Chrystal Figueroa isn’t used to holding a knife, especially one the size of her forearm. And as she slices a carrot lengthwise, Allison Lew comes by and reminds her to chop crosswise first, to cut the long carrot in half.
Lew circles behind, puts a hand over Figueroa’s and guides her movement, then stands back.
Figueroa continues, with each slice she picks up the blade and slowly cuts forward, creating remarkably uniform tiny carrot wedges. Lew, lead chef at Parties that Cook, compliments her technique.
Preparing fresh vegetables is uncommon, she says. She loves pizza. Frozen food is a staple. But her primary care physician at Mid County Health Center suggested she try something new: a cooking class that teaches people how to cook healthy food on a budget.
And so Figueroa came to Cooking Matters Para Todos (Cooking Matters To Everyone) a six-week class put on by the Oregon Food Bank and the Multnomah County Health Department. Each week participants learn new recipes and take home a bag of groceries so they can recreate the meal on their own.
“It’s important to counsel people about nutrition,” because it has a cascading effect on a person’s overall health, says Sylvia Ness, a health promotion coordinator for Multnomah County.
On a recent Thursday Figueroa joins other students for the first class in the series, in the community room of the Leander Court Apartments, not far from the Mid County clinic.
“I love that you can cook a ton with little money,” says Marina Rivera, who learned about the class from a flyer placed on her apartment door. “That’s what interested me.”
The students listen, reserved at first, as Lew reviews sanitary and nutritional guidelines, as she shares secrets about the wonders of the carrot peel and lime peel, tips about how to avoid spice in a pepper and how to protect one’s fingers while slicing an onion.
As each student approaches her own cutting board, she relaxes into smiles and low conversation in Spanish. The class chops green peppers and onions.
Maria Solano, a lead volunteer, completed the six-week course earlier this year. She said at first she joined to be more involved in community. She loved it so much, she stayed.
Raising her kids on her own, Solano was used to stretching out each dollar until her next paycheck arrived. She set aside $60 a month for groceries. It wasn’t much, but she used every cent, she said.
Today her kids are grown, and she volunteers with the Oregon Food Bank, teaching other Latino families how to cook balanced meals on a shoestring.
“A lot of Latinos need this class” she says. “So they can learn how to make the most of the food bank products and provide healthy meals for their families.”
At the end of Tuesday’s lesson, a pot of turkey stew is bubbling on the burner. At a nearby table Micaelina Lopez stirs yogurt into a towering bowl of apple, while the other students stand around.
At Lew’s prompting, Figueroa scoops up a spoonful of fruit salad and slips it into her mouth.
“How is it?” Lew asks.
Figueroa chews and smiles around the mouthful of food. Then she gives a thumbs up.
Cooking Tips by Allison Lew
The staff here at MultCo Global don’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen. So we learned a lot from Lew during the first Cooking Matters Para Todos course. Here are a few of the takeaways:
Carrot skin is king. It packs a double punch of nutrients and fiber. It’s actually the most potent part of this magical root.
Pack of peppers: The spice in a pepper plant comes not from seeds, but from the membrane to which those seeds attach. Avoid the membrane, avoid the burn.
Love your lime peel: Zest up your recipe without the tart citrus taste but using just the fruit’s outer peel.
Carry a big knife: A chef’s knife, versatile and efficient, is a must for every kitchen. The sharper, the safer.