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The St. Petersburg Free Clinic has taken its cooking lessons online

Dietitian Wendy Wesley's focus is on meals that are quick, easy and nutritious.

Registered dietitian Wendy Wesley was surprised when hungry individuals looking for donated food at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic Food Pantry were rejecting the whole chickens she was offering at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I was working at the drive-through pantry and a couple people said, ‘Don’t give me the chicken because I don’t know how to cook it,' " she said. "As someone who cooks, I know you can get three meals out of a chicken."

She took a whole chicken back to the Free Clinic Teaching Kitchen and made a video of how to prepare it, how to roast it and then how to roast it with potatoes and carrots in the pan.

Wendy Wesley, a registered dietitian, prepares honey-seared Brussels sprouts. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Newly hired in January to offer cooking classes along with other health programs at the clinic’s health center at 5501 Fourth St. N, Wesley was about to launch her first monthly calendar of events when COVID-19 pushed her plans to the back burner.

So for the past couple of months, she has been making videos of herself cooking foods from the pantry in the clinic’s teaching kitchen and in her St. Petersburg home. She filmed herself preparing that whole chicken and uploaded it to the clinic’s YouTube and Facebook channels.

Food donations from the clinic, founded to provide food, shelter and health care to those in need, have tripled since the pandemic started.

According to Free Clinic CEO Jennifer Yeagley, 69 percent of the food pantry clients had lost their jobs, been furloughed or had their wages cut. She said 51 percent of them had never visited a food pantry before the pandemic.

“Food insecurity has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis,” she said. “Many families who were living paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic now need our services, and we expect this need to persist given the potentially long-term economic implications of COVID-19.”

Yeagley said the pantry staff and volunteers work hard to provide nutritionally balanced foods to hungry families, adding that about 40 percent of the food donated is fresh produce. Hiring Wesley was an effort to support families in maintaining good health.

The St. Petersburg Free Clinic offers cooking lessons online. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

“Our health education segments, where Wendy demonstrates how families can prepare nutritious meals with food distributed from our pantry, have been an important way for us to support families not just in staying fed but in staying healthy at this critical time,” said Yeagley.

Each of the most recent videos on the St. Petersburg Free Clinic Facebook page has been viewed nearly 500 times.

Jennifer Thayer of St. Petersburg said she is a regular viewer of the posts.

“I love her videos,” she said. “Her focus is amazing and she has really become an advocate for health in the community and brought awareness to the community on how to shop and what we can make on a budget.”

Thayer said Wesley’s enthusiasm is what makes the videos so impactful.

“She is so passionate about cooking and she gets me excited about it,” said Thayer. “She makes me believe that I can do it too.”

Wesley, 49, accepted the position at the Free Clinic after working four years at St. Anthony’s Hospital as a dietitian, following a career in marketing and events planning.

The St. Petersburg native lives in the city with her 13-year-old son, who she described as “a lousy eater.” It has given her more compassion, she said, for cooking for picky eaters and learning how to make things taste as good as possible.

“Taking the lessons online at the Free Clinic was something I intended to do in the future, but I was kind of restless with the pandemic so I started early,” she said.

Wendy Wesley prepares Brussels sprouts for one of her recipes. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Her goal is to teach quick and easy meals that are nutrient-dense and high in fiber. Since she started the virtual classes, she has demonstrated ways to cook with whatever you find in your pantry and foods to eat to stay healthy while quarantining, such as chicken and wild rice soup.

Last week, she posted a video on how to make a one-egg vegetable omelet. She said she learned the techniques from watching hotel chefs prepare breakfast. In the video, she cracks an egg into a nonstick pan and adds some onions, red pepper and sauteed spinach.

“You can add leftover beans, potatoes, mushrooms and leafy greens,” she tells viewers. “It’s kind of like a clean-out-your-refrigerator kind of thing.”

Adding cheese is another good option, she tells her virtual audience.

“Breakfast in America can sometimes kind of be a dessertlike meal, but I want us to try and think about ways to get more vegetables in our diet,” she said while flipping the omelet. “It may not look like what the chef does at the hotel restaurant, but who cares?”

