February 2010 Trip

Puerto Rico Daily Update 6: Adventures on an Edible Island

During the trip, our daily updates focused on the food we created during our week- long stay on La Isla Encanta.  A CulinaryCorps trip, however, is a two-way street allowing our volunteer chefs to share their food with the community, and the community to share their food with us.  Weaved in throughout the week are opportunities to immerse ourselves in the cuisine of the people we have come to assist, and in doing so, understand a major source of history, identity and pride.  Puerto Rico proved to be a wonderful culinary adventure all week, and we wanted to capture some of our experiences in this journal.

Descriptions and pictures after the jump:

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Puerto Rico Daily Update 5: Iniciativa Comunitaria

Today’s CulinaryCorps volunteer mission required juggling several moving parts.

First, we planned to create 150 meals for the homeless population in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Second, we aimed to connect with the Culinary Arts students at InterAmerican University, who so graciously let us crash their kitchen for the project.  These wonderful students, led by Silvio and our current volunteer Brenda, fundraised over $1,200 through on-campus bake sales and barbecues in support of this CulinaryCorps trip.

And third, we sought to teach fundamental kitchen techniques to the clients of Iniciativa Comunitaria, an expansive non-profit organization that operates over 30 programs to aid homeless, drug addicts, sex workers, and children living in violence.  Among their many programs, Iniciativa Comunitaria has established a number of half-way homes that lend services and support to individuals in need.  Although these half-way homes have been hugely helpful in many ways, they have suffered from one important drawback:  upon exiting the program, many of the individuals do not know how to cook for themselves — not even an egg!  We believed the CulinaryCorps team could help with that.

We started our day by getting to know the InterAmerican students and preparing our educational action stations.  Each station was assigned a different recipe, which would become dishes for feeding San Juan’s homeless as well as today’s volunteers.  The recipes were tailored to showcase to the Iniciativa trainees basic cooking skills such as baking, sautéing, and knife skills, all using ingredients that were affordable, accessible, and healthful.

Our menu for the day included:

  • Fresh Greens with Vinaigrette and Homemade Croutons
  • Bacon and Cheddar Cornbread with a Selection of Compound Butters
  • Tomato and Cucumber Pico de Gallo
  • White Bean and Roasted Pepper Chili
  • Oatmeal-Walnut (Whole Wheat) Chocolate Chip Cookies

After a couple of hours of setup, the participants from Iniciativa arrived and everyone got to work.  Within three hours, we had enough food to feed us heartily and plenty of servings for the Iniciativa volunteers to distribute later this evening.

As the late-afternoon sun receded behind the palms, everyone gathered around one long communal table to share a common meal.

As we ate, we reflected on a statement by of one of today’s participants, who is also the cook in the half-way home he lives in:

“You do not cook for a paycheck.  You cook for love.”

This aphorism precisely captures our sentiments about this week of culinary volunteer work.  Our experience on this beautiful island has been truly singular . . . we look forward to another fruitful CulinaryCorps trip to Puerto Rico!

Puerto Rico Daily Update 4: VIDAS

Up and out well before dawn, our team of CulinaryCorps chefs pulled into the Ceiba airport just as the sun’s first rays hit the tarmac.  A twelve-minute plane ride later and we stepped out onto the lush tropical island of Vieques.

CulinaryCorps chefs embark for Vieques

CulinaryCorps chefs embark for Vieques

En route to VIDAS

En route

The first cargo off the plane?  Bags and bags of fresh vegetables.

Our CulinaryCorps volunteer work for the day was focused on Todos Los Santos Community Center, an education enrichment environment for two- to five-year-olds living on the island.  The Center is run by a group of inspiring women and is sponsored by VIDAS, a non-profit organization devoted to the welfare of underserved children suffering from hunger, illness, and abuse.

The big annual project for each VIDAS Center is a handcrafted “food portfolio” that the children themselves help create.  Last year, the theme was beans; this year, it’s vegetables.   The students and teachers work year-round to compile recipes, art projects, drawings, and stories, each judged by a panel of local culinary experts.  Our day with the group was the kick-off for their vegetable exploration.

Big and little chefs at work

Big and little chefs at work

The CulinaryCorps chefs broke into three teams, each tackling a different recipe that expounded on our day’s theme “Saboreando el Arcoiris”  (Savor the Rainbow).  Our three menu items for the day:

  • Rainbow Veggie Wraps
  • Pot-of-Gold Salad with Shake-It Dressing
  • Carrot Cake Smoothie and Green Goddess Juice

With all the fruits and vegetables displayed and labeled, the stations became as colorful as the rainbows that often grace this beautiful island.  And soon enough, the smallest cooks CulinaryCorps chefs have ever work with arrived, many with their parents and siblings.

