Sunday, May 30, 2010

SNAP Challenge

For the month of June, I have joined Katy from The Non-Consumer Advocate and others to bring awareness to the challenges of living off of food assistance programs. Ironically enough, my food budget is lower than the government's maximum supplemental allowance for two people. I only recently increased our budget when I signed back up for Grow Alabama.

I talked it over with Dennis and we decided to give this challenge a go.

Hopefully I will be more diligent about posting menus and their cost. Something I claimed I would be doing anyways. Currently, Grow Alabama is not covered by SNAP. But last I heard, they were trying. But for this challenge, I'll say that if I can spend $120 dollars on vegetables (that's including the delivery charge) then others can certainly spend $120 dollars on vegetables from their local market. One of the pillars of the challenge is try to cook nutritious tasty meals that don't contain an excess of processed foods.

According to Katy's research. The government would give a family of two a maximum of $327 dollars. But the average is $101 a person. So that's $202 for the two of us. Dennis and I decided that anything not spent within that amount will be donated to a local organization that fights hunger in Birmingham.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Sweet Sassafrass, That's Good Stuff!

Late last summer I finally went to the Pepper Place Saturday Market. I combed over the entire thing in about 30 minutes and had not come with a plan. Bad idea. Did I mention it was July and hot as Hades? I was so overwhelmed by the vegetables and the heat that I quickly gave up on the produce hunt. But then I turned a corner, and sitting on a table was the pinkest, sweetest looking strawberry cake I had ever seen. I stopped dead in my tracks and just starred at the pastel confection.

As it turns out, I was currently on a quest to find a strawberry cake recipe that did not include a box of white cake mix and a box of strawberry jello. I wanted to create the buttery pink goodness all on my own. I had made one attempt earlier that summer and it hadn't gone over so well (though my friend Kelly ate it and enjoyed it). The cake I made was a modification of a humming bird cake. It came out moist, but was very dense. And for whatever reason my normally tasty perfect cream cheese frosting came out very runny that day. It was a huge disappointment cause I had searched and searched for a recipe. So here was this cake, the cake I wanted my strawberry cake to taste like, but no matter how much I flirted and teased - the vendor wasn't going to cough up the recipe. He did tell me that it was the last slice, which could have been a total lie, but it made the purchase seem victorious. I had come for vegetables, but left with cake.

I took my slice of cake and sat in the shade where I ate it all by myself. They had kept it in the cooler, so the cool sweetness of it all made it just that much better. Other visitors were commenting on how good my cake looked. I beamed and I took other big bite. I even sent messages to my friends about how awesome life was at that moment. Then I made it home, and had completely forgotten the name of the bakery. I felt like I had failed at life. I searched all over the Internet using phrases like "Best Strawberry Cake in Birmingham" and couldn't find it. I went back the next Saturday, and they weren't there.

All year I talked about this cake and how I wanted... NEEDED... to find that cake again. When spring rolled around I mentally prepared myself to get up every Saturday, trot down to Pepper Place, and eat every strawberry cake there until I found it. Oh the sacrifice. So this week Dennis and I broke our cheesy couple cherry and went to the farmer's market. (At least we didn't have the golden retriever so many other couples have... that would have been too much cheese for me). Ironically, we were trying to find strawberries that had tasted as good as the ones in my Grow Alabama box. When we first arrived we did a little sweep through, all the while I kept an eye out for the cake. I found some great Blount county honey and some decent strawberries for my ice cream. But no luck. Finally as we were leaving Dennis spots a single slice of strawberry cake on a table. I bolt around to look. It's them! We immediately buy a slice (that came with a free tote bag) and head home. We share the slice, but even Dennis comments that we should have gotten two (as he swipes the last bit of frosting from the carton with his finger).

In case you were wondering, the vendor is a local catering company called Ashley Mac's. I've looked over the menu, and they do have a store where you can pick up frozen casseroles (the small size feeds 2 or 3 - perfect for Tiny Tables) and that lovely strawberry cake. Dennis and I plan to check it out soon. For as long as I live in Birmingham, this cake will be enjoyed by me for birthdays, holidays, and any cause for celebration.

I'm still looking for a good strawberry cake recipe (until Ashley Mac gives me hers)... so if you know of one let me know! I will be testing a modified small batch cake recipe trying to create a decent tasting strawberry cake for two. Of course, I'll let you know how that goes.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tuna-Noodle Bake

This week's post has multiple points. First, it's a pantry recipe. Which means it's there for you on the nights when you get home and you have absolutely no fresh produce left in your fridge. Secondly, it's a Weight Watchers (c) recipe. So it's a healthi-fied version of a comfort classic. And thirdly, I decided to test the Don't Panic method. Which is great for cooking for singles and doubles. You can literally make your mom's lasagna recipe and not eat it every night for a week. No cutting recipes in half!

I had never made tuna casserole in my life. My mom made tuna helper from time to time, but was often met with groans. Canned tuna still isn't my favorite food, but because it's so cheap I incorporate it to keep my food budget down. Dennis said his mom cooked something that was basically a tuna noodle bowl (not baked in the oven), but was covered in lots of cheese. So I decided to use this Weight Watchers recipe to help strike a balance.

