Archive for July, 2009

Frugal Gourmet: How to Eat Well on a Budget

July 31, 2009

Yuriko Gamo Romer and her family no longer stroll down the street to eat sushi, burgers, or pasta at the restaurants that dot the main drag of their neighborhood in San Francisco.

The Silas-Gonzalez clan from Oakland now spends more time cooking meals from scratch. The dads in both these families were recently laid off, so they need to find ways to keep food costs in check.

silas-gonzalez-familyPhoto of Silas-Gonzalez family by Sarah Henry

With the jobless rate in California hovering around 11 percent, you don’t have to look far to find people impacted by the recession. (Three out of nine families from my former mamas group have been hit by job loss in the last year, including the two families in this piece and, um, me.) After housing, food is often the next biggest expense a family faces. Bad-for-you food is cheap but these folks are committed to getting nutritious meals on the table at a reasonable price.

How to make those dollars stretch at dinnertime? Eat in. Both families agree that the first thing to cut from your budget is routine dining out — at kid-friendly restaurants, taqueria joints, or the museum cafe. Nowadays they make favorite foods like burritos or sushi at home for a fraction of the cost they’d pay eating out.

They’ve also become smarter shoppers. They buy in bulk at stores like Costco and spend more time comparison shopping. Julie Silas says she now knows the exact price of most food items that she buys  — and can usually estimate, within a dollar, how much the bill will be at the checkout.

Neither household eats a lot of meat, another cost saver. They site cheaper sources of protein such as tofu, beans, and peanut butter as staples in their kitchens. (Julie and Yuriko both mention with glee that Costco sells creamy, organic peanut butter for dollars less than the price of other grocery stores.)

They also accept assistance. Julie’s neighbors passed on their Community Supported Agriculture box of produce once a month to the family of four. “That’s such an awesome gift; it really makes a difference in our lives,” she says, while making a stir fry with green beans and onions plucked from the CSA box. Yuriko’s mom bought her an electric skillet so she can make grilled dishes at home.

Each family has a small number of items that they’ll pay more for. For Yuriko it’s high-quality short grain rice from a Japanese market. “But relatively speaking, rice is cheap, so that’s not too much of a luxury,” she says. Julie can’t live without goat cheese — her girls love it — but found an affordable source at Trader Joe’s.

Neither family feels that nutrition or health has been compromised in their efforts to trim the family food budget. Both Julie and Yuriko estimate they now spend 20-25 percent less on food.  Yuriko says she finds herself thinking about the nutritional content of a grocery item and makes purchasing decisions accordingly. So jugs of juice, while popular with her husband and son, don’t make the cut. She’d rather spend that money — around $4-6 a bottle — on whole fruit, so her family gets the benefit of fiber as well as vitamins. Julie buys less organic fruits and vegetables these days, using the Environmental Working Group’s guide to pesticides in produce as a reference. That means organic apples, strawberries, and spinach, but conventional avocados, kiwis, and bananas to help keep the shopping bill down.

Both families say that they’ve discovered an unexpected benefit of unemployment. By going back to basics they’ve become more creative cooks. “A whole organic chicken, which costs us about $12, can form the basis of a homemade chicken noodle soup; the shredded meat ends up in enchiladas or a pot pie, and leftover broth serves as the sauce for a third meal,” says Isidro Gonzalez. In comparison, a package of chicken breasts costs around $8 and only provides one dinner for the family.  Yuriko prepares favorite Japanese recipes for family and friends more frequently now. She’ll make sukiyaki, a beef and vegetable dish, and okonomiyakia, savory pancakes, and each dish can feed about six people for the price of just one of these items at a restaurant. “We’ve had some really affordable feasts,” she says, “by making food at home.”

Find more easy ways to make your food buck go further from the makers of the movie Food Stamped.

How has the bad economy affected your eating habits? Have you found new ways to eat cheap and eat well? Share your cost-cutting tips below.

Kale Chips: Giving Thanks for Greens in a Snack Pack

July 30, 2009

blessing-horowytzLast Friday was the day I was supposed to meet Blessing Horowytz, creator of Kale Chips, my current favorite snack food.

