No one quite knows the genesis of the widely acclaimed Cuban sandwich. Some say it first appeared on restaurant menus in the Caribbean island in the ‘30s; others noted its popularity in worker cafeterias in the country’s sugar mills at the turn of the century.
But regardless of its history, for many youngsters at Egremont Elementary in Pittsfield, June 1 marked their first introduction to the Cuban: a blend of slow roasted pork, ham, melted Swiss cheese, and special sauce.
It was the latest creation of Chef Sam Icklan, who stopped by for his last visit of the school year with enough Cubans so that every one of the 500+ students could get a sample. Some even two!
“This year we added four new ‘Project Bread’ recipes to the school lunch menu in Pittsfield: orange ginger chicken, chicken pot pie, chicken and bean burritos, and a Cuban sandwich,” Icklan said, who noted that the recipes were selected after consultation with Sylvana Bryan, the food service director for the Pittsfield Public School system.
“Sylvana used her knowledge of the kitchens, staff and students to make choices that she believed would be successful in the district,” he said, noting that each recipe meets the stringent USDA guidelines for school meals.
The favorite this year was the chicken pot pie, though all were well received. Based on feedback from the kids, Chef Sam tinkered a bit with the orange ginger chicken entrée.
“We tried to make improvements to the recipe according to the kids’ feedback, such as using more broccoli instead of snow peas and decreasing the orange juice,” he said.
Lunch menu changes
Chef Sam made regular rotations throughout all 12 of Pittsfield’s public schools, visiting one school at a time until he completed his rotation, as part of “Project Bread,” a Boston-based initiative aimed at bringing people funding, programs and policies together to fight hunger in the commonwealth.
At each stop, he introduces a recipe to the staff and then makes enough portions of the recipe for each student to have a sample, and he serves the samples in the school cafeteria.
“The students are able to give me feedback about the recipe, such as if they liked it, if they would change anything about it and if they would like it again,” Icklan said.
On a second visit, he and the staff perfect the recipe from earlier feedback and add it to the hot lunch menu that day. The approach works well, he said, because students have an opportunity to try the menu items before they are offered on the menu as a main entrée.
“This takes a lot of pressure off of the cafeteria staff who can feel apprehensive about trying new menu items that the students may find unfamiliar or unusual,” he said.
Future in Pittsfield
Icklan said no decisions have been made as to which school districts will be in next year’s rotation, though he hopes to return to Pittsfield.
“Egremont students have been so fun to work with; I can definitely say that the students at Egremont are some of the most enthusiastic … when it comes to trying food,” he said. “They love when I visit and are always welcoming.”
Curious to try one of Chef Sam’s recipes? See below for his “Orange Ginger Chicken.”
Orange Ginger Chicken
(Makes four 6 oz. portions0
- 2.5 tsp vegetable oil
- 2.5 tsp sesame oil
- 1 TBSP ginger root, raw, chopped
- 2.5 tsp garlic, raw, chopped
- ½ fresh orange, skin washed and peeled in strips (juice the fruit and reserve)
- 1.5 cups orange juice
- 1.5 TBSP cornstarch
- 1.5 TBSP cup low sodium soy sauce
- 1/2 pounds cooked chicken, diced
- 2 oz. water chestnuts
- 4 oz. broccoli, raw, chopped
- 4 oz. carrots, raw, sliced
- 2 oz. snow peas, raw
- 2 cups cooked brown rice
In a medium sized pot, sauté the ginger, garlic and orange skin in both oils until fragrant and soft, about 5 minutes.
Add the 1½ cups orange juice to the mix and bring to a simmer.
While the mixture is simmering, combine the juice from the orange and the soy sauce in a bowl; vigorously whisk in the corn starch to make a slurry.
Whisk the slurry into the simmering orange juice mixture and turn the heat to high. Whisk continuously until the liquid thickens. Turn the heat down to medium low and simmer until the cornstarch flavor dissipates, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the chicken to warm through, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, add 1 inch of water to a saucepan and insert steamer basket. Bring water to boil over high heat. When the water is boiling, add vegetables and reduce heat to medium. Steam vegetables until they are just cooked through, about 5 minutes.
Add the steamed vegetables to chicken mixture and serve over a bead of cooked brown rice.