Friday, March 26, 2010

Cook these, eat well, save $

What do you know today's New York Times has a great article about low cost recipes.   They are easy and filling and I can tell just by looking at them that they would be tasty.  Some condiments like balsamic vinegar or hot pepper sauce might be a nice touch if you want more zing.   These recipes use pasta or rice along with simple basic vegetables like cabbage, onions, garlic, greens (chard - but you could substitute kale or spinach or even collards), canned tomatoes, dried beans, edamame (or peas) or broccoli. 

See -you can eat great food on a budget.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Can you afford to eat good food?

Here is the big question for today's post:  Can a family on a low cost food budget afford to eat good food?  (For the current discussion let us agree that locally grown and fresh organic vegetables and fruits are good food.)  The short answer is YES and if you want to know the reason why,  keep reading.  I hope this doesn't get too wonky for you -- but it is a really important question and requires more than a 30 second sound bite to answer.

I have been thinking about the cost of food a lot lately, because I have been talking to people about cooking and eating more vegetables and signing up for a Featherstone Farm CSA share.  And of course one of the first things people ask about is price.  Especially in this economy.  Fair enough.  I have grocery shopped for decades and I too am very careful about cost per pound, cost per serving, value and my food budget. I am a smart shopper.  I will not spend $1.00 for one medium sized organic potato, which is what they cost the last time I checked at the Hy-Vee in Rochester. 

Do you have a food budget?  Do you know what you spend each week to feed the members of your household?  Do you know how much you are spending for food eaten at home vs. food eaten at restaurants?  If your answer is yes to even one of these questions,  then you are special.  I would bet a couple of homemade rhubarb pies that most people have no idea what they really spend on food - either at home or out.  But these same people have a general idea that they can't afford "expensive" food, whatever that means.

Fear not - if you have no food budget we can still figure this out, thanks to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)  These folks pay a lot of attention to what we eat and what we spend on food.

Here is your first take home message:  American food, in general,  is incredibly cheap.  In 2008 (the most recent year for which data is available) families and individuals as a group spent only 9.6% of their personal disposable income (that means AFTER taxes) for food.  5.6% was for eating at home and 4% was for eating out.  In 1950,  Americans spent 20.6% of their income for food - 17% of which was for eating at home and 3.6% for eating out.

So is cheap food a good thing?  It depends how you look at it.  Our food system does seem to have become very good at shoveling out lots of low cost calories.  But are they good calories?  Don't you think it is interesting that at the same time our food costs have been cut in half as a percent of our personal income, our health care costs have skyrocketed as a percent of our national GNP?   In 1950 we spent a little over 20% of our personal income for food.  Now we are spending less than 10% for food but are close to spending about 20% of our national economy for health care!  I don't know about you, but I am almost ready to conclude that our food costs WAY TOO MUCH if you are looking at the big picture.

This big picture macro stuff is all well and good - but what about the micro?  What is your family spending per week in real dollars?  That is the number that really matters to you.  Well, the USDA can help us again.  Every year the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion puts out a simple chart which shows the U.S. average for cost of food at home at four different levels - thrifty, low-cost, moderate and liberal.  The chart conveniently breaks down the numbers based on age and gender so you can get a pretty good estimate based on your own family characteristics.  See the whole chart here

Let's look at an example for a family of four with two adults and two kids, one between 6-8 and the other between 9-11.  The USDA says that if this family is on a "low cost" plan, they would be spending $176. a week,  assuming all meals are eaten or prepared at home.  If this family was eating out a lot or paying for school lunches, they would presumably be spending quite a bit more on food every week.
A Featherstone Farm 22 week summer Grande (large) share would cost this family $640 up front -- for a weekly cost of $29.   This is about 16.5% of a $176. a week low cost food budget. 

Now lets look at a two adult household and a Chica (small)  summer share, which costs $490, or just about $23 a week.  The low cost food budget number for a family of two adults between ages 19 and 50 would be $103. a week.   So for this household, their weekly CSA box cost of $23 would represent only 22.3% of their weekly food budget.  

