Working With What You Have: Those Without a Kitchen
EVENT: Thursday Night “Home-Cooked” Meal
VENUE: Upper West Side Shelter for Seniors
TYPE: Sit-Down, (Paper-) Plated Family Dinner
PARTY SIZE: 20
MENU: Mediterranean Catfish Spaghetti; Salad; Cookies
For most of my life, I’ve felt more or less involved in my community. Back in high school and college, I often volunteered by way of class or curriculum at a variety of different organizations in New York City and Providence. It’s occurred to me over the course of this past year that since I’ve left school and have been without an institution that encourages such service, I have been rather selfish with my time. And while feeding twenty-somthings on a regular basis could be considered giving back to the community, my pair of capable hands could probably be better put to use at the service of a slightly more needy population.
Earlier this year, my mother began volunteering at a shelter on the Upper West Side. Every Thursday, the organization sponsors a special family meal for those staying under its roof, and for those who have since been placed in long-term, permanent housing but who return for the social services provided by the center. The guest “chef” of the evening is a volunteer who cooks the meal of his or her choosing, so long as it sticks to the semi-strict, and somewhat random Kosher guidelines of the shelter. No matter what is made, the Thursday night dinner is a bright spot in the shelter’s meal routine, which during the rest of the week is made up of frozen dinners and canned fruit for dessert.
Since my mother took over the Thursday dinner responsibilities, more members of the greater shelter family seem to be showing up for the meals. Her legendary reign began when she made my Sweet and Savory Moroccan Chicken Stew, which led to several rounds of thirds, and a few of the female volunteers asking to take leftovers home to their boyfriends. Though I believe this was the only recipe of mine that she has tried on the shelter crowd, I’ve been a frequent adviser the weeks she cooks, since the kitchen, unsurprisingly, is really quite small.
These conversations only fueled my feelings of community negligence. So a few weeks ago, I joined my mother to make twenty servings of Mediterranean pasta with fresh fish, a luxury the shelter folk rarely get to enjoy. The space was small indeed—you couldn’t open the pantry or front door while someone was manning the stove, and since there was only room for one at the stove station anyway, that meant I was chopping onions. The pasta sauce turned out brilliant, and though the residents came back for thirds once again, I was also grateful to be able to take a little of it home for lunch the next day (pictured above).
Thanksgiving is approaching, and it’s always around the holidays, as I am in meal planning overdrive—brainstorming how many baking dishes will fit in my oven at one time—that I try to remember those among us without kitchens. I hope there is some other wonderful mother putting aside her own family obligations this Thursday to cook up a Kosher feast at the shelter, as I don’t know what we would do come Thursday without mine. The holidays are such a busy time in our kitchens, but sometimes it can be even more rewarding to step into someone else’s, if only to feed those who are not fortunate to have one at all.
From my kitchen, ready to lend a hand in yours,
Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Mediterranean Catfish Spaghetti
Makes 16-20 servings
4 fennel bulbs, chopped
4 large Vidalia onions, chopped
8 garlic cloves, minced or pushed through a press
4 (28oz) cans of crushed tomatoes
4 tbsp hot red pepper paste (or 1 tbsp crushed red pepper flakes)
5 oz petite capers
1 ½ tbsp salt (plus more to taste)
4lb spaghetti or linguine
6lb cat fish filets or other white fish
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped roughly (for garnish)
In a large (very large) pot or dutch oven, sauté the onions and fennel in a generous glug or two of olive oil over medium-high until translucent, about 10-15 minutes. Add the garlic, tomatoes, red pepper paste or flakes, capers, and salt, and bring to a simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and the flavors have combined.
Meanwhile, bring a large (very large) pot of water to boil. Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain, toss with olive oil so the strands don’t stick together, and set aside.
10 minutes before service, gently add the fish filets to the sauce and push them down so they are submerged. Allow to gently simmer until the fish is cooked through. Be careful not to stir too much—you don’t want the fish to fall apart. It will easily, so the end result will be chunks of cat fish, but you want there to be sizable pieces to serve.
Top each plate with a helping of spaghetti and a generous ladle full of fish and sauce. Garnish with some fresh chopped parsley, and serve immediately.