First of all, the recipe serves four. It says to use a 2 quart casserole dish. After looking through the Don't Panic books I was inspired to take their idea and scale it down. I'll explain the Don't Panic Method below. Just about every recipe in the book fed 6 or more. Instead, I could simply make the single casserole for six put it into two pans (with 3 servings each) or three pans (with 2 servings each). My tuna bake serves four so I used two meatloaf pans with 2 servings in each. It was a PAIN to try to line the pan with the aluminum foil and plastic wrap. When I later cooked the other half, the plastic wrap got stuck in the grooves and we literally had to wait till it was cooked to pull out the bits I couldn't dig out. So I am going to try to wrap and freeze method a few more times. If it doesn't get easier with practice, I'll switch to disposable aluminum pans (which can be reused a few times before discarding).

The recipe advocates cooking it for 50 minutes. This should certainly be decreased for the smaller servings, I put it in for 30 and it was pretty much overcooked. The eggs had all gone to the bottom and baked into a slightly overdone fritata consistency. The noodles on top were very dry. The second time, we baked it while frozen and it took about 40 minutes and it was good. Not dry at all. I wanted it to be a little runny (personal preference). Basically, I am saying start checking your casserole after 15-20min just to see the progress and decide how well done you want your casserole.

I am posting the original recipe. You can make it all at once and eat left overs (it's a small casserole), just make half, or divide it and do the Don't Panic Method. It's cheap and quick, and relatively tasty.

Don't Panic Method:

1. Follow your casseroles instructions with minor tweaks. Instead of one pan, divide it into smaller pans/dishes for 1-3 servings each. However, be sure to line your pans (with a lot of excess) with aluminum foil first, then plastic, and finally put the food inside.
2. Freeze your casseroles.
3. Once frozen solid, pop them out of the casserole dish. You may have to run some hot water on the bottom.
4. Make sure your casserole is wrapped well and possibly placed in a freezer bag. Put it in the freezer until ready for use (I don't advocate more than 3-6 months).

5. When ready, take casserole out and unwrap it (probably with a little help from some hot water). This does have a small yuck factor.

6. Put the unwrapped casserole back into the pan it molded to.

7. Thaw completely or slightly and then bake.

Tuna-Noodle Bake
(4 Servings)

2 cups wide whole-wheat egg noodles
1 (16oz) bag frozen mixed vegetables
1 (6oz) can or pouch of water-packed solid white tuna, drained and flaked
1 1/2 c. fat-free milk
2 large eggs
3/4 c. shredded fat-free sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Spray a shallow 2 quart casserole dish with canola oil nonstick spray. Cook the noodles according to package directions, adding the mixed vegetables during the last minute of cooking. Drain and pour into the casserole dish. Scatter the tune over the top.

2. Lightly beat the milk and eggs in a medium bowl. Stir in about 1/2 c. of the cheese, the sale, and pepper; pour over the pasta mixture. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 c. cheese. Bake uncovered, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean and the top is golden brown, about 50 minutes. Let stand about 5 minutes, then cut into four servings.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Can I call this post "Salad Saturday" and not sound silly?

Well, I'll just be silly then. Here is a mini post for the weekend to make up for the post I missed last week. Hopefully I'll be at Pepper Place soon hunting for fruit for an ice cream I am going to make this week!

For the longest time, if I purchased salad stuff the list looked something like this...

Bagged Salad

Don't get me wrong, if you are eating any kind of salad, you should feel good about yourself. [Except for those weird people who make ranch dressing soup with a lettuce garnish, in that instance, you should feel nothing but shame and remorse.] But that salad is the same salad that gets served at most mom and pop restaurants across America and it's no wonder so many of us have the shrug the shoulders response about salads.

While I am no Frank Stitt, honey, I have recently started eating and making some very yummy salads. Leaps and bounds beyond my boring bagged salad and crouton concoctions. The ones that have the greatest success with Dennis are the ones with fruit. Combos include....

Strawberries, Feta, Pecans
Shredded Carrots, Raisins, Pecans
Blackberries, Blue Cheese, Pecans
Mandarin Oranges, Red Onion, Blue Cheese, Pecans

I usually either use romaine or something from my Grow Alabama box. I use Pecans cause they are cheap at the grocery store and are easily found in your backyard (but you can easily upgrade to walnuts for a few extra dollars a week). Now what really takes these salads from good to tasty is the dressing recipe I have been using. Maple Mustard Vinaigrette from Eating Well Serves Two. Since I am on a budget I use molasses instead of maple syrup with great success. (If you know where I can find Alabama molasses, please let me know). I've put it on salads, dipped sandwiches in it, and marinated meat in it. It also lead me to use dijon and molasses to stir into some mayo to put on a grilled ham and cheese (yummy). This dressing is good, cheap, and takes like a minute to mix up. Put that ranch away!

