By Paula Gottlieb Herman
Curious, eager, and full of energy are adjectives that ordinarily describe the li’l chefs I teach cooking to. But, on Friday, May 16th, my li’l chefs weren’t so little.
After LilChefs.com Special Events was featured in a Newsday article about our President’s Day Lend a Helping Hand Baking Workshop benefiting Ronald McDonald House, I received a lovely call from Adrienne, a senior from a group called ACE which stands for Alternative Cultural Experiences. They were interested in having me do a cooking workshop with their Eclectic Committee. She figured that since I am used to working with kids that I would be capable of working with her 16 seniors ranging in age from the 70’s to 80’s. And she was right!
To put this event together many details needed to be fleshed out. We needed a location that had a meeting room and access to a kitchen. We needed to review food allergies and sensitivities. We needed to create a menu that was doable in a 3-hour timetable and on a tight budget.
Location, location, location. When people use that phrase, they are correct; it is a really important component in planning an event. These seniors weren’t all from one community. They hailed from Nassau, Suffolk, and one from NJ. I reached out to various businesses, churches, and county recreation departments with numerous phone calls and pleas to reduce room rental fees to a more manageable amount. But, I was hitting a wall. So, I turned to my friend James Reed, former Nassau County Deputy Commissioner of Consumer Affairs. I explained what I was looking to do and he automatically came up with a former colleague’s name, Kathleen Foster, who is the Assistant Coordinator of The Senior Citizen Service Project of Nassau County. No one would understand the needs of seniors better than she would.
Kathleen was a huge help in pointing me in the right direction. Her best lead was with Parkway Community Church in Hicksville. Her agency had an event coming up at the church in a few weeks, and she would approach them with the idea. After her event, she emailed me, and recommended that I speak with Pastor Harold Lay (Pastor Hank). When we spoke multiple times on the phone, he was not only willing to host the event at his church, but he reduced the rental fee even further. He, his church staff and board members were absolutely lovely to work with.
Now that we had a location, I arranged for Adrienne and Evelyn, co-chairs of this event, to visit the site so we could see the room set-up, kitchen facilities, etc. We would have access to two refrigerators/freezers, a stovetop/oven, coffee maker, microwave, china, glassware, and utensils. This was going to be amazing! The space would enable me to create a menu with endless possibilities. And Adrienne would have a chance to design beautiful tables for her group to dine.
After our initial meeting at the church, Adrienne gave me a handwritten slip of paper that indicated the food allergies I needed to work around. Some of her group needed to avoid soy, dairy, chocolate, nuts, shellfish, curry, and cilantro. We sat on a park bench outside the church and I created the menu on the spot.
Our appetizers would include Cinco de Mayo Bites (black bean/corn/avocado/red pepper salsa in mini corn tortilla scoops) and Red Pepper Hummus with Mini Pitas. Our main course would be Marinated Salmon with a side of Cranberry Apple Quinoa Salad (dried cranberries/apples/celery/ basil/toasted pecans and vinaigrette). Dessert would be Mini Warm Apple Pies & Mini Pumpkin Tarts in phyllo shells. While the group hoped to have wine with dinner, they would have lemonade, iced tea, and water instead. Parkway Community Church does not permit alcohol on their premises because sobriety is one of the church’s main missions.
With location and menu plotted out, my to-do list included shopping for all the food, designing five workstations with ingredients and tools, and creating cookbooks so that everyone would have a chance to prepare these dishes in their home kitchens after the event. I ended up adding a new appetizer to the menu which is always a crowd pleaser: Pigs in the Blanket wrapped in puff pastry with a little bit of Dijon inside the pastry jacket. I also threw in a new side dish which was Asparagus-Olive Oil, Parmesan & Lemon.
Our cooking workshop was just a few days away. As any good event planner would do, I kept an eye on the weather. Earlier that week, the weather forecast called for rain for Friday. But by Thursday, it predicted heavy rain, flash foods, and dangerous winds. After teaching two of my after-school classes and then a dinner event, I headed to our local supermarket to buy some of the perishables. Now I had a dilemma. What if the weather predictions were correct? Would it be safe for the seniors to drive to and from the event? I left a message for Adrienne on her husband’s cell to call me back. I aborted my nighttime shopping run and headed for home.
On Friday morning Adrienne and I discussed my concerns, she called some of her committee members, and they were still on board with our evening’s plans. Nothing was going to dampen their spirits! So, with four trunks packed with cooking tools, pots, electric skillet, food processor and nonperishable food, we headed to the church before the rain began. I set up the tables for the cooking workshop and allocated tables for the dining part. Adrienne soon arrived, and while I went back out to buy the perishables, she would be able to set the three dinner tables. In just a few hours, ACE members would be chopping, dicing, and blending their way to a delicious meal!
When my husband Michael and I came back with the groceries, we were blown away, not just by the wind and rain we battled, but by the tablescape Adrienne created. She used disposable black tablecloths, layered doilies, china chargers, black plastic plates, and set a plastic mini solar flower pot at each table setting as a favor. As the flowers would catch some light, they would do a little dance in their spring green pots. Adorable touch!
