Martha Henk enjoys offering hospitality at lunch meetings

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Photo special to the Observer Martha Henk, the executive director of the Food Bank of East Alabama, is the daughter of missionary parents who influenced her to be committed to helping others. She takes time from her busy schedule to offer hospitality by serving lunch to members of the Food Bank Board.

By Ann Cipperly

The executive director of the Food Bank of East Alabama since 1995, Martha Henk has had a heart for helping others from a young age. She is constantly working to help families lacking a reliable source of food. While she doesn’t have much time for relaxing, Martha finds time to offer hospitality and cooks lunch to serve at meetings for members of the Food Bank Board of Directors.

Martha said she has benefited from having a mother, sister and sister-in-law who are great cooks. She enjoys cooking home-style dishes for her family and for offering hospitality when she has time from her busy schedule.

Her amazing mother, Ruth Henk, is 98 years old and recently came through a bout with COVID. “While Mom has always been proud of her Norwegian heritage,” she said, “that country isn’t known for its cuisine. Most of the recipes handed down through her family start with one pound of butter and a cup of full cream!”

The food Martha’s missionary family ate in the Congo was quite different from what they ate when they returned to the United States. Meat meals generally involved goat or antelope rather than beef. They enjoyed a wonderful variety of tropical fruits, including a papaya tree by their back door and a pineapple field in the backyard.

Martha has enjoyed preparing lunch for members of the board for the Food Bank. “The Food Bank has great leadership from our board of directors,” she said. “This group meets each month over the noon hour, so I’ve always provided a lunch for the meetings. Cooking for 25 isn’t too different from cooking for five people, it just involves tripling or quadrupling the recipes.” 

She plans a menu that doesn’t involve dishes that are messy, difficult to serve or eat. “Since the Food Bank focuses on healthy and nutritious food,” Martha said, “it’s important to me that good food is associated with the Food Bank.”

Of course, Food Bank products are not used for these meals, and board members pass a “hat” to cover the cost of purchasing this food.

Board members look forward to Martha’s delicious meals. It is a wonderful time to share before they get down to the serious business of the Food Bank having the resources to feed the hungry in our community.

“The ongoing coronavirus pandemic continues to impact those struggling with hunger,” Martha said. “The Food Bank is gathering every possible resource to provide food and supplies to all who need it. Those who were already struggling now face even greater challenges – not only to be fed, but to stay healthy.

“Before this pandemic, every community in the United States was home to people facing food insecurity,” she added. “Covid gave us all an understanding of what it is like to live with uncertainty, including not knowing when you’ll be able to get toilet paper or when you can go out safely. Not being able to plan for your future is what food insecurity is like. The environment is often chaotic and unstable.”

Long before Martha became executive director of the Food Bank, she had seen the effects of hunger on children when she was growing up in the Congo.

The daughter of missionary parents, Martha developed a heart of caring at an early age, seeing children with enlarged stomachs and hair turned red from lack of nutrition. When she came to America, she learned hunger has a different look and is not as obvious, but the problem of hunger is no less.

Martha’s parents were missionaries in the Congo for 17 years and were the biggest influence on her life. She grew up watching her parents being committed to helping people in need.

While Martha’s childhood was filled with unusual experiences as she traveled throughout Africa, at times her family’s life in Congo was dramatic. Bands of soldiers would take over the mission station and hold them at gunpoint. Soldiers ransacked their home looking for anything to connect them to Belgium and would take what they wanted.

Her family was evacuated from Congo under gunfire. Snipers at the airport fired at them as they waited for the UN plane.

Martha was 16 years old when her family moved from Africa to America. Her father became a Methodist minister in Minnesota until he retired.

After marriage, Martha lived in Delaware a few years where her three children were born. Her family moved to Auburn in 1982 with her parents and sister soon following.

Martha worked with the Presbyterian Community Ministry for five years. Then a friend called about the position with the Food Bank. “That really clicked with me because it was understanding the immediate importance of food. It affirmed to me that the work was right for me.”

When Martha went to work at the Food Bank in 1995, she was told they could teach food handling but couldn’t teach having a heart for it. “I knew that was the one part I could bring to this,” she said.

“I feel that the work that I am involved in now is mission work just like the mission work my parents did,” she added. “Work on the mission field is responding to a certain need just as I am responding to a need. To whom much is given, much is required, and I have been blessed in my life. I have a responsibility to give back.

