Friday, April 29, 2011

$100 a Week: It all depends on where you shop

The tightwad shopper

"How is that $100 a week food budget going?" my friend Richard sneered. Richard loves to annoy me about how much I spend on food. He claims his food budget doesn't exceed $50 a week for two people, and he ought to know, he says because he's the food shopper.

I told him that he probably doesn't look at his receipts closely, but I know from many conversations that Richard is an old school tightwad who mostly shops at a military commissary, Ranch 99 and CostCo.

I asked more questions about how he spends so little, and Richard gave me these three important tips:

  • His meals are mainly stir fry dishes (his wife is Chinese)
  • They use all parts of vegetables that many Americans toss away
  • They never depend on protein (meat, fish, poultry, eggs or cheese) as the center of their meal.

Richard told me I if I was serious about a food budget, I wasn't taking advantage of discount stores, so I felt compelled to investigate Grocery Outlets, Dollar Stores, Albertsons,Fred Meyer, Ranch 99, Trader Joe's, and I even stopped at WalMart this past week.

What's up with discount stores sprouting up like flies on cow dung?

Grocery outlets and dollar stores depend on big brand foods. Big brands have contracts with these stores and sell to them at discount prices. People load up their carts at these stores, and as mom and pop stores close in strip malls dollar stores rush in to put up their shingles. The shifting retail landscape is moving towards crappy stuff at sale prices.

Albertsons and Fred Meyer--okay I didn't actually go into Albertson's, I couldn't muster up the energy, but many of my frugal food shopping friends frequent Albertson's and Fred Meyer. And once, when I mentioned Massa Organics almond butter to a friend, he said, "Why don't you just grind your own almond butter at Fred Meyer?" So I looked, but check it out, the almonds aren't organic. (FYI neither are the grind-your-own-almonds at PCC markets.) And where did those almonds come from? And if you've ever tasted Massa Organics, I swear you will not buy any other brand.

Ranch 99 and Trader Joe's--don't really have much in common but so many people mentioned these as stores where they save money on food. Ranch 99 is a chain grocery with an Asian food focus and you can find less expensive things on the shelves but most of the employees have limited English which makes communication difficult at best when you're a food source obsessed shopper who wants to know where foods came from. Trader Joe's offers produce at lower prices than food co-ops but usually packs things like fresh tomatoes in throw-away plastic containers that clog up our environment. Also, many of the products on the shelves are not organic but are were mistaken for organic by shoppers who told me what great organic deals they got at Trader Joe's.

WalMart--aside from the cringe-worthy early morning employee gathering with the high school like pep talk and Walmart cheers that made me feel sorry for the minimum wage workers who had to participate in this creepy display, the one things that surprised me was you can find quinoa. You have to really look to find it, and it's more expensive than CostCo, but it is there, and you can get buy pound of dried beans or lentils for less than a dollar, but you have to wonder how long those beans have been on the shelf, and are the people that shop at WalMart looking for for "healthy" options? Whole grain bread was cheaper at Walmart than natural foods store, but one product does not make a trip to this store worth the effort.

Where I'd rather shop

Co-ops and natural food stores-- are first on my list becuse or a little more money, I'd rather buy where healthy shoppers congregate and the turnover of beans and grains is fast. I can find reasonably fresh grains that won't be rancid in the bag and beans that will cook faster than the Walmart brand that sits on the shelf or has been in storage for too long.

Two co-ops I love are the Skagit Valley Co-op in Mount Vernon and the Community Food Co-op in Bellingham.

The bulk of my food budget buys fresh fruits and vegetables, not the processed and prepared foods of discount stores and coupon TV shows. I reserve a quarter of my weekly food budget for replenishing pantry items and take a list to the market these days, it's like a jigsaw puzzle and I often feel it's barely working.

Farm stores--I'm almost certain my resolve will be seriously compromised when I visit one of my favorite farm stores-- Gathering Together Farm's produce stand.

I get so excited by the vibrant produce at farm stores, the money in my wallet practically flies into the cash register.

Farmers' markets--A farmers' market offers unique treasures like this Frekeh and popcorn from Ayers Creek Farm last summer at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market. I tell myself other people can spend their money on trips to Europe and rave about the foods in Paris, but give me some great local food treasures and I'll gladly stay here year-round.

What have I learned so far from my food budget project?

The road never gets any easier, but the journey strengthens my resolve. I always have the same amount of money to deal with and it appears my pantry is still shrinking faster than I can build it means I'm probably eating on a higher end than I can afford.

Having to continually stretch dollars each week makes me want to investigate whether growing greens will help this summer. I've got a date in the garden today--fyi--check out this cool garden blog for great gardening tips.

Getting a fund going for my favorite summer treasures has kept my focus on a goal. Every bit of change will help me support my summer farmer friends by buying berries, peaches, cherries and melons this summer.

