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As the new chef at the Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa, Don Nolan takes low-cost produce and donated dry goods and spins them into culinary gold: delicious, prepared meals for the food bank’s clients, who also receive a box of free food each month.

The innovative Kitchen Collective program, which launched in mid-April, allows the chef to provide healthy, high-protein meals that come frozen and ready to be heated up in the microwave or the oven. It’s a win-win for both the food bank and its many clients who, like the rest of us, are busy juggling multiple jobs and family responsibilities.

While cooking the mostly vegetarian meals, Nolan uses the same, low-cost ingredients that many of the food bank clients who are seniors receive once a month in a box as part of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP).

These relatively affordable ingredients include a wide range of products, from quick oats and peanut butter to rice and beans, from canned tuna and salmon to butter and milk, fresh cheese and yogurt. The fresh produce ranges from sweet potatoes, onions, carrots and cabbage to oranges, apples and nectarines.

For the busy home cook who’s also trying to make ends meet with the food budget, we asked Nolan to provide some inspiration for breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes that are affordable, easy to make and meet a wide array of tastes.

For breakfast, Nolan suggested a simple granola made from healthy ingredients like rolled oats, shredded carrot, maple syrup or honey, brown sugar, cinnamon, dried fruit and toasted nuts.

“We are working on making the granola and putting it into bags,” he said. “It’s good to snack on and great with milk or yogurt.”

For a heartier breakfast, he suggests a savory casserole known as a “strata,” made by whipping together some eggs and cream and pouring it over slices of multigrain bread and kale.

For a snack between meals, Nolan suggested a no-cook Peanut Butter Oat Bar. These refrigerator cookies are made with a crunchy combination of peanut butter, honey, rolled oats, dried fruit and nuts, which are pressed into a casserole dish, then refrigerated.

“Anybody can make it, and it doesn’t make a huge mess,” he said. “You can give them to the kids for a snack, and it has oats and fiber, so it fills you up.”

At home, Nolan likes to add protein powder and healthy seeds like flax and pumpkin seeds to the bar, for added nutrition. You could also add some homemade granola or your favorite breakfast cereal.

“The fun thing about it is you can mix things in with it, like Rice Krispies, to add crunch,” he said. “They’re really good.”

For lunch, Nolan suggested building a protein-rich salad he recently demonstrated in cooking class for veterans. The classic French salad makes use of low-budget ingredients such as canned tuna or salmon, fresh tomatoes and green beans, potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, garbanzo beans and lettuce.

“We made the Salade Nicoise with a Mason jar dressing of olive oil, lemon and shallots,” he said. “It’s a complete meal.”

Dinner entrées, similar to the prepared meals he makes for the Redwood Empire Food Bank clients, may draw from a wide range of fresh vegetables, rice and beans, plus ethnic spices.

Using the handmade-style tortillas donated by La Tortilla Factory, Nolan likes to create a vegetarian enchilada casserole stuffed with flavorful ingredients like corn, black beans, caramelized onions, cheese, greens and mushrooms.

With the cultivated mushrooms donated by Gourmet Mushrooms of Sebastopol, Nolan a stirs up some risotto, an Italian rice dish that can provide a showcase for other seasonal vegetables, such as onions and leeks, acorn and butternut squash.

Nolan, who before this job worked in commercial hotel kitchens, is enjoying the challenge of using humble ingredients like cabbage and carrots to create flavorful, ready-to-eat meals for folks in need.

“People can get intimidated by cooking, or might be getting tired of what they are eating,” he said. “We want to try to educate in addition to providing food, so we send out recipes with the box.”

The idea of a food bank with a commercial kitchen is relatively new to Sonoma County, but when the Redwood Empire Food Bank built its new facility on Brickway Boulevard a few years ago, the innovative organization decided to include a large kitchen in its plans.

“No one has done it before in this area,” said David Goodman, executive director of the food bank. “What chef is doing is pure food banking - taking donated food and adding value and putting it out into the community. And we’re making it delicious. You want people to eat for joy.”


The following recipes are from Don Nolan, commercial kitchen chef for the Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa.

Carrot Cake Granola

Makes 6 servings

3 cups rolled oats

1 cup pecans or walnuts

1 cup finely shredded carrot

¼ cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ cup vegetable oil

¾ teaspoon salt

1 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the oats, nuts, grated carrots, cinnamon and brown sugar. In a separate bowl, combine maple syrup, oil, vanilla and salt. Combine both mixtures and pour onto 2 sheet pans. Cook for 1 hour and 15 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes to achieve an even color.

Remove from oven and transfer into a large bowl. Add raisins and mix until evenly distributed.


Peanut Butter Oat Bar

Makes 9 servings

1 cup peanut butter (smooth or chunky)

½ cup honey

1½ cups rolled oats

1 cup crisp cereal (such as Rice Krispies, Bran Flakes or Grape Nuts)

½ cup raisins, dried cranberries or chopped nuts

Line a 9-inch x 9-inch pan with foil. Spray lightly with non-stick spray.

Melt the peanut butter and honey together until smooth, either in the microwave or stove top. Combine that mixture with oats, cereal and dried fruit or nuts in the dish.

Using plastic or parchment paper, press down evenly into the prepared pan. Pre-cut mixture into squares. Place in the refrigerator until set. These bars can be wrapped individually and stored in the refrigerator.


Salade Nicoise

Makes 4 servings

1 pound potatoes, peeled

4 eggs, hard-boiled

1 can green beans

1 can garbanzo beans (or white or kidney beans)

1 can tuna (or salmon)

8 cherry tomatoes

1 head lettuce (butter or romaine)

1 can olives (optional, for garnish)

For vinaigrette:

¼ cup red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon dried thyme

¾ cup olive or vegetable oil

Cut the potatoes into ¾-inch pieces and place in a small saucepan, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Cook until fork tender, cool and reserve.

Whisk the vinegar, mustard and thyme together, and slowly add the olive oil until emulsified.

Drain the cans of vegetables and tuna; keep separate. Divide the lettuce among four plates.

Toss the tuna with 1 tablespoon of the vinaigrette and place in the center of the lettuce. Cut the egg in half lengthwise and use as a garnish on the plate. Toss the remaining ingredients with vinaigrette and place in sections around the tuna. Garnish with olives.


Enchilada Bake

Makes 6 servings

1 yellow onion, peeled and cut into strips

16 ounces enchilada sauce (canned or made from scratch)

12 corn or flour tortillas

8 ounces fresh or frozen corn kernels

8 ounces black or pinto beans

8 ounces cooked diced squash (zucchini, butternut or acorn)

16 ounces shredded cheese (Monterey Jack or Cheddar)

4 ounces ripe olives

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In large casserole dish, spread a thin layer of sauce and top with 6 tortillas, overlapping slightly. Top with corn, beans, squash and half of cheese. Top with remaining tortillas, sauce and the rest of the cheese. Add olives as garnish.

Bake in 350-degree oven until bubbling and temperature reaches 165 degrees.

Note: You can also add cooked peppers, mushrooms, spinach or other greens for added nutrition.

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

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