Saturday, February 27, 2010

More on the Shelter

This month, I had the opportunity to deliver our meal to the shelter we're supporting in San Leandro, Building Futures with Women & Children. According to their website, this shelter "offers 24-hour staffing and client services for 32 women and children. Along with food and shelter, staff provides case management, resources, referrals, advocacy, and household items for residents moving beyond shelter."

Although I've spoken several times with the shelter's manager, Cheryl Houston, this was the first chance I'd had to see the place (because Bob Fagan had so kindly made all the earlier meal deliveries). The shelter is next to Saint Leander Catholic Church and its school, and the property may actually belong to the church—though I'm not sure about that. The entrance is through an unobtrusive and unmarked gate in a high pinkish wall. I had to ask the school crossing guard to point it out to me.

I rang the bell, and the woman on duty came to the gate. Together we carried the food inside. I didn't see much of the place, aside from a cluttered office, a small sitting/TV room, and a kitchen whose shelves and large refrigerator seemed well stocked. A few residents were around, but I didn't have the opportunity to do anything more than smile a "hello."

A Shelter Tour: I asked about the possibility of touring the shelter and was told that we could arrange this through BFWC's central office. I would like to do this in the next month or so, and it would be great if some of you wanted to join me. I'll check in with you all a little later about possible dates—maybe in April or May.

Response to our Dinner Donations: In two earlier conversations with Cheryl Houston, I had asked if she had any feedback for us on the food. She had nothing specific to offer in either case, except that it was ample and the residents didn't complain! Apparently this lack of reaction is typical: the women generally don't comment on the food, unless they find it unpalatable. So not quite the enthusiastic response we would love to hear :)  but it seems that no news is good news in this situation. When I asked about their food donations, I was told that they were generally well provided for; church groups, in particular, are regular donors.

Meal #4: Recipes

Meatloaf (Epicurious)
Jenny's Notes: We used ½ ground pork and ½ ground beef, instead of the proportions specified by the recipe. This was simply due to Costco's packaging and a desire not to purchase more meat than was needed. Niman Ranch's applewood-smoked bacon gave a wonderful flavor. Aside from these changes, all was by the book... er, screen.

Scalloped Yukon Gold and Sweet Potato Gratin with Fresh Herbs (Epicurious)
Jenny's Notes: We followed the recommendations of the other Epicurious cooks and increased the quantity of each sort of potato to 2 pounds (from 1½ pounds each). Although the recipe says to submerge the potatoes "as much as possible," they really weren't much submerged at all, but this didn't matter. 

Sauteed Green Beans with Toasted Almonds 

Brownies (Epicurious)
Jenny's Note: I first made these for a dinner party in 2006, where they were a huge hit. This has been my favorite brownie recipe ever since. 

Butterscotch Brownies (Jenny Michael—a family recipe) Ingredients:
1 lb. brown sugar
1 cup butter
2 eggs
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tstp. salt
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
  1. Cook the butter and sugar together over low heat until the sugar dissolves. Cool till lukewarm.
  2. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. 
  3. In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients.
  4. Stir the flour mixture into the sugar mixture. 
  5. Spread the batter evenly into an ungreased 9x13-inch pan. Sprinkle the walnuts evenly on top of the batter.
  6. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until done.
  7. Cut into squares while still warm.
Jenny's Note: A Pyrex pan works well for this recipe but may require a longer baking time.

The Best Meatloaf & Potatoes Ever! (Meal #4)

I love Epicurious! Seriously, it's the best. You want to make something that's not part of your regular repertoire, and they've got twenty recipes to choose from. You can read other cooks' comments about a dish you're considering, learn from their successes and mistakes, and roll your eyes at the people who make drastic substitutions in a recipe and then complain that it didn't come out so well... Plus, all the most delicious-sounding recipes from both Bon Appétit and the now-defunct Gourmet are available for free on this website. And you can save your favorites into a personal recipe box. Génial, n’est-ce pas? (Yes, I'm teaching French again this semester...) So when I'm looking either for general inspiration or specific options, Epicurious is where I go.

Which brings me to our February gathering, which I had infelicitously scheduled for Super Bowl Sunday. (BTW, I see that I managed to schedule our March date for the night of the Oscars—but we can eat around the television that night, if you like...) I knew we would be a smallish group—and I didn't want to tackle anything too complicated—so when Michael Acker suggested meatloaf and scalloped potatoes, I was delighted! But I never make either of these dishes, so it was Epicurious to the rescue! I read through lots of recipes, perused the cooks' comments, and chose two that had won universal raves. And were those cooks ever right! (See the "recipes" post for details...)