Other recent postings have included directions for preparing garlic and herb hasselback potatoes (inspired by the russet potatoes being distributed at the pantry) and recipes for honey-seared Brussels sprouts and oatmeal cookies she calls “fiber bombs.” Some of her other favorite videos are Dark Chocolate Avocado Truffles and Ikea Meatballs Deconstructed.

She’s always trying to think outside the box of the donated foods.

“I was working the pantry one time and a farmer came through with turnips, so I took the turnips and I made them into dippers. Then I went back to the kitchen and made hummus in a food processor,” she said. “As an alternative to crackers, these turnip dippers are crunchy and they are full of fiber, antioxidants and vitamins and minerals. You just get a bigger nutritional bang for your buck when you use a turnip as a dipper rather than a cracker.”


Honey-Seared Brussels Sprouts

10-15 Brussels sprouts

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons honey

Cut the ends of the Brussels sprouts off and slice vertically in half or thirds depending on size of sprout. Cut small sprouts in half, and bigger ones in thirds to get flat areas for searing.

Melt butter and oil in a cast iron or stainless steel pan over medium heat, until sizzling. Add sprouts with cut sides down. Don’t fuss with them! Let the pan do the work of searing. Turn sprouts over and sear the other side. Add salt and honey and toss to coat on all sides. Serve.

Source: Wendy Wesley

Hasselback Potatoes

4 medium-sized russet potatoes (Idaho or Yukon Gold work well, too)

4 tablespoons butter

2 cloves fresh garlic minced or 1 tablespoon powdered garlic

1 teaspoon each salt and pepper

1 teaspoon dried herbs or 1 tablespoon fresh herbs (parsley, rosemary, thyme or oregano)

1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil

Scrub potatoes of dirt but do not peel. Dry the potatoes. In a small saucepan, melt butter, garlic, salt, pepper and herbs over low heat.

With a sharp knife, slice potatoes thinly almost to the bottom of the potato. The cut potato will resemble an accordion. Rub the outsides of the potatoes with oil so they will brown nicely while cooking. Spoon butter mixture over potatoes and use the spoon to push garlic and herbs down into the slices.

Bake at 425 degrees for about 45 to 50 minutes.

Source: Wendy Wesley

Peanut Butter Collard Green Slaw

6 cups shredded greens (collards or cabbage, or a mixture of both)

1 cup carrots, cut into matchsticks

½ cup sliced green onions (white and green parts)

⅓ cup cilantro, chopped (optional)

1 red or yellow bell pepper, sliced into long thin pieces (optional)

For the dressing:

1 cup peanut butter (regular, crunchy or natural)

Juice of 1 lime

1 heaping tablespoon minced garlic

4 tablespoons soy sauce

Mix slaw ingredients in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, mix the dressing ingredients with a whisk or fork. Thin with water, if needed. Pour dressing over slaw, toss and serve. Use collards in the winter, when in season, or use cabbage in the summer.

Source: Wendy Wesley

Roasted Garlic Chicken and Root Vegetables

1 whole chicken, giblet package removed from inside cavity

Olive or vegetable or canola oil

Salt and black pepper

4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced

Fresh rosemary, oregano, thyme or parsley

Root vegetables (carrots, potatoes, parsnips, turnips), cut in 2-inch chunks

Wash chicken and pat dry with a paper towel. Rub skin with oil, and salt and pepper the entire chicken. Toss the vegetables in oil, season with salt and pepper and set aside. Take garlic and herbs and place them between the meat and skin of the chicken.

Place bird in a 9- by 13-inch roasting pan breast-side down and arrange vegetables around the bird. Cover with aluminum foil. Roast at 400 degrees for 1 hour. Let rest for 15 minutes and serve with vegetables.

Source: Wendy Wesley

Oatmeal Fiber Bombs

4 tablespoons butter, softened

½ cup granulated or brown sugar

1 egg

½ cup flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

Pinch of salt

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon ground ginger

2 cups regular oats

¾ cup walnuts or another nut like almonds, optional

½ cup raisins or another dried fruit, optional

Cream butter and sugar by blending in a bowl. Add egg and mix. Add flour, baking soda, salt and spices. When all is incorporated, add oats, nuts and raisins, if using.

Form mixture into 1-inch balls and bake 8 to 10 minutes in a 350-degree oven on a greased or nonstick cookie sheet. Cool for a few minutes and enjoy.

Source: Wendy Wesley