By Margaret McCormick
Robert ‘Bob’ Graves’ cooking journey began in his early teens, when he made lemon meringue pies from scratch to donate to a local fire department fundraising dinner. (His father was a volunteer firefighter.)
In college, he recalls, his roommates were always hungry and loved to eat, but lacked cooking skills. He kept them well-fed. “They were willing to clean up, which was great,’’ he says.
In 1967, Graves joined the 174th Fighter Wing of the New York Air National Guard (formerly known as “The Boys from Syracuse”) as one of its cooks. Following basic training, he went to Fort Lee, Virginia, to complete the Army’s Quartermaster school, where he was trained in the logistics of feeding many soldiers, among other things. Following training, and for one weekend a month for the next six years, Graves served on the team of cooks who prepared meals for about 700 of the “Boys.’’
“Our two-week summer camp each summer was at some Air Force mess hall,’’ Graves says. “It was a great experience in quantity cooking.’’
In 2008, Graves began service as a volunteer cook for North Area Meals on Wheels. The agency provides home-delivered meals for people of all ages who are unable to prepare their own meals due to illness or injury. Graves is past president of the board of directors and currently serves as secretary of the board. He also cooks at least one day a week — or as many as three days — depending on need.
About 60% of Meals on Wheels clients are participants in the state’s Wellness In Nutrition (WIN) program. Some days, he also delivers meals. “All my previous cooking experiences and training helped to prepare me for this great volunteer opportunity,’’ Graves says.
Cooking at home is something that Graves has mastered, as well. In March of 2020, as the pandemic raged, Graves and his wife, Linda, moved Linda’s mother from assisted living to their Liverpool home. “She is 98 and has a great appetite,’’ Graves says. Linda Graves, a retired nurse, provides personal care, while Bob has assumed “the position of head chef at our one-bed care facility.’’
Preparing dinner each night with some dietary restrictions in mind has been a bit of a challenge — and so has cutting down the amount of food he cooks. Graves has learned to use an air fryer and Instant Pot and searches the internet for recipes designed for three or four, so they don’t end up with a lot of leftovers.
“Leftovers can be great,’’ Graves says. “But after the eighth day or so even my mother-in-law comments.’’
How would you describe your cooking style? “Freestyle or ‘last-minute wing it,’ unless baking. Baking requires attention to detail. Otherwise, the recipe is the guide with other ingredients always an option.’’
What are some of your favorite weeknight meals to prepare? “There are lots of easy-to-prepare, nutritious meals using an Instant Pot — meat, vegetables, rice, with a side of fruit. Another quick and easy favorite: noodles with shrimp and garlic cream sauce.’’ (See recipe, below.) Graves says you can adjust the ingredients based on the number of people you are serving. “Trust me, it’s hard to mess up, easy to prepare and a delight to eat.”
What do you like to cook for more special occasions? “Home-prepared lasagna, after a multi-ingredient antipasto salad with crusty bread, followed by home-filled cannoli for dessert. Also, Cornish game hens stuffed with wild rice and pineapple served with an Asian sauce, side of asparagus with cheese sauce, eclair cake with chocolate drizzle for dessert.’’
What have you been cooking during the pandemic? Have you been experimenting more in the kitchen? “Being seniors ourselves and having my mother-in-law come from assisted living to live with us due to the pandemic … yes, I have been experimenting. Nutritious meals are critical to good health. The air fryer and Instant Pot are my new best friends. They make it easy to incorporate all the necessary ingredients for a balanced diet.’’
Favorite recipe resource? “Laptop plus Google — stimulates the brain cells. I search based on what primary ingredient (generally meat) I have on hand, and a host of options appear. What sounds good is what we go with (avoiding sodium overload, cheese, condensed soup, etc.).’’
Favorite place to shop? “Vince’s Gourmet Imports, North Syracuse, for the ‘real’ thing that enhances all Italian recipes. Routine shopping is done at Wegmans for convenience.’’
Noodles with Shrimp & Garlic Cream Sauce
Recipe from Robert Graves (adapted from goodcheapeat.com)
8 ounces linguine or angel hair pasta, prepared according to package directions (drain and reserve)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons sundried tomatoes, julienned
½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined (see note)
Dried parsley, for garnish
Heat olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add minced garlic and cook for about a minute to allow the flavors to develop. Add heavy cream and sundried tomatoes and simmer gently. Add Parmesan cheese and cook until the cheese is melted.
Add shrimp and stir gently, until shrimp is pink and cooked through, about five to seven minutes. Add prepared pasta and toss with the shrimp and cream sauce. Garnish with parsley. Makes 2 or 3 servings, depending on size.
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Featured Image: Robert ‘Bob’ Graves’ cooks in his kitchen in Liverpool. At least once a week he also cooks at North Area Meals on Wheels, where he serves as secretary of the board of directors.