Saturday, December 27, 2008

final musings

I've been putting off writing this post. I expected an epiphany, some sort of life changing realization, but nothing quite so remarkable happened and despite my waiting for it to happen, has still not dawned on me. I expected to fail and to then have a platform to write a nasty, political diatribe. Except I didn't exactly fail or at least didn't fail in exactly the way I expected.

I thought I would reconsider my food spending. I expected to notice that lettuce is available for $1.00 a head instead of $3.49 and be struck by my wastefulness, but instead, I am now more committed to the value of beautiful sustainable produce - the value of knee-melting butter lettuces, the farmland and farmers that the purchase supports, and the taste, and what taste codes for, the nutrition of food that knows its terroir.

We ate all the vegetables that we were expected to eat, and yet, did not feel nourished. S. wondered if our over-eating, the constant return to the nutritionally empty white bread, was an age-old, evolutionary trick to keep us eating, keep us searching for the nutrients we were missing. A commercially grown carrot is reared in dead soil and supplemented with simplified fertilizers. While we technically ate the servings we needed, those servings are not identical to a carrot pulled from your backyard or the well-managed soil of your local small farmer. Our bodies knew the difference. More than anything, the week gave us a new understanding of the tight coupling of poverty and obesity and an empathy for those who must choose between a societal command to eat less and their body's constant yearning for more food, for real food, for nutrition that simply cannot be satisfied with factory food.

So I leave the challenge feeling deeply thankful. Thankful that I have the resources to reach for milk from grass-fed cows and apples from a local orchard. Thankful to pay the difference and feel the difference in my body. Thankful for the farmers who must work so much harder to keep their soil alive, and by doing so, the vegetables, fruit, milk, and animals rich with the earth and the resources it carries.

I also leave feeling overwhelmed and uncertain about food security, and in that way, I think the week proved its worth. It seems when I know the answer, when I am judgmental and see the solution as clear and self-evident, then I have not understood. It is when the question becomes amorphous, when multiple answers seem plausible, and when each path sparks uncertainty rather than increased clarity, then maybe, I am getting warmer. As a country, we have come unglued from food. We don't know where our food was plucked from the ground or who pulled it up. We don't know how to cook it and allow others to decide for us how our food is prepared. We don't know what the animals, who we eat, ate. What we do know is how much it cost, and because we know so little else, we have come to use that quantifier as the sole marker by which to choose. I spent the week putting things into my body based on a single qualification - that they be worth little. And my body protested. When I am in a crowd now, I see how all of our bodies are protesting. I suppose by spending a week during which food could not be valued, I have come to value it more.

Be well. Eat well. Share.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

final grades

You may recall from the rules that the challenge was not just to stay alive or get adequate calories, but rather to eat a healthy, reasonable diet for $25/person/week. So to answer that question we need some numbers. I'm using the USDA recommendations based on age, gender, height, weight and activity level.

A's daily requirements
6 servings bread/grains
2.5 servings vegetables
1.5 servings fruit
3 servings dairy
5 servings meat/beans/nuts/eggs (protein)
1800 calories

S's daily requirements
9 servings bread/grains
3.5 servings vegetables
2 servings fruit
3 servings dairy
6.5 servings meat/beans/nuts/eggs (protein)
2600 calories

Originally I had planned to calculate calories and exchanges for every single meal for each of us individually, but it turns out that's a lot of work. So instead, I made a spreadsheet with everything we bought this week and subtracted out what we didn't eat, which provides a nice summary of everything we put in our stomachs this week.

Here's all the stuff left over that we didn't eat.

It's actually quite a nice pile. It would be a good head start if we were doing this again this week. For the detail-oriented, we had this much left.

1 lb 4 oz carrots
12.5 oz rice
10 oz. bacon scraps
3 lbs 4 oz flour
9 tea bags
3 cloves of garlic
4.5 oz mayonnaise
1.25 oz oatmeal
2.25 oz salt
a bit of cinnamon, red pepper flakes, and chili powder
2 oz peanut butter (I forgot to put it in the group photo)

So I subtracted that from the original list, calculated servings and calories for everything else, and here's what we ate this week

One week's worth of (inexpensive) food consumption for one couple
188.5 servings bread/grains
52 servings vegetables
26 servings fruit
36 servings dairy
102 servings meat/beans/nuts/eggs (protein)
35,991 calories

It seems like a lot and it really was. It's a little weird to read in that format so I think it might help to think of it terms of in daily requirements and daily consumption.

Combined Daily Requirement for both of us
15 servings bread/grains
6 servings vegetables
3.5 servings fruit
6 servings dairy
11.5 servings meat/beans/nuts/eggs (protein)
4400 calories

Our Average Daily Consumption
(what we actually ate)
27 servings breads/grains
7 servings vegetables
4 servings fruit
5 servings dairy
15 servings meat/beans/nuts/eggs (protein)
5142 calories

The moral of the story? On the "success" side we definitely cleared the bar for adequate consumption of vegetables, fruit, and protein. We were one dairy serving shy each day, which isn't a huge deal, but it is one point of failure. It's annoying. I spent a huge chunk of my budget on dairy products (20% of my total), and the prospect of having to spend even more on them is daunting. Powdered milk would be a great money saver over time, but I just didn't have the money upfront for the initial investment. (It's cheap for each serving, but really expensive for a box of it.)

Our primary failure was one that I never even remotely suspected. It was the over abundance of calories. Way, way, way too many calories (I suspect from endless loaves of white bread). We would gain weight on this diet, and we would gain it quickly. It takes 3,500 extra calories (above and beyond your daily caloric needs) to gain one pound. So this week, we ate enough extra calories to gain 1.5 pounds between the two of us. (Sorry, I don't have a scale to be able to confirm that). Over a month, that's 6.4 extra pounds, and over a year, a whopping 77 pounds. If we split that weight gain 40/60 between myself and S., we would go from normal weight to over weight in a single year of eating this way. Of course, those calculations are predicated on the notion that we would continue to eat excess calories every week without regulating our intake toward a natural baseline, but nonetheless, it is pretty educational.

