The phrase “school lunch” conjures up images of soggy chicken tenders or limp spaghetti in my mind. Yours too?
What if I told you that I ate lunch at a San Francisco high school recently and sampled Israeli couscous with beets … rainbow chard with white beans … coconut-cilantro rice with yams and broccoli … Brussels sprouts and apples with shallots, mashed kabocha and butternut squash … and celery root soup?
While the Jewish Community High School of the Bay’s lunch program has gained notice since Jesse Buckner-Alper started it in 2005, for its emphasis on healthy, organic, vegetarian and kosher food — even winning a Golden Carrot award from Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — the school is not resting on its laurels. Rather, lunch director Risa Lichtman has instituted an Eat Local Day, which I attended last month.
(The students don’t eat like that every day; regular days are still mostly organic and fully vegetarian, but not with quite as much selection, e.g., pasta day and taco bar day are standards.)
Feeding 180 students and staff with the school’s infamous kitchen — the former podiatry school has no ovens or stoves, only six hot plates — such healthy food with everyone’s dietary restrictions is no small task.
“I try to stay away from all white foods,” Lichtman said, “as well as expose the kids to foods they might not have tried before.”
This is the Bay Area, though, and while some students are sophisticated foodies, others are not.
“Quinoa is always an option on pasta day,” Lichtman said. “Some kids are into it, some aren’t, and some had never seen it before.”
There are also several barbecue days that happen each school year. For those, Lichtman orders from Grow & Behold, a New York–based kosher meat company that sources all of its meat from small farms, where the animals are treated ethically.
“People notice that it tastes better,” she said.
Lichtman integrates the lunch program into the fabric of the school as much as possible. For example, students have helped her make kimchi (a fermented Korean dish), and an algebra teacher has taken figures from Lichtman’s kitchen budget to incorporate into tests.
“I didn’t really think about my food choices until college, so it’s exciting that we’re planting the seeds now,” Lichtman said.
Overall, the lunch program is definitely noticed by the students.
Senior Boris Shkurko said that before he began attending JCHS, “Food was just food,” adding that given his family’s Russian background, he ate very differently at home than how he eats at school now.
Besides being exposed to a host of new foods, he said, he has learned how his food choices have an impact not only on his body, but on the greater community.
On Eat Local Day, much of the produce on the menu above came from local farms or the Civic Center farmers market. Also, before lunch, Antonio Roman-Alcala, an urban farmer and food activist, showed clips from his film “In Search of Good Food.”
CILANTRO MATZAH BALLS: Both dinners are sold out, but I thought jalapeño and cilantro matzah balls merited a mention. Berkeley’s Comal is the newest restaurant to offer a Passover menu, on the first and second nights.
Executive chef Matt Gandin, who grew up Jewish in Laguna Beach, got the idea from when he was chef de cuisine at San Francisco’s Delfina, where chef-owner Craig Stoll (also Jewish) offers a Passover menu each year.
Gandin warned that his dinner mixes meat and dairy, and observes Passover in the Sephardic way, meaning rice, corn and beans will all be on the menu. Only one shortbread cookie for dessert will have regular flour, which diners can easily avoid.
While Gandin eschews the word “fusion,” he said putting together a menu for a dinner like this is “almost an academic exercise, to figure out how to blend traditional Passover ingredients together with [in this case, Mexican] cuisine to create something new.”
Also on the multicourse menu: tequila-cured salmon, brisket in adobo; lamb barbacoa; and the above-mentioned matzah balls served in caldo de pollo, a traditional Mexican chicken and vegetable soup.
While a seder isn’t taking place at this meal, it will be served in the restaurant’s private dining room for 20 people. Family-style service will encourage conversation, Gandin hopes, and he also hopes to offer it on more days during Passover next year. The restaurant has been open only nine months, and this is the first event of its kind, he noted.
A FOOD VACATION: Not long before Eskender Aseged catered last month’s Kehinde Wiley exhibit opening at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the chef at Radio Africa & Kitchen in San Francisco went to Israel on what he calls a “food vacation.”
“Being a chef is a lot of work, and by the time December arrives, which is even more busy, I begin to run out of ideas,” he said.
So each January, Aseged travels to a foreign country in search of inspiration. This year, he went to Israel.
“I talk to chefs, I go to two or three really fancy restaurants, but mostly smaller, local restaurants,” he said. “Sometimes, if I get lucky, I get to eat in people’s houses.”
While that did not happen in Israel, he said his 11-day trip was “one of the best places I’ve been for inspiration; I think Istanbul and Tel Aviv are, by far, the most inspirational, exciting places I’ve been where stuff is happening in terms of food.”
He was also impressed to find so many young people working in kitchens, complete with tattoos and nose-rings; it made him feel at home, he said.
As a result of Aseged’s travels, diners at Radio Africa & Kitchen (4800 Third St. in San Francisco’s Bayview District) may find a fish cooked in roasted beet slices, as he tried in Israel. And while he was familiar with sumac before, you can be sure the tangy spice will be showing up more frequently in the Ethiopian-born chef’s African-Mediterranean-Californian cuisine.
SMALL BITES: The seventh annual Manischewitz Cook-Off was slated for March 21 in Newark, N.J., which was beyond j.’s deadline. Look in the March 29 issue to see how San Francisco resident Josie Shapiro and her recipe “Faux Pho” fared against the four other finalists.