Ceres Community Project, affiliates join forces for new healthy cookbook

The book includes chapters on nutrition and cooking basics, with specific tips and shortcuts aimed at people dealing with serious illnesses.|

When Ceres Community Project published its first cookbook in 2009, word spread about how the Sebastopol-based group taught teens to grow organic food and prepare healthy meals, then recruited volunteers to deliver those meals to families battling serious illnesses.

Today the nonprofit, supported by community members who donate kitchen space, food and financial help, continues that work, creating a healing circle of connection that has fired the imaginations of people across the country.

“By the summer of 2010, we were getting calls from people who had gotten the cookbook through someone here,” said Ceres founder and CEO Cathryn Couch. “They said, ‘We’re so inspired by what you’re doing. Can you help us?’”

The circle of caring grew, like ripples from a stone thrown in a lake. By 2012, Ceres had become the parent in a family of affiliates that launched with the help of ongoing training by Ceres. So far, the family has grown to seven “offspring” organizations across the U.S. and Europe.

“They pay a little bit of money for the training and sign an agreement that they will replicate what we do, with youth at the center and a lot of volunteer engagement,” Couch said. Youth and volunteer engagement are the “secret sauce” to their impact, she added.

The affiliate nonprofits have their own names, boards and nonprofit status, but all are part of a collaborative learning model that includes monthly calls and an annual get-together to address ongoing challenges such as growth issues and outreach to other health partners.

“We all get to learn together, and that’s been valuable for them and for us,” Couch said. “They’re innovating in interesting ways, and everybody gets to benefit from that.”

Another benefit of this growing affiliate family is that Ceres has recently published a second cookbook, “Nourishing Community: Healing Recipes Made with Love,” that leverages the experience of the group by sharing each of their stories, photographs and regional recipes.

By teaming up on the cookbook with the affiliates, Ceres was able to print 10,000 books instead of 5,000, which brought the cost down. Ceres sells the cookbooks at cost to the affiliates, so each can use them as a fundraising effort as well as for educational outreach.

“In most of our organizations, we are providing copies to our clients and teen leader program, so it’s also a nutrition education tool,” Couch said.

The 250-page, softbound book, an upgrade from the original, spiral-bound cookbook, was edited by Couch and Deborah Ramelli, director of development and community affairs for Ceres.

Like the original “Nourishing Connections Cookbook,” by Couch and former Ceres Nutrition Director JoEllen DeNicola, the new cookbook includes chapters on Nutrition Basics and Cooking Basics, with specific culinary tips and shortcuts aimed at people dealing with serious illnesses.

“We are an organization that is about educating people about how to eat and cook for health,” Couch said. “If you don’t have a lot of energy, how do you think about some things you can do?”

Healthy recipes

The cookbook includes more than 100 recipes, including sauces, salads, soups and stews, small plates, vegetarian entrees, meat and seafood entrees and desserts.

“We started by asking all of the affiliates to submit their favorite recipes,” Couch said. “Then we had a team of staff and volunteers that recipe-tested all those.”

Each recipe was analyzed nutritionally and includes details on calories, fat, protein, carbs and sodium. That allows those who are diabetic or on a low-sodium diet to choose their recipes accordingly.

Ceres Executive Chef John Littlewood, who provided the recipes from the Ceres Community Project, said the team polled staff and different communities to decide which recipes to include.

“We were looking for greatest hits, the most popular recipes, among the staff as well,” he said. “The Cumin Lime Vinaigrette is a real favorite.”

After graduating from the California Culinary Academy, Littlewood worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury hotels all over the world before taking a job with the historic Westerbeke Ranch in the Sonoma Valley, a rustic retreat and events center. While working there, he wrote a cookbook, “Celebrating the Seasons at Westerbeke Ranch,” published in 2006.

Since he joined Ceres eight years ago, the high-end cook said he has changed the way he thinks about food, both at work and in his own kitchen.

“I emphasize organic much more than I used to as far as when I shop,” he said. “I try and eat whole grains like brown rice ... and I bake a lot of sourdough. I’m passionate about fermentation.”

For the new Ceres cookbook, Littlewood contributed 14 recipes and tweaked a classic Coconut Pudding recipe by adding pumpkin spice and pumpkin puree.

“It was an original Ceres recipe and always a big hit,” he said. “It’s always been really fun to make with the teens. It serves a lot of purposes as a comforting recipe and a teaching tool.”

One of his favorite recipes included in the cookbook is the Sancocho Colombian Chicken Stew. Because he wrote it for people who may have trouble eating, the vegetables, cilantro and garlic are diced in a blender first.

“It’s a great technique to keep in mind if you’re making a stew,” he said. “If it’s not thick enough, you can take some out and blend it and put it back.”

The recipe for his Cauliflower Mushroom Casserole is one of his favorites for a hearty vegetarian meal. The ingredients are roasted first, so they acquire a sweet, caramelized flavor.

“It has a very rich flavor and texture,” he said. “Sometimes vegetarian dishes don’t satisfy me. Where’s the meat? And the mushrooms give it umami.”

