Chef Jamie Oliver Transforms School Lunches

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Anglophiles know him as the British megastar who hit the scene in 1998 with his popular television series and corresponding cookbook, The Naked Chef. Food Network fans have since grown to love his fresh, simple, and savory flavor combinations — and don’t mind his charming banter, either.

But Jamie Oliver, 33, is much more than an attractive media personality with an undeniable talent in the kitchen. This TV gourmand, magazine columnist, married father of two girls, and best-selling author of eight recipe-laden books — as well as Jamie at Home, to be released stateside in September — is also on a nutrition mission.

Jamie Oliver Takes on School Lunches

Alarmed by the rising obesity rates and the amount of junk food being served to kids at school in his native U.K., Oliver requested and was given a meeting with then-prime minister Tony Blair back in 2005. The young chef issued a challenge to the powerful politico: Fix the dismal state of hot lunches. The School Food Trust was born, with its motto, “Eat better. Do better.” Three years on, this government initiative swaps fried fare for wholesome vegetables, provides ongoing training to school kitchen staffs, and is slowly transforming how British kids eat.

Oliver sees parallels to the United States, with its epidemic of childhood obesity, the increase of breast tenders, sliced red peppers, and low-fat cheese on whole-grain pita (try spinach pita as a kid-friendly alternative)

Friday Jamie Oliver’s own pumpkin rice laksa soup — perfect for fall (see the recipe below), with soy chips

Jamie Oliver’s Pumpkin Rice Laksa Soup

Serves 6-8

Make this hearty fall soup for dinner, then pack a Thermos in your child’s school lunchbox the next morning.

1 lb 6 oz pumpkin, butternut squash, or acorn squash, halved, peeled, and deseeded

Small handful of lime leaves

2-3 chilies, deseeded and finely sliced

2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced

2 thumb-sized pieces fresh ginger, peeled

3 sticks lemongrass, outer leaves removed

Large handful fresh cilantro, leaves picked, stalks chopped

1 heaping teaspoon five-spice powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Olive oil

1 white onion, peeled and finely sliced

2 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup basmati rice

2 14-oz cans coconut milk

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Juice of 1 or 2 limes

Optional: 1 fresh red chili, sliced

Optional: fresh coconut, grated

Chop the pumpkin flesh into 2-inch pieces. To make your fragrant soup base, first chop, then whiz or bash up the following in your food processor or pestle and mortar until you have a pulpy mix: the lime leaves, chilies, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro stalks, five-spice powder, and cumin. Remove any stringy bits that may remain in the pulp. Put this fragrant mixture into a high-sided pan with a little oil and your finely sliced onion and cook gently for about 10 minutes to release the flavors. Add the pumpkin and the stock to the pan. Stir around, scraping all the goodness off the bottom of the pan.

Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer with the lid on for about 15 minutes until the pumpkin is soft.

Add the rice and give it a really good stir. Some of the pumpkin will begin to mush up, but you’ll also have some chunks. Continue to simmer with the lid on until the rice is cooked, then off comes the lid. Add the coconut milk, stir again, taste, and season carefully with salt and pepper. To give it a bit of sharpness, add the lime juice — the amount will depend on how juicy your limes are, but the idea is to give the soup a little twang.