Food


photo by Hey Paul

photo by Hey Paul

I love popcorn. I could eat it several times a week in all its buttery, crunchy, salty glory. It’s low in fat (at least without the butter,) high in fiber, and I can eat what feels like a decadent amount because of its natural volume. I’m a popcorn purist, so it’s just a little butter and salt for me, thank you very much.

My children love it too. I carefully dole out their servings, trying to be generous when I really want to hoard it all to myself.

I used to buy boxes of microwave popcorn, 3 or 6 to a package, and ration it out over the course of a week or two. I bought the low fat or plain because the butter flavor tasted like wax, so I would add my own.

I remember hearing about a guy who loved popcorn even more than me. He would hold the popped popcorn bag to his nose and inhale the freshly popped popcorn aroma. Unfortunately it made him sick. He was also inhaling a chemical called diacetyl, which caused “popcorn worker’s lung.”

Yikes! Turns out, people who had worked in food flavoring or microwave popcorn factories got a lethal, irreversible lung disease just by doing their jobs. It makes me feel ill for ever buying these products! In response to consumer outcry, popcorn makers announced they were reducing the levels of diacetyl.

Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it? As a popcorn lover addict, I was on the hunt for something better. Air-popped never tasted as crunchy to me, and I ruined my fair share of pans waiting too long for that last kernel to pop. So when I found a way to pop it in the microwave in less than 2 minutes, it changed my life.

 How to make your own microwave popcorn

Making your own microwave popcorn is convenient and you avoid any strange chemicals. You also eliminate the additional packaging – whiteboard outer box, inner plastic wrap – in packaged microwave popcorn. One big bag of popcorn seeds goes a long, long way, so you can splurge on organic or specialty and still spend less than the prepackaged microwave kind.

You need:

  • Regular, bulk popcorn seeds
  • A package of paper lunch bags
  • Oil

Scoop ¼ cup of popcorn seeds into a paper lunch bag. Add ½ tsp of vegetable oil. Fold the paper bag closed, and fold again. (I use about a ½ inch to an inch fold.) Place in the microwave. Cook for 1:45 MORE OR LESS depending on your microwave. You’ll want to watch it carefully until you figure out the best cooking time. Remove when pops are more than 1 second apart.

Pour into bowl, salt and butter as desired. Enjoy!

I don’t recommend reusing the bag. I believe it is a fire hazard, as is any microwave popcorn bag if you leave it unattended.

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photo by love・janine

photo by love・janine

Eat less meat. Have you heard that before? It sounds simple, but eating habits can be hard to change.
 
Although I switched to grass-fed beef, chicken, and pork, I also wanted to reduce my family’s serving sizes of meat, and use what we do buy more wisely. USDA guidelines, (which are politically motivated in many ways,)  recommend these serving sizes for our daily requirement of meat, beans, eggs, and nuts: children should have 5 ounces, women should have 6 ounces, and men should have 7 ounces per DAY. Kind of puts those restaurant portions into perspective.
Eating less meat is better for the environment, better for our health, and better for our budget. To stretch our food budget and keep our serving sizes down, here are some tricks I have learned.

 

Meatless

  • Start by going without meat just one day a week. I found that it was an easy change for my family to accept, and I got some practice with vegetarian recipes everyone could enjoy. Currently we eat vegetarian dinners 2-3 times a week.
  • I added smoked paprika to a tomato marinara and it tasted as though it were meat based! You can also add it to cooked beans. I saw it here  first, but was inspired to try it after I had a fabulous smoked tomato sauce at the Bluefin Bay Resort.

