Love People. Cook Them Tasty Food.

I haven”t been here in a while.  I think my pot boiled over, cooked dry, and got scorched.  I have been trying to figure out a way to clean my pot so that I can use it again, but nothing seemed to be working until recently.  Over the 3FCD4D4E-3FD5-4BB3-9E70-185F39772AD1past few weeks, when I wasn’t even looking, I may have stumbled upon a solution.  Isn’t that often how it works?  The solution came into focus as I thought about a story I heard this weekend, a true story, about a man who for years had ground wheat into flour so that his wife could bake bread.  His wife has passed away, but the man continues to grind wheat in to flour.  Now his daughter drives almost 200 miles round trip to collect the wheat her father has ground and to give him 4 loaves of bread made from the wheat she collected the previous month.  This story almost moved me to tears.  This man’s love for his departed wife, the daughter’s love for her father and mother, and her willingness to keep this tradition they established alive is beautiful and what is needed in our world.

I heard the story in my kitchen, as I was spending the afternoon cooking.  I was cooking for not only my family, but for a couple neighbors who for health reasons need some help with meals.  I cooked all afternoon and was exhausted when I was done, but my heart was also very full.  I love to cook for others, always have.  My husband and I recently had our annual Mardi Gras party.  Every year in the middle of the party I think to myself, this is the last year.  I do not do well in large gatherings, preferring instead smaller functions.  But each year as the time to start planning for the Mardi Gras party rolls around, I find myself excitedly looking forward to the party.  Sure I like to see the people attending the party, but what I am really excited about is the cooking I will do for the party and the pleasure I experience as our guests enjoy the food.

I find cooking restorative and I am not the only one.  My friend, Sharon, and I share a love of cooking, and recently she sent me a cookbook for my birthday.  In the letter, which accompanied the cookbook she told me to read the book from cover to cover.  While I have often looked at each page of a cookbook, I have never read a cookbook from cover to cover, but I trust her advice, so I started reading.  A few pages into the book the author talks about how she had fallen out of love with life, seeing only darkness on the horizon, resulting in her trying to take her own life by stepping into the path of an oncoming bus.  As she was talking to the psychiatrist shortly after the incident, all she can think about is baking a pie.  Once she returned home, she baked that pie, and even though she had never been much of a cook, she decided to continue cooking.  She says that cooking changed her life (I imagine she also got some psychiatric help too!).

I’m not certain why my friend told me to read this book from cover to cover, but I am grateful.  While I have not been suicidal, I have had a difficult time keeping my spirits up these past few years.  That is part of the reason I have stopped writing.  The subject of food insecurity was so depressing; it still is.  It actually may be even more so because I don’t see the problem getting better any time soon.  In fact, I think there is a strong possibility that it will get worse and sooner rather than later.  My heart was heavy and the act of writing this blog seemed futile, but these events of the past couple of weeks have cleared away some of the gloom.  They have also reminded me of this quote I so love, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly, now. Love mercy, now.  Walk humbly, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”.  *

I have realized that cooking is my path forward.  I can not solve the problem of food insecurity, but I can cook for others and in doing so keep up my own spirits.  I love the act of cooking, all of it.  The finding of the recipe, the shopping, the chopping, the combining. Notice I didn’t say the doing of the dishes!  But more importantly than it just being an enjoyable pasttime, it feeds my soul by allowing me to help and bring pleasure to others.  Cooking is now and has always been my expression of love, for my family, friends, neighbors and even strangers.  It’s what helps me celebrate the good times and gets me through the bad.  And on that note I am going to close so that I can put the finishing touches on a meal I am delivering to one of my neighbors and start dinner for my own family.  Bon Appetit!

*I have always attributed this quote to the Talmud, but in searching for the quote I could not find it’s definitive source.




Tastes Good

free kaleThis past Saturday I spent the morning at a training session for a new program, sponsored by the Chester County Food Bank (CCFB), called Taste It!.  I went to the training with another volunteer from the food cupboard. In addition to us, attendees included a few nutrition students from West Chester University, a representative from another food pantry and several individuals interested in volunteering with this program through the CCFB at various food pantries and at the Fresh2You Mobile Market. Volunteers with the Taste It! program prepare a nutritious recipe, provide samples of the prepared recipe and information about healthy cooking on a limited budget.

The Taste It! program is very similar to what I have wanted to see offered through food cupboards and pantries.  The program does not seek to preach at participants about eating more nutritiously, but rather to introduce them to various fresh produce and other healthy foods and to demonstrate how easy to prepare, flavorful recipes using just a few ingredients can be.  The simple recipes try to emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables, utilize low cost or cupboard provided ingredients and provide adequate seasonings so that they taste appealing.  I appreciate that the CCFB encourages Taste It! volunteers to modify the recipes provided so that they use actual ingredients available in a specific pantry or cupboard and to use recipes created by the volunteers or shared by clients, provided they follow the criterion above.  I am additionally pleased to see that volunteers are encouraged to consider the cultural appropriateness of the recipes they choose to prepare.

