Monday, May 11, 2009

Nary a tater tot in sight

When I was in elementary school, hot lunch was pretty much something goopy with tater tots on the side, served by an old lady (someone at least 40, maybe 50) in a uniform. This trend in educational nutrition continued through upper school. Finally, in college, the genius introduction of a salad bar* to the dorm cafeteria seemed to signify that school lunch had, at last, become worthy of the name.

For my kids, this sordid history is their version of me saying I used to walk five miles to school in a blizzard or that we didn't have cell phones. They just don't believe it. Why? Because this is what they get for hot lunch in elementary school:
  • Hand-rolled sushi with edamame and jasmine rice
  • Pasta with made-from-scratch sauce, garlic bread and salad
  • Freshly grilled burgers, hot dogs, chips and fruit
  • Tacos with all the fixings
  • Roasted lemon-garlic chicken wings
  • Teriyaki skewers, pot stickers, and Popsicles
  • Tandoori chicken, pita bread and fresh veggies

I know. They're totally spoiled, but it's an amazing part of the school. Every Friday, parents come together in the kitchen, put on their aprons, and make a homemade hot meal for everyone. As a multi-year veteran of this system, I've worked this hot lunch thing from many angles. As a baker, dropping off my five dozen Toll House cookies on my way to work in the morning. As part of the pasta team, where I learned the secret of how to boil an absurd amount of water in time to feed 130 carb-crazed children (start early, and use every pot in the place). But now I know the place to be is the Tandoori Chicken team:
  • We've got the mood music (direct from India)
  • We've got people on the team who can set up chafing dishes in their sleep
  • We've got a former professional chef chopping our herbs
  • We've got ice cream for dessert
  • We've got incense burning on the patio
  • We've got homemade pesto and an avocado and tomato fresca sauce for our vegetarian pasta eaters
  • We've got the most delectable Teachers' Salad**
  • We've got the dishwashing system down to a science

But most of all, we've got Laila's famous chicken. Read 'em and weep, burger guys. Tandoori Chicken rules!

Laila's Famous Tandoori Chicken Tenders

by Sharon Graves
Prep Time: 15 minutes, plus marinating overnight
Cook Time: 30 minutes

  • 1 5 lb bag of frozen chicken tenders, thawed
  • About 2 Tbs. each crushed fresh garlic and crushed fresh ginger
  • 1 can of Rajah Tandoori Masala spice
  • A few Tbs. fresh lemon juice
  • 1 Tbs. salt
  • About 3 c. of canola oil

To make the chicken:

Rinse and drain chicken, but keep the bag it came in so you can marinate the chicken overnight.

Mix up all the rest of the ingredients. You might notice that amounts are not exact in this recipe, but that is because Laila makes it by heart every time. You can taste the marinade after it's mixed up, and adjust seasonings as you see fit.

Return the chicken to the bag, pour the marinade in, then seal and refrigerate at least a few hours but preferably overnight.

Pre-heat oven to 375. Lay chicken tenders out on shallow foil-covered baking sheets, and roast for 20-30 minutes, or until cooked through but still tender.

Serve with yogurt mint sauce (below) and warm pita bread.

For the Yogurt Mint Sauce:

Take a large tub of plain yogurt. Finely chop a bunch of mint and a bunch of cilantro. Mix herbs and a generous sprinkle of salt into the yogurt. Allow flavors to blend for at least an hour before serving.

Warm Pita Bread:

Buy good thick pita from an ethnic grocery store. About 15 minutes before serving, lightly brush each pita with a little good quality olive oil. Wrap stack of pita in foil, and heat in a 350 oven for about 10 minutes.

My Teachers' Salad

2 bags spring greens
2 bags baby spinach
1/2 bunch of green onions, chopped
1/4 bunch of mint, really finely minced
1 tart apple, chopped
1 small box of button mushrooms, thinly sliced (optional)
1 pint of blueberries OR 3/4 c. dried cranberries
1 bag of Trader Joe's spiced pecans****
6-8 oz. of crumbled blue cheese
Trader Joe's Champagne Pear Vinaigrette OR homemade balsamic dressing with a touch of sugar in it

Combine the greens and spinach in a large bowl. Toss in the onions, mint, apple, mushrooms, and berries. Just before serving, mix in nuts and cheese, and add dressing to taste. Grind fresh pepper over the salad and serve.

* Favorite sighting at college my freshman year: the girls who would just have salad bar for dinner, but then have six bowls of ice cream for dessert.
** The Teachers' Salad is a grown up salad that is stashed in the kitchen for the staff and the hot lunch crew. When I was on the pasta team, it was a killer Caesar.
***Laila says you can use any brand, but this is the one she gets.
**** You can use 3/4 cup of another sweet/spicy nut. Try toasted almonds, candied walnuts, whatever you like.

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