Here’s what happened: Multi-tasking mama that I am, I decided to quell my cravings for Kale Chips (not to be confused with roasted kale) and satisfy my curiosity about the brand new Berkeley Bowl West, which opened a couple of weeks ago, so I set off in pursuit of both.

If you live in Berzerkeley, the Bowl needs no introduction. If you hail from further afield, the Berkeley Bowl is a food mecca with devotees from around the Bay Area who flock to the store for its extensive produce section, cheese selection, and bulk food bins. The original location has a rap for long lines at the checkout (where people wait in a relatively Zen state) and aggro road rage in the overflowing parking lot (so much for the peace-loving people of Berkeley.)

Fortunately I can report that at BBW bigger is better — more parking, more produce, and wider aisles. It is, frankly, massively impressive. The Bowl is the kind of place where you can buy a bottle of  balsamic vinegar for $1.99 or $31.99 — and just about every price point in between. At the new locale, some drivers still pull crafty maneuvers to nab a park, but that may just be a bad habit from years of circling the original store’s lot. I take a quick spin through the store, pick up Kale Chips by Alive & Radiant Foods, and then head to the checkout. THERE IS NO LINE. Unbelievable.

quite-cheesey-kale-chipsWhat’s not to like about Kale Chips? They’re fun, crunchy, finger food. I’m partial to the “quite cheesey” flavor which taste, ah, quite cheesy. They have impeccable cred: Raw. Vegan. Dehydrated.  They’re mostly kale. One of my all-time favorite veggies (but you probably figured that out already.) Just six ingredients: Curly kale, red bell pepper, cashews, lemon juice, nutritional yeast, and Himalayan crystal salt. Okay, if I had a quibble, they’re exxy — $6.99 a packet. On a good day I can eat a whole bag as I stroll the length of the farmers’ market, where I usually buy ’em.  Un-cooked food takes a lot of time to produce. Time is money. Such is life.

sabeena-naila-kia

After introducing my son and me to these bagged greens, my friends Naila Siddique and Kia Afcari sprang for a dehydrator (around $300) and now make their own for their family — especially their daughter Sabeena, who’s reluctant to eat almost any veg. More on this wee one’s food preferences in a future post. My kitchen is too tiny for a dehydrator and I’m too lazy to make my own, but if you’re keen, here’s a recipe.kale-chip-ingredients

Driving home happily munching away I decide on a whim to call in on the good people who turn out this satisfying snack. The Kale Chip “factory” is literally just down the street from my home. If you blink you’d miss the non-descript little building that houses this busy kale biz. I meet Blessing, who graciously gives me an impromptu tour. (Basically, four large Excalibur dehydrators — she could use four times as many — and a storage space.) Business is booming: Blessing sells her snacks to hundreds of stores across the country. Her small staff crank out Kale Chips constantly but the dehydration process can’t be rushed, so it’s a challenge to keep up with demand.

Blessing has been selling her specially-spiced kale (sourced from Riverdog Farm) and un-baked cookies for more than six years, at farmers’ markets, natural-food grocery stores, and health-food shops such as Whole Foods. An early adopter in the raw-food movement, she’s also a former Silicon Valley recruiter and, at one time, a dream worker. Making Kale Chips is not about producing greens on the go to rake in the greenbacks, says Blessing. She produces raw goods for the greater good, to feed the mind, body, and spirit.

No surprise then, after a free-ranging chat, that a handshake is out of the question. Blessing gives me a hug and sends me on my way with, well, a blessing.

Photos: Sarah Henry

Eat Food, Cook Food, and Don’t Forget the Salt

July 29, 2009

Perhaps the best thing about Cook Food: a manualfesto for easy, healthy, local eating is that it’s a slim little volume.

That’s not some snarky reviewer comment. Writer Lisa Jervis aims to demystify how to eat well and cook simple food by keeping her book brief. She includes 20 recipes of the beans, greens, grains, tofu, and tempeh variety. Well seasoned, as Jervis advocates, these ingredients can form the basis of a decent recipe repertoire for the eco-conscious (both environmental and financial).

