- Associated Press - Sunday, May 7, 2017

GRAYSON, Ky. (AP) - The pineapple-tinged aroma of sweet and sour permeated the hallways of East?Carter High School and led inexorably to the cafeteria, where hungry students were feasting on pork and vegetables cooked in the tangy sauce.

It’s a new smell in a school starting to get used to new scents coming from the kitchen, where a chef has been working with cafeteria staff to develop dishes that are tastier, more nutritious and yet still meet strict federal guidelines.

Judy Gurnee owns and operates a farm to table catering company in Mount Sterling, and for the past three weeks she has brought her expertise in sourcing, selecting and preparing local foods to the Carter County School District. On April 28, she was in the ECHS?kitchen, stirring vats of sweet and sour pork made to a recipe using a simple list of ingredients, all of them readily available.

Bite-sized chunks of pork, pineapple and green, yellow and red peppers are combined with chopped onion and a bottled sauce she doctored to make more palatable to students. It all still meets federal regulations, but tastes better than previous blends.

“I liked the pork and the rice,”?said sophomore William Withrow, who scarfed his entire serving except for the pineapple chunks. “I?look forward to the food here more than before.”

The good news for fans of the dish is that although Gurnee was only in the district three weeks, she shared her kitchen secrets with the permanent staff, which means the halls will again be redolent of sweet and sour along with other savory smells.

Gurnee came to the district via the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Chefs in Schools program, and worked with the entire nutrition staff, from food service director Sheila Bradshaw to the kitchen workers who prepare and serve meals.

Gurnee takes the approach that she is working with already talented cooks who are tethered by nutritional regulations that preclude some of the culinary basics, like butter and salt, chefs have depended on for generations.

“One of my managers told me she didn’t know how to cook without using butter and salt,”?Bradshaw said.

“They can cook and cook well, but they haven’t been able to get the products they need for fresh cooking. They don’t have the manpower. They’re on tight schedules. There’s less time for individual service,” Gurnee said.

Some school cooks work with outmoded equipment and others, particularly in new schools, are thrust into state-of-the art commercial kitchens, where it takes them time to learn to use specialized equipment effectively.

The solution is to find procedures that work with the time constraints and the facilities at hand, to find other ingredients and techniques to enhance and release the flavors in meats, fruits and vegetables, and to prepare and present them attractively.

“For the past 20 years, kitchen workers have been discouraged from a lot of scratch cooking. And it got to be hard to meet sodium and fat requirements. So schools started getting a lot of big-box items and nobody was happy, especially the end consumers - the students. And there was a lot of repetition because it takes so long to develop acceptable recipes,”?Gurnee said.

She left several new recipes in district kitchens. A baked bean recipe has made a popular dish from a canned product that by itself is lackluster at best. There is a veggie wrap and also a ground turkey, egg and cheese muffin that rivals the fast-food product for kid-approved tastes but remains well within nutritional limits.

Permanent staff will use the new recipes and continue to develop more new dishes using Gurnee’s advice and techniques, Bradshaw said. “They’ve been inspired with her processes and her use of vegetables and how to use spices effectively,”?she said.

“The food has improved a lot,”?said junior Noah Womack, who had been dining on cafeteria food more since Gurnee made changes. “The chicken seems more like chicken, less generic. It doesn’t seem as processed. You get salads and apples. Quite a few of us eat it,”?he said.

One caveat: Womack still likes the chicken nuggets best -?the same breaded hunks of processed white meat that ruled the cafeteria before Gurnee performed her culinary magic.

That is a worthy challenge to overcome, Gurnee admits, shaking her head ruefully. “You’ve got to come up with something golden to beat the chicken nuggets.”


Information from: The Independent, https://www.dailyindependent.com

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