Sunday, December 2, 2007

Family Dinner at Greater Chicago Food Depository Kids Cafe

When you volunteer as much of your time as I do for a non-profit, it has to be a labor of love. If it isn’t, inevitably, the work that you do for it will become just that: work. Even when you do love what you do, you can get so caught up in the small stuff that it becomes draining. So it’s wonderful when a project presents itself that is challenging, inspiring and clears out all the cobwebs.

Back in March, at Family Farmed Expo, I met Michael Meltzer the Manager of the Children’s Programs of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. We arranged to meet shortly thereafter to discuss the possibility of Purple Asparagus putting together programming for the Food Depository’s Kid’s Cafes. The Kids Cafes are an initiative of America's Second Harvest, the nation's food bank network, which is administered locally by the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Through the Kids Cafe program, the Greater Chicago Food Depository partners with after-school programs to provide a healthy and appetizing meal for kids after school.

While a great cause and a great opportunity, I was apprehensive about our involvement. Purple Asparagus’ mission is to bring families back to the table and the Kids’ Cafes served children between 12 and 18 – the age when kids want absolutely nothing to do with their parents. Michael gave our contact information to one Kids Café on Chicago’s south side. Phone calls were exchanged, but no connection made. He then put us in touch with one of the newer members of the program: Corazon Community Services.

Corazon Community Services is a “settlement house” program providing a variety of programs to youth and families in Cicero. Adam Alonso, the program’s executive director, is young, professional and dynamic – a person who has that unique ability to inspire and relate to teenagers. When I met with Adam and his youth program director, Ricardo Aguiñaga, it was clear that their program was pretty special. I was particularly impressed by the fact that they had purchased real dish, glass and flat-ware for the kids to eat with while they were at the center. The reusable wares were the inspiration for our family dinner project: helping a small group of the kids who come to the center cook dinner for their families.

The plan was simple: I would meet with 15 of the kids to decide upon a cuisine and come up with a rough menu. The only cuisine off limits would be Mexican as most of the kids were of Mexican descent. Purple Asparagus would shop for the food and would cook it with them in the 3 ½ hours between school and the dinner’s start: 6:30. Reservations were taken and, during the event, the kids would serve as hosts, servers or cooks during the early parts of the meal. During the main course, they would eat with their families.

When I met with the kids a week before, they surprised me turning down the somewhat familiar Chinese and Italian and instead choosing to make an Indian meal – a decision that was ironically appropriate. While shopping on Devon, I learned that our dinner was held during Diwali, the Indian harvest fest. The meal was remarkable. The kids, while inexperienced, were hard-working and willing to learn. Within that short 3 ½ period, we produced a feast that I would have been proud to serve to a client. This is the menu that we served:



Pappadums with Tamarind & Cilantro Chutneys
A Pair of Toasted Cashews with Two Freshly-Ground Curry Powders


Keralan-Style Grilled Shrimp
Homemade Samosas

Main Course, served buffet style

Saag Gosht
The Spice House “Tandoori” Chicken Served with Raita
Vegetable Biryani
Basmati Rice
Flour Tortillas (as a stand in for Naan)


Homemade Pistachio Kulfi
Mango Hedgehogs
Sugar-Coated Fennel Seeds

Dinner was served with Iced Chai

Second to working with the kids, the best part of this meal for me was when I realized and was able to articulate the similarities of Indian and Mexican cuisine, from raw ingredients (cilantro, tamarind, mangoes) to techniques (horchata/chai, the use of chiles, the reliance upon rice and flatbreads).


In developing the recipes for our dinner, I relied heavily upon Julie Sahni’s book for Williams-Sonoma.

Aloo Samosa

6-8 baking potatoes, about 2.5 lbs. total, unpeeled and quartered
2 tablespoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
4 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups cooked peas, fresh or frozen
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ cup vegetable oil
1 1/3 cup water
½ cup cornstarch dissolved in 1 cup water
1 quart vegetable oil

