Archive for the ‘Cooking for people with food sensitivities’ Category


December 10, 2014: Empty Platter

December 11, 2014

Empty Platter LayoutI have volunteered as a chef’s assistant for several months now for an organization that provides home cooked meals and a pantry supplies to needy families in the area.

When I started at my present job, I was still living on scraps as I had so numerous other bills. Food wasn’t as much as a priority as like…keeping my house and paying for gas for the car. The owners of my company suggested I try Open Table (the local food pantry assistance program) and thought I might benefit from their service. I hemmed and hawed for a couple of days when I finally came to the conclusion that my pride was deeply meshed with my stupidity, and it would be foolish to not take assistance from an organization that was specifically there to help people in exactly my condition at the time.

So I registered for the pantry service. One thing about a service like this is that there is always a little waiting around. You are given a random number that groups you in a queue according to that number. While waiting, I took in the whole environment. The first thing I noticed is that most of my fellow patrons seemed very appreciative to have the service, happy even…despite their obvious current setbacks. It was no wonder, as each Open Table volunteer…to a person was charming, sympathetic, and helpful. The volunteers themselves seemed happy to be there as well. I knew how hard it was for individuals like myself, but my heart went out most of all to the families. I wondered and worried about how many nights the parents had nothing to offer but the empty platter of hunger to their children.

As I waited, being a foodie, I could not help but be interested in the food they served (I never had the meals at Open Table as the pantry suited me fine, and I did not want to burden them any more than I had to.) I found the meals well-made, clearly geared for popular appeal, nutritious, well presented, and best of all…well received! I decided my first night that as soon as I didn’t need the pantry service I would pay them back a bit by volunteering where I thought I could do the most good…the kitchen.

So it has been for some months. And a more peasant kitchen experience I cannot imagine: there are a group of assistants, a group to clean, a group to serve and a lead chef. Everyone pitches in and does whatever is needed to do, often with being directed, and best of all they help each other, all with a pleasant chatter making the whole experience warm and fun. I was always capable of more, but I was happy prepping and cleaning. After all, to my mind I was paying back a debt. The notions that I was having fun, learning a bit, especially about cooking for a huge group of people, and keeping my knife skills sharp (yes…pun intended) were all bonuses.

I got a surprise the other night, when Jim, the lead chef this week told me, “We’re serving ham for the main course, but there will be a few people who cannot eat ham. I would like you to take these ingredients and make something pleasant for them.”

People tell me all the time about these cooking shows where they have challenges/eliminations like this. I’ve never seen any of them, but I imagine that this was like that…minus the TV cameras and lights…and fame…and money…and restaurant positions. On the plus side, I was doing it for coolest folks doing good works for the needy, and it was fun! I ended up making lightly breaded and fried Chicken Breasts, smothered in sautéed Mediterranean Vegetables. I left pleased. It was not my best dish ever (I usually plan way ahead of time) but I thought I did OK, considering the turn-around time.

I went back to work, but after a couple of minutes I had that “DOH” moment when it occurred to me that this would make a good blog article, so I went back down to try to get a shot of my dish. When I found it, the only thing that was left was the empty platter it was served on. At first I thought with a laugh, “Oh, it went over well” but then I remembered the reality: the staff packages the leftovers from the meal and gives them to people as they are leaving, the idea seeming to be to get every scrap of food into the hands of those that need it.

Looking down at that empty platter…something clicked…a switch was thrown. I don’t know if I can describe it, but I’ll try.

I’ve written before that making food is like another form of an expression of love. If I’ve cooked for you, the chances are pretty good (at least at the time of the meal) that I held you in such high regard as to give you the best of my creative industry. Friends and family…easy…cooking for them is pure joy. On the flip side, working in the French restaurant was not only hard work, but I never even saw a patron. The catering jobs I’ve done were smack down the middle. I enjoyed people I didn’t know…enjoying what I made.

So, I’ve cooked in a lot of different situations. Somehow, cooking at Open Table the other night was very different. I discovered that I had created something that could possibly stave off hunger for a few people, for a little while. Although I would never meet them, or talk to them about their troubles, I had been part of something that could make people’s lives (who need it the most) in the tiniest way…a little less painful. That empty platter of mine made someone else’s platter a bit more full. To me, that empty platter was the symbol of the highest expression of love to our fellow-men.

So. At this time of year we are focused on giving. If you truly want to practice “goodwill towards men” I urge you to donate to your local chapter of food and pantry assistance services like Open Table. There is almost certainly one in your town or close-by. Your money will be well-spent giving comfort to those who need it the most.

But you don’t have to listen to just me. People have been writing about the theme of caring for the poor (particularly at Christmas time) for some time. A popular traditional source is the carol by John Mason Neale (1818-1866) in “Good King Wenceslas”

“Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.”

If you are looking for another contempory source, here’s what Bill Murray has to say about it all. Trust him. He’s a changed man.



September 01, 2013: Ad-hoc Greek Dinner

September 2, 2013
Hard at work with the Greek Dinner

The chefs hard at work with the Greek Dinner. All photos by Teja Arboleda via IPhone.

Back when I had the means, it was my end-of-Summer tradition to make a full-out Greek banquet for friends. Stuffed Grape Leaves; Spankopeta, Lamb Kabobs on the grill;  Spanakouris; Greek Salad; and Baklava were the order of the day, along with Retsina, Demestica, and Ouzo to drink. Those were all perfect days, and I miss them, but I got a mini-version of my annual tradition tonight, making dinner for Teja, Barb, and Katie.

Teja had said they were available this weekend and I made a promise to make “something” for the family, but I had no concrete idea of what that might be. When I contacted Teja this morning and asked what meat he had and he said “ground lamb” I had it: a Greek meal it was to be. The rest just fell into place.

