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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Cost of Eating Well

**Warning: This is an extremely long post with no pictures or yummy recipes involved. It is a post about an issue that I'm trying to work through as a middle class working parent who is trying to provide healthy, home-cooked meals to my family.

This morning on a Louisville radio station, the DJs were talking about nutrition in America, and more specifically, nutrition in the poorer areas of the country. I found myself listening with interest about how they thought that the neighborhoods that they grew up in had more fast food restaurants than wealthier neighborhoods. I agreed silently. They talked about how many kids are growing up eating only McD's and as adults just don't have the palate for other foods. I agreed. But then they mentioned that the only reason the rich eat healthier foods is because they shop at Whole Foods and can afford the fancy organic food. I heartily disagreed.

From what I see, eating healthy in America can be a wealth issue, but I see it as a time issue as well. Yes, certain foods are very expensive. Yes, organic food can be costly. But healthy food does not have to take a huge chunk out of your wallet. Those frozen/boxed/canned premade meals might be convenient, but often aren't as inexpensive as people think they are. And they definitely aren't healthier. Fresh vegetables, especially the basic staples, can be very inexpensive. Buying meat in bulk when it's on sale can be cheap. I even heard recently that milk can be frozen, so you can buy that in bulk when it's on sale. And although I'm a fan of organic food, healthy food doesn't have to be organic.

I admit that I am lucky to have resources to spend on food, but I could actually cut back on my grocery spending and still eat healthy. I rarely venture into the middle aisles of the grocery store these days (only for baking supplies, pasta, tea, coffee, spices and some canned goods). My weekly budget for groceries is $125. I know what I spend is a lot of money to a lot of people less well off than I am, but again, I could cut a lot of what I think of as luxury items out to make a smaller budget work. (And although I like coupons, I rarely use them, so this could be cut even further if you were an avid coupon clipper.) I think this is a lot of money to spend on food and I cringe every time I see my bill, but many people, both wealthier and less wealthy than I am, gasp at how little I spend on food. I just don't understand, then, what they are spending their money on.

But what I also see is that people don't have the time or don't think they have the time to actually cook this food. And the poor often work long hours and/or more than one job to make ends meet. Cooking healthy is perceived as difficult because people think that it has to take hours to make a good meal. But it doesn't. Recently, I've gotten several comments from friends that go along the lines of "I just don't have as much time as you do to cook as 'gourmet' as you do." I have two kids. My husband and I both work full time. My daughter recently joined soccer. We don't have a lot of time, and when we do, it's often interrupted by our five month old needing a bottle or our daughter showing us her latest "art project" that she created all over her bedroom floor. With all of this, I am still able to feed my family healthy food. We don't eat what I post on this blog every night, but we do eat healthy meals, and it takes a lot of planning and preparation.

Healthy food doesn't have to come from Whole Foods. Healthy food can be bought at the cheapest of grocery stores. (Shoot, if I shopped at WF-like stores regularly, my grocery budget would be double or triple what it is now.) I guess my problem with the statement on the radio station was that it seemed like they were saying that buying unprocessed foods is only for rich people and they seemed to attach a sort of stigma to it. They also jumped from the unhealthy (relating it to fast food) to the healthy (which was tied solely to shopping at Whole Foods.) This whole conversation makes me wonder if all of the talk by Michael Pollan, bloggers who are moving toward more natural, homemade meals, the media, etc. is actually hurting the slow food movement in the spheres (i.e., the poor) where it is most needed. There are loud calls to eat organic and to think that the big grocery stores are evil. Even the term "slow food" makes it seem like good, nutritious food should take a long time to make. And I agree with the basic tenets of many of these calls to action--organic food, knowing where your meat came from, cooking from scratch, eating together as a family--but if we're trying to make the entire nation healthier, it seems like we're actually scaring off people who think they can't afford the healthy food talked about in these venues or think they don't have time to cook healthy "gourmet" meals or think that healthy food is only for the rich. We're not making good, healthy meals accessible to the cash-strapped or the time-strapped.

I don't really know how to fix this or even to address it other than here in my little corner of the blogosphere. I'd love to know what you all think...and perhaps if you have a recipe (a link if you're a blogger or just the recipe if not) for an inexpensive, easy-to-prepare, and quick but healthy meal using "whole" ingredients (not prepackaged), we can create a space for that kind of food here (or elsewhere). I'm open to comments and suggestions!

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Food Ninja: A Soup Recipe with a Secret, Frugal Ingredient--Radish Leaves!

Last week I heard about a contest that fellow food bloggers Paula at Bell'Alimento, Linda at SaltySeattle and Rachael at La Fuji Mama are hosting: Food Ninja. When I first read about it, I thought, "That looks like so much fun, but I am totally not a 'Food Ninja'." I admit that I am a good cook and I admit that I can chop and dice with the best of them (or faster than my husband, at least!), but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what I do that is so ninja-like in the kitchen...until, that is, I remembered this recipe I made up for radish leaf soup.

A couple of weeks ago, I received some beautiful radishes from my CSA, but really what caught my attention were the leaves attached to said radishes. They were full and green and, well, leafy. That got me thinking about whether or not radish leaves are in fact edible. A quick Google search answered that question, so I was on a mission to use these awesome leaves. I posted something on Facebook to elicit ideas, but the basic reaction was, "Are you kidding?!" No. No, I am not.

To save money and to be as ecologically conscious as possible, I have been trying to use as much of my produce from my CSA as possible over the summer, and usually the "inedible" parts go into a freezer bag for later stock making, but I actually wanted to eat these greens, so I came up with this easy little recipe for radish leaf soup. The soup is actually quite tasty--the leaves have a mild peppery taste--and to top it all off, radish leaves are quite nutritious, with high levels of calcium, iron, magnesium, folate, and Vitamins A, C, and K. As I told my mom recently: don't knock it till you try it!

