A bag of egg noodles; two pounds of yellow split peas and dried navy beans; a bottle of orange juice; two boxes of scalloped potatoes; two cans each of chunk light tuna, green peas, collard greens, sweet potatoes in light syrup, and sliced Bartlett pears; a quart of shelf-stable milk.
Such were the ingredients recently found inside one of the free boxes of food handed out by Philadelphia in partnership with two of its largest food banks. The assortment had all the makings of tuna casserole — but then what?
We put the question to five Philly chefs who have some experience with surprise ingredients: They’ve all competed on the Food Network show Chopped.
The contents of the city’s food boxes, distributed twice a week at 40 sites, change from week to week, depending on what Share Food Program and Philabundance, which supply the food, have in their warehouses. On Mondays, the boxes contain dry goods: canned fruits, vegetables, and proteins; dried beans and fruit; pancake mix and chili. On Thursdays, they’re focused on produce, ideally “the hard seven” — apples, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, onions, oranges, and sweet potatoes — but recent boxes have included salad mix, grapes, bananas, and mushrooms.
We asked the Chopped chefs to look at some previous boxes, taking into account their unpredictability, and come up with ideas using box ingredients and affordable pantry staples. Here’s what they whipped up.
Paula Alencar’s stint on Chopped featured lamb merguez, patatas brava, and chocolate-dipped churros — lucky ingredients for the then-Jamonera sous chef, who grew up in Brazil. (Most recently, she was a sous at the Fitler Club.)
Alencar specializes in gluten-free cooking, and that hasn’t stopped her from riding “the sourdough wave” during the pandemic. But she included all-purpose flour — what most people have at home — in two of her food-box recipes (see below): mushroom and bean croquetas — or croquettes, the versatile crispy-creamy fried snack — and a catch-all dish called assadeiro, after the pan it’s cooked in.
Assadeiro translates to blender pie, Alencar said, “because people will mix the batter in a blender, or fridge pie, because you’re using whatever’s in the fridge ... It makes almost like a soft, fluffy, bready quiche / savory cake,” she said.
For actual dessert, Alencar suggests making a form of brigadeiros, a chocolaty condensed milk truffle coated in chocolate sprinkles (she calls them jimmies). “This is a great recipe to get the kids involved on the prep,” she added.
Follow Alencar on Instagram: @p_salencar
Michael Joyce has worked in several Philly kitchens — the Striped Bass, Root, Barbuzzo — but he’s drawn much of his culinary inspiration from farm-driven cooking he did in Italy, at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill restaurant, and at Bolete and Molinari’s in his native Bethlehem. His expertise in seasonality got him invited to compete in a vegetable-centric episode of Chopped, on which he also convinced judge Martha Stewart to try chocolate-covered crickets.
Joyce might prefer farm-fresh vegetables (and the city boxes do include some), but he knows how to work with the canned and frozen variety, too. For his recipes (below), he suggested a take on shepherd’s pie that uses canned vegetables and beef, as well as a breakfast casserole that layers cooked bacon, peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes underneath a batter of pancake mix, eggs, milk, and cheese. As it cooks up, “it’s almost like a souffle. The flour in the pancake mix is there to kind of bind and give that egg and milk structure.”
For dessert: canned fruit cobbler. Because the fruit is already sliced and submerged in syrup, “you can open the can and throw it in there.” Top with a spiced crumble made from nuts, flour, sugar, and butter.
Follow Joyce on Instagram: @m_joyce8
Gregory Headen’s introduction to cooking came via a culinary program offered by Philabundance, one of the suppliers of the city’s food box contents. He worked full time as a sous chef at Center City’s Hard Rock Cafe while he went through culinary school. After he graduated, he got a job working with Georges Perrier of Le Bec-Fin.
Headen’s episode of Chopped aired last year; he won cooking chorizo and smoked cod polenta with watermelon radish salad, as well as duck bacon hash with chicken and waffle sauce. Most recently, he was executive chef at South jazz club, though he had been looking at spaces to start a restaurant of his own — the Black Plate — before the pandemic hit. (You can still try his food via pickup popups.)
Headen’s suggestions for the food boxes reflect his French and elevated soul cuisine leanings. He’d simmer chopped vegetables (carrots, mushrooms, potatoes) in garlic bacon fat to play on beef bourguignon. Add red wine, reduce by half, then add canned beef and let it simmer till warm. On the side, he’d serve instant mashed potatoes doctored with butter, cream (or shelf-stable milk), and garlic.