This guide may hit a chord with people interested in food politics who don’t have a clue about what to cook in the kitchen and don’t need pretty pictures to motivate them to make a meal. (This is not your typical photo-driven cookbook.)

Folks inspired by Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and Stuffed & Starved author Raj Patel, whose book blurb adorns the back cover, come to mind. And Cook Food might also serve as a handy reference for college students, making the switch from dorm life to truly independent living, who need assistance figuring out essential equipment, pantry basics, and practical tips and techniques (note to self: ditch the lame-o rice cooker and get a jelly roll pan for roasting veggies to perfection.)

Regardless, if Jervis, who sports a cool beet tattoo, happens to be reading in your neighborhood do stop by. At The Green Arcade bookstore in San Francisco last Friday, it feels like I’ve entered the kitchen of a friend who could use a little help getting the dinner on.

More group discussion and less book reading, Jervis distractedly composes a farmers’ market salad for her audience to sample to support her thesis that preparing satisfying food is within everyone’s reach.

She fields questions while she chops. We learn she’s politically aware (conscious of her carbon footprint, locavore advocate, mostly vegan), and a bit of a renegade (a liberal user of oil and salt, she signs her book, salt early, salt often). She also confesses during her cooking demo that she’s confused an Asian melon for a lemon cucumber. It doesn’t seem to faze her. There’s nothing slick going on here, which leaves you feeling comfortable that you, too, can cook food.

In this era of celebrity chefs and network cooking shows, it’s easy to feel intimidated by food.

Jervis serves as a reminder that we don’t need to be.

Go Green: White House Vegetable Garden

July 27, 2009

white-house-vegetable-gardenImage: Syracuse Cultural Workers

Inspired by everyone I know growing their own (including the President’s family, my neighbors, friends, & urban homesteaders) — and this postcard, picked up at a pre-Point Reyes hike at a special little store Spirit Matters — I finally planted some seeds & seedlings in my new planter box this weekend. It’s loaded with corn, cuc, tomato, basil, & chive plants from the friendly food security folk at Spiral Gardens and lettuce, spinach, & carrot seeds from my green-thumb friend in Bolinas.  Look forward to seeing my son heading out to the backyard to harvest whatever looks good for lunch or dinner. Nice to put down some roots, however temporary, after 7 moves in 8 years. Kale, to come, natch.

The Urban Homestead: An Old Idea is New Again

July 20, 2009

You know how right after you first learn the meaning of a word or hear an unfamiliar expression you find yourself running across that word over and over again? Maybe it pops up in a book, on the news, or in conversation. It’s like the term was floating out there in the universe all the time and you just didn’t know it.

That’s how I feel lately about the au courant label urban homestead. Everywhere I turn the term seems to be sprouting, in chats with friends, in interviews with farm and food folk, in discussions with colleagues, and in the press.

Not sure what urban homesteading looks like? It’s city dwellers who both enjoy all the urban jungle has to offer and turn city lots, their tiny backyards, balconies, or roof tops into little farms by growing their own greens, preserving, brewing, keeping bees, and/or raising and butchering their own animals for milk, eggs, and meat.

Why are city slickers cultivating this way of life in increasing numbers? For some, it’s a way to connect directly with nature and the food they eat. For others it’s about self-sufficiency, independence, food safety, or food security. Some get going for economic reasons. Still others site its eco cred, lowering their carbon footprint (especially those who opt to go off the grid–as much as humanly possible in the urban environment–by installing solar panels and rain tanks, recycling gray water, and hanging laundry). Of course, for many urban homesteaders, all or many of the above apply.

At its core, this homegrown urban farm revolution marks a cultural and political shift from consuming (buying food) to producing (growing and making your own chow). What makes it different from previous back-to-the-land moments? It’s taking place in major metropolitan areas — and there’s an underlying ethos that participants derive pleasure and build community from all this D.I.Y. production and preservation.  It’s meant to be fun, as well as good for the body, soul, and planet. Urban homesteaders throw canning parties, team up to cure meat, exchange eggs and milk for honey and herbs, and enjoy the fruits of their labor in elaborate feasts with like-minded foodie friends, or so recent news accounts suggest. It seems the domestic arts are groovy again and these newly-learned or rediscovered skills and home-based habits may very well outlast the current economic downturn.

