“Food has been an unapologetic obsession for most of my life,” says Paul Drowns, the new community cooking educator at the St. Mary’s Nutrition Center since mid-January. “I saw this as an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way and thought it would be a good match.

“I grew up in France, and still remember entire meals I ate as a child,” Drowns continues, adding that his experience as a seafood salesman in Maine, Manhattan and across the country, along with working as a commercial fisherman, chef and teacher of traditional Mediterranean cooking for the past 20 years, serves him well in this new position.

Commuting from Saco, Drowns is an avid gardener who admits to being a food activist — focusing on food purity, safety, access and public health issues. His beliefs and experience have led him to this point, where he is playing a very hands-on role.

St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, which is located at 208 Bates St. in downtown Lewiston, promotes community health through organizing, advocacy and education. It is home to, among other things, a food pantry, cooking and nutrition education programs for people of all ages, and its Lots to Gardens program, where urban gardens are used to create access to local food, empower youth and even help bring together the community.

Drowns is currently focusing on low-barrier, skills-based cooking programs for adults, teens and children. In addition, he supports the center’s youth catering crew, which prepares food for the Farmers Market Cafe at the center and other community events as part of youth development programming.

“At the NC (Nutritional Center), we’re not only teaching basic cooking skills, but also provide information about understanding food labels, recognizing better choices based on ingredients, and how to wisely stretch a dollar and eat well,” Drowns says, explaining that exposure to new foods and menu options is a good way of helping people expand their diets and forge an interest in healthy eating.

Because the center also offers garden programs, participants have an opportunity to plant, grow, harvest and cook their own food, seeing the entire process through. Drowns believes that, particularly for children and teens, participation in growing food increases willingness to try something new.

“I like to help people find joy in eating and cooking. When food becomes something more than a means of satisfying hunger, other possibilities arise. What to eat next and how to cook it can become an adventure, leading to conversation and collaboration,” says Drowns, who has already seen these results in class. “As skills increase, confidence builds, curiosity grows and there’s excitement.”

On a personal level, Drowns tries to eat food that is local and in seasonal, does it frugally, and uses a “ridiculous” amount of herbs and spices. He says a well-stocked pantry allows flexibility to cook on a whim, and to prepare real food even when pressed by a busy schedule.

“Cooking from scratch gives me complete control over what I eat. I don’t have to worry about hidden bad fats, sodium or questionable ingredients. From my viewpoint, processed food is processed food, whether organic or conventional.”

Drowns’ culinary skills are linked to both his exposure to European foods and gardening as a child. For most of his adult life, he’s explored various Mediterranean cuisines because of their vibrant flavors and rich history. Over time he has become more interested in documenting the connections that diet and culture have to health and quality of life.

Although cooking from scratch takes an investment of time, Drowns says the ingredients in the recipes he offers here today fit any budget. Spring arrives a little later here in Maine than in the Mediterranean region, but Drowns says he hopes the dishes inspire readers to cook something new as we segue into the more gentle spring season.

“If I can get people to play with food, I’m happy. It’s more important to know how to eat than it is to know how to cook,” Drowns says.

Gazpachos manchego

Serves 4

Most people think of gazpacho as a chilled tomato-based soup enjoyed in the summer, but really the word refers to a flat bread made without yeast. While the tomato-based gazpacho we’re familiar with originated in the Andalusian area of Spain, gazpachos manchego comes from La Mancha. The word gazpacho may have morphed from “caspa,” a Mozarab word meaning “leftover.” These “gazpachos” were often used to thicken a soup or stew before serving.

According to Paul Drowns, this dish, originally concocted by shepherds to sustain them as they roamed the hills with their flocks, may be one of the earliest departures from the traditionally slow-cooked Spanish cuisine of its time, making it the first “fast food” in that country. A shepherd ate whatever he could forage, such as wild mushrooms, snails, game and herbs, served with the basic ingredients he carried, namely, flour, olive oil and salt. With these humble ingredients, a meal could be prepared over hot coals quickly and easily in a shallow pan called a gazpachera. Tomatoes and peppers were most likely added to this recipe in kitchens much later. Understanding that today wild game might not be available or preferred, chicken and/or domestic rabbit are acceptable substitutes.