So it's not exactly clear whether we were successful or not. We ate healthy with respect to meeting exchanges, and we didn't starve. On the other hand, that many extra calories is not a good thing. It's really weird. I didn't expect over-eating to be our downfall.

I'm giving myself a 'B' for a final grade.

Next up: lessons learned

Monday, December 15, 2008

Day Seven - Saturday

We usually eat something not boring for breakfast on the weekend. Yes, the inference associated with that is correct - we normally eat boring breakfasts during the work week even when we're not obligated to. Pathetic maybe, but who has time to do anything more interesting? Anyway, I am REALLY proud of breakfast today, which came out looking beautiful even if it was cheap. S. skipped his apple yesterday so we had three WHOLE apples left for the week. Well, they're really wee apples, but they still add up to 3 if we're talking about counts. Anyway, this of course called for the construction of a German Apple Pancake. The recipe is Cook's Illustrated so I can't post it, but here's one public version.

I started with three peeled and sliced Granny Smith Apples. I sauteed them in the last skiff of vegetable oil left in our 16 ounce bottle. Isn't it kind of gross that we emptied an entire bottle of vegetable oil into our stomachs this week? Well, there's still a lot of mayonnaise left so some of it is still in that, but even so - gross. Anyway, the apples sauteed in vegetable oil, a good amount of sugar, and some cinnamon.

Then I poured a simple batter of egg, flour, salt, and sugar over the apples. There's no leavening agent besides the egg.

The whole thing goes into an extremely hot oven for about 15 minutes which causes the batter to rise up kind of like a souffle. Here's the unattractive top, when it first comes out of the oven.

I flipped it over, and can you believe it? Look how pretty this was ....

I mean, I know you're not supposed to compliment yourself, but sheesh - that looks good. Who would know I was on a budget? OK, I'm done with my narcissistic aside. Oh wait - not really, because I forgot to tell you that it was tasty and filling. Now I'm done.

We also had a Banana-Peanut-Butter smoothie made with our last two bananas, some peanut butter, milk and ice. You can see it in the background of the apple pancakes feeling out of place and ashamed in the presence of such pretty apple pancakes.

We had four entire ounces of Monterey Jack left from this week's stash, which is actually quite a lot so I made grilled cheese for lunch. They didn't really work that well, because I used the final, final, skiff of oil to brush over them. The sandwiches never browned; they just got dried out and hard on the outside. I think it was karma for being so conceited about breakfast. We also ate some carrot sticks with leftover mayonnaise.

Dinner was ramen. It really had to make an appearance sooner or later, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I like ramen. I ate tons of the stuff gowning up and in college so it's a testament to its frugal tastiness that I still don't hate it. I only had one package of seasoning for two packages of ramen so I fancied up the broth with a package of stolen soy sauce, one crushed garlic clove, and the last of the pepper. I included some carrots and spinach in the soup and then made a fatal mistake. I came up with the brilliant idea of making a hybrid ramen-egg-drop soup. It seemed entirely logical at the time. The soup was a complete meal save some protein and mating it with egg drop soup would solve that problem As you can see, it makes a pukey mess with all the little eggs clinging nastily to the noodles.

I made the picture blurry so you wouldn't vomit. In my defense, I'm not the only idiot to think this was a good idea. A friend of mine suggested that hard-boiled eggs would have been a good option, and she is definitely right. The soup needs some egg, but next time, I'd hard boil them. That would be tons better. The soup tasted nutritious - spinach makes me feel holy - but it wasn't filling, and I was very thankful that this was our last night of the challenge, because tomorrow would surely have been one of those hungry/grouchy ones if my motor was running on this.

So that's it. We've come to the end of our $25 challenge. I'm looking forward to tomorrow morning, but also grateful for the week and the experience. I'll try to pontificate more later, but I'm going to mull it over for a few days. Next up - the quantitative summary of how we did.

Breakfast: German apple pancake, banana-peanut-butter smoothie
Lunch: grilled cheese, carrot sticks and mayonnaise
Snack: sunflower seeds
Dinner: ramen noodle soup with carrots, spinach and egg
Dessert: 1 glass milk (A. only)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Day Six - Friday

We got invited to a potluck! My original thought was that it was out of the question. Or that we'd eat first and remain chaste at the actual event. But I came around to the notion that it was allowable. Call me self-interested. The basic idea of a potluck is really about people sharing their own dinner, so to speak, with others, who reciprocate, and thus, a large party is born, without anyone really spending any more than they would on their own dinner. It seemed fair given I could stay within budget. Speaking of "sharing dishes" - my dad's church used to call these events "Share-a-dish"s with all the syllables run together into one word so that for years I thought that there was a noun: 'sharadish.' Is that regional? Does anyone else call it that? Weird. Anyway, the moral of the story is that we went to a sharadish (I'm hilarious) and ate real food tonight. It was basically awesome. Our contribution, on the other hand, was decidedly not awesome.

We brought black bean burgers and roasted potatoes. It was one of those multi-day kitchen extravaganzas. The result? Meh. I've used the recipe before, and it was good so it was a real mystery that when all the fresh herbs were replaced with a teaspoon of dried basil it wasn't the same. Who knew? It's a Food & Wine recipe by Laurence Jossel. He wrote several recipes for the heirloom Rancho Gordo beans. I had a big crush on those heirloom beans there for a week a so. I'm fickle with food. Anyway, I am working my way through competent chefs and destroying their recipes this week and today will be no different. Here's my butchered version:

Black Bean Burgers
1 cup dried black beans
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup faro
2 cups water
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
¼ cup onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon chili powder
1.5 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs
1 teaspoon dried basil
salt and pepper.
Vegetable oil

I soaked the beans overnight, and then cooked them all day in the crockpot. When they were soft, I added a teaspoon of salt and cooked for 15 more minutes. Despite the fact that I only yesterday disproved this "salt makes beans forever hard" notion, I can't stop obeying - like maybe today it's actually true. Well, it might have been, and then I would have been sorry. So good thing I waited to salt. Then I drained the beans, reserved 1/2 cup of them, and blended the rest with the eggs in a cuisinart, and then mixed this goop with the whole beans.

