Cooking up a better life

A family peacefully sitting down to a meal together. It seems like a such a simple thing. But in homes fractured by domestic violence, there is no peace, nothing is simple.

One out of every four women in this country will be a victim of domestic violence – abused by those who claimed to love them – during their lifetimes. That statistic doesn’t count the children who witness the abuse and whose lives are shattered.

What can food and cooking do about this? A lot, it turns out.

I was a guest at a luncheon recently for Interact of Wake County, where members of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association heard about part of the agency’s ambitious goals to help families get free and stay free from abuse. Part of Interact’s plans for its new 61,000-square-foot headquarters include culinary job training for clients.

The building they’re taking over is the old YWCA. Those who have been around Raleigh a while will remember the Grecian Corner restaurant that operated out of part of the building. (My husband and I had quite a memorable dinner there one evening, which included a performance by a belly dancer who accidentally popped off her top.) So, a professional kitchen was already there, but it needed massive renovation. Instead of turning it into a facility solely to provide meals for clients and shelter residents, Interact contacted the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle to make it something more. The Inter-Faith Food Shuttle has operated a culinary job training program for some time, and agreed to bring its curriculum to Interact. One of many issues that victims of domestic violence often face is a lack of job skills, and financial need is a big reason women return to abusive relationships. Providing job training is huge. And those who complete the training will have certification to work in the growing Triangle restaurant industry.

Of course, it comes down to getting the money – for this kitchen redo, $102,000. Golden Corral stepped in to take the lead, and offered money to match donations. At the luncheon, Interact received a check from Ronald McDonald House Charities of N.C., plus another $1,000 was raised on the spot.

I’ve been a volunteer for Interact for more than 10 years. I’ve talked to women who arrived with bruises and left with hope. I’ve talked to women who desperately needed somewhere to flee the danger they were in, and had to tell them there was no space at the shelter. Mostly, though, I see how the human spirit can soar above any difficulty, with a little help.

The new facility Interact is planning, which is set to open in October, will be unlike anything else in the country in providing total services for victims of domestic violence and their families. Naturally, I’m most excited about the kitchen – it’s an example of what I’ve always said, that food does so much more than feed our bodies. Read more about the project here, and consider opening your checkbook. And the next time you sit down to dinner, surrounded by your loved ones, think about how lucky you are.

Shut your mouth

On the last Funk Friday on WSHA – the great jazz station at Shaw University in Raleigh – they featured the music of the late Isaac Hayes. Yes, they played “Shaft,” and, yes, I danced around the kitchen to it, badly imitating the high-pitched backup girls. Funk Friday, starting at 4 p.m., is a great show, especially for cooking to as the weekend is so close you can touch it. You should check it out – you’ll get your minimum weekly requirement of James Brown.

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Hayes was found dead of a stroke next to a running treadmill, bless his heart. I always suspected exercise was fatal. Should it be my fate to be found dead next to something, I assure you it will not be a piece of recently used exercise equipment, but perhaps a pile of Lindt Bittersweet 70-percent cacao chocolate bar wrappers.

The funk was inspiring me to use a handful of okra from the CSA box and some fresh corn from the farmers market to make some fritter-like things. Corn kernels, chopped okra, red onion, cayenne, salt and pepper, some egg, flour and cornmeal, fried in vegetable oil to a crispy goldenness. Fortunately, the fact that a house got hit by lightning about three doors away that afternoon didn’t affect my power supply.

There are no photos of these fried cakes because my husband and I ate them all up. They were some baaad muthers.

Tomatoes 2

Can one have too many tomatoes? Can one have too much fun? Even when a friend showed up today with two grocery sacks of tomatoes (while another friend and I were making 30 jars of peach jam), her offerings were greeted with delight. My jam-making friend shared the information that the small plum tomatoes, of which there were a lot in the sacks, can be tossed whole into freezer bags and frozen. She said to partially thaw the bags, then chop up the tomatoes. No muss, no fuss, great chili in January.

Earlier this week, I sliced up the motley crew of ‘maters I had lying around – yellows, pinks, greens, reds. I put olive oil in a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Then, I layered sliced zucchini, eggplant, onion and green bell pepper, with a sprinkle of canned breadcrumbs, basil and oregano, a little garlic, and more olive oil, of course. I topped it all with the sliced tomatoes, more olive oil, breadcrumbs, herbs and Parmesan cheese. I baked the casserole in a 350-degree oven for about an hour, and it came out like a baked ratatouille. Great even the next day. When I make this again, and I will, I might do more layers and tuck some tomatoes into the middle. Be sure to slice the zucchini and eggplant lengthwise – it fits into the rectangular dish better. No need to peel any of the vegs.

What are y’all doing with ‘maters?

It's that most wonderful time of the year

And, no, it isn’t Christmas, although it does involve red and green. It’s this month, when beautiful tomatoes pour forth upon my eager plate. All my gardening friends know that I am the home for homeless tomatoes. I take in one and all. Leave a bag at my door and I will ask no questions.

The most recent CSA box brought me a bevy of bouncing baby tomatoes, of adorable sizes and colors. As tempting as it was to gobble them down raw, like juicy popcorn, I had a plan.

For weeks I had been looking at – OK, drooling on – the July Gourmet magazine cover: A slab of fine beefsteak drizzled with fresh basil, olive oil and gently wilted cherry tomatoes. At the end of a week of vegetarian ratatouille, seafood and salads, I could resist no longer, especially with those jewel-like tomatoes so fresh and inviting.

The hardest part of the whole recipe was paying for the 1 1/2-inch-thick porterhouse steak (about 2 pounds of it). A porterhouse is like a giant T-bone, with more of the tender, good stuff. As directed, I seared the beef on the stove and finished cooking it in the oven, while the cherry tomatoes, garlic and fresh basil got a light saute-steaming in olive oil. The acidity of the tomatoes and the richness of the beef was a combination that heightened the flavor of each.

Wielding our steak knives like buccaneers, my husband and I consumed all but a palm-sized piece. My husband claimed he needed the beef because he’d given blood four days earlier, although he didn’t pass out like the last time. I simply wanted it, along with a Pinot Noir we’d been hanging onto for a while. We managed not to chew the bone to bits, sending it over to our neighbor’s dog, Maggie.

Now, some of my best friends are vegetarians, and salads with egg or cheese have been my usual lunch at home for some time now. I live for soft-shell crab season, and do my share of damage to raw fish at sushi bars. But, geez, once in a while, I have to chew on something red-meaty. It was good, and I’m not ashamed to say so.