Sunday, September 29, 2013

Reflections on National Hunger Month

September is National Hunger Month, and many of us have been reflecting on the state of food availability in this country. While ironically this month Congress cut $40 million from the federal food stamps program, the CEO of Panera joined many others in attempting to live off the per-person food stamps allocation of about $4.50 a day. News about inaccuracies in expiration dates on perishable foods prompted the creation of a new venture in Massachusetts to round up these items, determine their actual remaining shelf life, and resell them at discount prices.

My counterpart and I have been discussing a series on austerity cooking in which we also attempt to create a meal based on the food stamps budget. While we have been planning this experiment, our understanding of food availability and hunger in this country has changed.

Most people have read about "food ghettos" - the lack of grocery stores and fresh foods in many low income neighborhoods that results in people purchasing low-nutrition pre-packaged foods from convenience stores that now have expanded food options. Any fruits or vegetables t these locations are poorly kept and expensive. People without a reliable means of transportation frequently have alternative to this dubious choice. Wal-Mart has started to address this in some urban areas (including the one I live in proximity to) by providing regular shuttles from our food ghettos out to their closest stores, providing low income families access to fresh meats and produce at a low cost.

But access to food is only part of the issue. Another problem for low income families is food spoilage. Once the fresh food is in the home, what tools are in the low-income kitchen to keep it from going bad before it can be eaten? This is where attempts by well-to-do folks like myself (and the CEO of Panera) to recreate the food stamps budget only cover a fraction of the reality for low income families.

Speaking for myself, my counterpart and I have a really, really good kitchen. We have a set of professional kitchen knives that includes the professional sharpener. We also have a butcher's block cutting board. These items are important, especially if you are buying family packs of meat that still have bone and skin to get a lower per-pound price. Without good equipment to clean the meat, a non-trivial percentage ends up in the trash. Unless, of course, you have the time to stock the skin and bones.

Which we often do. We have a prosumer anodized aluminum set of pots and pans that includes a sizable stock pot. We regularly stock meat remnants and aging produce to prevent waste in our own kitchen. And many people living in austerity conditions no doubt do the same. Which brings up the issue of storage.

You've got your family pack of meat that now needs to last you several weeks. You also have several weeks worth of stock that can quickly be transformed into soup or sauce for a casserole. Here's the most significant difference between my yuppie kitchen and the typical low-income kitchen - I've got a prosumer vacuum sealer. I can portion things out, vacuum seal them, and put them in the freezer (which is as big as a standard fridge - another notable difference here) for future use. We use the same approach for leftovers. And, for food items to be stored for just a few days, we have those nice glass snap-lock containers with the inner seal. As a result, very little goes bad in our kitchen.

When we consider austerity cooking on the federal food stamps budget to raise awareness about food scarcity and hunger in this country, it's also important to note that those of us who choose to engage in this temporary experiment need to also remember that we still have significant advantages over the families who live like this every day. We have time. We have tools. We have storage space. We can ensure that what we spend our money on is properly stored and doesn't go to waste.

Which to me is the double insult of poverty - the heartbreaking realization that when you can get your hands on good, fresh food, it will just go bad before it is all consumed. The good knife not only allows you to get the most from your meat, it also enables you to quickly turn fresh produce into food. The ability to quickly and easily chop vegetables down ensures that more of them will end up in your meal, adding both flavor and  nutrition, as well as preventing spoilage and waste because they are actually being eaten in larger quantities.

Probably the most important tools to prevent this are one good reliable knife that is kept sharp, a good cutting board, and proper storage containers. In this case, the vacuum sealer is not exactly in reach, but containers with a proper seal are. As the cooling weather prompts more food drives for area soup kitchens and shelters, those of us who are better off should pause and consider the need for these additional kitchen items and how we can get them out to our struggling and hungry neighbors. Basic items that we take for granted, like zipper seal bags and good cling wrap, can add days to the shelf life of leftovers and perishable foods.

As National Hunger Month comes to a close, my counterpart and I will continue planning our well-to-do version of austerity cooking. I will be mindful of my portion size and what I throw away. And I will continue to give thanks for all that I have.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

First Pumpkin of the Season in About 30 Minutes

We first started seeing fresh pumpkin for sale at the beginning of the month when we were in Wisconsin. At the time, we thought little of it - they have a different growing season than we do here in Maryland, and this seemed about the right time for the squash in that part of the country. But, when we were out procuring food items this weekend and saw them all over the place out here, we rejoiced, for pumpkin season has arrived in Maryland. We stopped by Hopkins Produce on Route 155 and picked up a couple of small but attractive pumpkins and created our first pumpkin meal of what will hopefully be a plentiful season.

Pumpkin works well with chicken and curry, which is the basis for our pumpkin soup recipe. But by the time we completed our shopping, we were hungry and impatient and getting a little cranky, and we really did not want to take the 45 minutes or so required to roast the pumpkin. So my counterpart devised a shortcut.