Contributions nationwide

The affiliates contributing recipes to the cookbook are scattered across the country, from Ukiah and Eugene, Oregon, to Geneva, Illinois, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Nashville, Tennessee.

The latest member of the Ceres affiliate family is The Loving Meal of Aarhus, Denmark, which contributed some classic Danish recipes like Fiske Frikadeller (Danish Fish Cakes with Pickled Vegetable Remoulade and Citrus Cabbage Salad) and Boller i Karry (Chicken Meatballs in Curry Veggie Sauce).

“It’s kind of astounding that there are so many affiliates,” Littlewood said. “The Danish one is super-exciting. It’s the first international one. The Danes are so efficient that they had the program up and running within six months.”

Over the past four years, Ceres Community Projects has both pivoted and grown, due of the wildfires and more recently, the pandemic.

“Early on, with the bigger fires, we were a clearinghouse,” Littlewood said. “Chefs were sending us food, and we were like a distribution center.”

Then, about the time the pandemic hit, the nonprofit saw a huge upswing in production, not only due to an uptick in need but to its growing partnerships with local health care providers.

“From the big-picture perspective, we went from 80,000 meals a year in 2019 to 184,000 in 2020,” Couch said. “We thought it was going to go down last year, but we did 181,000 in 2021.”

By deepening its relationship with local health care providers such Santa Rosa Community Health, Couch said, their client base has shifted.

“Almost 40% are Hispanic,” Couch said. “They are poorer, living on lower incomes and more likely to have chronic conditions as well as cancer.”

To keep up with the demand, the nonprofit has instituted a new staffing structure and is ramping up its volunteer base.

One of the lessons of the pandemic, Couch said, is a better understanding of how their services can help patients with complex medical issues who require special diets and may not be able to leave the house or cook for themselves.

“There was all this money flowing to the food banks. ... But there’s this other population left out of that,” she said. “We were able to get a deeper understanding of how we fit into that continuum, because the pandemic really illustrated the challenges that population has.”

In addition, Ceres has been involved in a pilot program looking at the feasibility of integrating medically tailored meals — with nutrition tailored to a specific diagnosis — as a benefit covered by insurance.

“In January of this year, California’s Medicaid program started to pay for medically tailored meals,” she said. “It’s a really big win, but it’s going to take a good amount of time to see the value of that benefit.”

Couch will speak about food as medicine and a new trend known as “sustainable nutrition” at a Wellness Breakfast on April 2 during the Sonoma Epicurean weekend in Healdsburg, a benefit for the V Foundation, which funds cancer research.

“We’re going to be talking about how we can include climate and health as part of the equation of food as medicine,” she said. “If I’m sourcing food from a factory farm that’s polluting the water table, I’m creating future health consequences from that. We have to think about the broader impacts of the food we’re producing.”

The “Nourishing Community” cookbook is available at the Ceres website (ceresproject.org, click on Support Us) as well as on Amazon.

The following recipes are from “Nourishing Community” from the Ceres Affiliate Partner Family, including this vegan recipe from the Positive Community Kitchen team in Eugene, Oregon.

This is a wonderful recipe to use leftover beets, according to the cookbook. If you don’t feel like roasting your own beets, precooked beets bought at the market will work — just skip the roasting part of the recipe. The leaves of the beets can be sauteed, like kale or spinach.

Roasted Beet Hummus

Makes 8 servings

2 red beets (2-inch diameter)

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 (14-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (or 1 ½ cup cooked)

2 tablespoons tahini paste

1 tablespoon red miso paste, or substitute white miso paste

1 lemon, zested and juiced

1 teaspoon paprika

⅓ cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper, or to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper or lightly oil.

Remove the stems and leaves from the root of the beet. With a paring knife or vegetable peeler, remove the outer skin of the beet. Dice beet into ½-inch pieces.

Place beets on prepared sheet pan. Drizzle with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 20-30 minutes, until cooked through.

Once beets are cool enough to handle, place them in a food processor fitted with the metal blade or in a blender. Add the garlic and chickpeas. Process until the mixture is broken down into small bits.

Add remaining ingredients and process until smooth, adding more olive oil if needed to reach desired consistency.

Taste and season with more salt, pepper or paprika, if needed. Serve with crackers, chips or vegetables.

Per serving: 188 calories, 2 grams fat, 5 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrate, 269 milligrams sodium.

This gluten-free and dairy-free recipe is from Chef John Littlewood of the Ceres Community Project. “This vibrant yellow side dish is even better made ahead, so the turmeric and fennel flavors permeate the vegetables. Reheat in an ovenproof casserole dish and serve. Do-ahead perfection!”

Turmeric Roasted Cauliflower

Makes 8 servings

2 tablespoons plus ½ cup olive oil

1 ½ cups yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced

½ cup olive oil

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 ½ teaspoons turmeric

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground fennel

1 teaspoon powdered garlic

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

12 cups cauliflower florets

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper or lightly oil.

In a small skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil and saute the onion over medium-low heat until very soft, about 20 minutes. Don’t hurry this process or you will burn the onion rather than melt it. Let cool.

