"Just a handful" is a concept many a home chef has tried, with children and adults alike, to introduce new foods, especially the green and leafy kind. The challenge is compounded for patrons of the region's soup kitchens and food pantries, home makers with limited time and means.
For the past 10 years, volunteers at the Common Good Gardens, behind Grace Episcopal Church in Old Saybrook, have been growing and collecting produce to supplement the food staples distributed by the Shoreline Soup Kitchens and Pantries, which have pantries in Clinton, Westbrook, Old Saybrook, Old Lyme and East Lyme. In the past year, the gardeners formed their own nonprofit organization to expand its outreach and efforts.
Since gardening and cooking go hand-in-hand, some of the CGG volunteers decided to form a recipe committee. The light bulb went off last fall when the gardeners delivered a box of eggplant to one of the soup kitchens and pantries, and a soup kitchen volunteer asked what the vegetables were. The gardeners wondered if the abundance of Swiss chard, kale and other greens that they are very good at growing were indeed welcomed by patrons.
"Kale is arguably the healthiest vegetable you can eat," says Claudia Van Nes, one of the garden organizers, "but if people don't like it, how long do we try and tempt the pantries' guests with it?"
The gardens have multiple, interrelated objectives.
"First of all, we want to help people feed their families nutritious food," says Susan Nygard, a nutritionist with experience helping disadvantaged homemakers in the far Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. "We also want to fill their stomachs and we don't want something to go unused because they don't know what it is or how to fix it. So we're into volume, we're into crops that grow quickly, and things that people will eat."
The recipe committee decided to develop a set of recipes and helpful tips for seven vegetables that are either grown in the gardens or are staples in the food pantries through other donations or the Connecticut Food Bank. These include kale, Swiss chard and other greens, protein-rich edamane or soybeans, eggplants and carrots.
The recipes and tips are printed on colorful cards in both English and Spanish and handed out with the produce at pantries. The gardeners also are collecting cooking oil - soy or vegetable oil, canola, olive, etc. - to distribute with the greens.
"If you chop up vegetables small enough, and you throw them into something familiar, it's a way to serve more vegetables," says Nygard, who recommends tossing a handful of chopped spinach or kale into canned chicken noodle soup, or including a bit of sautéd greens in scrambled eggs. Sauteing greens with garlic and oil is another option for people who like those flavors.
There's no one typical demographic of people who turn to the local food pantries for support, says Nygard.
"You look out the window to your neighbors, they could need help," she says. "We're serving single moms with small children, retired and elderly, single individuals. It's representative of our society. "
Many of the patrons have limited kitchens and cooking equipment or lack transportation to a store. They don't have a lot of time for preparation or access to exotic, expensive ingredients and condiments.
"So many people think they have to cook their vegetables, and for too long," says Nygard.
The garden volunteers want to help everyone increase their consumption of produce, so they are posting more complicated, labor-intensive recipes on their new website. Two newcomers brought family recipes and traditions from Greece and Portugal, and Margaret Larom, also on the recipe team, is drawing on her experience cooking greens in Uganda, where she and her husband served as missionaries.
"Liz Stammas, from Madison, sat with me at the picnic table at the gardens and told me three ways to cook kale that also work with Swiss chard,'' said Larom. "Listening to her describe the ingredients, in her rich Greek accent, and watching her demonstrate how to prepare and stuff kale leaves for dolmas (just like grape leaves) and her recipe for avgolemono was just fabulous."
Volunteers work the gardens from March through October, handling all aspects from preparing the beds and planting seeds to trellising crops on sturdy wire fences, harvesting the garden's produce and delivering it to the food pantries. They also collect donated produce from a number of area farmstands.
While the gardens involve a lot of sweat equity, donated composting materials and sturdy hand-me-down garden tools, there are still annual expenses. This year the gardens planted $956 worth of seeds and seedlings, according to Betty Palka, who meticulously plots out the planting schedule and crop rotation to achieve optimum yields, based on performance notes collected by observant members of the planting committee.
Last year, the gardeners contributed close to 38,000 pounds of fresh produce to the pantries. About a third of this was donated by area farm stands and home gardeners.
Here are two simple, satisfying recipes developed by the Common Good Gardens. Go online to www.theday.com for stuffed kale dolmas and kale soup with white beans recipes from CGG volunteers.
Black Bean Summer Salad
Serves 4 to 6.
1 pound edamame, cooked and shelled
3 cups corn
1 pint grape tomatoes, quartered
4 scallions, thinly sliced
15 ounces black beans, rinsed and drained
1/3 cup fresh cilantro
For the dressing:
5 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
Juice from 2 limes
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
Prepare dressing by combining all ingredients. Add vegetables and refrigerate for 2 hours. Stir and serve.
Simple Garlic Greens
Serves 4 to 6
1 1/2 pounds (large bunch) of greens (spinach, beet greens, Swiss chard or kale)
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
6 cloves of garlic, chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
Salt and pepper to taste
Rinse greens in cold water until clean. Shake off excess water.
In a large pot, over medium heat, cook the garlic in oil for about 1 minute. Do not brown the garlic.
Add greens and some salt and pepper and cook for about two minutes with a lid on the pot. Remove the lid, stir and continue cooking until the greens are wilted.
You may want to add butter or margarine when serving the greens.