By Monica Bettson
Photo by Zoe Alexopoulos
On a rainy Thursday in October, I zip up my sweater and head into the walk-in fridge. I scan the shelves, jotting down notes on my clipboard, and then begin to load boxes and containers onto a cart.
Leftover roasted heritage turkey, from a farm a few hours outside of Toronto. A few litre containers of thick, rich gravy—served yesterday with the turkey—made with the most flavorful turkey stock and butter from Stirling, Ontario. Leftover roasted vegetables and wheat berries, donated from a vendor at our Farmers’ Market.
I fill up a bin with onions, carrots, and celery until I have a cart of a few hundred pounds of food. I maneuver the cart out of the fridge and head down the Toronto Community Housing hallway, until I’m back to the kitchen. The Friday volunteers are just starting to set up, the space is bright and clean. They start by wiping down the marble counter with soapy water and getting out cutting boards and knives. I greet them and let them know what we’re making for lunch: turkey hand pies, steamed cauliflower and squash, grain salad and arugula salad. We have three hours to make two hundred portions.
I work at The Stop Community Food Centre. We’re a community hub where neighbors participate in a variety of programs that provide healthy food, foster social connections, build food skills and promote civic engagement. At the core of what we do is a belief that nutritious, sustainable and culturally appropriate food is a human right for all.
Today we’re at our 1884 Davenport location where I work as the Community Chef. At this location, we provide frontline services to the neighborhood including a drop-in meal program, healthy food bank, perinatal supports, peer advocacy, good food markets, and community kitchens. We’re quite a busy place. Every day at least 20 volunteers, 30 staff, and a few hundred participants pass through our doors. Almost everyone will eat, which is where we come in. At noon we prepare lunch for the Drop-in and afterwards lunch for the volunteers and staff. I’ve got a bit of a Thanksgiving cooking hangover—yesterday was our big turkey lunch. However, I can’t stop thinking about pastry, and somehow I’ve convinced myself that I should make and roll out two hundred portions of flaky pie dough. I have a hard time taking the easy route when I have an idea that would be perfect for leftovers in the fridge.
As I pulse spelt flour and butter together in a food processor, the four volunteers chat while chopping roughly twenty pounds of carrots, onions, and celery. I pop my eight large discs of pie dough in the fridge to chill and we begin sauteing the veg and adding the leftover turkey and gravy. I open the fridge (doing a quick scan for any forgotten leftovers) and find some mashed potatoes and throw those in too. We take the filling off the stove and spread it out on some trays to cool; it’s savory and aromatic, bringing to mind the crisp fall weather and evenings indoors. There’s a wheat berry and mushroom filling already made from yesterday’s stuffed delicata squash, it’ll be perfect for our vegetarian option. I bring the dough out of the fridge, scatter flour over the marble, and roll out the pastry. It’s reluctant and cold, then yielding and smoothing as it warms up. I run my hands over the dough, marvelling at the magic of butter and flour.
Three hours later, I wheel a cart into the drop-in space. The Drop-in crew will serve anywhere from 150 to 200 lunches today. They bring plates to the tables where community members are waiting, sipping coffee or chatting with friends. Today is a pretty standard lunch, a warm and crispy hand pie, vegetables steamed and tossed with olive oil and lemon, a hearty wheat berry salad, and a bracing arugula salad with yogurt dressing and crisp apples. We serve about 60/40 meat to vegetarian meals, and protein whether it be chicken, beef or fish, is usually stretched as far as possible. We work on a limited budget spending around $250 to $300 a meal, which works out to roughly $1.50 a plate. Even with a tight budget we manage to purchase most of our produce and dairy from local, sustainable farms. Menus change every day based on what’s in season or what donations might be available. We also strive to cook food from around the world to reflect the diversity of our community. Next week we’ll use the same pie dough to make black bean empanadas, which will be served with tortilla soup.
As much as I plan the meals, create menus, and manage our shopping and inventory, there’s no way I could do this work without a network of people. Our team of volunteers bring their own knowledge of food and cooking to the kitchen. If I am clear, organized and kind I can lead them to accomplish all the dishes I can imagine. Then, of course, the work is no longer my own but holds a bit of each person who has helped along the way. Not just the volunteers who prepare the food, but the farmers and workers who grew and harvested the vegetables, the warehouse workers who packaged the crates onto a skid, the driver who delivered it, and the dishwasher who cleans up after the work is done and the food is eaten.
