LOWER EAST SIDE — Ping Lo had 30 minutes to whip up a dish to feed 200 hungry people — using just ricotta cheese, spinach and a handful of kitchen staples.
Lo quickly threw in some onion, red pepper and eggs and whipped together a meal that was part spinach casserole and part spinach soufflé.
It won rave reviews.
"It was absolutely delicious," Lo said. "I didn't think anyone else was going to eat it."
Lo isn't the star of a reality TV cooking show — though she faces similar high-stake challenges every day. Instead, she runs the kitchen of The Bowery Mission, a homeless shelter, soup kitchen and rehabilitation center for men that has operated on the Lower East Side since 1879.
The shelter makes 800 meals each day — 10,000 on Thanksgiving — using an unpredictable array of ingredients donated by high-end grocery stores and restaurants, film sets and farms. Lo never knows until the last minute what she's going to have to cook with.
"You're on the fly. You're always on the go. You're always on your toes," said Lo, 37, who has been working at the mission for two years and previously worked at Giovanni Rana Pastificio & Cucina in Chelsea Market.
"You have to be flexible."
As food is dropped off throughout the day, Lo's menu changes from hour to hour based on which items need to be used right away and which will stay fresh for later.
Once someone tried to donate a de-feathered ostrich. It proved too much even for Lo's creativity and had to be passed on.
She keeps plenty of garlic and onion on hand and she usually uses kosher salt, which she likes for its texture.
"We do our best to serve well-balanced meals every day," said Matthew Krivich, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the center at 227 Bowery.
The kitchen also has to provide a variety of options for each meal based on clients' allergies, diets and any religious food restrictions.
"We never turn away anyone unfed, unclothed and unsheltered," Krivich said.
A recent rise in food donations has helped The Bowery Mission improve the quality of its three daily meals, said James Winans, the nonprofit's chief development officer.
"Ever since Whole Foods came on the Bowery we have been doing daily pick-ups when there is food that needs to come off their shelves from their own business rules, but it's perfectly fine," he said.
Organic produce also comes from Hain Celestial, a food supplier, and from a partnership the mission has with farms in Pennsylvania, Winans said.
The Bowery Mission has its own rooftop farm as well, growing a portion of organic herbs and vegetables.
But the best donations come from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation which drops off fresh seafood about once a month after seizing it from fish markets for violating rules, including being below legal size, said Trevor Mathura, 52, a kitchen supervisor at The Bowery Mission.
"I am excited about giving them [those who eat at the mission] that special treat that we don't have on a day-to-day basis," Mathura said of the seafood bonanzas, which often include lobster and shrimp.
Special deliveries aside, staple recipes at the mission include macaroni and cheese with roasted vegetables or a side of cabbage spiced with cumin seed, Lo said.
With the number of guests changing with the weather — blizzards are always busy — Lo's meals need to be flexible in terms of their size. Meat donations are few and far between, so the cooks often bulk up dishes like chili with plenty of vegetables to stretch ingredients as far as possible.
"Even as I am working on the meal I'm pulling together the menu," she said.
A Classic Bowery Mission Recipe: Braised Cabbage with Cumin Seed
by Chef Ping Lo
7 cups of thinly sliced cabbage
1 cup thinly sliced onion
2 tsp of whole cumin seeds
1 large pinch red pepper flakes
1 tsp of minced garlic
4-5 tsp of olive oil
4-5 tsp of tamari, or light soy sauce
1/2 cup vegetable stock or water
Salt and pepper to taste
Add olive oil to a large, heavy pot. When the oil is hot, add red pepper flakes, garlic and whole cumin seeds.
Toast the spices in the pan until aromatic, but be careful not to burn them.
Add in sliced onion and stir on medium heat.
Add in cabbage and stir frequently until cabbage starts to wilt, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Then add 1/2 cup vegetable stock or water and tamari or soy sauce.
Stir over medium heat, then cover until cabbage is tender and caramelized.
Remove from heat and add pepper and salt to taste.