Entries tagged with “Hunger challenge”.


 

Hunger Challenge: The Final Day

Hunger Challenge: The Final Day

I was mildly obsessed by fish during the United Way Hunger Challenge, probably because I’ve been so generally confounded seeking out an affordable fish dinner that doesn’t raise warnings of mercury, PCBs, or other environmental and ethical concerns. Shrimp once seemed a reasonable choice, for instance, until I read Taras Grescoe’s description of how “if you are eating cheap shrimp today, it almost certainly comes from a turbid, pesticide- and antibiotic-filled, virus-ridden pond in … one of the world’s poorest countries.” 

For the last day of the Hunger Challenge on Friday, I took advantage of the fish counter at Ranch 99 Market, which will clean and steak whole fish for no additional fee. I violated the prime directive of thoughtful shopping — don’t go with a toddler if you can possibly avoid it —  and wound up with this whole farm-raised trout at $4.99/lb (The total was $8.50, though it included the head, which I discarded). If I’d been thinking cogently, instead of assuring the frantic toddler that we would, indeed, return to watch the live “crabbies” in the tank, I might have gone for the mackerel, which was both cheaper and wild-caught, or the squid, which the kids would have liked better.

I’m starting to think that successful budget shopping is a mixture of careful planning and careful lack of planning: I went shopping without a recipe, so I could buy whatever fit my budget and survey what looked like the cheapest and most attractive accompaniments. Chicken thighs were on sale and would have been a quarter of the price, but I wanted to hold firm on buying only chicken with at least some sort of cruelty-free pedigree, as hard as that can be to validate. Spareribs were cheaper than fish, but I wasn’t in the mood for my favorite sparerib-daikon stew. So I wound up with the trout, along with scallions (25 cents a bunch, a fifth of what I’ve seen them for at other markets), and about 50 cents worth combined of fresh lime, ginger, and garlic. I had a vague idea of stir-frying the fish, but it looked far too thick, so I brushed the steaks in olive oil and baked them, then topped them with a sauce of garlic and ginger and scallions sauteed in olive oil, with a tablespoon of butter and the juice of a squeezed lime at the end. It wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was good, served with a side of grilled bok choy ($1.29/lb) and some sweet, insanely cheap soft sesame rolls from the Ranch 99 bakery (around 19 cents each.)

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Technically, the United Way Hunger Challenge doesn’t allow for home-grown food, but as a practical note, I’m struck by how much better and cheaper our diets are, spring through fall, just with what now “volunteers” in our garden. The planter boxes required an up-front investment, and we spent money this year in amending the soil, but we have more perennial edibles than we expected. The rhubarb that was here when we moved in produces a healthy annual crop. Last year’s sorrel is regrowing in the back yard, as slug-eaten as ever, but still lemony-sharp. The rosemary took a hit but survived, and the lovage, one of a handful of herbs I was inspired to plant by Jerry Traunfeld’s Herbal Kitchen, is already back, as glorious and aggressive as a weed. Marjoram, tarragon, oregano, and other herbs are thriving.

We recently planted our Big Daddy onion starts from Territorial Seeds, ($13.95 a bundle, but a great harvest), then moved some forgotten  potatoes from last year’s bed to a new home, where they have already sprouted. When we took a look at the bounty we had before the season had really begun, we felt quite rich.

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corndogs

The adults rushed out to a long-awaited concert last night, and the kids had a babysitter, which means they got to choose dinner. I would like to report that they voted for cioppino or tamago or the broccoli quiche from Mollie Katzen’s kids cookbooks or other past favorites. Truth compels me to report, though, that corn dogs are their current craze on Babysitter Night. A lot of research points to how much cheaper junk food is than wholesome food, but I found it interesting that the corn dogs, at $1.39 apiece at QFC, actually cost more than the adults’ dinner of grilled Gardenburgers (75 cents apiece).

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Preparing "Uigher Pastries" from Beyond The Great Wall

Preparing "Uighur Pastries" from Beyond The Great Wall

I meant the third day of the United Way Hunger Challenge to be fish night. I figured I would try to get around the conundrum of fish being one of the healthiest foods around (once you avoid the pollutants and environmental landmines) but also one of the most expensive. Instead, I found myself in my first experiment in deep-fat frying. 

Searching through Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s “Beyond The Great Wall” for inspiration on spectacular dishes within limited means, I became hypnotized by the little vegetable-filled turnovers (”Uighur Pastries With Pea Tendrils”) the authors found in the Turpan oasis of China. The dough couldn’t have been simpler or more inexpensive — 22 cents worth of flour, water, and salt. The recipe called for a filling of peavines, but I decided against a trip to the Asian markets and instead used $1.15 worth of the chard that I had bought on my run to Trader Joe’s, along with a 25 cent onion and a bit of bulk cumin and cayenne and salt.