For those of us barely keeping a few chives alive on the windowsill it can feel a tad intimidating. Urban homesteading may be a new kind of extreme sport. It no longer feels enough to cook your own dinner from scratch with organic produce from the farmers’ market and whole grain, non-GMO ingredients from the bulk food bin of your neighborhood natural grocer or food co-op. These days folks are routinely making their own yogurt, pickling and drying their own produce, foraging for fruit, baking bread, making pasta, catching, filleting, and smoking fish — the list is long and admirable. (It may also feel a bit insurmountable and exhausting for well, at least this writer, who is just trying to get a meal on the table after a day at the office.)

This emerging trend echoes earlier grow-your-own efforts, like the World War II-era victory gardens that took root after Eleanor Roosevelt planted a veggie patch at the White House. The Grand Pappy of the modern-day city farm trend may well be Jules Dervaes in Pasedena. On his family farm Dervaes and his three grown children cultivate just one-tenth of an acre, which has produced over three tons of food from some 350 different vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Their online urban homesteading journal dates back to the pre-blogging, olden days of cyberspace, circa 2001.

In my corner of the globe several urban homesteaders are making names for themselves beyond their home base. Food forager Asiya Wadud is profiled in a previous post. Anya Fernald, who served as executive director of Slow Food Nation in San Francisco last year, and who recently launched LiveCulture and is organizing next month’s Eat Real Festival in Oakland is another garnering national attention.  More on this food activist’s projects to come. Writer Novella Carpenter, whose memoir Farm City hilariously chronicles the joys and hazards of squat-lot farming in the ghetto, is another. Carpenter and her edible pets will make an appearance in a future post.

Looking to learn about how to start your own small-scale urban farm? Check out the blog spot homegrown evolution, by SoCal city farmers Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne, authors of The Urban Homestead, who pass on urban homesteading tips and techniques gleaned from their experience. “Once you discover that lettuce actually has a distinct flavor, or you eat a sweet tomato still warm from the sun, or an orange-yolked egg from your own hen, you will never be satisfied with pre-packaged and factory-farmed again,” writes Coyne, summing up her urban homesteading philosophy elsewhere in the blogosphere.

Do you keep bees on your roof, chickens in your side yard, or goats on your back deck? Have you hijacked an abandoned lot and become a pirate gardener, turned your front yard from lawn into lunch, or revitalized that strip of unused land between the street and the sidewalk into an edible oasis? Since a central tenet of the city ag movement is sharing the wealth, feel free to fill us in on your success stories, food-raising failures, or obstacles (legal, logistical, or otherwise) as an urban homesteading adventurer.

Flickr photo by chotda used under the Creative Commons license

Book cover image by Gregg Einhorn

Five Fabulous Fruit Desserts

July 14, 2009

I’ve been waxing on a lot lately in this space about food films and food books. And I’ve been digging doing blogs about resourceful residents who grow and forage in the urban jungle.

But it’s time to talk about cooking again. The weather has turned positively balmy in Berkeley this week and we’re heading into the lazy days of summer (for some) so it seems a good time to reintroduce recipes into the rotation, don’t you think? Let’s start with dessert and dish about some of the great-tasting fruit in farmers’ markets right now.

My son got things kick started by suggesting we make a lemon blueberry bundt cake for a backyard barbie our neighbors threw last weekend. He was trying to cheer me up. I was hot (my little cottage is like a proverbial oven on steamy days, when the inside temps can hit close to 90 degrees), hormonal (i.e. cranky & crabby), and a herniated disc was giving me hell. (Taking a poll: Should I try a steroid shot for a bad back that’s been nothing but grief for 6 months now? Opinions? Experience? Horror stories? Do tell.)

