Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fig-Almond Tart in Cornmeal-Olive Oil Crust Adds Up to Harvest Time Treat

Figs. Jammy with just a bit of lemon, vanilla and sugar.
Almond paste. Smooth, nutty, slightly sweet and wonderful.
Cornmeal and olive oil crust. Crumbly, earthy and a bit hearty.

Put these elements together and you have one of the best things I put in my mouth this year. The textures, tastes and just plain deliciousness made one piece not enough, even without the gilding of whipped cream or vanilla bean ice cream. Plus the crust is very easy to mix and just pat into place (no rolling out needed). Oh, and this goodie is vegan.

The recipe was developed for my j. weekly column. To read that and to see how it fits into the fall harvest celebration of Sukkot, please go here.

Fig Tart with Cornmeal-Olive Oil Crust
Serves 8

1 lb. fresh black figs, quartered
2 Tbs. lemon juice
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
1/8 tsp. vanilla extract
½ cup sugar, divided
1 cup flour
½ cup yellow cornmeal
¼ tsp salt
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
10-oz. can almond paste

Put figs, lemon juice and zest, vanilla and half the sugar in sauce pan over low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until thick and jammy, 25-30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Mix flour, cornmeal, salt and remaining sugar in bowl. Stir in oil. Mix thoroughly with hands until dough comes together. Press evenly into bottom and sides of a 9” tart pan. Prick all over with fork. Bake for 15-18 minutes until crust is lightly browned. (If crust puffs up as it cooks, prick again.) Let cool. Pat almond paste into bottom of tart. Top with cooked figs.

Note: I used Love'n' Bake's almond paste for this recipe and I do recommend it. I have had a long history of using Love'n Bake products (and receiving an occasional sample). Please see my posts on pistachio tart and king cake.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Taste of Jewish Shanghai Past -- Sweet and Sour Memories (and Recipe)

The Bund, once center of Shanghai Jewish life, today
There is something about China and the Jews.

Maybe it has to something do with a reverence for education, a shared sense of being an outsider, or just the appreciation many U.S. Jews have of growing up eating moo moo gai pan, but the stories of long assimilated Keifeng Jews and the more recent Jewish communities in Harbin and Shanghai attract us as much as the promise of egg fu young or even kung pao chicken.

The stories of lives led and a culture lost have an appeal that affects Jews beyond those whose heritage has been touched by these places, which includes communities of Russian Jews who fled pograms and poverty and later the Russian revolution through Siberia and the Trans-Siberian railroad into Harbin, Iraqi and Indian-Iraqi Jews leading what has often been depicted as idealized colonialized life in pre-World War II Shanghai or the grimmer realities of hunger, internment and uncertainity faced by Holocaust refugees in a Shanghai ghetto.

Recently at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, in Berkeley, CA, Inna Mink and Dianne Jacob got to explore their families' Chinese heritage and food memories and we got a taste literally and figuratively of a lost world, with local restaurants supplying some typical Shanghaiese foods for tasting. The event was co-sponsored by the Asian Culinary Forum.

The evening, tied to the closing of the Shanghai exhibit at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum, was supposed to be about food, but as usual it is hard to divorce the food from its place in memory, family, culture, society, economics and identity.

Mink's grandparents left the pogroms of Russia for Harbin, what was then essentially a Manchurian Chinese shtel without plumbing or much of anything else. It's only recommendation was that it was not Russia and they felt safe. When Mink was two, her parents thought there would be more economic opportunity in Shanghai and moved 1,000 miles to the south.  The lived in the French Concession, an upper class European section of a city divided by race, class and economics thanks to the Opium Wars and its position on the edge of China on the Yangtze River.

Mink is a grandmotherly woman who came to the U.S. after WWII, but her face softens, her smile broadens and a playful young woman peeks out from under her auburn bangs when she talks about growing up in Shanghai in general and eating there in particular.  "The food was spectacular in Shanghai," she said, almost with a sigh.

She and her mother did not cook nor did any in their set. Servants were plentiful. Food in the home was in the Russian style with beef stroganoff and chicken cutlets called kotleta po-kievksy oozing butter. Jewish style food and kosher considerations (such as mixing meat and milk products) were only seen on the table during the High Holidays and Passover.

Mink and her family mingled with her father's Chinese factory managers and customers, sometimes eating in their homes. Once a month they would visit their favorite Chinese restaurant Sun Ya, on what Mink called Bubbling Well Road (or Nanking) ; a restaurant whose food was so defining for her she has saved a menu from it. (The Cantonese-style restaurant is still in business and is now known as Xinya.) 

The family was Jewish, ate Russian food and sent Mink to a French school, but even now it is the Chinese part of her life that she feels has shaped her. The food is still compelling and the pull of Chinatowns and Asian restaurants is strong. Food is the only memory from that time she can still taste, but the time and place have marked her and made China part of her heritage.