Ground Beef

  • Add minced onion to ground beef and patties.
  • Patty 4 burgers for each pound of beef.
  • Add lots of vegetable fixin’s – in season tomatoes, lettuce, onion on a good crusty roll fills out the burger so you feel satisfied with one.
  • Make a dimple in the top of a thick burger with your thumb before grilling so grass-fed beef doesn’t ball up, and be careful not to overcook. (My husband is tired of hearing me yell that out the screen door.)
  • Add extra veggies to sauce. My brother-in-law’s extra special marinara sauce cooked from scratch starts with carrots, celery, and onions sautéed in butter. (Hmm..am I supposed to share that?) Add mushrooms, diced tomatoes, zucchini… Fatten up that sauce!
  • For tex-mex like tacos or burritos, add pinto beans or tomatoes to reduce the amount of beef and boost the seasoning.

Fajitas, stir fry, kabobs

  • Double the onions, peppers, broccoli, zucchini…You get the idea.

Lunch meat

  • A good deli brand without fillers, like Boar’s Head, can be sliced extra thin, so a ½ lb. goes a long way.
    I slice each large round piece of ham from Applegate Farms in half for twice the sandwiches.

Bacon

  • Cut bacon slices in half before you cook – it fits better in the pan and feels like you get twice as much! In my family, we count them out ‘cause everyone wants their fair share!
  • Use bacon crumbled over pasta dishes – even a small amount of bacon satisfies meat eaters.

Pizza

  • Spread pepperoni slices around on pizza, and then add some chopped pepperoni to add flavor with less. I like Organic Prairie pepperoni, and small amounts add spice to sandwiches.
  • We cut pizzas into square pieces instead of pie slice. It helps me eat less, even when I crave just one more piece.

Roasts

  • Boost the sides – use lots of potatoes, carrots and onions.
  • Add chopped peppers or tomatoes to leftover meat for barbecue sandwiches.

Chicken

  • Pick that leftover free range chicken clean to the bone! If one isn’t enough, freeze cooked meat until you have enough left over. I toss the leftover chicken, bones and all, in a bag in the freezer until I have enough to use for another meal.
  • Dice and shred it finely and add it to chicken lasagna or enchiladas.
  • Chicken stock – Boil the bones to make stock for soups. Full disclosure: I haven’t mastered a clear stock yet! I will figure this out before fall!

What are your tips to stretch your meat budget? And can you tell me how to make a good chicken stock?

photo by chispita_666

photo by chispita_666

Summer’s vegetables are here! I’m scrambling to add fresh garlic scapes, sugar snap peas, and baby chard to our daily meals before the next box from our CSA arrives.

Ideally, I would sip from a glass of fine wine as I sauté the chard until just tender and bright. In reality, there are the two children, straddling that fine line between too much snacking and hungry for dinner, asking for legos to be broken apart and playdough to be rolled and flattened. In particular, my 2 ½ year old daughter is transitioning from the age of taking an afternoon nap and waking up crabby; to not taking a nap and remaining crabby from 3 o’clock until the aforementioned dinner. At our house, I call the time before dinner “the witching hour.”

But dinner is important to me, to have a time where we sit down as a family, share each other’s day, and enjoy a home cooked meal together. Prep time is much easier with the proper tools, so here are my favorites.

  • A sharp knife
    I’ve heard chefs’ most prized possession is their knife, but I never experienced how much this matters until I cooked at my brother-in-law’s house, using his quality knives. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. It slices! It dices! I could cut vegetables easier, faster and safer, and it made prep work a breeze.
    Now I have a new Santoku knife. It’s inexpensive but sharp, and that alone makes a huge difference. I never add it to the dishwasher to maintain its sharp edge.
  • Multiple cutting boards
    I have three large and three small cutting boards. They store flat, fit easily in the dishwasher, and allow me to keep on chopping.
  • Salad spinner
    My CSA farmer does a bit of prewashing, but the greens still hold a considerable amount of dirt. The salad spinner consists of a colander and bowl, and makes quick work of washing and drying greens. It’s also more earth-friendly than blotting dry with paper towels.
  • Food chopper
    I like my hand-held food chopper when I have a lot of chopping to do. It’s from Pampered Chef, with a plunger handle and Z-shaped blade. Unlike a food processor, it works right on the cutting board so there’s no bowl to clean, and it works under your own power. It’s especially nice for chopping and mincing onions.
  • Sink or dishpan full of soapy water
    If I have a lot of clean-up, I fill one side of my sink with hot soapy water. When I finish with a tool, I simply slide it in. By the time dinner is done, the tools will have practically cleaned themselves, and it uses less water than washing each of them individually.