Check this fruit from last summer. You can see a bit of frost on the frozen mulberries that I removed from the freezer for this picture. My Cooking Assistant loves them all from sour cherries to blueberries.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Soup Project: Mushroom-Rhubarb Soup with Baby Collard Greens

I start thinking about soup on Friday and by Saturday I know which items I'll feature in my Soup Project recipe of the week.

With all this rain lately, mushrooms were on my mind.

After checking numerous cookbooks for mushroom soup recipes, I'd still come up with nothing but a few selections from Barbara Kafka's Vegetable Love. Once the thought of mushrooms infiltrated my brain, I pictured a dollop of mashed potatoes, rising up like an island with soup surrounding it--like a castle with a moat.

I wrote, "mushrooms, potatoes and greens" on my market list.

My plan was to get morel mushrooms at Found and Foraged, but there weren't any yet. All they had were dried mushrooms. I already had dry porcinis at home, so I moved on to Cascadia Mushrooms, where I got a pint box of shiitaki mushrooms.

I bought baby kale to plant in my garden from Rent's Due Ranch, but found no greens for my soup. I was so happy to see JoanE back at the market, I couldn't pass up this cool photo opportunity. JoanE comes back to the market in the spring with such style; I love her sense of humor with this carrot head Easter basket.

Across the aisle, I found mild baby collards at Willie Green's. I love baby collards in the spring because the texture is tender and they don't have to be cooked very long, plus they are so incredibly healthy and we're lucky they grow so well in the Northwest.

The last thing I bought at the market for this soup was rhubarb. I found it at Wade Bennett's book in between his cider and wine. People were already lining up to buy it and since I was standing there with my friend Ed, I said, "What do you think of adding rhubarb to soup?"

Ed made a sour face, "It sounds bad," he said.

I laughed.

But the look on Ed's face said he was relieved he wasn't invited for this odd ball mushroom-rhubarb soup combination, but the thing, is rhubarb has this distinctive tart zing and such a beautiful color and how can it not perk up boring spring dishes, if we'd only let it. I'd never really added it to soup, but why not? I've added tiny red currants and how different could rhubarb be? Still, I knew I wouldn't announce to Tom that I'd added rhubarb to the soup before he tasted it. Sometimes it's best to confess your cooking secrets after everyone raves over your creation.

Here is another secret-- serve your soup in the right bowl. We have an odd assortment of soup bowls at our house. It makes soup fun but it's hard to store them all since they are different size. A long time ago, I had matching bowls but one by one they broke and I'd go to a second-hand store and find a new one. I look for those odd orphans that have no mates, all different colors, shapes and sizes. We have enough stuff in the world, why not just recirculate what we already have?

My search for the perfect soup turned up nothing, so I created my own simple mushroom soup and mashed potatoes with a sweet potato for color.

It's probably better to start with the last recipe and make the potatoes first since they take longer and you can keep them warm in the oven while you warm the bread and make the soup. I served this soup with a green salad and Tall Grass Bakery Bread. I can't get enough of their excellent baguettes.

Here's the recipe:

Mushroom-Rhubarb Soup with Baby Collard Greens
(Serves 4)

This soup is all about spring--mushrooms, rhubarb and greens. Try this soup with a scoop of Salsa Mashed Potatoes (below) for a filling meal.

1/2 ounce dry mushrooms (wild mix or porcini)
2 cups boiling water
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup diced onions or shallots
1/2 cup sliced celery
1 stalk rhubarb, sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups stock or more water
4 cups thinly sliced collards
1/4 cup miso
2 to 4 tablespoons raspberry or apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon (heaping) cayenne
Salt to taste
1/2 cup chopped parsley
Lemon slices

1. Pour boiling water over mushrooms and set them aside for a few hours or overnight. Strain, reserving liquid. Chop mushrooms into small pieces.

2. Heat a heavy soup pot over medium heat. Add mushrooms, stir and cook until mushrooms give up their moisture. Add onions, celery, rhubarb and olive oil. Stir and cook until onions become transparent and celery and rhubarb soften.

3. Add soaked dry mushrooms and liquid. Stir in 1 3/4 cups water and bring to a simmer. Add collards. In a small bowl combine remaining water and miso. Blend thoroughly, then add vinegar and cayenne. Mix well. When collards soften, remove from heat and stir in miso mixture. Salt to taste.

4. Serve over Salsa Mashed Potatoes and sprinkle with parsley and a lemon wedge on the side.

I thought this pretty Chinese bowl would be cool for the photo, but the second I ladled the soup in, I felt claustrophobic. The writing on the inside of the bowl and all the pictures on the outside-- this bowl is all about itself and every detail seemed to be distracting me from the soup.

The right bowl for soup really makes a difference in the way you experience the soup. This delicate busy bowl is definitely not a "whole meal" soup bowl material. And try to fit potatoes in this one--it just doesn't work.

Salsa Mashed Potatoes
(Serves 6 to 8)
These mashed potatoes are creamy and spicy. I like to pair them with soup. You an also mash cauliflower, or turnips and add them this puree.