CulinaryCorps chefs with their vegetables on display

CulinaryCorps chefs with their vegetables on display

From the time they walked through the door, it was a vegetable whirlwind!

Each station was twenty minutes long, with students rotating on to the next station to make every dish.  Tasting the veggies on hand was an important part of the lesson, and we encouraged all the students to become part of our “one bite club.”  If they did choose to nibble on something new, they earned a sticker for their chef hat and a round of high fives and applause.

Colorful and delicious fun

Colorful and delicious fun

Given the lack of affordable access to many fresh vegetables on Vieques, we weren’t sure how many students would be tempted to take a bite of beet or sweet potato, or take a a sip of celery juice and carrot puree.  Happily, we were blown away by their willingness to try almost everything we set before them!  And it was not beginner’s luck, as session after session over 75 students and parents in total explored every vegetable with gusto (admittedly, with the occasional and polite spit-up).

Good Food. Doing Good.

Good Food. Doing Good.

As we were in the midst of our last session, washing dishes with cafeteria cook Carmen, she said that she had never seen the students eat what they were eating today—and that she would know, as she urges them to eat their vegetables every day.  With a sly smile, she said that today she could feel that things were about to change for the better.

In all, a true testament to the difference that one cargo load of vegetables—and twelve sticker-happy chefs—can make.

Puerto Rico Daily Update 3: Hogar Ruth

Hogar Ruth, a non-profit organization in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, is committed to saving lives by sheltering women experiencing domestic abuse.  They welcome anyone seeking a safe haven into their 90-day facility, and their efforts help reduce the rising mortality rate of women who die at the hands of someone they love.  Often, the women and their children arrive at Hogar Ruth with only the clothes they are wearing, with no one to turn to except the kindness of people they do not know.  When CulinaryCorps organizers first touched base with Hogar Ruth last year, we asked if there was any way we could help further their noble mission.

As it turned out, a team of chefs was exactly what they needed.

As so many of us cooks dream to do one day, Hogar Ruth wanted to create a cookbook of beloved recipes.  They hoped to draw from the knowledge and experience of their in-house kitchen, the repertoires of the women they serve, and the board members who support the organization.  Beyond a mere collection of recipes, the final product is intended to serve as a handbook for these women when they move out of the facility.  Amidst the recipes will be emergency numbers, steps to break the cycle of violence, and advice for putting a family in a safer space, both mentally and physically.  Every woman who leaves Hogar Ruth will receive a copy.

The CulinaryCorps volunteers were up for the challenge.  Shortly after arriving in the morning and unpacking two vans full of groceries, our volunteer chefs paired up with the women of Hogar Ruth to embark on a day of recipe capturing, testing, and eating.

CulinaryCorps volunteers at Hogar Ruth

Many of these women are struggling with ongoing violence in their lives, and we were prepared for them to be uncommunicative, even disengaged, with a group of strangers waltzing into their temporary home.  We couldn’t have been more wrong.  Food has a way of connecting people like no other medium can — within minutes we were listening to shared stories about one woman’s sorely missed comfort food from her hometown overseas, and another woman’s favorite holiday treat from her grandmother.

As the CulinaryCorps co-leaders headed out to shop for the necessary ingredients, the teams began to re-create several recipes submitted by board members of Hogar Ruth.  Our mission was to test these recipes — and tweak them if necessary — until they were cookbook-ready.

Recipe-testing at Hogar Ruth

After a few hours of cooking, we had a spectacular lunch on our hands in the aptly named “Café Ruth”:

  • Ensalada de Atun
  • Ensalada de Chayote
  • Beef Marinara
  • Arroz con Cebolla
  • Pollo al Mango
  • Budin de Pan
  • Quesadilla Saladorena

The lunch menu at "Café Ruth"

Steady work began again promptly at 2pm as the teams set out to test and refine the women’s own recipes so they too could find a home in the cookbook.  Meanwhile, the children in the facility donned paper chef hats, rolled up their sleeves, and started cooking as well.  Their first creation was a sweet dessert called a Quesadilla Saladorena, using a surprising ingredient, pancake mix.  Then they moved on to homemade play-doh, sculpting, and shaping all sorts of wonderfully artistic sculptures that graced our buffet table that afternoon.

