A menu of tall tales and friendship
Here’s the big secret behind the longtime success of the men’s cooking class at the Yarmouth Senior Center: It’s not about the food.
“I thought this was about learning to cook, (but) it’s about camaraderie,” said Steve Kessler, who’s been taking the class for eight years and still rarely cooks at home.
On a recent Thursday, Kessler and 15 or so other men of a certain age gathered in the narrow commercial kitchen at the senior center in South Yarmouth. They were waiting for volunteer instructor Steve Higgins, executive chef and purchaser for Catania Hospitality Group and Hearth ‘n Kettle restaurants to arrive with the supplies for making lunch. On the menu: Honey Garlic Baked Pork Chops, Easy Vegetable Rice Pilaf and Red Velvet Sheet Cake.
By the time Higgins carried in the groceries, his sous-chefs had on their aprons and were standing ready in four teams: Entree, Sides, Dessert and Set-up/Clean-up. They stood ready to chop, sauté, and scrub but mostly to chat, swap tales and hang out with each other. To a man, they first came to the class to learn how to cook but returned for the friendships. Consider this: It was Valentine’s Day and they were spending it with each other.
The course did begin years ago as an actual cooking class to improve nutrition for men who had never learned their way around a kitchen and were either living solo or as principal caretakers. But it has morphed into so much more. Classes are held weekly for 10 weeks in the fall, 10 in the spring and, by participant demand, once a month in the summer. Higgins estimates about 180 men have taken part, although many, like Kessler have come for years. The $55 fee covers the cost of food. Don Latus, whose wife signed him up, acts as the administrator, coming early each Thursday to set up the long luncheon table in the center’s ballroom and to keep things organized.
Kessler was the captain of the rice team on Valentine’s Day and checked off ingredients on his list as Francis Johnson, Roger Jenks, and James Nolan measured rice and water. “The pen is the best tool we have,” Kessler said. “It makes sure the guys don’t put it in twice.”
A Variety of Backgrounds
Left to right: Jim Walker, Jim Loan, John Piccirilli and Frank Eldridge
Many members have been coming for years. Others, like Bill Harrington who comes all the way from Wellfleet, joined after seeing a notice in the newspaper. He had to wait a year for an opening but “once you’re in, you’re in,” he said.
Kessler credits the success of the class to Higgins, who’s been teaching it for about 25 years. “Steve’s a magician,” Kessler said. “Some can’t see; some can’t hear, he makes it work.”
It’s clearly a labor of love for Higgins, who calmly supervised the browning of pork chops and the use of lots of sharp knives.
“Some of them are from the era when they didn’t do a lot of cooking,” he said about his students. “Now I think it’s mostly for the sociability. They get together; they tell stories. They support each other.”
That support is key for long life, said Manny Marrero, MOT, OTR/L, an occupational therapist at Cape Cod Healthcare’s Centers for Behavioral Health. “When people isolate and don’t have social relations, they tend to be in less better health.”
Day-to-day social interaction and knowing people who can help in a crisis are the two biggest predictors of long-life based on studies of “blue zones” – areas of the world with the greatest longevity, he said. But the Cape’s aging population, limited public transportation and seasonal rhythms often hinder making those social connections.
Lack of support does not seem to be an issue among the guys in the kitchen at the senior center. Even when the red velvet cake doesn’t rise or the powdered-sugar icing doesn’t thicken, there’s no blame as everyone tucks into lunch. I went to the class to learn some tricks for cooking for one. But, there’s no solo cooking here and that’s the real lesson: Tired of cooking for yourself? Call a friend. You’ll both be glad.
Chef Steve Higgins looks for recipes that can be done in an hour or so and meet his budget of approximately $75 per week to make 20 to 25 servings. He does a lot with chicken and ground beef, with a splurge on fish for the last class when significant others are invited. Here’s his own chicken recipe that was particularly popular with the class, as well as the easy rice recipe from Valentine’s Day, which can be adapted to whatever you have in the pantry.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
4 chicken thighs
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 large onion, julienne sliced
1/2 large green pepper, sliced
1 cloves garlic, minced with knife
1/4 cup white wine
1 can (14 ounces) diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon fresh ground Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
Rinse chicken, pat dry and season with salt and pepper. Put olive oil in a large sauté pan and heat pan over medium high heat. Cook chicken skin side down in small batches until browned. Remove from pan and reserve.
Add onions, peppers and garlic to pan and sauté over medium heat until tender, about 5 minutes. Add wine and stir to deglaze pan. Cook for 2 minutes then add tomatoes and seasonings.
Pour tomato mixture into a 9-by-9 baking dish. Nestle chicken in sauce, leaving skin exposed to crisp up. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until chicken juices run clear. Serve over pasta of your choice with bread and a salad.
EASY RICE PILAF
Higgins found this on a cooking blog called IWashYouDry.com that features easy budget meals and was developed by writer Shawn Syphus. You can use frozen or fresh vegetables, just sauté fresh ones a bit before adding them. You could substitute a touch of curry powder for the turmeric. You could also add protein like chicken or tofu to make this a meal in itself. This makes 4 to 6 servings.
2 tsp olive oil
1/2 onion, diced
1 cup uncooked white long-grain rice
1/2 tsp garlic salt
1/2 tsp dried basil leaves, crushed
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup frozen peas and carrots mix
Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook 3 minutes, until translucent.
Add the rice and stir, until the rice is lightly toasted. Add the garlic salt, basil and turmeric to the skillet and stir until evenly combined.
Stir in the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in the peas and carrots, cover and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork and enjoy!