Sunday, May 2, 2010

Food for Thought

If you've been following my blog recently, then you're probably aware of the little adventure that I took on just over a week ago. To sum it up, I, along with a fairly large group of other Austin food bloggers, agreed to live off of a typical bag of groceries one would have been given at a local food pantry, supplemented by a few dollars typically available from the food stamp program and some dairy from the WIC program. My family's week of following along with this project is now over and you might be wondering how we did... First and foremost, we certainly are not comparing the daily plight that the food pantry's clients face to our week-long experiment - nothing can simulate that real-world experience that these people face. Looking back on the week, nobody in my family complained, tossed out the "I'm starving" comment or went to bed hungry, like so many others that face hunger daily. I was able to put together good meals and make the food last all week, and my family went right along - maybe not eating what they might normally have, but not complaining either.

So what did I learn from this project? Mainly, that my preconceived notions were wrong, this project was an eye-opener for me both personally and socially. My awareness that the hunger situation in our nation is so much larger than I thought and that we seriously need to step up to the plate and rally against it. We can do this in big or small ways. You know that $5.00 latte you get every morning? Take just one of those away ($5.00) and give it to your local food bank where they will turn that into $25.00 worth of food. Amazing, right? Or sending out an e-mail to all your neighbors that says, on this particular day, I'm going to the local food bank - clean out your pantry and set aside anything that is still good, but that you never use and I'll come by to pick it up to donate. Or how about planting a few extra veggies in your garden this spring and donating that extra produce to your local food bank (surprised about this one? I sure was). How about donating your time, because that is just as precious. If you can donate even once a month to your local food bank or food pantry, I promise you your life will be forever changed. You will have a one-on-one chance to be a blessing in someone's life and here's the extra icing on the cake - you will be blessed beyond measure for having had the opportunity to look hunger in the eye and know you made a difference.

I've been fortunate enough to never have experienced true hunger. Because of this project, however, my mother shared some very personal stories with me about how programs like this helped our family. Growing up, I always thought my mom was so good at taking a few groceries and turning them into loaves and fishes for our family. So I was shocked when she told me that there were so many times that my father's business did not produce enough revenue to cover groceries and he had too much pride to except food stamps or handouts. It was feast or famine in his business, and in the down times, she would get groceries supplemented from our church pantry, shop at day-old bakeries, pick fruit from local orchards and go in with another family to purchase a side of beef. Somehow, she made us kids all believe it was just another field trip or adventure as we visited various ethnic stores and farms, not realizing it was just where the sales were that week. In the process, she saved my father's pride and taught us to appreciate food for the soul. The bonus was that she always managed to turn that food into some good eats. I am forever grateful because out of that came three foodie children, now grown, who appreciate any kind of food whether it's a bag of beans or filet mignon. We won't hold our nose up to what's placed in front of us if it's placed with love and I find myself now trying to teach my children this same theory.

We have been blessed to have been able to support our own family over the years, but like so many others, we could easily be a missed paycheck or two away from not being able to make ends meet. The difference now is that I know that my local food bank is there to catch me and not allow me to go hungry. They are there to educate us on nutrition and show us that we can eat thriftily and still serve tasty meals. In the end, this project gave me a new awareness to something I honestly - and shamefully - never gave a whole lot of thought to, and equally important, revealed a bit of my past that I may never have known about. If there is a reason for all of this hunger, I will never understand it. But I will be making some serious changes. I will start living more out of my pantry instead of "buy, cook, put away, then buy more instead of use what I have" and I will investigate and educate myself with more organic, sustainable foods. I will be volunteering with my mom and daughter (3 generations) at our local food bank. And I will be sending my extra Meyer lemons and blood oranges from my backyard each year to the food bank.

Every night at the dinner table, I am more than grateful that I get to share dinner with a quirky, loving family and that I get to prepare food with love for each of them. This week, I realized that whether it's a pot of beans or a high-dollar steak, when it comes right down to it, it's about the family and the love and the sense of community that feeds me and keeps me sustainable, and not that fancy new recipe I just have to try - I'm jus' sayin'!

Breakfast for Dinner

I found that using the fresh herbs in my garden all week really made a difference in flavor. It costs very little to start an herb garden and you can grow inside an apartment or in a pot on your patio, or section off a portion of your backyard. This particular night, we had herbed omelets and spicy candied bacon.

Spicy Candied Bacon

Arrange bacon on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Sprinkle with brown sugar and any spices you would like. I used chili pepper flakes and ground cumin. Bake 350 degrees for about 25 minutes, keeping a watchful eye so that the sugar does not burn.

Gnocchi in Sage Brown Butter

One of the items in our pantry bag was potatoes. I had tried making gnocchi once before and it was a complete flop (picture paper mache, but worse) SO I decided to try it again, but this time, I would go with my gut on how to tackle it.

I start with 4 small baked potatoes. You can use your microwave or oven, whichever you prefer. I peel the baked potatoes and run them through my ricer. I then put them in a large bowl, sprinkled with salt and pepper. Drop in one egg and start adding flour while mixing until I get the right consistency to knead into a rope. Roll into a rope about the thickness of your index finger, and slice into sections about 1" in length. I then drop them in salted boiling water, and wait for them to rise to the surface before taking them out and placing them in a skillet to toss with browned butter and minced fresh sage (from the garden). This time it worked! They were perfect little pillows. Dinner was served and I felt so proud of myself for accomplishing this dish. I think I even did a little "gnocchi jig", if there is such a thing!

Morning Oatmeal

I have always been a bit of a oat snob. I like texture so I would purchase steel oats to accomplish this. Addie Broyles convinced me in her article to try making oatmeal with plain old rolled oats (which was in our pantry bag). I did and I am hooked! I took a handful of oats in a bowl, poured some milk - just a tad bit over the top of the oats - and placed in the microwave for about 2 minutes (this depends on how much your making as well as your microwave so you may want to play around with it). When it was done, I sprinkled a little cinnamon, brown sugar and dried crannies and nuts on top. This had all the texture of steel oats with a much smaller price tag. It also held me over all morning 'til lunch. Hats off to Addie!