Not to be outdone, I dressed each of my five workstations with cheery spring green and yellow polka dot tablecloths. Station 1 was where Red Pepper Hummus would be blended in the food processor. Station 2 was for rolling out Pigs in the Blanket. Station 3 was for dicing and chopping Cinco de Mayo Bites. Station 4 was for creating Cranberry-Apple Quinoa Salad. Station 5 was for Asparagus-Olive Oil, Parmesan & Lemon. A recipe on cardstock was at every table along with the ingredients and tools for each item featured on our menu.
At 6:00 PM ACE members arrived, and our cooking dinner party was soon underway. Adult-size chef hats and aprons were at the entrance of our room, ready for each senior to personalize and put on. They all looked smashing in their chef ware!
Adrienne’s husband, Larry, artfully introduced me to the group by reading some of my bio, and I had an opportunity to speak as well. I loved telling them how excited I was to share my food and techniques with them. How thrilled I was that they chose me for this event. I explained that I started my cooking classes and workshops as a way to honor my Dad who passed away. He and my Mom would have been so proud of what we all would experience that evening!
After my orientation about the night’s activities, the seniors divided themselves into teams. Michael and I worked with each group giving out helpful tips, showing them how to use some of our gadgets like the Vidalia Wizard to chop avocados and peppers, a garlic roller to peel garlic, and a Microplane to zest a lemon.
Each of the stations was abuzz with hard work, the sound of laughter, and smiles all around. The Red Pepper Hummus was the first to be plated with its signature coral color and a well of diced up roasted red peppers. It was served in an oblong bowl nestled inside a pretty wicker basket surrounded by mini pitas and whole wheat mini pitas. The Pigs in the Blanket pastry dough was masterfully rolled out onto baking sheets, given a quick paint of Dijon, topped with a cocktail size hot dog, wrapped up, and a quick egg wash before baking. The Cinco de Mayo Bites were colorful and delicious and beautifully presented on my 3-tier servers. Each portion was a perfect little corn tortilla scoop with pieces of avocado, corn, black bean, red pepper, and scallion poking through.
While the Quinoa Salad was being made, the Pigs in the Blankets emerged from the oven and were golden, flaky, and a burst of joy in your mouth. Not surprising, those were the first appetizers to be devoured. The salad combined the pre-cooked quinoa Michael made earlier that evening with chopped apple, dried cranberries, celery, basil, toasted pecans and delicious vinaigrette. For those who couldn’t eat the pecans, their portions were put to the side sans nuts.
While the seniors were eating and enjoying the apps, I headed into the kitchen to bake the 18 marinated salmon steaks. Initially I was going to make fresh salmon with a variety of marinades, but knew that the frozen Seasoned Grill Wild Alaskan Salmon I buy from Morey’s is always flavorful, uniform in weight, and amazing. I laid them out on my baking sheets, set my oven timer, and baked them for 30 minutes. One of my ACE chefs, Dan, asked me how I would know when the salmon was cooked through. I pulled out my handy dandy meat thermometer, showed him that when inserted into the thickest part of the fish and reaching an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit; it would be ready to serve. A shout out to Chef Chuck for making sure I had a few Cinco de Mayo Bites while slaving over the hot oven!
ACE members gathered at the dinner tables and conducted their monthly meeting while the salmon baked and I blanched the asparagus tips. They are such an impressive group of professionals, professors, teachers, engineers, artists, etc. They have been together for 30 years. Originally started as a film forum by 10 couples, these ACE seniors meet monthly and serve on different committees such as the Eclectic Committee, Current Issues, Printed Word, Film & Theater, and Art Forms.
The timing was perfect for when their meeting ended and my asparagus needed to be finished off. Some of the seniors jumped up to zest the lemon, shred the Parmesan, and make the oil dressing. I was so thrilled with their helpfulness. Chef Allen, your bright smile and work ethic were duly noted!
Pastor Hank joined us for dinner and we all savored the meal we made. The flavorful salmon, crunchy quinoa salad and verdant asparagus melded on the plate. I so enjoyed being invited to dine with our guests as opposed to feeling like the hired help. This was our dinner event that we all put a lot of sweat equity into creating for each other!
Our final course was the dessert course. We would end our special evening on a sweet note. Since I wasn’t sure if the group would still want to be involved in doing dessert after preparing five dishes, I had a back-up plan. I purchased a cinnamon crumb coffee cake to go with the fruit platter they brought. But, they were still raring to go. I redressed the Hummus station, and now set with an electric skillet, diced apples, cinnamon, brown sugar, and raisins, we got to work on the Mini Apple Pies. Simultaneously Michael worked with a few chefs to make the Pumpkin Mousse which combined pumpkin puree, whipped topping, cinnamon, and instant vanilla pudding powder. Piping the apple and pumpkin fillings into the mini shells with a dollop of whipped cream made them look very polished.
Desserts, coffee, tea, and amazing conversation ended our cooking party experience. Three months of planning, 16 animated seniors, a wonderful church host, and we came up with the perfect recipe for success. While Adrienne found me through an article in Newsday, it seemed that another chef named Barbara met me two years earlier at her school when I was hired to do a jam workshop with her summer campers. In passing she asked if I would be open to the idea of working with seniors. Well, if I knew then what I know now, I would have said yes right on the spot. As far as I am concerned, these seniors are Aces in my recipe book!