The training took place at the Chester County Food Bank and in addition to providing anfree sweet potato overview of the program and proceedures, included a tour of the facility and a basic cooking and knife skills demonstration by a guest chef.  We finished the training with hands on cooking of some of the recipes.  The attendees were divided into 4 groups and prepared 4 different recipes provided by the Food Bank.  Once completed we sampled all of the dishes and discussed the cooking process, our thoughts on the recipes and what we might discuss when presenting the recipe.  For participating in the Taste It! program our food cupboard will receive a cooking kit, which includes bowls for ingredient display and mixing, measuring spoons and cups, a can opener, a cutting board, a knife, cooking utensils, a few basic ingredients like seasonings, oil, vinegar and soy sauce and an electric skillet for preparing the recipes.  These items will facilitate the implementation of this program.

I am excited about this program and was glad to have been included in the training.   We already have tremendous interest from a many of our clients with regard to fresh produce and eating healthier.  This program will serve to grow that support and further assist our clients in making healthier food choices.

Showing someone that a recipe sample is delicious can be much more powerful than telling them that it is “healthy”!

From the Taste It! Program Volunteer Handbook



Magic Beans

asst beansThis is not going to be a post about the magical beans for which Jack traded his family cow, although trading a cow (beef or any other meat for that matter) for beans in your diet once in a while is as good a trade as the one Jack made.  The beans to which I am referring are the beans you eat, and more specifically dried beans.  Dried beans are a valuable weapon in both the fight against hunger and the struggle to stretch food dollars.  Dried beans are cheaper than canned beans and can be stored for extended periods of time if kept in a cool, dark place.  Beans are such a good source of protein that the USDA classifies them in the Protein Food Group in the recommended dietary guidelines, making them an economical and healthy meat substitute. The USDA also classifies them as part of the Vegetable Group because they are high in fiber, which is good for lowing your risk for diabetes and heart disease.  Fiber also takes longer to digest, so foods high in fiber will help you feel fuller longer.  Finally beans are high in antioxidants, helping to protect your cells from free radicals, and are low in sugar, which means they help prevent insulin in the blood from spiking.  In spite of their health benefits and economical cost, most Americans do not incorporate beans into their diet, and when they do they often opt for canned beans over dried beans.

Some people may not know how to cook beans or may have a basic understanding of how to cook beans, but are under the misconception that it is difficult or requires a large amount of time.  I admit beans do take some time to cook and you can not come home from work and expect to put a meal using dried beans on the table in a short period of time without planning ahead.  The time required to cook dried beans, however, should not prevent you from incorporating them into your diet.  Most of the cooking time is unattended and can be done in advance, when you have time, like on the weekend or a day black-beansoff.  One just has to plan ahead to incorporate dried beans into your diet.  If you do it regularly, cooking beans will become almost effortless, whether you do it weekly or every couple of days.

In his book, Food Matters:  A Guide to Conscious Eating, Mark Bittman claims he is on “a mission to make sure every fridge or freezer in America is stocked with a container of home-cooked beans.”  Bittman’s philosophy is to regularly cook a quantity of beans to have on hand, storing them in the refrigerator, to use in recipes, toss in salads or just eat for a snack.  His recipe is simple.

  • Put some beans in a large pot and cover with cold water by a couple of inches.  Bring beans to a boil and let boil, uncovered, for about 2 minutes.  Turn off the heat and cover the pot, letting the bean soak for 1-2 hours.
  • After soaking, try a bean for doneness (they won’t be).  If it is at all tender, add a pinch of salt.  Make sure the beans are covered by about an inch of water, adding more if necessary.  If beans are still firm, do not add salt and make sure they are covered with 2 inches of water.
  • Bring pot back to a boil, then adjust heat so that the beans gently bubble.  Partially cover and cook, stirring occasionally and checking for doneness every 10-15 minutes.  Add water as necessary to keep the beans covered.  Small beans may take only 30 minutes extra cooking time and larger beans may take up to an hour more cooking time.  Add salt when the beans are just starting to become tender and stop cooking when they are the doneness you prefer.

Cooked beans can be used all at once in a recipe or saved in the refrigerator for several days to use as needed.  As a rule of thumb, 1 pound of dried beans equals 2 cups of dried beans equals 6 cups of cooked beans.  They can also be frozen and will keep for months.  If you do not need the liquid in which they were cooked it can be saved and used as a soup base.  It’s as easy as that.

chickpeaMark Bittman’s method requires little foreplanning, but does require you have a bit of extra time, as beans that have not been presoaked will take a longer to cook.  To shorten the cooking time by 1/2 or more presoak the beans in salted water (2 teaspoons salt per 1 quart of water) overnight or at least several hours.  When cooking beans always keep an inch or so of water over the beans and only salt the beans toward the end of cooking, within the last half hour.  If you are not going to mash your and you want to preserve their appearance, let the beans cool in their cooking liquid before draining so that the skins do not dry and crack.