Date: Sunday, February 7th (served at BFWC the next evening)
Host: Jenny Michael
Menu: meatloaf, scalloped Yukon Gold and sweet potato gratin with fresh herbs, green beans with toasted almonds, chocolate brownies, butterscotch brownies
Participants: Judith Bishop, BB Borowitz, Sandy Cate, Jenny Michael, Deborah Pruitt, Lisa Sherman, Rita Shuster
Photos: Obviously, a bit of an afterthought this time...

As anticipated, we were a smallish group: Sandy Cate and I were on our own for about an hour, and then Deborah Pruitt joined us. With the help of Sandy's mandoline, we sliced 16 pounds (!) of potatoes and got the casseroles into the oven. Then we took a break and had some wine and cheese, while I nursed my thumb, the tip of which had been sacrificed to the slicer (doh!). BB Borowitz joined us, then Judith Bishop, Rita Shuster, and Lisa Sherman, and together we got the meatloaves ready for the oven. However...

Lessons learned: (#1) It turns out that the more pans you put into a smallish oven—especially if you stack them on multiple shelves—the longer everything takes to cook! (What—you knew this already? And you said nothing?!!) In this case, we had one large and one smaller foil pan of scalloped potatoes—plus a Pyrex dish for us—and my poor oven just couldn't cope. One casserole was supposed to cook in about an hour; the three of them took more than three hours! And that was with the heat turned way up.

Fortunately, I wasn't delivering the food to the shelter until the following day, so this wasn't a crisis. But by the time the potatoes were finally done, it was getting late. No one wanted to wait another hour (or so) for the meatloaves to cook, so we got creative. It turns out that (#2) meatloaf mixture makes delicious burgers! We fried up a batch, sautéed some green beans, topped them with toasted almonds, dished up the much-anticipated potatoes, and sat down to our dinner.

The result? Raves all around for both the meatloaf (rich, moist, smoky, with a touch of sweetness) and the potatoes (rich, creamy, earthy). Which brings me back to where I started: (#3) Epicurious rocks!

Foods to Eat—and to Avoid

In case you missed this New York Times article on "The 11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating" the first time around, it's worth checking out... I've seen various versions of this list published elsewhere over the past few months.

Those of us concerned about the toxicity of our foods—and, frankly, who isn't these days?—might want to review the below guidelines from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). (I found this on Martha Stewart's website.)
  • The EWG, a nonprofit environmental research organization, calls the 12 fruits and vegetables that carry the most pesticide residue "the dirty dozen." These include (in order of most residue to least): peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, imported grapes, carrots, and pears. The point is that if you have limited funds to spend on more-expensive organic produce, these are items to target.

  • The EWG's "clean 15," the fruits and vegetables with the least pesticide residue, are (in order of least residue to most): onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mangoes, asparagus, sweet peas, kiwifruits, cabbages, eggplants, papayas, watermelons, broccoli, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes. Grapefruit is number 16. Oranges and tangerines, staples of midwinter, fall midway on the list of the 47 fruits and vegetables tested. Similarly, if you have to buy conventional produce, these are the safest choices.

Meal #3: Recipes

Pastel de Choclo/Chilean Corn Casserole (Maria Massolo)
Chicken filling:
1 ½ lbs chicken breast (or half white meat, half dark meat)
chicken broth (as needed)
2 medium yellow onions, minced
½ cup seedless raisins
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon of cumin
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 hard boiled eggs, each peeled and quartered lengthwise (optional)
½ can pitted black olives (sliced or not, as you prefer)
Corn topping:
5 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 cup of milk
1 small onion boiled and quartered (I also use leeks, white part only)
½ stick of butter, plus 1 tablespoon for greasing the casserole
salt and pepper, to taste
sweet paprika
confectioner’s sugar
Prepare the filling:
  1. Cube the chicken and sauté in a frying pan at low-to-medium heat. The chicken will release its juices, but add a bit of chicken broth, if the mixture is dry.
  2. Place the raisins in a small mixing bowl and cover with warm water; let soak till they soften.
  3. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and sauté the minced onions and garlic, stirring occasionally, until soft
    Drain the raisins and stir them into the diced chicken. Add ½ cup of reserved chicken juices, paprika, oregano, and cumin. Cook for 5 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper. 
  4. Remove filling from heat and keep warm.
Prepare the corn topping:
  1. Puree the corn kernels and milk with the boiled onion (or leeks) in a food processor or blender until smooth. 
  2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat, add the corn puree and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or until it is as thick as oatmeal. Taste and season with salt and pepper, as needed.
Assemble the casserole:
  1. Butter a shallow 2-quart casserole with the remaining 1 T of butter. Spread the chicken filling on bottom of the casserole.
  2. Press the egg wedges and olives into the filling. 
  3. Spread corn topping over the chicken and smooth with a rubber spatula.
  4. Sprinkle the top of the pie with confectioners sugar and paprika.
  5. Bake in a pre-heated 375 F oven until the top is firm and light golden, about 45 minutes. 
  6. Serve at once.

