One of the better changes in California education over the years has been the addition of community service requirements to the curriculum. When our daughter – Gwennie – hit 9th grade, I strongly encouraged her to do her community service hours for an excellent outfit, TOPSoccer (“The Outreach Program for Soccer”), a community-based soccer program for young athletes with physical and mental disabilities. Given her extensive background and accomplishment in the sport (including her Referee’s license), I thought it would be a natural way to make her community service work something that would be good for her in a number of different ways, would be directly relevant to her life and to her skill sets.
It was thus with some quiet disappointment that I greeted the news that instead of working for TOPSoccer, Gwennie wanted to do her community service work for a local charity called “Special Delivery.” I was not familiar with the organization. After her first several days working for them, Gwennie explained that Special Delivery cooked and delivered fresh, homemade and nutritious meals to over 100 individuals and families – most of who were homebound, living with AIDS, cancer or other critical illnesses — five days a week throughout the San Diego community.
But it was not, at first, Special Delivery’s mission that impressed me. Rather, it was Gwennie’s commitment to the organization and her description of the truly special people who run it. Unlike so many better known charitable organizations, over 90 cents of every dollar donated to Special Delivery goes into the food and the delivery of that food to the clients. All of Special Delivery’s labor force – from its Director, Ruth Henricks, to its delivery people – are volunteers.
As I would later learn, Henricks started Special Delivery after a customer of her restaurant, The Huddle (with which Special Delivery now shares a kitchen), who was suffering from AIDS told her that “if I’m not here, I’m not eating.” When, one day, the customer was not there, Henricks knew she needed to do something to help.
So it was that on Friday, December 30, 2011, my wife and I, ultimately to be joined by our entire family – my parents, sister and nieces – went to Special Delivery, a quarter mile from our home in Mission Hills, to volunteer and see what Gwennie was on about. Gwennie (and Nancy) took up her accustomed post in the office. I headed back into the kitchen.
Over the course of the next several hours I did a variety of prep work – from peeling vegetables, dicing onions and the like – to work on the New Years Black Eyed Peas and a Sweet Potato dish.
Of course, the cooking is only a small part of what Special Delivery does. Indeed, it may be the easiest part. Packing and delivering over 100 meals simultaneously to clients with wildly differing dietetic wants and needs – some of which are of existential exigency – using an ad hoc all-volunteer force is a dance of extraordinary intricacy. From serving the meals…
…to sealing and packing them…
…getting the product to the client’s who need them is what Special Delivery is all about.
About two hours into my shift, Ruth asked me to work on a Soyrizo dish for a vegetarian client. Soyrizo is a soy-based, vegetarian version of Chorizo, the Mexican beef sausage with a characteristic (and tasty) orange fat that flavors anything it touches with a rich, spicy, meaty glow. Some say that Soyrizo is that rare vegetarian “substitute” product that might actually be better than the original. While I’d tasted Soyrizo, I’d never worked with it. But what product doesn’t play well in the sandbox with aromatic vegetables and eggs?
After a quiz from Ruth on my culinary background – and, perhaps more importantly, my availability – I was deputized to help out designing and executing a menu for Special Delivery’s vegetarian client(s). Several weeks later, we have delivered a wide variety of dishes: Abe’s Eggs and Butternut Squash Soup (both of which have appeared on this blog), a Mujadara with Caramelized Onions, Broccoli Soup, Penne Pasta with Zucchini and Tomatoes, and a Revuelto with Peppers and Mushrooms…and more.
From what I’ve experienced to date, I am convinced that my advice to Gwennie was not all bad: find a charity to work with that is directly relevant to one’s life and skill sets. But in this case, it seems, the “one” may have been me more than her.
Mujadara with Caramelized Onions
Serves 4 to 6
For the Caramelized Onions:
- 2 tablespoons canola or grapeseed oil
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon crushed black peppercorns
For the Mujadara:
- 1 Cup Lentils
- 1 Cup Rice
For the Garnish:
- 3 pitas
1. Prep the Onions. Slice the onions into half moons. Separate all the onion pieces into individual slices.
2. Cook the Lentils. Add 4 cups of water to a pot, add the lentils and bring to a boil. Cover the pot, reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
3. Make the Caramelized Onions. In a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil. Allow the oil to warm for a minute, then drop in the cumin seeds and cracked peppercorns and cook, shaking the pan once in a while until the cumin seeds darken a touch, about 1 minute. Add the onions, season with salt and pepper. Lower the heat to medium and cook the onions until they turn a dark caramel brown, stirring frequently — about fifteen (15) minutes. If the onions begin to stick to the bottom of the pan, add a little water to the pan.
4. Cook the Rice. After the lentils have cooked for 20 minutes, add the rice and return the pot to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes.
5. Plate the Dish. Cut the pitas in half. Place a half piece of pita on one half of the plate. Scoop the Mujadara on the other half and garnish with the caramelized onions.