Beans can be flavored as they cook or once the primary cooking has been completed.  Some flavorings that can be added to a pot of cooking beans include:  bay leaf, thyme sprigs, parsley, mirepoix (diced and sautéed onion, carrot and celery), garlic, smoked meats, like bacon or ham hocks and even leftover bones from pork, beef or chicken can be used.  The cooking liquid need not always be just water either.  Beer, wine, coffee or tea can be used alone or with water to flavor beans while cooking.  Flavoring can also be added to the beans once they have been cooked.  Make sure most of the cooking liquid has been drained from the beans before the final flavoring is added.  Some good flavorings to add to cooked beans include:  the herbs rosemary, sage, or thyme, cumin, garlic, hot sauce, cooked tomato sauces or salsa.   After adding the flavoring, continue to cook the beans for at least 10 minutes to allow the flavor to infuse the beans.

Fun Fact:  Beans cause gas because they contain indigestible carbohydrates which provide humans no nourishment, but do nourish the microbes in our gut.  When these microbes dine upon these carbohydrates they produce gas in our intestines.  When cooking dried beans you can reduce the indigestible carbohydrates by soaking them overnight or doing the quick soak detailed above.  Discard the soaking water and start with new water to cook the beans.  Just remember, removing indigestible carbohydrates removes color, flavor and nutrients as well.  Also, feeding the good microbes in our gut helps keep our gut microbiota in balance and recent research has suggested a link between unbalanced gut microbiota and a variety of negative health issues.

black and white beans

We offer dried pinto beans to clients at the food pantry and most of them take them, but every now and again someone declines.  To help those who are reluctant to try cooking dried beans, I am working on some recipes, using pintos as well as other beans.  I will share them once I have gathered them.  Have you ever tried mashed beans on toast for breakfast?  I learned about this from Jamie Oliver.  Evidently the Brits eat it all the time.  I’m sold!  As my family will tell you I have been known to eat strange things on toast.

Snow Day Fun

snow cardinalTuesday I found myself with some unexpected free time.  Due to a weather forecast of 4-8″ of snow, food pantry clients had been rescheduled to another day, so I did not have to volunteer.  I assumed, however, because of the forecast that my kids would be home from school for the day.  It did snow all day, but the temperature never dipped below freezing, so nothing stuck to the roads.  The kids only had a two hour delay (sorry guys!) and I didn’t have to volunteer.  What to do with this unexpected gift?!  I decided to spend the day going through a cookbook my brother and sister in law gave me for Christmas, entitled Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine:  The Folklore andscuppernong Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking, by Joseph E. Dabney.

When I initially started thinking about food insecurity and how to assist people who were hungry, one of the first ideas I had was to look to the past to see how folks used to cook, especially during hard times, like the Great Depression.  Prior to the Great Depression the United States also lacked the societal safety nets we have today, so people suffering from poverty really were on their own to survive.  After a bit more research, I learned that not everyone cooked and ate the way I assumed.  My notion of how women 100-125 years ago cooked and provided food for their families was based on a rural society, where there were little work opportunities for women outside the home and most families had enough land on which grow produce and/or keep some livestock.  After reading How the Other Half Ate, by Katherine Leonard Turner, I learned that urban dwelling women approached cooking and feeding their families very differently than rural women, and as the title suggests, different social classes cooked and ate differently as well.

Additionally, I came to realized that cooking like rural women from the past requires a great deal of time.  Initially I didn’t think this would be a problem for most of the people today who suffer from food insecurity, as I believed them to be unemployed.  After all, that is what many politicians and people in the media would have you believe.  I have since learned from my reading and volunteering, that many people who are food insecure are also employed, sometimes working two and three jobs, and therefore do not have an abundance of time to cook from scratch.  Cooking from scratch also requires certain implements and appliances that the food insecure may not own, like large pots and pans, a multiple burner stove or an oven.

With all that said, I do still think there are lessons to be learned from old cookbooks and food traditions of the past, which is why I read old cookbooks and historical accounts of how and what people ate.  This particular cookbook, although not old as it was originally published in 1998, contains the result of research and numerous interviews with old timers conducted by the author.  It is perhaps more an historical account with recipes than it is a cookbook.  The geographical location this book discusses, southern Appalachia, has historically been and still is, one of the poorest areas of the United States.  I was very curious to see what these hardscrabble people ate and how they prepared it and to determine if I could learn something from their practices that I could pass on to people in my community who are struggling today