Some of the children's creations

Finally, in the cool breeze of the outdoor gazebo, the children learned to make pizza dough from scratch.  Mixing and kneading, they turned their hard work into individual pizzas topped with fresh vegetables, cheese, and the class favorite, pepperoni.  Since oven space was at a premium, we grilled the pizzas outside.  The hands-down winner was the “Puerto Rican Pizza” that boasted a layer of sofrito, queso blanco, and fresh cilantro.  Pizza joints of the world, take note!

Attentive young culinary students

After a couple of hours in the kitchen, we wrapped up with another beautiful meal full of very traditional Puerto Rican foods:

  • Ensalada con Aderezo de Mojo
  • Mofongo con Camarones y Carne Frita
  • Alcapuria de Carne
  • Pastelon de Yuca y Calabaza
  • Macarones con Pollo
  • Tacos de Churrasco
  • Tembleque
  • Bolitas de Chocolate y Coco
  • Frescas Son Chocolate

Dinner service at Hogar Ruth

Midway through the day, we were chatting over the cutting boards, and one chef mentioned that the CulinaryCorps chefs volunteering this week in Puerto Rico “are all so different but the same.”  This truism could be extended to the women and children we worked with at Hogar Ruth as well.  We all come from different backgrounds, and our views on the world may not necessarily coincide.  But food?  Food brings us one and all to the table: smiling, joyous, and hopeful.

Puerto Rico Daily Update 2: Sapientis

CulinaryCorps volunteers have never enjoyed a warmer, more delicious welcome than we did today, as we were greeted by the Sapientis students in the Culinary and Pastry Arts program at Albert Einstein High School in San Juan.

Armed with pasta machines and our knives, we walked into the culinary classroom at 8am ready to hit the ground running, but were stopped short when we saw the sweet spread displayed before us.

Ham croquettes . . . sweet biscuits with pineapple cream cheese . . . banana cake . . . guava pastries . . . frosted cake with sprinkles.  All for us!  And ALL made by the students themselves.

It didn’t take much convincing for us to put down our knives and dig right in.

In fact, it is these very baked goods that keep the Culinary Arts program afloat at the school.  Under the watchful eye of their incredible instructor, Ms. O’Neill, the students bake and sell their goods to their peers, earning money for equipment, supplies, and even chef coats.  To see this kind of pride displayed by 10th, 11th, and 12th graders is humbling.  Many in the industry take for granted the fact that side towels are a luxury, not a right, and that chef hats are a badge of honor, not a mere accessory.

From the outset, we could see from that these students had real culinary souls.

After introductions amidst the groaning plates of sweets, we broke the group into teams, each consisting of two CulinaryCorps chefs and five culinary students.  The task for the day?  To make a trio of classic recipes: fresh egg pasta, homemade marinara sauce, and salad greens with balsamic vinaigrette.  Yet, after two and a half hours of concentrated work, what each team created was anything but classic . . . creativity was the word of the day!

In addition to the traditional fettucine and angel hair, teams prepared:

  • Garganelli
  • Herbed Orecchiette
  • Calabaza Ravioli
  • Farfalle
  • Spinach Tortellini
  • And even the ham croquettes reappeared in an imaginative take on a ravioli!

Once the dishes were plated and garnished, they were served family style at brightly colored tables lined with hibiscus flowers.  Slurped elbow-to-elbow by students and chefs alike, the noodles were a hugely delicious success.

We learned during our planning of this project that the class is hoping to start a kitchen garden in the spring. To end the workshop and thank the students for their dedication to the day and to the program, we gave the class an indoor “marinara garden” starter kit with tomato and basil seeds as well as an array of culinary herbs. With any luck, these plants will be thriving by the summer!

Finally, after snapping photos and exchanging e-mails, the CulinaryCorps team had one hour to clean and reset for the second group of students.  The fun repeated itself and we were equally impressed with their focus, enthusiasm, and creativity.

We have to thank Sapientis for connecting us with the students of Albert Einstein.  A local non-profit that operates in partnership with at-risk student populations, Sapientis works to foster leadership, self-respect and community involvement.  Organizations like these are helping to change the face of education for underserved populations.

During our wrap-up sessions, we left the students with our greatest pieces of advice:

Work Hard.  Think Smart.  And always cook from your heart.

One student nodded solemnly; another raised his hand and asked, “So you’ll be back next year?”  We couldn’t think of any sweeter words to hear — we’re already looking forward to our return visit!

Puerto Rico Daily Update 1: Bill’s Kitchen

This is the first of our posts relaying our day-to-day CulinaryCorps volunteer efforts in Puerto Rico.  Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for tomorrow’s adventures!

Bill’s Kitchen is a chef’s dream.   The kitchen itself could hold an army, and the walk-in refrigerator is roomier than most Manhattan apartments.  But, best of all, the staff have hearts bigger than both combined.

