Quinoa and Barley and Bulgar…oh my! Community Cooking at YWCA Toronto

By Susannah Ireland

What do you think she's making?

Cooking as a group is a great opportunity to learn new techniques in the kitchen while building a sense of community ownership over health and wellness.

Women in YWCA Toronto’s shelters were recently invited to attend a healthy cooking workshop to share ideas, ingredients, and a few laughs with their neighbours. When the dozen or so participants arrived at the workshop, they gathered around the kitchen’s tables as our childcare staff took the rambunctious kids outside to burn off some energy.

A mountain of nutritious food was piled on the counter in the small communal kitchen. Onions, kale, lettuce, cilantro, parsley, brightly coloured bell peppers, cauliflower, zucchinis, celery, carrots, vine tomatoes, and heads of garlic presented endless possibilities for some seriously delicious dishes. Quinoa and amaranth (whole, puffed, and flaked) millet, barley, bulgur and brown rice inspired curiosity. And last but not least, the mighty bean! Chickpeas, black turtle beans, and kidney beans accompanied the seemingly endless spread of ingredients.

Tricia, our chef and co-facilitator, introduced the plan for the afternoon. We prefaced the workshop by explaining that we knew everyone already knew how to cook. We outlined the workshop’s goals: to share new ideas and ingredients, and to explore community cooking and the power food has to bring folks together. Most importantly, we wanted to have fun together!

After an energetic icebreaker, we started talking food. Tricia introduced an assortment of grains like amaranth, which she explained looks a bit like teff. At the mention of teff, two women with Ethiopian roots perked up and carefully inspected the amaranth. Quinoa was passed around next, and for those who are unfamiliar with this grain, we explained how it is not only tasty but is also deemed a ‘supergrain’ because of its health benefits.

Eager to get our hands dirty, we started discussing what we should actually make with our food mountain. Tricia threw out some ideas – “tabbouleh!”, “barley and pomegranate salad!”, “veggie patties!”, “roasted cauliflower!”, “stuffed zucchinis!”, “hummus!”. The women gathered into groups to tackle one dish each. One woman (a serious foodie) offered to show participants how to cook two of her favourite healthy recipes: carrot soup and quinoa, kale, avocado, and dried cranberry salad. Participants peeled dozens of carrots, while I cried through my assigned duty of chopping onions.

Meanwhile, the kids were whipping up some mean veggie tacos. Some kids were certain they did not like cooking, but when we asked if they liked to eat and specifically if they like to eat tacos, it was hard for them to resist. Soon enough, there was serious competition over who got to scoop the avocados out of their shells for the guacamole, and who got to (carefully) slice up the tomatoes for the fresh salsa.

Before I knew it, a table was being filled with a buffet of bright salads, irresistible veggie patties, dips and spreads. Mugs were elegantly filled with servings of the bright orange carrot soup, which everyone agreed was out-of-this-world delicious. Who knew five ingredients and twenty minutes on the stove could produce such a spectacular result?

As we loaded up our plates, the kids each filled a soft taco shell with all the fixings they had made, wrapping it up in their own creative – and elaborate – ways. That’s the beauty of coming together to cook (and eat!) as a community: everyone brings their own unique relationship with food, and with friends and family, to the table.

Thanks to generous donations from The Big Carrot and The Stop Community Food Centre, the women left laden with not only leftovers, but bags of fresh produce, grains, beans, and their own copy of The Stop Community Food Centre’s cookbook, Good Food For All.

Tenants at the YWCA Toronto Elm Centre get their own healthy cooking workshop on August 28, facilitated by celebrity chef Mairlyn Smith and featuring goodies from Chickabiddy Acres.