Friday, September 28, 2012

Three Hearty Soups on a Budget

It's a good time of year for soups. I love hearty soups with seasonal ingredients. They are filling, but light on the budget. They use similar ingredients, so you can make a soup with the things you have on hand.

The third recipe, Bean, Kale and Potato, has been on our table daily all week. My family is protesting a bit. But, I am loving the not having to cook nightly and the way the recipe used nearly all of our CSA bag of ingredients and stretched 12 oz. of meat into 30 meals. It's practical for all of us, but especially for those on a limited budget.

Soups are a great way to use what you have on hand. You can source beans and grains in only the amount you need from bulk bins, too. These low cost and high nutrition ingredients make for a fantastic soup with a few seasonal vegetables. Meat and stock are optional, too.

The recipes are offered here in a series for an Arvest Bank, feeding the hungry Pinterest contest. The winner gets to donate 10,000 meals to their community food bank. My local food bank is Harvesters. Please like this pin so they can win 10K meals! The food bank feeds 66,000 people weekly. Your "like" of this pin will help a lot!

Winter Vegetable Soup
The farro used in this recipe, an ancient strain of grain, is available in the bulk foods aisle for pennies a pound.

Makes 12 servings

2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped 2/3 cup chopped carrot (about 3 medium carrots) 2/3 cup chopped celery (about 3 stalks) 2 garlic cloves, minced 10 cups vegetable or chicken stock, (or water if budget is limited) 1 Tbsp dried summer savory 2 tsp dried thyme 2 bay leaves 2 small Parmesan rinds, optional 1 lb sweet potatoes, peeled and diced small (¼-inch cubes) 1 lb winter squash, peeled and diced small (¼-inch cubes) 1 cup farro, rinsed and drained or 1 cup lentils, rinsed, sorted and drained 1 bunch (about 12 oz) kale or chard greens, stemmed and chopped Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Warm the oil over medium-low heat and add the onion, carrot and celery. Sweat this combination, known as a mirepoix, until the onion is translucent.
2. Add the stock and the savory, thyme and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Add the sweet potato, squash and Parmesan rinds, and then simmer for 30 minutes.
3. Add the farro or lentils and simmer for 30 more minutes (or until the lentils, if present, are al dente).
4. Add the greens, and simmer for 5 more minutes.
5. Remove the bay leaf and Parmesan rinds. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Beans and Greens and Grains Soup

Beans and Greens is the name of a great program here locally for six farmers markets. Basically, any food stamp card purchases of fresh, healthy produce are doubled. So, five dollars will buy a food stamp recipient TEN dollars in healthy food.

As a salute to this program that makes healthy food available to folks who need it most, I decided to create a special soup, a meal in a bowl, that can be made from beans and greens as well as whole grain purchased on the cheap from the bulk bins. The chicken sausage is optional, but a nice addition if affordable. Kale and leeks are spring vegetables that should be making an appearance very soon (I hope).

2 leeks, white parts and light green, diced (or a use small onion)
4 carrots, peeled and diced small
1 tbs. olive oil
1 bunch kale, stems removed and chopped
1 cup whole grains such as whole wheat, barley, whole oats or brown rice
12 oz. cooked mild chicken sausages, sliced
1 lb. frozen black eyed peas, (see below for canned or dried options)
10 cups chicken broth, (can use water if on very limited budget)
1 large parmesan rind, optional
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy pot with a lid. Add the leeks or onion and the carrots. Place the lid on and sweat the veggies for 10-15 minutes to begin to release the flavors.

Add the whole grains and the broth. Bring to a boil. Add the kale and sausage, parmesan rinds, frozen beans. When this returns to a boil, turn the heat down to a simmer, cover and simmer for 50 minutes, or until grain is cooked al dente. Remove the rind. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

For dried beans, soak the beans overnight first. Sweat the veggies as above, add the dried beans and 12 cups of stock. Cook for 1.5 hours until beans are just becoming tender. Then proceed with the rest of the recipe. For canned beans, rinse and drain 2 cans of beans. Add these for the last 20 minutes of simmering.

Beans, Greens, and Potato Soup

This soup is similar to both of the above, but uses sweet potatoes and potatoes instead of the grains. It makes enough to feed a small army and is more hearty like a stew. The sausage is nice, but you won't miss it if its not there. Spices can sometimes be bought in bulk bins, only what you need. Or, in very small quantities to be cost efficient.

