Friday, April 25, 2008

Can't stop the signal...

Okay, that's enough of the foodie doom-and-gloom prophecies. Let us return to lighter fare.

Speaking of fare. May I present to you with my newest culinary creation.

Creamy Satay Ramen with Tea Marinated Hardboiled Eggs

  • 1 package Ramen Noodles
  • 2 Tbls Peanut Butter
  • 2 Tbls Evaporated Milk
  • 1 Can of French Cut Green Beans
  • 2 Tea Bags
  • 1 Egg
  • Salt
  • Hot Sauce
Bring approximately 3 cups of water to boil in small saucepan. Add teabags and several healthy pinches of kosher salt. Leave teabags steep for 2 minutes and remove. Gently place hard boiled egg into boiling tea and leave for 3 minutes. After three minutes, remove from heat, place egg on counter and allow to cool. Reserve boiling liquid in screw top container. Once egg has cooled, peel and return to cooled tea. Marinate egg in tea for 8 hours.

When ready, bring two cups of water to boil. Add 1 pack Ramen noodles. Boil until soft and add included flavor packet. Cook for one more minute and remove from heat. Add 2 tablespoons of peanut butter and stir until melted. Add 2 tablespoons of condensed milk. Open can of green beans and drain. Pat dry with paper towel and place on small pan in toaster oven for 5 minutes or until lightly roasted. Add beans to noodles and stir to combine. Split tea marinated hard boiled egg and place on top. Add hot sauce... liberally.

Take picture. Eat while playing Stronghold: Crusader.

How does it taste you ask? Not bad actually. Apart from the lack of coco-nutty aspect, it tasted pretty much like satay sauce. The eggs didn't absorb as much flavor as I'd have hoped but the were salty and tangy and not bad.

Why you ask? Because while I did not have any weird food cravings this week, I've been dying to COOK SOMETHING. I'm a foodie, gawds damn it, and puttering around in the kitchen is one of my chief pleasures. Can't stop the signal Mal, can't stop the signal.

I expect to receive my Michelin star any day now.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Many hands make light work...

One of the things that I have always wholly believed is that with the right tools and preparation, one could feed oneself very, very cheaply with the offset of some effort and planning.

Let us take our two dollar budgie here as an example. 10 dollars a week. Okay, maybe for the first week I live on Ramen and hot dogs and manage to squirrel away two dollars. Next week, as annoying as it is, I do the same. Eventually I have the $4/$4.50 necessary to buy a small fryer chicken. I throw that bad boy in the stock pot and make a basic chicken stock. I meet out the meat from the bird in, as Dana puts it, chicken McNugget sized portions, just enough to add a few shots to my Ramen. This might last me a week, saves me from having to buy eggs to put in my Ramen so I spend some money on in-season fruit, past it's prime, at the Farmer's market. I take it home, oven dry it and make it last for a few weeks.

Let's extrapolate further. Let's assume that I actually have some start-up capitol to set up housekeeping. I buy pickling jars and a pickling crock. I buy canning equipment and a pressure cooker for storing long term. I set up one of AB's drying rigs. I have enough land for a large kitchen garden and the skills necessary to take my once-a-year surplus of fresh veggies and turn it into canned goodness I can eat off all year.

You can go further than this. Maybe I live out in the country and I have enough room for a small chicken coop. Maybe I've got a .22 and a keen enough eye to bag a rabbit on occasion. Maybe I've got enough firepower to go deer-hunting and part of my initial purchases included a chest freezer. I've got meat for a long, long time if I bag a deer or two every year. Maybe I've got enough land to raise goats, or sheep, or cows, or corn. Maybe I've got a sustenance farm and other than the occasional outlay for exotics (assuming I can't trade for them), I spend Sweet Fanny Adams on food.

In the opposite direction, I've been doing my eating this week with the understanding at the outset that I can boil my water, toast my bread and store my food without risk of spoilage. How would my diet have changed if I didn't have a fridge?

I don't think I'd be eating hot dogs as they'd probably be a little funky by now. My eggs would no doubt be a little suspect as well before the end of the week. Maybe if, like many less developed countries, I had a market I could go to where the food was fresh, sold out daily and able to be purchased in small quantities. I.E. Can I have one egg and two crap hot dogs to go please?

In this country though, we don't have that. You must have a fridge, don't you? Even a little one? My local big box has got a tiny 1.7 cubic fridge for $59.00.

