Could we change our attitude, we should not only see life differently, but life itself would come to be different. ~ Katherine Mansfield

Thursday, August 21, 2014

(Don't) Let Them Eat Cake

I make no secret of the fact that I live in a lovely community suffering from a longstanding invasion of ignorant asshats (see HERE). So, I should not have been surprised by the most recent local activity but it has indeed caught me off guard. Why did I expect more? Because this issue involves the children in our county and their health.
Graphic courtesy of

Douglas County School District has become the only district in the state of Colorado to opt out of the Michelle Obama-championed new federal student lunch guidelines at the high school level. What a distinction! While I love the general idea of bucking the system and taking a stand, this opt-out represents one of the worst decisions that our should-have-been-voted-out-there's-always-next-time school board has had a hand in.

In response, I had a whole blog planned on the history of school lunches, the current guideline updates, and ways to embrace the healthier changes and fight childhood obesity while teaching our kids to enjoy a balanced meal. I'm going to skip that though, in favor of a Q&A, in which I cast the school board/naysayers in the roll of Inquisitor, and myself as the Voice of Reason. (This casting is totally biased, of course, but that's a perk of writing your own blog.)

A quick background and some resources, if you are into things like research and fact checking:

And now, to the inquisition!

INQUISITOR: The government is overstepping its bounds by dictating the composition of school lunches. What's next? Will we be forced to investigate and evaluate the sack lunches kids bring in the door?

VOICE OF REASON: Public schools are subject to government oversight. With government funds, comes government accountability. This is why DCSD lost its eligibility to be reimbursed for free and low-cost school lunches when it decided not to participate in the new school lunch program. But you know that. And I'm sure you weighed that estimated $167,000 yearly reimbursement (not too many poor kids in Douglas County!) against the $3M a year in revenue that the school district takes in from its in-house Subway franchises. Nope, not even Jared and his giant pants can make Subway sandwiches worthy of our kids in the eyes of the federal guidelines, so losing those fast food chains would have been a hit to the ol' pocketbook. 

What was the other part? Oh yeah, government oversight of kids' sack lunches. That's kind of an inflammatory argument based on nothing, right? Did Rush put you up to this? There is no precedent or law that prohibits parents from feeding their kids a bucket of Cheetos if they want to. Being food stupid, on a private level at least, is totally in alignment with federal regulations. Phew!

INQUISITOR: The guidelines are too strict. Our chef made a pizza that adhered to the guidelines and the kids hated it. And his burrito had to be created in miniature in order to comply. What do you say to that, huh?

VoR: Who decided that our kids need foods like pizza, burritos, cheeseburgers and fries in their daily lunch? Because they like them? If we based our children's diets on what they liked, my kids would eat nothing but macaroni and cheese and Whoppers malted milk balls for dinner. Stop luring kids to the lunch line with empty calories covered in melted cheese. Here's a crazy thought: don't serve pizza. At all. The menus aren't set by the new regulations, just the guidelines. So, and I'm just spitballing here, what if the PTO sponsored a school-wide recipe contest, kids and parents could get involved, and there could be a taste-testing night to raise money for the school? Winning recipes, with nutritional information, could be handed over to the district chef and/or school lunch supervisor and incorporated into the lunch menu. Too crazy? You'd rather stick to selling wrapping paper? Okay, then take ten minutes, harness the power of social media, and call out for help from the world of food and mom bloggers. Provide them with information on cost stipulations and nutritional content per serving and see what those wacky kitchen creatives come up with. Or google it. Someone has probably already done this.

INQUISITOR: Just because you give a kid an apple, you can't make him eat it. We have the healthiest trash cans in the state - the kids are throwing away more than they eat! 

VoR: Until healthy lunches are the new normal, there is going to be a learning curve. Remember turning 21? No? That's because you were blackout drunk. A natural reaction to your new access to the magical world of booze. But your liver couldn't keep up with that kind of routine for the rest of your life, so you adapted and started to drink in moderation at least most of the time. So it will be with our kids. As booze is to a hangover, so too is trashing your lunch to hunger. (Bonus lesson: This will also teach kids a natural consequence that is a direct result of their actions!) It will also help when you stop trying to feed students pseudo-cardboard, non-fat pizza. Again, pizza is now a treat in this new world and not a school lunch staple, so it can be delicious, gooey and full of fat outside of school bounds. For the school day let's find some new recipes, like hummus/cucumber/pita sandwiches for instance, and teach the kids about cucumbers. Involve them in the school garden. If there isn't a school garden, plant one! Seeds are cheap and the child labor is built in, which is part of the reason I myself had kids. I'm sure an inventive biology teacher can adapt a lesson on Mendel's genetics to be taught outside while the ninth graders weed the pea patch. Torn away from their classrooms and textbooks, the kids may actually listen and (holy shit!) become inspired.

INQUISITOR: For some kids, this is their only guaranteed meal in a day, and it is being wasted.

VoR: A truly hungry child will eat the healthy meal. A truly hungry child, who may not have access to fresh produce on a regular basis, will eat the apple and maybe take a second one as well. A truly hungry child needs the nutrition provided by the new guidelines, since a standard piece of pizza may fill their stomaches but leave them nutritionally starving. 

INQUISITOR: Well what about our cooks? They aren't allowed to give seconds, so extra food goes right into the trash.

VoR: Come on, work with me on this one. Lunch rooms must adhere to strict food and cleanliness guidelines, which makes them perfect candidates for donating extra meals to churches and soup kitchens. All that takes is a little coordination and a phone call. If you are lucky enough to live in the Denver area, check out We Don't Waste. I'm pretty sure they'll take the call. 

