Archive for April, 2010

Green Beans: A Love Story

Let me say right off the bat that I do not ever remember going hungry. So calling this a “hunger story” would be a little bit misleading. It’s more of a “how my mother kept hunger at bay” story, and it has everything to do with what a parent will do to make sure a child has something to eat on her dinner plate.

When I was eight, my father, a major in the Army Corps of Engineers who was a 20-year-man with three yearlong tours in Southeast Asia, found himself on the very last list of names of soldiers who were being cut to help lighten the defense budget during the difficult economic days of the mid-to-late 1970s. He found work in a small town in the Ozarks, overseeing a construction project. We moved into a small farmhouse on about a half-acre lot, high up on one of the Ozark hills. After a couple of months, the owner of the project needed something for his nephew to do, and my dad’s job was it. So there we were, early 1977, national recession going on, high unemployment and inflation, and no income coming in.

My mother did two things. She had my dad till almost the entire backyard into a garden, and she went down to the Best Western and got a job waitressing. She planted corn, tomatoes, green beans, and strawberries, and she spent several shifts a week making sure that complete strangers had beautiful breakfast plates with fluffy eggs and special garnishes. Her tips were tremendous, not least because she was 30 years old and awfully pretty, and that income plus my dad’s unemployment let us meet the note and keep food on the table.

These were the days when, for a special treat, my mom would divide a stick of Juicy Fruit and give one half to me and one to my little brother. When so many people were facing such hard times that the cafeteria workers at my elementary school would put out big bins of slices of white bread and big bowls of peanut butter, separate from the lunch line, so any kid could come up and make a sandwich without having to worry about paying for it. But I don’t remember the times as hard. I remember my mother telling funny stories about her shift, about the regular customers who made sure to sit in her section, and I remember running up and down the garden rows watching the corn come up and the strawberry plants start to pile themselves into little mounds. I remember trees and blue skies and a creek down the hillside running over the rocky shallows where we’d splash and play the afternoons away.

It was shortly after the strawberry harvest that my father found a job. In Alabama, at a paper mill. He took my brother and me on down to the little south Alabama town where he’d found an apartment, and my mother stayed behind to sell the house. While she was waiting, packing up the house and finding a buyer, the green beans came in. She picked them all, froze them in batches so we’d have them to eat later. During her two-day drive down to rejoin us, the green beans thawed, but rather than throw them away, she put them back in the freezer. Times were going to get better, but food was food, and she wasn’t going to waste it. Several nights a week for the next several months, those frozen-thawed-refrozen green beans would make an appearance on our plates, next to a hamburger or a chicken leg, sometimes with some mashed potatoes. I don’t remember much about the dinners except for the beans, which managed to be both tough and mushy all at once. Never a picky eater, I started to refuse.

And I didn’t stop refusing. To this day, I can hardly stand the sight of a green bean. Maybe in a three-bean salad, though you could leave them out and chock that salad up with chickpeas and black beans and tomatoes instead. Not even roasted, despite Mollie Katzen’s wonderful method for making any vegetable sweet and essential. The fresher they are, the more clearly picked from some garden, the worse it is.

So my can of green beans from the Hunger Awareness Blog Project is still sitting on the kitchen counter, and probably will until it goes into my sack for the Stamp Out Hunger food drive next Saturday. But as I’ve looked at it this week, every night, while deciding what to cook, I’ve thought how much I hate green beans. And I’ve thought about my mother, about all the time and effort she put into growing that garden and saving her little crop to make sure her children would eat, about how much she must have wanted to be able to put something else on our plates. And I’ve thought about how much love was piled on those plates alongside those tough, mushy, freezer-burned beans.

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April 30, 2010 at 7:47 pm 3 comments

Many obligations, one big pot

Donate $5 to Capital Area Food Bank - it provides $25 in food for the hungry.

When the Hunger Awareness Blog Challenge started last week, I looked at the list of food from the food pantry and thought, well, that’s do-able. I’ll get a chicken. Potatoes, mmm, we could eat potatoes all week. Spaghetti, sauce; there’s a meal. Jalapenos, pintos, rice; another one. Factor in the  $50 SNAP allowance for things like eggs, tortillas, and spinach, and this could be decent eating.