2 pounds potatoes, diced (washed and peeled)
1 garnet yam, diced (washed and peeled)
3/4 cup water
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup hot salsa
Salt to taste

Steam the potatoes and yam until soft. Strain, reserving the liquid. Mash the potatoes with the butter and salsa, adding some of the cooking liquid if necessary. When the texture is smooth and creamy, they are done. Salt to taste. Scoop a spoonful of the potatoes into a soup bowl and cover with soup. Garnish with parsley.

The word "rhubarb" never came up when Tom ate the soup. He loved it and couldn't get enough and I suspect it was the potatoes, not the rhubarb, but that slight twist of tang really added to the mix.

For this photo, I braised a few more collard greens to add to the top and my Cooking Assistant was really into the potatoes this week. What's your favorite thing to add to soup?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

10 Ideas for Donating or Volunteering on Earth Day

I moved to the Northwest for the blueberries in 1975, but it wasn't till 1985, after the first Farm Aid Concert, that my thinking shifted about where the food on my plate originated. Those interviews and videos of farms stayed with me and transformed the way I thought about Earth Day and farmers' roles as land stewards.

I sought out local farms for produce and eggs long before local farmers' markets began sprouting up and each spring and fall I dipped into my wallet for organizations or projects that helped sustain local agriculture and protected farmland.

One spring I gave to Winter Green Farm in Noti, Oregon because they have a CSA program where lower income folks can get a CSA for reduced rates. Last fall I donated to Whatcom County Farm Friends, after attending a fabulous farm dinner at Boxx Berry Farm in Whatcom County.

Now that Earth Day is here, it is time to consider our local farmers. I've saved a bit of money from my $100-a-week food budget, and I can donate more than I could have if I hadn't been frugal. (And it's not so easy to be a frugal locavore as some folks on the Hunger Challenge recently discovered.) You can also consider volunteer opportunities at farm organizations and land trusts in your area.

Here are 10 places to donate to or volunteer for on Earth Day:

1. PCC Farmland Trust was started in the late 1990s when, Delta Farm, the farm that boarded Nash's was divided up for development and offered for sale. Nash had increasingly seen farmland around him swallowed up by development and he'd had enough. When the produce buyer for PCC Natural Markets visited the farm and saw the "For Sale" sign Nash wondered out loud if PCC had the guts to save this fertile farmland. Produce buyer, Joe Haridiman took Nash's request to PCC's board of directors and they quickly set up a nonprofit fund. Donations from many of PCC's customers helped save the farm. People step up to the plate when you ask!

Last spring, I donated 20 copies of The Northwest Vegetarian Cookbook (that features Nash in two profiles) to PCC Farmland Trust to help generate more donations.

2. The Greenbelt Land Trust in Corvallis, Oregon is also working hard to protect land in the WillametteValley. I met a representative for this trust when I visited the Corvallis farmers' market to find farmers to profile in my book.

3. Seattle Youth Garden Works is part of Seattle Tilth. This amazing group empowers homeless and low income youths by training them how to grow and market produce. I pass by one of their beautiful gardens and often buy produce from these young entrepreneur farmers at the U District farmers' market on Saturday mornings.

4. Cascade Harvest Coalition publishes the familiar Puget Sound Farm Guide each year. They also send out a monthy newsletter and have a blog that keeps me up-to-date on the latest farm news. I'm grateful for the existence of this organization and this spring I donated a bit of money in memory of my old basset hound Badger who passed away a few weeks ago. I think she was a carrot lover from the day she was born. Also, consider attending this fabulous dinner held at Willie Green's Organic farm in Monroe.

5. Skagatonians to Preserve Farmland works to preserve farmland and support farmers in Skagit Valley--a fertile valley that supplies food for much of Western Washington and seeds to plant around the world.

6. Friends of Family Farmers is a united voice for Oregon farmers' seeking to build more sustainable farms where farmers' are respected as land stewards and farm animals are treated humanely.

7. Tilth Producers of Washington is a division of Washington Tilth Association and they produce a fabulous directory of farms, farm stands and farmers' markets. I look forward to this great resource for local foods every spring. One of my favorite summer farms, Rama Farm always saves a spare copy at the market for me.

8. Rogue Valley Farm to School is a great program in southern Oregon that benefits farms and local schools by connecting school kids, school lunch programs and local farms. I visited one of the farms that participates in this program last summer and was so impressed with Dunbar Farms that I nominated farmer David Mostue for the Growing Green Awards presented by the National Resources Defense Council. Here is another link for Washington farm-to-school programs, if you are interested.

9. Farm Aid--kickstarted my local-focus inspiration and the organization is still going strong after 25 plus years. Thank you Willie Nelson! This great organization offers support for family farms across the country. If you haven't already done so, check them out.

10. American Farmland Trust also supports farmers around the country by working to save fertile farmland from development. In 2008, American Farmland Trust awarded the coveted land steward of the year award to Nash Huber for his efforts to save local farmland. Check out the article! Nash was the first Northwest farmer and the first organic vegetable farmer to win this award.