INQUISITOR: When I grew up, school lunches were delicious. Can't we leave well enough alone?

VoR: When you grew up, school lunches weren't competing with fast foods, and you only had 2 options daily, Take It or Leave It. "Foods" that can be found in current high school cafeterias weren't even invented when you went to school.

INQUISITOR: But what about a parent's right to choose without unnecessary government - 

VoR: Enough! Enough with the justifications and the inflammatory what ifs. The Voice of Reason is going to lose her mind! Seriously, where is the common sense? Even the schools adhering to the guidelines are lobbying to get french fries to count as a vegetable and pizza sauce to count as a serving of tomatoes. If you used all of this loophole energy and transferred it into trying to make the system work, we could have nutritious foods in our schools, kids who have a greater knowledge of where food comes from and how it affects their bodies, and parents would have an ally in the age old battle of getting kids to eat broccoli. Is the new system perfect? Nope. But let's try it and then when we encounter hiccups work towards a logical solution rather than writing off the whole system as broken and tossing it away. Let's not make this about economics and politics and instead refocus on the real message of raising a healthy generation of kids. If we as a community are going to unite and take a stand, let's work together to introduce our children to exotic vegetables and a new variety of spices instead of reaching a point of mutiny to protect their access to a five dollar foot long sub. 

Damn. Being the only voice of reason in the discussion is exhausting. And angry-making, apparently. This issue makes me nuts. What do you all think?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Goat Milk Cajeta. Oh yes.

So, are goats a little louder than we'd planned on? Sure. More trouble than we'd anticipated to catch, collar, and milk? Yep. Do they poop a crazy amount and waste more feed than even the chickens? Yes again.

So why on earth, you may be thinking, would someone willingly keep goats? Well aside from their inherent sweetness, a frisky take on life, and personality galore, the only logical answer is cajeta. And what is cajeta? Only the most glorious thing that goat milk can achieve; a caramel sauce that by its sheer perfection will put all others to shame. And, you only need 4 cups of milk to make it, so even our tiny haul was more than sufficient after a few days of hoarding.

For the duration of this demo, picture me with the air conditioner cranked (we're having a heat wave) and a nice mix of alt country power ballads blaring over my stereo. Or maybe I'm belting out the lyrics to "Let It Go," Eddie Vedder style...My secret is safe with me.

First, gather your 4 cups of goat milk.

Then, place milk, a scant cup of white sugar, a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of vanilla into a 2.5 or 3 Qt pan over medium high heat and bring to a boil, stirring to prevent scorching.

When the milk boils, remove from heat and add 1/4 tsp of baking soda that has been dissolved in a TB of water. Stir stir stir - it will foam up. Then return the pan to the stove over medium heat and prepare to cook and stir for the next hour or so. Earn that cajeta!

At roughly 40 minutes, the milk started to take on a caramel color.

At about an hour, the milk had reduced to roughly under 2 cups and it was getting close!

And then, glory of glories, it was done. The milk had reduced to about one cup. Rumor has it that the longer you cook the milk, the sweeter and thicker it will be, but my arm gave out at 75 minutes, and it was damn good. Carefully pour the cajeta into a glass jar and let it cool.

While the cajeta cools, keep singing along to Idina Menzel...or someone more adult since the kids aren't home...and scrape the cajeta from the bottom of the pan and put it in your mouth.

The cajeta will thicken as it cools. After a few hours in the refrigerator, you will be rewarded with this. Well done, you. You deserve it. Cajeta is delicious heated over ice cream, as a fruit dip, or you can rely on my favorite pairing, a spoon. Dig in. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Easy summer dinner: New potatoes and peas

We all have a button, some kind of trigger, that immediately catapults us back in time to a moment from childhood. One of mine is peas.

For two glorious weeks in the summer, nature aligns and a garden will give you all of the sweet peas and new potatoes you can ask for. As a kid, this occurred during summers in Idaho at my grandparents' house and all I have to do is see a pea on the vine and I am transported. Nothing tastes like a young pea, straight from the pod.

When we put in the garden four doors down, my mom's sole request was to plant peas and potatoes. She's making memories with my boys, much like her own mom did with my brothers and me, teaching them how to pick the fattest pods and split them down the seam with their thumb to reveal the perfectly straight row of plump peas hidden inside.

And this weekend, we finally sat down to a meal of new potatoes and peas. What was once a staple on my Grandma's summer table has made it to my own weekly menu.

It's a great option for Meatless Mondays and a simple way to show off produce from the garden or farmer's market. And, if you're lucky like me, it will take you right back to being a kid.

New Potatoes and Peas - a loose recipe (the kind I hated when I first started to cook)

To serve a family of 4 with leftovers I dug up roughly 30 new potatoes of various sizes, and as many peas as were ripe. You can never have too many peas, so pick more than you think you'll need.

Wash the potatoes, quartering the larger ones, cutting some in half, and leaving the littles whole. Boil in a pot of heavily salted water until easily pierced with a fork. While the potatoes cook, shell the peas.

When the potatoes are done, turn off the heat and add the shelled peas to the hot water.

Make a roux. I used 4 TB butter and half a cup of flour, mixing over medium heat until it was a golden brown. Then whisk in whole milk - taking care to smash the flour chunks - until you have a thin gravy. There should be enough liquid to act as a sort of soup when combined with the potatoes. Liberally salt and pepper the gravy to taste.

Drain the potatoes and peas. Put in a serving dish, pour the gravy over the top, and serve.

Happy eating. Let the memories begin!