The Lunch Lady

by Cindy Lazarenko

Happy spring! Time to put the snow suits away, the winter boots, the mitts and the gloves. During this long cold winter our family got into the spirit of our winter city; we skied, we skated and snowboarded, we tobogganed and made good use of our newly acquired snowshoes. Light Up The City, Flying Canoe Festival, and Deep Freeze, all fairly frosty events, no problem.

The power of family meals has nourished and connected us all winter long. In the kitchen we shared slow-cooked meals of hearty casseroles and heavy meats. We ate legs of lamb, bison short ribs, beef stews and chili; roasted chicken, braised pork, potatoes and sauerkraut.

Now, we’re ready for the after-school scramble that is soccer season.

This is a familiar season for most parents of school-aged children; we have two girls who will play two games a week each as well as weekend practices for the whole month of May and most of June. When soccer season rolls around we give up our routines of setting the table, lighting a candle or two, preparing home-cooked dinners, and sitting together. Why? There’s no time! We are forever searching for missing soccer socks.

It always surprises me that I can go to work each day and happily prepare food for 75 or so students and still come home most days with an equally enthusiastic desire to make dinner for my family. However, during soccer season I switch gears, and occasionally entertain the idea of eating fast food. No, not McDonalds and Tim Hortons. There are plenty of little independent and convenient places around that offer tasty and healthy alternatives to typical fast food.

One Saturday afternoon last May, after a cold and windy day on the field, many of the players and parents ended up at Sunbake Pita. My family has been going regularly ever since. The spinach and feta pita seemed to be the favourite with the kids, while I can’t resist the simply delicious za’atar spiced fresh vegetable pita. There’s cheese pie, shawarma and fatayers (Arab meat pie). The roasted nut bar and the small but pleasing selection of cheeses, yogurts and drinks make it easy to stock up on car snacks and impromptu picnic items.

The Italian Centre is a pre-game must for their ever-popular panini sandwich. They have a beverage selection like no other, fruit, mini cucumbers, or why not make a quick salad? I’ve been known to grab a container of arugula, some dried cranberries, pine nuts and cheese and open up my catering toolbox for sea salt, balsamic vinegar and good extra virgin olive oil. Now all we have to do is head to the Giovanni Caboto Park across the street, say hello to Mr. Spinelli (the lifesize statue – we always pay our respects) then dig into our picnic.

Or, I picture myself eating a nice big bowl of posole, pork and hominy stew at Café del Sol on one of the cold and rainy game evenings, of which there are sure to be a few. We also love their chipotle chicken tacos with a nice cold Jarrito to wash it down.

On those joyous occasions where our team has played well (or if some cheering up is required), a post-soccer treat is in order. In our neighbourhood we visit Mandolin Books and Coffee. They sell mini cups of Pinocchio ice cream, freshly-baked pastry and cookies and hot and cold drinks of all kinds. If we’re lucky, we’ll find a seat on the patio at the back of the shop.

For some reason, it took me a few years of living in Highlands to discover Victoria Meats. Now I look at this neighbourhood shop as my savior on busy nights. Anytime I can avoid the big grocery store chains, especially between May and October, I surely will. Here, I can get milk, eggs and butter as well as other grocery items perfect for quick dinners — fresh rye bread and Portuguese Bakery buns, deli meats and cheeses and pre-cooked or ready-to-cook items such as maple barbecue chicken thighs or smoked pork chops. You’ll find Baba’s Own perogies, cabbage rolls, pies, and ground bison in the freezer. And for treats, Dutch licorice and other sweets.

The 124th Street Market before or after the game is always the right thing to do on Thursday evenings. There are plenty of offerings including fresh salad greens from Latuca and local meats from Sangudo Growers. Grab as much organic produce from the Sparrow’s Nest Organics stand as you can carry to stock up for the weekend. Keep an eye out for the season’s first offering which almost always includes garlic scapes. When you do, go home and make this. You won’t be sorry.

Garlic Scape Pesto

Garlic scapes are the green shoots or stalks of the garlic plant. At the restaurant we used it on sandwiches, pasta, chicken or fish. It would also be great on pizza or added to your favourite hummus or ricotta cheese and eaten on crostini or crackers. At the school I add this to tomato soup and serve with whole wheat pita crisps. It really adds a burst of flavour.

6-8 garlic scapes, roughly chopped
½ c fresh basil, loosely packed
¼ c pumpkin seeds, lightly toasted
¼ c grated Parmesan cheese
squeeze of a whole lemon
¼ c extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste

In a food processor, puree scapes, basil, pumpkin seeds, cheese and lemon juice. With the motor running, slowly drizzle olive oil until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Makes approximately 1½ cups.

On Our Table chef Cindy Lazarenko runs the hot lunch program at Highlands Junior High School. The program is funded by Enbridge through Metis Child and Family Services and relies on donations to succeed.