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School lunches packed with flavor

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Back-to-school season means dusting off the lunchboxes and stocking up on brown paper bags. It's lunch-making time.

For many kids, that means a daily dose of PB&J with a side of sliced apples. But sandwiches get boring — both for kids and for lunch-packing parents. One way to get out of the sandwich rut? Go ethnic.

Ethnic flavors have been commonplace in American cooking for years.

Salsa outsold ketchup for the first time back in 1991; in 2008, U.S. salsa sales totaled $931 million, compared to $621 million for ketchup. Sushi spots and kebab huts pepper nearly every neighborhood from the city to the suburbs. Toddlers gobble up sushi rolls like they're french fries.

With easy access to so many cuisines, today's schoolchildren boast sophisticated palates — and they're easily bored. Baltimore mom Rebecca Klein says Seth, her second-grader, asks for new and different lunch options. "The lunches I pack are sometimes pretty boring," she says. "But Seth asks for variety. He wants to try new things."

Kids aren't the only ones who get bored with standard school lunches. Packing the same lunch, day in and day out, is a drag for parents, too. According to Klein, "I have fun cooking dinner, so why shouldn't packing lunches be just as enjoyable?"

Though the standard American lunchbox still holds a sandwich, ethnic foods are cropping up in cafeterias around the region.

When she taught at Padonia International School in Cockeysville, teacher Katie Berman says, "Students brought sushi, noodles, spring rolls, and curry. They brought the food their families eat on a regular basis."

School systems are incorporating ethnic flavors into school lunches, as well. According to Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, "Ethnic foods are a good way for schools to switch up their menus, getting children interested in trying new things."

Another bonus, according to Pratt-Heavner, is that ethnic foods are often full of whole grains and legumes, making compliance with new school lunch nutrition standards easier.

Exciting as they are, internationally inspired lunches pose some challenges.

Though many insulated lunchboxes and thermoses are available, it's best to avoid foods that may spoil without refrigeration or that taste best when piping hot.

Dulaney High School graduate Nakiya Vasi Schurman ate Indian food at home frequently but didn't carry it to school for lunch very often. "I may have taken leftovers for lunch in high school, since we finally got a microwave in our cafeteria. I just remember eating a lot of sandwiches."

Logistics aren't the only barrier for some kids. Some ethnic foods have strong or unfamiliar smells that may draw questioning looks or comments from classmates.

Roopa Kalyanaraman Marcello remembers elementary school classmates making fun of her for her Indian lunches. "After begging for 'normal' lunches," she says, "I started taking PB&J and tomato-and-cheese sandwiches."

Incorporating new foods into a well-worn lunch-packing routine takes some extra planning, but the deviation from the routine can be fun.

With the kids involved, adding a new twist to lunches turns into a family activity. Once a week, choose a new cuisine to spotlight. Research the country and cuisine, picking a recipe that will work for lunches. Encourage kids to help prepare the food — even young children can perform easy tasks, like sprinkling cheese.

International lunches don't have to be time-consuming, either. Elmer Rodriguez, whose family owns the El Salvadoran and Mexican restaurant El Paraiso in Reisterstown, recommends flautas for their simplicity. "They're so easy to make," he says. "And everyone loves them."

Even quicker: Plenty of prepared ethnic foods are available at the grocery store. Go Mediterranean with snack-size packages of hummus, with pita triangles or carrots for dipping, or serving-size containers of Greek yogurt with fruit.

Kids who love Mexican food will enjoy premade quesadillas, available at most grocery stores — especially when they're packed with a snack-size container of spicy salsa. Warm them up before school, then wrap them in foil to keep the temperature up.

Supermarket sushi rolls — often prepared at Japanese restaurants and delivered to stores each morning — are a healthful, interesting and very easy lunch alternative.

Or add Indian flair to the lunchbox with carry-out dishes that work at room temperature, like Neopol Savory Smokery's curried summer rice salad.

Whether it's a small tin of salsa or a full-fledged Indian meal, one thing is certain: Ethnic flavors make that brown bag lunch a whole lot more fun.