Next I fried up the larvae

OK, really it's faro, but doesn't it look exactly like insect babies? Gross. I simmered them in water for about 20 minutes until they were fully dead and tender.

The onions, garlic, chili powder and red pepper flakes saute in a bit of vegetable oil and then I mixed everything together (bean mixture, drained pupae, onion mixture, bread crumbs, basil, salt and pepper to taste). I shaped this mixture into 12 mini-black-bean-burger-patties and left them in the fridge to "stiffen."

OK, now to make the buns. I was feeling really proud of myself. I mixed up some No-Knead Bread dough the night before, and then in a feat of ingenuity, shaped it into roll shapes instead of a whole bread loaf. They rose beautifully:

And then disaster struck. I realized I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I mean, the recipe says to cook the bread in a covered casserole, but that was obviously not going to happen, and you bake it at 450 degrees. So if the bread is now 12 mini-breads do you bake it at a higher temperature? lower? and for how long? Who knows. This disaster would have been bearable except I'm in the middle of this 25-dollar-challenge, and if I mess this up, I will have no buns, no way of getting more buns, and will be un-invited to the potluck - the very potluck which I have been anticipating like no potluck in my life. The pressure was killing me. So I called my mom. Fortunately, my mom happens to be exceptionally qualified for just such a disaster as she is (a) my mother, and (b) a professional baker. Phew.

So I called home. No answer. Robo-voice answering machine. I called her cell phone, which she never picks up. The voice mail has been full for the last 18 months. And then I stopped and thought for a long time about calling her at work. When I was growing up we had a strict policy about calls to work. Seems she got fed up fielding our calls every 17 minutes, which went something like this: "Mom, where's my math book?" ... "Mom, do we have any more milk?" The only allowable calls after that had to involve "blood, bones or fire". This particular emergency involves no blood, no bones, and only the potential for fire. I thought about it. Then I decided, I'm a grown-up, which brings with it the decided advantage of getting to make up the rules, and clearly maybe-not-going-to-a-potluck-where-there-will-be-real-food-and-variety should appear immediately following blood, bones, and fire as a reasonable addendum. I called. She wasn't there. I considered asking her boss about my baking emergency, but decided against it - just guessing her many hundreds of loaves of bread were perhaps more needy than my single batch of buns. Sigh. I was going to have to take full responsibility for these little dudes.

I preheated the oven to 400 degrees. Who knows why. I just picked it. I had read on one of the Jim-Lehay-is-my-bread-baking-idol fan sites that if you throw a couple ice cubes in your oven, then you don't need to bake it in a casserole so I tried that. I baked the little guys until they were brown, pulled them out, and they were ROCK hard. Like little beach stones. They sat on the cooling rack for 10 minutes and magically turned into normal, crusty rolls. This is likely a completely predictable bread behavior. Bakers think I'm an idiot right now, but I'm not letting that worry me, because I can go to the Sharadish. Woohoo.

The black bean burgers cooked in a skillet over medium heat until lightly browned on either side. I washed the rest of our lettuce and put the Lemon-Yellow-Mustard mayonnaise in a little dish and considered it done. See - make your own burger ....

I also made these boring roasted potatoes.

They're tossed in a bit of oil, salt, pepper, and cumin. The cumin makes them Mexican. Authentically so. No really, I just needed the cumin so they would pass the Mexican Food theme.

The potluck was delicious. I spent most of the night sighing over a seven-layer dip. I really thought it was the most wonderful thing I had ever put in my mouth. AND they had these multigrain chips to eat it with which simultaneously satisfied my need for nutrients and high calorie density. I did have this vague feeling that I was cheating all night so I made sure to eat a burger and some potatoes. It only seemed fair. They weren't wretched. I just wouldn't exactly eat them voluntarily on a night with 7-layer dip in sight. Seriously, I couldn't stay away from the sour cream. THEN for dessert, our friend made flan - sweet, luscious, caramelly flan. Sigh.

One more day.

Breakfast: oatmeal, cinnamon, brown sugar, and sunflower seeds, half apple (A. only)
Lunch: bread with sugar/cinnamon sprinkled on it, banana, carrot, mayonnaise (for a dip), and sunflower seeds
Snack: bread and peanut butter
Dinner: Potluck!
Dessert: Potluck Flan!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Day Five - Thursday

Another good day. I think I'm getting used to this. I wasn't hungry, and the grouchiness about not being able to eat whatever I want has worn off. It's actually sort of amazing how soon that fades away.

Breakfast per usual, and there was enough leftover potato soup to have that for lunch today, which was a nice change. We're having Red Beans & Rice for dinner tonight (you didn't think we'd get through a whole week of eating on the cheap without that dish do you?). I mixed it up this morning and left it in the crock pot for the day. I started with an Emeril recipe, but it wasn't even close to recognizable by the time I got through it. If you want to see how to make this recipe for real, there's a link on the recipe title. Here's the mise en place for my sad version.

Red Beans & Rice
1 cup dried red beans
2 oz (slices) bacon, lean only, diced
1/4 c. onion, minced
2 tablespoons green pepper, minced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried basil
fresh ground pepper
4 cups water

I set the beans out to soak last night, and then this morning I sauteed the bacon, onion, green pepper, and garlic cloves over medium heat until the bacon was browned and onions translucent. I added this mixture to the crockpot along with the soaked beans, crushed red pepper flakes, basil, pepper and water. Then, like a complete idiot, I added 1/2 teaspoon salt to the mix. Sheesh. This is why I don't cook in the morning. So supposedly if you add salt before the beans are cooked they'll be tough and never get soft no matter how long you cook them, but it's not like I could fish the little granules out at this point so I just let it do its thing on low for the day while I went to work.

I had a work obligation in the evening so S. finished dinner. He made a standby recipe from S.'s mom. It came out fugly this particular night given some bread crumb issues so I'm not posting a picture. It will scare you, but here's the recipe. It's very forgiving, quite tasty, and if you have access to an actual spice cabinet quite amenable to spicing up.