In a large bowl, whisk together the ½ cup of olive oil, vinegar, turmeric, salt, fennel, granulated garlic and pepper.

Toss the cauliflower with this marinade and spread out on sheet pans. Roast in oven until browned and soft. Check cauliflower after 10 minutes, then every 5 minutes after that, stirring with spatula as needed to create evenly browned cauliflower. Cauliflower should be tender, not crunchy.

Mix onion and cauliflower well. Serve warm or cool and refrigerate, then rewarm in an ovenproof casserole before serving.

Per ¾-cup serving: 199 calories, 7 grams fat, 3 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 106 milligrams sodium.

This vegan, gluten-free recipe is from a client of the Healing Meals Community Project in Bloomfield, Illinois, who said, “The food is so colorful it brightens my day.”

Citrus Burst Kale Salad

Makes 8 servings

For spiced garbanzo beans:

2 cans low-sodium garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

½ teaspoon chile powder

¼ teaspoon cayenne

For salad:

2 pounds kale, stems removed and thinly sliced

1 head red cabbage, cored and shredded

2 cups shredded carrot

For dressing:

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated and squeezed for juice (pulp discarded)

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

½ cup orange juice

1 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper

4 navel oranges, peeled and sectioned

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or lightly oil.

Combine garbanzo beans with salt, paprika, chile powder and cayenne and toss to combine evenly. Spread garbanzo beans on the prepared sheet tray and bake for 45 minutes, until they are lightly browned. Cool completely.

While the garbanzos are baking, prepare your vegetables.

In a large bowl, toss the kale, red cabbage and carrots until evenly combined.

Make the dressing: Combine the garlic, ginger, mustard and orange juice in a bowl. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Add salt and pepper, to taste.

Pour the dressing over the kale and toss well. Garnish the salad with orange sections and spiced garbanzo beans.

Per serving: 504 calories, 3 grams fat, 13 grams protein, 62 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram sodium.

“This is comfort food of the highest order,” said Littlewood, who contributed this recipe. “Roasting the vegetables before baking in the casserole results in a deeply satisfying vegetarian dish.”

Cauliflower Mushroom Casserole

Makes 6 servings

4 cups cauliflower florets

1 pound mushrooms, chopped

3 ½ tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 cup yellow onion, finely chopped

2 teaspoons garlic cloves, minced

7 eggs, lightly beaten

1 ⅛ cups grated cheddar cheese

2 tablespoons shredded Parmesan cheese

1 cup kefir (or substitute yogurt thinned with some water)

¼ cup water

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

¾ teaspoon salt

Dash ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line sheet pan with parchment paper or lightly grease. Lightly grease a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish.

Toss cauliflower florets and mushrooms with 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil in large mixing bowl until well-coated. Spread out in even layer on sheet pan. Roast in oven for 20-30 minutes or until the vegetables are lightly browned and caramelized, rotating the pan once halfway through cooking time.

In a large skillet, heat remaining oil over medium heat. Add onions and saute, stirring, for a few minutes until onions are translucent. Add garlic. Cook, stirring, for another 3 or 4 minutes, just until garlic is lightly cooked. Remove from heat.

In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs, both cheeses, kefir, water, parsley, salt and pepper. Add roasted vegetables and the sauteed onion mix. Mix well and spread in baking dish. Tap bottom of dish on table to flatten batter and remove any bubbles. Try to ensure even thickness by spreading flat with rubber spatula all the way into corners of pan.

Bake for 25 minutes and check for doneness by inserting a paring knife in the center. Knife will come out clean when done. If casserole is not done, turn pan around in oven so it browns more evenly, and cook another 5-10 minutes until cooked throughout. Use paring knife again in the center to check for doneness.

Let cool 10 minutes, then serve.

Per 1 serving: 347 calories, 26 grams fat, 19 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 570 milligrams sodium.

This recipe is from the Ceres Community Project, where it’s a holiday and teen favorite at Ceres events.

Cashew Cardamom Balls

Makes 6 servings

1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

1 cup cashews, lightly roasted, chopped roughly

1 cup dates, chopped

¼ teaspoon ground cardamom

1 tablespoon orange zest

¼ cup unsalted cashew butter

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Spread coconut evenly on baking sheet and toast 4 to 8 minutes, until just turning golden. Cool.

Place a steel blade in the work bowl of a food processor. Add the cashews and about two-thirds of the coconut and process until the cashews are ground to the texture of very coarse sand. Transfer to a mixing bowl.

Add the dates to the work bowl and process until they come together in a ball and are finely chopped. Add to cashew mix.

Stir in the cardamom, orange zest and cashew butter. Knead the mixture with your fingers until uniform, then roll into 12, 1 ½-inch balls. Place the remaining coconut on a plate and roll the balls in the coconut to coat.

Note: If mixture is too dry and doesn’t stick together in ball form, add a bit of melted coconut oil or cashew butter. Cashew butter can be used in place of some of the cashews. Use no more than half cashew butter, or balls will be too soft.

Per serving (2 balls): 331 calories, 23 grams fat, 7 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrate, 9 milligrams sodium.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

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