One of the first themes that struck me was that they ate what was available wild in their environment, when it was available.  Some of this practice will not be very practical today.  We live in more populated areas with less open spaces, so foraging off the land will not work as well today.  Additionally, we have mostly lost the knowledge of what is edible, growing wild in our wild-strawberrybackyard or local woods, but it is there.  There is a group in Philadelphia, The Wild Foodies of Philly, whose members forage in the city and there is a global organization called Falling Fruit, whose website contains an interactive map of where people are urban foraging.  Similarly, I can remember as a young girl picking wild strawberries and blackberries, winter cress, persimmons, beach plums and black walnuts, all of which were eaten by my family.  Recently someone gave me some paw paws from a nearby tree growing in a nature preserve and my husband has picked and we have eaten morels and other mushrooms growing in our woods. (A note about gathering wild mushrooms–I am not advocating for anyone to pick and consume a wild mushroom without first taking a class in mycology or going foraging with someone very knowledgeable in wild mushrooms.  Some varieties can make you sick, but others can kill you quite quickly.  Unless you can tell the difference with certainty do not consume foraged mushrooms!)  And almost everyone has dandelions growing in their yard!  I often wonder if the people who spend money on herbicides to get rid of dandelions are sometimes the same people who spend money to buy dandelion greens in Whole Foods.

In addition to wild plants, the mountain people of Appalachia supplemented their diet by hunting wild animals, like rabbit, deer, raccoon, squirrel, opossum and turkeys.  Not everyone today is interested in hunting or has the land available to them on which to huntwild turkeys.  Likewise, our tastes have changed so that few could imagine eating opossum, but I know many families locally, who still supplement their diet with venison, rabbit, wild fowl and small birds, like dove.  The Chester County Food Bank participates in the Pennsylvania program, Hunters Share the Harvest, where hunters can share extra venison with food banks.  I just had a client ask me last week if we had any venison.

With regard to produce, they ate or preserved to eat later what was in season, growing in their garden.  Not many people can or preserve food today, but it was a necessary way to stretch the summer bounty into the winter, when produce was scarce.  Today, eating seasonally is still just as wise as it was in the past, even if you do not have a garden.  Produce in season is going to be cheaper, but also will taste better and be healthier, since it was allowed to ripen fully before being picked.  Even if you do not know how to can produce, many fruits and vegetables can easily be frozen, so if one has access to freezer space, freezing summer produce can be an economical way to enjoy summer’s bounty in the middle of winter.

In conjunction with eating what was available, the people of Appalachia wasted very little.  When they slaughtered an animal or killed wild game, they used almost all parts of the animal in one way or another.  Additionally, many plant products we commonly dispose of today were in the past used in recipes, like corncob jelly and pickled watermelon rind.  While I understand that many of these historical cooking practices are not practical for today, we can take away the lesson of reducing waste in our cooking.  For instance, I just recently purchased a rotisserie chicken for a dip recipe.  Once I had picked the meat off the bones, I put the bones into a pot with a quartered onion, covered it with water and simmered it for about an hour.  When it was done I removed the chicken bones and onion and strained the remaining liquid.  This produced 4 cups of chicken stock, which only cost me my time (mostly unattended cooking) and a few cents for the onion.  Abaconnother easy practice, which reduces waste and creates cooking stock, is to save parts of produce you are not going to eat, like the end of a carrot or broccoli stalks, in the refrigerator.  Once you have a decent amount of this vegetable matter, follow the same steps as with making chicken stock. This process will result in vegetable stock at no extra cost.  Finally, I save most of the fat rendered from frying bacon.  I put it in a container in my refrigerator and use small amounts not only for frying foods, like potatoes, but also to flavor braising water for vegetables when I don’t have any stock on hand.

I thoroughly enjoyed my snow day on Tuesday, sitting with a cup of tea and a cookbook.  While I did not grow up in Appalachia, I did grow up in the country and the people and food ways described in this book spoke to me and reminded me of my childhood.   Unfortunately so much of what I was remembering from my childhood is gone.  The wild strawberries and hedgerows of blackberry canes are not there anymore.  Very little, if any, winter cress grows inblackberry the fields due to herbicides or planting practices.  My grandfather, sharer of persimmons, has long since passed away.  Like the memories of my youth, passing down the practice of cooking from scratch and cooking methods used to stretch the meager food resources of a family have largely disappeared too, especially as busy parents rely more and more on processed, already prepared, packaged food.  Unfortunately, we are losing more than we realize when we give up these practices.

Butternut squash

The arrival of fall brings with it so many pleasures–beautiful foliage, football, the start of the holiday season and many more.  One of the things I most look forward to with the arrival of fall is the winter squash butternut squashseason, and my favorite winter squash is the butternut squash.  These somewhat pear-shaped squash have a slightly sweet, nutty flavor similar to a pumpkin.  As a matter of fact, when I asked a local Amish farmer which of the pumpkins he grew would be the best for a pie, he took me to the butternut squash and said this is what we use for pies.  Not only do butternut squash taste delicious, but they are a good source of vitamin A including beta carotene, fiber, potassium and magnesium.  Their ability to be used in sweet and savory recipes makes them a highly versatile vegetable.

