Monday, October 19, 2009

Recession Recipes and Living Tips

The Media screams "Recovery" from every corner, but I'm still sitting here, with my MA, in the unemployment line. "I got yer recovery right here pal."
As a poverty stricken former-student and current unemployed academic, I have weathered many a hard time. I once lived for over a year on $20 a week. So here are my favorite low cost recipes and tips for the adventurous hobo.

First of all:

1. Remember that if you make it yourself it is typically cheaper. Bread, biscuits, soup, desserts, etc. all cost considerably less when made from scratch. However, they do require more time and knowhow.

2. Think of the basics. Traditional "peasant" foods tend to cost little and supply vital nutrients (we'll get to some examples in a sec). Beans, grains, legumes, and vegetables can be purchased in bulk at a discounted rate and usually have a high yield, which means they stretch over several meals.

3. You should know that putting together a good meal out of very little is an outstanding life skill, so you may be as depressed as I am about not having a paycheck, but you can at least walk away with a nice little certificate of achievement from the School of Hard Knocks.

4. Communal living really is an ideal situation for low wage earners. If you can find someone, anyone, willing to split costs on groceries, you'll be better off. When I had roommates, we would rotate making and sharing meals and would pitch in to buy ingredients in bulk. Why not find a friend or neighbor willing to go in on a sack of flour or a bag of rice? When the times get rough, go co-op.

5. A greener lifestyle is not only good for the planet it's good for your bank account. You might be shocked to hear this, but I don't own a car. I have never owned a car and I am glad I don't own a car. I save thousands of dollars a year on insurance, gas, maintenance and loan payments. I also do not contribute to carbon emissions through car waste. I ride my bike, walk and use public transit and I have no problem getting around. Also, I buy second hand clothing and furniture, another win-win for the planet and the wallet. I use energy saving lightbulbs, turn off and unplug unused electronics and use a pressure cooker to conserve natural resources and save on my electric bill.

6. If you're unemployed, like me, why not take all this free time to learn a life skill? If you thought you didn't need to know it before, taking the time to learn to bake your own bread, sew on a button, knit a hat or cut hair can actually save you money. I cut my husband's hair with an electric hair clipper that I purchased for $20. He was lucky that I am somewhat skilled at this, but we cut down on cost substantially. That little investment has already paid for itself. Think about all the things in daily life that have been taken over by corporate brands. Do we really need to buy all of our food prepackaged and ready-to-eat at a higher cost with less nutritional value?

7. The freezer is your friend. Buy in bulk, cook in bulk and freeze for future meals. Soups can easily be made in double batches and frozen in single servings. Homemade pizza dough, bread dough, cookie dough or any other kind of dough can be made and then frozen.

  • 8. Eat by season. Foods in season tend to be cheaper. So, in Fall squash, apples, cabbage, dark greens, pumpkins, leeks, artichokes, beets, celery root, turnips and carrots are in season. Sounds like some good soup fixins.

    On to the recipes:

    Sweet and Sour Cabbage

    I made this just the other day, and boy was it a lifesaver! I was looking for something easy on the pocketbook, yet interesting. This is a traditional Eastern European recipe of Germanic origin (read: peasant food). The cabbage was most likely flavored with bacon or fatback, but for our purposes a little olive oil will do.

    1 large head of red cabbage $1-3.00
    1/4 cup olive oil (this is the pricier ingredient. A good olive oil costs $7-8, any oil will do)
    2 cloves of garlic $0.50 a bulb
    2 small apples $1.00
    1/2 cup apple cider (a half gallon bottle costs aroun $3-5.00)
    1/4 cup apple cider vinegar (one bottle costs $1.25)
    1 Tbsp salt
    1 tsp coriader
    2 tsp fennel seed
    1/2 tsp cinnamon

    Slice the head of cabbage lengthwise and cut out the core. Peel back the top leaves and discard. Roughly cube the cabbage and rinse thoroughly. Sprinkle with salt and let sit.
    Peel and core the apples (I prefer Granny Smith for their tartness), dice.
    Dice the garlic.
    Put oil or butter in a deep pot and heat on medium high heat. Brown garlic.
    Add remaining ingredients EXCEPT for the vinegar.
    Boil covered for 15-20 mins.
    Add vinegar and heat until liquid has evaporated.
    Be careful to not overcook the cabbage or it will become bitter.
    Here is my result:

Mmmmmmmmm, Cabbage.

