Friday, October 9, 2009

Cost-cutting Secrets of Chefs Who Cook for the Needy

LINDA Christianson knows that if she feeds them, they will come.

Christianson, a cook at Cathedral Kitchen, in Camden, works with a team that serves dinner and delivers meals to an average of 300 disadvantaged people every day. "Our numbers are definitely growing," she said, as more locals lose their jobs.

Then there are clients that fit into the category of the working poor - families who, despite multiple low-paying jobs, can't always afford to feed their kids. Cooking for a crowd on a budget is second nature to Christianson, a mission not all that different from the rest of us.

"Everybody is watching their pennies," she said.

Cooking from raw ingredients is key to a balanced diet and a balanced food budget, according to Christianson. "We don't use processed foods. People think they save time and money - but they don't. Take a grocery store rotisserie chicken, for example. You pay $6 and maybe get two cups of edible meat. Buy your own chicken - the parts you like - add a little spice and bake it. How long does that take? And you have enough for two meals, not just one."

While the kitchen does receive donated food - including steak ends from Capital Grill, which have been a popular addition to the menu in dishes such as stir fries and pepper steak - everything from salad dressing to soup is made from scratch. A new green building and kitchen, designed by local DAS Architects, provides more storage for bulk ingredients, another money saver.

Karen Talarico, the kitchen's executive director, recommends shopping at a place like Produce Junction, which offers rock bottom price on fresh vegetables. "Farmers' markets can be expensive," she said. "Everybody can't always buy local. But at least you can buy fresh. Asian supermarkets are another place that offers great deals on produce, meats and fish."

Chef Keith Lucas oversees the production of more than 65,000 meals a month for MANNA, which delivers to individuals and families living with HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes or other life-threatening illnesses. Growing up as one of 11 in a single-parent, North Philly household, Lucas is a good man to know when it comes to stretching a buck.

"It starts with menu planning," said the chef. "Figure out what you want to make ahead of time so you can stretch leftovers into another meal. But be flexible with ingredients, depending on what's on sale."

Lucas is big on using every last scrap of product, often in dishes like fishcakes made from scratch, or tuna or salmon croquettes. "We don't cut any corners nutritionally or use any fillers, but we may use more celery or onion than chicken in a stew to stretch it.

"And we also make vegetarian meals with a protein source like beans, tofu and seitan," he said. "Whole grains are another way to stretch a meal without compromising nutrition."

MANNA meals average $1.28 each, due in part to donations and discounts afforded an acute-care facility. Lucas' challenge is making inexpensive food that is both nutritious and tasty.

"If people don't like how it tastes, it's not going to do them any good," he said.

Read the complete story here.

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