These squash are grown in the summer, but harvested in the fall, so right now is the height of butternut squash season.  They are readily available in farmers’ markets and grocery stores and because they are in season they are reasonably priced and full of flavor.  Butternut, and most winter squash, store well if you have the right place.  Stored in a cool, dark place, butternut squash can last for 2-3 months, maybe longer depending on your conditions.  This potential for long term storage allows you to buy several of them when they are at their cheapest.

Not everyone is familiar with butternut squash.  I know I wasn’t until a few years ago.  Most recipes begin with roasting the squash, but it can also be sautéed and cooked in a soup.  Here are some recipes to try.  And while I enjoy butternut squash in dishes, sometimes my favorite way to eat it is to just roast peeled, cubed butternut squash tossed in olive oil (or any vegetable oil) with a little salt and pepper.

mashed bns

Winter Squash Puree

from Good and Cheap:  Eat Well on $4/Day

  • 1 Tbs. butter, plus more for the pan
  • 1 butternut squash (or any other winter squash except spaghetti squash)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • salt and pepper to taste


  • yogurt or sour cream
  • brown sugar and cinnamon
  • finely chopped chiles
  • curry powder
  • raisins
  • sage
  • parmesan, cheddar  or goat cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Butter a baking sheet.  Slice the squash in half using a big, sharp knife.  Scoop out the seeds and fibers.  Set the halves facedown on the sheet.  Bake in the oven until a knife poked into the squash goes through easily, 30-40 minutes.  Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat.  Add the garlic and sauté about 2 minutes.  Remove from the heat.  Scoop the squash from the skin and place it in a large bowl with the garlic, the butter from the pan and any other additions.  Mash and stir until smooth.  Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

This recipe makes a great side dish.  I would also use it with goat cheese as a spread on toast in the morning!

roasted bns

Baked Garlicky Butternut Squash

from Main Course Vegetarian Pleasures

  • 1 large (3 1/2 pounds) butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
  • 1/3 cup olive or other vegetable oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 Tbs. minced parsley
  • salt to taste
  • liberal seasoning of black pepper
  • 1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  In a large bowl, toss squash, oil, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper.  Spoon vegetable into a shallow baking dish, making sure the squash is in a single layer.  Sprinkle with the parmesan cheese.  Bake for 1 hour, or until the squash is tender, but not mushy.

Again I have made the above recipe using just oil, salt and pepper!


bns bb pinto

Butternut Squash & Black Bean Tacos

recipe courtesy of Chester County Food Bank

  • 1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into small cubes
  • 2 cans of black beans, drained, rinsed and warmed.
  • 3 Tbs. olive  or vegetable oil
  • 1 Tbs. of chili powder or other spices (maybe cumin)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 8-10 corn or flour tortillas
  • 1 cup sour cream or cheese (optional)
  • salsa or hot pepper, diced (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Pile squash on a baking dish, drizzle with oil, sprinkle with chili powder or other spices and 1 tsp. salt.  Toss to coat the squash evenly.  Spread the squash in a single layer on the pan and roast for about 25 minutes, stirring once about halfway through.  The squash should be very soft and browned around the edges.  Remove from oven and set aside.  To make the tacos:  fill the tortillas with the squash and beans.  Top with the optional ingredients, if desired, and serve right away.  Any leftover taco filling can be stored in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.

Instead of tacos, you could put the filling into a burrito, make a quesadilla or mix it with crunched up tortilla chips to make a taco salad.  You could use pinto beans instead of black beans and cooking dry beans is a cheaper option.

I have so many more recipes for butternut squash.  I could almost eat a butternut squash every week for most of the season and not repeat a recipe.  I hope these the recipes above inspire you to cook a butternut squash, especially if you have never tried one!  I’m off to cook one now to use in Butternut Squash Lasagna.

Good and Cheap

good-and-cheapIn keeping with last week’s blog post about the SNAP Challenge, I want to write about a cookbook I bought earlier this summer.  It is called Good and Cheap:  Eat Well on $4/Day by Leanne Brown.  This cookbook grew out of a capstone project for Ms. Brown’s master’s degree in food studies at New York University.   She calls this cookbook a “book of ideas” and a “strategy guide”  rather than just a book of recipes.  Each recipe has only a few essential ingredients, but most include a list of additional ingredients that could be used to enhance the dish, if one’s budget allowed.  Additionally, each recipe includes a beautiful color photo of the dish and a note, providing preparation hints, information about an ingredient in the dish or other helpful information about the dish.  Some of the recipes also contain a paragraph set apart by a dotted line with further helpful cooking tips that would pertain to that recipe, making the cookbook very user friendly for the novice cook.