Mink (left) and Jacobs
 Jacob's story differs in many aspects from Mink's. Her family was from a Baghdadi Jewish background.  These were  Mitzrachi, or Eastern Jews, with roots in Iraq and in India (where many Iraqi Jews settled before they came to Shanghai.) The Iraqi-Indian Iraqi community began settling in Shanghai the later half of the 1800s. By World War II it was made up of about 500 families who developed diverse Jewish organizations as well as built up the famous waterfront Bund and settled in the International concessions. Trade and business had brought them to Shanghai.  Orthodox and observant, for them events based in the synagogue and the home were of primary importance, but many went out for drinks, shows and other nightlife. As with Mink, servants ruled the kitchen and most of the Jewish women did not cook. The household cooks made British, Chinese foods, and dishes reflecting the Jews' Iraqi and Indian roots with adaptations for local food ways such as fresh bamboo shoots in the stew and rice flour dumplings instead of semolina.

"Usually it was an American breakfast, a British luncheon, an Iraqi-style tea with pastries and fruit and supper was Iraqi or Indian Jewish food," she said.

Jacob was born in Canada after her parents had immigrated in 1949, but she grew up in a home that identified strongly as Chinese. Her parents spoke to Jacob and her sister in the Shanghai dialect (or in Arabic), ate with chopsticks and tried to adapt New World ingredients and Chinatown pantry items into the remembered foods of their past and a connection to what had once been their home. Jacobs recalls her mother's version of spaghetti, a dish her mom had never eaten before, made with copious amounts of onions and black pepper and served with grilled chicken livers. Jacobs was in college before she had pasta with meatballs, tomato sauce and basil. She described the dish to her astonished mother who thought the combination totally unappetizing.

And once a month the family would eat out at a local Chinese restaurant, where, according to Jacob, Jewish "amnesia" would set in, and the Jewish dietary laws would be forgotten for a taste of the past and a connection with a life and identity they had left behind.

Growing up focused on the food of a country half a world away left an impact on Jacob. 

"I'd say I feel very Asian identified. I'm very comfortable with anything Chinese, particularly food."

The families of Mink and Jacob had very different experiences after the Japanese occupied the city in 1937.  Jacob's father's family, who had Iraqi citizenship, was considered stateless and was not allowed to work. One uncle made peanut butter and sold it on the street to survive.  Her mother's family held British papers and was interned for five years across the river in an encampment in the then rural Pudong area.  There was never enough food and what there was often spoiled and full of bugs.

As a Russian, Mink's wartime experiences were much less harsh.  There were some travel restrictions and shortages of such things as oranges, butter, eggs and gasoline, but they "didn't have to give up much," she said.

It was during World War II that the third major group of Jews arrived in Shanghai, refugees from the Holocaust.  These were Eastern European Jews many of whom were aided in their flight by visas issued by Japanese and Chinese consular authorities in Poland and Austria.  The Japanese eventually moved many of the 20,000 refugees into a  three-quarters of a square-mile ghetto in the Honkou district (sometimes spelled Honkow) without first moving out the area's 200,000 Shanghai residents in what already was an overcrowded and run down area.  Restrictions on the refugees increased as the war progressed, but the Japanese governor never acceded to the Nazi demands to hand over the Jews.

Neither Jacob or Mink had Honkou experiences to share, but several audience members had family members who were restricted to the ghetto and they spoke about the hardships, lack of food and rationing that their loved ones endured.  One woman told of how her Austrian grandmother made Viennese pastries and sold them in coffee houses to help provide for her family.

There were no recipes given out that night and both speakers said they knew of no cookbook that could capture the special food that their families had eaten in Shanghai. (One audience member commented "recipes were passed down from one generation to another like the Torah.") Most if not all the Jews of that period left China once the Communists came to power. The Jews in China today are mostly Israeli and other consulate and embassy personnel, Chabad emissaries, expatriate executives and other foreign workers. 
Ohel Moshe is now a museum

China itself seems to appreciate the richness and diversity Jews brought to Shanghai and has restored some buildings important to Jewish heritage including one of the Eastern European Jewish communities' synagogues and put in a Jewish museum. The exhibit is mostly photo and text panels and focuses on the Holocaust refugee experience, though, there is not much tangible evidence of the community itself except for on the second floor where an old sewing machine and other goods left behind by Jewish emigres are displayed.

There is almost no Judaica in the temple building, but there was  a mezzuah  (prayer scroll in a small container) hung on the door frame. When I was there, a young Chinese security guard came up to me, pointed to it with pride and in halting English told me it was something the Jews used to touch when they came into the building. I didn't explain to him that I knew all about these door hangings, I just thanked him. Then I reached up, touched it and kissed my fingers.