First pumpkin of the season

Since it was just the two of us and we had a birthday party to attend later in the evening, we wanted just a small lunch to tide us over. Gareth cut off a small section of the pumpkin, skinned it, and cut it down into small pieces (small pieces cook more quickly, and if they look the same, they cook the same.) Then, instead of roasting them in the oven, he pan-friend them on the stovetop.

Diced pumpkin cooking on the stovetop

In a separate pan, he also cooked up some chicken thigh meat, cut off the bone and dusted with a mixture of flour, sriracha sauce, and a Punjab tandoori powder. He cooked the meat in a bit of olive oil, periodically draining the fat off into the pumpkin.

Boned chicken thighs dusted with flour and Punjab red curry

Draining that yummy animal fat into the pumpkin

As the pumpkin continued to cook, he mashed it up, eventually employing our favorite tool, the immersion blender, to puree it with some heavy cream.

Puree the cooked pumpkin with a little cream

To finish the dish, he added a little white onion and garlic that had been gently sauteed, and a little chicken stock. (A note about chicken stock is that if you have a vacuum sealer, you can vacuum seal your stock and lay it flat on one of your freezer shelves to save space. You can also crack the sheet of stock to use a portion of it in your cooking.)

Vacuum-sealed stock keeps longer and saves space

And there you have a very nice dish that has all those good flavors of pumpkin soup in about 30 minutes. Serve with a little buttered bread on the side and you have a perfect fall meal.

30-minute curried chicken with pumpkin

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Food From the Dieter's Perspective, Part 2

Mostly I write about what I am eating, how to make it at home, or where to find it in my area. I also spend a lot of time considering the impact of food on our health and our overall sense of well-being. So every once in a while, some of these thoughts end up in the blog.

And today I am thinking about the ramifications of enjoying food. It started last night at a happy hour to send off one of my favorite coworkers to her next job, which should have been a really good time. Then someone took a group shot. And I saw myself. And I was shocked. I have become a pillow, and a very lumpy one at that. One of my friends was generous enough to claim that it was the sweater I was wearing, but this was clearly not the case. (But I love her for saying so anyway.) And it hung over me like a dark cloud of failure. How had this happened?

Many of us women have spent most of our lives dieting in some manner, or at least convincing ourselves that food is just fuel to keep us healthy and active but not to be enjoyed. I know I've spent a good portion of my life since puberty afraid of what would happen if I actually started enjoying food.

And this is not the same as eating for enjoyment. I'm talking about enjoying what you are eating, and what this can lead to. And I eat some highly enjoyable meals. And my worst fears have come true. When I regularly eat food that I enjoy and I consistently take pleasure in my meals, I am 15 pounds heavier and 2 sizes larger than when I chose the more Spartan "food is fuel" outlook.

But I also see things like anxiety, depression, and insomnia subside. My concentration improves, and so does my productivity. I am good with a normal 8 hours of sleep and do not feel the need to nap. The truth is, my slimmer, lighter self comes at a price - my overall sense of well-being. When I diet, I am cranky, and not just because of food deprivation. Mealtime is transformed from an enjoyable sensory and social experience to something to be dreaded, a minefield of bad choices and regrets. And this detracts from my quality of life.

When I was younger, I really did fear that my greatest assets were physical, and that once my beauty faded, so would my perceived value. So, the trade off of security for beauty seemed like a fair one. As I have gotten older, though, my perception of myself has changed, as has what I want my life to look like, to feel like. While in my own residual self-image, I am still 125 pounds (and I am always deeply troubled by reminders that this is  not actually true), I also see the value in a consistent level of comfort, happiness, satisfaction, peace.

And maintaining this peace requires food, and food that I enjoy. I don't think I am alone in this realization. Which is why so many women my age appear to "let ourselves go". It's not just shifting hormones, changing metabolism, or  genetics. I am not lazy or no longer concerned with my appearance. I am just concerned with so many other things as well, and the struggle to maintain a certain weight often seems like so much vanity when compared to my effectiveness at work or how well I am sleeping and getting along with others or the state of my home life.

It's difficult for me to accept my current girth. I was always anxious that enjoyable meals would result in this. But, I do not have those telltale symptoms of pending obesity that I exhibited when I joined Weight Watchers - there's no blood sugar issues or shortness of breath or brain fog and mental fatigue. My joints don't ache or cry out in protest when I engage in physical activity. And most of the time I feel pretty good - as long as I am eating home-cooked meals.

And I think that is an important distinction. What we eat most definitely impacts not only our health, but how we feel, both physically and emotionally. While last night's photo was a shock, I will not take the drastic actions of my younger self. I will continue to enjoy my meals and my dining experiences, just maybe in smaller portions. And I will accept that my long-term sense of well-being does not depend on me being a size 6.

And, in closing, here is the shocking photo from last night. I am on the left, raising my glass in celebration, healthy and happy and completely at ease.