Now on to master the warm bacon vinaigrette I had at Zink while in Charlotte.

Note: Spray your measuring cup with oil before you pour the syrup inside. This will let it all slide right out with ease.

Maple Mustard Vinaigrette

Whisk 1/4 cup walnut (or canola) oil, 2 tablespoons each maple syrup and cider vinegar, 1 tablespoon each course-grain mustard and reduced-sodium soy sauce and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and freshly ground pepper in a small bowl.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Coconut Thai Stir Fry

I have made this recipe more than anything else in my collection. It's easy to cut in half for two, it's adaptable to other meats and vegetables, and it''s yummy. I am more than certain I've never made it the same way twice. It was one of the first things I ever cooked for Dennis, because we both liked Thai food and we both liked shrimp. The recipe actually has something about "Shrimp and Zucchini" in the title, but since I've made it with broccoli more than I have with zucchini (only because broccoli was in season when zucchini was not), it's been nick named Thai Stir Fry. This week it will be with yellow squash and green bell pepper from Grow Alabama, and later this summer I am going to use eggplant. I always serve it with rice (usually basamati).

I will say this recipe is a snap to put together if you have a good knife. When I first made this, I was just beginning my cooking journey and was using steak knives to cut vegetables. I think it took Dennis and I 45 minutes just to get everything ready. But since we both have good knives now, it takes maybe 15 minutes. Stir fry comes together quickly, so you have to have everything ready before you start.

Did I mention this is pretty healthy?

A note about cutting recipes in half: I cut a lot of recipes in half, some are much easier to cut than others. This happens to be one of those easy recipes. Sometimes, I don't cut this recipe in half. Honestly, it's so good it's hard not to eat most of it in one sitting. But I manage to control Dennis and I by explaining that we'll have left overs. I posted the original recipe, so I'll let you decide if you'd like to cut it in half or not.

Coconut Thai Stir Fry

Serves 4

2 tsp Canola Oil
1lb peeled and deveined large shrimp
3 medium zucchini cut into 2x1/4in matchsticks.
2 red bell peppers, cut into thin strips
3 scallions sliced
1 tbs grated peeled fresh ginger (or 1/8 tsp dried)
2 garlic gloves, minced
1 tsp Thai Red Curry Paste
1/2 cup light coconut milk
1.5 tbs Asian Fish Sauce
1tbs brown sugar
1. Heat 1tsp of the oil in a nonstick wok or large deep nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When a drop of water sizzles in it, add the shrimp and stir-fry until just opaque in the center, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl.

2. Heat the remaining 1tsp oil in the wok. Add the zucchini, bell peppers, and scallions; stir-fry until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add the ginger, garlic, and curry pastel stir-fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add to the bowl.

3. Add the coconut milk, fish sauce, and brown sugar to the wok; bring to simmer. Cook, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes. Return the shrimp and vegetable to the wok; stir-fry until heated through, about 1 minute longer.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Chicken, Parsnip, and Apple Stew

Parsnips were in the Grow Alabama box last week. Since this will probably be their last appearance until this fall I had to post this soup recipe. Also, this is a great way to baby step into parsnips. It blends well with carrots and apples and so it’s not painful at all. I’ve roasted them plain just to try them. They are pretty good, somewhere between a turnip root and potato. The recipe comes from Eating Well Serves Two, a great cookbook for two with recipes on the healthier side.

Sadly, it’s been kind of warm lately and that always makes it hard to turn on the stovetop or oven. Thankfully the soup comes together quickly. So you won’t have to jack up the AC just to endure the cooking process. I’ve actually never made the recipe with chicken. Dennis gave up meat during Lent, so I inadvertently became a vegetarian for 40 days and 40 nights. However, all that will change this week. I am more than certain it will taste just as good with chicken.

This soup will make your home smell pretty great.

Just a few notes: If you can’t find parsnips, you can use all carrots or a small potato and get similar results. I typically serve it with grilled cheese or salad. Whenever you blend hot soups, do it in batches. I recently saw someone leave the middle stopper off and covering the top with a towel. This allowed steam to escape without your blender exploding hot soup on to your ceiling.

Chicken, Parsnip, and Apple Stew

2tsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil, divided
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 parsnips peeled and finely chopped.
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 granny smith apple, peeled and finely chopped
1tsp chopped fresh rosemary
¼ tsp salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground pepper
1 (14oz) can low sodium chicken broth
1 c. water
1 tsp cider vinegar
8oz chicken tender, cut into bite size chunks

1. Heat 2 tsp oil in a large saucepan over med-high. Add onion, parsnips, carrots, apple, rosemary, salt, pepper, and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables being to soften (about 8 min). Add broth and water and bring to a simmer over high heat. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are very tender (about 10 min).

2. Transfer the soup to a blender; add vinegar, cover and pulse until it forms a chunky puree. Use caution when pureeing hot liquids.

3. Clean the pot, return it to med-high and add the remaining 1 tsp oil. Add chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, 3-4 min. Pour soup back in the pan. Cook, scrapping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until heated through (about 1 min).