I was also covered in flea bites from a trip to a public pool. (Word to the wise: When swimming at an unfamiliar spot dry off on the concrete and avoid the green stuff, no matter how inviting it may look. Scratch. scratch. Word to local readers: Stay off the grass at Temescal Pool.) What better way to beat the blues than to bake a cake with your sweet son who does not, thank you very much, want to go to the beach, the samurai exhibit, or the pool?

Gabe sourced the blueberries from Lance & Nancy’s bushes next door and plucked a couple of Meyer lemons off our tree and away we went. My son thinks a bundt tin is a cool contraption and loves watching what happens when you pour buttermilk into the mix. He was chuffed with the end result — remember, I’m a card-carrying member of the baking-challenged brigade. The cake was a hit at the party and the leftovers got scoffed up the following day by Gabe, his buddy Griffin, and sister Nora, who were ravenous after running around at soccer camp all day. A soccer camp, mind you, that serves mostly organic, healthy lunches and snacks. How fantastic is that???

We’re also a bit partial to a fruit crumble, crisp, or cobbler in my house — my standby recipes for crisp or cobbler come from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. We use whatever fruit combo we happen to have on hand. Nectarines and blueberries are swell together, as in this Blueberry and Nectarine Cobbler from Nicole at Baking Bites. Or try this Nectarine and Peach Cobbler from Elise at Simply Recipes. Or this Plum and Peach Crisp from 101 Cookbooks, which goes easy on both the sugar and butter and includes yogurt to keep things moist.

My friend Marge, channeling her inner Martha, excelled last week at a scrumptious crumble with strawberries, rhubarb, orange rind and juice, sliced almonds, and oats, among other ingredients. Maybe if we beg her she’ll post the recipe here. We ate at her place while we played the board game Apples to Apples. But alas, no camera in tow to record this delectable dessert — the kind that almost gets eaten in one sitting but there’s just enough left over for brekkie — in bed! — the next day. Play hard. Eat well. Don’t forget the cream.

Here’s my list to get you jazzed about whipping up something fruitful some time this summer. And do share the wealth, fellow fruit lovers. I wanna know: What’s on your dessert menu?

The List

1. Glazed Lemon-Blueberry Poppy Seed Bundt Cake

Recipe from Cooking Light. Garnish with fresh blueberries and ribbons of lemon rind. Especially appealing for afternoon tea with a cuppa.

2. Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble

Recipe from Deb at Smitten Kitchen or try this version Rhubarb Strawberry Crumble from Eating Well. Either way, serve with lashings of cream laced with vanilla essence.

Recipe from Margaret to come (no pressure my friend;).

3. Pavlova with Berries, Kiwis, and Passionfruit

The pav recipe I routinely turn to is in Sydney Food by Bill Granger. My sister, Amanda, and sister-in-law, Alice, also make to-die-for versions. But between them, Mand and Ali have seven kids, demanding jobs/lives, and they’re not too sure about this blogging business so you’ll just have to take my son’s word for it: Their pavlovas rock. Regardless of whether this dish actually harkens from Australia or New Zealand it’s a Down Under delight. The version here, from Stephanie at Joy of Baking, looks pretty darn delish. Plus the girl has created a chocolate pavlova. Oh my!

4. Baked Peaches

What could be simpler or more scrumptious than a baked peach? My sis-in-law, the aforementioned Alice, dots the top of each peach half with butter and brown sugar. In the version here, Jamie Oliver stuffs ’em with raspberries.  Works wonderfully with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce, also found in Sydney Food. Apartment Therapy’s the kitchn offers a grilled version, topped with bourbon vanilla whipped cream, for you outside cooks.

5. Lemon Sorbet

Refreshing. Easy. Fast. Say no more — other than you do need an ice-cream maker. This version comes from Tori at Tuesday Recipe.

Food Foraging 101

July 8, 2009

The votes are in and the Bay Area’s favorite food forager is Asiya Wadud, the Chez Panisse bartender and urban fruit gatherer.