Ever been on vacation and walked though a quaint food market where they have their food in stacks. Know why they are like that? Because either they have no refrigeration or they do and none of their clients do. We forget what a financial boon having a refrigerator is. Compared to a lot of places, everything in America comes in bulk and if you've ever taken a finance class, you know, it's always cheaper to buy in bulk.

But let's go further than that. I did my shopping this week with the understanding that I'd have a stove to cook on. Not only a stove, but a fancy toaster oven to toast my bread when plain PB&J got dull.

How would my diet have changed when I had no place to cook? No ramen, no eggs (unless I wanted to pull a Rocky Balboa and drink em' raw... blech). I could still have my PB&J, unless I had no fridge then that jam might not last to long. I'd probably be living out of a can, eating pork and beans with a spoon. Even then I'm counting on the fact that while I did not have a stove to release the caloric content of my food, the canning company did.

Of course, I could always light a fire but it'd have to be outside, no fireplace. It's also illegal to light a fire outside just about everywhere in Madison, so I'd be pretty screwed. I can see it now, huddled over a campfire, pot in hand, Ramen in the other, busted like Benjamin Bunny. Only man every arrested for Ramen heating.

This, of course, leads me to wonder how homeless people eat. I've been in Taco Bell on State Street when one of the Family came in with cup full of change to cash out for the evening. He walked out with a pretty decent haul, couple bean burritos, a few tacos and a big cold soda that he made his first order of business and walked out happily slurping on. Probably cost him two or three dollars.

In our country, we've got mass marketing, mass production and mass distribution to keep the price low. How is Ramen so cheap? Because they make millions of packs every day in totally automated plants and are tied into the global food distribution market. Every grocery store, even the ethnic groceries, carries Ramen. It's a staple. It has to be there. How is McMeat so cheap? Says it on the sign when you drive in, over one Trillion sold.

What you spend on food is highly dependent on where you come from and what resources you have available to you. In America, we've got a lot of resources and for many, many reasons, both good and bad, we should be aware of our surroundings. What lies beneath us, in support and what lies before us... in wait.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Day 1 down the hatch...{burp}

This is not hard. Nor is it by any means starvation rations. It is, however, boring.

I started out the day with a big bowl of oatmeal. Big, big I tells ya. 1 cup of dry weight oatmeal, a shot of evaporated milk mixed in with the water and I got about 3 cups of oatmeal in return.

It was bland, it was nasty and the texture sucked. I'm so used to my lovely Overnight Oatmeal that these bland flakes were a pretty nasty shock. Ah well, I threw some sugar and some of my strawberry jam in the bowl and I managed to choke down about half the bowl.

Before leaving for work, I scarfed down both my hot dogs and buns, mostly because I was running late and it didn't require much cooking. Unfortunately, I forgot to add some kind of mustard to my shopping list and was stuck eating plain hot dogs... blech.

I ate my apple at work and when I got home I didn't even try to eat TWO packs of Ramen. One pack, egg and flavor pack added and I'm happily full.

This is too much food. It's bland but it's not tasteless. My oatmeal isn't as good as I'm used to but it's still oatmeal, just more than I'm used to eating. I'm used to eating my favorite Hebrew National dogs. My .99 cent dogs still tasted like hot dogs, just not as much. Ramen is still Ramen and it's not a punishment to have to eat a bowl of deep fried noodles with an egg mixed in.

It makes me wonder about how much we pay for our food. I know there is probably a huge difference in overall quality between my .99 cent loaf of bread and the whole grain white I'm used to buying. You can feel it when you pick up the loaf. It's mostly air. But how many other items that we buy are artificially increased in price? We live in a free market society and while I'd like to think that food companies charge what the food it worth, I know better. Companies charge what the market will bear and they do plenty of research to find out what that number is.

A lot of people I know are full bore into the Organic movement. They think that eating foods with an Organic label on them is going to keep them healthy and live longer. They will happily shell out 25-40% more for an item that is "Organic".

Me, I think the trick is to keep your ingredient list down. My bread should contain flour, yeast maybe eggs, some water and salt. Nothing else if possible please. That is my idea of healthy.

My Organic adherent friends would never be caught dead in places like Aldi. They'd mumble something about hormones, preservatives and chemicals. But things like, flour, eggs, sugar? Is it really so different across town at Woodman's? Is organic flour, eggs and sugar really that much better for you, is it worth that much more?

