Monday, September 27, 2010

Savor Rochester and Hunger Challenge

Blogging is a kind of a small world. You read a blog, you follow a blog, they read your blog, you read some of the blogs they follow, it gets very circuitous. Another Suburban Mom reposted something from Amid Life’s Crisis (which I don’t follow, but have read) about Hunger in America. This was kind of an interesting coincidence, because just the night before she posted this, I attended a fundraiser for Foodlink, our local food bank provider. It was fun and delicious (for the most part, with a few notable exceptions) and it supported this vital service to the poor in our community. I took Alex and he was the only kid there, but boy, was it his kind of event.

He is willing to try just about anything because I have forced him from a young age to eat a bite of everything on his plate. He has learned that even though he may think it sounds bad or that he won’t like it, often he is surprised and finds that he enjoys it.

Now, mind you, I am not being self-righteous and smug about my kids not being picky eaters. Alex still manages to be fairly picky, the difference is, I just don’t care. You don’t like spinach you say? Oh well, eat it anyway. Because. I. said. So.

And Alex’s big brother the Marine Foodie was perhaps the pickiest child eater ever to live on the face of the earth. When enforcing my “take a bite of everything” rule one Christmas Eve dinnerwhen he was four, Marine Foodie promptly threw it back up. His father told me to not ever force him to eat anything, ever, again. I think he ate only ten foods for his entire childhood. He came around, though, sometime between his fifteenth and seventeenth birthdays. Now he’ll eat anything. And loves it. (Of course, being in Iraq camping out in the desert eating only mre’s will do that for you, too.)

So I determined with my subsequent children to go back to enforcing my rules. And this has turned planning dinner from “What can I make that picky eater will eat?” to “What new recipe should I try tonight?”

Which brings me back around to the Savor Rochester Fundraiser. There was a lot of good food. The tuna tartare tacos with sriracha, guacamole, micro greens, and caviar from One were amazing. The best thing there. Alex tried it, but didn't really care for it.

There was also a lot of pulled pork. (Which Alex DID like!)  Yes, barbeque is very popular now and there are so many good places to get it, and pulled pork is easy to keep hot and serve over a three hour time period, but it takes no imagination whatsoever.

A vegan restaurant (yes, I know, what possessed me to sample the vegan food? Well, Alex stepped up to their booth and I followed. I didn’t want to be rude, so I tried it) offered butternut squash risotto. I love butternut squash risotto. Butternut squash risotto is one of the best comfort foods in the world. Unless you make it with minute rice and no cheese. Yes, that’s right, I said minute rice. This café (it shall remain nameless) concocted something they purported to be risotto with what had to be minute rice. It stuck together. It was not creamy. It was mushy. I couldn’t even taste the butternut squash. It was one of the most awful things I have ever tasted. Now, if I were going to try to make a vegan version of it, I would simply substitute vegetable broth for the chicken stock. I don’t know what I would do about the Parmesan cheese, I suppose you could leave it out and add more salt. I don’t know, but I would not use minute rice. Period.

Which brings me back around to the Hunger in America issue.

I am a food snob. I know this, you know this. My monthly food budget for four people is around $1200 a month. Or about $40 a day. This is over twice as much as a family of four receives on food stamps. And $40 a day for four people still doesn’t seem like a lot to me.

Some agency in the Midwest has issued this challenge: feed your family on $4.50 per person per day for a week.

The SNAP Hunger Challenge Rules
  • Spend no more than $4.50 per day in total, per person, for all meals including beverages.
  • Don't use food already on hand unless you deduct the value from your weekly amount. Salt and pepper don't count, but all other seasonings, cooking oils, condiments, snacks and drinks do.
  • Don't accept food from family, friends, coworkers and others.
  • Try to include fresh produce and healthy protein each day.
  • Keep track of expenses, food choices, etc. and share your experiences on your blog

There is no way I can do it for a week. But I’ll try to do it for a day. I’ll start the day right off the top with $1.25 in the hole from a pot of Starbucks French Roast. I will. Not. Start. My. Day. Without. My coffee. And Folgers doesn’t count as coffee, it counts as brown, tasteless water.
I don’t know what I’ll cook, but I’ll let you know.

I know it will not be some of the menus that I browsed on frugal living and couponing blogs recently. Maybe you can’t do it for any length of time without relying heavily on cheap, processed foods, but I am determined to make a reasonable menu that my family will like (for the most part). I’m thinking I’ll try to do it after I shop this week so that I can keep track of what everything costs. Wish me luck, I’m going to need it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Piergoies-channeling my inner Pole

Last weekend I happened to catch a few minutes of Diners, Driveins, and Dives on Food Network. I don't watch much Food Network anymore, since it turned into Food Competition Network, but I was surfing and Triple D was on at the time. I like the show a bit, it features a spiky-haired guy traveling around and eating food from some of the country's best down- to- earth eateries. They all feature homemade everything. None of them rely on frozen, pre-packaged, anything, in other words, the kind of restaurant at which you'd actually want to eat.