So, get out your bike instead of your car, pack a locavore lunch and head out to one of the Earth Day celebrations. Here are a few celebrations to check out to check out in Seattle.
My Cooking Assistant eyeing almond butter from one of my favorite organic farms in California.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Soup Project: Red Velvet Soup

I invented Red Velvet Soup on the way home from the farmers' market last Saturday. While I usually have a recipe selected before I arrive at the market, I dreamed this one up after I bought the main ingredients. Beets were on my "list," but I had simply written "beets for soup" and never actually checked out recipes for other ingredients.

When my friend Ed asked what I was going to do with beets at the market, I didn't have any idea. "Beet soup," was all I'd answered.

"Beet soup, huh?" he echoed as if searching for something profound to say. "That sounds interesting."

If I had to pair one word with soup, it would not be interesting. That's what people say when they aren't terribly impressed. But I realized plenty of people don't like beets; I counted myself among the beet haters when I was young.

Seriously, who couldn't love these candy-stripped chioggia beets?

My first encounter with beets was during school lunches when I was young. When we lived a small town in Utah, I recalled school lunches with steamed canned beets cut in perfect little squares usually propped next to a lumpy thing that passed as meatloaf. All I'd really wanted then was the peanut butter cookie for dessert. I'd force down a beet or two, then like most of the other students, I scraped the remainder into big garbage pails, destined to feed the pigs just outside of town. "Pig slop" we called school lunches at Central Elementary School.

Later, when I was a teenager in California, Mom added canned pickled beets to salads. And though I liked them, I never ventured beyond canned beets until I moved to the Northwest.

I used cylinder beets like these for the soup. When I thought up the recipe, I wished that Tom shared my enthusiasm for these earthy tasting treasures. But he doesn't, so I also made budget-friendly Quinoa Fritters and wine-braised hop tips, a green that Wade Bennett of Rockridge Orchards had brought to the market.

I held out hope that Tom might at least taste my soup creation; after all, it had two things he eats on salads--beets and balsamic vinegar. But when I mentioned it, he flashed me this blank look and said, "It still tastes like beets, doesn't it?"

He doesn't get that pairing these crimson wonders with a good quality balsamic vinegar and coconut milk and transforms it into a rich-tasting soup was a stroke of brilliance. The soup has star quality all over it, and though I coined the name, I was sure someone else had probably dreamed up my clever soup title, way before my tiny burst of inspiration.

Nothing is ever original in the cooking world. When I googled the recipe title, this one from a Sierra Club blog appeared, and another version of "creamy" beet soup from Epicurious featured real cream, but neither sounded half as good as my version with coconut milk. Maybe my recipe is an original after all.

The one thing you do need for this soup is a good quality balsamic vinegar. Cheat on quality, and it won't taste as good. I got a bottle of FINI balsamic vinegar, as a gift recently, I'd seen it in Williams Sonoma for about $12 a bottle and Tom bought it for my birthday. I feel lucky when my family and friends give me foods that I love but can't fit easily into my budget plan.

I used this coconut milk in the Creamy Curried Nettle Soup last week and I needed to figure out how to use the rest of the carton, so Red Velvet Soup seemed the perfect opportunity.

This is Finn and in spite of his relaxed appearance, he was very excited when I finally set the bowl in front of him. (You might be a local food snob if you don't point to brand name products.)

And now, for beet lovers everywhere--a recipe you'll really love:

Red Velvet Soup
(Serves 4)
I added yogurt to this soup after I had a second helping this morning and thought how perfect it would look with a swirl of yogurt across the surface.

1 large beet, chopped
1 large, potato, chopped
2 tablespoons rolled oats
2 cups water or stock
1 1/2 cups coconut milk
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 cloves garlic, pressed
Salt and pepper to taste
Squeeze of lemon
Snipped chives for garnish (optional)
Yogurt for garnish (optional)

1. Simmer beet, potato and oats in water for about ten minutes or until vegetables are fork tender. Let cool slightly before pureeing in a food processor or blender with coconut milk.

2. Return to pot and add balsamic vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper to taste and a squeeze of lemon. Add more coconut milk if needed. This soup thickens as it cools.

3. Add yogurt and snipped chives for garnish. Serve with crusty artisan bread.

My Cooking Assistant takes his prewash job seriously.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

$100 Dollars a Week: What Extreme Couponing taught a Locavore

The treasures in my pantry are the backbone of our meals each week. Rancho Gordo beans, Fini vinegar, Found and Foraged dry mushrooms make gourmet meals and sure it all sounds luxurious, but I have to confess that I cheated on my so called $100-a-week budget. And it wasn't from frugal burnout--the odd term coined for feeling deprived from not spending money. (It's so American.)

It all started a few weeks ago when I ground the last of our coffee beans and said, "There's a $13 purchase to add to the shopping list." Tom flipped a blueberry pancake and said, "While your at it, add maple syrup to the list." I could see the contents of my farmers' market bag shrinking to just a few items the next week. So I checked the pantry and was shocked to discover we needed miso, raisins, salsa, tomato paste, baking powder, and well, you get the picture. Where jars and bags once lined the shelf, I could see the back of the bare cupboard.