Zucchini Fries

1 large zucchini
about 1/4 cup flour
two eggs
2 tablespoons milk
1 cup bread crumbs
vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut zucchini into steak-fry sized batons. Mix flour with salt and pepper (to taste) and lightly coat zucchini in flour. Lightly beat two eggs with a couple tablespoons of milk (or one egg and one egg white in our case). Toss zucchini batons in egg mixture and then coat with bread crumbs. Place zucchini on a lightly oiled baking pan and lightly drizzle with oil. Bake for 20-30 minutes, turning halfway through, until zucchini are browned.

The red beans and rice were just fine despite the supposed fatal error of early salting. I added some more salt and "crushed 1/4 of the beans against the side of the pot." I'm not really sure why you're supposed to do that, but I am good at following directions. Here's dinner (with the tumorous zucchini fries accidentally forgotten during the photo shot).

It was fine. Neither offensive nor terribly interesting. Given that the recipe is such a departure from any reasonable version of this dish I'm not going to hold it against red beans. The zucchini fries, on the other hand, tasted like manna from heaven. Yum. Vegetables.

Breakfast: Oatmeal with brown sugar, cinnamon and sugared sunflower seeds, one half apple (A. only)
Lunch: Potato Cheddar soup, slice bread, banana, apple (S. only), sunflower seeds
Snack: bread and peanut butter
Dinner: Red Beans & Rice and zucchini fries, 1 c. milk (A. only)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Day Four - Wednesday

Oh Potato Soup, how I love thee. No really. Potato soup rescued me from a pit of despair. It's been an odd day. I was totally over this whole thing for the most of it. After my oatmeal this morning, I was still hungry. I drank my tea at work, and then re-seeped the same tea bag, not twice, not thrice, but four times just to have something to put in my mouth. Seriously, I think I'm a little orally fixated. I'm usually eating something. It never stops. It's like I think I'm some kind of hummingbird and may crash to the ground if I give it up eating for one second. So not only am I not eating as often, I'm actually hungry. No literal crashes yet though. I ate lunch early, which I figured was a bad idea, but I couldn't help it.

Here's lunch:

I share my office so this was the first opportunity to snap a photo of lunch without them thinking I'm even more of a weirdo than they already do. It really was a decent lunch, but I was hungry again by afternoon and came home early just to scrounge up a slice of bread. I skipped my run

So, you'd think this was a bad day ... but that was before potato soup showed up. You'll meet him later.

For dinner we had soup and a carrot salad that required that I make mayonnaise from scratch for the dressing. This is the sort of thing that seemed like a really good, really thrifty idea when I was planning this whole thing. Anyway, it's a Lemon-Dijon mayonnaise. It's a Paul Virant recipe I found at Food & Wine and I made it essentially as written. No switcharoskies between hand-pampered, free-range, well-groomed chicken broth and granules a la ramen. I did use plain ol' yellow mustard instead of Dijon (sorry Paul), but that seems slightly less glaring. I totally would have stolen some Dijon instead, but the condiment counter just didn't have that kind of selection.

Here's the mise en place. It's best to ignore that ENTIRE CUP of vegetable oil. I figure we ignore when it's already mixed into the store-bought mayonnaise, why not ignore it now?

The recipe as I made it:

Lemon-Dijon Mayonnaise
1 medium egg
1 medium egg yolk
1 teaspoon yellow mustard
Finely grated zest and juice of one lemon (well, minus a little stub I cut off to made dressing on Monday)
1 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt

I whirred up the egg, egg yolk, mustard, lemon zest and lemon juice in my Cuisinart until it was smooth and then used the little reservoir on the top of the lid with the little hole in it to slowly add the oil (with the Cuisinart still running) and then added the salt. It takes approximately 14.81 billion years (shout out to Kadish) to DRIZZLE one whole cup of oil. But look! It made mayonnaise!

I am so proud. It was hit or miss there at the beginning, and I do not have the best track record with mayonnaise. It even tastes good (compared to regular mayonnaise, which I have learned to tolerate, but we're not best friends).

So that whole process was to make the dressing for a carrot salad.

Here are the ingredients

I didn't use that entire bowl of mayonnaise for the salad. Yuck. I was just too lazy to measure the real amount into a different bowl to then take a picture.

The salad was two shredded carrots (they're big ones) and one-half of a very wee apple shredded and then mixed with about 2-3 tablespoons Lemon-Plain-Old-Yellow-Mustard Mayonnaise. You'll see it later with dinner.

Meanwhile, S. was working on a Potato Cheddar Soup. I was so preoccupied with the my mayonnaise adventure, I missed all the good action shots.

Potato Cheddar Soup
very adapted from Bon Appetit
3 oz bacon scraps, diced
1 carrot, diced
1/4 cup onions, minced
1 garlic clove, crushed
3 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon fresh sage, minced
4 cups milk
1/2 package ramen seasoning
about 5 small russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded (4 oz)
salt and pepper

As you can see, we decided to grant a temporary reprieve to bacon scraps despite their previous bad behavior. There were some lean chunks mixed in that apparently didn't make the cut for the fatty-fat-fat bacon brigade and got left behind in bacon scrap purgatory. We decided that these would be less likely to cause gastrointestinal distress - and thus these previously rejected bacon wannabes made the cut after all.

Again, since I was distracted, I'm guessing on the blow-by-blow for the amazing adventure of soup production, but I think it went something like this. S. browned the little lean bacon chunks, and then added the carrot, onions, and garlic and sauteed until beginning to brown. Sprinkled the flour over and cooked just a few minutes, and then whisked in the milk, sage, ramen seasoning, and salt/pepper and stirred until the soup slightly thickened. Added the potatoes and left the pot on simmer for some unspecified time (30 minutes?) until the potatoes started to break down and thicken the soup some more. Right before we ate, he added the cheese and stirred until melted.

And this is how amazing potato soup looked in all its glory.