Then there was a last-minute family trip, a drive from Austin to New Orleans and back, 66 hours that included 20 hours in the car, 22 hours of work on the house we’re hoping to sell there, and a couple of spider bites that led to groggy-inducing Benadryl dosage. I had to plunge right back into work when we got home, at the food bank and for my husband’s small safe-plastics company. An ongoing medical issue had to be dealt with. There were still things to be dealt with to be able to list the house, repairmen to find, house visits to schedule long-distance. My husband and I were both exhausted, wrung out and stressed out, ready for bed before the sun had even gone down. The idea of being creative with Tuna Helper or green beans was just too much. We weren’t even hungry.

So until today, all we’ve had so far is the chicken, roasted, a few bites here and there with some crackers before bed. Cereal for supper. Nothing inspired, nothing much at all. And in the meantime, I was being both impressed and intimidated by my fellow bloggers, who have been producing meal plans, delicious sounding recipes, such unexpected dishes as dumplings and cong you bing. I’d look at the list of blog entries and feel guilty for not even writing about why I wanted to take part in the challenge (spoiler alert: green beans play a starring role).

But Lisa Goddard, the online media director at Capital Area Food Bank, put it into perspective for me. “That’s a real story,” she said, reminding me that people of all income levels and needs lead busy lives, with unexpected twists and obligations. It’s one (unhealthy) thing if you can pick up the phone and order a pizza, or if you can stop by somewhere like Central Market to get the bits and pieces of a healthy take-out dinner on the way home from work. It’s another if you’re on a SNAP budget, if there aren’t frozen dinners in the freezer or extra dollars in the budget. What do you do then?

Tonight, I looked at the pile of food pantry cans and at the remains of the chicken and just started cooking. I stripped the chicken and sauteed the bits in olive oil in a big saucepan. Then I added one of the cans of spaghetti sauce, half a container of fresh spinach, some crushed red pepper flakes, and a couple of handfuls of shredded parm from the fridge. While it cooked down, I boiled up some spaghetti and opened an off-project bottle of Malbec. That was our supper. It was tasty, inexpensive, and comforting. And already we are ready to get some more sleep.

April 29, 2010 at 1:05 am 4 comments

Austin Blog Hunger Force

For the last month, and for 10 weeks to come, I’ve been working on communications assignments at the Capital Area Food Bank for 20 hours a week. Recent readers will already have noted my saying that it’s exactly the kind of work I’d been wanting to do, and that the experience has changed my perspective on and relationship with food. It’s almost like daily volunteering, and I know it will lead to a lifelong relationship with the organization.

Now – in an entirely coincidental occurrence – the community of Austin food bloggers, as spearheaded by the Austin American-Statesman‘s Addie Broyles and Austin Farm to Table‘s Kristi Willis, has taken up the cause of hunger awareness. Over the next week or so, more than two dozen local food bloggers will be trying to feed themselves and their families from the shorter list of rations provided by local food pantries and SNAP (the food stamp program). With one foot at the Food Bank and one foot in the food blogging community, I will join them. We’ll be sharing our hunger stories, writing about our experiences in learning about hunger, fighting hunger, and understanding hunger.

We met out at the food bank last night, taking a tour of the warehouse and teaching gardens and hearing from CAFB online marketing director Lisa Goddard, who reminded us that “hunger is everybody’s story.” We may never have been hungry – truly hungry, without knowing when we would feel satisfied again. But we may have had family with that experience, or neighbors. We may pass that person on the corner, or even wait behind that person in line at the grocery store as they carefully tally the items in their basket against the contents of their wallet. Hunger is increasingly, shamefully, unacceptably a part of our community – whether we know it, see it, or choose to acknowledge it.

This is not some group of dilettantes looking for a hook to increase readership or score a book-and-movie deal. The Austin food bloggers out at CAFB last night came together out of a sense of purpose, of wanting to understand the challenges faced by the 48,000 people who need to avail themselves of food pantry assistance each week. How do you figure out what kind of SNAP (food stamp) assistance you would get? Is that $200 every month? For just one person? So if I’m single, I should look at $50 for the week? How many of those bags would someone be able to pick up each month? One? So we should really only use about a fourth of that. A fourth of the list, plus $50…

Each blogger is going to determine a set of standards for her own week, based on family size (there are two of us), circumstances (we have an out-of-town family obligation this weekend and will start on Monday), and other criteria. But the point is not to adhere strictly to a formula of $X plus $Y divided by 7. The point is to try to work with what we’re given, to think about how others might do the same. The point is to come to an understanding of what hunger means in our community, to share our experiences and be open to new ones.

list of participating bloggers can be found on the Capital Area Food Bank blog, which will be keeping tabs on the project all week. And in all of this, it doesn’t go without saying, if you are so moved, you can give of your time or resources, to CAFB or to your local food assistance organizations. In the week or so to come, I hope to show you the real difference our food banks make.