I remembered that moment the other night as Mink and Jacob were sharing their memories. I remember feeling connected to those Jews so long ago in such an exotic place by the universal Jewish act of touching a mezzuah. As Mink and Jacob talked that memory came back to me and I though maybe for me as well as others the appeal of Jews in China was that even in what to us is an exotic setting we still had that connection of ritual and meaning that we could share, even across time. And for Mink, Jacob and others with Harbin and Shanghai in their past, the food they ate was as an important link to them as any ritual, photograph or memory. It was a way to define their identity. Their lives in China were multicultural and multilingual. (Mink's family spoke Russian, Chinese, English and French. Jacob's family spoke Arabic, English and Chinese.) Perhaps they only became aware of themselves as being an Asian Jew after their families had left China, but it is now a haunting part of who they are.


Here are some typical Shanghai recipes for drunken chicken, vegetarian goose and sweet and sour lotus root from the Asian Culinary Forum site. the recipes are by Chef Nei Chia Ji of Jai Yun and were prepared for an event at the Asian Art Museum in conjunction with the culinary forum as part of the programming centered around the museum's Shanghai exhibit.

The  1935 menu  from Mink's favorite restaurant, Sun Ya, is almost more like an informational brochure about Cantonese food than a menu.  Sweet and sour dishes seemed to be fairly popular, including Mandarin fish, called the "famous fish of Shanghai." Since I learned a version of sweet and sour sauce in my Shanghai cooking class and later adapted the recipe for fish, I include that recipe here.

Sweet and sour in Shanghai class
 Sweet and Sour Fish
Serves 4 or 6 as part of a multi-course Chinese-style meal

The ketchup in the recipe is totally authentic, much to my surprise. I haven’t done the research so I don’t know if sweet and sour sauce began life in this country (perhaps as an adaption of a traditional dish or a unique one based on Western food availability) and migrated there or a traditional one that was adapted as Western ingredients made their way to China. 
Note: I used a combination of regular white distilled vinegar and Chinese black rice vinegar (I used one third black rice vinegar), which gave the dish a nice taste and toned down the bright red sweet and sour color (as does the soy sauce). You could also try apple cider vinegar instead of the Chinese black rice vinegar or just using all white distilled vinegar. Avoid the Japanese rice vinegars; they are too mild to give the zing we associate with sweet and sour sauce.

4 1/2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons vinegar (see note above)
2 teaspoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons tomato ketchup
1 cup water
¼ teaspoon salt

1 ½ pounds thickish filets of rock cod, cod, halibut, pretty much any non-oily white fish
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
2 eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons of cornstarch
Canola or other vegetable oil for deep frying

Stir Fry
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced (about a heaping tablespoon)
2 green onions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 medium bell peppers (I used one green and one red), cut into 1” or so pieces
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
8 ounces of pineapple cut in 1” cubes, (fresh or drained canned)

Make the sauce first in either the wok or another pan.
Combine all the sauce ingredients in the pot. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is well combined. Taste and correct the seasoning, adding more vinegar, ketchup and/or salt until you have the preferred balance of sweet vs. sour. Set aside off the heat. (If you have used the wok for the sauce, thoroughly clean and dry it before frying fish.)

Prepare fish. Rinse and pat fish dry. Sprinkle fish with salt. Cut into approximately 1 ½ inch cubes or chunks. In a large enough bowl to hold all the fish cubes, combine eggs and cornstarch until well mixed. Add the fish cubes and toss to coat thoroughly.

Heat oil for deep frying in the wok or another deep, large pan, such as a chicken fryer or sauté pan. Heat oil until is medium to very hot (about 375 degrees F). (To see if the oil is ready, drop a bit of batter if it immediately sizzles and begins to brown, the oil is ready.) Add a few fish cubes at a time, frying until golden brown and cooked through and removing to drain on a plate. Continue until all the fish cubes are fried. Set aside.

Properly dispose of the oil, leaving about 2 tablespoons in the wok or pan. Strain out any left over fried bits with a slotted spoon or skimmer. Heat oil until very hot. Add the garlic and stir fry, being careful not to burn it. Add the scallions and the pepper pieces and stir fry until the pepper pieces begin to soften. Add in reserved sauce and bring to a boil. Slowly drizzle in the cornstarch mixture, stirring until it is well combined and the sauce is thickened. It should still be liquid, but not runny or thick and should coat the back of the spoon. Stir in pineapple chunks and the fish. Mix to evenly distribute sauce. Serve with rice.

About the photos: Shanghai and stir fry  photos taken by me in 2008.

A Word to My Readers

If you were reading the post on the food memories of Shanghai Jews on Blog Appetit's front page (above this) and wondering why the heck I didn't add a jump or break it's because some code in the program kept messing with the formating and I lost all spacing. If you have any idea what I need to do to fix it, please let me know. I think it's because I put a jump break in and moved it and it left some sticky residue in the code, but I am just guessing based on trial and error. Leave me a comment or email me at clickblogappetitDOTgmailDotcom if you can be of more assistance on this than blogger help or forums was!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Budget Food Shopping at Whole Foods on $4 a Day --- Or How to Have Wholesome Food without Spending the Whole Paycheck --Hunger Challenge 2010

Whole Foods' Perri Kramer at bulk bins
 Shop Whole Foods Market for a full day’s worth of organic food for a family of four for just $4 a person?

