By STACIE FANELLI
The small serenity garden outside Lunch Break is a quiet place for locals to relax, unwind and sometimes even nap. But Roseanne Monroe knows about a few other gems it holds: basil, garlic, chives, figs and “oodles of tomatoes,” for starters.
In the middle of the Red Bank soup kitchen’s weekly adult cooking demonstration of gazpacho last Thursday, Monroe ran low on a few herbs in the recipe. So she just stepped outside to pick what she needed straight from the ground.
“It doesn’t get fresher than that,” she said. “To me, everything that comes out of the earth that we eat has a benefit.”
The rest of the vegetables for the lesson came from Tuesday’s Give or Take Community Gardeners’ Market at Lunch Break and everything else (cooking sherry, olive oil and more) was straight out of Monroe’s own pantry.
These free step-by-step demonstrations, which typically bring three to six ordinary household cooks to the community kitchen table, feature a different quick and healthy dish each Thursday at 12:45, right after the lunch rush. Anyone is welcome, and no registration is required.
“It’s really such a gift for me to be able to share some of the knowledge that I have,” Monroe said. “I’m very passionate about healthy eating and making things from scratch.”
She runs Deliciously Nutritious Catering out of Rumson and has been volunteering as a chef at Lunch Break for six years and as an instructor for seven months. She and another volunteer with a health food background do their best to create as nutritious a menu there as they can with what little is available.
It all began for Monroe at the Rumson Presbyterian Church, where her husband is the pastor. That’s where she began teaching others to cook and cooking for working women who didn’t have time to make anything non-microwaveable. Now parishioners frequently donate many of Lunch Break’s more delectable items like fish and organic veggies.
Well-educated about culinary science, Monroe explains the nutritional and gastronomic benefits of each ingredient as she throws it into the food processor. Tomatoes are about 50 percent water, she says, so a participant tears pieces of bread to put into the gazpacho as a thickener.
“People are used to their ethnic foods, and sometimes their palette is sort of limited and they don’t really like spicy Indian food or different flavor profiles,” Monroe said. “When I have the focus on, say, sweet potatoes, I print out pages on the health benefits of that particular ingredient.”
Most gathered around the table have never tried gazpacho, including Tasha Sims, of Eatontown, whose tastes have expanded since she started attending the lessons this summer.
“I used to be as picky about food as anything,” she said. “I had to have it a certain way.”
Howard Bianchi, of Red Bank, has enjoyed gazpacho his entire life, but as he expected, tasted something unique about Monroe’s.
“There’s such a variety. There’s always a surprise,” he said. “This time, there’s bread in it, and that’s pretty interesting.”
Gazpacho is an inherently healthy soup, but Monroe has fun coming up with recipes to act as alternatives to typically unhealthy dishes: jicama instead of french fries, chocolate mousse and tofu instead of a sundae, smoothies with spinach instead of sugar.
When the gazpacho is served, it is topped with an arrangement of Thai basil that looks like a delicate piece of artwork. Monroe emphasizes presentation as much as taste. She is an artist as well as a chef.
“You eat with all of your senses: your eyes, your nose, your ears. Something sizzles in a pan. It’s the whole experience,” she said. “When you chop something with a sharp knife, you’d really better be paying attention, and that attention is a meditative process.”