METHODS: Boil potatoes until very soft. Drain and when cool enough to handle, peel and mash in a bowl. Add coriander, cayenne, pepper, lemon juice, turmeric, salt and 2 tablespoons oil. Heat a large non-stick frying pan over high heat until very hot. Add the potato mix and dry-fry until the potatoes are lightly browned approximately 7-8 minutes. Fold in peas and mint. In a large bowl, combine flour, salt and baking powder. Add all of the oil and the water a little at a time while stirring with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together. Knead on a lightly floured surface for about 1 minute. Cover with a floured cloth or plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes. Roll the dough into an 18-inch rope. Cut into 8 pieces. Form each piece into a ball and flatten into a patty. Roll the patty into a 6-inch circle. Cut the circle in half. Brush half of the straight edge with the cornstarch mix. Form a cone by bringing the halves of the straight edge together; pinch the seam to seal. Holding the cone with the open end toward you, stuff it with 3 heaping teaspoons of the filling. Brush the edges of the open cone with the cornstarch mix and pinch the edges together to enclose the filling. Repeat. Heat oil to 350 º F in a large kettle. Fry about 5 minutes or until golden brown

Keralan-Spiced Shrimp

3 lbs. shrimp
2 tablespoon fresh lime juice
4 teaspoons finely grated ginger
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon turmeric
pinch of cloves

METHODS: Mix peeled and deveined shrimp with next 7 ingredients. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in sauté pan and cook onion until golden. Soak wooden skewers in water for 20 minutes. Skewer the shrimp and cook on a hot grill.

Saag Gosht

½ cup vegetable oil
4 ½ pounds lamb shoulder cut into cubes
9 yellow onions, finely chopped
3 tablespoons finely grated ginger
3 tablespoons minced garlic
6 tablespoons coriander
3 tablespoons paprika
1 ½ teaspoons cayenne
1 ½ cups plain yogurt
6 canned tomatoes, finely chopped
4 ½ cups water
4 ½ teaspoons salt
3 hot green chilies, minced
3 cups packed chopped spinach, fresh or frozen
1 ½ cups cilantro

METHODS: In 6 tablespoons of oil, brown lamb in a hot pan in batches. Add remaining oil and sauté onions until golden brown. Stir in ginger, garlic, coriander, paprika, cayenne and yogurt and cook until moisture has almost completely evaporated. Return meat to pan and add tomatoes, water, salt, chilies and bring to a boil. Reduce to low and simmer until the meat is tender approximately 2 ½ hours. Add spinach and cook until heated through, approximately 15 minutes. Garnish with cilantro.

Iced Chai
Serves 2

2 cardamom pods
1 1-inch pieces of cinnamon
2 cloves
2 cups water
2 cups milk
1½ tablespoons sugar
½ tablespoon loose Jasmine tea leaves

METHODS: Lightly crush spices. Combine them with water and milk and simmer, uncovered for about 2 minutes. Add tea and sugar and cook for about 1 minute longer. Strain and let cool. Serve over ice.

Vegetable Biryani

3 cups basmati rice
6 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil
½ teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
5 cups vegetable broth
2 cups chopped onions
4 teaspoons peeled and grated ginger
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon coriander
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 pinch cayenne
1 cup water
2 medium carrots, sliced into ¼-inch slices
4 cups small cauliflower florets
2 medium bell peppers, diced
2 canned tomatoes, diced
1 cup frozen peas, defrosted for 1 minute in a microwave
2/3 cup raisins
1 ½ cup cooked chickpeas

METHODS: Heat 2 tablespoons ghee in a large saucepan over medium heat. When hot, sauté the rice stirring to coat each grain with ghee. Add broth, saffron, turmeric, salt and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to low. Let simmer for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350º F. Heat remaining ghee in a large saucepan and sauté the onions until softened. Add ginger, cumin, coriander, cinnamon and cayenne and cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add 1 cup of water, carrot and cauliflower. Cover, reduce heat and cook for 3-4 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and cook until the vegetables are tender. Butter a baking dish. Spread half of the rice in it. Cover with vegetables and top with remaining rice. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.

We’re so looking forward to the next installment in our family dinners. Who knows what we’ll do next! Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. Melissa,

    I can't say enough how important it was for us to connect through Michael Meltzer. That connection brought us together - Purple Asparagus and Corazon Community Services. Our youth absolutely enjoyed themselves, had real dinner time with their families and got to work as a team. When I came into work the next morning I could smell the wonderful curry and spice odor and only think how blessed we are to have had such a great, new experience for our youth.

    I look forward to being at the next dinner as everyone let me know what a phenomenal menu you presented.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Adam Alonso