I went $20 over my food budget that week. Dejected by my budgeting failure, I bought a carton of coconut sorbet, thawed some berries from my freezer and mulled over reality. Seven dollars a day per person is easy when you have a full pantry, but it takes careful planning to keep that pantry full.

I mulled over options. At the recent Vege Fest in Seattle, I snapped this photo, not because I was captured by the beauty of processed vegetarian foods but because these non organic, processed items might not ever be found in my pantry.

Okay, I'm a food snob and I don't appreciate the industrial food system. I like organic or sustainably-grown whole grains, beans and vegetables, preferably local. A neighbor who moved a few years ago offered me anything in her refrigerator. I couldn't find anything I wanted, not even the Western Family balsamic vinegar or the unopened cartons of Dannon yogurt. What's a local food snob on a budget supposed to do? Redeem coupons? Is that really an option for me?

Coupons were invented in 1895 when CW Post created a once-cent coupon for Grape Nuts cereal. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, coupons gained popularity and in 1957 the Neilson Coupon Clearing House became the first company devoted to coupon redemption. By 1965, 50 percent of Americans redeemed coupons and by 2007 that number had jumped to 77 percent of Americans trading coupons for brand name products.

The Chinook Book (a local coupon book) is filled with coupons for "organic" processed foods. I paged through a copy at the store, mentally adding up the coupons I could save but I'd have to fork over $15 for the book. The coupons I liked can to just over $20 in savings for groceries, but that meant if I buy the book, I'd have $85 left to spend on actual food. Another twenty dollars should be earmarked for replenishing pantry staples, so that leaves $65 or about $4.60 per person a day for meals. I'd end up using more pantry items for meals. Do the math and I'm still eating more food than I'm buying. Someday I'll be down to the crumbs.

My head was spinning with food choices and numbers when I caught an episode of Extreme Couponing. The more I watched, the more fascinated yet repulsed I became. Obsessive grocery shopaholics expounded about their "walls of toothpaste," "45 cans of ravioli," and "enough chips to feed 800 people." "Fifty packages of hot dogs", "35 bottles of Malox" and over "$20,000 worth of grocery merchandise" tucked in the basement was too much of a freak show for Tom, so I left him to the soccer game and quietly went in another room to see what I could learn from the coupon gurus.

10 Lessons I Gleaned from Extreme Couponers

1. Practice diligence and dedication. Couponers live and shop their values; do the math and figure out how much you need and then brainstorm creative ways to make your budget work. Don't give up.

2. Learn prices for all foods in your refrigerator and pantry. Make a list of more expensive items. Do you really need the gourmet horseradish mustard? Can you settle for less with some things? Seasonal produce prices shift the most. Weigh produce so you get a feel for what fresh foods cost. Also when you purchase peas in pods consider that half of the price you pay goes for the pod that feeds the compost pile.

3. Know when to shop. Know the best the time of year to shop for each produce item. For example you can find a lot lower prices for cauliflower in the middle of summer than you find in the spring months when cauliflower has been overwintered and is scarce. Recently I found local organic cauliflower for $3.75 a pound; that means a large cauliflower might cost around $7.00. Purchase foods in the middle of the season. At the beginning and end of seasons produce prices rise.

4. Spend time creating a detailed shopping list. Write weekly menus to generate this most of this list. Include up to $20 worth of pantry essentials. I know I've mentioned making a list before, but be sure to include prices and round up your figures so you won't be surprised when you check out.

5. Stockpile staples. On Extreme Couponing, the stockpiles resemble mini mart meccas, but a locavore can stockpile staples in summer and fall by canning, dehydrating and freezing produce.

6. Look for daily specials and the clearance aisle. Even at farmers' markets and farm stores where foods tend to be more expensive, you can find deals. Some farmers like Mair Farm and Billy's Gardens, at the U District market, offer seconds, and last time I visited Nash's Farm store I found a discount rack where I scored tiny red peppers for 50 cents each.

7. Have a contingency plan. Be open for unexpected finds when you shop at the market. If you don't find green beans, consider sugar snap peas. Allow for flexibility when hunting good produce finds.

8. Enlist friends. I was shocked to see couponers calling friends to come and help them when a store wouldn't accept all their coupons as one purchase. While this money grubbing concept doesn't exactly jive with a locavore's values, you can still consider splitting things with friends. For example I find a giant cauliflower at Rent's Due Ranch for $5 each, I wouldn't hesitate to ask my friend Patty if she wants to split it. And some farmers offer a 2 for $5 price for greens. If you only bought one bunch it would cost $3.00. It's only a 50 cent difference but those add up when you shop at the market.

9. Count your change carefully and make sure you have all your purchases when you leave. Anyone can make a mistake, and remember to put your purchase in your bag before leaving. It sounds silly, but almost every season I leave something behind somewhere. Once I left a container of salsa, another time I split a purchase with a friend and forgot to get my half when we parted ways after the market.

