By Patrick White 2013-12-24 13:57:58
Starting From Scratch K-12 operators discuss how they have added and re-purposed equipment to facilitate fresh prep. It’s no secret that more school nutrition operations are turning (and, in many cases, returning) to scratch cooking. But a reduced reliance on highly processed foods and a greater emphasis on fresh prep is more than a feel-good philosophy— in many districts, it’s a make-it-happen reality for those working in the kitchen. In other words, it’s not enough to want to prepare menu items from scratch; it takes the right equipment and some staff training to be successful. Following is a look at the approaches taken by some districts that are prepping school meals from scratch. Burlington (Vt.) School District Foodservice Director Doug Davis, SNS, finds “scratch cooking” an interesting concept, because it has many different definitions. For example, the salad bars available for all Burlington students every day feature many locally harvested fruits and vegetables that are “processed”—washed, chopped, portioned, etc.—inhouse, by school nutrition team members. “To me, that is a level of scratch cooking,” he explains. Likewise, Davis notes, sometimes his team will use foods and ingredients that have been processed outside the district operation, but then be worked into school recipes. That’s often the case with USDA Foods received by the district, including precooked, plain, diced chicken. “By definition, that’s a processed food,” notes Davis, “but we might take that and make [our own] Chicken and Biscuits or Barbecue Chicken Sandwiches or Sweet and Sour Asian Chicken. So, we’re taking those processed items and taking them a little further by cooking with them and making [a meal] from scratch.” In other cases, the Burlington school nutrition staff does start with foods in their raw form to create complex recipes. “Just today, for example, we did roasted Vermont carrots and butternut squash, both from scratch,” reports Davis. “We made macaroni and cheese, with local cheese, from scratch. We have to offer [some] processed foods, just from a cost perspective, but every one of our schools offers something made from scratch every day.” According to Davis, equipment has played a critical role in allowing Burlington’s schools to do as much scratch cooking as possible. When the district kicked off its ambitious farm-to-school partnerships back in 2003, “We had to start from scratch—literally— with [purchasing] cutting boards and knives,” he notes. Proper prep sinks also [were] needed to wash fresh fruits and vegetables. “And with the cutting and chopping we do, we have had to add Cuisinarts, Robot Coupes and other slicing equipment that allows us to process fresh foods in a cost-effective way,” he adds. Larger-ticket items have been necessary, as well. “We’ve added more refrigeration wherever we can—with the new fresh fruit requirements for breakfast and lunch, we’ve found that we need more refrigeration,” Davis explains. “And freezers are now becoming equally important and valuable, because the USDA Foods program—at least in Vermont—has really high-quality commodity foods that are important to our program’s success, and much of it comes frozen.” Burlington school cafeterias menu soup—made from scratch—every school day, and staffers prepare these on stovetops. “Ovens were added to all schools that didn’t have them. We use Blodgett stoves—they are a wonderful, amazing supporter of our program,” praises Davis of the local manufacturer. As a next step, he’s looking at converting some kitchens to (currently) lower-priced natural gas. But, he notes, “The conversion to gas—with the required fire suppression and hood systems—is expensive, too.” Steamers are a fixture at all Burlington school sites: boiler steamers at the high school and middle school, with boilerless systems at the other schools, Davis reports. “We use the steamers to cook pasta, vegetables, rice and a lot more.” The district’s high school (which also fills a contract for senior citizen meals) has two 60-gal. Groen kettles that are used for cooking pasta, as well as soups and sauces. In addition, the high school is equipped with a braiser/tilt skillet. “That’s really valuable,” cites Davis. “We use that for fried rice and many other foods on our international food line.” (Burlington is home to students from dozens of cultures speaking 60 different languages.) Jeffco Public Schools, Jefferson County, Colo. While this large district is turning increasingly toward scratch preparation, it’s making the change largely without revamping its site kitchens. “We’re pretty limited on the equipment we have and don’t have the budget to purchase a lot of new equipment. So, what we’re trying to do is develop recipes that allow us to use the equipment that we already have,” explains Linda Stoll, SNS, child nutrition director. Elementary schools in the district, for example, are typically equipped with convection ovens, steamers and steam-jacketed kettles. “And that is it!” reports Stoll. Making recipes work within that standard equipment arsenal is largely the job of Yuri Sanow, Jeffco’s executive chef and trainer. One example he offers is a scratch-prepped macaroni and cheese recipe. “It’s written for the ovens—which I think is the way most people would do it—but I also wrote it for the steamers. It works well that way, and there’s a little less clean-up, because it doesn’t stick to the pan; we