It seemed like an extreme test, but as part of my participation in the San Francisco Food Bank’s Hunger Challenge 2010, I took it on, and thanks to help from Perri Kramer, marketing team leader of the Oakland, CA, store, I was able to do just that. (You can see more about the background on my shopping trip here and the day’s menu and recipes here. To read all of my Hunger Challenge 2010 posts, click here.)

Perri leads regular “shopping on a budget” tours for customers and she offered to walk the store with me to show me how to cruise the aisles for affordable and often locally sourced goods. She helped highlight some items that would work in my meal plan, which was restricted by the Hunger Challenge rules of $4 a day per person (the amount a typical food stamp recipient would have to spend) and by the further constraint that I wanted all the food to be certified organic.

Since some have nicknamed Whole Foods “Whole Paycheck,” I was worried when we started that my options would be very limited. But that just wasn’t true. I had a number of choices, although my dinner pasta sauce recipe really just had just a hint of chicken. Sure some produce might have been less expensive in an organic farmer’s market, and some other items might have been lower priced elsewhere, but the chain offers some good values, especially for those who want to eat organic, and if you shop carefully, some exceptional ones. In some communities one of the chain’s 270 stores might be the only resource for organic products, although in others there are regional, national or local alternatives. Just looking at food pricing and availability of organic products, I found Whole Foods to be an excellent one-stop resource for those who want to eat wholesome foods on a budget.

While Perri's tips are for budget-conscious shopping at Whole Foods, they could easily be adapted to shopping at most large supermarkets.
  •  Allow yourself enough time. Budget shopping anywhere takes more time as you compare deals and options
  • Pick up the chain’s “Whole Deal” semi-monthly flyer  at the store entrance for coupons, special deals and recipes. On my tour she pointed out that the butcher shop had some sausages on special that had an extra dollar off coupon in the flyer.
  • Watch for in-store produce specials, usually towards the front of the produce department. “We always have five to seven on special, and often they are local and seasonal from smaller farmers” where Whole Foods wants to increase demand for the farmers and sell through the perishable item as soon as possible.
  •  Choose seasonal produce for the best pricing. In season fruits and vegetables will almost always be the best values.
  •  Look for the store branding on packaged produce and other items (such as the 365 Everyday Value brand). If organic is a concern, look for that on the label. When 365 store-branded products are not organic, Perri says they are still as natural as possible and have a higher level of quality control than other sources. 365 produce is also sometimes locally sourced.
  • When shopping for fish or meat, consider shopping on Friday, when Whole Foods often has one-day specials in these departments. Also look for the 365 brand  on packaged meat and the store’s “value-packs” which offer per pound discounts on larger packages of meat and chicken.
  •  Grocery specials are often displayed near the front the store, so Perri advises checking there first and advises looking for store brands to help pare down costs.
  • Buy from the bulk section, but only buy what you need. “You can buy just a tiny bit of a specialty item and only have to pay for what you need,” she said. It is also a great place to stock up on staples such as frequently used grains and beans. Prices are cheaper since you are not paying for packaging.
  •  Look for ways to add low-cost flavor to your dish to keep costs down. Buy a bit of a spice or seasoning mix from the bulk section, consider using bullion or broth as a base for soups and stews or for cooking rice or other grains. Perri pointed out a package of organic vegetarian or chicken bullion that cost about 14 cents a serving.
  • Watch out for processed frozen, canned or other packaged foods if you are on a tight budget. Perri says that some items on the grocery aisle might be tasty or convenient but that they add to your grocery bill. In general choose foods with as minimal processing as possible to get the most out of your food dollar.
She also suggested checking out the low-cost recipes on the Whole Foods website and contacting your local Whole Foods Market to get your own budget shopping tour.

Note: I was putting together an all-organic menu. Prices at Whole Foods Market for non-organic alternatives were lower. Choosing some of these goods would have lowered my food bill, allowed me to have more fresh produce or chicken or changed what I selected for my day’s menu.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

How to Help The SF Food Bank Get 15 Tons of Food -- Hunger Challenge 2010 Update

Breaking news:
Make a comment on San Fransico Food Bank's post on the Tyson Foods website and the food processor will get 100 pounds of chicken and other food!

Tyson will donate up to 30,000 pounds.  Thanks to Tyson for coming through for the food bank again (they also donated in 2008 and 2009.

Read more and leave your comment at this post.