April 23, 2010 at 1:15 am Leave a comment

A little nosh while you wait

My Japanese sweet potato post is in the works but requires some off-site photography, so while you’re waitin’ and anticipatin’, here’s a link to a terrific post from Eat Me Daily, on Food of the 1950s and Kitchens of the Future. I’d take quite a few of the features here in my Kitchen of the Eighties.

April 19, 2010 at 7:07 pm 3 comments

Sweet Tart

Let me get the embarrassing admission out of the way right off the bat. I had never made a tart before. Pies, cakes, cookies, cheesecakes, flans… nearly every other dessert that comes out of an oven had come out of my oven. But never a tart.

I didn’t own a tart pan, for one thing, couldn’t quite imagine how the movable bottom was secure, how the crust would just pop right out. I hadn’t spent time poring over decadent recipes, didn’t have a family recipe like my grandmother’s double-crust pie crust recipe. I wasn’t motivated.

Until a few weekends ago. Our friends who bestow upon us the lovely luxury of a weekend getaway ranch house on the Blanco River wanted us to join them there. I wanted to feed them well. I planned a light spring dinner, befitting an April evening on a long, low stone porch overlooking a river lined in bursting spring green: chilled salmon, grilled asparagus, spinach salad with kiwi and avocado. While making groceries for the weekend, I came across a huge container of beautiful red strawberries, and the word “tart” popped into my head and wouldn’t leave.

So I picked up the strawberries, made one extra stop to buy a tart pan, and headed home to research recipes. I was really just concerned with the crust, and the recipe I found (online via PBS and Martha Stewart’s “Everyday Food”) seemed simple enough:

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled) plus more for handling dough
½ cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/3 c sugar
1/4 tsp salt
Blend all in a food processor until moist crumbs form (I pulsed, it took less than two minutes). Press into a 9″ round tart pan with removable bottom. Prick evenly with a fork and freeze for 15 minutes. Bake 25-30 minutes at 350, until golden. Press down gently with the back of a spoon if crust begins to puff up (it did, I did, all was well). Remove from oven and cool completely in the pan.

I had my strawberries set, and took further inspiration from Martha, who suggested a cream cheese filling. I mixed about two-thirds of a brick of Neuchatel (all I had in the fridge) with the slightest amount (a mere sprinkling) of confectioner’s sugar, and spread that over the cooled crust (which I left in the pan).

I chilled that for 10 minutes or so, then pulled out a jar of passionfruit curd, brought from Australia by my mother-in-law, and spread that over the cream cheese. I sliced the strawberries and began layering from the outside in.

As the strawberry slices stacked up, the tart began to remind me of an enormous zinnia. I left a small circle in the center showing golden passionfruit curd.

Then I remembered some kiwi in the fridge, and sliced one of those to fill in the circle and provide a base for one final garnish of the largest strawberry in the bunch. Following Martha’s suggestion for a red currant jam glaze, I heated some organic strawberry preserves for 30 seconds in the microwave to liquefy them, brushed that over the berries, stepped back, and considered it done.

To tell the truth, I considered it perhaps a little more than done, wishing I could go back to the beautiful zinnia. But it was time to go. I packed the pan carefully in a vintage Tupperware bowl, packed that into a tight-fitting cooler, tucked the whole contrapation into a safe spot in the trunk with all of our other weekend gear, and hauled it out into the wilds of Blanco County. Where it arrived more or less intact. Our friends did me the honor of having several pieces, exclaiming over the crust, and generally flattered me wildly (even sending me a posy of lilacs, hydrangea, and callas for it later in the week). I will admit, it was as delicious as it was purty, and it was plenty purty. I can imagine all kinds of tarts coming out of my kitchen from here on out. Send your requests.

April 19, 2010 at 12:14 am 1 comment

Tortizzas!

