Local chef teaching families how to cook flavorful, affordable meals

Published 12:02 am Friday, June 23, 2023

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There are some people who immediately fill you with comfort without saying a word.

Jennifer Caldwell is one of those people.

From the bright colors in her Orange County home to the permanent handprints made by her grandchildren on a chalkboard wall to the way she sat cross-legged on the couch and spoke as if we’d known each other for years; just being in her presence was peaceful.

I went to Jennifer’s house this week to talk about her participation in a competition with “Top Chef” personality Carla Hall.

But instead, I found a woman and her husband who lived nearly every moment of their lives with families, friends, food and love at the forefront of what they do.

Jennifer learned to cook long before she joined the U.S. Navy at 18, but it was there she honed her skills, sometimes cooking for thousands of people at once.

After spending years working in the restaurant industry, three months ago she and her husband Larry launched a food truck — Luna Nashoba.

But even with a business of her own, the Caldwells are working to ensure every family can make their own food without having to worry about escalating costs or time.

Recently Jennifer partnered with Market Basket to create recipes using only the store’s weekly sale items.

“They send me early all of their weekly specials that come out on Wednesdays,” she said. “And on Wednesday, when they put their specials out, on their email flier is my recipe that you can print out. And it’s all their specials combined together. Everything on the menu is from their specials. It’s to feed a family of six for under $30.”

For Father’s Day, she put a marinated pork in the crockpot with pineapple and jalapenos that created a gravy she used on potatoes and made a salad.

All of the items were on sale that week.

“We have such a large family that we’ve struggled with feeding our kids,” she said. “I really have a heart to not only feed people, but it’s such a hard economy. I want people to say, ‘OK, if it’s $30 for dinner for six, that’s $150 for the week not counting the weekend.’ During the school year, supper is what you’re trying to get out, and I need something quick.”

The Father’s Day meal was $26.

“A lot of people don’t realize that you can make a full meal out of their sale items,” Larry Caldwell said. “You don’t have to pick one or two to make your meal. You can actually use all of the sale items to make a full meal and spend a whole lot less. And that’s what they’re trying to teach.”

Jennifer said she’s been asked if her efforts are hurting her food truck. But in the end, that’s the last thing on her mind.

“My goal would be, and it comes from my heart, that Sunday through Thursday save you enough money by doing these meals that you can go out to eat once or twice a month,” she said. “And also to get the word out to support local business.”

Ultimately, national contests and food trucks aside, the Southeast Texas woman is using her love for food and family to bring people together again.

“When I eat a good meal and I get in my car to go home and my belly is full, and I say ‘Why did I eat that much?’ But you’re satisfied,” she said. “You’re comfortable. You’re happy. And then after about an hour, you’re sleepy. What is there not to love about that?”

Monique Batson is an Orange Leader contributor. She can be reached at news@orangeleader.com.