“It is not glamorous work, but it is always challenging and very satisfying. There is always a sense that it is answering the call God puts on us to care for those in need.”

Martha received a call from a school when a child stood up and food fell out of his pockets. He started crying, and said he was trying to take food home so his mother would have something to eat. They verified that the only way the family was getting by was the school lunch. The child would eat a little and take the rest home.

Senior citizens are also in need. One in four seniors in Alabama live below the poverty level.

Martha sees needs everywhere. After eating at a food court with family, they pushed plates aside as they talked. A young man approached their table, pointed to the food, and asked, “Are you done with that?” They assumed he was part of the cleanup crew, and said they would clean up. His shoulders sank as he replied, “I needed it for myself.” They watched in stunned silence as he walked to a corner of the food court, sat down and started to eat their leftover food. 

“We have people in our midst who are in need, and we rarely are aware of them,” Martha said. “My leftovers, my surplus, became someone else’s meal. That’s a great illustration of what the Food Bank does. It tries to find the surplus and extra food and make it available to people in need.

“In Africa we saw hunger from droughts,” said Martha. “It is hard to understand why we have hunger in this country when we have phenomenal resources. It is more comfortable to think of hunger being somewhere else, not here.”

The Food Bank of East Alabama is a not-for-profit distribution center committed to efficiently distributing donated and purchased food through 225 qualified agencies. Every dollar given to the Food Bank enables them to distribute the equivalent of seven meals to people in need.

“In Lee County alone, more than 24,680 of our neighbors are food insecure and lack a reliable source of food,” Martha said. “We know that alone, none of us can defeat hunger. Every day, thousands of pounds of food are shipped to helping agencies and churches; hundreds of meals are prepared for elderly, the homeless, women and children in crisis and those in rehab for addictions or mental illness; and kids receive extra food for the weekend, all because someone gives money, time or goods to help.”

While Martha is thankful for seeing some sense of normalcy on the horizon from the pandemic, the Food Bank still has its needs. “A full economic recovery takes a long time – years in fact as we learned from the 2008 recession,” she said.” The Food Bank is in this for the long haul, and we’re so grateful to have strong community support in the fight to end hunger.”

To learn how you can support the work of the Food Bank, visit www.foodbankofeastalabama.com

Following is a selection of Martha’s recipes, including ones she serves members of the board for the Food Bank.

Black Bean Wraps

2 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese, softened

2 cups (8 oz.) shredded Monterey Jack cheese

½ cup sour cream

1 tsp. onion salt

2 (15 oz.) cans black beans, rinsed and drained

¼ cup salsa

12 (8 inch) flour tortillas

1 (10 oz.) pkg. fresh spinach

2 (7 oz.) jars roasted sweet red peppers, drained, and chopped, optional

Shredded carrots

Beat first four ingredients in a large bowl at medium speed with an electric mixer until thoroughly blended. Set cheese mixture aside.

Process beans and salsa in a food processor or blender until smooth.

Spread cheese mixture over tortillas. Spread bean mixture over this and add several leaves of spinach and carrots.

Roll tortillas tightly and chill. Serve with additional salsa for dipping. Makes 12 servings.

Refrigerator Cinnamon Rolls

These always turn out very moist–they can be frosted or eaten plain without frosting. This is probably my most requested recipe.

1 cup margarine or butter

1 Tbsp. salt

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 cup water

2 pkg. dry yeast

1 cup warm (not hot) water

2 slightly beaten eggs

6 cups white flour

Filling:

2 tsp. cinnamon

½ cup granulated sugar

½ cup brown sugar

Softened butter

Mix margarine, salt, and sugar. Boil 1 cup of water and pour over this mixture. Dissolve yeast in warm water and allow to stand for ten minutes. Add to above, then add 2 beaten eggs. Add flour gradually. Cover and leave in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day knead the dough and roll out on a floured surface. For filling, mix brown sugar with white sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Spread softened butter over rolled-out dough and then sprinkle sugar/cinnamon mixture over the dough. Roll up and cut cinnamon rolls.

Place on a baking sheet and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. Bake at 350 degrees until browned.

If frosting is desired, mix together 14 cup softened butter with enough powdered sugar and milk to be smooth. Add about ½ tsp. vanilla. Spread on warm rolls.