9.20.10 Update:  We got 300 comments on the post and the San Francisco Food Bank will be receiving 30,000 pounds of chicken.  The truck pulls up on October 5th.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Last Night's Hunger Challenge Dinner and a Holiday Hold

Last night, I made the very excellent tortilla lasagna for dinner. The recipe is here.  I skipped all the additional vegetables except a little garlic and 1/2 lb. of leftover frozen spinach and made it a bit smaller (only 6 tortillas instead of 9 and less shredded cheese and sauce), so it made 4 servings instead of 6. I used leftover sauce (about 12-16 ounces) and it came in at around $1 serving and was very tasty.  This recipe is from Hunger Challenge 2009.

I'm glad I have a depth of budget cuisine recipes to cull from now, it gets tiring to have to plot out every day and figure out every recipe. 

Blog Appetit's Hunger Challenge 2010 write ups are going on hold for a few days.  Because of the impending Jewish holiday, I'm taking today and tomorrow off from writing up my Hunger Challenge posts -- still to come are the Whole Foods budget shopping guide and the ethnic shopping experience.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Recipes & Menus for Eating Organic on $4 a Day (Part 2) - Hunger Challenge 2010

Four dollars a day per person is a tough food budget for anyone, but if for health or other reasons you are committed to eating all organic it can be a daunting experience.  As part of my participating in Hunger Challenge 2010 and spending only $4 a day/person on meals (similar to what someone on food stamps would receive), I decided to plan an "all organic day" to see if I could do so.  The answer, was yes, one could eat 100 percent organic, but not without a lot of time shopping and cooking.  While there was definitely enough to eat and I was able to create a relatively nutritious meal plan for the day, I kept thinking if I could have only bought some ingredients non-organic I would have had more food (and definitely more chicken) in my day. Another compromise was relying on frozen and canned produce to keep down costs. Even within those constraints I tried to work in fruit, vegetables, fiber, calcium and a little variety.

For Part 1 and more background on the Hunger Challenge, please click here. For what else I've posted on Hunger Challenge 2010 and links, please click here.

Here's my menu plan and costs with some recipe suggestions.  All foods used were certified 100 percent organic and were purchased at Whole Foods. (For more on Whole Foods and how to shop for healthy food on the cheap, check out the post on my budget shopping tour.) 

Note: Menu plan was based on 4 servings.  (So that's leftovers for 1 or a complete meal for a family of 4).  Everything was organic.  My per person total for the day came out to $3.90. Since I like strong flavors, I would have used that "extra" 10 cents to add some more spice to the corn soup and or the pasta sauce.  I utilized "fractionalized" costs on ingredients that I did not use up in total in a recipe.  Some are pantry staples, others would be used in other meals on another day (such as the leftover pasta sauce and pasta).

See below the menu and recipes for my lessons learned.

Breakfast   -- Oatmeal with Fruit and Yogurt -- 75 cents a serving:
Rolled oats (per serving: 1/2 cup oats in 1 cup boiling water with dash of salt, cook, stirring for about five minutes) served with sliced apple, a drizzle of honey and 2 Tbs. of yogurt per person.

Lunch -- Corn Soup with Bread -- $1.25 a serving
My Hunger Challenge Corn Soup might have been a little less expensive with fresh corn since it's in season, but I wanted to make it a quicker meal.  Serve with 1 slice per person of whole wheat bread.

Hunger Challenge Corn Soup
Serves 4

In hindsight, if I had cut out the chicken in the pasta sauce and used beans, I would have put some of the savings into amping up this soup, which but could use some more vegetables or some beans.
1 Tbs. oil
1/2 small onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 tsp. paprika or chili powder (optional)
1 carrot, chopped
4 cups water
1 vegetarian or chicken bullion cube
15-oz. can of corn, drained
8 oz. frozen spinach (1/2 bag, reserve rest for another use)
7 oz. diced tomatoes (1/2 can, reserve rest for another use)
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in bottom of soup pot, brown onions and garlic. And optional paprika or chili powder and carrots.  Saute for a few minutes. Add water. Bring to simmer. Add bullion cube, stirring until dissolved.  Add corn, spinach and tomatoes. Add salt and pepper. Cook until carrots are cooked through. Taste and correct seasonings. If desired, puree part of the soup for a creamy texture.

Snack: -- 1/2 cup per person of non-fat yogurt --- 40 cents per serving

Dinner -- Pasta with Sauce and Bread OR Half of an Apple -- $1.50
This meal was the hardest, I kept having to take out fresh veggies (such as steamed broccoli or a green salad) and reducing the portion of chicken because of the cost of organic meat.  Another way to go would have been to skip the meat and use 2 cups of cooked white beans with bulk beans that would have cost a total of  56 cents, a savings of $1.19 over using just the 1/4 pound of chicken in the pasta sauce. I also could have skipped the bread or apple and used a bit more chicken in the recipe. 

