Every week, my wife, Grace, and I volunteer at Angel Food East, a nonprofit organization in Kingston, New York. Founded in 1992 with a mission to provide home-delivered meals to residents living with HIV and AIDS, Angel Food East is still cooking and delivering meals, more than 25 years later, to clients who are homebound for a variety of reasons, mostly chronic illness, age or disability.

Starting at 8 a.m. on Thursdays, Grace and I work with our fellow crew members to cook and package 60 healthy, comforting, made-from-scratch meals using affordable ingredients. Then we clean up and make room for the next round of volunteers, who begin their shift at 10 a.m. Each week, I’m reminded of a homemade meal’s powerful ability to provide comfort when it’s most needed. Our volunteering has also instilled a resourcefulness in my cooking, making me a more thoughtful and efficient home cook. The lessons are worth sharing and can be applied in any kitchen.

First and foremost, you need a plan when you make a meal, no matter if you’re feeding 60 or just yourself. A plan gives you a sense of control. And, just like everything in life, the more plans you make, the less it feels like a big deal when you sit down to craft one. After years of planning our Thursday morning meals, I now know that we need about 25 pounds of protein, 12 pounds of something carby (potatoes, rice, grits, couscous) and about 15 pounds of vegetables. But a plan isn’t just a list of ingredients that go well together. It’s considering the whole experience of cooking – thinking about space, size, time and cleanup.

When we’re cooking for 60 people, we use large pots and commercial sheet pans (each the size of a small card table). I have to consider how many of these fit on our stove top and in our ovens at any given time. Since our shift is just two hours, I make decisions such as making mashed potatoes rather than scalloped ones, which would take too long. Meat sauce is easier than meatballs, which are fun to form for four people, less so for 60. And when it comes to cleaning up, I think of ways to lighten our dish load as much as possible. For example, a bowl used for mixing coleslaw can be reused to make potato salad without a wash in between. A piece of parchment paper placed underneath the meatloaf is a gift to whoever gets that pan on dish duty.

So how does all this apply at home? Know your kitchen. Know the size of your equipment, how much your pots can hold and what your oven can handle. Think through how long something will take to cook and how much time you have. Work ahead if you can. Got enough hours on a Saturday morning to slowly roast a pork shoulder? Take advantage of the opportunity, so that on Monday night when you have 10 minutes to throw dinner together, all you have to do is shred the pork and pile it on warm tortillas with some thinly sliced cabbage for tacos, or mix it with barbecue sauce and serve on toasted buns. Thinking this way, which is always thinking about your future self and making sure she’s taken care of, makes for thoughtful home cooking.

Along those lines, another big lesson I take from planning our meals is always using up whatever needs to be used up. Our meals are often based on what’s leftover or what’s been donated or bought on sale. For instance, when another shift has made too much spaghetti sauce for their meal, I use it as a base for chili. When a local bakery drops off extra bread, we’ll throw together a quick bread pudding. This cyclical approach to cooking is not only resourceful, it’s fun. There’s pleasure in finding a place for all these bits and pieces.


Another important lesson I’ve taken from Angel Food East is the power of a well-stocked pantry. No matter how planned and prepared we are, something usually goes off-course, and our pantry always saves the day. Once, when I planned to roast some chicken with a ratatouille mixture, the chicken hadn’t arrived and neither did the eggplant for the ratatouille. But we found huge cans of chickpeas as well as a bag of couscous. On the fly we made a vegan, summery stew of zucchini and peppers with tons of chickpeas for heft, mixed the quick-cooking couscous with fresh lemon and herbs, and ladled the stew on top. The dish became a summer standby meal for our shift. I also love taking a little container of the stew home since it’s so great to have in the fridge for spreading on ricotta-slathered toast or to poach eggs in for a shakshuka-esque breakfast.

A well-stocked pantry also means you can add a little flair here and there, which is always welcome, but especially when you are cooking for a community who is homebound. For example, when we get fish fillets at Angel Food East, instead of just cooking them through, I take an extra few minutes to blitz Ritz crackers in a food processor with some extra seasoning and melted butter – not unlike making a graham cracker crust – and sprinkle the crumbs onto the fish before I slip the sheet pans in the oven. The result is a meal that is easy and simple, but also much more appetizing and memorable that a plain piece of fish. It’s a small thing. It’s literally crumbs. But it makes a difference and is a way to express our care for what we’re preparing and who we’re preparing it for.

