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Omar Nazari, 11, of Pittsburg receives a hug, cutting board and cooking thermometer from Shawna Costanzo after he successfully completes the six-week Cooking Matters class as program assistant Stephanie Monterroza, left, and another member of the class look on at the Loaves and Fishes dining room at St. Vincent de Paul in Pittsburg, Calif., Wednesday, April 2, 2014. After learning how to buy, prepare and eat healthier foods students each brought a healthy dish to share in class. Cooking Matters gears its classes to low-income Bay Area residents to help them learn about cooking healthy foods on a budget. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)

PITTSBURG -- Cynthia Carter's pasta dish was brimming with healthy ingredients: zucchini, bell peppers, ground beef, onions and garlic, a sprinkling of cheese and whole-wheat spaghetti.

The last ingredient was a change from the white processed pasta Carter used for the dish before enrolling in a nonprofit Cooking Matters class, which aims to teach people how to shop for healthy foods and cook them on a budget.

"Now I know I can use the whole-wheat spaghetti instead of the white. It tastes just the same," said Carter, an Antioch resident, on a recent evening when she and 11 other students graduated from the free six-week long course that met once a week for two hours.

The graduates were presented with certificates, a cutting board and a meat thermometer.

At the last class, the Loaves and Fishes dining room was filled with a bounty of home-cooked meals that included Carter's pasta dish, ceviche with carrots, jicama, onion, red cabbage and shrimp marinated in with fresh squeezed lime juice, a lentil dish, a bean dish and a pear-feta cheese-spinach salad with a homemade lemon juice-honey dressing.

"It's a healthy salad," said the salad-maker, Alicia Corral, of Pittsburg, who made the salad dressing with lemons from a backyard tree and extra virgin olive oil. "You don't need to buy anything pre-cooked or frozen because they teach you here how to have healthy meal in 15 minutes."


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Her sister-in-law, Rosemary Corral, made the lentil soup with sauteed onions, garlic, tomatoes and chicken broth. "You start with the soup and usually you eat less. It's a very simple recipe and very healthy," she said.

"They are showing their skills today," said Stephanie Monterroza, a program assistant with Cooking Matters. "That lentil soup looks so delicious."

Angeles Quintero, who made the ceviche, and Michael Regello, who used a family recipe to make the bean soup, shared top honors for the best dish as judged by the class instructors. Both students took home gift baskets filled with the fixings to make a strawberry-spinach salad.

The class is offered through a partnership with the RotaCare Pittsburg Free Medical Clinic at St. Vincent de Paul. The clinic provides free medical services, including urgent care, medical exams and lab tests, to low-income Contra Costa County residents and is conveniently located next to the Loaves and Fishes dining room used for the cooking class.

Shawnna Costanzo, a volunteer nurse with the RotaCare clinic, refers patients who use the clinic on Wednesdays and on alternating Saturdays to the Cooking Matters class. "The people we enroll, we encourage them to bring their friends and their family. We want the whole family to learn to eat correctly," she said.

Cooking Matters is a program of 18 Reasons, a San Francisco-based nonprofit Volunteer chefs and nutritionists bring the food recipes to sites made available by various nonprofits that refer people to the classes. Throughout the Bay Area, Cooking Matters classes reach more than 2,000 families annually.

In addition to learning about nutrition and cooking healthy meals, students learn how to navigate grocery stores to avoid unhealthy foods strategically placed on shelves to entice people to buy those products. Students are provided with a classroom cookbook and go home with fresh produce and vegetables so they can practice at home what they learned in the classroom.

"We talk about a wide range of nutrition topics, meal planning and food budgeting," said Emily Reis, program director for Cooking Matters. " We want to show you can eat healthy and do it on a budget. Our classes are really hands-on. Everyone cooks. They eat meals at the end of the class." Go to www.18reasons.org or call 415-568-2710.

Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her on Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.

A winning recipes from Cooking Matters class.
Beans -- Frank Regello's Portuguese style
1 large onion, peeled, diced
1/2 lg bell pepper
3 cloves garlic, peeled, diced
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 can 15 oz. tomato sauce
1 can 28 oz. diced or peeled & chopped tomatoes
1 T Cumin (Comino) seeds
1/2 t salt, (or to taste)
8 whole cloves
8 whole allspice Seeds
8-10 whole coriander Seeds
1 t black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
1/4 cup Crisco shortening (less or more as you like)
1 beef bouillon cube
l lb pink beans, unsoaked
6 cups water
1 lb linguica, cut into bite-sized pieces (optional)
1-2 T butter

Pick and rinse the beans, and put them in a large pot with the water. Turn the heat on, bringing the pot to a rapid boil. Then put a lid on it and turn the heat down maintaining a rapid boil. Cook for about an hour and 15 minutes or until the beans are JUST starting to get tender. They will finish cooking while simmering after the sauce Is added.
Heat a large skillet on high or medium high heat and add the Crisco. Add the chopped onions, and saute until the onions turn clear, but have not quite started to brown; add the bell pepper and saute till soft. Add the tomato sauce, and the peeled tomatoes with the liquid. Bring the mixture back to a slow boil for about 15 minutes. Stir in the allspice, bay leaf, cloves, coriander, peppercorns, salt and bouillon cube. Add the garlic, parsley and linguica and simmer, covered, for another 30 minutes.
Check the doneness of the beans; if the beans are ready now, dump the sauce into the bean pot with the parsley, the tablespoon of butter and simmer for another 10 minutes. Add more salt if needed and serve over rice or with thick slices of buttered sourdough bread.
-- Source: Michael Regello