Pasta with Peppers, Onions and a Hint of Chicken
Serves 4

Pick a pasta sauce with strong seasoning to help flavor the sauce without having to add other herbs or spices.
If you are not going to serve the sliced bread or half of an apple (either with the meal or as an additional snack), you can add an additional chicken or a side of steamed carrots and stay on budget.

1/4 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 1 small thigh)
1 Tbs. oil
8 oz.  frozen red and green pepper and onion mix (1/2 bag, reserve rest for another use)
7 oz diced tomatoes with liquid (reserved from soup recipe)
1 cup pasta sauce (from 25oz. jar, reserve rest for another use)
Salt and pepper to taste
4 cups cooked whole wheat pasta

Chop chicken very fine.  Heat oil over medium high heat in a deep fry pan or wide pot. Saute, stirring until chicken is browned, breaking up any clumps.  Add pepper and onion mix, and stir until beginning to defrost. Add tomatoes with their liquid, and pasta sauce.  Lower heat to simmer, and cook covered, stirring until the vegetables and sauce are heated through.  Serve over pasta. (If using beans, leave out the oil and chicken and add 2 cups cooked beans when you add pasta sauce.)

Lessons learned:  I think if I had kept the day vegetarian I would have been able to have more food and more choices (and a more filling lunch), which would have been very much appreciated.  Another tact would be to decide which foods were the most important to have kept organic and just looked for high quality alternatives that were not necessarily organic.  I was determined to shop in one place (Whole Foods in this case), because many food stamp recipients don't have the wherewithal to go from store to store looking for bargains.  One place to look might have been local farmer's markets.  Another here in the West is The Grocery Outlet chain, which sometimes has organic canned and packaged goods for very low prices. Overall, though, I thought that Whole Foods was a good choice for accessible one-stop organic shopping, although locally I have several independent food stores that offer good choices. Many regular chain markets now offer some organic choices as well.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Eating Organic on $4 a Day -- Hunger Challenge 2010 (Part 1)

During past Hunger Challenges,* I have read posts from participating food bloggers about having to forgo organic food in order to eat a varied and filling diet on $4 a day. I thought it would be interesting to try and devise a Hunger Challenge $4 a person a day menu using only organic ingredients.

While organic products and produce are available much more widely now (even some items at my favorite discount grocer, The Grocery Outlet), for many people in the Bay area the widest variety of organic produce, meat, dairy, processed foods and more is Whole Foods. To get a good idea of how to accomplish this, I got a “budget shopping” tour from Oakland, CA, Whole Foods marketing team member Perri Kramer. Read more about that here.

While everything on my shopping list and my menu for the day was organic, it didn’t come without other compromises. My meals were mostly vegetarian and my dinner dish could be called more pasta flavored with chicken then pasta with chicken. I did need to opt for frozen organic vegetables to keep costs down and relied heavily on in-store specials to make up my menu (which meant shopping took even longer since mid-shopping trip I had to alter the menu to fit the specials).

While eating 100 percent organic was doable on $4 a day, I couldn’t have done it on $3, which was the “regular” California allotment for food stamps. A temporary $1 a day increase is due to expire this December 31st. Even without the organic restraint, fitting in fruits and vegetables was very difficult in 2008 when I did the challenge on $3 and that extra dollar a day is very meaningful to those who depend on the program. If you would like to see this funding extended, please contact your member of Congress and let them know how important you think it is.

To be truthful, it’s late and I’m tired. Catch up with rest of the story with Part 2 and my Eating Organic on $4 a Day menu and recipe.
*The Hunger Challenge is being sponsored by the San Francisco Food Bank to increase awareness of hunger in the Bay area and elsewhere. This is the third year of the challenge. It has not only raised awareness but also funds and literally tons of food for local food banks. This year 25 five food bloggers are living as if they were on food stamps for a week, with a total food budget of only $4 a person a day and blogging about their experiences. Links to all the participating blogs can be found at You can see what else I’ve written about the Hunger Challenge this year here.

About the photo: Overview of Oakland, CA, Whole Foods

Monday, September 13, 2010

Kosher on $4 a Day -- Hunger Challenge 2010 and a Stuffed Cabbage Roll Recipe

It’s tough to eat on the $4 a day a person the food stamp program allows and even tougher if you have religious or health constraints. So I thought as part of my 2010 Hunger Challenge experience I would try a sample day where all I would consume would be kosher (according to Jewish dietary laws) and another where everything was organic. Here’s a bit about my experience of trying to keep kosher on $4 a day.

(A brief recap – the Hunger Challenge is sponsored by the San Francisco Food Bank to increase awareness of hunger and related issues in our community by having bloggers and others live on a “food stamp budget” of $4 per day per person for food.).

