The Isaiah House is a 100% volunteer-operated emergency homeless shelter for women in Orange County, CA.
On the first, third and fifth Wednesday of every month, I cook dinner for approximately 250 people out of the commercial kitchen, using ingredients I find in the refrigerator, pantry, and cellar.
Primarily, my goal is to put good, satisfying meals on the table using as many fresh ingredients as I can. I also find ways to put donated items (turkey meat, canned beans, jars of tomato sauce, etc.) to good use.
Secondarily, I’m working with the house coordinators and other volunteers to develop a long-term program to keep better food on the table.
Below is a micro-blog I set-up to chronicle my afternoons at the Isaiah House. Once I realized I was committed, I set-up a website to document it all. Click here to view more recent blog entries . It is listed with my most recent visit on top.
Wednesday, January 2, 2013:
Day three. Today was an easy day; I was only responsible for 40 people. (Turkey enchiladas were already made for the other 160.) With the holiday rush, there was an obscene amount of pre-cooked ham available. Also available, yams and zucchini. So we went with ham, mashed yams, and sautéed zucchini. (Hot vegetable!!)
I forgot to bring my own knife, and the house knives weren’t sharp. So I sliced the onion instead of dicing it. It worked out just fine.
Someone also suggested that I make a glaze to go with the ham. The only problem: I’ve never made a glaze before. As luck would have it, I spied a bottle of ham glaze sitting in the pantry, and quickly reviewed the ingredient list so I could put something together: WATER, CORN SYRUP, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, PINEAPPLE, DISTILLED VINEGAR, MONTMORENCY CHERRIES, CORN STARCH-MODIFIED, SUGAR, SALT, SPICES, MUSTARD FLOUR, DEXTROSE, NATURAL FLAVORS, RED 40. Okay, so my version would include real ingredients, like brown sugar, mustard, honey, red wine vinegar, orange juice, salt, and pepper. And it worked out just fine.
While serving the food tonight, I observed that everyone kept coming back for the zucchini, so much so that it was GONE before even half of the yams were served. Somewhere in between, the ham went, too.
It really is amazing to me that folks were so enamored by the zucchini. I kept getting questions akin to “how did you make that?!” Onions. Zucchini. Sauté over medium heat in butter, olive oil, salt and pepper until soft. Serve.
It’s moments like these that remind that quite often, most of us are just looking for something warm, simple, comforting, and nourishing. Fancy be damned.
Note to self: keep the hot vegetables coming.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012:
Day two. With plenty of ground beef available, today’s goal was to make a big pot of chili. I arrived late. Pinto beans weren’t soaked. So I relied on that well-stocked pantry to pull out cans of beans, tomatoes, and corn. Another hiccup? One can opener that’s about four turns away from falling apart. And approximately 30 cans that needed to be opened.
With the help of other volunteers, it was all okay in the end. I even had time to garnish the chili with shredded cheese and fresh cilantro.
Not pictured: a honey mustard vinaigrette I prepared for the green salad. I also brought with me a batch of homemade candied pecans. Both were a smashing success for those that tried the salad, which was only about 2/3 of the crowd. I later learned that a green salad was served every night, and that it was usually dressed with Hidden Ranch, so most folks were tired of it. Lesson learned. No more green salad.
After dinner, I went outside and chatted with about 15 of the women. I asked all of them, “What dinner have you missed most, and would like to have again, soon?” Overwhelmingly, the responses were: mashed potatoes, hot vegetables, soups, stews, good spaghetti, Asian food, and Indian food. Surprising, yes? There was also one request for orange chicken, but I’m not allowed to prepare that until the vents in the kitchen are fixed. So let’s work on hot vegetables for next time.
Also, I splattered my white t-shirt pretty good today. Note to self: bring an apron next time.
Wednesday, December 5, 2012:
Day one. I was told to arrive anytime. Knowing service began promptly at 5:30 PM, I showed up at 3:30 PM to give myself two hours to work. I brought with me a freshly sharpened chefs knife and planned to make a turkey stew. (I had never served 200 people in one sitting before, so I’m not sure why I thought two hours was plenty of time.) I was told there would be shredded turkey (leftover from Thanksgiving), diced onions, diced carrots, diced celery and chicken stock waiting for me. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was excited to figure it out.
I spent about five minutes touring the very well-stocked walk-in refrigerator, the pantries, and the cellar. WOW! I imagine it’s not unlike being on-set at Iron Chef America or Chopped. I could tell right away based on how much food was onsite, that there would be no problem getting the stew done.
With flour and rice handy, I used both. In the end, also I added spinach for color (and bonus nutritional value). Other volunteers worked on a salad and some toasted bread.
What I learned about cooking for the Isaiah House today: On a cold night in December, no one really cares what they’re eating…as long as it’s warm. Duly noted. Also, doing this was such a rewarding experience for me, and I’m so honored to have this opportunity to cook dinner for folks who really need it. I was on a high for hours after I walked out of the house. Very much looking forward to next time.