Ever since I began my work at the Capital Area Food Bank, I’ve been looking at the contents of my fridge in a different light. Rather than feel like I’ve got to stop and pick up a chicken or thaw pork chops or even make pasta and sauce, I’ve been trying to look at the random bits and items hanging out in the refrigerator as ingredients for whole meals, to go and buy less and make do more. The concept really hit its stride on Monday evening.

Imagine, if you will, a refrigerator apparently housing nothing but condiments and appetizery stuff. Cheese. Artichoke hearts. Tortillas. Pickledy things. Imagine a food blogger, too lazy to go to the store, too bored with quesadillas, staring into the depths and discovering turkey pepperoni, and the remains of a big-box jar of sun-dried tomatoes. Imagine the bulb going off, as bright as the refrigerator light.

Why not… tortilla pizzas!

His & hers tortizzas, bottom and top.

This might have gone better with a pizza stone, but still it went awfully well. I put two flour tortillas for each of us on two small baking sheets (lined with parchment against the mess and to try to help with crisping, parchment misted with olive oil spray). Preheated the oven to 450. Brushed each tortilla with olive oil and then sprinkled sea salt over for flavor and good measure. Then I started pulling the ingredients out of the fridge: a shredded Italian four-cheese blend, little mozzarella balls, the artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes. Turkey pepperoni, roasted garlic in olive oil, the last few jalapeno-stuffed green olives. I called my husband in and explained what we were about to attempt, and he jumped right in to build his personal pizzas.

Not ten minutes later (a few minutes for loading the tortillas with ingredients, 5-7 minutes in the oven), we pulled lovely, puffy little pizzas out of the oven.

Okay, mine were lovely and puffy.

His were guy pizzas.

We were both happy. He poured a Spaten, I opened a Real Ale Devil’s Backbone, and voila! A simple, relatively inexpensive, leftover-using tasty supper. The tortilla crusts were a little layered and a bit crunchy. The appetizer ingredients came together in a nice whole. I particularly liked having sprinkled the Italian cheese blend right onto the crust and the chewy crunchy cheesy goodness that resulted. And what else would we wordplayers call them but tortizzas? We’ll be doing it again tonight.

Disclaimer: I’d already roasted about a hundred garlic cloves a few weeks before, covering them with olive oil in a pint jar and storing them in the fridge. The leftover artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes were from big jars from Costco purchased for prep for a party a few months before, both also kept safe in olive oil. We just happen to have a lot of cheese around, because someone *coughmecough* has a whole lot of Wisconsin in her DNA, and the turkey pepperoni is part of our attempt not to snack on cheese all the time. Your own fridge remnants may vary. One of these days we will move from creative scrounging to longer-term meal planning.

April 14, 2010 at 9:32 pm Leave a comment

Grits and Groceries

In the past two weeks, I’ve had two good friends suddenly stop in the middle of two otherwise normal conversations, gaze off into the distance, and say, “Cheeeeeese grits.” One of those friends, a native of Mobile, Alabama, was visiting Austin from Berlin, where his 13-year residence has apparently not included a lot of hominy. The other, a well-traveled soul, has lived in Texas for all of his six decades on earth. Both men, each literally with a world of experience, were brought to a point of pause over one of the simplest dishes in the repertoire.

Maybe it’s that very simplicity that makes a bowl of cheese grits so comforting. Not that cheese grits can’t go wrong; mein Berliner complained that a bowl put in front of him in a Houston diner at the start of his visit was just grits (and watery ones at that) with cheese on top. And I once had what I thought was the bright idea to lade a batch with many, many, way too many squeezy cloves of roasted garlic, which overpowered the whole comfort angle and turned it into something rather, um, hearty and bracing when I was looking for soothing and soft.

And you probably have to have come to terms with the basic idea of grits. I grew up with them. They have always been in the pantry, right along with the oatmeal. They were inexpensive, a way for my parents to make breakfast on Saturday morning (the initial big pot of grits to serve with an egg and bacon) and have some left for Sunday (when my father would cut the cold grits into squares and fry them in butter). They stood in at supper when needed, whether because the end of month was approaching and the budget didn’t allow for more, or for comfort reasons. They featured particularly during the year I had braces, when it seemed that every tooth-tightening orthodontist appointment fell on a day when my mother had a roast in the oven (which, no matter how tender, I couldn’t begin to chew). And when I moved to New Orleans, I discovered their brunchiest use – as the base for grillades, which is a whole nother post.