Really, it was miraculous. I sat down. I started eating. I felt better. I stopped being grouchy. I had a pleasant conversation with my husband and enjoyed sitting at the table. It was really good - like, make it again later good. We did have a conversation about whether it was actually tasty, or just tasty in the same way that a box of mac & cheese with a can of tuna mixed in is tasty after you've been camping for a week. It's possible that it's the kind of tasty that does not translate at all to normal life, but I suspect that it's just normal tasty. Thus, this day is dedicated to S. and potato soup. Sigh.

Breakfast: Oatmeal with brown sugar, cinnamon, sugared sunflower seeds and half an apple (A. only)
Lunch: peanut butter sandwich, apple (S. only), carrot (A. only), banana, sunflower seeds
Snack: bread & peanut butter
Dinner: Potato Cheddar soup and carrot salad
Dessert: 1 c. milk (A.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Day Three - Tuesday

I'm officially sick of this. I'm cranky and tired and hungry. I went for a run after work - just a short one (to be honest, they're all short. I'm not much a runner), and I felt awful. Not like the usual "gah, I'm running. Why am I doing this?" kind of awful, but a different weary kind of awful. I've had trouble concentrating at work, but if you know me, that is not new at all so I'm not sure I can blame it on the food. However, the feeling on the run was new, and although it's not nearly the same, it gives me a hint of what it might be like to work a physical job and not have enough to eat. I'm sick of cooking. It's literally consuming all my free time, and it's not that rewarding when the end product is some sort of Sandra Lee monstrosity. OK, I'm exaggerating, but I'm just saying - canned tomato sauce is not good. Even the organic stuff. Don't be fooled. Am I starving? No, not at all. I just feel vaguely hungry most of the time, and I'm craving the kind of food that has vitamins in it.

Now, to make up for the whining, here's a picture of our Christmas tree to distract you from me acting like a spoiled brat ...

Isn't it pretty? I promise it wasn't planned that we'd be decorating our tree with edible ornaments in the middle of our $25/week. Ironic though.

Breakfast and lunch were much the same. Except I ate my half apple at lunch instead of with breakfast! Oh, that's not interesting. Sorry. For dinner, we had homemade pasta with tomato sauce, broccoli and chickpeas. S. is all wrung out and tired so I purposely didn't eat much so he would have enough.

Off to the kitchen.

This fascinating story begins last night when I drowned some dried chickpeas in water to let them soak overnight. In the morning, I tossed that water and threw them in the crockpot with more water to cook on low while I was work.

After work and after a run, it was time for pasta. It's an egg pasta recipe from my grandmother and as recipes from grandmothers go it's more of a suggestion than an equation. When grandmas are forced to write down your favorite meal, they just sort of guess because it's not like there was a recipe to begin with. So you start with the ingredients and then you "add stuff" until it "looks right".

Grandma's Egg Noodles
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 cup water

I mixed the flour and salt together and then made a well for the egg and water. Mixed those together and made a very sticky dough that did not "look right" at all. So I added flour until it did "look right", that is - not sticky.

Here's the before shot of the dough balls

And all rolled out and ready to boil (for just a few minutes) until they look right. Ha ha. I'm hilarious.

I didn't take a picture of the mise en place, because I didn't do one. Gasp. But here's the recipe. It very roughly based on this Bon Appetit recipe.

Tomato, Broccoli and Chickpea Pasta
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/4 cup minced onions
1 garlic clove
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 can tomato sauce (10 oz. I think?)
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chickpeas
1/2 bag frozen broccoli (about 8 oz)
Egg pasta (see above)
2 oz shredded Monterey Jack cheese

I sauteed the onions until translucent. Oops, I mean until almost burnt and then added the garlic and about burned that too. Then I added the pepper flakes, basil, and tomato sauce and let it simmer away to "meld the flavors" while I worked on the rest of dinner. I tossed the broccoli in a drizzle of oil and roasted it in a hot over (450 degrees. It was on for the bread anyway) until browned in places. Broccoli is the worst boiled or steamed. Yuck. It has all those crevasses for water to get into and make it all soggy and disgusting. When the broccoli was done, the noodles cooked and drained, and the pasta sauce "melded" - I tossed them together and topped with some shredded cheese. You'll see in the picture that I really should have plated the pasta plain with the sauce and broccoli on top of it. It's not terribly photogenic.

I was hungry and grumpy after dinner. Cooking that long and then having it be sort of boring is really not fun. I finally drank a cup of milk and ate a slice of bread and have to admit I felt better after that.

In other news, we ran out of flour. All FIVE POUNDS of it. Turns out we're eating an entire loaf of bread every single day. It's the one thing that isn't spoken for so it tends to be what we snack on. So that extra $2.00 from the budget that I had hoped to spend on something fun is going to buy flour instead. Thankfully, we still have that $2.00. In total, I had $5.41, some of it allocated for a mid-week milk and banana run - so instead, I made a milk, banana, and flour run. Fortunately, the store still had flour on sale for $2.00 so it worked out great.

Giant Eagle
$1.69 milk, one-half gallon
$2.00 flour, 5 lbs
$1.67 8 bananas, 3.4 lbs at $0.49/lb
$5.36 TOTAL

Which leaves me with $0.05 to my name. I'm totally splurging for 1/4 teaspoon of fennel seeds at the natural foods store.

Breakfast: oatmeal with sugar, cinnamon and sunflower seeds, black tea
Lunch: peanut butter sandwich, apple, carrot, banana, sunflower seeds
Snack: leftover zucchini fritter (S.), bread and peanut butter (A.)
Dinner: Pasta and bread
Dessert: rice pudding (S.) and milk & bread (A.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Day Two - Monday

I looked into dethroning bacon, but it turns out that the rules stipulate no retrospective sash snatching. S. was sick all last night, which he attributes to bacon. Not retching sick, but sick nonetheless. I’m not sure exactly what I was thinking anyway. Even good quality bacon tends to make him sick and that's when we don't eat the grease (ugh anyway - but I was desperate after the disappearance of butter).