For the last 18 months or so Wadud could be found pedaling around South Berkeley and North Oakland scooping up fallen or really ripe fruit, such as hachiya persimmons, Santa Rosa plums, Meyer lemons, and Persian mulberries, and passing on this excess backyard bounty to hungry souls who put it to delicious good use.

(Wadud’s out of town this summer and fall but says a team of food foragers who will tend to members’ trees will be announced shortly, according to her blog Forage Oakland.)

I first learned about Wadud’s fruit-bartering-via-bicycle project in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year. Since then she’s been featured in the New York Times and her photogenic self graces the cover of this month’s San Francisco magazine. Last week a New York Times Magazine story on urban homesteading included Wadud at the table of a local-grown feast. Clearly, her fresh idea has captured the mainstream media’s — and the produce-loving public’s —  attention.

Wadud’s rules for her volunteer program are simple: There’s no picking before permission is given. Ripe fruit is a terrible thing to let rot. Sharing the wealth with your neighbors creates good feelings and good food. She began with cold calls, knocking gingerly on strangers’ doors and asking politely for samples; she now boasts some 200 members.

Similar free, urban foraging programs abound in the Bay Area. Saddled with excess beans or blackberries this summer? Looking to trade some lavender for lemons? Check out People United for a Better Life in Oakland (PUEBLO), North Berkeley Harvest, San Jose’s Village Harvest and  Marin Open Garden Project. In L.A., Fallen Fruit is a resource for off-loading extra produce.

Programs that connect homeowners overwhelmed with fruit with volunteers willing to pick produce and take it to local food banks can be found in cities such as Portland, Ore., Philadelphia, and Boston. And websites like neighborhoodfruit.com and veggietrader.com help folks find willing homes for, say, a surplus of Meyer lemons or an abundance of dinosaur kale.

Future foraging posts will look at programs that offer folks freshly foraged local food for a fee.

In the meantime, since it’s peak produce time in most parts of the country, you’re encouraged to leave a shout out for your favorite, local, free foraging outfit below.

Oh, and while I think of it: Does anyone want the load of loquats that make a huge mess once they fall from the tree out front and strip the paint off my car? I’ve thought of them as a nuisance, squirrel fodder at best, but Wadud writes that this unfamiliar fruit makes some mighty fine chutney, jelly, or jam. Happy harvesting.

Cover image courtesy San Francisco Magazine. Photo: Sara Remington

Dig It: Growing Greens, Creating Community, and Feeding Families

July 3, 2009

Chris Geiger comes from a long line of gardeners. He grew up eating out of the family garden in Ohio and was eager to replicate the experience for his own daughter. But his backyard in Oakland, California is small and shaded. What to do? The resourceful dad simply sent out a request for land in exchange for labor on a neighborhood list-serve in time to till the soil this past spring.

He got lots of offers (he says he spied on neighbors’ yards via Google Earth) but he opted for the first, from homeowner Emily Bezar, who had location, location, location on her side. Emily’s rear yard is big, gets loads of sun, and she lives around the corner from Chris, his wife Madeleine, and their daughter Gwendolyn. A perfect match.

digit.growgreens.chris&emily

Chris and Emily are delighted with how their backyard experiment turned out. The plot has produced chard, beans, tomatoes, basil, squash, lettuces, and cucumbers.  “It was great to find Chris, who offered skills and expertise I didn’t have,” says Emily, who lives with her son Noah.  “And it’s wonderful to share the bounty with another family. It’s so satisfying to watch a garden grow rapidly before your very eyes. And Chris has an aesthetic sensibility; I love the splashes of color among the greens. I don’t know why more people don’t do this. It’s a wonderful way to cultivate food and community.”

Such partnerships are sprouting elsewhere. Sunset magazine reports this month on urbangardenshare.org, the brainchild of Amy Pennington, who runs an edible garden business in Washington state, and designer Gannon Curran. The site connects Seattle homeowners who have green space with keen gardeners who have none. Chime in if you know of similar efforts in other places.

This is the first in a series of posts on innovative ways folks grow greens and forage for food in the urban jungle. Check back for more profiles, ideas, and resources in future posts.

digit.chris&emily.gardenPhotos: Sarah Henry