We live with a lot of superstitions about food and, like any fanciful flight away from reason, it makes me nervous. We can see a time now when our cornucopia may finally start to run dry. What would people do in this country? Would we cling blindly to our fears or finally, after many many years, take a more practical look at what we eat and where it comes from.

To be honest, as bland as my food is, it think Dana's suffering a lot more than I am. Plain white rice? Good lawrd. Drive on up girl, I'll split my Ramen with ya.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Why we have fat poor people...

  • 10 Servings of Oatmeal (1 cup dry volume, 5 cup total) .57
  • 1 can of Evaporated Milk .69
  • 40 Tablespoons of Sugar .40
  • 10 Teabags .22
  • 2 Hot dogs per day, 8 Hot dogs total (only 8 in a pack) .99
  • 2 hot dog buns per day, 8 hot dog buns .75
  • 1 loaf oat bran bread, 10 slices, one PB&J per day. .50
  • Store Brand PB, full jar $1.29, expect to use about half. .64
  • Strawberry Jam, $.99, expect to use about half, .99
  • 10 packs of Beef Ramen, 2 per day. 1.20
  • 5 Eggs .54
  • 3 cans green beans 1.17
  • 5 Apples 1.43
Total Cost: $10.09

(I shall make up for the .09 by not eating a PB&J one day, or skipping some other food, there is to much anyway, read on.)

Observation number 1: Aldi is CHEAP.

Obviously the plan changed a little at the grocery store. I must have been quite the odd sight, wandering around the store with my notebook, calculator and pencil behind my ear. Occasionally uttering sotto voce expressions of delight or disbelief. Aldi knocked just about half the cost off my original shopping list. They did not have a very good selection but apparently you have to be there early to get a crack at the cheap white bread. They had about a dozen bread racks stacked up empty. At .50 cents a loaf, I suppose I'm not surprised. It was rather odd for me to actually be paying attention to the specific price of what I was buying. Around Casa Pari and Beenie, we usually do our shopping about once a week and we buy whatever is necessary. We've long ago weaned ourselves off of big ticket items, i.e. no steaks, no ducks and no fancy organic food. Since we buy only the cheap stuff, we don't really look at the prices. Like people who can cook, we buy a lot of raw ingredients and very little prepackaged food. I think I'll be eating more prepackaged food this week than I have in years.

Observation 2: This was not hard.

If I thought I could stomach a simpler diet, I could have easily gone down to a dollar a day. I wound up being so shocked at how cheap this all was that the thought struck me to see how much food I could eat on $2 a day. So after a little menu re-work, I realized I could quite easily pile it on. I was worried about going hungry and now I'm thinking I'm going to have to add some time to my afternoon walk. Here's the caloric breakdown. Breakfast - Oats: 380, Sugar: 144. Lunch - 2 Hot dogs: 380 2 hot dog buns 220. Dinner - 2 Packs of Beef Ramen and one egg: 838 calories. Total: 1962 calories. You may also notice that I've got hot dogs AND PB&J for lunch. After buying everything else, I found out I had enough for a jar of PB, a jar of jelly and a loaf of fancy whole wheat bread at .99 cents. I'm also eating TWO packs of Ramen at night, a feat I've never accomplished before (that's a lot of damn noodles!).

That's the basics, I didn't add the green beans and the apples. What concerns me about this kind of meal is the almost complete lack of fresh anything. I put apples and veg on as an afterthought, but the veg are canned green beans, not something you'd choose unless, like me, you were determined to have some vegetables in your diet. The apples were the most expensive thing on the menu at $1.43 for 5 apples. I think this illustrates, anecdotally but still, that a person of limited means in this country is probably not going to starve, but this kind of diet is not exactly the healthiest thing in the long run.

I'm so not looking forward to eating this stuff all week. I have promised myself pie on Sunday.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Let's see Rachel do this trick...

First off, if you're not already reading Cookin' at Cafe D, you should be. Dana is a fellow Briner, and the kind of hardcore foodie that I aspire to be.

Recently, Dana blogged about a challenge that had been put to her. Someone suggested that, in our country, where food is plentiful, it might be educational to see how the other half lives by eating for a week on a poverty diet, specifically spending only $2 a day on food.

Like a good Briner, Dana also posted about her concept on the board where it received the usual share of curiosity, skepticism and commentary. A general theme seems to be that this is not going to give one any piercing insight into the life of poverty stricken cultures due to the difference in overall economy, lifestyle and amenities. i.e. to get the full affect, strip down to a pair of ratty pants, bare feet, a ratty shirt, go sleep outside and beg for your $2 a day.

