Every week, my wife, Grace, and I volunteer at Angel Food East, a nonprofit organization in Kingston, N.Y. Founded in 1992 with a mission to provide home-delivered meals to residents living with HIV and AIDS, Angel Food East is still cooking and delivering meals, more than 25 years later, to clients who are homebound for a variety of reasons, mostly chronic illness, age or disability.
Starting at 8 a.m. on Thursdays, Grace and I work with our fellow crew members to cook and package 60 healthy, comforting, made-from-scratch meals using affordable ingredients. Then we clean up and make room for the next round of volunteers, who begin their shift at 10 a.m. Each week, I’m reminded of a homemade meal’s powerful ability to provide comfort when it’s most needed. Our volunteering has also instilled a resourcefulness in my cooking, making me a more thoughtful and efficient home cook. The lessons are worth sharing and can be applied in any kitchen.
First and foremost, you need a plan when you make a meal, no matter if you’re feeding 60 or just yourself. A plan gives you a sense of control. And, just like everything in life, the more plans you make, the less it feels like a big deal when you sit down to craft one.
After years of planning our Thursday morning meals, I now know that we need about 25 pounds of protein, 12 pounds of something carby (potatoes, rice, grits, couscous) and about 15 pounds of vegetables. But a plan isn’t just a list of ingredients that go well together. It’s considering the whole experience of cooking — thinking about space, size, time and cleanup.
When we’re cooking for 60 people, we use large pots and commercial sheet pans (each the size of a small card table). I have to consider how many of these fit on our stove top and in our ovens at any given time. Since our shift is just two hours, I make decisions such as making mashed potatoes rather than scalloped ones, which would take too long. Meat sauce is easier than meatballs, which are fun to form for four people, less so for 60.
And when it comes to cleaning up, I think of ways to lighten our dish load as much as possible. For example, a bowl used for mixing coleslaw can be reused to make potato salad without a wash in between. A piece of parchment paper placed underneath the meatloaf is a gift to whoever gets that pan on dish duty.
So how does all this apply at home? Know your kitchen. Know the size of your equipment, how much your pots can hold and what your oven can handle. Think through how long something will take to cook and how much time you have. Work ahead if you can.
Got enough hours on a Saturday morning to slowly roast a pork shoulder? Take advantage of the opportunity, so that on Monday night when you have 10 minutes to throw dinner together, all you have to do is shred the pork and pile it on warm tortillas with some thinly sliced cabbage for tacos, or mix it with barbecue sauce and serve on toasted buns. Thinking this way, which is always thinking about your future self and making sure she’s taken care of, makes for thoughtful home cooking.
Along those lines, another big lesson I take from planning our meals is always using up whatever needs to be used up. Our meals are often based on what’s leftover or what’s been donated or bought on sale.
For instance, when another shift has made too much spaghetti sauce for their meal, I use it as a base for chili. When a local bakery drops off extra bread, we’ll throw together a quick bread pudding. This cyclical approach to cooking is not only resourceful, it’s fun. There’s pleasure in finding a place for all these bits and pieces.
Another important lesson I’ve taken from Angel Food East is the power of a well-stocked pantry. No matter how planned and prepared we are, something usually goes off-course, and our pantry always saves the day.
Once, when I planned to roast some chicken with a ratatouille mixture, the chicken hadn’t arrived and neither did the eggplant for the ratatouille. But we found huge cans of chickpeas as well as a bag of couscous. On the fly we made a vegan, summery stew of zucchini and peppers with tons of chickpeas for heft, mixed the quick-cooking couscous with fresh lemon and herbs, and ladled the stew on top. The dish became a summer standby meal for our shift. I also love taking a little container of the stew home since it’s so great to have in the fridge for spreading on ricotta-slathered toast or to poach eggs in for a shakshuka-esque breakfast.
A well-stocked pantry also means you can add a little flair here and there, which is always welcome, but especially when you are cooking for a community who is homebound.