So look at the numbers and you decide.  Considering how important fresh organic fruits and vegetables are to a healthy diet,  I think a CSA share seems like a really good deal --  even if you are on a tight food budget. 

For more details on what is in a summer share, go to  Notice that there are options if you are not able to pay the whole cost in advance.

Friday, March 19, 2010

pizza bump - it's not a dance

I have dedicated a good part of my life to the cause of home cooking.  I find the daily preparation of a variety of good tasting and nutritious food quite rewarding.  Even fun.  And for sure interesting.  I have no illusions that I am a typical American when it comes to my kitchen activity level.   I know that a lot of fine people do not share my enthusiasm about cooking at home, let alone cooking from scratch with real food.

But I have to admit I was discouraged when I learned a few days ago that the next new thing in ovens is a chicken nugget button.  (New York Times March 16, 2010)   You know, so people can "cook" chicken nugget dinners without having to think about time and temperature.  I imagine they microwave some kind of refrigerated mashed potatoes to go along with the nuggets.  Maybe there is a mashed potato button for that too.  Add some bagged salad with bottled ranch dressing and voila - dinner.   I just know there are generations of grandmas spinning in their graves,  wondering why we gave up on real cooking. (The answer is not lack of time.  These women did not have washing machines, electric ovens or disposable diapers, okay?)

Smart appliances are all the rage and sales of pots and pans and housewares are down.  Many countertop ovens now come with a "pizza bump" so they can accomodate frozen pizzas.  If I was making countertop ovens,  I would put in a pizza bump too.   Americans bought $4.4 billion worth of frozen pizza last year.  In 2000 they only spent 3.1 billion, but that was before the recession made eating at home more attractive.

On Jan. 6, the Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted Burt Flickinger III, a New York consultant who knows his pizza facts:  "You've got a generation that either doesn't like to cook or can't. They like to heat and eat." 

But like my Mom used to tell me, "Just because all the other kids are doing it doesn't make it right".  So I will soldier on, knife and peeler at the ready, putting daily meals on the table without the aid of a chicken nugget button. 

p.s.  Before you think I am a total outlier, let me assure you that the occasional frozen pizza makes itself into our house and into our oven, where we cook it after setting the time and temperature ourselves.  Tastes kind of good sometimes, especially after we doll it up with a lot of extra fresh vegetables and chopped cooked spinach.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Reality on the Ground

I am writing this post from Atlanta, home of more shopping centers than any other metro area in America and most importantly home of my two grandsons, ages 2 1/2 and 5.  Life in southern Fillmore County is different from life in Atlanta.  For one thing, my home is more than 20 miles from a WalMart.   I know what it feels like to be an endangered species.  East of the Mississippi River there is hardly anyplace left that is more than 20 miles from a Walmart.   Check it out.  You can see the map right here:

So.  Back to Atlanta.  Yesterday we drove (walking is not big in suburban Atlanta) to the park and the library and Costco.   At Costco,  all the food seems to come in big boxes or big packages.  You can often get a lot of food for not very much money.  Some seems to be pretty good quality and some I am not so sure about.  The variety of vegetables seemed especially limited to me.  We took home a 13 pound box of oranges for $8.69.  This morning I showed my grandson Sam (the 5 year old) how to peel oranges and the whole family ate five for breakfast.  They were conventionally grown (that means not organic)  in California.  I don't know who picked and packed and shipped them but I have to say they were very juicy and flavorful.  My grandsons enjoyed them and got some good nutrition besides.

Every household has its own food reality on the ground.  In our house we make cooking fresh organically grown vegetables a priority.  For us it is all about flavor, nutrition, variety, value, good stewardship of soil and water and food safety.   In my older son's house frozen vegetables - often organic -  are the top choice.  Nutrition, cost and convenience are the deciding factors.   In my younger son's house --  well -- he is young and single and working and going to school and the supermarket salad bar is where vegetables mostly happen.  I am just grateful he is eating something other than fast food.

