Chef Timothy Tucker's Herbal Recipes:
To Chef Timothy Tucker, there’s more to feeding the poor than filling their stomachs. “Food is what makes people healthy or sick, feel good or feel bad. Good food can change people’s lives,” he says.
And to Tucker, good food includes herbs. One of the first things he did after signing on as chef at the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope in Louisville, Kentucky, in January 2005, was start an herb garden. “We had the space and since herbs fit right in with my concept of healthful cooking, I decided to give it a try,” he says. Since then, the garden has flourished and now provides the center’s kitchen with about a dozen fresh herbs, plus hot peppers and tomatoes.
Tucker has worked hard for his chef credentials: After earning a culinary degree from Sullivan University in Louisville, he worked in restaurants around the country, including Dean Fearing’s well-known Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. He eventually made his way back to Louisville. When he learned that the Center of Hope, which provides shelter for about 200 people a night and meals for 300 to 400 each day, was looking for a cook, he “threw on an old jacket and went to eat there,” he says. “They fed me two precooked biscuits and some sour-tasting clam chowder. That was it. I knew I had to work there and try to help people by feeding them healthful, good-tasting food.”
Like most cooks who feed the poor and homeless, Tucker relies mainly on donated food. “About 90 percent of our food is donated. We’re lucky to have alliances with Whole Foods and other natural foods producers so we get a lot fresh fruits and vegetables, but it’s always a grab bag. We never know what we are going to get,” he says.
Fresh herbs provide a way to jazz up the flavors of often inexpensive ingredients. He can flavor a salad of fresh cucumbers and tomatoes with dill; season chicken with fresh thyme; or enhance a mushroom and barley soup with fresh sage. To perk up the flavor of thick slices of roasted turkey roll, he tops them with homemade sage gravy.
Tucker became a big fan of cilantro while working in Texas. “A lot of dishes in the Southwest also are flavored with lemon,” he says. Tucker grows lemon thyme and lemon verbena and uses lemongrass when he can get it. “Basil,” he says, “is a wonderful herb. It smells so good, you want to roll in it. We grow several kinds of oregano and combine them to make tomato sauce for our ravioli or other pasta dishes. I also like to use Mexican oregano in chili.” That chili, created by Tucker and his volunteer cooks, won second place in a local chili-cooking competition.
In the summer of 2005, the herb garden became a component of the center’s culinary training program. With the help of faculty members at Sullivan University, Tucker and others at the center developed a 10-week, 15-hour-a-week training program for homeless people. “Our goal was to give them basic kitchen skills and an understanding of how to cook and eat healthfully. They were taught sanitation and safety and worked in the kitchen and in the garden,” he says. The first class had 10 students. A second one held in early 2006 had 20.
What’s ahead for Chef Tucker and the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope? “My biggest dream right now is to build a greenhouse, so we can grow herbs and other foods year round,” Tucker says.
An enthusiastic cook, freelance writer Suzanne Hall keeps her pantry stocked with fresh and dried herbs.
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