These constraints can be costly and time consuming. For example, the kosher ground beef I bought for the recipe below was $5.99 a pound. The same grade of ground beef without being butchered and handled in the prescribed religious manner was about $2.29 a pound. Also, any processed food has to be certified and labeled kosher, meaning it does not contain any prohibited food items (such as pork or shellfish) and does not mix meat and milk products. Such certification limits choices and can add to the cost as well. I kept costs down by shopping discount food stores spending about double the amount of time I normally would comparing prices and reading packaging to make sure my choices were properly certified.

I bought quick oats certified kosher in bulk and having that for breakfast with a small piece of fruit and a dollop of yogurt also helped keep my overall food costs down. For lunch I had a large bowl of vegetable soup with a slice of bread, but a serving of my Hunger Challenge Chili (cut the recipe in half and use only ½ pound of ground beef) over some rice or a baked potato would have worked well. I snacked on some carrots and celery stalks dipped in yogurt.

Since we are in the middle of celebrating the Jewish holidays this fall, I thought I would break some of the rules I make for myself when it comes to the Hunger Challenge. I generally develop easy, relatively quick-to-make entrees, but I wanted to make something special for a holiday dinner. This Hunger Challenge Stuffed Cabbage will take a little more time but can be made ahead and reheated. Serve it to a group of guests or enjoy it for several meals.

I had to change the recipe to reduce meat and seasonings to trim costs. My cost for the food used was $1.05 a serving, which means I could serve the stuffed cabbage rolls with mashed potatoes or rice and steamed carrots on the side and still come in at about $1.25 a person for this meal.

Hunger Challenge Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
Serves 8

1 cup long grain rice
½ cup raisins
1 large green cabbage
2 Tbs. oil
1 small onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 carrots, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
½ cup chopped mushrooms
½ lb. ground beef, 15 percent fat or less
¼ tsp. and 1/8 tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground black pepper
Dash hot pepper sauce
1-28 oz. can crushed tomatoes, divided
1-15 oz. can tomato sauce
¼ tsp sugar
1 Tbs. apple cider vinegar

Make rice according to package directions. Leave covered and set aside.
Soak the raisins in ½ cup of hot water. Core the cabbage and pull off 16 leaves plus extras if they are small. Submerge the leaves in a large pot of boiling water and cook covered until tender about 4 minutes. Drain and cool. Chop remaining cabbage. Keep 3 cups and reserve the rest for another use. (Perhaps this 12-Serving Vegetable Soup from Hunger Challenge 2008)
In a large sauté pan, heat oil. Fry onions until golden, add garlic. Sauté and add 3 cups of chopped cabbage, carrots and celery. Sauté until softened. Add mushrooms, sauté for 3 minutes, add beef, browning and breaking up any clumps. Add ¼ tsp salt, pepper and hot sauce. Add ½ can of crushed tomatoes. Combine well. Fluff rice. Mix well with meat mixture. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread ½ cup of the tomato sauce on the bottom of a 9” x 13” baking pan. Place a heaping ¼ cup of filling in the middle of a cabbage leaf. (Overlap two leaves if small.) Fold over the two shorter sides of the leaf. Fold over one of the longer sides, then the other. Place folded side down in the baking pan. Repeat.

Combine remaining tomato sauce and crushed tomatoes in a sauce pan, add drained raisins, 1/8th tsp of salt and the sugar. Heat through. Add 1 Tbs. of vinegar. Taste and adjust seasoning to as needed. Spread sauce over top of rolls. Bake until heated through, approximately 40-45 minutes. Can be made ahead and reheated.

If you would like information on how to help in your area, please go to Feeding America to find a food bank near you. For more information on the San Francisco Food Bank, click here. To get the latest on the Hunger Challenge, go here.

This recipe and part of this article first appeared in the j. weekly. You can see the original column here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hunger Challenge 2010 -- Kick Off

Today is the kick off for the third San Francisco Food Bank Hunger Challenge. Twenty five bloggers (as well as others in the community) are spending just $4 a day per person for all their food and beverages for seven days to get a feel for what it is like to subsist on food stamps (which are now called SNAP).

Some will be blogging about how they cope with the limitations of such a budget, others will be writing about hunger in the Bay area and elsewhere.  Some will be creating menus, recipes and shopping tips that the food bank can share with their clients to help make existing on such a budget as filling, healthy and easy as possible. Many of the participants will be posting on Facebook and Twitter as well.

The Hunger Challenge participants have also helped to raise awareness, literally tons of food donations and cash contributions not just for the San Francisco Food Bank, but for food banks across the Bay area.

You can learn more about the Hunger Challenge at and get all the links and the Twitter handles to follow along.  Or if you'd like to sign up and give the Hunger Challenge a try (even for a day or two), you can also sign up there.  You don't need a blog or even a Facebook or Twitter account to join in, but if you do have one or more of those, please help spread the word about the importance of food banks (the SFFB estimates 150,000 San Franciscans a day face hunger) and the need for continued and improved funding for programs such as food stamps.