What are some of your favorite time-saving tools?

 

photo by Jeff Keen

photo by Jeff Keen

I have a confession to make.

  I am not a food purist.

 After I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, my appetite was shot. I was obsessed with food ingredients and genetically-modified crops. When I read Jane Goodall’s Harvest for Hope, I stopped eating meat for a month. My husband began drooling over sausage commercials. I wanted to save the world; but first, I had to feed my family.

  •  Should I buy the lower-priced organic meat that is 2 hours away, or the local grass-fed meat?
  • Should I buy the large jar of unsweetened applesauce with no high fructose corn syrup that will keep for a month, or out-of-season organic apples that could go bad?
  • What if my friend makes a sandwich for me? Should I ask her where the meat came from, and if it’s ethically-raised? Do I want to be THAT person?
  • Can I afford the organic dairy products, or should I get the locally produced rBGH-free?
  • If we pack a meal for the car in ziplock baggies, is that better for the environment than dinner at McDonald’s?
  • Is it better to serve my children organic frozen vegetables I know they will eat, or chance wasting the bok choi they hated from our CSA?

 I don’t have it all figured out for myself, and I certainly can’t tell you what’s best for you.

 I can tell you this: I will try to give you meal ideas that are sustainable, organic, local, and ethical. Not everything will satisfy all four, because I insist they also be affordable and practical. Those are two vital missing pieces from the sustainable food discussion. If it were cheap and easy, everyone would do it, right? I do what I can, and keep trying to improve.

 I posted a comment recently on a blog, where I got schooled on my imperfect solution to a boxed macaroni meal. It was quick, used less packaging, added fresh cheese and butter instead of powdered cheese, and added real, if frozen, vegetables. I wish I would have mentioned the noodles were locally produced with two, real food ingredients, the cheese and butter were hormone free, and the vegetables were organic. But no matter, others quickly pointed out that the vegetables weren’t local or seasonal.

 They were right. I could do better. We can all do better, but I hope that doesn’t stop us from doing what we can.

 

photo by Kathy Maister

photo by Kathy Maister

You forgot to take something out of the freezer.

Your husband forgot to buy one key ingredient for dinner.

You had a meeting at school that you overlooked.

It’s just you and the kids tonight.

Or you just don’t feel like cooking. In any case, you need a fallback meal.

A fallback meal is dinner you can get on the table with a minimum of prep, ingredients you have, and your kids will eat. It’s not fancy, but it works, and it keeps you out of the drive-thru lane. Here are some of mine:

  • Grilled cheese
    Add ham or tomato, if you have it, or heat up a side of soup. My friend Joyce calls it “soup & sandwich night.”
  • Frozen waffles
    We make extra on weekends and freeze. Pop in the toaster just like the ones in the box.
  • Spaghetti and meat sauce
    I probably make this once a week, so it’s mindless. I use ½ lb. of ground beef (I don’t even thaw first, just cover and cook on lower heat and scrape it off as it browns,) and Newman’s Own Cabernet Marinara. Sometimes I double the sauce and freeze it for next time.
  • Bean burritos
    One can of refried beans, tortillas, and sprinkle of shredded cheese.
  • Buttered noodles
    If you have them, add some frozen vegetables to the last 5 minutes of cooking and toss with a bit of garlic salt.
  • English muffin, bagel, or tortilla pizzas
    Depends on what we have on hand. Toast in the toaster oven with pizza sauce and shredded cheese.

Serve with a side of fruit or yogurt, and dinner is done!

