You enter the kitchen, put on your apron and prepare to cook. The mystery ingredients arrive, and . . . bam! Let the chopping begin. No, you aren’t a contestant on Food Network’s “Chopped”! You’re a volunteer for Mitzvah Meals, helping to turn hundreds of pounds of donated food from Trader Joe’s and Mother’s Market into tasty meals for 300 of Orange County’s disadvantaged.
Mitzvah Meals was the brainchild of Monica Engel, who nearly five years ago conceived a plan to feed the hungry through her synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, and quickly enlisted the help of another member, caterer Hollis O’Brien, owner of Parties by Panache in Brea.
“While it’s a lot of work, it fills my soul,” Engel says. ”The variety of people who have filled our kitchen is astounding. I have so many heartwarming stories to tell about what Mitzvah Meals has done for them.”
Until February 15 of this year, all the food prep was done in Beth Sholom’s kitchen. Then came a devastating fire. “Why don’t we do it at Panache tomorrow?” offered O’Brien, and the group has been using her facility ever since. “The people we serve are not necessarily Jewish,” she notes. Every Sunday, volunteers work to prepare meals for six needy facilities, including a home for unwed mothers, a women’s transitional center and a homeless shelter.
O’Brien plans the menus around the donated food and assigns the tasks. No cooking experience or talent is necessary. Last week’s donated chopped meat became spaghetti sauce. Another time, pans of leftover Chicken Marsala from Panache’s own catered event was combined with roasted vegetables and leftover pasta.
O’Brien, who once catered the Obie Awards, has been in the business for almost 36 years. “In college I did catering on the side,” she recalled. In the 1980s she opened a restaurant in New York. “This was before the farm-to-table movement. We made everything—our own bagels, bread, croissants. When we moved to California in 1986, I said, I’m never going back into the food business again. After a month I decided to keep catering. It’s in my blood.”
Today Panache does full event planning. “We use only fresh ingredients and make all our own pastries and breads,” O’Brien notes. “And we try to accommodate people’s budgets. If they want to use their own centerpieces or just want the food delivered, that’s fine. A lot of people take our Thanksgiving menu and just order sides. I have several people who order turkeys already carved.”
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, Mitzvah Meals will cook Thanksgiving dinner. “We work on Thanksgiving, and in the past we’d give people a whole dinner turkey with all the fixings, but storage became a problem, so we’re giving gift cards along with a bag of sides: canned yams, gravy, stuffing, a combination of donated goods or stuff we have.”
While the Good Samaritan laws protect companies who donate food from liability, few companies donate. “There is not a good system in this country to feed the hungry,” O’Brien says. ”We have so much excess food, so much waste, and so many people going hungry. There’s not a good infrastructure for getting food to the people that need it or for finding the people that want to help out. My goal long-term is to make Mitzvah Meals a model for not only Jewish synagogues, but for any organization that has access to a kitchen.”
So far, Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton has joined Mitzvah Meals, sending volunteers once a month. Temple Beth El has incorporated it into its Mitzvah Day, and their sixth-grade class has pledged to work three Sundays in the coming year. If you are interested in volunteering or starting your own program at your synagogue, contact Monica Engel at firstname.lastname@example.org or Hollis O’Brien at email@example.com.
Swiss Chard, Fennel
& Challah Stuffing
While a stuffed turkey gives that Norman Rockwell photo op, O’Brien prefers to bake the stuffing in a separate casserole.
1 1/2 to 2 pounds challah, cut in 1-inch cubes
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided, plus more for coating the dish
1 yellow onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 to 2 medium fennel bulbs, cored and coarsely chopped (about 3 cups)
4 large eggs, beaten
2 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 large bunch Swiss chard, stalks removed and leaves chopped
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2 Scatter challah chunks on rimmed baking sheet. Toast until golden brown, tossing once (about 15 minutes). Let cool completely. (Bread may be toasted one day ahead and stored in airtight container at room temperature.)
3 Melt 2 tablespoons butter in skillet over medium heat. Add onion, fennel and Swiss chard and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 to12 minutes. (May be made one day ahead. Let cool; cover and chill).
4 Butter a 3-quart shallow baking dish. Whisk eggs to blend in large bowl; whisk in broth. Stir in the onion-fennel-Swiss chard mixture, salt, pepper and fennel seeds. Add bread and toss until evenly distributed. Transfer to prepared dish and dot with remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Bake until stuffing is hot and top is golden brown, about 40 minutes.
Pecan Pie Rugelach
This recipe was developed for last year’s Thanksgivukkah celebration and has become a holiday favorite.
Makes about 8 dozen
1 pound unsalted butter, slightly softened
1 pound cream cheese, slightly softened
4 cups all-purpose flour
Filling (recipe below)
1 large egg, beaten (for egg wash)
1 Combine butter and cream cheese in electric mixer and mix well. Slowly add flour and mix until it forms a dough. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least one hour.
2 Roll out dough on floured board to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut 5-inch wide strips (length of dough). Sprinkle filling over dough and roll entire length of dough like jelly roll. Cut “log” into 1 1/2-inch pieces OR cut dough into 9-inch circles. Sprinkle filling over dough and cut into 16 triangles (like pizza). Roll up each individual triangle, starting from wide end into narrow point at center (like a crescent roll). Note: Brush edges of dough with egg wash to seal before rolling.
3 Preheat oven to 350 F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.
4 Transfer rugelach to prepared baking sheet ½-inch apart. Brush lightly with egg wash. Sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar. Bake until lightly brown, 20 to 30 minutes.
Pecan Pie Filling
4 tablespoons butter (1/2 stick)
2 cups pecan pieces, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup corn syrup
1/2 cup brown sugar
Melt butter in small saucepan until it becomes foamy and then turns light brown. Take off heat and stir in remaining ingredients. Let cool.
Source: Parties by Panache