I made a batch of dough early in the afternoon, but by cooking time I was running into the dinnertime limitations I struggle with even when cost isn’t such a concern: Me needing to be around a sharp knife and a hot stove when time is short and the children are hungry. So I did this: I fed each one a banana (19 cents apiece). I fed the toddler, who we once nicknamed “BPB” (it sounded more polite than “bottomless pit baby”) a second banana. And I managed to remember that lesson I keep relearning, that cooking with kids is just another, more practical, version of playing with them.

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Egg destined for the scramble/Rebekah Denn photo

Egg crack/Rebekah Denn photo

An old friend was in town Monday, and I missed the regular meetup of former P-I employees at Aster coffeehouse. I didn’t skip it because of the United Way Hunger Challenge, but it did occur to me that I’d blow an uncomfortable percentage of my challenge budget if I did scramble to make the meeting. I missed the company as well as the coffee, though. Financial planners collectively ding the daily latte, but it’s a very enjoyable social ritual. And I came in enough under my $22 budget yesterday to loosen up and make some different choices today. At my beginning photography class, for instance, where I brought this egg picture today for an assignment, students often walk to Stumptown before class or during the break, and I decided to go ahead and join in. I used $2.75 of today’s food budget on that cup of French press. I enjoyed it more than caviar.

And the eggs? I invested eight of them in tonight’s dinner. Eggs cost more than they used to cost, but they’re still admirably inexpensive  and versatile, and I was pleasantly surprised to see I didn’t have to fight my ethics to keep them on the menu this week. A dozen cage-free, Certified Humane eggs from Stiebrs Farms were on sale for $1.99 at PCC (regularly $2.39), or 17 cents apiece — no more than the cut-rate eggs I had guiltily picked up earlier for the photo shoot. Normally, I spring for organic eggs, at double the price, but I was satisfied by the description of the Stiebrs eggs to go for these. (Wilcox Farms, also local, is Certified Humane as well.) 

I’ve been flipping through Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid books for ideas, and tonight’s dinner was a from-memory adaptation of their stir-fried cellophane noodles and eggs from Hot Salty Sour Sweet. (If you’ve got that wonderful book, you can let me know if I missed any key ingredients.) I sauteed two chopped shallots and a clove of garlic in olive oil in a big skillet, added eight lightly beaten eggs, and sprinkled on a few dashes of fish sauce. When the eggs were nearly scrambled, I added about 8 ounces of soaked cellophane noodles, and stirred it all together. I squeezed a lime on top and added a sprinkle of chopped bulk-bin peanuts.

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For years, I’ve been saying that we could cut the chaos in our lives in half just by planning and cooking meals ahead of time. The first day of United Way’s Hunger Challenge proved me right in the worst way. Let me just confess up front that my kids had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner, even though the adults did — well past the children’s bedtime — get a nice vegetarian stew. No one went hungry, but the diet could have been far better balanced.

(I know this isn’t a contest, but, sheesh, Gastrognome — you made mayonnaise?!) And Lara, you’re roasting your own espresso? Clearly I need to take some notes here.)

I had a vague idea of what to cook for the $7/day challenge ($22/day in my case, for a family of four) but decided to food shop before making firm plans, under the theory of cooking whatever was on sale. I visited Fred Meyer, PCC, and Trader Joe’s for supplies, and later this week I’ll probably restock at Ranch 99. This is actually no more insane than my usual weekly shopping routine, but I realize it’s a luxury in itself — the time to visit multiple stores, for one thing, and a reliable car to get to them. When doing the actual cooking, though, time is a substitute for money in a lot of ways: Soaking beans, braising meats, baking bread… oh, the bread, which I put it out of my mind until Sunday night.

I had planned on making a 3-loaf batch of Robin’s Bread to get through the week on budget. That was a problem. The bread needs to rise overnight before a second rise and bake. No way could I get it done in time for lunch sandwiches on Monday. My faster standby, the Buttermilk Honey Bread, called for, well, buttermilk and honey, and I didn’t want to incur the extra cost. So I went searching on the King Arthur Flour site Sunday night for a basic, reasonably fast recipe, and wound up with this “Classic Sandwich Bread,” then stayed up until 1 a.m. for it to come out of the oven. I briefly panicked when it barely changed shape on its first rise — it’s never a good idea to test a new recipe when you really need something to work — but it did fine on the second rise, and came out of the oven lovely and toasty and tasting great. I’ll be making it again (note that I used vegetable oil instead of butter, and substituted whole wheat flour for half the white flour). Total cost: About $1.50 per loaf, including 65 cents worth of flour from the bulk bins at Fred Meyer and 40 cents worth of organic milk I feel good about. Throughout the day, as expected, the fresh and organic ingredients wound up costing the most.
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