The Lunch Lady

By Cindy Lazarenko.

Cindy Lazarenko has done pretty much everything there is to do in a kitchen — created a personal chef/catering business called Mise en Place, was a partner in Bacon, the owner of Highlands Kitchen, and worked with her brother Brad at his Culina restaurants. Now Cindy puts the daily grind of the restaurant business on the back shelf to devote time to her family, the On Our Table Design Studio with her husband Geoff Lilge, and cook lunch for 75 students at Highlands Junior High School. The program is funded by Enbridge through Metis Child and Family Services and relies on donated food to succeed.

On any given day Cindy doesn’t know if she has a bag of organic potatoes or hot dogs to work with. It’s up to her to come up with a nutritious lunch that is more inviting than the potato chips and pop on offer at the corner store.

In her new column for The Tomato, Cindy will tell stories of cooking for her family and for the kids at school; stories informed by a personal philosophy of eating where you live and seasoned by joy.

Every meat-eating person who has a desire to cook should know how to roast a chicken.

I asked my daughters what they thought might be their favourite dinner. One said ribs and the other said fish loaf. Yes, I made fish loaf for dinner once with a few pieces of leftover fish and a can of salmon. I think I found the recipe in one of those coil-bound Ukrainian church cookbooks — you know the ones that have a few authentic Ukrainian recipes and a LOT of recipes for desserts? It was actually very good but I never thought to make it again. I think it needs a new name.

I was hoping they would come to the conclusion that a roast chicken dinner belongs way up there on the list of their favourite dinners. So I’ll help them out a little because a roast chicken dinner is without a doubt the dinner that receives zero complaints and the most requests for seconds.

I developed an extreme need to feed people early on, and have been cooking since my first Home Economics class where we learned the basics, and made biscuits, stir fries and apple pie. I used to leave foil-wrapped food packets on the floor just outside the door of the Home EC room for a hungry friend who would stop by and pick up at the end of his class. In my early teens, I remember wowing our family and guests, entering the dining room with a flaming Baked Alaska I had made to celebrate my Grandma’s birthday. My mom still tells stories of how they would come home from work to a dinner made by their 13-year-old daughter (even if it was always a stir fry).

I’ve roasted a lot of chickens in my life and I don’t think I’ve ever really done it the same way twice. Google “how to roast a chicken” and you will get so many variations of temperature settings, seasonings, sizes and accompaniments, that, after reading, even I would feel like settling for a store-bought, pre-cooked rotisserie chicken.


That’s the great thing about a roast chicken dinner, the endless possibilities of how to prepare. Get creative or keep it simple. You can add root vegetables and thick slices of onions for a one-pot meal or prepare a few side dishes while it is roasting, like a pot of buttery mashed potatoes and sautéed green beans. You can even serve it cold with a salad for a summertime meal.

If you have leftovers, well then, there’s chicken salad sandwiches for lunch the next day or you could roast the carcass until it’s dark brown and make a wonderful chicken soup. You can even freeze it for another day or change up the flavour profile altogether with the addition of a few things such as a can of coconut milk, ginger, some fish sauce and a squeeze of lime for a Thai-ish dish.

For me, this is a Sunday meal. A Sunday lunch even. Better yet, served on a cold, snowy day which shouldn’t prove to be hard to come by in this province. I have memories of visiting my baba on Sunday afternoons and we always ate a big spread in her tiny kitchen in the middle of the afternoon, with Happy Pop for the kids and a bottle of vodka on the table for the adults. I like the idea of eating early on Sundays, leaving the evening free for relaxing or preparing for the week ahead.

However, in my world, there are times when things happen a bit more on the fly. Recently at the school kitchen I pulled a very large bag of what I thought were chicken pieces out of the freezer to put into the refrigerator to thaw. I have only 2½ hours to prepare lunch for approximately 75 kids, so when I opened the bag the next morning to discover they were in fact whole chickens I wasn’t exactly confident I could prep and roast that many chickens in that amount of time. I quickly rinsed, patted dry, seasoned with salt and pepper and, as luck would have it, reached for bottles of Blue Kettle garlic vinaigrette which someone had very generously donated (getting a donation of a well-loved local product is like Christmas morning for me). I literally just poured the dressing over the chickens and threw them into a 400ºF oven, eventually lowering the temperature for the last hour of cooking. I had volunteer help that day so we were also able to pull together steamed potatoes and roast cauliflower. The chicken was incredibly juicy and full of flavour, and the kids thoroughly enjoyed their lunch. It proves the point that not only are there several ways to prepare a perfectly roasted chicken, it is possible to do so with very little effort.

Last week I went to the City Market to buy a chicken. I buy the free range, hormone-free, antibiotic-free kind of chicken. It was small, perfect for a family of four, and made it possible to make a satisfying weekday chicken dinner in just over an hour (including cooking time).

After popping it in the oven, I pull out my new best friend, the rice cooker. I recently purchased a Krups, and while I’m sure you can buy more expensive rice cookers, I like the multi-function settings on this one. There are four: rice, oatmeal, steam and slow cook. It’s stainless steel with a 10-cup capacity which may seem excessive (but go ahead and make lots because you can make chicken fried rice with any leftovers the next day!). It even comes with a measuring cup and spoon as well as an attached steamer basket, which makes for healthy side dishes and easy clean up.

I get some brown rice on the go, then peel and thinly slice some sweet Nantes carrots and mix these with sliced flat beans. Add all to the steamer basket for 10 minutes at the end. Just before serving, I make a simple gravy but you can also just serve with the drippings if you like.

I taught my 10 year old to roast a chicken. I’m not sure she could handle the task on her own yet but I’m pretty sure she’ll have it down by the time she’s ready to move out.

Recipe: Cindy’s citrus roast chicken

Where to Buy

Organic free-range chicken

  • Serben Free Range (City Farmers’ Market)
  • Sunworks Farm (Blush Lane, Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market)
  • First Nature (Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market)

Flat beans

  • Gull Valley Greenhouse (Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market, City Farmers’ Market)


  • Erdmanns’ Carrots (City Farmers’ Market)

Blue Kettle Products

  • The Italian Centre
  • Save On Foods

Many people consider meal planning and cooking a chore, something added to their list of things to do in a day that they must endure. I consider it a complete joy. I wanted to name my column The Joy of Cooking, but apparently it’s been taken.