Chef Jamie Smith said: “Let’s Start Cooking Beans!”

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We’re always in search of real meals in schools. Impressed by what we saw at Santa Cruz City Schools recently in terms of cooking beans from scratch, we asked Jamie Smith, former Senior Manager Food Services and Nutrition for Santa Cruz, to write a guest blog for us on why he introduced beans from scratch. Watch the blog for bean recipes Jamie and other school chefs are making.

Jamie, or James P. Smith, III with his formal title, responded: When I started at Santa Cruz City Schools, my number one goal was to get back to scratchcooking and put the kitchen spoon back in the hands of the lunch ladies. But all I heard was that it would take years to get the staff trained and the kitchens refurbished. That it would be a long and slow process to develop recipes that kids would like. That scratch cooking was too costly. You know what I said to the naysayers? “Beans!” Literally.“Let’s start cooking with beans!” And so we did.

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When I arrived at the District Foodservice warehouse, the first thing I noticed were pallets of beans; black beans, pinto beans, Great Northern beans, kidney beans, I mean we had some beans. The second thing I noticed was a freezer full of processed food, most of it was heat and serve frozen entrees that I had never seen before, and was unsure that they deserved the label “food”. The warehouse also had lots of pasta of all shapes, pallets of brown rice, and lots of canned goods like tomatoes, tomato paste, and many types of canned beans. That was enough for me.

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We set about cleaning up the stoves and washing out the big pots to boil some water for pasta and also to cook those beans. Some of our fist recipes using those beans are still some of our most popular and the most economical. One 25# sack of beans can yield as much as 200 portions of fiber-rich protein, and are one of the best meat alternates to be found. We made numerous varieties of burritos with beans, sometimes with some lean meat and often without. We have Meatless Mondays every Monday in Santa Cruz City Schools, and have for the past 4 years. And the beans have been the backbone of those meatless menus.

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We have made baked beans from scratch for BBQ days, cooked black beans for breakfast burritos and the salad bar. We make our own vegetarian refried beans, pureeing vegetables like onions, carrots, garlic and spices into the beans in place of the traditional (and high in saturated fat) lard or manteca.

One of the most popular menu items in Elementary schools in California and across the country is a simple bean and cheese burrito, yet virtually everyone buys them frozen and pre-made. Why not make your own? We make our bean and cheese burritos with USDA dried pinto beans, USDA low fat cheddar cheese, and USDA whole wheat tortillas. So our cash out of pocket is basically zero and we can make 250 burritos from one sack of beans and fifteen pounds of cheddar cheese.

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We can then serve 250 reimbursable school meals where the “center of the plate” item is the lowest cost of the entire menu, and we can then spend more on local fruits and vegetables, and save money doing it. It’s a winning formula in my book. Scratch cooking is too costly? I say “Beans!”

Contact Jamie Smith at: chefjamiesmith.com or chefjamiesmith@gmail.com

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