Can you guess I don't like chain restaurants much? I don't really see why I should pay money to have someone heat up frozen, pre-packaged food for me. If I want that, I can do it myself. If I go out to eat, I want something I wouldn't make at home, or something that someone makes better than I do. (Is there such a thing?)

On this particular episode, the spiky blond guy was visiting an Eastern European place in Minnesota. I am not a huge fan of Eastern European food, it seems pretty bland to me, and not terribly interesting. But they showed the restaurant's homemade vareneky, or pierogies. They looked amazing. Nothing like the crap that comes out of a box. Since Rochester seems to lack a Ukranian/Polish restaurant, and since my Russian sister-in-law's pierogy is more like a cabbage filled bread than a savory dumpling, I decided to make my own. I couldn't find any recipes for the one's they make at the place in Minnesota, so I settled for finding a few different recipes and turning it into something approximating what I saw on the show. I don't know how it compared for taste, but mine were excellent. And not really terribly hard to make. One batch was enough for four of us for dinner, with no leftovers, and only a little fighting over the last two.

June's Pierogies

For the filling, I used leftover mashed potatoes and mixed in some sauteed onions and grated cheddar cheese. That's it. Pretty darned simple, huh?

3 C Flour
1/2 C Sour Cream
1/2 C softened butter
1 Egg

Mix all ingredients with a dough hook in a stand mixer, or kill yourself and mix by hand, I don't really care. I know which one I'll be doing. Roll out until 1/8 inch thick. Cut into 3 in circles, fill with 1 T filling (you want them pretty full, you should just barely be able to close them.) Seal by pinching together. Boil a few at a time in salted water until they float.

After you have cooked them all, put some butter in a saute pan and add at least one sliced onion. If you really like onion, add two. Saute it gently until browned and caramelized. Remove the onion and add more butter. add the pierogies a few at a time and lightly brown on both sides. Serve immediately with the onions and a side of sour cream mixed with horseradish.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

30 day Menu

A turkey-cooking challenged friend of mine(who overcame her difficulties with about 30 minutes of phone coaching by yours truly) recently begged all of her friends to send her their 30 day menu plans. I was horrified. Not because I am against being hyper-organized, but because I have read some of those thirty day menus. They tend to rely heavily on the crock pot and prepared or convenience foods, e.g. dump some packaged baby carrots over a piece of chuck roast, top with a package of onion soup mix and cook on low for 10 hours. Can you say "yuck"?

These menus also deprive you of taking advantage of that lovely piece of produce that you run across at the farmer's market or even at the grocery.

I think a better strategy to getting dinner on the table is to keep a well-stocked pantry and some key ingredients which you can use to get some dinner on the table without too much fuss.

Like tonight, I made an awesome Chinese meal without going to the store for one thing. In my freezer I had ground pork and dumpling wrappers. In my fridge, I had eggplant, ginger, green onion, leeks, chili garlic sauce. In my pantry, I had rice noodles, Korean beef stock, dried shiitakes, sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar and garlic.

I made:
pan fried pork and scallion dumplings
Leek and shiitake soup with rice noodles
stir fried eggplant with chili garlic sauce.

I didn't have a plan before this morning. While drinking my coffee I think about what I have, what I want, and how much time I have that day. Does dinner ever get away from me? Yes. Do I find myself at 5:00pm wondering what I am going to make? Yes. But, I can usually get something on the table by 7 without too much fuss.

I'm sorry I don't have time to post the recipes tonight. I will try to get back to it and add them later. Kisses.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

New school year - 5 easy school lunches

Things are starting to slow down a bit, fresh produce frenzy-wise. Not that we aren't still inundated, but we are beginning to be sated, a bit. The sweet pickles turned out great, even without a pickle crock. The main thing is to use a non-reactive container, i.e. glass or ceramic. Since I lacked a large enough crock, I used my largest glass bowl. the shape is not ideal for submerging all the cukes in the brine, so I placed a pie plate on top and weighted it down with a gallon jug of olive oil. Three days later I had sweet pickles. Some will make their way into school lunches....

Today was our first day back. Back to our routines, back to shuttling kids, back to more structured cooking.

Structured cooking? What is that?

Well, instead of throwing something on the grill shortly before dinner, I have to actually think and plan. the kids must get to bed and so dinner at 8:30 is no longer an option. I need to have a plan no later than noon. Earlier in the day is better even than that.

And school lunches. I have been making them now for twenty one years. Sigh. We all know packing school lunches is the bane of our existences.