10. Leave something for the next shopper. This is not a notion extreme couponers ever appeared to entertain, but as I watched these greedy shoppers clear products off shelves, I was appalled by the massive selfishness in our society. Who seriously needs 9 cartloads of groceries? I once arrived at the farmers' market early, and one vendor had about 30 luscious apricots. Another vendor stopped by before the market opened and said, "I'll take them all." Sometimes lessons are learned by observing bad behavior.

One thing I didn't see on the show was cartloads of produce. These treasures are more costly and can rarely be redeemed with coupons. A locavore on a budget should consider making wish lists for family and friends. That way they won't give you toasters you'll never use or t-shirts you'll never wear.

The one last thing extreme couponing taught me was to be more mindful of my purchases. I wouldn't trade my whole foods pantry for all the grocery store coupons in Seattle. The idea of mindful shopping reminds me of a quote from Steve Phillips of Madison Farm on Bainbridge Island.

"You can always tell what people value when you look inside their pantry."

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Soup Project: Creamy Curried Nettle Soup

Slow fast food sounds a lot like an oxymoron, but that's how Jill Nussinow MS, RD, aka the Veggie Queen describes her newest book: The New Fast Food: The Veggie Queen Pressure Cooks Whole Food Meals in Minutes. This book is scheduled for release soon and my advice: get out your checkbooks now and order a copy pronto because this is veggie and pressure cooking inspiration at its finest.

After I read all about using pressure cookers, I decided I definitely need a new one. The newer models are very cool and lest apt to explode. I still have an old jiggle top, and it's really past time to go, sometimes I just don't notice how long I've had some things. After dreaming about a new pressure cooker, I searched for a soup recipe to post.

Nettles are one the first greens of spring, and I couldn't miss the opportunity to add a nettle soup to this Soup Project recipe collection. As I flipped through the recipes, I figured I could substitute nettles for most any green.

Why nettles?

The harbinger of spring, the lowly nettle is also a superfood, high in iron, potassium, calcium, vitamins A, C and B complex. And this plant with tiny cruel spikes has been used by herbalists around the world for centuries, according to this website. Nettles can reduce allergies, cleanse blood, reduce inflammation and pain, and though some farmers sell nettles at markets well into summer, check the leaf size before you buy, because you should only eat the small new leaves like those pictured above. The larger leaves are harder to digest.

I bought a big bag of the spike covered leaves from Found and Foraged at the University District Market this past Saturday. The bag was tied in a knot at the top so people aren't tempted to reach in and find out if the leaves are really prickly.

I found the only warnings about nettles was on this website that mentioned nettles can interfere with the body's abilities to clot if a person takes coumadin or aspirin. Also, this website mentioned nettles' possible interactions with antidepressants but most websites like this one sang praises for the prickly weed. And I've eaten them for years.

Fresh nettles only keep for a few days and when you're ready to use them, be sure to pull on some rubber gloves first. Wash them before you cook them, and don't overcook them, or the brilliant green color fades. When cooked, nettle's fierce stings dissolve away.

I adapted the following recipe from a "Creamy Curried Spinach Soup" in Jill Nussinow's new book. When I first read the recipe I thought it listed coconut milk and 1 cup of nondairy milk, but it really only listed one or the other. I guess this is why I make up recipes because I don't always get them exactly right the first time around. Anyway, just keep in mind it's a recipe, a pattern and you can follow or adapt as you like.

Creamy Curried Nettle Soup
(Serves 4-6)
This recipe originally listed spinach, but I discovered other greens work well and it's a great way to enlist your pressure cooker and cook the soup a lot faster. Though nettles take a bit longer than spinach, it still only took 3 minutes to quick release in a pressure cooker and about 5 to 6 minutes to simmer the nettles on the stovetop because I left the stems attached to the leaves.

1 tablespoon canola oil
2 large leeks (white and pale green parts only), chopped
1 heaping tablespoon curry powder (use more or less according to your taste)
1 tablespoon plus 2 1/2 cups water or vegetable broth
2 small white or yellow potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 to 8 cups of nettles (small leaves and stems only)
1 14-ounce can lite coconut milk
1 cup nondairy milk (coconut or rice milk) or add more water to thin
1 teaspoon agave nectar or Sucanat
Juice of 1 meyer lemon (optional)
Soy yogurt or a nondairy dressing for garnish

1. Heat oil in a pressure cooker over medium heat. Add leeks and saute for 2 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon water or broth and continue cooking and stirring for another minute. Add curry and stir again. Add 2 1/2 cups water or broth, potatoes and salt. Lock the lid on the pressure cooker. Bring to pressure over high heat, then lower heat to maintain high pressure for 3 minutes.

2. Release lid away from you and stir in nettles. (It will seem like a lot of nettles compared to the liquid.) Add coconut milk and 1 cup of nondairy milk. Simmer until nettles become soft--about 5 or 6 minutes.