Flautas

The Rodriguez family cooks casual but complicated El Salvadoran and Mexican food at their Reisterstown restaurant, El Paraiso. They recommend this simple, but flavorful, dish for school lunches.

Makes: 4 servings of 2 flautas each

8 corn tortillas

11/2 cups of shredded chicken (from a store-bought rotisserie chicken)

3/4 cup queso fresco or cotija cheese, crumbled

2 tablespoons canola oil

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toss the shredded chicken with the crumbled cheese until evenly mixed.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. In a medium saute pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Fry the tortillas in the oil, one at a time, for 2-3 seconds per side. When done, place each tortilla on the foil-lined baking sheet, making two rows of four.

Evenly divide the chicken and cheese mixture between the tortillas, placing the mixture in a vertical line down the center of each tortilla.

Roll the tortillas tightly, placing them seam-down on the sheet. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the flautas are crispy and a golden brown color.

Let cool before packing for lunch. Send with salsa or guacamole for dipping.

Lamb and potato dolma

These easy-to-eat roll-ups, developed by Whole Foods, are fun. Plus, they're full of flavor and nutrients — especially when paired with Greek yogurt for dipping.

Makes: 6-8 servings

1 pound ground lamb

1 yellow onion, chopped

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 cup dried currants

1 tablespoon chopped oregano

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 large red potato (about 3/4 pound), peeled and chopped

2 bunches chard, thick stems trimmed

Brown lamb in a large skillet over medium-high heat until cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and carefully tip the skillet to pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of the fat that has accumulated in the pan. Return to heat, add onion and salt and cook until onions are soft and golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes more. Lower heat to medium and stir in currants, oregano, garlic, potatoes and 3 tablespoons water. Cover and cook until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes more. Remove from heat and mash potato into lamb mixture with a fork. Set aside.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Working in batches, add chard leaves a few at a time, stirring gently until wilted and just tender, about 30 seconds. Carefully transfer to a paper-towel-lined baking sheet and pat dry. Spoon some of the lamb mixture into the center of each chard leaf and roll up snugly, tucking in the ends. Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready to serve.

Courtesy of Whole Foods Market Mid-Atlantic

California rolls

Rolling sushi at home sounds daunting, but it doesn't have to be. This recipe is simple, straightforward, and lunchbox-friendly.

Makes: 4 servings

4 sheets toasted nori sea vegetable (seaweed, available at specialty stores and many grocery stores), cut into 5-by-8-inch pieces

3/4 cup cooked jasmine rice

1/8 cup wasabi mixed with enough water to make a paste (optional)

1/2 cup crab meat, cooked and chilled

1/2 cup shredded cucumber

4 slices avocado

4 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds

Place one nori sheet on a flat surface with shiny side down and coarse side up. Place rice 1/2 inch from the bottom, 2 inches from the top, 1/2 inch thick and completely covering nori from side to side.

If using, spread some wasabi paste across the center of rice, from side to side. Spread crab, cucumber and sesame seeds across wasabi.

Fold bottom of nori toward the center, just so the ingredients are covered. Roll. Seal the roll by placing 4 grains of rice along the top edge of the nori and press together.

Slice roll into 4 pieces.

Adapted from recipe by Whole Foods Market Mid-Atlantic

Get packing

There's more to international cuisines than just great flavor. Get creative with ethnic-inspired packaging, too.

In India, office workers eat lunches packed in stackable containers called tiffin tins. The lunches are packed at home but delivered to offices by couriers called dabba wallas, who use a complex but highly effective system of organization to get the tins to their destinations. Happy Tiffin (www.happytiffin.com) sells tiffin tins in a wide variety of sizes and colors.

Japanese bento boxes are rectangular boxes in which meals are elegantly, and tightly, organized. Bento boxes traditionally contain rice, fish or meat and pickled or cooked vegetables. However, some parents use the boxes to creatively pack traditional American lunches, like sandwiches and fruit. Check out Wendy Copley's blog (www.wendolonia.com) for inspiration.

Just Bento (www.justbento.com) carries a large selection of bento boxes.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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