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

April Food Day

Today is April Food Day, a day when bloggers are asked to write about hunger in their communities to benefit the national food bank Feeding America and to raise awareness for national and local food bank services. The timing couldn’t be better. I’ve been working at the Capital Area Food Bank for a week and a half now, and it’s already had a profound impact on the way I’m thinking about food.

I came to the job – the perfect kick-off for Usey Communications, fourteen weeks filling in for a staffer on maternity leave – already aware of the good work done by CAFB, already troubled by hunger in the community, already a buyer of cans and stuffer of sacks for several food drives a year.

But I didn’t have the whole picture. I hadn’t heard some of the personal stories of clients in need – a mother looking for any work she can find to put food in front of her children, an elderly married couple whose meager monthly budget means they have to choose between prescriptions for diabetes management and healthy meals, a small businessman who worked hard his whole life before a medical condition cost him his business and then his home.

I hadn’t seen the newest numbers, the ones that show that 48,000 people a week — a week! — need help from the Food Bank and its partner agencies who distribute the food. Among the statistics about those helped by CAFB: 41% of those receiving food are children, 82 percent of them aren’t homeless, and more than a third of the elderly go extended periods without food. Similar numbers come from Feeding America, whose national statistics bear out the local increases in use of the food bank, costs for basic needs, and the pressure that puts on food banks trying to meet those needs.

And I hadn’t seen the foodbank itself, where more than 60 people work to fight hunger, or the warehouse where Capital Area Food Bank employees and volunteers stack and sort and repackage donations from throughout the community, from food drives and grocery rescues. Individuals and groups around Central Texas are generous with their nonperishable goods and checks, and the area’s grocers have gotten into the act in a huge way. Several times a week, trucks roll in with goods from stores like H-E-B, Randalls, and Wal-Mart (whose recent zero-waste policy has led not only to increased food bank donations but corporate composting and recycling too), with canned goods, baked goods, even meat and produce.

I don’t want to sound like an overprivileged naif who’s just discovered that some people go hungry. But working this closely with an agency whose mission is to nourish hungry people and lead the community in ending hunger gives me something to write about today for April Food Day, something to think about every day, something to do something about when I can. I am fortunate to have my own little business, to live in a two-paycheck household, to be able to run to the store when I need to pick up something for supper. I’m feeling that a little more keenly after the last two weeks. The day I spent in the warehouse with the rest of the CAFB staff, helping to sort and package boxes for our partner agencies’ food pantries, will stick with me for a long time. As a culture, as a community, as individual households, we waste a lot. I’m trying to plan meals now so they last a little while but not so long they wind up going uneaten. I’m trying to buy groceries that aren’t as expensive, not just for our own stretched budget but for the principle of less consumption, and when I splurge, I’m trying to acknowledge that this is a splurge, a luxury. And I’m trying to spread the word about hunger, to encourage others to think about the issue and how simple it can be to help.

Pick up a couple of extra cans of tuna and drop them in a food bank barrel. Buy $10 worth of unperishables and leave them for your postal carrier on Saturday, May 8. Reach out to your local food bank with a $10 check. Here in Austin, the Capital Area Food Bank uses monetary donations to provide more food to more people, even as they process the unperishables and get them to local food pantries. Nationally, Feeding America is doing the same thing.  If you’ve got a little something to spare, April Food Day is a good day to do it.

April 1, 2010 at 3:18 pm Leave a comment

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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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