Just call me Frugal Ninja! ;-)

Radish Leaf Soup

1 Tbl olive oil
1 Tbl butter
1 medium onion, chopped
3 potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 bunch radish leaves, rinsed well and chopped
2 1/2 cups chicken (or vegetable) stock
1 Tbl fresh lemon juice (or more to taste)
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper, to taste
Creme Fraiche or heavy cream
3-4 radishes, diced, for garnish

In a heavy-bottomed pot, melt the butter and oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened. Add potatoes and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Add radish leaves and cook, stirring, until leaves begin to wilt. Cover with stock and bring to a boil. Cover and let simmer for about 10 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked through.

Blend with a handheld blender or in small batches in a food processor or blender until smooth. Add the lemon juice, nutmeg and cayenne pepper. Mix well and add salt and pepper to taste. Before serving add a dollop of creme fraiche or a little heavy cream to taste. Garnish with diced radishes.

This is a thick soup. Add more stock to thin it to your liking.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Roasted Butternut Squash, Apple and Bacon Soup

I know I just posted a butternut squash recipe a week or two ago, but I'm awash in butternut squashes, and so I figured you might be too. This is a squash recipe that my husband actually requested that I make again, so you know it's good!

I like the combination of the apples, squash, bacon and sage. It makes for a light, but hearty soup. It doesn't take long after you roast the squash and apples, and if you wanted to be prepared for a quick weeknight meal, you could always roast extra and freeze them (or make a double batch of soup and freeze the leftovers). Also, you can make this vegetarian/vegan very easily by leaving out the bacon and just using a little olive oil to sauté the onions and using vegetable stock instead of chicken. This would be delicious with a simple salad and a hunk of bread. Enjoy!

Roasted Butternut Squash, Apple and Bacon Soup

2 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and chopped into large chunks
3 small apples, peeled, cored and quartered
olive oil
salt and pepper
4 slices bacon, cut into matchsticks
1 medium onion, chopped
5 large sage leaves, roughly chopped
2 1/2 cups chicken stock (or more to cover vegetables)
1 Tbl lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine squash and apples on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with enough olive oil to coat and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast uncovered for 30-40 minutes until the squash and apples are fork tender and starting to brown a little.

In a soup pot, cook bacon over medium heat until browned. Remove bacon to a paper towel to drain. Remove all but one tablespoon of bacon grease from pot. Add onions and saute until starting to soften. Add sage and continue to sauté for another minute or two. Add squash and apples, and toss to combine. Add chicken stock and bring to a boil. Turn the burner off. Blend with a hand blender or in small batches in a food processor or blender. Add the lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Use bacon to garnish.

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Julia Child's Ratatouille

When we started to receive eggplant in our CSA shares this summer, I kind of cringed. I've had a hard time eating eggplant ever since my mom made us eggplant parmesan with a slightly off eggplant. The texture doesn't really do anything for me either. Often when texture is the sole problem, making some sort of puree solves it. I did make some baba ganoush earlier in the summer, but my husband requested ratatouille, so I reluctantly made some.

I decided to go straight for the French food pro--Julia Child--for this one, but did adapt the ratios a little. It was an easy recipe, if time consuming. The flavor was terrific, and this dish really lets the vegetables shine. I was even able to eat a few bites of the eggplant itself. I served it over couscous, and I think that the only change I would make next time would be to go ahead and use the juice from the tomatoes (and perhaps a little water or stock) and not let it reduce as much as Julia suggests to give it some extra moisture. The couscous needed some yummy vegetable juices to soak up.

adapted from Julia Child

1 lb. eggplant
1 lb. zucchini
1 tsp salt
4 Tbl olive oil, plus more if needed
2 cups thinly sliced yellow onions
2 cups sliced green peppers
2 cloves garlic, mashed
1 lb. tomatoes, peeled, seeded and juiced (save the juice), sliced about 1/2 inch thick
3 Tbl parsely, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

Peel the eggplant and slice in half lengthwise. Slice the eggplant across to make approximately 3-inch wide and 1/2-inch thick pieces. Slice the zucchini into large, diagonal slices. Place the eggplant and zucchini into a large bowl and toss with 1 teaspoon of salt. Let sit for 30 minutes. Drain, and dry each piece with a towel.

Heat 4 Tablespoons of oil in a large skillet. Saute the eggplant for about a minute on each side, or until very lightly browned. Remove to a dish or bowl. Repeat with the zucchini.

In the same skillet, saute the onions and peppers over low heat for about 10 minutes until tender (but not browned). If there is not enough oil left from the eggplant and zucchini, add a little more. Stir in the garlic and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Lay the tomato strips on top of the onion and pepper mixture and season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook for about five minutes or until the tomatoes start to render their juice. Uncover and baste the tomatoes with their juice. Raise the heat and boil the mixture until the juices have almost completely evaporated.

In a 2 1/2 quart casserole dish (suitable for using on the stovetop), spoon about 1/3 of the tomato mixture onto the bottom. Sprinkle with about 1 Tablespoon of parsley and then layer about 1/2 of the eggplant and zucchini. Spoon on half of the remaining tomato mixture, 1 Tablespoon of parsley, and then layer the rest of the eggplant and zucchini. Finish it off by spreading on the rest of the tomato mixture and the remaining parsley. Pour the tomato juices (and a little stock or water if you want even more liquid) over the vegetables.

Cover the casserole and simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes. Uncover and baste with juices. Taste for seasoning and adjust. Raise the heat slightly and cook for another 15 minutes, basting the vegetables every once in a while. Be careful to not let the vegetables scorch on the bottom of the casserole.

Serve or set aside uncovered until you are ready to serve it. This dish can be served warm or cold.

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