Marinated Green Beans

Prepare the night before and marinate overnight for the best results

12 slices bacon, cut up

2 lbs. of green beans, trimmed and snapped (or the equivalent in canned beans)

1 medium onion, chopped

6 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

6 Tbsp. white sugar

½ cup blanched slivered almonds

Cook bacon over medium heat until evenly browned. Remove bacon to paper towels and reserve drippings in the pan.

If using fresh green beans, cook beans until tender, drain. If using canned beans, drain the water.

Place the green beans into a 2-quart casserole dish. Spread the onions in a layer over the green beans. Layer bacon pieces over the casserole. Sprinkle almonds over the top.

Heat the bacon drippings over medium heat. Stir in vinegar and sugar, heating just until the sugar is dissolved; drizzle over everything in the dish. Cover and chill for at least one hour, but overnight is best.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes until the onions are tender and the almonds are toasted. Check after 30 minutes and cover with foil if necessary.

Company Chicken Casserole

4 boneless skinless chicken breasts

1 cup chicken broth

2 cloves garlic

2 wedges of onion

4 cups Pepperidge Farms Herb seasoned stuffing mix

1/2 cup butter

1 can cream of chicken soup

1 pint sour cream

8 oz. frozen broccoli cuts, thawed, optional

Place chicken breasts, garlic and onion in a skillet with water and bring just to a boil over medium heat, cover and simmer until pink is gone.

Remove the chicken, shred with a fork, and set aside. Reserve the broth (this should equal about 1 cup, but if it does not, add enough canned broth to equal a cup.)

Melt butter and pour over stuffing mix in a mixing bowl and whisk with a fork to blend.

Spread half of the stuffing/butter mix in a large casserole dish or 9 x 13 pan.

Blend the soup, sour cream, and reserved broth together with a wire whisk.

Place shredded chicken over the layer of stuffing mix. If using broccoli, spread this over the chicken.

Pour the soup mixture over the chicken, then top with the remaining stuffing mixture.

Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

Best Ever Bar Cookies- Peach Melba Shortbread Bars

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 tsp. salt

1 cup cold butter

1 cup peach preserves

6 tsp. raspberry preserves

1/2 cup sliced almonds

Garnish: powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine first 3 ingredients in a medium bowl. Cut in butter with a pastry blender until crumbly. Reserve 1 cup flour mixture.

Lightly grease an 11 x 17 or 9-inch square pan. Press remaining flour mixture onto bottom of the pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes until lightly browned.

Spread peach preserves over crust in pan. Dollop raspberry preserves by 1/2 tsp. over peach preserves. Sprinkle reserved 1 cup flour mixture over preserves. Sprinkle with almonds.

Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes or until golden brown. Cool. Cut into bars. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired.

Super Moist Cornbread

1 pkg. (8.5 oz.) corn muffin mix

1 can (11 oz.) Mexican-style corn, drained

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 egg, slightly beaten

Preheat oven to 400. Spray 8-inch pan with non-stick cooking spray.

Combine all ingredients in bowl until moistened. Spread evenly into prepared pan.

Bake 25 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Serve warm or let cool before removing from pan.

Balsamic Pea Salad

1 (16 oz.) pkg. frozen green peas

½ cup chopped almonds

½ cup chopped green onions

½ cup crumbled feta cheese

¾ cup mayonnaise

2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1 pinch black pepper to taste

Place peas in a colander and run warm water over them until they are thawed. Place in a large bowl.

Toast almonds in a skillet over medium heat. Then combine with peas.

Stir in onions, feta cheese, and mayonnaise. Mix in balsamic vinegar, and season with pepper. Cover, and refrigerate. Overnight is best.

Pasta Salad

6 oz. corkscrew pasta

1/3 cup corn oil

¼ cup wine vinegar

Minced clove of garlic

1 ½ tsp. dried basil

½ tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. pepper

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 cups broccoli

10 cherry tomatoes, cut in half

4 oz. mozzarella cheese, cubed

½ green or red pepper, cut up

Mix together. Should be stored in refrigerator for a while to let flavors mix well. I usually double the recipe above.

Baked Spaghetti

1 pkg. (8 oz.) spaghetti, cooked and drained

2 Tbsp. butter

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided

1 container (24 oz.) ricotta cheese

1 lb. ground beef

1 jar (28 oz.) chunky-style pasta sauce

1 pkg. (8 oz.) shredded mozzarella cheese.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a 13 x 9 cake pan with non-stick spray.