Food is labor. Food is hard work, whether at a workplace or at home. It’s organizing, making lists, planning ahead and changing paths in a second. Last week my friend made me dinner after I had had a difficult week. I didn’t do anything, I just sat on the couch and drank a glass of wine, keeping her company while she cooked. Later as I collected the dishes and set them on the counter, I reflected on how nice it was to have someone cook for me. I felt taken care of and looked after, as if she had tended to much more than just my biological need to be fed. It was so simple, yet meant so much.
People come to The Stop for many reasons; they might be looking for community and friendship, they could be struggling with a minimum wage job, or they could need physical or mental support. When faced with barriers and challenges, food can easily become another obstacle to overcome. At The Stop, food is a step in the door, a service that meets an essential need and then goes so much farther. A time to sit down and let someone else do the work.
Food justice means many things. It means having enough income to purchase good, nutritious, culturally appropriate ingredients. It means having a home with a kitchen, where you have leisure time to make and enjoy food with friends and family. It means workers at all levels of the food system having a clean, safe working environment and being paid living wages. It means agricultural practices that are sustainable for our environment. In everything I do in my role at The Stop, I try to make decisions in line with these beliefs. We are creating a space for those who don’t yet have food justice, and striving towards a world where everyone has a seat at the table.
I’ll leave you with a recipe for my hand pie pastry, and hope you have an opportunity to make a pie, sweet or savory, and share it with a neighbor, friend or family member. It’s very adaptable, and I’ve left you with a few ideas at the end for how to change it up.
A very adaptable pie dough
Enough for 20 5-inch hand pies, or two large pies or gallettes.
5 cups of flour
1 pound (2 cups) unsalted butter, cold
Big pinch of salt
1 tbsp vinegar
Filling of choice (about a ¼ cup of filling per hand pie)
- Place 5 cups of flour in a food processor. Cut the butter into small cubes, and scatter over the flour. Sprinkle the salt on top. Pulse food processor until butter is blended into the flour in small, pea-sized pieces.
- In a 1 cup measuring cup, whisk egg with a fork. Add the vinegar to the measuring cup, then add enough cold water to make 1 cup of liquid. With the food processor running, drizzle in the liquid. Pulse until the dough comes together in a ball. If it’s too dry to form a dough, add a little more cold water until it begins to clump together.
- Spread a piece of plastic wrap on the counter, and dump the dough on top. Press the dough into a disc, and wrap tightly. Put in the fridge for at least an hour. Overnight is better, and you can leave it in the fridge for up to a week.
- When you’re ready to make pies, roll the dough out on a floured surface to about an ⅛ of an inch. Cut into 5 or 6 inch circles (I use a bowl, cutting around it with a small knife). Gather dough scraps and re-roll. Spoon filling into the dough circles, brush the edges with an egg wash (1 egg beaten with a tbsp of water), and seal up the edges, crimping with your fingers or with a fork. Brush the outside with egg wash too. Bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 375 degree oven for 20-ish minutes (I never remember how long they really take – use your nose and your eyes). They’re done when the pastry is bronzed and crispy, and they smell wonderful.
Ideas for hand pies:
- The flour in the dough can be a combination of all-purpose, whole wheat and/or spelt.
- These make great baked empanadas; try a variety of beans or meat fillings.
- Leftover stews make a great pie filling, as do roasted vegetables and cheese.
- Ideally, your filling should not be too wet or soggy – if you have a saucy leftover, drain off a bit of the liquid, or add some bread crumbs to soak up the sauce.
- For a beef patty, add some turmeric or curry powder to the dough, and make a lovely ground beef filling.
- Want a dessert instead? Add a tbsp of sugar to the dough, and then fill hand pies with fruit tossed with a little sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle with a little turbinado sugar after the final egg wash.
- This pie dough works for large tarts, pies and galettes as well. Happy baking and eating!
Monica Bettson is the Community Chef at the Stop Community Food Centre. When she’s not cooking, she enjoys reading about food, writing about food, and exploring nature with her partner Ngaihon and her dog, Georgia.