I, however, am not quite that skeptical. I have an economical bone in my body. I think it's an interesting experiment in efficiency and penurious budgeting. I expect to gain some perspective on the nutritional content of a poverty diet and the price per calorie in this country right now.

It also serves to give me a perspective on a very non-archetypal dietary regimen. In our country, we still lust after the kind of meals our parents and grandparents wanted. We want the big steak and potato meal and with todays food prices and distribution, even the moderately poor can afford some semblance of that kind of farmer/working man meal that was meant for people who were far more physically active than we are these days as a whole.

Much of the rest of the world exists on the "Big pile o'starch/ little bit of flavoring" meal. Rice and fish, shrimp and grits, Fufu and stew, Polenta and sausage. Much lower fat, often much higher in fiber and very high in carbs.

So I've decided to join Dana in her little culinary experiment. She's going to running from April 21–25 while I'm going to be running for my next working week: April 22-26th.

Here are my parameters for the exercise:

I will only eat $10 worth of food all week. This includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and any snacks. I will turn down any windfalls or office treats and consume ONLY what I have alloted. I will allow myself the use of two condiments, my trusty bottle of hot sauce and Kosher salt (though little should be needed).

I'm going shopping on Monday for my supplies and I'm going to spend my $10 up front. I'm actually going to spend more than $10 in the long run because I can't get individual servings of some of the items. Example, I'm buying 1 dozen eggs but I'm only eating 5 of them. I'll provide pics of what $10 of food looks like.

I've spent some time this afternoon doing some "pre-shopping" with Peapod. My initial menu is actually not to much of a stretch. I don't actually see myself getting that hungry in the long run.

It's not horribly original though. For five days I'm going to be eating the same thing every day for breakfast, the same thing for lunch and the same thing for dinner. 3 meals for 5 days and honestly, that's being generous. There are cultures that only eat one food type, 3 meals a day, all the time with the occasional treat to break up the monotony.

My diet will be (hopefully, I haven't shopped yet and I may have to change things on the fly):

Breakfast: Tea, Sugar, Oatmeal w/ butter and sugar (There ya go Dana, no coffee but still get my caffeine)
Lunch: Peanut Butter Sandwiches.
Dinner: Ramen Noodles w/ egg and mixed vegetables.

Price wise, using Peapods pricing. (which is high as I plan to buy this stuff at our local ethnic and Aldi.) Per Peapods pricing, I'm over by about $6 bucks. I'm hoping Aldi or Yueh Wah's is cheap enough to bring that down to ten or else things will have to be cut. Peapod does have a nice "price per unit" or "price per ounce" feature that lets you know what you get for your money and made conversion easier.

So, my initial list looks like this:
  • 5 teabags at .04 each - $.20
  • Quaker Old Fashioned Oats - $4.39 per can, 30 servings. I'll be eating 14 servings, or about 2 servings for breakfast. 14 servings means about $2.20 of oatmeal for breakfast.
  • 5 Packages of Ramen Noodles .20 cents each - $1.00
  • 1 loaf of cheap white bread. $1.09
  • 1 jar of store brand peanut butter - $2.39
  • 1 doz Eggs - $2.39, using 5 eggs - $1 (I'm cracking an egg into my Ramen noodles to add protein and calories.)
  • 1 lb of butter $4 - using one stick - $1 (I'm throwing a tablespoon of butter into my oatmeal in the morning for extra calories)
  • 2.69 for Sugar, using 30 tablespoons = $.54 (SUGAR ADDICT. 3 tablespoons in my tea, 3 tablespoons in my oatmeal)
  • Evaporated Milk, 12 oz can, $1.09 (Added to my oatmeal and perhaps to my tea).
  • 5 Red Delicious Apples - $3.95 (I'm hoping Aldi has some cheap apples, this is where I start going over budget. I threw them in because, looking back, I realized I'd be facing scurvy if I extrapolated this base diet for over a month)
  • 1 bag of frozen broccoli - $1.69 (Again, vitamin C, fiber, vitamins for adding to my bowl of Ramen.)

Total at Peapod prices: $16.15

Now the question becomes, can I bargain shop my way under $10.00?

Some of these things, like the sugar, butter and evaporated milk may seem like unnecessary splurges to some. But I take umbrage with that. The food, has to taste good. One may hear cries of "toughen up sucker, drink that tea plain, eat raw oatmeal ya big pansy" but that goes against the whole nature of cooking.