We're getting cranky and it's only day two. We had a quarrel about who's idea this was anyway?! Which is silly, because this whole thing is my silly idea. Poor S. It's not that we're hungry exactly. We're not. It's more that we're annoyed. I'm used to putting whatever sounds good into my mouth whenever I feel like it, and now that's out of the question. We're like two spoiled children who have finally discovered a boundary. It sort of sucks. And at the same time - it seems so obnoxious to complain. I had a choice in this whole affair and a clear finish date (which isn't actually that far away). I can't say as much for most people living on this stipend.

So we're eating oatmeal for breakfast for the rest of the week. Here's mine with a sprinkle of brown sugar, cinnamon, sugared sunflower seeds, and half and apple.

The sugar sunflower seeds are made by roasting them on the stove top over medium heat with some vegetable oil, a sprinkle of sugar and a pinch of salt. I saved some out for oatmeal and then added more salt and a generous amount of black pepper for snacks.

Lunch is the same every day now: a peanut butter sandwich with homemade bread, one carrot, one banana, one apple (S. only), and roasted sunflower seeds (1 oz for S. and 1/2 oz. for me).

After work, we ate nothing. I didn't realize how much I'm used to getting home and stuffing my face with whatever we have. I was only a tiny bit hungry, that kind of hungry where you think: "yum, chips and salsa", but where you don't actually need to eat chips and salsa. That kind. It was sort of interesting to actually sit down to dinner for real hungry. Usually, I'm more or less sated for pretty much the whole day. It all seems problematic now.

Enough pontificating for the day and let's cook. We had zucchini fritters, white rice, and creamed spinach for dinner. One of my favorite weekend lunches during the summer is zucchini fritters. They're very forgiving - just some shredded zucchini, a lightly beaten egg, some bread crumbs, your favorite cheese (or the one in your fridge), and your favorite fresh herb (or the one in your fridge). The ingredient list:

Zucchini Fritters
4 cups shredded zucchini (from 1 large zucchini)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 oz Montery Jack, shredded
1 teaspoon minced fresh sage
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup flour
1 tablespoon vegetable oil.

Here's the mise en place, minus all those little bowls for everything. I am NOT cleaning all those extra bowls....

Basically, I just stirred together the zucchini, eggs, cheese, sage, bread crumbs and salt. Then added the flour - it should make the "batter" look a little like paste. It's gluing everything together (delicious sounding right?). Then I heated the vegetable oil on a flat skillet and dropped the batter to form fritters. I make mine large - about the size of a hamburger patty. Fry on each side until golden brown. It makes 6.

The creamed spinach isn't traditional. It's sort of cheating kind. Here's the recipe:

Creamed Spinach
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup milk
3 cups frozen spinach
salt and pepper to taste

Over medium heat, I sauteed the garlic until golden and then stirred in the flour. Cooked until just beginning to color, and then I whisked in the milk. This will thicken into a Bechamel of sorts. I added the spinach, salt and pepper and called in creamed spinach.

I'm just going to assume that you would prefer not to be bored with the rice preparation or the salad (it's dressed with a simple lemon juice and oil dressing).

And finally, here's dinner

I have to say that while it was decent, there's a real step down given the ingredients. I really love these fritters made with a stronger, salty cheese like feta and seasonal zucchini with a little mesclun salad on top. This did a decent job of standing in given the price difference, but I wouldn't eat them this way given a choice. The creamed spinach was a better impostor. When I said it wasn't bad for frozen spinach, S. said "this is frozen?" which I thought was a nice compliment to the Trader Joe's spinach (maybe it should have been second-runner up for cheap products?).

We decorated our Christmas tree tonight. It's a lovely little thing. Maybe my favorite so far. We purposely choose a smaller, scraggly, decidedly not perfect tree this year, and I love it. It reminds me of home. I was struck by the absence of treats and reminded of the colinearity of food and festivity. Even after pulling out the Willie Nelson Christmas carols, something was missing, and I'm certain it was the cookies and wassail.

Breakfast: oatmeal with brown sugar, cinnamon, and sugared sunflower seeds, 1/2 apple (A. only), black tea
Lunch: peanut butter sandwich, carrot (A. only), apple (S. only), banana, and sunflower seeds
Dinner: zucchini fritters, white rice, creamed spinach and salad.
Dessert: rice pudding (S. only)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Day One - Sunday

Clearly I do not have the hang of this yet. My plans for feeding ourselves seem to rely heavily on cooking all the time. Breakfast went fine, but we had plans for most of the day so baking bread didn’t exactly happen on schedule, which posed a problem for lunch. We were supposed to have grilled cheese for lunch, but the bread was not out of the oven until 4:30. Anyway, we figured it out and we’re still doing just fine.

For breakfast we had Potato Roesti with sugared, sautéed apples. It looks seriously monochromatic. I hadn’t planned on that.

The potato roesti recipe is from Cook’s Illustrated, and I don’t think they post their recipes online so I’ll be respectful and refrain from posting it here. It’s essentially a large, round hashbrown. Typically, you use butter (lots) to fry the roesti in, but I substituted some rendered bacon fat (and then we nibbled on the bacon while we were waiting for breakfast). The apples are just cooked over low in a sauté pan with a bit of water and a sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon.

breakfast deconstructed

… and breakfast.

I started the bread for lunch last night. It’s a really amazing and totally unintimidating yeast bread . It’s Jim Lehey’s recipe which gained instant fame when published in the New York Times last year. You can find the recipe here and searching “No Knead Bread” will get you lots of great tutorials. The great thing (for me) about this recipe is that it only calls for ¼ teaspoon of yeast. The long rise time (18 hours) lets you get away with far less yeast, and therefore, the one bread I can actually bake also happens to be thrifty. Here’s what it looks like when you mix it up:

And here it is many hours later

And a few hours after that

Post piano moving (don’t ask) and pre-holiday activities we had a quick 30 minutes for lunch and no bread (see above). So we snacked on one banana each and some roasted sunflower seeds (1 tablespoon for me and 2 tablespoons for S.). It was pretty sad looking, but surprisingly satisfying. Finally home late afternoon and had a very belated “rest of lunch” which consisted of some fresh baked bread and a chunk of cheddar cheese.