Recipes aren’t the only things you will find in this cookbook, however.  It begins with a history of the book and states the author’s philosophy regarding eating, both well and inexpensively (the key isproduce fruits and vegetables).  Brown then spends several pages discussing tips for eating well and shopping economically, including supermarket strategies and a list of items she feels are worth the expense.  There is a section on what to do with leftovers, so that they are more enticing to eat and a page showing a seasonal growing chart for fruits and vegetables, so that you can purchase produce in season when it tastes best and is the cheapest.  Toward the back of the book are sections on flavoring your food, cooking in bulk and other cooking techniques.

The recipes are easy to follow and each dish is nicely displayed.  I have only made one recipe out of the book, but it was quite tasty and I will make it again, as well as look for others to try.  I love that she offers so many ideas about altering the recipes that the cookbook becomes more of a springboard to countless other creations.  I think it is a valuable resource for the cook, especially the novice one, looking to eat well, yet frugally.  In addition to assisting those receiving SNAP benefits, it would be a great resource for a college student or someone living on a fixed income.  The last thing I really like about this cookbook is the pledge that for every copy bought, a copy will be donated to someone who needs it, but can not afford to purchase it.  Furthermore, Brown offers a free downloadable copy of the cookbook on her website for those who either can’t afford a copy or just want to try a recipe or two before purchasing.  I encourage you to go to her website and check out this cookbook.  The link is provided below.

Leanne Brown’s website

SNAP Challenge

Gwyneth's food
Gwyneth Paltrow’s SNAP Challenge purchases

I have thought about taking the SNAP Challenge several times over the past few years.  Participants of the SNAP Challenge pledge to live on roughly $4.00 per person per day, which is the amount of the average daily food stamp benefit.  Emergency food providers have taken the challenge.  Politicians have taken the challenge.  Celebrities have taken the challenge.  Although usually garnering positive coverage Gwyneth Paltrow received tons of negative press earlier this year over her food choices when she decided to take the SNAP Challenge.

When I became serious about understanding the issues around food insecurity, taking the SNAP Challenge seemed like one of the most obvious things for me to do if I really wanted to understand what it would be like to experience food insecurity.  Yet I never have.  I have my reasons.  The first being that I have a family, and while this is my mission and they support me, they would not be too happy to subsist on a SNAP Challenge diet, nor do I think it is fair to ask them to participate to that extent for my cause.  Additionally, do not I want to do double cooking duty by preparing a separate meal for me.  Neither my family’s dietary discomfort, nor my lack of time to prepare double meals is the main reason I have never taken the SNAP Challenge.  As a person who likes to cook a wide variety of food, I have a very well stocked kitchen pantry and I spice cabinethave not quite figured out how to take that pantry out of the SNAP Challenge equation.  I could decide to not use any items in my pantry, but that seems a bit unrealistic.  Most food insecure people have a minimum of kitchen staples to use.  I could purchase only ready-made, preprocessed foods, but that doesn’t fit my mission to help those who are food insecure eat as healthfully as they can while stretching what little food resources they have.  And so consequently, I have never taken the challenge.

This summer the perfect opportunity to take the challenge presented itself, and if I had only been thinking ahead I could have capitalized on the opportunity.  Every few summers my family vacations in a cabin in Maine.  The cabin belongs to another family and we rent it from them for the week.  While the cabin is stocked with food belonging to the other family, we bring whatever food we need for the week.  This would have been the perfect chance for me to take the SNAP Challenge, without having to worry that I was cheating by using some of the staples in my own kitchen.  We could have bought our food, staying within the parameters of the challenge, and relied on whatever spices or other small quantity ingredients were available at the cabin.  The only problem was that I didn’t think about trying this until half way through our vacation.

To be honest, it is probably for the best.  I’m pretty sure my family would have revolted at the thought of turning our vacation dining into a SNAP Challenge even though when we take this spaghetti and saucevacation we tend to eat simple, easy to prepare meals. (Except for the lobster dinner.  We were in Maine after all!)  This is in part because the cabin in which we stay does not have electricity, and while it did have running water, it was pumped from the lake and not potable.  The adequate, yet primitive nature of our cooking setup, dictates relatively simple meals.  Some of the meals we ate included spaghetti with jarred sauce, vegetarian burritos with beans and rice, sandwiches, leftovers and other ready made foods like soup.

