Lisa Bowman has never met a bell pepper she didn’t like.
So when Bowman, a cafeteria cook at St. Andrew the Apostle School in Algiers, noticed the vegetable wasn’t included in the standard recipe for lasagna used by School Food and Nutrition Services of New Orleans, she asked permission to add it.
“I got the OK,” said Bowman, who also was allowed to put more granulated garlic than the recipe called for. The changes got a big thumbs-up from students and adults alike.
“I had teachers come and ask me, ‘How did you make this? I love it!” Bowman said.
Raised in a restaurant
Bowman, 43, has been experimenting with kitchen tweaks such as these at home and in the workplace ever since she was able to see over a stove.
She grew up in Harvey, from age 8 helping out at her grandmother’s bar-restaurant, an establishment known for soul food favorites such as fried and baked chicken, red beans, smothered cabbage, mustard and collard greens and macaroni and cheese.
The restaurant had living quarters attached to its rear, allowing the young Bowman to have a place to land while her mother and grandmother worked.
“I used to always go in there and say, ‘I want to help you cook!’” Bowman recalls. “When I got tall enough, my grandmother let me do it.”
Initially, the youngster filled simple restaurant roles such as restocking the cooler with soft drinks, putting out chips and refilling the condiment bottles. By the time the family sold the enterprise in her mid-teens, Bowman had graduated to prepping and cooking “anything that didn’t require a knife.”
As a teenager at West Jefferson High, she worked at Church’s and Popeye’s.
“Back then you made the biscuits from scratch,” chuckled Bowman, who went on to learn sewing at Lincoln Career Center in Marrero and who excelled in jobs including managing apartments and assisting a chef at a local casino before coming to St. Andrew in 2010.
Bowman began as a cafeteria food technician, responsible for side dishes, switching to the position of baker after two years. She is currently in her third year as a cook, tasked with preparing the main lunch entrée for about 350 students each day.
In addition to lasagna, Bowman said St. Andrew students love their cafeteria’s chicken and sausage gumbo, meat sauce and chicken legs prepared three different ways: oven fried, baked and barbequed. They are also big on corn and green beans, she said.
Imperial brand reigns
For this issue of Holy Smoke, Bowman shared three meatless entrées of her own creation that are among her own four children’s most requested during Lent.
She serves her White Beans with Shrimp over rice, alongside either broiled or fried fish.
“The Imperial margarine makes a difference in the recipe,” Bowman said. “I use Imperial for everything I cook. I’ve tried other brands, but they just don’t give me that same taste,” said Bowman, noting that there is no need to cut the water with stock as the beans are cooking, “because the Imperial replaces the salt you would get from that stock.”
The dish also gets flavor – and aesthetic appeal – from four different colors of Bowman’s beloved bell peppers.
“For all my bean dishes I use all the colors of pepper,” she said. “To me, it has a better taste with all the peppers in there. Each color brings a different flavor.”
Turning to her Seafood Rice, Bowman said it is essential to use a parboiled variety to achieve the desired “loose” consistency.
“If you use regular rice it will be sticky and get gooey,” Bowman said. “Parboiled rice doesn’t stick.”
But her children’s hands-down favorite is Bowman’s Seafood Pasta, made creamy from – and not requiring extra seasoning due to – the addition of Mexican cheese.
“Every Sunday my kids want this!” Bowman said.
The cook’s other kitchen secrets include:
• Using claw, rather than lump, crabmeat; the former “breaks up fine and goes throughout the dish.”
• Granulated garlic and granulated onion go into almost everything Bowman cooks. Although a garlic lover, she almost exclusively reaches for the granulated variety or pre-packaged, finely minced garlic in water, with no resulting loss of flavor and a lot less fuss.
• Freshly cut seasoning is better than frozen.
• I love Morton’s Season All!” Bowman said.
Beth Donze can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.