I first met Karen McGinn over a bowl of soup. Well, several bowls of soup, to be precise. I attended a cooking demonstration last March hosted by Network Now. You could say that Karen was the main act. She cooked, we watched, we ate and we drank. It worked on so many levels, as the saying goes.
Karen is the chef and proprietor of Heaven on a Plate, a personal chef service, which means she plans menus with her clients, does the menu-related grocery shopping, prepares the meals in your home, packages and labels the meals, and cleans up your kitchen afterwards. With today’s busy families, it’s a service many appreciate because it gives them more time with family and friends.
That cold and dreary Sunday in late March was warmed considerably by Karen, who entertained and educated us about food, nutrition and cooking techniques. Over the course of two hours, she made four soups which we all got to eat along with an appropriately paired wine.
What impressed me most about Karen at the time was how she easily juggled cooking, teaching and serving, never flummoxed, and enjoying every moment. I knew I wanted to interview her for Bucks County Taste.
After playing phone and email tag for a couple of months, we finally settled in on some rocking chairs at my house, and I admitted to Karen that I was using the interview as an excuse to get to know her better. I had a feeling we had a lot in common, and I was exploiting my “press pass” to become friends.
Like me, Karen is in her second career. “I wanted to do something that I loved doing,” she said, referring to her mid-life career change. Cooking has been a passion since her twenties, so when the time came, Karen decided to start a business cooking for others.
Her first career was as a special education teacher. Ah, so that’s where you learned to juggle, I said, and to do it without breaking a sweat. It shows in her organizational skills too – doing menu research for different clients, shopping for quality, fresh ingredients, and preparing meals that can feed a family for two weeks.
“The business has taken me places that I didn’t think it would,” Karen says, adding that she has loved meeting new people and learning different things. In addition to cooking in clients’ homes for everyday meals or special occasions, she is teaching cooking classes, has worked as an assistant chef (with Christina Pirello and Chef Tell) and is co-authoring a cookbook.
She also likes helping people, and cooking is her way of doing that. “I love cooking for families with special needs children,” she shares, “it not only helps the kids – who are getting good, nutritious food – but also the parents who are already working hard to raise these children.” Karen prepares special food menus for some of her elderly clients, too.
To give an example, I recently asked Karen for help with my own culinary challenge. I was making dinner for a friend who is undergoing cancer treatment and is on what most would consider a very restricted diet – no dairy, no wheat, no meat, all organic, among other things. Quite frankly, I was a little intimidated. I presented Karen with the list of restrictions. She came back with recipes, information, and lots of menu ideas. I was taken aback – at all the research she had done, at her creativity, and, probably most of all, at her kindness.
That blending of kindness and cooking also exhibits itself in the volunteer work Karen does for Aid for Friends, an organization that provides free home-cooked meals for shut-ins, primarily the frail elderly, in the Greater Philadelphia area. Working in their kitchen in Northeast Philadelphia, she cooks meals two or three times a month for daily delivery to these folks. She says they always need people to help cook or put things together, and strongly encourages people to volunteer (sounds like a great activity for a youth church group). [See their web site for more information about volunteering.]
I guess the only way to appreciate Karen’s cooking is to eat it. Since I can’t provide that over the internet, I offer one of the delicious soup recipes she made for us. As Karen says, start with good ingredients – even if you are a less experienced cook, that will see you through. Here’s how you can reach Karen:
Thanks to Amy McDermott at Heart and Soul Portraits for the great photos.
Calabaza, Corn and Coconut Soup
Serve with Merlot wine
INGREDIENTS for the SOUP
1 (2 1/4 lb.) piece calabaza squash OR 1 (2 1/2 lb.) butternut squash*
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. butter
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley or cilantro, finely chopped (reserve 2 tbsp. to add at end)
2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 1/4 cups (10 oz.) well-stirred, canned, unsweetened coconut milk
2 cups (16 oz.) corn kernels
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of curry
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1/4 cup heavy cream
INGREDIENTS for the CORN RELISH
4 1/2 tsp. fresh lime juice
Pinch of sugar
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 cups (16 oz.) corn kernels
2 tbsp. fresh parsley or cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp. shallot, finely chopped
* Calabaza squash is sold in many Latin markets, already chopped into chunks. Wegmans also sells butternut squash already cut up.
HOW TO for the SOUP
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the halved squash on large rimmed baking sheets and add 1/2 cup of water to each sheet. Bake for 30 minutes, or until tender. When cool enough to handle, remove seeds and pulp, and cut into 1 inch pieces. Set aside.
- In a large Dutch oven, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the onion, cilantro, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Saute until the onion is translucent, about 7 – 10 minutes, being careful to not burn the garlic.
- Add the squash, stock, coconut milk, corn, salt, nutmeg, curry and cayenne. Bring to a simmer and cook until all the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. (While soup is simmering, prepare the corn relish below.)
- Using a stick blender, puree the soup to your preferred consistency. Swirl in the heavy cream and 2 tbsp.of cilantro. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Garnish with corn relish (below).
HOW TO for the CORN RELISH
- Whisk together lime juice, salt and sugar in a bowl. Slowly add oil and whisk until combined.
- If you’re using fresh corn, blanch the corn kernels until just tender, 2 – 3 minutes. Drain in a sieve, then rinse under cold water to stop cooking process. Drain well, then transfer to dressing along with cilantro and shallot. Toss well to coat.
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