Sunday, December 30, 2007

Eating local and the culture of food

I have just begun reading "Plenty", aka "The 100 mile diet" by Smith and Mackinnon. It's written by a couple in British Columbia who pledged, for one year, to eat only foods grown/caught/made in a 100-mile radius from where they live. I find this idea fascinating, perhaps because I live in Southern California. Fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, cheeses, even wine (or especially wine) are easy to obtain locally. Our neighbor keeps us in fish and our CSA and the local farmers markets and a couple of pots on our patio keep us in veggies and fruit.

I have to admit, however (it being the off-season, so no CSA), that I am cooking roasted vegetables for dinner, and I really don't know if they are local. The broccoli and carrots were from the store, and they are probably from California somewhere. I don't know about the onions and garlic. And the bell pepper, I am sure, is from Mexico. I know that the apples and clementines in the fridge are local, as is the parsley. I am drinking some bubbly from Italy, but the other three bottles of wine are from our very own Santa Ynez valley. I occasionally make an effort to eat more locally, but it is a bit of an effort to find some items, and I don't think I'm ready to give up wheat and corn.

On to the culture of food...I enjoy living here in Santa Barbara because of the culture of food. Fresh, local, and organic produce is very much available year round. There are nice and even fast restaurants with a large variety of vegetarian options, or at least...vegetables. I recently returned from a trip to visit my family, and I was shocked, as usual, at the difference in the culture of food.

Cheap beer (and lots of it), creamy casseroles, fried fish (why ruin a perfectly healthy food with deep frying it?), french fries, meat, potatoes, and more meat, few seems as if my home town has lost the barest of healthy eating patterns. At least as a child in the 70's, most of my friends and family members had gardens. Fresh salads in the summer and canned produce in the winter. That's not the case anymore. I even heard one of my elder sisters say "why can your own green beans when you can buy a can at Walmart for 50 cents". Why indeed. Even my own mother has all but abandoned her garden. She grows tomatoes and pumpkins. (Though I think one rogue tomato plant produced 400 tomatoes this year).

Then again, she doesn't eat vegetables anymore, so why grow them?

In just two days, I had a difficult time finding veggies. My mother purchased fruit just for my visit (yeah for the pears and bananas). But then the dinner was at a restaurant, and the salad bar was the only vegetable option. Iceberg lettuce, of course. I returned home from the trip feeling bloated and heavy. I understand now why my sister has gained a little bit of weight and why she struggles with losing it from time to time. The entire culture is based on unhealthy eating. It is easy for me to live in a beautiful place with plentiful produce. I have a husband and son who love fresh food. I am not constantly struggling with the availability of candy, cookies, and fried food. It makes me appreciate all the more the success she has when she loses and maintains her weight.

I wonder also - if I ever have to move from this place, will I be able to maintain our healthy lifestyle, or will I succumb to the lure of the food culture wherever we end up? Hopefully, I never have to find out.

In closing, dinner tonight: whole wheat spaghetti, jarred pasta sauce, roasted vegetables (bell pepper, zucchini, onions, garlic, carrots).

I did have local fruits today...apples from Cuyama, oranges from in town, and kiwi from just up north.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

People don't cook anymore

Warning: this is a rant.

I attended my 4th potluck of the season yesterday. This was my work potluck, and I'm the organizer, because people keep asking me to do it. It is also the one where very few people did any cooking whatsoever (actually, at #3, there was no cooking at all, unless making sandwiches count. You know, I think it does count). I myself bought something that day because we weren't sure it was happening until the very last minute.

Back to the point. People don't cook. With the exception of the women at my quilting potluck (hmm...30, 40, 50, and 60-something quilters...yeah, we cook), most people I know don't even bother. The work potluck...the first couple of years, they were great. About 2/3 of the attendees cooked something, the rest bought something (young single guys, mostly). We had tamales, potstickers ...yum. Then something happened. A couple of the people who cooked realized that others were just buying stuff. Then they started buying stuff.

I really want to let everyone know that there's a happy medium between "tamales or homemade potstickers (both a lot of work)" and "ordering a pizza". Because there is. I managed to make cream cheese/ham rollups and sauteed green beans in just 40 minutes, with a toddler, while drinking wine. I still expect the young single guys to order the pizza or buy the tray of sushi. I still expect the single mom with two jobs to pick up something on her way in. But fewer than 1/3 of the people even bothered to prepare anything. Still they all said "we need to do this more often!" Sigh. I think I will maybe do it more often, and assign 1/2 of the people to bring food for all. See the other problem with buying food is that people buy enough for all 30 employees....30 people x 30 realize the math there. And if I wanted to have a potluck catered by Costco...I'd throw a party and buy all Costco food (not that Costco is bad, I do like it...)

Okay, rant over.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Good and The Bad (cruciferous veggies)

In my quest to find good, healthy recipes for winter veggies, I tried a recipe for Mediterranean cauliflower salad from "You On a Diet" (the website). Now, usually, I adjust recipes the first time I make them. I followed this one to a T.