Combine hot cooked spaghetti with butter; stir until butter is melted. Add 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, stir to coat. Arrange spaghetti in an even layer in pan. Spread ricotta cheese over spaghetti. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese.

Brown ground beef; drain. Add pasta sauce and spoon over ricotta. Top with remaining Parmesan cheese.

Cover with foil. Bake 30 minute, then remove foil and continue baking 15 minutes or until cheese is lightly browned. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

This can be cut into squares and served like lasagna.

Cucumber and Tomato Salad

3 large cucumbers, peeled and cut into ¼-inch thick slices

3 ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges

1 Vidalia or sweet onion, sliced into rings

1/2 cup white vinegar

1/2 cup water

1/3 cup olive oil

3 Tbsp. granulated sugar

1 Tbsp. kosher salt

2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Place cucumbers, tomatoes, and onion in a large bowl and set aside.

Whisk together vinegar, water, olive oil, sugar, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl until sugar and salt dissolve. Pour dressing over cucumber mixture and toss to coat.

Cover and chill at least 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Creole Carrots

2 cups diced carrots

1/4 cup chopped onions

1/4 cup melted butter

1/4 cup diced green pepper

1/2 cup tomato juice

1/2 diced celery

Dice carrots and boil in salted water until tender. Simmer onion, peppers, and celery in butter until nearly done. Add carrots and pour in tomato juice. Place in a baking dish and bake at 350 degrees until done (about 1 hour.)

Whole Wheat Rolls

3 to 3 1/2 cups white flour

1 pkg. yeast

1 3/4 cups water

1/3 cup brown sugar

3 Tbsp. shortening

2 tsp. salt

2 cups whole wheat flour

In a large bowl, combine 2 cups of white flour and yeast. Heat water, shortening, brown sugar, and salt until warm. Add to dry mixture and beat at low speed for 1/12 minute while scraping down the sides, and then beat at higher speed for 3 minutes or until smooth.

By hand, stir in whole wheat flour and enough white flour to make a moderately stiff dough. Knead for 5 to 8 minutes.

Form into a ball and put in a bowl that has been sprayed with non-stick spray, turning over the dough one time. Let rise until double, then punch down.

Form into rolls and put on greased baking sheet. Let rise about 45 minutes. Bake in preheated oven at 400 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes or until lightly browned.

Vegetable Bars

2 tubes (8 count) refrigerated crescent rolls

¾ cup mayonnaise

½ cup sour cream

2 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese, softened

1 envelope ranch style dressing mix

¾ cup chopped green pepper

¾ cup diced tomatoes

¾ cup shredded carrots

¾ cup chopped broccoli

¾ cup chopped cauliflower

¾ cup shredded cheddar cheese

Cover the bottom of an 11 x 17-inch baking sheet with the sheets of crescent roll dough. Pat to fit pan and bake at 350 degrees for 7 to 8 minutes until lightly browned.

Mix dressing, sour cream and cream cheese until smooth. Spread over cooled crust.

Combine vegetables and spread evenly over the cream cheese mixture. Top with cheddar cheese.

Cover with plastic and press vegetables into cheese. Refrigerate covered 3 or 4 hours (or overnight.) Cut into bars and serve.

**Of course, you can change vegetables to suit your taste!

Cabbage/Ramen Noodle Salad

1 pkg. chicken flavored ramen noodles

5 to 8 cups shredded cabbage

1/4 cup green onions

2 Tbsp. sesame seeds

1/2 cup slivered almonds (browned)

Dressing:

flavor pkg. from noodles

3 tsp. vinegar

2 tsp. sugar

2 tsp. oil

1/2 tsp. pepper

Crush noodles slightly, put in colander, and pour 1 cup boiling water over the noodles to soften. Drain well. Mix all salad ingredients except almonds. In a covered glass bowl, combine dressing ingredients. Shake well and pour over salad. Stir until evenly coated. Add almonds and chill 2 to 3 hours before serving.

Broccoli Salad

1 head broccoli floweret, chopped into bite-sized pieces

1/2 cup sunflower seeds

1/2 cup raisins

2 chopped green onions or Vidalia

2 Tbsp. vinegar

2 Tbsp. granulated sugar

1 cup mayonnaise

5 slices bacon, fried and crumbled

Mix and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

Ann Cipperly can be reached at recipes@cipperly.com.

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