In operation for over 16 years, Bill’s Kitchen was founded in memory of a beloved son lost by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  From a few dozen homemade meals made each month in the 1990s, to thousands of meals created each week in the aughts, Bill’s Kitchen remains committed to nourishing those living with HIV/AIDS: mind, body and soul.

With the CulinaryCorps volunteer team assembled and ready for action, we started our day with a taste test.  The Bill’s Kitchen staff informed us that although some of their dishes are very popular with the clients, others have lost favor over time.  Our task was to identify what was going wrong in those recipes (was it the flavor?  the texture?) and then fix it.  Or, if the staff agreed, replace the recipe with something new for the monthly meal line-up.

But there was a catch:

Every dish created had to be capable of being frozen first, and then reheated (usually in a microwave in the client’s house).  What’s more, all dishes had to be low in sodium, spice, and fat (aka: no butter, little oil, and no bacon).  From a chef’s dream . . . to a chef’s worst nightmare.

Nevertheless, with the encouragement and help of the two full-time cooks and five full-time nutritionists on the Bill’s Kitchen staff, the CulinaryCorps team pitched in to start recipe testing and creation.  In short order, the joint crew had created a brand new portfolio of dishes:

  • Fresh Basil Marinara Sauce
  • Pasta Nicoise with Tuna and Red Potatoes
  • Lentil and Mint Soup
  • Quinoa, Bean and Corn Salad with Red Pepper Dressing
  • Basil, Parsley and Walnut Pesto Chicken Thighs
  • Pork Sancocho (Puerto Rican tuber stew)
  • Thai Lemongrass-Coconut Soup
  • Cilantro and Sunflower Seed Pesto
  • Cream of Carrot and Tarragon Soup
  • Sweet and Sour Chicken with Pineapple

And just for fun…

  • Lemon Mini-Poundcakes
  • Butternut Crunch

Amid the chopping, stewing, and stirring, CulinaryCorps volunteers also conducted a series of preplanned workshops to help educate the staff at Bill’s Kitchen about basic kitchen practices, including:

  • Knife Skills
  • Cooking Pasta and Rice for Freezing
  • Pesto Creation
  • Thickening Soups
  • Baking 101

By the end of the day, things came full-circle as the Bill’s Kitchen staff taste-tested our own recipes. Fortunately, our creative trial-and-error experiments yielded some great successes that, with luck, will be served to the clients of Bill’s Kitchen in the near future.

Best of all, our presence was tremendously appreciated by the resident staff.  One of the nutritionists announced to the crowd that in the four months she has passionately labored at Bill’s Kitchen, “Today was the best day.” A smile lit up her face, and we felt it in our hearts.

The $8,000 Fundraising Challenge…We Need Your Help!

Back in November, we set a goal of $8,000 to raise as a team to help fund trip costs including lodging, supplies and donations to local project partners. Our chefs have dreamed up some amazing fundraising ideas, including BBQs, bake sales and Puerto Rican-themed tasting menus. And our friends, families, colleagues and supporters have been wonderfully generous.  A thousands thanks to them all!

However, with only days to go, we are about $1,500 short of our goal!

ANY contribution can make a difference and help keep us going to plan future trips to targeted communities including Mississippi, New Orleans, Rwanda and Haiti. [To view our response on the recent disaster and our role, please click HERE].  We realize this may be a hard time to give but sending us your well-wishes and support works for us too!

To donate, please visit our online donation portal.

CulinaryCorps is 100% volunteer run, and all donations go directly to planning and launching our trips. Donations are collected via our fiscal sponsor, FJC.

$2, $10 or $25 really does make a difference. Thank you!

2010 Trip Sponsor Spotlight: The Many Friends of CulinaryCorps

A huge THANK YOU to our corporate sponsors who are helping support our upcoming trip to Puerto Rico.

We have been tremendously lucky to receive monetary and in-kind donations at the “Friends” contribution level from the following corporations:

La Hacienda Foods: A wonderful speciality grocery store in the San Juan Area.

SM Seafood: An exceptional seafood purveyor in the Santa Monica area.

Sysco – Santa Monica: A generous contributor to our efforts.

The Dumpling: A Seasonal Guide: Our favorite cookbook of the year!

Whole Foods Market Bowery: The supplier of fabulous gifts for our project partners and chefs.  Details to come later so we don’t spoil the surprise!

World Wide Produce: Supplying Southern CA and Las Vegas with pristine produce.

We thank all of our SPONSORS who have supported us over the years.  Your generosity has traveled further than any of us will ever know!