Once the missed opportunity occurred to me, however, I did begin thinking about what we had purchased, how much it had cost and what we could have done without.  To feed my family of four for a week I would have only had roughly $112 to spend.  Our total shopping bill was well over twice as much as that.  When you factor out alcohol, lobsters, and items that can not be purchased by SNAP benefits, like toilet paper, our expenses would have been lower, but still considerably more than the SNAP Challenge allotment.  Since we were on vacation I bought fun items, like cookies, chips and soda.  Those items could have been sacrificed.  We also had to bring in all our drinking and cooking water, as the water from the lake was not potable.  That is an expense not usually factored into the average SNAP Challenge.  Even without all these items I still do not think our total would have been the roughly $112 we would have had as our benefit.

no snacks

In the abstract I knew SNAP benefits did not allow for much food to be purchased; they are not intended to totally supply a monthly allotment of food, even though they do for many.  What this mental exercise accomplished for me was to concretely demonstrate, not only how little food SNAP benefits provide, but how difficult eating well can be if relying on SNAP benefits and how repetitive one’s food choices would be.  I will probably never take the SNAP Challenge and I am okay with that.  While I understand the intent of the challenge, I find it a bit flawed.  Here is the challenge I have for you that I think will demonstrate the point the SNAP Challenge is attempting to make.  Next time you go shopping keep your grocery bill.  How much was it?  Now figure what your household SNAP benefit would be ($4 per person per day for the number of days your shopping trip would cover).  After you deduct all the non-food items, how far over that amount is your grocery bill?  Now, examine what’s left and decide what you would do without to come within your SNAP benefit range?

A Plan of Action

I have not been able to volunteer the past two weeks due to family appointments.  Even though I know clients will continue to get their food, I feel bad not being there and realize that I am contributing to the instability of emergency food as discussed in Janet Poppendieck’s “Seven Deadly Ins” of emergency food.  My inability to volunteer does not mean that I have been idle.  This past week I have been thinking about last week’s post and the goals I put forth in it.  While looking for inspirational quotes to include in that post I encountered this one goal dreamand it has been haunting me since.  I don’t have any deadlines; I admitted as much in my post.  While I am not sure my current family responsibilities will allow me to create firm deadlines, I have decided to shift my attention, slightly, away from strictly blogging and more toward working on my goals and creating squishy deadlines.  I plan to take the summer months, when my boys are home from school and my work day will be a little bit more disrupted and noisy, to do some researching and planning.

Toward that end, I started scouring my cookbooks for recipes using oats.  Oats, to me, seem likeoats a no-brainer for a food bank or pantry to distribute.  They are an incredible source of soluble fiber, more than any other grain, which slows digestion and keeps one full longer.  The soluble fiber in oats also helps control blood sugar levels, so oats may help to reduce a person’s risk of Type 2 diabetes.  Oats have been proven to lower cholesterol and contain a protein, nearly equivalent in quality to soy protein, which has been shown to be equal to other forms of protein, like eggs and meat.  All of these benefits have lead some to label oats as a super food.

Despite all of the benefits of oats, they are not a staple at either of the food pantries where I volunteer.  Sometimes donated containers of oats will be available, but more often than instant oatsnot what is available are the packets of instant oatmeal.  This type of oatmeal often contains lots of sugar and salt.  It has also been processed more, allowing it to digest quicker, reducing the benefits associated with the slower digestion of rolled or steel cut oats.  Furthermore, instant oatmeal can only be used for one thing, a warm breakfast cereal.  Oats, on the other hand, can be used in many recipes.  Without spending too much time I was able to find about a dozen suitable recipes using oats, and I haven’t even begun to probe recipes using oats for side dishes.

Other areas in which I want to invest some time researching are starting a non profit and finding potential seed funding for that venture.  I have a neighbor who just used crowdfunding for a video series on horse slaughter in America with the help of Indiegogo.  This was a new concept to me, but seemed to be successful for him, so it warrants further investigation.  In addition to registering and funding my non-profit, I need to determine what food items I will supply to food pantries and how the distribution will work.  I currently see a featured partnering of items with accompanying recipes.  For instance, drawing oats cinnamonupon oats, I would donate oats and cinnamon to the food pantry.  Clients would then be able to take the paring of a container of oats and a bottle of cinnamon along with a handful of recipes.  The items partnered together would change with the seasons, featuring items that made sense for the time of year.  Lastly, once items to be donated have been chosen, I need to determine how I get the items to donate.  Do I partner with retailers and/or wholesalers, accept donations, make purchases or a combination of these options?

Sounds like I am going to be busy this summer!  I don’t imagine I will get all those objectives solved in the space of a few months, but I now have a plan of action.  Presently I need to return my attention to gathering a few more recipes for oats and getting them typed up.  At the same time I need to start collecting some recipes for kale and collards.  The Chester Country Food Bank posted on Facebook this week that volunteers harvested 350 pounds of kale and collard greens.  I imagine that will start to trickle down to the food pantries soon, as will other vegetables.  Can’t wait!

local produce

Food Revolution Day

food revolutionToday is Food Revolution Day, sponsored by British chef, Jamie Oliver.  Oliver is concerned with the obesity epidemic and believes that if you teach kids in a fun engaging way about healthy food and how to cook it the number of overweight and obese children will begin to decline.  He is encouraging people world-wide to sign an online petition urging leaders of all G20 countries to make compulsory practical food education part of school curriculum.  Currently the petition has over 1 million signatures from people in 196 countries.  The link is below.  Check it out.  There is also a link on that site to Jamie Oliver’s Food Foundation USA which is worth a look too.