Then I spent from 4:30-7:30 cooking or writing about cooking. Gah. That made me grouchy, and I even like cooking on a good day. Poor S. got the brunt of it and this wasn’t even his idea. Some friends called for a game of darts so fortunately he had a well-timed escape, and it was good for me to just slow down. We had Lentil Tacos for dinner - a fun recipe from my oldest friend H. (She’s not old, like “advanced in age” – old like I’ve known her for a long time). The tortillas were made from scratch (part of the problem in the prep time), and we also had roasted broccoli. Oh and I made a batch of rice pudding for S., because I feel bad that he’s getting drug into this disaster and thought I owed him some dessert (even the sort of yucky, low-quality kind).

The lentil recipe was significantly modified to reflect my much reduced pantry:

Lentil Taco Filling

1 ounce (slice) bacon, chopped

1/3 cup minced onions

1 garlic clove, minced

1 cup dried lentils, rinsed

1 tablespoon chili powder

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoon fresh oregano, minced

2-1/2 cups water

½ package chicken ramen seasoning

I fried the bacon and saved the fat for the tortillas and the bacon for the lentils. The onions and garlic sautéed in the skiff of fat left in the pan with a pinch of salt. When they were translucent, the dried lentils, bacon, chili powder, cumin, and oregano go in the pot and cook just long enough to make the spices fragrant. Then goes the water and ramen seasoning (voila – lovely chicken stock! Just kidding.) That comes to a boil and then simmers for 30 minutes covered. When the lentils were tender, I simmered it uncovered for long enough to magically get rid of the extra soupy water. All done. Oh, except I have to make tortillas.


This is based on several recipes so I don’t really have an attribution to make.

1 cup flour

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

Bacon drippings from 1 ounce (1 slice) bacon

Up to ½ cup hot water

I whisked the dry ingredients together and then made a well. Added about half the water and then the bacon fat on top. Stirred while drizzling in the extra water just until the dough starts to come together. Kneaded quickly (just 8-10 times) and divided dough into 5 servings. Ignored dough balls while they rested under a floured cloth.

Later, you just roll these little guys out and cook briefly on either side in a hot, dry skillet. You know when they’re done when they get those flour-tortilla little brown spots on them.

Oh, now I still have to make broccoli. Great. Except it’s not actually that hard. I roasted three servings of broccoli in a hot oven with a drizzle of vegetable oil, one crushed garlic clove and a sprinkle of chili flakes.

A little more prep work for the shredded lettuce and cheese and then finally, we get to eat:

The picture is my serving. S. had three tacos and there was enough lentils left over that we had seconds of those. I have to say this was pretty damn decent. I liked it a lot. I’ll even make it again when I don’t actually have to. I would have really liked it with sour cream and S. missed the salsa, but all in all – this didn’t feel like a sacrifice at all. Isn’t the vegetable serving funny? Supposedly we ate “three” servings of broccoli between us. It seemed so pathetic.

For the observant among you: No, oregano isn’t on the grocery bill. I stole it from my neighbor’s planter, which I warned you about.

Before bed, S. had some rice pudding with a sprinkle of cinnamon and I had a glass of milk. He might have just been being nice to me, but he claimed the rice pudding was really good. Neither of us went to bed hungry, but I was sick of thinking about food.

Menu for Day One

Breakfast: Potato Roesti, sautéed apples and black tea

Lunch/Snack: Banana and sunflower seeds

Late Lunch / Snack: Fresh baked bread and chunk of cheddar cheese, carrot (S. only)

Dinner: Lentil tacos with homemade tortillas, lettuce and cheddar cheese; roasted broccoli

Dessert: Rice pudding (S.) and one cup milk (A.)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

shopping - Saturday

I finally went shopping. The best store was a very bare-bones produce market that sells industry seconds. The price difference was really substantial particularly given that I typically shop at Whole Foods. I know – spoiled. Some of the prices were shockingly affordable. In fact, I even considering taking pictures of the produce displays with the prices just so I could prove that those were really the prices. My mother (in Alaska where nothing fresh is cheap) is going to be annoyed when she sees what I paid for 3 pounds of apples. Suffice it to say – you’d definitely starve on $25 in Alaska. Fortunately, I’m not there right now, and I had plenty of options for inexpensive food. It’s good because my husband may well have perished without fresh fruit. The other absolute necessity was the hippy hang-out with lots of bulk items where I bought a variety of dried beans and grains and also some spices and dried herbs in miniscule, and therefore not budget-destroying, quantities. I rounded it out with a trip to Trader Joes for a few things (mostly because you can’t compete with their $0.19/each bananas) and the regular grocery store. Here’s the breakdown:

First to the Strip District, an area in Pittsburgh with the aforementioned produce market and also Italian, Hispanic, and Korean markets, butchers, a great cheese counter and biscotti bakery that, alas, I can no longer afford, etc. Between these little places, I found all this:

For this much:

Strip District
$2.00 5 lbs potatoes
$2.50 5 lbs carrots
$2.00 3 lbs Granny Smith apples
$1.00 red leaf lettuce
$2.19 2 large zucchinis
$0.40 lemon
$0.41 garlic
$1.08 1 lb bacon ends
$11.58 TOTAL

At the local, independent health food store, I bought a smidgen of nearly item offered in bulk. I worried my cashier would hate me, and therefore neatly arranged all the items on the little grocery store belt in order to make her repeated weighing and cashiering easier. Of course, she was nothing except totally gracious. And when the coupon I’d hoped to use wouldn’t scan, she just gave me ten bag credits to equal the same coupon value. Here’s my loot:

And the item-by-item for your reading pleasure:

