Education / Food

Cooks learn healthy eating one recipe at a time

Photo by Vishal Persaud

Sampling the eggplant and cucumber recipe.

South Bronx Food Coop offers classes

By Vishal Persaud

Two large purple eggplants lay on a small wooden cutting board, surrounded by knives, metal baking pans and containers of salt, pepper and herbs as an intimate cooking class began on a recent Wednesday evening.

“So, who’s had eggplant before?” Lara Cely asked the five students gathered around a folding table. Cely, a healthy eating enthusiast and neighborhood resident volunteered to teach the class for the South Bronx Food Cooperative.

Cely, who trained as a chef with City Harvest, decided to teach the class because of her interest in promoting healthy eating to residents of the South Bronx, where fresh fruit and vegetables are scarce.

The South Bronx Food Cooperative hosts the cooking class across the street from its store, on Third Avenue, between East 158th and 159th streets in Melrose. Everyone from the mainly low-income community is welcome at the classes to learn how to prepare vegetables available at the co-op using easy, yet creative recipes.

The cooking class is just one of the options the co-op has started to help encourage a healthier lifestyle in a community where fast food restaurants and bodegas that sell 25-cent bags of potato chips dominate the culinary landscape.

The cooking class meets every second and fourth Wednesday each month. Students chip in a few dollars to pay for the fresh vegetables from the co-op, some of which are unfamiliar to many shoppers at the store.

“I’ve only had eggplant in eggplant parmesan,” said Melrose resident Robin Arroyo. Of the four other students in the class, Warner Perez, a New York City transit worker, also said he didn’t have much eggplant in his diet.

Perez said the class is making him “more aware of what should be consumed on a daily basis.”

According to New York City’s health department, residents in Mott Haven and Hunts Point are twice as likely to have diabetes than residents in Manhattan, and suffer more from heart disease and obesity.

“I wouldn’t want to be a statistic,” Perez said.

Marie Orilus, a social worker from Queens, shared a recipe about how she cooked eggplant in a stew with turkey and beef neck bones.

“It gives it a different taste, a different flavor,” said Orilus, as she talked about how she seasoned the neck bones with a green and red pepper, scallion, garlic and parsley puree, before steaming chopped eggplant separately and combining it with the neck bone in a tomato-based stew.

Cely sat back and listened. Once her students finished sharing recipes, she announced they would cut one eggplant into thin rounds resembling potato chips, and the other lengthwise into long, thin strips. The students took turns at cutting up the eggplants, placing them in separate baking pans lined with aluminum foil.

Orilus and Arroyo sprinkled herbs and spices onto the eggplant chips, while the others sprinkled sea salt on the strips of eggplant. Cely placed both pans in the oven for 25 minutes. While the eggplant baked, Perez chopped up mint leaves for the dish while other students cut a cucumber into tiny, pickle-sized strips.

The eggplant came out of the oven, toasted light brown, hot and ready to eat. Students grabbed at the eggplant chips. They proved soft and chewy.

Cely instructed her students to sprinkle some lemon juice onto the strips of eggplant for the other dish–—a cucumber-eggplant roll.

Arroyo was the first to try it. She sprinkled some chopped mint in the dark eggplant and rolled it in a piece of light green cucumber into a long roll that resembled a vegetarian pig-in-the-blanket.

The crisp texture of the cucumber contrasted with the soft, gooey eggplant. The mint and lemon juice provided a sweet and sour flavor. Each student tried the roll. Five heads nodded in approval.

A version of this story appeared in the Winter issue of the Mott Haven Herald.

Soundslide and description by Chris Prentice

After her mother’s health struggles, Lara Cely, who teaches cooking at the South Bronx Food Cooperative, decided to learn about nutrition. She joined the co-op and, later, completed a chef-training program with City Harvest, which collects million of pounds of food from restaurants, grocers and other sources and delivers it to community food programs.

The class helps to combat the area’s diabetes epidemic, and, together with the Food Cooperative itself, to try to make what the Department of City Planning has called a “food desert” bloom with quality fruits and vegetables.

The class is just one sign of change. Mott Haven residents are growing their own produce. There’s a new wholesale farmers market in Hunts Point. And the city’s Lower Concourse plan includes a call for a new supermarket.

In the meantime, these South Bronx residents learn that eating healthy can be quick and easy, too.

A version of this story appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of The Hunts Point Express.

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