Next: Squash.

Squash is pretty cheap, tasty and very high in nutrients. As it is October, I think it's a good idea to include my favorite squash recipe:

Butternut Squash with Brown Sugar, Butter and Cinnamon. (this meal costs about $3)

slice the squash lengthwise, put inner side down in a buttered baking dish. Put in oven at 400degrees. Cook for 15 mins. Turn squash and sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Continue baking until brown and delicious.


I cannot say enough good things about soup. I'm going to get a tshirt that says "I Heart Soup." You just gotta love soup. Every culture on the planet has soup. I might even venture to guess that the first real form of cooking in human history was the making of soup. You have a pot, you have some water and you have a few tasty things to dump in, and BAM! You have a meal. What's not to love. The following are a few of my (cheap) favorites.

Onion Soup:

  • Ingredients:
  • 4-5 Onions (a sack costs around $4)
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup butter or oil
  • 1/4 cup tamari
  • 6-8 cups water + 1/4 cup

Peel the onions and slice thinly in rounds. Heat oil in a pot. Add flour, oil and 1/4 cup water. Stir until a thick paste. Cook the roux until it turns a golden brown. Add onions and continue to cook while the onions carmelize. Once carmelized and cooked down, add the rest of the water, and garlic. Simmer for 30 mins. Add Tamari, you can adjust to taste. The tamari give the soup a beefy taste and mimics the traditional french soup. For added authenticity, put a toasted slice of baguette covered in cheese (or cheese substitute) and ladle soup over the toast. Voila! Cheap and easy.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Gourmet Swansong

The first "food" magazine I ever read and subscribed to was Gourmet. I remember my father reading the tome to fine dining and I remember flipping through and marveling at the photographs of table spreads. This was before my venture into vegetarianism, but I always thought the pictures in Gourmet magazine set the standard. This was the goal. Someday I too, with a little guidance from personalities such as Wolfgang Puck, Jacque Pepin, Julia Childs, and M.F.K. Fisher, could prepare entrees that resembled sculptures, pastry more like architecture than creme puff, and culinary maneuvers that required hours of special training in slicing and dicing.

From my high school years, I began tackling the art of spongecake, the exact science of pudding, the engineering of the potato. I learned how to stack and chop, how to julienne, how to properly roll dough. And I found that I never had enough culinary knowledge. Instead of going straight into working in a kitchen, or attending technical school, I went to college and got a Master's in English. My love of literature, at that time, outweighed my love of cooking. That is when I found Gourmet magazine. Here was a publication that combined my two loves, beautiful food and beautiful writing. I would come home from my job as an underpaid vegan chef, lie on the sofa with my magazine and sink into the cushions, lullaby-ed into relaxation with the sonorous cadence of food writing.

So imagine my bewilderment when it was announced this week that after seventy years, Gourmet is closing shop. In the age of free food blogs, and whittling audiences interested in the pretension of epicurean delicacies, the Old Dame simply cannot keep her footing. One more loss for print journals everywhere. My shock comes not as a vegetarian, but as a writer and a reader. While Good Housekeeping continues to sell well, some of the more established, intellectual mags are losing ground.

I struggled with Gourmet and its meat-heavy topics, but I always found my place at the table, a recipe for "braised pork shanks in wine sauce", became roasted portobellos in wine sauce, steak was supplanted with tofu, etc. In recent years, Gourmet did include options for vegetarians and vegans, featuring a vegan Christmas menu in their 2007 holiday issue. One could say the magazine wrote the book on the "foodie" movement, with leading voices and revolutionary cooks contributing to discussions as diverse as food politics, alternative diets, and classic cookery. In fact, Gourmet's attention to political issues in the "foodie" community made it stand out on the newsstand as a periodical dedicated to debating food culture, practices and controversies.

Similar, smaller magazines have met their fate recently. The progressive Herbivore magazine which folded and converted to an online vegan store, comes to mind. Other magazines, especially small press, independent and progressive journals are meeting a sinister ending as economic depression forces readers to turn down subscriptions in favor of online discussion boards and blogs.