consider things like that, too,” notes Sanow. “We use the parameters that we have, and we try to get creative.” Jeffco’s child nutrition team uses its Groen InTek steamers for cooking pasta and casseroles—“Basically anything that you would do in an oven, where you’re not looking for caramelization,” explains Sanow. The steamers also are useful for cooking fresh, locally sourced vegetables, adds Stoll. “It’s nice to be able to steam those—a lot of our elementary school kitchens are pretty small, and they might already have an oven-load going with some other product, so the steamers allow us to have another product cooking at the same time.” Steam-jacketed kettles, also from Groen, are a relatively recent addition to most Jeffco schools. “We don’t have a lot of recipes written for them yet, but certainly they work great for sauces,” says Sanow. Currently, made-from-scratch soups are mostly cooked on stovetops, but they can be made in the kettles, too, he notes. Pasta also can be cooked efficiently in this equipment. “We’re not currently doing this, but certainly the raw USDA Foods turkey roast could be bagged and cooked in the steamjacketed kettles,” adds Stoll, reflecting on a menu option under consideration. It’s another example, she says, of how multi-functional equipment can be used in various ways to free up other kitchen essentials. This year, Jeffco cooks started working with raw fresh chicken drumsticks. “That was a real leap of faith for us,” admits Stoll. Sanow created a training video for staff at all 150+ school sites to demonstrate that while this product was a new undertaking, team members had the food safety and sanitation expertise to do the job—providing they stick to established practices and procedures. Existing ovens are used to cook the chicken, and the only additional kitchen tools purchased for the job were disposable aprons, explains Stoll. “The staff can cover up their normal uniforms and then throw the aprons away as soon as they’re done working with the chicken.” While mostly making due with current equipment, Stoll and Sanow have found that the increased emphasis on scratch cooking has required the purchase of some smaller items. “For some of our recipes, we had to buy mixing bowls,” says Sanow. “A lot of what we’re doing is taking product A and product B together to make product C. The staff hadn’t been doing a whole lot of that before, so we needed mixing bowls.” Another addition has been instant-read digital thermometers to replace older, dial-style thermometers; this switch was made to increase accuracy, speed and food safety when cooking foods like the raw chicken. Edmond (Okla.) Public Schools “If we had to rank the importance of equipment for scratch cooking, the tilt skillet is probably the biggest, most important thing,” says Child Nutrition Director Dan Lindsey. “So much of what we [menu] is ground meat, and that’s really the best way to cook it.” For schools just beginning the transition to scratch cooking, Lindsey recommends a tilt skillet be the first purchase. The Edmond school nutrition team uses Vulcan tilt skillets in meal preparation, and many school kitchens already were outfitted with this equipment. But Lindsey has had to add more to keep up with the transition to increased scratch cooking. “Now, as we move forward, they are must-have items for us,” asserts Lindsey. Retrofitting these into kitchens typically isn’t too difficult, “just make sure you have the hood space—that’s usually the limitation, if there is one,” he advises. Lindsey prefers the 30-gal. models, given the size of most Edmond school enrollments. In addition to using the tilt skillet for cooking ground meat, “You also can do sauces. In a pinch, we’ve even used them to steam,” he says. “If you have a tilt skillet and an oven, you can make just about anything!” Speaking of ovens, Lindsey’s team uses convection ovens to prep recipes featuring raw turkey breasts, as well as boneless, skinless chicken breasts. “We bread that ourselves—we don’t use any pre-breaded items here,” Lindsey explains. Steamers are another important tool in the district’s scratch cooking program, he adds. These are used primarily for heating vegetables, as well as for keeping foods like pasta moist when reheating. The bottom line, Lindsey concludes, is that cooking from scratch doesn’t have to require much additional equipment— depending on what you already have at your meal prep sites. “It can be a bigger shift for the employees—it’s so much easier to just pull the food out [of a package] and heat and serve,” he concedes. “But our staff here now has a culture of scratch cooking, because I think they understand what we’re trying to do and understand the value in it.” Patrick White is a freelance editor in Middlesex, Vt., and a former assistant editor of this publication. You’re the Expert A snapshot of the districts that shared their experiences and advice on scratch cooking in this month’s column: • Burlington School District Burlington, Vt. Website: www.bsdvt.org Director: Doug Davis, SNS District enrollment: 3,600 Number of schools: 9 • Jeffco Public Schools Jefferson County, Colo. Website: www.jeffcopublicschools.org Director: Linda Stoll, SNS District enrollment: 84,000 Number of schools: 155 • Edmond Public Schools Edmond, Okla. Website: www.edmondschools.net Director: Dan Lindsey District enrollment: 22,600 Number of schools: 23
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