rice soup, steamed broccoli with grated Parmigiano, banana-strawberry-spinach smoothie
Vivian Howard, chef/owner of Chef & the Farmer, Kinston, NC
With her own TV show (A Chef’s Life which airs on PBS) and two restaurants, Vivian Howard is one of those aforementioned chefs whose job description stretches far beyond cooking. As if all that weren’t enough to keep her busy, she also is the mother to twins, 4-year olds Flo and Theo. And it’s the latter that has had the biggest effect on her approach in the kitchen at home. “Having kids has monumentally shifted the way I cook and eat,” she says. It also helped with the task of imagining a meal for school lunch: Howard’s recipe pulls from the meals that have been met with her children’s approval, as well as her own standards for their nutrition.
“I refuse to make a different meal for myself than I make for them. I’m also against the idea that kids and adults should be eating different things,” she says. Howard is the first to admit that it can be hard to find the middle ground between preference and health. “I’m not above a little bit of trickery; my daughter Flo is incredibly picky so I’ll try to sneak a vegetable in wherever I can,” she says.
Case in point: her strawberry-banana-spinach smoothie. “The spinach has a mild enough flavor that my kids can’t really detect it, and they’ll drink anything that looks like a milkshake, even if it’s green.” And while real Italian Parmigiano might be beyond the budgets of most school cafeterias, Howard is careful to note that a little bit goes a long way.
Chicken, sweet potato, and brown rice soup
1 chicken, 3 ½ to 4 pounds
4 ½ teaspoons salt, divided
¼ cup olive oil
3 cups small diced yellow onion
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
2 cups small diced carrot
2 cups thinly sliced celery
2 teaspoon picked and chopped fresh thyme
½ cup brown rice
3 cups sweet potato puree
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons unrefined coconut oil
Place the chicken in a large (roughly 9-quart) pot. Cover the chicken with 6 quarts water, and add 2 teaspoons of the salt. Bring it up to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until the chicken is falling apart, about 1 hour. Remove the pot from the heat, and let the chicken cool in the water about 30 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a large bowl, and reserve the broth. You should be left with a little less than 5 quarts of liquid. Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, tear the meat into small chunks and set aside.
In a similar-size pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, ginger and ½ teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the carrot, celery, thyme, chicken and reserved broth. Bring it all up to a gentle boil, and add the rice.
Cook until the rice is just tender. Stir in the sweet potato puree, brown sugar, remaining salt and coconut oil.
A little thicker than traditional chicken soup, the rice here is more for texture than substance. Serve warm.
Steamed broccoli with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 head broccoli
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 scant teaspoon salt
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 to 3 twists of the black pepper mill
Cut the broccoli into nice florets and trim the tough outer edge off the large stem. Cut the trimmed stem into 1-inch slices. Place the broccoli in a steamer insert set over a saucepan with an inch of simmering water and cover. Steam the broccoli until just tender, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl, toss together the olive oil, salt and black pepper. Top with the cheese and serve warm.
Banana, strawberry, and spinach smoothie
Makes 1 smoothie
1 medium banana
5 strawberries, tops removed
1/3 cup plain yogurt
½ cup orange juice
2 teaspoons flax seeds
Combine everything in a high-powered blender and process until totally smooth. Serve cold.
Theory into practice at Rockingham County Schools and beyond
Vivian Howard’s daughter is hardly the only child who turns up her nose at her veggies, which is why Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation and UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention came up with the Food Explorers program, a school lunch initiative that incentivizes students to try new vegetables through games and rewards. In 2012, participating third and fourth graders at certain Rockingham County schools were issued a “passport” at the beginning of the year, and received a stamp for every one of 39 fruits and vegetables they tried in the lunchroom. The campaign was a way to introduce students (and parents) to the new, healthier lunch menu implemented at the cafeteria. The program is now being adapted for statewide implementation.
Doctoral student Linden Thayer, the project manager for Food Explorers, has since moved on to take up the head post as director of the food program at the Henderson Collegiate Charter School in Vance County. “As I’ve gone through the process of working on my doctorate, I realized that I really needed to get in the trenches if I had any chance of finding real-world solutions,” she says. Under her watch, the school’s lunch menu includes dishes like “Asian veggie stir-fry with brown rice” and “chicken, butternut squash and sage noodles,” a far cry from the standard chicken wings.
Additionally, Thayer has assembled a student committee to play a role in the program. The students learn about issue like nutrition and sustainable farming practices, while helping shape the direction of what appears on their lunch trays.
The experience hasn’t been without its challenges. “Everything that could possibly go wrong has,” remarks Thayer. “But it’s letting me see what’s really possible. And fresh, healthy food is really possible.” The tip of the iceberg in making this a reality, according to Thayer, is more support. “From the top down, cafeteria staffs need more training and standardized healthy recipes to follow. It’s too much to ask staff to come up with their own healthy improvements—just the paperwork alone is a full time job.”
Day 3: Grilled cheddar and apple sandwich with peanut butter honey dip
Ashley Christensen, chef/owner of Poole’s Diner, Raleigh, NC
The James Beard Award winning chef has been a vocal supporter of programs to end childhood hunger. For the last four years, Christensen has hosted charity dinners to support Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, raising over $300,000.
For Christensen, her commitment to Share Our Strength stems from the same origin as her passion for cooking. “I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where we always knew where our dinner was coming from,” she says. “In fact, both of my parents took great joy in cooking and eating together; I first learned to love hospitality just by watching them.” These childhood food memories have fueled her career, and driven her advocacy. “It’s simply not acceptable that any child in this country should have to worry about where her next meal is coming from.”
In constructing her recipe, Christensen revisited her favorite childhood snack, apples and peanut butter, in sandwich form. A cinch to prepare but high in protein and fiber, it’s the type of quick and easy lunch that requires little but can make a huge difference.
Grilled cheddar and apple sandwich with peanut butter honey dip
1 tablespoon peanut butter
1 tablespoon local honey
2 slices whole wheat bread
2 slices cheddar cheese
1 quarter local apple, sliced thin
2 teaspoons butter
For the dip: Mix peanut butter with honey. This works best if the ingredients are room temperature.
For the sandwich: Layer remaining ingredients (except for the butter) in this order; slice of bread, slice of cheddar cheese, layer of thin sliced apples, slice of cheddar cheese, and slice of bread. Melt butter over medium heat in a sauté pan. Add sandwich to the pan, and cook until golden brown on bottom side. (Use a spatula to lift sandwich and check progress.) Flip the sandwich, and cook until both sides are golden brown, and cheddar cheese is “melty”. Transfer the sandwich from the pan to a cutting board.
To serve: Using a serrated knife, cut the sandwich in half, and serve on a plate with the peanut honey butter dip.