East-End Coop
$0.09 red chili flakes (~1 teaspoon)
$0.26 cumin seeds (~1 tablespoon)
$0.71 hot chili powder (~2 tablespoons)
$0.28 cinnamon (~1 tablespoon)
$0.33 black peppercorns (~1 tablespoon)
$0.12 baking powder (~1 tablespoon)
$0.22 dried basil (~ 1 tablespoon)
$0.99 tomato sauce, 8 oz
$0.84 sugar (~1 cup)
$0.18 wheat berries (~ 1/3 cup)
$0.28 garbanzo beans (~ 1/3 cup)
$1.55 oatmeal (~ 6.5 cups)
$0.30 sea salt (~ ½ cup)
$0.70 green lentils (~ 1 cup)
$1.31 sunflower seeds (~ 3 cups)
$0.25 brown sugar (~ ¼ cup)
$0.94 red kidney beans (~ 1 cup)
$1.08 black beans (~ 1 cup)
-$1.00 coupon for tomato sauce
-$0.10 bag refund
$9.24 TOTAL

Then on to Trader Joe's where the most miraculous thing happened. I found a whole box of tea for 99 cents! I’m dying of delight. I’d given up on caffeine – standing without purpose in front of the wee containers of Folgers and wishing the clouds would part and a little sale sign would appear while I blinked. Imagining the week of caffeine withdrawal headaches following me around wherever I went. Who knew Folgers was so expensive? Thus, I tip my hat to Trader Joe's, which has provided me with 20 bags of caffeine for so small a price (and it’s even fair trade).

Trader Joe's

$0.99 black tea
$1.29 frozen spinach, 16 ounces
$1.14 6 bananas
$3.42 TOTAL

And finally, an uneventful trip to the regular grocery store.

Giant Eagle
$3.21 milk, gallon
$1.51 eggs, 1 dozen medium
$1.39 peanut butter, 18 oz
$2.50 Cheddar cheese, 8 oz (on sale)
$2.50 Monterey Jack cheese, 8 oz (on sale)
$2.00 flour, 5 lbs (on sale)
$2.29 rice, 2 lbs
$0.40 2 ramen (on sale)
$0.35 2 small onions
$0.21 a few green peppers (salad bar)
$2.00 frozen broccoli, 16 oz (on sale)
$2.50 vegetable oil, 16 oz (not pictured)
-$1.00 coupon (broccoli)
$19.86 TOTAL

Oh, and I even bought something at Whole Foods. They sell yeast in single packets for $0.49 so it was cheaper than buying a three-some anywhere else.

That leaves me spending $44.59. I need a little more than $3 for a mid-week milk and banana run and that leaves me with two whole dollars for emergencies.

A word on coupons. I went to some trouble to find a variety of coupons for things I thought I’d need this week. They were much less valuable that I originally suspected even though some of them were a whopping whole dollar. See, it seems coupons are printed mostly for new, trendy items that you (a) don’t need, or (b) don’t need at that price. I had a dollar off coupon for organic milk (woohoo), but it turns out even with the discount, organic milk is still a LOT more expensive than hormone-pumped, chemical-laden, store-brand milk. So no organic milk for me. Sigh. I’m feeling relatively confident that I’m not going to starve this week, but I’m definitely noticing already that making health-related decisions about what you eat quickly falls away to purely financial ones. I’m feeling suspicious about my conventional potatoes and apples (two of the most highly pesticide contaminated fruits and vegetables), but I’m guessing the cost-benefit ratio is still in favor of eating some fresh foods.

I’d like to award prizes to my top three food items. Second runner up goes to bacon scraps for $0.99/lb. Of course bacon gets a prize. When they cut bacon into little slabs, there are ends that get trimmed and apparently (who knew) you can buy these little ends for barely any money. I don’t have to live a whole week without bacon, which is a huge relief! You might wonder how someone such as myself could not crown bacon scraps the winner, but see – they’re kind of gross.

First runner up goes to tomato sauce. Tomato sauce cost me negative one cent. I had a coupon for a dollar off any Glen Muir product and tomato sauce costs only $0.99. It was amazing. OK – not exactly amazing, but I’m not a coupon person so the miracle of a free product is still catching up with me.

And the moment you’ve been waiting for …. I’d like to present you with Trader Joe’s Tea! Who you’ve already met. You know the story.

One more night of regular eating.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


I have been making pain-staking, exceedingly nerdy spreadsheets of recipes, ingredients, weights, and prices at a variety of stores in my area. It’s taken hours. Many hours. Literally. If I were single, with no children and unemployed perhaps this much time dedicated to feeding me would be reasonable. Otherwise, it’s totally unrealistic. Just another disclosure to do with as you like. For example, you could judge me. That’d be fine, because it’d probably be true.

Oh and good news (for me at least). As interested as I have been about trying this out, the one thing that made me sad is to do it by myself. My husband and I usually cook and eat together every night, and I was unhappy about missing out on that for a week. So my good-natured and accommodating husband has agreed to serve as a second guinea pig. My original thought was: Great! $25 more dollars. I’m rich! Except then I looked up his caloric needs. Gah! I’m pretty small and not that active so I only need to provide myself with 1800 calories a day. Not so bad. My extremely active husband apparently needs 2600. I looked it up. So while my budget just doubled for the week, the number of calories I need to provide just went up 144%. Great.

In other news … I love grocery shopping. A lot. So this part has actually been kind of fun, and I haven’t even bought anything yet – just cruised around window shopping at the grocery store. It has been weird to take notes at the store though. I’m shopping at several places so I’ve been jotting down prices in order to compare. I get all paranoid that I’m going to get kicked out. My dad used to work in the grocery business eons ago and sometimes he’d get sent over to the competing grocery to write down all their prices. It would take awhile for the competing store manager to catch on, but sooner or later, he’d get kicked out. I’m seriously afraid I’ll get kicked out, which is totally unreasonable as I look totally unprofessional with my little piece of scrap paper, pencil nub, and weekend jeans. Not a clipboard in sight. Seriously not a threat. Nonetheless I worry. If you knew me, which obviously you do, because otherwise, why would you be reading this boring blog?, you’d know this is well within my normal temperament.

And I haven’t even shopped yet. Just prepared for shopping. Right now the plan is to shop on Saturday and start this thing on Sunday. See you soon.