He’d mix one part pureed canned sweet potatoes with two parts flour, eggs, and salt to make dough for sweet potato gnocchi. Cut into small squares and boil in salted water until they float. Serve with blistered tomatoes and peas or whatever canned vegetables you have: Heat olive oil and butter in a skillet, then add vegetables, and season with salt and pepper. Toss in the gnocchi in the pan, then add some pasta water to make a sauce. Fresh or dried herbs would add even more flavor.
Like Alencar, Headen also thought of croquettes. He’d base them on tuna — maybe spiced with Lawry’s seasoned salt or McCormick’s black garlic powder (his favorite) — and serve with creamy split peas (simmer with water until creamy, then add butter, herbs, salt, and pepper) and canned collards greens, which he ate growing up in West Philly. Warm them up with onion and garlic, and add a little hot sauce.
Follow Headen on Instagram: @chefgregoryheaden
During the pandemic, chef Aziza Young has been cooking platters of New American comfort food like smoked mac and cheese and sweet potato waffles with smoked duck, as well as making food for low-income families and senior citizens out of South Philly Barbacoa’s kitchen. That’s not exactly what she usually does as a private chef for two Eagles players, but as she said, “I’m not working anyway, so I might as well feed people.”
Young grew up in Cheltenham and has cooked at restaurants in downtown Philly and Harrisburg. She was executive chef at St. Benjamin’s Brewing Co. when she appeared on Chopped. She made vinaigrette out of a rainbow gelatin mold and dessert out of a basket with cocktail onions and salmon ice cream.
Her suggestions for the city’s food boxes require less fortitude. Use the low-fat milk and tuna fish to make cream of tuna: Add 3 tablespoons of butter to a pot, then add diced onions and garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add about ¼ cup flour to make a roux. Then add about a cup of milk, and whisk until it’s smooth and creamy. If it’s too thick, don’t worry; the water from the tuna will thin it. If it’s too thin, add cheese, which will thicken the sauce as well as add flavor. Serve over toast. Use the same method for creamed collards, using the greens instead of tuna (be sure to add cheese).
Make more roux for an egg noodle pasta with peas. Thin the roux with milk to create a cream sauce, then set aside. Cook the noodles until al dente, saving some pasta cooking liquid for the sauce; don’t rinse the noodles. Then sauté canned peas, onions, and garlic with whatever seasonings (Young likes Sazón) are on hand. Toss the pasta in sauce and add the sautéed veggies on top.
Onions and garlic are crucial for one’s pantry. Young recommends blending them with beans — if they’re dried, soak overnight, then cook with fresh water or stock and seasonings — to make a bean dip. Cooked or canned white beans can also be mixed into canned chili for a two-bean chili.
Use the canned sweet potatoes to make candied yams: Combine sugar, butter or margarine, some syrup from the can, and cinnamon with the potatoes and chopped-up pitted plums (or other dried fruit) for texture. Bake for 30 minutes at 350°F.
If using pancake mix, zhuzh it up by adding butter, milk, and eggs instead of just water, Young said. To take it further, add canned fruit or sweet potatoes to the batter to make fruit pancakes.
Vintage Syndicate executive chef Mackenzie Hilton has been on Chopped three times, so she’s a pro at handling surprise ingredients. Hilton, the mother of a 19-month-old daughter, has been dipping into the depths of her own pantry during the pandemic, making her mother’s rendition of Julia Child’s spaghetti Marco Polo: It’s simply cooked spaghetti tossed with canned tuna, canned pimentos, black olives, grated cheddar, olive oil, salt and pepper, parsley, and scallions. “The cheddar really makes it,” Hilton said.
Hilton recommends treating cooked beans, split peas, or lentils like mashed potatoes: Mash them with butter and your favorite seasonings. Use leftovers to make pan-fried veggie burgers: Fold in drained collard greens or any other vegetables (if using raw veggies, make sure they are grated or chopped finely), mix in an egg and a little flour or potato flakes to make the puree thick enough to form patties. Pan-fry and top with cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and some salad mix.
Like Young, Hilton recommends adding fruit to pancakes, and maybe topping them with syrup from the fruit’s can. She also suggests a way to make whipped “cream” with powdered milk: Whisk equal parts ice-cold water and powdered milk on high with a hand mixer until fluffy, add a little sugar, and continue beating until thicken.
Hilton echoed Young again by suggesting creamed tuna, which she grew up on in Florida. “It’s super comfort food for me,” she said. “I know it might sound weird if you’ve never had it, but it’s really versatile and can be served over anything from pasta to toast to potatoes.”
Follow Hilton on Instagram: @chefmackenziehilton