1 large onion, diced
5 carrots, diced
4 stalks celery, diced
2 tbs. olive oil
1 sprig rosemary
1 tbs. dried savory or thyme
1 lb. dried small white beans, rinsed and soaked overnight, or can use canned beans
10 cups chicken or vegetable stock, or water if necessary
1 lb. sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
1 lb. potatoes, diced (no need to peel)
1 bunch kale or collards, stems removed and chopped
12 oz. chicken sausage, diced, optional
salt and pepper

Heat the oil over medium heat in soup pot. Add the onion, carrot and celery to soup pot. Sweat (cook over medium low heat for about 10 minutes) the veggies until the onion is translucent. Add the stock or water, herbs, dried beans. See note below if using canned beans. Bring to a boil, then simmer, covered for about 1 hour. 1.5 hours for larger white beans. You can do this in 20 minutes if using a pressure cooker!

When the beans are just tender, add the potatoes and sweet potatoes. Bring back up to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the sausage, if using, and the greens. Bring back up to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes. Goes great as a meal with a slice of bread. Freezes well and is great leftovers for the week.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Seeds We Plant

I chose the seeds carefully. In the dead of last winter, the beautiful vegetables filled the pages of the seed catalog, all whispering a promise of the growing season to come.

That promise seduces me each year. It tricks me into the hope that, this year, yes, this year, I will grow a beautiful garden. I chose lettuces for spring. Green beans and Asian beans also because these seem to defy even my black thumb and produce. I chose a few "experiments," ones I had little hope of actually growing to fruition, but would be oh so amazing if I could. And I chose a winter squash, Delicata, because I love winter squash most of all vegetables. Each year, I try to grow it and fail, but try again the next.

Before hitting "purchase," I quickly doubled the seed order for the most hearty items. I chose the things I knew most people would know how to cook. And I picked a butternut squash seed for the mix. This second order of seeds was not for my garden. Each year, I donate seeds to a prison garden program where the inmates volunteer their time and labor to grow food that gets donated to area food pantries.

Its a hopeful time of year and for a few hours of "seed porn" and less than fifty dollars, I get to dream about the spring and forget about the dreary February chill. The seeds arrived, and so did an early spring. Too early. I celebrated with putting in the beans and greens in April. We were blessed with bunches of green beans. I got bold and added cherry tomato plants and pepper plants.

By late May, however, the season's early promise began to look ominous. It was hot. And dry. June came in like July. Strawberries barely lasted two weeks and blueberries were ripe in June. We had to water a few times a week. Late June saw temperatures of over 100 degrees.

The drought was here. I fought the good fight. I watered. My husband watered. The kid watered. I hoped the cat did not water. We watered. I cursed the population explosion of bugs from our too-mild winter. I did my rookie best. And I faithfully planted my fall crop of winter squash and hoped.

They bloomed mightily. The vines spread. I rejoiced. And watered. And watered more.

But the heat pounded us all, plant, human and animal alike. We all wilted together. My beautiful squash vines shriveled and the leaves turned brown. I'm not a great gardener, even when there is no drought. I was even more humbled now. I really wanted my seeds to grow and to cook squash I had grown myself.

Just about this time, our neighbor knocked at our door. She's like another grandmother to our little girl. The two are best friends. We sometimes take her soup and chocolate-zucchini muffins. She stood at our door with empty soup containers in her hands and a sack.

"Do you like winter squash?" she said. Inside the bag were three butternut squashes. "My boyfriend helps volunteer with this prison garden project," she went on. "And they had so many extra squash, they sent these home with him." She had no idea that I donated seeds to the same program.

"Thank you. Thank you so much." I said. It was hard to put into words what I felt holding the squash that may very well have been grown from the seeds I donated. I guess gardening really is like life.

It's not only what you harvest that matters. It's just as much about the seeds you help others to plant.

Below is a note I received from the coordinator of the garden. It was written by one of the garden's inmate volunteers.

Their season was not without hardship.

"End of July update,
Well mother nature still will not cooperate and send us some much needed rain, and lower than 100 degree temperatures.  We have used almost all rain water we can, but when it doesn’t rain our rain barrels cannot collect rain water from the roof.  We have been able to pump some water out of a pond, but it is getting low.  We did plant this week some fall crops, so we again need some prayers for rain.  Most everything is 1/3 of what we had for production last year.  And many plants have quit producing and have died.  From May 15 to July 31 we have given away 39,906 lbs of food to those in need, as compared to last year of 58,653."

