The Lunch Lady


by Cindy Lazarenko

You may have noticed me use the hashtag #cookingwithOlay on social media. Olay is the aunt of Stephanie Alcasabas (the wonderful chef at Culina Muttart). She is from the Phillipines and has lived in Canada for eight years. I like to introduce Olay as my new best friend. I’m not sure if the feeling is mutual and it seems to embarrass her every time I say it, but I can’t help it.

How did Olay come into my life? This summer I helped out my brother Brad by managing his catering headquarters at A.C.T. in Rundle Park while he opened four new cafes on City of Edmonton golf courses.

I met with Olay for the first time to describe a rather unique position—one which required kitchen prep, running a concession and serving a high percentage of special-needs customers, one where kindness and patience is an absolute must. As I described the job I noticed she did not for a moment hesitate in answering questions with a definite “YES. I can do that.”

My kind of woman.

I immediately appreciated her soft skills, easygoing nature and focus on food and family. It didn’t take long before I realized I would never want a job where she wasn’t the person I worked with side by side each day. Not only is she smart and talented, hardworking and conscientious, she feeds me!

She brings me chicken stirfry with quail eggs, sweet and dense casava cake, the most delicious fruit cocktail concoction and exotic coffee. My kids get dried mango slices and cookies from the Phillipines. One day she insisted I try duck balut. Oh my. Olay was so excited to prepare this, how could I refuse. I slurped the liquid out of the cracked egg first, as per her instructions and enthusiastic nodding of her head, then proceeded to peel away the shell to find, maybe I should skip this part, the little feet? Feathers? I’m not even sure. I am not the squeamish type when it comes to food but I really had to talk myself into this one. I had a co-worker video me eating this egg because I was feeling a bit like Anthony Bourdain on Parts Unknown. The whites were hard and undesirable but the yolk was absolutely delicious. I found myself craving more duck balut for the rest of the day.

One day she asked me where to find purple yams. When Olay asks me where to find ingredients I know something good is coming my way. The next day I was treated to little glass jars full of sweet, periwinkle-coloured, creamy, slightly chewy purple yam pudding.

Empanadas. Everyone loves her empanadas. She had a great technique of rolling out the dough, filling the end piece, then, after folding the dough over, using a plate to form a half moon. We don’t interfere with her when she’s making her empanadas. She takes such pride in her work and is a bit of a perfectionist; Olay is fussy about having them the same size and shape. She stuffs them with ground chicken, peas, egg and raisins, or beef, raisins and green olives.

My very favourite Olay dish is tortang talong. She grills eggplant until very soft, peels it, then dips it in beaten egg with spices. Then she grills it with ground pork on top. I eat it with white rice and chili sauce. This dish is the next best thing to going out for dim sum.

This relationship does work both ways. It’s not just me taking. I give as well.

For catered functions we often make Chicken Marbella, an old favourite from the Silver Palate Cookbook, a slow cooked chicken dish with lots and lots of oregano (more oregano than you would ever put in any other dish) white wine, olive oil, garlic, brown sugar, olives and prunes. Olay loves to cook for her family (another thing we have in common). She made this dish for a family get- together and they loved it.

At Thanksgiving we gave her an organic turkey from Meadow Creek Farms. She had never roasted a turkey before so we prepared it together at work and I showed her how to make my mom’s stuffing (with the addition of her secret ingredient, brown sugar. Sorry Mom, people need to know; just add a tablespoon or so when you are sautéing the onions and celery). When it came time to wrap the turkey neck in foil for roasting separately, Olay asked if she could season it with vegetable stock powder and mayonnaise. Of course I said yes, it was HER turkey. Well, if that wasn’t the best tasting neck of turkey I ever tasted.

Olay loves to bake. She makes cascaron cookies, a simple little deep-fried nugget rolled in warm sugar. We make a similar Ukrainian cookie called khrustyky and she was quick to request the recipe to make them for her family. She makes Spanish bread and ensaimada, and chocolate-glazed brownies with pecans, and hummingbird cakes that we sell nat the cafes and concessions. We are constantly coming up with new recipes to try together.

I don’t know if it’s possible for the two of us to work together until the end of time, but I sure hope so.

Chicken Marbella
Adapted from the Silver Palate Cookbook

½ c olive oil
½ c red wine vinegar
1 c pitted prunes
½ c pitted Spanish green olives
½ c capers with a bit of juice
6 bay leaves
1 head garlic, peeled and finely pureed
¼ c dried oregano
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 chickens (2½ pounds each), quartered
1 c brown sugar
1 c dry white wine
¼ c fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley or fresh cilantro, finely chopped

Combine the olive oil, vinegar, prunes, olives, capers and juice, bay leaves, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add the chicken and stir to coat. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.

Next Day:
Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Arrange the chicken in a single layer in one or two large shallow baking pans and spoon the marinade over it evenly. Sprinkle the chicken pieces with the brown sugar and pour the white wine around them.

Bake, basting frequently with the pan juices, until the thigh pieces yield clear yellow (rather than pink) juice when pricked with a fork, 50 minutes to 1 hour.

With a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken, prunes, olives, and capers to a serving platter. Moisten with a few spoonfuls of the pan juices and sprinkle generously with the parsley or cilantro. Pass the remaining pan juices in a sauceboat.

To serve Chicken Marbella cold, cool to room temperature in the cooking juices before transferring the pieces to a serving platter. If the chicken has been covered and refrigerated, reheat it in the juices, then allow it to come to room temperature before serving. Spoon some of the reserved juice over the chicken.

Serves 10-12.

Cindy Lazarenko is the chef/owner of OnOurTable, a volunteer at Highlands Junior High, and helps her brother at Culina Catering.