Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Ultimate "Pantry" Challenge

Last November, my daughters had an appointment at the dentist. Next door to our dentist's office is a food pantry. I've been hearing about this pantry for a while, but I never knew exactly where it was.

We're volunteers at the local animal shelter, and my daughter decided that she wanted to do a "12 Day of Christmas" donation to the animal shelter. I decided that I wanted to match her, but take my donation to the food pantry.

So, while my daughters were getting their teeth cleaned, I walked over the pantry, introduced myself, told them what I wanted to do, and asked if they ever needed volunteers. It's turned out to be one of the best impulsive things I've ever done.

Ten months later, my daughters and I are still volunteers. We go once a week and work the entire shift (from 9:00 to noon). We also help out with fundraisers, like the yard sales that are every other week during the summer. Last weekend, we got to go to a Blues Festival in town to sell raffle tickets for the pantry. The weekend before, we were part of the crew that manned a drink station for runners in the Rev3 Triathlon. It's been an awesome experience working at the pantry, and definitely it's been quite an education - for both me and my daughters.

One of the biggest challenges our patrons face is being offered food that's unfamiliar or not terribly appetizing looking. And our patrons actually get to choose what they take, unlike some pantries where the pantry personnel packs a box with x amount of each of the four food groups, and sometimes people end up with cans of creamed spinach and shredded pork, or maybe they get a can of tuna, some Kraft Mac & Cheese, and three cans creamed corn. Each patron in our pantry gets to pick a certain number of items based on family size. Bread, fruits and vegetables are on a take-what-you-need basis.

The problem is that we often have no idea what WE will have, because everything is donated. We have no idea what we'll get from each delivery. It could be a box of rice, which is versatile and goes a long way ... or a case of generic-brand tomato soup.

Sometimes we get odd vegetables that are completely unfamiliar. Like Jicama. I had to look it up. It's a tuber, native to the southwest, and used in a lot of southwestern cuisine. We have a friend from New Mexico. He knew what it was. I still haven't tried it - although I should so that I can give an informed opinion.

I've been having a lot of fun with talking to our clients about what they can do with the food we have available. Last year, we were inundated with tomato soup. One can only enjoy so much soup with grilled cheese, before it gets old. So, I found five or six recipes, and we handed them out. I had no idea that one could make French Dressing (for salads - used to be my sister's favorite dressing when we were kids) with condensed tomato soup.

This week, we have cabbages and cucumbers, because a local farmer donated a lot of it to us ... and I wondered if I could come up with a recipe ... maybe a twist on the coleslaw theme.

I did.

And it's delicious.

Most of the ingredients are things we have at the pantry. The only thing our patrons might have a challenge acquiring are the spices, in particular, cumin, but for those interested, cumin comes in a 2 oz bottle and costs between $2 and $4, but it will last a long time. It's one of my favorite spices, and I use it on everything from steak to chicken ... and now, coleslaw.

The dressing is a play on the Indian Raita and a tzatziki.

Coleslaw with Cucumber-Yogurt Dressing :

1/2 large head of cabbage shredded
1 overly large cucumber, deseeded and finely chopped
1 c plain yogurt
1 tbsp. fresh mint leaves finely chopped (or 2 tbsp of dried could be used)
1 tsp of vinegar (I used red wine vinegar, but any will do ... or substitute lemon juice for a different zing)
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 tsp cumin
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Mix yogurt and spices together until well blended.
2. Add finely chopped cucumber.
3. Toss with shredded cabbage.


The dressing can also be enjoyed with flat bread and spicy meat.

For this dish, the cabbage, garlic, and mint were from my garden. The cukes were from a local farm. The yogurt was made by a local farmer, who has just started making yogurt. Vinegar and cumin were not local.

Finding interesting, nutritious and tasty ways to prepare the kinds of food that we often receive at our community food pantry can be quite a challenge, but it's a lot of fun to imagine the possibilities.