Still, nearly 40,000 pounds of food went to those in need. Next season, I am tripling my seed order. If you'd like to also contribute, email me at thecleanerplate [at] gmail [dot] com. I'll get you the contact information for the garden coordinator.

Or, if this post moves you to action, find a similar project or community garden to donate to for your area. Fresh produce is one of the most cherished items that a food pantry can get. Healthy foods are a premium.

Every tiny seed of good we plant in this world grows. Every one.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

It's Bigger Than Just School Lunch

As many blog posts as I have written bemoaning school lunches and nutrition for kids, it's refreshing to share good news. Here's an updated menu with the proposed USDA changes for better nutrition for school meals. It's much improved and I was even surprised to see jicama on the ingredients list.

What I like most about it is that it is a bit realistic. It's healthier swaps for things kids have been eating. What I would call "transitional foods." There's a chance kids will actually eat part of these lunches. Much of the rationale used to block school food changes hinged on precisely that: kids won't eat healthy foods. There is more waste. It won't work. And, frankly, they are right. If kids won't eat these items at home, how can we expect them to at school?

It's like a chicken and egg thing. Or a chicken nugget and egg mcmuffin thing. Do kids eat poorly because they get junk food in schools every day, or do kids eat junk food every day so they will only eat junk food in schools?

I've read with envy all the amenities and fresh food that Alice Water's and Co. have implemented in Berkeley schools along with their Edible Schoolyard program. I think about that program, even as I am applauding these hard-won changes. But,read
 this article in Grist about just how well the kids in Berkeley are eating and what they are not eating. Do they eat a better diet and non-processed foods than other kids? Yes. But, even with all the advantages, frankly the kids still aren't eating as well as they could.

We're winning in our schools. Which is incredibly important for kids whose best meals and main nutrition for the week come from our school lunch program. Let's not stop here. 

Let's keep fixing school lunches.

A bit of history for perspective:

The first school lunch programs were created by teachers and moms. They often included things like a garden on site and even a cow for fresh milk.

The first school lunch legislation was passed in 1946. The program was not designed as a way to help feed hungry kids alone. It was also established to use surplus agricultural commodities which in turn kept food prices from crashing. The program was funded with $10 million per year in 1946 dollars (114.6 million today) to feed 6.7 million children. Today's budget is $11 billion annually to feed 31 million kids daily.

What are "surplus agricultural commodities?" Commodities may not sound much like food, but historically this meant the basic items produced from a farm; corn, wheat, soy, rice, meat, milk, eggs, fruit and vegetables. Not so much now, but we'll get to that in a later lesson.

In many ways, the 1946 legislation was well-intentioned if not fairly administrated. Okay, it sounded good at least.

Here's a few other quotes from the 1946 legislation that might make us all yearn for the good old days, or at least the old days of good lunch as it was promised:
  • "The need for a permanent legislative basis for a school lunch program, rather than operating it on a year-to-year basis, or one dependent solely on agricultural surpluses that for a child may be nutritionally unbalanced or nutritionally unattractive, has now become apparent."
  • "It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food ..."
  • "The educational features of a properly chosen diet served at school should not be under-emphasized. Not only is the child taught what a good diet consists of, but his parents and family likewise are indirectly instructed."
While it may seem like some of our lunch items around today have enough preservatives to have endured since 1946, the lunch program then contained a lot fewer processed foods. It was 1946 after all. Here are the 1946 recommendations for a typical meal per child:

Milk, whole, 1/2 pint
Protein-rich food consisting of any of the following or a combination thereof:
  • 2 oz. Fresh or processed meat, poultry meat, cheese, cooked or canned fish
  • Dry peas or beans or soy beans, cooked, ½ cup
  • Peanut Butter, 4 tbsp.
  • Eggs, 1
Raw, cooked, or canned vegetables or fruits, or both, ¾ cup
Bread, muffins or hot bread made of whole grain cereal or enriched flour, 1 portion

So, at least 66 years ago, folks knew that our country's future was linked to healthy children. That not all agricultural commodities are healthy foods. And that the meal provided should be exemplary of what families should eat at home. The meal was also based on whole foods; milk, protein, vegetables, fruits and whole grains.