For many, many centuries before the rise of the medical profession, the person who had the biggest day to day impact on your physical health was the person doing your cooking. Via boiling, roasting, frying or infusing, their talents in the kitchen or around the fire were the secret to unlocking the caloric and nutritional content of the food you ate. In an age when the majority of illnesses were either caused or exacerbated by malnutrition, whoever first figured out the use of calcium hydroxide to soften corn to nixtamal is probably one of the worlds greatest heroes. She probably saved BILLIONS from starvation with one little cooking trick.

The cooks second big trick was to make food palatable. After a long hard day of work, you wanted your big strong boys to clean their plates. More calories taken in meant more energy that meant more work done tilling fields, building walls, digging wells and more security for the tribe, village, town or city. If all you've got to eat every day is a bland, starchy staple (which is pretty much what EVERY culture starts with), you get to the point where you are sick of it. Have you ever eaten unleavened bread plain? Or dry rice for every meal? Or sat and ate half a loaf of bread with no butter or other lubrication? It's dry, mealy and no matter how hungry you are, you get to the point where you just can't choke down another bite. If your cook can do something, ANYTHING to make that stuff taste a little better, you'll bless them and you'll probably eat more. In my mind, it's that trick that really invented cooking. It's what turned a plain pot of bland beans into sublime cassoulet.

So yes, my food has to taste good. If I'm stuck eating it and I have the means within my budget, I'm gonna do it.

Rant gland temporarily spent, we return to the topic at hand.

I shall keep you updated, sweet reader, as I go along. I imagine Dana's Blog will also be updated with lots of tasty observations as she goes along.

Already I'm looking forward to a big steak the Sunday after I finish.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Filling what is empty and emptying what is full...

When Spring unfolds the beechen leaf, and sap is in the bough;
When light is on the wild-wood stream, and wind is on the brow;
When stride is long, and breath is deep, and keen the mountain-air,
Come back to me! Come back to me, and say my land is fair!

Excerpt from "The Ent and the Entwife", J.R.R. Tolkien

There are few things better at blowing the winter cobwebs out of your head than a spring breeze and a fast flowing stream. I've been spending my last few Mondays, wandering through field and wood in an effort to raise my spirits through the cunning use of endorphins. Today I was lucky enough to spend walking through the most beautiful place in the world, Parfrey's Glen.

I meant to go out Geocaching today, and indeed, I did bag a few caches along Hwy 113 between Madison and Baraboo. I even got to take the Merrimac Ferry... check it out...

All of this, however, paled in comparison to the final destination of todays wanderings.

You have never met a merrier stream than that which flows through the glen. It runs and tumbles down the length of the trail as a constant and steadfast companion. It laughs, sings and babbles it's way along. Here a small run splits off in search of new rocks and logs to leap over, giggling. Here it flows back together to hold hands as it vaults over a mighty boulder with a charging yalp and rush.

You wish this picture had sound...

Right about where I took this picture, the sun was filtering though the pines, bright but not bright enough to be hot. The trees sheltered the wind and there is this amazing tree that is bent in such a way as to make the perfect seat on the ground with my back at just the right angle for lounging. It even had good lumbar support. I sat, smoked my favorite pipeweed and listened to the stream at play. I even took a nap.

Taoists make frequent use of the water analogy and indeed, I've learned a few things from the principle. If you can forgive me for waxing rhapsodic for a second, I will say that in this little stream, I see the truth of it and more.

By the way, if you're all busy with your lives and your works or are locked in an office or factory, I'd just like to point out from one who has seen green grass pushing it's way up through the last of the winter snow, spring is here. Though the end of the glen was deep enough to shelter a few inches of dirty snow, the green ferns are pushing their way up and getting on with the business of the season. It seems to me that the spring has been delayed so long that green is now built up as a flood behind a dam or like a eager dog straining at it's leash. Even though the nights are still cold, the pressure has built up too much to be restrained and what I saw today was the cracks finally starting to spurt. I think our first warm night will let loose a great diastolic thump so loud we'll probably be able to hear the sap flooding up the trees into the air.

Also, as a good pagan, I'd also like to remind all of you more straight-laced and parsimonious folks out here that this is the time of year to allow yourself at least a few moments of levity and abandon. Drink some wine, think about naked people, eat some rich and unhealthy food with no guilt in your soul.

A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown --
Who ponders this tremendous scene --
This whole Experiment of Green --
As if it were his own!

- Emily Dickinson