Junior League Community Dish: Giving back, one dish at a time

By CHRISTIANA ROUSSEL

Leigh Forstman, Cheryl Brown, Christine Velezis and Allison Skinner help with the Community Dish Program, which provides frozen casseroles for sale at the Junior League of Birmingham Gift Shop in English Village. Photo by Madoline Markham.

How can a casserole help end domestic violence?  How do enchiladas build playgrounds?  How can a hot appetizer improve literacy?  If you have ever purchased a Community Dish entrée or appetizer from the Gift Shop at the Junior League of Birmingham (JLB), you have helped fund important work in our city, done by thousands of volunteers.

Food is part of the fabric of our life here in the South and has always played a part in the Junior League and its cookbooks. Whether it’s a quick weeknight supper or an elegant dinner for twelve, the recipes come from women who know their way around the kitchen and the power of the food they can produce.

In every community there are those stand-by recipes that people request time and again.  Our own JLB  has a special Chicken Tetrazzini recipe they produce for  members welcoming new babies or dealing with stress or grief.  There is comfort in knowing a delicious meal was created with care, just for you, when you need it most.

From this concept, Community Dish was born in 2009.  The JLB would sell frozen entrees and appetizers prepared from time-honored League recipes and member favorites as a fundraiser for community programs.  With three award-winning cookbook titles – Magic, Food for Thought, and Tables of Content – there are a plethora of recipes to pull from.  The hard part would be finding someone dedicated enough to take on the challenge and make it a success.

By all accounts, that person was found in Christine Velezis.  A League member since 2002, Christine has served in a variety of volunteer roles.  One of her personal passions is cooking, and she feeds her own busy family of five.  She worked on the development of the most recent JLB cookbook, and submitted many recipes for inclusion.  Not only a great cook, she is organized and diligent and was an excellent choice to head up Community Dish.

One of her first decisions was personal but really set the tone:  “We won’t call these dishes ‘casseroles’.”  By not using this colloquialism, she elevated the whole mission of Community Dish.  After all, these are frozen entrees and appetizers that can easily be popped out of their containers and placed in a hostess’s own Pyrex or china and made instantly more elegant.  No one enjoying that Baked Rigatoni with Ham need know that it wasn’t made in your neighbor’s own kitchen.  To her, the term casserole sounded too ordinary.  She aimed to establish something extraordinary.

The JLB chose the commercial kitchens of B & A Warehouse in downtown Birmingham to produce these select dishes.  Susan Mason and her staff make every single order to exacting League specifications.  Christine and her co-chair, Cheryl Brown, picked a handful of cookbook recipes as well as a few member favorites to test, and thoughtful feedback helped winnow down the list.  It was important to consider many factors like taste, price point, presentation, appeal and the overall wow factor. The winning entrees include Chicken Tetrazzini, Beef Enchiladas, Creamy Chicken Enchiladas, Million-Dollar Spaghetti and Baked Rigatoni with Ham.  Two appetizers are offered as well, Buffalo Chicken Dip and Hot Bacon Swiss Dip, and seasonal selections change out.

Each entrée feeds four to six people and is priced at $17.  There is a $3 discount when choosing three or more selections, which makes stocking your own freezer easy to do.  The Gift Shop is open to everyone and features more than just delicious food to go.

“These are perfect for when you are overcommitted or need a hostess gift or just want to get a meal on the table,” Velezis said. “We sold over 800 units last year alone, so we know people like what we’re doing!”

And with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the JLB’s four impact areas – Education, Financial Stability, Health and Safety & Crisis Intervention – it is one more example of how the League continues to give back to the community, one dish at a time.

Community Dish entrees and appetizers are available at the Junior League of Birmingham Gift Shop, 2212 20th Avenue South in English Village, and can be reached at 879-9861 or www.JLBonline.com. Their hours are Monday – Friday, 10:30 am – 1:30 pm and Tuesdays, 5-8 p.m.

Follow Crestline resident Christiana Roussel at ChristianasKitchen.com or on Facebook (ChristianasKitchen) or Twitter (Christiana40). 

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