Yuck. It was pretty gross. In the interest of frugality, I didn't want to throw it out. So with the leftovers, I picked out the cauliflower (drained off the capers). We topped it with shredded mozzarella and ate it warm. MUCH better.

On the other end of the spectrum...I tried a new weight watchers cabbage recipe (this one I adjusted a bit). It was delicious. Even my toddler ate a few bites.

Sweet and Sour Cabbage with Peanuts: (4 servings)
1 T vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
1 small green cabbage, shredded
2 carrots, thinly sliced
1/2 c. canned crushed tomatoes
1/4 c. red wine vinegar
1 T. sugar
1/2 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup unsalted dry-roasted peanuts, chopped.

Heat oil in large nonstick skillet. Add onion and saute until soft, about 5 minutes. Add cabbage, carrots, and 1/2 cup water. Cook, stirring as needed until carrots and cabbage are tender, about 10 min. Stir in the tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper. Cook until heated, about 3-5 mins. Toss with peanuts.

Approx cost:
oil: 0.05
cabbage: 1.00
peanuts: 0.25
carrots: 0.20
onion: 0.20
tomatoes: 0.14
vinegar: 0.17

Total: 2.01 for four large servings. This one's a keeper.

Monday, December 17, 2007

About Me

I'm a 40-something married mother of two boys.  I'm into food. I'm really into food. I love watching food on TV (Top Chef, Chopped). I watched the Food Channel while on maternity leave (my husband ate like a KING for three months).  Sometimes my friends make fun of me for posting the (occasional) picture of food on facebook, and I say "You know I have a FOOD BLOG, right?"

When I'm not working as an engineering manager, I love to cook. And to eat. And to exercise (running, triathlons, walking, weightlifting, yoga). I like reading and quilting and am trying to learn to knit. And I really like building things with legos. My kid loves legos. Another engineer in the making I think. I really like using my hands. :)

I also like wine. Very good wine.

My specialty, however, is frugal healthy and simple food. Welcome!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Butternut Squash Soup

My family has belonged to the local CSA for about 6 years now. In the winter, we get a lot of butternut squash, and I am always looking for healthy and easy recipes for it. But I really refuse to cut and peel it, which means my recipes are limited.

I am not much of a soup person...I prefer stews, nice and thick. But this is a recipe that I got from my mother-in-law, who I think got it from her local newspaper. In any event, it's healthy, pretty cheap, and quite yummy. It has the added bonus of not having cream or cheese in it (so our Chinese friends like it), and it can easily be made vegetarian by substituting vegetable broth for the chicken broth.

It's also quick and simple to make, particularly if you use my freezing roasted squash trick (below). We had it for dinner tonight, and actual hands-on time was probably 30 mins (15 to dice the veggies, 5 to make the butter, 10 to puree).

1-2 Tbsp butter
2 lb of butternut squash (my MIL buys it frozen. We use the fresh from the farm.)
3/4 c. chopped onion
3/4 c. chopped celery
1/2 c. apple juice
6 c. low-sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 tsp vanilla

Ginger butter
4 T. butter
1 T. grated fresh ginger
1 tsp maple syrup
1/2 tsp ground ginger

If using full butternut squash, cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, and roast it facedown in the oven until it's soft. You know, 400 degrees for 40 min, 350 degrees for an hour or 90 min, I don't really know. I just roast it until it looks good. Definitely a Sunday-afternoon thing. (TIP: I actually roast my squash and freeze it until I need it later.)

Melt butter in large saucepan. Add onion and celery and cook until soft, about 5 min. Add apple juice and cook for 1 min. Add chicken broth.

Add the squash here, whether roasted or diced. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, 20-30 min (or until squash is tender if you didn't roast it first).

Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Let cool a bit. Puree in blender in batches. You really don't want to fill it more than half full, or it will overflow and be HOT (hubby figured this out the hard way). Put pureed soup back in pan and re-heat. Serve with a dollop of ginger butter.

Ginger butter: Heat 1 T butter in small skillet over medium heat. Add grated ginger. Cook 30 sec. Add syrup and ground ginger. Cook 1 min. Remove from heat, let cool, and combine with remaining butter.

This soup freezes well, you'll just need to remake more ginger butter.

My estimates on cost: Makes about 8-10 cups, one cup per serving.

1 squash: $0.99
1 onion: 0.15
3-4 stalks celery: 0.40
2 T butter: 0.13
apple juice: 0.33 (just buy a small bottle because we don't drink it)
chicken broth: 3.00 if you buy it, practically free if you make it.
1 1/2 tsp vanilla: eh? 0.38 I think

4 T. butter: 0.25
1 T. ginger: 0.05
1 tsp maple syrup: 0.05
1/2 tsp ground ginger: 0.05

Total cost for 8-10 servings is $5.40 or $2.40, depending on where you get your chicken stock. That's 0.24 to 0.54 per serving.