This is not to say that we didn't see it coming, or that no one could have foreseen the eventual demise of print journals. However, there remains a sadness for me, in wondering who will pick up where Gourmet left off. True, Gourmet was a publication that appealed to mostly upper middle class readers, people who wanted to throw extravagant dinner parties, (I remember in a recent issue, the advice for throwing a party in the recession era was to serve blinis and caviar...Ha) people who could afford to drop a few hundred on a single meal. But beyond the elitism, there was true artistry, writers who were passionate about their topics, and readers just as passionate. I suppose that is what I miss most of all, the passion of people with strong convictions and a firm grasp of language, and I'm not so sure I've encountered many blogs that incorporate both.

The fall of Gourmet points out the problem with a blog-only readership. With a blog there is usually only one voice, one opinion, one side of the story, while print journals offer a diverse range of perspectives. I am fan of blogging and reading blogs, but my research and reading does not stop when the computer goes into hibernate mode. As food journals become nothing more than time saving tips for working moms (i.e. the Rachel Ray empire) I worry about the future of haute cuisine, not in the elitist sense, but in the way that Gourmet brought the concept of quality to the general public.

There's nothing wrong with buying nice wine, fresh produce and taking the time to prepare a meal, rather than attempting to feed your family in "thirty minutes or less."
We Americans spend so much time and energy on our cars, our clothes, our homes, but we don't have a food culture that tells us to invest in quality fuel for our bodies. What I loved about Gourmet was the insistence on quality.
Perhaps we are taking a step down. Perhaps this means nothing to the food-loving community. Perhaps there will be new, better, brighter journals on the horizon with plenty of support for slow, local, organic, vegetarian options.

Still, I will miss the inspiration most of all, Gourmet was my go-to when I didn't have a clue what to make, or when I wanted to challenge myself, or when I wanted to surprise my partner with a fancy dinner for two. The internet makes this possible, but in a more structured, search engine way.

Gourmet, my darling, you will be missed.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Power of Misrepresentation

The world of amateur (and professional) gourmands is rife with turned up noses, especially when it comes to restricted diets. The hedonists who head the major food magazines seem to think of vegetarians and vegans as unsavory characters. "How could anyone pass up a rack of lamb, roasted slowly for ten hours and drizzled with fig preserves and mint jelly?" they proclaim in their articles. Julie Powell, of "Julie & Julia" fame, frequently notes on her blog how she "feels so sad," for the pitiful vegans who take no pleasure in their meals. This grossly oversimplified statement comes as a shock to me, as I actually found my diet improved as a result of finding veganism. Where once I merely ate to feel full and did not particularly care whether my meal came from a box or a freezer, or whether it created waste and pollution, my switch to veganism brought me to fresh, whole foods and a world of spices and flavors I never before imagined possible.

I find that every day I have to wrestle with the misrepresentations of vegetarianism given by upper class purients, who trump self indulgence over morals. No amount of suffering will keep the Philistines from their sunday brunches overflowing with baked brisket and filet mignon.
Am I the only vegetarian cook who has noticed that The Food Network does not have a single vegetarian cooking show? So rarely do any of the Food Network personalities even offer a meatless variation on their dishes, that one might think the population contains so few herbavores it doesn't warrant a consideration. This of course is certainly not the case, and in fact, our ranks have been steadily growing. More people are turning to vegetarianism for their health, conscience and interest in food, so why is there a growing cultural backlash?

Is it possible that the Harvard educated writers for the top food magazines have no clue about vegetarian cuisine? I find it difficult to think that anyone can steep themselves in food culture and study without discovering alternative diets. So, perhaps the attempt to suppress vegetarian lifestyle choices is deliberate. A conspiracy. The charge would not be unwarranted, as the meat and dairy industry pumps millions into its Ad campaigns, convincing the American public that meat and dairy provide the basis of healthy diets, contrary to medical studies that show the very opposite. I imagine a scene in a dingy office in the basement of a highrise. Two men in black suits, the one, CEO of FoodNetwork, the other, a mobster with ties to the beef industry. The two shake hands, and the mob man opens a briefcase of cash, stacked neatly. "Here's one million in cash, now keep it meaty." Except, I'm sure it would be more than a million....

