This post is shared by Joseph Randol, a student and new volunteer leader at Chicago Cares. You can read this, and more of his culinary adventures at his blog, Food.By.JD.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I really, really enjoy cooking. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll probably notice that I enjoy cooking for others even more, so last summer when I began to do volunteer work, I was thrilled to find some amazing programs that kept me coming back through Chicago Cares, a volunteer organization here in the city. What is so great about Chicago Cares is that they have what seems like an infinite list of projects to choose from, so there is literally a project for everyone and their programs serve all sorts of Chicago residents, from the homeless to school children, to seniors living in public housing.

I did several different programs last summer, but the two that kept me coming back were Dinner at REST and the Senior Breakfast Club. Unfortunately, I had to take a hiatus during the school year, as Senior Breakfast Club was on Saturday mornings, and I either worked or had a cross country meet on Saturday mornings, and Dinner at REST is always on a Monday night, and I always had class on Monday evening.

Since last summer, I have not returned to Senior Breakfast Club because of scheduling conflicts, but I’ve returned to REST at every opportunity I’ve had. To give you a little background information, REST is a women’s shelter located at Uptown Baptist Church on Sheridan and Wilson in Chicago, and offers food, shelter, and a bed to homeless women every night. Chicago Cares takes over dinner twice a month, the second and the third Monday, and a group of about 10 volunteers meet to make dinner for around 50 women. When I started the program last June, I immediately fell in love with it. The charismatic leaders and the selflessness and friendliness of the volunteers, as well as all the women in the shelter, was enough to keep me coming back at every opportunity. In December, after not being able to attend for a few months because of school, I returned to both nights and was quickly welcomed back by the leaders, reminding me how much I really enjoyed the program. In January, I learned that one of the leaders was moving back home to Canada, meaning this his spot as leader was open, so I decided that I’d step up and lead a dinner once a month.

I finally led my first dinner this past Monday, and let me say, it’s certainly a different experience, but one I enjoy. I get to go out, buy the food, plan the menu and then lead the volunteers in preparing the meal. What’s so great about the program, is that not everyone knows how to cook, but everyone is willing to try, and everyone learns something new with every meal, myself included. After much deliberation, I finally decided on the meal: Chicken Tacos with rice and beans and chocolate chip cookies for dessert.

Now, there are usually, at most, 50 women at the shelter. During the warmer months, the number drops to around 35 or 40. I’ve never purchased food for this many people before, so I really wasn’t sure how much to buy. I have a budget of $100 a meal, and how much food is needed for 50 women is something that is quite hard to guess… lucky me, however, there were only 35 women there that night, and lucky me, I bought exactly enough food for 35 plates (well, 40, since we’re supposed to prepare 5 extra for latecomers).

The tacos looked delicious, so needless to say I was disappointed there weren’t extra for the volunteers to eat, but I was very thankful that there was enough for all the women in the shelter, and thankfully I also had more than enough ingredients for the cookies.

The funny thing about cooking, is that short of burning it or adding a wrong ingredient, you really can’t mess up the end result: the desired, cooked product. You can, however, completely alter the appearance and the taste, and that’s exactly what happened with the cookies. I normally look at a recipe once, and then do my own thing. Little did I know, other people do that too. I had printed out a cookie recipe as a guide for the lucky bakers, but it really wasn’t followed. Their mistake wasn’t a horrible one, but it’s one that certainly changed the recipe, since they unintentionally melted the chocolate chips into the rest of the cookie mixture… the result was essentially a cake/brownie batter. Unfortunately, we had no cake pan, so we had to turn it into cookies, which was simply done by adding a lot of flour, until cookie-esque dough was created. The “catastrophe” (though I knew it was going to be fixable) was diverted, and the cookies turned out great, leaving the women wanting more.

All in all, my first leadership session was a success and I can’t wait for next month’s dinner!

Pepper Jack Chicken Tacos with Cilantro Lime Rice
(Prep Time: 20-30 Minutes | Cook Time: 20-30 Minutes)

Ingredients
(to serve 4)

1 lb boneless/skinless chicken breasts, cut and diced

1 Tbsp. cumin

1 Tbsp. paprika

1 Tbsp. mexican oregano

1 clove chopped/minced garlic

1/2 diced Spanish onion

2 Tbsp. olive oil

Corn tortillas

Your favorite taco toppings, I used:

Chopped lettuce

Shredded pepper jack and cheddar cheese

Pico de Gallo

 

Cilantro Lime Rice

1 cup white rice

Juice from 2 limes

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

 

Directions

  1. Heat the oil and then cook onion until translucent, about 3 minutes
  2. Add in garlic and cook 1 minute
  3. Add in chicken and then add in cumin, paprika and oregano and cook until chicken is cooked all the way through (the smaller the pieces of chicken, the faster it will cook).
  4. Cook rice as directed
  5. Add in lime juice and cilantro, serve as a side to the tacos.
  6. Heat the tortillas in the oven just long enough so they can fold without tearing.
  7. Assemble the tacos as desired, topping with your favorite ingredients (the women at REST got fresh romaine lettuce, freshly grated pepper jack and cheddar cheese, and pico de gallo).
  8. Enjoy!
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