3. Puree soup with an immersion blender or by batches in a blender until soup is creamy and smooth. Return to pot and cook on low for about a minute. Add salt and pepper to taste. I added a Meyer lemon because I have so many of them, and the addition seemed perfect. Also, the original recipe listed cilantro but I didn't know if cilantro and nettles would pair as perfectly with nettles, so I omitted cilantro in this recipe. I served the soup with homemade croutons on the side, but they didn't distract my Cooking Assistant.

Finn scores this soup four paws up! It's nettle season-- why not give it a try?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

$100 a Week: 5 things I learned from The Hunger Challenge

This is about $70 worth of food from my pantry, every item purchased at a farm, farmstand or farmers' market. Is all this food from small farmers really affordable on a food budget of $100?

The affordability of locally produced food was on my mind a few weeks ago when The United Way hosted their annual Hunger Challenge and asked people to sign up to live on $7 a day for one person, $12 a day for two people. The idea of the challenge was to feel empathy, to walk in another person's shoes and learn about hunger. I didn't learn about this Challenge early enough to consider signing up, but when I first read about it, I thought how can people live on that?

A few minutes later I felt like an idiot when I realized that is my so-called "food budget." Well, close enough anyway. ($100 a week is a little more than $7 a day for two people.) I was suddenly compelled to read all the participants blogs and discover out what they experienced, how they shopped and how this may have changed their lives, and okay I admit I was hoping to pick up a few tips for my budget. I never did discover how this changed participants' lives, and at times I wondered if signing up for this challenge and getting links to the blog posts was just an attempt to drive more traffic to some folks blogs. A sad comment on our times, but I do wonder about all possibilities.

Here are 5 things I learned:

1. Plan meals and make shopping lists. This is very important when you have this low cash flow. Planning meals takes time and effort, but it pays off in healthy meal dividends if you can learn to juggle the cash and shop carefully. Just a note that no one really mentioned: if you don't know how to cook, checkout a basic cookbook like Joy of Cooking at the library, or check out cooking videos like Cookusinterruptus. Or check out this great blog by the Veggie Queen.

2. Make do with less. It isn't always easy for other family members. Take a look at this bowl of of carrots I purchased for $9 last summer at the market. Will my Cooking Assistant be satisfied with less than what he deems his fair share? Or maybe he thinks I should deal with less.

3. Quit picking on other people so much. It's so easy to criticize our neighbors about petty things, but where does that get anyone really? For example, one of the participants wondered if the challenge was just a form of poverty tourism or watching privileged people (people with jobs?) play at being poor. And another person wrote about how she was poor once and found it insulting to read the blogs on how people had to do without their lattes. Sure people were playing a part for the week, as this blogger admitted in an odd sort of way, but one thing I noticed was this Hunger Challenge got people thinking about, talking about, and doing something about hunger in our community, and I don't think that's a bad thing.

4. Get creative, work together and making ends meet with your food budget will make your family stronger. That's what this person discovered. I'm not sure my Cooking Assistant is up for that part.

5. Donate more money or food to food banks or the United Way if you can. With so many people in our community still out of work and so many people homeless the food banks in our area desperately need more donations.

I spent a good part of an afternoon reading all the blog entries and Face Book comments on The United Way page. I don't know if I'd take part in this Challenge next year because $7 a day is already close to my budget limit, and I didn't really get why you can't accept free food or use spices and things from the pantry. That is the essence of really making a long time commitment to that kind of budget work. There is lots of extra food in our community and when you are on a lower income, finding free stuff is part of the plan.

In 2010 we veered into the low-income category, but because we own our place with no outstanding mortgage, we can afford health care and food. If not, it would have been one of the many trade-offs that lower income people must make.

One thing I noticed from reading the posts was many of the bloggers, except one or maybe two, resorted to Grocery Outlet or Safeway and bought non organic options. And many still focused on meat-based meals. Sure conventional bacon is cheaper and you could get a ton of 69 cent chicken pot pies or even "fresh" foods at the end of the line at the Outlet, but many of the bloggers also discovered cheap food wasn't worth the price.

By the end of the day, I wondered how I could start a fund that could help feed low income families and seniors from the farmers' markets. A $25 dollar food only gift certificate, given out each week, was my idea. I've found that $25 can buy some great healthy options from local farmers who could use more customers. It's win-win. And I also wondered how many folks might contribute to a fund like that. If 60 people chipped in just $5, just think, $300 could feed some low-income folks with fresh local foods. I initially imagined hosting a drawing for a food certificate each week. I tell you, it would make me smile if one of my low-income friends won and was able to buy more market food for the week. What do you think? Would it work?

For me, it's definitely an idea that deserves more conversation before the summer season begins.
This is an $8 loaf of 100-Mile Bread that I got at the Granville Market in Vancouver last summer, when I wasn't thinking about how rapidly I was delpeting our savings with purchases like this. Eight dollars works out to about a dollar a slice, if you got ten slices out of this loaf. I'd have to think twice before I splurged on that with $100 a week.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Soup Project: Long Life Miso Noodle Soup

Last Thursday Badger our oldest dog died. It was sad, but she was 14 1/2, and according to this website that's 104 in dog years! Basset hounds typically live to 12 and I've had two make it to 13 but 14 1/2 is amazing.