Recently, I read "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse," by Thomas McNamee. I was pleased to learn that Waters was one of the first chefs to include local, organic, seasonal produce on her menu. When I followed this with a look at the Chez Panisse menu online, I realized that not a single vegetarian option appeared on the bill. Vegetarians Not Wanted. Any average foodie would think that vegetarians are deprived of the gastronomical decadence provided a meat eater. No beef short ribs? No braised pork shoulder? What? There are a myriad of examples of vegetarian-bashing on prime time television and in the world of professional chefs. Anthony Bourdain comes to mind as the most flagrantly outspoken posterboy for carnivorous cuisine. His hatred for all things vegetarian baffles the most timid meat eater. I don't know why any self respecting chef would disregard the majority of their ingredients as insignificant to good eating. And that is just the point here, meat and dairy makes up a very small list of potential ingredients. More edible plants inhabit our planet than animal life, and an abundance of them are delicious, interesting, even exciting. You wouldn't know it to talk to a spokesperson on the Food network who thinks "vegetarian" means lettuce and carrots.

I cull from the great food sources what I can. I read Escoffier's classic cookbook and disregarded all the instructions for cream, butter, and meat in almost every recipe. I recently purchased the CIA's Professional Chef book and was horrified to realized I had thrown half my money away, as the book largely consists of step-by-step guides on how to butcher, prepare and serve animals. The spice and vegetable sections are wonderful, but I shutter at the chapter on how to distinguish the different cuts of beef.

The world of gastronomes seems to exclude vegetarians completely, as if one cannot be a true food lover, a true gourmand without consuming flesh. I say its about time that veggie lovers have their day. I too can spend considerable time reducing a wine stock to pour over glistening endive. If its technique and innovation that make a gourmet chef, I dare those to eliminate the overpowering flavors of flesh. How easy it is, how simple to prepare a steak and serve with steamed vegetables. How boring. How bland. It is a challenge to work outside of the ordinary and that is one of the greatest things about vegan cooking. Everyday I learn something new.
You will never hear a professional food personality take this position. While the representation suggests that vegan food lacks flavor and variety, the truth is that meat centered diets contain very little originality. If I did cook meat, it would bore me. I love the feel of slicing into a crisp apple, of peeling a hot beet, of coring the center of an acorn squash, and I do it all with a clear conscience.

I am a vegan and I take pleasure in my food. I enjoy every bite. The hope is for the rest of the world to discover the same thing.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A World Food Crisis

As the politically driven spread of Western culture continues, many previously vegetarian countries have taken on a Western diet. American and British food corporations send "rations" to impoverished nations, but with malicious intention. I read several years ago that Nestle gave mothers in India free samples of their baby formula under the auspices of "aid." However, this aid led to the mothers depending on the formula once their own milk had dried up due to discontinued breastfeeding. They were forced to purchase formula, an unnecessary expense.

Western Food culture and its exchange across the globe has very little to do with exchange of culture or sharing resources, and everything to do with capital gain. Coca-Cola is now thoroughly entrenched in the "global culture." Cow's milk is given to children in Africa. Beef is on the menu at restaurants in India.

It wasn't until the 1950s, after Occupation that Japan became inundated with American cuisine. The dairy free, low-meat traditional diet became supplanted by beef, cheese and beer production. Today, few people in Japan (especially in the urban areas, such as Tokyo) eat a traditional diet and because of this heart disease, diabetes, and other ailments associated with meat eating has increased.

Along with the disintegration of local food cultures comes rising food costs due to fuel prices, decreases in land used for plant production, and resources wasted on producing meat.

The news companies say that fuel costs are to blame for the price increase, but the true culprit is much more difficult to admit. Our diet has endangered the entire world. Not only is meat nutritiously lowly, the resources needed to produce it actually decrease food stores. Instead of consuming grains and water directly, we feed our foodstuffs to animals that are then slaughtered and yield less food than we initially contributed. It is simply illogical to continue this process with a burgeoning population. Meat eating is not sustainable for large numbers of people.

