Monthly Archives: November 2006

Volunteering During the Season of Thanks & Giving

Bagels to be wrapped up for delivery

On Thursday of last week, most of us gathered around tables loaded with treats and feasts. As part of our national tradition, a moment of thanks is usually given, perhaps with heads bowed in prayer, maybe with the youngest member of the assembly lisping sweetly through “The Lord’s Prayer.”  The Thanks part of my holiday this year was spent with an abbreviated version of my family. It has been a good while since we’ve had a more Norman Rockwell/mythical American form of this meal. I enjoyed it but it also brought to mind the fact that I’d read recently about how many folks aren’t even getting all the benefits that they could to feed their own families.

Volunteer team cutting up carrots
There are still lots of people in this country who depend upon assistance in order to nourish themselves every day. This isn’t to get super-preachy to everyone, but just to highlight that, in this season where we give Thanks for what we have, hands are reaching out to ask us to remember the Giving part by helping donate to those who have even less.  One of the things I enjoy about living in New York is that there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer. Somehow, though, I’d never really put that energy into food-related projects. It’s not even that it is difficult to find ways to help out, as my church lists the days that the local food pantry needs folks and a volunteer newsletter I get each month always has several sessions at local soup kitchens.
Vat of chopped carrots

It took my joining my new company, and finding out that I knew the project’s team leader, to wake me out of this malaise. Finally, I put my culinary interest to some good use. I signed up to help with meal prep for an organization that serves food to those who cannot feed themselves due to severe and debilitating illness. I’d prefer for privacy reasons to keep the organization’s name mum, needless to say, they are very well-known. Our few hours one Sunday afternoon a month, make sure that the raw materials of what goes into many meals are ready for the cooks that the organization employs. The volunteers don’t do any of the actual cooking, but these photos are of some of the fruits of our labors on one recent visit.

Tub of chopped celery

Most of what we do is chop, peel, chop, and chop some more. If you ever wondered what industrial-sized, 50-pound bags of carrots looked like when they are cut up, check out the photo above.  There is a certain rhythm to the chopping and a nice rapport that develops with our fellow prep cooks. We chop, we chat, we tell stories, we get to listen to 80’s tunes I haven’t heard in years via the radio that always seems to be blaring, no other volume allowed. Having viewed others’ techniques, I’ve decided that, while my knife skills could use some work, I am definitely not at the bottom of the ladder in that department.  On this occasion, after carrots, as you can see, we had celery. Another group was doing onions, lots of onions. My guess was that we were creating the basics for soup, as we were dicing everything. After that came peppers (see below).

Pile of chopped peppers
This was by far the easiest of the food items we’d ever had to cut. I think that there was a general group consensus that we need to do more peppers and fewer root vegetables (last time we’d had turnips). Not that we actually do get to choose, mind you.  So, in this season of Thanks and Giving, I am going to pledge to try to do more of the latter, especially to organizations that feed others. I am also going to give lots and lots of Thanks that I haven’t been put on onion chopping duty…as yet.
Buon appetito!

Pumpkin Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

Pumpkin Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
Ah, it’s that time of year again. The magazines are filled with recipes for turkey with trimmings, side dishes galore, and pies, pies, pies. There’s hints for watching one’s waistline while not offending that aunt who brought over her favorite casserole, tips for trying to make those family favorites into lo-cal treats, and the inevitable pseudo-science articles about the sure-fire way to cook a turkey without giving everyone food poisoning.
I have a confession to make, however. There is one thing I just can’t stand about this holiday: Pumpkin Pie. This is a bit odd for two reasons: a. I love sweets and have been known to eat pies and b. I like pumpkin. I just don’t like the concoction that is usually presented at every standard Thanksgiving buffet. It’s just too cloying, too gelatinous, too something.
I can’t really put my finger on it, but each year I have the same problem of how to refuse to eat someone’s culinary contribution to the feast. So, my quest has been to look for recipes that present an alternative point of view to the pie. For years, I’ve searched out other options.  Personally, I’d like to see Thanksgiving Day dinner start off with a pumpkin soup, rather than end it with pumpkin pie. Somehow, I think that that would showcase this seasonal vegetable in a better light. [As a point of reference, I also want to have a ban imposed on that canned gel stuff that does nothing to show cranberries in their best light or flavor.]
Then a story on one of the websites I check out on occasion, Leite’s Culinaria, caught my eye. The cover page mentioned a Pumpkin Cake with Maple-Cream Cheese Frosting*. Hmmm…..Let’s see. This sounds as though it has possibilities. Then, I started to read the reviews of those who had tried to make this dessert (a familiar habit for those who tap into for recipe resources). Even better, I thought, everyone seems to give it rave reviews.
Because I was really looking for something that I could bring to work for those of us who would have to staff the office until the closing hours of business on Wednesday, long after our bosses have already left for their holiday, I converted the recipe into cupcakes. I also took the suggestion of someone else who had tried it and topped them with pecans (it must be that Southern influence).
As you can see from the photo, it makes a lovely, portable result. The cake is light and moist and the frosting is just nicely sweet. The flavor is not too heavy or overly spiced (something that happens with the offending pie filling). Even my non-pumpkin fan roommate enjoyed it.  All in all, I add my four forks to this recipe. It’s a keeper. As someone who likely had a bunch of family at that first Thanksgiving so many years ago, I have no problem adding this treat to my recipe library.
Buon appetito!

*I think that, next time, I might try to incorporate the nuts into the batter. Also, it seemed to me that this batter might also make great waffles or pancakes, albeit with a few tweaks. And, yes, I used canned pumpkin. I managed to find an organic brand at the grocery store.