This is the third year that I've participated.  You can see everything I posted on the 2008  challenge here, including shopping lists, daily menus, meal planning tips and more.  In 2008, we only had $3 a person a day to work with, so filling up my family of four and keeping the food nutritious was even more challenging. (The extra dollar a day really makes a difference, but it is just a temporary change and is due to expire.) I think the Hunger Challenge Chili was my favorite recipe from that year. I also feel that what I wrote in my wrap up/recommendations for change post still sums my experience and what I learned and what I would like to see change to make it easier for Food Bank clients and those on food stamps to feed themselves and their families as well as possible.

You can read about my 2009 experience here.  In 2009 we were able to use $4 a day per person. Like the year before, I also planned out a weekly meal plan, gave shopping trips, shared about my experiences and developed recipes.  Probably my favorite from 2009 was the Hunger Challenge Cassoulet (a bean and sausage stew).  I summed up my reactions here.

This year, I'm going about the challenge a bit differently. I'm figuring out the cost of each meal and keeping it to about $1.25 or less per person.  I'm developing menus day by day rather than by the week to highlight the different needs of different communities -- for example: organic, kosher, ethnic and others.  Each has its positives and negatives and I look forward to sharing them (and the recipes) with you.

Please look for my daily Hunger Challenge update.  If you have any experiences with food banks, food stamps or budget meals you'd like to share, please feel free to leave a comment.

If you would like information on how to help in your area, please go to Feeding America to find a food bank.  For more information on the San Francisco Food Bank, click here.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Leftovers -- Chicken Enchiladas in a Hurry

When I cook, I cook as if I'm feeding an army, so I usually have a lot of leftovers.  So it wasn't surprising that a recent holiday dinner/son birthday party resulted in lots of leftover baked chicken.  I turned the leftovers into a quick enchilada dish that I have made with assorted variations over the years. (Leftover rotisserie chicken or grilled chicken also works just fine.)

I am giving approximate measurements, feel free to improvise your own variation and let me know how it turned out.  A cooking buddy (A Woman Called Sam) asked if I had posted the recipe after I wrote on Facebook about it, so I decided to throw it up now rather than wait for the photo or more precise measurements.  This is a very adaptable recipe and one I have never made the same way twice.

Easy Enchiladas

If you make these with corn tortillas they will be gluten free. (I've also noticed some brown rice flour gluten free tortillas in the supermarket lately but haven't tried those).

This version doesn't include them, but I've also tossed in sauteed mushrooms, cooked chopped greens, cooked corn and all sorts of other goodies. Feel free to add them with the chicken if you  have leftover veggies on hand. 

You can find the chopped green chiles and enchilada sauce in the Hispanic/Mexican section of most large supermarkets. 

This recipe comes out a bit on the spicy (but not super hot) side.  If spiciness is a concern, cut back (or eliminate) the green chiles and or make a mixture of half tomato sauce/half red enchilada sauce in place of the straight enchilada sauce.

Chicken or vegetable bullion cube to make 2 cups broth or 2 cups stock
Leftover chicken, skin removed and  the meat shredded (I must have used the equivalent of 3+ half breasts)
8 ounces of cream cheese (low-fat and fat free okay)
3 handfuls of shredded cheese (I used mozzarella because that's what I had on hand.  I recommend some mozzarella or Oaxaca cheese but it's also good with shredded cheddar or Monterey jack cheese or crumbled Mexican queso fresca)
4 oz can chopped green chiles
4 scallions, chopped
About half a large can (28 oz) of enchilada sauce (I used the red sauce this time and have made my own sauce in the past as well.  Green sauce is also tasty.)
Flour or corn tortillas (medium size)
Chopped cilantro for garnish
Sour cream, Mexican sour cream or plain yogurt, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (or use microwave). Boil water and make bullion in large bowl (or heat stock in wide pot). Keep warm. Spoon a thin coat of the enchilada sauce on the bottom of a medium large baking pan. (if planning on heating in microwave be sure to use a microwaveable pan.) In a large bowl, combine the chicken, chiles, 3/4 of the chopped scallions and cream cheese.  Add 1/4 cup of the warm broth, mix well until combined, adding more broth as needed to soften cream cheese.  Add two handfuls of cheese. Mix.  Dip one tortilla at a time in the warm broth. (Just moistening it.).  Lay flat. Put about 2 Tbs. of the chicken and cheese mixture in a vertical line down the center of the tortilla. Wrap filling and place filled tortilla seam side down in baking dish. Repeat until filling is used up. Spoon enchilada sauce on top, completely covering tops of enchiladas.  Sprinkle remaining cheese on top.  Sprinkle with green onions.  Heat in oven or microwave until sauce is bubbly, cheese is melted and enchiladas are heated through (about 40-50 minutes in oven). Scatter cilantro on top and serve with sour cream if desired.  I served this with rice cooked in tomato juice on the side with a green salad.