jamie oliver

Bread Need Never Be Wasted

breadAll of the talk last week about the importance of cooking from scratch put me in the mood to write about cooking again.  This time I am going to focus on what to do with stale or excess bread.  As I mentioned in a previous post, each of the pantries where I volunteer gets bread donated from large retailers who have pulled the bread from sale in their establishments.  By bread I do not mean sliced bread for sandwiches, but loaves of bread, like French or Italian bread.  These donations come in once a week.  Sometimes they are barely enough to distribute to all the clients, but other times they are bountiful.  When the donations are large, excess bread is kept in the freezer or refrigerator.  When the current week’s bread arrives, any remaining from the previous week must be discarded to make space.  A couple of weeks ago I happen to be volunteering when a large bag of bread was brought out to be discarded.  It bothered me to see perfectly good, albeit stale, bread being thrown away.  I decided to take it, with the idea of finding uses for it.

As I started going through my cookbooks looking for recipes using bread I came across the sentence I used for my title in a cookbook by Alice Waters.  Boy was she right!  Here are some of the uses for stale bread that I found.  The first use for stale bread that immediately came to mind was bread pudding.  My mother made this dessert quite a bit when I was growing up.  While I was familiar with bread pudding as a dessert, I also discovered recipes for savory bread puddings that can be used as a side dish for dinner.  Like adding raisins or other fruit to a dessert bread pudding, the savory bread pudding can be made with vegetable add ins, like winter squash, roasted peppers or eggplant.  Sticking with side dishes, a great use for stale bread in the summer when tomatoes and fresh basil are plentiful and flavorfulpanzanella is Panzanella, an Italian bread salad.  Fattoush, a Lebanese bread salad, is also good in the summer.  It is usually made with pita bread, but I have substituted a cubed sturdy loaf bread in place of the pita bread and it worked just fine.

Stale loaf bread lends itself to breakfast casseroles as well.  My kids love a baked French toast casserole I make or you could just slice the bread and make individual slices of French toast.  Additionally, there are numerous variations on the breakfast strata, which is a layered stratabreakfast casserole consisting mainly of eggs, bread and cheese.  To those main ingredients you can add any of the breakfast meats and/or vegetables like spinach, peppers or mushrooms.  The great thing about most of these breakfast casseroles is that they can be assembled the night before and would just need to be cooked in the morning.  The strata I make the most calls for ham, which is a great use for leftover ham as well.  I think stratas make a great breakfast-for-dinner meal too, add on a salad or better yet, make the strata with some spinach for a one dish meal!

The recipes I have discussed so far are dishes using bread, but stale bread can be transformed into other things to be used in recipes.  Homemade croutons are a good use for stale bread.  Just cube the bread up, toss it with some oil (preferably olive oil) and herbs or garlic, and bake until the bread has dried out.  Croutons can be tossed in a salad or served in a soup.  Similarly,croutons you can make homemade bread crumbs too.  Finally, I have made toasts for snacking.  This is particularly good if you have a baguette, as the slices are the perfect size.  I mix together spices and olive oil, then brush it on the thinly sliced baguette and bake until the slices are crunchy.  The ones I make have a spicy mixture of spices on them, but I have often wanted to try ones with a mixture of Italian spices and maybe some cheese.   Finally, bread, wrapped well, can be frozen for up to 3 months, so if  you have the ability to freeze it for a later use that is always an option too.

I did not make all these recipes with the bag of bread I brought home, but I have made a version of every recipe I mentioned, sometimes with fresh bread, but most often with stale bread which usually works better.  Although not the recipes I used, I have included links to recipes for a couple of dishes I mentioned to give an idea of what the dish is like.  One thing did concern me as I was reading over recipes, particularly the ones for casseroles.  Most of those recipes called for several eggs and a good deal of milk, or even cream.  These ingredients are often precious to people who are struggling to make food last as long as it can.  In discussing making bread pudding with my mother she mentioned she sometimes makes her grandmother’s recipe.  I knew from stories my mother had shared about lean times during her childhood, that this recipe would be a simple one yet would still taste good.  I asked my mother for the recipe and sure enough it uses less eggs, a bit less sugar and omits the vanilla all together, while still being tasty.  I have included this recipe below.  Thanks Granny, both of you!

Granny’s Bread Pudding

  • 3 cups bread torn into bite sized pieces
  • 2 cups milk
  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • optional ingredients include 1/2 cup of raisins, blueberries or chocolate chips or a sliced banana

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Mix bread and milk together and let sit for 15 minutes.  Mix together slightly beaten eggs, sugar and cinnamon.  Add this mixture to the bread/milk mixture and stir.  Add any optional ingredients and stir.  Turn into an 8x8x2 inch baking dish and bake for 50-60 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.