Imagine you were living temporarily in a motel, as some homeless families do, and your only kitchen equipment was a microwave. How would you cook?
What if your budget were so tight that you struggled to afford enough groceries?
Or say you were a newly arrived immigrant visiting a food pantry, but you were unfamiliar with some of the free produce available. How would you prepare it?
Those are the everyday dilemmas often faced by clients of Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a Boston food rescue organization. Each week, it collects more than 50,000 pounds of discarded edible food from supermarkets, farms, and farmers markets, and delivers it to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and other charities.
Now, it’s offering another service: free cooking classes by prominent Boston chefs, who are teaching low-income people how to eat nutritiously despite their tight budgets.
“We want to do more to serve lower-income communities and address issues in food deserts,” said chef Irene Li of Mei Mei food truck and restaurant, who recently went to the Brookline Senior Center to offer tips on cooking on a fixed income, like growing herbs at home rather than buying them, and purchasing sweet potatoes in bulk, turning them into soup, and freezing individual portions.
Called Plenty, the program offers classes 8 to 10 times a year at crisis centers, shelters, food pantries, community centers, and other nonprofits. It has also produced a series of Spanish-subtitled cooking videos and created online recipe cards available in five languages (English, French, Portuguese, Mandarin, and Spanish).
The chefs explain how to stretch a dollar and avoid food waste by cooking with parts of meats and vegetables often composted or thrown away. They explain, for example, how to turn chicken bones and shellfish shells into soup and broth, repurpose day-old bread into casseroles and stuffing, and use vegetables stems and leaves for sauces and flavoring.
Through the program, chef Tiffani Faison, who owns Sweet Cheeks and Tiger Mama, held a course at Brighton’s Charlesview Community Center on stove-free cooking, a skill valuable not just to homeless families living in motels, but to elderly and disabled people uncomfortable using a stove, perhaps because they rely on an oxygen tank, which can be a fire hazard.
Louis DiBiccari, chef-owner of Tavern Road, ran a class that promoted no-waste cooking. He explained, for instance, that celery leaves, mushroom stems, fennel fronds, and orange peels — which often get tossed in the trash — can be flavor enhancers.
Myers + Chang executive chef Karen Akunowicz filmed a video showing how one roasted chicken can be turned into three full meals: a standard entree, a soup, and a stir-fry. Her message: Take one ingredient and stretch it as far as you can.
And Jamie Bissonnette, chef-owner of Coppa, Toro, and Little Donkey, visited the Salvation Army to show how inexpensive staples like lentils and garbanzo beans can become appetizing dishes, such as Indian dal and Moroccan salad.
Before Bissonnette’s class, “some people didn’t even realize you could cook a pumpkin,” said Captain Kimberly Smith, commanding officer of the Salvation Army’s Boston South End Corps Community Center, “or that the stuff inside the bag in the turkey, like the neck, can be used for stuffing and gravy, or that the carcass can be boiled for soup.”
The Plenty program was created in part by Meg Kiley, a Lovin’ Spoonfuls employee who noticed that some people receiving food from the organization didn’t know how to prepare it. Sometimes they were unfamiliar with certain types of produce, or were from countries where different types of fruits and vegetables are grown.
“Occasionally I’d show up with a box of cauliflower, but they weren’t really sure what to do with it,” Kiley recalled. “Or one time I had a box of ripe avocados and it was obvious to me to make guacamole, but that’s not necessarily an obvious thing.”
So the classes were born.
For lower-income patrons of the Brookline Senior Center, where Mei Mei’s Li recently held a course, “how to cook on a budget is always an issue,” said Julie Washburn, a program manager there. “They want to know: How do I make the most with the money I have?”
“People will also say, ‘I’m all by myself so I don’t really want to cook a big meal,’ ” Washburn added, “So if they can find a quick, easy recipe for themselves and have leftovers, that’s key.”
Those are exactly the kinds of pointers Li provided.
“Maybe you’re on a tight budget and your kitchen isn’t stocked with a lot,” said Kiley. Through the Plenty program, financially strapped families learn that “you can do a lot with the limited amount you do have on hand, and you can make delicious, amazing meals,” she said.
Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.