I’ll be making cheese grits for my sighing Texan friend this weekend, out at a quiet ranch on the Blanco River. I’m headed to the grocery store for stone-ground grits and good Cheddar, and I’m packing my Calphalon pot, whose size and heft lets me make plenty and keeps things from sticking. It’s the least I can do for the hospitality my friend and his wife have shown to my husband and me, for someone whose “You know, I haven’t had cheese grits in the longest time” just sounded a little too forlorn. Easter brunch on the Blanco will be a thing of beauty, not only for the blue Texas skies and the fresh green of the spring pastures, the hummingbirds that have just reappeared at the feeders on the long low stone porch and the brown eggs dyed to deep jewel tones, but for the strawberries fresh from market in an old enamel bowl and the pale gold of the cheese grits carried out to the porch table and set down in front of my friend.

Basic Cheese Grits (to satisfy the craving for simple and soothing)
Prepare four servings of non-instant quick grits as directed on the package (though really, if instant is all you have and you are in need of comfort, you can make it work; just use a little less water so they’ll be thicker). As they begin to thicken past the soupy stage, add grated cheese by the handful. The kind of cheese depends on the mood you’re in and what’s in the fridge; extra-sharp cheddar is the most flavorful, a four-cheese Mexican blend is gooey in a good way, a few sprinklings of Parmesan takes you into polenta territory. Cream cheese doesn’t work like you would think it would. If your family doesn’t come to the table while it’s still piping hot and the grits set up a bit too much in the pan to be able to ladle them out in a nice creamy glob, vigorously stir in a bit of milk to thin. Serve in a bowl as is, or over gently fried eggs. Watch your friend who has been away from grits too long scrape every bit up with a spoon.

Fancier Cheese Grits
Baked Cheese Grits
from Emeril Lagasse’s Louisiana Real and Rustic, also the source of a grillades recipe that can’t be beat; love him or not, this pre-Emeril-empire cookbook is a keeper
2 c yellow grits (not quick or instant)
1 stick (1/4 lb) butter
1-1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 T chopped garlic
8 oz cheddar, grated (about 2 cups)
3 eggs
1 c milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare grits according to package directions. Add butter, salt,black pepper, garlic, and cheese. Mix until butter and cheese melt. Beat together eggs and milk in small bowl; add to grits and mix well. Pour into square (8×2) baking dish and bake about 1 hour, or until mixture sets. Serve.

Fanciest Cheese Grits
Grits and Cheese Souffle
from Craig Claiborne’s Southern Cooking
1 c  quick-cooking or regular grits
2 c milk
2 c water
salt to taste
fresh ground black pepper to taste
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp Tabasco sauce, or to taste
1/3 lb sharp Cheddar, grated (about 1-3/4 cups)
6 large eggs, separated

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Generously butter a 2-quart souffle dish and place in the freezer until ready to use. Cook grits in milk and water according to package directions. Add salt to taste. When grits are cooked, scrape into a mixing bowl (don’t use the pan, it will be too warm). Add pepper, nutmeg, and Tabasco. Stir in all but 1/2 c of the grated cheese. Let cool slightly and add the egg yolks, stirring until well blended. Beat egg whites until stiff. Add half the whites to the grits mixture and beat them in. Fold in remaining whites, using a rubber spatula. Spoon mixture into prepared souffle dish and smooth the top. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 c cheese. Place in oven and bake 25 minutes or until desired degree of doneness. Serve immediately.

April 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm 15 comments

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Some of my cookbooks

In no order except for how they appear in my LibraryThing cookbook catalog: True Women Cookbook: Original Antique Recipes, Photographs, & Family Folklore, Janice Woods Windle (1997) * Made in Texas; H-E-B's 100th Anniversary Cookbook (2005) * The Texas Cowboy Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos, Robb Walsh (2007) * The Silver Palate Cookbook, Julee Rosso, Sheila Lukins (1982) * In the Land of Cocktails: Recipes and Adventures from the Cocktail Chicks, Ti Adelaide Martin & Lally Brennan (2007) * Braise: A Journey Through International Cuisine, Daniel Boulud (2006) * Moosewood Cookbook : Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant, Mollie Katzen (1977) * Crescent City Cooking: Unforgettable Recipes from Susan Spicer's New Orleans, Susan Spicer (2007) * Saveur Cooks Authentic American: By the Editors of Saveur Magazine, ed. Colman Andrews (1998)

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