Countries that once primarily grew grains, fruits and veggies, have given up their farms to grow grass for grazing cows. Beef brings in more money than grain. Also, many of the supposedly "starving" nations have plenty of land for cultivating their own food, however the U.S. inhibits this through economic regulation and instead many of these nations grow cash crops for U.S. consumption (coffee, cotton, tobacco, hemp, sugar cane, chocolate, etc).

I truly believe that no person can call themselves an environmentalist without giving up meat, one of the big threats to food sustainability. Livestock waste more than anything. We waste water, food, land, and time on a product that leads directly to malnutrition. It is not possible for any human being to eat carnivorously, but our bodies have no problem adjusting to a vegan diet (detoxing may be the only initial reaction). Vegans reduce waste through not eating meat, live longer, healthier lives, and do not contribute to unnecessary suffering. The only answer to the food crisis is a return to sustainability and I wish it would change in our immediate future. It's not probable that things will change now, but more people convert to veganism every day and I live in the hope that meat consumption will end for good.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Perfect Every Time

I am somewhat of a perfectionist.
I used to think that there was no way I was a perfectionist because I would become so frustrated if I couldn't make something turn out the way I wanted it that I'd give up. I didn't realize that a perfectionist is not only someone who will do something again and again, but someone who simply isn't satisfied unless it's PERFECT.

That's me.
I find it difficult to feel satisfaction for something I've made or worked on.
This translates in the kitchen as well.
I love cooking for myself and my own cravings, but nothing brings as much pleasure as cooking for other people. I am a persistent cook, I want to know if you've liked it. Is it the best thing you've tasted all day? all week? all year? Are you experiencing a flavor combination you've never encountered? Is this new to you? Surprising? I hate when I ask, "What do you think?" and they simply reply "Good." Good just isn't enough. Good isn't satisfying.

Three years ago when my parents came to visit for my graduation, when I received my B.A., I made a tofu chocolate mousse. This year, as I prepare for another graduation, my mother inquired about the mousse. Would I be making again this time? Definitely. My mother, a woman who doesn't know the first thing about vegetarianism for veganism, loved the mousse. She thought she hated tofu, but had simply never experienced it in this way.
That was a small victory for me.

I fail all the time in the kitchen. I make mistakes. I feel hurried. I try and cut corners. I'm out of an ingredient and try to substitute, but miss the mark. There was the failure of a tofu loaf I made when I first went vegan. Made of tofu, breadcrumbs, veggies and spices, the top crisped up nicely, but when I pulled it out of the oven it and put it on a plate it turned into crumbly bits. The tofu pumpkin pie that turned into a gooey mess and couldn't be corrected.

Each time I learned something new, and either I ate the thing anyway, or accepted it's unpalatability. I sift through the pages of cooking magazines and my imagination runs wild. I think about the possibilities of taking a "rubbed pork loin" reciped and making it vegetarian "rubbed eggplant steak?" A kitchen is a laboratory, an artists studio, a Frankenstein's dream. The dish may not rise to life the first, second, tenth time. But eventually, through all that failure, comes creation. Until it seems that anything is culinarily possible. And that's what keeps me cooking, willing to see it through the disasters. Yes.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


It took me some time to like tempeh, but now I am hooked. Some say tempeh (a patty made of fermented soybeans and held together by a fungus) is healthier than tofu, but I'm all about the flavor. Unlike the taste-less tofu, tempeh has a slightly sour, nutty flavor. It's meaty texture makes it excellent as a faux-meat, it's high in protein and probiotics. I first had tempeh in the form of a tempeh burger, but then worked my way up to the raw stuff itself. The following is my favorite tempeh recipe:

Extraordinary Tempeh Sautee

1 block of frozen tempeh, thawed(I like the multigrain that has millet, flax and wild rice)
2Tbsp Braggs (or your favorite soy sauce, I like Tamari)
1 Tbsp brown rice vinegar
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1/2 bunch of Kale
1 smallish carrot
1/2 daikon radish (depends on the size)
2 cloves garlic
2tsp minced ginger
1 Tbsp sesame seeds
2 green onions

Place the Braggs, vinegar, sesame oil & seeds, garlic, ginger and green onions in a bowl, whisk thoroughly.
Cube the tempeh and put in a ceramic dish with marinade. Let set for at least an hour.
Heat pan. Chop kale (I remove the stringy vein in the middle of the leaves). Grate the carrot and daikon with a cheese grater. Add a bit of sesame oil in pan and sautee kale, carrots, and daikon. Add the marinated tempeh and heat until brown.

