Pantry launches cooking classes

“Someone’s in the kitchen with Mimi, someone’s in the kitchen I know. . .”

And in February, it was Terry Lehman, one of the county’s culinary icons, now an event caterer and manager of the Sperryville Corner Store.

Cooking classes for clients have long been a dream of director Mimi Forbes. “It’s the next logical step in the pantry’s mission to end hunger in the county,” she explained.

The Rappahannock Food Pantry is blessed with seasonal produce in abundance, Forbes noted. Local orchardists give peaches, plums and apples galore. Farmers and gardeners who plant a row for the hungry contribute everything from asparagus to zucchini. On a larger scale, Water Penny, Sunnyside and Belle Meade farms donate weekly surplus from their CSA operations. And throughout the year, Trader Joe’s, Wegman’s and Food Lions in Marshall and Warrenton contribute ordinary and out-of-the-ordinary fruits and vegetables.

“We want to our clients to know what to do with this nutritional wealth,” explained Forbes, recalling the avalanche of greens — spinaches, kales, mustard, bok choy, celery cabbage, beet greens, lettuces, collards, pea greens and more — that comes with spring. “Many of our vegetable offerings are unfamiliar — people don’t know what to do with them. So in our classes, we might feature unusual produce that we know is coming. Or maybe it’s bean harvest time, and we can give clients new ideas, different approaches that change the same old snaps into something fresh, making it easier to happily eat green beans three or four times a week.”

That was the ticket for last Tuesday’s session as Lehman transformed same-old-turnips into a smoothly delicious turnip-apple soup, the perfect comfort food for a rainy February afternoon. And for dessert — because the pantry always has extra bread and almost always has frozen blueberries from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — blueberry bread pudding. “Simply delicious” was the assessment from students, volunteers and client tasters.

And the students took home more than recipes and dinner. Lehman kept up a running commentary of tips, from how to make stocks to how to avoid burning garlic, chef secrets that will keep on giving in the kitchen long after the turnip soup and bread pudding are gone.

A $10,000 grant from the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation was the facilitator for the classes. New equipment, counters and shelves transformed a staging area into a commercial kitchen that meets health standards, and lessons began with a soft opening in November to test the space and determine how many students could be accommodated at a time with hands-on instructions. “Everyone has to dice, cut, slice, chop and mix. This is learning by doing,” Forbes added.

Rae Gaedke, another county culinary icon and restaurateur (Rae’s Place, Nature’s Foods), led the first session back in November focusing on ground turkey and turkey link sausage. The two pantry staples from the Blue Ridge Food Bank were not proving very popular; when shoppers had meat choices, turkey was the last to be picked. Then voila! The turkey chili, in particular, was a winner, ground turkey has jumped in popularity, and clients tell pantry volunteers that it has become a favorite on chilly days that beg for soup.

Other cyclical contributions — like venison in the fall, goat and lamb after donations from the 4-H livestock sale — and non-standards — like pork stomachs, pigs feet, briskets, ready-to-cook roasts in unusual spices and sauces from the grocery stores — will also get their turn in the spotlight in upcoming classes, which will be held at the pantry every three or four weeks, offered by guest chefs. Next up will be Mike from Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill.

“Our emphasis is learning to cook great meals, tasty and healthy, centered on what our food pantry has to offer,” Forbes concluded.

The classes are free to food pantry clients. Please check with Mimi Forbes or watch for posters in the pantry announcing dates.

The Rappahannock Food Pantry, located on Rt. 211 in Sperryville, is open for shopping noon to 4 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. Donations and volunteers are always appreciated. Please call the pantry, 540-937-2067, for more information.