Cooking itself makes a difference. I am not naturally a morning person (just ask my snooze button), but I’ve come to look forward to Thursday mornings more than any other day of the week. I love the people Grace and I cook with – and the food we make. I love having a tangible way to give back to our community. This feeling is the most emotional lesson I take from our volunteer shift. At the end of the day, we’re all each other’s neighbors. Our kitchens are where we can cook up connection.


Active: 25 minutes Total: 45 minutes

4 servings


This fresh, vegan stew is a cinch for summer when you may be faced with mountains of zucchini and peppers.

You could also use it to top the Couscous with Lemon, Herbs and Feta (see related recipe; skip the feta if you want to keep the meal vegan.)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small red onion, cut into thin half moons

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced


1 medium yellow bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced

Kosher salt

2 medium zucchini (ends trimmed), cut into bite-size pieces

1 teaspoon dried oregano

One 15.5-ounce can chickpeas, preferably no-salt-added, drained and rinsed

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar


Heat the oil until shimmering in a large Dutch oven (or other heavy pot) over medium heat. Stir in the red onion, garlic, red and yellow bell peppers and a large pinch of salt. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften.

Stir in the zucchini, dried oregano, chickpeas and another large pinch of salt. Cover and cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the zucchini is very soft and the mixture is stewy. Turn off the heat, stir in the vinegar; taste, and season with more salt, as needed.

Serve right away, or at room temperature.

Nutrition | Calories: 220; Total Fat: 12 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 65 mg; Carbohydrates: 25 g; Dietary Fiber: 6 g; Sugars: 3 g; Protein: 7 g.

(From cookbook author Julia Turshen.)

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Couscous with Lemon, Herbs and Feta. Photo by Justin Tsucalas for the Washington Post


Active: 15 minutes | Total: 20 minutes

4 servings

Couscous is a go-to for the author when she prepares meals at a charity kitchen where she volunteers, since it can be prepared quickly and is a filling, affordable side dish that accommodates many different flavors.

The combination of lemon and herbs with salty feta cheese is an ideal bed for the Stewy Zucchini, Peppers and Chickpeas (see related recipe).

1 1/2 cups plain quick-cooking couscous (uncooked)


1 1/2 cups boiling water

Kosher salt

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 large handful fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped

1 large handful fresh dill, finely chopped


2/3 cup crumbled feta cheese

Combine the couscous, boiling water and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a mixing bowl, stirring to incorporate. Cover the bowl tightly with a plate or plastic wrap; let the mixture sit for 5 minutes, then uncover and fluff the couscous with a fork.

Stir in the lemon zest and juice, oil, parsley and dill, tossing until well incorporated.

Taste, and season with more salt, as needed. Transfer the couscous to a serving bowl, then scatter the feta on top. Serve at room temperature.

Nutrition | Per serving: 480 calories, 16 g protein, 67 g carbohydrates, 21 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 270 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

(From cookbook author Julia Turshen.)



Active: 20 minutes | Total: 35 minutes

4 servings

Who can resist the buttery taste of Ritz crackers? This goes great with coleslaw and baked potatoes or with rice pilaf and simply cooked vegetables.

Serve with lemon wedges for squeezing over.

MAKE AHEAD: The cracker topping can be made up to a few days in advance (store in a covered container in the refrigerator) and then top the fish right before baking.


1 cup broken/lightly crushed Ritz crackers

1 medium clove garlic, minced

1 small handful flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt


1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika

Four 6-ounce skinned, flaky, white-fleshed fish fillets, such as cod and flounder

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Combine the cracker pieces, garlic, parsley, lemon juice, butter, salt and paprika in a food processor; pulse until the mixture resembles wet sand. (If you don’t have a food processor, place the crackers in a sealed plastic bag and crush them with a rolling pin. Melt the butter and mix everything together in a bowl).

Place the fish fillets on the baking sheet. Wet your hands, then pat equal portions of the cracker mixture into an even layer on top of each piece of fish (wetting your hands makes the spreading easier).

Bake (middle rack) until the cracker mixture is light golden brown and the fish barely flakes when you nudge it with a fork, about 15 minutes. Serve right away.

Nutrition | Per serving: 260 calories, 32 g protein, 10 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 90 mg cholesterol, 350 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar

(From cookbook author Julia Turshen.)


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