So I probably don't have any suggestions for you that you haven't read a million times already, but I do have some thoughts

Here are my top five tips:

  • Use different kinds of bread. There is nothing more tiresome than opening a lunch box to the same thing. Every. Day. You would get tired of it, wouldn't you? That ham and cheese you packed yesterday can be completely transformed by turning it into a wrap. Same fillings, whole new lunch.
  • Don't get stuck in a sandwich rut. Anything that can be eaten cold is good: think picnic food.
  • Stock up on small containers, small size blue ice packs, and multiple sizes of ziploc bags.
  • Try to cut veggies into packable sizes once a week. Then store in ziploc bags with a damp paper towel. Figure out what vegetable your kids like enough to eat cold: my boy likes broccoli and carrots and not much else.
  • And my new obsession: bento. What is a bento? Well, it means "lunch" in Japanese. A bento typically consists of a rice ball, some type of protein, and veggies. A very healthful lunch, indeed. The components are packed tightly into a small container and artfully arranged. I have started to stock up on bento boxes and accessories, but these are not necessary. A small square sandwich container from the grocery store works just fine. The first bentos I made had homemade sushi (it's not as hard as you think, I'll talk about it some other time), diced peaches, Japanese pickles, and mini carrot pineapple muffins. I didn't take any pictures, sorry. The kids (and hubby) went nuts over them. Other varieties have been less popular, but some others have also been big hits. Leftovers are great for bentos; tuck some leftover chicken on top of some rice and surround by some veggies. Include a packet of soy sauce from your last takeout Chinese food. I keep threatening to pack them some crazy bentos in their lunch boxes.They insist other kids will make fun of them. I ask them why they would care what other people think. Haven't I set a good enough example when it comes to this? Nonetheless, it is fun to torture them. I will take pictures of some of my bentos and post them as I do them. 
Here are my "recipes" for out of the ordinary lunchbox entrees.  Hey, if they'll eat it, I'll make it.

Peanut butter wrap
Spread a flour tortilla with peanut butter. Sprinkle lightly with Honey Bunches of Oats cereal and drizzle very lightly with honey. Roll up.

Baba Ghanoush with pita
Roast an eggplant in the oven for about an hour, until tender. Let cool. Peel, and toss the flesh into the processor, along with 1/2 c tahini, 1/4 c lemon juice, salt, 3 cloves of garlic, and a dash of cayenne. Serve with pita.

Veggie Wrap
Spread a pita, tortilla, or softened lavash cracker with mayo. Lay two pieces of a quartered pickle, four tomato quarters, three or four broccoli florets, and lettuce or sprouts down the center. Roll up. (My husband can't stand these. He calls them "broccoli sandwiches" I love them, but then I'm a girl. Girls like vegetables.

Cobb Salad
Line a small container with chopped lettuce. Arrange on top: diced tomatoes, crumbled bacon, diced hard cooked egg, avocado, and diced cooked chicken. Pack a separate container with blue cheese dressing

Pack celery and carrot stick and tortilla chips with a container of guacamole. Sprinkle the top with a little lemon juice to keep it from browning.

There, now that was pretty easy, wasn't it? See, even you could do it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Review of what was supposed to be my new pickle crock

It is really my own fault. I didn't read the description carefully enough, or I would have realized that the ceramic Emile Henry crock with the wooden lid I was ordering was too small. I really just looked at the picture and placed my order. After all, for almost $50 one could reasonably expect a pretty big crock, right? Wrong. For nearly $50 I received a 1.5 quart ceramic crock with a wooden lid. Don't get me wrong, it is a really nice crock; the lid has a rubber seal and fits really tightly and I love the shape and color. I just thought I would be getting more of it!

I need a pickle crock because I plan on making sweet pickles. And Priscilla has one and I don't, therefore, I must have one. I guess I'll have to go borrow hers. I think I'll use mine for making brandied peaches or maybe super small batch of refrigerator bread and butter pickles. Now those are fantastic. And really easy, too.

48 Hour Bread and Butter Pickles

3Cups vinegar
3 cups sugar
1/2 Cup uniodized salt
1 large onion, sliced
1 T mustard seed
1 tsp tumeric
pickling cukes

Layer onion and cukes in a 1 gallon glass jar (or several smaller ones), mix rest of ingredients and pour over. Ready to eat in 48 hours Keeps in refrigerator for 1 year.

I serve these as a side with sandwiches all the time. Guests have been amazed by them. They are unexpectedly good and no one makes bread and butter pickles anymore. Plus the ones from the grocery store are disgusting, which is why most people say they don't like bread and butter pickles. If you just go ahead and take my advice and make them, you'll be so surprised by how good they are you'll want to come to my house to thank me personally. Feel free to.

For my sweet pickles I use the recipe in the Ball Blue Book of Canning. Go buy it, it's like six bucks on Amazon. It has lots of good info for anyone new to canning. The sweet pickles will be ready in five days. Leave a comment for a chance to win a jar. If you live outside of Rochester, I'll mail them to you. I'll count the comments and enter them number into and let it pick. Comment by next Friday.