This goes great with rice, or eaten alone.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

On Beets

Scrub a beet, the deep vermilion will color the white bristles of your vegetable brush. Scrub off the thin layer of earth, only later to find that its soil has penetrated the deepest parts of the flesh. Place the beet in a small pot of salted water to boil. The water will bubble and the beet will slowly bleed into the pot until it looks like a single beating heart, thrusting against the rising currents.
The beet is the most human of vegetables.

A metaphor.

As it softens, it releases its lifeblood. Pierce it with a fork and watch the juice bleed like a wounded soldier, or a knifed assassin, a melodramatic scorned lover of Shakespearian proportion.

The dramatic effect is lost when baked or sauteed. It is simply not the same thing.
A freshly boiled beet, drained of its crimson liquid and placed steaming on a wooden cutting board is a thing of beauty.

Step away from it for a moment. Watch the steam rise and think of your own beating organ. Think of the shape, the heat of your own machinery. Palm the newly heated beet and feel its heaviness, swollen with hot water and now fleshy. Marvel over is sudden metamorphosis from hard knotted fist, to soft, delicate, meat.

The knife will cut through with very little resistance. Split at the center, the beet will astound with its presentation of the color red. Only blood has this depth in its hue, this power, this overwhelming sensuality. The center of the beet pulses red, a velvet crimson. If you touch your finger to the hot middle, it will come away with a drip of dark pink. The beet is never a solid color, it gradiates from almost black to a white-pink. It is like a dappled rose, but even a rose is not nearly this vibrant. The center of the beet swirls around, a picture of chaos, mismatched on the inside.

The steam arising from the root smells of that same earth rinsed off before cooking. Like something from deep inside the ground. The beet is a root, the lifeblood of the plant. It holds the nutrients for the plant's continued survival.

The beet is an unlikely piece of artwork. From above you would never know. The plant itself, floppy leaves, an unassuming green color, muted red veins and stems, not much different from a lettuce. It is only through digging under the layers of soot, that we recover the beet from its cloistered hermitage.

I personally, never liked beets. My mother prepared them from cans, with a bit of melted butter. She heated them in a saucepan and that was all. I thought they tasted like dirt, feet, mildew. It was only after I had come in contact with the beet on a more intimate level, taken it into my hands and cooked it for myself that I recognized something special.

A boiled beet, sliced and presented on a bed of dark greens, paper thin slices of red onion and almonds, can outdo any filet mignon. The texture is beyond delicate. It is like the most tender slice of prosciutto (a delicacy I have only had once and will never have again). A boiled beet, dressed in balsamic vinegar, fresh basil and olive oil can stand alone as a meal. I have had them baked with garlic and topped with broccoli sprouts, pickled and served with potatoes, eaten alone fresh from the pot in all their earthy glory.
The beet is a miracle of a vegetable, lowly yet satisfying and so very poetic.

Baked Beets

As many beets as you would like, best start with 1-2
1Tbsp of maple syrup
1/2 tsp of Kosher Salt or Sea Salt
1/2 tsp of white pepper
4 Tbsp of Balsamic Vinegar
1 tsp of garlic powder OR 1-2 cloves of garlic, minced.
2 Tbsp of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Tbsp of dried basil or 2-3 chopped, fresh leaves
2 tsp of dried oregano or 1 fresh leave

Trim the beet(s) and scrub off outer layer of dirt and skin. Boil in a lightly salted pot for 20ms on a rolling boil.
Combine all other ingrients in a small dish. Whisk until all ingredients are incorporated.

Remove beet, rinse and run under cold water. Cube beet and place in baking dish.
Pour mixture over cubed beet and let marinate for at least 30mins.
Bake in 375degree oven for 15mins or until tender.

It is best to serve this on a pile of steamed greens. Kale perhaps?