Gazpachos:

2 1/4 cups flour, plus more for the work surface

1/2 cup water or more, if needed

A pinch flaky sea salt

Extra virgin olive oil for the baking sheet

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift flour into a large bowl. Add salt and 1/2 cup water. Knead the ingredients into a smooth dough, adding a little more water if necessary to make the dough more pliable. Divide the dough into 3 pieces and form each piece into a ball. On a floured work surface, roll each ball of dough into a round about 1/8-inch thick. Place the rounds on oiled baking sheet and bake until they begin to brown, about 25 minutes. Cool the gazpachos on a wire rack, then tear two of them into small pieces. Wrap the third round in a clean kitchen towel. Meanwhile, prepare:

Stew:

1/2 rabbit and 1 partridge, cut into pieces (a 3- to 4-pound chicken may be substituted)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

6 cloves garlic, peeled and trimmed

1 onion, chopped

1 green or red pepper, cubed

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 fresh (or three dried) bay leaves

2 large, ripe tomatoes, peeled and cubed

1 tablespoon Spanish pimenton or smoked paprika

A pinch of saffron or 1 teaspoon ground turmeric

Heat oil in a cazuela or large cast iron skillet and cook garlic until golden. Remove and set aside. Season meat with salt and pepper before browning on all sides. Add onion, peppers, thyme and bay leaf. Continue cooking for another 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and spices. Cook 5 minutes longer. Cut garlic cloves in half lengthwise and return them to the cazuela. Add just enough water to cover meat and simmer stew for 30 minutes. Add the torn bread and continue cooking until bread has softened and stew has thickened, about 5 to 10 minutes. Serve over reserved bread.

Garbanzos grumoso (lumpy chickpeas)

The texture and absence of tahini sets this apart from more familiar recipes, but the bite of chilies, the smokiness of the pimenton and the richness of good olive oil make for a wonderful dish. Quantities of all ingredients are completely to taste. As a general guide, 1 cup of dried chickpeas produces 3 cups cooked.

3 cups freshly cooked or canned chickpeas, preferably organic

Minced garlic, to taste

Fresh lemon juice, to taste

Fruity extra virgin olive oil

Shredded dried peppers or red pepper flakes, to taste

Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

A little cold water, if needed

Spanish pimenton or smoked paprika, to taste

Coarsely chopped fresh parsley for garnishing

If using dried chickpeas, rinse and drain them. In a heavy pot, bring them to a boil in plenty of water then turn off the heat and let them rest for an hour. Continue to cook at a gentle boil until tender. If using canned chickpeas, drain and rinse them, then heat in fresh water until warm, making mashing easier. Drain.

Crush chickpeas with a fork, or use a food processor, and process them to a mealy texture. Moisten them to taste with a little lemon juice, and then add oil in a thin stream, stirring so oil is absorbed completely. Stir in shredded peppers to taste, then season with salt and pepper. If the mixture is too crumbly, sprinkle with drops of water and stir. Place in a serving bowl, dust with pimenton, and add a drizzle of oil. Garnish with parsley. Serve as you would hummus.

Esperragos con allioli (asparagus with garlic and olive oil sauce)

Serves 4

Fresh asparagus, whether wild or cultivated, is a popular spring ingredient across Spain as well as in the U.S. This dish is typically served at room temperature, simply sauced with the aioli. Modern versions, even in Catalonia, now include egg yolks to help in emulsifying the condiment, as do most French Recipes for aioli. If you lack a mortar and pestle, or patience, two yolks can be added, and the recipe can be made in a blender or food processor. Oil must still be added gradually.

1/2 pound fresh asparagus

Rinse asparagus and trim ends. Bring several inches of water to a boil in a large pot. Add 1 tablespoon salt. Add asparagus and cook for 2 or more minutes, depending on the thickness of the stalks. This sets the color and tenderizes the asparagus, leaving it slightly crisp when eaten. Remove and drain asparagus and spread the spears to cool on a large plate or towel.

Allioli a la Catalana (traditional Catalan garlic and olive oil sauce)

Makes 1 cup

6 fat cloves of peeled garlic

1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt

Fruity extra virgin olive oil

A few drops of water, if needed

Freshly squeezed lemon juice, optional

Place garlic in a mortar along with salt and, using a pestle, press the cloves into a completely smooth paste. Drop by drop, add olive oil in the mortar, and in a constant, slow and circular motion, work the oil into the garlic paste, making sure oil is completely absorbed before adding more. With care and patience, the result will have the consistency of very thick mayonnaise. If the sauce is too thick, work drops of water or lemon juice in to thin it out.

For more information about St. Mary’s Nutrition Center call 513-3848 or find them on the web at www.stmarysnutritioncenter.org.


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