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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Catering to the school's needs

Peter Radjou, the cafeteria manager at Roanoke Catholic School, does more than accommodate the dietary requirements of the staff and students during Lent.

Cafeteria Manager Peter Radjou (above) offers a vegetarian option every day for students and staff who give up meat for Lent. Offerings have included meatless lasagna, soups and baked potatoes.

Photos by Rebecca Barnett | The Roanoke Times

Cafeteria Manager Peter Radjou (above) offers a vegetarian option every day for students and staff who give up meat for Lent. Offerings have included meatless lasagna, soups and baked potatoes.

Cafeteria Manager Peter Radjou (above) offers a vegetarian option every day for students and staff who give up meat for Lent. Offerings have included meatless lasagna, soups and baked potatoes.

Cafeteria Manager Peter Radjou (above) offers a vegetarian option every day for students and staff who give up meat for Lent. Offerings have included meatless lasagna, soups and baked potatoes.

food writer Lindsey Nair

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Factors such as nutrition and cost can make planning school menus challenging enough, but this time of year brings additional considerations for Peter Radjou, cafeteria manager at Roanoke Catholic School.

Although some Catholic families abstain from eating meat every Friday of the year, Lent is a time when all Catholics are supposed to skip meat on Fridays in favor of vegetarian dishes, fish or shellfish. Furthermore, quite a few give up meat for the entire 40-day period, which also includes fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

But Radjou, who has been working at the school for about a year, is up to the task. As the owner of Taaza Indian Restaurant and The Elephant Walk Restaurant & Lounge, both in Roanoke, he has lots of experience catering to the needs of individuals. He is also Catholic himself and both of his daughters attend the school.

Radjou does more than accommodate the dietary requirements of staff and students, said campus minister Beth Derringer. "He spoils us," she said. "We are very blessed to have him."

Nourishment from faith

For Christian denominations that observe Lent, the time of abstinence and reflection begins on Ash Wednesday, when a cross drawn in ashes on parishioners' foreheads reminds them of their mortality and encourages repentance.

Between Ash Wednesday and Easter is the roughly 40-day period that represents two biblical events: the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering the wilderness and the 40 days Jesus Christ spent in the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan.

During Lent, observant Christians are challenged to participate in fasting, almsgiving and increased prayer. They test themselves by giving up something, whether it be a consumable such as candy or soda or a bad habit such as smoking. Catholics may choose to give up anything during Lent, but that must include meat on Fridays.

This practice promotes humility, represents giving up the passions of the flesh, and reminds Christians that Jesus sacrificed his own body on the cross. Overall, Lent is a time for drawing nourishment from faith rather than earthly comforts.

To cover students and faculty who have given up meat for the entire period of Lent, Radjou plans two different lunches every school day during the Lenten season — a standard option and a vegetarian option.

For example, the lunch choices one day last week included both barbecued chicken and tofu chili. Other vegetarian offerings have included meatless lasagna, fresh salads, vegetable soups and baked potatoes.

Bread and broth

Fasting on Ash Wednesday does not necessarily mean giving up food entirely, although some do. It can also mean having one or two simple meals and refraining from snacking in between.

The church requires fasting of anyone between the ages 18 and 60, with the exception of pregnant women, the ill and others who cannot afford to give up the nourishment. "But realistically," Derringer said, "many Catholic families do the fasting and abstaining no matter how old they are."

At Roanoke Catholic this year, Radjou made a homemade broth from roasted vegetables on Ash Wednesday, serving it with freshly baked bread. The simple meal cost only about 50 cents per person to prepare, but everybody paid the regular $3.50 lunch price and the school donated the difference to Roanoke Area Ministries.

The bread-and-broth day will be repeated on the Wednesday before Easter, because the school will be on break on Good Friday. While only about 50 percent of the student body buys lunch on a given school day, Radjou said, about 75 percent of the kids take part in the Ash Wednesday meal, presumably because they like the idea of helping those in need.

Derringer said a lot of the students and staff — including herself — went to the first bread-and-broth day expecting a bland meal, "but I have to say, it's tasty."

Fish for kids

It would be easy to put fish sticks on the menu, but Radjou is elevating fish Fridays at Roanoke Catholic to a new level. He said students have been very receptive to the recipes he has chosen, which have included dill-crusted salmon, braised tilapia with lobster sauce, shrimp etouffee and shrimp creole over rice.

Some students are suspicious of fish, he said, but "it's kind of a domino effect. The first bold one to come through the line likes it, then the others follow."

When that happens, Radjou is witnessing a phenomenon that many of my blog readers described when we talked about coaxing kids to eat fish. If parents simply set fish before their children without acting as if it is an unusual food, kids often taste it and enjoy it — essentially because they don't know they're supposed to dislike it.

"Don't make a big deal out of it," wrote a reader named Kim. "My kids were somewhat picky, but when we sat down to a meal they knew they had to at least try the food. Nine times out of 10 they liked what was served."

It also helps to find kid-friendly recipes for fish and shellfish outside the standard breaded-and-fried treatment. Salmon cakes, fish sandwiches, fish tacos, shrimp stir-fry, salmon with a sweet glaze or shrimp pasta are all good options.

Radjou's menus prove that children are more open to experimentation than some parents might believe, although it's hard to tear them away from their favorites.

Despite all those exotic options at Roanoke Catholic, popcorn shrimp is still the most popular.

On the blog

See which local wineries won medals in the 2013 Governor's Cup.blogs.roanoke.com/fridgemagnet

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