Salad of Baby Greens with Dried Cranberries, Pecans, & Balsamic Vinaigrette

Icebox Potato Rolls (Jenny Michael—my grandmother's recipe) 
1 pkg. dry yeast
2 cups milk
1 cup butter
2 large potatoes, cooked (baked or boiled) and mashed — to make 1½ cups
4 eggs
1 cup sugar + 1 tsp.
3-4 tsps salt
8 cups flour
  1. Dissolve 1 pkg. yeast in ½ c lukewarm water and 1 tsp. sugar. 
  2. In 2 cups scalded milk, melt 1 cup butter. Add mashed potatoes and cool. 
  3. When the potato mixture has cooled, add 4 beaten eggs. Mix in 1 cup sugar, 3-4 tsps. salt, and the yeast mixture. Stir in 8 cups flour. Beat well. 
  4. Refrigerate the dough overnight.
  5. About an hour before baking, remove the dough from the refrigerator and stir it well so that most of the air is removed. 
  6. Half-fill greased muffin tins. Let rise till double (takes a while when batter is cold).
  7. Bake 12 minutes at 400 degrees till golden. Eat immediately, if possible—they’re best while hot!
Notes: This recipe makes a lot of rolls! (I’d guess about 4 dozen.) If you don’t want to bake them all at once, you can keep the dough in the refrigerator for a week or so until you want to bake more.

Chocolate & Vanilla Cupcakes with Chocolate & Cream Cheese Frosting (Michael Acker & Cole Chabon)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Happy New Year! (Meal #3)

I'm dreadfully behind on this blog, but I wrote the below after our first dinner of 2010 and thought I'd finally put it up!

I love the start of a new year. After the solstice, the light slowly returns. It's a time of opportunity, offering a chance for transformation and the possibility of creating something new and different—and better—for our lives and our world.

At New Year's, I always spend some time thinking back over the past year, reminding myself of what was good and imagining the changes I might want to make in the coming year. I know: I'm hardly unique in this! I realized that for me A Common Table has been one of the best parts of the past few months. I love the wonderful energy of our gatherings, the fact that people have spread the word to friends, some of whom have decided to join us, and the sense of a shared effort toward common goals. And you all make me feel appreciated—and I'm grateful to you for that. :)

Our first meal of the year:  I thought there was a special feel to this day. Everyone seemed happy to be here, to work together, to talk and connect and create something delicious.

Date: Sunday, January 10th (served at BFWC the next evening)
Host: Jenny Michael
Menu: pastel de choclo (Chilean corn casserole), green salad w/cranberries & pecans, potato rolls, chocolate & vanilla cupcakes
Participants: Michael Acker, Sandy Cate, Cole Chabon, Bob Fagan, Kevin Koczela, Maria Massolo, Jenny Michael, Deborah Pruitt, Rita Shuster
Photos: Cole Chabon, Kevin Koczela

I was still a bit behind in my preparations when people began to arrive: the chicken and the corn weren't fully thawed; the rolls hadn't yet been baked; the silicone cups that were supposed to let the cupcakes slip right out didn't... On the other hand, I had showered, changed my clothes, and finished the neatening that made me feel ready to have people come into my house! I've learned that as long as I have these basic things taken care of, I can deal with the rest on the fly.

The pastel de choclo, a Chilean dish that Maria Massolo has adapted, is simple to prepare, but in this large quantity the logistics were a bit challenging. So we worked in batches, sautéing onions and chicken, puréeing corn, transferring items back and forth from sauté pan to pot and back again. Then we seasoned and assembled the casseroles before putting them into the oven.

While they baked, we had fun decorating the mini cupcakes Michael Acker had prepared. Cole Chabon provided chocolate and cream cheese frostings, along with food coloring and multicolored sprinkles, and Maria and Kevin Koczela and Deborah Pruitt demonstrated keen eyes for color (pink and peach-colored frosting!) and their skill with the decorative icing tips, and the results were beautiful and delicious! 

About our finances: We are in the black! Thanks to generous donations from you all, plus additional funding from members of my family (thank you so much! I love you!), we have had no trouble meeting our expenses so far. I have put together a spreadsheet to keep track of our donations and our outlay, so we know where we stand. If you'd like to see it, please ask me.

This meal proved to be fairly inexpensive, especially since a good portion of the food was donated directly (cupcakes, icing, rolls). I decided to invest in some large rolls of foil and a couple of sets of heavy-duty foil pans, so we can easily package our donations for transport. Also, at the urging of the group, I bought a large bottle olive oil for our use, so I'm not continually depleting my own stock. 

More suggestions for future dinners: chicken enchiladas, shepherd's pie, pierogies, lasagna...