Lemon ZestThe ground lamb meant meatballs in Avgolemono Sauce (an egg-lemon-chicken stock velouté.) I had never made this before, and couldn’t find a recipe, but I knew what the essence of it should be, and that usually gets me there, so I thought I would take the leap. Rice, would be good company to the lamb, as both could be served with the Avgolemono Sauce.

I could adapt my Kohlrabi Salad to Greek easily enough by substituting Feta cheese for the goat cheese and switching the normal black olives to Greek Kalamata olives.

Making DessertFor dessert…something light and fresh. I decided on Honeydew melon pieces with fresh mint from the garden and blackberries served with Greek yoghurt.

All that I needed was to dig up a bottle of Retsina as a good wine pairing for the meal and I was set. My first (and ultimately only) setback was to NOT find Retsina at my usual supplier. If you’ve never had Retsina, it is a Greek white wine that has a hint of tree resin. If you find this sounds odd, you are not alone. It is definitely an acquired taste, but once acquired…it will haunt you forever. It’s offbeat flavor I thought would contrast the promised tartness of the Avgolomono Sauce. I had to settle for a Crete white wine, a 2010 Kretikos, while delicious by itself, did not have the contrast I was looking for.

Toasted Pine NutsAs extra veggies, Barbara surprised me with both an eggplant and a breed of heirloom tomatoes that I had never seen before: long like plum tomatoes but without the bulge at one end the plum variety have, laced with erratic and beautiful swirls of yellow running throughout, they were the most unique (and tasty) tomato I’ve ever had. I baked the eggplant  and tomato with onion, garlic and mint sautéed  in olive oil. I topped this with crumbled Feta cheese and a sprinkling of Greek seasoning.

Dinner is Served!

Dinner is Served!

My young sous-chef, Katie was again a very talented and efficient helper, although she teased me with the moniker “chef demanding” with my constant requests for getting things just right. Despite her cooking skills, her company is most appreciated.  She asks the most poignant questions. Making dessert she asked, “if they call it fruit salad, why then is it a dessert?”

Although everything was excellent, the real winner of the evening was the Avgolemono Sauce. It’s light saffron color, smooth texture and slightly tart taste was just perfect! I never thought I would find a better sauce than Hollandaise! Since I never want to forget this recipe, here it is for future reference:

Avgolemono Sauce

6 Tblsp. Butter
6 Tblsp. Flour
2 Egg Yolks
1 Pint Chicken Stock
Juice and Zest from 1+1/2 Lemons
4 Tblsp. Plain Greek Yoghurt

Over low-medium heat, melt butter and add flour. Whisk well until the mixture starts to solidify. Lower heat a bit and add lemon juice, zest and egg yolks and continue whisking for a minute. Add chicken stock and keep whisking until a you get a smooth, velvety texture. Remove from heat and whisk in yoghurt. Serve.

We finished off the evening by watching “Gnomeo and Juliet”…a “G”-rated take on the Shakespeare tale with garden gnomes instead of humans, that Katie could enjoy with the adults. A wonderful evening all around!


June 20, 2013: First, Do No Harm

June 20, 2013
Photo by Teja via IPhone

Photo by Teja via IPhone

People tend to associate the phrase “First, Do No Harm'” (Latin: Primum non nocere”) with the code of ethics that the medical practitioners should adhere to. I would say that it should well apply to not only all professional fields, but also, as general ethics, trumps “the golden rule” as a good maxim in order to better treat our fellow-men. After all, if you are human you will, sooner or later through action or inaction, harm at least one other of your fellow humans. All one can do is use “First, Do No Harm” as a way to be aware of your capacity to hurt someone else.

A a chef, “First, Do No Harm” is absolutely necessary rule to make sure your patrons are safe on all accounts. These days, there are a plethora of food allergies and sensitivities that could harm a guest. Most common allergies are to milk and eggs, fish and shellfish, nuts from both trees and ground, wheat, soybean, but there are many others besides the major allergies. In addition, people can be sensitive to food. While not giving them an allergic reaction, certain foods may unsettle their stomach. There are also foods that people choose not to eat or simply don’t like.

For chefs, all these food sensitivities may be a challenge to delight guests while most importantly, keeping them safe. Before I cook for people who I have not met I do an advance poll (usually through the hosts) to find if anyone has food sensitivities and even general likes and dislikes. I always inform the hosts what I plan to make and make sure they clear it with the guests (I find this also increases anticipation for the meal.)

Last weekend I had a chance to make dinner for Teja, Barb, Katie and Teja’s mom, Marlis. I have been working on Indian food lately, so I thought I would make Aaloo Mattar (potatoes, peas and beans in a korma sauce, over basamati rice) Chicken Tandoori, and grilled veggies. Teja OK’d the meal, but later contacted me to say that his mom has lately become very sensitive to spices. I did a rethink of the meal and found I could exclude spices from her portions.

Cooking for Teja’s family includes the double-joy of having 10-year-old Katie as a helper. Not only is Katie quite adept in the kitchen, but she is wonderful company and her cheerful and industrious demeanor makes cooking twice as fun. She is also a good guardian. I almost (by habit) added spices to the rice that was going to Marlis, and Katie stopped me in time! While preparing the meal, Katie thought the meal might be too spicy for her, as well, so I gave her a small potion of the sauces I was going to include and she agreed that they did not taste too spicy….and this is where I dropped the ball.

What I should have done is discuss Katie’s tolerances to spices with the parents. It turns out Katie also has an increasing sensitivity to the more strong spices. My poor little helper could not finish the meal and went to bed a little worse for the wear, thanks to my error.

So…chefs take to heart my lesson and my adaptation of the popular medical maxim “First, Do No Harm” to the cooking world and make your guests happier, clamoring for more…but mostly, to keep them safe!

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