What are some of your fallback meals?

photo by Ken Bosma

photo by Ken Bosma

Grass-fed beef may be more expensive than a supermarket meat special, but it doesn’t have to give you sticker shock. Whether you’ve decided to buy grass-fed, pasture-raised beef for environmental, health, or ethical reasons, there are ways to make it more affordable for your family.

  • Craigslist.org
    It doesn’t get any more local than craigslist. Try searching for grass-fed or pasture-raised beef. Local farmers use craigslist to get in touch with consumers, and you can ask all the questions you want. You will need to invest in a deep freezer for most quantities, but buying beef by the side, half, or quarter is a budget-friendly way to purchase a variety of beef. You can also get it custom packaged to what you use. For example, one family uses ground beef in 1 ½ lb. quantities, so they have the processor package it accordingly.
  • Meat CSA
    Community supported agriculture is usually associated with fruits and vegetables, but meat CSAs, also called buying clubs, are becoming more common.
    In a CSA, you get a variety of cuts of what the farmer has available. Some meat buying clubs allow you to choose the cuts ahead of time. Farmers often pass on a discount in exchange for your commitment to purchase meat from them for a certain amount of time. Either way, it’s a good way to get a mix of expensive and inexpensive cuts of meat for a lower price.
    Check eatwild.com for CSAs and buying clubs in your area, or even a simple google search to locate a farm near you.
  • Package pricing
    Many farmers offer package pricing, where you average the cost per pound across the expensive and inexpensive cuts. For example, one farm near me offers packages of 22 lbs. or 54 lbs., including roasts, steaks and ground beef. This is a great way to get to know a farmer and discover what kind and how much meat your family will use. If you don’t see package pricing, you can always ask the farmer to put one together for you, and they may offer you a discount over buying individual cuts.

My family is currently buying meat by the package. I asked an area farm that offered a meat CSA if they would put together packages of whatever the CSA families were getting. We’ve enjoyed a large variety of cuts, and we plan on joining.

What tricks have you found to purchase grass-fed beef for your budget?

photo by Abhijit Tembhekar

photo by Abhijit Tembhekar

Ah, those convenient little servings of fruit and applesauce…already diced, pre-portioned, shrink-wrapped, swimming in a sweet syrup, where they keep indefinitely…

Unfortunately, those perfect little servings of fruit are not so perfect after all.

  • They often contain high fructose corn syrup, turning what I believed to be a healthy serving of fruit into a dessert. When I began reading labels, I found small cans of fruit made with pear juice concentrate instead. I would also look for unsweetened applesauce, ones where the ingredients read simply, “apples, water.”
  • They’re expensive. At local grocery stores, I usually paid around $3 for a package of 4. My two children would finish the package each day, if not each meal.
  • And speaking of package…How much packaging can fruit have? A lot. There’s the outer whiteboard container, which in many communities is not recyclable, followed by a plastic film over the top of each cup. Finally, there’s the plastic cup container, also not recyclable.

Make your own reusable fruit cups

I wanted something more reusable and less expensive.

  • I bought a variety of small plastic containers with lids. They seal tightly enough to put in my son’s lunch. I opted for the inexpensive kind in case they “disappeared.”
  • I buy a large jar of unsweetened applesauce. Buying a large jar is less expensive and it’s recyclable. If you like, you can always add a teaspoon of sugar. Add cinnamon or a small amount of fruit jam for a treat.
  • Try a large container of raisins, or other dried fruit such as cherries or blueberries. Dried fruit is a little more costly, but it keeps well. My son enjoys dried cherries from nearby Door County.
  • Another option is cut up apples or pears tossed with a small amount of lemon juice to keep them from browning. Cut up 3 or 4 at a time and keep in the refrigerator.
  • A portion of grapes works well, as the plastic container keeps them from being crushed. Again, you could prepare several cups at a time and keep them in the refrigerator ready to go.

Of course, fruit in its pure form is always an option. My son usually requested an apple for his lunch. No package needed.

What fruit do you pack for your kids?

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