I had Badger ever since she was a puppy. She was the runt of her litter and no one else really wanted her. "Oh she'll get big, you'll see," a friend told me, but Badger never weighed more than 42 pounds as an adult. Her size and personality--a follower by nature--made her the underdog.
I gained new respect and insight for the underdog because of Badger. Whenever the other dogs squabbled over a toy, crouton or carrot on the floor, Badger quickly swooped in and carried off the treasure, and left them squabbling over nothing. And often when I returned on market days, while the other dogs greeted me, Badger quietly raided my produce bags and snagged produce, cheese or bread. Her favorites were carrots, but she once walked off with an entire head of cauliflower and I found her happily eating it outside. Another time I caught her stealing an expensive cheese, a treat for our salads.

As a puppy, Badger quickly became friends with Abe, our other misfit underdog, whose misshapen front legs gave him a duck-like waddle walk and an eggbeater run. Abe's one washed-out blue eye frightened children, and adults often asked if he was blind. But Abe had one of the most beautiful howls I'd ever heard. A fire engine would go by and Abe would start low like this--whooooooo and then work up to a full-pitched howl. But just like people, some dogs can sing and others shouldn't even try. All the other dogs were compelled to join in, and Badger's howl was way off-key and grating, but like most bad singers she had no clue.
The howling stopped completely at our house when Abe died at nearly 14. I cried over Abe and Badger sat next to me, hunched her shoulders and hung her head as if she understood. But Badger was never sad for long, and as a life-long follower she quickly followed young Finn's lead.

As the oldest hound in the house, Badger got special treasures--corn cobs, ice cream dishes and bits of eggs, toast or cheese. Finn and Chloe played together and it must have helped Badger feel young, but gradually she slowed down and there's nothing slower on earth than an old basset hound. Zen masters one four legs, old hounds teach you patience.

Last year when Badger's appetite declined, my sister said, "Why don't you try rotisserie chicken." I can't believe I bought rotisserie chicken for so long--the only meat we had in our house and it was for the dogs. But last week even the scent of chicken failed to interest her. I think she was just tired out from her long happy life.

She slipped away quietly last Thursday and Finn sat by my side while I cried. I wanted to make a soup that would celebrate this very sweet dog for giving us so many years, so I typed in "long life soup" on Google and that's how I found this soup recipe from Mark Bittman's book Food Matters. I thought the soup was called Long Life Soup, but it was the website not the soup, so I changed the soup title along with some of the ingredients. The original recipe has an option for salmon instead of tofu and the ingredients don't include carrots or mushrooms. And now the instructions have changed too. That's the way it goes with soup recipes.

I found a jar of Hearty Brown Rice South River Miso tucked behind a few jars in my refrigerator. I couldn't remember how old the jar was, so I called the company to make sure it was okay to eat. A woman checked the records and said I'd purchased that miso in 2003. "Is it still okay?" I asked. She assured me it was, making my title change for this recipe perfect. I guess miso has a naturally long life.

As I put the ingredients together, Finn took mental notes on everything that went into this soup.

I hope this spring soup revitalizes your soul.

Long Life Miso Noodle Soup with Bok Choy and Tofu
(Serves 4)

4 to 5 mushrooms, sliced
10 ounces extra-firm tofu
Sauce of choice to season tofu (teriyaki, hoisin or another Asian sauce)
6 ounces buckwheat soba noodles
5 to 6 cups vegetable stock or water
3 or 4 large stalks bok choy, leaves removed from stems and both sliced thin
2 carrots, sliced thinly
1/3 cup miso (your favorite; I used hearty brown rice)
1/4 cup sliced green onions or snipped chives (for garnish)

1. Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. When skillet is hot, add mushrooms. Stir and cook until mushrooms lose their juices. Remove from pan and set aside.

2. Slice tofu into four slices. Cut each tofu slice into a triangle and spread one side with sauce of your choice. Heat a stove-top griddle to medium-high. Place tofu, sauce side down on the grill. Spread top of tofu with sauce. Cook tofu until browned; then flip and cook the other side. (Watch carefully, it doesn't take long for tofu to brown nicely with grill marks.) Remove from grill and set aside.

3. Put stock or water into a pot and bring to a boil. When the stock is almost boiling, put miso into a small bowl and ladle in a cup of the stock. Whisk in the miso until the texture is smooth. When the stock boils, add bok choy stems and carrots. Let them cook for about a minute, then add the leaves and continue cooking until the soup bubbles steadily and the bok choy gets silky--3 to 5 minutes.

4. Remove from heat and quickly add miso mixture, mushrooms and soba noodles and heat just to warm everything. Serve the soup with tofu triangles and garnish with scallions. This soup is great with leftovers or for dinner another day.
Check out the Asian spoon. It's over a hundred years old and not a crack in it. Three cheers for long happy lives!