Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Inspirational Food Pantry Visit, Oats, and Tuna

I finally visited the Franklin Food Pantry today, and I'm still giddy! After two years of following his blog, I finally got to meet Steve Sherlock, who is on the pantry's board of directors; and I also got to meet Anne Marie Bellavance, who was simultaneously running the pantry, directing a gaggle of volunteers, and giving me a tour.

I can't believe how excited they are that I am writing this cookbook for them! Right now I feel like I could wear a cardboard sign that says "will work for raw enthusiasm!" (A rather tasteless joke, I know, considering that the aim of this project is to help people who are out of work and out of grocery money. But I'm all bubbly, and I approve of off-color humor.)

Along with meeting these wonderful people, I got to see what exactly is on the shelves of a food bank. It turned out to be about what I expected: boxed prepared foods, canned whole ingredients, peanut butter, tuna, pasta (lots of whole grain), rice (including brown), bread (or at least an empty table where day-old Panera bread spawns at regular intervals) and some freezers and refrigerators containing ground meats, whole chickens, eggs, and sometimes cheese and frozen vegetables.

Food pantry users can stop in weekly for bread, and can schedule a monthly visit to fill up a bag of groceries. That doesn't strike me as very much, but I imagine when you are in dire straights for food, it would mean the world. And their policy is that when a new client comes in to sign up, they leave with a bag of groceries whether or not they are able to get all of their paperwork in order at that time.

Steve is working on the new and improved pantry website, including straightforward info on how to sign up to become a food pantry client, and how to sign up to become a volunteer.

I got to present them with a first draft of the cookbook. It's already 25 pages, and contains almost 40 recipes! Steve wants to eventually put it in wiki format, and he was excited at the idea of using printed versions to sell for fundraising.

After having made hundreds of mostly useless pieces of art that have gone under my bed or sold for a pittance, it is an amazing feeling to be making something that has such potential to immediately help people, both directly, by teaching them how to wisely stretch their food dollars, and indirectly, by raising money. Hopefully, this will be a useful enough tool that it can be passed along to other food banks around the country.

Now then; here are today's recipes. The pancakes are adapted from a Joy of Cooking recipe. I cooked the book's version this morning with great success, but have not yet tested this simplified version. (The original calls for cooked oatmeal. Surely that was meant to use up leftovers, and not a necessary step.) The second I will be testing for dinner, and the third is untested so far.

I need to consult my Joy of Cooking more often: it was published in the 50's and contains wonderful old-school tips, like the method of judging a pan's heat by flicking water into it.

Oatmeal Pancakes
(quick meal)

Makes about 12 pancakes.

1 ½ cups rolled or quick oats
1 ½ cups milk
½ cup whole wheat or white flour
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
(optional) 2 tbsp melted butter or bacon grease
1 egg
(optional) frozen or fresh berries, chopped dried fruit, chopped nuts

Preheat a griddle or large skillet at a medium-high heat. In a mixing bowl, combine egg, milk, salt, baking soda, and oats. Beat with a fork until thoroughly mixed. Melt the butter in the microwave, or by putting it in a metal measuring cup and setting it on the hot cooking surface. Stir the melted butter or grease into the mixture. (The butter or bacon grease should prevent the pancakes from sticking to the pan.) Add the flour. Stir until the mixture is mostly mixed, but still has a few lumps.

You can tell that the griddle or pan is the right temperature by flicking a few drops of water on the surface. When the drops skitter around, the skillet is the right temperature. If the drops immediately become steam, the skillet is too hot. If the drops don’t move around, the skillet isn’t hot enough.

When the skillet is the correct temperature, spoon the batter into the pan. Cook the pancakes for about three minutes, until golden brown on the bottom. If you want to add optional berries, fruit, or nuts, sprinkle those on top of the pancakes now while they cook. Push them down into the pancakes with your fingers if necessary. Then flip the pancakes, and cook for an additional three minutes or so, until cooked through.

Serve with maple syrup, butter, honey, or jelly.

If making large quantities of pancakes, or cooking in many batches, set the oven on its lowest setting, and stack the finished pancakes on a plate in the oven.

Pancakes can also be frozen, and reheated later in a toaster, in the microwave, or under the broiler.

Creamy Tuna Pasta
(quick meal)

This is a quick version of Tuna Noodle Casserole that uses whole ingredients instead of canned “ cream of” sauces. Such canned sauces are low in nutrients and high in sugar, salt, oils, and other things that would be best left out of one‘s diet, such as MSG. Feeds four or five people.

1 chopped onion
(optional) canned or fresh mushrooms
1 or 2 cans of tuna
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
1 cup milk
1 or 2 cups vegetables, such as frozen peas, chopped broccoli, frozen spinach, etc.
(optional) 1 cup of grated cheddar, Swiss, or other cheese
(optional) dill
Salt and pepper to taste
Egg noodles, or pasta, or rice

Start cooking the noodles or rice. In another pan, melt the butter, and sauté the onions and mushrooms for a few minutes. Sprinkle in the flour, stirring over the heat for another couple of minutes, and then add the milk. When the milk comes to a boil, add the tuna and veggies. Simmer until the veggies are cooked to your liking; then stir in the grated cheese, and add salt and pepper and optional dill to taste.

If you opt not to use cheese, try adding more tuna or more vegetables to fill out the meal.

Serve over egg noodles, pasta, or rice.

Tuna Noodle Casserole
(cook in advance)

Cooking tuna noodle as a casserole may take too long to be convenient on a busy weeknight, but comes in handy if you have more cooking time and a large group of people to feed. It also makes sense for pot lucks, because it can be cooked a few hours in advance, kept warm in the oven on low heat, and then brought to the potluck in just one container.

Tuna Noodle Casserole is almost the same as Cheesy Tuna Pasta, except that it is baked. To make tuna noodle casserole without using canned “cream of” sauces, follow the above directions, doubling or tripling as necessary. Egg noodles are traditional, rather than rice or pasta, but any of the above should work. Instead of adding the cheese and veggies to the sauce in the pan, layer all of the ingredients in a casserole dish, with the pasta or rice on the bottom. Top with extra cheese and bread crumbs. Bake at 350 degrees until the sauce bubbles.

[Edit] After testing this tuna pasta recipe again, and not getting great results, I have reworked these tuna recipes.

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