I am glad many American households are working on increasing their vegetable consumption these days - mostly for health reasons.  My husband and I intend to keep doing what we can to introduce our grandkids to the joys of organic vegetables.  Right now we bring them zip loc bags of frozen winter squash and spinach on the airplane.  Sometimes we even bring potatoes, onions, carrots and rutabagas.  I am happy to report frozen or fresh vegetables are okay for carry-on luggage.  Homemade strawberry jam is NOT ok.  I learned that the hard way last year at O'Hare airport.

We are looking forward to a summer visit from Sam.  Lots of vegetable fun is on our to do list.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Not my grandmother's cabbage rolls

Cabbage rolls are a great way to use winter vegetables.  I like to use my home canned tomatoes with this dish - although storebought crushed tomatoes or a good quality sauce are fine too.  If you freeze tomatoes, just thaw and crush to use in this recipe.

My version is heavy on the vegetables.  I do this a lot - take a traditional recipe and vary the vegetable to meat ratio.  This saves money and assures a healthier calorie and nutrition profile.  This recipe yields sixteen nice sized rolls and could easily serve 6-8 people with only one pound of ground beef.  If you have hungry eaters, you could add some bread or potatoes along with one or two side vegetables or a salad.  When I made this last night I served the rolls with pickled beets and corn bread. 

I won't lie to you - making cabbage rolls is  a little bit fussy and takes more time than sloppy joes or frozen pizza.  On the other hand, it will taste so much better and the people you cook for will appreciate you for your efforts.  Maybe not right away.  But for sure later.  My 85 year old Dad still talks about his Mom's cabbage rolls.   I bet when he was ten he didn't say "Way to go Mom.  GREAT cabbage rolls".  I know she is looking down from heaven and smiling on my 21st century version of one of her specialities.

Here is a link to a you tube video about cabbage rolls.  The recipe is different from mine, but you might find the part about removing the cabbage leaves helpful.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Step one-- Separating the leaves
You will need to remove about 20 leaves from a large head of cabbage without tearing them all up.  This requires a little patience and dexterity.  It is not hard once you get the hang of it. 

Bring a large pot half full of salted water to a boil (cover it and it will heat faster).   Cut out the core of a whole head of cabbage -- don't hold back - you want a cone shaped hole about three inches wide at the stem end.  This will help you loosen the leaves later.  Carefully lower the cabbage into simmering water and cover.    After about 10 minutes, uncover the pot and lift out the outside leaf with tongs.  It should separate easily.  Remove one leaf at a time until you have about 20 leaves.  If the leaves won't separate, just simmer a bit longer until they are soft.  If you have to, lift out the whole head and remove the leaves after it cools a bit. 

Step two - the filling
Finely chop a combination of onion, carrot, parsnip or cabbage (from the remaining center of the head).  You will need a total of about two cups.  I suggest a combination with about one half onions.

Add to the chopped vegetables:
1 pound ground beef, pork, turkey or a combination
1 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
2-4 cloves chopped garlic
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 1/4 cups uncooked quinoa (you could also use barley or rice or bulgar)
Optional - add one egg.   For extra seasoning you could also add a tablespoon of paprika and even 1/4 t. of cloves or 1/2 t. of thyme.
Mix meat, vegetables, quinoa and seasonings well.  Divide into 16 portions.

Step three - stuff and roll
For each roll, lay a leaf flat.  Cut a small V in the thickest part of the core to make it easier to roll.  Place a portion of filling on the leaf.  Fold over the bottom part of the leaf, tuck in the sides and finish rolling.  Don't roll too tightly - you want room for the grain to expand a bit.

Step four - Assemble and bake
Line a heavy baking dish with the extra cabbage leaves.  If desired, place one sliced raw onion or extra chopped cabbage on top of the leaves.  Mix 1/4 cup of vinegar or lemon juice and 1/4 cup of sugar with about one quart of crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce.  Pour about 1/3 into the pan.  Place cabbage rolls in the pan and pour over remaining sauce.   Cover tightly and bake at 350 degrees about two hours.  Halfway through baking check for dryness.  If too dry,  add some water, tomato juice, stock, beer or wine as desired.  This is even better cooked one day ahead so the flavors can blend.  If you are feeling celebratory, serve with some yogurt, creme fraiche or sour cream on the side.