Lunch in my old school was-throughout my twelve years of attendance-crummy at best. You learned to avoid anything heated even slightly beyond room temperature. In such a situation, one needs a bailout, and ours was laid out on a small folding table. An appendage to the end of the counter on which we slid our trays, the table held torn open bags of white bread, a large bowl of butter, and an equally sizeable aluminum tin of peanut butter. And so, mood-depending, I’d work my way through the week fortified by butter and peanut butter sandwiches.
Nowadays, supposedly things have changed: the food is better, more varied, and generally pleasing. Which isn’t much to ask for considering the tuition. Still, one wonders how to elevate institutional food from the nearly decent to the relatively good (adverbs are unavoidable when discussing this subject).
The answer to this conundrum hit me on the 6 train, my eyes buried in our recent copy of Saveur, admiring the article on spicy Chinese cooking. Saveur is a shabby chic version of National Geographic: meandering travel writing which assiduously dodges revolutions, slavery, and bloodshed, instead focusing on, say Rwandan goat curry. Or an essay on a lovely Iraqi family and its bread recipes minus any mention of them eating their meals in a bomb shelter.
Nonetheless, occasionally they publish a potentially exciting recipe. For instance, this week’s red chile oil straight from spicy China. Rather than a simple chile-oil infusion this version contains other, more fragrant and unexpected spices such as cloves and cardamom.
Which brings me back to school food. How about a line of garnishes, a little red chile oil, some flavored salt, and so on. Not only to improve the fare, but also expand young palates. Unless the idea of private school kids sprinkling clove dust on their curry nauseates you. In which case, just make this stuff at home and keep it in the
fridge to help your cooking.
(NOTE: as you can see in the picture, we didn’t strain the oil. This is more for photographic aesthetics, however, since the oil contains its own garnish, no harm in using some for flair.)
Whole Spice Red Chile Oil (from Saveur)
2 cups canola
4 star anise
3 cloves garlic, smashed
3 cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
1 stick cinnamon
1 3” piece ginger, smashed
1 cup fresh red Thai chiles (they say chiles de arbol, we used Thai), chopped
3 tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon soy sauce
½ teaspoon salt
- Heat everything up to (not including) the chiles in a medium pot over medium heat until garlic is golden, about 10 minutes.
Transfter to a heatproof glass jar, with chiles, peppercorns, and salt. Let cool to room temp. Discard garlic and ginger, seal and let sit for 24 hours. To use, strain oil, discarding solids. Keeps in fridge 3 months.